Writ in Water: Interview with Chris McCormick and “Desert Boys”

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Photo by Chris McCormick

This month, I chat with author Chris McCormick, whose terrific debut of linked stories, Desert Boys, follows main character Daley “Kush” Kushner and his friends Robert Karinger and Dan Watts. The book is largely set in the growing desert suburbia of the Antelope Valley, 70-odd miles north of Los Angeles. We talk about what it means to write about the West and live in and write about the desert; we share our mutual love of Louise Erdrich and writing that goes “deeper than geography.”


Joseph B. Horton: Take this however you will. What does it mean to be a Western Writer, or One Who Writes About the West?

Chris McCormick: There are so many definitions and tropes, but my guess is you know you’ve met a “Western” writer when you ask this question and they start squirming. I think that’s the result of a deeply internalized resistance to being categorized. One of my questions in Desert Boys was what happens when certain western tropes—real or imagined—are challenged, what happens when open spaces become grids through suburbanization, what happens when a person grows up longing for community in a place that almost fetishizes self-reliance. I guess a Western writer—at least this one—is someone who grapples with those questions even though he’s suspicious of the premise.

JBH: In the past you’ve mentioned Louise Erdrich as an influential writer, and specifically her debut Love Medicine. I love her and that book dearly, and I’m interested to know more: what, to you, does it mean to write about an isolated or insulated community? Do interconnected stories—from different points of view or not—serve that community best? I don’t think it’s too much to say that you’ll be introducing many readers to the Antelope Valley for the first time. Is that pressure? Opportunity?

CM: Oh, Louise. The first book of hers I read was the novel, Tracks, which begins with one of the most beautiful and devastating first lines in fiction, I think: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” Then I read as much of her work as I could  borrow or buy. From early on, I knew I wanted to write in a language as beautiful and as clear as hers. But it was the structure of Love Medicine that became the biggest influence on this particular book of mine. Whenever you’re writing about a place—especially a place that’s been relatively overlooked in literature—there’s so much pressure not only to get everything right, but to get everything down. I’m upset with myself that I left out specific institutions or aspects of the Antelope Valley that just didn’t fit in this book, like the Performing Arts Center or the AV Fair or the Poppy Festival. People don’t only crave accuracy about the place they call home, we also crave thoroughness. Linked stories provide a strategy to be as expansive as possible without sacrificing the specificity of focus, moment by moment. No one argues harder than I do that stories and novels are completely different forms. But when it comes to book-length fiction, I’m not convinced that linked story collections make up a different form than the “traditional” novel, so much as a different technique.

JBH: I’m fascinated by this line about Karinger’s soon-to-be wife, Jackie Connolly: “She was beautiful in the way people call the desert beautiful, which was to say that although some people actually believed it, most of the time it was said in response to someone else’s denigration of it.” Care to elaborate? I think, for one, that there’s a lot of truth in the defensive invoking of desert beauty.

CM: I’m both glad and embarrassed that you picked that line out—it was one of those lines I wanted people to underline, which meant I probably should have cut it. I don’t know, I think the line speaks for itself. Just as we have permission to insult a family member but would fight anyone outside the family who made the same insult, people in the desert lament the place until someone else calls it boring or ugly. Then, in an act of love, we step up and defend the singular elegance of the yucca.

JBH: Though the entire book thoughtfully considers the desert and life in the desert, I always come back to the story, “The Tallest Trees in the Antelope Valley,” in which Kush helps prepare a neighbor’s yard for giant palm trees. Working as a day-heat novice, he says, “In the desert, the idea of spring was a myth from another culture. It went from winter to summer like flipping a coin, and it seemed as though I’d lost the toss.” It strikes me that I think some people don’t even consider seasons in the desert, that it just exists as it always has, unchanging. Certainly your portrait of the valley talks about what remains unchanged and what changes dramatically. How do you see that change, or the balance between permanence and impermanence?

CM: This is a great question, maybe the question. Part of the mythology of the (white) west is an outlaw culture, a kind of lawlessness allowed by existence on the fringes. Lawlessness might be another way of saying randomness or unreliability. For that reason, I always thought part of the myth of the west was a resistance to permanence, the willingness and dexterity to adapt. The idea of settling there, then, seemed like a paradox to me. In the newer, suburbanized west, there’s been a fierce resistance to change, a distrust of progress. For the epigraph of the book, I use a lyric from Jackson Browne’s song, “The Fairest of the Seasons”: “Do I stay or do I go, and do I have to do just one?” I’m interested in these extremes in the desert—where there is no “fair” season—and curious about the spaces between adaptation and settlement, between leaving and staying.

