Interviewed by Avani Kalra
Several years ago, author Sari Rosenblatt’s brother built a doghouse. Although she never saw the house, Rosenblatt heard about it endlessly—it was an exact replica of her brother’s own home, complete with solar panels and an address number. What she imagined was striking, and naturally, she sat down to write a story about it. She began with her brother: “In November, Seth started building a silver doghouse.” At the end of her writing process, Rosenblatt had produced an entirely different story, now titled “Harvester,” which began: “In those six years following college, I had just one employer—New York University. And for three of those years, I had just one boyfriend—Ted.”
“Harvester” is one of eight stories in Rosenblatt’s new collection, Father Guards the Sheep, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press this October. The collection, which Rosenblatt describes as “eight stories about fathers,” conveys snippets of life from childhood to parenthood. Rosenblatt details the tribulations of narrators that range from a twelve-year-old uncomfortable selling bras in her family store to a serial liar who serves on New Haven’s arson squad to a young, overwhelmed mother, choosing a caretaker for her ailing and difficult father. Rosenblatt’s stories are all born the same way as “Harvester,” written from a salient image and transformed into a piece of art about family and domestic life.
Although this is Rosenblatt’s first book, she is no stranger to writing. She holds an MFA (1984) from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has been published in the Iowa Review. She has won awards for her stories from Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry, Glimmer Train, New Millenium Writings, and Ms Magazine. She has taught fiction writing at several schools, most recently the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven. I sat down with Rosenblatt via. Zoom on October 13 to speak about her very first book, her complicated path to writing, and her writing method and style.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Avani Kalra: Your first book was published this year, in 2020, three decades after you graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 80s. I’m wondering why you waited so long to release your first book, and what, if anything, about this year, inspired you to release Father Guards the Sheep now?
Sari Rosenblatt: I wonder why it took so long for people to notice my work. For many years, I have been writing, and a lot of my stories have been published in small journals. I have also been steadily plugging along on a novel for about twelve years. So it’s not that I wasn’t writing for thirty years, but more that I was waiting for someone to notice me and my work. I applied for the Iowa Short Story Award three times. The first time, I was a finalist. The next year, I was a semi-finalist. The third time was the charm, and I like to think that’s because Tom Drury, the judge, and I, share a similar sensibility. It spoke to him.
I did not live any of my life in a university or literary community surrounded by writers. It was always important to me to write, but also to be in the real world. That meant I was never in the kind of environment where word got out that I was working on a novel, or someone was in a position to promote my work. It’s been mostly thirty years of holding an array of different jobs—I used to think that I could publish my resume as a novel, because I used to have so many jobs.
Did you experience any envy in the years after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? Many of your peers there are and have been well known for ages—did you ever feel jealous or despairing? What did you expect your writing career to look like in 1984, and did it turn out that way?
Absolutely, yes I did. After I left Iowa, I did feel some anguish. I thought: “Oh, I’d be further along in my writing career if I didn’t have to work to support myself,” or “Oh, I’d be further along if I had an agent pulling for me,” or “Oh, I’d be further along if I’d applied for a writing fellowship or was in a writers’ community.” Yet other people managed to write with competing challenges and obstacles. Ethan Canin was in med school and wrote short stories. Eileen Pollack and Suzanne Berne taught and also wrote wonderful short stories and novels. I just couldn’t do both.
After I left Iowa in ‘84, I didn’t have concrete expectations about my writing career: I didn’t at the time think of myself as a novelist, so I was just trying to write some spectacularly impressive short stories that might catch the attention of a publisher. But my day jobs became all encompassing, and that’s where all my energy went. And yes, I despaired about that.
I was able to finally write in my mid-to-late thirties, when, after I had children and my husband had a good job, we were able to send the girls to day care two days a week. Somehow, I was able to publish and win some short story awards then. But there was a long period when my children were still young and I was the chief caregiver for my mother. I was happy to do it, and glad I could do it, but again, I had to put writing on the back burner. All I can say is I’m happy where I am now—my children are adults, and it is my time to write now.
How do you think writing has influenced the way you lived your life: has it helped or hindered it? Did it change the most important parts of your life at all over the last thirty years?
I guess you could say I did writing on the side, but for many of those years I actually was teaching writing, so it remained an important part of my life. Even before I did the Iowa program, I started a writing program in the first arts magnet school in New Haven, Connecticut. I’ve taught in many places—community art centers, adult education—so I’ve kept writing alive through connecting with other people.
When my kids were young, it was tough trying to find time to write. I would hire a babysitter, and try to carve out time, but it was frustrating. Some of my life back then comes to fruition in the stories “Sweethearts” and “Communion,” narratives that detail the stress and frustration of a young mother. Prior to having children, I held jobs that made it hard to write, but they were great material. I worked one job writing marketing materials for finance corporations, and I knew nothing about finance. My job was essentially to make these dry investment products look fun and engaging. I was writing, making brochures and trying to give a whimsical element to dry material. In every job and stage of my life, even if I wasn’t writing in the way I wanted to be, I always had a connection to writing.
