Dan Stoler Writes St. Louis

When his first short story collection, The Middle of the Night, came out last year, Daniel Stolar had prepared himself for the rigors of self-promotion. He hadn’t been prepared to take on Harry Potter, though.

As he related in a piece published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this June, the St. Louis-born writer had made the rounds of local bookstores in an effort to get sellers to stock his book—only to find that not only was it absent from the shelves at Barnes & Noble, he couldn’t even get the time of day from the manager, who was fixated on preparing for the release, three weeks later, of the latest Harry Potter novel. When Stolar moved on to Borders, he encountered the same reception—as well as the Barnes & Noble manager, who was scouting the competition’s plans for promoting the boy wizard.

Fortunately, he says, the reaction from readers and critics has been much more positive. “I had some fears of making fun of a certain kind of St. Louis person,” he says. “I had some fears about family members potentially recognizing themselves, but everyone who’s said anything to me has been really generous about it.”

While he can look back on that situation now with a healthy dose of self-mockery, Stolar says the process of getting that first book published was a learning experience for him, much like it is for every writer. (The paperback edition was released by Picador this summer.)

The senses of loss and disconnection permeate the stories in this collection: In “Jack Landers Is My Friend,” a married man revisits the high-school friends he never fit in with, as well as the romance with one that he never had, and discovers that their friendship may not have been as deep as he’d thought. In “Home in New Hampshire,” a man struggles with his infidelity to his paralyzed wife; and in “Crossing Over,” a white college student pledges a black fraternity at Boston University, but the sense of belonging that he seek continues to elude him.

Frequently, these characters find themselves sitting on the fence, and that’s a dynamic that holds Stolar’s interest.

“They have ambivalence about totally fitting in,” he says. “They want to fit in but something about inclusion is troubling to them. I feel that way a lot.”

Likewise, the stories explore the connections people make with each other—as well as the connections they don’t. In “Marriage Lessons,” a woman hears from the father she never knew, but doesn’t want to know the answers to questions she’s always had about him and her mother, even though the opportunity presents itself. He also draws from a number of aspects of his own life to add detail to the stories, from his Jewish upbringing to his parents’ political careers, to his mother’s death from cancer. The loss of loved ones is a recurring theme throughout the book, such as in “Mourning,” where a college student named Matthew copes with the death of his mother through the help of his friend Tim, who nevertheless keeps Matthew at arm’s length about aspects of his own life.

“I’m really interested in the way we are able to connect with other people,” Stolar says. “I think in (‘Jack Landers Is My Friend’) and in ‘Marriage Lessons’ it is a deep connection, but it is a connection with limits. In that story the narrator is grateful for that. In ‘Mourning’ Matthew doesn’t understand that limit, and it’s something that’s tugging at him…

“That story was a really ambitious story at the time I wrote it. I think Matthew is trying to put an awful lot on Tim. In a way Tim has pulled him through mourning his mother’s death, and you know, nobody can hold that weight, and Matthew is bound to be in some way disappointed by him. There’s no way for Matt to get out of that relationship satisfied.”

The satisfaction that eludes Matthew nevertheless provides a gratifying conclusion for the reader, and a stunningly worded image that makes you think there could not be a better ending for the story. It’s a common trait through many of the stories in the book, and Stolar says he seeks that sense of resolution intentionally.

“It is something important to me. I think that a lot of modern short stories tend to fade away into thin air, and I’m less interested in that than a story that takes you someplace and hopefully moves you,” he says.

St. Louis is the setting for many of these stories, and Stolar’s ability to capture the essence of the city goes beyond mere recitation of place names, such as when the narrator in “Jack Landers Is My Friend” says: “I loved my hometown. Loved its continually losing struggle to leapfrog into the next tier of American cities and the way every civic undertaking could be framed in that light. It was a metropolitan area of 2.5 million where people spent their entire lives asking you where you went to high school.”

The stories in The Middle of the Night were written (and rewritten) over a period of about eight years, from the time he left medical school in 1993 until 2001 (“a longer period than I would like to admit,” Stolar says). “I wrote a lot of those (stories) a lot of times, and each time, I’d think ‘I’ve got it’ until I looked at it again. “

How does he know when he’s “got it”? “I guess when I look at it and don’t feel compelled to change it, I’ve got it. God, I wrote so many drafts of those, and each time I thought I’d nailed it until a friend or someone else read them.

“I don’t feel the temptation to change a lot of them now. I sort of think I did these stories as well as I could. “

Stolar’s writing exhibits a signature style—understated, direct—even though his narrators couldn’t be more different from one another: a retiree in his seventies teaching his 16-year-old son to drive, to a 30-something woman finding out from the father she’s never met that her now-dead mother had lied to her all her life. Giving voice to such diverse characters is not easy for Stolar, but then, writing itself doesn’t come easy for him, either.

