July 07, 2015
Jerry Gabriel’s second collection of fiction, The Let Go (Queens Ferry Press, April 2015) is old school. The reader is transported back to a golden age of the long, simmering short story, with its distinctly American milieu—the working class rust belt, boys at the cusp of adulthood, simmering cold war politics. As writer Charles Baxter notes, Gabriel’s characters are “barely hanging on and fear the let go”—of jobs, of identity, of innocence. And yet it’s hard not to feel the affection Gabriel has for them. The collection is less a suicide note of the American dream than a love letter to the tenacity of those caught it its clutches.
JEN MICHALSKI: The first thing that struck me after finishing The Let Go (and this is something my girlfriend points out to me all the time, for I do the same thing in my writing), is that, in addition to their mid-western milieu, so many of your characters are at the cusp of manhood (late adolescence or early twenties). Do you feel that your own crossover into adulthood had an impact on your writing life that is reflected in your choice of younger protagonists, or do you feel you are finally at a safe, wise distance to examine the folly of youth (and too close to write about, say, parenthood and mid-life). Or is it something else completely that drives you towards the troubled young souls in your work?
JERRY GABRIEL: It’s a great question and one that is quite salient for me. I’m keenly aware of my minor fixation with the liminal space between youth and adulthood. Here’s one big reason why I like it in fiction: the stakes are very high and anything goes. At 45, where I now sit, one just doesn’t flit from one scenario to another easily—no matter what your station in life. At 45, you’re probably on a path. You could change it, but it’s not so likely that you will, not in a wholesale way. But at 19, you’re like a stem cell; you could be anything, could wind up anywhere. Identity is in utter flux. Your friends are in flux. The way you dress, your life plan, the music you listen to—all of it is absolutely malleable. Which, seen from another angle, is the very embodiment of possibility. And possibility is the bedrock of fiction for me, the source of our imagined futures.
The other reason I like this moment is that my own period of late adolescence felt very dangerous, which had the effect of being incredibly memorable for me. I just really remember a lot of what happened during those years, despite probable (though garden variety) alcohol abuse. You’re trying to figure everything out, and on a regular basis, you see people doing things that you know will affect them adversely down the road—or even next month—and it’s scary. Scary to see it happen to them, scarier still to think that it could happen to you. And, frankly, you’re just trying to make the right choices, the ones that will get you what you want, but choices don’t come with neat labels attached, so you wind up at dodgy parties or with dodgy armed people in the woods or romantically involved with people you definitely shouldn’t be. Some of the danger has to do with drugs and alcohol and violence, but a lot of it—more of it, I think—has to do with the fear that you’re going to get it all wrong and wind up the wrong person, living the wrong life, working at the wrong job. Finally, it’s not so black and white as all of that, but that myopia about the Future is very productive, very compelling for me as a writer. It fuels a number of these stories, even several of the ones with older protagonists. For them, this period is seen or remembered as the crucible in which they were formed or from which they went on to make the choices (read: mistakes) that would define them.
JG: This spring, I taught an Intro to Fiction course at Northern Arizona University, and due to some intensive English language program or another at the school, the class was made up of about 25% Chinese students. These students—each of whom was from either Beijing and Shanghai—turned in stories that were very strange and macabre. They also had some other things in common: they were heavily plotted, psychologically ambitious (tending toward large themes, like regret, fate, and revenge), and set in anonymous spaces (cars, restaurants, nameless cities).
About the first two of these features: I kept being reminded, while reading these stories, of American film noir and other mid-century filmic strains (especially Kurosawa)—directors whose plots were labyrinthine and whose gestures were broad but compelling. The students of course shrugged when I mentioned all of this, knew nothing of these films. But their stories made me wonder what it is that city-dwelling Chinese adolescents are readings and viewing that is affecting their concept of story? The truth is, I never got to the bottom of the issue, but all of this piqued my curiosity a great deal, especially about how the personae we inhabit when we write is forged in the real world.
It was especially the third thing on the above list that I found most curious. These students all wrote place-less stories. There were no details of place—no markers of China or anywhere else to speak of—whatsoever, hardly a single shred to suggest anything about where the stories were happening; they were all like the minimalistic set of Waiting for Godot.
I think there are a few different reasons why this was the case. One, these students probably wanted to fit in; they did not want to be seen as the Chinese students in the class, but just normal students writing normal stories. They also held the (very strong, though misguided) belief common among many young people that the less you say about someone or something in fiction, the better, because the reader can “fill in the details from their own life.” I don’t want to get into this fallacy too deeply, but I was very struck by the ways these stories in particular were harmed—hampered, really—by the lack of Place.
