R.W. Gray’s fiction reexamines expectations of storytelling. His characters dwell in both strange and familiar places, often at the same time. Where paradox proves incompatible with reality, Gray reorders reality to accommodate, making room for delightful exploration. Questions, Gray says. He is not looking for answers when he writes, but he’s always asking questions.
Entropic, Gray’s second short story collection, has just been published by NeWest Press. Themes of hope, redemption, condemnation, and love swirl into a mesmerizing journey through deserts, parks, and cities, transforming ordinary landscapes into mythical, re-imagined worlds.
Gray is a filmmaker, poet, critic, teacher, and world traveler, and his stories are infused with elements of his life. He is also the editor of the incredibly popular Numéro Cinq at the Movies. We exchange a series of emails over the course of two months, building a conversation in which we discuss mad teachers, sleep disorders, and Gray’s uncanny ability to reimagine reality, invent unforgettable characters, and tell damn good stories.
Richard Farrell (RF): What were some of your earliest influences growing up? Did you always want to be an artist or did other passions grip you as a child?
R.W. Gray (RWG): For a few formative years, with a single mother living up on the northwest coast of Canada, we didn’t have a lot. Of course, I’ve seen far greater poverty in the world now, but we were poor enough that we were left to our imaginations more often than not. This, coupled with growing up in a place that was a little terrifying as a kid (bears, wilderness, swamp, ocean), kind of pushed me and some of the other kids who were more introverted into storytelling games. But I also grew up surrounded by tall tale tellers. Even my little brother has inherited this.
Reading didn’t come easy to me apparently. In the early grades I struggled. I am not sure where that flipped over. I had a draconian teacher in grade five and she probably scared me into it. But I also had a rather mad woman for grades one and three, Miss Neufeldt. The mad teachers were always the best I think. In grade three she explained to us how men in the trenches would urinate on rags and cover their faces to fend off chlorine gas attacks. As an eight year old that kind of stays with you. I don’t think she had a lot of filters and I still love her for that. I’d like to think that Miss Neufeldt’s storytelling encouraged me.
RF: At some point, many writers can describe a singular experience that set them on the path. Can you identify a single experience?
RWG: I think I was always surrounded by storytellers in my weird Irish family. But there was a moment of sort of condensation when I was ten, I had a rather epic dream one night, and the next day at school I felt compelled to write the whole thing down. I remember being frustrated at how I couldn’t get it all down fast enough, how the dream story changed as I tried to put it into language, closing off complexity, losing three dimensions, becoming a more two dimensional version of itself. The disparity between the dream and the story on the page was painful. Guess it still is. But I think there was a sense of wonder for me, how the dream had come out of nowhere, out of nothing, and then became a story on the page. It felt like a calling in that moment. When it was probably the fault of eating ice cream right before bed or watching that show Space 1999 that always gave me nightmares. The cause isn’t important I guess so much that I was born of storytellers and at last found the way I could tell stories in a less loud and less extroverted way.
RF: You mention a dream at age 10 and this teacher in grade 5. Would you care to talk more about this teacher?
RWG: Well, Miss Bautista was a ruthless dictator. Even the parents were frightened of her. She had this thing where she would shame you until your head would drop to you chest with the weight of it and then she would, pinching your chin, yank it back up insisting you look at her as she admonished you. I developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome where another student and I made her an entire painted ceramic nativity scene that we worked on for months and presented her with it at the end of the school year. I’d never been to a church a day in my life, and I painted a baby Jesus, wise men and camels for this woman.
I can’t recall fairly, but I would guess that the watershed sort of moment when I first wrote a creative story might be a product of opposites: first knowing the unbridled mad imagination of Miss Neufeldt followed by moving to a new school and falling under Miss Bautista’s ruthless rule. Simple recipe to make a writer. Now try it on your children.
RF: Not to delve into your personal life, but how do you sleep? I ask this because at least two of your stories in Entropic deal pretty directly with sleep issues. A number of other stories use dream imagery. I suppose I’m wondering what so fascinates you about sleep?
