We at One Story aren’t in the habit of publishing stories that directly relate to current events—not because that’s our policy, but because such stories usually take a long time to dream up, percolate, and write. When Tomiko Breland’s “What Is Behind” came to us, we were captivated by the writing, first and foremost, and we were blown away by its immediate grasp of an ongoing, tragic, and very widespread current event: the plight of the Syrian refugees. The story follows nine people, inviting the reader into each of their heads as they emerge from hiding and make a run for safety. It’s a remarkable piece of political fiction—in no small part because its emotional impact is not just the result of the subject matter, but of the way it’s rendered. To read more about how the story came into existence, take a look at our Q&A with Tomiko Breland, where she reveals why the form she wrote in was the only one that allowed her to do justice to her characters.
On May 6th, at the 7th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we 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 talking to Brian Booker, author of the collection Are You Here For What I’m Here For?, forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in May 2016. Brian published “A Drowning Accident” with One Story in 2005 and we’re pleased to celebrate his debut collection at this year’s Literary Debutante Ball.
Through hypnotic and dream-like prose, the seven stories in Are You Here For What I’m Here For? grant us access to the anxieties, fears, and yearnings of a host of unforgettable minds. Spanning time and space, from the early 20th century to the present day, from a cultish school in Southern California to a convalescents home in the Caribbean, the stories straddle fantasy and reality, with dazzling descriptions of the outer world that reflect the harrowing struggles of the inner. Unrelenting in its exploration of what we can know about ourselves, Are You Here For What I’m Here For? is an enchanting journey that lingers with its reader long after the last page.
Thanks to Brian for answering a few questions for One Story about his collection and writing.
Mark Prins: Where were you when you found out Are You Here For What I’m Here For? was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
Brian Booker: I was in the San Francisco airport. I had just gotten off the plane and I saw the email from Bellevue Literary Press. I was on my way to visit family in the Bay Area. So I got on the Airporter bus feeling pretty excited!
MP: One of my favorite qualities of your characters is their willingness to approach—if not physical—then certainly psychological zones of danger. From the first story (“Brace for Impact”), when our narrator is told: “‘You shouldn’t go up there, you know'”, in the basement of an eerie mansion, the protagonists repeatedly ignore explicit or implicit warnings to stay away. How do you figure out what a particular character’s danger zone might be, and then how do you get him or her to go there?
BB: Luring a character toward the danger zone has often been my instinct in stories. I didn’t think about it as an explicit aspect of craft until I took a seminar with Charles Baxter, who talks about the value of tempting your characters toward interesting trouble, toward that one-way gate. Baxter does this in his own stories, and he made me recognize how it is done—or that it is done—in the work of other story-writers I’ve long admired, such as Robert Stone, Tobias Wolff, and Paul Bowles. You read these stories over and over, hoping to absorb the methods by which they perform their magic so that you might achieve similar effects.
But the idea of directing a character towards a goal is a more “overhead” view than I would take when I’m actually writing a story, when I’m trying to inhabit the character’s experience as it is unfolding. In the case of “Brace for Impact,” the character’s danger zone is his own body, both in itself and in relation to other bodies. But the danger zone is also, paradoxically, a comfort zone—that’s why he speaks of the “vacation in a cocoon.” What you want, I think, is to goad the character into a zone in which the internal fears are externalized into a physical atmosphere and a dramatic situation. Having grown up in Bethesda, I had been in the basements of a few eerie mansions. In those situations, in adolescence, the unsupervised basement and the upstairs can feel like worlds that don’t (or shouldn’t) intersect. The character goes upstairs because the level of discomfort downstairs is so acute that he feels like he has to flee. Where to? Upstairs. But the character can’t be let off the hook so easily. Somebody has to be waiting up there.
MP: The way you write settings is beautiful. Occasionally we are treated to a full paragraph or two of luscious, atmospheric description. Do you have a method for describing places—ski lodges, apothecaries, Los Angeles?
BB: Thank you. I think it depends on the fiction you’re obsessed with. I love the way writers such as Woolf, Nabokov, and Bowles render setting with hypnagogic clarity. And the way Bolaño and Ishiguro do a kind of expressionist thing with setting.
As to method, for an earlier story (not in this collection) I remember scribbling down many details of setting at the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk in Delaware. It was useful material to have in my notebook. For stories like “Here to Watch Over Me” and “Love Trip,” which were written in Iowa City, I relied almost exclusively on memory. I remember wishing I could hop on a plane to these places and take lots of notes, but then it turned out it was better to just sit with memory. Music also played a role in both those stories, certain songs I needed to hear over and over that seemed crucial to the atmosphere. Also, let’s admit it, there is Internet ekphrasis. When you need a picture of something to augment specificity, you can have that immediately. But I wouldn’t want to over-rely on images from the Internet.
