March 26, 2013
This is the second installation in a series of “reverse interviews,” wherein the author asks the questions about his own book, and one reader answers.
JENSEN BEACH: The other night my wife and I were reading before bed and she turned to me before she shut out her light and said it had been weird to read my book because she’d lived with the stories in it for so long and it felt strange to see them all mixed up like they were. At first I didn’t really understand what she meant. She told me there little bits in many of the stories that she recognized—things we’d experienced together, stories we’d been told by other people, things I’d said to our kids or to her—and that it had been interesting to see the ways I’d gone about taking that all apart and putting it back together again to fit the fictions in the book. So I think there’s obviously a big and important conversation to be had about truth and fiction (re-kindled as it is every few years by some literary scandal or other) and I don’t know exactly where I come down or if I even have to. But my question to you as a non-fiction writer is how much truth is OK to manipulate and change and switch around. To me there seems to be a clear difference between, say, John D’Agata bending the truth about that kid’s suicide and fiction writers using, for instance, a metaphorically-rich experience or comment and shaping to fit a pleasing fiction. At the same time, I liked the D’Agata book, lies and all, and it never really pissed me off that James Frey lied about his drug use. This isn’t so much about my book anymore, but what do you think?
MARISSA LANDRIGAN: As a non-fiction writer, my standard for how much truth is OK to manipulate has been based on the audience’s reasonable expectation of truth. This is, I think, the primary difference between fiction and nonfiction on the issue of accuracy and manipulation. When writing nonfiction, I’m showing my cards. I’m saying to the audience, part of this story, part of what makes it worth telling, is the idea of truth within it. In fiction, we derive joy from the notion that it could be true. Those sound similar but are meaningfully different.
In nonfiction, the writer is in control of the audience’s expectation of truth—there is such a spectrum of nonfiction styles, the writer can tell the audience how much to believe. I tend to allow for a lot of minor manipulation without any knowledge, and any major manipulation—if I’ve been warned. It’s so easy to just confess to your reader (which also acknowledges that the writer is a part of a nonfiction narrative) that I am pretty harsh on authors who choose not to be honest about their manipulations up front. D’Agata presented About a Mountain as a work of nonfiction driven by the tenets of journalism, but doesn’t successfully grapple with what it meant that he challenged and transformed what he called “the pursuit of information.” Conversely, one of my favorite memoirs is Lauren Slater’s Lying, which the very cover of the book describes as being “shaped like a question mark.” Slater made the interrogation of the idea of truth and lying a part of her book, and that kept it honest. D’Agata wanted, it seems, to tell a story the way, narratively, it made the most sense, without questioning why he was so compelled to transform the details of real life, which sounds an awful lot to me like what good fiction should do with the reality in which it is grounded.
All that being said, I still think a work of nonfiction can be enjoyable without being ethical by my personal standards. But if nonfiction is enjoyable at the expense of truth, I tend to think—why not just call it fiction?
A second, related question: I’m kind of a nervous person by nature, and I worry a lot about how people will read this book; my family in particular, but my friends, too. Will they recognize or think they recognize themselves in my stories? Have I appropriated appropriately, in other words? I think the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is at once starker and less apparent to non-readers. I’m inclined to believe people want to think fiction is personal and factual but that they also get mad when they feel like they’ve been lied to by a non-fiction writer. How much of this do you think writers should worry about? What’s the tipping point, I guess I mean, where bending the truth in support of the narrative becomes unacceptable? Does it ever? Part of me wants to just dismiss all of this and say writers need to make these ethical choices individually and the only thing that should matter is the quality and art of the narrative writing itself.
The first time I read the collection, I was struck by how alive so much of it felt. The book is so driven by what I think of as narrative moments—scenes, images, flashes of dialogue—that when I read it, I wondered which had been culled from life.
The fathers in the book, for example, are so animated and detailed in their intentions for their children—the lessons flea market finds in “The Dark is What,” the idea of “The Weather Factory,” the notion of writing a letter to a future boy in “Wyoming,”—that I thought, these stories were absolutely written by someone who is a father to sons (which, granted, I knew when I read the stories that you are).
So, even I, a seasoned reader who should know better than to imprint the personal life of the writer, certainly fell prey to wondering what nuggets of reality built your fiction.
This, I think, isn’t something fiction writers should fear—but treasure. Fiction is at its best when it is completely recognizable.
Now, there is certainly a danger here in taking over too much of someone else’s presence in our life, or someone else’s experience, and copying it down whole-cloth, so that we haven’t done much of the work of writing to construct it into something larger than the original memory. But if we’ve done our job, as fiction or nonfiction writers, the people who were really there will still recognize it, but anyone who wasn’t should also be able to find themselves in the story, no matter how much we’ve changed.
