Schiff Award Winners!

October 1st, 2014

The winners of the sixth annual Robert and Adele Schiff Awards are:

Tom Howard, for his story “The Magnificents”


Chelsea Jennings, for her poem “Elegy”

This year’s field was particularly distinguished, and it was difficult to choose from among the many quality entries. In addition to the winning pieces, three other contest entries—two poems and one story—will also be published in the prize issue (forthcoming May 2015). We present below a list of finalists and honorable mentions, as well as the editors’ comments on the winning poem and story. Next week look for the winners’ comments on their works.

Don Bogen on “Elegy”: “Elegy” stood out, first of all, for its distinctive music: bold and insistent in its rhythms, subtly lyrical in its sound echoes. The last couplet particularly grabbed me—the insights there and in the eight spare lines before it seemed to deepen with each reading. Anchored in concision, thoughtful repetition, and fresh use of some of the simplest terms, “Elegy” sings its own grief as it captures the sad complexities of human loss.

Michael Griffith on “The Magnificents”: This year’s fiction winner of the Schiff Award belongs to, or perhaps invents, something like a new genre: Dystopian Slapstick. Told in a frenetic shorthand that makes this feel like a short novel rather than a long story, “The Magnificents” combines hilarious black comedy with surprising pathos. Never before have I rooted so hard for a little boy’s garage magic to save someone from euthanasia.


“The Mountain,” Barret Baumgart

“A Recipe for Mice,” Amy Knox Brown

“Bird Fair,” Katherine Davis

“Real Americans,” Camellia Freeman

“Walls,” Rachel Goldman

“The Nino,” Sarah Gurman

“Sirens,” Stephanie Horvath

“The Neighbors,” Sheri Joseph

“A Bildungsroman,” Mark Labowskie

“Forces of Nature,” Jason Mastaler

“But for Herr Hitler,” Robin McLean

“Judas Cradle,” Robin McLean

“Philip Roth’s Last Hours,” Timothy Parrish

“The Doppelgangers,” Helen Phillips

“Unaccompanied Cello,” Jennifer Acker Shah

“Stay Up with Hugo Best,” Erin Somers

“Tuckernuck,” Melanie Unruh

“Planet Joy,” Misty Urban

“History of Titles,” Jason Whitmarsh

“The World without Nan,” Elise Winn

“Dear Lazarus,” John Woods

Honorable Mentions

“The Greenhouse,” Alex Collins-Shotwell

“Hell,” Jacques Debrot

“Pedazos of a Man,” Daisy Hernandez

“Learning to Swim,” Jennifer Imsande

“M1 Liberty Freedom,” Adrienne Johnson

“Source Code,” Kevin Lavey

“The Deliverist,” Dan Mancilla

“True Carnivores,” Robin McLean

“The Yellow Dress,” David Meischen

“The Erratic,” Christina Milletti

“Split Skin,” Samantha Mitchell

“Sleeping Alone,” Alexander Sorondo

“Trilogy,” Julie Marie Wade

“Paper Boats,” Caroline Wilkinson

Hat-Tipping Time

September 26th, 2014

It’s time for a post commending our small pool of trusted readers, who are in no small way responsible for buoying our literary vessel. These magnificent humans render thoughtful judgments on thousands of submissions each year. They have children to raise, medical conditions that require myriad unguents, rude neighbors who sneak out at night to pee on their lawns—and still they read on. Below are some examples of their considered critiques. Thank you, volunteers and satellite readers, for your generous service.

—I found a lot of things about the premise, character, and form surprising. This one felt fresh, though there were some areas where the language was a little clumsy, and the moment of change seems sudden. I think it could be expanded.

—The writing takes us right up to the point where the story should start. Then it ends.

—Strong, unexpected images. Unique voice. Deserves another read.

—This story is beautifully written; it also has much more of a sense of its own language & the power of that language than it does of the story’s moving parts. As an experiment, it’s engaging, even stirring; as a story, it’s somewhat less. The writer is clearly quite talented, though.

—The poet has the ability to move from outer space to a tight close-up in some of the poems, and when it works, it’s a pretty ride.

