Years ago the catchphrase “What Would Jesus Do?” became popular, abbreviated to WWJD, and I have to confess I was always a bit leery of this mantra as a guide for life, considering that Jesus, albeit an admirable fellow, came to the kind of untimely demise that we would all rather avoid. I think my attitude to the WWJD phenomenon was also colored by how the Christian conservatives in my neck of the woods (a Colorado mountain town) seem inordinately fond of firearms. There’s a Christian resort above my home on Hermit Mountain, and more often than not what you hear from that direction—instead of the lovely sound of choirs singing angelic hymns—is gunfire. A target range is one of their most popular “activities.” That’s caused me to wonder “What Would Jesus Shoot?”—a question that may be logical, but also sounds a bit blasphemous. I know the answer as to Who: no one.
But as I’ve been writing a novel for about three years (and which is almost complete, thank you very much), and as I spend most of my time writing novels now, I’m often lost in a reverie of “What would he/she do?” You come up with a situation that seems interesting—an autistic boy being held hostage by a substitute teacher, though he’s not really being held and he’s not really a hostage you have to read the book—set the plot in motion, then imagine what would really happen. That really is the kicker. What would really happen implies an epistemological attempt at Realism, about which I don’t give a fig. But then again, I don’t want to be phony, or to write phony fiction. This is one thing when you’re describing what a substitute teacher would offer her student to drink if he rode his bicycle over to her house (Dr. Pepper? lemonade? vodka?). It’s another thing when you mix in the substitute teacher’s disgruntled ex-husband, who still pines for her, but who is so misguided that he expresses this lost love by watching her windows from a perch in the trees behind her backyard.
With this guy, I sense the looming shadows of a violent climax and conclusion, and I resist it. Although I know that violence occurs all the time in the world, I don’t want to insert it just for drama’s sake. Recently the news has been dominated by the terrorist killings in Paris, and closer to home, a mass-shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs—a city I often visit, not far from here. These acts of violence may be “senseless” in a general way, but if you knew the tangled, misguided emotions (anger, resentment, fervent beliefs) of the perpetrators, I imagine you would be able to understand the mayhem. That’s part of what novelists do: tell a good story, hopefully an important one, and imply some understanding. While contemporary writers tend to be big on implication, some of the greats weren’t shy about that role of understanding: I’ve been rereading Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) lately, and when describing the importance of the Battle of Austerlitz, he just comes out and tells you. So there.
Still I admire those who can tell a complex story without making the meaning explicit. Cormac McCarthy excels at depictions of gruesome violence, mayhem that usually occurs in a world with a moral center, even as it questions this morality. There’s a famous quote about McCarthy’s vision of the West in Blood Meridian (1985) as being one of regeneration through violence. For my money, McCarthy gives us a vision of the horrible reality of the frontier West, with civilizations locked in battle, and you figure out what it means (perhaps not unlike our own times.)
That brings me back to the novel I’ve been writing, and whether to “go rogue” or not. Much as I admire McCarthy, I don’t want to paste a McCarthyesque ending onto my novel just because I like what he does. Part of originality is offering your own (hopefully captivating and interesting) vision of the world, and for my money, a Coen Brothers goofball is more pertinent to my imagination than McCarthy’s Judge Holden—or, the flip side of that coin, Jesus. As most movie buffs know, The Big Lebowski (1998) is a great tragicomic film, leaning heavily toward the comic. Yes, Steve Buscemi’s “Donny” does die of a heart attack while he and his bowling buddies are being attacked by nihilists in a parking lot, a scene that includes John Goodman’s “Walter” biting off one of their ears and spitting the bloody hunk into the air, but most of the film conforms to expectations of classic comedy: It presents a (somewhat manufactured) plot problem—Bunny Lebowski is sham-kidnapped—that is resolved happily (the frisky sex kitten Bunny returns to her mansion home, and exits off-stage naked in a swimming pool, her sports car wrecked in the fountain). The thing is, for all its fantastic moments—Sam Elliot as the Stranger appearing magically in the bowling alley bar, beside Jeff Bridges as the Dude—The Big Lebowski never seems phony. Many contemporary novels (on the best-selling list, often) depict violence that just seems fake. Maybe I have a lingering touch of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in me, in that of all things, I can’t stand a phony.
So in those fictional moments of when push comes to shove, I don’t wonder what Jesus would do (merciful, compassionate, all-suffering) and no, I don’t think what Jeff Lebowski would do (weed-addled, harmless, stoner-charming) but what my character would do, really do, given the particular jamb into which he/she has fallen. But all that said, I’ll admit that the Dude is certainly more up my alley than the Big J, or any of McCarthy’s great characters, either. The trick is to imagine compelling personalities, and have them do something memorable, even if it’s groveling, as in the Coen Brothers Miller’s Crossing (1990), when John Turturro is on his hands and knees, begging his would-be executioner (Gabriel Byrne) to spare his life: “Look into your heart.” Which is, now that I mention it, always a good idea.
Usually I write novels, not short ones either. I’ve been committing novels half my life. (I write “committing” because sometimes my novels feel like crimes: of self-indulgence, because what they earn doesn’t support my family; of hubris, because they create complex worlds that live on their own and surely piss off the gods, if there are gods).
