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Conversation: Author Charles Baxter

Writer Charles Baxter’s characters often seem ordinary until a chance encounter, persistent nagging or tilt in their world order pushes them to make feverish decisions.

Charles Baxter“I’m interested in a certain personality type who fits the short story very well,” says Baxter. “Characters who tend to be impulsive fit very well in short stories. You don’t have to tell the reader very much about their past, you don’t have to tell them about their future. You just get them on the stage of your story and you get them to start acting.”

Gryphon, released last month, includes both new and selected stories, representing a 30-year span of Baxter’s work. (The title story also lent its title to an earlier collection of Baxter’s stories from 1985.)

“I thought a lot about whether I should revise the stories and rewrite them to get some of the current anachronisms out,” Baxter says. “But I thought, for the most part, no, I just need to leave these stories as they were.

“There are a group of new stories which, it seemed to me, in some interesting way, conversed with the older stories. I’m at a point in my writing life where I thought it would be interesting to gather together thirty years’ work of stories and to see what kind of a collection they made up.”

Uneasy — and sometimes mystical — currents move under the events of the book. In the title story, a substitute teacher fails to correct an elementary student on his multiplication tables, telling the class that her short tenure will permit substitute facts. Later, she predicts the death of one of the students when she pulls out her tarot cards to read their fortunes. In the story “Winter Journey,” a young man drives drunkenly in a blizzard to pick up the fiancee who will leave him, comforted by a belief in guardian angels.

Baxter’s writing life boasts an impressive body of work: six story collections and three volumes of poetry, among other publications. His novel The Feast of Love was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2000. He has also had a long teaching career, working at an elementary school in rural Michigan, teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit, directing the Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Michigan and now teaching at the University of Minnesota and the Warren Wilson College MFA Program.

Art Beat talked to Charles Baxter by phone last week:

(A transcript will be added soon.)

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