Good People: An Interview with David Jauss (by Curtis Smith)

David Jauss is the author of four collections of short stories (Crimes of Passion, Black Maps, Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories, and Nice People: New & Selected Stories II), two collections of poems (Improvising Rivers and You Are Not Here), and a collection of essays (On Writing Fiction). He has also edited three anthologies, most recently Words Overflown by Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program. His short stories have been published in numerous magazines and reprinted in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards: Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, as well as in The Pushcart Book of Short Stories: The Best Stories from the Pushcart Prize. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a James A. Michener/Copernicus Society of America Fellowship, and three fellowships from the Arkansas Arts Council and one from the Minnesota State Arts Board. His collection Black Maps received the AWP Award for Short Fiction. A professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, he teaches in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. For more information, see www.davidjauss.com and www.vcfa.edu.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Nice People: New & Selected Stories II. A few years back, you published Glossolalia, which was also a new and selected offering from Press 53. How do you view the two collections? As companion pieces? Or do you feel they offer different vibes on your work, a new lens with which you looked back over your career?

David Jauss:  I see them very much as companion pieces. Kevin Morgan Watson, the marvelous editor and publisher of Press 53, and I planned to do both volumes from the start. Initially, the second volume was going to come out a year or so after Glossolalia, but I wanted to write a few more new stories for it, so it’s appearing four years later instead of one. Although there are stories in each volume that could readily fit into the other, I see the books as focusing on two separate but related aspects of my writing life. In Glossolalia, as the title suggests, I do a lot of “speaking in tongues.” The book contains stories from the perspectives of a large variety of characters very different from me, including a 16th-century Spanish priest, a 19th-century Russian dwarf, a Hmong veteran of the Vietnam War, a pitcher from the Dominican Republic, an elderly nun, and a serial killer. One of the reasons I write fiction is the same reason I read it: to try to understand how other people think and feel. I’m particularly fascinated with the question of why people do bad things, and that’s the principal focus in the ironically titled Nice People (though I hasten to add that there are some truly nice people in the book too). There’s a passage in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting that I used as an epigraph to my collection Black Maps that would have made an appropriate epigraph to Nice People too: “It takes so little, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith, history. Human life—and herein lies its secret—takes place in the immediate proximity of that border, even in direct contact with it: it is not miles away, but a fraction of an inch.” All of the stories in Nice People—and maybe in all of my books—are in some way about characters who cross that border, or come dangerously close to crossing it before drawing back.

CS: I admire your dialogue—and perhaps that’s rooted in my own struggles with it. One level of writing is seeing this fictional world; another level might be understanding it. But hearing dialogue is tricky because our characters aren’t always honest (with others and themselves) or aware. Do you handle dialogue differently than other aspects of your work? Do your thoughts go to a new place in order to hear these people speak? Are there any strategies you employ to better hear them?

DJ:  I’m very pleased you like my dialogue. I think writing good dialogue is one of the hardest things to do in fiction, maybe even the hardest thing to do. One reason writing dialogue is so hard is that writing a conversation is so easy. We’ve spent our lives having or eavesdropping on conversations, so our natural impulse is to write a conversation. But as my good friend Clint McCown has said, “Dialogue is not conversation.” The more it resembles a conversation, the more it merely imitates the way people actually talk, the less effective it is. Dialogue should be all about conflict, about one character saying no to the other in some significant way. The characters should have competing agendas since ultimately dialogue exists to create tension, not merely to convey information, characterize each speaker, or convey a theme. And the tension shouldn’t be just between the characters, it should be within each character too. As you say, characters aren’t always honest with themselves, much less with the people they’re talking to.  Ideally, there should be a tension between what the characters are saying and what they aren’t saying, and between what they’re aware they’re revealing about themselves and what they aren’t aware they’re revealing. And another thing I try to keep in mind when I’m writing dialogue is that people often misinterpret what they hear, partly because they have their own agendas and partly because they aren’t really listening in the first place but instead are basically just waiting for their turn to say something. The way a character misinterprets another character’s words tells us a lot about the character. And because characters tend to misinterpret each other, they tend to talk past each other, their comments glancing off each other’s rather than fully addressing them, and that torques up the dialogue’s tension even more. These are all things I try (but mostly fail, alas) to achieve in my dialogue.

As for whether I approach dialogue differently than other aspects of fiction, I don’t think I do. I think there should be tension in our characters’ thoughts and actions as well. If characters consistently think or act one way, they shrink, become less human. However, if they think or act one way at a given moment and another way at another moment, they will come more fully to life. Aristotle said a character should be consistent or at least consistently inconsistent. Me, I think a consistent character is a flat character, a stereotype, whereas one who is inconsistent—in word, thought, and deed—is a round character, someone we might meet on the street. Even murderers have stopped to pet a passing stranger’s dog.

CS: A number of these stories used non-traditional structures. When in the process do these structures make themselves known? Is it early on in the planning stage—or do they usually come later after you’ve already been working on a piece and then realize a different framework is needed?

DJ:  The non-traditional structures invariably arrived very late in the game. For example, “Depositions,” which consists of thirty-four brief sections narrated by a total of six characters, one of whom is dead, didn’t come into being until more than twenty-five years after I first tried to write the story as a traditional narrative. Unlike virtually every other story I’ve written, this one began with something that actually happened: a drug dealer who lived across the street from me murdered his live-in girlfriend. Off and on for years, I tried to write the story from a variety of points of view without any luck. I wrote it from the killer’s point of view, a neighbor’s point of view, a detective’s point of view, the victim’s daughter’s point of view, and even the victim’s point of view, and every attempt crashed and burned, and eventually I abandoned the story. Then a few years ago, I read something Terry Tempest Williams had said: “A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken.” And for some reason, I immediately thought of all of the people who were broken in some way by my neighbor’s murder and decided to make the story a mosaic of their “depositions” (literal or otherwise) about what happened. I’d tossed all of the early drafts of the story long before, so I basically started over with the mosaic concept in mind. Rightly or wrongly, I think I found the right form for the story, thanks to Ms. Williams. My stories “Tourists” and “A Brief History of My Scars” also found their fragmented forms after several failed attempts to tell the stories “straight.”