You’ve already covered this, but I wanted to ask you more broadly about the process of writing the eight stories within Father Guards the Sheep. What amount of time did the process span over? What did editing and assembling these stories look like?
It has been over thirty years. The oldest story is “Ms. McCook,” which I wrote at Iowa, and the most recent is “Father Guards the Sheep.” I’m an endless, endless reviser. I’m of the school: “I don’t write, I rewrite.” I start with an image, or with a sentence that sounds musical, and I go from there. I take a scene from real life, and I write about something that captures my imagination about it. Then I work it—I take dissimilar objects, themes, or stories, and try to figure out how I can work them into a whole. I’ve written and rewritten all of the stories in my collection, and I can’t tell you how many versions of each one I have. “Daughter of Retail,” the first story in Father Guards the Sheep, I wrote ten times, all with different openings. It’s so hard to know where to begin a story. Somehow the music of the story eventually just comes to me, but it’s never a straight line. I don’t know how many writers sit down and write a story straight out, but I just can’t do it. I’m a word-by-word writer, and for years I’ve lived by the practice that the word leads me to the next word. I’ve never known exactly where I was going with a story. Sometimes I have a few images I want to hit, but those don’t come to me right away. There’s a musicality to figuring out which word leads into the next.
My story “The New Frontier” I wrote off of an image of my mother from when she was a Cubs Scout leader and did these cockamamie crafts. She used to melt down records and fill them with flowers and things to use them as coffee table centerpieces. It was such a compelling image, and it drove the whole story. So, when I wrote “The New Frontier,” I imagined a woman boiling down records for vases. I thought: Who was the woman? What kind of woman would do this? Who was the child who might have observed that? And there was my story. That’s how I wrote most of my pieces. Then I compiled the collection—I decided which stories were linked, which stories were stand-alone—and placed them in such a way that they had a particular kind of impact and covered a lifetime from youth to young parenthood.
Like you mentioned, the first and last stories—“Daughter of Retail” and “As in Life”—have the same narrator. Was that an intentional choice you made for this collection, or did you happen to write two stories based on the same narrator? Why did you choose to place them as bookends?
The father in “Daughter of Retail” is very much based on my father, as is the father in “As in Life.” The plot of both of those stories comes straight from my own experience, and that’s why, in part, they come first and last. Growing up in my parents’ department store and watching my father die are two phases of my life that were so important and powerful to me, and writing these stories was a way of coping. I wanted to record and remember these things, but not for myself. Death is very powerful and really sad, but can be entertaining to an audience.
There are eight stories, and in each story the characters sort of vary in age and issue, or point of time and what they’re grappling with. I observed that your stories read with sort of a double layer—there were events that unfolded, but I think in every single story there was also a stream of consciousness where you could hear the narrator thinking. How did you develop this writing style and what was your goal in using it throughout? What did you want to convey?
What really connects all of the stories for me is eight ways of looking at fathers. Whether the narrator’s father is a retail clothing magnate, or a father who disappears from the character’s life, or a father who is dying, or a father with a cockamamie job, or whether, as in “Sweethearts” and “Communion,” the story is really about a being a young father…all of the stories are about fathers. A story is best if it’s layered, and I achieve that through seeing, building, and backstory. You’re describing a character in a scene, but to get deeper, you go into a little backstory where you hear the narrator’s voice in a different way. You can hear dialogue, and you can hear the character’s voice, thinking and observing, at the same time.
To me, Father Guards the Sheep reads as a series of stories about familial relationships and specifically, as you mentioned, those between fathers and their children. What is the meaning of family to you?
To me, family is everything. It’s the beginning and the ending. There’s nothing I’d rather read about more than family relationships, and nothing I’d rather write about. It’s a way of understanding my own life, and where I was in my own family growing up. I grew up in a male dominated family—there was my father, “the retail magnate,” my brother, “the football player,” and my other brother, who’s now taken over the family store. So “Daughter of Retail” sort of explored my life as the low girl on the totem pole. From that low point is how I observed the world. I think that’s what made me want to write—so many avenues were closed off to me. I wasn’t athletic like my brothers: I was a whiner and a moper.
Is there a story you most see yourself in or identify with the most?