JBH: From “The Immigrants”: “Not just the desert, but all of California was in a severe drought, and as I lay floating [in a pool] on my back, I felt immensely guilty, remembering an old teacher of mine, a farmer, who’d once made us draw bar codes on our faucets to remember that water wasn’t free. But the guilt, as always, passed.” Even now, when drought is much more prominent in the collective mind, I hope, how do we continually allow this guilt to pass?

CM: Guilt is easy, and so is shame. Most of us can build an entire life around guilt and shame, no problem, so long as we feel personally culpable. But collective guilt—the guilt associated with being a tiny, almost negligible part of a problem, even a problem as severe as ruining the planet for some invisible, future population—requires something really difficult, which is imagining the world without us in it. And people have children to raise and bills to pay and lovers to kiss and enemies to fight. I can’t really blame anyone for not thinking ahead, I can only offer my admiration to those who do.

JBH: How do you write about a place when you aren’t living there? (In an MFA program or transplanted across the country, or even in a different part of California or the West…) Even if you’ve spent plenty of time in your literary locale, during the actual act of writing, how do you (re)conjure that place? On the other hand, is it ever easier to be more distant? Does that remove ever prove particularly useful?

CM: Writing down what I know about the place wasn’t hard. The hard part was figuring out what I didn’t know about the place, why I still loved it despite my dedicated attempts for so long to leave. Those kinds of questions tended to be deeper than geography, and no amount of time at home would help or hurt my ability to grapple with them.

JBH: You’ve talked elsewhere about a “mythic” California and the opportunities to both challenge that myth—beaches, Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, say—and at the same time create more myths. (Maybe a moment that speaks to this runs, “…[The townspeople] were also no monolith. Some might say they were persons, not a people. That’s why stories happen. That’s why this story happened.”) The image California actively promotes of itself has been a topic of this series, and recently the New York Times published Parag Khanna’s map and analysis of “superstates” in the country, lines re-drawn based on “common economics and demographics.” Are we in the age of two or ten Californias? A hundred? Are there any shared bonds of Californians, or is this a state of 40 million separate Californians?

CM: This is a good time for me to thank you for the work you’ve been doing at Ploughshares. It’s been an education to this Californian, and a pleasure to read. As a desert kid, I grew up longing for places that seemed, on the map anyway, not that far out of reach: the freedom and glamor of the ocean, the celebrity of Los Angeles, the progressiveness of San Francisco, the racial and ethnic diversity of Oakland, the activism of Berkeley, and on and on. All those myths turned out to be both true and false, all at once, and maybe that’s why myths last. They’re built on the dreams of more than the forty million who call California home. They’re like mirages—another desert trope. They’re there, and they’re not, all at once, and no matter how close you get, they’re always just a little farther down the road.

JBH: Lastly, you had a book tour stop in the Antelope Valley. What was that like? Last month, I wrote about John Steinbeck being variously disowned by the Salinas Valley during his career. Do you worry about this? What is it like reading a book in its hometown?

CM: Variously disowned sounds like the place to be. As a person, I avoid confrontation to a fault. But as a writer, I don’t mind sparking discomfort. It means I’m writing toward the unsteady middle ground we talked about earlier, the place of questions not answers, the place where fiction should live. But I’m glad to say the event in the AV was a huge success, with lots of love from friends and family and strangers alike. If there’s anyone from the AV who detests the book or thinks my take on the AV is unfair or unrecognizable, I didn’t meet them. If they’re out there, I hope they’ll use that frustration in a constructive way by writing their own stories and poems to help create a diverse and nuanced literature of our strange and lovely home. Stories are more fun to write than angry emails, I bet, and definitely more likely to be read.

 

 

Conflict & Tension: What Writers Can Learn From How Visual Artists Use Contrast

 

MLContrast is the visual artist’s most powerful tool. Contrast does not necessarily mean opposite. Evil and contentment, white and off-white are both contrasts, but they are not opposites.

Artists use a spectrum of tools to achieve contrast: color and light, saturation and tone shading and line, focus, scale and perspective, body language and facial expression, subject matter and concept and every one of these tools can be used the same way in writing.

