Safety in Words

The Dangerous, Graceful Life of Laura Furman

She understands just how important community and connection can be for  writers, Laura Furman's former student Katherine Hester says, particularly those who are just starting to embark on a writing life beyond the classroom.
"She understands just how important community and connection can be for writers," Laura Furman's former student Katherine Hester says, "particularly those who are just starting to embark on a writing life beyond the classroom." (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

I walk the dog at twilight so I can glance in strangers' windows at dusk. Each house is a stage, the actors dancing a secret drama that for a moment I'm part of. Laura Furman's stories, with their sharp detail, sense of personal history, and subtle nuance exploding into knowledge, are like spying in strangers' windows at dusk. In her new collection Drinking With the Cook, Furman gathers together a baker's dozen of her most recent stories along with others that have been gestating for some 30 years. An associate professor in UT's famous James Michener-funded graduate writing program, Laura Furman has been publishing fiction since 1976. With seven books under her belt (as author or editor), she's one Austin writer who may not be a household name -- but should be.

Writer Lynn Sharon Schwartz describes Furman's stories better than anyone: "Beneath her muted tone runs a passion for the safe and permanent, along with a knowledge of the futility of such longings." Easing down the very short and sharply pitched driveway that leads to Furman's house, a modern white box perched on a West Lake hill, it's easy to see why safety is an issue. Parking brake secured, I knock at the door. Greeting me, Furman explains that they've only hit the house once -- she was the driver -- and they got it fixed real quick. Beside me, the bushes are enclosed in cages that look nearly -- but not quite -- like modern art. I can guess the cages fend off the deer. Just then I feel as if I'm inside Furman's story "The Woods," about a woman who weighs the dangers of living in a wooded enclave haunted by mountain lions, deer, and S.U.V.-driving teens. Later on, Furman will point out that, just as they say not to do in every M.F.A. class, the story really happened. One evening her young son really did spot a dead man hanging from a tree above the Emma Long bridge. Wow, I had no idea that West Lake was such a dangerous place.

With her dark wavy hair and stylish glasses, Furman could still be a New Yorker, shlepping groceries from Zabar's to her Upper West Side apartment. But the fact is she's lived in Texas more than 20 years, married a Texan, is raising a Texan son, and has a Texan's abundant generosity. She's even dabbled in different Texas lifestyles -- starting out inside Houston's "loop," roughing it in a Victorian house in Lockhart, and hunkering down in Austin's hills. That she is a vegetarian and yoga devotee does not surprise me. Furman wears an enviable grace and peacefulness over what might be called her innate obssessiveness. Such attention to detail has served Furman well as writer, teacher, and editor. Under her editorship, the late American Short Fiction was thrice nominated for a National Magazine Award, up against biggies like The New Yorker. Her fiction has earned her the Texas Institute of Letters' Jesse Jones Award, the highest honor for a book of fiction by a Texan, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among many other prizes.

But Furman's grace has been hard-won. At the crucial age of 13 she lost her mother to ovarian cancer. In what might have been her child-bearing years, she gained freedom from the threat of the disease through surgery that left her unable to bear children. And then two and a half years ago, she did battle with breast cancer. In Drinking With the Cook, Furman explores the caves of loss, loneliness, and what it is to be a woman making difficult choices about her life as only an expert on these matters can. But don't throw a pity party for Furman and don't expect her to "let it all hang out" in her fiction, either. Furman applies her even sense of grace to each sentence so that if there is drama in her stories, it is not usually the life and death kind. It is the daily, wearing, ineffable drama of living as a human island among others who invariably seem more attractive, more connected, or simply more "normal."

The late winter day I visited Furman, we ate veggie sandwiches at a high marble table with a foggy view of a valley of cedars. I was living at the Dobie Paisano Ranch then -- where she herself had stayed 20 years ago. Every morning I woke to the etching her father, an accomplished amateur artist, had made of the ranch house when he was visiting her there. The picture is simple and easy in its lines, but it captures exactly the artful ruggedness of the house and the road leading up to it. A copy of the same etching hangs by her front door, a reminder of another time.

After lunch, we move to the big moss-colored couch in the living room. By the window, cacti and orchids share the light. All around us hang interesting artworks -- colorful abstract prints, pastels, and photographs -- mostly by friends, Furman explains, including Susan Crile, a New York printmaker, to whom Drinking With the Cook is dedicated. I inquire about a particularly interesting piece, showing various artful African-American hairstyles -- could this be one of Michael Ray Charles' controversial paintings? No, it is a barber sign from Furman's husband's Peace Corps days in Monrovia. Furman's 11-and-a-half-year-old son Solomon, home with cedar fever that day, pops in now and then with questions ("Can I play my piano?" Answer: "Yes, if you shut the door") and to announce deer sightings. In fact, I see more deer and closer up at their house than I did in six months at the ranch.

