Loneliness is My Wheelhouse: Interview with Ethan Rutherford

Ethan Rutherford’s stories draw out, wind, zing; in truth, I would go so far as to explain his range as chameleonic. In The Peripatetic Coffin, his debut collection, aptly named Ward Lumpkin waxes poetic as he finds his short-stick life coming to rest, inevitably, in the nadir of the sea and history; then, two boys in their middle-childhood years code switch one summer between brouhaha and desperation as they find their lives, suddenly, never again the same. Over the course of The Peripatetic Coffin, the reader dives into alternative histories, period pieces, dramas, and epistolary tales. That each story—with altogether different, keenly rendered characters married to their different, uniquely furnished environments—delivers the reader to a head space of empathy speaks to Rutherford’s ability to see we humans as we are here, there, and everywhere.

Out this spring from A Strange Object is Rutherford’s sophomore collection, Farthest South. True to form, Rutherford spins yarns which emphasize who we are here and now: yearning, traumatized, lonely creatures. A father imparts to his boys at bedtime the wisdom from a summer under the scrutiny of something not unlike a curse; later, two parents, stuck in the hospital with their ailing baby, max-out and can’t believe, literally, their eyes. Domesticity is the foundation of this collection, but it wouldn’t be a Rutherford story without the eldritch—a baby, for example, grows scales. I cannot recommend this book enough, for behind any great story a writer has committed to manifesting our fears and in the same breath the exit ramp.

We corresponded via email to talk shop, his new book, and provenance.

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B. Nathanial Steelman: What a fascinating, compelling new book. Repeatedly, your characters follow their fears, nuances (neuroses?), and volitions into settings which have a way of embodying so much as exacerbating conflict. For your first book, David Byrne’s line “My god, what have I done” was a unifying question. Any unifying question for your Farthest South?

Ethan Rutherford: What a great question. The characters who ring out for me, as they appear in the stories that open and close the collection, are Hana and Soren. In many ways, this book is theirs, and I came to feel, as I was writing, that their anxiety and concerns about being parents, raising children in a difficult world etcetera, guided the movement of each story in the book. And I think the difference between my first book, which was unified by that wonderful David Byrne line, and this one is that this book is concerned primarily with the idea of family. So that question has moved from my god, what have I done, which is backwards looking,to something more collective and forward-facing, along the lines of: how do we get through this, and what comes next? I know that doesn’t necessarily make for the most grabbing pull-quote, perhaps, but I actually think it is a more productive way to think about story-making, it’s how I felt writing this book, and it’s how I have felt as a dad: this is a problem, let’s zig, here’s something we didn’t expect, OK, zag, there’s the finish line, let’s see if we can get there intact. It invites stranger things to the table, but also promises that there will be some sort of arrival. And I liked that. I don’t like anymore stories that explore certainty, or that feel certain in their endings and what they’ve accomplished. I like stories that dramatize uncertainty while acknowledging that the real resolution, time and therefore time’s end, is probably hustling toward you a little more quickly than you’d liked or hoped. But before that happens, you get to play a bit. You hope to have some courage, and even if you don’t, you try to model that for your kids. I’ve left the area code of your question at this point.  But while I’m out here, let me loop back for a minute to music. That Talking Heads song (and I hope it’s in your head now!) was on loop for me as I wrote that first book. One of the epigraphs in this book is from a song called “We Can’t Be Beat” by The Walkmen, and lyrics go: “Oh golden dreams / golden dreams all lose their glow / I don’t need perfection, I love the whole. / Oh give me a life that needs correction. / Nobody loves, loves perfection. / Loneliness, loneliness will run you through. / All the kids are laughing, I’m laughing too.” It’s a beautiful song. And it says something about early parenthood that I think Hana and Soren are coming to understand for themselves as they come to accept both the strangeness and banality of their lives.

(The second epigraph is from Mrs. Caliban, the great, wild novel by Rachel Ingalls. So, you know, things aren’t fully domesticated just yet.)

BNS: The idea of being beat, and the attendant idea of resilience, makes me think of any number of stories in Farthest South. “The Baby” comes to mind most quickly. I read that story and immediately felt I was being shown an example of exorbitant stress becoming trauma becoming change. Do you find that you wrench up tension to such levels in your stories? Or that you find this tension—how to say—more organically?

