The True Death of Abel Paisley by Maisy Card, published in Agni (online).

I was going to write an intro to The True Death of Abel Paisley, but then I came across this, written on Agni’s website, and it was probably written by someone much smarter than me, so I decided to use this intro instead of my own. Here it is, as published by Agni:

“A Jamaican has the opportunity to take on a dead man’s identity and live a free new life with a full-body alias. But things are never so simple. Never mind the long arm of the law—preordained retribution has a longer arm still. Stay tuned. The true death of Abel Paisley doesn’t get revealed until the very end.”

I suspect after reading the blurb you’re going to want to read the actual story. And you should. It’s fantastic. Here’s a link. Enjoy. And here’s an interview with Maisy.

Keith Lesmeister: Let’s start with the name of the first character we’re introduced to, Abel, which, for me, conjures memories from Sunday school where I learned that Abel suffered the wrath of his jealous brother Cain. After the horrible deed, Cain is cast out into his own no-man’s land, east of Eden. I was never convinced Cain had it as rough as people thought. After all, no one would bother him out there, but then there’s the whole notion of human connection blah blah blah. Okay, only the first question, and I’m already digressing. So, tell us about the name, Abel.

Maisy Card: I was looking at birth certificates from the town in Jamaica where one of my grandfathers was born and still lives. Abel is supposed to be roughly the same age. I noticed that names tended to be biblical or men were named after Roman emperors (my grandfather’s name is Augustus). I’ve always liked the name Abel.

KL:  The POV jumps out at me. An alternating kind of omniscient second person. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever read a story with this kind of POV. How did this POV emerge?

MC: This is one of the later stories I wrote, but I had been planning it out in my head for a long time. I had planned to tell it from Abel’s POV,  to try to understand how a man who abandons his family justifies his actions to himself, but I think by the time I got around to writing it, I knew so much about the other characters, I had a hard time letting Abel get the last word. This story, and the rest of the stories in the collection, is about intergenerational trauma. Even though some characters, like Estelle, grow up in a seemingly normal family, they manage to absorb and sense some of the negativity and trauma. I wanted everyone to be heard, for the reader to get a sense of everyone’s pain and anger, and this was the best POV to make it happen.

KL: Each character carries his/her own intrigue, which is a credit to the way you’ve developed each of these characters in nuanced and sophisticated ways, but within the parameters of a short story (length). I noticed in your bio that you’ve written a novel based on these characters. In which POV/POVs is the book written? Is there any one character who you enjoy writing more than the others?

MC: This story is part of a linked short story collection or a novel-in-stories–I’m not quite sure how I should describe it yet. Each story focuses on one or several members of the Paisley family. POVs change throughout. Some stories are told in 1st person, some are 3rd person, this is the only one told in 2nd person. I try to switch up POVs to keep things interesting for myself and hopefully the reader.

KL: Was there research involved in this story? If so, how much and what kind?

MC: No, I didn’t do any research for this particular story, but did a lot of research for other stories in the book.

KL:  Have you ever read the short story “The Disappearance” by Jeanne Schinto? Really fascinating account of an immigrant who essentially gets paid off to go back to his home country of Italy during the time of intense labor talks and negotiations and strikes and other issues, but his family doesn’t know, and they think he’s “disappeared.”

MC: I haven’t read it and couldn’t find a copy. Can you send it to me?

KL: Most likely. I will try to find it.

KL: A few random questions, preferences:

KL: Sprite or Sierra Mist?

MC: Neither. I prefer Coke or Pepsi

KL: Vacation or Staycation?

MC: staycation

KL: Sandals or shoes?

MC: shoes

KL: Candles or flashlights?

MC: candles

Maisy Card is a writer and a public librarian living in Newark, New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Lenny LetterSycamore ReviewLiars’ League NYC, and Ampersand Review. She recently completed a novel about the fictional Paisley family.

Sentence by Sentence: an interview with John Jodzio

John Jodzio’s work is humorous and dark, precise and eccentric, and compulsively readable. Look no further than these latest two stories to appreciate his talent, range, and ability. THERE’S NO CHICKEN FIGHTING IN THE INFINITY POOL was published in the latest issue of Adroit and THE NARROWS was published in The Sun. I had the privilege of chatting with John about writing, rivers, soda pop, and hot dishes.

