Baxter: Beats me. There usually has to be some writer in the culture who’s writing stories that get people so excited they want to write them, too. For me, it was Raymond Carver, and to an extent Grace Paley. Then it was Lorrie Moore. A lot of women want to write stories like that. I don’t know whether some of you feel that way about George Saunders–quite a few people have gone nuts over those stories. There are great young short story writers like Aimee Bender, Eric Puchner, George Saunders and Edward P. Jones. Poe would say the most powerful literary work would be poems or short stories because you can take them in during one sitting and they’ll have a cumulative effect. I wrote The Soul Thief so that you could read it in one afternoon and evening. Ideally, that’s how short stories work. When a short story really works, it changes your life, and it has that same effect because it hasn’t taken you a month and a half to read. I would think, in a culture in which we’re distracted all the time, people would want to go back to stories. I love that form. You can learn more about writing from short stories than you can by writing novels. If you make a mistake in a novel, you can go on to write another seven hundred pages before you’ve realized what your mistake was. The novel is a very forgiving form. I spent years of my life writing bad novels that were never published because I didn’t realize the mistakes I was making. I only really figured out how to do it by writing stories.
Interviewer: What were the mistakes?
Baxter: I thought it was enough to write great sentences and that I didn’t have to know how people actually behaved. I had those implausible characters. It was a kind of hallucinatory, bogus world. I was trying to impress people. I was thinking too much about the audience. I was gripped by a form of literary bad faith. You need to practice humility; I hadn’t achieved that. These novels were directed, absolutely, by these themes I wanted to prove about people. All the characters looked like puppets. It’s common among young writers to want to impress their readers. It’s a result of watching too much TV and too many movies where the filmmakers assume that you have a short attention span, so they keep setting Chevrolets on fire. That’s rhetoric. That’s not art.