Interview with Sunil Yapa: Redefining Home

Sunil Yapa

 

Sunil Yapa visited Pacific University as part of the Visiting Writers Series hosted by the English Department. Mikelyn Rochford and Kristen Buehner sat down with Sunil and discussed his novel Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist and how it ties in with Silk Road’s theme of displacement and redefining home.

 

His debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, was released in 2016 and follows the narratives of seven characters during a day of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. His novel is the lead title for Lee Boudreaux’s eponymous new imprint at Little Brown & Company. Published in January 2016, the novel is a Time Magazine and an Amazon Best Books of the Year So Far, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, and an Indies Introduce and Indies Next Pick. The New Yorker writes, “Fast-paced and unflinching…Yapa vividly evokes rage and compassion.” And Ron Charles writes in The Washington Post, “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist ultimately does for the WTO protests what Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night did for the 1967 March on the Pentagon, gathering that confrontation in competing visions of what happened and what it meant.” The Seattle Times writes, “Yapa’s melding of fact and fiction, human frailty and geopolitics, is a genuine tour-de-force.” Yapa holds an MFA from CUNY- Hunter College where he was a Hertog Fellow, and a BA from Penn State where he studied Economic Geography. The biracial son of a Sri Lankan father and a mother from Montana, Yapa has lived around the world, including time living in Greece, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, China, and India, as well as London, Montreal, and New York City, and has made a home of many of the places he has visited.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Could you speak to the theme of displacement through your book and experiences?

 

Sunil: I set out to write a book that wasn’t just about my experiences. I had been writing short stories before then that were bad Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz experiences. I really set out in this novel to write about experiences that were not my own. The funny thing is that when I go back and reread the book I realize that the characters were all me—their interiority and experiences are all me. Even the cop. The other thing that I realize when I reread the book is that it is about loneliness and a desire to belong. The novel is also about tribes and who gets to decide the tribe. Is it the tribe who owns the city or the cops?

Victor is closest in experience to me—he’s biracial and living in Seattle and sells weed (a terrible idea I would have had at that age). He is so desperate to belong somewhere that he is willing to put himself in the most dangerous position—lockdown. In real life, no protestor would allow someone who wasn’t trained to be in that position to go into lockdown. But he is so desperate to belong to a family that he is willing to be vulnerable. It is all my experience. The novel is a lonely and alienated book, and on some level I have to make the connection that I am lonely and alienated: lonely in the deeper sense that I feel without a tribe or without a home. I don’t feel connected to a nation, which is a group of people who share a set of beliefs.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Do you feel that experience of loneliness and isolation comes from an experience of growing up between two cultures?

 

Sunil: It has a lot to do with growing up. I didn’t know that I wasn’t white until I was 21. Brown is a social indicator and indicator of tribe and belonging. I didn’t understand what it indicated. And I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. I genuinely think I have post-traumatic stress from growing up in rural Pennsylvania.

I feel safe in New York. I feel normal in New York. I genuinely own a camouflage hat that I have in my car that I wear when in Pennsylvania, and people are so much more comfortable around me. I’m a brown hillbilly so I can wear the hat.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: This goes along with Victor’s story—how he is trying to mold himself to find family, to redefine a home due to his displacement.

 

Sunil: I don’t have a physical place that feels like home, but I’m also a country boy, so I don’t feel rooted to New York City in a lot of ways. I have a white noise generator because I live on the corner of 57th and 10th, and it’s so loud. The white noise machine has a setting for “city noise” with taxis honking.

Redefining home has been my life project so far, and it also has to do with redefining family. Obviously home and family are intimately connected.

There is a huge chasm that happens on immigration. I don’t even think Jhumpa Lahiri captures it. I would compare it to colonialism—people escaping colonialism to come to the heart of the empire. It’s not just that my dad came from Sri Lanka and didn’t have a warm coat. My dad left Sri Lanka in 1964, not knowing if he would ever see his mother or father again. As Junot Díaz said, it would be the equivalent of writing science fiction. It is the equivalent of getting on a spaceship to leave an unlivable Earth and going to a prosperous colony on Mars and not knowing if you’d ever be able to come back.

It’s profound. There were basic American cultural skills that my father couldn’t teach me and didn’t understand. It would be the same as if I emigrated to France, and I couldn’t teach my daughter or son certain things.

For instance, the question of what it means to be an American man has a different meaning than what being a man means in South Asia.

The book that most captures this for me is Maus by Art Spiegelman. It’s about how much his dad annoys him. His dad drives him crazy. The book talks about how Art reacts when his father doesn’t want him to throw away a match and he doesn’t understand it. But then he finds out that the reason his dad doesn’t want to throw it away is because he could have used it in a concentration camp.

It is a beautiful realization of how difficult it can be to relate to a parent that survived such displacement, and gaining compassion for the experience that they went through.

That is part of the recalibration of home—understanding new cultural norms but also finding a place to be authentic in a new way. If I were to operate under purely American norms, it wouldn’t feel right to me. If I were to operate under purely Sri-Lankan norms, I’d feel like a total fraud. My home is generally where my friends are. My home is usually where my girlfriend is. I end up making nations of two. I create a nation whose border is the boundary of a bed.

It is also very freeing to not feel confined by cultural norms. I am very comfortable traveling. I don’t feel alienated in Chile. I could be from a lot of places because of my skin color. I can carry my home on my back.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: You have traveled a lot, so how has this informed your home and your writing?

 

Sunil: I think we are all a mystery to ourselves, so I don’t totally understand why I travel. In some ways I traveled because it was cheaper to live in other countries than live in America. I also knew I wasn’t a writer who could work a 9-5 job and get up at 4 a.m. and write at Dunkin’ Donuts.

In the last three months, I’ve been in Australia, South Africa, Montana, and the Standing Rock reservation.

The first reason I started traveling was financial. I wanted to write. I’d work as a traveling salesman and take my money, $10,000, and go to Chile to write.

What a luxury of time and money to be able to write in the dark without the pressure of money and competition, without anyone of judging the quality of the work aside from myself.

That is the foundation of my writing practice. The years I spent writing by myself without needing to make money.