ER: I’m so pleased to hear about the way you are experiencing these stories. As for tension, sometimes, when dreaming up a story, you go, oh, I know what’ll get them: I’ll kick the door down and turn the volume up to 11! And not let go! But those stories have sort of stopped feeling interesting to me; I can’t make them work anymore, or, at least, can’t do so with a straight face. A frame helps—a number of the stories in this collection are frame stories—and that formal element, to me, felt like an authentic way to both access and leaven the stranger and darker eddies in this book. It also adds a third, mostly quiet but deeply powerful, narrative space, which is where I think some of the tension is thrumming. These frames felt destabilizing as I was writing. They produced what I can only describe as an unspoken and almost unintended energy, something that was interesting and unsettling to me.

One way I’ve come to think about the creation of tension in a piece of writing has less to do with what happensand more to do with the when and how frequently it happens. Patterning, breaking of the pattern, etcetera down to the sentence level. And “The Baby”—which is of course a story of care, love, parental attention, and worry—is a story that, I think, finds its energy and tension via interruption and intrusion: parents, in a hospital with their sick child, cannot find a moment of privacy to gather their thoughts on what is happening to their family, they are being bombarded by information they don’t understand from health professionals they never recognize. The worry becomes that all the important decisions are being made elsewhere, without their consent or consultation. But you are right: a hospitalized child, it is exorbitant stress. The volume begins at 11. There is no stress that I have encountered quite like it. I wrote about it when it happened, in an essay called “Impossible Rooms,” and I’d hoped writing would help me shake the feeling. Clearly, I’m not free of it! And that experience of parental helplessness I felt at that moment was, I think, the birth zone of a lot of the stories in this collection. 

BNS: Two of your thoughts put a stop to my clocks: “[These frames] produced what I can only describe as an unspoken and almost unintended energy, something that was interesting and unsettling to me”; and “… that experience of parental helplessness I felt at that moment was, I think, the birth zone of a lot of the stories in this collection.” It seems that you are posturing yourself along the outskirts, or the warning track, of the age-old compulsion we refer to by why I write.

ER: Yep, that’s true! I suppose it is. It is why I write, to look again at certain experiences, transform them, hold them up to the light, say: what was that about, why has that stuck with me? But that feeling, or glimpse, of true, abject helplessness is fairly fleeting, hopefully rare. You can’t live there long; you’d go nuts. In my experience of parenthood, there’s always so much to do, just maintenance, cleaning up, thinking about this or that, getting on with life and getting everyone including yourself through the day and out the door that you don’t have time to do much more than say, yes, there’s a Nether Portal right over there, and we could easily fall through it…  and you still have to practice piano and call your grandparents. (That’s a, um, Minecraft reference. I’ll leave it in! Perhaps, one day, my kids will read this and go: oh, he was paying attention to the things we like.)

But a frame on a story: it’s a constructed thing, built to shuttle the reader from one narrative space to another very quickly. I feel like it stabilizes a story and also knocks things a little off kilter by layering tensions rather than schematically setting down action / reaction. And the energy created—well, it feels more Gravitron than roller-coaster to me, and I like that. I suppose I should say here that only three of the stories—“Ghost Story,” “Fable” and “The Diver”—are frame stories. The others have more traditional structures and move in more traditional ways. 

BNS: It’s common for a lot of writers to come to love their characters. Do you love them? Have a hard time of letting them go?

ER: I do come to love my characters. Not all of them equally, though, and I find, once the story is over, that almost everything sort of drifts away from me to make room for the next piece of work. I’ve heard other writers say they frequently wonder what their old characters are up to now, and that’s always baffled me a bit; I’ve just never had that experience. Which isn’t to say I don’t now and then remember the ways in which they flashed to life. I’ll always think fondly of Hana and Soren, their children, the Seal Lady and the Diver. Angus and Annabel. In this collection, the character I think of most is Emily, from “Pools, I Am A Hawk.” I think that’s the closest I’ve ever felt to a character. This feels so silly to say, but it’s true.

BNS: What I loved about “Pools” were the degrees of estrangement, it seemed to me, the protagonist, Emily, was finding herself in: daughter, oldest child, someone accused of abuse (because the onlookers didn’t think Emily & Sean were related let alone horsing around), and—lo & behold—a person thought to be a ghost. If you’re comfortable speaking to your affinity for Emily in “Pools,” as you know, I’m all ears.