—I enjoyed the energy and imagination with which the poet approached her subject matter. There is a tension dug into in these lyrics that evokes what is learned and lost in growing up.

—Complex and moving. I love this one. Engages timely issues with deft handling. The description goes on for awhile, but it’s interesting how the dynamics shift as they go.

—This story is not terribly original, and the beginning and end aren’t quite right, but the writing is good throughout. Perhaps someone to watch?

—A pretty good story here. Quiet. Sensitively envisioned.

—An accomplished poet. Many of these didn’t grab me but were technically sophisticated. They are worth another read.

—Sketches of somewhat stereotypical characters. All in summary and description, no scenes. It doesn’t hold together as a cohesive whole.

Why We Like It: “Classified” by Sarah Burke

September 24th, 2014

New volunteer Matthew Pennock hails from NYC, where he studied, earned a poetry degree, and taught school, but he is mainly known for being the reincarnated Houdini. As a baby, Matthew escaped from his crib nightly, and in the morning his parents would find him stuffed inside his sock drawer or an empty box of Tide. Though he grew larger as he aged, Matthew challenged himself to fit inside, and then escape from, smaller and more oddly shaped containers: the helmet of a suit of armor, a clarinet case, a bottle of Britney Spears’s fragrance Curious (he emerged redolent of Louisiana magnolia, golden Anjou pear, and dewy lotus flower). Considering his past life and accomplishments, we do not find it curious that he chose to write on “Classified” in our current issue.

Matthew Pennock: Sarah Burke had me at line 1. I turned the page to her “Classified” and read “Wanted—shell the mollusk exudes like sweat.” What follows is an immaculately rendered poem in which images work in concert to create a feeling of paranoia and exhaustion all too present in our current cultural climate.

The poem, as the title implies, alludes to the structure of a classified ad, relying twice on the italicized verb “wanted,” which is then followed by a series of images, all of which are variations on one theme, close confinement: “Think glove, not box. Vase,/not tank.” These images, however, do not feel claustrophobic; in fact, they feel like the only safe spaces one may inhabit: “Think womb, think flashlight/burning in a makeshift tent of quilts.” After bearing witness to this cavalcade of tight fits, I couldn’t help but see the title in a new way. “Classified” no longer functions solely as an indicator of structure—the form of a want ad—now it takes on the mantle of government. It is a Secret with a capital S, calling to mind the NSA’s wanton violation of our privacy, the vague terror threats the FBI says they’ve foiled but will never reveal. Whenever I think of all the various undefined ways the world wants to destroy me or what I hold dear, I too want to find the safest, most confined space. I want to crawl into an “anthill chambered as a heart.”

What We’re Reading: Winner of the National Book Award

September 18th, 2014

Don Peteroy: For the last four months, I’ve been reading humorous novels exclusively, trying to unpack how humor works, looking for ways the written medium imposes limitations on a writer’s ability to provoke laughter while also granting opportunities that you wouldn’t get in, say, standup comedy or film. I’m particularly interested in how writers sustain humor throughout a novel; I’ve found that most of the books I’ve read are funny for about fifty pages, and then the humor exhausts itself.

Jincy Willett’s Winner of the National Book Award is one of the few books that kept me laughing until the last page.

Hurricane Pandora is about to strike a town in Rhode Island. Dorcas, the local librarian, is hiding in the library. She busies herself with one of the new nonfiction arrivals, In the Driver’s Seat: The Abigail Mather Story. It’s written by Dorcas’s sister Abigail, and Hilda DeVilbiss, Abigail’s friend. Dorcas isn’t happy about this book—it’s a “wife abuse expose” that chronicles Abigail’s sexual deviance and eventual marriage to the venomous writer Conrad Lowe. While abuse narratives aren’t funny, it’s the book-about-a-book—the metafictional distance—that allows Willett to draw humor from the story of Abigail’s traumatic marriage. Dorcas leads us through the book chapter by chapter; she comments, criticizes, exposes Hilda and Abigail’s embellishments, and reveals what’s been left unsaid.