Finally, we settle in with our tea, and I ask Furman how Drinking With the Cook came about. "I hadn't written any stories for a while," she began, "and we [Gabrielle Fraser of Winedale Publishing in Houston] started talking about a collection." In 1998, Winedale had published Furman's memoir Ordinary Paradise, which navigates the rocky aftermath of her mother's death. "Ordinary Paradise was offered to about 40 publishers," Furman recalls. "I was unwilling to give up on it." About the same time, Fraser, an old friend, started Winedale and contacted Furman. "She told me she wanted to publish good books that weren't being published in New York. So I sent it to her." Winedale has also reprinted Furman's novels Tuxedo Park and Shadow Line.

Since she hadn't published a book of stories since 1983, the idea of a new collection appealed to Furman. What's more, she had recently had stories in such highbrow literary publications as Yale Review and The Threepenny Review, earning notice in Best American Stories' "100 distinguished stories" list two years running. Inspired, she decided to add some new ones. "I'd had a thought about 'Beautiful Baby' for a long time," Furman remembers. The story is about a woman who escapes getting scammed in a baby beauty contest only to read in the paper about the kidnapping of another contestant's baby. "When I first moved to Houston either Beverly Lowry or I noticed it. It was so awful -- poor woman, poor baby."

One of the most memorable stories in the collection, and the longest, is "Hagalund," about a woman living in a Stockholm suburb among a community of Vietnam War deserters and their girlfriends. "'Hagalund' took me a very long time to write," Furman admits. She explains that she first began writing it as a novel in 1972 when she returned from her own foray into deserter life in Sweden. Then she cut it back and rewrote it "over 15 or 20 years." In its final form, the story sets the stark underground life of the twentysomething organizers in a strange frozen land against a grown woman's recuperation from an injury during a family ski trip. "Hagalund" appeared in Southwest Review in 1995, which Furman confesses "stopped me from working on it any more." The story sticks to the ribs because of its strange details -- the menacing habits of a housemate nicknamed the Spy; the necessities of survival, such as buying cheap rice at the Chinese embassy; and the subtle rivalries between the deserters' girlfriends. Her attention to details serves her well in a story that illuminates an unfamiliar corner of recent history that we think we already know. Furman laughs aloud, thinking, and then shares: "It always amuses me when someone says to me: 'Oh I just got back from Stockholm. It's such a wonderful place. Divine food.'"

If "Hagalund" was the hardest story to fashion in this collection, Furman confides that "Sympathy" and "That Boy," both short-shorts, were the easiest. As with most very short stories, these two offer a full picture of a moment and then at the last minute offer some comment or observation that turns everything on its head. "I wrote 'Sympathy' in a class with David Cohen," Furman begins. (Cohen, who taught playwriting at UT, was killed in a 1997 car accident.) "We were co-teaching a Chekhov course and assigned the students to write an homage to Chekhov." Furman's Chekhov story involves a woman's split-moment decision about whether to shift the polite grief she feels for a distant friend's recent death to a stranger's much more keen loss. The other short-short, "That Boy," portrays the odd depth of a woman's feelings when a teenage boy she hardly knows takes his own life. "There was a suicide in Lockhart," Furman explains. "After that happened I just sat down and wrote a story. It's one of my favorites." A chilling exposure of small-town life, the story's ending is close to heartbreaking. Sherwood Anderson would be proud.

After telling about the Chekhov class, Furman recalls that she used to always teach Chekhov but found that students rarely connected with his work and some even professed to despise the Russian master. "I ran into a student I'd had a bunch of years ago," Furman recalls, "and he's having a collection of stories come out." (Chronicle contributor Scott Blackwood's In the Shadow of Our House is due out from SMU Press in June.) "He said he remembered me forcing him to read those Chekhov stories. He said he learned so much -- but he didn't know it at the time."

Not surprisingly, Furman counts Chekhov among her favorite writers. "He's such an inconspicuous writer," Furman observes. "I guess that's one of my ideals as a writer. There's a lot of writing now that's admired that's like wallpaper. You can't get past the writing into the character." Furman aspires to make her writing "almost as if it's not there." Jim Magnuson, director of the Texas Center for Writers, describes Furman's fiction as "lucid, artful, and intelligent. What may seem to be restraint at first is in fact a steady gathering of force."

"My fiction looks like an accounting of the everyday," Furman explains. "It isn't. It's highly selective. It's pared down to the bone." Even so, she admits she still likes "giving the impression that it's reality."

Suddenly Solomon calls out that there's a buck really close by. The three of us crowd at the window, watching excitedly while a sturdy deer rubs his antlers on a log just a few feet below us, apparently showing off his prowess for a nearby doe who watches from the woods. Furman confides that when she takes out the garbage she often has the strange feeling that someone's watching. "Sure enough," she says, "there's a deer." I get the impression that in this house the herd is like the weather. Their movements on the road, below the house, and on the driveway are closely monitored and enjoyed the way other people might observe clouds rolling in.

Back to the slightly less exciting task of talking about literature, I ask Furman what she thinks the role of writing stories is. "I don't know if there's any purpose. That's just who we are, that's what we do," she shrugs. "I just finished a biography of Daphne du Maurier, a writer I've always liked, especially her short stories. She's not a stylist or especially sensitive to language but there's something there, very powerful. Apparently for the last 17 years of her life, she stopped writing. And she stopped being able to cope with her life at all. Her writing was a way of dealing with different parts of her personality, an outlet for her individuality." She pauses to consider the question again. "I think it's the way you make sense of your life."

