His Other Fathers
by Michael Byers
Issue #167 • August 1, 2012•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
Soon after his father moved out, Paul acquired his first girlfriend, Kimberly Beebe, pronounced bee-bee. She was a soft-faced maidenly sort of sweet girl who wore calico dresses with interesting rick-rack around what would have been her bustline. She was modest and friendly, and in addition, conveniently for Paul, she was one of those rare girls in seventh grade who, due to some weirdness in their social wiring, attached themselves to the Dungeons-and-Dragons crowd, which was where Paul was. Paul had won Kimberly from her previous attachment to Hart McCarthy by writing her long letters in runic code about his cats and his D&D characters. Obviously his wooing away of Kimberly was treachery but Hart McCarthy was too weedy and underpowered to do anything about it. Both Hart and Paul had ghostly mustaches.
“You’re so corny,” was all Hart said.
Now that Paul was twelve years old his mother had installed a separate phone line for “children’s conversations.” The telephone was red and situated in the attic where Paul’s room was, and where the unswept floorboards seemed to generate blackened nails and rusty carpet staples. While his little brother and crazy adopted sisters hollered and stomped around downstairs Paul talked with Kimberly for hours, the red rubber cord coiling and kinking.
Michael Byers is the author of the story collection The Coast of Good Intentions, the novella The Broken Man, and two novels, Long for This World and Percival’s Planet. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. A native of Seattle, he now directs the MFA program at the University of Michigan.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
MB: This story is sort of high-concept for me, by which I only mean it began as an idea: let’s tell the story of Paul’s coming of age through these brief, almost incidental encounters with one “other father” after another. It struck me as a convenient and unusual structuring mechanism. I couldn’t remember seeing it before, anyway. It’s fair to say, too, that the story has closely personal origins. Like Paul’s parents, my parents divorced when I was in early adolescence, and while I saw my father a lot—he lived only a few miles away—I felt his absence. My household had come apart, as so many did in those days, and the occasional views I got of other lives in robust progress felt critical. These other families seemed to offer clues to ways of being that weren’t mine to experience first hand. But valuable and generous as these glimpses sometimes were to me, like Paul I felt I was growing up with an incomplete set of instructions. I suppose everybody does, one way or another.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
MB: This was one of those stories that came in a rush—but only after a long delay. For several years after I struck on the story’s conceit and title, I had only an outline—more like a list of possible fathers, no actual prose at all. Maybe I had the suspicion that I hadn’t been a father long enough myself to finish the story and so hesitated to begin it. The file with those fifty words or so sat dormant for a long, long stretch, untouched, among a large contingent of fellow story-souls in limbo. Then one day it was time, and the first draft came in a week or so.
HT: Paul falls in love with film while working on a Super 8 movie with his friends. Why do you think he was drawn to this medium? And did you ever make any Super 8s growing up?
MB: Paul’s love for movies arises, I suppose, out of an urge to assemble coherent stories, and that he becomes adept at editing strikes me as, I guess, apropos. At any rate the snippets he preserves from the other fathers feel pretty carefully curated. As for me, I confess to making a movie very much like this one. It was huge fun and hard as hell. These kids with their youtubes and their iphones and all their gadgets, man, they have no idea how hard we had it. Pfah! We used actual film! One take and done! Because it was too expensive to reshoot unless you really screwed up! The last I saw of the finished product, it was in a former girlfriend’s basement, in a box, on two reels. Quite a masterpiece: commercials, blooper reel, the whole nine yards. If it hasn’t oozed into a puddle of decomposed celluloid by now or been tossed entirely I’d be very surprised, but, heck, I have a ton of stuff myself in boxes, so maybe it’s still out there. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go shoo some kids off my lawn.
HT: Do you think these minor interactions taught Paul anything, or helped him become the man is he now? Or are these “fathers” stumbling their way through manhood, just as Paul is?
MB: I worked up each interaction so it might either predict or cause a future for Paul: Kimberly’s father puts an abrupt stop to Paul’s romantic life, Hillary’s father predicts Paul will do well, Patty’s father informs Paul he’s just one in a series, Christa Bell’s father suggests Paul is old enough to make a real connection with an older man; but of course Paul gets little from these fathers, in fact. The story has as a cryptic subject the longing Paul has for male guidance and for some sense of being observed and instructed. Having to piece it together for himself throughout, he does it inexpertly and for the most part without conscious intent, given the available, somewhat meager, resources—hearing things, as he says, from a kind of distance. I hoped the interaction between the title and the obvious paltriness of the interactions Paul has with these men would work to emphasize that very paltriness—that this is all he gets, but he still cherishes it, or at least remembers it. Whether or not the fathers themselves are finding their way through manhood is almost immaterial to Paul, as I see it, as he might be said to be, like all young people, innocently self-centered.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
MB: Well, Charles Baxter told a shivering roomful of us greenhorn MFA students that we didn’t have to live in a garret to be a real writer. We could have a family, a house, a stable life featuring continuity, regular visits to the dentist, etc., without somehow compromising ourselves. I think we all sort of exhaled at this welcome news. And there is a twofold subtext to Charlie’s advice, at least as I hear it now: 1) the whole world can be your subject, no matter how your life happens to be built and 2) you will experience suffering enough, you don’t have to go out hunting it. Both these secret messages have stood me in good stead.