In an event featuring her newest book, the short story collection Bread and Salt, Valerie Miner shared both her work and her thoughts on process, form, the power of characters, and the idea of salvage in a lively question-and-answer session following the reading of two stories. The event was part of the Clayman Institute’s Artist’s Salon series, which shows how the arts contribute to the larger mission of gender equality and research.
Miner, who is also the Clayman Institute’s artist-in-residence, began with a reading of “Escape Artist,” a story about a woman professor who is wrapping up her work day at the office when she receives an unexpected visit from a young man who conjures unsettling thoughts of her past and present. Another story, “Quiet as the Moon,” weaves together grief, the passing of seasons in a quiet Northern California town, hints of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, and an unexpected experience with the supernatural world.
The latter idea she approached “almost belligerently,” she said, as it was a departure from her usual themes. “I do not write fanciful stories,” she said, but developed this one with help from her writer’s group as she followed the evolution of her main character, Margaret. Asked later if she were in control of her characters as a writer, Miner responded, “Absolutely not. They tell the story.”
“I invite a range of people into my stories.” Among the 15 stories and one novella in Bread and Salt, Miner’s characters range from postal workers to museum experts, from groups of friends to longtime romantic partners, and take place in Tunisia, Paris, Italy, and India as well as the U.S.
She noted that her working title for the collection was Salvage. Whether in the context of the physical environment or in relationships, she said, her aim was to portray “narratives that achieve reconciliation with the self and others.” One attendee remarked on the heterogeneity of her characters, a comment for which she thanked him. “I invite a range of people into my stories.” Among the 15 stories and one novella in Bread and Salt, Miner’s characters range from postal workers to museum experts, from groups of friends to longtime romantic partners, and take place in Tunisia, Paris, Italy, and India as well as the U.S. Miner remarked that as a reader, she is especially interested in international fiction: “I think Americans don’t read enough of it.”
Asked about whether she writes to portray characters of a certain age or stage of life, Miner said she now feels she can write about older characters, but remains interested in children and characters of other ages. She acknowledged: “We all know there’s a lot of ageism, and I find myself subject to that, so I write about older characters.” While there can be a bias against representing older people, Miner said, because of their experiences and perspectives “anyone with sense should write about old people.” She said a new project focuses on a woman in her seventies and some of her challenges.
Bread and Salt is Miner’s 15th book and fifth collection of short stories. “The short story is my favorite literary form,” she said. She likens writing a short story to choreography – moving with the flow of the music, and responding to intuition. In contrast, a novel is more like architecture, where the writer must plan how each room opens into the next. “In my worst nightmares,” she said, “it’s never going to end.”
The title of the collection comes from the ending piece in the book, a novella which took Miner about 12 years to write. She recalled that while teaching in Tunisia, she had dinner with someone who said, “We will never be enemies because we have shared bread and salt,” a traditional phrase that she also used between characters in the novella. She noted the role of bread and salt in representing hospitality in other countries, including Russia and her mother’s native Scotland. The image was fitting for an evening in which more than 100 attendees shared Miner’s stories, their own ideas and questions about writing, their memories as students and colleagues, as well as the impressions of guests and new readers of her work.