Winner of the National Book Award shows two competing narratives that tell the same story. Dorcas’s corrective rendition is stylistically sophisticated and brutally honest while In the Driver’s Seat’s is bombastic, sentimental, and full of absurd speculations. For instance, Hilda attempts to explain the primary cause of young Abigail’s excessive sexual appetite, relying on inaccurate psychological explanations:

“Abigail Mather’s great sin was, of course, in growing up. Her father, likely out of his own inchoate sense of guilt, precognizant of his own incestuous desires, withheld from Abigail the male approval necessary to her erotic self-esteem. Just when she had the greatest need of him, he declined to validate her sexuality. . . .”

The humor lies in Dorcas’s mockery and refutation of these fanciful “facts,” her resistance to pop-Freudian psychology.

The characters themselves are pitiful, and it’s their awareness and proud embracing of their deplorable natures that makes them so funny. Conrad Lowe hates women. He’s a former gynecologist who’d been attracted to the field only because he wanted to understand what’s inside women. Then he became a novelist who embodies all of the stereotypical pretensions. In an interview with the Journal-Bulletin, he talks about his latest novel, a thriller called Night of the Gorgon, which is “in the Mantis tradition.” The interviewer asks, “Is that, more or less, the Stephen King tradition?” He responds, “No . . . it is exactly in the Stephen King tradition.”

She asks, “And how do you think your work compares with King’s?”

He says, “It’s worse.”

Willett provides a never-ending procession of satire-conducive excerpts of In the Driver’s Seat; new characters provide fresh surprises, embodying stereotypes pushed to the max: we meet a male “feminist” poet who is obviously a sexist in denial, his enabling wife Hilda, and a depressed Unitarian minister undergoing an existential crisis. The humor endures and escalates in direct proportion to the tragedy because there’s always something outrageous happening, always a twist.

Upon Spelling

September 16th, 2014

Nicola Mason: Last week, Michael (the fiction editor) looked up from his reading and asked, “What words do you see that are frequently misspelled?”

“Cemetery,” I said, “minuscule, seize, graffiti, mantel—the fireplace thing—as opposed to mantle—the cloak thing. What about you?”

“Discreet—the keep-it-to-yourself thing—as opposed to discrete—the singular-bits thing—Caribbean, liquefy, genealogy. What else?”

“People always use poured when they mean pored. And Cincinnati,” I said. “It’s surprising how often people stick an extra t in there.”

“Millennium,” he said, “sacrilegious, fluorescent.”

“Vocal cords,” I said, “with an h.”

“Yes!” he cried. “With an h.”

“Foreword,” I said.

“Epigraph,” he said. “Not epigram.”

“Not epigram.” I nodded. “Nyet.”

Michael rested his chin on his thumb. “How can we help the spelling challenged?”

“I’ve got it,” I replied. “We can quote Words into Type. On the blog. Everyone who’s anyone reads the blog.”

“Whose,” he said, “when they mean who’s. And vice versa.”

“Vice,” I said, “when they mean vise.”

“Such as this passage?” he inquired: “The writer who is a poor speller should work with a dictionary always at his side and should send out no manuscript, proposal, or outline without carefully checking doubtful words and proper names.”

“Indeed,” I said. “And this one: Words often misspelled should be memorized or written on a list for future reference.”

“Good one,” commended Michael.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m glad we had this very spontaneous talk about the building blocks of our wonderfully expressive language.”

“Ditto,” Michael replied, making a little gun with his index finger and thumb, then shooting it at me. “What do you say we get back to our reading?”

I nodded, leaning toward my computer screen and inhaling. “I love the smell of fresh submissions.”

Revising our Reading Period: August 15 to March 15

September 11th, 2014

Nicola Mason: It’s Trepidation Day here at the mag—the day we designated to make it known that we are (deep breath) shortening our reading period. We’ve gone back and forth. There’s been heated discussion. Fisticuffs, even. Okay, not fisticuffs, but brow furrowing and such. Definitely brow furrowing and one incipient case of TMJ. In other words, we don’t want to do it, but we have to do it. Weirdly, it’s to be fair to all the talented writers submitting—who are waiting longer and longer to hear from us because of the steadily climbing number of quality manuscripts we receive. Each day we get an email from an irritated, perhaps slightly more than irritated, writer whose work has been under consideration for, basically, ever. This most often means that one reader dug it and passed it on to someone else, who dug it and passed it on to someone else (repeat two more times), and it has reached the head eds, who must read it, and maybe even reread it, before deciding if it goes into the upcoming issue. Sad to say (reality rears its pattern-bald pate) we can publish less than 1%  of what we receive.