Keith Lesmeister: Congrats on these back-to-back publications. I’m a long-time subscriber to The Sun and your story “The Narrows” is unlike anything I’ve read lately. And I say that in the best possible way. On the surface, here are two women, sisters, who rescue jumpers from a river in a selfish attempt to satisfy their own need for physical connection. What were the origins of this story? How did the idea surface (pardon the pun)?

John Jodzio: The origins of this story are sort of all over the place and kind of hard to pin down. I grew up on a river and now I live in Minneapolis by the Mississippi so there’s always been a bunch of moving water around me. I’ve always been interested in how random things end up in the water and wonder who dumped these things there and why. I also remember one day I started thinking about how Niagara Falls is this bizarre dichotomy — a very popular place to go on your honeymoon but an even more popular place to commit suicide. Like most of my stories my brain started to pull some of my experience and some of these weird facts into a strange alignment and I ended up with these two lonely sisters fishing suicidal men out of the river with their man hooks.

KL: The sisters in “The Narrows” are not always “successful” in the sense that many of the jumpers achieve their desired goal, which is suicide. You’ve managed to touch on a very sensitive and critically important topic which has, for so long, been taboo. Or maybe not taboo, but just very difficult to talk about. What is your approach to writing about important societal topics and issues in your fiction?

JJ: There’s been a definite shift in the tone of some of my stories lately. I think I’ve gotten more interested in attempting to explore these kinds of societal issues in a more overt way (instead of letting them organically occur in a story) while also trying to figure out how to channel and express more of the world-weariness, loneliness, and anger that myself and a lot of the people around me are battling in their lives.

KL: In “Chicken Fight” you’re able to capture perfectly the manic throes of a failing marriage. Despite the glorious ending, this moment in the couple’s life together—the hotel, drugs, booze, and playful reverie—feels more like a pit-stop on their way to ultimate demise. Either way, when writing a short-short fiction piece, what are you focusing on initially? Character? Language? Some combination?

JJ: Usually any short-short piece I write it usually starts with the language and voice. There’s always an opening line or first paragraph that is always a little shocking or funny or weirdly phrased and has some propulsion to it. This story just started with me revising that first paragraph over and over until I got the voice how I wanted it and then there was some taffy pulling and taffy mushing with characters and plot, trying to concoct how the narrator and his wife had arrived at this critical point in their marriage and how they might move forward.

KL: There’s a theme and mood of desperation throughout both stories. A kind of addictive melancholic alchemy—the stories feel sad and desperate to me but they’re offset by humor, intrigue, and perfect pacing. Could you discuss how you strike this perfect balance between desperation and all those things that help offset the desperation without compromising it completely?

JJ: All of these things you mention are just gut feelings I get while I am writing a story. I don’t really do any planning when I start writing something and so I am just blindly making my way through sentence by sentence, figuring out what would make sense next. Whatever alchemy exists in my stories probably always ends boiling down to a simple equation: if things start getting too desperate I leaven, if a character gets too happy I weigh them down, if the pacing gets bogged I cut some darlings to speed it up. How those things exactly happen in the context of the story is always the hard part and what takes a bunch of drafts and a bunch of time to get right.

KL: In any versions of “Chicken Fight” did the featured couple not win the last match? If so, what was that like?

JJ: Figuring how to end that story was difficult for me. There were a number of different endings, one with them losing the match, but it felt too hopeless. In the end the ending that felt right for me was for them to win and stay together (at least for now) and continue on with their hedonistic weekend.

KL: What are you currently reading?

JJ: Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin, The Strange Bird by Jeff VanderMeer, and My Own Devices by Dessa.

KL: What was the last concert you attended?

JJ: Spoon/Grizzly Bear

KL: And… last series of questions.

KL: Is it soda or pop?

JJ: Always and forever pop.

KL: Casserole or hot dish?

JJ: Hot Dish

KL: Do you prefer…

KL: Downhill or cross country skiing?

