Deb Olin Unferth’s story collection full of surprises, emotion

Deb Olin Unferth’s story collection full of surprises, emotion

Deb Olin Unferth‘s new collection of stories Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf) is full of surprises, with twists and turns that often leave the reader disoriented and full of emotion.

The author, most recently, of Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War—an autobiography finalist for a 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award about her experience dropping out of college at eighteen and moving to Central America to join the Sandinista revolution—Unferth said by phone that with nonfiction she’s “trying to pin down the truth, whereas here I’m trying, if anything, to get away from the truth, because so much of what I write is based on my experience, but then the adventure is how to break that up and move away from it.

“I try to put those kinds of shifts into the story, like turns, or reversals. And I try to do it in sentences; I try to do it with scenes; I try to do it with the overall arc of the story; I’m always trying to [make it so] you feel like you’re going down the road and then suddenly you’ve veered off into an alley or something—I try to do that a lot.

“I want the story to be surprising me all the time… I want my stories to be very surprising, very moving, I want them to be unforgettable, I want them to be very startling so that you’re like, how did I get there, I just love that feeling, when that happens to me, and I want other people to feel it.”

Wait Till You See Me Dance is Unferth’s first story collection since her 2007 debut Minor Robberies; she’s also author of the novel Vacation (2008)—both were published by McSweeney’s. These stories range in length from a single page to, in the title story, more than 20.

“The short pieces,” she said, “are sort of in my head and then I just write them down all at once, and then I revise them for a really long time, even though I change almost nothing. I mean I change it a little bit, but the basic structure is there from the very start, and the sound, and the voice, and most of the sentences end up being very similar, or the exact same, and I publish it like three years later, it’s so ridiculous (laughs). So dumb. But sometimes it’s that one, or that couple of words that you change that make the story, so I don’t feel that bad about it because sometimes it’s even just the title.”

With the longer pieces, she tends to start with a scene, get a sense of what the conflict is, and then build other scenes around it. “I just keep writing more scenes, and working my way in a direction,” she said.

Whether Unferth sees the bigger picture immediately or through a lens she has had to piece together, each story is a marvel of precision.

“I usually don’t feel like a story is viable,” she said, “or is ready to be accepted by me as a story that should go out into the world until, while I’m writing it, it makes me cry. So just about all the stories in that collection—something about them made me cry.”


Deb Olin Unferth: 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 21. Free. Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 Ninth Ave., S.F.

A modified version of this article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Elizabeth Haidle

Other book events

Portland journalist Omar El Akkad reads from his debut novel, “American War,” set in 2074 amid the second American Civil War (7 p.m. Thursday, April 20, City Lights, 261 Columbus Ave., S.F., free).

Editorial Argonáutica presents Mark Faber (“Melville’s Beard”/“Las Barbas de Melville”) and Scott Esposito (“Latin American Mixtape/“Mixtape Latinoamericano”) reading from their new bilingual books (7 p.m. Thursday, April 20, Diesel, A Bookstore, 5433 College Ave., Oakland, free).

Booksmith presents Lidia Yuknavitch (“The Small Backs of Children”), in town to read from her apocalyptic new novel, “The Book of Joan” (7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 20, Tenderloin Museum, 398 Eddy St., S.F., free).

New York poet and musician Janice A. Loe (text, voice and piano) performs works from her debut book, “Leaving Cle,” with bassist Yohann Potico and percussionist Kevin Carnes (7 p.m. Thursday, April 20, the Poetry Center, 1600 Holloway Ave., S.F., free).

The eighth annual poetry invitational at San Jose Museum of Art is hosted by Santa Barbara County Poet Laureate Arlene Biali and features 10 poets reading new work inspired by the museum’s current exhibitions (7 p.m. Thursday, April 20, 110 S. Market St., San Jose, $5).

Ishmael Reed and Tennessee Reed kick off Poetry Weekend at the California Jazz Conservatory (8 p.m. Friday, April 21, 2087 Addison St., Berkeley, $20). Al Young and Dan Robbins also perform.