For your Saturday morning delectation: the never-before-seen image of David Jauss wearing a birdhouse for a hat (with grandson helping) along with Ross McMeekin’s fine tribute interview on the occasion of the publication of David’s new book Glossolalia: New and Selected Stories (which, at this moment, you can pre-order). David Jauss is a powerful story writer, one of the best the country can offer, and a man of profound moral and political commitment. Many of us in the NC community are fortunate to be able to call him friend, colleague, editor, teacher and mentor. You should also know that David has cut a deal with Dzanc Books to bring out his earlier work as ebooks — this is a Great Good Thing. Black Maps can be ordered now at Dzanc Books and Crimes of Passion will be available soon at Dzanc Books.
1. I know of your admiration of the stories of Anton Chekhov. What is it about him and his work that you find most compelling? Why do his short stories remain relevant?
He’s just great company. I can always count on him to show me something significant and true about human nature, and to do it in a way that puts the characters first and himself last. He doesn’t try to impress us with the flash and dazzle of his prose or the wisdom of his insights; instead, he writes prose that is so clean and clear that we can look through it like a windowpane at the characters and world he’s writing about. He also brings to his fiction the paradoxical gifts of the good doctor he was: the objectivity and intelligence to diagnose and dissect his characters’ flaws and foibles, and the subjectivity and compassion to sympathize with his characters rather than to judge them. He has, as someone once said, a cold eye and a warm heart. And in his nearly 600 short stories, he created an enormous range of characters, far more than any novelist, and he completely reinvented the short story genre. And while he was at it, he reinvented drama as well, and today he is the second-most-produced playwright in the world after Shakespeare. He also wrote a book on the need for prison reform in Russia that greatly improved penal policies throughout Europe (but not, alas, in America). And he did all of this by the age of 44, when he died of the tuberculosis he’d battled most of his adult life.
I also admire the fact that Chekhov wrote to discover and/or test his own beliefs, not to inculcate them. He was an atheist, for example, yet he wrote sympathetically and movingly about many religious characters, including the title character of his great story “The Bishop.” Chekhov didn’t create different selves, different heteronyms, the way Fernando Pessoa did, but his fiction reveals the same impulse to see the world from as many perspectives as possible. As this suggests, Chekhov had, like Shakespeare, like Pessoa, the quality Keats called Negative Capability, the ability to remain “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” And this is the quality, Mr. Keats and I agree, that is most essential to literary greatness.
Finally, I’m drawn to Chekhov’s stories because his characters and their predicaments seem remarkably modern to me. I love Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev too, but their characters seem to be of a different age than Chekhov’s. Chekhov died in 1904, yet his work feels contemporary to me. I think he’s an absolutely indispensable writer, one of the few everyone should read and reread throughout their lives.
2. Glossolalia contains stories written and published more than three decades ago alongside stories published recently. What was your process – editorial and otherwise – of revisiting those old stories and organizing a book that spans such a long period of your writing life?
Although I’ve written an essay on ways to structure unified story collections [“Stacking Stones: Building a Unified Short Story Collection”], I was utterly stumped when I sat down to select and organize the stories that would become Glossolalia. I eliminated a dozen or so stories that I didn’t think were up to snuff, but then I still had 500 pages of stories to choose from. I tell you, I felt like Styron’s Sophie, having to choose which of my children would die. Eventually I took the coward’s way out and sent all 500 pages to Press 53. Ultimately, I have to give credit to Christine Norris, my editor there, for the selections. She sent me a list of her favorite seventeen stories—250 pages’ worth—and if I remember right, I made only one substitution. Then I went to work on organizing the stories. And believe me, that wasn’t easy. The oldest story in the collection was published in 1976, and my fiction has changed a good deal over time, so I quickly realized that there was no way I could even attempt to achieve the kind of stylistic and thematic unity that I had aimed at in my previous collections [Crimes of Passion and Black Maps]. But I didn’t want to arrange the stories chronologically either, since I felt some of them gained resonance and meaning by rubbing shoulders with other ones. So through trial and error, I hit upon an order that I felt worked as well as the wide variety of stories would allow. I sent the list to Christine, and she suggested one very smart change, and the table of contents was set.
3. “Apotheosis” is a wonderfully complex epistolary story, told through a recently discovered sixteenth-century letter written by a friar defending his actions to the Grand Inquisitor of Spain. Within this letter is another letter, which we discover was read by the friar to a group of followers as a warning against other religions – a message whose intentions were misunderstood by the audience, leading to the friar’s questioning by the inquisitor. The contents of this embedded letter are the story of a South American missionary who himself becomes caught in the blur between the messages of two different religions and cultures. This seems, to me, like a perfect story for our file-sharing, hyper-textual, misunderstanding-rich digital age. I’m curious how the structure of the story emerged, as well as your understanding what happens to a story–and the author–once the piece goes out into the world.