ER: My fondness for her comes from, I think, the ease with which she moved through the various spaces in that story. I mean this to some degree in a technical, and very simple, sense—unwatched by her mother, she was free to inhabit and engage with the settings in that story: car, club, changing room, pool, forest, home, and, later, near the end, her neighbor’s above ground pool, late at night and after sneaking out of her small apartment, when the encounters of the day—with her younger brother, with the rich kids, with another family and the darkness that sort of belongs in and to the adult world, finally land with her. I liked how she made her entrances and exits. And you are right, what is being dramatized is the degree of estrangement she feels in each of these spheres, and the degree to which she begins to code this as a part of growing up. 

BNS: In this vein—thinking of the most pivotal setting in “Pools,” the forest—I noticed the setting of the forest was thematic throughout Farthest South, whereas bodies of water were replete in The Peripatetic Coffin (and wonderfully contrasted/defined by the very absence of water in “Dirwhals!”). Did the settings in Farthest South allow you to illustrate something you were trying to get at? Or did your imagination just step into the woods, then loiter? 

ER: Forests are everywhere in this collection, you’re right! So is the ocean, and the last story, “The Diver,” is all ocean and loneliness (that’s my wheelhouse!)—but I suppose this time I also managed to grow a few trees. What I found, when writing, was that I simply began to pay more attention to what was going on the page when things were set near the dark woods. It has everything to do, I think, with a character’s sightlines. These are stories of disruption, or the threat of disruption; of the relationship between the domestic sphere and the weird, thrumming, zone of imagination and desire. The forest is a natural barrier. But you never know what you will find there, if you go walking. You never know what might, one day, step from that tree-line and into the light.

BNS: Loneliness is your wheelhouse. Have you gravitated toward books, in your own reading, which engage with this experience, which embrace it, and examine it?

ER: Loneliness is my wheelhouse, though it’s a strange thing to say out loud, as I feel I’ve been truly blessed by friendship and family life. It’s something I can’t quite explain. Perhaps, when I sit down to write, loneliness is the territory I tread because it’s something I fear, and think about quite a lot. What if all of these wonderful people I’ve made my life with weren’t here? What if, due to some strange personality flaw, I drove them away? The first book I can remember reading that dealt with this, the one that made an impact on me, was Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. The kid in that book didn’t drive anyone away, of course, but he did have to survive in the wilderness, alone.

BNS: We are, as writers, conceived by books, in a way; it’s common enough that one or two books, or writers, once upon a time, convinced us that this is what we want to do with our days we’re allowed. I was seventeen when I read Walden—it more or less defined for me what I consider(ed) beautiful and necessary; then, I was twenty-two when I read for the first time Marilynne Robinson and James Baldwin. From which books would you say you’re born? 

ER: I love that Walden was that book for you, which then, perhaps, paved the way for Robinson and Baldwin (Giovanni’s Room is a book of his I read early and it’s lingered, even as I’ve read and loved his other work). Each project I work on has different touch points. So, I’d say a book like The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje has been incredibly important, but only now, in the project I’m working on, am I seeing what that book taught me (and it’s not visible, I don’t think, in the stories in Farthest South, except, perhaps, in the inclusion of illustrations). The books from which I’d say I was born are all the books I spent my time with before I even knew that writing was something you could do: an abbreviated, and illustrated, edition of The HobbitTreasure IslandThe Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Any and all comic books; endless, open afternoons of reading. And a little later, a few of the writers who I remember meeting on the page with astonishment: Herman Melville, Edward P. Jones, Yoko Tawada, Joy Williams, Richard Hughes, Jim Shepard, Joan Didion, Helen Oyeyemi, Kelly Link, Yasunari Kawabata, Victor Pelevin, Alessandro Baricco, Toni Morrison, Marguerite Duras, Vladimir Nabokov, Stanislaw Lem. I’m leaving hundreds of people out.  

BNS: Speaking of author’s, you dedicated Farthest South to Paul Yoon. I understand you two are not only best friends, but that you two send work back and forth. How has that connection influenced your writing?

ER: My friendship with Paul has been a piece of great luck in my life.  I think he’s brilliant, and I love his work, and we do send work back and forth.  Writing can be isolating.  You sit at your desk and you go: why am I just sitting here?  It helps to know that someone else in the world is also spending time that way: sitting, dreaming, trying to make stuff.  And I know that’s what Paul’s doing, because we talk about it.  Not many people think writing is important, or think the work and energy you pour into a sentence is a good use of time, or is even visible at all.  But some people do, and if you are lucky you meet them, and if you are even luckier, they become friends.

