Stanford professor explores transformative relationships in new story collection

Stanford English Professor Elizabeth Tallent addresses how relationships shape our identity in her latest collection of short stories.

Deirdre Lamb Professor Elizabeth Tallent

In her fiction and in the classroom, Stanford English Professor Elizabeth Tallent is interested in how relationships cause transformation.

In her fiction and in the classroom, Stanford English Professor Elizabeth Tallent is interested in how our relationships change who we are.

Tallent dissects many kinds of relationships in her new short story collection Mendocino Fire – those between parent and child, student and teacher, an individual and her passion.

Speaking about one of the stories in which she explores the "disinterested love" of a teacher for her students, Tallent said she identified discomfort as the telltale sign that she has found the right idea for a story.

"Since I started to feel worried as soon as I wanted to write about it, it seemed like it was promising," she said. "Those red flags go up, like 'Oh, this is making me anxious, or I sort of wish I wasn't saying this, or I feel some shame about this' – those feelings that are hard to tolerate can tell you that you're getting into meaningful material, likely to have some edge of transgression that's good for fiction."

Tallent's short stories have been published in magazines such as The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper's Magazine and The Threepenny Review over the years, but Mendocino Fire is her first collection to come out in more than 20 years.

Tallent drew inspiration from a variety of sources, from the community in Mendocino County where she lives to the world of academia. Her interest in idiosyncratic lives comes through in the diverse set of characters, including fishermen, environmental activists, an immigrant artist, scholars and writers.

The collection is loosely centered around "a concern with transformation, especially unwilling transformation," Tallent said, but she did not write them with an explicit theme in mind.

Previously published stories in this collection have already earned accolades for Tallent. The 2008 story "Tabriz" is about an environmental activist who discovers that his new wife is a Republican; it won a Pushcart Prize. In 2011, "Never Come Back," which explores the complex dynamics of a struggling family in Mendocino, was awarded a PEN/O. Henry Prize. "The Wilderness," about the experience of teaching, was chosen for The Best American Short Stories 2013.

Tallent, who has been teaching in the Stanford Creative Writing Program since 1994, has received several teaching awards, including Stanford's Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize, the Northern California Association of Phi Beta Kappa's Teaching Excellence Award and Stanford's Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching.

In addition to her new story collection, Tallent's memoir Perfectionism is forthcoming from Harper.

Tallent spoke with Stanford News Service about her latest work and teaching.

Can you describe what your writing process was like for Mendocino Fire?

It's very slow. I'm such a slow writer. Maybe one thing that's gained through slowness is that the things I'm writing about are things I find completely compelling. If something can't hold me, if it can't keep me coming back, I just don't finish that piece. There's a kind of commitment from me that I hope translates into the commitment the stories show. I'm someone who has to contend with perfectionism, so I live with each story a long time, and that quality of being lived with, lived in, shows in the stories, I hope.

How do your personal experiences influence your fiction?

In fiction, even if you're working with material that comes from one of your experiences, you're allowed to change it. You can take a real experience and make it harder for the character to deal with, or more urgent, or more ironic. What I'm often trying to do is to make the characters' situations harder in some way, more painful. I believe all fiction is grounded in the writer's emotional life, and thus embodies the writer's reality, but often obliquely or in coded form. The writer was aware of those emotions, was familiar with those emotions, so the reader knows a lot about the writer, even though the facts of the writer's actual biographical existence are often very different from those in the story she's written.

One of the stories that seems to link most directly to your experience at Stanford is "The Wilderness," which describes a university professor reflecting on her teaching experiences and her students. What motivated you to write that story?

It struck me that I hadn't read anything that was about certain complexities in teaching, about its day-by-day dilemmas and rewards. What you're trying to do when you're teaching, the hope that you are able to connect, the ambition to be generous – those positive ambitions about teaching, there was a sort of silence about that in literature. And I liked that feeling, that there was something that hadn't been addressed or hadn't figured much in fiction before. I've always liked and admired teachers, and it seemed like there was a plot there, about embarking on some kind of attempt to transform. And it goes both ways; the teacher is transformed by the students as well.

In your teaching, what is the most important thing you want students to take away from a course?

There is a short story survey course that I teach every spring, and I just love teaching that class. It gets a lot of students from all disciplines on campus. Last spring, there was something like 35 engineering students in the class. It just feels very lucky to me to have that diversity of students in the room, to have an engineering student and an English major talk with each other.

It matters to me that someone who might go on to be a doctor would have a chance to read Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilych" and to live, as the story compels you to, through the experience of the complete aloneness of facing your death. To go breath by breath with Ivan Ilych as he is forced to recognize that he's dying, that the relinquishment of his personal self causes him this extraordinary and believable grief. I want to think that that's going to matter to someone who goes on to deal with people experiencing their own mortality or that of someone they love – that the story will be transformative.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,