Part the first of Christopher Currie’s interview with Wells Tower can be found here.
In other interviews, you’ve talked about your stories having a ‘moral pendulum’ swinging between characters, and the importance of putting the reader slightly off-balance at the end of a story. Do think that’s more of a modern feature of a short story—the idea that the story doesn’t have to exist in a neat little world?
I suppose. Although with someone like Chekhov, he would write stories that would end at an uncertain moment. On the other side, you’ve got somebody like Roald Dahl or Somerset Maugham, where the stories are very carefully plotted out. I really enjoy reading those guys, but I have a hard time believing that everything is tidied up so neatly, without it feeling contrived. I think in the ending of a short story, the reader should be rocking back on their heels a bit. That said, a story should give a suggestion of how its inhabitants are going to wind up, where the momentum of their lives is heading at the end of the story.
I like the uncertain moment. A lot of Raymond Carver’s short stories were like that. I really like the freeze-frame, where the crockery is up in the air, and you’re waiting for something to fall. I don’t really know where I stole that impulse. I’m sure I lifted it from somebody. It never really occurred to me that I was doing something weird with my stories until people started telling me. I think my stories do have sort of “lights out” endings, where a master switch gets thrown.
The one ending in the collection that seemed different to me was in the final story [the title story, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned], those final paragraphs that talk about the balance between love and fear in a family. It was lovely, and it felt more like a summing up.
Yeah, it’s a nice bit. I like those paragraphs too. That was a pretty early story for me. It’s funny how it all felt like such simple carpentry back then. I’d written this quite grotesque story, and then I thought I’d better come up with some sort of counterweight to that so I’ll have this more heart-swollen conclusion. I just kind of riveted it on the end, but I think it kind of works.
One of the most impressive things about the book, and what has been attributed to it in other places, is this sense of it being ‘old-fashioned’ writing. I suppose what I see this as is that while you have very lean prose, you’re still not afraid of a confident simile or considered word picture.
Yes, I think my impulse is much more toward baroque sentence-craft. When I’m writing, often the first drafts are really antic, and just playing with language a lot, but then I go back and try to pare it down. I do think that with good writing, you feel the pulse of it in every sentence. There should be something exciting, gleeful, or artful in every sentence. I think when writing is too spare, it’s tedious. When you start to write like that, as a writer you stop paying attention. I think when you’re writing, you have to be incredibly invested in every word and every line of what you’re doing. When I’m writing well, I can find some sort of pleasure in every line of a story, but if I can’t, it needs work.
Sometimes I read work by writers, and you can see they’re not really thinking about how they’re putting sentences together, and I think that’s unforgivable. How can you possibly expect anybody to read your work if you’re not obsessively labouring over every word you put down? When I read work that doesn’t reflect that degree of intensity I get kind of angry.
A lot of the stories in your collection have appeared previously in other magazines and journals. Is it ever a problem working with more than one editor, say one editor at Harper’s Magazine, or The New Yorker, and another editor at your publishing house?
It really isn’t. It’s rare to find an editor at a journal or a magazine who will beat up your fiction the way they will if it is nonfiction. A piece of nonfiction gets heavily edited—the editor has his handprints on every single bit of it. A magazine’s identity is decided very much by how its features are assembled. They want a kind of continuity of product. Whereas with fiction— I’m not sure if it’s a dismissive view of fiction on the part of magazine editors, or whether it’s a case of this is a piece of art, and we need to be more respectful of the artist. I don’t intend to get anywhere near the same kind of sweeping edits with fiction that I get with nonfiction, but it’s kind of a relief when I do.
Eli Horowitz at McSweeney’s [another guest of MWF] is very meddlesome editor, in the best possible way, in that he’ll really look at a story and think what is this story about? and how can we re-arrange it? We really go through a lot of drafts, and he’s really a lot of fun to work for, even though I think every story I’ve ever done with him, I get to a point where I just think there’s no way of making this story good, so can we please just not do this. For me, the more editing the better. I really relish it.
The first story of yours I read, ‘Retreat’, was in McSweeney’s 30. It was, as I found out, the second version of the story to appear there. I was fascinated by the essay in that issue where you talked about rewriting the story from the point of view of a different character. How did that come about?
One of my big commandments in my stories is no good guys and no bad guys. The story is about two brothers who don’t get along, and they get together and go hunting. The first version of the story was told from the point of view of the younger brother, and he’s going to visit his older brother, who’s kind of a blowhard, a bit of an asshole. The younger brother shows up, and the older brother is obnoxious, and continues to be obnoxious, and at the end of it, eats a bit of rotten meat. When I went back to edit it for the short story collection, it just seemed to me like a moral and an emotional monotone: here’s this guy who’s an asshole, and who’s punished for being an asshole. I thought it would be a much more morally complicated story to tell it from the point of view of the older brother, and try to curry the reader’s sympathy for the more despicable character. It just seemed like a more interesting assignment to give myself, and a much more honest one.
So, a novel is next?
Yeah, I’ve started on that.
Have you attempted longer pieces before?
I have, but not in years. I started writing some semblance of this novel back in 2001. It’ll be exciting to do it.
How much planning are you allowing yourself to do?
I’ve got a loose plan. It’ll be a family book. I’ve got a sense of where the tensions are in this family and how things may wind up. But really, I’m going to have to just write my way into it.
Then Wells started to ask about my novel, and I switched off the tape.
To read more about Wells Tower at MWF, you can read Estelle Tang’s review of the book; Thuy Linh Nguyen’s review of Wells’ short fiction workshop; and Jabberwocky’s overview of the In Conversation session.
Christopher Currie is a writer and bookseller. You can read his thoughts and writing at www.furioushorses.com. His first novel will be published by Text Publishing in 2011.
Illustration by Chris Somerville.