In my own nonfiction, I find myself changing details fairly often, but am still driven by an obligation to the truth. The tipping point I’ve identified for myself is a quote from Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” (from The Things They Carried, maybe the book that best straddles the fiction/nonfiction line):
“Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, ‘Is it true?’ and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer…”
If it matters whether you’ve told the truth, you should tell the truth. For me, in nonfiction, the standard is the core truth—what some people call emotional truth. Does it matter that there were 34, and not 31 strip clubs? Does it matter that it was my friend’s roommate that voiced the opinion I’d rather put in the mouth of my cousin? Probably not. Does it matter that an author invents a series of characters he did not, in fact, share a rehab experience with? I think so—because those stock characters were lazy amalgams that, in any good work of fiction, would have been called out as such by editors who didn’t challenge their quality because they believed them to be true.
In fiction, I think the answer that matters is one of obligation to the source of inspiration. Does it matter that a college roommate might blush to learn we’ve retold a particular embarrassment, couched inside a different character’s story, name, time? It sounds callous, but truly, it probably doesn’t matter. Because who else will know? On the other hand, does it matter that our closest family might relive a significant emotional trauma in reading a fictionalized version of it? Yes – and that is exactly why we should write it down. If good writing is designed to echo into the chambers of the audience, we have to write the version that will resonate.
Writing simply cannot be loyal to everyone all of the time—so we have to make these calls on our own. But I think if we remain staunchly loyal to the emotional heart of the story we are writing—and keep ourselves open to the possibility that is a different thing from the story we would like it to be—then I think we have done our job.
I like that O’Brien quote a lot. And I like what you say about recognition in fiction. I find that that’s true for me as a reader—even in stories and novels that are set in places I don’t know or stories that are somehow otherwise unfamiliar in form or voice or whatever. Recognition has the capacity both to provide readerly pleasure and also to instruct. I don’t mean instruct in any polemical kind of way, of course, more just in the sense that fiction can teach us as readers about what we don’t know by showing us what we recognize within that unknown. For me the best stories and novels (and non-fiction, too, though I’m way less comfortable making these sweeping statements about a genre I know so poorly) show us how particular people act in particular situations. Anyway, tomorrow or next week or a month from now, I’ll probably read something that completely undermines that belief, but for now, I think I believe this.
The epigraph of the book is from Matthew: “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” As far as I understand it, this verse (and the verses that precede it) is talking about how our actions—what we say and do—reflect who we really are. In the context of the verse I think this means that we can claim to adhere to ethical or morally correct positions or whatever all we want, but it’s the ways we engage the world and other people that betray who we really are. I’ve always liked this verse, and I think it has interesting implications in today’s political climate. Anyway, not to talk too much about the religious stuff, but how do you see the characters, the fathers in particular, in this book demonstrating this? How do you think their actions are betraying their natures? Does that even make sense?
There’s something in this question of how our actions betray our true nature that follows from our discussion of the ethics of truth in creative writing—we can talk about standards and boundaries all we want, but when it comes right down to it, we will make the call on the page, and may surprise ourselves with how far we are willing to go.
I see the epigraph in so many of the stories in which your characters surprise themselves, as if the things they are doing are outside their control, happening to or around them. I think of Tom in “Orion,” who slaps the teenager he finds having sex while on security patrol and then immediately questions it, worrying over the consequences to his partner. He knows he’s breached some moral boundary, that his action has challenged the acceptable standards of behavior. But he acted without thinking, out of the heart of his grief and loss and his inability to move through the weight of all that. That emotional abyss showed him something dark about his true nature, about how far he was capable of going.
And these actions, those that reveal, aren’t always so dramatic, or even strange. The father in “Training Exercise” makes a choice when he quietly accepts that a stranger has entered his backyard and joined hands with the father and his son. The script for what a father would say he would do in that situation—what he would think he’s supposed to do—would probably involve kicking the shit out of the guy. But his actions reveal him to be something different—maybe smaller, more passive, than he thought himself to be. Or maybe just curious.
The identity of fatherhood is definitely an undercurrent to much of these revelatory actions. The men in these pages are learning themselves as parents, discovering what they are or are not willing to do. The story “We Cannot Cross the River” repeats the line “we are fathers” over and over, though children are only mentioned once, as a distant sorrowful memory of one man in this collective. These fathers have retreated, and are wracked with guilt over what they were not able to do. But no amount of guilt, no memories of home or the past, no acknowledgement of their own weakness will make them return. The collective narrator even confesses their desire to finalize that departure: “We must cross the river so we cannot come back.” That inability to return, that cracks open the shameful heart of their fear, betrays them for what they truly are—“through the ice and gone.”
