“It’s hard not to write about identity. All fiction, explicitly or implicitly, offers a vision of what it means to be a human.”
Four Stories about the Human Face, (Bull City Press, 2018)
The title of your chapbook is intriguing. It employs just enough ambiguity to grab a potential reader’s attention, but it provides the reader with all necessary information about theme before the first page is opened. Was your title already decided before you began to write your stories, or was it a product of the stories themselves?
The title came after. I had a couple of stories on a similar theme and was trying to tie them together. I was also reading De Quincey and came across what would become the epigraph of the book—the passage about “the tyranny of the human face.” Of course, De Quincey is talking about the effects of opium, but the line worked well enough for my purposes too.
While we are discussing the title, I figured that it would be appropriate time to touch on your cover art. Your cover, due to its minimalist style, was very appealing to me. What was your thought process in designing such a geometric and simple cover? Also, since I know nothing about the publication process, were you the one that designed your cover in the first place?
The cover was designed by Sofie DeWulf, a student of Ross White (the executive director of Bull City Press). Ross’s publishing class was helping with the book in the spring, and the students came up with a couple of really good designs for the cover, but I was blown away by Sofie’s. Minimalism is hard to do well, but she nailed it.
Four Stories about the Human Face was an amazing read. It made me pause and try to understand who I am and how much of my identity is dependent on my phone and social media. I really fell deep into understanding my own identity, which is a big theme in each story. What led you to want to write about identity? Did you find anything out about yourself through the characters’ identity?
It’s hard not to write about identity. All fiction, explicitly or implicitly, offers a vision of what it means to be a human. And you can’t write a book about humans in the twenty-first century and not write about the internet. It’s the fundamental fact of our life. It has colonized our brains.
I know a lot of authors place themselves or people they know as characters in their books. How did you create and build your characters into who they are? Did you find yourself or your personality traits in any of the characters?
I don’t really think of them as “characters” in the normal sense. They go places, and they want things, but they don’t really have characteristics or traits in the same way that, say, Elizabeth Bennet does. They don’t even have names. That seems to me a closer approximation of twenty-first century American life than more traditional ways of thinking about character like “roundness” or “depth.” We don’t live in the sort of world that can produce an Elizabeth Bennet.
I noticed that each of your stories provide different messages regarding the dangers/benefits of social media. “Pink Dolphin,” for example, presents it as a harmful addiction and an obstacle to true happiness. “A Human Face,” however, contrasts this idea by exemplifying the unifying power that social media can have. What lead you to these conclusions? Do you have any personal stories that have influenced your work or changed your opinions of social media?
In “Pink Dolphin,” the narrator’s “true happiness” is also destructive. It literally effaces him. Likewise, in “A Human Face,” social media does keep things in order, but that order is pretty rotten. All this to say, I’m not sure what conclusions to draw.
I really admired your story “Pink Dolphin”. It felt like a reality check! There were a lot of elements creatively woven together for a big impact. What made you want to write that story? How did you piece together the story?
I wanted to have a story called “Pink Dolphin,” so I worked backward from there. I did that with a couple of the other stories here too—thought of a title and then figured out what I needed to write in order to use it.
You’re right to say that the story is “pieced together.” The dolphin plot is just a sort of organizing principle—it’s a container that holds the various jokes and bits. With a loose structure like that, you can try a bunch of different things and hope that the reader thinks at least one of them is funny.
I also thought the line in “Pink Dolphin,” “I did not know what was in the depths. That was how I knew they were really deep” (19), was so powerful. So often humanity thinks in the shallows either too frightened to press deeper or too ignorant or stubborn to know there’s a deeper place of thought and understanding. As someone who frequently has to be reminded that actions have purpose and personal reflection is required for growth, what do you want readers to reflect on in this story?
This gets back to the question of character. We often use the metaphor of “depth” to talk about literary characters. Anyone who takes a creative writing class in college, for instance, learns that Hemingway cliché about the iceberg—that is, seventh-eighths of the character should be below the surface. This way of thinking about character comes from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century realism: Richardson, Austen, James. But as I said before, this idea of character has little relation to twenty-first century life. (It probably didn’t reflect eighteenth- or nineteenth-century life very well either.) The internet—and all the forces that work on us through the internet—have flattened us out. And so I think that our fiction needs to show our flatness—our stupidity, our incapacity, our lack.