BNS: What did stories do for you as a kid? Did you thirst for them? Need them?

ER: As a kid, what stories did was purely transportive.  It always felt like I could just plug in and be anywhere else in the world; time disappeared; I emerged slightly shaken but always like something I’d read about had actually happened to me.  Those were the stories I looked for: the ones where the characters were as far from who I was as I could possibly imagine, who did things I never could. 

Ethan Rutherford’s fiction has appeared in BOMB, Tin House, Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, Post Road, Esopus, Conjunctions, and The Best American Short Stories.  His first book, The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, a finalist for the John Leonard Award, received honorable mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and was the winner of a Minnesota Book Award.  Born in Seattle, Washington, he received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota and now teaches Creative Writing at Trinity College.  He lives in Hartford, Connecticut with his wife and two children.

His second collection, Farthest South, was published by A Strange Object in April 2021.

On Reading John Edgar Wideman

One of my recent emails, Paris Review Redux, included a link to one of John Edgar Wideman’s stories, “Sightings,” published in 2004. Ever since I read Philadelphia Fire maybe twelve years ago now, I’ve read pretty much everything I’ve come across with the author’s name, this being one of them. And like all of Wideman’s work, it left me in awe of his propulsive prose.

Reading John Edgar Wideman’s work is an experience unlike any other: cerebral, experimental, challenging. As a new-ish reader/READER twelve years ago, I wasn’t attracted to Wideman’s sentences so much as his love of basketball. Philadelphia Fire (which isn’t about basketball, really) possesses elaborate scenes of young men playing hoops on outdoor courts, something of my childhood that I could cotton to as an immature reader more interested in subject matter than the alchemic cohesion and rhythmic sounds of nuanced sentences on the page, of which Wideman is a genius-master.

The summer following my experience reading Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire, I had plans to meet friends out in Colorado, but before dipping through Fort Collins and eventually onto Steamboat Springs, I had convinced my wife to drive north through Laramie where Wideman had once lived and taught. He no longer lived in Laramie, but I wanted to see what he saw; hear what he heard. I wanted to walk those same city streets and lay eyes on the same railroad tracks and eat in the same cafes that no doubt Wideman had experienced at one point in his life. Had Wideman taught anywhere else—say, a larger city of any kind—this experience of re-living his steps wouldn’t have held the same allure. But we were in Laramie, a town of mystery in its own right.

Walking those sparsely populated streets, with a pleasant lack of stimuli, one could see how a writer’s mind could be (over)stimulated—possessed not of the external, but of the inward; how, given the appropriate silence and space, a person’s thoughts are allowed to occupy and multiply in a space normally taken up by honking cars and should-to-shoulder foot traffic which, on the day I visited Laramie, was virtually nonexistant.

While there, I bought a book in a bookshop that I accessed through an alleyway. The bookshop was on the second floor, and I had to climb a set of iron stairs mounted to the side of the building in order to enter. There were a few people in the shop, and as I perused the books, I settled on the one closest to the cash register. A pocket-sized The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. I didn’t know at the time what attracted me to such a helpful (albeit boring) book. Perhaps it was that I wanted to be a writer myself, and I thought surely this book couldn’t hurt. Now, several years later, what I like about that purchase is knowing how Wideman’s work—with all its fancy lingual dexterity—wouldn’t fit neatly into anything Strunk & White advocated; that Wideman set out to break all the rules and in so doing created his own inimitable (element of) style.

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, try reading the first paragraph of Wideman’s story “Sightings.” 1500 manic words, all one sentence.

What do you suppose Strunk & White would have to say about that?

Review of “Everything Eats Everything” by Gabrielle Griffis, published in Split Lip

A delicately woven portrait about the people we love, the cycle of life, the interconnectedness of all things, and the mystery and mysteriousness that stitches it all together.

And how does one go about addressing such gigantic concerns and ideas in such a brief space? Griffis does so elegantly by juxtaposing large questions and ideas with microscopic, seemingly insignificant observations:

“[Grandma] says, ‘Do you ever wonder why everything just works in your life? Some people, everything in their life doesn’t work. It’s one big dysfunction after the next, malfunctioning electronics, parking tickets, which is why you need to be nice. Some people are being persecuted by shadows.’

A field mouse runs through a thicket.”

