Lincoln Michel’s story, Things Left Outside, reviewed by Denton Loving.

Lincoln Michel must be one of the world’s busiest young writers.  In addition to serving as editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com, he is a founding editor of Gigantic, a literary magazine dedicated to flash fiction, and he co-edited Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction. He’s also a pretty great writer.  

One of my favorite stories from his 2015 collection, Upright Beasts, is Things Left Outside, which you can also read online at Weird Fiction Review. I liked this story so much that I decided to share it with my students during our section dedicated to literature. I teach mostly college-level first-year students, and it’s often difficult to get these students excited about fiction. The Michel story, however, generated a great deal of excitement and discussion.  

The story begins when the narrator’s husband (Gerald) discovers a dead body. The woman was apparently shot, and she died crawling halfway under the fence onto the narrator’s property.  The woman has no identification, but she is about the same age and appearance as the narrator (Carol). She’s wearing a green shirt similar to one Carol owns, and her bag contains objects that Carol also owns.

The mystery of this dead woman is at the core of the story, but the story is about so much more. Carol becomes obsessed with discovering the woman’s identity. She wants to know who killed the woman. She even begins to suspect Gerald may know more than he’s letting on. Is he involved? The reader must work like a detective to pick apart the text in finding clues. The question that looms most is whether Carol suffers from mild paranoia and temporary obsession or does her imbalance cross a line into deeper madness?

A couple of my students felt dissatisfied because the murderer is never revealed. I suppose that is to be expected when you grow up in a world with eighty-seven different versions of Law & Order. But the real debate about this story spawned around a surprising interpretation of the story that was theorized by more than one student. Their theory was that the dead woman was really Carol.  

After reading a short story in class, I typically ask my students what they think in general terms. Someone’s first response is inevitably that the story is “weird.” I’ve been trying to break my students from using this catch-all expression, but in the case of Things Left Outside, they might be right. Things Left Outside really is weird, especially if your interpretation of the story hinges on Carol also being the dead woman that Carol becomes obsessed with. (Further evidence of the story’s weirdness can be found in its publication at Weird Fiction Review.)

There’s a surprising amount of evidence to support this “weird” theory, although some of the same pieces of evidence could support a more conventional interpretation, which is simply that Carol identifies with the dead woman. One of my goals in discussing this story was to emphasize that your theory is only as strong as the evidence you can find in the text to support it. And to my students’ credit, they got more and more excited each time something pushed the scale in their favor. When class conversation reached the verge of civil war, a few students demanded that I tell them which theory was right. Imagine their frustration when I wouldn’t (or couldn’t) give them an answer.

The truth is that I don’t know what Lincoln Michel’s intention was in writing this story. I see arguments for both views. But whether Carol is looking at some version of herself lying under the barbed wire fence or merely another human being who reminds her of her own mortality isn’t really the point. More importantly, I find the character, Carol, to be interesting, and the situation Michel has created in Things Left Outside is so dynamic that I want to sink into the story and think about what it all means. I want to live with Carol for a while, or with her on the page at least, and I’m okay with it even if I can’t definitely answer all the questions that might arise. I’m more than okay with it.

This open-ended view of literature is exactly what some of my students find frustrating. One of my students (a pre-med student whom I can already tell will one day make a very fine doctor) explained to me that chemistry is easier than literature because there’s always a right answer in chemistry. With literature, there is no one right answer. This very idea is what is so frightening to so many of my students. They’re unsettled by the uncertainty. I don’t know if this is a symptom of their age, or the times we live in, or that they just haven’t been exposed to enough good literature. All I can tell them is that I love how a good story can imitate life by exposing our uncertainties. Some of them accept that answer. Other students are tracking Lincoln Michel at this very moment, determined to extract an explanation of his intentions. That’s okay with me, too. At least they care enough about this story to want to understand it.

 

Denton Loving lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia come together. He is the author of the poetry collection, Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag).  He is also the editor of Seeking Its Own Level: an anthology of writings about water (MotesBooks).  His fiction, poetry, essays, reviews and interviews have been appeared in over 80 publications including River Styx, CutBank, [PANK] and The Chattahoochee Review. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.

 

Lincoln Michel is the editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com and a founding editor of Gigantic. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, Tin House, NOON, Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. His essays and criticism have appeared in The New York TimesThe Believer, Bookforum, Buzzfeed, Vice, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. He is the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction, and the author of Upright Beasts, a collection of short stories (Coffee House Press, 2015). He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn. He tweets at @thelincoln.

Interview with Casey Pycior

Casey Pycior’s debut story collection, THE SPOILS, was published last week with Switchgrass Press. His stories explore notions of masculinity, fatherhood, and the unsettling expectations we might develop as adults, and how those expectations thwart and distract, and what it means to deal with our shortcomings or misguided efforts. I had the honor of asking Casey a few questions about his writing process, athletics, fatherhood, and the great stretch of landmass we call the Midwest.

 

Keith Lesmeister: First of all congratulations on the publication of your debut story collection. That’s exciting news. It’s been such a treat, leading up to your book publication, to read some of the stories in various literary journals, including Harpur Palate, Wigleaf, Bull, and Front Porch, which is where the title story, “The Spoils,” was originally published.

