A Conversation With Philip Deaver by KR fiction editor Nancy Zafris
I first met Philip Deaver through his work. I eagerly followed his
stories for years, purchasing any literary magazine that carried a story
of his, until we began an email correspondence a few years ago. Then
we finally met at an AWP conference. It was a happy occasion for me to
meet someone as nice as his work is good.
Philip Deaver’s book Silent Retreats was the 13th winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. He has held fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. His work, which can be found mostly in the literary magazines, has appeared in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and has been recognized in Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize anthology. Many of his current stories are set in a fictionalized version of his hometown, Tuscola, Illinois. He has edited an anthology of creative nonfiction baseball essays, Scoring from Second: Writers on Baseball, due out in spring 2007. Next spring he also has an essay to be published in Creative Nonfiction‘s baseball issue. Deaver also writes poetry. His poems have appeared in magazines such as The Reaper, Poetry Miscellany, and the Florida Review, and are collected in a new volume, How Men Pray, just out from Anhinga Press. Philip Deaver is Associate Professor of English and permanent Writer-in-Residence at Rollins College, Winter Park, FL, and teaches in the Spalding University limited residency MFA program.
Nancy Zafris : Your story “Lowell and
the Rolling Thunder” appears in this issue [Summer 2006]of The
Philip F. Deaver : I’m happy about it.
NZ: So are we. It’s a great story and it has a lot of layers. Lowell is a very complex character; like fine wine, he has an aged quality. Is this a character you’ve
worked with over the years? Does he appear in other work?
Lowell has been in stories of mine since 1990, before I began the Forty Martyrs Suite project
that this story is part of. This project is a suite of seven interconnected stories
that somehow combine to create a novel. “Forty Martyrs” is the real name of the Catholic church in my hometown. I know. For a lot of bigger towns, one martyr’s enough. Anyway,
I like to use recurring characters. And I like to repeatedly use my little hometown
of Tuscola, Illinois, too. To make it work, I had to graft a small state university
to the southwest corner of town.
Interconnected stories, hmm. Is that harder or easier than a stand-alone story?
It would seem you would always be needing to “explain” yourself
or add back story.
I don’t think much about what’s harder or easier. I’ve found I can avoid a need for back story and constant explanations by employing the power of varying points of view and by making the stories complementary instead of purely sequential. Like petals on a tulip – which one’s
first? But of course every novel-in-stories needs a good psychologist trying
to get by in a rough, rough world. And a priest. And a compelling woman. And
an attempted murder and a fire and a secret back-staircase. And a compelling
I was just about to ask you about Forty Martyrs Suite since you mentioned
it in your first response. So is Lowell the main character in all the stories—or
just in some, playing a subordinate role in others?
This is the only story in the suite in which Lowell is the main character and
point of view. Other characters in “Lowell and the Rolling Thunder” – Wally, Carol, Vasco – get their turn with their own stories in the set. The intent is that each story is in a different point of view and stands alone and that, also, when all are mysteriously combined, they have the arc, or should I say “dome,” of a novel. There’s
a gossamer line that separates the two classifications, collection of interconnected
stories, novel-in-stories. Forty Martyrs Suite is very near that line, on the novel side in my opinion. Lowell plays roles of varying importance in all seven of the stories, as do several of the other characters. No character is the main character and/or point-of-view character in more than one of the stories, but most of the characters recur in all the stories. You with me?
NZ: You seem to like to recur your themes, as well.
Yes, I do seem to.
NZ: Some of my favorite short stories happen to be in your collection, Silent
Retreats, which won the Flannery O’Connor award in 1986 and was published in 1988. The title story as well as “Fiona’s Rooms” and “Arcola Girls” —these
are great narratives that reveal themselves slowly and truly, with each sharp
and poetic sentence melting into the overall pacing rather than announcing itself.
Have you moved on from the pained men in these stories, or are you still working
on them, causing them more pain?
First of all, thanks so much for these good words. The themes I landed on back
then are still what I like to write about today. As I’ve grown up (insofar as I have grown up) these regular old life stories and common dilemmas have only gotten more interesting to me. Of course, most of my characters, the men anyway, are some version of me, and they all go through things that are some version of what I’ve
Like what, for instance?