We most definitely don’t want to speed up the actual process of reading submissions. We don’t want to give anything short shrift. In fact, we rather pride ourselves on supporting that underserved set of writers, the emergers. We are excited, for example, to have discovered John William McConnell’s story “House of Wine,” forthcoming in our fall/winter issue. It’s his first publication, and it’s amazing. We are painfully aware, however, that we are not being kind to hold onto the work—for, basically, ever—of wonderful writers who are trying to take the lit world by the nape and give it a sharp shake. In other words, to be fair to those who submit, we have to restrict the number of submissions we receive. We realize this is something of a catch-22, and that there will be strong feelings and opinions about our long-considered and considerably fraught decision.

Of course, we would love for some beneficent donor to appear before us with a sack of crisp bills so we could a.) work full time, or b.) hire more kick-ass staffers. If you know such a person—if you ARE such a person—we’d be thrilled to hear from you. In the meantime, we are shortening our reading period—with regret—in the hope that we will be more speedily responsive in the future.

I leave you with this delightful passage from the story mentioned above. Thanks, John William McConnell, for sending your stuff our way.

John’s mind jump-started awake. Lilith asleep next to him, snoring. Dim bars of light leaned across the bedroom, beamed through the slats from a disco-ball moon. John immediately understood he would not be sleeping that night, only by the sobriety of his awakeness, its painful edge and the ache behind his eyes.

John frowzed upright and frowzed his brow; he frowzed, then frowzed his eyes and frowzily frowzed out of bed. He really wanted to utter an obscenity but had forgotten them all. He pulled on his pants and shuffled around shirtless in a world of gunmetal blue, and gray, and lurking blacknesses in the corners. Out of the bedroom. Through a blank hall. To a menagerie of couches and furniture that had borrowed from the night a glister of comatose hate. Fuck you, said the couches. On the table was a bottle of wine, number four, and praise the lord: still half full. He poured into a glass and raised it. There was very red lipstick on the rim. Lip, John thought. John glanced around. What the fuck was this? He just wanted to. Yeah, he was gonna do it. John pressed his mouth over the lipstick, her lipstick, cherryblood red. Drank the wine with his mouth precisely over the lipstick and enjoyed the lipid roundness of the stuff adhering to his mouth. The sticky fat. He held the glass and listened. Sometimes there was the shorelike sound of a car spinning around the cul-de-sac, lost in the suburbs, probably, and how the high beams arced like the flash of a lighthouse through the windows. Vase, picture, couch, plant. He drank again, smacked his mouth.

MOTH: The Graphic Play

September 9th, 2014

Our tenth-anniversary project (well, one of them) is nearing completion. MOTH: The Graphic Play will be fluttering toward subscribers soon. That’s right—56 full-color pages of the eponymous play by Declan Greene, gorgeously illustrated by the talented Gabe Ostley.

MOTH is the story of Anime-obsessed Sebastian and art-freak Claryssa as they awkwardly navigate the cruel social hierarchy of high school. A horrific event on the school’s athletic field threatens their friendship and sends Sebastian on an apocalyptic mission, whereby fantasy and reality intermingle with dangerous consequences. Written with dark wit that’s ultimately after your heart, MOTH is an exploration of friendship, adolescence, loss, and mental illness.

Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers: The Case of the Poltergeist Proxy

September 4th, 2014

It’s September, y’all, and Don Peteroy is not only blazing back onto our blog, he is also claiming a chair in our cluttered little office. Many of you know him by his rap moniker Freezy P, but to his colleagues, fellow staffers, and to readers of his work, he is known as, um, well, Don. We’re excited to have someone new around to good-naturedly needle, not to mention coffee runs just got easier (he drinks his Starbucks black). This time out, the hapless focus of Freezy’s irrelevant inquisition is CR contributor Andrea Scarpino.

