American Short Fiction selects and publishes short stories, short shorts, novellas, and novel excerpts by established and super new writers. It is their goal to discover and publish the best fiction they possibly can-stories that dive into the wreck, that stretch the reader between recognition and surprise, that conjure a particular world with delicate expertise-stories that take a different way..
Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novel The Great Believers, one of the New York Times’ top ten books for 2018, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, winner of the ALA Carnegie Medal, the ALA Stonewall Medal, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Chicago Review of Books Award, and a pick for the New York Public Library’s 2018 Best Books. Her other books are the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and the collection Music for Wartime—four stories from which appeared in The Best American Short Stories. The recipient of a 2014 NEA Fellowship, Rebecca has taught at the Tin House Writers’ Conference and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University. She is Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago. Her story “Webster’s Last Stand” appears in the current issue of American Short Fiction.
Paul Lisicky is the author of The Narrow Door (a New York Times Editors’ Choice), Unbuilt Projects, The Burning House, Famous Builder, and Lawnboy. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Conjunctions, Fence, the New York Times, Ploughshares, Tin House, and in many other magazines and anthologies. A 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, he has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he has served on the Writing Committee since 2000. He has taught in the creative writing programs at Cornell University, New York University, Sarah Lawrence College, The University of Texas at Austin and elsewhere. He is currently an Associate Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in Brooklyn, New York. His sixth book, Later, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in March 2020.
Richard Z. Santos (moderator) is a writer and high school teacher living in Austin. His essays, reviews, and profiles have appeared in Kirkus Reviews Magazine, the Morning News, the Rumpus, the San Antonio Express News, the LA Review of Books and many other publications. He has served as a judge for the National Book Critics Circle Leonard Prize and The Kirkus Prize. His fiction has appeared in multiple places, and he has recently completed his second novel.
Amy Stuber’s flash fiction story “I’m on the Side of the Wildebeest” distills a familiar modern dilemma into a crystallized moment. On a road trip, a mother contemplates a very different childhood for her kids than the one she had—one in which technology, the constant deluge of information, and the threat to the planet create anxieties that are harder to escape. But despite these anxieties (or maybe because of them) we feel the sweet gratitude for a moment that is good, one we know will become a memory that warms her for the rest of her life. It’s like bearing witness to the creation of your own memories, regardless of the time. We had a lovely discussion with Amy about storytelling and parenting in the times we’re in.
Erin McReynolds: I love that you’ve captured a moment that could have happened at any time since the invention of the car, a family road trip, but the family is contending with very modern anxieties: identity theft, climate change, even a world-ending super volcano. What hopes do you have for this particular family?
Amy Stuber: The characters in this story are very much based on my family. When my kids were little, I got carried away with thinking of these “big futures” for them: ivy league, book deals, scientific discoveries, that kind of thing. Now I’m a little more focused on them finding a kind of steady or at least recurring peace and happiness that’s not reliant on mutable things (appearance, climate stasis), moments of either peace or abandon: like wanting the daughter to smoke and drink in a foreign city, wanting both kids to have those “fuck it, things are just good right now” moments. Moments to sort of knit together and carry around.
This story started with me fixating on the idea of my daughter becoming a teenager as I approach fifty and all the weirdness that swirled around aging for both of us. In particular, I was obsessing a little about how women are so often trained to define themselves based on others’ reactions to the superficial: do we look good enough, are people responding to us in the right way, are we getting enough attention, etc. And as I was trying to come to terms with what that entails as I age, there was my daughter: just on the edge of all of that, just starting to receive that gaze.
I was simultaneously angry with myself for caring about the loss of some of that attention for me and fearful for my daughter—hoping so much that she would navigate all of that better than I had in my teens and twenties and hoping that the world had evolved enough to see her as more than an object. This was right in the midst of the Kavanaugh hearings, and I’m sure that spurred some of this as well.
That is all at the core of this story for me, and the identity theft and climate change kind of made sense in that sphere of ideas because all of those things are about losing a version of yourself or a place and not having control over any of it, about recognizing that but finding bits of escapism or okay-ness where you can.
EM: The narrator tells us, “There’s definitely a cruelty to the fact that my children’s childhood is this doomsday prophecy of climate change, micro-greens, ugly hybrids, and Trump, while mine was bell-bottoms, Twinkies, skateboarding, Soul Train, and only a shadowy sideline concern about possible nuclear war.” I remember movies and pop songs were filled with references to nuclear war, plus pollution, etc. so these threats were always there, but in this fantasy, trivial sort of way that, especially if you were a kid, made them exactly that: “a shadowy sideline concern.” As a parent and someone who’s worked in education, do you think the way modern kids demonstrate and deal with these anxieties is different from the way we did?
AS: I think the key difference, and you hear this all the time, is just the increased access to information. My son checks the news app every day multiple times. I had to remove that news app from my daughter’s phone for a while because it was stressing her out so much. There’s this hypervigilance that comes with the constant alerts and rapid stream of information, and I think that creates a sense of anxiety for all of us, kids especially.
When I was in my early twenties, pre- everyone having a cell phone, I used to take these really long bike rides out in the country, and there was just this amazing luxury to that time away from all reachability and contact. We don’t have that now. So, yes, while “99 Luftballoons” and The Day After and lines at the gas station loomed over my childhood, there were also some zones of separation from reality that many kids could create (depending, of course, on circumstance, and I know this construct relies on a certain level of privilege).
I’m not trying to do some nostalgic “back in my day” thing, but I do wish my kids had that kind of respite and space and detachment from the flow of information. But for them there will never be a world in which they will not think “Oh, I can just Google that.” Also, while they are so fortunate in many ways, I feel incredibly sorry for them growing up with these utter doomsday scenarios about what the world will look like in twenty or fifty years and a current President who is too ignorant to even acknowledge this as a threat.
I’m happy to be loosely part of the group of people making stuff that might give someone out there a minute of “yes, I feel like that sometimes, too.”
EM: Yeah, you can see artists trying to work through those very real threats in the resurgence of speculative fiction and sci-fi centered around climate change—what exactly might happen, and who will we be afterward? On that note, what are you responding to most often in your stories?
AS: Motherhood did something weird to me. I guess it does to everyone, but my version was this: I went from being a somewhat self-destructive risk-taker to someone far more fearful and reticent. And the general angst and worry of parenting against the backdrop of our current climate situation is entirely terrifying, so I usually don’t feel the need to project into some post-climate-catastrophe future to create tension. I feel like we’re there already in a lot of ways. We’re seeing situations right now that are affecting where people can/should live and whether people have access to the resources they need.
So while there’s a lot of post-apocalyptic “cli-fi” that I like as a reader (Edan Lepucki’s California is the first thing that comes to mind), that future version of things is not really where my mind goes. I’m often trying to create something beautiful and resonant but also a tiny bit escapist.
In real life, I like humor a lot and gravitate toward odd, funny people, and I’m trying to get that part of myself and life a little more into my writing lately, because I think we need an antidote to all this worry—but it’s challenging!
EM: What are you thinking about lately?
