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Night Writer

Talking with author Daniel Stolar.

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No one ever gets tired of the classic American themes of class, race and immigration, especially not in a book as good as Dan Stolar's debut collection, The Middle of the Night.

The eight stories in this book span a lot of territory--from a man losing his girlfriend's dog to a white kid rushing a black fraternity. Stolar tackles each with a low-key, even tone, always alive to the subtle and not-so-subtle lines that money, breeding and illness etch between people. In stories like Jack Landers Is My Friend (a boozy reunion among wealthy high school cronies) and Crossing Over (a white boy tries to fit in with his fellow pledges at a black fraternity), Stolar shows a knack for nailing the little narrative flourishes that define his characters' sense of themselves.

Of his liberal, NPR-listening, New Yorker-reading characters, he states: "It goes without saying that we would rather have our children turn out gay than Republican." Stolar goes out of his way to make his characters seem familiar--ordinary, even--but the circumstances they face are not. Most are wrestling with illness, pain, separation and death. These are serious stories, but they have a focused intelligence and a robust eroticism that keeps them from being heavy.

Though Stolar, 35, lives and teaches in Tucson, the city of St. Louis runs through all these stories like another character--its lawns and basketball courts, the inner city and the suburbs. I spoke to Dan about his new book.

The title story for your collection came out in Bomb last month, but it's not included in the collection. Why?

It's in a totally different style than the rest of the book. It starts with the line: "My mother died in the middle of the night," and every paragraph repeats that line. Unlike the other stories in the book, it's really headlong and in your face. It's also fairly true to life; my editor thought the other stories would be read in light of that. I resisted taking it out at first, but now I think it was a good choice. We kept the title because it just seemed to fit. There's a point in each story where somebody is awake in the middle of the night; I'm always awake at some point in the middle of the night, and I kind of like that time.

Your bio says you went to Harvard, then the Yale School of Medicine for two years, then earned an MFA from the UA. I've never heard of Yale Medical School. Did you make this up?

No, that's true. They have a medical school, yeah, Big-time. A big hospital.

OK, then why did you give up medicine for writing?

A better question is, "How did I stay in medicine that long?" I remember the first day of school when everybody got their stethoscopes. They were all excited, and I was like, man, what geeks. I fell asleep in class all the time. At Yale, people would go to bars after class and talk about medicine, and I thought they were just such a bunch of losers. Then I came to the UA, and I'd go out after class and want to talk about stories, and people would say, "Can we stop talking about this?"

You're a fairly young man, but many of your stories are told from the point of view of characters in their 40s and 50s. It reminds me of what Nick Hornsby once wrote about Steely Dan: They believed middle-age was wasted on the middle-aged. Why did you make this choice?

I think I found it hard to make characters my own age feel sympathetic. Somehow, if they were older, I could make my characters do bad things and mess up and still be sympathetic. Also, there's something about regret that's fascinating to me.

Do characters have to be sympathetic?

Well, not necessarily, but I feel like I'm not a good enough writer to get away with unsympathetic characters.

One of the things that impressed me about these stories is their sensitivity to the nuances of class. The first and last stories paint a sharp, painful picture of what it's like to be one step outside of an exclusive group. I've noticed that such class distinctions are less pronounced in Tucson than back East. After living here for a while, do you still feel the evil, seductive pull of the inside group?

That's one of the things I like about Tucson. I don't really know what it's like up in the foothills, but in the Tucson that I know, the class boundaries are a lot hazier. Tucson seems a lot less preoccupied by those things than places on the East Coast. St. Louis is like that, too--it has an old-world, country-club aspect to it.

As for being on the outside, I'm fascinated by the idea of being in a group vs. not being in a group. In some ways, that's the writer's position: being there and being outside at once. In a group, almost all groups, the position I go for is on the edge; I want to be invited but I don't always want to say yes.

Your title is strikingly similar to one of Billy Joel's final radio hits, "In the Middle of the Night." Some have theorized that you're part of a vast, powerful cult dedicated to Joel. Comments?

You either know or you don't know.

What are your plans now that you're a famous writer?

I'm going to pay all my friends' student loans. I'm going to start with my wife's. And then, I'm going to go back to grading composition papers for the University of Arizona.

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