At its most basic, contrast can telegraph to an audience what’s important and where to look. I might concentrate my focal point on my character’s fidgeting hands and fade everything else into the background. Contrasting light can do the same thing.

But what makes contrast such a powerful tool is its ability to render complexity, tension and conflict.Continue Reading

On the Art of Perspective: Christopher Castellani & Maggie Nelson

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“I want to tell you what happened on the way to dinner.” Christopher Castellani‘s The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story begins with that simple phrase, the driving force of storytelling: the author has something they want to convey. Which quickly leads us to the issue of how to convey it. Castellani, a Ploughshares Solo author, doesn’t know how to convey the story of what happened on the way to dinner, “because I haven’t decided who’s telling it.”

There is no more important decision the writer makes than who tells the story, because, whoever that narrator is, he will compel us to tell it his way, with his frames of reference, his agenda and lexicon and baggage, within his particular wedge of time.”

“Perspective” is defined as a particular attitude or point of view, or an understanding of the relative importance of things—a sense of proportion. Perspective in literature is often boiled down to first, second, or third-person point of view. Castellani widens the lens, broadening the subject to the point of needing to note where the book touches the edges of its scope: “The question of how far outside her own experience an author is ‘allowed’ to write has more to do with politics than with craft; as such, it is outside the scope of this book.”Continue Reading

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries IV and V

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This is the third installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here and here.

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Query IV: A notice of its mountains
Query V: Its cascades and caverns

I walked into Queries IV and V thinking Jefferson would use these sections to acknowledge the changeability of Virginia’s natural landscape, the dramatic variations of terrain that make it both beautiful and dangerous to traverse. I thought I’d compare Jefferson’s celebration of Virginia’s wild places to the notion of surprise in poetry, or maybe to resistance—that sense that the poem is getting lost somewhere in the middle, and you, the poet, have to invent a light (or a hatchet) to make your way through the draft.

I should have known better.Continue Reading

Erotic Parodies of Women

A writer and I were on the sunny plaza outside the Nobel Museum in central Stockholm and she was telling me about an erotic parody project she’d collaborated on. The project was called Fifty Shelves of Grey and involved a dozen or so British authors doing erotic rewrites of fifty classic books, all published under the pseudonym Vanessa Parody. However, amidst all that bodice ripping, partner swapping and heavy breathing, there arose a very real problem for those salacious scribes—finding works of literature that had two or more female characters that were not blood relatives. Though there were plenty of male/female and male/male relationships to uncloak; female/female relationships were almost exclusively between sisters, and mothers and daughters. The relationships of unrelated adult women are nearly invisible in literature. This absence is not only a hindrance for aspiring erotic parody writers, but is quite possibly a symptom of a larger erasure of the lives and experiences of women across literature.

Last year writer Nicola Griffith published a survey of the gender representation among the winners of half a dozen major literary awards. She looked at competitions from the last fifteen years and found that nearly two-thirds of Pulitzer winners were written wholly from the perspective of a man/boy, while zero were written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. The Man Booker fared slightly better with a total of two books of the last fifteen written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. So, it seems that stories that center on the lives of women are rarely elevated to the highest echelons of literary praise. It should then be of little surprise that relationships between women are nearly invisible in literary fiction.Continue Reading

Seeing Red: What Writers Should Know About Color

colorWriters should understand how to use color because seeing “red”and reading the word “red” can evoke the same heightened emotion.

Our perception, behavior and mood can be influenced by color. Reaction to color is part of our evolutionary biology. The color blue, for example, is associated with the nighttime and rest, so it calms us. Yellow, the color associated with the sun, does just the opposite.

The way we perceive space can be altered by color. Warm colors — yellows, reds and oranges — tend to advance and make a room seem smaller. Cool colors — the purple, blues and greens —retreat in space and make a room feel larger.

Semantic meaning is embedded in color. Light green on a label indicates “cooling mint.” And the color of something can change our behavior towards it. We might be less likely to buy mint gum packaged in red.Continue Reading

On Being A Writer With A Super Common Name or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Google

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My name is Daniel Peña, I’m a writer, and there are other Daniel Peñas messin’ up my Google results. It’s annoying and I’m against it.