Speaking of which, the title story is such a unique concept. I’m a huge basketball fan so reading the play-by-play between the Generals and Globetrotters was riveting. I was with Marcus step-by-step, and routing for him too. I mean, SPOILER ALERT (no pun intended), I was on the edge of my seat until he hit that three at the end of the game. But his glory turned sour almost immediately as he looked around for his family who may or may not have been there, while Globetrotter fans — pretty much everyone in the stands — booed him. I’m curious: where did the idea for this story originate?

Casey Pycior: Thanks! I’m really glad you liked the story. I had to look, but I wrote the first draft (of many) of this story in February of 2011. I remember my wife and I were at a sports bar in Wichita, Kansas, where we lived at the time, and there was a Harlem Globetrotters game on one of the TVs (it must have been a very slow sports night), and for whatever reason I started thinking about the players on the Generals. I think I might have even said to my wife, “It must really suck to be a Generals player.” I knew the players had to have been good, had to have played in college, had to have dreamed of playing in the NBA, and here they were being paid not to play the way they’d trained their whole lives. They were essentially following a script, playing the stooge every night, you know? There was something really fascinating to me about that, and I was interested in how a player might deal with it. From there I played the “what if” game: What if a Generals player—Marcus, in my story—decided not follow the script and to play the Globetrotters straight up?

Two other factors directly contributed to this story coming out the way it did. First, my wife was pregnant with our son while I was working on this story, and it clearly had an effect. My early drafts didn’t include a reason why Marcus decided to play straight, but as I revised over the next couple years (yep, it took that long), having become a father myself, I made Marcus a father to a young son who he hopes is in the audience witnessing what he’s done, and the story kind of clicked. Marcus says early in the story, “what am I supposed to tell my son when he asks what I do for a living? And then later, when he asks how come we never win?” We try to teach our kids to always give their best effort in everything they do, but what happens when what you do for a living contradicts the very ideals you are trying to instill in your children? The second factor that shaped this story was that around the time I was working on it, I was rereading Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. In the last line of “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” the narrator says, “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” This confrontational address to the reader always sort of nailed me to the wall, and I wanted to try something like it. So in the opening paragraph of “The Spoils,” Marcus comes right at the reader in a sort of confrontation way that, I hope, works.

KL: Sports play a role in some of your stories. What is your relationship with baseball and basketball and sports in general? And how do you personally see athletics influencing your work? Are there parallels?

CP: All sports feature human drama and conflict (much of it engineered, of course), so it seems ripe for narrative. And many, many writers have used sports as a vehicle for exploring different issues. In that way I’m no different, I suppose.

I’ve been a baseball fan for most of my life, and I played baseball in college, so it’s world I know pretty well. And for a significant part of my life, it was my identity: I was a baseball player. (I have an essay where I wrestle with the gap between the kind of player I could have been and the kind of player I actually was. Maybe someday it’ll make its way out into the world…) As for how it has influenced my work…I don’t know, exactly. I guess I would say that baseball taught me how to fail. You fail so much in baseball, it humbles you very quickly. To me, that’s not at all unlike the submission process. The old saying in baseball is, you fail 7 times out of 10 for your career, and you are a Hall of Famer. Just for the purposes of comparison, even though the math is different, I think my acceptance rate is something like 3%. So yeah, writing and submitting is every bit as humbling as baseball.

KL: You referenced your son just a moment ago and father-son relationships are explored quite extensively in your stories. As a father (me included), it’s difficult to escape this dynamic, both in our lives, certainly, but also our fiction. Could you comment on this relational dynamic in your work?

CP: When my MFA Thesis director and mentor, Darren DeFrain, read “The Spoils,” he said that my characters are “often haunted by their children, but always seeking the courage to do the right thing by them and the waiting world.” Though I knew my stories dealt with father and son relationships, I hadn’t thought of it this way, that the stories were “haunted” by children. But I love that…I mean, aren’t all parents “haunted” by their kids? They are in the forefront of our minds in just about everything we do.

It probably comes as no surprise that the majority of the stories in my book were conceived of and written in the years since my son was born. I’m sure I’m not the only person to have ever felt this way, but one of the things that struck me when my son was born (he’s almost six now) was how I was now both a father and a son. While I was still trying to make my father proud, now I need to be someone my son will be proud of. In some ways, I suppose, it’s one in the same, but to me it felt—still feels– different. Maybe it’s because as a father now I know that, no matter what, my father will be proud of me in the same way I’ll always be proud of my son. But, as a father, my decisions and actions have consequences beyond just myself. I think this is the kind of thing I was trying to explore in the story, “The Spoils.”

So, it’s safe to say that father-son relationships are a central theme of my work and one that I’ll likely continue mining.

KL: Some of your work might be categorized as “voice driven” which is a difficult, elusive term to define. But I know it when I see it, or, perhaps more accurately, hear it. In addition, much of your work is written in the first person. What draws you to this POV?