PD: For instance, I’ve lived a really chaotic and trashy life. Kidding. For instance, many of the men I write about got themselves (note I avoided the passive voice – my shrink will love this) caught in the grinder as things changed between men and women a few years back. I’ll never forget “International Year of the Woman,” a great celebration for everyone who was interested in women’s rights. I was one of those interested, still am. Little did I know I’d be cannon fodder for the women’s movement – the enemy! Even if I was sympathetic! While it was a relatively gentle revolution, it turned out not to be as gentle as we thought it would be. The sucky life-suckingness of a lot of lives, including a lot of the terrible jobs we have to do, got suckier, and it wasn’t just the men anymore who were sucked in, terribly unhappy, and dying of heart disease fifteen years too early. Suddenly we were making twice as much money (two incomes), but the slope was slippery and it still wasn’t enough. Happiness, even if you were rich, proved elusive, and so the love generation became the divorce generation, a storm of empty consumption, a paranoid fear of being cheated out of life, wanting, blind aspiration, a blizzard of jealousy, a loss of a sense of direction let alone spirit. Downsizing was a growth industry; families got mulched. Later, after a twenty-year storm of confusion, we look back and say, “Well, it was tough, but it came out all right.” We just say that because we’re still able to stand up and go to yoga. And after all, it was just downstate Illinois, not Fallujah, so nobody really had a right to gripe. Lowell and Veronica, in my story, they’re down in the middle of it all, trying to have a life and give one to their daughter. They’re good people, I think. Lowell’s a psychologist, hoping to be a true professional, but he spends a lot of time at Home Depot and AA meetings. He and his wife are in a struggle to survive as a couple, and the forces operating on them, many of which they sense but can’t actually name, destroy over half our nation’s families. I love how Bush and Congress are raving about gay marriage being an assault on the family. Baaaaahahahahahahahahaaaaaaa. Talk about selective perception. That’s not an elephant in the room, it’s
a deficit, a war, and an ozone hole the size of Montana.
NZ: Ever the optimist, Phil. I thought
writers were supposed to be purveyors of gloom and doom. But
seriously, do you mean that the women’s movement was the real assault on the family?
No, I think really the “nuclear” family, as it is called with the built-in post-WW II bias in the very term, never had a chance. Because, with the rise of certain existential ways of thinking, expectations either got very high or bottomed in despair, and work for most people was just awful and deadend-ish. Competition among the aspiring got treacherous, among the despairing down at the survival level got violent and deadly. And then with what we’re calling the women’s movement, women were sucked into this vortex. Women, too, got to be powerful like Willy Loman! That meant the vortex had us all. The only way out was, as they do in chess, to castle – that is to receive Jesus Christ as your personal savior and put the dodge on the whole stampede – or to get rich and buy out, and even being rich wasn’t all it was cracked up to be (but, as they say, it’s way ahead of whatever’s in second place). That whole discussion is a rat-hole, I admit it. That’s why showing is better than telling. But in a world that was at least approximately like that, down in the middle of the middle, I started writing about men. It has been for a number of years now both a challenge and a little out of style to be a male. I’ve
been told that this serves us right, for all the bad shit we did when we held
all the cards.
NZ: Well, I see that the women’s movement changed your life quite a bit. How about the Flannery O’Connor Award? Did that change your life – for
the better, I hope?
I’d written in isolation from other writers and from any readers
for (number deleted) years before the Award. I have the writer Ken Smith (“Meat,” Atlantic Monthly,
June, ’88), currently of UT-Chattanooga, to thank for kicking me into gear. The stories were written in the middle of the night in the dark … not many expectations except to keep writing them. I was in the thrall of John Gardner, Ann Beattie, Ray Carver, Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, John Fowles, John Updike. And I was fiddling around with how to put my own enemies and trouble into fiction. Suddenly I’d
won this award, and I was doing a reading at the Harvard Club in New York. I
was awful happy, Nancy. Silent Retreats was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review and the Sunday Book Review section of the Chicago Tribune (which
serves my home region), all in one day (June 12, 1988, but who’s counting). I thought that’s
the way it would go from then on.
