For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Andrew Malan Milward: The Short Form Interview

What’s great about reading a collection start to finish is the accretion of deeper meaning that arises when the stories in a collection start to talk to each other.

Author of story collection, The Agriculture Hall of Fame, winner of the Juniper Prize in Fiction.

The Interview

Kansas, and specifically Lawrence, is central to your collection. To what extent do you consider the location integral to the story? Obviously the characters are shaped by where they're from, but I'm also curious how you define membership to a state or a country.

Kansas is central to the book, certainly. It provides geographic unity for the disparate stories of the collection. In part this is because it’s where I’m from, which is to say, what I know. But there’s a lot of Kansas in the book that is very different from my experience growing up in Lawrence. So in some sense writing about Kansas is writing about what’s familiar and about something unknown or strange, both of which strike me as attempts to understand where I come from, what legacies I inherit, to bear witness to my home’s noble and ignoble instincts and to acknowledge my culpability in both the good and the bad. As members of both states and countries, this is something we should remember to do more often. In some sense it strikes me, at least in this cultural moment, that to be both a Kansan and an American is to avoid doing just that. It’s hard to look in the mirror and acknowledge the ugly alongside the beautiful. It’s much easier to take someone’s word that you’re wonderful. It’s like a quote I love from one of Eliot’s essays on Shakespeare where he says something along the lines of: nothing dies harder than the will to think well of oneself.

It’s hard to look in the mirror and acknowledge the ugly alongside the beautiful. It’s much easier to take someone’s word that you’re wonderful.

The collection certainly reads like a microscopic view on Kansas. But though the world it focuses on is small and specific, the themes are universal and broad: birth, death, disease, loneliness, etc. What is your view on happiness as a thing that always acquires a different level of unattainability no matter what improvements you make in life? Do you find it true that the more basic the struggle (food, hot water, electricity), the more attainable a version of happiness is?

Yes, we are wonderfully messy creatures, expert at longing and dissatisfaction whether or not there’s food on the table. It’s more complex though. On the one hand the struggle to find happiness is so universal that it seems less a question best considered along class lines than as a question right at the heart of what it means to be a human being and make yourself get out of bed every morning, that is: why exist? But on the other hand, to not think about this in terms of class seems both a luxury of the super-privileged and one they should never grant themselves. It’s well documented that the rich have their pain too, but have some fucking perspective.  

You've already touched on this a little bit, but there's the idea that writers should write what they know, and the seemingly opposite idea that writers should throw themselves into a world they don't know. Then, of course, the idea that it doesn't matter because the challenges of each world are not all that different. What are your thoughts on that? 

World-building in fiction is always challenging, whether it’s based on a place you’ve physically strolled through or never visited. As I said, The Agriculture Hall of Fame is about a Kansas I knew both well and hardly at all, and each was difficult to render. I tend to fall on the side that says write about what interests you, rather than write about what you know or don’t know. However, if you do choose to write about a person or place very different from your own experience, it carries a certain responsibility. Don’t half-ass it. Do your research. Know your shit the best that you can. You can do it, but do it well, is what I tell my students. Sounds simple, but obviously it’s not. I’m facing this much more in the book I’m working on now, which is also about Kansas but which deals with radical historical socio-political moments. So I find myself having to imagine my way into different historical periods and into the lives of characters of different races, classes, genders, political stances than my own. It’s anxiety-producing to say the least, but it seems like an insane overcorrection to say, “You can’t write about that.” Part of the magic of fiction is that, if it is to be done well, it demands that we be our most empathetic selves because we have to richly imagine the lives and problems of people very different from us. This is a good thing for fiction and a good thing for people in general, because that’s constantly under attack. We are not supposed to think about the lives of other people, especially their suffering. When you live, as most of the world does now, in a society dominated by an economic system that at every moment tells us “it’s okay not to think about other people, in fact the whole thing runs much more smoothly when you don’t,” it’s a small but important victory that fiction demands that we do. This is one of the ways art fights back against oppression.

Part of the magic of fiction is that, if it is to be done well, it demands that we be our most empathetic selves.

