One of the hardest but also the most rewarding things about having a book out [For out of the Heart Proceed] has been getting asked to talk about it. I don’t mean that to sound coy or falsely modest. I think it’s hard to talk about my writing, but it’s also rewarding, because having to do so sends me back into a story or into my memory of writing that story; invariably I learn something new. Likewise, I think it’s difficult to find the right way to talk about other books and about other writers, which is something that’s absolutely central to being able to discuss, say, how I might place short-short fiction in relation to prose poetry on some kind of map of literary genre. This is also really rewarding because it sends me back to books I love, where I get to relearn all over again just why that is. Sometimes these conversations happen in interviews, or in posts like this one, and sometimes it’s just through talking with a friend or a colleague who’s read the book. I’m asked about my influences or about what I was up to in particular stories, and so on. These are good questions, and it’s my job to try to come up with answers that make me seem, well, not dumb. For a guy whose first instinct is almost always to answer “I don’t know” that’s no small task.
Here’s an example: the title of my book is taken from a verse in the Book of Matthew that, as I read it, is about how we demonstrate who we are by our actions. Alan Heathcock puts it better in his book Volt, which is there in the stack on my desk. “We are what we do,” a character tells his son in the story “Smoke.” I like this idea and I like this sentiment. I think it’s true. Anyway, in an interview recently, I was asked to talk about this in relation to some of the characters in my book, about how thematically the title represents something cohesive about the collection as a whole. And that’s no easy question. Because of course part of the answer really is I don’t know. Or at least I didn’t know when I was writing the stories. So I had to go figure it out. To answer a question in an interview like this is an act of reflection, of revising intent, of analysis.
The picture above is of my desk. It’s not a fair representation of what my desk normally looks like. A truer image would include two or three days worth of coffee cups, more unwieldy stacks of papers and books, and usually a number of children’s toys: cars and lego spaceships and this broken princess wand (I think it’s a wand, but I don’t know of any princesses who carry wands) that’s been on my desk for six weeks. But I cleaned all of this up to take the picture. Mainly I did so because it didn’t want the clutter to distract from the books in the stack behind my computer. Maybe that says something about who I am.
To the left sit thirty-two essays from my students in the Basic Composition course I teach at a maximum security prison here in eastern Illinois. The essays were written in response to an article about the working poor in America. I’ve read through the essays once. For the most part, they are full of good, strong ideas. They represent mature and worldly thinkers who draw on provocative and, at times, troubling experiences. But these essays also betray a room full of men who struggle with basic understandings of standard written American English. Most of us take for granted our understanding that, for instance, the pronoun I should be capitalized, but not you, we, they and me. We also know that the past tense of regular verbs is formed by adding –ed, and the difference between the definite and indefinite articles and when to use each or none at all. There is a world of privilege and there is a world of non-privilege and one place to walk right up to the chasm between the two is in the prison system in this country. I feel lucky everyday for circumstance and opportunity.
It’s the same sense of luck I feel when I get to write about my book (if that’s what I’ve managed to do here) for the website of a literary journal I love, or when I get to talk with my students at the university about how writing can shape our inquiry into big ideas and our participation in various communities. And it’s the same kind of thankful I feel when I get to sit for hours working my way through a Peter Stamm story, marveling at the quiet and masterful sentences he’s put together, or the simple plots that belie their complex implications.
Another thing that I’m learning about having a book out in the world is just how different one book is from the next. That is, it’s a strange experience to be discussing one book, one that was completed a while ago, while working on something new, something that’s fresh and exciting. No doubt more experienced writers have strategies for dealing with this, but it’s new to me. The book I’m working on now is called Swallowed by the Cold. One my favorite stories from the book was published in Sou’wester. All of the stories are set in Sweden and represent what I think is a departure for me and for my writing into a new interest in place and how it is rendered in fiction. That’s why I’ve been reading Per Petterson and Kerstin Ekman. I’m trying my hardest to steal from them. Or if not steal, read them slowly and often and carefully enough so that some of what they do so well will infect me a little bit. When I was younger, I used to be scared of this kind of influence, or at least of admitting to this kind influence, because I thought it meant I was lazy and uninventive. But I now know that the books we read as writers are our greatest gifts and our most electrifying resources.
On top of my computer are a few pages of the notes I’ve been taking as I work and re-work the stories in Swallowed by the Cold. The stories are linked in character and event and in historical fact, so there are notes about these things, about the relationships between characters, about the logistics of making everything intersect artfully and logically. There are thoughts about the organization of the stories themselves, about fiction’s capacity to reverse the causality of a character’s actions. By that I mean the ways in which novels and stories can reveal after an event has occurred a character’s motivations for participating in or causing it. I’m probably not explaining this very well. But there’s a scribbled sentence there about midway down next to the title of a story called “Anniversary” that, as far as I can tell, says basically that. If and when this book is published and I’m lucky enough to write about it or talk about it in an interview, I have no doubt that the answers to the questions I’ll be asked are there somewhere on those notes, waiting to make their way into the finished book, where I can hope to discover and understand them later.
Until then I’ve got this collection of stories that I wrote and questions people have been nice enough to ask me about it, and together these two variables are teaching me how read more deeply and look more closely for answers, and that makes me feel awfully grateful and lucky.