David Greendonner is from Bridgman, Michigan, and is a graduate of Western Michigan University’s MFA program in fiction. From 2015 to 2017 he was the managing editor of the literary magazine Third Coast. His KR Short Fiction Prize-winning short story “Lionel, for Worse” can be found here. It appears in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Lionel, for Worse”?
I have some great bickerers in my life, and I’ve caught myself enjoying listening to them more and more.
The girls at the end of the story took our guest judge by surprise. Did they arrive out of the blue when you were writing, or did you have them planned from the beginning?
I can never be sure about these things, but I think they started as a callback to Lionel’s comment at the beginning of the story about where he’d prefer to be scattered. They were also a bit of realism; people run the beaches of Lake Michigan near me year-round. I may have also been thinking it could only be good to have someone “walk in” on the narrator and Lionel performing their practice rite.
Their exchange with Lionel was unplanned. I remember having a pretty clear sense of Lionel’s way of redirecting things—how he and the narrator can have conversations that look and sound like different conversations entirely. They’d earned that, having been together so long. The girl who approaches them, by contrast, is young, earnest, and direct. While I’d like to take credit for seeing how all of that would converge into one of the story’s load-bearing moments, I didn’t and can’t.
In addition to being a fiction writer, you’ve also worked as managing editor at Third Coast. Do you think editorial work has affected your writing? If so, how?
Anyone who’s done any submission reading on the scale a national magazine requires has to admit a bias toward attention-headlocking first sentences and paragraphs, and I’m sure I monkey with my opening lines differently for having done all that judge-and-jurying (which, I should make absolutely clear, was nothing compared to all the reading our fiction editors did).
Lots of stories work differently—start slow to pay off big later, say. It’s unfortunate, maybe, that the nature of mass reading tends to favor, if for very practical reasons, stories that hit the ground running.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
No chestnuts come to mind. But the comment about my writing I think about most comes from Jef Otte, who, in a fiction workshop a few years ago, described one of my stories as “aggressively plotless,” which I took as a compliment at the time, and I think he even meant as a compliment at the time, but I have since decided, after some soul-searching, that that’s maybe not a target toward which I should be aiming. I try to stop myself now at tolerably plotless.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I spent the better part of 2017 writing and revising a novella about two fake cowboys in a lakeside Michigan town (there’s a duel) and a young cubicle jockey with a wild suspicion that he can see the future. It’s both more and less weird than it sounds, and it’s possible I’m the only one entertained by it.