Roy Kesey: A total pleasure! Now, full disclosure: correct me if I’m wrong, but I think our first contact was back in 2005 when you published a story of mine in Epiphany.
That’s right. I’d forgotten about that. Back in the day when I was working on literary magazines.
You helped found Epiphany, right? Tell me a little about that.
I was going to City College New York for my masters and had come across an ad seeking a managing editor. Willard Cook, the publisher, was interested in launching a new magazine. After a lot of hard work, the premiere issue came out in the spring of ’04. It’s pretty exciting to look back on those early issues and see names like Edith Perlman, Nell Freudenberger, John Edgar Wideman, and Roy Kesey listed in the table of contents.
Such company! I remember when the issue my story was in finally caught up with me. I was in…
Yes! And I remember that issue especially because there was a story on microfiche in it. Which, of course, was already ten years out of date. Pretty cool.
Microfiche. The 8-tracks of the digital age.
Exactly. So then the next common point in our timeline was when you came to a reading of mine at KGB in New York City. It was for my novella Nothing in the World, in May of 2006.
That was a fantastic reading. The place was packed.
It was. And I’d like to take credit for that, though the fact that Peter Carey and Wesley Stace were also reading might have had something to do with it.
That was a really fun reading. It was going to be my very first, and then I found out there’d been some mistake and I’d been bumped for Carey, which was totally understandable—he was in the middle of one of his Booker runs—but I freaked out because I’d already invited everyone. So I called my agent and she called KGB and in the end they made room for me. And there was such great energy, reading to that packed room. And then you and I got a drink afterward.
You won the Bullfight Prize for Nothing in the World.
It’s a beautiful novella.
Thank you. So, seeing as how we’ve already got KGB on the brain, tell me a bit about KGB Bar Lit and your involvement with it.
KGB is a great bar in the East Village that holds readings nearly every night of the week. They launched an online literary magazine some years back called KGB Bar Lit, and I’ve been doing interviews for them. I was fortunate enough to tap you for a great interview when Pacazo came out last February.
So you looked at me and said, “I’ll tap that.”
(Laugh) Well, now that I’m seeing you on Skype, I realize I got ahead of myself.
(Laughs) Okay, before we talk about Girls in Trouble, I want to briefly talk about you first novel East Fifth Bliss, which came out in 2007. It’s been adapted into a movie starring Michael C. Hall, Peter Fonda, and Lucy Liu. And it’s scheduled for release soon, yes?
It’ll premiere in New York on March 23, and then in LA on March 30, with a wider release to follow from there. It’ll also be on video on demand, iTunes, and Amazon at the same time.
Excellent. What can you tell us about the transition from text to screen? How did the narrative change, and to what extent, when the novel was adapted?
Writing a short story or a novel is a rather solitary endeavor. Screenwriting, I found, is more akin to writing for an orchestra. I’d never written a screenplay before, but was fortunate enough to work with the film’s director, Michael Knowles. He and I worked through the script and developed the screenplay. There were a lot of scenes and characters in the novel that didn’t make it into the film. With screenplays, it’s all dialogue. You don’t have the luxury of wandering into deep backstories like you do with narrative. You have ninety minutes to tell your tale and you have to keep the story extremely tight and focused and really rely on the actors to bring the emotional insight of the character to life.
Michael and I worked on the script over a four-month period during the spring and summer of 2007. Michael then took the script out to L.A. and showed it around. We got a ton of positive responses, though the production companies wanted to know who we had attached and the actors wanted to know if we had funding. One directly relied on the other.
We were fortunate enough to get the script to Michael C. Hall in the fall of 2008. He loved it and signed on. From there, things fell into place. We ended up shooting the entire film in twenty-one days in the spring of 2010. A very fun experience.
How would you characterize your interactions with the director and the actors?
The director is a friend of mine, so it was a great process. It’s funny because we’d been working together on the project for three years without any formal agreement. It was only a few days before we started shooting that we were both like, “Yeah, we should probably get something down on paper.”
I was on the set for much of the shoot. It’s an exhilarating and odd feeling watching the characters you’ve created come to life. It’s also strange to meet these people who you feel you already know, but in reality don’t. You know the characters they play on TV or in the movies, but not the true person playing them.
