To Encounter Ourselves: An Interview with Nathan J. Fink

The Curated Collection on “Literature, Writing, and Anthropology,” edited by Darren Byler and Shannon Dugan Iverson, paired articles from the backfiles of Cultural Anthropology with the texts of five short stories as part of a collaboration with the literary journal American Short Fiction. What follows is a brief interview with one of the featured writers, Nathan J. Fink.

About the Author


Nathan J. Fink received his MFA in fiction from the University of New Hampshire. He currently lives in Chicago, where he teaches writing at DePaul University.

Interview with the Author

Cultural Anthropology: What is important about reading and writing short fiction, in contrast to other genres like memoir, academic writing, or journalism?

Nathan J. Fink: Truth. More precisely, the capacity for emotional truth freed from the confines of the substantiated. A writer friend of mine disagrees with me on this. For him, verity determines effect, value. Much like a boot maker, the writer fashions reportage from the last of what has happened, stitching along an event’s edge. For me, however, value is something altogether different. It is experiential. I want to read and write stories that resonate emotionally, invented or not. It’s what I particularly admire about short fiction, how it can needle everyday life, dismantle, rearrange, augment, condense, and then present it in such a way that illuminates sometimes new, sometimes old avenues of human experience. There is much to love about fiction—character, voice, structure, language—but the importance of short fiction lies in its ability to make the unknown known, or at the very least considered. The good stuff forces us to feel. And that is as real as anything I know.

CA: What does fiction reveal about social worlds?

NJF: At its best, fiction dissects them. Catalogs. Submits findings. I’m reminded of that poor frog in biology, frisked and unzipped. How I wish footage existed of that class in particular. Not, of course, to view gruesome acts visited on a handful of amphibians, but I do wonder after my boyhood self: Eager? Slipshod? Armed with the fine edge of a joke? Or perhaps trembling is the word. Whatever the case may be, my handling of that moment discloses the person I was, am, and likely will be. The same can be said of fiction.

As readers we are scolded for psychoanalyzing authors—at least I was—and I’m not suggesting we do that now, but fiction is germane to paradigms, and authors exist in certain cultures, social strata, and so on. Literature cannot help but demonstrate collective consciousness. It is the reason why stories written in times of war differ from those written in times of peace. Financial distress, as opposed to affluence. Subjects, characters, structural components reflect at the very least a modicum of culture, if not a mouthful. I want to be the boy that scooped up every last frog and quit the school for a pond nearby, but I’d lying if I said I was. Anyway, I think that was E.T.

CA: Your story “The Big Light” takes a very visual, action-oriented approach, while simultaneously distorting time so that the reader experiences a moment in slow motion and from several emotional angles. Can you talk about the relationship of your writing to image and action?

NJF: While I confess to being a writer’s writer, or maybe a writer’s reader, where eloquent prose and vivid, well-etched images can sustain my interest for hours on end, at this point in my writing life those skills are no longer enough. If I am to occupy a metaphysical space, then more than anything what I want is to move through it. Landscape, concrete detail: these things help us stand firmly in the imagined, but without action we have little with which to identify. After all, do we not have more in common with a distressed loved one than a sandy pitch of earth? Isn’t that why we read, to encounter ourselves?

In “The Big Light” I fought to be as visual as possible, for—as tyrannical as it might sound—I wanted to control the imagined space. The action, however, is what I hope readers experience, rendered, as you’ve noted, in various layers: a husband telling a story about his wife, a husband being told a story by his wife, the wife’s story. (And the multiple chutes and ladders that connect them.) In the end, the husband’s great act is simply to have told a story, one about his wife and the violent events that changed her, and him, and their marriage. Without image, that is the story in its entirety: a man recalls what his wife told him. Not much impact.

Done well, image lets us attend to the event. Action lets us identify with it, and consider what we ourselves might have done.