JJ: Definitely cross-country

KL: Lakes or rivers?

JJ: Obvs rivers

KL: Dylan or Young?

JJ: Young

KL: REM or Depeche Mode?

JJ: Depeche

KL: Solitude or small groups?

JJ: Solitude

JOHN JODZIO is the author of the story collections Knockout and If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is horribly addicted to burritos.

Forty-Four Thousand Pounds by Emma Copley Eisenberg, published in The Common.

I had a wonderful conversation with Emma Copley Eisenberg. She’s the kind of skilled and careful writer who understands that a character not having “the right word for what [he/she] want[s] to say” is a condition of experience as much as it is education or something else. That “something else” might be ambivalence or memory or even a condition of effort. Eisenberg’s structurally deft story, Forty-Four Thousand Pounds, is about a young woman attempting to understand three important relationships, but in so doing she’s also trying to better understand herself, and how a person might deal with growing ambivalence regarding these relationships, among other things, while not giving up hope entirely. Here’s our interview below. And please, do check out her story over at the The Common.

Keith Lesmeister: I’m thinking of all the trucker-like jargon used in this piece, not least the exact amount of weight for the coil in back of the semi, which becomes the title of the story. Tell me about the research – if any – you had to do for this story.

Emma Copley Eisenberg: I did a lot of research for this story, but most of it came in the form of interviewing and reporting. I asked a friend’s father who is a trucker if I could ride around with him for a day. He taught me much of what I didn’t know.

KL: Structurally, the story moves in a bold, non-chronological way. At first, I thought we’d return to the bike riding scene at the end of the piece, but that’s simply not the case. We bounce back and forth in ways surprising – and satisfying – to me as a reader. Could you speak to how the structure of this story evolved throughout the process?

ECE: I was originally inspired by “All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona” by Richard Bausch. I love the way that story starts in a present moment that is full of misery and loss and boomerangs back and forth from the present to the past to show the reader how and why things turned out so badly. I wanted to riff on that way of thinking about a story, except in this case things haven’t turned out so badly in the present for Kendra, or so we think. In many ways she has moved forward in her life—she has left town, and moved to the big city. Yet she still feels sadness, loss, and ambivalence. I wanted the structure of the story to highlight that ambivalence.

KL: That makes sense, and I think it works quite well, as the bouncing back and forth highlights all the emotions you just mentioned. In addition, objects play a huge role in this story: books, instruments, the semi itself along with the coil, and even the bike, among other things. Could you speak to the importance of objects in your story? How do you determine which objects have more significance than others, or does that importance emerge naturally as the narrative takes shape?

ECE: I’ve always loved the physical world, simply put. Watching people and their clothes on the New York City subway system as a kid is, I believe, what made me want to write. Stuart Dybek writes like this, I think, and Grace Paley too. Sometimes objects teach you what the story is. Ron Carlson taught me that. The minute I had the steel coil, I knew what the story was. The steel coil taught me that the banjo had to be there, and then the banjo the horse, and so forth.

KL: There’s a lot going on this story, but the most significant part – at least in my mind – is this coming-of-age love negotiation between Kendra and Carla (Kendra’s friend/lover), Kendra and her parents, and Kendra and herself. I don’t want to give away the exquisitely rendered conversation toward the end of the story between Kendra and her father, but I have to ask: did his placating to Kendra’s mother surprise you?

ECE: I think Dude is positioned somewhere between Kendra and Kendra’s mother. Kendra is queer, and wants what she wants. Kendra’s mother doesn’t want her to want it. I think families often work this way, where one parent is more in tune with the actual desires of their child than the other. Yet the parents, in some ways, still need to be a team and function as a unit. So in that respect, no, it didn’t surprise me.

KL: One of my favorite scenes is in the honky-tonk. The details, the tension between characters, the insights Kendra has about her family, namely her father and this younger woman – there’s just so much going on. How did you keep this scene so tight? With all the commotion, I could imagine it spiraling into an all-night corn-liquored extravaganza, but you keep the scene under deft writerly control.