What I’ve learned in writing is that a novel’s story-world, and the characters that live in it, have no respect for the world I live in. Of course I start off wanting, even needing to put in people and places I know, but the places and people in novel X have their own logistics, needs, and requirements; they have discrete hopes and angers and systems of measurement; and inevitably these take over. I have written about Africa, and France, and my native Cape Cod (Mass.,) and while I know well the places I describe, the characters live their way and rejigger their environments to match.
If you try to find your way to the villages in the novels I’ve written about the Cape, for example, you will get lost. Guaranteed. The characters insisted on a street in Hyannis, a bar in Chatham, a patch of woods in Wellfleet, a smell from a house in Cotuit. And while they might have started off as a fisherman I worked for, a woman I lived with, they soon chose their own paths, and became someone significantly different.
Of late, however, I’ve been writing short-short fiction, a lot of it based on things that happened in my real life. The stories are so short that the characters come roaring onto the page as themselves, the original Maddy, Pedro, Kurt, in all their ballgowns or sweatclothes, their valiance or lazy cowardice.
This raises issues. Some of the stories involve people who don’t behave well. Some of them are family members. They are racked by obsession or drink, they make fools of themselves over women (or men). They don’t have time to alter the narrative, or dress themselves as other than who they are in real life. And if the people involved read the story, they will recognize themselves, and be hurt.
Is it worth hurting someone in the interests of literature? On some level, I believe it is, or should be. When I think of what a writer is supposed to do, I always remember Tony Montana’s line from Scarface: “Me, I always tell the truth–even when I lie.” In fiction as in non-fiction, a good writer will always paint a perspective of how the world truly works and how people function. That perspective illuminates, explains, and most importantly of all, makes us feel the impact of those mechanics. The writer will paint this way no matter what the cost.
If that means putting someone real in the cast of characters, and person “A” is hurt by his inclusion, “A” should know that his pride or trust have been violated in the interests of a higher truth, a finer Art than people normally practice in daily life.
And, yet–I don’t buy it.
I suppose, if one of my short but hurtful pieces could provably, immediately save the lives of people dying of thirst in Somalia, one could make a case that the ends justified the means. But justifying deliberate harm for whatever reason is always a risky argument because such arguments will inevitably be turned around to justify goals that are not cut and dried.
And it’s more likely that the sky will turn green or that Fox News will report objectively than that my writing should save the life of anyone. Bring insight, maybe. Cause pleasure, I hope. But save lives–nope.
In those circumstances, I can only say that if I have to make the decision, I’ll opt not to hurt. Or at least, I’ll fudge the names and identities of characters to the point where they can’t be recognized. Is that a cheap compromise? Maybe. But it’s what I do.
I don’t think Tony Montana uttered words to illustrate this position, so I’ll refer instead to the artist Alberto Giacometti, who once said, “In a fire, between a Rembrandt and a cat, I would choose the cat.” Art, and writing, should value life above all else. And they should demonize hurt, not cause it.
From Thoreau’s glacial puddle to Muir’s tectonic Sierras to Annie Dillard’s little creek, nature writers have sought for over 200 years to bring landscape into their essays with all the power of real characters. Arguably, with his landscape-laden Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey launched modern nature writing. Those of us today who would write of nature, especially in the West, still have a vast supply of natural wonders and beauty around us to bring into our work. How can landscape become a character? Let’s ask what makes for memorable human characters.
First, more than cardboard cutouts, characters have texture and depth, and a good author will turn to several senses to capture these finer points. Sharp vision is always useful. But nature reaches us, often vividly, through touch, smell, sound, even taste in ways that humans cannot. Imagine caressing an alligator bark juniper with your eyes closed. Listen to how wind songs differ sliding through junipers vs. pines. Did you know Ponderosa pines are unique? Their bark smells like vanilla.
Second, great characters are alive, vibrant, never still. And so with Nature. Behind the pretty scenery, nature teems with dynamics for an author’s use. Nothing is static. Evolution is a work in progress, rending, rebuilding, creating wholly new forms from the shards. Even the lowly lichen, neither plant nor animal, sits there seemingly immobile on its granite boulder, quietly dissolving its host.
Characters have moods. To give Nature moods is anthropomorphic. But the experience of Nature creates moods in others, in other characters, in the reader. The trauma and threat of violent storms are the easy parts. More challenging to the writer are Nature’s softer tones, the quiet promise of morning dew in Spring, the foreboding of a temperature shift in the breeze. As with humans, subtle mood changes wrought by Nature can run deep with meaning.
Characters interact with each other. Dominance, dependence, synergy, all abound in the intricately woven fabric of the natural world. The easy ones for the writer are the least interesting, when some natural element forces an altered path, a behavioral change in another character. The blizzard that drives a ship off course, a canyon that redirects the wanderer. More important are those bits of landscape that bring fundamental moral or intellectual change in a character. A mountain standing there, infusing strength into a quailing man, a bee alight on a columbine suggesting with fragile beauty the depth of our dependence on wilderness, the Milky Way blazing in darkest sky, telling us how infinitesimally small and insignificant we really are.