But when I was writing this book, it became an example of writing coinciding with my real identity in the world and the two exploding. When I realized that I wanted to write about the WTO, it exploded and I realized I could write about all the feelings when I was traveling. All of that could be articulated in the form of the novel. When I started writing this in 2009, this was before Ferguson, Garner, and Black Lives Matter, so I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by the reaction. I’ve toured the world for this book. This has less to do about protest and more to do with the theme of redefining home.

One of the reasons we are starving to redefine home is that we are starting to realize that our lives intersect with people across the world. I care about people I met in South Africa like they are my family.

We are starting to realize that our lives are very different from the lives of 90 percent in the world. Even here, middle class life is materially rich. All of us are aware of that now. I am aware that the shirt I am wearing right now was made in a sweatshop.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: We like the phrase you used earlier about the whole world being at this WTO protest.

 

Sunil: I was really interested in the protest itself, but all the countries in the world were there for the meetings, and I realized I can use that as a jumping-off point. The protests were window-dressing for what I really wanted to talk about—globalization. The world is so much smaller these days but also much bigger too.

We know more about other people’s lives all over the globe and it is much bigger because the topography of lived experience is very uneven.

One of the things that really struck me when I was traveling is that we don’t just live in different countries—we live on different planets.

People living in Guatemala in shacks made out of salvaged wood might as well be living on another planet. This is profoundly different in other ways than mine. The other thing that is exciting is the commonalities.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: We were wondering that since you wrote and lost 600 pages—

 

Sunil: 604 pages.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: What was your process with that? What was your process in rewriting? Did you build on your previous draft or was it like starting anew from a clean slate?

 

Sunil: When I lost it, I spent three months just watching TV and numbing myself out. And then it started bubbling up in my head again. My first reaction was: Fuck—I am going to write it again. I can’t get away from it!

I started recreating it from notes. That was the most boring and painful experience I ever had. Not only had I written it, but I knew how long it would take to rewrite it. I tore up the notes and started again. That was the best gift I ever had. It allowed me to reimagine the decisions I’d made about that book.

It was a very postmodern pastiche type of book.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: What do you feel that you lost or kept?

 

Sunil: What can you do? I remember this scene with Madeline Albright eating cereal. But what can you do?

 

Keya: What kind of cereal was she eating?

 

Sunil: Corn Flakes.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Was the first draft book more fitting in terms of your style?

 

Sunil: I feel this book is more my style, more mature.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: More authentic.

 

Sunil: Yes, more authentic. It’s much closer to what I really feel. One of the blocks we as writers experience is the psychological block. It took me a long time to get past the sensor that made me feel it should be funny. There is a line in the book: “Care too much and the world will kill you cold.” It took me a year of drafts to finally understand that the sarcasm and satire in the first draft were a defense for me, in that situation. So the novel moved into a place that risks sentimentality but one of raw emotion. I’m proud of that, to be honest. I don’t think we get a lot of books that have that. I tried to leave that in there, even though it is embarrassing at times.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Your style sounds very lyrical. It kept connecting with spoken-word poetry and that rawness, presence, and ferocity and engagement with the audience. I think that sincerity really rings through.

 

Sunil: I didn’t mean to do that, and I actually realized recently that my roommate in New York was a slam poet. I found a reel with his slam poetry. We were sitting there watching slam poetry, and I realized that this is what I was doing in the novel. I did write this book to be read. I read it out loud at least five times all the way through. I used an app that would read it to me. I edited more by listening to it out loud than I did by reading it. It all made sense. I wouldn’t necessarily do that with another book, but this is a book that is about protest and moves into a book about love. That should be shouted and lyrical.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Yes, and stick in your ear the way music does.

 

Sunil: With rhythm and repetition. And it’s all because it’s very oral.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Even our society’s preference for the written word over the oral word is a white phenomenon, and you subvert that.

 

Sunil: I had a very deep sense of anti-respectability politics. In respectability politics only some voices in a certain tone in a certain language can speak, and other voices aren’t respected. That is true for political discourse, for protesters, and it’s certainly true for writers. I didn’t realize that I would actually get published. I wrote this in my room. I was just banging the keys. I didn’t realize I would be talking about this with you all!

I think that is why a second book might be so terrifying. You lose your absolute anonymity.

What is the Beckett quotation? “Fail better.”

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: I was really curious about the Standing Rock protest, especially in relation to the content of your novel. Can you describe your experience there? How do those two experiences speak to each other? Did learning from that help you understand this experience?

 

Sunil: I went to the reservation and the water protectors, and my friend wrote me and said, “Does it feel familiar?”

I said, “Yeah, how did you know? Why would it feel familiar?”

He said, “Remember you wrote a book about that?”

I remember coming over the hill into camp and seeing the campfires spreading all the way down from the Cannonball all the way to the Missouri River. You are coming across the largest gathering of Native Americans since Wounded Knee, which is profound. But what was familiar was the vibe of what it means to be in a protester and activist camp.

The book gave me a newfound respect for people who are willing to put their bodies on the line—quite literally in front of the tanks of capitalism. There was a photo that inspired the whole book that I found when I was doing research. I found a photo of a woman on her knees with blood on her head. I wondered what would cause her to go into the streets and get tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed for the rights of people she doesn’t know.

Before that I was cynical about protest. I still have doubts about protest and whether it is effective and about the liberal white protest. I can have those intellectual reservations and still feel the courage that it takes to go do that.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: That definitely comes from a place of empathy.

 

Sunil: I was called to go to Standing Rock, and they are a very brave people. It will become an absolute national issue about what is the future of energy in our country. I totally respect that and love that it is happening.

I am more invested in a pro-active political approach. I think urban gardens are revolutionary. I think alternative medicine and bicycles are revolutionary. I can think of ten thousand examples. I think not celebrating your love for your boyfriend or girlfriend on Valentine’s Day by buying a bear is revolutionary. That is why I am a novelist and not an activist.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Going back to empathy, I love how multidimensional each character is and how the narratives overlap. Bishop and Victor show an overlap.

 

Sunil: It was an accident. There were ten characters. When I first sent this out to agents, there were ten characters. Victor and Bishop were characters. Bishop had a dilemma of whether to teargas these 50,000 protestors.