Could a person actually see or hear a field mouse run through a thicket? Maybe. Probably not. I’ve seen them at my feet, briefly, fleeing for their lives, and if it were dark out, or I hadn’t looked down at that precise second, I’d be none the wiser, meaning: they scoot silently through the grass. But that’s beside the point. The point is that somewhere in that grand space — say, a thicket of bramble in the middle of a cut cornfield — a field mouse is most likely running through that space. Meanwhile, a person, somewhere, could be “persecuted by shadows” — losing their mind: fogetting “names, dates, places.” Everything is happening everywhere and all the time.

Our first person narrator is a (literal) cake eating, popsicle loving eleven years old, so the quaint questions about life (What is a biome?) and fascination with the unknown (Have you wondered why witches are old ladies on brooms?) make sense. And answers for asked or unasked questions usually come from Grandma, who lives in an apartment attached to the narrator’s house. The apartment smells like “boiled vegetables.” Grandma, in all of her boilded vegetable glory is at the heart of this piece, doling out advice like it was her birthright. Perhaps her most interesting idea/advice is about boundaries. At their best, boundaries provide a sense of belonging; help with understanding stages of life; structure time; order relationships. But “[Grandma] says watch out for psychos. She says unhealthy people don’t understand boundaries, which is why the world is dying. All the boundaries are messed up.”

While that advice is interesting, it’s definitely not her best. Perhaps this might capture it:

“She hands me a list of life advice: 

Your memory is an eroding seashore.

Barren maples look like nervous systems.

Anhedonia is a chemical imbalance. 

If you resist everything, you will turn to stone.

Try to sort the puzzle.”

Yes, when everything is fractured and out of place, where does one start? Sort the puzzle. Sound advice for all of us. Thank you, Grandma.

Check out the story here. And check out more work from Gabrielle Griffis here.

Gabrielle Griffis is a multi-media artist, writer, and musician. She works as a librarian, and lives on Cape Cod with her husband Corey Farrenkopf. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Wigleaf, Okay Donkey, Monkeybicycle, Gone Lawn, XRAY Literary Magazine, decomP, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. Her writing also appears in Repair Revolution: How Fixers are Transforming Our Throwaway Culture.

 

Flash Friday Interview: Filling Space, Filling Pools–a conversation with Erika Veurink

There’s a graceful, unflinching precision to Erika Veurink’s writing. A kind of easygoing conversational tone mixed with a matter-of-factness that makes it impossible to turn away. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m kind of enamored by flash fiction for all the ways in which it marries longer form literary elements to the lyrical qualities of poetry, but I’m also a fan of this form because it shows the myriad ways stories can be told. 500, 750, 1000 words—from micro moments to grand histories. Flash fiction covers it all. And through precise glimpses, of language and detail, and without all the potentially overbearing exposition, we are offered an entire relational history, as is the case in “Mystic Hustler.”

“My husband is desperate to finalize the divorce. He hates my newfound spirituality. He hates that I was having an affair with our doorman and blames it on my awakening.”

In three brief sentences we are introduced to three characters, a tantalizing situation, and the protagonist’s “awakening.” What might that awakening be? The title reveals a little.

Fortunately, for us readers of flash, Veurink’s published quite a few pieces in fantastic online journals such as CHEAP POP, XRAY, and Hobart, just to name a few.

Check out our conversation, and check out her stories featured XRAY and CHEAP POP.

Keith Lesmeister: Based on the couple pieces I’ve read, it seems the short form (under 1000 words) suits your style quite well. Could you discuss your general interest in flash forms? Do you start off thinking it’s going to be a flash piece? Or does the content dictate the length?

Erika Veurink: Honestly, I’ve never written a longer fiction piece. I think the length of my attempts at fiction is general intimidation. I lean toward brevity in all my work, mostly because it’s what I prefer as a reader. The challenge of a certain word count feels exciting to me, like a creative constraint.

KL: The structure of the “Gatsby Effect” is so interesting. At first, it feels like several non-sequiturs stacked on top of one another with a rather undefined form taking shape, but then, soon into the reading, a reader can identify a kind of structure that occurs as certain details lock into place, informing and complementing and building on one another. Could you talk about how this structure took shape? Was it already there in your mind as you started writing, or was it something that happened on its own?

EV: The structure for that piece specifically felt it was being revealed to me as I passed the idea. I don’t outline and I really believe that everything belongs. First drafts feel like filling a pool. I write without judgement or the pressure to organize concepts. Then I zoom out and try to trace the lines between little islands of images. So, a lot of stacking, cutting, and hoping.