If we write the land into our essays as character, and the character that land interacts with most deeply is the reader, then we will have truly created art.
Do you have a recent story that might be enriched if you brought in the natural world?
Maybe it was all the Alf I watched, but from the ages of 7 through 12, my greatest ambition was to be abducted by aliens. My teachers were perplexed: how about astronaut, or fireman, or attorney? It’s not technically an ambition if you don’t have any control over it, I was told. Accepting this truth, I tried to put myself in the most abduction-likely situations. This proved difficult, because standing on my roof was dangerous and there were no cornfields near to hang out in. I settled for loitering in my front yard while staring up at the sky. If they weren’t going to abduct me, I at least wanted to have a good look at them. When I failed to realize even this modest goal, I decided to take measures into my own hands; I’d have to invent a UFO sighting.
It was a warm fall night—I must have been 10—when I got my chance. My parents and I were walking the dog around the block when a brightly lit object appeared above us and scuttled across the suburban sky. It was an airplane; I knew it, my parents knew it, even my golden retriever knew it. But this airplane had a flashing green light, which I had never seen before. This slight anomaly was all I needed to build upon. I told my friends at school about it, adding that it was lightning fast and absolutely silent.
“I had the sensation that I was being watched,” I said in a hushed voice. My friend Joey suggested that I was already being followed by Men in Black. I practiced that distant, harried look I’d seen Richard Dreyfuss have in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I filled up a notebook with sketches of the craft, wearing down my emerald colored pencil to a nub.
I cultivated this willful self-deception for almost a week until I saw the same green-lighted plane in the half-light of dusk. Faced with the naked truth, I tossed my notebook in the trash. Since nobody, not even Joey, believed me in the first place, it was time to move on from my fantasy.
Now that I am married and have a job that I truly enjoy, I’d rather witness a UFO from a safe distance than be stolen by one. But the desire to see something incredible is still there, and that is why I write. The potential for the extraordinary to occur amid the ordinary is intriguing, for the same reason that an unopened envelope with your name on it has an undeniable magnetic pull. For me, the recognition and celebration of potential energy is central to the act of writing: the potential for an inert character to lurch into motion, or for a sublime moment to overtake a mundane one.
I’ve come to realize that what’s exciting is not that a UFO will appear in an ordinary Tuesday afternoon sky, but that an ordinary Tuesday sky holds this and infinite other possibilities. Whether or not a flying saucer ever appears is ultimately irrelevant; the act of staring up at the sky is creative, and therefore, important.
One of the first (of many) rejections of my novel Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet was from an editor who wrote, “I fear that not even Nabokov’s literary skills could make Mr. Portwit into a likable character.” The character he referred to was Dale Portwit, one of the protagonists of my novel. Mr. Portwit is a 50-year-old middle-school teacher who is, to put it kindly, self-serving, obnoxious, and stubborn. One of his quirks, for example, is insisting that everyone refer to him as “Mr. Portwit” instead of “Dale” because he believes “first-name usage is a privilege, not a right.”
When my second novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, was released, it received some fine praise in a few local newspapers and literary blogs. But the Publisher’s Weekly review was the one I had been waiting eagerly to read. They called my book “relentlessly inventive.” I was thrilled. However, the PW review went on to assert that my characters were “irredeemably unlikable,” which made it difficult to care about the “bizarre goings-on.”
Suddenly all the positive comments I had received didn’t matter: What stuck in my craw was that phrase – “irredeemably unlikable.” I pondered it: Are my characters really that unlikable? In what way? What makes a character likable, anyway? Is it essential to readers that they “like” the protagonists of the books they read? What does it even mean to “like” a character? The concept felt foreign to me.
In 7th grade, I read To Build a Fire by Jack London. It was life-changing. I loved the story so much that I even read it aloud for a class presentation. To Build a Fire is the story of a man (known only as “the man”) who is trekking in the Arctic on his way to another research outpost. The temperature is so cold, however, that all of the “old-timers” have warned him not to venture out alone. He ignores their advice, believing himself to be a capable enough outdoorsman to make it easily. Spoiler alert: the man makes a few crucial mistakes and ends up freezing to death in the snowy wasteland. His supersized ego, his belief that his intelligence and rational thinking are more powerful than nature, ultimately leads to his downfall.
In retrospect, I realize that To Build a Fire was a template for the type of story I loved. Nothing touchy-feely or overly sentimental, yet packing a powerful emotional punch. Something that pushes us to question our role on Earth, the very essence of human existence. No feeling of closeness or affection for the main character; “the man” is not someone I idolized or felt a kinship with or “liked” in any specific fashion. But certainly I was invested in him. Certainly I enjoyed living briefly in his skin. My 8th grade was spent blazing through Stephen King’s novels (and Peter Straub and Dean Koontz – I liked horror). By high school, I had moved on to more so-called “literary” authors: Kafka, Poe, John Kennedy Toole, Dostoevsky, Camus.
The opening passage of The Stranger encapsulates the personality of the narrator, Muersault: “Mother died today; or maybe yesterday.” This is only the beginning of Mersault’s journey of detachment through the novel. He ends up confronting and killing a man on a public beach, apparently for no reason. When Muersault is brought to trial, he offers no defense whatsoever for his actions. In other words, a loveable guy!
Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Wright’s Native Son, Nabokov’s Lolita, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Frank Norris’s McTeague – the hall of my literary heroes, when I step back and catalogue it, is a rogue’s gallery of unlikable characters. I doubt that most people, myself included, would want to spend an afternoon with any of these folks if they were made of flesh and blood. So what does this say about me, as a person? Am I a miscreant, a misanthrope, a misfit?
The honest and boring answer is that I’m none of these things. I don’t like to use the word “average,” but I’m a pretty average guy, at least on the surface. But maybe it’s because I’m a fairly average person that I’m drawn to these unsavory characters. Fiction allows me to walk in the shoes of people who are nothing like me; to observe from a safe distance as characters explore the dark, the absurd, the tragic, and the comically misguided aspects of the self. I can safely live inside the mind of an oddball, a criminal, a buffoon, and then retreat into my own drab routine. The truth is that I read and write stories, in part, in order to live things – people, places, philosophies, beliefs, fears, desires – that I don’t get to experience during my daily grind.
So if my characters are “irredeemably unlikable,” if they are grotesque or “weird,” I can be OK with that – as long as they aren’t predictable or flat. Above all, they must be capable of redemption. Their likability may be “irredeemable,” but I hope their souls aren’t. I’m not interested in perfect characters. I’m not looking for drinking buddies or racquetball partners. I’m not interested in someone like me. Lord knows, I get enough of myself seven days a week.
I don’t seek repellant characters. I don’t set out to create monsters. But I do seek difficult, flawed characters that will push me out of my comfort zone. Three-dimensional people, warts and all; people that are good and bad, ugly and beautiful, sinful and heroic; characters in need of grace.
Don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing wrong with likable characters. I love a charming, personable narrator as much as the next person. I love Scout and Bilbo Baggins and all those adorable and valiant rabbits from Watership Down. Readers seek camaraderie and friendship in the novels they love; or a feeling of connection to experiences and personalities that are familiar.
But as I continue to write, I’ll remind myself that there’s no way to predict what readers want. It’s impossible, and it’s a losing game. The amazing thing about storytelling is that it’s a two-way street; the reader brings their own life to every text they pick up, and they actively help create the characters on the page. All I can do is keep seeing the world the way I see it, trying to push myself and write characters that are living, breathing people, and raise the unanswerable questions about why we’re here.
Michael Croley grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. He holds graduate degrees in Creative Writing from Florida State and the University of Memphis. In 2011, Narrative Magazine named him to its list of “Best New Writers.” He has won awards and fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Key West Literary Seminars. His first novel, After the Sun Fell, will be released as part of Narrative’s Library Series in 2012. He teaches at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. www.michaelcroley.com
SR: Your story “Two Lives,” published in Blackbird, contains two distinct stories: a metafictional narrative in which the narrator talks about his writing life (or lack thereof) and the actual text of the story this character wrote. When you began this story, did you set out with the intention of blending two narratives, or did the story evolve into its current form?
Michael Croley: I always remember how this story came to life because it was the first story I ever wrote that made me get out of bed to complete it. I started with the story’s first line, “You don’t know what it’s like to be in the bed as a child and feel the air of fall enter your room and hear the dishes in the cabinets of your home rattle, their doors slammed by some drunk looking for a fresh bottle of liquor.” I wanted the second person to implicate the reader, to say, “Dear Reader, you know nothing.” As I wrote the story and came to the end of the first space break, another voice entered my head with that line, “Years ago, I tried to write this.” Rather than fight the new voice, I went with it and suddenly I realized I was writing two stories inside of one. I’m not really into meta-fiction. I believe that a writer’s allegiance is to the reader, to guiding them through the story, and I don’t find this story to be of the smarty-pants variety, but even I knew this one had a weird structure as I was going through it but I didn’t let myself worry about it too much. I just knew both of these voices were speaking to me (and I hate putting that out there because it makes the writing process sound so new age-ish, but there is some truth to this concept) and I followed them through. As the story went on and I got near the end, I realized that both stories, both threads, had to have equal time on the page in order for the story as a whole to have maximum impact. So as I started revising, I actually cut and pasted all the second-person threads into a new document and made sure that both stories read like fully-formed, complete stories. Then it was just a matter of weaving the threads together at the right moments so that the reader would be doubly haunted by both the second-person story and the first-person narrative and how both of those ended.
I’d never written a story, structurally, like this before—and haven’t since—and one of things that I do pat myself on the back about in regard to this story is that the structure seems really unique to me. But I’m sure I ripped it off from somebody unconsciously because that’s what we do as writers. We steal. This is also the first story I ever had published and that was pretty damn cool.
SR: Your story “Insulation” in Blackbird is one of those rare short stories with a happy ending. The main character, Lynn, seems to get what she wants, and the marriage that seems on the verge of breaking up appears to actually be strengthened at the end. When you began writing the story, is this the ending you envisioned? Do you feel that there is a risk involved in writing so-called happy endings?