Victor had a father named Miles, who had a great emotional story, but he had no plotline and just stood in the intersection and cried about his son.

In edits, I realized that I was getting in my own way. It is so obvious the father and Bishop were one character, but I thought it would be a cliché to have a father and son who were police chief and protester. The father and Bishop each had half of a story, so it was an easy edit to bring them together.

So much of the time, I was getting in my own way. The other secret of writing a novel is that you sit down at your desk six days a week, 52 weeks a year, for six years, and it’s only 300 pages, so you spend a lot of time with that thing.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Do you have anything you are working on now?

 

Sunil: I am writing essays, and I am also working on a TV project. Producers are interested, and it is exciting to me, because it is working the same character and plot and story muscles. TV is so much more about character interactions than a novel is. I am growing as a writer without having to write sentences because I think I may have broken the bone that writes sentences. I don’t know if I can write those sentences again.

I think the subject dictates what the sentences are going to look like. I can write in different registers and in different voices, and I think the next time I write a novel it will be in a different voice with different syntax and diction than this. I have different registers, but I don’t hear the next one yet.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Your style is so sound-based and even the way you describe writing sounds so musical. Do you play musical instruments?

 

Sunil: I play the piano and guitar. I think that art and language drive most writers.

I love images, and I love film, but I have black marks on paper.

For me, the absolute truth is that I find my home in my writing.

 

By: Kristen Buehner and Mikelyn Rochford with Keya Mitra

Interview with Robert Boswell

UntitledBy: Emily Woodworth and Steven Childress with Keya Mitra
Photographs by Cailyn Anderson

When opportunity knocks, the proper thing to do is seize the moment. Such an opportunity arose when acclaimed writer Robert Boswell came to Pacific University as part of the Visiting Writers Series. Boswell is the author of seven novels, three short story collections, two plays, two books of non-fiction, and the recipient multiple awards and fellowships, including the Iowa School of Letters Award for Fiction, the PEN West Award for Fiction, the John Gassner Prize for Playwriting, and the Evil Companions Award. He showed himself to be an enlightened teacher and speaker on craft, as well as an entertaining and engaging presence. In addition to delivering a craft talk and reading, Boswell also agreed to meet with Emily Woodworth and Steven Childress, two students in Pacific’s creative writing program, at the 22nd Street Station Café. The coffee-talk was both enjoyable and educational, and the interview contains advice and insight for writers of all levels.

Emily and Steven: You have published seven fiction novels, two plays, two nonfiction books, and three short story collections. How does your process differ for each type of work? Is your approach to a short story different than a novel?

Boswell: My process for playwriting is very different from that for fiction because I’m still figuring out how to revise drama. With fiction, I write many, many drafts, and sometimes I find my way into the narrative by playing with language. For example, I often try to write more resonant sentences with each pass, but if you do that with characters’ dialogue in a play, it begins to sound like sentences no human would speak. I’ve had to find a new revision method for drama, and I’m still developing it.

The big difference between novels and short stories is that the brevity of short stories permits me to be more experimental. I can play around with structure more. I like to take big risks as I draft stories, make huge changes, and see if they work. If the attempt fails, I just go back to the previous draft. It’s much harder to do that in a novel. I’m working on a novel right now that is more than 700 pages. It just had its first reader, and I have some work to do on the second half, but the good thing is: the structure holds. I don’t have to rework the design of the entire 700 pages. That would have been backbreaking. I would have done it, but it would have been an enormous chore.

Steven: It sounds like restructuring that many pages would be an intensive process.

Boswell: I do thirty, forty, fifty drafts of everything. If I finally get a full draft and have to do a structural revision, well, it’s a headache. I’m basically writing a new book.

Steven: That’s definitely a stark contrast.

Emily and Steven: The characters of The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards are quite colorful and feel very real, is there a process you go through with developing characters before you commit them to paper?

Boswell: Not before I commit them to paper, no. I discover the characters as I write them. I think of it as discovering the characters from the outside in. Each word they say or action they take teaches me something about who they are—and about who they aren’t. It’s a process of elimination. Knowing one thing eliminates a world of alternate possibilities. I write until I find my way in. Then I inhabit the character, and once I inhabit the character the words fly.

Some of the characters are based on people I know or real episodes that I’ve lived or witnessed. Initially, the characters may be modeled on the people who participated in the event with me. After a while I lose track of that. The characters become who I need them to be. Sometimes a friend will say, “That’s what you think of me?” At first, I have no idea what he’s talking about. I’ve rewritten the character so many times I no longer feel like it’s connected to any person. This is hard to explain to someone who’s not a writer. It’s no fun to be friends with a writer.

Steven: I understand.  I’ve been in similar situations, so I can see how people can draw those conclusions.

Boswell: It’s distressing to have a writer in the family. My brother and sister are happy whenever I have a new book coming out, but there’s trepidation as well.

Emily and Steven: Do you plan on writing more plays, and how is that process different than writing fiction or nonfiction. When you see one of your plays produced, is it different than you imagined it?

Emily: I was wondering this too because my brother is an actor. His company did a play by Harold Pinter and there was a lot of subtext. I was wondering what it is like to see a director’s interpretation and an actor’s—does it change from what you imagined?

Is it strange seeing the characters filled in by real people or seeing a director’s interpretation of your writing?

Boswell: In terms of the overall process—beyond the initial writing—the playwright’s interaction with the actors is crucial. It starts with actors reading their parts around a table, usually a cold reading in which they’re trying to get a sense their characters. It’s useful to me, of course, to hear the lines spoken by actors. We discuss the play afterward, much like a workshop.

When you get to rehearsals, you have to hope that you have really smart, talented actors. They will question the lines with much more intensity than what you get in a workshop. In a fiction workshop, you have people helping you because you’re going to help them. But the actor is thinking, “I’m going to perform this line forty or fifty times; if I don’t believe in it, it will trip me up every time.” Good actors will nail you on lines that aren’t working.

I was lucky with the production of “The Long Shrift.” I had wonderful actors. Scott Haze and I threw lines back and forth, and we changed certain parts of his character’s arc as a result of altering lines. Ahna O’Reilly would say, “I don’t believe my character would say this,” or (when she was feeling kind), “Is this what I would say?” Sometimes an actor would ask, “Why isn’t my character responding to this moment? Or responding more fiercely?” Ally Sheedy was wonderful at asking such questions. Sometimes I’d tweak a word or two, but more frequently I’d write a new line. I loved the whole process.

Steven: Ally Sheedy is great.  I grew up watching her.

Boswell: She’s a terrific actress.

Emily: It sounds like having non-writers read your dialogue out loud could be just as valuable for fiction writers as playwrights.

Boswell: With any form of writing, it’s useful to read your stories aloud because you hear things you wouldn’t notice otherwise. Allie Gallerani came up with a great line for one of the other characters to say about her character. I stuck it right in the play. Brian Lally—another fine actor—helped me tinker with the lines, and James Franco, who directed the play, was terrific, as well. We’re friends, so he would always be gentle. He’d say, “Boz, this line here—I don’t know. I’m struggling with this line.” He was really good at picking out the lines that didn’t work, suggesting alternate lines, and so on. Rattlestick Theater’s artistic director—David Van Asselt—went through draft after draft with me, often suggesting major revisions. I had a great experience.

Steven: I can see how having actors read the lines at a roundtable would be valuable for a play, in that the dialogue would shift.

Boswell: The whole play changed, became much stronger. Did it look onstage the way I pictured it in my mind? No, but do my books read the way I imagined they would? I’m always trying to achieve something I can never quite reach. That’s the nature of being a writer.

Steven: That’s quite insightful. I see the truth in that statement from my own experiences.

Emily and Steven: Of all your published works and plays, which was your favorite to work on, and which one was the most difficult to develop from beginning to end?

Boswell: I don’t have a favorite. My favorite is always what I’m working on right now. The most difficult was Tumbledown. It took me ten years to write. It went through a major change in the point of view eight years in. I had to deal with a lot of material that was hard to face, and the novel is big and complex. I don’t know even how many points of view there are.

Emily: I finished Chapter 2, and I was trying to count how many points of view have been employed already, and I couldn’t.

Boswell: The point of view is weird, and it gets weirder as the novel goes on. Tumbledown was a demanding book, a strange balancing act. I had to keep going back, adding to one side and subtracting from the other.

Or maybe my first novel was most difficult because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was pretty sure I was making a mess. I lost faith in it several times. I only finished it because I thought I’d learn something by finishing a novel. At the time, I was certain it was idiotic, but the novel was published and was well received. I’ve learned that if you’re working on a long-term writing project, you’re going to lose faith in it at times, and you just have to push through that doubt. That loss of faith is why so many people have three-quarters of a novel, or three-quarters of three or four novels. There is something in the human psyche that resists the completion of a huge project.

And, well, it’s hard to write a book.

Emily and Steven: Is there a typical number of drafts you go through for every piece? Is it different for each genre? Do you ever really stop editing, or are there things you would change about published pieces?

Boswell: Last year I was on a book tour for Tumbledown, and I read the opening chapter again and again and again. By the end of the tour, I’d edited about a thousand words out of the opening. I wish I’d done that before I published the book, but I think I needed an audience for the readings. When you’re reading to an audience you listen to their response and discover the bits that don’t work or aren’t necessary. You may see instances where descriptions go on too long, and so on.

Tumbledown is a consciously a “maximalist” novel. Minimalism was the style when I was first writing seriously, in graduate school and immediately thereafter. I never much cared for it. With this novel I set out to do the opposite. Because the point of view is unstable, I felt I could play with high authorial custody to create a new effect. Imagine reading a high-custody omniscient narrator, as might appear in a Tolstoy novel, let’s say, but then you start to question the stability of the point of view. It seems to me that this is a new effect. Anyway, it kept me involved, kept me interested. I have to do work that keeps me entertained. I have no desire to repeat myself.

Steven: That’s great. Stepping outside your boundaries definitely creates a sense of adventure.

Emily and Steven: We read The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards for class. Were there particular reasons you ordered the stories the way you did?

Boswell: Yeah, but not they’re not artistic reasons. There are a number of long stories so I decided to start with one, have one in the middle, and so on. I wanted to separate the fat stories. There are a number of very short stories in the collection, and I shuffled them among the longer ones. I thought of it almost musically.

I put “No River Wide” first because it starts with the sentence: Both things first. “The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards” is by far the longest story and the title piece, so having it last seemed right. Some reviewers called the book a story cycle. I don’t think of it that way.

There’s a movie coming out that includes seven of the stories, which James Franco produced. He made a smart decision about ordering the stories. The movie begins with the story featuring the youngest protagonist and the protagonist ages as the movie continues. That’s the strategy that James Joyce uses in Dubliners. It’s a smart choice. The audience doesn’t follow the same character throughout the movie, but the main character ages. This provides the film with a unity it wouldn’t otherwise possess.

Steven: I’m really excited for the movie to come out. It’s on my watch list. I very much enjoyed the collection.

Boswell: It’s the fourth and best movie that has been made from my work. I like it quite a lot.

Steven: What inspires you to write and get through writer’s block?

Boswell: I’ve never had writer’s block because of my process. I use a method I call transitional drafts. During the drafting process, I give myself permission to write a bad sentence in order to get to a good sentence, and to write a sketchy scene (if I need to) to get to the end of the draft. I give myself this permission because I know I’m going to write another draft and I can address such problems then.

In graduate school I’d get smart comments and suggestions during workshop, but when I got home I wouldn’t be able to do anything. I’d feel paralyzed. I was trying to fix all the problems at once. I realized that I needed to focus on one problem at a time—write a full draft to address each issue or suggestion.

This method gives me a lot of freedom but it’s a humbling ordeal. I’ve got to revise draft after draft after draft. But the method permits me to write stories that are stranger than I would otherwise write, stories that are smarter than I am. It also means I always have something to work on—always, always, always. I’ve never had writer’s block. I don’t think I ever will. But it comes at an expense. The method demands a lot of effort.

Writer’s Block is a real phenomenon, and it seems to be exclusively a writing phenomenon. There’s no engineer’s block or doctor’s block. We seem to be the only profession that has a term for not being able to do our work. I had a teacher who couldn’t write for ten years. So I’m very happy to have a means to get around writer’s block. I have to work like crazy, but I like to work.

Steven: You also bring wisdom to your work with your process.

Boswell: If you’ve read a writer’s work and you meet the writer, you should be disappointed. The best features of the writer are on the page. Writers are often boring.

Emily and Steven: Who would you say are your greatest influences from the world of fiction and playwrights?

Boswell: I’m not sure. Honestly. There are so many. I grew up on the Mississippi River, and when I read Huckleberry Finn it felt like my head was going to explode. I read all the time, and I’d already determined I was going to be a writer, but I was reading the Hardy Boys and the like. When I read Huckleberry Finn I couldn’t articulate what made it different, but I understood that it was a different kind of fiction. I was in sixth grade, I think, and it was a demanding read, but I was thrilled.

In high school my favorite book was David Copperfield. I love Dickens. Then I discovered Faulkner. I admired his work so much that I consciously made myself avoid becoming a southern writer. He casts too great a shadow. I am a fan of Tennessee Williams, particularly “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” I am obsessed with Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”  He’s my colleague in the University of Houston’s creative writing program, which I find almost unbelievable.

Chekhov is the writer I return to with the most frequency. I’ve read some of his stories more times than I can count. I’m trying right now to do my own translation of “The Lady with the Pet Dog”—not to improve upon previous translations but as a way to engage the story more fully. I’m also obsessed with Tolstoy. Anna Karenina is maybe the best novel I’ve ever read. If not that, it’s The Great Gatsby. I read and reread Alice Munro and teach her every semester. James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Sherwood Anderson’s “Death in the Woods” are two of my favorite stories. Eudora Welty’s “Moon Lake” is one of the great American stories, and she has a dozen others I love, such as “The Wide Net,” a fantastic story that one rarely sees in anthologies. Flannery O’Connor is inspiring. I’ve been influenced by a huge number of writers. A John Cheever story changed my life.

Emily: In class on Tuesday, I suggested that you capture our present time in the same way that Fitzgerald captures the twenties in The Great Gatsby.

Steven: I definitely agree.  You really capture people’s behavior during our time, like Fitzgerald.  Here’s a question I’m particularly interested in: when shopping a publisher for short stories, what advice can you give to writers that have not been published, or been published often?

Boswell: My advice is to avoid thinking about publication for as long as you can manage. Do not try to publish while you’re in a program. It’s a needless distraction. What you need to do while you’re a student is to be a student and learn everything you can. You’re trying to prepare for your writing life, not publish individual stories. Your job is to figure out which of the many great works that you’ve read speaks to your life and your work. Sometimes you read a story and you immediately think, I need to read this again. After you read it three or four times you may realize that you’ll be reading the story for the rest of your life.

I encourage my students to find the stories and novels that speak to them honestly and powerfully. I encourage them to study those stories. I don’t believe writers need to study theory, but we do need to think about how a story is structured, how it moves, what makes it alive. If it makes leaps, how does it make those leaps? Read a story over and over until it begins to give up its secrets. Put off publication as long as you can.

In addition to the great works—and never at their expense—one should also read contemporary fiction. If you feel you must send out stories, then read Best American Short Stories and see what you like. See where the story was initially published. Usually you’ll find that the stories were in small literary magazines. You may find that an editor of such a journal has the same taste as you. Read the magazine. Send your work to that editor.

Emily and Steven: How do you settle on a setting for a story? Are the places you write about usually based on places you’ve visited?

Boswell: When I start a short story or novel, there has to be something moving me or pushing me forward. It may be an overheard line of conversation or an unexpected recollection. It may be that I’ve witnessed an incident in the street. Most such stimuli come with a specific location, but while I’m drafting the story the details change to accommodate the needs of the narrative, and I relocate the story as I see fit.

Other times the whole story starts with setting. There’s a story of mine called “A Walk in Winter” [in The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards]. It grew out of a memory I had of hiking with a friend on a frozen stream that led to the Mississippi River. We intended to make it to the river, but we had no idea how far it was. Our walk turned into quite an adventure, and I was powerfully influenced by it.

Sometimes I try to write stories that capture the mystery that trek summoned. When I started “A Walk in Winter,” I simply wished to write about snow and the cold. I wanted to recapture the experience of walking on ice with my pal. No, that’s not it. It wasn’t about capturing the experience itself, but the mystery of that experience. I suspect that this is often what we do when we write fiction. Something has happened to us that we don’t understand. We write not to understand it, exactly, but to explore the mystery, expand the mystery, to see if we can get that powerful sense of mystery onto the page.

Steven: That totally makes sense—writing to understand. Bringing wisdom to the writing.

Boswell: I don’t think of it as bringing wisdom to the writing, but as bringing humility to the writing. It’s admitting I don’t know why this experience or idea won’t leave me alone. I may never know why, but I explore it on the page to transfer my sense of fascination to the reader.

Interview with Jack Driscoll

Jack_Driscoll1An Interview by Sharon Harrigan from Issue 12

Author of four novels, four poetry collections, and the AWP Short Fiction Award winner Wanting Only to Be Heard, Jack Driscoll has also received the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the PEN/Nelson Algren Fiction Award, the Pushcart Editors’ Book Award, Pushcart Prizes, PEN Syndicated Fiction Awards, and Best American Short Story citations. He currently teaches in Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program in Oregon, where I first met and studied with him. It is not hyperbole to say that as a teacher, he is a legend. Working under his tutelage is a transformative experience, as we gain not just technique but a finer appreciation for the music of words and greater empathy for our characters.
This conversation was conducted long distance. I e-mailed my questions to Jack in northern Michigan from Paris, where I was living for a year. He mailed the responses back by postal mail (yes, snail mail) when I returned to Virginia. On the front page he had photocopied a beautiful picture of three dozen whimsical houses, a touch that is so typical of Jack’s humor, friendliness, generosity, and meticulous attention to the beauty in every exchange. With Jack, nothing is dashed off or unimportant, whether it’s an e-mail, a craft talk, a cover letter, a critique, or a story. We finished the interview by phone.

