Austin Smith is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford. He has had poems published in the New Yorker, Sewanee Review, Yale Review, Pleiades, Poetry East, and others. His first collection of poems, Almanac, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Contemporary Poets Series and will be published by Princeton University Press. An excerpt from his story “Cicadas” can be found here, and the entire story appears in the Fall 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story “Cicadas”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
Many of my stories begin as attempts to write the multigenerational family farm novel that I am still trying to finish a draft of. With “Cicadas” I was probably taking another stab at starting the novel, but the piece achieved its own velocity and became a short story. But I know that for a long time I had wanted to use the seventeen-year lifecycle of the periodical cicadas (of the aptly-named genus Magicicada) as a temporal structure. The fact that the cicadas live under the ground, in the land itself, makes them a perfect symbol for memory. They seem to me to be repositories of the land’s consciousness. And their emergence, in all its drama and cacophony, has always struck me as something almost Biblical and miraculous. In this story they operate also as a kind of Greek chorus, swelling into the story at certain dramatic moments. They seem to know something the characters don’t: there is a kind of desperate desire to communicate in their deafening noise. So the seed of inspiration for this story is probably buried deep in my childhood, in some summer when we boys would find their split carapaces clinging to tree bark and wonder where they had vanished.
The hardest part about writing the story was simply finishing it. I probably start about ten times more projects than I finish. It’s rare that I trust something enough to see it through to its completion. The story has to demand that I finish it: I have to feel like it would be a betrayal of the characters not to. So at some point apparently these characters assumed enough reality in my imagination to where I couldn’t bear to abandon them. But it is frustratingly rare when that happens.
Your story is firmly grounded in the rhythms and responsibilities of farm life, are you drawing from personal experience? How much do your past experiences shape your characters’ lives and story arcs?
I wouldn’t say I’m drawing from personal experience so much as from a kind of family inheritance of memories and images. I spent the first eighteen years of my life (a whole cicada cycle plus one year, come to think of it) on the same three hundred acre dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. My father and grandfather were farmers, but my brothers and I never seriously considered farming, and now the farm isn’t in our family anymore. But it was an incredible place to grow up, and I think my entire imaginative life was shaped there. I was like a tape recorder left on a kitchen table: by a process of absorption I gathered the elements of what has become my fictional world, the place I return to when I sit down to write. It’s probably no wonder I love William Maxwell so much, because I think our relationship to Illinois is similar: he moved away from Lincoln when he was 14, I moved away from the farm when I was 18, and yet I expect that, like him, I’ll continue writing about rural Illinois no matter where I live and for the rest of my life. Rural Illinois is my treasury. But this fictional world isn’t quite identical to the world I actually grew up in. I have conflicting desires to write a memoir that would attempt to be absolutely accurate, to be totally in the service of memory (as untrustworthy as memory is—Maxwell: “When we talk about the past, we lie with every breath we draw”), while at the same time wanting to write fiction that breaks free of that place and invents characters who never existed and story arcs that never happened. “Cicadas” is an example of a compromise between those two desires: many elements of the story, particularly physical details, are precisely rendered scenes from my childhood. And yet most of the characters in the story were invented almost out of psychological necessity rather than rendered out of memory. What I mean when I say “psychological necessity” is that there are certainly types in the story: Aden is a kind of Prince Myshka character, absolutely compassionate but with no ability to understand the impact of his actions on others; Harold is a kind of curator of memory, keeping watch over his dead brother’s uniform and the cicada shells; and Hannah Strawhecker is a heroine figure, ignorant of her husband’s family history while at the same time being the only character who can use the past to fix the present situation. These characters may resemble my family, but they very much have their own existences, and they more or less determine the story arc by just being who they are. The physical landscape of the farm, on the other hand, is almost exactly that of the place I grew up. In most of my fiction the land itself is like a stage that remains the same no matter what play is being put on: the characters and story arcs change, but the stage remains more or less constant.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Five years ago I was twenty-five and almost exclusively working on poems. I turned to fiction about two and a half years ago because my creative life was atrophying and I needed to do something to replenish the spring. I was starting to write poems with the same recurring images, almost archetypal images: of drought and wounded patriarchs, the old Wasteland motifs. There’s a lot of that in “Cicadas,” but it’s disguised in the story: it’s not so bare as it was in the poems. So writing fiction has been very refreshing for me, because storytelling keeps me grounded in a way that poetry doesn’t. Of course writing fiction, you use very different muscles. It’s an entirely different discipline than poetry, so much of what I’ve learned has had to do with the nuts and bolts of how to get pages written. I’ve been learning that I have to trick myself into getting a good morning’s work done by sitting down at the desk almost immediately upon waking up (after making coffee, of course) and starting to write before I have a chance to doubt myself. With poems, I was usually called to write the poem by a first line, or an image, but with fiction I find that I have to work down into the material. My best poems have come to me almost effortlessly, while no good fiction I’ve written has come without a process that feels like grave digging. It’s like trying to grope your way to the light switch in a dark, unfamiliar room. I’m also very susceptible to influences, and find that the rhythm of whatever I’m reading tends to get into my head and hijack my voice. For instance, I’ve been completely obsessed with James Salter lately and have found myself writing sentences in the style of Light Years. As much as I admire that book, I don’t want to imitate him, I want to write my own sentences, but to shake off his spell I have to get deep enough into a morning to where my own inevitable voice comes back to me. I don’t always like my voice, but it’s mine and it’s the voice I have to trust. I’ve also found that I’m very easily distracted and that the Internet, for all its miracles and charms, is the worst possible invention for someone with a mind like mine. I have to protect myself from it or else whole days are easily given over to emailing, which feels like real writing just enough to make me feel like I’ve done a day’s work when I haven’t. So I’ve found that I absolutely have to write by hand, in a certain style notebook with a certain pen, and that I do my best work at what Plath calls “that still, blue, almost eternal hour” before dawn. I also have to write every day out of what seems to be some sort of obsessive-compulsive need.