MC: Here’s an instance of when you give a story to the world, it is no longer yours to decide what it is to the reader or what it could be. I don’t know that I ever saw this couple on the verge of breaking up. I saw them as struggling, yes, but I never believed Lynn would leave him. In my mind, from the beginning, she was upset and frustrated and wanted her husband to stand up and take care of her but she loved him and wasn’t going to leave him. She loved him too much to do that. She wanted to push him to be more, to reach his potential and she takes that on as her task, as her role in this marriage. I wanted them to come to an understanding, for him to see her strength and resilience and for him to acknowledge that. Once Allen picked Lynn up from her job I knew they would go home and that the change, if we subscribe to the idea that all stories are about change, would have to come from him—and it does because he sees what the reader sees in her—and that’s what I had happen. But this is Lynn’s story, so we had to end with her and I lifted the image of her in the tub from a really bad poem I wrote (I still thought I could write poetry at the time), imagining a woman coming home at the end of a long day.
I don’t know if there is a risk involved with happy endings. I know my students often ask why all the stories I assign to read are sad, but I don’t think of an ending that doesn’t end with everyone getting what they want as sad. Not always. All I want is for a character to have some realization or knowledge he or she didn’t have when the story began. I often tell my students that the writer’s job is to make her characters hit that higher plane of knowledge then pull the ripcord on the story. Get out. You’ve done your work. Lynn realizes that Allen does love her. That he isn’t immune to her struggles and how she works herself like a mule for the both of them. When she sees that she is able to face her life in ways she couldn’t before and that’s more important than Allen’s change in behavior. And when that happened in the story, that’s how I knew it was complete.
As a side note, when I first workshopped this piece, it got really beat up by several women in the class who didn’t understand why Lynn remained with Allen to which the workshop leader (my mentor Richard Bausch) said, “Did you ever think she loves him?” I mention this because we are subject to overthinking this pursuit from time to time, to letting our own personal feelings about the way the world should be rather than it is invade our work and reading. But stories, at their heart, are about “news of the spirit” as the late George Garrett said, and what we do as writers is to imagine ourselves into that spirit without any judgments.
SR: Many of your stories take place in Fordyce, Kentucky. How does a sense of place impact the stories you choose to tell?
MC: Well, for me, it impacts everything. Fordyce is stand-in for my own hometown right down to topography and landmarks, but it has that fictional name so that I can blend different elements into the town from surrounding areas from time to time and because I didn’t want to be too constrained by the “facts” of Corbin, Kentucky, where I was raised. But place is something I’ve always been drawn to. Because my mother is Korean (my father grew up out in the country near Corbin) I think I always felt out of place there. I looked different from all my classmates. Corbin has a history of racism that’s pretty well-known throughout the state and I can only remember going to school with two other people of color growing up. So things weren’t always necessarily easy for my mother or my brother and me. I think that sense of identity that I received from that place has had a large effect on my work, especially in the two novels I’ve written. I never looked at things with strictly an insider’s viewpoint, though I like to think I have that viewpoint as well. I saw lots of good people in Corbin who were hardworking, blue-collar types and I admired their grit and what I saw as even-mindedness. Practical might be a good way to put it. And at the same time, a lot of my friends’ parents were bankers, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists. That’s one of the hidden truths about Appalachia, that not everyone is poor and backward. We’re not all the sons and daughters of miners and laborers.
I think that kind of place is ripe for storytelling because it’s relative smallness allows for the pecking order and machinations of the town to be clearly visible if you’re paying attention. Corbin isn’t so small that you know everyone but it is small enough that you probably know someone who knows the person you don’t. Because of that you’re never out of the reach of a story to be heard about So-and-so and what he’s doing. When I started writing as an undergraduate I was very conscious about honoring this place where I’d grown up and telling the stories that I thought were worth telling that I never saw in Esquire or The New Yorker. There’s a reason in the two stories you’ve mentioned that the characters are college educated. I was tired (and still am) of reading only about backward hillbillies in rural areas. My father was a man who worked his way through a good school and chose to come back to that part of the world. And at the same time, as I’ve gotten older, I see how the dual nature of ethnicity has played a large role in how I write my stories. My characters always seem in between worlds, pulled in different directions by different desires. So to answer your question briefly (and to stop going on), I think I’m trying to figure out in a lot of ways of how place shapes us. How does the place where we mature get into our bloodstream? I don’t think we ever escape our childhoods and a lot of what I see myself doing is exploring Fordyce as Corbin and asking the question, What has this place done to this character for good or ill?
SR: You published an “iStory” in Narrative – a new type of micro-fiction created by the magazine to coincide with their new digital App. These stories are all under 150 words. Do you find it more or less difficult to write micro-fiction like your story “One Such as This” than your longer pieces? Did writing with the digital App in mind change anything about the writing process?