Silk Road: The New York Times recently ran an article claiming that the short story is no longer “the read-headed stepchild” of the literary world. George Saunders’ collection has become a bestseller, and many other best-selling authors are turning or returning to the form, including Tom Perotta, Jess Walter, and Junot Diaz. According to the article, the form is a perfect fit for e-readers and for the short attention span of our age. Edgar Allan Poe considered the short story superior to the novel and thought the ideal art form could be finished in one sitting. You have published poetry collections and novels, but you are perhaps best known and most beloved for your short stories. Pam Houston told me that “Wanting Only to Be Heard” is one of the best stories she’s ever read and urged me to read your stories as a way to learn how to write my own. Brady Udall said you have “long been one of this country’s best short story writers.” The World of a Few Minutes Ago is your second collection. Why did you return to this form and why now? Do you see a resurgence in short story reading?

Jack Driscoll: It’s buoying to see recent short story collections, both by George Saunders and Alice Munro, as bestsellers. Whether or not that signals a larger readership for short fiction in general? Of course I’d like to believe so, though I wouldn’t wager much on what appears to me a fairly shaky optimism. And this was underscored not long ago when a reputable New York agency, having read a story of mine in The Georgia Review, e-mailed and then followed up with a phone call to inquire whether I might be interested in representation.

I was just finishing up the final revisions for The World of a Few Minutes Ago and so the timing seemed perfect, uncanny really, a propitious sign or omen, I imagined. But when I mentioned that I had a story collection just about ready to go, she paused for maybe a thirty second count and said, “Oh. Well, we were hoping that you might have a novel available.” To which I answered, “But didn’t you get in touch with me because of a story of mine you read?” And she said, “Yes, which we loved, but we don’t represent short story writers.”
But as you say, it is the form that I’ve returned to, and the form that I love best for its compression, intensity, and distillation of language. Plus I like beginnings and endings and the prospect of moving on to that next story.

SR: I was fascinated to read in an interview that you write very slowly because you give the impression that beautiful phrases come as easily to you as breathing. Even your correspondence, craft talks, and story critiques are full of gorgeous lines, profound and fitting quotes, and rhythms that sing.
How do you do it? Can you tell me about your writing routine? If the words really do come slowly, what are the tricks you’ve learned over the years? Do you write at the same time every day? In the same place, for instance?

Jack: I once heard a writer friend of mine named Michael Delp refer to me during a Q&A—and as the antithesis of his process—as the slowest writer in the universe. He said, “Jack Driscoll moves at the pace of an ice age.”
And, sadly, getting slower all the time. Horace said that “the art is to conceal the art,” to make it appear as if what’s said could only ever have been said that way, effortlessly. That’s the great illusion, that somehow this labor-intensive passion we serve comes, as you say, as easily as breathing. It’s certainly the effect we’re after. But again, that’s the result of working, word by word, sentence by sentence, to get, as Donald hall says, “The worked-on quality out of it.”

I wonder sometimes if I’ve ever written even a single sentence in a story that wasn’t, if only in some minor way, revised, and I think not. And one way in which I revise is to listen, to think of the ear as an eye, believing that the ability to hear more clearly assists in our ability to see more clearly. Jim Harrison points out that “music came before words,” and I find myself more often than not being guided by melodies and sentence rhythms rather than by cognitive thinking or drafting. No doubt this comes, at least in part, from having written poems and only poems for the first thirty years of my writing life. And perhaps why I was introduced not too long ago as a “poet masquerading as a novelist,” which I liked a lot.

I try to write in the mornings. And, other than for note taking, I always work at home, in what I refer to—after John Muir—as my crow’s nest, a room that’s attached to the house and overlooks the Little Betsie River, and surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of acres of wetlands. It’s private and quiet and gorgeous, home to otters and beavers and muskrats. Bobcats, the occasional black bear, blue herons and kingfishers, mallards and wood ducks and mergansers, loons that nest a few hundred yards above in Bridge Lake. For the past two years, an endangered red-shouldered hawk, and deer that cross the river daily.

As for the tricks I’ve learned over the years? Just one: “to remain at rest in a room,” as Blaise Pascal says. To keep my posterior in the chair and whack away at the keyboard, no matter what. Or, to say it another way: What I know is that talent alone won’t get the story written, but to discover talent’s equivalent in a hard-core work ethic just might, and that seems to me the more important part of the equation. And, over time, even if you’re as slow moving as I am something eventually gets done.

SR: You seem to have an endless supply of perfect literary quotes for any occasion. Do you keep a notebook of them? A database? Where do they come from?

Jack: I haven’t awakened to daylight in over twenty years, my normal rising time about 4:00 AM. At which hour I brew a pot of coffee and read by the window until sunrise. It’s a ritual I love and anticipate, and perhaps it’s also a stay against loneliness, which is how I’d no doubt feel if I neglected to begin my day this way.

I keep a pen and paper nearby and underline or jot down margin notes or sentences that compel, that animate my imagination or curiosity. For example, yesterday morning I was reading a Time magazine interview with the South African artist William Kentridge who, in response to a question about anxiety, said, “The crow of anxiety always find some branch to land on.” I liked that. I jotted it down. But no, I don’t have a database. I don’t even really know what that is, and it’s doubtful that I could ever be that organized anyway. My friend Pete Fromm says I have a Rolodex for a brain, and I do tend to remember quotes that matter to me, and they often become part of my day to day. It’s also a way of “waving back,” of acknowledging those who’ve preceded us as well as our contemporaries, and in that way enlarging the conversation.

SR: Your opening lines are like microcosms. Sometimes whole stories even. Here’s one of my favorites, the first sentence of “Saint Ours”: “Here’s what the guy I don’t live with anymore said: “Charlene, if you could only imagine yourself as a feral, teeth-baring timber wolf bitch in heat, then you and me—we’d be a whole lot better suited.” You gave a craft talk once about how to write a killer first sentence, dividing the strategies into five categories. Can you divulge some of your secrets, for those of us trying to jump-start a story?