Mavis Gallant writes in the introduction to her collected stories that once we read a story from it, we should shut the book and read something else: “Stories can wait.” I didn't follow that advice when reading your collection, and I noticed that some successive stories are linked by a detail—sometimes essential, sometimes not. For example, in “Skywriting” and “The Agriculture Hall of Fame”, a drive to a pregnancy clinic; in “Birthday” and “Ulysses,”  the main character filling out medical forms. Is Mavis' advice applicable to your collection?

I shudder at disagreeing with Mavis, but I think that stories can’t wait. I much prefer to read collections start to finish, as the author intended. Perhaps her method might work in those massive grab-bag collected-stories volumes that don’t bracket the contents by collection. But what’s great about reading a collection start to finish is the accretion of deeper meaning that arises when the stories in a collection start to talk to each other. It’s an exhilarating experience as a reader, and it’s also something that story collections give us that novels can’t: the rich totality and intensity of feeling that inexplicably comes from the structuring of discrete and disparate-seeming stories. My collection is consciously set up in a way that—I hope—achieves this. I had the three short barn pieces, which I knew I wanted to form the spine of the book, providing the opening, middle, and closing pieces. But it was several years into working on the book that I began to realize each of the other stories had an echo story or two, some kind of thematic resonance of the sort you mention. For example there are two stories that deal with addiction and religious fundamentalism (“Skywriting” and “The Antichrist Chronicles”), two that deal with 9/11 (“John” and “Ulysses”), three that deal with hospitals and illness (“Birthday,” “The Agriculture Hall of Fame” and “The Cure for Cancer”), and all in different ways. The trick then became sequencing them around the barn stories so that they would resonate with one another and the collection would form a kind of disguised whole.

I think it’s in a letter between Robert Creeley and Charles Olson that one of the great poets suggests that form must always be an extension of content.

The title story is a numbered list in reverse order, and as soon as I realized this, I felt ready for what to expect. But by the end of it, I was surprised by the effect the form had on the story. In some sense, the story itself seemed changed, partly because the last bullet reveals the least amount of information necessary to what happens in the end, which is where we start the story. Regardless of whether you originally wrote it in this order, were you also surprised by the effect?

Yes, the title story is told backwards and in numbered sections, some of which are missing, leaving periodic gaps between the sections. It was the first story I ever published. Almost eight years later the collection came out, so it was a long process and these stories had many past lives. I did originally write this particular story with a traditional structure and forward movement, but quickly realized it worked better if I reversed the order. I think it’s in a letter between Robert Creeley and Charles Olson that one of the great poets suggests that form must always be an extension of content. This stuck with me. I wanted to tell this story backwards and with gaps not in a gimmicky aren’t-I-clever way, but because I wanted the reader to experience the disorientation, the struggling to piece it all together, that Jerry is experiencing as he starts to lose his memory. I hope in this way the form has been an extension of the content and that in doing so it has deepened the reader’s experience in a way that might not have been possible if the story had kept its original form.

Recommended by Andrew Malan Milward

Tatlin!
Excerpt

At Teraspol there were cobwebs in the barley, wasps at the panes, and cats in the knitting baskets.

Mikhail Fyodorovich’s grandfather was a sailor, chewed plug tobacco, had been born and raised in Archangel, and talked a great deal about ice.

He was Dyedushka Larionov.

Dyedushka Petrovsky, a farmer, was Mikhail’s mother’s father. He had a meal in the middle of the night, to keep starvation at bay. Breakfast was at dawn, when the mist was still in the chestnuts. He took his tea from a wineglass, sipping it with a hiss between his teeth.

There was another meal at ten, a lunch at noon, tea at four, supper at six. Then, when the fireflies were thickest and the dew began to agitate old man Petrovsky’s rheumatism, the household, except for the kitchen detail, folding dough in the long pans and forking pickled eels from stone jars, went to bed. At midnight they were up again, sleepy and hungry. 

—We could starve in our sleep, Grandfather Petrovsky said. 

We read it in Tatlin!.