AS: I hope it doesn’t sound cliché to say so, but I’m thinking a lot about representation. I know the publishing world still has a long way to go, but it’s changed so much for the better in the last thirty years. It’s amazing to see writers of color and LGBTQ writers being so deservedly amplified. I mean, I know there are still the Dan Mallory stories where you think “only a white man could get away with that,” but then there’s Bryan Washington and Tyrese Coleman and Tommy Orange and Paige Lewis (I kind of hate starting to list writers because then I will look back at this and think “what about ____?!?” so I’ll stop there). But I love getting on Twitter and just seeing how things are opening up and broadening, and I think this is often best represented in the world of literary magazines, especially some of the smaller ones, where things are super current and less dependent on mass market sales.
I’m also very into photography and music and have often used photos and songs as prompts both as a teacher and in my own work. I love coming upon a photographer or musician whose work I don’t know and then letting an image or a song or an album filter into or inform a story. Most of my stories grow out of repeat listens to particular songs or albums. Oh and I love TV. That’s not very literary, but it’s true—everything from shit shows like The Bachelor to good ones like Better Things. And what I watch sometimes informs my work—in terms of ideas and settings—sometimes almost as much as what I read.
EM: TV is so good right now! I love Better Things but I can’t decide if [Pamela Adlon’s character] Sam is raising strong, confident young women or total narcissists—they’re so awful to her, I find myself yelling at the TV. What’s your take, as the mother of a teenage girl?
AS: My daughter would kill me for saying this, but I jokingly/lovingly call her Max (the eldest daughter on Better Things) sometimes, like if she’s yelling at me in a certain kind of way. The way Sam’s kids act kind of speaks to how many of us parent these days: a little too involved, a little boundary-less—really different from how I was parented (like the “throw them in the playpen while we smoke and clean and drink coffee” method). So I totally relate to Sam and to the kids. They are kind of awful sometimes but also—to me, at least—sympathetic and very much reflections of the time and place where they live. And side note: why the fuck has it taken so long for there to be a nuanced, believable, funny, sad, everything woman this age on TV?
EM: I know! I wish Sam had been on TV when I was a way more malleable twentysomething in need of a role model; she’s harder to mimic now that I’m full-on neurotic. What are you working on at the moment?
AS: I’m always trying to write a novel, but I just don’t know if my brain and attention span work that way. I’m pretty easily distracted. But I am trying to do a novel based on a story I published in Copper Nickel last year—it’s a multi-generational thing, and if I describe it I’m afraid it will sound generic, so I won’t.
I have a completed collection of stories that I’ve sent out to small presses this year, and I’m also working on a collection where each story is inspired by either an author or musician who has just made me think a lot over the years. (I recently published one of the pieces, “Edward Abbey Walks into a Bar,” in Joyland, and “Dear Joy Williams,” which was in Split Lip’s second print issue in March.)
EM: I loved “Dear Joy Williams”! In your post about that story you write “I was coming out of a few non-writing years and the mindfuck of parenting young children when I started rereading all of her books in some attempt to crack myself back open.” I relate to that so much; when I am in a non-writing spell, I crack myself back open with Amy Hempel.
AS: Thank you, and oooh! Amy Hempel is one of my all-time favorites. Hempel and Jayne Ann Phillips seem kind of like the mothers of flash fiction. I just read Hempel’s new collection, and the title story “Sing to Me” accomplishes a remarkable amount in a few hundred pretty simple words.
EM: Do you mind if I ask if and how you make a living while being an artist? How does the balance work for you?
AS: I work full-time in education administration, and I’ve had this same job in slightly altered forms since 2002. As far as writing goes, working full-time means I write during little five-minute breaks here and there or on weekends or in the evenings or in Notes on my phone while I’m taking a walk (that’s actually the way I’ve started nearly every story I’ve written in the last year).
Like almost every writer I know, I’d love to be able to just write in long stretches on weekdays, but that does not happen. I feel pretty lucky to have a full-time job that allows me a little flexibility. I will say that it took me a solid ten years after having kids to find the head space to even think about writing while also working full-time.
I also went through a long period where every time I started writing, I would just think “who cares?” And then I slowly started to get back to being able to focus and commit to different stories. Last year I felt this intense push to produce and publish so I was very manic about all of it, and it was exhausting. This year, my goal is to read more, take more in, and try to be sure writing actually feels enjoyable and I don’t feel this clock-ticking panic about “success.”
EM: I hear you. I’m in an awful, lingering “who cares?” period right now. It’s hard—when you’re bombarded with crazy, intolerable headlines all day, every day—to follow an idea as simple as a mother trying to take in a complete moment with her family on a road trip. And yet it’s just as important, isn’t it, telling small, true stories about the sweetness and sorrow of being human?
AS: Maybe I’m wrong to make this about gender, but do people who identify as female tend to worry about this more? I think “who cares” comes from a place of “do I matter enough” and “is my story worth telling,” and historically, there’s definitely been a hierarchy in terms of what voices get the page space. But, yeah, there’s also this sense of “the world is burning, and we have monsters in control, so why am I writing a short story?” It seems really self-involved and maybe like not the best use of time [but] I feel kind of compelled to keep writing, even if doing so sometimes feels silly and vain.
I do think art provides respite for people, and, particularly for people who’ve felt marginalized, seeing something familiar on the page can be absolutely life-giving. I’m not lumping myself into that or trying to claim that in any way, but I’m happy to be loosely part of the larger group of people making stuff that might give someone out there a minute of “yes, I feel like that sometimes, too.”
I push myself past the “who cares” a lot by trying to stop thinking about what I’m going to do with what I write and [instead] write because it often makes me feel better. I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, and addiction, and writing has been the one thing to take me out of my head or make sense of whatever I can’t seem to escape in my brain. Even if it’s sometimes frivolous, it’s also been good for me. There’s really nothing like being right in the middle of composing something you feel truly excited about.
Amy Stuber’s fiction has appeared in The New England Review, Ploughshares, The Colorado Review, Copper Nickel, West Branch, Hobart, and others. She has new work forthcoming in 2019 in J Journal, Joyland, Pithead Chapel, Hobart, Split Lip, and Wigleaf. She serves as a flash fiction reader for Split Lip and works by day in education administration. Find her on Twitter at amy_stuber_ or online at www.amystuber.com.
Rose kept a notebook near and recorded her phone conversation with her mother, just because. A part of her, the part that supported herself and paid for her condoms, cigarettes, and rent, assumed a recording of her conversation with her mother might one day come in handy. Her mother wasn’t afraid of psychological blackmail. She was constantly reminding Rose of the things she should be grateful for. Rose was grateful. She pressed record.
Rose’s mother’s voice was muffled by wind sounds; she was driving along a busy highway in Southern California with her windows open. Just the sort of thing her mother would do in order to complicate the conversation, which in this case was about an advertisement Rose had placed in a newspaper. Rose wrote the advertisement as an experiment. Though, because nobody had yet responded, the outcome remained uncertain. The ad Rose placed requested something deranged. At first it had read someone deranged, but Rose quickly realized that that wasn’t quite right.
What does something deranged even mean? her mother demanded.
Rose explained to her mother, who was angling to get into a car accident (as was her way), that she had written the advertisement using those words because she wanted a response that would be more direct.
How’s your thesis advisor? Rose’s mother asked.
It was a big question, whether Rose’s mother simply avoided taking the bait or if she simply didn’t listen to a thing her daughter said. Rose bet on the former, because despite being a terrible driver who insisted on driving, her mother was not a stupid woman.
He’s narrow and arguable, Rose answered her mother.
