Page-Stopper

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

It’s kind of paradoxical, but sometimes when I really need to escape into fiction it isn’t the beach read or the legal thriller that really does it for me but something mandarin, puzzling, interior, a work that you must give yourself to in order to sit with it at all.  In the Time of the Girls, by Anne Germanacos, is this kind of book.

It is also paradoxical that this kind of work opens up as many questions as it answers.  There’s a lot more to share with others than more run-of-the-mill narratives provide.  Listening to Anne read from her work or parrying with other interviewers adds to the experience as well.

MEH: On first entry, the most striking thing about your book is the format, which is elliptical.  You separate incidents or observations and build a narrative from them, but not in a linear way.  Have you always written this way?  How did your style evolve?

AG: This form evolved while I was in graduate school as a solution to the problem posed by the conventional short story form: I wanted to get at the heart of the matter as quickly as possible and dig around in it for the duration. When I attempted to write more conventionally, substance seemed to be lost rather than revealed.

Regarding non-linearity, I find it a more challenging way to do things:  follow the heart, then find a connecting logic. It allows me to keep the piece open for a greater length of time, allowing for more—and more diverse—influences. I’m interested in loose ends—they allow for the possibility of interesting beginnings. And of course as someone recently pointed out to me: the very structure, with so many self-contained parts, allows for multiple beginnings and ends (and titles!) within a single piece.

The bottom line may be that I like playing around—but seriously, of course.

My most recent work—I have two finished manuscripts—is more chiseled, and linear in its own way: mortality always declares the ultimate line.

MEH: For decades you’ve published scores of stories, some of which are collected in this volume.  How did you choose these, and how did you determine the order you put them in?

AG: These stories were among the most recent at the time that I chose them three years ago. I came to this order using the same method I use to order the parts of a story: intuition first, then logic, making sure that the resonances I think I hear are actually there.  By resonance, I mean the possibility of a quiet (or sometimes more obvious) conversation between the various pieces.

The hope is that a single story (or part of a story) offers something to the reader as well as the balance and play between the various stories. I tried to balance location, moving between stories set in Greece and the United States, with the last two set in Istanbul. Also, I hope to offer a variety of reading experiences: some stories are a little more conventional, some more poetic.

I realize that this form may pose a more challenging reading experience than what one may expect, but many readers have been inspired and excited by that challenge.

MEH: Much of the work references kind of drastic painful experiences that are particularly female – there are references to sexual violence, to self-mutilation, to just plain old embarrassment.  The sensibilities portrayed do persist – I’m not sure if they’re surviving or actually thriving.  What do you think?

AG: There are various experiences of pain in these stories, but it is psychological rather than physical. The one incident of sexual violence in the book was perpetrated on a man. Mary, a young woman, starves herself in an attempt to understand where her father’s faith—he is a Greek Orthodox priest—comes from and where it takes him. A female anthropologist feels regret over having traded the possibility of love and a family for scholarship. In a riff on the Adam and Eve story, Adam has to lose what he imagined was real in order to bring it to life in a painting.

None of my characters have dodged pain. To have done so would mean that they’d dodged life, and what kind of story would that be?!

Perhaps, going back to the question, we need to talk about our expectations of pain and survival: in Greece, where I’ve lived two-thirds of my life, survival itself is considered a kind of thriving.

Then again, maybe my answer to the question is connected to style: Freedom, in all its beauty, hurts.

MEH: You make repeated reference to crossing boundaries.  Cultural, historical, personal.  I began to be preoccupied with the question of locality.  What are the origins of this theme of dislocation? Or put another way, why is the theme so rich for you?

AG: I’ve lived in two places for most of my life, having chosen when I was still a teenager to leave San Francisco, the city of my birth, to live on a small island in Greece with the man who would become my husband.

Moving between two places, with family and friends split across the world, makes you very aware of geographical space. Crossing into a new culture and language, you’re constantly aware of boundaries and how you’re defined by them: what you are as well as what—for the moment, anyway—you are not.

But beyond the real, physical geographic (dis)locations of my life, doesn’t any artist attempt to cross borders, erasing boundaries in an effort to trespass on the territory of the previously unknown?

In my case, cultural, linguistic, and geographical dislocation turned out to be a good hunch.

MEH: How has your audience(s) responded to the book?

AG: With enthusiasm and great generosity! Each reading has been uniquely interesting.

A dyslexic man was excited by the form: for him, the stories with their short, contained pieces allowed him to focus on and visualize each one. A Mormon woman in Salt Lake City understood the necessity of having to cross certain psychological boundaries in order to gain a glimpse of characters we may think of as being less like ourselves than they actually are. A man in NYC compared the pieces to Abstract Expressionism. My sons were satisfied with the way I’d treated their grandparents in the piece on Alzheimer’s that has brought many to tears.

My audience seems to take delight in a reading experience that requires them to slow down while also affording certain (though not easy) satisfaction. I’ve called the book a page-stopper as opposed to a page-turner. I think that gets at the heart of the matter: it’s been both thrilling and moving to see that there is an audience for less conventional and decidedly uncommercial work.

MEH: What are you working on now?

AG: I’ve got two finished manuscripts, the most recent written during the last six months of my mother’s life (which ended in July). It’s 250 pages made up of very small parts that are connected and speak amongst themselves in a kind of conversation. It approaches poetry, though I’m pretty certain it stays on this side of the narrative line.

Here’s a sample:

Life turns and turns.

He’s cooking something the scent of which drives me toward him.

*

A mother, indistinguishable from a house.

Capacious, even when small.

*

Yitgadal v’yitkadash

*

One declares one’s (mental) health on faith.

*

Burning up and coming to.

*

A mind to navigate time.

*

I set words down only to come back later and be stirred or tamed by them in unplanned ways.

*

Everything is fodder, anything may turn out to be something.

2 Responses to “Page-Stopper”

  1. Thanks for a lovely interview. I am so enjoying this book….the short, poetic style is perfect for these psychologically rich stories. I’m glad to know that more work is coming soon!

  2. I LOVED the “page stopper” effect of the book. In this world where everything goes so fast..it is a breath of fresh air to stop and think.
    I look forward to the next Anne Germanacos book. It looks promissing from what I just read!!!!

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