“…you can’t try to emulate someone else’s path—you’ve got to be thoughtful and ambitious enough to articulate and navigate your own, understanding that there will triumphs, but also immense setbacks and disappointments on the way.”
Dancer from Lake St. Vitus (Amazon Publishing, 2015)
“All That Water” (matchbook, 2013)
“To the Stars” (Alt Hist Fiction, 2012)
In Dancer from Lake St. Vitus, are the male protagonist’s talent for dancing and his ensuing journey reflective of your own artistic talent, or what it’s like to be recognized, or what it’s like to stand out from a community due to personal interests? If so, in what way is dancing the most suitable demonstration?
I suppose every writer brings specks of self into their work, but my early training as a journalist taught me to watch and record, so my first impulse is to look around the world and think, “Hey, I wonder what that guy over there is up to?” Or, “I wonder how that lady navigates her day when a certain kind of challenge comes up.” So, my work focuses more on watching some speck of action or personality and imagining the rest of a story rather, than transplanting myself into other sorts of characters. I love looking at how folks navigate on the margins of a community. In this instance, what really got me started was thinking about the sheer awkwardness of middle school dances and what would happen if someone just carried that moment all the way: how could it affect their life? The story bridged into small town dynamics, relationships, longing, and questions of legacy, but it really started with that single observation.
Are we meant to infer anything from the undulating population numbers of Lake St. Vitus?
I’ve always been interested in detail, maybe to a fault. Growing up in and around small towns, I always noticed how weirdly specific the population signs could be at the outskirts of a small village—921 or 2,013, or 326 or something—so that the number couldn’t possibly be accurate for more than a couple days after the sign went up. So, in one way, this is my snarky response to all those signs I watched as a kid. In a more serious way, though, I meant to show what a big difference the shift of a few numbers can mean in the life of a town. Depending on who they are and what they do in a community, one family’s arrival or departure can completely alter the makeup of a place. This is a story about a leaving and a returning, and Timothy’s departure and return certainly shapes the place to an extent. I wanted to indicate that there were others coming and going all the time, too, and that each numerical change represents some shift in a small town’s fabric.
Does Timothy’s character actually change when he attains fame, or are we meant to believe that he has always been the same and only the stakes have changed? If so, could you elaborate on that dynamic?
To me, Timothy doesn’t really change that much—he becomes more of a static character than I generally write. From the moment he starts moving, he is laser-focused on being great. What does change: the world around him, and I think that’s really the action in the story. From the diverse responses people have to his prodigy in youth to the rumors and sensationalized coverage and advertisement, to his use as a marketing tool, to the celebratory role people embrace upon his return and finally the pitying glances as they walk by after his injury, I think the real story is in the way the public positions itself in relationship to his rise and fall.
Discuss the process of getting Dancer from Lake St. Vitus published.
Dancer is kind of an odd short story in that it has the scope of a novel, time-wise, but the length of a short story through the selective focus on a few important scenes. I knew it was odd from the start, and frankly, that led me to send it to some really low-tier journals first. They didn’t want anything to do with it. I then sent it to a couple of friends I trust, and they cheer-led for it in a way that surprised me. I made some pacing changes and sent it to Day One, and got a call from the editor just a few days later. The scope was the first thing she mentioned as something that drew her in—the way in which the story was able to capture a full life in a succinct way. I knew from the beginning of that conversation we were on the same page and that this would be a good home for it.
I was ecstatic with the process of working with Day One and the team from Amazon Publishing. I know folks have all sorts of nuanced stances on Amazon’s larger corporate business model and role in publishing, but this aspect is unquestionable: they’ve got first-rate people in the editorial department and they run an outstanding, high quality operation that pays writers very fairly. From working with series editor Carmen Johnson on the broader ideas, titling, marketing, and art to the excellent line and copy editing, this was an intricate and professional process led by smart and responsive people. They really took good care of the manuscript, and we had great conversations on edits. I think that’s so important: that the editorial process is a thoughtful and adaptive conversation between editors and writer without one side coming at it from a dictatorial stance. This was certainly such an instance, and I think the story benefited from it.
Was there a moment in your life similar to that of Colin’s departing night from which you drew inspiration for “All That Water”?
