Well, first of all it’s a collection of stories, and it focuses on kids and teenagers who are living on the edges of society. Poor kids mostly, sometimes abandoned kids. The stories take place in North Carolina and near Puget Sound, WA. I think, like many writers, I’m trying to give a voice to people whose voices we don’t often hear.
Tell me about one of the stories.
Okay. Let’s take “The Boots.” It’s about two altar boys — Omar and Lewis. Lewis has a shaking disease, and his friend Omar looks after him. They work in a poor parish where there are a lot of visiting priests, and they happen to be working a mass one night with this really grumpy and angry priest, and they try to do their best to work with him. But they’re also kids, and they have an element of play to them, and they’re trying to see into the confessional, or ring the bells at the wrong time, or make a game out of guessing the contents of the poor box or guessing the sins of the confessing parishioners.
They go out into the snow — it’s wintertime — and they go to a diner and share a cup of tea, and they have an interaction with a very drunk Santa Claus. And then when they get back to the church, the priest has been mugged, and someone has taken his boots. Omar and Lewis are very upset about this, and they go out into the night to find the thief and get the priest’s boots back.
And there is an element of magical realism in that story?
I suppose so. Because Omar and Lewis know where to go, and that’s to an abandoned warehouse where there’s a staircase that goes down and down and down. At the bottom is a huge Accountant’s Office where one very old man is ‘checking in’ thousands of boots and shoes into a ledger book. The old man is the head accountant. The head accountant of Death. And Omar and Lewis have to talk him into giving the priest’s boots back. Because in the story, if the guy checks in your boots or shoes, then that’s it, you’re dead. And maybe you’ve lost your soul too.
Okay, so that’s what happens in the story. What’s it about?
I’m not sure. Honestly, I think that writers who understand their work completely are not working hard enough and not taking enough risks. I’d say that the story is about responsibility and forgiveness, and especially about confronting the past. Basically Omar and Lewis take their jobs very seriously, and we get to follow them on their adventure for the night.
There are stories set in circuses, in prisons, on ferryboats, in baseball fields, and in a boxing ring. How do you go about choosing a setting for a story?
Interesting. I suppose on a basic level a writer wants a lively setting, with perhaps lots of interesting things to look at and describe, with objects for the characters to interact with, and with a lot of potential for conflict. A circus is perfect for that. On the other hand, having some kind of enclosed space, where the characters can’t get away from each other, and where there is an element of danger, that works too. That’s why stories on boats and spaceships seem to work well. I have stories on boats, but not on spaceships, though hopefully that will change.
I’m not sure that I start with setting, but perhaps I should. I can tell you that the story “Groundskeeping” originally had nothing to do with a baseball field. It was about a boy and his Uncle who’d never met before, and who were sitting around getting to know each other. But that wasn’t particularly interesting, but when I made the uncle, Jake, into a groundskeeper for a minor league baseball team, and I had Grady assist him, then wow, the story really opened up for me. They suddenly had lots of tasks to complete, deadlines to meet, and especially lots of things to argue about.
I suppose that like real-life traveling, a setting should be interesting to view, but it should also place pressure on a person, and make that person change in some way.
You’ve taught at Stanford for ten years now. What do you have planned for this year?
I have a few fiction classes on tap, plus a great Fiction Into Film class that I get to teach with Shimon Tanaka. In that class we talk about adaptation: taking a story, novel, or play and turning it into a script. We’ll be looking at The Shawshank Redemption, Silver Linings Playbook, and Beasts of the Southern Wild in particular. Students get to write their own original scripts (or adaptations), so that’s always a thrill as well.
I’m teaching a new class this year called Creative Expressions. In that course, we won’t look so much at craft (dialogue, description, narration etc.), but more at process and creation. How to come up with ideas, how to turn off the editors in our heads, how to collaborate, how to stretch, fall, and try again. We’ll actually be working with a lot of principles of Improvisational Acting in that course, so it will be particularly interactive.
