by Chris Drangle
Issue #224 • December 31, 2016•Buy Now!
Soleil was on her way to meet Warren for their first date when she ran out of gas. The engine shuddered on its last fumes, and she looked down the highway at a long stretch of nothing. She was alone on the road, save for one pair of headlights drawing closer in the rearview. She put her hazards on, hoping to coast as long as possible, but the vehicle behind her, a black SUV, raced up to her bumper and stayed there. High beams filled her mirrors. She braked and pulled halfway onto the shoulder, and still it loomed close. Teenage girl, no gas, highway at night—she felt her vulnerability like a chill in the air. But as she rolled to a stop, the SUV swerved and accelerated, finally passing her with a snarl of engine rev. She didn’t want to look but did; two men in the cabin stared back, lit red by the instrument panel. The driver had a dark beard.
When the SUV was gone she sat still, waiting for her pulse to calm and trying to convince herself, without much success, that Warren was worth the trouble.
Chris Drangle is a writer from Arkansas. He has taught creative writing at Cornell University, where he earned his MFA, and in Kazakhstan, where he did not speak the language. His fiction has appeared recently in Epoch, Crazyhorse, and the Oxford American, and has been recognized with a Pushcart Prize, the Margaret Bridgman Scholarship at Bread Loaf, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. He lives in Oakland, California.
Will Allison on Optimistic People
This month we’re excited to bring you one of the most shocking, suspenseful short stories ever to cross One Story’s submission desk: “Optimistic People,” by Chris Drangle. Set in rural Virginia, “Optimistic People” is the tale of two teenagers on their first date. Warren and Soleil have plans to meet up in the woods to watch the sunset. Warren is well meaning but dim; as Soleil puts it, “There was a thin line between being good and being a moron, and he straddled it.” Soleil is the new, weird girl in town, her parents having fled Washington D.C. to escape a congressional staff assistant turned stalker.
The teens’ plans go awry when Soleil runs out of gas en route to the meetup. Meanwhile, Warren stumbles upon two men burying a mysterious something in the woods. Minutes later, we meet friendly, disheveled Tom, whose prayers are answered when Warren unearths the pine box in which Tom has been buried alive.
I’m guessing you’ve never encountered a character quite like Tom. (If there’s such a thing as your typical buried-alive guy, this guy is definitely not it.) I won’t spoil the plot by revealing more, but you should know that a man being buried alive is not this story’s most chilling plot twist. That comes later, and it unfolds in a fictional slow motion that will have you turning pages with a delicious sense of dread.
Chris Drangle is still new on the literary scene, having published just a handful of stories, but we look forward to seeing a lot more of his work. You can get to know him in our author interview, where Chris discusses techniques of suspense, his fondness for story titles, and the importance of figuring out why the junebug collapses.
Q&A by Will Allison
If this title works, in the end, I think it’s because these really are optimistic characters. Not all of their brands of optimism will (or should) be palatable to those of us with consciences, but they’re all thinking through their worldviews. They’re trying to make the best of circumstances. So maybe that title is closer to some kind of motivational core, as opposed to the burial/unearthing aspect, which is a mechanism.
To switch metaphors—a few years ago George Saunders gave an interview in which he compared writer and reader to motorcycle and sidecar. The writer wants the reader close enough that they can lean into the corners together. He’s talking about reader expectations, but I think tone plays into this. Tone tells you which way to lean; the adjectives on page one help determine whether a reader will accept the twist on page 20. It’s subtle, maddening work, but that’s what so great about having readers and editors you trust: you get to do human testing. “Here, sit in this sidecar while I drive around like a maniac. Holler if the rig breaks and you go flying into space.”
I don’t think writing dual viewpoints is radically different from writing a story with one, but it is trickier. The sections have to interact in a more sophisticated way than merely existing next to each other. And if the viewpoints are too similar, the characters will feel less substantial, more like puppets that a single narrative intelligence is controlling, without even the courtesy to paint different faces on them. But if they’re individuated enough, and the reader buys the viewpoints as coming from discrete humans, then we’ve got the potential for harmony, dissonance, resonance.
That said, our level of engagement is directly tied to how much we care about Ramona aside from this cellar beast business. If she’s a thinly written stereotype, and we have no emotional involvement, then we’re just waiting on the blood and guts, the cheap thrills. So I think some of the most effective suspense-making techniques are things you should be doing in any story—making characters that a reader will care about. You want the tension to be there whether they’re being chased through the woods or just suffering through a bad date.
The other bit is an offhand comment from an undergraduate poetry workshop I took with Peter Cooley at Tulane. Our class had just finished discussing the elegant style of a student poem in which a junebug attempts to cross a kitchen floor but collapses piteously in the slatted light from the window. We noted the accomplished line breaks, the vivid imagery, the controlled tone—and then fell silent long enough for Dr. Cooley to chime in, marvelously: “But why does the junebug collapse?” He looked around at us. We looked at the table. Someone tapped a pen, someone coughed. “My life is hard,” he said, “and I need help. How does this poem help me? Why does the junebug collapse?”
He was being facetious, yes, but I also took the question as a genuine yearning for the merger of style and substance, for work that uses every tool at its disposal to generate empathy, insight, clarity of one kind or another. So I still ask myself that question, as a check against making shiny, hollow things. “What if someone found someone buried alive” is a fun place to start, but sooner or later you have to figure out why the junebug collapsed.