“For me writing is difficult. Some people talk about these ecstatic experiences where they sit down and it flows… It’s hardly ever like that for me. At some point I can often hear the language of the person and that’s when I know the story is a keeper, when I can hear the way the person is speaking.”

Stolar has just moved to Chicago to teach writing at DePaul University; previously he taught at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he received his M.F.A. in creative writing in 1997. Stolar says he enjoyed and benefited from his experience in the program and says the environment these programs provide for writers to work on their craft is valuable, especially when considered in light of developments like a recent National Endowment for the Arts report stating that fewer than half the adult American population had read any literary work in the past year.

“Thank God writers have a place to go where they can take themselves seriously and other writers can take them seriously. That NEA study that came out—you can look at it and say that [writing] doesn’t really matter. But if you are one of those people who do think it matters, it’s good that there are places where people can go to study it.”

At the moment, Stolar is working on a novel that will also be set in St. Louis. Part of that choice is driven by the marketplace. “Just from a practical point of view, agents and editors really want you to write a novel, which I have mixed feelings about because I love short stories. To me it seems like such a great form. So I have mixed feelings about this. I’m also excited to try it.”

Again he’s drawing on his background to help establish the framework of the book, which at the moment is about an idealistic reporter for the Post-Dispatch and his family’s position in local politics, which comes into conflict with his own political views. “He’s a little idealistic in a jaded way about his politics, and I’m trying to capture that. And he really loves St. Louis and he’s not sure why, and that is like me.”

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Dan Stoler Writes St. Louis

When his first short story collection, The Middle of the Night, came out last year, Daniel Stolar had prepared himself for the rigors of self-promotion. He hadn’t been prepared to take on Harry Potter, though.

As he related in a piece published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this June, the St. Louis-born writer had made the rounds of local bookstores in an effort to get sellers to stock his book—only to find that not only was it absent from the shelves at Barnes & Noble, he couldn’t even get the time of day from the manager, who was fixated on preparing for the release, three weeks later, of the latest Harry Potter novel. When Stolar moved on to Borders, he encountered the same reception—as well as the Barnes & Noble manager, who was scouting the competition’s plans for promoting the boy wizard.

Fortunately, he says, the reaction from readers and critics has been much more positive. “I had some fears of making fun of a certain kind of St. Louis person,” he says. “I had some fears about family members potentially recognizing themselves, but everyone who’s said anything to me has been really generous about it.”

While he can look back on that situation now with a healthy dose of self-mockery, Stolar says the process of getting that first book published was a learning experience for him, much like it is for every writer. (The paperback edition was released by Picador this summer.)

The senses of loss and disconnection permeate the stories in this collection: In “Jack Landers Is My Friend,” a married man revisits the high-school friends he never fit in with, as well as the romance with one that he never had, and discovers that their friendship may not have been as deep as he’d thought. In “Home in New Hampshire,” a man struggles with his infidelity to his paralyzed wife; and in “Crossing Over,” a white college student pledges a black fraternity at Boston University, but the sense of belonging that he seek continues to elude him.

Frequently, these characters find themselves sitting on the fence, and that’s a dynamic that holds Stolar’s interest.

“They have ambivalence about totally fitting in,” he says. “They want to fit in but something about inclusion is troubling to them. I feel that way a lot.”

Likewise, the stories explore the connections people make with each other—as well as the connections they don’t. In “Marriage Lessons,” a woman hears from the father she never knew, but doesn’t want to know the answers to questions she’s always had about him and her mother, even though the opportunity presents itself. He also draws from a number of aspects of his own life to add detail to the stories, from his Jewish upbringing to his parents’ political careers, to his mother’s death from cancer. The loss of loved ones is a recurring theme throughout the book, such as in “Mourning,” where a college student named Matthew copes with the death of his mother through the help of his friend Tim, who nevertheless keeps Matthew at arm’s length about aspects of his own life.

“I’m really interested in the way we are able to connect with other people,” Stolar says. “I think in (‘Jack Landers Is My Friend’) and in ‘Marriage Lessons’ it is a deep connection, but it is a connection with limits. In that story the narrator is grateful for that. In ‘Mourning’ Matthew doesn’t understand that limit, and it’s something that’s tugging at him…

“That story was a really ambitious story at the time I wrote it. I think Matthew is trying to put an awful lot on Tim. In a way Tim has pulled him through mourning his mother’s death, and you know, nobody can hold that weight, and Matthew is bound to be in some way disappointed by him. There’s no way for Matt to get out of that relationship satisfied.”

