Interview with Karl Harshbarger
by Jack Smith
Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) who has had over 90 publications of his stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner as well as eighteen stories (including this issue) in the Green Hills Literary Lantern. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and thirteen of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
When did you start writing fiction? What got you interested in creative writing?
I was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon and, I think, was taking the basic freshman composition course (the course that almost all freshman have to take). At our university at that time if the professor thought you were good enough, he or she could fast track you into a more advanced course. That’s my fuzzy memory. Somehow I got into a creative writing course and I became really interested and took additional creative writing courses in the next semesters. When I was a junior (so this would have been in 1952 or 1953) one of the guest speakers at the University was Edward Weeks, who was then editor of the Atlantic Monthly. I happened to chair his discussion group after his lecture and sometime, either before or after the discussion, I pushed three stories of mine on him to look at. He actually must have read the stories because some time later I got a letter from the magazine accepting one of those stories (which was based on my experiences living in a barracks with workers from Arkansas at a canning factory in Eureka, Illinois). Either that year or the next year I had another story accepted by The Pacific Spectator, and I remember being very impressed because I was published along with Harold Stassen and Field Marshal Montgomery—both of whom I had actually heard of.
How did your career develop after that?
Somewhat by hit and miss. At one point I quit graduate school and decided I would set out on my own and become a full-time, successful writer. I remember I went to Estes Park in Colorado and hung out with a theatre group as I was trying to write, and then I met a guy and traveled with him to the University of Florida where I lived in Gainesville and hung out at the University. But the whole experience didn’t work out. I developed a huge writer’s block (a block which for writing fiction continued on and off until I was around sixty years of age), and I made the decision not to waste my life and returned to graduate school and a teaching profession. It wasn’t until much later in life when I moved to Germany to live with my now German wife that my writer’s block disappeared and I began to finally produce stories. After sending a number of stories off, the steady stream of rejection slips was interrupted by an acceptance slip. Then more and more acceptance slips. Except for those first two stories (mentioned above) all my stories, over 90 of them now, have been published after the age of sixty.
Was formal education helpful, or have you learned mostly on your own?
A little of both, I would say. Certainly the formal education was crucial. I took a master’s degree in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and Eliot Coleman was the main teacher there at the time. He was a very inspirational person and really believed in the talents of his students. I will always be thankful for the attention he gave me. Later in my life, after I moved to Germany and had actually got it together again and had started writing, I attended a number of writing workshops in the summer in the United States at various universities (principally at the University of Iowa), and there is no question but that these workshops helped me—although in ways that are difficult to explain and quantify. I also met other aspiring writers at these workshops who would, as the years progressed, help critique my stories as I helped critique theirs. Many of these people have remained very important for me.
On the other hand, a writer is always alone and must depend on his or her inner voice. Somehow the writer knows (or should know) what he or she should do to develop a scene or a character or a certain kind of style. Without this inner voice the writer is lost and at best can only copy other writers.
You’ve published a lot of stories. How tough is the market?
How tough is the market? Tough! There are all kinds of people out there (many of them quite talented) sending in stories to magazines. (Think, for example, of all the recent graduates of writing programs around the United States.) Editors are undoubtedly overwhelmed and whether your story gets accepted or not may, in fact, actually depend on which side of the bed the editor got out of that morning. I have taken the trouble to go back to my records and have determined that just for one major journal—a journal which has never accepted a story of mine—I have submitted 83 different stories. That’s how tough the market is.
Any tips on getting short stories published?
In the old, old days a writer sent in a story to one magazine and then waited until the magazine made a decision on that story before the writer sent the story off to another magazine. Or at least that’s my fuzzy memory of how things were. Well, those days are gone. It’s a complicated matter. More and more writers are sending in more and more stories to journals and so the journals are often taking longer and longer to respond. Many journals don’t make a decision one way or another on your story for at least six months. With that kind of timescale, and if you only submitted one story at a time, you’d be an old man or old woman before you got your first story accepted. So everybody (with exceptions) sends out multiple copies of his or her stories to multiple different magazines—which only clogs up the system more.
All this said, the writer who has a good business mind and attacks the problems of submissions to journals in a logical, systematic way, certainly has the better chance.
How does a story come to you?
