In an era when the novel’s extinction is still being declared imminent by would-be literary seers, despite all evidence to the contrary, it is refreshing to see the novel’s close relative, the short story, presently experiencing something of a renaissance.
Like the novel, the short story has suffered its share of abuse from doomsayers over the last few decades, having been pronounced dead, defunct, hopelessly out of fashion and favor, especially with the corporate publishing world. Recent critical and commercial successes, however — Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties and Karen Bender’s Refund, for example--both, coincidentally, published by independent presses (Graywolf and Counterpoint, respectively) — belie these bleak pronouncements.
Into the fray slips Jeremy T. Wilson, Chicago-based writer and high school creative writing teacher with his witty, sharp, and imaginative debut collection, Adult Teeth, also published by an independent press, the up-and-coming Tortoise Books. Wilson’s short story "Everything Is Going To Be Okay" won the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Short Story Award in 2012. Wilson’s stories are lively and fresh, the majority of them treading a razor-thin line between comedy and tragedy.
Wilson corresponded over Google Docs and email with The National Book Review’s Christine Sneed about writing stories.
Q: Many of your stories take place in Chicago—do you usually know where you’re setting the story before you begin or does that evolve within the first page or so?
A: I do not usually know where I’m setting a story before I begin, because I try not to know anything about a story before I begin. The more I try to set up beforehand the easier it is for me to get blocked and the more my routes around that block feel forced. So I’ll usually start with an image or a line and try to keep the momentum going forward for as long as I can.
My process is all about momentum. The movie Speed is an apt metaphor. Just keep the speedometer above 50 mph, don’t look back, try not to kill anyone in your path. This results in a lot of wrist and finger pain and a lot of early foolishness and detours and bad writing. Over the course of several drafts, a setting will emerge, but it will usually be some place I’ve been before. I could never write Moby Dick because I’ve never spent time on a whaling vessel. Really that’s about the only difference between me and Melville.
Q: “Trash Days,” a story about a woman who is desperately trying to find her husband’s sex doll, is both funny and surprisingly poignant. What were the seeds for this story?
A: I was watching the Chicago pride parade a long time ago and I saw a RealDoll on a float, or maybe someone just walked by with one, I don’t exactly remember, but I do remember seeing this doll and thinking it was incredibly lifelike and totally weird. My buddy told me he’d seen a documentary about people who own these dolls. So I watched that. I think it was Love Me, Love My Doll and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh or cry, probably both. I’m drawn to those moments, those laugh/cry moments, how they make us uncomfortable, how they mess with our expectations and assumptions, and therefore afford us an opportunity to grow. Like when Marcia Brady gets hit in the nose with a football after she breaks her date with the homely guy so she can go out with the stud. I mean, it’s a sitcom, so I’m laughing, but, man, her nose is HUGE, so I feel bad, but didn’t she have it coming? It’s all very complex.
Anyway, there was nothing truly out of the ordinary about any of these people on this documentary. They were just lonely. So I think the first time I wrote a draft of the story it was about that, a normal, lonely guy with a secret. This was all before Lars and The Real Girl, and when that came out, I thought the whole RealDoll thing had been played out, so I put my drafts away. I came back to it in response to something Stuart Dybek said in a workshop. I’m grossly paraphrasing, but he mentioned how if you have a speculative element in a story, you must consider how every character in the story relates to that speculative element. It’s like a hub with spokes. My favorite example of this is the Gabriel Garcia Marquez story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” The man’s presence affects everyone not just in the small town, but all over the globe. They have to write to the pope! Now a sex doll isn’t necessarily speculative, as they certainly do exist, but the advice got me moving in a different direction. It got me thinking about how other characters might react to the man’s doll or the suspicion that he owns one. Once I was in the wife’s head, questions of gender roles and expectations featured more prominently, and the story opened up for me.
Q: You’re from Georgia originally and some of the stories in Adult Teeth take place in the South, which you frequently evoke with half affectionate, half darkly comic detail. As a longtime Chicagoan now, what’s it like to go back to your roots in these stories?
A: For the longest time I wanted to be Flannery O’Connor. So I populated my stories with characters who had prosthetic legs and dog-eared bibles. Lots and lots of rocking chair philosophers, front porch daydreamers, misfits, and humidity. But these stories sucked, not only because they were poor imitations, but because I lacked any real connection to these tropes. My characters were caricatures. Not that I’ve totally escaped this, but when I started writing stories set in Chicago, I noticed a shift.
