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.