To ground us, let me tell you who they are:

One Daniel Peña is an incredible twelve year old boy who showed me up by designing a Nike Air Jordan shoe to help raise money for the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in 2013 (not bad for the Daniel Peña brand). Another Daniel “50 billion dollar man” Peña is a Trump supporter and self-proclaimed laird of a Scottish castle out of which he runs a business seminar, The Quantum Leap Advantage, and shoots Youtube videos in a trophy room in said castle (weird for the Daniel Peña brand). And yet another Daniel Peña is a Youtube star whose promposal video went viral last year (romantic for the Daniel Peña brand).Continue Reading

NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries II and III

 

vintage virginia

This is the second installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Here’s the first installment.

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Query II: A notice of its rivers, rivulets, and how far they are navigable
Query III: A notice of the best Seaports of the State, and how big are the vessels they can receive

When we talk about Virginia, we must talk about water. The Atlantic World begins with storms and tides, with strange ships alighting on new shores.

Despite Jefferson’s faith in the fixity of what he calls “the economy of nature” (Query VI), nothing really holds still in his world. Jefferson’s Virginia, the “area somewhat triangular” he delineates in Query I, actually is a porous landscape channeled by rivers and marshes of varying depths. Hard boundaries now dissolve in the water that flows over and through the land. Likewise, the rivers which Jefferson catalogs in Query II reflect a glimmering overlay of colonial and Native vocabularies: James. Monongahela. Rivanna. York. Names branch into other names. Jefferson observes that the Cumberland River is also called the Shawnee; and when he speculates about the sources of the Missouri, he alludes to stories told by Spanish merchants based in the once-French, now-Creole settlement of St. Louis.

This is how one world floods into the next.Continue Reading

The Autobiography of the Imagination: Toward a Definition

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The autobiography of the imagination writes itself, one could say. It writes every time we write, every time we dream or daydream. It is its own captain’s log, the transaction and receipt. It reveals the self to make the self into a stranger, twisting the I to wring out a you. With every persona poem I write, every autobiographical lie, I manifest a self-portrait in silhouette, not so much an accurate depiction of what I look like or who I am, as much as a chart of where my shadow falls.

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If I were to tell you about my childhood, I could tell you about my parents’ divorce, how many dogs we had, that I liked to draw. I could tell you I went to St. Peter’s Episcopal School and spent afternoons with my grandparents playing cards. Or I could tell you I wanted to grow up to marry Don Johnson from Miami Vice; that I fantasized in Wednesday chapel about a flood leaving me stranded for days in my school in which I’d carve a pew into a canoe and paddle the halls with a crucifix; and that I believed the cemetery near my house would “leak” ghosts like radon up through the ground into my bedroom. The autobiography of the imagination is as vital, as personal, to the self-revelation of oneself as the autobiography of one’s experience.

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In his 1986 introduction to A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, with an air of pseudo-Freudianism, said, “It is the novelist’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself.” The autobiography of the imagination then is an autobiography of our base desires, the things we haven’t done but have longed for. It is our fantasies, our secrets from which we curate by redaction how someone else sees us. It is an autobiography of instinct, desire.Continue Reading

The Art of Dialogue for the Reticent

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I write down bits of conversation I overhear in the train, in the park, at the checkout line, and borrow the more memorable ones for my own fiction writing. I am interested in the lines that sound strange or nonsensical, because they show a sense of character and intimacy that is only available to those on the inside. Perhaps those lines sound significant precisely because they reveal that meaning lies elsewhere.

In Denis Johnson’s story “Out On Bail,” Jack Hotel is being tried for armed robbery and comes from the courthouse to the bar during recess. The narrator asks him, “What did you do? Who did you rip off?” Hotel replies, “It was last year. It was last year.” The narrator tries again: “‘Who did you rip off, Hotel?’ ‘Aah, don’t ask me. Shit. Fuck. God.’ He turned and started talking to somebody else.” Hotel chooses evasion over bluntness. His reticence, his decision to withhold, shows something deeper about his feelings on his situation than if he’d simply described it in so many words.

Fictional characters reveal themselves in speech. They talk for pages, talk past each other, lie, manipulate, evade, interrupt. Written dialogue is an opportunity for them to speak for themselves, without the heavy hand of authorial assistance. Their voice is a demonstration of power, an emotional dance that shows who wants what from whom. It either gives or withholds. And as much can be communicated with silence.Continue Reading