Rose’s mother wanted to know if her daughter was subsisting on coffee produced from a plastic cone: What’s wrong with electric coffeemakers? Why all the fuss about taste, about nuance? I’d be remiss not to point this out, her mother said, defiantly sucking and smacking on her nicotine gum.
Her mother then requested that Rose listen up and stop fucking around with experiments and get busy engaging with the public in a less abstract manner. Why not go to a mall? Or a movie?
Rose knew when to ignore her mother. She admired her mother, plotted to assassinate her mother, or ignored her mother. At her age those were the remaining options.
The sound! It’s all muffled! her mother complained, before quickly going on to ask Rose if she was spending the entirety of her days in the library.
Remember, Rose, you need fresh air, her mother reminded her. Ever since you were a little girl you’ve needed air. Perhaps you should consider getting a small pet. Pets are calming.
Her mother saw so many young people, around Rose’s age, contently walking small dogs around in the middle of the day like they had no place else to be. Her mother wouldn’t even speculate about how they fed the creatures, given the job market. She wouldn’t worry Rose about the future.
Give me a minute, her mother said as she repositioned herself. Her car seat was sticky, she explained. It was sweaty and sunny and sticky in Southern California, and she’d spilled her diet ice tea all over her lap. It was the least they could know about one another.
Sure thing, Mom.
Rose tried her mother on her ten-minute work breaks. She smoked on her break and was looking forward to finishing her cigarette. Because after her cigarette the call would be over and she would feverishly lick her menthol-flavored lips, up and down, down and up like a high-speed elevator. She never carried mints or orange-flavored lozenges or even tea tree oil toothpicks to mask the smell. On her smoke breaks Rose considered packing up her shit in Brooklyn and moving farther west to Washington State or Alaska, although she knew that wouldn’t get her anywhere. Alaska would one day be submerged in water. But people still did it. They moved west to discover something new.
Have you heard from your cousin Lena? her mother asked, for the hundredth time in the last week. She’s so pretty and so lonely, her mother said about Rose’s cousin Lena. To think how popular Lena once was.
For a moment Rose considered hitting pause on the recording. She felt like a penguin that continues to flap its wings without ever getting off the ground
I worry most about the popular ones, Rose’s mother went on. If I recall correctly, her mother said, your cousin was pretty darn good at putting sentences together. She could help you with your advertisement. Lena knew how to grab attention, even if she’s struggling now in her tiny studio apartment stuffed with feral cats.
She only wished her daughter would eat something nutritious. She only wished her daughter would forget about the silly ad.
Why print anyhow? her mother asked. I thought youth spent more time online, aren’t all the available men online?
But that had nothing to do with it. Jesus, what did men have to do with it?
Rose had in fact contacted her cousin Lena about the advertisement, and her cousin had suggested that Rose aim to get what she wanted by pretending. Her cousin advised Rose to imagine a language for water jugs. Lena said guys like fluidity. She suggested Rose try to be more relaxed in general. She said, Rose, be tranquil. Think: turquoise. Think: Taos, New Mexico. Limitless landscape, limitless barren landscape and you are the water jug. Lena said water jugs and turquoise were the epitome of relaxed and that Rose should endeavor to be that way.
I see, her mother said understandingly. Well, as long as you recognize that the simulation of drowning isn’t really drowning.
Rose’s mother had an uncanny knack at changing the subject matter when it suited her. Like the time when Rose nearly cut off her pointer finger and her mother returned home with a synthetic tangerine blouse from Sears, or when she told her mother she was gay and her mother gave her four Norco and two fingers of gin and sent her off to nap.
Humor me, Rose. Jesus, where’s your sense of humor? You used to be funny! I bet your cousin Lena would have something to say about the importance of humor. I know she’d agree with me if I said fun and humor are good for a relationship’s longevity.
Mom, is it off-putting that I want to be called a cunt in bed?
I need a real cigarette, her mother said. Your experiments are killing me, Rose.
Go forward, you useless asshole, it’s a green light! her mother yelled into the receiver.
Mom, did you try honking?
Rose’s mother asked if she’d made her doctor’s appointment for her IUD replacement. It was important to keep up on these things, her mother reminded her.
Mom, can I tell you something that’s weighing on me? Rose asked, when she felt an opening.
I’m trying to listen, Rose, I really am, her mother said.
Earlier that day, as Rose made her way to work, she’d come across a blindfolded child and now it was all she could think about. It was hailing in Greenpoint. The boy was drenched to the bone, icy and alone in a fenced-in yard relentlessly hitting a piñata in the shape of a donkey with a baseball bat. Wack. Wack. Wack. Over and over like neither he nor the piñata, nor the bat, were really there, like they were imitations of what life should be like.
Was he sick? Was it his birthday? her mother speculated.
Rose had stopped to ask the blindfolded child if needed any help, and when she looked inside the effected paper donkey, it was empty. Not a single piece of candy or plastic toy was inside. The boy wasn’t after candy or prizes or treats. He was unfazed by the emptiness of the donkey.
Perhaps he isn’t bothered by anything, her mother said.
That’s just it, Rose said. Perhaps he’s bothered by everything.
I’m pulling into the driveway now, Rose’s mother cautioned about the dwindling reception. That damned mangled rat is still on the barbed wire fence! she yelled into the receiver.
Rose wanted to be helpful. She despised herself for it, her tendency to be helpful when she should have been setting up boundaries to protect herself. Rose would try again tomorrow on her break.
Mom, you know you can use the rake to catapult the rat into the ravine for the hawks to fetch.
What’s that? Listen, Rose, make sure to contact your cousin Lena. Be grateful that she loves you like a sister. I can’t bear to think of her with all this weather, and to think of her all alone in that stuffy studio apartment, cats crawling over her furniture, crawling all over her pretty face during this time of year. You, I know you’ll get by. You always do, Rose.
I think I’m losing you, Mom.
The moment came, that itchy moment in a call when you don’t know if it has dropped, if your words are no longer being received. Rose’s finger moved to stop recording, but she just let it hover there.
Nora Lange‘s writing has appeared in Denver Quarterly, The Fairy Tale Review, The Morning News, Juked, LIT, Hobart, HTMLGIANT, Birkensnake, The Hairpin, Two Serious Ladies, and elsewhere. Lange received her MFA from Brown University’s Literary Arts Program where she was a Kaplan Fellow. She is currently hard at work revising her first novel.
Esmé Weijun Wang is the author of the novel The Border of Paradise and the best-selling essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias, published in January. Called “riveting” by NPR and “mind-expanding” by the New York Times Book Review, The Collected Schizophrenias offers an intimate and rigorously nuanced exploration of the myriad meanings of schizophrenia—cultural, sociomedical, and personal. In this interview, we talk structure, subjectivity, and liminality.
Jennifer duBois: Can you talk a little about the origins of the collection, and the process of arranging its structure?
Esmé Weijun Wang: The first published essay in the collection was “Perdition Days,” which Nicole Cliffe took for the now-defunct Toast; after I saw what an amazing response that piece received, I was then inspired to write more essays about the schizophrenias, including essays that were more journalistic and less based in my own experience.
I did approach my former agent a number of times to see if they might be interested in representing an essay collection based on those essays. They were not. I kept writing and asked a few more times. My final ask occurred at a fancy lunch in Manhattan; they said, again, that they were not interested. A number of months later, I saw that the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize was accepting submissions, and I happened to have the bare minimum of what they needed for a book-in-progress. I sent the nascent essay collection to Graywolf, and I ended up winning the prize; had I not won, the book would’ve died right there.
