Hugh Sheehy’s story collection, The Invisibles, is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press this October. His story “Meat and Mouth” appears in the Summer 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
It’s a combination of impulses: to write a thriller, to make a thriller that comments on the thriller form, to compose a narrative using different registers and voices in the hope of producing a contemporary “realism” (by which I mean a passable reproduction of the experience of consciousness today), and to then push that realism to edge of some other genre– in this case, satire, allegory, and something like science fiction–in order to reinforce that realism (I believe that a new realism must necessarily contain, or be capable of containing, all other genres in a manner that emphasizes both how they work for and against the creation of meaning in a world where we confront many genres and discourses at once). The story was written in a single sitting and then revised many times. The most difficult part was writing in some of the action, which tends to show up poorly in prose, and which is here mostly meant to be comic and unsettling together, but might just be awkward.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I have learned to take it slowly. I am learning to take it slowly. My strengths as a writer and a thinker are not constant across time, and it is therefore important for me to recognize what I can accomplish on a given day and to then do that. One day I might have a number of ideas for scenes or even whole stories, but I will be hard-pressed to privilege one over the others. Then it’s best to take notes and then revise completed drafts of other things. Another day I might wake up thinking about a scene in a particular story, or even several scenes, and then I should concentrate on writing those. I have to keep working until there is a day when the story looks finished without my making any changes. Maybe then it is finished, but most likely not. These things take time, and it seems one must both remember this and learn it in a new way with each new big project.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
My favorite magazines publish fiction that is strongly narrative, challenging, and well written. There’s no way I can produce a comprehensive list, but I always look forward to Crazyhorse, The Paris Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, Tin House,Harper’s, Granta, The New Yorker, and The Iowa Review. I particularly look forward to those publications that supply a combination of the best fiction and outstanding political or critical nonfiction. Good writing–or just plain writing as opposed to rewriting–engages in the work of discovering and shaping point of view.
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?
Larkin’s description is very similar to instruction I offer writing students about revision, so I guess his stages must be germane to my process in some way. One point of difference for me is the term “emotional concept,” which is too clean a way to characterize my understanding of starting points. What I do–and what I urge students to try before they get down to setting the final springs on their sentences–is to follow some impulse to write a story (or an image or cluster of images or scene or character into a story) through a series of drafts, allowing each to present errors in composition which must then be rewritten in order to achieve the desired effect. Fiction–and maybe the difference here is that Larkin is writing about poetry, which puts language and sometimes syntax first, and that I’m thinking about story, something that principally concerns a sequence of events involving relatively stable and often primarily visualized (as opposed to primarily verbalized) entities like characters, landscapes, and objects–may be less determined than poetry when it first appears in its writer’s mind. (Maybe, though I doubt it.) Some people will find the reference tired, but I think John Gardner’s description of fiction as a “moral laboratory” is accurate with respect to the drafting process. A writer may have to rewrite a story several times and ways to make it the best it can be, and that best might not be traceable all the way back to that first creative spark; it’s my experience that the fiction writer discovers the better story while and by writing the lesser ones. Fiction is exploratory, mysterious, and ultimately impossible to decode because it requires the writer to produce and manipulate in longer form figures that only the writer knows or senses. I am not referring to easily parsed elements like theme or conflict or interpretable concepts but the significance of fictional material itself. Why, in his story “Signs and Symbols,” does Nabokov call for his sorrowing parents to bring their suicidal son “a dainty and innocent trifle–a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars”? The detail certainly fits well within the story and conveys general ideas of the nurturance and pleasures parents might wish for their tragically self-destructive child, but it is also a detail that I suspect occurred for more personal reasons to Nabokov, who writes beautifully elsewhere about both food and the life of the mouth, maybe most famously in Pnin, inventorying his professor’s sensations after a particularly unfortunate trip to the dentist’s, but more nostalgically, concisely, and movingly in the second paragraph of Bend Sinister, in what appears to be a personal reference to a blue mug he drank milk from as a kid. This is not to say that Nabokov had a meaning in mind when he chose the preserves for “Signs and Symbols”, but that he felt it was the right detail. Who knows if he ever knew why or even gave the detail a second thought? It was only a part of his mind, and he had to trust that it would stand together in a carefully arranged crowd of its peers to work a change on his readers’ perception; he had to trust that his own best vision of these materials would strike his audience as worth sifting. Writing fiction is less expression than it is excavation of something the writer first experiences as remote and complex. Writing poetry is probably similar or even the same. Larkin may be mythologizing himself a little, laying out such a simple series of steps. Many writers try to cover the meandering trails of footsteps and corpses leading to their mature creations. It makes them appear more unapproachable, less mortal. It seems that we have only recently been opening up so much about creative process, admitting what messes we all carry around in our minds and laptops and notebooks. This is a good thing for students. Is it a good thing for authors? Something is lost, namely the myth of author. I think we’re all just writers now. There are some exceptions, living legends like Seamus Heaney. But mainly they prove the rule.
As for the third part of Larkin’s formulation, I’ll refer only to its relation to fiction: it does appear that the measure of a narrative’s power as a work of art is to move readers regardless of how their cultural contexts inflect its sentences. I can’t hope to understand Gilgamesh through the minds of ancient audiences, but I am still moved by the hero’s attempt to keep his friend Enkidu alive by behaving like him, wearing wild furs and roaming the wilderness, after the latter dies.
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?