I’ve lived in a handful of places, and so the idea of coming and going has been a real thing for me. I don’t think there’s a specific moment that’s transferred into this piece, but I was able to draw on the very real emotions that come in a point of exit. I’m getting ready to do it again this fall: I’ll leave for nine months on a Fulbright to Russia, and there will be hard moments of goodbye. These instants are such powerful parts of human life, because they’re when our relationships change, get tested, appear, and sometimes even disappear. Similarly, they’re moments when a character’s surround cast changes, and so this sort of scene is packed with the fullest range of emotions and ideas—I love testing those emotional tipping points in fiction, and this story is an example of that.
Did your relationship with your parents/guardians have a significant impact on this story?
Not at all, but distance did. I’ve hear plenty of people say you write about a place most when you’re separated from it, and this turned out to be true. Back in 2010, I had the unforgettable privilege of spending five months living and writing in Ireland thanks to a grant from the Southern Illinois University Department of Irish and Irish Immigration Studies. While I was there, I wrote a novel about southeastern Kentucky (more about that in a bit), which is where I’d studied as an undergraduate. Once I came home, I wrote about all the beautiful, complex places I saw abroad. From that trip, I’ve published stories about Estonia, Latvia, France, the U.K., Berlin, and Prague. This was the third Ireland story I composed and published, and it’s a little bit of a love letter to Galway, the place where I stayed during the grant, and a modern juxtaposition of the very real “America Wakes” that families used to hold. So, no—my parents have never eulogized me (that I know of), but my comings and goings certainly influenced the piece.
“All That Water” is going to be anthologized in Everywhere Stories. Could you tell us more about this project?
I’m really excited to be involved with this, though I’m almost a bit embarrassed to be Ireland’s representative. Everywhere Stories anthologizes work from and about a variety of countries. Once a work is selected from or about a particular nation, it gets crossed off the list so that the project is continuously highlighting different regions and communities. The first anthology featured work from Russia, France, the U.K. and a dozen other places, but I was shocked to see a place with the literary cachet of Ireland didn’t get a rep in the first volume, so I sent this piece along and crossed my fingers. This will be the second volume in the series, and it’s crammed with amazing writers and curated by Clifford Garstang, whose work I really admire. To think of the amazing tradition of stories and storytellers from Ireland and all the incredible people who have been involved in this project, I think the selection of this particular story as Ireland’s representative in the anthology series is one of my proudest writing moments.
The ideological battles at play in “To the Stars” are rather fascinating. Did anything in particular inspire you to tackle state allegiance (and the lack thereof) in Soviet-era Russia?
As with the other two stories, this is really another look at individuals on some sort of margin. “To the Stars,” was actually the first of my stories ever accepted for publication, and as I think back to its construction, I’d been reading a lot about the space race. One perspective I never really encountered (from the U.S. or Soviet side) was the family viewpoint. What was it like to be used as a propaganda piece? What was it like as a wife and a child to be under constant surveillance because of your perceived value to the state? In the end of this story, I wanted to be very careful to indicate not much had changed after the defection—both nations engaged in the same sorts of “use” of astronaut/cosmonaut families. One of the things my research indicated was that, in both nations, the families had the most freedom during a launch itself because it was just assumed that they’d be on pins and needles, watching. That’s where the story was born: I wanted a character to take control and manipulate that assumption. Since this fictional story came out, Lily Koppel wrote and published the true version of the family experience from the American perspective, and it was turned into an NBC miniseries, which I really enjoyed watching. I’m actually developing this story into part of a longer-form work right now, and it’s been fun to revisit.
Are we meant to believe that suspicion of state is a moral imperative, or merely a significant theme as it pertains to this story?
I don’t know that suspicion of the state is as important as merely the general human longing for something better (or just different) than what one has, no matter where they live. I think this is a theme a lot of folks will explore as our current election cycle presses forward. I did want to indicate imperfection in both systems, but I think no matter where we live—whether it’s on the level of a town, city, state, nation, or continent, we tend to wonder what it’s like elsewhere, and for some of us, it’s in our nature to take steps to explore what else is out there, even when the process is painful. Sometimes, the answer is, “better.” Sometimes, that’s not the case, and I think all three of these stories consider that dynamic in different ways.
Have you any intimate experience with Eastern culture, and how do you think the East of today compares to the East of “To the Stars”?
