Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Laura Furman

Laura Furman is series editor of The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. The 2010 edition will be published in May 2010. Her new collection of stories, The Mother Who Stayed, will be published in February 2011 by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. She is Susan Taylor McDaniels Regents Professor of Creative Writing in the English Department, University of Texas at Austin.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
This spring semester, I'm teaching at the Sorbonne, Paris 3, and my students and I are reading "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James. Though I very much like the long-story form, I hadn't read "The Turn of the Screw" for a long time and remembered it vaguely. It was a pleasure to read and fun to try to figure out its twists and turns.

James differentiated between a short story and a tale--a work too long to be a story and too short to be a novel--and one of the rich things about "The Turn of the Screw" is its form: It's the written testimony of the nameless governess who, when she was very young, was in charge of two beautiful orphans and failed them in almost every way possible. The manuscript has come to Douglas, now middle-aged, possibly in love with the governess in his youth. He, in turn, is introduced to the reader by a narrator who sets the scene for the reading of the governess's testimony, and who gives the reader the necessary background for us to understand the governess's motivations and character. The framing devices of the custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas and the setting of an isolated country house in winter, are a sharp contrast to the real creepiness and hysteria of the main story.

It's a complicated, twisted story, though nothing much happens outside of the imagination of the young governess. The reader's question is whether or not to believe her visions of ghosts and evil. "The Turn of the Screw" is a monument to ambiguity and possibility. One has the sensation of being haunted oneself, by the tale and by its masterful author.
© Laura Furman. All rights reserved.
Learn more about Laura Furman and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

--Marshal Zeringue