MC: Well, first off I just want to say that Narrative has been a great venue to me. Very supportive of my work and I think the world of what Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarian are trying to do with literature in this electronic age. I think they’ve been very visionary and the idea of an iStory seemed gimmicky to me at first because I just didn’t think you could tell a story in such a small amount of space. That was/is the challenging part. It’s like “Name that Tune.” How many notes does it take to tell your story? Less notes, to me, is often better. So that’s what I tried to do and that was the challenge of it. A lot of times I have a great image but not a great story to tell. And because, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not a very good poet, I wanted to use this image I had of an alley in back of my favorite movie theater in Cleveland where I used to live. I just liked the idea of two people in this very dark alley making out and then moving them through the night and into the morning. So, in one sense, the piece was easier because there was less I had to do, but harder because the word limit magnifies your choice of diction, your details, and your sense of emotion in the piece.
I don’t often write micro-fiction because I’m interested in really playing the characters’ lives out as much as I can. As far as I want to go. For instance, neither character gets a name in that iStory, which gives me more observational distance and less attachment to seeing their lives come together or undone as you might in a longer piece. And the iStory seems to me to be less about narrative arc than a singular moment that lingers in the reader’s mind and imagination after what they’re done being a witness to the story.
SR: What are you working on at the moment?
MC: Well, I have an agreement with Narrative to release my first novel After the Sun Fell as part of their new Library Series. I’m really excited about that because everything they do is so good and I’m flattered that Tom Jenks wanted to first look at the novel then said he wanted to work with me on it. That book is based in small part on my mother’s move to southeastern Kentucky from Masan, South Korea after she married my father. An excerpt of it is up on Narrative as a contained story entitled, “Washed Away.” As long as Tom and I can find some time to work on this soon, I think that book will be released in 2012, but that’ll, ultimately, be up to Tom and I’ve learned to listen to him as much as possible.
And my agent is currently shopping my second novel around. It’s about a family that’s moved out of Fordyce to Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 right before the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, which indirectly led to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The book is narrated by Ben Hamlin who was 12 when his father moved the family to Memphis. A grown man now, Ben is looking back on that year when his family—and their hopes—began to unravel as their own personal tragedies get entangled with the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest tragedy.
My next novel is entirely in my head (though I think the opening scene is written) so I don’t want to say too much about it. But it will be, I hope, both an homage to and a retelling of All the King’s Men with the central figure being more of an LBJ type politician. This is mostly because I love All the King’s Men—I don’t think there’s a bad sentence in the book—and because I think LBJ was a fascinating politician and I think we live in a very politically fractious time, almost as fractious as the ’60s but we’re not quite there yet.
Cary Holladay grew up in Virginia. She is the author of five volumes of fiction, including A Fight in the Doctor’s Office (Miami UP 2008) and The Quick-Change Artist: Stories (Swallow Press / Ohio UP 2006). Her work has appeared in New Stories From the South: The Year’s Best. Her awards include an O. Henry Prize and fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the NEA.
She teaches at the University of Memphis, where she is Director of the River City Writers Series and a First Tennessee Professor.
Interview with Cary Holladay
Superstition Review: In your story, “Land of Lightning,” why did you decide to use Tinsley’s voice for the narrator?
Cary Holladay: Because Tinsley has lost so much—his wife, his marriage, his daughter. All of that grief has tested his strength of character and has brought him to a state of wondering—about being a husband, being a father, and what it means to send your daughter off to war.
SR: Burton Laughinghouse is a name and a character that really sticks out in the story. Why did you decide that the name would be fitting for him? How does it embody his character?
CH: “Laughinghouse” is a name I heard or read somewhere and was captivated by. I have a weakness for unusual names, but using them in a story can be risky, like a joke. The name embodies Burton Laughinghouse’s character in an ironic way; he’s playful but selfish, a disruptive force, a con man. His love of birds is real, but he exploits the people who befriend and assist him.
SR: There is an element of religion in the story when the characters speak of God, praying, and the devil being present in Glenna’s life or when the devil was asked to leave. What do you believe it brought to the story and what importance does religion have for the characters?
CH: It’s such a part of them that they feel the pull of its compass no matter what they do. Glenna, especially, feels the burden of her sin for having injured Ned Page. She feels guilt for being attracted to Burton Laughinghouse. Religion is part of the personal mystery that these characters carry with them.
SR: The incident with Glenna Dancy and Ned Page with the arrow was briefly mentioned in the beginning of the story but is really brought to life at the end. Tell us why you decided that this story would make for a perfect ending. What way did it tie the whole story together?
CH: That incident grew out of the fear I felt in high school archery class. A bow and arrow is a powerful, primitive, effective weapon. To aim and let that arrow fly at a living target is to pronounce a death sentence, or at least pose severe danger. The scene tied the story together because it expressed the contradictions in Glenna’s tormented inner self—her sexuality, her anger, her ego. She’s combative. Like Tinsley’s daughter who died in a helicopter accident in Iraq, Glenna has a warrior’s heart.
SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?
I’m finishing a collection of stories set in Virginia’s horse country and have begun writing a novel about the pirate Blackbeard. I’m reading buccaneer legends, lore, and history.