The process of arranging the structure was both extremely deliberate and fairly organic. Steve Woodward, my editor at Graywolf, and I went into the project knowing that we wanted the book to have more of a narrative arc than just, Here are a bunch of essays with a general theme thrown into one book. So, I would suggest some essay topics and write the new essays, and then we would try and see how those essays might arrange themselves in the book. We ended up combining some essays, or cutting some essays and keeping a few paragraphs from them.
JD: One of the things I admired most about this book was its comfort with liminality and its ability to inhabit multiple truths and possibilities simultaneously. I’m thinking here of “Chimayo” and “Beyond the Hedge,” where you examine some of the different frames/lenses you’ve deployed to understand and manage illness. I’d love to hear you talk a little about liminality and irresolution in your collection. Did the resistance to firm conclusions arise naturally, or is it something you’ve had to strive for?
EW: Thank you for bringing this up. My resistance to firm conclusions is absolutely a result of how I approach essay-writing in general; it’s not something I have to strive for. When people approach me with questions like, “So what *do* you think about involuntary hospitalization?”, I just shrug. I’m not the kind of nonfiction writer who is constantly making arguments. Instead, I’m constantly asking more questions. I think of the book as first laying the groundwork for the discussion, and then introducing questions, and then [raising] more questions. I want the book to instigate discussion.
JD: In “Perdition Days,” you speak about being advised against consuming fiction while delusional, and in other essays you explore the sometimes-fragile boundary between narrative and self. You also write movingly—in “High-Functioning” and elsewhere—about your strategies of self-presentation. Can you share a little about how these through lines shaped your approach to conveying the subjective experience of mental illness in this collection?
EW: One could argue that I am the most unreliable narrator possible, because of my diagnoses and the premise of the book. But I ask the reader to hold all of these things in their mind at once: I have a mental illness; I am the narrator; I have insight; I am thought of as high-functioning; this is my story. There have been a number of reviews that focus on this notion—I think the New York Times did, especially, with a headline of “Self-Evaluation.” And I am only telling my story, and giving my experience. I cannot presume to be telling anyone else’s story of the schizophrenias, unless I have interviewed them and am telling their story that way.
JD: In addition to being an essayist, you are also the author of a tremendous novel (The Border of Paradise, 2016) which touches on some of the themes present in your collection. I’m curious to hear about your approach to handling mental illness in your novel and your thoughts about the representation of mental illness in fiction more generally.
EW: I never thought I would write nonfiction, so when I wrote Border, I intended to put everything I wanted to about mental illness into that book. There’s a lot in that novel about the visceral experience of psychosis, which I hadn’t found satisfying in other books.
I’m currently working on a new novel, and it seems that mental illness will appear in this book as well. I’m not completely sure, but I continue to find the representation of mental illness in fiction to be a challenge, the existence of which I hope continues to improve.
JD: What has been interesting/exciting/inspiring to you lately? What should folks who loved your collection read next?
EW: I’ve been in love with Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi. It’s been lauded, and for good reason—Emezi has written something like nothing else. They also have a YA book out soon, called PET. I’m really looking forward to that.
Esmé Weijun Wang is the author of the New York Times-bestselling essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias and the acclaimed novel The Border of Paradise. She received the Whiting Award in 2018 and was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists of 2017. She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in San Francisco.
Jennifer duBoisis the author of the award-winning novels A Partial History of Lost Causes and Cartwheel. The recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, duBois teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University. Her new novel, The Spectators, was published earlier this month.
Jennifer duBois, author of the acclaimed novels Cartwheel and A Partial History of Lost Causes, has a new novel that was published last week: The Spectators. LitHub lists it as one of the “Most Anticipated Books of 2019,” and Booklist calls is “brilliantly conceived” and “utterly unforgettable.” An excerpt from The Spectators was published in Issue 63 of American Short Fiction.
In this interview, we dig into the genesis of duBois’s latest novel, its structural challenges, and what nineties talk show culture can tell us about our current cultural moment.
Stacey Swann: The Spectators is such a wonderfully expansive novel, burrowing inside not just three decades of New York City but also exploring the gay rights movement, the AIDS crisis, school shootings, and TV talk show culture. I’m always so curious to hear about how novels accrete their layers of subject matter. What sparked the initial genesis of the novel? And could you tell us a little about how those other layers found their way in?
Jennifer duBois: The initial genesis of the novel was a This American Life episode I first heard back in 2012, which explored the surprising backstory of Jerry Springer. He’d begun his career as a promising politician—he was a beloved city councilman in Cincinnati, and he drew regular comparisons to JFK and Reagan—and the early iterations of his show had actually been pretty substantive and serious-minded. I was especially interested in an episode that occurred mid-way through Springer’s political career—he was felled by public scandal (after being arrested for paying for a prostitute with a check!), endured a hell of a lot of public shaming and mockery, but ultimately triumphed and went on to run successfully for mayor. I was fascinated by this entire trajectory—how someone could seem to change so profoundly across a relatively short span of time—and especially by the ways in which having experienced both sides of spectacle would affect someone. Springer’s role on his show was as the ringleader of a circus act—but he’d been the act himself, not so long ago.
So that’s where the interest in nineties talk show culture came in, and that led to a whole host of cultural questions—some very unique to the nineties, and some incredibly relevant today. I was interested in exploring the sort of moral hysteria that arose from what was seen as a coarsening in the culture back then—the worries over video games, trash TV, death metal music—and of course I was thinking about Columbine, and the conversation about the cultural origins of that event (Marilyn Manson, etc). In some ways, the conversation about school shootings is very different today—I don’t think we look for overarching cultural explanations in our pop culture, per se—though in a lot of ways it’s exactly the same, i.e. there will always be people who want to talk about gun violence in terms of anything but guns.
I was interested in exploring Matthew/Mattie’s story through the prism of two characters with wildly divergent views of him: Semi, his lover, who goes from completely enamored to completely disillusioned; and Cel, his publicist, who begins by hating her boss and ultimately comes to a much more complicated and sympathetic view of him. It’s hard to remember for sure now, and so much of this stuff is unconscious anyway, but I think the origins of Matthew as gay probably came from contemplating that Springer scandal—the prostitute with a check—and imagining what it would be like if the scandal had been a real love story, and if the other person got to tell it. Dealing with the AIDS crisis was then just an inevitable outcome of creating gay characters who were alive during this particular period of history, although certainly a lot of thematic issues—about the act of witnessing, especially—arose pretty organically from that subject matter.
SS:The novel evokes a New York City that feels both specific and lovingly rendered, but also clear-eyed and honest. It’s easy to forget how different New York was just twenty years ago. What’s your own relationship to NYC?
JD: I’m just a fan. I’ve never lived there, though I always wanted to.
SS: The Spectators toggles between two different narrative through-lines, and Semi’s through-line covers many more years than Cel’s. Yet you always leave the reader feeling grounded, and the transitions are so smooth I easily slid from one character to the other without any resistance. Was it hard to find a structure that evoked that feeling of unity between the two stories?