Awesome. Congratulations. I hope the movie does gangbusters.
Let’s shift to your current book. Congratulations on Girls in Trouble, which won the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, sponsored by AWP and published by the University of Massachusetts Press. One cool thing, totally aside from winning the prize and having the book come out, is that you join a list of really great writers who’ve also won the prize. Bonnie Jo Campbell, Michelle Richmond, and David Vann, whose books went on to do very well in Europe and elsewhere… You’re in good company.
Definitely. It’s certainly thrilling. As you can appreciate, short stories are weird little beasts. When you pull them all together, you can be looking at a span of up to a decade of your life. They almost become signposts of who you were, where you were. Capsules of your life, I guess.
Peter Ho Davies judged the competition, right? He seems like a really good guy. Did you have any interaction with him?
He is a good guy. I emailed him a few times. The contest was a blind submission, no names on the manuscripts. Afterwards, he wrote saying that, based on the stories, he was startled to find out I was a male. (Laughs) I think that’s a compliment.
See there, you’ve hit on two of the things I want to talk about. One is writing about or through gender, and the other is writing about or through place. Now, the way I want to organize my questions is through patterns. As you said, short stories are weird little animals which we often want to talk about individually, but sometimes doing so doesn’t cast any useful light on the collection as a whole. It’s a version of the forest-versus-trees conundrum, I guess. But one way to beat that is to focus on patterns in the stories. Now, the first important pattern is right there in the title: you’re writing about girls—as opposed to whoever else—in trouble. Obviously that’s causal, an ordering principle, maybe even a creative principle, behind the book. The stories cover a lot of different kinds of trouble and all different kinds of “girls,” almost all of whom would take offense if you called them that to their faces. So my first question is, Why girls? How is it that you, Douglas Light, ended up with thirteen stories—or maybe twelve, which we’ll talk about in a minute—with this particular theme? Why not boys in trouble? Or elm trees? Honeybees? A bacteria of some kind?
When I was going to submit this collection to the contest, I was contemplating what the overall arc of the pieces were. I noticed that the majority of my work, story-wise at least, focuses on young females. Why? Well, for one, I had, for the longest time, difficulty writing in the first person. The first person “I” of the story would get tangled with Douglas Light the writer. I’d find myself thinking, “Well, I’d never do that or say that.” And I wouldn’t. But that didn’t mean the character wouldn’t. I initially wrote in third person from a female point of view because it provided a safety of distance for me. I could explore emotions and situations more freely.
Okay. But there’s also one story, “Separate”—I’m not sure if the title’s meant as a verb or an adjective or both—that isn’t a story about a girl in trouble. There are a couple of women in the story, but the man is in more trouble than any of them. How do you see that story fitting in with the rest of the collection, given the perimeters you just laid down?
Yeah, I definitely slipped that one in. It didn’t fit under the umbrella theme of girls in trouble, but I felt it was a strong story. It’s also a first-person story, which just blows up everything I said. I am consistently inconsistent, that’s for sure. Ultimately, though, I included the story because the contest called for a certain page count and, well, I put the piece in to make the page count.
(Laughs) Fair enough. So, item two. A full twelve of the thirteen stories reference either Indiana or New York City. Five of the stories actually name check both of those places—either a character moves from Indiana to New York City, or vice versa. So, Indiana, New York City, different places—discuss.
Full disclosure: I’m from Indiana and currently live in New York City. So it’s safe to say that a lot of the stories build from my experiences, my upbringing. The towns, moments, relationships, and people I grew up with serve as the foundation from which I launch the story. It’s what I understand, or strive to understand. It’s why I start writing any story—in hopes of understanding what often lives outside the realm of understanding. My experiences in Indiana and New York City have their own unique set of quandaries, their own meaning and import.
Okay. And beyond that, are there any particular ways you want this dichotomy to function in stories like “Echo Sounder,” the very good, very creepy story which opens the collection, or “Hit and Run,” or “Orient,” where both areas function as place within the story? Beyond nostalgia and present, big city and small town, is there anything else you’re hoping that dichotomy will accomplish?
