by Matthew Cheney
Issue #81 • September 30, 2006•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
The man who (my mother said) cried at my birth was the same man who gave me a rifle for my first birthday, a .22 he had built himself. The man who taught me to shoot that rifle as soon as I was able to walk was also the man who taught me to tell deer tracks from bear tracks and bear tracks from moose tracks, to tell poplar from hemlock and oak from pine. The man who screamed at the television every night, as if the politicians and legislators could hear his rants, was the man who night after night through my childhood, and especially in the long cold of each winter, told me stories of good rabbits and bad foxes in the forests, with the good rabbits outwitting the foxes, and the owls overseeing it all.
During the nights now, I remember his stories. And I remember him sitting in a wooden chair in our front yard, shotgun across his lap, head held in his hands, saying to me as I sat beside him, my arm around his leg and my fingers in love with the roughness of his jeans, “I just want them all to leave me alone. It’s the only thing I want in the world.” He looked at me, he ran his giant hand through my hair, he kissed my forehead. I remember his lips were dry and sharp, and the long whiskers of his beard tickled my skin.
Matthew Cheney’s writings have appeared in a wide range of publications, including Failbetter, Rain Taxi, and Locus. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the World Fantasy Award, and he is a regular columnist for the online magazine Strange Horizons. Currently, he teaches at the New Hampton School in New Hampshire.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
MC: I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in the summer of 2000 and was in a workshop with Barry Lopez, a workshop that completely rearranged my thinking about both fiction and language. One of the exercises Lopez gave us was to write about a violent act, but in a particularly deliberate and compassionate way—in a way that attempted to preserve the humanity of both the person committing the violence and the victim. I don’t remember the details, but this exercise got me thinking about the language of violence, because when I was young I had loved gory horror movies and books, but had eventually come to find them angering because of how manipulative and exploitative they were—entire situations were created simply as excuses for violent acts and for inspiring revulsion in the reader or viewer. I don’t find such an approach pleasurable or even justifiable anymore. I’ve seen enough violence in the real world to want to find ways to represent it in language, to shape it and give it meaning, but I also want to do so in ways that do not trivialize human pain and complexity.
I returned home from Bread Loaf and wrote the first draft of this story as a way to explore what I had been thinking about there, so it started as a technical exercise. As the characters and situation became clearer to me, though, I realized that it was all much more than an exercise, and that it could be a way to express feelings and fears that tend to plague me—feelings of disconnection, fears of destruction. Ultimately, despite my best intentions, I always end up writing from the depths of my neuroses.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
MC: Finding the right tone was a great challenge, because the story could easily have become sensationalistic. For a while, I wanted parts of it to be so, because I thought that would be the best way to represent Jill’s inability to assimilate these childhood experiences into her life. My idea was to make the prose less realistic and more expressionistic. I pulled back from that, though, when I realized that I wanted the focus to be on how the characters deal with the events that occur, and the only way I could make that work was to let the structure of the story and the presentation of particular details do the heavy lifting, which meant keeping the prose as quiet and matter-of-fact as I could. At the same time, I wanted it to be lyrical, because I wanted it to feel like a memory—this is a story about, among other things, trauma being remembered, and the effect that it has on the rememberer.
HT: Why does her mother’s death prompt Jill to tell this story?
MC: I don’t want to say too much, for fear of suggesting there is one right answer to the question. I hope each reader will develop their own perception of an answer, because answering it is central to understanding the story, I think. I could be wrong. I will say this: I think Jill feels a tremendous amount of guilt for not having left with her mother during the snowstorm. Jill feels that she should have done something, that she failed everyone. While she was alive, the mother was a reminder of that failure, because their relationship was so empty and forced, when it could have perhaps been different, had Jill chosen to go with her and not stay with her father and the boys. It doesn’t really matter whether her feelings are accurate; she is powerless to get rid of them. We shouldn’t have to feel responsible for fixing our childhoods or ashamed of our powerlessness, but sometimes we do, and such a feeling can be haunting and devastating.
HT: Why did you choose Jill’s point of view?
MC: I can’t write very far in a story until I have the point of view in my mind. I’ve done a lot of playwriting, and in many ways that is my most natural form, because language for me is composed of voices. I wrote from Jill’s point of view because I couldn’t figure out a way to write this story from any other—hers is the voice I heard. It was a voice that allowed me to dig deeper and deeper into the events, to create mysteries and let them linger. I don’t like stories where everything can be explained; they feel dishonest to me. I’m also very interested in the complexities and paradoxes of gender, and telling the story from Jill’s perspective allowed me to create a gendered subtext that is not central to the immediate action but adds, I hope, some texture.
HT: The father in this story is so powerful. How did you come up with this character? And did you know from the beginning that he would die?