JD: Oh my god, it was a total nightmare. I experimented with so many different structural strategies—at one point I had Cel’s backstory moving backward, crossing with Semi’s forward-moving present story around the occasion of Hallie’s comet—and really, I have no idea why. It was just this elegant idea I became attached to in an outline—it didn’t really mean anything to the characters, and it probably would have come across as a contrivance to any readers who noticed it all. I’ve always been drawn to structural complexity—I find it challenging and fun—but I think there’s always a risk of getting mired in top-down concerns like that, trying to create some fussy Nabokovian Rube-Goldberg machine when you’re better off just telling the damn story.
SS: As a reader, I always love multi-POV novels and how they show the impacts of perspective on how we view the events of a novel. All your novels excel at this: the four third-person perspectives of Cartwheel, and the dual point of views of both your first novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, as well as The Spectators. Could you elaborate on why multi-perspective novels appeal to you as a form?
JD: I’ve always been interested in how different people can look at the same person or situation and come to radically different conclusions; that’s pretty explicitly the premise of Cartwheel. This novel is similar in that there are two perspectives on the same person, although they don’t permanently diverge as much as evolve in different directions; ultimately, it’s a novel about two people who look at someone else and change their minds. I’ve always thought that I was drawn to multiple perspectives in part because I get bored pretty easily; I can tire of writing a certain character but find the wherewithal to write a little more if I change perspectives, and this was a natural strategy back when I was teaching part-time and had time to write. Now that I don’t have any time, multiple points of view has become a real headache (ditto the structural bells-and-whistles), which is part of why my next project is one timeline, one point of view, and unfolds entirely linearly.
SS:I found the conversations around the TV talk show culture of the eighties and nineties in the novel surprisingly relevant. Instead of spectating as guests relate their oddities, we have first row seats to their actual actions via reality TV. Instead of passing judgements in our heads, we now pass judgement for an audience via Twitter. (Not to mention the escalation of school shootings.) Do you worry about our trajectory, as a culture, with these forms of spectating and passing judgement?
JD: Yikes. Yes. To such an extent that I fear venturing anything further, for fear of being judged on Twitter. In a lot of ways, obviously, we’re evolving in a more humane, empathetic, inclusive direction. It’s encouraging to think that some of the kinds of characters who were presented as objects of ridicule on shows like Springer would be understood in entirely different terms today; we are a lot more onboard with the idea that there are many, many ways to live a life. On the other hand, we’re also in an era of transparent moral posturing, ludicrous snap judgments, and sadistic public pile-ons; I’m terrified every day by how certain everyone on the internet seems about absolutely everything. (And obviously given the political moment we’re in, that stuff is among the least of our problems.) But I don’t think the impulses behind any of that stuff is actually new; the technology is new, and has its own particular implications, and the cultural moment we’re in has its own unique incentives for certain kinds of shittiness—but ultimately I suspect a lot of that ugliness is pretty baked into human nature.
SS: The Spectators is also full humor is in the book. Here’s an example from one of Cel’s chapters: “They are Wall Street types, mostly, wearing suits, giving off vibes that are by varying degrees restless, sexual, cocaine-y, or straightforwardly murderous.” Also, Cel herself mentions having taking improv classes and likes to go to the Comedy Cellar. It’s such a pleasure, and a rarity, to read a novel that is both heartbreaking and can still make you laugh, again and again. I’m curious as to which authors make you laugh?
JD: I love George Saunders, especially Lincoln in the Bardo. I love Zadie Smith and Jennifer Egan and Grace Paley. I love Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Heinrich Böll’s The Clown—I’m a sucker for a curmudgeonly first-person.
SS:Through Semi and his circle of friends, we witness a community that is blasted apart by the AIDS crisis of the eighties. What sort of research did you do to achieve such an effective evoking of that time?
JD: I read a lot of the classics—And The Band Played On, Andrew Holleran’s Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited, Fenton Johnson’s gorgeous memoir Geography of the Heart—and watched many, many documentaries. I also read a bunch of somewhat adjacent books. I read a book about Ed Koch’s mayorship—I’ve forgotten more about the possibilities and limitations of municipal governance than anyone should ever know—and a book about the Stonewall riots. Most of the stuff about Stonewall got cut from The Spectators, ultimately, but it informed my sense of Semi and his milieu.
SS:I am very inspired by your productivity as a writer, this being your third novel to come out in the past seven years. Can you tell us a bit about your next project yet?
JD: It’s got some of the same DNA as my last two books—it’s interested in ways different individuals arrive at different ideas about truth—but it’s entirely different in terms of structure and scope. It’s going to be one perspective and one timeline, thank god. It will also be extremely short.
JENNIFER DUBOIS’s debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was the winner of the California Book Award for First Fiction, the Northern California Book Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction. Her second novel, Cartwheel, was the winner of the Housatonic Book Award fiction and was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award. The recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, duBois teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University. Her third novel, The Spectators, is available now.
STACEY SWANN’s debut novel, Olympus, TX, is forthcoming from Doubleday in 2020. Her short fiction has appeared in Epoch, Memorious, Versal, and other journals.
In a cloud, at night. Or like an army at sunrise. To every tree and every spike of grass, every ridgepole, every windowsill, they came. To every clothesline, especially. From the candy-coated wires, they formed strings—onions braided together by their tops—and we woke to find them swaying.
Don’t open the door, we say to our daughter.
Our daughter puts her hand on the knob, but the lock catches. Click. We imagine the chubby tips of her fingers nibbled down to their pin-thin bones.
They’ll come down the chimney. My husband’s voice is muffled, his head swallowed up by the flue.
Our daughter watches us stuff first a week’s worth of newspapers, then a bundle of rags I’d been saving for quilts, then a throw blanket, our winter coats, and finally the plaid sofa cushions, all into the gaping maw of the fireplace. She points there, there, where we have left cracks.
At noon, my husband and daughter sit at the kitchen table while I heat up leftover soup on the stove, slice apples, pour milk. We hopscotch between anxiety and a cool, clean calm.
By tomorrow they’ll surely move on, my husband says. The spoon goes into his mouth and stays there.
At dusk, the moths begin to stir. Our daughter switches on the living room lamps and stands at the window. The moths flock to her, as if summoned. Only the thick, golden glass prevents them from worshipping at her feet.
We switch off the lamps, but we do not sleep.
At dawn, the sun burns away an opalescent mist, revealing moths spread like lichen across the vinyl siding, stacked a dozen high on the rooftops, hanging from the eaves. Through our living room windows, we can see our neighbors on all sides, through their living room windows, pacing or shaking their heads back and forth in a gesture of this cannot be. Sometimes they pause to peer out at us, too. No one waves.
Our daughter stands on the cushion-less sofa, spreads her arms, and jumps.
She’s turning into a moth, we say to each other. We mean it as a joke, and we laugh together, but our laughter is nervous.
Good moths rest during the day, my husband tells our daughter later when he’s laying her down for an afternoon nap.
I’m a bad moth, she says.
Another day is snuffed by night, by the dusky flap of wings.
On the third morning, a hurricane of moths blows around in full force, obscuring every streak of sunrise. We keep checking the clocks, uncertain time is passing. Our neighbors are not at their windows anymore.
We’ve finished the cereal and the bread. The milk has soured, the apples turned mealy and soft overnight. The soup is gone. We don’t feel like eating, anyway, but we sit at the table together, scratching our shins with our feet. Our daughter gazes longingly out the window, chewing on her napkin.