KL: Did any of your recently published flash pieces start as poems? There’s a refined lyrical energy and startling insights that propels these pieces, not unlike a poem.

EV: Stories usually come to me in an image, crosses in the “Gatsby Effect” piece or phrases, “mystic hustler” is a line from an interview. I collect them and fill the space around them until I can afford to not be precious, which is the exact point any real creativity is born. I read a lot of poetry and take a lot of walks in the city and make lists of objects, which are the inciting incidents for most of my writing.

KL: What helps us readers connect to the characters—both in the XRAY piece and the CHEAP POP piece—is that the narrators both have a wry, self-deprecating voice, yet there’s also something entirely earnest here as well. Maybe earnest isn’t the right word, but it’s something along those lines. And our connections deepen when we find out about the various relational issues. How do you go about developing your characters so fully in such a brief space?

EV: I’m interested in characters who return to honesty. I think it has a lot to do with growing up in Iowa. Earnestness is attractive to me. I like to think about how characters speak to themselves, that sort of internal dialogue. What characters say to other characters can have so much more to do with the landscape of a piece than their own personality. I’m very visually driven, so if I’m feeling indulgent, I might imagine the apartment a character comes home to after work or what they order on a third date. When I’m lost in the process, I can find myself carrying the character with me, asking myself how they would respond to actual events in my own life.

KL: I want to talk about how to end a flash piece because they are notoriously difficult to conclude. I mean, hell, all stories are difficult to end, but I think even more so with a flash piece. How do you attempt to resolve your flash pieces? Or any work for that matter.

EV: When I’m having trouble ending a piece, I backpedal two or three sentences, paragraphs if it’s a larger work. I do find myself trying to squeeze in a final argument or indulging personal interests at the last second. But the essence of an ending should be clear without a grand banner of a pull quote. I try to keep it simple, quiet. That’s the greatest indication that I trust the story.

KL: Have you ever considered standup comedy? I think there’s humor in your work, and it stems partly from melodrama (ie “No one had ever had pneumonia before I did. No one had ever been in love with the wrong person.”) and there’s also a comedic timing within the irony and deflection (ie “…I talked on the phone with email guy for hours. I made it about him and cut my hair with kitchen scissors. I wanted company and I wanted layers.”). Humor is so difficult to write, I think, and I’m always so pleased to read it when it’s well done, as it is here. How do you that?? I need some lessons here.

EV: My personal sense of humor is very strange. Comedy makes me uncomfortable. To me, the funniest people are the most sincere people. I’m a fairly serious person, so I find so much of what resonates as humorous to me is other people being serious. Also, I find the people I’m closest to the most humorous. I think proximity means a lot. What that means for writing, I’m not really sure. I think I write in a sort of affectless nature, as an active rebellion against the Midwestern long vowels of my childhood.

KL: In both pieces, there’s a strong current of spirituality and religious symbols that run through both (prayer beads, crosses). Could you discuss the importance of this idea in your work? Does it show up often?

EV: I was raised very religiously and find that as I get older, my writing in religious symbols is out of necessity. It’s my first language and in many situations, the most concise container for my ideas. I never set out to write spiritually, but then the piece is done and there are fifteen references to communion. I memorized Bible verses and was at church at least twice a week. All the media I consumed as a child was Christian. I remember feeling genuinely surprised the first time someone pointed out the religious throughline in my work. It’s that deeply ingrained.

KL: Who is an author or authors we should all be reading right now?

EV:  I’m lost in a personal obsession with Annie Ernaux at the moment. Her slim novels read like devotionals on longing. I can’t get enough. I think Daisy Johnson’s book Sisters might be my favorite of the year. Her book Fen is also genius. And The Shame by Makenna Goodman has also been a top pick. I think we could all do to read a little more Annie Dillard, just generally.

KL: Last series of questions.

KL: Cityscapes or landscapes?

EV: Landscapes

KL: Pumpkin pie or Pecan pie?

EV: Pumpkin pie

KL: Flying or driving?

EV: Driving

KL: Hazy IPA or Gin & Tonic?

EV: Hazy IPA

KL: The song “Read My Mind” by The Killers. Do you prefer the original? Or the cover by boygenius?

EV: It has to be the cover by boygenius.

KL: And, most importantly, as a fellow (former) Midwesterner: Is it a casserole or a hot dish?

EV: Once and for all, casserole.

