You are the experts. You know more about these stories than I do.
David Harris Ebenbach, poet, playwright, academic, and author of the 2005 Drue Heinz Literature Prize winning short story collection Between Camelots, said this to the PEN/Faulkner Summer Supper & Book Club last week when a student asked his interpretation of a story included in his collection.
The class was suspicious, to put it lightly. However, after Ebenbach insisted that the students’ interpretation of his stories were more accurate than his own, now that the book was published, the students, after time, began to believe him, and for the remainder of the meeting the students stepped into their roles as experts, directing our discussion on Ebenbach’s subtle, melancholic stories of love, loneliness, and people in transition.
The stories in Between Camelots feature individuals at crossroads, either in their personal or professional lives (or sometimes both), struggling to make meaningful human connections. “Whether writing from the perspective of male, female, black, white, gay, straight, Jew or Gentile,” Kirkus Reviews writes, “Ebenbach’s landscape is dominated by individuals struggling to continue in the face of relationships failed, failing or stillborn.”
The title story explores the central themes that this collection is concerned with, namely the difficulty of finding any lasting or meaningful connection with others, and the courage of those who continue to try. In “Between Camelots,” Paul, a lonely bachelor, attends a party where he haplessly waits for a woman that never shows. While waiting for this blind date, Paul meets a strange but intriguing party guest named Max, who, out of the blue, tells Paul that all human relationships are unstable, ephemeral and, consequently, not worth the effort.
Before leaving, Max tells Paul, “I’ll tell you what—here we are, getting along, but at the end of this conversation, I’m not going to give you my phone number or my email address, or anything and I won’t take anything from you. Simple.” To Max, even keeping a person’s phone number is too large a burden to bear.
Book club members had a great discussion on whether or not they believed the things Max supposedly believed. “Why does Max even bother to talk to Paul?” one student asked. “If Max doesn’t like people, and doesn’t want to even get someone’s phone number, why is he even at this party?” asked another. “Can’t he just stay home by himself? He has food at home, right?”
Our discussion also drifted toward the craft of writing, and Ebenbach detailed the kinds of choices an author makes when attempting to tell a story. An artist who writes in nearly every form, Ebenbach urged the students to not limit themselves to only one mode of creative expression. “Different stories require different forms,” Ebenbach said. “I’ve had stories that didn’t work as short stories, but worked when I put the same story into a poem. Sometimes you just have to find the right fit.”
“Although some authors only write in one form, and they’re very good at that, it’s usually a good idea to explore all of your options,” Ebenbach continued. “In fiction you a responsible for creating the world of the story,” he said. “You’ll notice that writers are always doing cute things to try to get your attention, and fiction is great if I want that kind of control. However, if I don’t care at all about the environment of the room, plays are a nice outlet; you only need to really care about dialogue and write out a few stage directions.”
During our discussion we even briefly touched upon the different types of poetic form, comparing the functional obfuscation of a sestina with the neat argumentation of a Shakespearean couplet. The students were not only thrilled to learn about these new forms (ababcdcdefefgg), they asked direct questions of Ebenbach on what each form is technically “good at” to use in their own creative work.
Although it was (technically) my first time attending the Summer & Supper Book Club last Tuesday, it certainly didn’t feel like it. Elizabeth, the students and David Ebenbach made me feel at home, treating me like a familiar presence in the room. They even graciously allowed me to ask (perhaps too many) questions during our discussion.
Whether Max’s indictment of interpersonal relationships in “Between Camelots” is to be taken with any real seriousness is debatable. However, over the course my time with PEN/Faulkner, I can say with confidence that our Summer Supper & Book Club offers a convincing alternative to Max’s detached attitude; offering not only good pizza and cold soda, but real, human connection.
—Greg Langen, PEN/Faulkner Summer Curriculum Intern