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Chad Simpson: The Short Form Interview

I thought about the stories in terms of beats, and images, and how one story fades into the next, from the first page to the last.

Author of story collection, Tell Everyone I Said Hi, winner of 2012 John Simmons Short Fiction Award.

The Interview

You have a side detail in “You Would’ve Counted Yourself Lucky” that amounts to a frank portrayal of racism: the parents of a white teenager aren’t happy with her dating black boys. Do you find that fiction is a medium much more conducive to a genuine discussion of racism? That maybe outside of fiction we try to bully our words into performing a reality for us that isn't quite true, and in fiction words like “black”, and the n-word that you spell in full, are more free from that kind of bullying?

Yes, I do think that art—fiction, film, etc.—is more conducive to a genuine discussion of just about anything, including racism. That said, I’m OK with a day-to-day reality that is more politically correct—and more mundane, less dramatic—than the charged and beautiful and dangerous and fragile stuff I’ve come to expect from reading a good book or watching a good film. Our reality might be a little less true, but at least we’re comfortable enough in it to make art that might someday, in some way, impact the actual world we all walk around in.

You have several stories revolving around sibling relations. The first two, “Miracle” and “You Would’ve Counted Yourself Lucky,” directly address it, then in “Fostering,” the story hinges on the arrival of a new sibling. On the other hand, in “Peloma,” the troubled child character is an only-child, and has an interesting relationship with the single dad. As someone with two siblings, I'm often fascinated by the idea that many people grow up without any. I'm wondering what your own sibling situation is, and if you were especially aware of Peloma being an only-child.

I have a brother who is fifty-one weeks younger than I am, so we’re the same age each year from April 25th till May 2nd. My wife Jane, who is the middle child in a family of three daughters, sometimes disparages people by saying, “I bet anything he’s an only child.” It’s become a thing for us, when someone presents certain characteristics: “She must be her mommy and daddy’s only one.” It’s funny, though: I didn’t once consciously think of Peloma as an only child. I did, however, think of all that absence in her life, and I think aspects of that absence may have superseded the fact she had no siblings, both in my head and in the story itself.

Almost always, the names or lack thereof are a direct consequence of point of view...

In some stories your main characters don't have a name — “the boy” in “You Would've Counted Yourself Lucky”  or “The Number One Pick Draft” in “Potential,” and in others the names carry context: “Peloma,” “DeMarckus,” “Bei”, or “Leslie” the dog. What are your thoughts on what a name, or the lack of one, can achieve, especially in conext of this quote from Elif Batuman that contemporary American writers try “to bootstrap from a proper name to a meaningful individual essence.”

Most of the time, when I’m working on stories, I’m working so intuitively it would be impossible for me to try to consciously “bootstrap from a proper name to a meaningful individual essence” when I’m creating characters. That said, I liked the awkward shape the name Peloma formed in my mouth. I liked the way DeMarckus looked on the page—and I liked how it transformed into the diminutive Marcky. For me, though, almost always, the names or lack thereof are a direct consequence of point of view, the angle from which the reader is receiving the story.

We spoke to Andrew M. Milward a few weeks ago and asked him about the arrangement in his collection, where a few details echo between stories. You seem to have something similar going on: obviously the theme of siblings in the first three stories, but also the caterpillars in “Adaptations” and the slugs in “The First Night Game at Wrigley,” which are just a story apart. In the former, we celebrate the survival of a vulnerable species and in the latter, the vulnerability of the species is brutally exposed. Tell us more about that, and also if you prefer that the collection is read start to finish.

I probably shouldn’t admit it, but I’d never consciously made that connection between “Adaptations” & “The First Night Game at Wrigley.” I love that you noticed it, that you brought it up. Thematically, most of the stories I write deal in some way with disconnection. With isolation and helplessness and indecision. So, choosing which stories “fit” together was pretty easy, since they just about all do. Instead, I focused on trying not to include stories that seemed too repetitive, either structurally or by way of their content. From there, once I began arranging the pieces, I got fairly abstract. I thought of the composition as a whole as a long piece of music with a topography, a geography. I thought about its themes. And then I thought about the stories in terms of beats, and images, and how one story fades into the next, from the first page to the last. I’d prefer the collection be read from start to finish, but each of the stories does its own thing, too, hopefully, so I don’t mind if someone reads it some other way. I think it’s a piece of music that could be remixed quite a bit and still maintain whatever integrity it had to begin with.

When I give readings, I often read the shorter pieces due to time constraints, and sometimes I hear from people afterward that the stories sound more like poems than stories...

Have you encountered readers who just don't get a very short moment-based story? Someone might complain, for example, what the point of a story like “Two Weeks and One day” is, but it's a glimpse into someone's life on the verge of a transition.

I haven’t received too many verbal complaints about the shorter stories, though I’ve collected a few of the looks directed my way after some people I know have finished reading the book. Those looks seem to say, “That wasn’t quite what I was expecting,” or “Have you considered writing a novel?” I get it, though. I do. Some of the very short stories, they aren’t for everyone. When I give readings, I often read the shorter pieces due to time constraints, and sometimes I hear from people afterward that the stories sound more like poems than stories, which I suppose could be true. My response to complaints—and I field them often when I teach shorter forms to students—is that every piece of writing involves selection, choices. The author is going to throw a little light on this or that character during this or that moment in time. The author can’t cover everything. All she can do is try to make that moment matter and then hope that it resonates. If it doesn’t, well, I suppose the reader can move on to the next story, the next book.