MP: In several of these stories, we’re told that our narrator may be suffering from some kind of illness that could impair his/her mental faculties—encephalitic-induced fevers, dementia, PTSD—what fascinates you about these narrators? Would you call them unreliable?
BB: I think of the unreliable narrator as someone whose evasiveness is underpinned by a shady agenda. Brilliant manipulators like Humbert Humbert fall into this category. In a softer vein, you have Kazuo Ishiguro’s narrators—Stevens in The Remains of the Day or Ono in An Artist of the Floating World, who can’t look too directly at certain things in their lives, whose self-delusions are subtle and necessary; or Ryder in The Unconsoled, whose memory is failing him for reasons neither he nor the reader understands. These are narrators whose accounts of themselves, to varying degrees, have serious holes, but they are not trying to deceive. I’m interested in, and sympathetic toward, characters who are forced to compartmentalize because of shame, characters with secrets and contradictions. Illness can be a secret, it can be a source of shame, and it can also be a romance, as in Thomas Mann.
In my collection, the guy in “The Sleeping Sickness” comes closest to the evasive narrator, but he is something of an anomaly. In most of the stories the characters are trying their best to represent their experience with fidelity. The distortions caused by mental illness are perhaps of a greater degree, but not of a different kind, than the way any person’s perceptions are skewed by the exigencies of their particular subjectivity. Our perceptions, our memories, these things are so mysterious and often don’t work as we expect they should. Our minds are always playing tricks on us. I’m a big Oliver Sacks fan. For Sacks, the impairment to consciousness affords a window onto how miraculous and tenuous our mental representations are in the first place. The malfunction throws light on the hidden function.
In fiction, for me, illnesses are an agent of defamiliarization.
It’s a vein of obsession I’ve tapped into. You try to write what quickens your pulse, what leads you toward a kind of spell or enchantment that hopefully gets transacted to the reader.
MP: Back when One Story published “A Drowning Accident,” you listed Daniel Wallace’s suggestion “not to die” as the best advice you’d received so far for writing (and it seems to be working). Have you gotten any good ones since then?
BB: I heard Donald Antrim’s conversation with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm. Antrim says, “We all have our turn in the barrel,” meaning when our mind becomes an intolerable place. Silverblatt adds: “these stories address how to live under the shadow of a disorder most of us refuse to see.” I think that’s a great way to put it. Depression, like the writing life, can be isolating. It comes with terrible fear. So it’s very important to hear other writers talk about it.
And there is what the voice says to Amalfitano in 2666: “Calm is the one thing that will never let us down.”
I keep a post-it note permanently on my laptop. The gist of what it says is: be gentle, have fun, don’t worry about it.
MP: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?
BB: I’m looking forward to getting better acquainted with the work of the other debutantes. It’s amazing, and humbling, to be in such talented company.
On May 6th, at the 7th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we 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 have the pleasure of chatting with Kim Brooks, author of One Story issue #65, “Do You Like It Here?” Her novel, The Houseguest, out this month from Counterpoint Press, examines the Jewish experience in America prior to the U.S. involvement in World War II on many, often unexamined, levels: a Yiddish actress and refugee who is haunted by her past, a rabbi who can no longer ignore the atrocities happening overseas, a Jewish junkyard owner who tries to turn a blind eye, and a secret network of organizations that attempts to transport Jews to American soil. Brooks deftly explores the subject of the Holocaust through this multi-layered narrative and in doing so, showcases themes of survival, cultural passivity, and personal vs. social responsibility. Through her characters, Brooks illustrates what it was to be Jewish in America during this tense time and simultaneously exposes the unsettling ignorance and inaction exhibited by Americans, both Jews and non-Jews. A multi-faceted story of love, politics, history, and identity, The Houseguest challenges what it means to save another.
Kat Misko: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate? How was this experience different than publishing a short story?
Kim Brooks: It was Rosh Hashanah, and I was attending a family service at synagogue, something I manage to do every four to five years whether I want to or not. I remember I was there because I left my phone in the car on purpose so I wouldn’t forget to turn off the ringer. I’d been pretty much surgically attached to this device since the whole trying-to-publish-a-book process began. But suddenly I was looking at it through the window of my parked car, and I could see that my agent had just called, but then I couldn’t find my keys for about forty seconds. It was the longest forty seconds of my life. After much hysteria, I found the keys, got the phone, listened to the message, and learned that Counterpoint wanted to publish my book. After that, I smiled for about a week. My husband and I went out to dinner and drank a lot of champagne and debated which actors would play the main characters in the film adaptation.