Jack: If I were asked what’s at stake, or what might be determined in that first sentence, or those first few sentences, I’d say, and without hyperbole, “everything.” Steven Millhauser says, “In that single grain of sand lies the beach that contains the grain of sand. That is, everything that the story will eventually reveal—or the way in which the story bodies forth—lies latent in those opening sentences. Character, setting, action, conflict, distance, point of view and, naturally, an unresolved tension or dissonance which already, right there, tends toward its necessary resolution. As in a piece of music, everything already in place and the tenor created by their arrangement.

When I was still writing poems I always believed that if I could write an opening line interesting enough to propel me forward then I could, and without a clue as to where I was headed, eventually get that poem written. I write stories exactly the same way, without an inkling as to where I’m headed, and unable to move on to sentence number two until that announcing first impression reveals to me what next move might be possible.

That’s how I jump-start a story, by getting out of the gate with as much traction and momentum as possible, and then seeing what happens from there.

SR: One of the things you’ve been most praised for is your authorial empathy. A review in Fiction Writers Review, for instance, says, “I can feel that these people genuinely matter” to you. I’ve heard you talk about your “kind God theory” of writing. Can you explain what this means and why it’s important?

Jack: The theory is simple: To humanize through empathy. To love and care for and treat with respect each and every one of our fictive inventions. And the way to divine complex, three-dimensional flesh and blood characters is to open every door into the deep reaches of their psyches and hearts as a way to reveal everything that they’re thinking and feeling. Their secrets and fears, as well as—and perhaps more importantly—what they desire, what Freud calls the drives, and what John Irving insists, forms character, and more often than not sets them in action, instigates the trouble which then sets the story in motion.
Not types or outlines. Not representative or herd-like characters, not personages but rather persons, individuals, people, as Hemingway says.

“At first there was the word.” As well as the biblical edict to “forgive seventy times seven,” though I’ve always felt more comfortable with redemption, which seems to me a willingness on the writer’s part to understand why a character does what he or she does, its source or motivation. Not that we necessarily will understand, but the effort to do just that nonetheless defines our compassion, our willingness to treat our characters fairly and honestly, and that signals hope, and perhaps all the more so in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

SR: Your stories have been compared to those of Lee K. Abbott, especially in their use of humor in the service of serious emotions. Here’s an example, from “Saint Ours”: “Listen to me, Miss Cum Laude. Forget the I.V. Leagues, okay?”
Besides Abbott, who are some of the other writers who make us laugh and cry at the same time? What are your tips for writers trying to pull off this balancing act?

Jack: The French word chantepleure, to sing and cry simultaneously, doesn’t so much resolve the apparent paradox of emotion, as it does complicate and enlarge it, which I like a lot, given that emotions seem to me rarely singular.
Humor helps us to relax; it provides a counter-harmony that allows for easier access into those darker realms, and into what otherwise might be unbearable. Not humor signed to the ha-ha, the easy laugh, the punch line, but humor working, as you say, in the service of the story’s more serious concerns.

Writers who come immediately to mind include Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Lorrie Moore, Pam Houston, David Sedaris, Billy Collins, Roddy Doyle, Russell Edson, Mark Twain, and Flannery O’Connor, to name a few.
I unfortunately have no tips on how “to pull off this balancing act,” given that I’m not sure it’s possible to teach un-humorous minds how to be playful or funny, how to relax, loosen up, lighten the load. I’m guessing that you’re either born toward such a leaning or you’re not.

SR: In “Saint Ours” (my favorite story in the new collection), your main character says, “Grove claims that there are only three seasons in northern Michigan: July, August, and winter.” How has this harsh climate (it’s where you live and where you write about) influenced your work?

Jack: I often quote Ortega y Gasset, who says, “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.” Which is to say that the portrait of a region’s inhabitants is defined in large part by the place itself. And there’s no question that if I lived elsewhere my stories would reflect that particular geographic region, its seasons, its topography, its politics and language patterns, psychology, etc.

Winter up here in the north country can, and oftentimes does, feel interminable, isolated, beautiful but unforgiving. If you fight it you lose, though my characters, bored senseless by the sameness of the days and the nights for months on end, do fight it. And that’s what gets them in trouble and makes for story. They drink. They fantasize another life and they risk making those fantasies a reality.

What has always interested me is the tension created by what a place/community provides and what it can’t possibly deliver. It’s that old goldfish metaphor: you can grow only as large as your surroundings, and what happens when those enclosures begin to squeeze you dry? It creates what Jim Harrison calls a “panic hold,” and all you can think to do is flee, to leap outward, get away. Not only, but in particular the kids in my stories who so badly imagine a different life, even if they can’t quite conceive what that other life might be.

In other words, place is not merely a backdrop against which the action occurs, a piece of topicality. It defines behavior and it is, in essence, a character itself, as London is for Dickens, for example, or as Dublin is for Joyce. And I find this place from which I write as literary as anywhere else. It doesn’t, I hope, pigeonhole me as a Michigan writer. It simply happens to be where I live and write, and have since 1975.

SR: Not all great writers are great teachers, but you are one of the best and most beloved. At Pacific, you’ve achieved a cult status, with students huddling together and sharing strategies about how to get to work with you. You began a workshop by telling your students that you have a shelf of books by writers you have taught over the years and that mentoring is one of your proudest achievements. Who are some of the writers you’ve taught whose books are on that shelf? Has teaching interfered with or contributed to your writing, and in what ways? You taught five days a week for many years at Interlochen and now teach in a low-residency MFA program. Does that allow you more time for your own writing?

Jack: The answer to the last part of your question is an emphatic yes—I do have more time to write now. As to whether teaching has interfered with or contributed to my own writing, I think the honest response is, finally, neither. I say this because at some point the writing and the teaching fused, became inextricable. And I’d have to discover—or maybe invent—another self to live by if I were to imagine my life differently than what it is, what it has been: a teacher and a writer and I embrace both.
And yes, I am proud of my students’ achievements, their publications, and more so than I am of my own. Nothing buoys my spirits more than to receive a novel or memoir or story or poetry collection by a former student and I do indeed have a shelf—my favorite shelf—that’s reserved for them and them only.