Michelle Brafman has received numerous awards for her fiction, including a Special Mention in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story prize, and first place in the Lilith Magazine Fiction contest. Her stories have appeared in The Minnesota Review, Blackbird, and Fifth Wednesday Journal, among other places. She teaches fiction writing at George Washington University and the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. Michelle is also an award-winning filmmaker and lives in Glen Echo, Maryland with her husband and two children. For more information: www.michellebrafman.com
Superstition Review: Early on in your story “In Flight,” the protagonist says, “…I’m his crazy big sister. I lost too much oxygen at birth. People always want to label me ‘tard’ or PDD or high-functioning this or that, but I’m just Rosie.” The reader later gets a sense of Rosie’s disability through some of the observations she makes, and we, as the reader, understand that she doesn’t understand her surroundings the way her mother and brother do. What was the effect you were aiming for in including the Rosie’s awareness of how people saw her?
Michelle Brafman: I suppose my initial intention was to provide the reader with a sense of Rosie’s disability, but as she emerged as a character, I grew interested in exploring the tension between her uncanny perceptiveness and her inability to interpret social cues. I’d initially written the story from the point of view of Marcus, the more reliable narrator, but it lacked verity. It is Rosie who implores Marcus to jump, to confront his mother’s mortality and the impending reality of his sister’s care, and it is Rosie who intuits that Marcus will need the trampoline, as Esther did, as a release from the weight of his new responsibilities.
SR: In “January” and “Would you Rather?” both of the protagonists suspect that their spouses might be cheating on them. Please discuss the notion of fidelity as a theme in contemporary writing. What makes it popular and interesting?
MB: I don’t know that I’m equipped to speak for an entire genre, but what makes infidelity interesting to me is the way in which it exacerbates a character’s trouble. Writing about “the how” of an affair grows tedious quickly. I’m more interested in why a character seeks such an all-consuming escape and the ripples that form after hurling such an enormous boulder into his or her psychic pond.
SR: I noticed that the character Annabel from “Ripe” reappears in “January,” although as an absent character. If these two stories were to appear together in a collection, which one would come first, and to what effect?
MB: Actually, “Ripe” and “January” belong to a triptych that starts with “The 42,” the first story I published. I wrote “The 42” in response to a variation of an exercise featured in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I’ve further modified this prompt for my students, but it goes something like this: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. Describe this event using three different points of view.
The story cycle begins when a pregnant Annabel takes “The 42” to her old neighborhood for an acupuncturist appointment. Eager to take a break from her husband Leon’s hovering, she declines his ride offer and spends the bus trip reflecting on a less fettered period in her life. “Ripe” picks up after her ex-boyfriend Phil watches her stumble off the bus, and the final story “January” begins after Leon has tracked down Annabel to deliver her misplaced wallet and spots her and Phil walking down the street, sharing an intimate moment of laughter.
SR: I enjoy how your stories are structured and especially how they end. There is no apparent resolution of conflict at the closing of your stories. What is your opinion on what the end of a story should do for a reader?
MB: I appreciate your observation. When I first began writing fiction, I tied up my stories in pretty little bows, often tagging on what I now call the “nudge, nudge, wink, wink: did you get it?” closing line. Bob Bausch, one of my first writing instructors, once said to me that a good ending should resolve the story but not the conflict. His words resonated with me. I like the idea of leaving a story somewhat open for the reader to impose his or her own ideas on what might happen to the characters.
SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?
MB: I’m working on a new novel. It took me months to find a pathway into this project, but my characters are starting to develop minds of their own and are surprising me in all sorts of fun ways.
I’ve enrolled in a course on the unreliable narrator, and I’ve been engrossed in the assigned texts: True Confections by Katharine Weber, the class instructor, Nabokov’s Lolita and What Was She Thinking? (Notes On A Scandal)by Zoe Heller. My daughter and I have also been reading some wonderful YA fiction for a mother-daughter book club. My favorite pick so far has been Claire Vanderpool’s beautifully crafted Moon over Manifest.
Superstition Review would like to announce that Melissa Pritchard’s collection of short stories, The Odditorium: Stories, is due for release January 10, 2012. It is now available for pre-order from Amazon.
Pritchard was the featured reader in our Superstition Review reading series in November 2010.
Praise for Melissa Pritchard:
“Melissa Pritchard is one of our finest writers.”—Annie Dillard
“Pritchard’s quicksilver ability to blend biting social/political commentary with a rueful analysis of relationships makes [her work a] delight.”—Publishers Weekly
“I have admired Melissa Pritchard’s writing for several years now for its wisdom, its humble elegance, and its earthy comedy.”—Rick Moody
About The Odditorium: Stories:
In each of these eight genre-bending tales, Melissa Pritchard overturns the conventions of mysteries, westerns, gothic horror, and historical fiction to capture surprising and often shocking aspects of her characters’ lives.
In one story, Pritchard creates a pastiche of historical facts, songs, and tall tales, contrasting the famed figures of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, including Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull, with the real, genocidal history of the American West. Other stories are inspired by the mysterious life of Kaspar Hauser, a haunted Victorian hospital where the wounded of D-Day are taken during World War II, and the story of Robert LeRoy Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” and his beguiling “odditoriums,” told from the perspective of his lifelong fact checker. (From Amazon.com)
Congratulations, Melissa. We look forward to this release.
Matthew Scott Healy lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife and daughter. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Scottsdale Community College. His work has appeared in Blackbird and Cutbank. His is the recipient of the Finnely Award for Humorous Short Fiction, and his story “Always the Obvious Places” was nominated for storySouth as the most notable story of 2010.