Your story “A Brief History of Narodistan” is very similar to the story “A Human Face”. I admire how you wrote so passionately to intertwine politics and humanity. Would you ever consider broadening that idea and write more politically? (creatively of course!)
It depends what you mean by “political.” I don’t think that fiction is the best medium to, for instance, deal with particular policies. What fiction can do well, however, is register the sense that we all have—the sense that there’s something wrong with the way we’re living. Our world is based on the relentless pursuit of gain and gratification. This pursuit requires us to be constantly projecting. We’re always making connections. We’re always building our brand. We turn everything into value. And this deforms us. It makes us incapable of relationships without purpose—love, for instance. Good fiction presents us with our deformity, which is the first step toward imagining an alternative.
In “The Tower” you write that “we were in Charivaria, and we were going to be happy.” This quote stuck out to me because I think everyone has had this mindset while on vacation. We feel like we have to have fun because everyone told us that we will. We would let them down if we posted a picture without a smile. I personally enjoy how the story concluded – with the main character’s phone being dropped from a tower wall – but is that the most realistic way to rise above our social media-drunk culture? What do you think will save us?
You’re right, in a certain sense. I don’t think it’s very realistic. But just because something isn’t realistic doesn’t mean it can’t happen: Donald Trump is the president, after all. Realism is ideological—this is Mark Fisher’s argument about “capitalist realism,” for instance. The realistic isn’t the same as the real. And part of what fiction can do is upset our sense of what’s “realistic.” Fiction can give you a vision of the real—the satisfaction, for instance, of smashing your phone, of freeing yourself from it.
My favorite story was “The Holy Family” because of its values. I adored the parent’s relationship and growth over the story. It really resonated within me about unconditional love. Do you have a favorite of your stories and why?
Hard to say. It’s painful to reread your own writing. I had to go through it all again in proofs, and I cringed the whole way. I guess “A Human Face” is the least embarrassing to me now. It may be the closest I’ll ever get to my big dream of writing a Graham Greene story.
My interpretation of your chapbook is that nuance is required when discussing social media’s impact on our culture. It has not been around long enough for any concrete conclusions to be made. Is there a particular stance found in your book that you agree with the most? Where do you generally stand in this grand debate?
I’m probably closest to one of the Eastern European characters—the one who says he misses communism because at least there were no ads.
What do you want readers to take away from Four Stories about the Human Face as a whole?
I hope they have some laughs but at the same time also feel bad.
We also touched on identity as a focal point in your book. Do you have any other themes you’re passionate about that could potentially show up in future work?
I wish I could write well about religion. I’ve tried, without much success.
What was it like working with Bull City Press?
Could not have been better. Ross, Noah, and everyone else at BCP care so much about the work they put out and the writers they publish. I’m lucky that they took a chance on my work, made it better, and put it out in the world in such a beautiful presentation.
Going off of that, I’d like to know what sacrifices you had to make in order to complete the book. All writers know that the editing process is painful; you have to be your own critic. Were there any fun stories/ideas you had to scrap? Were there some clever lines of dialogue or plot devices you had to remove? Do you regret doing so?
I don’t think I’ve ever regretted cutting something from a piece of writing. It’s always been for the best. All of these stories were longer in manuscript—I think “The Tower” had two or three thousand extra words. The first draft of the story ended with the characters going camping. Not a very stirring climax. It’s hard to have even one good idea.
To wrap everything up and give the readers some excitement for the future, what’s next for you in the writing world?
I’m working on a full-length collection of stories. I have a fair amount of stuff out there at this point, so it’s mostly a matter of compiling. I would like to call it The Triumph of Religion (after a story I published earlier this year), but I’m not sure whether that’s saleable.
I’m also working on something called The Book of Minor Modernists. It consists of brief biographies of fictional modernists—short stories hidden behind the conventions of an encyclopedia entry. (An excerpt was published over the summer.) I don’t know if there’s an audience for it, although I suppose that’s never stopped me before.
Ryan Napier is the author of Four Stories about the Human Face (Bull City Press, 2018). His stories have appeared in Entropy, Queen Mob’s Tea House, minor literature[s], and others. He lives in Massachusetts. Twitter: @ryanlnapier
Find him at ryannapier.net (or on twitter at @ryanlnapier)