In terms of how the excitement compared to the excitement of publishing a story—it didn’t compare at all. I mean, I basically poured four years of my life into this book, four years worth of concentration, emotional energy, professional aspirations, babysitting money. Also, between you and me, it was not my first attempt. So like many writers, I figured that if I couldn’t find a home for it, I’d have to kill myself. Except I have kids, so I can’t kill myself, so the situation was even more desperate. All this is to say, it felt AMAZING!
KM: What I find compelling about your novel is that it explores the Jewish story during World War II from a very different perspective—those that make it to America and are haunted by their past; those that live in America and try to assist overseas through a network of organizations; and even those that live in America and turn a blind eye. What made you choose to write about this subject, which in many ways is the subject of the Holocaust? You deftly handle the notion that many people in America, even Jews, chose to remain ignorant of the issue overseas: Was it difficult to generate this subtle theme of cultural passivity that courses through the book?
KB: You know, this is the first time it’s occurred to me, but I suppose that passivity, the refusal to engage, the habit of turning away, negating, invalidating, unseeing, passivity in all its forms—cultural, individual, interpersonal—has always been a primary interest for me. But this is a problem for a fiction writer because it’s extraordinarily hard to make people NOT doing something interesting or compelling or suspenseful or all the things fiction is supposed to be. Imagine an HBO crime series that begins with a cop going to a crime scene and saying to his partner, “Meh, let’s leave this one alone.”
So in this book, I suppose the breakthrough must have been my realization that sometimes what we don’t do as individuals or as a community can have as many tangible, world-shaking implications as what we do. David Wyman writes about this in great depth in his book The Abandonment of the Jews, and that was certainly a large part of my inspiration, wanting to work through in a piece of fiction the experience of the abandonment he describes.
A number of people have asked me about why I chose to explore the events from an American perspective, about the unusualness of that choice. And I always try to challenge the question a little—this idea that there is a single, dominant Holocaust narrative. There’s this tendency to simplify or streamline what happened during this time to a few monolithic facts, but I think it’s important to try to remember that this was an event that was made of thousands of millions of smaller threads, from the individual to the collective to the continental. For me, there’s as much to learn from the stories of the victimizers, the accomplices, the bystanders, the witnesses, as from the victims.
KM: The book resonates with a deep tension between two cultural perspectives and is instilled with the fear of the Jew/immigrant on American soil. You have that great line: “…was not a Jew in America but an American Jew. These were two distinct, discrete things.” Did any current events inspire elements of this novel?
KB: Yes, unfortunately, though not one particular event. Our country and culture excels at using people’s differences as grounds for withholding compassion or basic human decency. I mean, I wouldn’t even know where to start: police brutality against African-Americans, racial profiling of Muslims, governors taking the time to announce that Syrian refugees need not apply for residence in such-and-such a state.
It’s funny, every so often, someone will ask my about my writing, and when I describe it, they’ll say something like, “wow, that sounds pretty dark.” And I always think, yeah, but, the world is pretty dark. I mean, turn on the news. I only know how to write about the world I inhabit.
KM: I am always intrigued by the notion of research in a novel. As a work of historical fiction, did you perform extensive research for this book? How do you know how much research is enough and when do you sit down to write? Did you continue to refer to the research as you wrote?
KB: Like many writers, I find the process of the writing itself excruciatingly painful, even agonizing. And so I’ll generally do anything I can to put it off as long as possible. As a result, I think I do a lot more research than is necessary or relevant. But I should also say that by “research” I basically mean just reading books that interest me. I don’t have the discipline to research in any organized, professional, meticulous manner. I’m helpless with stuff like that and ask my husband to look things up for me like ten times a day. When I’m researching, I’m basically just reading widely and searching for something that sparks an idea or engages my imagination, throwing aside everything else.
KM: Structurally, your novel is divided into four sections. It’s also told from various character perspectives—mainly Abe, Max, Ana, but even at times, Judith, Spiro, Field. I love novels that experiment with form and perspective: why did you decide to have these sections and multiple perspectives play off each other? In what way did you feel this enhanced the story being told?
KB: A long time ago, back in college, I remember being stuck for the first time with a paper I was writing, and my college adviser told me, think about the question you most urgently want to answer for yourself, that you also sense you will probably not be able to answer in any definitive or clear cut way. It was such good advice that I’ve used it many times since, and when I look back at writing The Houseguest, I think I must have, at least subconsciously, wanted to explore the question of how different people deal with, respond to, incorporate, or turn away from the suffering of strangers. Are there certain character traits or personality traits that prime people to be compassionate or callous? What makes some people able to face their own fears and powerlessness productively, and others not at all? Because I wanted to answer these questions, I suppose it only made sense to have a cast of characters who are all dealing with the main disruption of the novel in different ways based on their particular sensibilities, backgrounds, values.