This can’t go on much longer, my husband says. We’ll all starve or go crazy. His voice pokes holes in the cotton I’ve stuffed in my ears—I don’t want anything crawling inside.
What is it they want? His fist pounds the table. The corners of his mouth are crusted white.
They’re only moths, I say.
They’re a plague.
Our daughter slides off her chair and climbs into my lap. I clasp her warm, wormy body. Beneath butterfly-printed pajamas, I can feel the firm ridges of her abdomen. Her head smells of earth, loamy-sweet.
I think they just take some getting used to, I whisper into her hair.
My husband leaves the table and crouches by the fireplace, testing the warp and weft of the cushion barrier. He paces from window to window, jiggling the sashes, thentwists the knob on the front door. We listen to the lock catch. Click.
As if in answer, one of the moths bumps its hard skull against the kitchen window. Tap. Then another. Tap. Tap. Then another and another and another. Tap. Tap. Tap. Click. Click. Click. Tap. Tap. Click. Click. Tap. Click. Tap. Click. Tap. Click. Tap. Click. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
They’re attacking. My husband tears at his mouse-colored beard. They’re attacking.
I nod in time to the taps.
I’m going out there. They can’t do this to us.
I can barely hear him through the cotton. The clicks and taps mean—who knows what any of it means.
Over each pane of glass the moths swarm and whorl, blotting out any hope of light. If the clotheslines and trees have not been eaten, I cannot see them. If the neighbors are still alive, I cannot recall their names. Inside the cocoon of our home, none of this should matter.
I stuff so much cotton in my ears I expect my brain to bubble out my nose.
In the darkness and the quiet, our furniture is nearly unrecognizable. Was this our kitchen table? Was this our coin-specked floor? It’s difficult to tell how much time has passed. Every horizontal surface is covered in a film of pale dust, and the plaid sofa could be from this century, the last, the next.
I can almost believe we once lived here, just as I can almost believe my husband is the man howling as he’s ravaged by a million tiny jaws, that our daughter is the winged creature buzzing in the corner, close to the ceiling, that I am merely a puff of soot leaked from cracks we somehow failed to seal.
ELIN HAWKINSON holds an MFA in Creative Writing (fiction) from Eastern Washington University and a BFA in Creative Writing and Theatre from The New School (Riggio Honors Fellow). She is a former fiction editor of Willow Springs magazine, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House Online, Midwestern Gothic, Lilac City Fairytales, The Inquisitive Eater, and elsewhere. “The Moths Came” won second prize our 2018 Short(er) Fiction Contest and appears in our Spring 2019 Issue, number 68.
***The 2019 Halifax Ranch Fiction prize is now open for submissions.The deadline for submissions is June 1, 2019. The winner of the prize will receive $2,500 and publication in an upcoming issue of American Short Fiction.***
We’re so happy to announce that our judge for this year’s prize will be the wonderful Rebecca Makkai, whose wrenching, empathetic 2018 novel The Great Believers, about the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago, was widely and justly celebrated, including as a finalist for the National Book Award. Makkai has long been known as a master of the short form, winning four consecutive inclusions in the Best American Short Stories anthology, so we’re particularly grateful to have her as our judge this year. All submitters will receive a complimentary copy of the prize issue.
– Submit your entry online between April 1, 2019 and June 1, 2019.
– The winner will receive a $2,500 prize and publication in an upcoming issue of American Short Fiction.
– Please submit your $20 entry fee and your work through Submittable. We no longer accept submissions by post. International submissions in English are eligible. The entry fee covers one 6,500 word fiction submission. All submitters will receive a complimentary copy of the prize issue.
– All entries must be single, self-contained works of fiction, between 2,000-6,500 words. Please DO NOT include any identifying information on the manuscript itself.
– You may submit multiple entries. We accept only previously unpublished work. We do allow simultaneous submissions, but we ask that you notify us promptly of publication elsewhere.
Conflicts of Interest
Staff and volunteers currently affiliated with American Short Fiction are ineligible for consideration or publication. Additionally, students, former students, and colleagues of the judge are not eligible to enter. We ask that previous winners wait three years after their winning entry is published before entering again.
Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novel The Great Believers, one of the New York Times’ top ten books for 2018, a finalist for the National Book Award, winner of the ALA Carnegie Medal, the ALA Stonewall Medal, and the Chicago Review of Books Award, and a pick for the New York Public Library’s 2018 Best Books. Her other books are the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and the collection Music for Wartime—four stories from which appeared in The Best American Short Stories. The recipient of a 2014 NEA Fellowship, Rebecca has taught at the Tin House Writers’ Conference and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University. She is Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago. Visit her at RebeccaMakkai.com or on twitter @rebeccamakkai.
About what matters to her as a reader, Makkai has said, “there is a certain salvation to be had from recognizing the commonality of experience, especially with an author very far removed from your own world. It’s one thing to read a contemporary American writer talking about something we all agree on, like Isn’t it embarrassing how people revert to cliche when they flirt? but then you read Madame Bovary, and here’s Flaubert, one hundred and thirty years dead, making the same point with startling familiarity. And there’s a reassurance in that, this reminder that we’re not alone in the universe. I like to think it’s the same feeling early humans would have when they stumbled upon cave paintings left by earlier tribes: ‘Dude, there are other people! And they hunt mammoths just like us!’ That’s the feeling I’m after, on whatever level, when I [read]: I want to sit there wondering how the author got inside my brain.” With that advice in mind, good luck!
American Short Fiction is grateful to the Burdine Johnson Foundation for their grant in support of this prize.
As Far as You Can See: Picturing Texas, by Kenny Braun, whose beautiful photograph of Halifax Ranch, used above, we encourage you to click on to see in its full glory, will be published by the University of Texas Press in May.
January’s Web Exclusive, “Flood,” describes a significant moment of change in a troubled family’s life. It’s notoriously hard to master a run-on sentence, but author Keenan Walsh does it here. In editing, we realized there was no way to break it up without losing its very necessary urgency, that the whole thing was an intricately woven tapestry that needed to stay intact. What’s more, the form forces the modern, harried reader to slow down and take in shimmering details that they might otherwise miss, effectively carrying you away in its flow.
Erin McReynolds: In “Flood” a boy tells the story of his family’s struggles with being forced to move apartments and school districts, his sister’s seizures, and his father’s drinking. He tells us this in one, breathless, nonstop sentence. What was behind that choice?
Keenan Walsh: The single sentence thing was a process choice before it was any sort of aesthetic one. When I first drafted this story, I was working on another piece that I’ve since completely abandoned, thank God. I don’t know what it was, I hated it and I spent way too much time on it. But anyway, it had a lot of short sentences and white space and all that. I was just so frustrated with it that I wanted to do something totally different.
At the same time, I was translating another writer, Hajar Bali, who writes in French and was visiting Iowa City from Algeria. One of her stories contained a lot of very long sentences, and because of that, I guess I was already also thinking in and about long sentences, what kinds of sacrifices they require, what they allow for, what kind of emotional pitch they suggest or demand, etc. Experimenting with it in my own writing, I found it surprisingly relieving. The material had a chance to get away from me. I had to let go, I think, in a way that for whatever reason I hadn’t been comfortable doing for a long time.
EM: It’s notoriously hard to make the run-on sentence work. What were your concerns in revisions? Were you tempted to reneg?
