Twenty Stories: New and Selected by Jack Driscoll is the winner of Pushcart’s Editors Book Awards, and it is easy to see why this collection is already garnering praise and prizes. Jack Driscoll is a master of the short story (although that is not all he writes) and these twenty tales underscore his accomplishment. Here is a landscape both brutal and beautiful, and characters filled with ache and need so acute, readers may find their own knuckles white from the holding on.
It was my pleasure to talk with Jack about these stories, about character, about nonhumans, about place, and about those things that bring him to the page.
PAM: Twenty Stories: New and Selected, is a rich collection of five new tales and fifteen selected from your stellar, award-winning books, Wanting Only to Be Heard, The World of a Few Minutes Ago, and The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot. Having been a long-time reader and admirer of your work, I couldn’t help but wonder how you decided which stories would make the cut. Was it difficult to select such a small sample of your body of work?
JD: For sure a Collected Stories would have made the task a lot easier, but that’s not what I had in mind to do, hoping instead to assemble a representative sampling. A recent Booklist review said, “…and this is a great introduction to his work,” so perhaps, and, by whatever route I took to make these decisions, equaled my intent.
When friends, many of them writers, and, except for my wife Lois, heard what I was working on, they offered, unsolicited, their picks. I doubt that influenced me much, if at all, though the process did include a fair amount of second-guessing.
A variety of subject matter came into play. As did length, as did point of view. For example, I’ve only ever written what I consider to be one successful second-person story. It’s called “On This Day You Are All Your Ages,” and so I knew it would make the cut. Though yes, even after the book came out, I wondered if a certain story might have served the arc or layout better than another. You know, just one of the ways in which writers torture themselves with self-doubt, all part of the passion and process of getting it right.
PAM: The first story, “Wanting Only to Be Heard,” is among my favorites of the short story genre. I often suggest it to emerging writers as a kind of master class in story making. It pretty much follows Freytag’s Pyramid in its rising action, resolution, denouement, and so on, but what is exceptional about it is the deep ache you achieve in the narrator’s point of view, the way you move from the bravado of boys/men to the dangerous vulnerability that sort of bravado sometimes elicits. You’d mentioned in an earlier interview that the collection, Wanting Only to Be Heard, is perhaps your most autobiographical book. Did you draw from your own experiences or emotion as you wrote this story?
JD: I remember Pam Houston, in response to a question during a Q&A some years ago, when asked how much of her fiction is ‘true,’” responding, and without a second’s hesitation, “86 percent.” And which I loved hearing.
The only story from Wanting Only to Be Heard—and one I decided finally not to include in 20 Stories: New And Selected—is called “Miss Dunn,” and, without question stands as my most autobiographical story ever, and which takes place in a 5th-grade classroom in 1956. What I had was an experience vividly recollected, complete with details and a cast of characters. A time, place—the Kirtland School in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where I was born and raised. Some dialogue, and most of all, a palpable, long-embedded psychological fear of what that year did to us, how it altered us forever. And how, all these decades later, it allowed us, I hope, to love without ever speaking about such a thing.
“Wanting Only to Be Heard” was much more deeply imagined, though it began in a restaurant, where, a bit bored, I eavesdropped instead on a conversation at a nearby table, and where some guy was holding forth about a dog that, after being locked for hours in a fishing shanty, jumped through the spearing hole, swam under the ice, and surfaced in another shanty, scaring the shit out the two fishermen staring down at their tiny blue rubber-band bobbers.
I’ve been fascinated with Harry Houdini since I was a kid, and most of all, his legendary swim beneath the ice of the Detroit River. As I was with having seen, in Newport, Rhode Island, one January, and snow coming down, a group of Polar Bear Club members running together naked across the beach and diving headfirst into the Atlantic.
Much later I became a certified scuba diver, and, with a full wetsuit and tank, spent lots of time underwater in the dark at night, a light to illuminate those few visible feet in front of, or below me, and which helped so much to imagine the event, Judge being underwater, and how, to use your phrase, “…the dangerous vulnerability of that sort of bravado…” becomes the catalyst for the insane shenanigans these snowbound, small-town boys actualize, and to a tragic end.
PAM: You plumb the interior landscapes of your characters effortlessly, making some stories read almost like short memoirs in the way you navigate between showing and telling. The scenes anchor your stories, but your characters often think about what is going on, remember other memories, imagine future options. Would it be fair to say that it is the characters and their response to the world and their part in it that particularly interest you as a writer?
JD: Yes, absolutely. What we feel and think not only matters, it matters a lot. Both are fictionally dynamic, which is why Saul Bellow asks, “Which is more interesting, the action that takes place in the mind, or the action that takes place in the bedroom?”
Well, both, I suppose, and the promise I make to myself when it comes to divining multi-dimensional, fully formed characters, is to honor what Eudora Welty calls the “deep-grained habit of love.” If we’re serious writers, that’s the contract we sign, to love our characters, not in spite of their faults, and failures, their oftentimes erratic, and questionable behavior—like the trio of boys in “Wanting Only to Be Heard,” for example, and the consequences of that—but rather because of the internal nonstop wrench and roil of what it means to be human. It’s only when our characters find themselves afraid and teetering on the dangerous edge of things that they’ll seek us out and give away their deepest secrets, and tell us everything.
As Graham Greene says, “What’s there to write about happiness?” Trouble is what interests me, and the physical, tangible action or plot is the means by which to mine, as you say, those complex “interior landscapes.” From outside to inside, circumference to center, and how the characters’ reactions/responses to events they’ve set in, or helped set in motion is, and as you point out in response to my stories, not only what interests me most, but has defined for me over a lifetime of writing, the source and power of compassion, and by that I mean empathy sufficient to bring my characters fully alive.