Of course, these are things I can only say in retrospect. As I was writing, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
KM: In the same chapter, Ana is visited by the ghost of her husband, while Abe is visited by the ghost of his brother. I enjoyed how you inserted these ghosts into their narrative realities—which can be a difficult feat—as a way of indicating that the past haunts the present, which properly reflects Ana’s journey as a Jew leaving her homeland for a strange, new home. What made you choose to use ghosts in the story?
KB: I’ve always been easily enchanted by writers who are able to blend elements of the otherworldly or fantastical into realist narratives: the two that jump to mind are William Kennedy in Ironweed and Bernard Malamud in many of his stories. It’s odd, because I’m almost never interested in the purely supernatural. For me, real life is strange enough. But some of my favorite moments in fiction take place in that borderland between dream-life and reality. I often say that I don’t think there’s much difference between creative nonfiction and fiction, and I’m sticking to this, but if there is one difference, I think it’s that fiction is slightly better equipped to forge into this territory of the strange and subconscious. Or I suppose I should say that for me, when I’m writing fiction, I somehow feel like I have permission to be associative, to let go of what I think I know, to invent my own rules and do what I want.
KM: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball? And most important, what are you going to wear?
KB: Good questions! I am looking forward to the whole shebang, but most of all to hugging and thanking and drinking fancy cocktails with all the friends who’ve somehow put up with listening to me fret and complain about “the novel I’m working on” for the past half-decade.
As to what I’ll wear, I can tell you that my editor (and Ball chaperone) Dan and I have been discussing the possibility of matching, long, white satin gloves. So I’d say there’s a high probability that will happen. Beyond that, I’ve been thinking it might be fun to wear the sort of high-baroque gown that the Yiddish-actress, houseguest-diva Ana Beidler would wear if she were coming. It would be fun, but I’ll probably wear whatever frock I find in my closet that fits and isn’t in need of dry-cleaning.
On 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 Matthew Cheney, author of One Story issue #81 “Blood” and Blood: Stories, the winner of the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press. The stories in this beautiful collection weave together the uncanny with the deeply human. Instead of a dollhouse, a girl builds an asylum for her toys; neighbors, both plagued by grief, come across a phonograph that seems to play voices of the dead. These eloquent stories embody what it means to grieve, what it means to love, and what it means to hope.
Melissa Bean: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
Matthew Cheney: The day I found out I won the Hudson Prize and thus would have a book published was one of the longest days of my life. Diane Goettel, the executive editor at Black Lawrence Press, lives in Hong Kong, and had sent an email to me during her night/my morning asking if there was a convenient time for her to call me to discuss my manuscript. I immediately suspected something was up, because why would she want to call me on the phone to talk about my manuscript? But by the time I got the email, Diane was asleep and I was on my way to work. I don’t remember doing anything that day except running endless scenarios through my mind about what she could possibly want to call me about. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I didn’t want to think, “I’m finally, after all these years, going to have a book of my own,” and then have her call and say, “We’ve got these lovely Black Lawrence Press coasters and would like to send you one as thanks for submitting your weird little manuscript to the Hudson Prize competition, which, by the way, you didn’t even come close to winning.”
Of course, as we all now know, what she wanted to call and tell me was that I won and would be having a book published.
I didn’t have time to celebrate immediately, but soon enough my mothers took me out to eat at one of our favorite local restaurants, and that was all the celebration I needed.
MB: What has happened in your life since the publication of the story “Blood” (issue 81) in One Story?
MC: When “Blood” was published in the fall of 2006, I was teaching at a boarding school in New Hampshire and, in my copious spare time, finishing my masters degree thesis at Dartmouth College and also looking for a new job, since I felt like I’d been working at a boarding school long enough. The next year, I was working at a day school in New Jersey and my father died. I’m an only child and my parents were divorced, so that meant I inherited his business: a gun shop. I quit my job in New Jersey and moved back to New Hampshire to sell off the shop. Thus, I had a federal firearms license for a couple of years. To stay sane, I taught some courses at the local university, and discovered I actually liked teaching at the college level, so once all the guns and stuff of the estate were taken care of, I paid off my father’s debts and used what was left of those ill-gotten gains to keep myself solvent while working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where I’m now completing my third year and studying the intersections of modernism, postcolonialism, and queer theory.
MB: You include a quote with the story “Expositions”, “This dream…is itself action, reality, and an effective menace to all established order; it renders possible what it dreams about” (Gilles Deleuze). It helps inform the reading of the story as it descends into dreamlike twists and turns. However, I felt that this quote resonated with the collection as a whole, where characters’ dreams, memories, and past fears continue to exert tangible influence over their lives once the event itself has passed. How do you balance the tension between past and present in these stories?