ECE: I think that just because there is music and alcohol involved, it doesn’t need to be a scene that gets out of control. That was one thing I learned by observing actual musicians actually, particularly Bluegrass musicians—they have a lot of discipline and take a lot of pride in songs being constructed and played well. I felt that Kendra possesses that discipline, even as Dude doesn’t, totally, so I let the scene follow Kendra’s energy, which is: get in, play, get out.

KL: The story is marked by these poetic, melancholic rhetorical questions which gives a very intimate feel to the story, as if you’re asking the reader to think about these questions alongside the narrator, even if for a brief moment. Some of the rhetorical question are: “What is the word for the feeling when you don’t care where you go as long as it is somewhere that is not home and as long as you are in motion?” Or, “What is the word for when your people give up on fighting for you to stay?” I don’t know how to phrase the question. I guess I’m asking your thoughts on using these rhetorical devices.

ECE: I think this is a story about not knowing, in a lot of ways, or knowing what choice you must make but being deeply ambivalent about that choice. I wanted the style of narration to reflect that mood, one in which there is never quite the right word for what you want to say.

KL: Last few questions………

KL: Do you listen to country music? If so, who?

ECE: I love country music and listen to it a lot. Some favorites are: Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Townes Van Zandt, and Mary Gauthier. Of course, Bluegrass both is and isn’t “country music” in the way most people understand it. In terms of Bluegrass, I was taught by friends in West Virginia that there are really only a handful of “real” Blugrass bands and they are: Earl and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and The Del McCoury Band.

KL: Do you frequent honky-tonk, country bars?

ECE: I’ve only been to one honky-tonk in my life, but I’ve sat around in people’s living rooms while they play Bluegrass many, many times.

KL: Do prefer a waltz or a polka?

ECE: I’m not a big dancer, but I’ll do a waltz if it’s with the right person.

KL: Ham or turkey (for sandwiches)?

ECE: Ham or turkey equally.

KL: Interstates or back roads?

ECE: Definitely back roads.

Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in West Philadelphia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, The Los Angeles Review of Books, AGNI, Guernica, ZYZZYVA, No Tokens, and other publications. She is the recipient of honors and residencies from Tin House Summer Workshop, the Turkey Land Cove Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and Lambda Literary. Her first book, The Third Rainbow Girl, is forthcoming from Hachette in 2019.

The Taxidermy Museum by Steven Dunn, published in Granta

A person can read the first page of Steven Dunn’s story The Taxidermy Museum online, but to read the rest you have to purchase a subscription ($16 digital). I think it’s worth it. In the story, Dunn stretches and challenges our belief and understanding of what it means to cherish and honor people and ideals. And what it means to be alive and living and remembered. But it does so through the eyes of people/characters who might not be fully aware of themselves or what is going on around them. “I volunteered to work at the Taxidermy Museum of Military Heroes. It gets me out of work three days a week, plus it looks like I’m taking on extra duties for my brag sheet.” Little does this character know…

Also check out Dunn’s lively, humorous, heartbreaking, and powerful novel POTTED MEAT (Tarpaulin Sky Press 2016). His novel WATER & POWER is forthcoming later this year.

Free Fall by April Darcy, published in Shenandoah

I was so taken by the gentle power and precision of April Darcy’s story, Free Fall, that I just had to ask her a few questions about the story itself. I won’t tell you anything about the story leading up to the interview, but should you decide to read Free Fall — which you should — prepare to be spellbound starting with the first paragraph. How does the author mesmerize readers? Well, here’s a hint: multiple layers of musicality coupled with wise and well placed insights. Check out our interview below.

Keith Lesmeister: There’s a wonderful, melodic structure to the story, which moves naturally and allows for the protagonist to focus on one character at a time, mostly. And those four characters are introduced to us in the first paragraph — husband, sister, lover, and the protagonist herself. Did the structure originate with the story, or did you find the structure in later drafts?

April Darcy: Oh man, did you win me over with this question.

First, thank you for reading the story so closely and taking the time to ask such great questions. Second, it’s amazing that you used the word melodic right out of the gate. My first love in life was music. Growing up, I sincerely believed that I would someday be a musician, or I would die. (My childhood journals provide proof of dramatics.)

