in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW
You are able to articulate the depth of your characters so much through their dialogue. Can you talk a bit about how you go about creating your characters and how much you know about them before you actually begin writing, or if they tend to take on their own life as the story goes?
I didn’t really know much about the characters when I started writing. I knew what the setting would be, and I knew someone would be coming from a funeral, and I knew that I couldn’t have a character sitting there being sad all by himself. So I had him run into an old acquaintance. And this is probably why there is so much dialogue in the story. If you don’t know what the story is about, just have the characters talk, and hopefully they’ll tell you.
The character of Chase really came out through dialogue. Hank, the protagonist, is more reserved, but Chase’s loquaciousness ultimately breaks through Hank’s reluctance. Hank admires how freely Chase talks about himself—not in an ego-driven way, but in a way that seems like he is giving himself to Hank, offering himself by offering his story. And this inspires Hank to eventually confess his “sins.” Plus as I wrote Chase I started to find him quite funny. I don’t write a tone of funny characters, so when I had one that was making me laugh I didn’t want to muzzle him. So I just let him go.
Does “We’ve Got Tonight” have any direct influences? Can you name a few writers or books who have influenced you in general?
It is one of the few stories I have that I can say has one very direct influence, and that is Salinger’s fantastic novella Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. The story, for those who haven’t read it in a while, follows Buddy Glass, who is the lone member of his family to go to his brother Seymour’s wedding—only Seymour is a no-show. So all the pressure is on Buddy to make sense of how Seymour could do something so cruel. In particular, I’ve always loved the part in it where, being stuck in traffic with a bunch of strangers from the wedding, Buddy brings everyone to the apartment that he and Seymour share, which hasn’t been occupied for months. I love how you can feel the hot, stale air in the apartment, how you can smell the mustiness. And so when I said before that I knew the setting of the story first, this is why: because I was ripping off Salinger.
But I also love the way Buddy plays host, serving everyone gin, etc., while he’s also trying to understand what’s going on with his troubled missing brother. In Jerome Stern’s great craft book Making Shapely Fiction he talks about a story that shows a character “juggling” things, and that’s what I see in the Salinger book, and it’s what I try to do in my story. Buddy in Raise High and Hank in my story are trying to take care of the people they’ve invited into their homes while at the same time dealing with emotional and psychological business happening internally. So much of my story could be read as homage to the Salinger story. It’s my favorite piece of his writing, though it is often outshined by Catcher, of course, but also Franny and Zooey, probably in part because it is paired with the, let’s say, less inviting Seymour, an Introduction.
You’ve published several short stories, including a collection called Everybody’s Irish, but your first novel came out in 2017. Your first novel … What was it like to write a novel after writing most. What made you decide to write a novel and how was that process different from how you go about writing short stories?
To be honest, I didn’t really know I was writing a novel until fairly late in the composition stage. The plan was to write a novella, something short, maybe 80 or 90 pages, that I could write pretty quickly. I had ideas for two other novellas also, and thought perhaps they could be published together. But this one grew and as it got to maybe 150 pages, with still more story to tell, I realized it could probably be a short novel. And so I explored the backstory more. I explored the relationships of secondary characters a bit more. And eventually I had something I could call a novel. I think approaching it first as a novella took away some of the “writing a novel” pressure, which can be overwhelming.
In some ways a novel feels easier than a short story. In a story there’s just so much riding on every sentence, every paragraph. The beginning has to be perfect. The end has to be just right. And these are the concerns for a novel, too, but in a story if something is off it’s just a lot more glaring.
You teach creative writing at the University of Louisville. Do you think that teaching has given you a different perspective or affected your own writing in any way?
I hope so. I try to follow the advice I give my students. I encourage them to approach writing as an act of discovery, to let the process take over, to concentrate on writing well-imagined, detailed scenes and to let the story rise out of that. I tell them that our first job is to create the environment from which meaning might grow. This, of course, is easier said than done. Like any writer I’ll get stuck on a story and stew over what a character should do or say or what should happen next, but really the only way to solve any problem in a story is to sit down and start writing. Ninety percent of the time that’s how you’re going to get out of whatever corner you feel the story is trapped in. You have to write your way out.
The other part of teaching is that if you let yourself, you can be really inspired by students. When a student finds some little bit of magic in a story you can feel it, and they can too, and it’s obvious that they’ve hit upon the great joy of writing—when a character comes alive by doing or saying something strange and perfect, or some previously disparate bits of plot somehow come together in ways they didn’t expect and the story just clicks…that’s the good stuff. And when you see a student get that it reminds you of how fun this endeavor is.
The protagonist, Hank, in “We’ve Got Tonight” is an expert in the genre of Heartland Rock music. Is this an interest that you also share, and does music inspire you in your work?
I do listen to and think about music quite a bit, and I’ve written a couple more stories recently that have music in central roles. One deals with the Beatles and another is in large part about country music. And now that I’m thinking about it, another story has a scene with a string quartet playing a John Cage piece. I try to use whatever I’m feeling obsessive about at any given time, and I guess I’m feeling a bit obsessed with music these days. I suppose whatever is on your mind is going to come out in your stories in one way or another, so you might as well welcome it.
I wrote an earlier story where a character quotes the line from Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands”: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” That sentence ultimately got cut, but I was still thinking about Bruce and his brand of American masculinity, which comes off as tough—with all the muscle car references and people working in factories and whatnot—but is actually incredibly tender and compassionate. I saw an interview somewhere a long time ago where he was asked why he writes about cars so much, and he responded with something along the lines of, “I don’t write about cars, I write about the people in them.” And I really like that.
IAN STANSEL is the author of a novel, The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo, and a story collection, Everybody's Irish, a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction. He teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville.
EMMA RICHARDSON is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review.