I’m about to live in Siberia for nine months, so I’ll get back to you then! Just before I wrote this piece, I traveled across parts of Ukraine and the Baltic states, and this area of the world has always fascinated me precisely because of the lack of access westerners can have—the relative complexity of visa laws, the physical remoteness, and the exotic ways in which our hemispheres have painted each other through news and propaganda. I grew up watching missile parades on TV, and some of the most impactful images from my youth surrounded the fall of the Soviet Union and dismantling of the Berlin wall. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to explore. I’ve done that first through reading, then in writing, and now I’ll finally have a chance to travel there and work on a collection of short stories that are based on Cold War era mythology: the lies we told ourselves as cultures to make each other feel more like “others” worth opposing.
In what ways do you think the present tense benefits this story?
The first draft of the story was in past tense, and it had a distance problem. There’s so much distance—time and place—already embedded into the story that I felt a present tense telling would allow readers to draw a bit closer and invest in the story. It needed a touch of closeness, and tense was my most powerful tool in accomplishing that.
Would you say there’s a particular reason that many of your stories seem to touch on “coming-of-age” themes, or perhaps more accurately, the idea of leaving one’s home?
Growing up in a small southern Ohio town, staying or going was a big part of youth and decision-making. In these stories, we’ve got a young boy, a young man, and an adult woman, and they’re all dealing with this very critical question of what it means to leave. Growing up, there were classmates whose entire identity and ambition were in their small town community. They would get married young, have kids, and stay in a ten-mile radius—no matter what. There were others with a burning desire to see the world, but an absolute lack of tools to accomplish that, whether it be the tools of finance, opportunity, education, support, etc. There were others who were going to leave as a matter of fact. Some left and failed and came back. Some left and came back despite success. Some waited a long time to leave. Some hauled it out of town the instant they could and cut all ties. Some meant to stay or go but mitigating circumstances changed what was possible pregnancy, illness that required treatment elsewhere, someone couldn’t get into college—you name it. All these different variables and trajectories had immense impacts on how my friends’ lives have sifted out—this is a story dynamic with so many ingredients and outcomes, that it can be explored endlessly. It’s also universal. This theme carries through in Appalachia, where I’ve lived and worked the last few years. It’s a true concern in the Rust Belt and the deep south and urban Chicago, and in Liverpool and Riga and Milan—and I’m fairly certain I’ll soon learn it’s just as important in Novosibirsk.
How do your teaching and journalism careers interact with your stories (if you can be specific about such a broad question)?
Teaching and journalism are so similar: they’re about watching and listening then responding. In journalism, you watch, read, interview, observe, test, and ask, then compile it all and tell the public the sum total so they can navigate life in the smartest, most efficient way possible. In a classroom, you watch, read, conference, observe, test, and ask, then sort out the best way to deliver information to a particular group of students so they can navigate the academy in the smartest, most efficient way possible. Storytelling? For me, it’s the same process: I watch and listen, then imagine and solve.
Could you tell us about Pine Gap, your forthcoming novel?
Pine Gap is set in the coalfields of southern Kentucky, and it follows the Eskill family. Enoch, the dad, is an aging miner who grapples with changing workplace dynamics (work habits of the younger employees, changing role of unions, etc.) His wife, Miriam, does domestic work for the wealthy mine owners whose homes overlook the town of Pine Gap. Eldest daughter Rebecca is a single mother of twins whose absent father creates all sorts or nightmares for her and the family. Jamie, the youngest daughter, has maybe the most dynamic role, and she reprises this question of what it might mean to leave a close-knit family and community. Through it all, the town itself comes through as a major character: I’ve worked really hard to populate this story with a lot of the dynamics and contemporary questions that arise in American rural towns, especially Appalachia. Economic inequality, drugs, single-industry communities and regional stereotypes, traditions, religion and its role in personal, family, and community life—all of these issues arise as the characters take turns interacting with their community. Instead of chapters, the book has sections: in each section, all four main characters get a turn as the point of view, and each section starts off with a vignette about the broader town that sets the table for what the characters about to encounter. I enjoyed playing with the form a bit while working to make sure that all of the characters got substantial turns in the spotlight. This was a really fun book to write, it was an intense project in revision, and I’m really excited to see the finished product next year.
The manuscript is a world traveler. It started off as a story in Jacinda Townsend’s fiction workshop at southern Illinois University, became a novel in Ireland, got revised in France during my time as a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow, and it’ll be published by a Canadian company, Peasantry Press, which is a new but quite ambitious indie publisher out of Winnipeg. It’s due out next March, and I’m really excited about how the process has gone so far.