“Daughter of Retail,” and also “Sweethearts.” That was inspired by my domestic life with two little girls, feeling overwhelmed and resentful, exhausted with children and keeping a house, and working with a husband that’s a little bit elsewhere. As for “Daughter of Retail,” like I’ve said, I did grow up in my father’s store, selling bras when I was really young. I have no idea if that scene in the dressing room—where my younger self brings bras for an older lady to try—is real or imagined, but I had so many similar experiences in my childhood. I want to say that there is some of me in every story, however. In Father Guards the Sheep, the narrator works for the New Haven Arson Warning Program, somewhere where I worked. My friend read about this job in the newspaper, and said: “It’s right up your alley.” It just seemed so funny, and sort of outrageous. The job was to collect data and identify houses that were in such bad shape they might be burned for profit, and record them. It did save a lot of New Haven homes, but the idea of such a job is so insane. Making a monthly “at-risk list” is so outrageous that I just had to build a story around it. So I took that job, and I wrote a character into my place that lies excessively and fabricates her life. I’m a fan of Richard Ford’s short stories, and he has this story “Rock Springs,” which is a story of a criminal sociopath who steals a car. It’s so haunting and so beautiful, the imagery and sentence by sentence is so striking, that the story just stayed with me. And so, similarly, I made my character have sociopathic tendencies. I wanted to try my hand at it.
You’re pretty brutally honest when you talk about some of the character’s family members, and it’s clear many of them, if not all of them, are based on people in your life. Was anyone in your life upset with you when the book came out, or did anyone have a visceral reaction to the way they were portrayed?
My family are not really big readers. “Miss McCook” was my first published story in the Iowa Review, and I brought them a copy, and I don’t think anyone said anything. My mother had it sitting on the shelf, but more like an object of art or family interest than anything else. I showed my father a story once, and he read the story because my mother made him, and all he had to say was: “On page six, she said ‘lose,’ and it should have been ‘loose.’” And that was it. That was absolutely it. In “As in Life,” I portray him as a mean, angry old man in that story, and a lot of that really happened. My mother was alive when the story was published and it won an award in Glimmer Train, and I just decided not to show it to her. I couldn’t bring myself to. My brother died about six weeks ago, and he never got to read this collection. He would have loved it. He would have recognized his doghouse, he would have recognized the outlines of the story of our lives. My older brother did read the stories though, and he appears several times. He loved it, and that means so much to me.
You mentioned that you come from a big family of athletes, and your parents weren’t big readers. How did you get into reading and writing? It’s clear that you’ve read a lot—how did you decide that you wanted to pursue an MFA in writing?
There’s always been two things I wanted to be: a writer, or a social worker. Because my family grew up with my father a merchant in a working-class town, I never really thought becoming a writer was a practical goal. It seemed too lofty and romantic. I always thought I would be a social worker—I love to be with people, I love to listen to people, and it seemed like a good career for me. I read for school, and outside of that I didn’t read a lot. But I deeply loved the books I read in school, although I was a very slow reader. I’m still not a fast reader, but I’m a word-by-word reader. I take in every single word, and really appreciate the diction. In college I majored in behavioral studies, and was on track to get a master’s in social work. My first job after college was in an inpatient psychiatric facility for short-term hospitalization, where I was a psychiatric aide. There were a lot of other psych aides like me, newly out of college. It was a state-funded program, so there wasn’t a lot of money, and we were doing all of the hands-on work. I really thought that was going to be my life, but after a while, I had to quit. I loved the job, but I hated the language that we used. When diagnosing and assessing the patient, the words we had to write down were full of clichés. The way we wrote about a person didn’t really get at who they were or what they were going through. It was so clinical, and so unimaginative. It sounds really ludicrous to say, but I really took offense at the language, and that’s what made me realize I couldn’t live in that world. I had to go into writing.
I just started writing, not having majored in English in college, and not knowing any other writers. It was very lonely, and I felt really ridiculous doing it. I started working odd jobs at Yale, and a few of my stories detail university jobs, like the story “Harvester,” where the main character works at NYU. By that point, I had a few finished stories, but no clue what to do with them. I had signed to receive the work of some poets and writers via. mail, and I noticed many of them had participated in MFA programs, so I submitted my stories to some MFA programs. I was shocked that I got in. By the time I did, I’d graduated from odd university jobs and moved on to teach creative writing at a New Haven elementary school, so I was also lucky to be in a writing community, by that point.
Tell me a little bit about teaching writing.
The students were aged ten to twelve, and they were little kids at a magnet school from the inner city. I was conducting little writers’ workshops with kids who had never experienced anything like that, which is just a magical thing. Kids are so game for anything. They were so willing to tell stories and critique one another—and there’s so much to learn from brutally honest ten-year-olds.
Avani Kalra is ACM’s interviews editor and rising freshman at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her writing has been published in the Columbia Journalism Review and The Daily Northwestern, and she served as editor-in-chief of The Parker Weekly, one of North America’s oldest high school newspapers, for two years. She has interviewed writers such as Wes Moore, Charles Blow, and Natasha Trethewey. She has reported on March for Our Lives Chicago, the Rally Against Family Separation, the Chicago Student Walkout, and Black Lives Matter protests, as well as on immigration hearings.