Because John is en route to South Africa today, he can’t write If You Read the Paper. He left yesterday and lands in Cape Town tonight, where he’ll spend ten days visiting a friend and researching a novel. During his layover in Amsterdam he sent us one of his old short stories instead, as we urged him to consider doing. It’s called “Mr. Gas,” from his 2003 collection Born on a Train. He wrote “Mr. Gas” when he was twenty-two and knew virtually nothing, so he prefers that you not read beyond the end of this editorial note, which he also wrote. He doesn’t usually talk about himself in the third person. He is probably jetlagged and confused.
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Q: I hoped to focus on one story, “Mr. Gas,” before asking some more general questions. Generally speaking, the story deals with a teen’s relationship to his homebound mother and a relationship with a boy who works at the Mr. Gas, where he buys milk for Mama. This originally was to be a larger work. What did you originally envision the story to be?
The story is all that remains of a terrible novel draft I wrote in the winter and spring of 2000.
Q: What led you to reconsider “Mr. Gas” as a short story? How did you refocus the story?
In March 2001, when I sat down to revise the novel, I started deleting the parts that made me cringe to read them. After two weeks I was left with about ten pages. As I recall, I had the Radiohead song ‘Nice Dream’ on repeat during this process, which helped in my effort to refocus, if not to focus.
Q: There are a number of images that strike me in the story, but one of my favorites is Jason’s journeys to get milk for his mother. Given the apparent roles in their relationship, this simple mission, undertaken for various reasons, really resonated with me. Would you talk about how you develop images that are both concrete and how you find them within the story, if that is the case?
I hope you won’t think me disingenuous for saying I can’t talk successfully about how I developed images in ‘Mr. Gas,’ because I don’t seem to have conscious memories of craft choices I made while writing it. In general I’d say I try to enter a meditative state where I can just stare semi-absently at things until the solutions strike me, and then do that again and again until finally, if the story ever comes to feel right, some metaphorical systems will have magically developed that function together properly in a way that makes both literal and figurative sense. Since this lucky process happens once in a while when I write stories, I’ve wasted time in the foolish hope that it might occur in a novel as well. But novels turn out to be a different deal.
Q: There’s a real history to the characters, especially Mama and Jason, that comes across seemingly effortlessly and informs the events and certainly informs the events of the story. Sometimes I struggle with making the past of characters come across. How are some ways you address that issue without engaging in large stretches of backstory?
I think I tried to make the characters’ pasts implicit in what they desired and lacked and yearned for and wished had happened and dreamed.
Q: I’ve struggled with whether to discuss the ending, because I hope people will find the story. Safe to say, there was a bit of surprise to it in how it explores what Jason seems to want or has been programmed by to want and fear – so even that possibility that an object of desire might have feelings back, something that simple becomes a revelation and a source of conflict. When I say “surprise,” that may not be the word, because groundwork is within the narrative, but it was presented in a way I had to think about. It’s not simple, which, of course is a point of literature compared to, say, a potboiler. Do you work toward that kind of complexity going into it? Does it come about naturally?
In general I tend to structure a story somewhat like this: the main character, in this case Jason, wants something, maybe wants it so desperately that it seems downright out of the question. Various types of conflict bear down on him to prevent him from getting the thing he wants. He struggles forward anyway, dealing with more and more kinds of conflict (as well as more and more of those kinds of conflict) until it seems impossible to proceed. At this point the climax has to happen in a manner that answers whatever question the story has been asking (the question typically being ‘will the character get the thing he wants?’). For the climax to be satisfying, it has to seem both surprising and inevitable. One way to do this is for a thing that has seemed inevitable to happen in a surprising way. Another way is to show that the character has been believably blinded to the inevitable until a climactic moment when the thing that has blinded him somehow vanishes like an evanescent fog.
Q: I love the idea of writing down the opposite of what happened in a journal, and the idea of multiple truths, and how this comes back so organically in the story. Did you have that idea early on or was that something you found in the process of writing?