Sir Karl LaFong or Current Resident
Excerpt

He stomps through the house at seven each morning, returning from his dark, neon-bordered, Plexiglass-shielded shift at our town's all-night gas station. He trails boot prints of oil across the kitchen floor. He leaves cellphane and aluminium candy wrappers on the table as he empties his pockets, counting and straightening the fistful of small bills he has collected from weary drivers who prefer to have their gas pumped by a hunched and Afroed attendant. He places half of his nightly earnings on the table—a form of rent—and leaves the kitchen, finally, with only a short greeting to my parents. “Sam, Betty,” he says, nodding to each, though these are not my parents' names. He leaves us to our hot, balanced breakfasts, our tart mouthfuls of grapefruit juice, our silence and averted glances. He leaves us to envy his modest pocketful of independence. He leaves us to breathe in his flammable smell.

We read it in A Jeweler's Eye for Flaw.

Originally published in Bellingham Review, no. 48.

Railroad Incident, August 1995
Excerpt

He would reenter the so-called world in a half hunch, with his knees bleeding and the sky overhead showing the first hints of morning; all insect life in the brittle weeds having fallen silent, there would only be behind him and down towards the hill a powdery hum of the conveyor belts drawing stone at the tail end of the night shift. In his pain certain natural opiates would have kicked in, chemicals that sustain the body in times of great trial and allow forced marches of one sort or another—great mass gatherings of the uprooted shuffling up dust that can be seen from jets passing, the ill-fated regions of Rwanda or wherever—those abuses of such extreme measure that we hold them out as testaments of a raw ability to survive physically against extreme odds: barely standing and barely crawling, he works his way thoughtlessly down towards a crossroad where, eventually, through good fortune and timing a kind old man in a Oldsmobile Cutlass will pull over, hitching up his sagging tan pants and tucking the tail of his white dress shirt (he's the Reverend Simpson of the Alabaster Salvation Church of Haverstraw, on his way to prepare himself for his morning duties), to greet this staggering vagabond.

We read it in Assorted Fire Events.

Originally published in Harper's: July 1997.

Elbow Room
Excerpt

I went to the territory to renew my supply of stories. There were no new ones in the East at the time I left. Ideas and manners had coalesced into old and cobwebbed conventions. The old stories were still being told, but their tellers seemed to lack confidence in them. Words seemed to have become detached from emotion and no longer flowed on the rhythm of passion. Even the great myths floated apart from their rituals. Cynical salesmen hawked them as folklore. There was no more bite in humor. And language, mother language, was being whored by her best sons to suit the appetites of wealthy patrons. The were no new stories. Great energy was spent describing the technology of fucking. Black folk were back into entertaining with time-tested acts. Maupassant's whores bristled wtih the muscle of union organizers. The life-affirming peasants of Chekov and Babel sat wasted and listless on their porches, oblivious to the beats in their own blood. Even Pushkin's firebrands and noble brigands seemed content with the lackluster: mugging old ladies, killing themselves, snatching small change from dollar-and-dime grocers. During this time little men became afflicted with spells of swaggering. Men with greatness in them spoke on the telephone, and in private, as if bouncing safe clichés off the ear of a listener into an expectant and proprietary tape recorder. Everywhere there was this feeling of grotesque sadness, far, far past honest tears.

We read it in Elbow Room.

Good Old Neon
Excerpt

Once again, I’m aware that it’s clumsy to put it all this way, but the point is that all of this and more was flashing through my head just in the interval of the small, dramatic pause Dr. Gustafson allowed himself before delivering his big reductio ad absurdum argument that I couldn’t be a total fraud if I had just come out and admitted my fraudulence to him just now. I know that you know as well as I do how fast thoughts and associations can fly through your head. You can be in the middle of a creative meeting at your job or something, and enough material can rush through your head just in the little silences when people are looking over their notes and waiting for the next presentation that it would take exponentially longer than the whole meeting just to try to put a few seconds’ silence’s flood of thoughts into words. This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English  we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc.—and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.

We read it in Oblivion.

Originally published in Conjunctions 37.