What’s your take on the way the collection is organized? This is something I worked on a lot with my editor; and, of course, this is an issue many writers of collections struggle with. How do you see the three sections working together? Also, just generally speaking, what are your thoughts as a writer on identifying the organizing principle of a large piece of writing such as a story or essay collection, or even a single narrative piece? I tried to work here from a perspective of simplicity but also letting thematic issues that touched and intersected kind of teach me how to put the stories together. I didn’t write any of these stories with the idea of putting them together initially, but as I did, I started to see certain interests, motivations, obsessions, etc. come forward. And I tried to chase those down a little.
Each of the book’s three sections has a clear sense of climatic progress, where the shorter pieces glide across the surface of a theme that gradually builds into the longer story. Those longer pieces cap each section like an opening, the full exploration of the idea that has troubled all the characters preceding.
The thematic connections across all three sections were especially interesting to me, knowing you hadn’t intended for all these stories to live together, because I felt a clear cohesion to the entire collection. I hesitate to just impose my own notions of theme onto the book, but moving between each section felt to me like moving through age. Not in that the characters became older or even necessarily wiser as the collection progressed, but that their struggles shifted, their questions deepened. The realities of their families became more complex and therefore felt more mature (the characters, I mean, not the stories). The first hesitant steps towards caring for another creature, for example, in “Peafowl” being still light enough to be funny, in contrast to the cold shiver of the father’s sense of his own mortality and legacy in “Spaceport America.”
I don’t actually read a lot of collections—fiction or nonfiction—and have only written in full-length narrative form myself, because I dislike books that feel cobbled together. I want to get somewhere by the time I finish a book. The stories in For Out of the Heart Proceed are so clearly linked, even in disparate subjects and locations, that it’s a real testimony to the writing process as a reliable way to uncover our own patterns, to the way certain questions have nagged and troubled you, and to how you have been haunted.
My neighbor, who teaches high school, was asking me about what sorts of stories and books I like to teach in creative writing classes. He’s going to be working with his school’s writing club or something in the fall. I gave him a couple of suggestions for books and told him I’d let him borrow some over the summer. Later that day I took some books down from the shelf by Joy Williams’s and Amy Hempel and Padgett Powell and was a little excited (but also dismayed) to find notes and first sentences and ideas that I’d scribbled all over the margins and inside the back covers. I still write in my books. But less so now than I did when I was first reading as a writer. Partly I think this is because I start each writing day with an hour or so of reading, so ideas that I get I can just type right into a Word document or the story I’m working on. What sort of stories do you think young writers will scribble in the margins of my book?
This is such an adorable question—I want to ask it of every person who ever reads any future book I publish—that I wished I had scribbled in the margins of your book so I could show it to you. But the truth is I, like you, write much less frequently in margins than I once did. Actually, I write a lot in the margins of books I’m teaching and maybe not at all in books I’m reading. But my teaching notes are full of wonder, really, and are dedicated to unearthing the artifacts of great writing I want to hold up in a classroom so I can point at them and say, “This! Here! Be amazed!”
I tell my students to think of three categories when they are marking a book: recurring themes, remarkable language, and exclamation. So perhaps the schematic marginalia of your collection might look like this:
-See also: fear of; struggles with; shining moments vs. shortcomings; and marriage; and wonder; and still being a child
-Short, punchy sentences
From “In All the World’s Oceans”: “They’re white and still. The wind is steady and the waves are big. Lily is wet. The water on her back is gold. ‘I’m a miner,’ Carlo yells. ‘You’re my mine.’”
From “Priest Lake, Idaho”: “Smoke, first a thin gray cloud of it, but soon, when the thinners and stains in the shed become fuel, darker and then black, rising acrid and dense into the sky.”
From “How It Was When a Car Caught Fire on the Street Outside My House Last Night”: “The car is still sitting in front of my house, its hood split like a giant yellow mouth waiting for me, or somebody else, to do something about it.”
From “Orion”: “We aimed at the space between two of the brightest stars.”
Ok, so, my students probably don’t do this that often. But I still get caught up in writing, still get a sticking in my throat when I can’t articulate what has happened yet, but I’m in awe of it, and I just write something like !!! or BAM, or just circle desperately—and I did this with so many of your endings.
The way you let the story hang suspended, the way you keep the reader there, too, holding our breath, without the release of what happens next. I’m thinking especially of the last sentence of “To the World I’ll Be Buried”:
“He closed his eyes, and with his tongue searched the inside of his mouth for the answer to the question.”
Because isn’t that where all the great tingling we feel when we read something familiar comes from? From the fear of ourselves, from the place where we’re off the cliff but not falling yet, waiting to see whether we’ll fly or crash.
Jensen Beach’s For Out of the Heart Proceed is available for purchase from Dzanc Books