MC: The past as dream has been a more and more important idea to me as I’ve grown older (I turned 40 this year), because now I have lots of memories that are fragmentary, vague, uncertain. I devoured piles of Philip K. Dick books when I was younger, and now I sometimes feel like I’m living in one of those books—for instance, the experience of having somebody tell me that he and I were friends when we were in 7th grade, and I have absolutely no memory of him whatsoever, though I fully believe his memory is correct because of various corroborating details. That experience could be a missing scene from PKD’s great story “The Electric Ant” (which would also suggest that I am not a person, but an android, despite my own conviction that I am human).
The truth is, my younger self feels like somebody else when I think about him, and he also feels a lot like somebody in a dream, and also my memory of my experiences is so filled with holes that I don’t trust it. And yet I also experience a continuous sense of self, an experience that continues to amaze and bewilder me.
Ultimately, thinking about my past self is not so much like remembering a dream, but more like remembering a story that I read. You know how if you think of stories you read some time ago, often what you remember are a few details, a few images, a few feelings, but the story as a whole slips away from you, becomes more like flashbulbed snapshots than a coherent motion picture… (Is this how it feels for other people? I don’t know. I say “you” but I mean “me”.) I suppose it all results from the fact that I’ve spent my life reading and writing stories, and thus the reading and writing of stories makes up much of the content of that life. There are things from Chekhov stories I read 20 years ago that are now as vivid and “real” to me as my memories of many of the things I was actually doing 20 years ago. All of that enters into my fiction, because fiction is in many ways an ideal form to explore such ideas and feelings—in so many ways, our understanding of a story is a kind of memory: a memory of the words we’ve just read. Similarly, I often feel like my memory of my self is no more real than the memory of words I’ve read.
I should say, though, that despite all that, “Expositions” came about for a different reason. I have a contrarian streak, and I often like to try to write in ways that violate supposed rules. There’s a longstanding, and quite sensible, rule that says you should never end a story with the narrator revealing that it was all just a dream. Saying “It was all a dream!” at the end messes with readers’ suspension of disbelief and it feels like a cheap, cheaty way to end a story if you don’t have a good conclusion. But I wondered if it were possible to write a story from that premise to begin with, to do it with purpose. (Going back to Philip K. Dick, Ubik accomplishes something similar to what I was thinking about.) After all, and as the story itself points out, when you’re actually dreaming it doesn’t (usually) feel like dreaming: it feels important and immediate, like life. The same with stories. A lot of metafiction plays with the fact that stories aren’t “real”, and I’ve sometimes been drawn to such metafiction, but I also think it’s kind of thumpingly obvious, like an illusionist who says, “Folks, it’s not that I actually have magic powers. I’m tricking you.” (But again, done artfully, this is marvelous, as Penn & Teller have demonstrated.) “Expositions” is a kind of metafiction, I suppose, but instead of making the breaking of the proverbial fourth wall its big concern, it starts from the premise that we all know there’s no fourth wall there to begin with.
The ultimate effect is similar to that in other pieces in the book, such as “Lacuna”, where there is a story underneath it all that gets obscured by the narrator’s verbiage, until at the very end, having run out of words, the narrator must reveal the truth of why he’s been writing what he has. Thus there is a kind of subconscious to the story, an understory. “Expositions” is a bit different because the story’s subconscious is never overtly revealed — in “Lacuna” the understory is at least as important as the surface, they’re sort of in dialogue, whereas “Expositions” makes the argument that maybe sometimes the immediate surface itself has value, substance, and power, and that in the end, the understory is not what we really need. I suppose in that sense “Expositions” is an argument in favor of psychological repression, while “Lacuna” is a story about working through what you want to repress.
MB: Your stories also have a wonderful ability to blend the mythic and the real seamlessly—how do you balance these elements?
MC: Accident and instinct. I follow language and image a lot. I don’t actually set out to write a story that’s surreal or fantastical, nor do I set out to write a story that’s about consensus reality. Once I find the tone of a story, then the rest follows. Sometimes, my original intentions are ruined.
Here’s an example: The first story in the book, “How to Play with Dolls”, began as a variation on the last sentence of the first paragraph. I wrote a sentence in a notebook, a sentence that had just come to me one day from, apparently, nowhere: “She had always wanted an asylum for her dolls.” Later, I was at a writers’ conference in Nairobi and needed something short for an evening reading. I remembered that sentence and I sat down at a restaurant and wrote the rest of the story, eventually adjusting the sentence to be about specific characters and situations. I thought it would be a realistic tale of a disturbed girl and her dollhouse. But I was in a restaurant in a city I didn’t know with people I’d just met for the first time. Everything was unfamiliar, and it was exciting but also a little bit terrifying. I felt estranged from reality, estranged even from language, and so what came out was something that was far different from what I’d initially thought I was going to write. Thankfully, at that point I was experienced enough as a writer to trust that feeling and not try to force the story to conform to my initial conception. Often, writing well simply means following the sentences where they lead you, which is something we all resist when we’re not sure the sentences are going where we think they should. We want to control, when really we should listen, because listening to our sentences is a way to listen to our selves.