Andrea Scarpino is the author of the poetry collection Once, Then (Red Hen Press, 2014) and the chapbook The Grove Behind (Finishing Line Press, 2009). She received an MFA from The Ohio State University and has published in numerous journals including The Cincinnati Review, Los Angeles Review, and Prairie Schooner.

Question: You are currently on a book tour, which is great. Let’s imagine that tomorrow, when you show up for your reading, you see a sign on the bookstore’s door. It reads, Andrea Scarpino’s reading has been cancelled. You’ve been replaced by a different poet. The ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge will be reading “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” You’re okay with this; you’re too awed to be upset. But when you show up for your next reading, in a different city, you see the same thing has happened. And the next, and the next. You write some new poems, send them to literary magazines, and they all get accepted. But when you get your contributor’s copies, you notice that your poems have been replaced by “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” You email the magazine editors and they respond, “Sorry. There’s nothing we can do about this.” The same ill-fortune occurs in every venue: AWP panels, chapbook publications, book reviews. You track down and call the agent who represents the ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She never returns your calls. Finally, you try to approach the ghost. You do it on three occasions, and every time, the second you start speaking, he vanishes. You even try this at a reading, and the crowd gets so mad, they throw Danielle Steel novels at you. Tell me. What do you do?

AS: First, I get myself to a safe place. An angry Danielle-Steel-wielding mob is not something to be taken lightly, especially since those glossy book covers pack a real punch (take my word on this). I find a bathroom near the bookstore’s café—I will need to be well-caffeinated to think through my next move—and I try to remember back to all those undergraduate English literature classes. And I realize, slowly, how much Coleridge and I have in common.

Coleridge was addicted to opium, for example. I am addicted to sugar, which causes a high in similar parts of the brain. Coleridge wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem I think is terrible. I wrote a book-length poem about water that I now also think is terrible. Coleridge had a thing for albatrosses. I have a thing for crows (Hughes’s Crow and/or otherwise). Coleridge was a Romantic. I’ve been known to be romantic. Uncanny, really, how similar we are, I realize as I sit in my locked bookstore bathroom, Stevia-sweetened almond-milk cappuccino in hand, angry mob gathering and lighting torches on the other side of the door.

And the truth slowly dawns on me: I am Coleridge’s ghost. Or he is my ghost. Or the Ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge is both of our ghosts. The workings of the supernatural world are difficult to hold to any particular space-time continuum. The point is that I am writing his poetry (as terrible as I may think it), and he is writing mine (as terrible as he may think it). I unlock the bathroom door and quell the angry crowd with my best Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman impression. And then the Ghost of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and I share a lemon poppy seed muffin.

Reoccupying the Office: Salutations

September 2nd, 2014

Hey, all you lit types. We missed you this summer. Hope you got some reading d0ne, swilled some sweetly sour drinks, fed your pets faithfully, and added a few entries to the Annals of Lawn Care. (We know you didn’t go to that Tom Cruise flick, because that thing lost millions.)

We’ve been pretty productive over the so-called break and will soon have some Schiff Prize winners to announce, an amazing graphic play to gladden your eyeballs, and a fall/winter issue (now with the typesetter) jam-packed with long-form goodness (thanks again, NEA)!

With the new term we say a sad farewell to departing Associate Editor Brian Trapp (tears, lamentation) and a cheery hello to new Assistant Editor Don Peteroy, who has served the mag valiantly for four years—even starting his own characteristically zany blog category: Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers. (Look for a new entry later this week.)

In the spirit of transition, we give you a last look back at issue 10.2. For those of you who’ve fallen out of the CR loop, issue 11.1 hit stacks and stands and all manner of grubby palms this July. It’s our 10th anniversary issue, so grab it if you haven’t already.

Now: Volume 10, Number 2, we remember you!