“Consent” at the end of the book is a big surprise. A troubled character from an earlier story, “Peloma,” returns, and not only seems to be doing fine but overcomes some big difficulties. Is this a reward for someone who has made it to the end of the book; is the happy ending to the collection representative of your own optimism, despite all the bad things that happen throughout? 

“Peloma” was actually the first story I wrote that’s included in the collection, way back in the fall of 2002. It’s the story through which I learned how to write a story. “Consent” was written in, I think, 2008. I always knew the two of those two characters had survived the end of that story, and in the interim years, I worked on a bit of a screenplay about Clem & Peloma. Those characters are still hanging around, in fact. I also tried and failed for several years to write a follow-up story to “Fostering.” I suppose I’ve always been drawn to story cycles, and I wanted my collection to include one—or more. I’m not so sure ending the book with “Consent” is representative of my own optimism, but who knows. I can still remember finishing writing that story, and writing that last sentence, and I think I knew as soon as I had gotten it down that it might end up the last story in my book, whether that book ever ended up being published. And then just last week, I realized something about that last sentence. I was hanging out with some friends, and we were talking about e-mail signatures. All of us were around in the mid-nineties when email was just becoming popular, and people seemed to put real effort into their signatures. Mine, I remembered, was the last line of The Great Gatsby. I recalled it, and recited the line out loud, and I was a little shocked to discover some similarities between that line and the final line of “Consent.” I suppose Fitzgerald’s line has embedded in it some kind of optimism, too.

***

The last line of The Great Gatsby is “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 

 

Recommended by Chad Simpson

Rosaleen, If You Know What I Mean
Excerpt

Besides Marty there were seven others, most of them older, all of them boys except for one girl who sat directly across from him. The girl had close-cropped hair that she’d bleached the color out of. It looked to Marty as though her skull was showing through, and he wondered if that was the effect she’d intended. Marty waited while the others stood. Some of them introduced themselves with an annoyed tone as though speaking to a younger sibling. Others spoke with their heads down, chins glued to their chests. Most of them had been there before and seemed familiar with each other. When it was Marty’s turn to stand, the bug-eyed boy said, “He’s in here for fighting. Can you believe it?”

“Quiet, Elliot,” Ms. Higgins said, “or I’ll place a call to your father.” The boy’s head dropped.

“Go on, Marty,” Ms. Higgins said. Marty gave the information she had asked for. He was twelve years old. He liked dessert pizza and swimming. He had a hamster named Lebron James. He could not remember what he’d dreamed last.

We read it in Fires of Our Choosing.

Originally published in American Short Fiction: Winter 2009.

Nilda
Excerpt

That was the summer when everything we would become was hovering just over our heads. Girls were starting to take notice of me; I wasn’t good-looking but I listened and was sincere and had boxing muscles in my arms. In another universe I probably came out O.K., ended up with mad novias and jobs and a sea of love in which to swim, but in this world I had a brother who was dying of cancer and a long dark patch of life like a mile of black ice waiting for me up ahead.

No One's a Mystery
Excerpt

For my eighteenth birthday Jack gave me a five-year diary with a latch and a little key, light as a dime. I was sitting beside him scratching at the lock, which didn't seem to want to work, when he thought he saw his wife's Cadillac in the distance, coming toward us. He pushed me down onto the dirty floor of the pickup and kept one hand on my head while I inhaled the musk of his cigarettes in the dashboard ashtray and sang along with Rosanne Cash on the tape deck. We'd been drinking tequila and the bottle was between his legs, resting up against his crotch, where the seam of his Levi's was bleached linen-white, though the Levi's were nearly new. I don't know why his Levi's always bleached like that, along the seams and at the knees. In a curve of cloth his zipper glinted, gold.

Reverting to a Wild State
Excerpt

“Explain, explain,” Nigel demanded, but he did not want me to explain anything. I had become a monster to him, and he needed me to stay a monster. I kept silent, slowly spinning a sugar packet on the table with the tip of my finger. The waitress gave us a wide berth—Nigel was weeping openly—but I wished she would come and refill my empty cup. I listened to Nigel; I watched him cry; I rummaged around inside myself and tried to find a memory, a hurt, that would enable me to cry as well. I’d been a dick, dicked around, throughout the long near-decade of our relationship, countless men, often, though not always, for money. In penance, I wanted to cry for him now. I rummaged and rummaged, but I was dry.

Space Man
Excerpt

His girlfriend's probably surfing somewhere in California right now. She is an astrophysicist and a veteran and a triathlete, but she's never been up in space, like he is now, in a failing spacecraft. He knows it's failing by the way the engine sounds, like a tennis shoe in a dryer, and also, by the way it's spiraling out of control. Alone and out loud, Space Man employs the imperative: Eject! Eject!

We read it in Fictionaut.