PAM: I mentioned the interior landscape, and it is difficult to talk about your stories without considering the exterior landscape of them. Most of these stories take place in northern Michigan, and often in the bleakest (yet also beautiful) hours of winter. You have lived in a small town in northern Michigan for decades now, but you are about to move away, back east where you grew up. This may be hard to answer, but do you anticipate this change of scenery affecting the work you will make in the future?
JD: My novel Lucky Man, Lucky Woman is set in Mystic, Connecticut, but it was written here, in Michigan, almost twenty years after the fact. But not so long after, really, at least compared to a story I’ve carried with me, no matter where I’ve lived, and one that seems to transcend geographical boundaries, and which, for a writer so attached to place, seems to me both daunting and inspiring. A territory I haven’t yet occupied on the page, but have carried with me for a lifetime. It’ll be the ‘story’ I sit down to write upon my arrival—as my family refers to it—back home.
I’ll keep you posted, but for now, better I leave it at that before I get too far out on the fringes when all I’ve so far written is the opening sentence, though I already like where it’s pointing me.
PAM: There are a number of encounters with animals—some wild, some domesticated—throughout these twenty stories. A dog barking in “Wanting Only to Be Heard” is the heartbreaking impetus for the story’s title; a plan to steal a horse is at the center of a couple’s relationship in “Prowlers”; “The New World Merging” has an attack by unusually vicious dogs on a teenager; “Squalls” features a swan that stands in for a marriage breaking. There are fish and birds and things that leave tracks in the snow. What is it about encounters with animals that feed the drama and depth of these stories?
JD: I’ve always maintained a deeper interest in the questions than the answers, and this holds true here. Meaning a response on the fly, never having been asked this particular question before. But you’re right, lots of nonhuman presences. In the story “Wonder,” for example, the narrator explains, “That was the summer we’d sneak out our bedroom windows at a designated time and cruise through the cold air eddies and swirls that always drifted in from the cemetery and the surrounding fields a few hours before midnight . . . And where we’d sometimes stop, straddling our bikes and naming the few identifiable constellations we knew by their animal names: Swan, and Bear, and Fox.”
So there the kids are, feet firmly planted on the ground as they stare skyward into the eons, transfixed by acts and patterns that mirror the ordinary images of their small town and simultaneously allow them to imagine something larger, more mysterious, and enduring.
Images that also serve to locate particularly and orient the reader to this place, at this time, as opposed to what Eudora Welty (I quote her a lot) calls the “no place where nothing happens.” Think instead about Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia, Wendell Berry’s Kentucky, Jamaica Kincaid’s Aruba, James Joyce’s Dublin, William Kennedy’s Albany, Willa Cather’s Nebraska, and on and on.
I snowshoe. I see tracks, all of which I can, after forty-six years here, identify. The sweep of partridge wings in the snow, the ovals where deer have bedded down, the cries of kingfishers, and the distant whistle of snow geese, the eerie, almost human midnight wailing of coyotes. My attachment/engagement to the nonhuman world is not only a comfort, but also a grace. They find ways into and inform my stories, and again, often as correlates by which to speak about loss, and sadness. Longing and time.
PAM: You have written novels and poems as well as these short stories, your most recent books story collections. Do you find yourself mostly drawn to the short story now? What is the attraction to this form for you as a writer?
JD: The white light or fire of it, the intensity of language, and which is, at least for me, unsustainable novel length. In other words, poetry’s place in the prose, I hope, has, over time, defined my voice. Sentences that animate audibly, and which is why I don’t hesitate to speak about words as notes, the arrangement of a story as its orchestration. As Robert Bly said decades ago while visiting Interlochen, “The eye reports to the brain, but the ear reports to the heart.”
Plus. I’ve always thought differently about novel endings and short story endings, what’s at stake, and I can sense the former closing down well before it arrives there. Whereas I see the short story ending as Atlas-like, the entire world of the story is held up by those final two or three sentences.
The novel when it ends seems, well, to end, though the short story ending that works for me continues on as the reader postulates what comes next.
My wife Lois not so long ago asked—given that I began as a poet, then moved to short fiction, then to novels, then back to stories—if I thought the pendulum might someday swing all the way back to where I began, writing poems. I shrugged. I thought, possibly, given that I try never to assume what I might be thinking or feeling at some point down the road, though I sense now that I’ll stay put, for a while longer. Stay the course, see how many stories I still have left, and move forward from there.
Jack Driscoll is a two-time NEA Creative Writing Fellowship recipient, a PEN/Nelson Algren Award winner, and the author of twelve books, including the story collections, Wanting Only to Be Heard (U of MA Press, 1992), winner of the AWP Grace Paley Short Fiction Prize; The World of a Few Minutes Ago (WSU Press, 2012), winner of the Society of Midland Authors Award and Michigan Notable Book Award; and The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot (WSU Press, 2017), which received a Michigan Notable Book Award and was a finalist for the John D. Gardner Short Fiction Prize. Pushcart Press published his November 2022 collection Twenty Stories, New and Selected, winner of the Pushcart Editors Award for 2022. His stories have appeared in the Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, Missouri Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and New Stories from the Midwest. Driscoll was the founder of the Interlochen Center for the Arts creative writing department, and he continues to teach for Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program. Jack recently moved to Mystic, CT.
PATRICIA ANN MCNAIR is the author of the short story collection The Temple of Air, which was named Chicago Writers Association’s Book of the Year and received Southern Illinois University’s Devil’s Kitchen Readers Award and a Society of Midland Authors Finalist Award. McNair’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in American Fiction: Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, Prime Number, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other publications. She is Director of Undergraduate in Fiction Writing Programs in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.
Patricia and Jack, I’m so happy to see this wonderful interview! Many congratulations on your new collection. Miss you both!