Interior Design

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Interior Design: Stories (Scribner, 1996; Dzanc, 2014). Short stories from the collection originally appeared in Missouri Review, Fiction, The North American Review and Mid-American Review. The short story “Angel” was the winner of the 1992 William Peden Prize in Fiction, and was anthologized in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Tenth Annual Collection. Graham was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship for the story “Beauty Marks.” The story “Interior Design” was anthologized in Turning Life into Fiction, 2nd Edition, by Robin Hemley. You can read excerpts from “Interior Design” here and here.

Interior Design: Stories is now available (2014) as a Dzanc Books e-book, as part of their contemporary literature reprint series. This edition comes with a new cover, by the artist David Maisel, and an introduction by Roy Kesey.

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“Philip Graham’s characters exist in worlds parallel to our own. It is as if the most ordinary and intensely familiar objects, actions and relationships are evoked, but with their meanings and significance rearranged. These stories represent a tour de force of imagination.”
–Janet Burroway

“Philip Graham’s new collection, Interior Design, is lyrical and and complex and offers the reader the depth that a talented and opriginal writer acquires with maturity. It is dazzling and insightful, a collection well worth reading again and again.”
–Oscar Hijuelos

“Eight disturbing, elegant tales that plumb the obsessive powers of the imagination . . . Unique, somber terrain, precisely charted by a writer in absolute control of his material.”
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1996.

“Novelist and short story writer Graham fills his newest story collection with a sense of the power of imagination. One by one, his characters tap their own inventive powers to alter the troubling world around them . . . Quietly engrossing, Graham’s stories illustrate the ways our souls, craving meaning, instinctively make patterns out of experience–and that this process, whether heroic or neurotic, is not all that different from the work of an artist.”
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review), October 7, 1996.

“‘We actually turn ourselves inside out and find comfort in what we’ve imagined,’ one of the characters in the book’s title story says, and it’s that odd mixture of illusion and disillusion that makes Graham’s stories so compelling, that makes reading this collection a sad and utterly convincing encounter with one who can, like the magician pulling an endless string of knotted scarves from beneath his cuff, perform the fiction writer’s greatest feat–making us see through his eyes, compelling us to believe, without a doubt, in the world he has created.”   
–John Gregory Brown reviewing Interior Design for the Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1996.

“Graham’s prose is marked by truly masterly touches: exacting observations are rendered both forcefully in their import as well as refined and respectful in their tone. Intense, absorbing, graceful, and precise, these tales of our fin-de-siècle America announce that the most intense and powerful events are the ones we create ourselves. In an elegant and original manner Graham delimits the private blueprints of the unconscious–the delicate, unstable, and never certain boundary between the real and the imagined–to reveal that ‘the true beauty . . . was that past, present and future bled into each other.’”
–Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Review of Contemporary Fiction.

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You can listen to Philip Graham reading from an excerpt from the short story “Interior Design” here.

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Original Cover of the 1996 Edition (Scribner). Artist: Gerald Guthrie.

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Excerpt from the title story, “Interior Design”:

These days I just won’t get out of bed, so I lie here, idly kicking the sheets into strange patterns—a ripple of dunes, a mountain range—and I imagine I’m a peasant woman in Turkey, working alongside her husband, carving out a home from one of those cliffs of soft volcanic rock. I can see our faces and hands dusty and smeared with stone shavings and sweat, two strange creatures chipping away new rooms as we need them, and I wonder if we’ll agree on every odd turning we take in the rock, every little nook or window we each wish.

All my life I’ve longed for something like this with a gnawing eagerness: to live among the eighty percent of the world’s people who build their own homes. Unfortunately, I belong to that remaining, privileged minority: the suburbanites, who make themselves content in their cozy cubes with a narrow hall or a window’s unwanted view; and the apartment dwellers, who live in rooms silently echoing with the habits of former tenants. So as an interior designer I always saw myself as a medium, helping my clients discover the house they wanted to have in the house where they already lived. I wanted to be invisible, to interfere as little as possible with my clients’ desires, working within the constraints of their imaginations and the building code.

I asked, “Where would you really like to live?” and I listened to their idiosyncratic, secret dreams of home. Together we created an interior as familiar as the self, made the walls as comfortable as skin: I simply settled into someone else’s mind and gave it doors and windows. There was always an urgency to my work, because I believed there’s an ideal home inside each of us that slowly shrinks unless it’s found.

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Excerpt from the short story, “Another Planet”:

Finally I reached under the bed for my box of tennis balls.

Under the covers I held a flashlight between my chin and shoulder, and with a pen I drew on one of the balls. My pen sometimes catching on the fuzzy surface, I mapped out continents, river systems and mountain chains, creating a strange world I could hold in my hand. It looked like none of the planets on the mechanical model of the solar system that spun so wonderfully when my science teacher cranked it up, and on my planet there was only one town, only one house. Inside lived my family, and spaghetti was our favorite treat. We ate and joked noisily at the table, and we all asked for seconds. I allowed no bitter words to escape from anyone. After our meal was done and we cleared the table and washed the dishes together, I put the tennis ball away under the bed with all the other happy versions of my family. I was careful to rest it on an ocean, for I didn’t want to crush anyone. How optimistic I was, to think our troubles could be solved, and yet how pessimistic, to think they could only be solved on another planet.

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Excerpt from the short story “Angel”:

Bradley paused, struck by the fluidity of his strange thoughts and the booming sound of his amplified voice. He looked out at the audience, their faces pale disks in the dark. Were they waiting for a punch line? He had none, so he plunged on.

“And what about your personal angel? There’s one sitting right beside you now and yet somehow taking up no space at all. Since an angel has no substantial presence it can compress itself into the size of a synapse, can follow the extraordinarily swift and winding ways of a thought. But it must have some weight: imagine that this extra bit of almost nothing attaches to a memory or the beginning of a thought and subtly alters its forward motion, veering it, however slightly, to another neuron. Could our daily indecisions,” he continued, exhilarated, “be the contrast between what we truly want and where our concentrated knot of angel has taken us? Maybe we’re compositions, evolving works of art for angels, and they’re attracted to the elegant patterns they make of our fates.”

The audience was terribly quiet, but Bradley felt more words forming and he could hold nothing back. “It’s late. Maybe you’d like to leave, right now, and get away from all my idiotic words, but your angel swerves you away from such a thought. Your angel is vain. Trained by a life of eavesdropping, it can’t resist listening to such delicious talk. And maybe it’s anticipating the pleasure, when everyone applauds, of its transparent body fluttering in the small explosions of the surrounding air.”

Finally emptied, Bradley felt almost weightless, actually released from that burrowing presence, and this purging was pleasurable, a loss that was simultaneously gain.