CS: I read Glossolalia before Nice People, and another thing I really enjoy about your work are your first lines. So many of them are just killer. How important is that first line to you as a writer—and as a reader? Are these lines where your stories often start? Or do you come back later, having realized you’d found the proper beginning only after you were deep into an early draft? Do you have a secret stash of first lines waiting for the rest of their stories to be told?

DJ:  I wish I had a stash of first lines stowed away, but alas, I don’t. I’m glad you like my first lines, though. I think first lines are very important, especially in short fiction. Novels are like airplanes—they have a lot of passengers and cargo, so they often need a long runway before they can lift off—but short stories are like helicopters—they need to go straight up. There are exceptions, of course, including one of my all-time favorite stories, Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story,” but for the most part stories need to get airborne as quickly as possible. I wish I could say that my opening lines come easily, but I usually find them only after a lot of false starts (and sometimes not until a story’s final draft). Only a couple of the stories in Nice People started with what’s now its first sentence or with a sentence that’s very close to it. The first sentence of “Nice People” never changed; I wrote “Where I’m from, stories often begin with snow and sometimes they end with snow, too” before I knew anything about the story I would eventually go on to tell. The opening sentence of “The Bridge” was originally “If I had it to do over again, I’d still go to the wedding, but this time I wouldn’t wear a disguise,” but at some point I changed “wedding” to “funeral.” As that change might suggest, I sometimes don’t find my way into a story until I put something in its original opening into “reverse.” The initial draft of “Trespassing,” for example, began “The first time Richard saw the boy and girl making love on his property was in late June, a month before his wife was due to deliver their first child.” The opening of the final draft is identical, save for the final clause, which reads “three months after he’d retired and started spending all of his time at home.” What started out to be a story about a young farmer whose wife was pregnant with their first child eventually became a story about a retired doctor whose only child had been killed in a car accident many years before. The original draft stalled, so I did what the ancient Chinese proverb advises: “When you don’t know where you’re going, go by a way you don’t know.” I knew what it was to be a young man with a pregnant wife, but I didn’t know what it was like to be old or to lose a child. So I went the way I didn’t know. As this might suggest, I don’t agree with those who say “Write what you know.” I’m with Grace Paley, who said “Write from what you know into what you don’t know.”

CS: I’m guessing a rough estimate would put about half of these stories in first person and the other half third. What are your considerations when deciding on point of view? Is it just how the voice of the story comes to you or do you weigh considerations of stance and distance before starting that first draft? Do you ever find yourself switching from one to the other (and then perhaps back again)?

DJ:  My stories generally start with a detail or a situation that intrigues me, usually for a reason I can’t identify until much later, if ever, then I proceed by trial and error to find out what will happen, so it often takes me awhile to discover what the story is about and what point of view is appropriate for it. So yes, I’ve often switched from first person to third and back (and vice versa)—and I’ve even written some very bad drafts in second person. I know there are writers who are able to plan their stories before they begin writing—John Irving says he doesn’t write the first sentence of a novel until he knows what the last one will be—but I’m not one of them. Generally, the less I know about a story when I start it, the better chance I have of writing something worthwhile. I’m with Donald Barthelme, who said, “Not-knowing is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.” If we’re too certain about where a story is going to go, if we’ve got it all planned out in our minds, the imagination can shut down and we can wind up writing the literary equivalent of a connect-the-dots drawing. I like to think of writing as a higher form of reading: we might have some idea about what’s going to happen but we’re not completely sure until we get there. So no, I don’t make my decisions in advance about point of view—or about anything else. I’m willing to change anything in a draft—the point of view, the style, the structure, the setting, the protagonist’s age or race or gender, you name it—if I think it might lead me to a better story.

CS: Fitzgerald said he could only write about a handful of things—a few compelling themes that obsessed and fascinated him. In looking over the stories in Nice People, can you identify a core set of issues the pieces address?

DJ:  I think all of the stories explore to some extent the question of what makes people do things that we (and frequently they) recognize as bad—crimes, sins, whatever you want to call them. Hemingway famously said that “As a writer you should not judge.  You should understand,” but I think it’s impossible for human beings to avoid judging. (If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes on Facebook.) But most judgment is knee-jerk and self-righteous; there’s no understanding, or even an attempt at understanding, involved. I want to understand my characters and why they do what they do, be it good or bad or, like virtually everything in life, inextricably mixed. My goal is to write so honestly about my characters that if they were alive and able to read my stories, they would have to grudgingly admit that I both understood and judged them and their behavior accurately. And I hope my readers find themselves vicariously experiencing the moral failures of my characters and realizing that they, too, are capable of those failures. If a reader leaves one of my stories without feeling at least somewhat complicit with a character who behaves badly, either I or the reader has failed. And I do my best to ensure I’m not the one who fails, though I’m sure I often do.

CS: What’s next?

DJ:  I wish I knew, but I never know what’s next. Most likely just another story—and another and another—driven by the same preoccupations as all the others.

Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chapbooks, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing published Kurt Vonnegut: Bookmarked, a collection of his essays about Slaughterhouse Five.

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