KW: Yeah, that’s where it became more of a complicated aesthetic decision—should I break it up, does it serve or burden the material, etc. I still don’t have a single rationale, to be honest. I think this piece, as the title suggests, is concerned with things overflowing, becoming too much—both in the moment and in retrospect—and I guess the single sentence is a formal expression of that. And of regression, too, definitely. But it’s also concerned with blurred boundaries—the boundaries of responsibility, but also where one person ends and another begins, and the difficulty of accepting rigid divisions, the dread of being separate from. So maybe in another way the single sentence is an expression of that wish to get back to a place where the boundaries between things, thoughts, or self and other aren’t quite so definite.
At least, the process brought a lot of these things to the surface for me. But to tell you the truth, all of this feels more like a retroactive defense of something that I just felt attached to for reasons I couldn’t and still can’t totally explain.
EM: But it makes sense; the theme of spilling over comes across in the work. Also it’s the way a child tells a story, all in one blast; though he could be an adult as he tells us this (we can assume from the last few words that it’s at least some distance in the future) he inhabits, as we all do when we relive childhood memories, his childhood senses and sensibilities, effectively making him both a child and adult narrator. What does that allow you to do? What were the challenges?
KW: In retrospective first-person stories I often think about the duality of the narrator: the narrator looking back might superimpose (as I think happens here) a kind of intelligence that wasn’t necessarily available, or at least articulable, in the moment being recalled; or, similarly, the recollection of past circumstances might alter the way something’s being remembered and told in the present, the vocabulary, the syntax, the emotion, etc. So the final narrative voice contains a kind of interference pattern between the two points in time.
Which I guess is how it happens—like, I remember at some point in therapy feeling my adult vocabulary just fall away from me. Which is both scary and incredibly relieving. In some ways, I think, speaking simply about things heightens or reignites their mystery. The world is more urgently strange with fewer words. Or maybe it’s just that even as an adult, I find myself most bothered by simple things, like a pair of glasses or whatever. Either way, it’s nice to have the space and permission to approach them with a simpler voice than I might use in other circumstances. And so I guess that’s one thing the more childlike narration can do, is offer quick access to strangeness and bewilderment.
EM: You’ve captured the way an older sibling can assume responsibility for a younger one in families where, for whatever reason, the parents refuse or mismanage it. Then he confesses that he feels like he failed his sister, whose seizures are worsening, and who no one realized was legally blind—a confession that could have easily been heavy-handed or melodramatic but instead is sincere and heartbreaking. How did you approach his sense guilt and responsibility without treading into martyrdom?
KW: I wonder. I’m happy and flattered that you think it doesn’t. If it feels sincere now I hope it’s because it felt sincere when I wrote it, but I don’t know. For me, it’s really important to try and feel the emotions I’m writing about in the moment I’m writing about them. If it feels difficult or false then I know something isn’t working on the page. Writing fiction is like slow acting. But I think it’s just as important to go back after the fact and add moments that resist the first desires of the narration so that it doesn’t subsume everything. I do think the piece would have slipped more into martyrdom, for example, if the narrator hadn’t been sort of cruel toward the end.
EM: I love that: “Writing fiction is like slow acting.” Vision is a prominent theme here: the little sister has been legally blind all this time and no one caught it; with glasses, she can now see things that call up questions for her, like why are there leaves on the trees, when she has only ever experienced them on the ground; and she fears the violence of a surgery that could give her even clearer vision. What’s important about vision, where this family is concerned?
KW: I think it’s difficult to watch someone you love become scared. For the sister in this story, at least as the narrator understands it, the world seems to become more threatening as it becomes more vivid. Less innocently, though, he also struggles with the fact that as her vision improves and her seizures decline, she becomes more independently capable, which is a threat. One aspect of that threat is that he’s used to watching, not being watched. As she becomes more autonomous, what does she see? And imagining what she sees, what does he see or lose sight of?
I’ve also been really interested for a long time in the way children pass into this space of realizing they’re separate from their parents—and for siblings close in age, separate from each other. So in retrospect, I guess the vision trope allowed me to think about that abstract process more concretely. It’s strange to see each other. It continues to be strange. Even more so if your image of someone shifts very abruptly. Ultimately I think that’s beautiful, but at first it’s just kind of terrifying.
EM: Toward the end, we are introduced to a new theme—the wet and ruined carpet, the moldy wooden floors beneath, and the narrator, sticking his knife between the walls and the ceiling, telling us he will forever wonder about the layers beneath him. It’s so bang on, and I was wondering if this was maybe the first part of the story that came to you, this notion of damage done beneath the visible layer, and that you took that image and built the story backward from there. Was I wrong? What did come to you first?
KW: No, this story came out basically in the order it’s in now. I will say, though, that just before I wrote that part, I thought I would have to keep going for a lot longer. As in, I had shut myself away for what I thought would be a long day. But then when I got there I pretty quickly realized it was the end, so I stopped.
Although now that I think about it, some version of that scene did sort of appear in another story a few years ago. It was just a few lines and was cast as backstory, and different in a number of other ways, but it was definitely there. Maybe I had to sit with it for a while longer before it meant anything other than itself.
EM: That’s a great way of putting it. I still think someday all the things I’ve put away will make up one megaperfect novel in a Voltronesque way I am not capable of seeing right now. What are you working on now?
KW: I really hope so! Meanwhile, I find that I have to work on like three or four things at once, so that if I get frustrated I can say, “Well, it’s okay, that one is the throwaway.” Right now I’m working on a novel and some throwaway stories, or some stories and a throwaway novel, depending on the day.
EM: Future Voltrons! I have a nest of Post-It notes on my wall by my desk, kind of rah-rah-rahing me. Do you have any pieces of writing advice or encouragement that you need to keep handy?
KW: Not exactly, though maybe I should. There are writers and books who help me feel better when I’m feeling down or discouraged. Right now, among other things, that’s Housekeeping, Proust, The Waves, Olio, Gerard Manley Hopkins. I feel like I can read them very sincerely. As in, there’s nothing I want from them other than to read them. There’s just no way for me to compete. I love them so much. Even if I were to quit writing I would love them. It’s nice to feel that foundation.
Katya can hold her breath for over seven minutes. She’d practiced alongside us in the pool. Up to her chin, she kneeled in the shallow end and took a deep inhale and long slow exhale, so long it seemed impossible her lungs had gathered that much air, not balloons for birthday parties there below her ribcage, but hot air balloons, enough to attach a basket and float over hills. Her heart slowed, something went unfocused in her eyes, she took a final pull, and down she went.
Women who give birth in bathtubs know that after their babies’ heads emerge it can take twenty minutes for the rest of the body to follow. The babies breathe under water while they wait for their mothers’ final push because they’ve been breathing under water all along. We thought about this when we practiced, the way we used to be able to breathe.
Katya walked unsteadily on solid ground, a stride less forward moving than side-to-side, a flat-footed wobble, like all of land was a rocking boat on whitecaps. Otherwise, elegant. Broad shoulders, narrow hips, and the gentlest voice you’ve heard, like seaweed in the shallows. She wanted us to learn, she was there to teach, but most of all she wanted to make her lungs take more. Which is to say, she wanted to make a deeper dive.
