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An author who paints on a smaller canvas

Twenty years after the publication of her first collection of short stories (``Stop Here, My Friend''), Merrill Joan Gerber's second collection of stories, ``Honeymoon,'' has just been published by the University of Illinois Press as part of its ambitious and interesting ``Illinois Short Fiction'' series. This 10-year-old program regularly features the work of four different American writers each year, providing a valuable outlet for good short fiction. In the years between these two collections, Ms. Gerber wrote over 50 stories, published in magazines from The New Yorker to McCall's, from Redbook to The Atlantic, from the Ladies' Home Journal to the Virginia Quarterly Review. She is also the author of three novels, ``An Antique Man'' (1967), ``Now Molly Knows'' (1974), and ``The Lady With the Moving Parts'' (1978), as well as four novels for young adults.

In view of the fact that her previous books had been published by commercial publishers, I asked her how ``Honeymoon'' had come to be published by a university press. She told me how one of her stories, ``At the Fence,'' appeared in the Sewanee Review, where it won the Andrew Lytle Fiction Prize as the magazine's best story of 1985 and where it also caught the eye of the editors of the University of Illinois Press. Always on the lookout for fresh talent, they approached her to find out if she had enough stories for a collection. Indeed she did. Eight more stories were chosen for this collection, one of which, ``I Don't Believe This,'' first published in the Atlantic Monthly, has been selected for inclusion in ``Prize Stories: O. Henry Awards 1986.''

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``I've always used the O. Henry collection to teach in my class,'' says Gerber, who teaches creative writing at Pasadena City College.

Many of her stories have appeared in women's magazines. Gerber recalls a review of her first novel in Time, which dismissed the book with the phrase ``Gerber, who writes for the woman's magazine. . . .''

Gerber readily concedes that her subject matter is largely domestic. ``A smaller canvas,'' she calls it, ``but if you explore it fully enough, it's also a cosmos in itself.'' She writes about family affairs: parents, children, birth, death, love, marriage, in-laws, divorce, neighbors, and aging relatives. Her humorous, often poignant brand of unvarnished, unobtrusively artistic realism is part of an enduring tradition in American literature.

Asked which short-story writers she most admires, Gerber says she thinks she's been influenced by Katherine Anne Porter and Flannery O'Connor. How specifically? ``Writing a story from a limited viewpoint,'' says Gerber, who has indeed produced a number of wonderfully ironic tours-de-force in this collection, from the title story, seen from the viewpoint of a vapid young woman who's just married a man she gradually realizes she doesn't truly know, to ``Someone Should Know This Story,'' told from th e vantage point of a 14-year-old girl on a visit to a family very different from her own. ``And I also learned to value writing that was spare, noneffusive. I don't go in for verbal acrobatics.''

Acknowledging the influence of these two Southern writers, Gerber, whose family moved to Miami Beach when she was a teen-ager, still considers her first home in Brooklyn the ``cauldron'' of her vocation. She began writing at the age of seven or eight: ``My aunt had a beauty shop. I used to listen to all the stories the women told. I wanted to write down everything that happened and everything I thought. I didn't think the people around me would understand what I was writing, but I felt that somewhere th ere were people who would understand.''

The kind of family life she portrays in her fiction surrounded her from the start, with an unintentional forcing-house effect. Living in Brooklyn with her parents, grandmother, and aunt, she felt ``crowded.'' Writing was a way of creating a place for herself. Years later, when she was raising her own children, writing again provided a space for reflection.

After graduating from the University of Florida, Gerber and her husband attended graduate school at Brandeis. At one point, Gerber was told by an eminent professor she was ``only a woman and only a writer, and therefore not advised to pursue an advanced degree. There were men, after all, who needed those grants!'' (In the groves of academe during the early '60s, it seems, writers and women were equally suspect.) When she was offered a writing fellowship at Stanford University, however, her husband, who had just been offered a job at Boston University, told her, ``This is your chance.'' While she was a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford in 1962-63, her husband took care of their new baby and built a harpsichord. Their house now contains a music room with several such instruments.

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Having lived in California since then, Gerber has set many stories there. Yet she does not consider herself a ``California'' writer. ``I don't write about typically `California' topics -- Malibu or the drug scene or Hollywood wives. And I feel that the emotions and experiences that are the impetus of my work still come from things that happened to me back East in Brooklyn or Miami Beach. I'm sort of an expatriate.''

When a writer draws so closely on her own experiences and on the characters and experiences of people she knows, does she ever feel constrained or inhibited in doing this? Gerber responded thoughtfully: ``You write about yourself, about your own experience. I knew that either I would write about my experiences and use the one talent I had or I would have to sacrifice that one talent.''

Anyone who has read Gerber's stories or novels will be grateful that she did not sacrifice that one talent.

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