I told the students as much in our workshops. At the end of the day—and I’m finally warming up to the actual question—our environment (I would argue) accounts for some sizable percentage of who we are. This is related to the old (and tired) nature/nurture bit, which is to my mind a straw horse; nature and nurture compound from one another, bounce off of one another to forge us, in more or less equal proportions. Place in fiction—Place in life—goes a long way in helping to explain and articulate why people do what they do. I don’t think this is cultural relativism. It matters where someone is from and what their relationship with that place is. There is a sort of compounding, cyclical relationship between these things.
JM: There is a historical-political vein in the stories in this collection—a Weather Underground-type group, the Vietnam and Korean War, the cold war. Which is interesting, because the title of the collection, “The Let Go,” brings to mind the broken, declining economy in the last half of the 20th century, of massive layoffs and entire towns left without gainful employment. This theme certainly exists—in “Long Story, No Map” and other stories—but I felt that 20th-century conflicts were just as prominent a theme. Is it something that was in your mind as well, and did it play a part in shaping this collection?
JG: Yes, I was conscious of this pretty much from the start. I think that once I knew I was writing a new collection—which is something that happened relatively early on in the writing of these stories, as opposed to the backing into a collection that happened with Drowned Boy—I had an impulse to get (the stories) out of southern Ohio, which is where Drowned Boy claustrophobically resides. I wanted to write a different type of story, one less ostensibly interested in the coming-of-age, and more cognizant of the ways in which we are all participants in the dramas that take place on the global stage. I began to ask myself a series of questions that ultimately collided geo-politics with provincial life.
So I only made it as far as Columbus—where most of the stories take place—but I found this a perfect location (mainly because of Ohio State’s presence there) to bring the greater world in contact with people who are in many cases only vaguely aware of that greater world. In truth, I wanted the stories to take place all over the world, but it just wasn’t in the cards. I have many, many flat scenes for the story “We’re in Danger, All of Us” that take place in Bucharest. The reason they are flat has to do, I think, with Place—in this case, my discomfort with writing about a place that I just don’t really know.
JM: You stay you wanted to write a “different kind of story” in this collection. How did you approach that—thematically, structurally, rhetorically, or all of the above?
JG: I knew I wanted to experiment with some different types of stories after Drowned Boy, but I didn’t know at the outset what those were. Obviously, I suppose. Perhaps specifically, I didn’t want to be bound by structural elements like linking the stories. I did want the stories to speak to one another, but I didn’t want this to be so one-to-one. And so, as I began to make some progress on the book, I saw that much of this “dialogue” was going to be thematic. And in truth, it wasn’t hard to have the stories do that—to speak to similar concerns—because the things I’m interested in have a way of surfacing. Eventually it became clear that this book was going to be, in one manner or another, about social class and, in many of the stories, about the ways our version of capitalism affects those far down the chain; sometimes this is joblessness, sometimes it is having your life rerouted by one of our military adventures.
The most obvious structural element these stories share is length. The average length is probably around 35 or 40 pages. Previous to this collection, I had written a novel over the course of about five years, and I think that though my impulse was to go back to stories, I had for better or worse internalized a novelistic pacing. I didn’t exactly mean for this to happen, but once I saw what was going on, I decided I liked it. I’m a big fan of what I call the Long Story, however awkward they are for everyone. A lot of writers I love have written them—Alice Munro, James Baldwin, Rick Bass, to name a few. “Brokeback Mountain” is only forty pages (though it masquerades as something much longer, published, as it is now, in its own stand-alone volume). It’s an amazing story in every possible way, though, and it does have the scope of a novel at the same time as having the punch of a great short story. This, I realized at some point, was the effect that I was chasing.
JM: That’s interesting, and a brave approach to writing, when you think about so many stories are trending shorter now, even since the golden age of Internet publishing began. When I started jmww 10 years ago, we had no problem publishing 5000-word stories online. Now we’re more comfortable with 3000, even though, ironically, people are online on their devices more than ever before. It becomes a problem in that the traditional realms in which short stories live are no longer publishing traditional short stories. But at the same time, the novella has begun to make a resurgence. So maybe the “short long story” just has a different name now. Still, I wonder if you have a harder time placing longer stories these days?
JG: My “success” with placing stories has run the gamut from ridiculously easy (a few stories have been solicited) to the difficult onslaught of rejections that non-writers think (probably rightly) is an insane part of this/our world. But yes, the stories in this book required that I spend some serious time digging into the nitty gritty of writers’ guidelines in order to find viable markets. What I mostly found was that these stories—the shortest one is probably around 9,000 words—were just too long for most literary magazines, just as you point out. But I did ultimately generate a list of publications, both print and online, of maybe 15 magazines that consider stories over 10,000 words, and that’s where I put my energy in terms of sending out.