Powerful literature takes root in and lives in and through us and things that we do after reading it; to be even more precise, the parts of it that we find most striking resonate through our conscious experiences, which is to say all of our experiences. The best fiction feeds the soul (or the mind or self, if “soul” puts a bad taste in your mouth). Reading fiction, individuals recognize themselves in imaginary figures and landscapes and then surrender themselves to standing witness to their transformations. The experience of reading moves through the reader and into the world via the reader’s interactions with other people and in the reader’s observations and writings. There is a practically infinite life for certain archetypes when it comes to characters and narratives, and we lean heavily on those phenomena when trying to chart our own stories and our roles within them. The archetypes themselves exist beyond the mind. They are realer than any sense of subjectivity. Each of us is the hero figure when we leave for work in the morning and come home in the evening; it happens again when we sleep at night and dream, or any other time when we experience the departure from and return to ourselves slightly changed. This is not just a human pattern; it characterizes animal experience and also the movements of much larger brainless things like planets and comets. Other archetypes like etiologies and apocalypse stories and the figures essential to the formation of families are likewise indispensable and precede us as individuals, such that we can only appreciate them more deeply as we grow and live our lives (this has never been more evident to me than now, sitting a few feet from my seven week old daughter, who has just begun to babble, smile at her mother and me, and play a game involving looking for a pacifier in one corner of her bouncer: becoming a father has opened a new realm of emotional experience I never could have truly comprehended using my imagination alone).
We obviously need stories in order to think and make sense of the world. Stories are even embedded in the structure of our speech (Saying “I am Hugh,” is an act of characterization that alludes to and builds on a mutually understood context; it means one thing if we are shaking hands in a park, another if I am preparing to waterboard you in a secret detention center). Being able to write stories down in more complex forms only increases the potential representing what we go through each day in ways that are more complex, imaginative, and comprehensive. Writing helps us get closer to telling the true and whole story, through many voices if not through one alone. I would hazard to speculate that the kinds of thinking made possible by such cognitive exercise and pursuit are useful and even essential to existing at a time when we get food from California, clothes from China, political opinions from John Stewart and Rush Limbaugh, and moral support from the Internet while for the most part remaining within the same small patch of geography each day. There is no possibility of understanding the political complexity and moral difficulty that strain our lives without thinking through at least some of the perspectives involved, and the only way to do that thinking clearly is through a rigorously honed language attentive to the human experience (warts, literal and figurative, and all) at the basis of all conflict.
I am not trying to suggest that books can save the planet. I am suspicious of writers who pat themselves on the back for writing politically charged stuff. There are nearly seven billion people on the planet, and most of them do not read short stories or novels or poems. It is important to avoid overestimating the power of the literary imagination, of missing where the literary imagination breaks away from more prevalent forms of storytelling such as scientific narratives in most developed counties or religion in the places where religions continue to hold sway over the majority of peoples’ thoughts. That is not the same as saying the literary imagination has no power. What literature can and should do is explore the moral complexity of experience and demonstrate the power of the imagination in ways that restore, either directly or indirectly, our sense of right and wrong, our sense of who we are and who we are becoming, and what we have left to hope for. Literature (and here I mean all forms of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry) should call us to use our imaginations, to be honest with ourselves, and to change our lives in the tiny ways that matter.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
One very important teacher for me has been a cautionary tale. It takes many forms, though it most often appears as someone accusing one writer of imitating another, or saying that a writer is guilty of writing some outmoded form of realism or using some other set of storytelling strategies associated with a previous writer or group of writers. When I was in college, I was aware of this phenomenon, though it never struck me as a problem that I was aping the style of Cormac McCarthy in the unreadable compositions I foisted on my peers in workshop; I saw myself as simply demonstrating my promise as a writer while biding my time while I developed artistically. I could not understand why one of my best professors, a truly great person named Steven Bauer, would give me hell for engaging in what I understand in retrospect as probably necessary (for me, anyway, at that point in my development) acts of public narcissism. It was only later, as I became more broadly read, especially in the work of the last few decades, that I began to see more clearly how many writers seemed to parroting one writer or another or, worse, competing with each other to be recognized as the heir to a particular writer. Only then could I appreciate that Bauer was being honest with me about a real danger.
My favorite account of this kind of thing is probably destined to be apocryphal and ephemeral, and that’s fine with me. A professor at the University of Alabama had managed to get his hands on an anthology of twentieth century poets that had belonged to AR Ammons. He let me use it for a paper I was writing in a course on the idea of authorship. It seemed that Ammons had gone through the anthology one night, maybe after a few drinks, and made marginal notes responding to the editor’s praise of Robert Lowell’s poetry (the editor judges it some of the best verse written between 1940 and the 1980, and she devotes forty or so pages to appreciating it, while reserving a couple of pages for Ammons’s work). Ammons’s comments suggested strong disagreement with her assessments. I’ve lost my photocopies of the pages, but I remember distinctly that in one place Ammons had written that Lowell failed to “make the change,” which in the context seems to say that Lowell had never found a voice or an ethos truly his own. That sentiment is bound to invite counterargument from Lowell readers, and I won’t bother trying to support it. My point in including it is to demonstrate that writers and studied critics can often see work for what it is, what it has borrowed or stolen and what new things it offers. The idea that I might spend my life writing in order to become someone else began to bug me. I do not consider myself to be anywhere close to the level of the two writers I name above, but I feel confident that each would have been heartened to know the other thought he did good work. As you get better at what you do, the number of opinions that mean something to you gets smaller. I won’t claim to have escaped the influence of the writers before me whose work has provided and still provides my principal education. But this tale about mimicry gives me courage to strike out on my own and to seek community and friendship with other writers who are doing likewise. There are moments when I see and hear myself breaking away, and I know to push in this direction, toward something new, with the good faith that it might prove good and worthy of lasting.