Author Q&A with Michele Slung

  • January 10, 2013

Karen DeWitt interviews Michele Slung, author of The Garden of Reading.

The Garden of Reading by Michele Slung, recently re-released in paperback, is the perfect holiday gift for gardeners, either the kind who garden or those who fantasize about it. Everything won’t be sunflowers and soil, though, not with 24 stories by the likes of Stephen King, Garrison Keillor, Saki, Doris Lessing and Colette. Be prepared for murder, mayhem and philandering as well as the touching, the sensuous and sentimental.

Slung is an editor and reviewer whose books include the national bestsellers Momilies: As My Mother Used to Say and More Momilies as well as anthology collections of female sleuths from the Victoria era to the 1940s, eerie encounters, erotica and the lives of real-life women adventurers. She lives in Ulster County, New York.

Q&A with Michele Slung

It’s the obvious question, but what made you think of doing a collection of short stories with gardens and gardening as its theme?

All my anthologies have had their origins in an initially serendipitous, and then quite intentional, coming together. What this means is that since I’m a confirmed list maker, I often start keeping names of stories I’ve read that would well suit a particular theme. Once there’s a tidy little clutch of them, I go out hunting for others that won’t simply fit but will expand — interestingly, I hope — on the idea. The two stories that first

spurred me to start work on The Garden of Reading were Robert Graves’s “Earth to Earth” and V.S. Pritchett’s “The Fig Tree.” (I don’t want to give anything away, but one’s about methods of improving your compost and the other features adultery in a suburban nursery.)

It strikes me that putting together an anthology is a lot like planting a garden — you want to find and arrange stories that will “grow” well together.

Funny you should say that. As I point out in the introduction, the origin of the word “anthology” relates to gardens. It comes from the Greek “anthologia,” or “garland,” which itself has its roots in words meaning “to flower” and “to gather.”

Certainly, there’s much about the idea of gardens, gardeners and gardening that lends itself to metaphor. Do you think that’s what happening in a lot of these tales you’ve selected?

Well, I think I’d have to say that while you’re right, of course, sometimes a garden is just a garden. For example, in the comic “A Garden Plot” by English writer W.W. Jacobs (best known for his classic, “The Monkey’s Paw”) what we encounter is small-town rivalry, pure and simple. But in Eudora Welty’s “A Curtain of Green,” to name just one, we see beneath the action to other, deeper layers of meaning.

How did Stephen King ever happen to wind up in here?

I think he’s an amazingly talented writer, with an extremely sly wit. When you put together a collection such as this, what you’re always looking for is a change of pace, a story with genuine surprise value, one that rocks the boat a bit. “The Lawnmower Man” — which King fans will know, undoubtedly, but perhaps not other readers — isn’t about gardens, per se, but it’s about grass. And that was good enough for me.

Are there stories in here you’re particularly pleased with having found, and did you read and discard many along the way to the finished book?

I guess I always have a spot for the anomalies, those wild card stories, like the King. So I’m very glad to have “The Garden of Time” by the great J. G. Ballard, best known to the general public for his fictionalized memoir, Empire of the Sun (that was filmed in the ’80s by Spielberg) but by science fiction and fantasy aficionados for his frequently disturbing dystopian fiction. I love the fact that Anthony Burgess once called “The Garden of Time” “one of the most beautiful stories of the world canon of short fiction.” And yes, along the way, one always discards dozens and dozens of possibilities that in the end don’t work.

Are there any others that count as favorites?

I’m a pretty big fan of James Thurber, so having him represented here is a delight to me. (His story is called “See No Weevil.”) And I like the “Kind Hearts and Coronets” aspect of “The Lady Gardener” by Lisa St. Aubin de Terán. The first story in the book — which is always a mark of favor in an anthology, or at least in one of mine — is by David Guterson (best known for his novel Snow Falling on Cedars), and I believe it uses memorably the idea of gardens as they link to personal history. But with writers as diverse as Garrison Keillor, Sandra Cisneros, Jane Smiley and Barbara Pym, among many others, there’s a lot here to choose from — and they wouldn’t be here in the first place if I hadn’t liked them a great deal.

Your former colleague at the Washington Post “Book World,” Michael Dirda, once wrote of you that “few people can have read so variously and voraciously in the world’s popular literature.” What did you think when you saw that?

Coming from Michael, himself a Pulitzer-winning book critic, it was a wonderful tribute, of course.

Are you working on a new anthology now?

I’ve had some ideas, I confess, but I’ve really been spending my time these days editing the manuscripts of other writers, including a number of mystery authors, an occupation I’ve been involved in on and off since the ’70s. My last actual collection was A Treasury of Old-Fashioned Christmas Stories, which came out six years ago and on which I spent two weeks of 10-hour days at the Library of Congress — or, at least, every moment they’d let me be in there — trying to unearth new-old tales in what seems like a too-familiar sub-genre, the Yuletide tale.

However, it was a true thrill to learn The Garden of Reading was coming out this year in a handsome new paperback edition. It’s brought all my pleasure in it off the shelf and back into my life!

Karen DeWitt was a journalist for many years and for the last decade has been a senior communications professional for nonprofit organizations. DeWitt covered the White House and national politics for The New York Times; foreign affairs and the White House for USA TODAY; and was a senior producer for ABC’s Nightline.


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