Furman also counts among her favorites Anthony Powell ("I really admire the novels that make up A Dance to the Music of Time"), Jean Rhys, Mavis Gallant ("a writer who is very important to me -- I just love her mind"), The Fig Eater by Jody Shields, Alice Munro ("of course"), and William Maxwell.

Besides teaching courses in fiction, nonfiction, and writing at UT, Furman recently added to her schedule a class of older students who are learning to write memoirs. For Furman, it has been fascinating, forcing her to ask such questions as: "What's the difference between someone who has ambitions as a writer sitting down to write and someone recording for their grandchild? Does it make a difference in the writing? Does it make a difference in one's reception of it?" She finds working with the class moving. "They're so good to each other in a way that I've never seen in a workshop," Furman observes. "I think students are somewhat defensive in workshops. I work hard to keep everybody open, understanding that the workshop is not about me as a teacher but about them with each other." But even so, feelings can get hurt, she admits.

After 20 years of teaching young people, this class, ranging in age from 59 to 89, is teaching her a thing or two. Furman describes her students as "people who've led full and interesting lives and are still by and large doing that because that's who they are." She assigns them essays to read, often the same ones her freshmen are picking their way through. One of these is Richard McCann's "The Resurrection," about his own liver transplant. "They were just astonished and curious about how he could write about that."

In comparison with her younger students who aspire to write for a broad world that is less and less attuned to the written word, Furman delights in the joy her memoirists take in communicating to future generations -- and to anyone else who happens to read their work. "They really hear each other's lives," she says.

Though she may not be aware of it, Furman is also someone who really hears other's lives. Among her recent students who have gone on to success are Katherine Hester (Eggs for Young America, 1998) and Lori Williams (When Kambia Elaine Flew in From Neptune, 2000). Both sing her praises. "Laura Furman had the greatest influence on me," Williams declares. "She taught me how to be true to myself and my writing. I consider her to be both a great mentor and a friend." Hester recalls that Furman was the first professor she every spoke with from UT's writing program, "back when I was working on campus and dreaming of finding time to write." Now planted in Georgia, Hester says "when I think of Austin and its writing community I can't help but think of her."

Now I must confess that I have also counted Furman as a mentor for some 10 years, since I noticed her at UT's Ransom Center, where we both had offices. At first I was intrigued by her (then) red glasses; later it was the fact that she was a writer and also a mother. Having no other mentors for my writing path, I invisibly observed her for clues. By the time I actually was a mother, we had become acquaintances and I invited her to coffee to gain her insights about motherhood and writing. Setting up our coffee date made me wise to how she accomplished so much -- by carefully guarding both her writing time, her yoga, and her time with her son. That day she offhandedly suggested to me that I might have to abandon the novel I'd thus far failed to publish and focus on something new. At the time, it sounded like heresy but eventually, of course, I came to the same conclusion.

Later, I saw her at a friend's wedding. She looked like an angel in a flowing linen dress. I knew she had been sick. That time she said to me, again, apparently without deep thought, as my two-year-old son screamed at my knees: "I got to the point where writing wasn't the most important thing in my life." Again I felt she'd read between the lines and tossed me just the information that I needed but was barely able to hear. Most recently, she e-mailed me during my last weeks writing at the Paisano ranch: "If you are clever, you'll be able to take the ranch back with you and return any time." It was the advice of an expert. I imagine it's something she did herself, granting her the ability to return to a rugged place of solitude whenever she desires.

"One of the things I admire most about Laura," Hester told me, "is her recognition that the writing life not only requires solitude and creative space, but a healthy dose of something I only know to call community service." Besides teaching, Furman has raised funds for Paisano, is a past president of the Texas Institute of Letters, volunteers as a member of the Corporation of Yaddo (the famous artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York), and, most importantly, makes herself available to younger writers -- even those, like myself, with whom she has no official affiliation. "She understands just how important community and connection can be for writers," Hester continues, "particularly those who are just starting to embark on a writing life beyond the classroom. 'How do I combine writing and work? Should I write a novel? How can I get an agent? What's next?' She must hear these questions over and over again, but she still sympathizes, she still shares her own experiences, she's still willing to give votes of confidence, she's still engaged by these questions."

In Drinking With the Cook, Furman lends her heart to characters as varied as an old man facing down death while accomplishing the most mundane of chores and a young woman standing at the brink of change, wondering "What would Buddha do?" While the scenery ranges from snowy New England villages to New York elevators and cabs to Texas garden plots, what stays constant is her careful tending to her characters' longings. In talking to Magnuson about Furman's stories, he observed that they "linger in the mind for a long time." Furman's stories and advice and example will linger, I predict, for quite a long time. end story


Laura Furman will read from and sign Drinking With the Cook at Barnes & Noble Westlake (701 Capital of Texas Hwy. S.) on Friday, April 20, at 7pm. Robin Bradford's most recent article was an interview with novelist Shelby Hearon which appeared in February.

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