The thematic links came a little later, after I noticed I was gravitating towards certain elements – war, city, weather. So it wasn’t all planned out from the start, it came out of the process.
Love and happiness inextricably combined? I wanted love stories to coincide with war stories, I wanted hope for my characters, I wanted a sense of a future. So do they. So does the reader. But perhaps I shouldn’t speak for everyone when I say that love and happiness are interdependent. In my own experience, happiness came with love. Specifically, my wife. That’s when my own apathy and stasis ended for good.
An initial impulse of mine was to portray the way in which a city is impacted by war. But this is vague, no? After all, how do you actually have an entire city – or country, for that matter – be a character a reader can follow? One way is by making it smaller and personalizing it, by writing specifically about the citizens and the way they contend with the reality, even minutiae, especially minutiae, of their lives.
I sometimes have to write for a while before I figure it out, pretend that I know what I’m doing, sort of like ad-libbing on stage until you remember your line – you hope you sound convincing to the audience. The key is to have enough material, enough threads, so that there’s something that can be satisfyingly drawn to a conclusion.
But it’s hard for me to pinpoint where all my characters and dialogue come from – imagination or real life. My memoir, of course, was all about my past, and many of the short stories cleave very closely to my life, but the more stories I wrote in the collection, the more that seemed to be invented, but who knows… I think I’m writing about a young woman with acne who shoplifts, but I’m really writing about myself.
The benefit of writing a collection – as opposed to a novel – is that I’m able to have some version of the war in each story without having to comment on its all-encompassing nature. Turn the page and here are new characters and new situations, but the war remains… Isn’t that how life has been for us for over a decade?
Such platitudes as “If you believe it, it will happen,” “If you give 100%, you get 100%,” “Good things happen to good people” people utter when we don’t know what else to say. There’s comfort in platitudes, and every so often they’re accurate, but mainly they’re hollow words. It’s a sign of how little we’re able to directly address the world around us. The language of the times reveals our avoidance.
I was trying to hold up a mirror to this country, to reflect the past years or so, and the varying degrees in which we’ve been affected by the war(s) that doesn’t seem to end. And we’ve all been affected somehow, even if we have no connection to the military, even if we don’t know anyone who’s killed or been killed. No one escapes something so large.
I don’t feel any ethical dilemma when I write. In my memoir, I was able to write with candor about the two most difficult people in the world to write with candor about – mom and dad. Everything else is downhill from there.
This is one of the ways fiction is more liberating than nonfiction – I don’t have to be so concerned with fact. I had the paradigm of certain people in my head who became my characters, but I never considered these people to be from a “certain sector of society,” unless we agree that we’re all from certain sectors of society.
I don’t work with an outline, except a vague one in my head, a general idea of character, place, arc… I’m like a composer with a symphony in their head: I can hear the music, I just have to figure out how to put it down on paper. But I don’t always know where my stories are going when I begin.
I liked the push and pull of that, between the outer political world and the inner personal lives of the characters. It’s also real life… Many of us are keenly aware of world events, but break your nose and I bet that’s the main thing you’d be focused on.
When the ending finally comes to me, I often have to backtrack and make the beginning point towards that ending. Other times, I know exactly what the ending will be before I begin, like with the story “A Brief Encounter With the Enemy.” It was all about the ending – that’s what motivated me.
[Ending] is partly drawn from a desire to shock the audience, to brutally de-romanticize what many Americans think is happening overseas. And partly drawn from my own childhood: violence and a loss of innocence. But keep in mind that, as a writer, I’m both the criminal and the victim. I’m not trying to get out of anything easy.
Since most of the action of the war actually happens off the page (offstage), I wanted to give the characters something they had to contend with on a daily basis, some sort of obstacle. Weather seemed to be the one great equalizer regardless of your station in life – when it snows, everyone is inconvenienced to a certain degree. Plus it’s tactile, weather, it affects the skin.
Of course, I had a paradigm of a certain city in my head when I wrote these stories, a city that inspired my imagination, but it was only inspiration.