It’s interesting that you find “Apotheosis” to be a perfect story for our particular age since it’s by far the oldest story in the collection; it was originally published in 1976. And the earlier version of the story was even more “hyper-textual”: it had two additional frames, one narrated by the scholar who edited the two letters and the other narrated by the letters’ translator. Instead of the brief impersonal editorial note that now appears at the beginning of the story, the original version had a very personalized introduction and conclusion from the point of view of the scholar, who also intruded on the narrative regularly via clueless, obsequious footnotes, much in the fashion of Charles Kinbote, the “editor” of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The translator also stepped in to comment in footnotes from time to time, and some of his footnotes even had drawings in them—representations of the hieroglyphic-like Cakchiquel words that the Spanish narrator of the central story occasionally used. So the original version of the story was far more hyper-textual than the version included in Glossolalia. Rightly or wrongly (but I’m betting on rightly), I decided that all of this hyper-textual foofaraw detracted from the meaning and emotion of the story and drew too much attention to me and to the story’s artifice. So I gave both the editor and translator pink slips.
As to what happens when a story goes out into the world, I think misunderstanding—or at least re-understanding—is fairly common. The natural impulse of most readers, I believe, is to simplify the meaning of a story—after all, this is what we’re taught to do in high school, if my own experience and that of my friends and colleagues is any proof—so the more complex a story is, the more misunderstanding that results. The ultimate example, of course, is Hamlet. The attempts to simplify the complexity of both the character and the play are legion. My stories have none of Shakespeare’s complexity, of course, so, to my everlasting shame, I’ve always been well understood by readers. The frame narrator of “Apotheosis” isn’t so lucky; the Inquisitor General misunderstands his intentions and he’s executed as a result. Outside of a couple of bad reviews, that’s a fate I’ve managed to avoid.
4. Did you give many pink slips to aspects of your earlier work? Was there a common thread to your edits? I’m curious as to how you’ve changed as a writer since your first collection.
I gave a lot of pink slips to all of my work, not just my early work—though that got the most pink slips, of course. Every story in Glossolalia has been revised, some of them fairly lightly and others quite drastically. I also revised all of the stories that don’t appear in Glossolalia but are included in the ebook versions of Black Maps and Crimes of Passion that Dzanc Books is publishing as part of its rEprint series. (Black Maps has just been released, and Crimes of Passion will be published shortly.) The revisions range from factual corrections and minor sentence-level changes to deeper explorations of characters and added scenes. If there’s a common thread in the edits, it’s the attempt to call less attention to myself and my writing than to the characters and the story. When I first began writing, I made the mistake that virtually everyone does when they start out: Because I wanted to convince the reader (and myself) that I was a Real Writer, there’s a “Look, Ma, no hands!” aspect to some of my early writing that now makes me cringe. In my revisions, I tried to get out of my characters’ way and let the stories be about them, not about my writing ability. I hope that any attempts at linguistic pyrotechnics that remain are there to illuminate the character, not to impress the reader.
5. I had the opportunity of hearing you read “The Sacred Drum,” a story included in Glossolalia, at a writing conference a few years back. Before introducing the story, told from the perspective of a Hmong refugee living in the United States, you mentioned how even though you’d lived for decades in Little Rock, you still felt like an outsider. A handful of the stories in this collection are told from the perspective of characters at odds with the dominant culture. How has your personal experience as an outsider influenced your writing, and how do you view the relationship of the fiction writer to the dominant culture and those excluded from it?
For the record, I’ve felt like an outsider all of my life, not just since I moved to Arkansas. I suspect that most people feel like outsiders a good deal of the time. And I think writers almost always feel like outsiders. If they didn’t, why would they devote their lives to observing others? Instead of observing the dominant culture, they’d be participating in it. Or so it seems to me. At any rate, I’ve been drawn in my fiction to characters who feel they don’t belong where they are. This is most obvious in the story about the Hmong refugee you mentioned and in “The Bigs,” which is about a Dominican baseball player for the Arkansas Travelers minor league baseball team, but I think the feeling of being outside—outside the culture, outside the family, outside whatever—is something that recurs throughout my fiction.
Of all the places I’ve ever been, the place I feel least like an outsider, the most at home, is Vermont—and, particularly, Vermont College of Fine Arts. The very first time I went there to teach—in the winter of 1998—I immediately felt like I was at home, and I felt that way even before I knew much of anything about the state or the college. I think it was a visceral response to the landscape, the quality of light, something in the air—who knows? Whatever it was/is, I’m grateful for it. And from what I can tell, it’s a feeling almost everybody connected with VCFA shares.
6. An aspect of this collection I admire is the fact that so many of the stories, including the three we’ve mentioned (“The Bigs,” “The Sacred Drum,” and “Apotheosis”), have narrators from different time periods, societies, and cultures than you. This diversity is something I aspire to in my own writing, but I’ve also met other fiction writers who fear writing from socio-cultural perspectives other than their own. Tell us about your perspective of fiction writing as an act of empathy.
