Some graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop seem to rocket to literary fame immediately after — or even before — they graduate from the program. For others, the work of writing may continue, but the recognition may be long in coming.
Sari Rosenblatt falls into the second category. Her short story collection, “Father Guards the Sheep,” is the winner of this year’s Iowa Short Fiction Prize and is published by University of Iowa Press. Centered around a family — and the relationship between a father and a daughter in particular — the collection is beautiful and wry and underpinned by kindness even when not all of the characters are given to being kind.
In this interview, conducted by email, Rosenblatt discusses her long road to the publication of this collection — which includes her first published story, “Miss McCook,” written while she was in the Workshop in the 1980s. She also situates a writer’s work in the ongoing business of life, highlighted the steadfastness the craft requires and the many responsibilities that can interfere.
Q: What does it mean to you to be this year’s winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award?
A: Fantastically honored — especially since, having gone to the Writers’ Workshop, I couldn’t ask for a more meaningful prize. The Writers’ Workshop didn’t open doors for me when I was a student — mostly because back then I didn’t have much work to show. I was writing stories, word-by-word, living in a small world of a few friends. Nothing that would capture anyone’s attention. So here I am, 30-plus years later. And I won The Big Prize.
Except for the title story, the newest story in the collection, all these stories were previously published, and many won prizes, including two awards from Glimmer Train. But I’m just so thrilled that the stories are in one collection, the family is finally all together.
I submitted my collection three times. First time: I was a finalist with a note from readers to submit again. Second time, a few years later, I was a semifinalist, and I don’t remember a note encouraging me to submit again. Third time: I added a new story (the title story), and changed the name of the collection, which, in a sense unified all eight stories in the collection. It just so happens I’m a huge fan of this year’s judge, Tom Drury, and perhaps we share a similar sensibility about how sad and funny work together.
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Q: I’m struck by both the humor and the empathy on display in these stories — and the balance between the two. I think, for example, of Verna in the opening story. It is easy to imagine her as an object of the narrator’s derision and snark. But Ellen never stoops to that. She may be horrified and shocked by the situation in which she finds herself, but her telling is funny without being mean and she treats Verna with respect (making Ellen’s father’s disrespect of his daughter all the more telling). What role (or roles) do you think humor and empathy play in these stories?
A: Empathy is the heart of fiction. You have to deposit yourself in the body of your characters to make them move and speak and understand the world. And the humor just comes with the narrator’s voice and observations. I don’t set out to write a funny story or sad story, but a comic tone is often there for me. And I let it in. I’m mindful that I want to entertain, as much as I want to reveal character and tell a story. And I am watchful not to make the humor too broad or stick in some overplayed jokes.
With respect to the character, Verna, in “Daughter of Retail,” I was just so grateful that she was there for me when I needed her. I had all the trappings of the story: the father, the daughter, the store itself — but I needed a central action, and one day I imagined Verna, on a break from her job as rubber company line worker. And she needed to buy a bra. Fast. I felt for her. My narrator felt for her. Who doesn’t respect panic?
Q: These stories have the connections and disconnections between fathers and daughters — Ellen and her dad, in particular — in either the foreground or the background. What do you find interesting about that relationship as a spark for storytelling?
A: I found my own father endlessly interesting. And scary. I was afraid of him all my life — even as he was dying. So my fascination with him and his complexities — his own humor and darkness, have compelled me to capture him in a fictionalized way. The two stories that bookend the collection highlight my amusement and terror of him. Sometimes teachers will ask fiction-writing students: why must this story be told? And my answer is, my father was a story. And I was driven to tell it.
And from my own father comes my interest in all fathers and the ways they exert their incalculable influence on their children. Each of the eight stories in this collection features a father, as told from the point of view of either a child, a young adult, a wife, mother, a father himself. An absent father in the title story, “Father Guards the Sheep,” drives the actions of the narrator’s life.
Q: You’re a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What can you tell me about your experience in the program and how (or if) it shaped your writing? What did you find most helpful about your time in the Workshop — and what challenges (if any) did you encounter?
A: I was not an undergraduate English major. I majored in behavioral science, and thought I’d become a psychiatric social worker. In fact, after college I worked as a psychiatric aide, then had many jobs as a research assistant, all leading up, I thought, to getting a masters of social work. But I got bored with myself. I came to see myself as someone whose life was entirely about listening to others, recording/analyzing what others thought. And I just wanted to explore something about myself. So in my twenties, I started writing — something I was always drawn to. And finally I had enough work to submit to the Writers’ Workshop — and shockingly I got in. So, to be in a community of writers was so very validating.
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In the Workshop, we learned from each other as much as our teachers — this is the underpinnings of a workshop. My biggest challenge was balancing my own writing with jobs that helped pay my tuition and offered me a stipend. First, I was a teaching assistant in the UI Rhetoric program, and after that, I was a teaching/writing fellow in the Writers’ Workshop. I learned a lot about teaching. But I found it hard to produce a lot of work.
One semester I turned in no work at all because, aside from teaching and reading Workshop admissions manuscripts, I was slowly working on the story (in the collection) “Miss McCook,” my first published story (Iowa Review, 1986) It took time and many revisions to produce the effect I wanted — the music of the children’s voices played against the narrator’s trauma after an attempted break-in of her apartment.
Q: In addition to your own writing, you now teach fiction at the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven. How does teaching others influence your own craft?
A: I get to teach the stories and writers that I love, and in sharing this literature with my students I get to examine what I admire and what works. The students are, like me, fans of Richard Ford, Tobias Wolf, Mary Robison. I always teach Tom Drury, “The End of Vandalism.” I get to teach stories written by my Iowa classmates: Gish Jen, Ethan Canin, Eileen Pollack. And my teachers, the legendary mensch, James Allen Mcpherson, and Lynn Sharon Schwartz and Hilma Wolitzer.
But there’s nothing I love more than hearing my high school students read their drafts out loud — their words, their voices, their stories. These are gifted, smart students in a magnet high school for the arts — they are serious and driven and we are in a writing community together. I see the same students over a four-year period and we get to know one another so well. They validate my experience in the same way Iowa did so many years ago.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My relationship with my father, who died 13 years ago, still sparks and drives my storytelling. I have completed a novel, “Daughter of Retail,” which steps further into the lives of the Schmurr family featured in my story collection. I’ll lie and say it took me 10 years to write, but I know it took longer. I wrote it while mothering my children, taking care of elderly parents, and washing the same dishes a million time. And while I never tired of the novel writing and revisions, I did tire of the dishes. My hands are the hands of an old-time potato and turnip farmer. But for now, the book is finished, sitting in printed form on my desk, waiting to see if it gets launched into the wider world.