MB: On that note, what inspires your stories?
MC: Daydreams and nightmares created by anxieties, fears, and desires.
I don’t write fiction for the sake of therapy, per se, but I am prone to anxiety and I have an active imagination, so it’s often the case that a story starts from one of my weird anxiety fantasies. The clearest example of this is one of the new stories in the book, “Thin”, which feels the most autobiographical of any of the stories to me, because even though none of the characters’ situations are anything like my own or those of people I know, the ways that Charles fantasizes is very much my own. So if I start thinking about all of the horrible things that can, for instance, happen to my teeth … well, I end up with thoughts not too different from Charles’s, and Charles’s fate is one that I imagined first for myself in a particularly anxious moment. Having given it to Charles allows me to then go on and have other thoughts, terrors, hopes, dreams, etc. for myself. (Similarly, “How Far to Englishman’s Bay” is all about my anxieties about growing old, getting fat, and traveling in Maine. They’re separate anxieties for me, but take all those things and stick them together and thus a story is born.)
Obviously, too, a lot of my inspiration comes from other writers — it would probably be fair to say my stories are awfully writerly. I became a writer because I wanted to do what the writers I admired did. Franz Kafka is everywhere throughout the book, as is, less obviously, Virginia Woolf. I wanted to be a playwright for a number of years, and I hear echoes of Christopher Durang, Mac Wellman, and Suzan-Lori Parks throughout the book’s pages: with Durang, the echoes are tonal, especially in “Getting a Date for Amelia” and “A Map of the Everywhere”; with Wellman the echoes are of his delight with vernacular language; with Parks it’s in the structure. (I recently re-read her “Elements of Style” essay from The America Play and Other Works for the first time in at least 15 years and realized just how deeply it affected my sense of what writers can and should do — I used to read that essay over and over again when I was in my late teens and early twenties.) “Where’s the Rest of Me” took the form it did because I happened to be reading Guy Davenport’s stories at the time I wrote it. “Blood” takes some of its approach, particularly the descriptions of violence, from the work of Paul Bowles. “The Last Elegy” owes some of its rhythms to Jean Rhys. “Lacuna” is about Poe. “In Exile” contains traces of Samuel Beckett and Ursula Le Guin. “The Lake” got written because for whatever reason one day I asked myself, “What would’ve happened if Ray Bradbury and James Joyce collaborated on a story?” — though the finished story itself isn’t quite that, that inspiration is still obvious. (I’m afraid I find Joyce much more interesting than Bradbury, so his influence took over.)
MB: What does writing about LGBT experiences and relationships mean to you?
MC: On the one hand, it’s just the material of my life—I’m a queer writer with mothers married to each other and a bunch of friends who are every sort of not-or-not-entirely-heterosexual there is and/or who are transgender or genderqueer. That’s my world (plus various token unimpeachably cisgender hetero folks). In that sense, it’s no more remarkable that my stories often include lgbtq experiences and relationships than it is that John Updike’s stories often don’t.
On another hand, it means everything to me because I owe my life to the lgbtq writers I read throughout many difficult, or at least confused, years. To be aware of queerness is, for me, very much tied to being aware of certain ways of writing. Paul Monette and Sarah Schulman and Samuel Delany and David Greenspan and—well, the list goes on and on, but writers made me see queerness as something that is complex, profound, weird, wonderful even when it is so often, yes, terrifying because it is outside social and sexual norms. And of course, I’m of the generation that hit puberty just as the AIDS crisis was hitting the general public’s consciousness. My sexual awareness could not be separated from a political awareness. This is what happens to anybody who suddenly realizes “I am the them people talk about, not the us.”
When I was in college, I did some stuff with ACT UP in New York, and their motto “Silence = Death” is one of the guiding principals of my writing. So while the lgbtq content of my writing is there because such experiences and people are the experiences and people of my life (warts and all), it’s also a political choice on my part to write about such material in the way I do, because this is me saying no, I will not consent to the silence that kills us. (Along with “Silence = Death”, my other favorite slogan from my formative years is that of Queer Nation: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”)
MB: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?
MC: A great friend of mine who is a metalsmith and jeweler has told me she’s going to make me a tiara. I don’t know if she’ll actually have time, but if she does, I’ll wear it. I’m not really one for fashion (I really have no fashion sense), and I often feel awkward at parties, and I’m the worst dancer you’ll ever meet, but if I have a tiara, I will be one fierce debutante!
On 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.