NZ: Yes, I remember the New York Times review.
That’s how I initially came to your work. I read the review and thought, I’ve got to read this collection. And I loved your stories. I sank deep into them in the way I used to sink into long 19th -century novels. In that way, your stories have always seemed “long” to
me. Are they actually long? Do you tend to write long?
Long compared to what? You know, I love writing stories, and
I love reading them, but we’re in a short-story recession. Maybe
I should start writing stories that are thirty-seven words long,
the new perfect length! Tailored to the size of a cell phone
screen, minimum scroll-down, and perfect for the amount of oxygen
in the new atmosphere. Like how dinosaurs became birds, and redwoods,
I do keep
in mind that literary magazines are my likely market, and that
story length is always a consideration there. I hope the stories
aren’t fat. Do you think that? With a couple of exceptions the
stories in Silent Retreats were 18 to 22 pages in manuscript. The average length of my post-Silent Retreats stories, in my collection Dreams of Her and Other Stories and Forty Martyrs Suite, 24 pages. You got me worried so I just did the calculation.
NZ: Oh no, I love long stories. I’m in an
interview in the 2007 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market where I emphasize that The Kenyon Review supports
long stories – partly for one of the reasons you mention: that
our attention span has become bit-sized. Do you still have the
attention span and endurance you used to have?
PD: The truth is I love writing and reading.
I try to give readers the same kinds of great moments I’ve loved
in the work of other writers. I handwrite first drafts in a notebook,
always have, and the eleven stories in Silent Retreats were
handwritten and then transcribed (as we know, it’s never that simple) onto a portable computer called the “Osborne 1” in the spring of ’82.
WordStar! James Fallows, writing monthly about technology in
the Atlantic back then, led us into the world of that
term we hated so much at first, “word processing.” Yuck! Anyway, it’s often said that computers “cause” stories to “fatten up,” but I see it differently. The computer makes longer stories into a manageable task. More readers of fiction read novels than short stories, according to how the profit motive and the publishing industry are behaving. So, for real readers, long shouldn’t be a problem with anything we could call a short story…within reason. My icons write longer, too, I think. Robert Stone’s hard, tough, fairly long story “Helping.” Madison Bell in his “Customs of the Country.” Annie Proulx in “Brokeback Mountain.” Richard Bausch in “Design.” Dan
Choan. Peter Taylor. OK, maybe I go long sometimes. Look how
long this answer is.
NZ: Who are some other models for you?
PD: I prefer to answer this with specific stories
instead of specific authors, and specific moments inside the
works rather than the works as a whole. Have you ever read John
Updike’s “A Constellation of Events,” a little story buried down
in his Trust Me collection? The last lines kill me.
Then there’s the Morrisons’ accident in Dan Choan’s “Among the Missing”? And Ann Beattie’s second swing past her mother’s house in “Find and Replace,” and her delicious little story “Waiting,” when the dog lazily comes out onto the front porch. Alice Dark’s “In the Gloaming” – those who’ve read it will remember the father saying to the mother, “Tell me about my son.” Tobias Wolff’s “Powder,” Richard Ford’s “Reunion,” Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Carver’s “Cathedral” and “Errand.” I
like these stories for the amazing moments they gave me. There
are hundreds of others, of course.
NZ: You’ve made me, and any reader of this interview I’m sure, want to go out and revisit these stories. Thanks. I’m the same way; in general, I’m a fan of certain stories and novels rather than certain authors. Let’s
switch gears a bit. In person, you are upbeat and sociable, but
your stories often have a somber, even sad edge, evident even
in the leisurely pacing. Is there another identity at work in
PD: Leisurely pacing! Oh my. Well. I’ve unfortunately developed a goonie, galumphing, smiling presence in social situations, especially when I just meet someone. It’s the “people-pleaser” disease we see in adult children of alcoholics. Guilty! I’m sorry you spotted it. I’ve been battling it for decades. I’m not pathologically dark, but I’m Irish and in real life I’m a helluva lot darker than your description of me, and battle, also, an equally self-defeating downer nature. “Another identity at work” in
my writing? No. I think in thirty years of fiction, and a book
of poems spanning thirty-five years, the real me is bleeding
through. That obsequious smiler is the identity I hate most,
and why I have a tendency to disappoint myself in public and,
as a result, a near limitless zest for being alone.
