Archive for June, 2014

Pas de Deux: Hoyt & Silver

Monday, 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.

News from the Crypt

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Hey, CR followers. We’re breaking our summer skeleton-crew silence with a reminder, an update, and a treat.

First, don’t forget our summer contest. There’s some lovely moolah attached to the Schiff Prizes—and even if the eds don’t pick your piece to win, they may still want to publish it at our usual per-page rate ($30 for poetry, $25 for prose). In the event that we don’t opt to publish your stuff this time around, you still get a full year’s subscription to the mag, which includes bonus music features AND the 64-page, full-color graphic play MOTH, which we plan to mail out with our November issue. Illustrator Gable Ostley is hard at work and sending us new “rough inks” almost daily, and playwright Declan Greene is supplying captions and dialogue for Gabe’s sketches. The finished product is going to be amazing.

Now for the update: We just approved the final proof for our summer issue and expect the shipment in the next week or so. Our TEN-tacular issue includes last year’s Schiff Prize winners, three reviews that meditate on the staying power of the classic Moby-Dick, the usual complement of terrific stories and poems, another great translation feature,  and—bonus—it will be accompanied by our latest music feature, composer Sarah Hutchings’s score for Jeff Gundy’s poem “March Ode.”

Today’s treat comprises a last delightful look at our winter number in the form of our (relatively) new blog feature Pas de Deux, in which contributors to a given issue interview each other about what intrigued, puzzled, or impressed them in the another writer’s story, poem, or essay. This installment features an exchange between Daniel A. Hoyt and Douglas Silver on the latter’s story  “Found Peoples.”  Check back in a couple of days for the switcheroo: Doug’s questions and Dan’s responses!

Daniel A. Hoyt: I have lots of questions about bodies and lots of questions that seem to beget more questions. “Found Peoples” starts with such gripping, visceral language as Feng, the story’s protagonist, examines a dead body he’s fished from the river. I was immediately convinced by the body; I was there with Feng as he “pinched the green eye, and the contact lens peeled off.” How did you create these artful and disturbing states of decay? What kind of research did you do? Is this a feat of imagination, of medical textbooks, of Google?

Douglas Silver: Google is generally my first stop—be it for a spicier Massaman curry recipe or the particulars of each stage of human decomposition. Numerous websites and academic journals provided an indispensable foundation in the science of decay. I read a lot and emailed a few experts and saw many images I would like to unsee. From there, it was a matter of backtracking—from ashes to animation—and deciding upon those details that provide a glimpse into the lives of the deceased.

DH: How about your depiction of China? How did you go about imagining and creating the physical setting and the rich sociological dynamics underpinning the story?

DS: China’s abysmal record on human rights and personal expression is infamous the world over. It is a dreadful place to be writer and a fascinating place to write about. Much of the societal and physical depictions were the product of research, but the narrative atmosphere was strongly influenced by my visit to China after graduating high school. When I arrived at the airport in Beijing, I noticed a sign that read Warning: Drug Trafficking is Punishable by Death in the R.O.C. Being 18 and an idiot, I thought this a superb photo-op. Before I could put away my camera, two officers approached me. One took my luggage and emptied it in front of everyone while the other demanded my passport. When they didn’t find drugs, they repacked me (admittedly neater than I had packed myself) and welcomed me to the country. When I told someone I met about this interaction, an American who had lived in China for years, she explained how lucky I was, how much worse it would have been if I were Chinese. I sought out that airport photograph when I began the story and kept asking myself what becomes of the unlucky.

DH: Because these questions are for a Pas de Deux feature, this question seems almost mandatory: Will you discuss the way you use foils in “Found Peoples”?

DS: One of the challenges of the piece was providing the reader a palpable sense of Feng’s former life. It seemed the most organic method to achieve this was through Feng’s encounters with those who were devoted to his family, and leveraging this juxtaposition for the benefit of both characterization and narrative tension. At some point, it occurred to me that it is Feng’s contact with the living through which the reader derives the clearest prospective into Feng’s past, i.e., the life he lost. Conversely, it is his dealings with the dead that most clearly render his present life—a paradigm that is upended by his time with the young woman’s body.

DH: There’s a strangely mundane yet magical moment in “Found Peoples” when Feng thinks of and explains the story of the prodigal son. To many members of a western audience and to many western characters, that explanation is unnecessary, but Feng has to think about it in a different way. How did you discover Feng’s point of view? How do you go about shaping point of view in your stories?

DS: I’m of the belief that the surest way to figure out a character is to determine what he or she most desires. If my character doesn’t have an urgent need, then I don’t have a character. At least not one I have any right to expect readers to invest in. I start by asking myself the basics: What does CHARACTER want? Why does CHARACTER want it? What is preventing CHARACTER from getting it? In Feng’s case, while he spends his days working vigilantly and dishonorably to afford basic human necessities, he desires at his core the safe return of his family and the communal acceptance that carries. But he is powerless to achieve that desire; his sole option is faith—something he has never possessed, what divided him from his family prior to their incarceration and what he can’t acquire without them. Once I realized the paradox of Feng as a man who doesn’t believe and therefore isn’t believed in (and therefore can’t believe), I felt like I might have character worth following.

DH: This one may seem like an assignment rather than a question, but I wish more people would read Our Mutual Friend (you too, Gentle Reader of The Cincinnati Review blog!), so here goes: As I first read “Found Peoples,” I immediately thought of Gaffer Hexam, the “night bird” in Our Mutual Friend, who, like Feng, fishes corpses from a river and strips them of valuables.  Here’s a link to the opening chapter, when we first meet Gaffer and his daughter, Lizzie. Doug, I know you were initially inspired by a news article about men who retrieve dead bodies from rivers in China, but had you read Our Mutual Friend? What kind of dialogue do you see between your story and the opening of Dickens’s novel?

DS: I’m embarrassed and grateful that I had not heard of Our Mutual Friend. Having now read the first chapter, I am not sure I would have had the confidence to write the piece had I known that none other than Charles Dickens had employed a similar conceit, especially given that both stories start out in medias res. While it appears Gaffer and Feng are not driven by similar desires, both have no qualms about plundering the dead. Gaffer’s rhetorical statement “Has a dead man any use for money? Is it possible for a dead man to have money? What world does a dead man belong to? ‘Tother world. What world does money belong to? This world. . . .” places a premium on corporeality similar to that of Feng, whose ken is viewed through the lens of materialism. Again, I have read one chapter, so my analysis might prove to be total bunk. (But I’m enjoying it thus far, as might you, Gentle Reader of The Cincinnati Review blog!)