Emily Dickinson wouldn’t leave her bedroom. Robert Frost had a paralyzing fear of public speaking. A certain poet in the CR office only makes eye contact while wearing sunglasses. Poets are notoriously introverted. They spend a lot of time looking out the window, which is probably why, when pressed to make small talk, they are apt to comment on the weather. Read on to learn how our 10.2 contributors have made an art form of window gazing, and elevated “the weather” from small talk to poetry:

Catherine Pierce (on “The Tornado Wants a Companion”): I grew up on the East Coast, where we had occasional hurricanes and blizzards, but never tornadoes. When I moved in 2007 to north Mississippi, a place that frequently experiences tornadic activity (to use a phrase often heard on TV here), I was struck by how terrifying I found this phenomenon—far more terrifying than even the worst weather incidents in my hometown. Eventually I realized my fear stemmed not from the statistical odds of being killed by a tornado (those odds are lower than the odds of dying from, say, smoke inhalation or electrocution, things I don’t think much about in my day-to-day life), but because tornadoes seem to me to have agency. Unlike a hurricane or snowstorm, which just occurs all around you, here’s this single, discrete thing that you can actually witness wreaking havoc. You can watch it coming, and you can hope it doesn’t come for you. I wanted to write a series of poems that explore that agency: If a tornado had a reason, what would it be? What in the world is it that the tornado wants?

Katherine Bode-Lang (on “Death in Midsummer”): I have long been fascinated with astronomy—the sky and our smallness in its presence. This poem is one moment when the strange weather of the hills met our movement against the sky. And I happened to be looking out the window at the right time.

Kurt Steinwand (on “Frankie the Storm” ): Storms in the news. We give them names, personalities; Sandy with her ironic innocence, though the displaced sand of the Jersey Shore made a connection. The Media sensationalizes, tells the stories. My storm was Italian, a goombah, an intruder, no admired Rocky Balboa. The storm was serious, a shorted-lived member of the Mob who thought he was in cahoots with God; His henchman, maybe even thought he was better, an extension of the Almighty, the Short Reign of Frankie IV. I gave him a name, then believed it was too gratuitous, too legitimizing. I took it out, then put it back in the title and let him have his little moment in the clouds. The power of a poet is often to give a brief life, Godlike, allow it to blow onto the page, be taken seriously with all the senses, and be gone. Or is he? When at the end he’s still “coming in.” That was the essence of this poem.

Pas de Deux: Hoyt & Silver

June 23rd, 2014

And now for part deux of the danse macabre between Dan Hoyt and Doug Silver. (And a BONUS for the morbid among you: a list of notable people throughout history who were beheaded, “arranged alphabetically by country or region and with date of decapitation.”)

Douglas Silver: The opening sentence in “Here I Am”—They came for him at work, at Burger King—succeeds in both hooking the reader and imparting a sense of familiarity with this world, as if we were pages deep into the narrative instead of nine words. By the end of the first paragraph, the protagonist (and the reader) is up to his eyeballs (sorry, I couldn’t resist) in conflict. Was this immediate urgency what you envisioned in the early stages of writing the story?

Daniel A. Hoyt: I always want an opening to reach out and grab readers, maybe straighten their lapels, maybe shake them a bit. At least I hope for this. I want an immediate sense of storyness: conflict, plot, urgency, some sense of this mattering—to a character and to a reader. In my fiction classes, we often analyze first lines. Some writers can utilize eight elements of craft in twenty words. Here’s one of my favorites: “The pump repairman was cautious.” It’s from “Same Place, Same Things” by Tim Gautreaux, and it doesn’t seem like a great first line until you read the whole story, but so much is established in five words.

I had some form of that first line — “They came for him at Burger King”—from a very early draft, but the editors at The Cincinnati Review said it wasn’t clear for a while that John, the protagonist, actually works at Burger King. I tweaked accordingly, and it’s better. It solidifies the concept of work, which is so central to the story. (An implicit message here is to listen to good editors.)

DS: The central conceit of this piece is that John, a middle-aged supervisor at Burger King, is beheaded by axmen, and miraculously survives as a bodiless head. Absurd as this is, I always felt grounded in the world. What challenges did you encounter as you unfolded this surreal element into a world otherwise like our own?

