by Martha Anne Toll
Sari Rosenblatt’s recently published short story collection, Father Guards the Sheep, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Rosenblatt teaches fiction writing at the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven. In her debut book, Rosenblatt draws on themes from her Jewish upbringing in Naugatuck, Connecticut, where her parents owned a clothing store. I found myself laughing through much of the book at the intense, neurotic relationships among family members. Like many humorists, Rosenblatt sows poignancy and truth underneath the comedy. She treats her characters with tenderness and imbues them with humanity. Whether it’s the twelve-year-old helping out as a salesgirl in her father’s store, cowering before a large lady who wants (God forbid!) to try on bras; or a young woman on her own for the first time trying to hide her near rape from her parents, Rosenblatt’s characters are real and compelling.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Sari Rosenblatt by email.
Martha Anne Toll: There is so much laugh-out-loud humor in your stories. Where does that well of humor come from?
Sari Rosenblatt: My father was a punster, a funny guy whose sensibility was formed, I often think, from the comics of the sixties: Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman. He was raised by a tough father and an unloving aunt, and humor became his life raft. He didn’t tell jokes; I don’t remember one joke he ever told. But he could be silly funny, silly under his breath. My brothers, likewise, are fantastic quipsters, tellers of funny life events. They see what’s comic in the day-to-day. So, all this has been passed down to me.
For me, humor is a way to connect with people in a casual, human way without pretense. I’m not a comic; I just like making funny things into art — and for me that’s writing.
MAT: Many of the short stories in your collection are linked to other ones. We see Schmurr’s clothing store, and Ellen Schmurr appears in more than one story. Can you talk about that?
SR: Yes, the first and last stories in the collection are linked, essentially bookends. In the opening story, “Daughter of Retail,” we see Ellen at age twelve, in the last story, “As in Life,” we see her when she is older, with children, facing a difficult marriage and also a dying father. “Daughter of Retail” was based on my father’s store — a mom and pop clothing store which for years served the customers of Naugatuck, Connecticut. Rosenblatt’s Department Store was an extension of our family home. Its walls and shelves were painted the same color aqua as our fifties aqua ranch house. My mother would chastise customers as if they were her children: “I’m sure you didn’t mean to make a mess in the dressing room.”
I always wanted to get Rosenblatt’s into my stories, and “Daughter of Retail” was my way in. But I wanted to continue writing about that world, as my father was, in fact, dying, and I needed an artful way to process that. The story “As in Life” was my way into that material. It was also a way to memorialize a life event while trying to balance sad and comic elements. If there is no humor in a story, I can’t bear to write it.
MAT: How did you decide to order the stories in this collection?
SR: This is a great question because the order of the stories is an endeavor unto itself!
At first, I compiled the stories in the order they were originally published, and the title of the collection was “As in Life.” But the collection didn’t seem balanced to me. Then I wrote the story “Father Guards the Sheep,” added it to the collection, and had the thought that all the stories were unified in their dealings with fathers and children.
In the process of ordering the stories, it also gently smacked me in the face that two other stories — “Sweethearts” and “Communion” — were linked, although originally they were published with different character names. So, I placed those two stories next to each other. The collection ends with Ellen Schmurr saying good-bye to her father and remembering how, when she was young and worked at his store, he would include her in one of his routines:
“That’s my baby,” he announced to his customers. “At’s my baby. Asthma baby.” Then he’d sing loudly, “Yessir, asthma baby. No sir, I don’t mean maybe. Yes sir, asthma baby now.”
It was our song.
To me, the last paragraph blanketed the entire collection, brought it together with the father’s comic rendition of a 1920’s song.
MAT: Your work focuses on life in relatively small-town Connecticut. Can you talk more about that?
SR: My writing teacher at Iowa, the late James Alan McPherson, used to tell me that my father’s store and my hometown of Naugatuck, Connecticut, were my “writing capital.” I took that two ways: Naugatuck was the wealth of accumulated assets from where I could stage my stories. It was also the capital of my personal universe. I took his advice, although Naugatuck and our family store (still open; run now by my brother and his wife) will, for me, always be frozen in its industrial heyday of the fifties and sixties where UniRoyal — the makers of Keds and Naugahyde — ruled the kingdom and employed much of the town.
MAT: You teach fiction writing. How does one do that?
SR: I do that by giving out lots of hard candy. Usually Caramel Nips. I’ve given out candy to my gifted high school students and also adults in various writing workshops. No one turns down candy. And, as someone’s Jewish grandmother might say, candy sweetens the experience of reading and writing. It also dispels tension in the room; helps the students lighten up.
And, okay, I do have to mention reading and writing! I teach by offering models of short stories that I will often read out loud so that students can hear the musical rhythms, and also, in some osmotic way, hear and internalize the structure of the story. I talk about craft and we work with elements of craft. I stress the importance of revising; how a first draft is often a sketch, and that each successive draft fills out and reveals the underpinnings of a story.
MAT: What have you learned from your students?
SR: It’s always a pleasure to be in the company of people who want to write. It’s a shared passion, and it’s nice to compare notes, be open to possibilities. I’ve learned that, for me, it’s vital to be with other writers — students and published authors. And since I’m in a writers group myself, I keep learning from my students to be open to the comments of others, to not be defensive about your work, but still to remain true to your own voice and vision.
MAT: Can you tell us why the short story appeals to you? Do you ever write in other genres?
SR: I like the brevity, the compactness where I can make every word contribute to the whole. I like sculpting a story, working its individual prose rhythms. I’ve written a novel and am still fussing with it. But in a short story, I can control all the elements without the characters running away with the spoon.
MAT: Can you talk about your trajectory of becoming a writer?
SR: Imagine a paper airplane lifting off from a windless football field.
I majored in behavioral studies as an undergraduate and for years held a long string of jobs: psychiatric aide, research assistant, writing teacher; arson research job for the city of New Haven. Some of those jobs turned up in my stories. For example, in the title story of the collection, “Father Guards the Sheep,” the narrator looks for footing in her life as she takes a job predicting arson.
As I was working my various jobs, I was writing stories which I submitted as my application to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. To my astonishment, I was accepted. From New Haven, I moved to Iowa City for two years to get my MFA. I wrote my first published story, “Miss McCook,” while at Iowa, and this too is loosely based on my experience teaching writing to children in an arts magnet inner-city school.
But after Iowa, I had to work full-time to support myself, and it wasn’t until I was married, with children, a house, elderly parents, that I set out to write again. I was thirty-six and just then trying to publish. I did have some success placing stories in journals and winning awards. Then I took ten years away from writing short stories to work on a novel — an extension of the short story, “Daughter of Retail.” I put the short stories off to the side — except for the stories “As in Life” and “Father Guards the Sheep.” (I’m embarrassed to tell you how long it takes me to write a story; how many revisions I do; how much paring away and sculpting I do.) The novel is still in progress, but finally I compiled my stories into a collection and after three tries (!), I won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. This has been a huge honor.
I’m all about the novel now.
Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, Three Muses, is forthcoming in 2022 from Regal House Publishing. Her books reviews, essays, and short fiction can be found at NPR Books, Washington Post, The Millions, and elsewhere.