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.