Nathan Poole is the author of two books of fiction, Father Brother Keeper, a collection of stories selected by Edith Pearlman for the 2013 Mary McCarthy Prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award, and Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost, selected by Benjamin Percy as the winner of the 2014 Quarterly West Novella Contest. He has been awarded the Narrative Prize, a Milton Fellowship at Image, and a Joan Beebe Fellowship at Warren Wilson College. He lives in Boone, North Carolina, where he works on tree farms and teaches writing. An excerpt from his story “Exit Wound” can be found here. It appears in the Nov/Dec 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Exit Wound”?
Everything I write begins as an image or a scrap of language and nothing more than that. Somewhere in the drafting process, usually before I have a full draft, I begin to discover the thematic drive that will come to reshape the story. With this story, all I had was an image of a young couple walking together at the state fair, and the guy had a bad shiner. That image immediately had the twinkle and extension of metaphor and I liked the language and the little scene around it, so I went with it. I realized, after a few weeks, and after that scene was cut and rewritten, that this story was becoming an important vehicle for me to deal with incidents in my own life that have disturbed my sense of masculinity.
Almost every woman in my life that I’ve spent time with in public, including my wife, has had something hollered at them by a man that was humanity-curdling. It’s wild the things guys will yell from a car, the level of detail included, and the sense of possession and anger in what they yell. And it’s especially strange being a male and being present for these things. It throws you into a crisis, or it should, right? You’re not the victim, but you share in some of the hurt. And besides the anger, which is obvious, you’re also filled with something else, which is perhaps the shame or fear that you’re somehow culpable, that there is something planted deep inside you that is being represented, made acute. It’s hard to explain this feeling, which is why, I guess, I needed to write the story.
In Peter Orner’s “Five Shards,”—a sequence of five stories that I discovered after writing this one, one of which has a similar plot—he uses the phrase “vinegar light.” Other than representing his gift as a writer, those words absolutely describe the atmosphere that appears after something like this has happened. For whatever reason, I needed to linger in the strangeness of that light, the bitterness and absurdity of it, and to see what I could make of it. And so the story.
A substantial section of this story is told from Benji’s perspective while he watches Sarah being watched by men. Is the targeting of Sarah and the objectification she experiences something which also endangers the humanity of Benji? Is it possible that the abuse Sarah endures on a daily basis is also abusive to anyone who considers her a human being and a friend?
I’m grateful for the insight behind these questions. I want to just say yes here. I don’t think I can put it better. Benji’s humanity is absolutely endangered, to the point that he eventually gives up on resisting the darker nature of his masculinity and it costs him dearly in the end. I believe that Benji understands this immediately, as soon as Sarah doesn’t come back to him from her encounter with the boy scouts. But again, that’s a costly way to learn something. Thankfully, in fiction, the reader can share in that kind of experiential knowledge without having to share in the cost.
If you are and do identify as a male writer, did you find any part of writing the persecution of a female character by male figures difficult? Is there any part of this experience you feel you cannot access or cannot write as a male author?
I’d like to preface my answer to this one by saying that the best and fullest expression of my thinking on this subject is the story itself. I will say that I found this story very difficult to write on an emotional level for all the reasons we’ve discussed. It was also difficult in terms of point of view, both from a technical and an ethical standpoint. If you track the point of view shifts in this story, you’ll notice that I really tried to have it all, even to the point of writing in the plural perspective of an entire troop of boy scouts. But you’ll also notice that the point of view shifts roughly parallel where I did and did not feel I had authority as a writer to enter a character’s psyche. So the modulation of narrative distance here is telling, I hope. I think access and authority are two different ways of seeing this problem. The word access implies a dichotomy that I don’t think justly represents the form of fiction or the empathetic and intellectual space that writers inhabit while they are writing. I like the word authority because it is still strong enough to suggest that, in contrast to Lionel Shriver’s recently espoused approach, you can in fact get it wrong; fiction isn’t a free for all, but also that art—especially the art of fiction—can create authority in unexpected ways and we need to remain open to that.
When Sarah decides to show herself to the boy scouts on their request, is her total stripping down and following actions a way for her to reclaim some control over her body and her biology? Is there a strength and humanity embedded in her very personal decision to commit what could be seen as further debasement?
I don’t have a full explanation of Sarah’s action here at the end of the story. On some level, I was really perplexed by the turn this story took, both troubled and moved by it. On another level, I know I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals lately and part of what happens in this story is starting to make some sense to me the more I think along these lines.
I’ve been really interested in the way rituals act, both in life and in fiction, as complete dramatic actions. Robert Boswell put me on this path a few years ago. And these rituals, whether religious or secular, are little units of meaning, little narratives that don’t break down and help us to ratify shifts in our life and identities. I’ve also noticed that sometimes the rituals we need to move forward in life don’t always exist when or where we need them to, or within our existing set of culturally sanctioned rituals. This is where things get interesting, when we start to create rituals, usually by appropriating an existing circumstance. There’s a great film about this dynamic by Megan Mylan called “After My Garden Grows” in which a young girl in rural India is given only one ritual to become a woman—marriage in this case—and instead of taking it, she creates her own ritual by cultivating a garden and selling her produce.
In the case of my story, I think Sarah does something similar. It’s a shift in power. She sees the boy scout’s offer to objectify her according to a cash-nexus as a representation of what the world has always been offering her, as if that’s the only offers she’s ever really gotten and she’s done with it all, and decides to subvert it, and of course, the boy scouts don’t get what they want or what they were expecting out of this. But this ritual is also, in my mind, a way for Sarah to accept a kind of original animal power, to shift her identity into a new understanding of herself, her humanity, one that suddenly encompasses and transcends the mammal or animal.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’ve been working on a novel for a few years that’s set in South Carolina and spans a century. It’s been quite a journey so far. And always stories. I’m finding writing increasingly important these days, especially after the recent election, and I’m taking more time with everything I write than I have before. Trying to be more patient. I heard Michael Longley recently say that “some experiences in life don’t feel complete” without his having written about them. I like that, the way the writing life consummates real life. I think that’s true. He went on to say that “it’s extraordinary, like having two lives.” So I’m working, but it doesn’t feel as much like work as it does like living two lives that are in a deep, ongoing conversation with one another.