Insightful and curious, Douglas Trevor’s second collection of short stories, “The Book of Wonders,” is a meditation on the many ways people try to get out of ruts — some comic and some more serious.
In these nine stories, Trevor explained in a recent interview, characters consider how to best move on from relationships or enter new ones; the book is a quirky but complicated exploration of “people who end up taking unlikely risks in an attempt to reinvent themselves.”
Trevor will read from his work Thursday at Prairie Lights in Iowa City and Friday at Barnes & Noble in Cedar Rapids. Both readings begin at 7 p.m.
“My intention was to write something lighthearted, and I think many of the stories are pretty whimsical. But one of the things I realized in trying to write whimsical stories was that a lot of the people are actually struggling with feeling alone and alienated. I think that’s a feature of where we’re at culturally at this moment. I think a lot of people are feeling connected in abstract ways but disconnected in more real ways from other people.”
In addition to the themes of connection and rediscovery, the collection explores a seemingly innocuous sub theme: People trying to relate their lives to books.
“The reading of books is my attempt to think through what it means to process the world in indirect ways. Though reading seems like an overwhelmingly positive thing that we do, processing the world through books can also, in a way, filter a reality and potentially remove us from other people and create loneliness.
“The sum total of the stories poses that balancing act between exploring our own creative ways that we process the world with the kind of empathetic register of how other people exist within our immediate surroundings.”
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The longest story in the collection is the novella “The Detroit Frankfurt School Discussion Group,” which centers around two people from very different walks of life who find themselves connecting over the same text.
“What happens in an encounter between those two people who are coming at the same text from very different perspectives? That’s one of the thought experiments that I wanted to have in the book.”
And while Trevor, whose debut novel, “Girls I Know,” won the 2013 Balcones Fiction Prize, had a clear focus for the collection as a whole, he had a unique editorial process for each individual story.
Before appearing in the collection, a number of the stories were published as stand-alone works in literary journals, including in the “Notre Dame Review” and “Ploughshares Solos.”
“One of the things I love about the short story world is the investment of editors and journals, who really get their hands dirty thinking about the story with you. I had a really good experience with Harry Stecopoulos at ‘The Iowa Review.’ I gave him a copy of the opening story to the collection, ‘Endymion,’ and what we ended up publishing was the same story, but it was much more streamlined.”
“There were a number of people on the staff of ‘The Iowa Review’ who really spent time thinking about the language I was using and really cared about the story in a microscopic way. And I think that’s thrilling.”
In addition to relishing the editorial process for his own work, Trevor, who is the Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program and a professor of Renaissance Literature in the English Department at the University of Michigan, teaches young fiction writers the finer points of giving — and receiving — critical feedback.
“A lot of workshop is trying to rethink your approach to a given story. The stories that we come up with are all so idiosyncratic. If you have the idea for a story, that’s your idea. Where it gets exciting for other people is when you start to think about how to focus on that idea in ways that might be surprising.
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“I think a lot of times what students are dealing with in workshop is they have a great idea for a story and in the process of beginning to write about it they find themselves stymied to one degree or another. And a lot of workshop is trying to un-stymie someone.”
And while his students may focus on one project at a time, Trevor is known for flitting between writing novels, short stories, and academic work — he has widely published in all three veins.
“It’s fun and generative to go back and forth between different forms, but I really just want to settle into thinking about the two novels I’m working on right now. I’m less eclectic than I used to be,” he says. “I’m getting tired!” One of my kids is in high school, so mostly I’m in the car, driving them around.”
l What: Douglas Trevor will read from his new story collection, “The Book of Wonders”
l Iowa City: 7 p.m. Thursday at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.
l Cedar Rapids: 7 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble, 333 Collins Rd. NE
l Cost: Free