MC: I am fascinated by extremism, by the way extreme views and actions shape and limit our language and perceptions. My own father owns a gun shop in rural New Hampshire, and I grew up in a house attached to the shop, so I had a lot of interaction with the customers during my first eighteen years. Some of the customers were truly wonderful people, but many of them were possessed by angry, paranoid, conspiratorial views of the world that I eventually came to find at best ridiculous, at worst dangerous. But it’s a rare person who is immune to extremism of some sort, and that’s what fascinates me. I read Soldier of Fortune magazine religiously when I was in my early teens. The only real form of adolescent rebellion I indulged in was to declare myself a socialist, then an anarchist, then a radical environmentalist. I was involved in some extreme leftist groups in college. Finally, though, I discovered that I was using politics as a cover for the emotional catastrophes of my own life, and that seemed to be true of many of the people around me, too. We were hurt by a world that seemed not to have room for us, and so we wanted to strike back at that world. At a personal level, extremism becomes comforting because within the story we tell ourselves, we are important enough for the Powers That Be to care about us, to be threatened by us, to want to snuff us out. The truth is generally more prosaic: we don’t really matter to the world at large, and in trying to matter to that world, we destroy the world we do matter to: the world of our family and friends. Jill has her own kind of extremism, her own escapist desire, a desire that shapes her entire life, until she runs away to a far off corner of the world and has to come to terms with things.
As for the father, I knew right from the first sentence I wrote that he would die in this story. At some point or another of the writing, I considered killing just about everyone except Jill. I saw her as someone who carried ruins in her heart, someone who was doomed to keep wandering the world in search of a place to set them down and let them rot away. I didn’t think too much while writing it about things like the stand-off at Ruby Ridge or the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, because it’s not quite like those—the family is never attacked. But the father’s paranoia, his desire to be like the people at Ruby Ridge or Waco, destroys him. I’ve known people in radical groups who have expressed a kind of envy of people they consider martyrs, and who seek out martyrdom for themselves, because that then justifies their paranoia and the actions their paranoia inspires.
HT: This story builds an incredible tension as the family gets ready to be attacked, and the violence is described with a terrifying accuracy. Can you talk a little about how you approach writing about violence? Is there a certain technique, with language, that you use? And why does it draw you, as a subject?
MC: I owe a lot to Stephen King, the first writer I ever truly loved. This was when I was in fourth grade and the town library wouldn’t let me borrow Pet Sematary, but I got a copy from somebody’s older brother and read it and it opened up a new world of language to me—a world where words could be terrifying and revolting, but could also make me cry with sadness. Much later, I discovered Paul Bowles, and I’ve tried to model my approach to writing about violence on his, because he had a remarkable ability to write about extreme and extraordinary situations in a prose so careful and specific that it does not sensationalize subjects that are already fraught with sensationalism. J.M. Coetzee is another influence in this respect, a writer I can point to who I’ve consciously tried to learn from. There isn’t any particular technique so much as there is a kind of rhythm and sensibility that I admire in those writers and so tried to cultivate in my own words and sentences and paragraphs.
I think I’m drawn to write about various sorts of violence because living causes me anxiety, and I often feel like every action, every word could turn in the wrong direction and suddenly destroy everything. I write from moments of terror—I am terrified by how thin the boundary between civilization and barbarism is, the boundary between chaos and order, between helping and hurting, and I write to try to convince myself that I have not yet become a terrible person.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
MC: Six years, almost exactly—late summer 2000 to late summer 2006. That’s everything from first draft to final proofing for publication. I did do some significant work on it this summer, but about eighty percent of it is what I wrote six years ago, and I remember writing it fairly quickly then, a week or two. A week or two to create the raw material, six years to shape it.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
MC: The best advice is some I’ve received in a variety of forms over the past twenty years: write honestly, write bravely, write from what really matters. I remember first getting this advice from my uncle when I was about ten or twelve years old and I gave him two stories to read. One was my attempt to write like F. Scott Fitzgerald (I’d read one of his short stories), the other was a fictionalized personal essay about a kid who did fun things one day when school was cancelled because of snow. I thought the Fitzgeraldesque thing was the best story anybody had ever written, a brilliant tour-de-force, and I thought the other one was silly. My uncle told me my attempt to evoke the Jazz Age was pretty weak and tedious, but the story I thought so minor was, he said, clever and amusing and a pleasure to read, because it came from a place of emotional truth, and so it was unique.
I don’t have any desire to write traditionally autobiographical fiction, because I’m just not that interested in myself, but I do know the only times I write well are when I have to find patterns of language for feelings that crawl around beneath the surface of my skin and dig their claws into my bones. It’s not therapy, because it doesn’t get rid of them, but at least it makes it seem like they can serve some function. I write a lot of essays and book reviews, and that never feels particularly revealing, but I get nervous whenever somebody reads my short stories, because it’s in fiction that I feel most naked and vulnerable.
HT: What are you working on now?
MC: My major writing project is an academic thesis for my master’s degree from Dartmouth College, which I’m a bit behind on and so am furiously trying to get into some sort of acceptable shape. I’ve got a bunch of stories coming out in the U.S. and the U.K. in the next twelve months—stories I’ve written over the past ten years—so I’m going to seem prolific all of a sudden, which might help hide the fact that I’m not going to have much time for writing any more fiction until next summer.