David Means is one of those writers, like say Thom Jones or to a lesser extent Lorrie Moore, who are deeply associated with short stories. With the publication of his fourth collection, The Spot, we decided to catch up with David (who we first interviewed many years ago when Bookmunch was just a baby) to find out what’s up…
Bookmunch (BM): Your latest collection of short stories, The Spot, has just been published in the UK. What would you say is the unifying theme of this collection? What brings all of the stories together?
David Means (DM): Oh, that’s a tough question. There are a few threads running through all the stories—characters on extreme edges, modes of criminality, lost souls drifting around—but in general each story stands alone, next to another, and they kind of radiate together. A good collection is like a good record album; you got the hits and then the quiet tunes all cohering into something complete.
BM: Are you like TC Boyle – in the sense that you write with an end collection in mind for each of your short stories? Or is it more organic than that? Ie do you write a story and then write another story and eventually find you have enough stories for a new collection?
DM: No, if I write with an exact end in mind the reader can feel it all along and you don’t surprise yourself by digging deeper into the perplexing mystery of reality, the odd ways that things connect. I wouldn’t call it organic, because I revise and tweak and go back in for another round most times, expanding and contracting. I write one story and then another, sometimes holding a draft in a drawer for a few weeks, months, years, and going back to it. When I have enough that work together, I feel a critical mass and begin to make a book. Sometimes I hold a story back from one collection to another because it just doesn’t work with the others. It’s a slow process. (I see now that I misread your original question. I can’t think ahead—in the span of five or six years—thinking about how a collection is going to work.
BM: Do you ever get tired of talking about short stories? Obviously, as a writer who is associated with writing collections of short stories, you’ll no likely regularly be asked for updates on the ‘health’ of the short story form and (presumably) why you haven’t written a novel yet (as if that’s what you should be doing) but – do you ever just feel like saying, I’m a short story writer – get over it!?
DM: Yes, I was just down in Texas at a book festival and I began to get defensive about the story, saying things like: one good story can do anything a novel can do. There’s a subtext to that question about writing a novel. Really, they’re saying: when are you going to write something that sells, something that makes a bang, that puts you on the economic map. But there’s a deeper subtext that seems to be saying: the novel is a better machine. The truth is, I’d rather write a story that gets under the skin, that sinks in and stays there, than write yet another bland novel—just good enough—that meets a wide range of needs, and is simple enough to please just about everyone. Lately I’ve been saying, again in a defensive crouch, why don’t you ask Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen when they’re going to write a symphony? On the other hand, to make matters complex, I love good novels and hope to write one that I can put my name on.
BM: I found some of the stories in The Spot to echo or resonate with earlier stories you’d written (‘Reading Chekhov’ with ‘Coitus’, say, or ‘The Junction’ with ‘The Grip’), as if there was some truth you were struggling to reveal, that nagged at you and kept you excavating. As a reader this is a really good thing (because, in the case of The Spot it sent me right back to Assorted Fire Events and The Secret Goldfish re-reading). But does the same apply to the writer of the tales?
DM: Well, I have particular concerns and personal axes to grind that take me into the same territory sometimes. I like trains because I grew up around them, not far from a railroad yard, and used to play around them and see men who were drifting. I lived in Manhattan for years and got a feeling for life there. I’ve been in love, so I know how that feels. I like the idea of returning to themes, going at something from another angle. Most writers only have a few angles. You’re locked into certain limitations as a writer, and you have to respect those limits. Style is a matter of doing what you can do and finding ways around the things you can’t do.
BM: Richard Eder, writing in the New York Times, talks of your ‘jumpcut shifts, startling connections, and breathtaking disconnections’ – and there’s a part of me that thinks, in seven words, he has got close to defining what makes the experience of reading your stories so unlike reading short stories by anyone else. As an idea for a story grows in your mind, do you purposefully set out to play with linearity and expectation – or are these things more innate?