DH: Perhaps it’s telling and problematic that my first instinct is to say it was no problem. But of course all stories are a problem. And even though I think our lives can seem strange and surreal and eerie, they’re not this type of impossible. To counteract that, I thought a lot about the doubters in all of us. I had to think through the fictional reality of a cephalophore and try to stave off the nagging questions that might accompany one: For example, wouldn’t he die from blood loss? I tried to do some preemptive thinking, and I also tried to get the real-world details right. That Burger King exists, and that Watch Your Head sign is in the back, and they did have posters up for a long while pushing those smoothies. I’d never been inside it until I peeked in to get a look at the floor, a homely tile. I resisted the smoothies.

DS: For a story with such a morose premise, it is often quite funny, particularly John’s insights and recollections as he experiences life divorced from his body. What if any struggles did you face capturing a narrative voice that could convey John’s regrets over his lost daughter and underachieving life with the same poignancy imparted to the bizarre sexual tryst encounters of his youth and an awful job he had years earlier at a recycling center?

DH: I almost never feel “just sad” or “completely happy,” and sometimes when I’m the most bummed out (but not completely; it’s never complete), that’s when I seek—sometimes consciously—the consolation of humor. Part of my attempt to create the “reality” of John’s experience was to bring in a jumble of unexpected thoughts and feelings. The confusion of his mind foils the confusion of the event, this mysterious beheading. It had to be plainspoken and close, and I think it helps too that John questions his own thoughts. He’s thinking of these random highs and lows, and he’s getting lost in his consciousness, which is what the beheading does in some way: separate his mind (stuck in place, stuck in itself) and his body (off in the world).

DS: As the story progresses, it becomes apparent John was disconnected from his body, and by extension his life, long before the axmen blindsided him. Displayed like a circus freak, he admits, wistfully, his admiration for Jason, a slacker employee at Burger King whose shift John had been covering when he was decapitated. Jason was the only person he knew who did what he wanted on a perpetual basis. Given the amount of time I imagine you spend alone at your desk (or wherever you write), is this a sentiment with which you often grapple?

DH: I used to have these great failure fantasies, back when I was journalist in my twenties: I’d get fired somehow and that would allow me to recreate myself, to be free of deadlines, to light out west (to San Francisco usually, where I thought I could crash on a couch for a while). Sadly, I never got fired. There’s some part of me now that thinks I should have quit, but I’m sort of an anti-Jason. I tend to do what is required of me. I’m pretty good with rules, with expectations, and, of course, there are times when I feel hemmed in by them, by attending academic meetings or by grading reading quizzes or by cleaning the gutters. I almost never feel trapped, though, when I’m writing. I think a lot about what all of the effort means, however, both as I write and as I help teach others to write: I choose to believe that the act of writing is valuable and necessary. The choosing makes it so.

DS: Fate vs free will is a central theme in this story. While that’s nothing new, what struck me was John’s uncertainty as to which he’d prefer. He is, by the end, a man without choices questioning if that ever wasn’t the case. Did the axmen choose him randomly? Was he marked from birth?  What if he and his wife had been more secure in their finances? He is an effect desperate to unearth his cause. In contrast, as the story’s powerful conclusion makes clear, John’s body has continued to live the life from which John is now barred. In your opinion, who has it worse, the conscious mind relegated to a crushed-velvet case in some basement or the mindless body acting out the motions of life with no sense of life’s possibilities?

DH: This is a great question, and it’s exactly the kind of question I usually try to dodge about my stories. I want readers to mull something like this without my interference. I just write the fucking things, you know? But, oh well, here goes. In my reading, on this morning in April, I think the mind has it worse. The body is out there. The body is free, and John at least—John’s mind—can’t escape from asking, Why? I believe deeply in the electrochemical wonder of our minds. Our brains can free us too, but John—John’s mind—is a prisoner, and the oppression of that adds an important layer: He’s dehumanized in so many ways, down in that basement, where he tries to tell the future, where he tries to hold on to his rights of personhood. He’s trapped and trapped and trapped, and the body’s loose and lost, all instinct, all desire, all pain.

Oh, man, can I just say that they’re both screwed?

Postscript: I feel compelled to add a quick final note: Thanks, TCR, for doing this series, and, Doug, thanks so much for indulging my love of Dickens, asking such good questions, and writing such an interesting story.