That’s a good question, one that I didn’t necessarily think about consciously while writing the stories. I’ve always viewed Indiana as a very cloistered place, a place that offers perceived safety via its close-knit communities. Identities are set. It’s difficult to reinvent yourself in a town where everyone knows your history, your failures, your every action. You can’t get away with a lot.
New York City, on the other hand, is the opposite. You move to the city to become someone else. And while you can make your fame and fortune here, you’re also risking much, much more. Taking my characters from Indiana and moving them to New York, I move them toward something scary, something larger than themselves. I move them beyond the familiar, all in hopes of creating tension.
The next item I wanted to ask about isn’t actually a pattern, because it only happens twice, and obviously to have a proper pattern you need at least three instances. That said: in “Zebra” and in “Hit and Run,” you describe stains as being the size of a cat’s head. My question: Is a cat’s head a standard measurement, like joules or degrees Kelvin, in Indiana, or in New York City, or both?
(Laughs) A cat’s head is a good sized stain!
Indeed it is. Okay, a more serious question. I wanted to ask about your use of ignorance in defining or creating certain characters. They aren’t stupid or foolish, but they lack key information, and are thus relatively powerless in relation to characters who do have the information—and that power imbalance plays a role in the story. So that’s one possible dynamic. But then there are other instances where you’re doing something more complicated. As in the previous case, we expect the second character to provide the necessary information, and we expect to feel catharsis when that information is revealed. As before, we see the information- and power-holding characters as reference points in the story… but then it turns out that they don’t know either! It’s a really destabilizing experience for everyone involved. I’m thinking here of the father character in “Zebra,” for example, who does not know, or alleges not to know, why his wife leaves a glass of milk out every day. And I’m thinking of the parents in “Hit and Run,” who can’t agree on where Rory’s scar came from. And the list goes on—there are a lot of different situations like this, where there are spaces clearly created for creation myths to be laid out, but the characters can’t agree on what those myths actually are… This is turning into a really long-winded question, but how do you see these instances of unexpected ignorance functioning in the story? What do you want from them?
I think that the situations of confusion, of ignorance, of opacity mirror what we experience on a daily basis. Short stories sometimes need loose ends to provoke and intrigue the reader, to prompt readers to question themselves. That act of questioning mirrors what I experience when I’m in the midst of the writing process. It’s an exploration, a process of discovery.
I feel that we’re all fumbling and blustering our way through life as best we can. The successful people in life aren’t so much succeeding as merely failing less often than everyone else. As humans, we have a misperception of nearly everything—celebrity, intelligence, love. In my stories, as in life, the answers often aren’t clean or precise.
That segues nicely into the last question I have: the non-trivial uses of trivia. You’ve given us several characters who seems to have been raised by almanacs and the Guinness Book of World Records instead of parents. The spy-like character in “Matters of Breeding”; the husband in “Hit and Run”; Marco, the fake artifact dealer in “Orient”–all these people have amazing amounts of information on hand, which makes me wonder, what is the root cause of your interest in trivia and definitions as they appear in these stories?
I use trivia in my stories not only because I enjoy it, but because I like the foundation on which trivia is established. I have a line in “Echo Sounder” where the mother asks the daughter if she wants the facts or the truth. Trivia is the facts, but there is so much more in the truth. Facts and definitions are sterile when they are viewed in isolation. Injected into a situation, they take on new meaning, a new life, even though, technically, they haven’t changed. It’s the environment and people surrounding them that cast hues and shades on the unchanging. They can make you pause. They can make you think.
Douglas Light is an award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer. His debut novel, East Fifth Bliss, received the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Award for Fiction. The screen adaptation (The Trouble with Bliss), which he cowrote, stars Michael C. Hall, Lucy Liu, and Peter Fonda. It was released in March 2012. His story collection, Girls in Trouble, won the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and was published by the University of Massachusetts in 2011. His stories have appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories and Best American Nonrequired Reading anthologies as well as in Narrative, Guernica, The Alaska Quarterly Review, and Failbetter. For more information, please visit www.douglaslight.com.