Growing older and discovering music hiding underneath my love of language was such a joy–writing brought musicality back into my life in a new and concrete way. When I write I am almost purely focused on rhythm, sound, repetition. I read out loud for beats and drum along with my hand on my desk. If it doesn’t sound like a song, it’s not done yet. It’s subtle, of course, and it’s not like I do it on purpose, but sound and story go hand in hand for me.

And no, focusing on one character at a time wasn’t conscious when I drafted this story, but I see it now that you’ve pointed it out. (Thank you!) And that’s not unlike a song either, right? Bringing one instrument to the forefront while the rest falls into background briefly. I so wish I could say structure dictated anything, but no, this story flew out of me in one weird swoop and in more or less this structure from its conception. I fussed with it for years, of course, but to be honest it was a gift. I was not in charge. (I am never in charge.)

KL: I found myself pulled into the story by the conflict, certainly, but also by the language and specific phrases, specifically the repetition of some of these words or phrases. For instance, “Her hair was plaited over her ears, like a farm girl but somehow sexy, always so sexy.” In this case, those last words.

Or in dialogue: 

“Her eyes widened. She put down her fork. ‘Why would I do that?’ she said. ‘It’s just sex, Taylor. So what?’

‘So what? Don’t you think it would hurt him?'” 

In this case, the “so what” connects. 

And there are other instances throughout, and these moments often feel like a kind of echo. But echos can get distorted as they bounce off canyon walls. Or — as is the case with your story — they’re clearer, and more powerful, than the initial burst of language. I think it’s an excellent effect. Could you speak to how/where/when you employed this technique? 

AD: This technique was in fact purposeful, so I feel smarter now! In my first drafts there tend to be little beats that stand out upon re-reading. When I look at the text they pop as if written in yellow highlighter. Once I find those moments, usually by scanning my eyes over the page to see what leaps out, I know they are the sections that need to echo, to make the most of their power.

For instance the story ended with “So what?” in its first draft, which I found exciting, but it didn’t have an echo yet—the ending was the first time those words appeared. I wanted to create an echo there, and it finally occurred to me that although the words hadn’t been said before, Jessica’s whole vibe was a giant “so what” to the entire world. I just had to put the words into her actual mouth. In a diner. Because everything I write accidentally has a diner in it.

So yes: echoes create emphasis, extra beats create resonance. That style is purposeful and sort of done with a musician’s ear as best I can: to make certain moments ring.

KL: In addition there are a lot of short declarative statements that contain a lot of power: “I still wish for sex.” Or “Duplicity is easy, turns out.” Or “That was it.” Or “She never would again.” I guess this isn’t really a question, more of an observation. Though feel free to comment as you see fit.

AD: I love varied sentence structure, and find it vital for compelling reading. One of my writing ticks is that I too often lean into long, meandering, sort of complicated sentences. I’ve learned the hard way that the only way to pull off sentences like that is to balance them with short plain ones. Long long short. Complex complex simple. You can hear the beats if you’re reading aloud.

At first I did this unconsciously, and in my very first workshop Susan Cheever pointed out what I was up to. She said I had written a couple of beautiful sentences but that she sensed I “didn’t know what made them good, and that talent without knowledge wasn’t good enough.” I couldn’t tell if I’d been complimented or insulted (both were true!). Although humiliating, that moment was exciting. I vowed to learn the mechanics of what I had previously been doing kind of by ear, so I could employ it with better control in the future.

From that, I learned the value and power of simple declarative sentences, but that they stand out most beautifully set against a more complicated line.

KL: Did you listen to any music/musicians while you wrote this piece? Do you listen to Tom Petty?

AD: I can’t listen to music at all when I write. The story has its own rhythm and I can only focus on that. I can’t listen to music if I’m doing anything of value, honestly: at my desk at work, emailing, talking to people, nothing. The song takes over and I sing like a fool and embarrass myself. I can only listen to music when doing mindless things like driving, cleaning, or running, so I can ignore everything else.

I wish I was one of those cool-kid writers who listen to smoky music as they bang away on a keyboard deep into the night, but I am so very not.