RWG: That’s hilarious. Yes, I think the stories seem to imply I am addicted to coffee and have a fetish for sleep. I think I was wondering that too as the collection came together: why does sleep keep coming back, run through the stories. This book more than the first one seemed to be about adult relationships and, for me, that’s where sleep becomes really apparent. Milan Kundera, in Unbearable Lightness Being connects the desire for shared sleep as indicative of love. Yet I think relationships and sleep for me just draw out how strange a behavior this sleep is, this space where we are unconscious, vulnerable to those around us, like children again really. None of the sleep in the book is about dreaming.
I am on planes all the time, all my family in other cities, and I have become a finely tuned sleeping machine. I haven’t had a beverage on a flight in years: I fall asleep before the plane takes off and wake just before it lands. It’s uncharacteristic, since in every other way I seem to care what people think, but am willing to drool, snore, whatever it is I do in front of them on these flights. I can do it but I willfully suspend my worry about what happens when I am not conscious and in control. I think several of the stories play out that curiosity.
RF: A theme that comes up is erasure. Sometimes it feels like your stories are attempting to correct, rewrite or even obliterate history in some way. Thoughts on this?
RWG: I do think that’s kind of fascinating, the way we walk around as these little non-reality bubbles, editing out the parts we don’t want, seeing people the way we want to, forgetting history to protect ourselves.
On the other hand, it’s how we create memories cognitively, condensing and erasing unnecessary details. In a world full of so many people and so many details, it becomes a necessary short hand too. Most of us have to gist the world around us to hold onto it I think, and this is an error-prone process.
RF: What do you think is the function of writing, of telling stories, to make sense of reality? Given that many of your stories are interrogating reality (or the limits of reality), does narrative have a power to reshape the way we understand the world?
RWG: Increasingly, I think reality doesn’t need our sense. I keep thinking all our suffering, our struggles come from us trying to paint over, alter, make the world the way we want to see it, instead of the way it is. My sense of some of my characters is that they are coming to terms with how limited their perspectives are. Sometimes unavoidably. What happens when you can’t see and master all? What do you do with that and how do you shape meaning then?
RF: Can you talk about your reading habits? Not just what you’re reading (though I’d love to know that) but perhaps also how you read.
RWG: Well, thanks to the various careers (professoring, filmmaking, reviewing) I generally feel like I don’t read. This year I have been on sabbatical though and it’s been an anomaly where I am blasting through books, remembering the pleasure of these imaginary spaces, that communion of the self through reading. I read Anna Karenina in a cabin on Prince Edward Island, Wuthering Heights for the second time in an apartment in Montevideo, returned to the Alexandria Quartet in Hanoi. And a smattering of Marquez’s short stories while I was in South America as well. I find myself rereading I guess, lately. I remember some writer once saying at a certain age we stop seeking new pleasures and grow increasingly nostalgic for the old ones. I fear I am falling into that camp.
RF: Is there a confluence of other forms on your work? You are a filmmaker, a critic, an academic and a poet. How does a careful study of various media effect your fiction?
RWG: I think teaching and criticism are major ways I both educate and reeducate myself. Teach to learn, that old adage. It’s pretty obvious in my writing about film for Numero Cinq at the Movies that I am exploring films I admire and trying to see how they did that admirable thing.
As for how it affects my prose, I think for writers like me one has to become a better reader to become a better writer.
Well, film done right, rigorously demands the externalization of the internal, a sense of meaning and structure. It’s kind of a haiku exercise in my books. And when I get lost in developing a story I often fall back on screenplay writing questions.
RF: Would you be willing to share some of those questions? I’m thinking of David Mamet’s wonderful “three rules for writing a scene.” Do you have touchstones when you get lost? Writers hate to think in terms of rules, but are there are signposts? What gets you back on the right road?
RWG: I think any of those “rules” are just questions, or…
I bounce around a lot. If I am struggling with character, I turn to Dara Marks Inside Story. If I want to back up and look at plot I look at Joseph Campbell or Christopher Vogler. In any event, none of these can be rules, they just pose questions. And when I am in the swamps, I just need questions.
