Joan Connor’s new stories explore the difficult dance of longing and romance
By Jeff Worley
Kristina may be falling for the UPS man. When he rings her doorbell, she tingles. She orders things she doesn’t need or want—extendible fan blade dusters, silver serving spoons (she never has dinner parties), and complicated underwear with clips and flying buttresses. Anything to get him to her door, this man whose brown eyes are “the flavor of bitter brickle chocolate.”
This is how the lead story, “Men in Brown,” opens in Joan Connor’s new book, How to Stop Loving Someone. This collection of stories by the Ohio University professor of creative writing, her fourth book of short fiction, won the 2010 Leapfrog Fiction Contest.
Early reviews have been positive. Carol Haggas, writing in Booklist, notes that “Connor’s clever wordplay and piquant characterizations guide the reader through the minefields and misery, delight and despair, rewards and recriminations of love in all its guises.”
Connor grew up in Vermont and Maine, and the sea and shoreline are frequent settings in these 13 stories, which are connected thematically by the ebb and flow of longing and love in its many configurations.
Connor explores the mysterious nature of desire in “The Wig,” in which the narrator finds himself strangely but intensely attracted to his wife whenever she wears a black wig. In “The Fox,” a middle-age couple who are “trying to fall in love” walk along the beach and spot a fox. The man needs to get closer to take a picture, while the woman is content to observe the animal’s beauty, this difference in sensibility hinting at the unlikelihood of them forming a romantic link. And a couple who meet at a hardware conference in “What It Is” spend several disappointing days together, the couple’s expectations colliding clumsily and constantly.
Her thematic range is extended in several stories. “Halfbaby,” for example, puts the reader inside the mind of an unusual woman leading an unusual life in a remote island community.
These stories are propelled by a lively imagination and a sense of downright fun. Take, for instance, the odd detail in “Men in Brown” of three potential paramours in a row coming equipped with a steel plate in their heads.
“Imagination?” Connor laughs. “Not really—I went on three dates with men who had steel plates in their heads. I thought, ‘Is there a lot of this going around? And why me?’ I’m just too tightly wound for this.”
Connor admits that the stories in this book are more playful than in previous collections, and in this way How to Stop Loving Someone is a significant departure for her.
“This one is more mainstream, less intellectual than History Lessons, which was published eight years ago, less solemn. I started writing comically maybe 10 to 15 years ago, and a comic tone is perhaps the strongest thread that pulls these stories together.”
Part of the fun comes through her love of the language and its possibilities, a “heritage,” Connor says, from her Irish lineage. “I’m from a family that loves to talk and play with language, which is one reason I was attracted to James Joyce’s work. I learned a lot studying him.”
Free association is a stylistic trademark in these stories, and Connor revels in the sounds words make.
“From time to time, I glanced at Molly, enjoying her skin, her browning breasts and buttocks as one enjoys a piece of fruit ripening on the windowsill, a plum purpling to the perfect moment when, neither soft nor firm, it pops, punctured by patient teeth.” [from “The Wig”] “I slipped into his eyes like a strawberry dipped in fondue chocolate.” [from “Men in Brown”]
Do the alliteration and metaphor here expose the soul and sensibility of a poet?
“I suppose there are poetic touches in these stories,” Connor says. “I started out as a poet, and truthfully just wasn’t much good at it. But I loved working the language this way, so I started applying some of the things I learned in writing poetry to my fiction.”
When did Connor know she wanted to be a writer?
“As soon as I could hold a crayon,” she says. “I wrote, illustrated, and bound my own books and passed them out to neighbors on holidays. I wrote poems for my family. Writing became a fixation very early for me.”
Later, Connor followed this passion in college, where she earned degrees in English and creative writing from Mount Holyoke College, Middlebury College, and Vermont College. Well-established poets and fiction writers such as Sydney Lea, Frederick Busch, Philip Roth, and Francois Camoin provided encouragement along the way, she says, adding that Ohio University colleague Darrell Spencer was a “wonderful mentor.”
Connor’s ideas for stories can come from anywhere, she says. Some snatch of conversation she’s overheard, something striking she’s read, or an item in the syndicated column “News of the Weird.” She says that perhaps the most important habit a writer can develop is to be open and alert to language and to the potential for a good story.
Connor does much of her writing when Ohio University is not in session and says that a particularly valuable haven has been the converted barn where she writes at her parents’ house in Vermont.
“It’s the best art colony ever. I work at a desk in front of a window where a hummingbird comes calling. The window looks toward my father’s study window, which has inspired me,” she says, adding that her father is a scholar in the field of ethnonationalism. “I think of Vermont as home—the beautiful mountains, the quiet. I have written most of my work there.”
Connor tends to work in big blocks of time, setting herself a lower limit of four pages a day when she’s working on short fiction. When she’s in this “compulsive mode,” as she puts it, she can write up to 30 pages in one sitting.
Although she has also written several novels, she has tucked them away in a closet, preferring the genre of short fiction.
“I choose to be a story writer instead of a novelist because I’m basically an impatient person,” Connor says. “I like stories because they are little worlds you can go into and get out of quickly.”
When Ohio University is in session, Connor has much less time for her own writing. She teaches writing courses in fiction and composition, and literature courses that range from Evil in Literature to The Erotics of Literature. “I especially love working with grad students,” Connor says. “They are often dealing with the same challenges in writing and in understanding literature that I am. I learn from them.”
But back to How to Stop Loving Someone. Which story is her favorite?
“Oh dear. They are all my favorites and for very disparate reasons,” she says. “‘Men in Brown’ was the most fun to write. I laughed out loud as I wrote it. But ‘Halfbaby’ also touched me—it arrived like a haunting and wouldn’t let me go.”
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine.