Interview by Morris Collins
1. All your stories in Man on Fire feature great first lines, although these sentences don’t feel formulaic—they vary in subject, POV and syntax. (“The year of my first kiss, ninety-nine people were murdered in Little Rock”; “The old man is busy dying”; “Callie doesn’t believe in signs but her mother does”, etc.). What do you think a first sentence should do in a short story? Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?
Thanks – that’s generous of you.
I love to go through anthologies and read the first lines of stories, just to get a sense of what’s possible, of what kind of work the first line can do. The first line makes a sort of promise to the reader about the voice of the story, about tone and rhythm as well as content. I think of William Gay’s first sentence in “The Paperhanger”: “The vanishing of the doctor’s wife’s child in broad daylight was an event so cataclysmic that it forever divided time into the then and the now, the before and the after.” Beyond the promise of the story, there’s an authority in that kind of sentence that comes from its careful phrasing, its cadence, and its attitude; it makes a proclamation in a voice that is so precise that we have no choice but to trust it.
Some writing teachers and books talk about “hooks” in stories. In the above example, they would point to the vanished child. I think that kind of advice fundamentally misunderstands what a story is and does. Of course at a basic level a story should be about something, but vanished children, murdered husbands, burning cities are all easy to conjure. What’s difficult is the compelling voice that tells the story, the attention to detail, the carefully chosen words and emotional nuance.
Sometimes I might spend a few hours for several days in a row just trying to write my way into a story, writing different paragraphs and trying different voices and rhythms and perspectives until I have an idea of what the opening will look like. I’m often talking out loud as I do this, just trying to get to a line that feels right. I don’t always know what I’m doing; I’m just going by ear. But I often feel that if I can get the opening right, the rest of the story will follow. This is one of many lies I tell myself.
2. For the most part you seem to be composing traditional stories in a vein of hardscrabble lyrical realism. And yet, you tell three of these stories in the second person, and one in the first person plural. How do you choose POV and/or how do you see it working within a story? Am I wrong to call these stories traditional? To see second person narration as experimental? Are all dichotomies false?
Well, all dichotomies must be either true or false, unless you believe in grey areas.
Seriously, though, I do like the sound of hardscrabble lyrical realism. It sounds tough and poetic but grounded, authentic. I wish we’d put that on the book cover. Sometimes I’d like to be something solid like that, but other times I’m feeling a little heady and postmodern. Generally I don’t trust labels, because they give us the illusion that we understand a thing because we know how to categorize it. If pressed, I’d describe my stories as playful, I guess. I’m not sure if there’s a traditional-experimental continuum here, or where I fall on it – maybe in the middle? I do experiment with voice and distance, though I’m not trying to radically redefine narrative in ways that writers on the fringe would do. We need those people, I just happen not to be one of them.
The question on point of view is a little more straightforward. I think there’s usually a POV that makes a story compelling, but it’s not always obvious what that POV is, at least not to me. The point of view is really the lens into the language that defines the story, so that’s part of it – it determines the voice that gets to tell the story, and some voices are more interesting, some more loveable. It also determines the perspective, which I think of as more like the angle of vision – what we know or don’t know, the distance we see the story from. Sometimes, a voice suggests itself and the story takes off from there. I consider myself lucky when that happens. Other times, it’s a slog figuring it out.
In a story like “Signs of Life,” I really struggled with the POV and had to rewrite the thing a few times just to figure that aspect of it out. I started it as a first person story from a male POV. But almost right away – a few pages in – I wanted to write from a woman’s POV because I thought the story would be much richer if it were a mother-daughter relationship, and also because I hadn’t done much of that. So I did it and it worked okay, but ultimately I still had a couple of problems with it. It seemed a little off in a couple of places, like maybe it was just clear that I’m not a woman and don’t have those experiences enough to write from that perspective believably. Honestly, too, I think I wondered what I would think if I were a woman who sat down to read this story from a woman’s POV with a guy’s name next to it, would I feel some resistance to that? Probably. So I rewrote it in the close 3rd person, and I think it works better all around. Sometimes there’s just a lot of trial and error.
You mention the 2nd person point of view, which is not as common but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it experimental. It comes pretty naturally to me, I found. I was just messing around when I started writing in it, then realized maybe I had something. Given the hatred some readers have for it, I’ve often wondered if they just don’t like thinking about their own agency, or the ways in which they participate in a story. I really don’t trust people who scoff at the second person POV categorically, as it’s usually part of some larger dogmatism they subscribe to about what literature should be. They’re often some form of literary fascist that sees literature as a thing to be worshiped rather than an experience to be had.
3. One thing I’ve always appreciated about your work is the way you attend to your events/plot and your sentences equally. They remind me a little of some great mash-up of Richard Ford’s lyricism and Harry Crews’ grim humor and violence. This leads me to wonder, if I can intentionally miss your point from above: what literature do you worship? As in, these are really beautiful stories where lots of really wild things happen. So, what writers inspire your work? Or more generally, how does your reading inform your writing?
Man, I love so many other writers I can’t even begin to name them all or give them credit for what they’ve taught me through their books. There’s a writer I like named Tim Gatreaux who I don’t think many people read anymore, and I was re-reading his collection of Louisiana stories, Same Place, Same Things, when I was trying to figure out what my book was, how it might work.
I tend to follow writers who write wonderful sentences, and occasionally something they write will put me under a spell. Stephen Graham Jones, Aimee Bender, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, T.C. Boyle – they’ve all done this to me. You can see that in this book if I show you where to look. I mean, if you look at the title story, then look at Stuart Dybek’s story “Pet Milk,” you’ll see that I really just copied what he does as an exercise, right down to the syntax in some places.
That’s an extreme example, but I do think it illustrates something about how my reading and writing are linked. There’s this idea sometimes in young writers that you need to sound completely original, but I’ve always found that to be a harmful stance. If I were a painter, I’d be studying other painters’ brush strokes to figure out how they created certain effects, and eventually I’d understand the medium well enough to do interesting things in my paintings. That’s kind of how I read when I stumble across something that moves me.
4 Even though these stories appeared in a wide variety of journals over about a ten year period, this collection reads thematically and stylistically very coherently. It's almost as if the stories are in conversation with each other. How did you go about organizing this collection?
At some point, maybe halfway through the writing of these, I started to realize that there was going to be a book of these Arkansas stories, so I was thinking consciously of making them sound kind of alike but not be so similar that they’d be redundant in the same book. Then when I ordered it, I started by going roughly by periods of life – roughly chronological by character age. Then I tried to make it so that each story maybe had a thematic link to the one after it, and also to make sure I was mixing up things like point-of-view so that each story was different enough. My favorite link is between “Perseids,” which ends with a boy about to have hot coals dumped on his sleeping bag, and “Man on Fire.” My idea of a joke.
I had help, too – Chitra Divakaruni helped me think through how the stories were in conversation with each other, and I got a tip from Robert Boswell who said something like, “Maybe it would make more sense if you put the stories with the women at the end? Because the women in these stories are running away, and it could be like they are running away from the bad behavior of the men in the earlier stories.” I loved this idea, that there would be this neat thematic logic, even though I don’t think readers care about that kind of thing at all. It was a little secret I would have.
5. As impressed as I am by the way your stories open, I'm even more interested in how they end. You don't seem to rely on a singular move—you have the epiphany, the temporal zoom-out, surprise endings, quiet endings, etc. Despite variations in style, however, every story in this collection reaches a conclusion that feels inevitable, which is something readers yearn for in a short story, I think, but is hard to achieve. How do you go about crafting this sense of inevitability? Is it tonal, like by ear or instinct? Or do you plot your stories out beat-by-beat? Or put another way, how much do you know about how a story is going to end when you start writing it?
Thanks. I don’t ever know where a story is going when I start. I’m often taking little notes at the bottom of a document as I’m writing a story, where I store little fleeting ideas for scenes and images and snippets of dialogue that might come later. So it’s not a totally linear process, and the thing becomes fuller as I draft, which sometimes helps me see the patterns emerge. But if the story is any good, there’s always something in it that surprises me as I’m writing.
If you read “Safari Americana,” where these guys are going out to hunt this escaped lion from a wildlife refuge (a thing that really happened not far from where I grew up), I had no idea what would happen after they killed the lion. I was just getting to that point in the story, and suddenly there’s a baby lion (a cub?) that these guys now have to take care of. I don’t know where it came from, it just grew out of that moment. I liked the instant change in dynamic that sort of deflates this shitty mock-heroic act of shooting a lion. It really changes the story, makes it more tender and more interesting for me as a writer. It was a happy accident.
What we’re really talking about with inevitability is a feeling that the reader experiences in the moment of reading. I think of creating resonance as one way of achieving this: the repetition of similar scenes, or scenes that work on multiple planes, can give a sense of richness. I want that sense of fullness when you see that some idea from earlier is followed up on, even if it’s just gestured at. At the end of the story I was talking about above, “Safari Americana,” Jenkins is just lying in bed, listening to the crickets and remembering a camping trip he took with his own father, the way Jenkins got a fish hook caught in his ear and his father had laughed as he removed it. This is the second to last line in the story, before he falls asleep. In a story that’s partially about the anxieties of fatherhood, that memory kind of echoes what’s been happening throughout the story, where “taking care of things” includes committing to both violence and nurturing.
But there’s something else here, which is the intimacy you can achieve in the final moments of a story, when a reader feels that they are alone with the character in the dark after all of the conflict and action of the story. I do this too much, but I like to stop a story in these private moments of comfort and sadness and terror. Thanks for asking this question. Everyone loves to rush to the climax of a story, but fewer people are interested in the post-coital wind down. I like a nice moment of stillness with the reader before releasing them back into the world.
6. Speaking of post-coital wind downs—before we release readers back into the world: What are you working on now?
After answering that question about POV, I’m writing a story called “The Second Person” about a person who discovers another person inside them. But don’t worry, it’s not about multiple personality disorder, or pregnancy. It’s much worse than that: a metaphor for our inner children.
I joke because in terms of a larger project, I don’t know. I was working on a second story collection when the malaise snuck up on me, and I thought, man, what am I doing? Then there was all of the crazy politics of the last year. I think there’s a good chance we’ll kill the planet or each other in the next century or two. What’s the role of the obscure story writer in the face of cultural collapse and planetary annihilation? I really don’t know. I can’t wrap my head around it. I want to do something on hope and despair, but it will have to be kind of destabilized, nothing too on the nose.
In the meantime, I’ve been working in other genres: writing personal essays, venturing out into the novel, retreating, trying again.
Morris Collins lives in Boston. His first novel, Horse Latitudes, came out in 2013 and other fiction and poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Chattahoochee Review among others.
Zack Bean’s first collection of stories, Man on Fire, was published by ELJ in 2016. His stories have appeared in Fiction, Cream City Review, Pank, Best Small Fictions 2015, and other literary publications. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at Montana State University.