For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Alan Heathcock: The Short Form Interview

The mystery and tension is created in the stories by only allowing a reader to know what the character knows and nothing more.

Author of short story collection, Volt, and 2012 Whiting winner in Fiction.

The Interview

After you debut with a short story collection, the whispers for a novel get louder. How do you deal with external (or internal) pressures to produce a longer piece? Are most days still about seeing where the content takes you?

In general, I don’t worry very much about external pressures.  I wrote a collection of short stories, set in rural America, with the stories largely about pain and grief.  This doesn’t exactly suggest that I’m playing to the market.  Yet the book has done quite well.  What I care deeply about is the story itself.  I care about the characters, and their lives, and the world in which they inhabit.  The only pressures (internal and/or external) I feel are qualitative pressures.  I must tell a compelling story.  The characters must be real, their empathy true.  The place must be real and complex.  I must attack my preoccupations as a human and come away with insight as to why we think and feel and imagine, why we swoon, why we’re self-destructive and violent, why we let pain into our lives and how we can find hope even in our darkest moments.  I’ve read three-page stories that have changed the way I see the world.  I’ve read novels that had no value to me at all.  Length means nothing to me.  If I write a novel (which I’m currently attempting) it’s because my mind has landed on a story that is expansive to the size of a novel.  In short, I just firmly believe that my job is not to write to quantity, but to quality.  Quality, of any size, will always have greater relevance when compared to quantity.  Art has no value if it’s not relevant.

The art of the short story is often found in the writer's ability to know when to withhold information. As with "Fort Apache," we aren't told the boys burned down the bowling alley, but the framing of the story leads us to believe it's possible, and that uncertainty leaves the reader in suspense long past completion of the story. Can you talk about the process of finding that balance of providing just enough information for the reader, but not so much that the suspense has been neutered?

Though I understand the question, and get the sentiment of what you’re asking, I should clarify that I don’t believe a story should ever withhold information.  Readers generally don’t like it when information is withheld.  The way I write my stories is to try and give an exacting empathetic connection between a reader and a character, moment by moment, so that a reader sees, hears, feels, thinks, and imagines exactly as the character.  Nothing is ever withheld.  That said, I do intentionally plot out situations where the characters themselves don’t yet know everything. The mystery and tension is created in the stories by only allowing a reader to know what the character knows and nothing more.  As the character makes discoveries, or has revelations, the reader has them, too.  I invent my characters so they are either naïve or, because of some character trait, can’t see things clearly, or simply don’t know something.  This way I get to have my cake and eat it, too—I retain the true empathetic connection, never compromising that powerful connection between reader and character, while creating stories that are compelling because of their evocation of mystery and revelation.

The crops might be different, but the people and their worldview aren’t too dissimilar.

In the content of the stories, we can find influences from McCarthy, O'Connor, the Nick Adams stories, Richard Ford, but can you talk about the structure of the collection? How did you develop the idea of the stories all being born from the fictional Krafton?

I started out by trying to set the stories in a real place—a real town in a real state—but I felt bound and stifled by reality.  Once I came up with the idea of Krafton, a fictitious town in a non-specified region, I felt complete freedom to create what’s needed for the drama.  If I needed a crop in a certain place, or a cave, or a river, I put one in.  I didn’t have to worry about the literal truths of real places.  For example, when I first started writing I would set the stories in a real region, based on the area my mom’s family lived, and would constantly have to refer to a map, or call home, asking, “Now where’s the foundry?  Is it too far from the river?  Is there a road that runs by the quarry?”  Ultimately I decided to create my own town to be liberated from reality.

I then decided to never really qualify where exactly the town was in terms of region.  Reviewers have placed Krafton in the west, the Midwest, the high plains, the south, all with justifications.  My reasoning for not naming a region was simply because I wasn’t interested in making a commentary about place.  If I said Krafton was in Texas, or Indiana, or Pennsylvania, or Arizona, a reader would apply every right or wrong thing they thought they knew about that place to the story, adhering a secondary level of interpretation I didn’t want.  I just wanted the stories to be about the characters and their lives, so that all the thematic content would come through with greater purity. 