This didn’t happen overnight, but I was able to write without thinking of myself or my characters as belonging to any sort of literary lineage. Yes, Chicago certainly has a deep and rich literary history, but as an outsider I didn’t know what it was, and wasn’t beholden to it in the same way I was to the South. As is often the case, getting away from the place, helped me write about the place. “Half affectionate, half darkly comic” is exactly how I feel about my roots. It’s a place that demands I love certain people who sometimes hold outrageously different views from my own. This makes me laugh and cry (see Q3).
Q: Why do you think there’s such a bias against short stories among many readers of fiction, i.e. the novel is almost always heavily favored by readers and by the publishing establishment?
A: Reading short story collections can be like taking several short car trips in several different cars with several different drivers and none of them get you where you want to go and maybe you get a little carsick on the way. So I think that might have something to do with the hesitation on the part of some readers to dive into entire collections. Readers, like passengers, tend to want to settle in for a while. Anecdotally, I’ve heard plenty of people say they don’t like short stories because they don’t understand them. They find the endings way too oblique and are never really left with much to hold on to. For this I blame bad teachers. And marketing. But a short story is still the perfect medicine. I imagine we’d all be a lot better of if we read a short story every night before bed instead of scrolling through our news feeds.
Q: “Adult Teeth,” your title story, literally begins with a bang—a car crashing into a convenience store. It also features a couple grieving over a lost baby and a parrot named Lefty. I’d describe many of your stories as straddling comedy and tragedy—would you say, however, that your default mode, like John Updike said of his own work, is the comic?
A: Yes. Comedy is likely my default. More specifically, I’d say slapstick. People whacking each other with sticks, both literally and figuratively, doesn’t necessarily show up in all of my stories, but it most certainly does in earlier drafts. I grew up watching The Three Stooges and Looney Tunes, so it’s kind of hard to shake those influences, and I don’t entirely want to. Slapstick makes violence funny, and by doing so, can sometimes muffle its power. Wile E. Coyote is a predator who is rendered impotent in hilariously violent ways. However, slapstick tends to ignore the effects of violence on the individual, and character should be of primary concern for the fiction writer. I mean, maybe somebody has already written this, but the diary of Wile E. Coyote has got to be full of pathos.
Q: How would you describe the experience of preparing your first book for publication, e.g. what are the things you’ve most enjoyed, and what have you found stressful?
A: It’s been great! I’ve really enjoyed going back through the stories again. Some of them are pretty old and I haven’t read them in a while, so it’s fun to go back and see how those stories fit into a growth process that is still happening and hopefully will continue to happen. I’ve also enjoyed discovering how this whole publishing thing works and why it takes so long for books to hit the market. I had no idea what an ARC was and how far in advance reviewers need them and how vital they are if you have any hope of getting your book reviewed. Which leads me to what I’ve found stressful: getting the book reviewed.
Q: As a high school creative writing teacher, what are some the elements you focus on the most with your students when you teach fiction-writing?
A: Wants. Desires. Yearning. Whatever word you want to choose for having a character move through the world with a mission. Now the mission certainly doesn’t need to be to save the planet from a zombie apocalypse. It might just be to get through the school day without being bullied, but in identifying that want, they will begin to address another set of concerns, namely motivation and stakes. What happens if the character doesn’t get through the school day? And what does it mean for them emotionally if they do or do not? Story begins with desire, and this is the single most challenging element of fiction for most of my students.
I also encourage them to focus on images over abstractions. I teach mostly freshmen, so they are fourteen and fifteen years old, and they are so full of wonderful and beautiful and lovely and heartbreaking abstractions. My students come from all over the city, with different backgrounds and histories and experiences, and their experiences are full of imagery and specificity, they just haven’t learned they’re allowed to use that stuff yet. For some reason, they think fiction is very, very far away from the personal, that in order to write good fiction, you must be an enchanted world-builder. Really, I just want them to write about their sock drawer.
Q: What are you working on now?
For a fiction writer, the only thing worse than saying “I”m working on a short story collection” is saying, “I’m working on a novella.” So. I’m not not working on a novella. Although I’ll probably put that on hold now for the diary of Wile E. Coyote.
Christine Sneed is the author of two novels and two story collections, the most recent of which is The Virginity of Famous Men. Her work has been included in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, Ploughshares, and New York Times. She is the faculty director of Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies’ graduate creative writing program and is also on the faculty of Regis University’s low-residency MFA program.