Superstition Review: I’m drawn to the character Emmett in “Always the Obvious Places.” Can you please describe how you came up with a character that would “throw a cactus” just to get away from the police?
Matthew Healy: I like the idea of characters without shame, who hold nothing back. Here is Emmett, a guy with the thumb of law enforcement upon him, yet he maintains this defiant posture of bluster. So many characters are governed by the consequences of their actions, and I wanted to have a character who is the exact opposite. He’s a guy without any permanence in his life, so his refusal to change is his anchor point. He’s also the character the other characters want most to change, but Emmett is so obdurate that by necessity others must do the changing around him.
SR: How did you imagine the life situation for Emmett and family? Where did it come from?
MH: Emmett’s life is about resiliency in a place where nothing is permanent. His job, his living situation, his girlfriend, what kids are around—all of it fluctuates wildly. I’ve known people like Emmett, and what amazes me is their ability to survive in such flux. In the story, Emmett has a somewhat stable living situation, but I imagine him living somewhere else a month before the story begins and somewhere else a month after the story ends. I worked briefly as a probation officer, and so many defendants exist this way, living as nomads. One of my defendants moved from jail to a halfway house. Within a week, he was living with a new girlfriend and her kids (who were already calling him “Dad”). A week later, he moved in with his parents, and then into some apartment with a different girlfriend and her kids. This wasn’t uncommon. I watched people join a family for only a week or two before joining another. The men and women became temporary fathers and mothers—an entire migrating community of interchangeable family members. I think that’s why Emmett can be so lighthearted about Officer Jay and Sgt. Falco’s visit, because their presence is temporary. Eventually, they will go home to other, better parts of the city, away from this vortex of instability, and Emmett will keep moving inside of it.
SR: The location of “Always the Obvious Places” is very vivid. How does place inform your writing?
MH: I grew up next to families who were not far away from Emmett’s circumstances. Actually, they may have been worse. My two best friends living on either side have spent their lives in and out of prison. I still remember the sights and sounds and smells of their houses: dark hallways, navigating through heaps of clothes and trash, looking for a space to play. Blackish-brown carpet that was harder than tile from all the abandoned spills. As a little kid, I was too young to understand or be bothered by such conditions. It just seemed strange and different. Later, when I became a probation officer, my reaction was much different. One of pity and disgust and anger (especially when I found babies and toddlers living in conditions that were squalid, but not enough to warrant intervention by CPS). I felt very much like a tourist lost in a bad part of a foreign city, standing in the living rooms of people and making recommendations on how they should improve their lives.
In “Obvious Places,” the setting influences how the characters behave and what they value. I wanted Emmett’s home to seem tangible and constrictive, yet ephemeral—a place that could be razed to the ground without anyone paying it much mind.
SR: In almost each line of “Always the Obvious Places,” there is a trace of humor. What are some of the difficulties of writing humor? What are the joys? Who are some of your favorite authors who use humor?
MH: I think one of the dangers of humor is becoming seduced by it and sacrificing the story for a few laughs. I didn’t necessary begin “Obvious Places” intending for it to be funny. Instead, the humor was a necessary counterbalance to the very bleak reality of Emmett’s life, which in so many ways is simply tragic. I just realized that one of the worst things anyone can do is analyze humor, so I’ll resist the temptation to dissect it.
Instead, I’ll answer the last part of your question, and mention a few funny writers I admire. I favor wry and subdued humor that’s attached to something much larger and darker, something that’s lurking after the punch-line to shake things up. Along those lines, Sherman Alexie has a wonderfully deadpan humor, and so does Denis Johnson. One of my favorites, though, is Richard Russo. When writing “Obvious Places,” I was actually thinking about Russo’s very funny novel Straight Man. In a strange twist, Russo’s agent contacted me out of the blue after reading “Obvious Places” to tell me he had enjoyed it. I’m still trying to figure out if that means I unintentionally channeled Russo’s voice too much in the story. As I tell my intro creative writing students, after reading someone you love, wait at least an hour before starting to write. What works for eating and swimming might work for reading and writing.
SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?
MH: I just finished revising two short stories as part of a collection, but I’m also about halfway through writing a novel, which has turned out to be the most difficult undertaking of my life. I’m used to writing short stories, which is primarily what I like to read. Right now I’m reading the sizeable collection edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and most of the stories so far are pretty engaging.
I’m not reading any novels right now, though not for lack of trying. Unless they’re really good, my attention in most novels tends to sputter out after a hundred pages or so—an awful admission for someone who is trying to write one, but it’s true. When I was in Ohio State’s MFA program, we got to meet Michael Chabon, and we discussed the differences in short and long forms. He believes most writers fall into one category or the other, so perhaps I’m just a short form type of guy. (By the way, he admitted to being a long form guy.) This is fine with me, even though there’s no money in writing short stories, but it’s a shame since short fiction is so pristine and every word is so deliberate. I love the necessary ambiguity of short stories—there simply isn’t time to render every detail, so much of the story that orbits the literal prose must happen in the reader’s imagination. Who knows, maybe the dwindling attention spans means a lucrative future for short story writers.