I think the reader’s impulse is to take ownership over the material, to have it be about them.  Again, I’ve found that depending on where the reader is from, they set Krafton in their region.  I’m completely fine with this.  American is bound by homogeneity—we’re really not as different by region as some folks would like us to believe.  I’ve found small towns from coast to coast have similar sensibilities and aesthetic.  The crops might be different, but the people and their worldview aren’t too dissimilar.  In terms of storytelling, I’d like to think the tragedy and insight in VOLT travels well.  If some region wants to claim Krafton as their own, I give my wholehearted permission.  Really, I feel a special connection with writers I think have written about places I’ve lived–I think they’re, in some way, writing about me, and their stories become a part of who I am.  I am Nelson Algren’s Chicago, Stuart Dybek’s south side.  I am Denis Johnson’s Iowa City.  I am Sherwood Anderson’s Midwest.  Hemingway’s Idaho.  So if you think I’m writing about you that’s because I am.  I’m writing about you and Krafton is that place you know so well.  I swear.  Cross my heart.

The real challenge of writing a short story... is to understand that a story is a unit of communication, to understand exactly what you’re trying to communicate, and to execute that communication in every image, every bit of setting, every line of dialog and action and insight.

"Peacekeeper" is told with several narratives, in a kind of fractured chronology. Can you talk about the process of developing that story, when the decision was made to write it that way?

At first I had two separate parts to the story, like two acts of a play.  If I could diagram the story you’d see two Freytag Triangles side by side.  You’d note an expansive valley between the climaxes of the two sections, too, and this was the problem.  The climactic moment in each section had everything to do with one another, and yet they were separated by close to fifteen pages.  The middle didn’t feel like the middle, and the ending didn’t feel like the ending.  It felt wrong, episodic.  I had to figure out a structure to enable those two climaxes to happen side by side.  Then I saw Christopher Nolan’s film Following, which had several storylines told out of chronological sequence, but which unfolded like a mystery, the seemingly unrelated parts converging into clarity as the narrative progressed.  I literally got some scissors and cut both parts of my story into many smaller sections and started arranging them on the kitchen table.  Eventually, after much trial and error, I found the structure that exists in the book, where the story is told out of chronology, and the pieces accumulate tension in their juxtaposition, as well clarity, the story always moving toward the two peak climactic moments, which both happen, as they should, at the end of the narrative.   

You've said several of the stories came from failed novels. How did the short story structure (or collection of stories) influence the movement of the writing? What did the shorter format provide that was eluding you in the longer pieces?

A novel, as I understand it, is a series of dramatic movements all adhered to the same macro story.  A short story, as I understand it, is a single dramatic movement.  What happened with my failed novels was that I wrote a series of dramatic movements without really knowing the macro story holding them all together, and eventually I found they didn’t add up to much, or enough (by my standards).  But because I had all of these smaller dramatic movements, and because I didn’t want to waste all of this work, and because some of the smaller dramatic movements had, I thought, some pretty solid writing, I decide to salvage pieces and make them into stories. 

At one point “Fort Apache”, “Smoke”, and “Furlough” were all in the same novel.  “Lazarus” was from a novel, as well.  The process of turning them into short stories was to understand what that one dramatic movement was trying to communicate and to make sure that everything included in that movement was designed with intent toward that communication.  That’s to say that the stories don’t implicate a macro story beyond the edges of the story itself, but are self-contained. 

The real challenge of writing a short story, one extracted from a novel or otherwise, is to understand that a story is a unit of communication, to understand exactly what you’re trying to communicate, and to execute that communication in every image, every bit of setting, every line of dialog and action and insight.  I feel one must be precise in writing a novel, too, though it’s imperative in writing short stories.  In other words, if I want/demand a reader to read every word I write, then each word must have value and adhere itself, with intent, to communicate the purpose of the telling.

The only reason I believe my current novel project will not fail is that this time I actually understand the macro story, and understand how all the smaller dramatic movements are building blocks in the greater structure of the book.  That said, and as I mentioned above, I don’t see my job as being any different if I’m writing stories or novels.  Even with a 300-500 page book, I must understand what I’m trying to communicate, and must be precise, word by word, sentence by sentence, in enabling that story to be potently experienced by a reader.