The opening line, about Jason’s mother telling him the way to keep a journal is to write the opposite of everything that happened, sounded good to me at the time, but now I look back and find it cloying and trite. I’m glad you love the idea, but it makes me cry inside to think about it, as it does to look back at almost anything I wrote this long ago. At least you chose a story from Born on a Train. My first story collection, Stop Breakin Down, seems no better than juvenilia to me now, and if you ever read so much as one story from it, there will be no old-timey photo booth and no Dippin’ Dots.
Q: You tell your students to write every day. Why is this so important? How do you make time?
If you’re not currently working on a project, it might not be so important to write every day; you could take six months off and come back and start anew and that would be fine. But if you’re writing a novel or a story, its setting and mood and style and plot are things you’re teaching yourself fluency in, the way you teach yourself fluency in a language. With any language you’re studying now or that you attained post-adolescence, you’ll start to forget it little by little after just a single day of not speaking or thinking or reading it.
Q: Where do you prefer to write? For example, I can write just about anywhere but I despise interruptions and certain kinds of noise. It can be tough for me to focus.
In October I bought a house in Colonial Place, and I use for my office an upstairs spare bedroom through whose windows I can see crepe myrtles, pine trees, the sunrise, the street, Haven Creek. This is far and away where I prefer to write. For two years in Norfolk I lived in houses that for various reasons weren’t conducive to serious creative thought, and so I sought a cafe where I liked to work. Nothing felt right. There are some new coffeeshops that might have served me well in 2008 and 2009, although you’re right that in public noise can always be a problem; these days I like to write in silence.
Q: I tend to play with dialogue, hoping to find characters in exchanges, and I practice writing full paragraphs. Do you still do writing exercises? How do you experiment?
In the early stages of writing a novel there’s plenty of exploratory writing during which I let characters think things or do things that almost certainly won’t wind up in the final draft.
Q: Who are you reading?
Today I finished The Literary Conference by César Aira, an intriguing little novella about a writer and mad scientist whose quest to clone Carlos Fuentes goes desperately wrong and threatens to destroy the city of Mérida, Venezuela, and probably the world. In my backpack is Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron, which I’ll start reading when I finish answering these questions. My favorite new novel so far in 2011 is Open City by Teju Cole.
Q: What are you working on now?
I’m close to finishing a novel that I’ve been rewriting steadily since May of last year, at which time it had lain untouched since 2006 in the form of a sprawling, baroque, and semi-unreadable 700-page draft. Today it’s a svelte 370 pages. When it’s truly done, I’ll turn my full attention to Cooch: The Musical. Also I’ve got about five stories left to write or revise in a new story collection. One of those stories, ‘Blood Brothers,’ will appear this fall in the anthology Surreal South ’11. You can read a slightly different version of it in Rusty Barnes’s excellent Appalachian literature blog “Coffee and Fried Chicken.” Another story called ‘The Ninety-Sixth Percentile’ came out in The Harvard Review this year.
Q: One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the MFA program is reading and critiquing the work of other students. I learn a lot by considering other people’s work, and by hearing their responses to my work, in addition to critiques from professors. Do you share work with peers? What do you look for in criticism? What do you dislike?
It’s been a while since I’ve shared work with peers, but I’m preparing to show my novel to a few friends. I guess at this stage the criticism I’m looking for most would regard what’s missing, unclear, tedious, implausible, lugubrious, or overly obvious.
Q: You are one of the organizers for this year’s literary festival. Is there anything you can tell us about the lineup or the theme at this point?
The theme is ‘The Lie That Tells the Truth.’ The schedule is online. Guests include Megan Stack, Joy Williams, Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, Young Jean Lee, Porochista Khakpour, Yola Monakhov, and Scott Heim.
Q: I’ve written about my regard for the work you are doing as a contributor to AltDaily. Why do you continue to take the time to contribute? Why does it matter to you?
I appreciate what AltDaily is doing for Norfolk. When they perceive that something’s missing in social or civic life here, they immediately go about filling in the hole. They’ve completed so many successful projects in 2010 and 2011 that I feel exhausted just pondering it. I contribute each week because I want AltDaily to succeed and because they let me write uncensored about whatever I want and because I admire many of their writers and because the weekly column lets me feel like I’m no longer wasting my life by spending hours on end reading political blogs.
Q: Is there anything else I should have asked but didn’t? Or that you’d like to discuss?