In the second installment of our new interview series, “Take Four,” we talk to contributor C. Dale Young about his new work in short fiction, the subtle differences between poetry and prose, and the alchemy of characterization.
FWR: As an artistic mode, poetry seems to have served you well in the past. Was there anything in particular that turned your thoughts toward fiction?
CDY: First of all, thank you for saying poetry has served me well. Most of the time, I question whether or not I have served poetry well… I began writing with the belief I would be a fiction writer, a novelist. But I discovered poetry in college and found I had a better facility, a quicker facility, with it. I became discouraged about writing fiction. Later, as I began to publish more and more poems, fiction became something I remained interested in but then became afraid of writing for fear I’d look like an idiot. But I went to give a reading at Oregon State University six or seven years ago, and I did a roundtable discussion. It came up in the discussion, by the fiction writers there, that it seemed odd I didn’t write fiction. I think I laughed it off. But at that time, I had been trying to do something different with my poems, something requiring more than one voice, more than one mentality, and I was having real difficulties executing that. Maybe a better poet would have been able to do that, but I couldn’t.
On the way back to the airport, on a shuttle between Corvalis and Portland, this sentence came into my head: “No one would have believed him if he had tried to explain that he watched the man disappear.” I typically come up with the last lines of my poems first, but try as I did, this sentence did not seem like a line of one of my poems. I joked with myself, there on the shuttle bus, that maybe this was the start of a short story. So I poked around at the sentence in my head and then wrote it down on a piece of paper. As I looked at the sentence, I changed it to: “No one would have believed Ricardo Blanco if he had tried to explain that Javier Castillo could disappear.” I knew this was not a line from one of my poems, pulled out my laptop and typed the sentence. By the time I reached the airport, I had written about 700 words of this story that would become “The Affliction.”
I have no idea why at that moment I would start writing a story. And maybe I was able to start a story for years and years but never paid attention. I am not sure. But that story I wrote ended up prompting several other stories, some about the characters in “The Affliction,” some narrated by them, some about ancillary characters. That story opened a world for me that I haven’t really left yet.
FWR: As you mention, the character of Javier Castillo in your story “The Affliction” is literally able to disappear. In the end, he does so permanently. This is an interesting contrast to Leenck in “Between Men,” a character who also faces the prospect of literal disappearance, though in this case it’s decidedly against his will. What do you find attractive about the subject of disappearance, voluntary or not?
CDY: I have to be honest; I wasn’t aware of my attraction to disappearances. But now that you bring it up, it seems to exist in my poems as well. Several of the poems I have written in the last 7 years have this idea of disappearing in them. I guess that isn’t so odd seeing these stories were written in the same time period. But wow, I wasn’t aware of that until you just brought it up.
In my day to day life as a physician, as an oncologist, I am keenly aware of people disappearing. Some fight until the end of their lives to stay present, and others give up and disappear long before their physical bodies do. The ways in which the mind deals with mortality have always interested me, and it occurs to me now that my attraction to this idea of disappearance might stem from my own mind working this out. I am not entirely sure, though you have given me much to think about!
FWR: When writers talk about the differences between poetry and fiction, there’s often some “grass is greener” mentality on both sides of the fence. As well as a lot of wondering whether or not “crossing over” is even possible. Having had some experience with both, do you think there’s really as much difference between the forms as we seem to think there is?
CDY: Well, we all, poets and fiction writers, come from the same heritage, the epic poem. Some forget that in the scope of literary history, the novel is a fairly new thing. Both poets and fiction writers, in order to do what we do well, must not only tell a story but create an experience, or the sense that one as a reader is enmeshed in the experience. Lyric poetry tries to provide a flash of an experience, something brief and intense. Most fiction provides a more gradual enveloping of the reader into the world of the story or the novel. Many of our tools are the same. But the genres are different. Their ways of captivating readers are different. At base, the tools might be similar or the same, but the execution of the writing and the goals of the writing are usually different. I guess what I am saying is that poets have much to learn from fiction writers. Studying fiction allows them to better see the speaker of a poem as a created thing akin to a character in a novel. And fiction writers have much to learn from poets. Studying poetry allows them to better use figuration, to set scene with a keen eye, etc. Some “cross over” to use your phrase. Many will never feel a desire to do both.
FWR: In an interview for the American Literary Review you said that you once “…falsely believed that the love poem was in essence a dead form… What I realized with time is that the love poem isn’t dead but just incredibly difficult to pull off…” Both “The Affliction” and “Between Men” evoke beautifully complicated forms of love. Do you think love stories are just as difficult? What do you think makes these particular stories work?