To name a few: Doug Stanton, Marya Hornbacher, David Bowan, Faith Shearin, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Mary Atwell, Jonathan Johnson, Judith Shulevitz, Deborah Reed, Julia Leiblich, Karen Gottshall, Katey Schultz, as well as Vince Gilligan, the creator and lead writer of “Breaking Bad.” I mean, what’s not to like and applaud?

SR: Jeremiah Chamberlain, in Fiction Writers Review, quotes from The World of a Few Minutes Ago and says that the rhythms are so poetic they are practically scannable. I agree, and I’d go further and say that sometimes your stories contain single sentences that are so complete and evocative they are like poems themselves. For instance, from “This Season of Mercy”:

“On the dinner table, his portion of the pork chops congealed
in their white fat, and a single corn muffin off to the side, and
my dad silent and hungry for nothing but an honest paycheck
for an honest day’s work slicing muscles and tendons, and
now, that gone, his appetite piqued only by revenge.”

Which leads to these questions: Are you going to write another book of poetry? Which poets are you reading now or which ones influence your fiction, your rhythms? Song writers? How can prose writers enrich their work with poetry? Who should they read? What should they study?

Jack: I haven’t written a poem in probably twenty-five years, and until recently I was quite certain that I wouldn’t in the future. Now I’m not so sure, though there’s no question that I’ll stay with short stories until I finish a collection that I’ve been working on since The World of a Few Minutes Ago. I’m about halfway there, meaning, at my pace, at least another couple years.

But yes, I read as much poetry now as I ever did and a lifetime of doing so has helped me to hear and shape my sentences, to become a more attuned listener of my own work. I’m speaking about the difference, I suppose, between tin-eared and bell-quality. As Walter Pater said, and to which I fully subscribe, “all art conspires to the condition of music.” Perhaps it’s what Robert Bly meant, during a visit to Interlochen decades ago, when he said that the eye reports to the brain but the ear reports to the heart. And perhaps that’s the thing that musicians can do that writers can’t quite. It’s what Kathleen Hill underscores when she says, “Debussy permitted us to hear the sound of moonlight.” Georgia O’Keeffe talked about her paintings in the context of music. And, Jim Harrison again: “Why does the mind compose this music well before the words occur?” Because clarity is as much a matter of hearing as it is seeing, as evidenced in this sentence by Cormac McCarthy in Child of God: “All patched up out of parts and low slung and bumping over the ruts.” It’s a fun sentence to say aloud, the lips dancing around every syllable.

To “read with a listening ear,” as Robert Frost suggests, and poetry—language most purely distilled—has assisted me when it comes to composing sentence rhythms.

The list of poets who have assisted me over the years is long and ongoing, but names that spring immediately to mind include Chaucer, Hopkins, Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Galway Kinnell, Sylvia Plath, Stephen Dunn, and Emily Dickinson.

As for song writers? Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. And whether or not Patsy Cline ever wrote anything I could listen to her forever. I have a CD with seventeen different covers of “Danny Boy.” And almost as many covers of “Boots of Spanish Leather.”

SR: Publisher’s Weekly, in a review of Wanting Only To Be Heard, says the stories exude a “Hemingwayesque machismo.” The Chicago Tribune says that the stories in The World of a Few Minutes Ago are “masculine in the best sense of the word.” BookSlut compares you to Raymond Carver, one of the most masculine of our short story writers. It’s not just the subject matter—fathers and sons, hunting and risk taking—but the literary muscle, the emotion delivered in a disciplined way, “nothing gooey or sentimental,” according to the Chicago Tribune, and I agree.

But I would add that my favorite story, “Saint Ours,” is narrated by a woman, and your female voice is just as convincing. And your novel, Lucky Man, Lucky Woman, has been described in the San Francisco Chronicle as “the great American fertility novel,” certainly a subject Hemingway would not have dreamed of.
Can you talk about the masculine/feminine in your work? Or is this even a useful way to talk about literature today?

Jack: My most recent story is called “All the Time in the World,” and is spoken from the point of view of a troubled fifteen-year-old girl. For a long time I avoided female narrators, in much the same way I avoided dialogue when I first turned from poetry to prose. A fear, really, of misrepresenting voice and sensibility and experience. But I also heard myself say in an interview that the impulse to write comes from the impulse to love: people, place, language, story, etc. To inhabit another life, another mind and heart, which was right around the time that an editor at W.W. Norton who was interested in Wanting Only To Be Heard pointed out that most of the stories—and there are seventeen—were narrated by young boys. A not so subtle hint that the manuscript needed more range, greater variation in voice, and that’s when I first risked a story told from a middle-aged woman’s point of view. It was a huge breakthrough, initiated as a practical maneuver for the sake of tenor and balance, but ending up, I think, making me a better writer on all fronts.

SR: Many of the stories in your first collection featured young people on the verge of adulthood, that crucial crux in time. In the latest book, the characters are often in their middle years. But, to me, one of the most moving is the title story, which includes two people of retirement age. I’m curious whether you intend to pursue this last age in your next work.

Jack: Wells Tower says in a story, “You are eleven years old, the age when your essences begin revealing themselves” and eleven is exactly when it happened to me. And no doubt why I live a protracted adolescence and why I find myself returning to that time, that intensely confusing emotional place. the danger, however, is self-imitation, variations on the same story. “A comfortable place,” as Tony Hoagland says, “you finally had to leave if you hoped to get anywhere.”

The narrator in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” by William Gass, says, “I am all my ages.” But somehow I seemed locked in to being a kid and so, in much the same way that I risked writing from a female point of view, I did likewise by telling the title story from the point of view of a seventy-seven-year-old retired AP photographer.

Self-appraisal is often so errant that I hesitate to even say this, but I think of the title story as my most lyrical, and it’s the story in the collection that I’m happiest to have written, it being in so many ways unlike anything I’d gotten to previously. And that’s the best feeling of all.

As to more older characters going forward? Updike certainly did in his “farewell” story collection My Father’s Tears, and maybe time will dictate in that direction. But subtract eleven, which I am perpetually, from seventy-seven (my oldest protagonist to date) and you come up with sixty-eight, my actual age. And somewhere in that tricky math lies the next story.