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.

Review of “Maeve” by Walker Rutter-Bowman, published in Hobart

A man and a woman have a chance encounter in front of a “smoked nut stand” somewhere in the city. The man was walking to the cobbler to get his shoes polished – shoes that held nostalgic value for him. The man and woman (Maeve) had been friends—maybe even more than friends—in college and now they were meeting on the street after a lengthy absence. From start to finish, if we’re to tell what happened in the story, the above mentioned would be accompanied with: they talk, they talk more, walk back to get nuts, then to a diner or a bar (“I don’t remember which,” the narrator tells readers) and then converse a bit more, and that’s it.

It’s a slightly askew story, despite the straightforwardness with which I just explained its happenings. There’s something complex about the story’s texture, its structure—we get a back story toward the end—“We’d almost slept together once” which arrives three-quarters the way through, but even that isn’t as off-kilter as maybe the way the information about the two unfolds, as if the narrator is trying in real time to make sense of things from his past: “How do you talk about the meaning of things?”

It’s the question, I think, the narrator is aware of throughout, and while we learn of Maeve—who held strong opinions, wrote movies, and at one point was quite an orator at parties, delivering her “tastes and hatreds”—we also learn a thing or two about the narrator through what Maeve declares about him: “You stood in the corner at parties…You wanted to add to the conversation…But you kept yourself buttoned.” And later, “That’s how I remember you now: sitting, licking your little lips, looking down and in.”

It isn’t all serious, however. The narrator has his moments of humor: “We sat on a bench and ate our nuts… I was pretty sure I had gum on my ass.” And on that same bench, thinking of who he was when he’d first met Maeve: “I thought of those days. I didn’t want to say anything, but I didn’t want to keep being seen as the same.”

And while the narrator shows his motivation—or perhaps we could call it his revised agenda (remember, he was going to run an errand)—we also see the evolution of the smoked nuts throughout, as the narrator tells readers:

“Still, I told her what I thought. The nuts, a mistake. But hadn’t they given us something to eat outdoors? Some flavors on a nice day? There was nothing more worthless than really good food asking for attention, getting itself talked about…The nuts had brought a pleasant pressure from the past. A memory can lodge in your throat like a stone, an unhusked drupe. It was painful but it was right. You cough it up or you swallow it down for good.”

There’s something useful for writers here on how to effectively use an object: repeat, repeat, evolve. The smoked nuts are mentioned in the first line, and thereafter, we see them appear again, and yet again, until they’re understood differently, as is the narrator’s new perspective along with what he wants for himself, as understood in the above quote.

But the narrator isn’t the only one with a privileged view of the object. Of the smoked nuts, Maeve claims to the narrator: “Those weren’t good…They smell better than they taste—that’s well known.”

Check out the full story here.

Walker Rutter-Bowman lives in Washington, DC. He earned his MFA in fiction from Syracuse University. His work has been published in Nashville Review, Tin House OnlineHarvard Review Online, and Full Stop.