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I spend the vast majority of my life with words: writing, reading, thinking about writing, talking about reading, reading friends’ writing, writing about their writing, reading books about reading, etc. Part of this might have something to do with the fact that my father is a poet and my mother is a voracious reader (she jokes that she wants her epitaph to say: “She didn’t live life, she read about it”). Considering these predilections, the best thing I can do sometimes is to try to leave everything behind and do some traveling. In June I put my computer and my phone in a dark drawer and left the country. I went to Amsterdam, Paris, Corsica, Ireland. I saw Van Gogh’s last paintings, lived in a remote mountain village in Corsica, visited the place in Ireland where my father’s family is from. Of course I had notebooks and books with me, but they were just crutches. I travel to try to meet the world directly rather than through the medium of words. Traveling frees me from the spell that writing has cast over me since I was little. In Corsica, there was this old man in the village who was always trying to talk to me, but of course I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and my friend could only translate roughly because the man was speaking Corsican. So these bits and pieces would come through. I’d say, “Chris, what is he saying?” and Chris would say, “He says you Americans are all the same: you drink whiskey like tea and then you put on your little hats.” And we’d laugh and nod and agree that that was true. It was exactly what I needed: to strip myself bare of my very language, to put my books and pens down for a few months. And yet, ironically, here I am back home, writing about that wonderful man…
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
Above I mention my obsessive-compulsive need to write. I lack the ability to interpret my experience of being alive without transmuting it into words. I’m constantly taking things people say and do and storing them away as fodder for future poems and stories. Whenever anything happens my family says, “Austin is going to write about this.” I feel parasitic sometimes. Maybe that’s an experience lots of writers have. But to return to the question, I don’t think I ever had any choice. There was never a moment when I decided to be a writer. When I was little I wanted to be a Civil War historian, and that strange desire transmogrified itself into being a poet and when I became frustrated with my poems I started writing stories, but I don’t remember ever deciding to be a writer. Probably not many writers do. My dad is a magnificent poet and, when I was little, poets would come visit us on our farm so I was entranced by the writing life from a young age. All I’ve ever really wanted to do is spend my days writing and reading in a farmhouse in the country, with a few dogs and cats for company and sporadic visits from friends. I’ve never desired anything other than that. I’m emotionally and spiritually incapable of any other existence.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
My friends would probably say that I have one too many credos when it comes to literature and books. I’m incredibly stubborn about what I like and dislike. A general credo of mine would be that I value earnestness over irony, the heart over the head. My least favorite thing to hear someone say about a book is: “I thought it was really smart.” But, that being said, I’m going to step aside and patch together the rest of my credo from things I’m reading and admiring at the moment.
James Salter: “Everything is a dream; only those things that have been written down have any possibility of being real. That’s all that exists in the end, what has been written down.”
John Haines in an essay about Tomas Tranströmer: “We may have reduced the world to mechanism, to dead object; the earth will be divided into lots and sold to the next high bid. But the poet cannot live with that state of things. He must set the world in motion again, put things on their feet and have them speak. And in doing this he renews an old and needed function of poetry: the reconciliation of warring and unlike things, that we may live in a comprehensible world.”
Transtömer himself: “When I started writing, at 16, I had a couple of like-minded school friends. Sometimes, when the lessons seemed more than usually trying, we would pass notes to each other between our desks—poems and aphorisms, which would come back with the more or less enthusiastic comments of the recipient. What an impression those scribblings would make! There is the fundamental situation of poetry. The lesson of official life goes rumbling on. We send inspired notes to one another.”
Virginia Woolf in an essay entitled “How Should One Read a Book?”: “Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards—their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble—the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’”
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
I’m working on a long piece of prose and a novel. The long piece of prose has more in common with my favorite book, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men than with traditional narratives. It’s really an attempt to celebrate the phenomena of the American family farm, from every conceivable angle. Naturally, it’s not a very plot-driven book. It’s more a compendium of images. The author of the book is not myself but an aging hired hand who worked for the fictional family (the Albrights) all his life, and now is left with nothing but his memories of the place and its people. This book could stretch to a completely absurd and unwieldy length and I don’t have any ambition to get it published.
The novel, on the other hand, has more in common with “Cicadas”. It is plot-driven, and there is an end in sight. It basically involves the impact of a young man’s death upon his family and their family farm. I’m hoping to finish a draft of this book before I leave the Stegner program.
And I’m still working on poems. I have a collection of poems coming out this September called Almanac, which was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. I feel like I’m kind of holding my breath, waiting for the book to appear, and then I hope to put together a new collection.
Finally, I’m very saddened by the death of the letter in contemporary times. I can’t imagine my life without the letters of John Keats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Tomas Transtömer and Robert Bly, Charles Wright and Charles Simic, etc. I think the epistolary form is a strange and beautiful literary genre, and I don’t think it translates well to email. So another project of mine is to try to write handwritten letters.