Rolf Yngve is a former captain in the US Navy whose stories were first published and anthologized in the 1970’s. Best credit: Best American Short Stories, 1979. More recent work appears in Glimmer Train, Indiana Review, Fifth Wednesday and others. He holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson, was a 2012 MacDowell Fellow, and was awarded a 2014 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellowship. An excerpt from his story “A Prerogative” can be found here. The full story appears in the Mar/Apr 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “A Prerogative”? Did you begin with the setting? With a character? With a line of dialogue or description?
I think the story grew out of a strange coincidence of all those elements. I was studying under Stephen Dobyns at the Warren Wilson Program for Writers—which means I was also studying Dobyns, reading his poetry—and reading works he assigned in hopes they would help me learn how to write this novel I started after Kevin McIlvoy suggested a short story might go farther.
Dobyns filled my brain with Master and Margarita, Rulfo, Ernst Jünger, Vasily Grossman, Simeon—a literary stew from a past generation. At the same time, I was reading Andrea Barrett, whose work became a huge influence upon me. Her story about a chance encounter between a young woman and an old man, “A Forest,” had a particular grip. I had also been very moved by younger authors’ works seen in draft about communication across generations, particularly Harriet Clark’s novel chapters and Jane Rose Porter’s stories.
During all this, I was trying to get my hands around a character in the novel—Ehrlich in this story. I had just quit a job as a defense consultant, the last gasp after nearly forty years work for the navy. One of my final days at work, I was driving home over the Coronado Bridge, thinking how empty life would be for this character, Ehrlich, after he got out of the navy. And how empty it would have been for me, if I hadn’t been caught in this wonderful net of literature and writing—Lewis Hyde’s gift, I suppose—when the traffic stopped. It was a perfect, blue San Diego day, and the phrase “a vertigo sky” came to mind. The first draft came after that.
Then I had to search for the story another four years. It had a sort of parallel growth with the novel.
The story’s title, “A Prerogative,” is ambiguous—both of the characters take actions that could or could not be considered prerogatives. Could you tell us a little bit about your choice of a title that might be read many ways?
The title came very late in the process even though the term, “command prerogative” had been part of the first paragraph from the earliest drafts. It’s a bit of military jargon referring to a sort of naughty, selfish choice someone in command of a military unit might make to simply grant oneself a little special treatment. Like, let’s say, a ship’s captain orders a gig to take him ashore because he wants to leave the ship early. He brings some preferred crew members along with him to make it look like, you know, a sort of reward for their work, when it’s really something he wanted to do to reward himself.
The story had all sorts of titles; I struggled with the story for years, showed it in various drafts with equally various titles to many people, several workshops. It was OK in several different forms, but it kept clawing at me. Finally, I was fortunate enough to find myself looking it over with Tim O’Brien, which felt like daring to show a draft of an epistle to Jesus Christ. (His novel Going After Cacciato stays with me like scripture.) In the middle of our parsing the manuscript, O’Brien jerked his head up and said something like, “Wait, Ehrlich should do this: . . . ” and suggested the story’s turn.
It was a stunning moment. And I realized that the story had something to do with choices, selfish and altruistic choices. Then the title was obvious.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
You mean other than writing with a pen and paper in those days?
When I was young, and I mean forty years ago, the work that satisfied me always came out nearly full-grown. I would literally think about a story for months or years before starting. Then I’d pull it together very quickly, proof it with minor edits, revise it at the line and paragraph level and it was done. But the structure never really changed. It either worked or it went into the filing cabinet.
Now, every story, every vignette, even nonfiction, and especially long, novelistic works—everything leaps into the unknown. I think I fail more now, even though I have dozens of terrible stories from the 80’s and 90’s mildewing in cardboard file boxes. But I work more. That is, I am able to spend more time on the work. So I don’t throw things away so quickly.
Maybe I’ve learned patience.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
This is a very interesting question. I’d never considered it before you asked. My first instinct was to say there is no non-writing-related aspect of my life. But that’s not really true.
My mind is a garbage bag full of impressions, words, visions, emotions, doubt, thrill, memory, lies and truths, all incomprehensibly tangled. To work well, I have to trick myself to escape from the catastrophe of all that noise. So anything that that demands or seduces me to be in the moment, to be mindful, is immensely valuable.
Solitary (as in non-competitive) sports do it. I ski or body-board; the mountain and the ocean demand your complete attention. Anything that requires problem solving and work with the hands is great; I garden, build things. I’ve escaped more and more into photography. Something about shaping the image, the color, the technical demands of that craft gives me a sense of release and escape.
All art, all design, all self-expression influences my writing. Travel with my wife invariably becomes a kind of search for sensory experience in the arts. Dance, visual arts, video, music, rubbing elbows with artists working in mediums other than mine are huge influences, especially abroad. And Sharon, my partner in this journey, is not a writer or an artist—I live in the best of all worlds, she is an observer. A reader. A student of language, and a conversationalist of the highest ability. Something comes out of that experience. I’m not sure how to describe it, but I know it’s important.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
There’s a lot going on. I’m proofreading what I hope is the final draft of the novel that spawned “A Prerogative” and working in a devilish story I started over a year ago after nearly choking to death at a friend’s dinner party. There are some other stories keyed to photographs, using the images to enhance the story. Outside my own work, I’m one of the editors of an anthology of veteran’s writings, Homecoming, being produced by a San Diego arts group, So Say We All, and I’m working as fiction editor for a new journal, Shadowgraph.
I’m also handling production of digital downloads from the archive of lectures recorded over nearly thirty years of the Warren Wilson MFA for Writers Program. http://www.wwcmfa.org/mfa-store/store-beta-test/ The alumni association sells them to support diversity in the student body.
Wednesdays, I work at a veteran’s center helping vets in recovery write their resumes. I’m trying to be a good citizen in the community of arts. I write every day.