KL: Jessica, the protagonist’s sister, is this larger than life character who does who/what she wants whenever she wants. She seems invincible, as though nothing in the world could ever bother her. Until… until her sister rivals her behaviors and attitude. Did it take mad skills to keep Jessica from taking over the story? 

AD: Until the moment the story begins, Jessica had taken over Taylor’s entire life. This was Taylor’s story, for once. Her chance to break free and to breathe. There was zero chance I’d let Jessica steal the show in Taylor’s pages. (But yes, it was tricky.)

What’s funny is that Taylor recently showed up in another story as a side character, and in that story she is older, single, lives at sea, and has Jessica’s name tattooed on her wrist. Again: I am not in charge.

KL: So is this a hint to what you’re working on currently? Perhaps a linked collection of stories? Or a novel similar to, say, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (which is really just a collection of stories)?

AD: Oh god, isn’t Olive Kitteridge wonderful? Another collection that blew my mind recently was Andrea Barrett’s Servants of the Map, where the characters overlap but in gentle, subtle ways that could almost go unnoticed. Another favorite is Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid. Something about linked work soothes me—the surprising connections, the refracted quality. I’m fascinated by that kind of storytelling.

So yes, I’m working on either a linked collection, or a true novel in stories, and I have no idea which way it’s going to land yet. This isn’t purposeful either: I just keep finding the same handful of people strolling around in the background of my stories. Like party guests who won’t go home. I’m not sure if the connections will be subtle or overt yet. I’m waiting for them to fill me in.

KL: How has writing this story enlarged your view of the world? Or yourself? How has it changed you?

This story was my first attempt at fiction after a couple of years of writing nonfiction, being awful at it, and deadly bored of myself as subject matter. I wrote this story like an animal let out of a cage. It changed everything for me as a writer. I am stupidly grateful.

As a human though, what I was interested in is character. Are we who we are because we were born that way? Or do we become who we are because of circumstances beyond our control? Who are these people who do the things we believe we’d never do? Have wild affairs, lie with abandon, steal, commit crimes, walk out on jobs and families. It’s easy (and common) to judge people who do extreme things, but it’s possible, even likely, that at some point those people were not so different than you or me.

I think of John Williams’ beautiful novel Stoner, in which the protagonist falls in love with a younger woman and has an affair. In a scene where his wife confronts him, this text follows:

“For a moment he saw himself as he must thus appear; and what Edith said was part of what he saw. He had a glimpse of a figure that flitted through smoking-room anecdotes and through the pages of cheap fiction—a pitiable fellow going into his middle age, misunderstood by his wife, seeking to renew his youth, taking up with a girl years younger than himself, awkwardly and apishly reaching for the youth he could not have, a fatuous, garishly got-up clown at whom the world laughed out of discomfort, pity, and contempt. He looked at this figure as closely as he could; but the longer he looked, the less familiar it became. It was not himself that he saw, and he knew suddenly that it was no one.”

I think of cheaters, addicts, criminals—people it might be easy to judge—and I try to look closely instead. Every time I step over a sleeping homeless person (which happens weirdly often) I feel a shudder of awareness as to how easily I might be them, and they me. Taylor learns this in this story, when she judges Jessica until she becomes her.

In no way am I advocating for bad behavior. Understanding isn’t the same as endorsement. What I do advocate for is empathy. The line between a “good” person and a “bad” one is thinner than we realize. In the end, it’s just another fiction.

KL: Do you prefer root beer or cream soda?

AD: Ugh, gross, they’re both the worst.

KL: Raspberries or strawberries?

AD: Strawberries! By the bucket.

KL: Walnuts or pecans?

AD: Pecans, especially if candied, warm, and from a NYC street vendor on the first chilly October day.

KL: Canoes or kayaks? 

AD: A canoe is a boring, uptight, old-man version of a kayak. And there are always spiders hiding in the inside corners. Kayaks for life!

 

April Darcy is from Jersey City, New Jersey. Her work has been shortlisted for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers and Family Matters competitions, the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize, and the Iowa Review Nonfiction Prize. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Free Fall is her first published story.