RF: I’m always curious about process for writers. So maybe take me back to your earliest writings. Has your process evolved?
RWG: I guess my process was initially a lack of process. Something would provoke or inspire me and I would write about it. And then wait to see if it would happen again or try to provoke it by listening to too much Depeche Mode.
I think it’s only recently I have really defined for myself a daily practice, where I write for a minimum amount of time each day and have a small stable of exercises I do each day. I think I went through a stage of being quite prideful about not needing to learn things. Slow to the realization that I want to be a writer who is ninety and still learning new things.
RF: At a point in many of the stories in Entropic, you shift into away from a simple portrayal of reality and into something more mythical. Lazarus comes to life, a woman who seems to have a magical power, even medical re-enactors. Reality in your stories is slipper, at best a tenuous construct. I’m wondering where you might place this type of storytelling in the literary tradition. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Magic Realism, but I confess the thought crossed my mind more than once.
RWG: I think the first collection, Crisp, was more strongly “magic realist” than this one. Impossible things still happen here but they are perhaps less gothic and grandiose. I really respect realist writers, but I think I am always a little more interested in what is unspeakable, unrepresentable, except by defying the laws of reality. Maybe for me what is interesting in myself and others is the more shadow aspect, the part we fight to keep from the outside world, that place outside our brain pan.
Also, I think it’s easier to see these subtle emotional states, griefs, joys, when mythologized a little. Like pulling focus with a microscope and projecting the image on the side of a building. Harder to pretend away or erase that aspect of ourselves.
RF: I was mesmerized by your story “Sinai.” You seem to imply that Lazarus and Jesus may have been romantically entangled. You basically show that being brought from the dead was no gift. But I was also drawn to the notion of how Lazarus as a character in the Bible is sort of thrown away after his purpose was served. I guess I’m fishing for what inspired you to finish his story.
RWG: I wrestled with that story a long time, initially thinking it would be a play, then coming around to prose with it. Initially, what intrigued me most was just the question of what would unrequired desire would be like after centuries of waiting. Lazarus’s story is peculiar: raised from the dead and then left in a sort of ellipses. What then? What would it be like to live a life in the ellipses? Then, I think, in the writing of it I became more curious about how we bury our beloveds in mythology.
Under it all, too, was my experience of traveling in Egypt on the Sinai when I was twenty-one, how disturbed I was by the landscape where Bible stories were set, now covered in burnt out tanks and traversed by cruddy taxis and travelers like me. There was something absurd and contradictory in that experience I wanted to capture.
RF: What are you working on now?
RWG: I have been working on a novel for a couple of years now and just spent three months in an apartment in Uruguay making headway with that. But I also seem to be experiencing this odd surge that I also experienced at the end of writing Crisp. There’s been a sudden rush of stories and maybe even a title for the next book of short stories. All very rough, but I’ve been basically rushing to get them down.
RF: Do you want to see any of your fiction writing turned into movies? I ask because you work in these two fields. More and more, short stories are being turned into full-length movies. Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” and Ken Kalfus’ “PU-239” jump to my mind. I’m curious about your thoughts on this.
RWG: Adaptation is intriguing for sure. Generally I am more intrigued by what other people come up with when adapting my stories and feel less of an urge to do it myself. Almost all my screenplays have been original material. At the start, when I have the germ of an idea, there’s a process of trying it out and seeing what form seems to suit what I am curious about. Once a story has become a short story, I am not really curious to test that in another form. Though I am excited to see what someone else would reinvision.
I have had two short stories turned into short films: “Blink,” and then a friend is in preproduction on an adaptation of the “Beautifully Drowned.” I enjoy the process of seeing how people change and make the stories their own generally. I’ve found I feel less attached to the details, really, than to the thematic elements of the stories. If someone takes a story I intended to be about compassion and it becomes about abuse, then I am not so keen.
—R.W. Gray & Richard Farrell
R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. He is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Frederiction.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, Contrary, Connotation Press and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.