In the ocean, Katya dives. She attaches a weight around her neck, one pound, and head-first plunges. Treading water by the boat, we watch her slow her heart, go blank, and slip into the ocean. She kicks like mermaids do, her lungs packed with air enough to last the journey. It’s darker where she goes, and colder. The sea was our first home, we know the history. When we were fishes, its squelch and boil were too much, so we started our slow haul toward shore, our gooey stagger into life on land. We’ve forgotten most of what we used to know about the deep. Were there sharks down there? Octopuses? Can you see the souls of the drowned, whose lives are marked by stones above bodiless graves on land? She wouldn’t say.
“Have you ever touched the bottom?” we asked.
We knew these were the wrong questions, but we didn’t know the right ones.
“How strong is the ocean?” we asked.
“Between the ocean and us, you know who the strongest is,” she said.
We watch her dive until she’s gone. No one wears a stopwatch, but we know the shape of a minute. Four go by, then five. Waves slap the side of the boat. We laugh and talk and wonder what we’ll have for dinner. Six minutes, six and a half. We’ll be able to see her soon. Seven. Seven ten. We grow quiet. Seven forty. Does anyone see her? Eight. Eight fifteen. She’d neared nine in the pool, but we know there are currents down below, underwater winds strong enough to whip you around and spin you so you don’t know which way is surface and which way sand. Eight fifty, and we start diving. Two minutes deep, three, our lungs burn, and we come gasping through the surface. Eleven minutes. Eleven forty. We swim, dive, return. We tread water by the boat. We scan the sea.
Twelve minutes now and we know she’s been absorbed, filled her lungs with infinity again, the way we all did before the end of that original swim, when we emerged wailing, bloody, gasping at a place so cold and suddenly so unwet. She’s gone deep as she could go. At some point, there’s no coming back.
We climb back on board and wrap ourselves in towels. Small puddles form around our feet as the ocean drips from us. The boat sways, a cradle. We lean against the rails, but there isn’t anything to see except an endlessness of waves and the bright rip of sun swelling and peaching on its way down. The ocean catches the light and flings it back in blazing fluid bands. We taste the salt on our lips. One of us yells her name. Another says, “Just gone.” Otherwise we say nothing and keep our backs toward shore.
There are ghosts down there below the surface, we don’t know the count. There are questions we still need answers to. Will we dive again? We will. Not yet. We know the risks. We don’t know how deep it is or how dark. We live on land. And we watch the sun make its own plunge toward a place that we can’t see. It doesn’t drop into the ocean, not like we do. It doesn’t disappear. After all, we see the way it sometimes makes Earth’s shadow on the moon. Each of us, each one, feels the rise and fall of our chests as we pull the air inside us and let it out again.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and a carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her non-fiction and fiction has appeared in publications such as the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Believer, Bookslut, the Boston Globe, Quick Fiction, Opium Magazine, and Word Riot.
In Zach Powers’ flash fiction story, “Surface Treatments,” a father paints himself into a corner—literally. While the circumstances are absurd, there is such an accuracy and familiarity in the helpless acceptance of his wife and children alternating between observing and gamely participating in his self-exile. We spoke to Powers about writing, this story, and—since he’s also an expert on the subject—what to do when you’re in Savannah.
Erin McReynolds: Something about this scenario—an unhappy father painting himself into isolation from the rest of his family—while recalling absurdist Italo Calvino, reminds us a little, too, of Carver’s abandoned husband putting all his possessions on the lawn or Cheever’s discarded suburban man swimming across town via his neighbors’ pools. There was such an emotionally honest and recognizable domestic story beneath the weirdness. How did this come to you?
Zach Powers: Someone else mentioned that Cheever story to me, but I have to admit I’ve never read it. In general, I think I write against the midcentury-realist vein, even though I often tackle the same subjects. Maybe the difference is that I’m more existentially absurd where Cheever, Carver, et al. seem to deal with the absurdities of the everyday. Please forgive the haphazardness of that literary analysis.
As for this story specifically, I know exactly where I got the idea. I was at a party, talking to two of my writer friends, Joseph Schwartzburt and Gino Orlandi. Gino had recently moved into a new house and kept repainting the kitchen, three or four times in the first month. I made a joke that he would keep painting until the kitchen shrank to nothing. (It’s surprising how many of my stories start as jokes at parties.) At first, I just latched onto this basic conceit. It wasn’t until I started writing the first scene that the themes emerged. I almost always start this way. The concept acts as the container for the narrative and serves as the inspiration for the language/style.
EM: It seems like such fun to name colors of paint: Dignified, Intuitive, Jovial, Reticence… Do you actually have a color in your head for each of these?
ZP: When I was growing up, my parents got the J. Crew catalog in the mail, and my dad would go through each one reading the most ridiculous color names out loud. The J. Crew colors back then had names like “morose peach” and “trifling lagoon.” I just made those names up, but they’re not too far removed from reality. Inspired by that memory, about halfway through writing this story, I decided to look up actual color names from different paint-makers. I don’t remember which color was which anymore—my interest was in the humorous potential or thematic relevance of the names—but a few of the colors were used literally.
I find that limitations like that, having to borrow words from elsewhere, forces me to write more interestingly. It pulls me out of my linguistic habits and into new territory.
EM: You worked at a local TV station in Savannah and tended to write on your breaks, before ever getting an MFA. What would you say is the main difference between your writing then and your writing post-MFA, especially in terms of the imaginative wildness of your stories?
ZP: I think writing workshops should be for learning craft, not content. I’m still trying to improve how I say things every day, and in those first years of formal study, my craft advanced rapidly. In short, I was not as good at writing then. I hope I’m better now.
Content—what things I say—is another matter. As with “Surface Treatments,” I usually have some weird idea and tie it to a theme. Only after that do I figure out the writing. I love language, and I obsess over it in revision, but the words are a byproduct of the process, the result of combining the other elements of story. Weird idea plus theme equals language.
That formula hasn’t changed since I wrote crappy sci-fi stories in college. I’ve always been interested in ideas, and I prefer fiction that allows itself to think and to indulge in a concept. Traditional workshop pedagogy often teaches against that sort of indulgence, so in some ways I’ve fought against my education to stay true to my natural weirdness.
EM: You also wrote a guidebook: 100 Things to do in Savannah Before You Die. What are a few of your must-dos?
ZP: Now that I live in Virginia, I can share the list of things I always do myself when I go home to Savannah:
Get a beer at Pinkie Master’s. This is Savannah’s quintessential dive bar. Make sure to check out the plaque in the bartop marking the spot where Jimmy Carter once stood.
EM: What’s been one of your favorite pieces of writing advice?
ZP: My favorite piece of writing advice is that there is no universal writing advice. I, as much as anybody, read essays on craft and attend lectures and take notes at panels. But the point of all that is not to heed everything every author tells me, but to pick and choose what works for my own writing. Even the old standbys—show don’t tell, write what you know, no adverbs—are arbitrary, reflecting conventions more than “good writing.” I think it’s beneficial to try to understand why these pieces of advice get shared so often, and once you understand, you’ll also understand when and how to ignore any piece of advice that doesn’t jibe with you.
Zach Powers is a native of Savannah, Georgia and lives in Arlington, Virginia. His novel, First Cosmic Velocity, will be published in summer 2019 by Putnam, and his debut story collection, Gravity Changes, won the BOA Short Fiction Prize and was published in 2017. He is the Communications Manager at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College. Get to know him at ZachPowers.com.