The satisfaction that eludes Matthew nevertheless provides a gratifying conclusion for the reader, and a stunningly worded image that makes you think there could not be a better ending for the story. It’s a common trait through many of the stories in the book, and Stolar says he seeks that sense of resolution intentionally.

“It is something important to me. I think that a lot of modern short stories tend to fade away into thin air, and I’m less interested in that than a story that takes you someplace and hopefully moves you,” he says.

St. Louis is the setting for many of these stories, and Stolar’s ability to capture the essence of the city goes beyond mere recitation of place names, such as when the narrator in “Jack Landers Is My Friend” says: “I loved my hometown. Loved its continually losing struggle to leapfrog into the next tier of American cities and the way every civic undertaking could be framed in that light. It was a metropolitan area of 2.5 million where people spent their entire lives asking you where you went to high school.”

The stories in The Middle of the Night were written (and rewritten) over a period of about eight years, from the time he left medical school in 1993 until 2001 (“a longer period than I would like to admit,” Stolar says). “I wrote a lot of those (stories) a lot of times, and each time, I’d think ‘I’ve got it’ until I looked at it again. “

How does he know when he’s “got it”? “I guess when I look at it and don’t feel compelled to change it, I’ve got it. God, I wrote so many drafts of those, and each time I thought I’d nailed it until a friend or someone else read them.

“I don’t feel the temptation to change a lot of them now. I sort of think I did these stories as well as I could. “

Stolar’s writing exhibits a signature style—understated, direct—even though his narrators couldn’t be more different from one another: a retiree in his seventies teaching his 16-year-old son to drive, to a 30-something woman finding out from the father she’s never met that her now-dead mother had lied to her all her life. Giving voice to such diverse characters is not easy for Stolar, but then, writing itself doesn’t come easy for him, either.

“For me writing is difficult. Some people talk about these ecstatic experiences where they sit down and it flows… It’s hardly ever like that for me. At some point I can often hear the language of the person and that’s when I know the story is a keeper, when I can hear the way the person is speaking.”

Stolar has just moved to Chicago to teach writing at DePaul University; previously he taught at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he received his M.F.A. in creative writing in 1997. Stolar says he enjoyed and benefited from his experience in the program and says the environment these programs provide for writers to work on their craft is valuable, especially when considered in light of developments like a recent National Endowment for the Arts report stating that fewer than half the adult American population had read any literary work in the past year.

“Thank God writers have a place to go where they can take themselves seriously and other writers can take them seriously. That NEA study that came out—you can look at it and say that [writing] doesn’t really matter. But if you are one of those people who do think it matters, it’s good that there are places where people can go to study it.”

At the moment, Stolar is working on a novel that will also be set in St. Louis. Part of that choice is driven by the marketplace. “Just from a practical point of view, agents and editors really want you to write a novel, which I have mixed feelings about because I love short stories. To me it seems like such a great form. So I have mixed feelings about this. I’m also excited to try it.”

Again he’s drawing on his background to help establish the framework of the book, which at the moment is about an idealistic reporter for the Post-Dispatch and his family’s position in local politics, which comes into conflict with his own political views. “He’s a little idealistic in a jaded way about his politics, and I’m trying to capture that. And he really loves St. Louis and he’s not sure why, and that is like me.”

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Leave a Reply

Dan Stoler Writes St. Louis

When his first short story collection, The Middle of the Night, came out last year, Daniel Stolar had prepared himself for the rigors of self-promotion. He hadn’t been prepared to take on Harry Potter, though.

As he related in a piece published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this June, the St. Louis-born writer had made the rounds of local bookstores in an effort to get sellers to stock his book—only to find that not only was it absent from the shelves at Barnes & Noble, he couldn’t even get the time of day from the manager, who was fixated on preparing for the release, three weeks later, of the latest Harry Potter novel. When Stolar moved on to Borders, he encountered the same reception—as well as the Barnes & Noble manager, who was scouting the competition’s plans for promoting the boy wizard.

Fortunately, he says, the reaction from readers and critics has been much more positive. “I had some fears of making fun of a certain kind of St. Louis person,” he says. “I had some fears about family members potentially recognizing themselves, but everyone who’s said anything to me has been really generous about it.”

While he can look back on that situation now with a healthy dose of self-mockery, Stolar says the process of getting that first book published was a learning experience for him, much like it is for every writer. (The paperback edition was released by Picador this summer.)

The senses of loss and disconnection permeate the stories in this collection: In “Jack Landers Is My Friend,” a married man revisits the high-school friends he never fit in with, as well as the romance with one that he never had, and discovers that their friendship may not have been as deep as he’d thought. In “Home in New Hampshire,” a man struggles with his infidelity to his paralyzed wife; and in “Crossing Over,” a white college student pledges a black fraternity at Boston University, but the sense of belonging that he seek continues to elude him.

