Deb Olin Unferth used to have a problem with goals. “I never had access to normal values, like how to be successful or have satisfying jobs,” says the 35-year-old writer. “I was against goals; I felt like pointing yourself in a direction was so American, so simpleminded.”
She seems to have gotten over it. Her short story “Mr. Simmons Takes a Prisoner,” which was published in Harper’s last year, was recently optioned by Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Productions; she’s got a short-story collection and a novel in the works, and she just landed an Illinois Arts Council fellowship. A reading and reception sponsored by the online journal Potion at Gallery 312 this Friday will also help launch Parakeet, a journal of experimental writing that she’s coediting with two friends. And this fall she’s heading to Lawrence, Kansas, to start a tenure-track job at the University of Kansas. She’s excited: “It’s a terrific position teaching creative writing and innovative literature,” and she’ll draw a decent salary for the first time in her life.
Unferth grew up in Chicago and the northern suburbs; her father was a Chicago landlord who once, when she was very young, took the family on a road trip to Mexico and Central America. She read a lot as a kid, but in high school she was more interested in hanging out with her boyfriend, an older guy in a band. It wasn’t until she got to the University of Colorado that, in her own words, she “really blossomed,” immersing herself in Kierkegaard and Calvin. She became “an existentialist Christian,” got into liberation theology, and in 1987 she dropped out of school to go to Central America with another boyfriend, without telling her parents. “I think we had a total of $2,000,” she says.
They traveled for eight months, interviewing bishops, guerrillas, artists, and politicians as part of her boyfriend’s senior thesis research. They also worked in an orphanage in El Salvador for a time, caring for the children of guerrillas who had vanished or been killed. “It changed me forever,” Unferth says. “I learned so much; the poverty was so extreme.”
She graduated from Colorado in 1991 with a degree in philosophy and fell into a series of demoralizing low-level jobs, most making use of her Spanish-language skills. As a translator at a Colorado hospital, she says, “I was supposed to tell one poor woman after another, sitting there with kids, that she owed $6,000 when she had no money at all. I would look at her and tell her in Spanish, ‘You don’t owe anything, go home,’ and I would tell them in English that she said she would pay right away. Everyone would smile and shake hands, and then I would write off their debts when no one was watching.”
She moved to Chicago later that year, and eventually landed work at Deborah’s Place, a west-side shelter for homeless women. She also met another man, a writer and a pot dealer, who encouraged her to start writing fiction. “He was so nice to me,'” she says. “He acted like my teacher. He got me all these books to read, all the 20th-century classics, Kafka and Beckett and Borges. He set up a little table and said, ‘This is where you write,’ and another table and said, ‘This is where I write,’ and we would sit next to each other.”
Around this time she came across the novel Getting Jesus in the Mood, by Anne Brashler, former editor of the literary journal StoryQuarterly. It was her first exposure to the experimental fiction she’s come to love. “There were verb tense confusions; there was no exposition. Transitions that you thought should be in there would be gone. I didn’t know that people could write like that; the topic and the language and everything was so strange.”
Unferth enrolled in Syracuse University’s creative writing program in 1995 after a year of traveling the country with her boyfriend, staying in motels and living off his savings. They’d eventually landed in Alabama, where both got jobs and he wanted to settle down. But she was still restless. Once she got to grad school, she says, she was finally happy: “For the first time in my life I felt there were people around me who I could relate to and who could relate to what I was doing. It was very inspiring.” She and her boyfriend soon broke up.
Since getting her MFA six years ago Unferth’s been in Chicago, teaching at the School of the Art Institute, Roosevelt, and DePaul (among others) and writing, getting published in venues like Literary Review and Denver Quarterly. Her recent story “Juan the Cell Phone Salesman,” which appeared in the 2004 issue of the literary annual Noon, describes a mother’s obsession with finding “the Perfect Man” for her daughter in cheerfully dry, understated language. Her intentional use of repetition is reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, one of Unferth’s influences, along with Lydia Davis and Noon editor Diane Williams. “I was trying to get at any independent woman’s struggle to release herself from parental expectations,” says Unferth. The daughter in the story is referred to, variously, as “the woman in question” and “the woman questioned,” a play on words that Unferth hopes “makes you think about the word ‘question’ and its relationship to the word ‘woman'” and “re-creates the character with each transformation.”
Though “Juan” is based on an actual exchange with her mother, Unferth doesn’t think her story is about the event itself. Rather, she says, “My writing is about writing. Writing that’s about writing is really about human consciousness.
“There are a lot of new ways to tell stories, to think about a story as a list or a nursery rhyme or a word problem or a mathematical equation. Traditionally short stories offer the reader a moral problem, but I think our experience is much more varied than the way that a traditional story is written. I don’t have moments of insight and understanding that change me. I may have tons of moments of insight or understanding in any given day but I forget them, or just do the same thing anyway. I don’t have a rising conflict in my life; my life is up and down every ten minutes.”
Unferth, Heidi Peppermint (a friend from Syracuse), and Peppermint’s fiance, John Staples, founded Parakeet as a forum for similarly experimental writing. Self-published in an initial edition of 750, the first issue was designed by Chicago artist Helen Mirra, whose elegant and subtle conceptual work has been earning national attention, and includes five stories by Chicago writer Terry Kapsalis–her first published fiction. “They’re only three sentences each; it’s almost like she’s taking an entire traditional plotline and squeezing it into three sentences,” says Unferth. “One story sums up three love affairs in one word each; it makes you think of your life as divided into categories of three, and about summing up a whole relationship in one word, and how there’s something very absurd in all that.”
Little magazines take risks on unknown writers, which can be the first step toward bigger and better things. In addition, she says, editors of literary journals help “define what fiction is in the United States,” and she wants to play a part. “I was unhappy for so long and in so many ways, and felt so isolated, that writing brought meaning to my life,” she says. “People who don’t have something that they feel really passionate about, art or a political idea or a child, I don’t know how they do it.”
Experimental fiction, she says, is an appropriate artistic response to the dominance of mass culture. “I see a simplifying, sentimental approach to political issues, to art, to narrative that I’m uncomfortable with. There’s an honesty, an admitting to ugly feelings, in an unsentimentalized story; a sentimentalized story is so familiar. Style choices are not merely aesthetic decision–they have political, moral, and philosophical implications.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brandon Sullivan.