DM: No, I go from a to z in my own way. But there’s almost always a straight story in there. I’m really, at heart, deeply traditional. But I trust the reader. I put trust in the reader to bring something to the table and to understand the leaps in my fiction the same way they understand them in film. All that comes out of trying to respect the stories as I work on them. You can’t do those things unless you have a total sense of the entire story—I mean really deep and full—and then they come from revision. Hemingway worked that way, too.
BM: The writer I was most frequently reminded of as I read The Spot was David Foster Wallace who I believe was something of a friend of yours. I think it’s something to do with the fact that you are both writers who require your readers to have and keep their brains in gear. How does it feel to you to live in a world that is now post-David Foster Wallace (if I can say that without it sounding utterly heartless)?
DM: David Wallace was kind a psychological Beatnik who went on the road of the mind and brought closer to the surface certain psychological dynamics—pure and eternal—on the way. He was one of a kind in the best way, in the way of great artists, because he did what he did and put trust in his work. We’re joined together by a common best friend. We both lived in the same world and found our own approaches. I went short, he went long. I avoided reading a lot of his work for a long time—even when I kind of knew him via a few postcards and occasional meetings—because I wanted to find my own voice. I avoided almost all contemporary writing—short stories in particular—for a long time.
BM: There was an article in the Observer magazine about eight years ago now in which Jonathan Franzen called you ‘a Molotov cocktail’ in terms of how you engage with the world (I think there was a story about the night you met, you were watching CNN, Scud missiles were raining down on Tel Aviv). Is that still true? Are the stories in The Spot the work of a Molotov cocktail man?
DM: I’d rather drink a cocktail than throw one. Whatever it takes to get a grip on reality is the way I try to go; I mean I have an edge, and I’m not going to lose that edge because it comes out of some deeply personal pain—like most writers—that I so far have never really talked about; on the other hand, writing comes out of silence and isolation and complete attention, a form of heavy duty staring. I take the world seriously. The world is a serious place. This book of stories, like the last two, took several years of hard work. The Molotov cocktail part of me wants to put them up against any novel—again that defensive crouch thing—out there. David Wallace’s death was a tragedy pure and simple. His suicide had nothing to do with his work. Suicide is enigmatic. People throw there own shadows on the dead, trying to figure it out. He was deeply sick in the end. He was suffering. But again, his death has nothing to do with his work. His work is eternal. It was meant to be read alone, without him, without his friends.
BM: I think probably round about Assorted Fire Events, your wife Geneve had just given birth to twins and you were trying to juggle writing with raising two babies. As a father of three, I have an idea of what that mist have been like. Is your writing life a little more settled these days?
DM: The house is quiet now. I learned more about life in eighteen years than I expected to learn in a lifetime. As you know, fatherhood tests your vision of your would and forces you to hone in on the complexities—psychological, physical—of the world. Dangers become highly acute when you’ve got kids, but on the other hand you begin to feel, deep inside, how history cycles forward from one generation to the next. Those were extremely hard, lean years. I refused to compromise too much with my writing life—I avoided full-time jobs. But the work is just as hard now with the house empty.
BM: Your first collection, A Quick Kiss of Redemption, is quite hard to get hold of in the UK. Do you know if there are any plans to publish over here?
DM: Well, I’ve kept that book out of print for various reasons. Some day, if anyone wants to read it, I’ll put it on Kindle, or the iPad. But my writing life started one day—after years of learning—with a genuine epiphany one afternoon, a day after I visited a Hopper exhibit in New York—when I suddenly went into a different zone and began to write exactly the way I wanted to write. I wrote two stories, and they both sold to The Paris Review (I never put them in a collection) and then I wrote two more, and those sold to Harper’s, and I kept going. I didn’t want to look back at A Quick Kiss of Redemption. Those were apprenticeship stories that took me from being a poet to being a fiction writer.
BM: Can I ask what’s next for David Means? How long will we have to wait for the next book?!?
DM: I hope not too long. But I can’t make any promises. I’ve got a draft of a novel, and some new stories in the works.
The Spot by David Means is published by Faber and available now.