Recommended by Alan Heathcock

The Caretaker
Excerpt

In the days to come Joseph wanders farther. He sees men leading girls by chains; he stands aside so a dumptruck heaped with corpses can pass. Twenty times he is stopped and harassed; at makeshift checkpoints soldiers press the muzzles of rifles into his chest and ask if he is Liberian, if he is a Krahn, why he is not helping them fight the Krahns. Before they let him go they spit on his shirt. He hears that a band of guerillas wearing Donald Duck masks has begun eating organs of its enemies; he hears about terrorists in football cleats trampling the bellies of pregnant women.

Nowhere does anyone claim to know his mother's whereabouts. From the front step he watches the neighbors raid the garden. The boys he paid to loot stores no longer come by. On the radio a soldier named Charles Taylor brags of killing fifty Nigerian peacekeepers with forty-two bullets. “They die so easily,” he boasts. “It is like sprinkling salt onto the back of slugs.”

We read it in The Shell Collector.

Akhnilo
Excerpt

Suddenly he heard the floor creak. Someone was there, a figure in the soft light drained of color. It was his wife, he was stunned by the image of her holding a cotton robe about her, her face made plain by sleep. He made a gesture as if to warn her off.

“What is it? What's wrong?” she whispered.

He backed away making vague movements with his hands. His head was sideways, like a horse. He was moving backwards. One eye was on her.

“What is it?” she said, alarmed. “What happened?”

No, he pleaded, shaking his head. A word had dropped away. No, no. It was fluttering apart like something in the sea. He was reaching blindly for it.

Her arm went around him. He pulled away abruptly. He closed his eyes.

“Darling, what is it?” He was troubled, she knew. He had never really gotten over his difficulty. He often woke at night, she would find him sitting in the kitchen, his face looking tired and old. “Come to bed,” she invited.

His eyes were closed tightly. His hands were over his ears.

“Are you all right?” she said.

Beneath her devotion it was dissolving, the words were spilling away. He began to turn around frantically.

We read it in Dusk and Other Stories.

Originally published in Grand Street.

The Ceiling
Excerpt

Within a week, the object in the night sky had grown perceptibly larger. It would appear at sunset, when the air was dimming to purple, as a faint granular blur, a certain filminess at the high point of the sky, and would remain there through the night. It blotted out the light of passing stars and seemed to travel across the face of the moon, but it did not move. The people of my town were uncertain as to whether the object was spreading or approaching—we could see only that it was getting bigger—and this matter gave rise to much speculation. Gleason the butcher insisted that it wasn't there at all, that it was only an illusion. "It all has to do with the satellites," he said. "They're bending the light from that place like a lens. It just looks like something's there." But though his manner was relaxed and he spoke with conviction, he would not look up from his cutting board.

We read it in McSweeney's 7.

This story is available for free online.

How We Fall
Excerpt

In winter of that year Benjamin caught Sadie sleeping with his best friend from high school, Jack Plenty Buffalo, who was visiting from Lame Deer. Benjamin threw Jack naked out the back door, beat him unconscious, and broke out three of his teeth. Sadie revived Jack and that night Benjamin forgave all like a good rez boy and relapsed, sucking beer and Canadian whiskey from a plastic bottle with Sadie and Jack until past two, sometimes laughing and hacking so hard he cried. In the morning Jack left and two nights later Benjamin drove Montana Avenue and cut down across the river and out into the river valley to attend the AA meeting in a back room at the Christian Missionary Alliance Church, set like a small barn in the fields. His wife, head high, face like a flint, accompanied him.

We read it in American Masculine.

Upon the Sweeping Flood
Excerpt

When Stuart stopped and opened the door the girl was already there, shouting, ”Going the wrong way! Wrong way!” Her face was coarse, pimply about her forehead and chin. The boy pounded up behind her, straining for air. “Where the hell are you going, mister?” the girl cried. “The storm’s coming from this way. Did you see that bastard, going right by us? Did you see him? If I see him when I get to town—” A wall of rain struck. The girl lunged forward and tried to push her way into the car; Stuart had to hold her back. “Where are your folks?” he shouted. “Let me in,” cried the girl savagely. “We’re getting out of here!” “Your folks,” said Stuart. He had to cup his mouth to maker hear. “Your folks in there!” “There ain’t anybody there—Goddamn you,” she said, twisting about to slap her brother, who had been pushing at her from behind.

We read it in High Lonesome.