What are some of your favorite short stories? Or what are some short stories that have influenced your writing?
I love John Cheever’s straightforward storytelling—he could tell a simple story with sober directness and just leave the reader doubled over and gasping by the end. I can always go to his collected works, open it to a random page, and find something incredible. I love the short stories of Claire Keegan, an Irish author with two collections and a novella out. Particularly, the story “Antarctica,” reminds me what’s possible in a story in terms of detail, emotional manipulation of a audience, and general quality in storytelling—every time I read it reminds me how much work I’ve got left to do as a writer. There’s a story by Sara Pritchard called “The Very Beautiful Sad Elegy for Bambi’s Dead Mother” that I teach in Appalachian literature courses, and its use of a child’s perspective to tell a very adult story really excites me.
What might these favorite or influential short stories suggest about you and your writing?
These stories all hinge on detail and specificity, and that’s something I love to read, and it’s an area on which I focus a lot of attention as a writer.
Whose work helped you in the writing of your stories?
I get really excited by the way Colum McCann shifts perspectives, I love the way Claire Keegan describes detail with such pinprick, gut-punch precision. Jacinda Townsend, who I was so lucky to work with as a student, has this incredible way of using small details to build a unique character. I’ve been trading a lot of work-in-progess lately with essayist Angela Palm, whose debut essay collection “Riverine” is coming soon from Graywolf Press, and I love the way she weaves a thousand disparate ideas together into one cogent theme, and the effortlessness with which she does it. All these writers have a great economy in language: they show you can be infinitely detailed in a way that doesn’t spend a thousand syllables on the shape of a daisy.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I’ve gotten all sorts of great advice on all different aspects of writing, but I don’t know that there’s something I wish I’d been told. Writing is something that’s different for everyone: every writer has a different process, a different career arc, a different concept of what constitutes success. The wisdom I suppose I’ve arrived at is that you can’t try to emulate someone else’s path—you’ve got to be thoughtful and ambitious enough to articulate and navigate your own, understanding that there will triumphs, but also immense setbacks and disappointments on the way. I know people who’ve written one thing that made them instant celebrities. Others have toiled for years and still don’t have a publication credit. My path has been somewhere in between and the hardest lesson to learn was that I can’t compare myself against any other writer’s career trajectory. The other thing that I’ve increasingly understood is the importance of joining into a network of other writers who are interested in having a real dialogue in exchanging work—that reading for other people doesn’t become an exchange of commodities, but it continues as a relationship where we truly invest in each other’s success and are willing to go above and beyond in thinking about what kind of feedback we can offer each other. In academic workshops, there’s sometimes this competitive atmosphere where it becomes important to show off how picky one can be as a reader—this becomes some weird badge of honor, and I’m certainly guilty. That has its own utility, I guess, but it’s become vital to me in the years after grad school to find people who want to help me build up my work, and for whom I can do the same. I’ve spent a small fortune this year buying books that friends have published, and I honestly think I’m more excited about this than the fact that my own book is on its way. I think that’s an offshoot of being in meaningful community with other writers—it feels like we’re on a team together instead of competitors who are trying to get one up on the rest of the group. I’d much rather live and work as a teammate than some crotchety person who rolls his eyes every time someone else has success. Let’s be real: writing is competitive and it can get nasty. But it doesn’t have to be, and it’s been important for me to learn that.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Be persistent. I had this conversation last week with a writer I admire. The discussion circled back to this idea: often, it’s not the most talented writer who ultimately has success, but the most persistent, most ambitious, most careful writer who is willing to grow and learn from mistakes and crawl past the discouragement of being told “no” literally thousands of times. Some of the most talented writers I’ve known got to a certain point and just quit, and the literary world aches from the absence of their voices. I hope younger writers will embrace all the tough parts of this process, just as a runner embraces the thousands of hard training miles that come before a race can yields a worthwhile result.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
How much time do you spend naming characters?
Brooks Rexroat is a visiting assistant professor of English at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. A 2016-2017 Fulbright Scholar to Russia and 2014 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow in Cassis, France, his work has appeared in Day One, Best of Ohio Short Stories Vols. I and II, Midwestern Gothic, The Montreal Review, and The Prague Revue.