As a Contributing Editor at One Story for the past six years, I’ve been privileged to work with many talented writers, including Megan Mayhew Bergman and Aria Beth Sloss, whose One Story issues both went on to be included in The Best American Short Stories, Jodi Angel, whose piece was chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories, and David James Possiant, whose story was part of his debut collection, The Heaven of Animals, a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize. Editing these authors has been a joy and taught me a great deal about the mechanics of writing and how it works. I know how to use my red pen to help bring fiction to its full potential on the page.
And yet, when it comes to my own writing I often have trouble. Besides my part-time editing job at One Story, I have two young children (ages 7 and 4). When I do manage to carve out an hour or two, the pressure to be productive can be overwhelming and I often find myself drawn away or too discouraged to continue. I suspect I’m not alone here. Whether it’s a job, an aging parent, school, or something else, there are always reasons to undercut our own writing time.
This five-day class is designed to ease the pressure we place on ourselves to be perfect, and to simply get back to having fun on the page again—through the always dramatic, often silly, totally over the top world of soap operas. While it’s easy to dismiss soaps as campy escapism, these daytime dramas tell stories that endure.
With classic soap clips as our guide, each day will contain a lesson, followed by a writing exercise designed to help you hone your skills—from building stellar openings and resonant endings to creating narrative arcs and memorable characters. As the NY Observer once declared (in an article about how literary authors such as David Sedaris and Frank McCourt were secretly watching soaps instead of working on their novels): “Writing can be dull work. The writing on soaps is everything but.”
I’ve wanted to be a fiction writer since I was four years old and wrote my first earnest, terrible poem. When on late nights I ruminate on how that desire has influenced the shape of my life (the smallness of my apartment), I think mostly of the kind, brilliant people who paused their journeys to offer me advice or, at times, a strongly-worded pep talk. Anything I’ve been able to achieve has been because of these helpful souls.
Several years ago I decided to begin teaching because I finally felt I had something to bestow. I wanted to help newer writers by passing along the advice I’d received, and the advice I wish I’d received.
One of the most important tools to cultivate is the ability to allow the constructive criticism of others make your work stronger. To that end, we will workshop stories with this question in mind: where do I think this writer/story is trying to go? We will tailor our critiques toward the idea of helping the writer get there. We will eschew the idea that there is one way to write fiction. We will seek out the joy in our work and the work of others and will cultivate our personal, idiosyncratic voices.
If this sounds good to you, please join us for One Story’s Spring workshop. The workshop will meet weekly on Tuesdays evenings from February 23rd to March 22nd at the One Story Inc. office in Brooklyn. For more information and to apply, please visit the website.
I published my first short story twenty-five years ago, and my love for writing and reading them has only gotten stronger over the years. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that honest, constructive feedback from others is an invaluable part of the process. With that in mind, I hope you’ll consider joining me for One Story’s winter workshop.
Regardless of whether you’re working on a second or umpteenth draft of a short story, this workshop will provide you with helpful criticism and set you on a path for revising. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of fiction’s inner-workings, get to offer your own feedback to other writers, and become part of a close-knit literary community.
The workshop will consist of ten students and will meet weekly on Thursday evenings (Jan. 7th-Feb. 4th) from 7pm to 9:30pm at our office in Gowanus, Brooklyn. I hope to see you there!
In the summer of 1996, a few months after I finished my MFA at Ohio State, I got the luckiest break of my writing career: I landed an editorial job at Story, the fabled literary magazine that prided itself on discovering great new writers, from J. D. Salinger and Carson McCullers in the 1930s and 1940s to Junot Díaz and our own Hannah Tinti in the 1990s.
I say it was the luckiest break of my career because even though I’d been writing fiction for eight years, editing stories taught me how to write them much better. My job at Story also gave me insight into what I could expect when the day came that I’d be working with an editor myself.
In this latest incarnation of our popular editing course, you’ll get a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the editorial process. You’ll also learn to bring the same sharp editorial eye to your own work that the editors of One Story bring to each issue. Daily online lectures will guide you through a case study of a One Story debut, issue #191, “Claire, the Whole World,” by Jonathan Durbin. You’ll follow the story from first draft to publication—studying actual marked-up manuscripts—as the author and editors work together to make the story the best it can be.
In addition to drafts of “Claire, the Whole World,” the ten-day course (November 13th – 22nd) will include daily online lectures, assignments, and a message board where you can share ideas and manuscripts with other writers who are committed to becoming better editors of their own work. To find out more about this course, go here. Deadline to sign up is November 13th.
I hope you’ll join us!