CP: Roughly half of the stories in The Spoils are first person stories, and of those I’d say a handful are what I’d consider “voice driven.” In the stories where the narrator’s “voice” is distinct, that usually happens very early in the process of drafting the story…sometimes even in the opening line. That’s not to say I don’t work on crafting the voice—I do—but if it’s not there from the beginning, I don’t usually go with it. For example in “Disaster Carpenter,” the opening line, the first line I wrote of the story (and it remained unchanged from the first draft) is, “Of all the places in the world, I had to go and cut my finger off in Wahoo-fucking-Nebraska.” And the opening of “As Much as One Deserves,” is, “See a lot of interesting things in my line of work.” In both cases, I think the voice is immediate, and my hope is that it draws readers in. Voice also works as characterization, too, when it’s done right. Someone in a workshop once commented that these kinds of stories of mine feel like the narrators have saddled up to the bar next to you and are telling you their stories in their voices. I take that as a compliment.

I love the unreliability of a first person narrator, too. I don’t think any of my narrators are outwardly lying to readers, but like all of us when we tell our stories, they can and do shape how they present themselves.

KL: I don’t want to give away the endings to your stories, but let me say this: you really know how to end a story. I mean, it leaves enough to the imagination, but also gives us a sense of longing and desire for more — the way you end on the verge of something ending or beginning or perhaps both. I guess this isn’t really a question as much as an observation. Maybe you could just comment on story endings and how you go about concluding your own.

CP: Thanks for the kind words about the endings to my stories. I wish I had some solid, go-to advice for ending stories, but I don’t. I struggle with them as much (I assume) as everyone else does. I have to always fight the urge to do too much, to be so in control of the ending. We’ve all read the otherwise good story where the ending feels almost too tight, too engineered by the writer. Of course everything in a story is crafted, but I don’t want my endings to feel that way.

I don’t usually think about what happens to my characters after the story is over, but I appreciate what you said about how my stories end “on the verge of something ending or beginning” because, unless the story ends in death of a central character, that character’s story, like life, goes on after whatever (usually dramatic) event has occurred. In a way, we are always “on the verge” of something beginning or ending. And since my tendency is toward realistic fiction, ending stories this way feels true to me.

KL: In one of your bios, it mentions that you’re a lifelong midwesterner. How do you see the Midwest affecting your work?

CP: I’m of the mind that all of us are, at least in part, products of our respective places. It’s difficult for us to escape where we come from and the influence it has on our lives. I’m not sure I could write a convincing story that wasn’t set here, nor am I sure I’d want to. I’m happy—proud, even—to be considered a Midwestern writer. I don’t think that’s a label I will ever grow weary of (should my career ever get to a place where I’m considered anything at all). I’m fascinated by the Midwest as a region, underrepresented and underexplored as it is in literature, though I think that’s changing. Switchgrass Books, my publisher, and MW Gothic Press, your publisher, among many other great journals and presses, are doing really great work to advance Midwestern writing. I tend to see the region’s lack of national reputation (at least in the terms that, for example, Southern writing is understood) is actually a good thing; it allows writers like you and me and so many others to play a part in crafting what contemporary Midwestern fiction is. And the vastness of the region plays right into this…there’s space for each of us to carve out our own unique Midwest.

KL: Your work brings to mind other authors such as Richard Ford and Raymond Carver, not to mention some great blurbs from the likes of Donald Ray Pollack and Lee Martin. How do these authors — or other authors generally speaking — influence your work? What other books were you reading while writing your collection?

CP: I’m honored that my work calls to mind Richard Ford and Raymond Carver; their work undoubtedly influenced me as a beginning writer. Carver’s stories were the first I remember reading as an undergrad where I thought, Wow, I didn’t know stories could be about working-class people. Ford’s collection, “Rock Springs,” was another influential book for me early on.

I’m influenced by everything I read, and that’s how it should be, right? But at the same time, all those various influences are (I hope) filtered through my world-view and in the process become something (again, I hope) unique.

I read a lot, though not as widely as I should/need to. I’m trying to make a conscious effort to bring diversity of all kinds to my to-read shelf. I use Goodreads.com pretty religiously, so if anyone is interested in the books I’m reading, they can follow me there.

KL: Is there anything you’d like readers to know about your story collection?

CP: It’s available now…☺

KL: Yes, and everyone should pick it up at their local indie bookstore or Indiebound! So what might we see from you in the future? Are you still writing stories?

CP: I’m still writing stories, and I intend to for the foreseeable future. I’m also increasingly interested in creative non-fiction and essays. I’ve only written a couple essays, and I have a few more in various stages of completion, but it’s a fun genre to explore and experiment with, especially with the ways the lines between fiction and non-fiction or essay continue to blur.

Casey Pycior was born and raised in Kansas City, and earned his MFA in fiction writing at Wichita State University and PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He was awarded the 2015 Charles Johnson Fiction Prize at Crab Orchard Review, and his work has appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, Midwestern Gothic, Harpur Palate, BULL, Wigleaf, and Yalobusha Review, among many other places. His debut short story collection, THE SPOILS, was published last week (March 15) with Switchgrass Books. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife and son.