Interview with Jack Driscoll
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.