Well, I have a journal (actually it’s an iPod Touch) and when I am sitting in an armchair or out walking or eating at a restaurant, or whatever, and I get an idea for a story I take out my iPod and immediately record it. If I don’t record it, it’s gone.
Where do these ideas come from? I have no idea. Often they are points of energy out of the past that I have somehow remembered and later rework into stories. For example, back when I was an undergraduate I was working one summer for a wheat rancher driving a truck in the wheat fields of Oregon. I vividly remember an incident where I was driving a truck up the mountain and another driver was driving down the mountain and to avoid me I thought he had gone off the road crashing into the canyon below. That energy point stayed with me and I eventually wrote a story about it (“Dead Man’s Curve,” which appears in the current issue of GHLL). At other times in order to find a story I ask myself, what would happen if . . . ? For example, once I asked myself what would happen if I were walking around the block (a morning routine) and heard a huge explosion in front of me? This eventually led to my writing a story called “The Mail in the Morning,” which was published by The Iowa Review.
So it’s nice to have that iPod handy.
What is your writing process like?
That’s hard to say. When it’s time to write a story I’ll pull out my iPod and look at all my story ideas which I have recorded in the past, think about it, and choose one. That’s the first stage. Then I’ll sketch the story out, using only my iPod. After I have worked on the story maybe four days to a week on the iPod, I’ll transfer the file to my netbook and continue to work on the story. I often don’t know how the story is going to end and it’s not until maybe the very last that I discover the ending. (Perhaps, some would say, that I often don’t discover the ending.) When I am almost done with the story I’ll transfer it to my PC. Later, when I come back to the story on the PC I may rewrite it many, many times.
For you, what makes a strong character?
Hmm. I don’t know.
Conflict is, of course, essential in fiction. Could you describe some of the conflicts typical in your stories?
Well, that’s again a difficult question. Of course, there’s conflict between characters in a story: “A” wants one thing and “B” wants another and these desires are “in conflict.” But I would put “conflict” in a larger scale. There are certain “forms” out there which the writer (or any artist) is always striving for. Sometimes the writer comes close to finding the form and sometimes the writer doesn’t. In a more successful story the shimmering, as it were, of the form is placed in front of the reader and the reader feels the tension between what the artist has accomplished and what the writer might accomplish if he or she were to write a “perfect” story. (I’m not sure if this statement makes sense—but I somehow understand it.)
Your style is quite distinctive. How would you describe it, and have you had to work on your style, or does it come naturally?
First of all I am surprised to learn that in your opinion I have a distinctive style. I thought I was writing just like everyone else. Well, that’s not quite true. I know I have tried to keep fancy words out of my writing and I suppose that Hemingway influenced me more than any other American writer—and he certainly doesn’t use a lot of fancy words.
But, yes, of course, I work on my style very hard. It’s just that I don’t have any understanding at all of how I do it. I play around with the structure of the sentences, then play around some more, then some more, and then a little bit more trying to balance the whole thing up. But as to what I do? I don’t know.
What are some great short story writers, in your opinion, and what can short story writers learn from them?
As I mentioned above, I was most influenced by Hemingway, and, to my way of seeing it, his best short stories are his “up in Michigan” pieces. (I don’t care so much for his more commercial stories.) When one reads the opening paragraph of A Farewell to Arms one wishes Hemingway would have written poetry because that paragraph is surely poetry. But he chose to write short stories and novels. When he is at his best I think he is very good, indeed.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I suppose I have a feeling which I’m sure I share with most writers, that the process of writing fiction is forever challenging and, with exceptions, forever pleasant. Of course, there are those dark days when one loses one’s way, but those are made up for by the many, many bright days. I feel blessed to be able to write.
Jack Smith is the founding editor of GHLL. He has published fiction in such literary journals as The Southern Review, The Texas Review, North American Review, X-Connect, Happy, In Posse Review, Southern Ocean Review, and B&A: New Fiction. His reviews have appeared in Missouri Review, Texas Review, Georgia Review, Pleiades, X-Connect, RE:AL, and Environment magazine. He also has written a number of articles for Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and The Writer and co-authored the nonfiction work Killing Me Softly (Monthly Review Press, 2002). Recent novels include Hog to Hog and Icon.