Frank Fucile is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the College of William and Mary. His dissertation is on photography and environments of war. His story “Slow and Steady” appears in the Fall 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review and can be found here.
Could you tell us a little about “Slow and Steady”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
This was a particularly difficult story for a few reasons. I wrote the rough draft seven years ago, when my father was still alive, and unlike most of what I write, the basic details of this story are all very personal and very true. In one sense, the hardest part was living it and then waiting to be at a point where I could write about it with something other than impotent rage. It took several rounds of abandoning and reworking this manuscript before I had the confidence that my reader wouldn’t think its non-standard, poetic language was pretentious or silly. I basically had to figure out what made the story “fiction”—and that ended up being the lyric moments of flashback and flash-forward that give the piece a point of view more complicated than mere axe-grinding.
How, if at all, do you see your story in conversation with contemporary debates in the political arena about the place of organized labor?
The fact that organized labor is a topic of “debate”—in the existential sense, that is, whether or not unions should exist at all—illustrates how sad a state we’re in politically. Increasingly we are told to assume it ludicrous that working a single, steady job could be enough to support a family and might even entitle a worker to political representation. Now we’re all supposed to be entrepreneurs, self-promoters, con men, whatever. There’s a wonderfully reassuring honesty of purpose in saying, “I’m a worker,” whether that means you’re a coal miner or a teacher. It means you have a community and you perform a function that is greater than yourself.
It seems like we’ve given up on the version of the American Dream that is based on incremental mobility—the worker’s version or the middle-class version—as opposed to the narrative of one lucky bastard’s sudden rise to wealth and fame. The tragedy of “Slow and Steady” is that, for three generations, my family figured that merely working hard would be enough. It’s half a lament that someone of my generation and class status doesn’t have the work ethic of my forefathers, and it’s half a cynical accusation that those men bought into a whole system of wage labor that found its endpoint in their kids graduating from college and going to work as bartenders and adjuncts.
This story, runner-up in the KR Short Fiction Contest, had to clock in at under 1200 words. Is flash fiction a form you ordinarily work in? Do you think that successful short-shorts share any common characteristics?
I’ve learned to write in shorter and shorter forms as I’ve developed. I was writing novellas and novels through my BA and MA. I don’t think I really learned how to write an effective 10-to-25-page short story until the end of that period, which was when I wrote the first version of this story. I always felt like I needed more space to develop the characters. In the years since then, I kept challenging myself to write a seven-page story, and it would always unfold to something around 30 pages. Only in the past few years have I been able to work effectively in seven pages or less. You need to learn to balance your artistic ambition with some degree of humility; if you want someone to read 30 pages, it better be a damn good story. Submitting regularly and working on literary magazines yourself helps with that, because you begin to realize the vast numbers of submissions that you are in competition with. This overabundance of fiction writing is one reason why shorter forms are more popular these days.
There are common characteristics that successful 10-to-30-page short stories tend to share, and those are the things we teach in traditional, intro-level fiction writing courses. However, those characteristics aren’t always going to be entirely present in a story of 1200 words or less, and this means that a writer can set certain expectations aside and experiment. The beautiful thing about short-shorts is they can be so different from each other. This, along with my limited attention span, is why I find myself increasingly writing short-shorts and poetry.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Teaching fiction writing has taught me more than being a student in workshop ever did, because you need to be very clear about explaining what works and why, even when it’s merely a matter of opinion. Time also gives you a good eye for revision; sometimes you need to let something sit until you don’t have quite so much invested in it, and sometimes you need to throw the whole thing away and write it all over again. You gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Most importantly, my wife, Megan. I don’t think I would have the motivation to do much of anything without her. It’s wonderful to love someone who truly believes in you. One of our favorite things is making up stories about people we see when we’re out in public. I wish my Dad could have met her; they would have gotten along well.
My other influences are probably similar to what other people would say—things like music, art, reading history, listening to other people’s conversations, etc. One of the bits in “Slow and Steady” came from an old friend of mine’s misreading of the blues song “That Lucky Old Sun.” He wondered who this bastard “son” was who wasn’t doing any work. Years later, it occurred to me that’s the guilt that comes from doing post-industrial intellectual labor and trying to reconcile it with the historical memory of one’s immigrant, working-class roots.
In the 1950s, 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 ten leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” If you were to write a credo, do you have a potent piece of advice, either from yourself or from another writer, that you might use as a jumping-off point?
That word—“coterie”—makes me nervous. I don’t believe literature should be an elite thing, and I think that when we allow that assumption to go unquestioned, we do the literary community and the culture as a whole a disservice. No matter how high-brow or how experimental your work is, it should still be readable and meaningful to ordinary people. Perhaps, then, the important debate is: Who are these “ordinary people,” and what makes narratives “meaningful” to them? I’m not advocating for merely escapist literature, though usually that’s what people assume you’re defending when you criticize literary elitism (and that assumption itself is elitist). Actually, I’m advocating precisely the opposite; I think the most dangerous form of literary escapism is the writing that is merely published as an example of “well-constructed” fiction or poetry—writing that is primarily for writers and primarily functions on the level of being “good writing.” That’s something that sometimes scares me about literary magazines. Why all these words? Why should anybody read this story? Why am I writing it? Those are hard questions sometimes.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
This is a dangerous question, because it’s embarrassing to speak of something and never finish it. I’m the kind of person who is always working on ten different things, and I’ve had to learn that part of my process is allowing some things to not be finished so I can move on to other things. I have a few novels in the drawer, one of which might get dusted off and eventually be spiffed up for publication. I’ve been spending most of my creative energy on short stories and poetry these days. I would love the opportunity to publish poetry. I’m writing another screenplay—a western. I write scholarly essays pretty regularly as part of my PhD work. The one thing I can say that I definitely will finish is my dissertation, which deals with military photography and the environmental history of US warfare.