LaFarge Publishes Short Story in Harper’s
Visiting English Professor and writer Paul LaFarge was recently published in Harper’s magazine. His story, a hybrid history entitled “The History of The History of Death,” introduces a fictional book, “The History of Death,” which kills off any scholar who dares to write about the work.
Argus: Could you explain the title, “The History of The History of Death?”
Paul LaFarge: Well, the title of the deadly book is “The History of Death,” so called because it is—supposedly—about things, which have ceased to change. And the story is the “History of The History of Death” because it’s about the history of that supposed book.
A: What ultimately set you out on your quest to find answers about the history of death?
PL: This is a work of fiction. “The History of Death” is something that I invented for the purpose of the story. The way I came to it was that I wrote the story for a magazine called Conjunctions. The editor called me with the theme of the issue—hybrid history.
A: What is a hybrid history?
PL: It’s when you use history for fictional purposes. I mixed fiction with historical events. The other thing that was on my mind was doubt about the future of reading and whether people are still reading. I thought I would write this story about a book that kills off its readers.
A: How does this piece fit in with the theme of hybrid history?
PL: I guess it’s a hybrid history in that it makes use of a lot of historical facts and figures, although it organizes them around a book, “The History of Death”, which never existed, and would probably not have had the power to kill off its readers, even if it had existed. It’s also a hybrid, formally speaking: the first part of the story is in the form of an academic talk; the second part is a personal narrative.
A: Are any characters in the story real? Have you met any of them?
PL: Some of them are fictional and some of them are non-fictional. Some of them may still be alive. I’ve never met any of them, though.
A: You end with “I love you, Peter; I love you all. Don’t forget me.” What does this mean?
PL: The narrator puts himself in a dangerous position with the speech that he’s just given. He has acknowledged that anyone who writes commits an act of scholarship against this work [The History of Death] will meet an unpleasant end. The narrator has just committed such an act, and he is anticipating his own fate.
A: What brought you to Wesleyan?
PL: Many years ago, Anne Greene let me know that Wesleyan was looking for a visiting writer. I was living in San Francisco and looking to come back to the east coast. So I’ve done this on and off since spring 2002.
A: How does your approach to creative writing reflect itself in your teaching?
PL: I find both activities—writing, and teaching writing—very difficult, possibly because I don’t believe that either activity has a set of inflexible rules. Each story is its own new problem; sometimes that makes writing and teaching perplexing, but it does encourage me, as a writer and as a teacher, to pay close attention to how things are said, in the greatest possible detail.
A: You mentioned having doubt about the future of reading. In your time at Wesleyan have you seen changes within the English department or the students you teach in regards to reading and the direction it is headed in?
PL: Not really. Wesleyan is still full of people who read. Although it’s possible that in two or three years we’ll all be reading on our all of our iPads…
A: What are you currently reading?
PL: Montaigne’s Essays. They’re the original hybrid histories: each one is a mixture of anecdote and philosophy and personal narrative and scholarship. They’re absolutely beautiful, and 100 percent non-lethal.