Behind the Words: Paul Pekin

Posted by on Apr 22, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Paul PekinPaul Pekin’s short story “Bread and Butter” is about a single moment on a single day between two young boys. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the language, though – this story will stay with you and make you ponder the impact and influence of the small moments in our lives.


Kelly Morris: One of the commenters on your story said: “I’m still trying to understand how you take the simplest words and the simplest sentences and turn them into settings I can see and people whose hearts I can know.” I know exactly what she meant – you never name the boys, they are simply the dark-eyed one and the tall one. We don’t know the specific setting either, only that it’s winter and it’s “small-town America in 1937.” And yet the reader is immediately invested in these characters. What was your reasoning behind not naming the boys and giving the story a vague setting?

Paul Pekin: Naming the boys would not have been a mistake, but it would have led me into a different kind of story, one, I must admit, I did not want to write. What matters here is the central image.

KM: The simplicity of your sentences also made me curious about your revision process. How long did it take you to write this story? How do you go about revising your work?

PP: It might be that simple words and simple sentences are more effective at moving things forward, especially in a story like this. Certainly they are not easy to write; each has its own peculiar task to perform, information to provide,  action to convey, and do it in a tone consistent with the voice of the story. This story took many sentence by sentence rewrites, and several important revisions. I started it and abandoned it more than once, and never really felt it was publishable until  I found an end that satisfied me.

KM: There is an authority in the narration, the sense that the reader is in capable hands with sentences like these: “The house was open, unlocked. This was small-town America in 1937. Some of us remember just how things were.” What writers have influenced your style?

PP: I do favor short stories, so I suppose I could drop names like Katherine Anne Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Isaac Babel, even Irwin Shaw. The point is, the author should speak to the audience. It is not about showing how clever you are.

KM: There is such tension in the story. I think it’s especially powerful how you control the pacing through selective reveals. For example, the tall boy has invited the dark-eyed boy in to see something but he keeps stalling, first making them a snack of bread and butter and then later asking if the other boy wants to look at his comic books. The boy says, “I got a mother to make me drink milk” and “I got comic books.” What we don’t learn until much later is what the boy doesn’t have, what has led him to this house. Do you outline before writing or do you prefer to let a story unroll as you write?

PP: I never outline on paper, which is not to say I make things up as I go along. On a story of this length. I  have a rough idea of where I am going before I even start. All the way up to the moment when the tall boy is staring at the mist rising out of the water, I had it in my head. Beyond that, it was a matter of rejecting one possible conclusion after another, until I finally figured out where the story wanted to go.

KM: Both the beginning and the ending of your story were succinct and powerful. The reader is drawn into the story with the first paragraph, whereas the last two paragraphs leave the reader pondering the ramifications of a single moment over the course of a lifetime. Which is more difficult for you – finding the right starting point for your story or finding the right place to end?

PP: Finding the right place to end!

KM: Describe a perfect writing day for you.

PP: There are many different versions of a perfect day, in life as well as in writing. I honestly cannot choose one over another. I’m having a pretty good time right now, answering your questions.

KM: What are you currently reading? Currently working on?

PP: You caught me between books.  I’m always searching out collections of short stories, just finished Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.”  Currently working on? Another short story. That’s all I do these days, stories, some fiction, some nonfiction. I have a memoir I occasionally turn to, but really, it’s just more stories.

Kelly Morris holds an MFA in fiction from Spalding University, and her work has appeared in various literary magazines. She is a co-founder and regular contributor to the writing blog Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese dip), found here. When she’s not writing, Kelly can be found hanging out with her kids, who remain unconvinced that being a writer is actually a very cool job.

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