On 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 have the pleasure of chatting with Scott Cheshire, a wonderful and generous person and author. Scott’s debut novel High as the Horses’ Bridles is now available from Henry Holt. The book follows Josiah Laudermilk as he goes from being a twelve-year-old prophet in a religious household in Queens, New York, to a divorced man who goes by “Josie” and owns computer stores in southern California. When his estranged father falls ill and Josie returns to New York to care for him, Josie confronts his past in ways that reverberate into his present and future. Memories of his childhood, his departed mother, his break from the church, and the early years of his marriage collide as he tries to figure out how to be around his father again and how to move forward in life with a clearer vision of his reality. It’s a very relatable family story told through the fascinating lens of religion, history, and love.
Where were you when you found out High as the Horses’ Bridles was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
I was at the Housing Works Bookstore Café, in Soho, when I got the call. Which was fitting as I wrote much of the book there. After the call, I wanted to call my wife and my friends but I resisted that and went outside. I walked around the cobbled streets out front and I tried to be very aware of the moment. I let it sink in. I thought about how long I had been working on the book, how many years. I thought about how long I had been writing. Then I called my wife. I probably got weepy. And then I called one of my teachers, who by then had become a real mentor and friend. I asked him what to do next. He said, start another book, right now, even if it’s shit. That was very good advice.
The title of your book is so perfect. How did you decide on this title and were there any other contenders?
Well thank you so much for saying that. The whole time writing it, the book was called The Ends. I had it at the top of every page. It kept me focused. Everything in the book had to funnel toward that, and so the book became about the many ends of our lives, the end of childhood, the end of love, the end of faith, the end of life, the end of time, even the opposite ends of the country. At some point I realized this was not, in fact, the title of the book, but rather its preoccupation. It also helped that everyone hated that title. I made a list of more terrible titles until it struck me that the title should come from the book of Revelation, since the book itself was birthed from that book and my relationship to it. I read Revelation again and came across the phrase. It seemed poetic, even American, it sounded like a Cormac McCarthy novel (which couldn’t hurt), but actually referred to something quite violent and nightmarish, the depth of sinners’ blood come Armageddon. I liked that tension.
High as the Horses’ Bridles is set mostly in Queens and Southern California, both locations where you have lived yourself. Can you talk about the process of writing a story that takes place in environments with which you are very familiar? And has your recent move back to Southern California from Queens affected your current writing at all?
This is an especially interesting question because I never had plans to live in California again, and yet here I am. Place, I must say, is very important to me. I mean in life and in my reading and writing habits. Place directly affects my mood. For instance, just thinking about the splintery beach of Truro, Mass., gives me peace. I have a photo of that place on my laptop screen. As far as Queens and Southern California, they were the landscapes of the most formative times in my life and so it made sense to write about them. Not to mention, for me, life is sort of a dialog with the physical world. And so my work tends to revolve around characters engaged with the world around them, the trees, the beach, the sidewalks, and subways. As far as returning to California, well, I’m writing about Queens again, but with the beach just minutes away. This makes for a better mood and hopefully makes for better writing.
One of my favorite chapters in the novel is very removed from your own experience—it’s a vivid depiction of a tent revival in nineteenth-century rural Kentucky. What kind of research did you do to create such a believable environment and characters in this section?
This was the last thing I wrote and it happened quite fast. It took about a month of long marathon writing sessions in which locked myself in the bedroom and had my wife bring me lots of coffee. But that only happened after a tremendous amount of research. I took lots of notes but mostly just figured I would use what stayed with me. After writing it, I reached out to a few historians of American religious history who not only responded, but they did so with great enthusiasm. They sent me notes and corrections on things I might consider, or about stuff I got plain wrong. I could not have done it without them.
To me, your novel is ultimately about the often unrealistic expectations that parents place on their children—or even expectations that the children perceive, whether they exist or not—and how families and individuals deal with the dynamics that result from these expectations. Do you agree with this assessment? Have you heard any interpretations of the book that have surprised you?
Well, because the book centers on one family’s religious legacy, people often talk of the book in that context, that it’s a book about religion, but really for me it’s a book about family, first. It’s about fathers and sons. Mothers and sons. So it makes me very happy that you describe it this way. I have heard many differing opinions on the novel. I have been hugged by an atheist who told me he was happy that someone finally wrote a novel about religion from the atheist’s perspective. I have received letters from people thanking me for writing a novel about religion finally from the perspective of the faithful. I have sent at least one woman back to church. All of this pleases me. Probably my favorite response though was from a man in Boston, who bought five copies, one for each of his boys. He said they were going to read the book together. It doesn’t get much better than that. I know writing the book certainly brought me closer to my own family.
What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Ball on May 15th?
I love One Story and have been reading it for years, so it’s thrilling to be a part of this year’s ball. Not to mention I get to put on a tie, and get a haircut, although I need to get new shoes. Since the move out west, I’ve been wearing flip-flops, mostly. Maybe I’ll get a pair of fancy ones to go with my suit.