Erika Veurink is a writer living in Brooklyn by way of Iowa. She is receiving her MFA from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in Brooklyn Review, Cheap Pop, Hobart, Midwest Review, Triangle House, x-r-a-y, and elsewhere.

I’ll Save that for Later: A conversation with Alida Dean, author of the story “Islanders” published in Nashville Review

Alida Dean is a writer who knows how to build compelling and fascinating places and characters. This is a writer who knows the locales and people in her story with intimate delicacy and care, and this knowing and understanding of her characters is what allows her the ability to include and, more importantly, exclude just the right amount of information. This authorial holding back of information strikes the perfect balance between us readers knowing just enough and leaving the rest to mystery. And I’m not talking about mystery in the Alfred Hitchcock sense. I’m talking about a deeper mystery that involves character motivations and how individuals’ histories with one another make up a complex undercurrent present, but not overwhelming, throughout the entire story.

“Islanders” is the story to which I’m referring. It’s about an eccentric mother and a quiet, observant daughter, and how the two exist among the other inhabitants of the island on which they live. The story is narrated from the perspective of the daughter, and from her POV, we’re introduced not just to her mother, but to a whole host of memorable characters including the narrator’s teacher, a classmate named Sam, and Sam’s parents, among others. The characters are connected to the mother and daughter, often in significant ways, even if those reasons aren’t fully realized in the story. What we know for certain is that the mother has a long-standing history with the others on the island, and these connections affect how the others interact with the narrator. Still, the story’s most poignant and memorable moments are the ones between mother and daughter.

In one of the opening scenes, for instance, the mother lies to the school administrator about her daughter (who she calls “bug”) having a dental appointment so she can pull her from school for the afternoon. The following conversation occurs between mother/daughter as they walk from the school doors to their truck:

“It’s such a perfect day,” she said. “Let’s go fishing.”

“After the dentist?”

She squeezed my hand and said, “You don’t have to go to the dentist, bug. I just couldn’t wait till three to see you.”

This exchange gives a sense for the overall dynamic in the story, one where the mother is irresponsible, though fun-loving, and “bug” is along for the ride. It’s only now, years later, that the daughter is telling this story as a way to make sense of these events of the past.

“Islanders” is a wonderful story set in a unique and compelling place, with characters who are equally as engaging. Check out my interview with author Alida Dean, below, and you can read her story here.

Keith Lesmeister: I suppose all stories are told retrospectively, but I’m especially fond of stories that have a longer gap between the events that are unfolding in the story and the age of the current narrator. In this case, the events unfolding in the story are when the narrator is in grade school, but she is telling the story much later. We as readers get a sense for this early on when the narrator states: “I knew lying was wrong, but I was willing to do it to protect my mother’s reputation. I’m still willing to do that much for her.” This collection of lines is wonderful, but that last one points us to a narrator who is much older than grade school, much wiser to her mother’s actions, and we get occasional lines like this throughout, this pinging back and forth between the narrator of now versus who she was then. Perhaps you could comment on this particular narrative strategy used here and the way you were able to so authentically negotiate between the narrative lens zooming in and out, between the narrator of now and the events of all those years ago in grade school.

Alida Dean: “Pinging back and forth” is a nice way of putting it! I think my intention was for the adult narrator to re-inhabit her childhood mindset as she tells the story, while also acknowledging that this isn’t the only way she sees things anymore. If it feels authentic, it’s probably more because this is the way I tend to look back on memories myself than because of any clever strategizing on my part. We do grow up, sort of, but things don’t necessarily make more sense with time, and when I think back to my own childhood, I tend to relive moments and memories rather than look at them with much narrative or psychic distance. That said, I’ve hopefully learned a couple of things about people since I was in elementary school, which maybe accounts for the occasional pinging into the present.

KL: I’m also fond of the direct address, when narrator’s turn to the reader or readers to say something about the narrative itself, and in this case—I hope I’m not giving away too much here—this one comes toward the end of the story: “And if I’ve made you feel sorry for me, then I’m telling this whole thing wrong.” I mention this now because I think it harkens back to question #1 about the dual narration. I don’t even know if that’s the correct term – dual narration – but it’s one that comes to mind as the narrator negotiates that fine line between rendering life on the page as a grade school person while telling the story as an adult. At any rate, could you talk about this particular direct address and what effect it might have on you as a writer and also as a reader? And more so, did you or do you have a particular audience in mind while writing?