CDY: I suspect the love story is also a “dead form.” Like the love poem, one must be ever vigilant when writing a love story to avoid the trap of cliché. This is incredibly difficult. I don’t think of “The Affliction” as a love story. I suspect I actually think of it more as a falling out of love story, which is just as dangerous. I didn’t conceive of “Between Men” as a love story, and I resist the idea of it being a love story. But I do see why you would raise the issue. In many ways, Leenck wants to love Carlos but cannot. And yet, in the end, it is his love for Carlos, in whatever form, that does him in. As for what makes these stories work? A little bit of hard work and a lot of alchemy. A lot of alchemy.
FWR: Alchemy. That’s an interesting word. I think you’d agree that stories often start to cohere at the moment their characters – and their characters’ relationships to one another – become complex or detailed enough to give the story life. Have you ever been surprised by one of these moments?
CDY: I have. These moments have happened to me countless times over the years, both in writing poems and stories. In the two stories you mentioned, one spawned the other. The narrator of “The Affliction” is the Carlos in “Between Men.” My desire to “know more” about Carlos led me to this story. And the sons and wife of Javier Castillo end up having their own stories. And even the most recent story I drafted examines one of Javier’s sons who is locked up in a ward for mentally unstable people who have committed crimes. This discovery of the person within and behind the story is what keeps me going back to the writing. I need to know, and that need is what many times generates the story. The story might start with an image or a sentence or a realization in my head, but the stories always move forward as I figure out the characters, what motivates them. It is funny, but Carlos, Javier, Leenck, Flora Diaz, these characters I know I created, seem to me, at times, very real people, something that must have come not from inside but from without. And that is alchemy to me; something not magical, perhaps, but close to it.
“With clarity and precision, the poems uncover the secrets of blood and lust and heart, the nature of selfhood, and the accompanying larger social and political implications of identity. Beneath all this is a quest for beauty and evidence of the poet’s deeply humane intelligence and the breadth of his sensibilities.”
In the first installment of our new interview series, “Take Four,” we talk to contributor Paul Lisicky about his short story “Lent” and his latest collection from Four Way Books. In between issues, we’ll keep the conversation going as more contributors share their thoughts on recent work, current projects and the challenges of writing well.
FWR: As one might expect in a story called “Lent,” there are a number of references to abstention, and to the intentions that motivate its practice. In this way the story reveals an interesting tension between spirituality and modern life. Do you think that anyone still knows how to abstain, or is abstinence no longer considered a virtue?
PL: That’s a great question. Father Jed, the central character in that story, certainly tosses around some ideas about abstention, but I think his thoughts probably have less to do with virtue than they do with some kind of personal crisis. He’s so concerned with correct appearances (i.e., Father Ben’s mismatched shoes) that he completely misses the fact that the guy is levitating. I actually think the story is pretty much on the side of permissiveness when it comes to spiritual matters, even though Father Jed is the lens of it. I sort of expect the reader to identify with the people in the assembly, who might be doing just fine with their liturgical dancers and folk hymns.
It would be interesting to write a story that seriously considered the abstention question. Most of my books have been about desire, the paradox at the center of it – how it sustains us as it ruins us – but not so much about pure refusal. It seems to me that many people around us are in the practice of abstaining from one thing or another all the time – think about AA or NA or SAA and how entrenched those programs are in urban life – but maybe that’s another matter. Abstention is different if you don’t already have a problem with excess. But how can anyone not be in some difficult relationship with excess in a culture that encourages so much wanting?
FWR: It’s interesting that you say most of your books are about desire. It’s obviously an important aspect of fiction. Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” But in good fiction it’s usually more complicated than that. Perhaps what’s missing from a story in which someone simply wants a glass of water is this tension you’ve mentioned, between desire’s power to sustain and its power to ruin. Would you agree? And would you say that much of your own work begins, conceptually, with this tension in mind? Or does it more often evolve naturally from character?
PL: I’d definitely agree – desire is always a two-headed beast, and I’m not even interested in pursuing a story until I can find my way into its opposing energies. Usually a story doesn’t start with character for me, but from situation or image. Right now, I’m writing a little story about a toll taker on a highway, a woman who leaves her corporate job behind to pursue a childhood dream. The tone of it is tongue-in-cheek and not. I just know I wouldn’t be able to write the story unless I were focusing on the image of the tight space my character has to occupy as the cars are aiming at the toll booth at high speed. So a story for me starts with the metaphor, and the metaphor has to be in sync with sound – by that I usually mean an opening sentence with a particular cadence. Once I have those two things in line, a character can emerge. I can’t imagine working from character alone – human beings can be so inscrutable, all over the place – but then again I’ve never exactly been a realist.