There is no worse advice for a fiction writer than “Write what you know.” I like Grace Paley’s revision of that shibboleth: “Write from what you know into what you don’t know.” That, to me, is what makes fiction fiction instead of just some glorified form of nonfiction. In the name of misguided political correctness, many writers have shirked what seems to me the essential task of fiction: the attempt to imagine our way into the minds and hearts of people very different from ourselves. As I’ve said in my essay “Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life,” I’m not interested in writing about myself. I write for the same reason I read: to experience other people’s lives. In Glossolalia, I write from the perspective of a wide variety of characters, including a nineteenth-century Russian dwarf [“Misery”], a serial killer [“Shards”], a couple of Vietnam vets [“Freeze” and “Hook”], a young mother [“Constellations”], and an elderly nun [“The Stars at Noon”]. I’ve taken my licks, both from editors and readers, for writing outside of my own experience. The editor of one literary journal rejected “The Sacred Drum,” saying “Our readers found your colonialist appropriation of another culture offensive.” And I once got a phone call from a man who’d read my story “Freeze” and wondered if we’d met. “I remember that guy you wrote about,” he said. “The lieutenant. And I think we must have been at Lai Khe at about the same time.” When I told him I’d never been in Vietnam, or even in the military, he was outraged. “What gives you the right to write about a war when you weren’t even fucking there?” he demanded. He hung up before I had the chance to tell him what gave me that right: the imagination, the most precious faculty human beings possess. It’s what allows us to empathize with others, and without empathy, we’re all lost. If fiction writers limit themselves to writing only from their own socio-cultural perspectives, they’re sacrificing the imagination on the altar of political correctness. And that, not the attempt to imagine what someone from another race or culture thinks and feels, is what’s truly offensive.
7. In August 2011, after eighteen years of unjust imprisonment, the State of Arkansas granted the release of the West Memphis Three. I know you were deeply involved in their exoneration. Would you tell us a bit about that experience, and how it has affected your life and writing?
Unfortunately, the WM3 were not exonerated. They were released as a result of a little-known and even less-used legal maneuver called an Alford Plea, which allowed them to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence. The State of Arkansas agreed to this maneuver because the WM3—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley—were about to be awarded new trials after DNA tests of hundreds of pieces of crime scene evidence excluded them as suspects. After the WM3 were released, the prosecutor said that, if they had been found innocent in a new trial, they would have been entitled to as much as sixty million dollars in reparations from the state. By striking this deal, the state avoided this expense. In return for the Alford Plea, the state resentenced the WM3 to time served—eighteen years and seventy-eight days—and then released them immediately. The WM3 took the deal because they most likely would have had to wait two or three years for a new trial, and even then there was the possibility a jury could have convicted them again, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence connecting them to the crime whatsoever. After all, that’s exactly what happened to them in 1994.
In any case, I worked for the WM3’s release from 2005, when I first met Damien, until their release in 2011, and I continue to work for their exoneration. I was far from alone in this, of course; literally thousands of people in Arkansas and worldwide were involved in their cause. Even though I played only a small role in the effort to free the WM3, the work I did with and for Damien is the most important work I’ve done in my life. It’s one thing to publish books and win literary awards, but it’s quite another to help free someone unjustly condemned to death. And I take much more pride in Damien’s book Life After Death, which I helped him publish, than I do in any of my own.
8. You teach creative writing at both the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and Vermont College of Fine Arts. How has your teaching influenced your writing?
It’s influenced it both positively and negatively—positively because it’s forced me to think hard about matters of craft and come to an understanding of my own personal aesthetics, and negatively because it has taken a considerable amount of time away from my own writing. But ultimately, both writing and teaching are very positive ways to spend one’s life. I’m with Jean Rhys, who said, “All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.” I feel both writing and teaching are ways to feed the lake, even if all I can add is a drop.
But teaching hasn’t only influenced my writing, it’s influenced my life. Thanks to teaching, I’ve met many extraordinary students and colleagues who have become dear friends and enriched my life beyond all measure.
9. What projects do you have in the works next?
If Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories does well, Press 53 may publish a follow-up volume that contains another dozen stories and a novella that we didn’t have room for in Glossolalia. Also, since Alone with All That Could Happen, my book of essays on the craft of fiction, is now out of print, I’d like to put together a new edition, one that includes some of the essays I’ve written since the book was originally published in 2008. I also plan to continue writing stories toward another book. And I’ll keep feeding the lake at both Vermont College of Fine Arts and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock as long as I’m able.
—Ross McMeekin & David Jauss
Ross McMeekin’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in publications such as Shenandoah, Passages North, Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Green Mountains Review, and Tin House (blog). He received a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, edits the literary journal Spartan, and blogs at rossmcmeekin.com. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.
David Jauss is the author of three story collections, Crimes of Passion, Black Maps, and the forthcoming Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories; two volumes of poetry, Improvising Rivers and You Are Not Here; and a collection of essays on the craft of fiction, Alone with All That Could Happen (reissued in paperback as On Writing Fiction). He has also edited three anthologies, most recently Words Overflown by Stars, a collection of essays on the craft of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry by the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts. His awards include the AWP Award for Short Fiction (for Black Maps), an O. Henry Prize, a Best American Short Stories selection, two Pushcart Prizes, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a James A. Michener fellowship, and three fellowships from the Arkansas Arts Council and one from the Minnesota State Arts Board. He teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.