You not only write short stories and novels, but, as you’ve said, you also write poetry. Which of these three do you consider your true métier?
Short stories and novels are my natural forms. Since I was a young kid, I’ve gone into fiction easily and with great pleasure. I can suspend my disbelief like nobody’s business. I’m not saying it’s
easy. It is true, good, pure work.
narrative and loose, is a way of venting off certain torments
and mulling memories. I don’t write poems unless, sorry to put
it this way, I have to, and I have to a lot. Much of the poetry
is personal, but in every poem I try to spring it free of the
merely me. Begin local and plunge upward into the wild blue.
I frequently find I am writing in all three of these forms. I
approach writing stories and novels about the same, edit them
the same way (which is obsessively). Novels of mine usually but
not always begin with a short story and then bloom. I’ve written five novels, and have published none despite the years I put into them. I don’t
care, he lied. I love to write them anyway, and always do so
with high hopes. The stories continue to be published, one off,
and that keeps me going.
NZ: Which form is the most difficult for you?
I don’t think of it that way, Nancy. First of all, it is almost always
difficult for me, which is part of why I am so fully engaged in it all these
years. Understanding that, there are times when everything is just plain off —my mood, the timing—and no writing is possible for me, no matter the form. When things are going right, the form suggests itself. Most of the time I’m writing prose, but I’m
almost always percolating a poem. In poetry, my touchstone is William Matthews
(Search Party), good, bad (in the good bad way), funny. But the quiet, centered, fourteen liners of Russ Kesler (A Small Fire) are always in the back of my mind.
NZ: What are you working on now?
PD: I have a memoir in progress about my marriage,
which ended a number of years ago. I have an obsession about
the past, mine that is. Not a drive to try to bend it into a
better shape. Rather, a love of contemplating good memories and
obsessing over the bad ones for no good reason and, I’ve noticed, to no good end. Basically, with that book, I’m
trying to heal us, my family. The true story of the marriage
would be healing, it really would, if I can just calm myself
and get it written. I think it would be a great gift to the kids.
And I’m looking at galleys this week for a book of baseball creative nonfiction I’ve
edited, due out in time for Spring Training (Scoring from Second: Writers on Baseball, University of Nebraska Press). This project was handed to me by story writer and anthologist John McNally (Bottom of the Ninth,
SIU Press, ’03), and it’s been a wonderful adventure. I owe him, that’s
I’m marketing Forty Martyrs Suite that
houses “Lowell and the Rolling Thunder.” And my most recent novel, Past Tense. Past Tense was
a seven-year project and is the final word on my trusty old recurring
character, Skidmore – who was all over my book Silent Retreats, and continued to carry on and torment everybody in sight in subsequent stories over the years. With Past Tense,
he’s got his novel, and I hope he’s satisfied. He was a lot of fun, but now he’s done.
Then there’s this new novel.
PD: There’s a character in it named Bill Clinton.
NZ: Can you say more?
NZ: Yes, you can.
Oh OK. I’ve said I’ve spent a lot of time writing in the small frame, interactions and tensions among men and women, men and men, women and women, men and dogs, contemporary USA. Our struggles are not trivial, and the damage from our failures is everywhere. I continue to believe the material is important and do not apologize for it, and won’t stop working that territory. But then you look at Iraq, Darfur, the Congo, Washington, D. C., and all the many other disaster areas on the planet, and you wonder why you’re writing about Lowell saving his dissertation from the fire. The theory of relativity kicks in. Bob Shacochis spoke about this at AWP in Vancouver, and I started the novel in the hotel that week. It is high time to take off the gloves, politically, in our fiction — or
at least high time for me.
NZ: You sound inspired. I love your passion, both for the individual living in Tuscola, Illinois, as well as for urgent global struggles. Needless to say, I look forward to reading your latest. Phil, thanks so much for your forthright and thoughtful answers.
And here’s a big thanks, Nancy, to David, KR, and especially to you.