FWR: Religion seems to be another common theme in your work, though it often functions as a lens rather than the object itself. For example, “This is the Day,” a story from your new collection, Unbuilt Projects, presents Christian mythology as a kind of philosophical system, which the narrator uses to interpret an emotionally painful reality.
PL: It’s funny you should be asking this now, as I’ve been going through the last draft of a new memoir, and I was just telling myself to “get rid of this holy stuff!” By holy stuff, I’m not so much talking about thinking, but a borrowed pitch or tone that presumes the reader’s going to hear it and align with it. I can’t stand coming upon that, and my bullshit detector has been razor sharp about it these days.
I’m a big fan of people like Noelle Kocot, Joy Williams and Marie Howe, who are all pretty open about the subject of God – or they’re at least asking questions about God in their work. Marie is a good friend, and I was actually reading The Kingdom of Ordinary Time in manuscript as I was writing the first pieces of Unbuilt Projects. Marie’s book pretty boldly riffs on scriptural narratives, and I took direction from it. She’s not writing didatic work; she’s, as you say, using the mythology as a philosophical system.
I think there’s a lot of anger and bewilderment about God – or around the subject of God – in Unbuilt Projects. That wasn’t made up. The structures that I’d grown up with, the system that had sustained me, even though I wasn’t always aware of it as an adult – were shattered for a time by my mom’s confrontation with dementia. You can hear lots of anger in “How’s Florida?” and “In the Unlikely Event” and “Irreverence.” But I’m glad the book also has pieces like “The Didache,” so that the implied question – ”What kind of God would allow this to happen to someone who matters to me?” – has another side. I wouldn’t want that question to simply generate rage. Rage isn’t the whole story, it never is.
FWR: It sounds like the stories in the book were at least partly cathartic. Of course most literary fiction is written for the author’s benefit as well as for the reader’s, but in some cases this seems more so than in others. This more personal work must come with its own unique difficulties. Do you have any advice for writers who find themselves staring down similar projects?
PL: My favorite stories and novels always have a sense of necessity about them. They feel impelled. It’s hard to say exactly what “impelled” is, but we feel it when we’re reading it. Maybe we could say that the work has come into being out of the writer’s suffering. Maybe it digs into the why? of the situation – which is unanswerable, finally. It doesn’t feel like the writer has even chosen to write such material. It’s chosen him or her – maybe.
I think if you can choose whether or not to write a difficult personal experience, then maybe you shouldn’t write it. Or not write it directly, at least. Find another narrative (or set of metaphors) in which to plant that energy. Mere transcription is never enough anyway. It always has to be about craft, distinctiveness of expression. Exactness of pitch and pacing. The sentences.
Catharsis is a funny thing. I’ve been reading Joy Williams’ 99 Stories of God and I keep thinking about this passage:
“Franz Kafka once called his writing a form of prayer.
He also reprimanded the long-suffering Felice Bauer in a letter: ‘I did not say that writing ought to make everything clearer, but instead makes everything worse; what I said was that writing makes everything clearer and worse.’”
The slyness of that passage might not be available out of context, but I completely get what it’s suggesting. I didn’t feel lighter or wiser or stronger after finishing Unbuilt Projects or The Narrow Door, the new memoir. I might have in fact felt “worse” afterward – who knows? I kicked a lot of questions around, questions that felt necessary to give form to. That’s the most of what we can expect of the things we make, at least on the personal level. We’re lucky to have tools that can possess us completely (in our case, language) when the people and places we love might be falling down around us. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone thrives, much less endures, without having sentences or musical phrases or paint or whatnot at their disposal. That’s the biggest mystery to me. I want to know how those people do it.
“This is meant to be the story of all lives, though I’m talking about one in particular,” Lisicky writes, and if the goal of Unbuilt Projects is “to be the story of all lives,” Lisicky has succeeded. Adept at harnessing the highs of life that are ruthlessly countered by lows— “see how the plants grow. And die a little”—these pieces are anchored by truths and by Truth. With an aptitude for creating vivid scenes, Lisicky envelops us in his stories, so though we did not stand under “The sky so scrubbed with stars it hurts,” it is as if we did.