One True Thing

Life's questions, big and small

Interview with author Alan Heathcock

Very little of my writing routine involves sitting at a computer.

Alan Heathcock's provocative and stunning debut collection of short stories, VOLT, has been described as the Cohen Brothers meet Raymond Carver. Here's more from Alan:

Jennifer Haupt: One of the things I love about this collection of short stories is that each one reads like a mini-novel. I'm often sad to leave the characters, and could easily read more. Were any of these stories the beginning of a novel?

Alan Heathcock: Several of the stories in VOLT were from novels that fell to pieces. I'm not sure if I'd advise writing a novel to get a good short story, only because it's really impractical (understatement-ha), but that's what happened for me. That said, as a reader of short stories I often feel stories are too confined, too small (as opposed to just short).

If I think of many of my favorite short stories, they have a novelistic depth and expansiveness. It's not just a matter of page length. On one hand you have stories like James Joyce's "The Dead" or Kaftka's "Metamorphosis", both of which are very long, and because of their length (amongst other things) feel like a thorough investigation of their characters and themes. On the other hand, I can make an argument that a very short story like Hemingway's "Indian Camp", at only four pages, delivers an expansive understanding of character and place, and a depth of theme, that rivals some novels I've read.

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I guess all of this is to say that I'm consciously attempting to not have my stories, regardless of page length, feel small or incomplete. If I've done my work, the characters feel real and full, the story itself a set of events plucked from the middle of the greater drama that is their full life. In fact, I work hard so that the trajectory of the character's lives, what happened before the story begins, what happens after it ends, is somehow implied. I feel it's this implication of time, extended in prequel and sequel to the story I've written, gives the stories their novelistic quality. It, of course, helped when I'd written 200 pages (the failed novel), and had all the back-story and fated ends already figured out and at my disposal.

JH: "Dark" is a word often associated with your work, but for me it's more about the contrast between hope and despair, dark and light. Have you studied psychology, or are you simply an astute obverser of people in daily life?

AH: I haven't studied psychology, though I've always been an astute observer of people. I think this comes, initially, from growing up in a tough neighborhood, and having to parse out who was being straight with me, who was going to do harm to me, who I could trust, and so forth. In hindsight, I was constantly evaluating human motivations, which, in turn, is the basis to truth in fiction writing.

Now that I'm a writer, I've taken myself to become what I call an "empathetic writer", which means I try not to just write about people, but to actually become the character, to write through them, to see what they see, hear what they hear, think and feel and yearn as they do. This kind of writing means I must fully understand them as real humans, and not reduce them down to good or bad or hopeful and desperate. In my experience, people are constantly negotiating between what they want and what they have. A definition I use to explain a "happy ending" is that a happy ending is when the distance between what someone wants and has completely been closed. On the flip-side, a tragedy is when we, as readers, understand that permanent distance has been put between want and have (Juliet will never have her Romeo...). So I think a lot about what my character wants, and I'm constantly evaluating how to create drama from putting obstacles in their way. You're exactly right in that I'm extracting drama from the tension between hope and despair.

JH: How long did you work on the stories in VOLT? Which one was the most difficult to complete and why?

AH: I worked on VOLT for twelve years, and some of the stories took four or five years to find their way into completed form. All of them were easy to draft, to just get an idea on the page. All of them were difficult to raise up to the level of truth, where every moment and detail and bit of dialog and image were communicating something true and compelling.

The hardest story of all was probably a story, "The Staying Freight", which is about a man who accidentally kills his son in a farming accident. This was hard for a number of reasons, but primarily because I'm a father myself, and it was excruciating to put my character through the pain that accompanied his grief. Because of the way I write, I put myself though these feelings, too. It took a toll, but also made me love my own children with a lasting vigor.

I've been surprise that while on the road several people have approached me to say they were dealing with grief in their own life and that reading "The Staying Freight" helped them work through some things. I hadn't expected that, but it makes me feel wonderful that through the hardship of writing that story I've enabled someone else to heal. I've always felt the highest purpose to literature is to enable us to look directly at ourselves, though in a way that's bearable, and it fills me with a great sense of accomplishment to know my work has fulfilled that promise.

JH: What's something that people may be surprised to learn about your writing routine?

AH: That very little of my routine is me sitting at a computer actually writing new words. I sometimes hear a student brag that they write 2,000 words every day, but that doesn't make sense to me. I read fiction, poetry, non-fiction, plays, watch movies, do research, draw pictures, do anything and everything I can to enable me to better inhabit my characters. I call it "reaching critical mass".

On any given day I decide the scene, or moment, I'm going to work toward. Then I do whatever I need to do to get my imagination all the way in the character, in that world, in that situation, feeling what they're feeling, thinking what they're thinking. I mean all the way in-not just a vague "in the ballpark" sense of things, but to KNOW what's happening, to be there in-full, wholly inhabiting the character in the world. This takes a lot of time and effort. Then, once I've reached critical mass, my job is simply to go to the computer and find the words to capture the truth of whatever I'm living in my imagination. It doesn't matter to me if I write six pages or six lines, so long as I've gotten it right. I'd say only 20% of my writing day is actually writing.

JH: What do you do, where do you go, when you need to escape from your characters? (Or, does that not happen?)

AH: I'm always a writer. I don't look for escape, not really. Being a writer is the greatest job on earth because I can indulge all of my curiosities, can reflect upon all of my pains and joys. The characters come from me, and I love them.

That said, on a daily basis I appreciate that I have a beautiful wife and three great kids who are smart and kind and talented, and great friends who make me laugh and think and want to be a good person. I don't take real things for granted because I'm also always carrying around with me the truths of my character's lives, which are tragic in comparison. I'm sane because I know fact from fiction. I'm happy because, unlike my characters, there is no distance between what I want and what I have. Why would I want to escape my characters when they allow me to remain connected to the glorious truths of my own blessed life?

JH: What's the one true thing you learned while writing this collection of stories?

AH: That humans can endure. At the end of the story "Lazarus", the town's pastor, who's been grieving the death of his own son (a soldier killed in Iraq), is counseling one of his congregation, a young man who's grieving the death of his mother, and tells him: "Christ didn't just die for our sins, son. Christ taught us how to be crucified. How to go off into that tomb. But then, after a while, the rock rolls away and the sun shines in and you get to go live some more."

I'm not as interested in the religious aspects here, as I am in the truth that humans have great endurance, and that there is redemptive hope in our ability to forge onward beyond tragedy. In my own life, with my own private tragedies roiling about inside me, I found this truth to be incredibly beautiful, heartening, and profoundly moving.

JH: What's next for you?

AH: I'm working on a novel, set during another Great Flood (a la Noah), and a family floating around in their house-turned-ark and eventually getting caught up in a war over the last visible mountain peaks left in the world.

Alan Heathcock's fiction has been published in many of America's top magazines and journals, including Zoetrope: All-Story, Kenyon Review,VQR, Five Chapters, Storyville, and The Harvard Review. His stories have won the National Magazine Award in fiction, and have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology. Heathcock is currently the Writer-in-Residence for the city of Boise, and a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho. A Native of Chicago, he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University. For more information, visit alanheathcock.com.

 

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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