Frequently, these characters find themselves sitting on the fence, and that’s a dynamic that holds Stolar’s interest.

“They have ambivalence about totally fitting in,” he says. “They want to fit in but something about inclusion is troubling to them. I feel that way a lot.”

Likewise, the stories explore the connections people make with each other—as well as the connections they don’t. In “Marriage Lessons,” a woman hears from the father she never knew, but doesn’t want to know the answers to questions she’s always had about him and her mother, even though the opportunity presents itself. He also draws from a number of aspects of his own life to add detail to the stories, from his Jewish upbringing to his parents’ political careers, to his mother’s death from cancer. The loss of loved ones is a recurring theme throughout the book, such as in “Mourning,” where a college student named Matthew copes with the death of his mother through the help of his friend Tim, who nevertheless keeps Matthew at arm’s length about aspects of his own life.

“I’m really interested in the way we are able to connect with other people,” Stolar says. “I think in (‘Jack Landers Is My Friend’) and in ‘Marriage Lessons’ it is a deep connection, but it is a connection with limits. In that story the narrator is grateful for that. In ‘Mourning’ Matthew doesn’t understand that limit, and it’s something that’s tugging at him…

“That story was a really ambitious story at the time I wrote it. I think Matthew is trying to put an awful lot on Tim. In a way Tim has pulled him through mourning his mother’s death, and you know, nobody can hold that weight, and Matthew is bound to be in some way disappointed by him. There’s no way for Matt to get out of that relationship satisfied.”

The satisfaction that eludes Matthew nevertheless provides a gratifying conclusion for the reader, and a stunningly worded image that makes you think there could not be a better ending for the story. It’s a common trait through many of the stories in the book, and Stolar says he seeks that sense of resolution intentionally.

“It is something important to me. I think that a lot of modern short stories tend to fade away into thin air, and I’m less interested in that than a story that takes you someplace and hopefully moves you,” he says.

St. Louis is the setting for many of these stories, and Stolar’s ability to capture the essence of the city goes beyond mere recitation of place names, such as when the narrator in “Jack Landers Is My Friend” says: “I loved my hometown. Loved its continually losing struggle to leapfrog into the next tier of American cities and the way every civic undertaking could be framed in that light. It was a metropolitan area of 2.5 million where people spent their entire lives asking you where you went to high school.”

The stories in The Middle of the Night were written (and rewritten) over a period of about eight years, from the time he left medical school in 1993 until 2001 (“a longer period than I would like to admit,” Stolar says). “I wrote a lot of those (stories) a lot of times, and each time, I’d think ‘I’ve got it’ until I looked at it again. “

How does he know when he’s “got it”? “I guess when I look at it and don’t feel compelled to change it, I’ve got it. God, I wrote so many drafts of those, and each time I thought I’d nailed it until a friend or someone else read them.

“I don’t feel the temptation to change a lot of them now. I sort of think I did these stories as well as I could. “

Stolar’s writing exhibits a signature style—understated, direct—even though his narrators couldn’t be more different from one another: a retiree in his seventies teaching his 16-year-old son to drive, to a 30-something woman finding out from the father she’s never met that her now-dead mother had lied to her all her life. Giving voice to such diverse characters is not easy for Stolar, but then, writing itself doesn’t come easy for him, either.

“For me writing is difficult. Some people talk about these ecstatic experiences where they sit down and it flows… It’s hardly ever like that for me. At some point I can often hear the language of the person and that’s when I know the story is a keeper, when I can hear the way the person is speaking.”

Stolar has just moved to Chicago to teach writing at DePaul University; previously he taught at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he received his M.F.A. in creative writing in 1997. Stolar says he enjoyed and benefited from his experience in the program and says the environment these programs provide for writers to work on their craft is valuable, especially when considered in light of developments like a recent National Endowment for the Arts report stating that fewer than half the adult American population had read any literary work in the past year.

“Thank God writers have a place to go where they can take themselves seriously and other writers can take them seriously. That NEA study that came out—you can look at it and say that [writing] doesn’t really matter. But if you are one of those people who do think it matters, it’s good that there are places where people can go to study it.”

At the moment, Stolar is working on a novel that will also be set in St. Louis. Part of that choice is driven by the marketplace. “Just from a practical point of view, agents and editors really want you to write a novel, which I have mixed feelings about because I love short stories. To me it seems like such a great form. So I have mixed feelings about this. I’m also excited to try it.”

Again he’s drawing on his background to help establish the framework of the book, which at the moment is about an idealistic reporter for the Post-Dispatch and his family’s position in local politics, which comes into conflict with his own political views. “He’s a little idealistic in a jaded way about his politics, and I’m trying to capture that. And he really loves St. Louis and he’s not sure why, and that is like me.”

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