Introducing 2016 Debutante: Charles Haverty

Haverty_webOn May 6th, at our 7th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 6 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we’re chatting with Charles Haverty, author of One Story issue #202 “Storm Windows” and Excommunicados, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press. In his award-winning debut collection, Charles Haverty explores the ways in which people can be excommunicados—from a lapsed Jew who devours all-you-can-eat crawfish to an alcoholic son and his absentee father. Within each story are unexpected moments of honesty that illuminate the ways in which feeling like an excommunicado and an outsider make us human.

Adina Applebaum: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Charles Haverty: I was at my desk, going through the final page proof of “Storm Windows” for One Story. It was January and snowing, and my wife was in San Francisco. Our car had been in an accident (I’ll spare us all the details) and I got a call from an insurance adjuster informing me that he was declaring it a total loss. Midway through the conversation, the caller ID showed a call from the University of Iowa Press. I took it and was told that my collection had won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and would be published in the fall. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh awayeth. I called the insurance guy back, contacted some people who’d had lots to do with the writing of those stories, and later, after salvaging license plates, registration, and whatnot from the wrecked car, I went to dinner with my friend Lara.

AA: The South plays a prominent role in several of your stories, but I see that you grew up in Queens. Is the South a place of special meaning for you, or just a place of interest? How did it come to be the setting for so much of your work?

CH: This is a complicated question. I was born in Queens (where my father was born and raised) but grew up on Long Island and in the suburbs of Chicago. My mother was born in St. Louis, and I had relatives who lived on a farm in Hickory Ridge, Arkansas, and I spent a healthy amount of my childhood in both places. When my wife and I got married, her parents were living in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and we drove down there frequently. So it was more or less impossible not to set at least one story there. Another answer is that I’m someone who’s always been moved to tears by Randy Newman’s “Rednecks,” Lyndon Johnson’s speech to Congress about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”), and the ending of Absalom, Absalom!, where Shreve asks Quentin, “Why do you hate the South?” and Quentin says (“quickly, at once, immediately . . . panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark”), “I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!” I could go on and on here, but it’s probably a mistake to think too hard about questions like this.

AA: One of my favorite stories in the book was “Whan That Aprill.” It struck me because there’s something a bit more dystopian about it, a world slightly more mythical than the other stories in the collection. Can you talk about your writing process for this piece?

CH: “Whan That Aprill” might be the earliest story in the book and took the longest time to write. It began, I think, with the image of the abandoned Ferris wheel and led to an accretion of images—the strawberries, the doll’s head, the broken bits of porcelain—but over time I found it all so dark that I had to put it away. I didn’t quite understand what the story was about. After the events of September 11, 2001, this came more into focus, and the atmosphere of those days bled into those pages. I finished a draft, put it away for a couple years, and spent the better part of a summer rewriting it. I’ve always felt variously uneasy about this story, so it’s gratifying to hear that you liked it. It also happens to be my wife’s favorite.

AA: Three of the stories in the collection are clearly linked, and I had a fun and interesting time imagining how the others might fit into a narrative about Lionel— one that he imagined, maybe, or one that he doesn’t know about. Can you talk more about the format of this collection, and why you chose to include those three linked pieces among the stand-alone stories? 

CH: Overall, I was shooting for variety of subject matter, setting, point of view, tense, age, gender, etc., and hoped that those Lionel stories, placed where they are, might give the collection a sort of spine or sense of progression. You know that Jesuit business, “Give me a child of seven, and I will show you the man”? Those three stories let me play out that notion by following Lionel’s progress from his Catholic school boyhood through middle age. The simpler truth is that it’s always fun to write about Lionel. He allows me the freedom to live a sort of alternative life on paper in a way the specific demands of other stories might not. (“Storm Windows” is a Lionel story, and even as we speak, I’m working on another.) So your imaginings about his imaginings are quite on the mark.

AA: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

CH: I’m a very shy person (which might be one of the reasons I write), but I welcome the chance to meet and thank Will Allison and Hannah Tinti—and, of course, you.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Matt Sumell

making niceOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we’re chatting with Matt Sumell, author of One Story Issue #201 “All Lateral” and the debut story collection Making Nice, available now from Henry Holt. Thanks to Matt for taking time out to talk with us about publishing his first book, memory, first-person, and jolly ranchers.

Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I got the call while I was in the middle of a writer’s group thing with my great and talented friends Marisa Matarazzo, Michael Andreasen, and—One Story Debutante herself—Ramona Ausubel. We still had a few stories to go through, but after finishing up we walked down the block to a bar called The Hudson where I popped a jolly rancher in my mouth and washed it down with five vodka sodas before I pedaled home and made my first purchase: a bigger Brita. Pretty sure I’ve been dehydrated for decades.

It was only about six stories in that I realized Alby was the narrator for all of the stories in Making Nice. That isn’t because he’s an inconsistent narrator, it’s that the world in each story is so fully developed that they seem like stand alone pieces. Reflecting on it, though, the structure of Making Nice definitely suites its story. Could you elaborate more on the form and the way Making Nice developed?

As Barry Hannah put it: “I like the first person—just a guy blasting through with the little he knows.” Me too. And when you have a narrator blasting through the wreckage of his life—taking inventory, trying to sense-make it a little bit, salvage what he can—it makes some sense that it’s not going to track chronologically. You don’t start at point A and move in a hard straight line to point whatever. Memory meanders, circles, loops. It gets tangled. Pull one string and something else comes with it. One memory makes you think of another, and whether that thing happened ten years or three weeks ago is beside the point. Consider your mother. Does it run like a movie reel: your earliest memory to your last? If it does you’re fuckin’ weird.

From the moment Alby punched his sister in the boob, I loved him, and it was interesting to me that, as a woman, I could still relate to a character who expresses some form of misogyny at so many points. Were you surprised that women responded positively to the novel? How did you take gender into account when writing?

I didn’t really consider my potential audience much, if at all, and I certainly wasn’t attempting to please people. Not sure you can read this book and think I was even trying to come out of the gate clean. I’m not interested in that. I just wanted to present a guy honestly struggling with grief in a way that people can believe in–flaws and all—because bad choices—and bad behavior—make for good stories.

As for women responding positively—let’s be honest: some have and some haven’t. That’s fine, and I’m not sure it comes down to gender so much as the ability to read well. All that “misogyny” is surface level. Read a little deeper and it’s pretty clear that beneath all the flawed thinking—the temper, the bad choices, the drinking and drugging, the violence and the girl chasing—there’s an underlying sense of awe and appreciation when it comes to the people—especially the women—in Alby’s life. That he loved his mother. That his sister is important to him. That even at his worst—and there’s plenty of that—he looks back at past girlfriends with the understanding that the ladies who love you, and even a few who don’t, have a way of making things better, and worthwhile, and sometimes even nice.

Alby is decidedly a dog person, something that appealed to me, but I wonder if cat lovers sympathized with Whatsherface in “All Lateral.” Any plans to give cats a starring role in a future novel and gain access to a whole new world of feline-loving readership? 

Alby the dog lover is really—when you think about it—Alby the animal lover. Working from shoddy memory here: over the course of the book he sympathizes with a bird, turtles, an almost drowned grasshopper, gazelles, a wolf that eats gazelles, an elephant, a slug named Cherokee Bob, ducks, bulls, dogs, and—as much as I hate to admit it—even his father’s cat Steve.

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

What I always look forward to: celebrating with friends.