Hesitance in Writing, and Maksik Interview

A short, fantastic interview with writer Alexander Maksik is up on the Tin House website. Maksik discusses the popular tendency to shy away from writing sex in contemporary fiction and says:

Who becomes an artist out of a desire for safety? The aversion to writing about real intimacy is symptomatic of what I see as our growing cultural aversion to sincerity. And far more frightening, is a growing atmosphere of caution. Since when have good writers been cautious?

Lately I’ve been thinking of my own hesitance to address a number of subjects openly, both on social media and in my creative writing. Up until recently, I thought that my creative writing at least was a space where I pushed forward without much self-policing, but recently I read several short stories I wrote years back and was astounded by the difference between my boldness then and my hesitance now. It is true that I did not think as much about the construction of identity/identities in those years but wrote more intuitively—and my critical eye is largely a positive development—but I would like to recapture more of that intuitive movement that allowed me to follow characters from page to page with complete openness and affection. Reading Maksik’s interview really did bring some of that energy back.

New Fiction in storySouth Magazine

I’m delighted to have my flash fiction piece, “One of the Men,” in the new issue of storySouth.  The piece was inspired by a news story about three men causing trouble at a strip club, and as I wrote the first draft, the story quickly became about one of the on-scene observers. Of all of the flash pieces I’ve written, this is my favorite. The piece is available here. I hope you enjoy it!

On Reading Camus’ The Fall

I’ve been longing for dark, lonely, European literature, and so I started reading Camus’ The Fall.  The novel takes place in Amsterdam. The narrator, a Frenchman, meets a stranger in a bar and proceeds to tell him the story of his life through a series of dramatic monologues. The whole narrative is ghostly, shadowy, murky. And the narrator confesses to deeds better left undone. He expounds on how his past displays of generosity fed his vanity. And he shows no signs of repentance.

What strikes me more than anything is the narrator’s stark honesty. I can earnestly entertain any set of values in fiction, as long as they’re presented honestly, and the narrator’s candid account of his vanity leaves me wanting to sink more and more deeply into the spaces of his mind. I want to feel what he feels and I want to better understand his motivations.

Here’s an excerpt where the narrator, while walking through Paris, is deeply affected by the sound of a laugh. This is the turning point of his life. The writer in me is fascinated by how beautifully setting cues here carry the narrator from calm to vanity to paranoia. (The entire novel, by the way, is available online here.)

It was a fine autumn evening, still warm in town and already damp over the Seine. Night was falling; the sky, still bright in the west, was darkening; the street lamps were glowing dimly. I was walking up the quays of the Left Bank toward the Pont des Arts. The river was gleaming between the stalls of the secondhand booksellers. There were but few people on the quays; Paris was already at dinner. I was treading on the dusty yellow leaves that still recalled summer. Gradually the sky was filling with stars that could be seen for a moment after leaving one street lamp and heading toward another. I enjoyed the return of silence, the evening’s mildness, the emptiness of Paris. I was happy.

[…]

I had gone up on the Pont des Arts, deserted at that hour, to look at the river that could hardly be made out now night had come. Facing the statue of the Vert-Galant, I dominated the island. I felt rising within me a vast feeling of power and—I don’t know how to express it—of completion, which cheered my heart. I straightened up and was about to light a cigarette, the cigarette of satisfaction, when, at that very moment, a laugh burst out behind me. Taken by surprise, I suddenly wheeled around; there was no one there. I stepped to the railing; no barge or boat. I turned back toward the island and, again, heard the laughter behind me, a little farther off as if it were going downstream. I stood there motionless. The sound of the laughter was decreasing, but I could still hear it distinctly behind me, come from nowhere unless from the water. At the same time I was aware of the rapid beating of my heart.

New Flash Piece in Fiction Southeast

I’m thrilled to have my flash fiction piece, “Fingers Hooked,” in Fiction Southeast this week. The journal’s editors have been wonderful to work with in terms of responsiveness and organization, and I’m grateful to be included in their journal.

My flash pieces have largely been a space in which I’ve explored American settings — my full-length stories and the novel I’m working on have been set in my native Bosnia — and the process of writing them has felt expansive and freeing. I hope that you enjoy the piece.

Self-Exposure in Fiction Writing

Electric Literature has published a short but very thoughtful interview with the writer Joanna Walsh. In it, Walsh describes her tendency to write about smaller, everyday incidents, which she connects to the lived experience of women. She also talks about the writers who have influenced her and thinks about the self-exposure writers experience in writing fiction.

This last question made me think about the kinds of exposure we, as fiction writers, face. There is the inevitable kind of exposure, of course. This is the kind of exposure where, unknown to the writer, the reader notices the writer’s patterns of thought, gaps in perception, repetition of plot movements, etc. But there is also the exposure experienced consciously from the writer’s side. And for me, when writing fiction, this kind of exposure ranges from subtle to profound.

Some of my pieces start as purely imagined worlds — I see the image of a city street in springtime, let’s say, and I notice the petals falling from its trees — and this gives rise to an entire reality where characters begin to move and speak and interact on their own. I do not feel very exposed while writing these kinds of stories. Other pieces, however, spring directly from my lived experience. They start with a thought or feeling I am having about a personal incident and they run with it. On these occasions, I create the world of the story in a more conscious and deliberate way. And I feel much more exposed.

But it’s fascinating to think that from a slightly more distanced perspective, the two kinds of exposure — the unconscious one which leads readers to see the writer’s patterns of thought and the conscious one which writers actually notice — are necessarily neither more nor less weighty than each other.

James Salter’s Story in The New Yorker

To mark James Salter’s passing earlier this month, The New Yorker editors posted a link to his powerful story, “Last Night,” on their Facebook timeline. In the story, a husband and wife face a singular situation. The wife is terminally ill, and the two have opted for assisted suicide. The husband plans to perform the act in their home on the very night the story takes place. They invite a younger female friend over and take her out to dinner as a prelude to the event.

From beginning to end, Salter’s writing is impeccable. The scenes are tense and taut and they propel the reader on effortlessly. Below is an excerpt from the story, but the entire piece is freely available on the The New Yorker  page.

It was in the uterus and had travelled from there to the lungs. In the end, she had accepted it. Above the square neckline of her dress the skin, pallid, seemed to emanate a darkness. She no longer resembled herself. What she had been was gone; it had been taken from her. The change was fearful, especially in her face. She had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there. It was hard for Walter to remember how she had once been. She was almost a different woman from the one to whom he had made a solemn promise to help when the time came.