AD: I have to admit, I didn’t think too hard about that moment of direct address as I wrote it. I was probably a little worried that the reader would be feeling sad for the narrator by this point in the story, when in my mind her unconventional upbringing actually seems pretty fun, and ends up serving her well as an adult. I guess the line is like a check-in with the reader, where the adult narrator is saying, Hey you, stop feeling bad for me because I don’t feel bad for myself!

Sometimes I do have a particular person in mind while writing, someone I feel I need to explain myself to, but in this case the audience I was imagining was more general. I suppose I was thinking of people who might read material like this and cry, “Bad parenting!” or something along those lines, without giving the characters, the mother especially, a chance to redeem themselves.

As far as writing particular sentences goes, I do sometimes think of David Gates, who I know we’ve both worked with—what words would he cut? how would he re-arrange them? what words would he circle and write “right word?” next to?

KL: I appreciate you mentioning Gates. When I’m writing, his voice is often in my head as well, and for the same reasons. I know he didn’t come up with the term “kill your darlings” but that’s exactly what he’s good at doing. Helluva a teacher/editor.

So, getting more into the content of the piece, I thought the balance of relational mystery is prevalent throughout, especially between the mother and Sam’s parents. Was there a point in the writing process when their relational history was more pronounced? Or was it always going to be (somewhat of) a mystery to readers? For the record, I liked the not-knowing completely….

AD: Nope, there wasn’t a point when their history was going to be more pronounced, at least there wasn’t a point in the past, because I actually don’t know what that history is yet—more on this in my answer to the last question! I do think the not knowing serves the story well though because when you’re a kid you only glimpse, and understand, tiny pieces of adult relationships, and most of the past is mysterious.

KL: With these characters in mind, I thought there was a perfect blend of poignancy and humor throughout, most notably with the mother. As a writer, especially when working with these larger-than-life characters such as the mother, who are bombastic, fun-loving, deeply caring, but damaged thoroughly, how do you keep her from taking over the story completely?

AD: I’m glad you found humor in this story! It’s becoming increasingly important to me that I make my writing at least somewhat funny.

As far as not letting the mother, or any of the characters, take over the story, I think it’s just a matter of knowing I’m not going to be able to fit everything into one story. There’s so much more I could explore about the mother, or any of these characters, but not in fifteen pages. If I sense myself getting sidetracked, wanting to explore something that feels too big or too convoluted for the scope of the story, I just think, I’ll save that for later. This is probably how I get most of my ideas for other projects.

KL: I’m not sure how long this story is in terms of word count (you mentioned 15 pages just now), but it felt like a longer story with a lot of characters, situations, dynamics, and locales. When you first started this story, were you aware of its form as a short story right away, or at any point did it push for longer status as, say, a novella? Or even a novel?

And with the above question(s) in mind, and with the acknowledgement that “Islanders” is most certainly a stand-alone story, it also felt like it could be part of a larger narrative – perhaps a linked collection or a novel-in-stories. Do you have any plans to situate this story into a larger constellation of stories?

AD: Yes! So I actually wrote this story several years ago. At that time the idea of writing a novel, or even a linked story collection, felt too daunting, so I was thinking it would just be one story, leave it at that, good riddance. But then I wrote another story about these same characters when the narrator is in high school, and then, more recently, I wrote a (first draft) of a novel that has nothing to do with these characters, so now I feel ready to dive back into this world, and slightly more capable of writing something longer. I’m hoping to spin some of this material into a novel eventually. At the moment I have a lot of ideas in my head about what could happen to these characters and very little written down, so we’ll see what happens!

KL: A few questions of preference. Do you prefer:

KL: Being surrounded by mountains or open spaces?

AD: I prefer being on top of a mountain, surrounded by other mountains but also able to see far away. I don’t like feeling hemmed in.

KL: Bird watching or whale watching?

AD: Whale watching!

KL: Color red or orange?

AD: Orange.

KL: Crawdads or crabs (to eat)?

AD: Crabs, but they’re both very tasty.

KL: Dawn or dusk?

AD: Dawn.

KL: Lastly, old timey or new timey string bands?

AD: Hmm, I was going say old timey, but the truth is I probably listen to more new timey string music. I’ll take any string band! I used to play the cello and now I wish I hadn’t given it up.

Alida Dean is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati and a graduate of the University of Montana’s MFA program. Her story “The Off Season” was the 2020 winner of Ninth Letter’s fiction contest. She lives in Cincinnati with her dog.