I was very lucky, actually, to place all seven of these stories. Sometimes you pull your hair out because you think your work is perfect for this or that publication, but you get nothing but form rejections back from them. Other times—not that this has happened a lot for me, but a few times—you just find an editor or staff that you click with, who just like what you’re up to. That turned out to be the case with The Missouri Review this time around—I had great interactions with and support from Speer Morgan (the editor), Michael Nye (the managing editor), and Eveyln Somers (the associate editor) there. They published two of the stories, and wanted a third (though it had already been accepted elsewhere). I was over the moon about all of that. And through a friend of a friend, I also learned of a brand new magazine that is completely committed to the long story, Big Fiction. After I had seen their first couple issues—beautifully designed and meticulously edited, full of interesting work—I badly wanted to get a story in Big Fiction. Again, I was lucky to have found them and to have clicked well with the editor, Heather Jacobs. I might as well say that I had major help with a number of these stories from the magazine editors who published them (before Erin McKnight at Queen’s Ferry even got a hold of them)—especially Heather Jacobs at Big Fiction and Evelyn Somers at The Missouri Review.
JM: Now that you’ve mentioned some of your favorite writers, I wonder who you consider your contemporaries? There’s definitely a bunch of writers who I came up with around the same time, and even if we’re all doing different things, I still kind of measure my progress and success by theirs, and also my growth as a writer, when I see how their work has developed over the years.
Have any of those writers influenced you in a specific way?
JG: I suppose I have a lot of writer friends at this point, just by virtue of being forty-five. I have been connected to about six different graduate writing programs (three as a student, one as a hanger-on, and two as a visiting faculty member), and so I pay attention to what a lot of the people I know from those programs are doing. But I’m not sure how much I think of myself as having a list of contemporaries exactly (which isn’t to say such a list doesn’t exist, it’s just not one I dwell on much). Honestly, if I spend too much time thinking of where I am vis-à-vis other writers, it makes it harder for me to concentrate on my work.
My friend George McCormick, whose novel Inland Empire is just out (also from Queen’s Ferry Press)—a very quick aside: this book is a wonder—told me that he felt like in order to write that book, he had to forget a lot of what he had learned in graduate school (at Cornell). Which is less an indictment of Cornell’s incredible MFA program than it is an honest accounting of what it’s like to try to do something new. I think I continue to try to forget things I’ve “learned”—or shut out voices (frequently my own) that are getting in the way of my ability to realize something, to make some leap forward or another. It’s weird: I think when you write you’re at once in conversation with all of the other writers who are at work now (or who have come before) and, at the same time, trying not to be, trying to step outside of that moment and knowledge. Accordingly, my reading is erratic these days, increasingly helter skelter. Some of that is a function of where I am in my life (my wife and I have three kids under six), and some of it a concerted effort to worry less about coverage and more about what is generative for me. What I find myself reading is not always what I think I should be reading.
JM: Your writing class students come up to you, and they want to be published writers, with books and options for movies, and they want to know how. What do you tell them about the industry, or what the realities of the industry are? What do you tell your most talented students?
JG: My “advice” to students interested in writing—talented or otherwise—is this: if you go down this path—if you want to go down this path, for however long—a writing life requires a source of energy and motivation external to the accomplishments—the publications and awards—we might imagine ourselves achieving. What that is, they’ll have to figure out. But I am clear with them that it’s a risky notion—at least emotionally, if not in other ways—to put all of your eggs in the award basket. For me, I’m simply drawn to the project of trying to work out lives on the page. Anne Tyler has said, “I write because I want to live more than one life.” This feels right to me. It’s a kind of curiosity that is in many ways its own reward.
That said, if I could never publish anything, it would change my way of thinking, I’m sure. And so we must deal with that world. On a practical level, I try to help my students understand the lay of the (changing) landscape with respect to book, magazine, and online publishing. And I tell them—or remind them, really—that there are many ways they can set themselves up for success. For starters, they can understand success on a kind of sliding scale, in a way that has to do with accomplishing what they have set out to accomplish—a tautology that I find very useful in my own life. They can read voraciously and out of their comfort zone; they can involve themselves in a/the literary community. They can carve out a consistent writing practice. Ultimately, they will need to figure out a way of participating in the greater world of writing and publishing, but they must figure out how to do that in ways that are valuable to them, while maintaining filters for some of the noise that that world emanates.