“[Death is] the great distiller of human beings.”
Brief Instructions (Ghostbird Press, 2017)
The story “Brief Instructions” sets an interesting tone for the collection. I most wonder about the two options given about the narrator’s burial. The second option is much more vivid and complex, yet the narrator only gives that as a backup plan, and the last line speaks to apathy regarding the whole matter.
This story owes a debt to Ma Jian’s short story “The Woman and the Blue Sky.” A few things happen in that story, one of which is a sky burial in which a corpse is ceremonially left for vultures to pick apart and carry away. I’d never heard of that before and it completely fascinated me and also made 100% sense. Leaving my body for the vultures is probably an economically and ecologically good idea. Beyond that, there is the notion of living forever in the skies above the world, looking down on loved ones. This is a pretty personal story, more than others at least, in that the places in the second option, the cremation option, are all places I’ve lived that have been meaningful. Phoenix, Colorado, Chicago. My hometown of North Canton, Ohio, where I grew up. In a way, the story is a statement of my ambivalence about leaving the world after death. I want to stay in each of those places because I love them. I also want to stay in the mantle at home, with the “I don’t care though, really not, honest” sentiment a bit of sarcasm. Yes, I actually do care. A lot. I don’t want to leave the people and places I love.
In “Reasons,” would you say that the moment of realization of reasons to live arrives too late or right on time? There seems to be a theme of death as re-connection with the world, so is this story exploring the possible beauty of death, or is it trying to clasp onto life for as long as it can?
I’d say “Reasons” is about holding onto life as long as possible. We don’t know, and I wrote it this way on purpose, what happens to Turtle. He just blew a non-lethal hole in his head, non-lethal at least in the moment. Who knows how long he’ll survive, and that’s left up to the reader’s imagination, and probably is a secondary concern anyway. (In fact, when I think of poor Turtle and what might happen to him afterward, I don’t actually wonder if he’ll live or die. I mostly wonder how dumb he might feel for putting a gun to his head to kill himself and somehow not succeeding. Which is morbid and not very compassionate on my part perhaps….) Something has driven Turtle to the point of suicide but life pursues him beyond his suicidal act and he realizes that life’s pursuit of even him is a beautiful thing and he has a massive change of heart. I want to die, no WAIT! Please let me live!
“My Old Pal” seems to be in the spirit of Don Quixote. Is this an accurate evaluation, and is the narrator supposed to be a Sancho-esque character?
I think that’s accurate, that the narrator is Sancho-esque. I didn’t have Don Quixote specifically in mind when I wrote “My Old Pal,” but these are down and out folks who don’t realize their down-and-out-ed-ness and live in some kind of fantasy world, perhaps as a way of surviving the real world, which is my take on Quixote and Sancho.
“Wreck” seems to offer the first true depiction of anger towards death. So much of the collection deals with graphic death, murder even, and says nothing as to the point of it all. Why is it this late in the collection that the reader can see frustration with the themes portrayed throughout?
For some of the characters other than those in “Wreck,” death is as real a part of daily life as traffic or eating lunch. I’m thinking about the hitman in “Mercy” or even Neal from the same story. Even though Neal is a dad and fairly normal in one way, he crossed the hitman’s boss in some way. So, death lurks much more closely. Same thing could be said for “Crossing.” Crossing through the desert into the US from Mexico is, among other things, a kind of permission for death to occupy some very real space in the characters’ (and even the actual folks who do this) consciousnesses. “Wreck” is death out of nowhere. Sudden, unjust, unexpected. When there is absolutely no expectation of death, when death is a surprise, I think anger tends to ratchet up. I like that change of pace with “Wreck.”
Death shows up in the collection in many different iterations: suicide, murder, potential murder, disease, old age, etc. Is it to be loved or hated? And what does it say about life?
I like to think of myself as a pretty vibrant person, but the fact that a lot of my stories deal with death might tell the truth on me. Sheesh. I think death or impending death is extremely interesting. It’s the great distiller of human beings. Putting characters in situations where death may occur elicits some honest answers from them about who they are really. And some honest answers from me about what I think about life and death. Definitely death is a topic I really only become familiar with when I write about it. Short of dying, anyway. Like, I don’t know what I think about death and I don’t know how to think about it and where to set it in my consciousness unless I write about it. I think death is to be embraced in the sense that it’s inevitable. Might as well, in other words. Not in a super morbid death obsession sleep in a coffin kind of way. More along the lines of curiosity, Why not be curious about it? Why not wonder about how it might happen and why and what happens afterward?
Could you explain the three pieces of art in the collection?
Isn’t the art great? All the art is done by James Vanderberg. His brother Peter Vanderberg runs Ghostbird Press and was kind enough to publish Brief Instructions. James reads the stories or poetry that Ghostbird accepts and creates visual art to accompany the writing.
With so many stories dealing with the idea of death, why do only a few mention God or an afterlife?
I ponder this a lot myself when I reflect on my own work. I like to write characters who are at the margins or the fringes of society and usually out there at the fringes, life is a lot more dangerous. Like, poverty lifestyles, homelessness, etc. Death isn’t much of a shock out there. It’s more or less expected out at the fringes, whereas in polite society or life-not-at-the-fringes or however it’s best to say it, death is like a weird secret. It’s like farting or burping. Everybody does it, nobody talks about it. So it’s not very real in terms of conceptualization. (Definitely it’s real when it happens…) I don’t think very many people think about God when they think about the death of a poor person or a homeless person or some other fringe-dweller. I think God gets mixed in with death, or vice versa, when death happens in less fringe-y places. “He was a God fearing man.” “He loved God and served Him with his whole life.” Nobody really says that about the dead poor. They’re just dead. So, in some ways, I like shining my authorial light on the poor (even in spirit) dead and dying. I’m not sure why God shows up or doesn’t. The prayer that is “Working Man’s Prayer” is a direct prayer to God, but also, it’s a bit sarcastic, a bit of a challenge to God. And we don’t see God in the story. In “Mercy” I always thought of the screaming bird as the Holy Spirit. Some sort of inescapable noise that causes somebody, the hitman in this case, to have a change of heart, to realize he has the ability to kill somebody else but he also has the power to have mercy.
In addition to Brief Instructions (Ghostbird Press, 2017) Paul Luikart is the author of the short story collection Animal Heart (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016.) In his twice-monthly opinion column for Nooga.com, he discusses politics, social justice, and sometimes other things. He lives with his family in Chattanooga, Tennessee.