What does a writer do all day?
I can’t speak for other writers, but when I’m not teaching, or planning teaching, or sleeping, or dealing with — as William Styron puts it – “the fleas of life,” then I’m either writing or thinking about a story. I’m working on a collaborative story with Chris Baty (of NanoWrimo fame) for October, and it’s called “Arrow Head.” It’s about a kid who literally gets shot through the head with an arrow. But the thing is, it does something wonderful to his brain, and all of his anxiety disappears, and in fact he can lessen the anxieties in other people as well.
So, I’ve been thinking about that story, particularly focusing today on the person who shot him with the arrow, who we want to be a girl. No name for her yet, but that’s less important than the motivation and the aftermath of the ‘accident.’ What would it be like to accidently almost kill someone, especially while performing an act (archery) that you are supposed to be an expert at? Experience is of course the best research, but since I don’t really want to shoot someone, I can either look up narratives about this, or I can simply channel the character in my own mind, and work toward channelling those emotions.
Writers and actors know what I’m talking about, and like them I often have moments through the day when I’m in the archer’s head, and someone in real life will say “Hey Tom,” and I almost jump out of my skin. Those fictional worlds begin to seem as real as the real world. It’s actually a nice way to leave this world for a little while, and of course it’s nice to return as well.
How do you know when a story is done? Can you think of an example from Thieves I’ve Known?
The quick answer is that it’s done when it’s published. Or, rather after it’s published in a book. But even then it can change. I’m working on a script that includes some stories from Thieves.
But, I know what you mean. I don’t think it’s a sense of “I’ve said all I could say about that situation or those characters” as much as it’s “I am hitting the law of diminishing returns with this story… time to move on.” I’m not sure if it’s the best idea to return again and again to a story, but it can pay off sometimes.
One of the stories in Thieves, “The Problem with Flight,” well honestly, I thought for a long time that it wasn’t as good as most of the other stories in the collection. But as I was going through the final edits and even copy edits I was able to add a few things, particularly a little back story about the main character Grimsley, and how he had accidentally killed three of his friends when he was a teenager, while drunk driving. That wasn’t in the original, and I’m not even sure it was important to the present story, the one that takes place forty years later. But it helped me understand him better. It made him more three dimensional to me.
So, stories do reward the writer for returning to the site to excavate a little more. There are always a few more fossils to uncover.
Arrows through heads. Drunk driving accidents. Bad things happen to your characters.
That’s true in any interesting story, right? No trouble, no story.
What makes for an interesting character?
Well, about three hundred different things, but the thing I look for is a world view (or local view) that is particularly original, fresh, and surprising. I was just rewatching Beasts of the Southern Wild, and wow, that opening ten minutes is incredible. The little girl, Hushpuppy, is so excited about showing us her world of farm animals, drunk adults, and of course the beautiful bayou. And she’s speaking directly to us, and she’s unaware of part of our reaction, the one that says “Maybe this isn’t the best place to grow up,” but she doesn’t care about that. She thinks it’s terrific. And then she picks up a little chickadee and puts it to her ear and tells us “All the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts are beating and squirting, and talking to each other the ways I can’t understand. Most of the time they probably be saying: I’m hungry, or I gotta poop.”
That’s a character, to me, who is listening and paying attention to her world, and to herself. She amazingly observant, imaginative, and particularly generous with her world view. At a basic level, we want characters who can take the ordinary and make it original for us.
Where can we check out your work?
The opening story to Thieves I’ve Known is available on The Rumpus at http://therumpus.net/2013/02/sunday-rumpus-fiction-nobody/
And there is another story, Groundskeeping, available through my website at http://tom-kealey.com
Thanks for talking with me, Tom Kealey.
Thanks for talking with me.
TOM KEALEY is the author of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, as well as Thieves I’ve Known, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award. Tom’s work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Glimmer Train, The Rumpus, and many other places. Tom has taught creative writing at Stanford University since 2003.