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Current Issue: Winter 2016
Current issue: Winter 2016
Alix Ohlin’s short story “Money, Geography, Youth” was published in the winter 2016 issue of the Missouri Review. Ohlin is the author of two novels, The Missing Person and Inside and two collections of stories, Babylon and Other Stories and Signs and Wonders. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and on public radio’s Selected Shorts. She teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and at Lafayette College.
Samantha Brown: Your story explores two different types of love, experienced by best friends who grew up together. How did you approach that?
Alix Ohlin: The idea of counterpoint—two storylines that could be independent but intertwine to create a kind of narrative harmony—was central to this story from the start. On its own, Vanessa’s story is ordinary; she’s an unhappy privileged kid who has a summer romance with a guy from school. Kelsey’s story is a bit more unusual, as she’s become involved with a much older man who can offer her financial security as well as affection. By weaving the two storylines together, I was hoping to deepen each storyline and give it more texture. I wanted to show how each of the two young women has complicated motivations and needs and is struggling to figure out her future. And in the end, the story is really more about their friendship than it is about the romantic entanglements.
Brown: How did the piece develop into the three points of view instead of just Vanessa’s or hers and Kelsey’s?
Ohlin: I thought it was important to include the point of view of Graham, Vanessa’s father, because I didn’t want him to be just a cardboard villain—some stereotype of male midlife crisis taking up with a younger woman. I hoped to make him at least somewhat sympathetic and vulnerable. His version of what’s happening is necessarily limited, but so is Vanessa’s and so is Kelsey’s; by offering three different perspectives, I hoped to allow readers to form their own judgments of a complicated situation.
Brown: Apart from the conflicts over the characters’ relationships, this story explores Vanessa finding her place in a world she’s just traveled halfway around and her questioning of her future. Was her experience similar to you own?
Ohlin: I didn’t have a gap year in Africa or share any of Vanessa’s other experiences, no. But I think many people go through times in young adulthood in which they come up against disappointment, or failure, or things not turning out exactly as you’d hoped. Vanessa was sort of a typical well-behaved middle-class high school student who did what was asked of her—performed well on standardized tests and that kind of thing. After high school, given more autonomy to decide who she wants to be, she flails. That’s a pretty common experience too.
Brown: Both girls seem to have issues with their respective relationships with their parents. How did you see this shaping their romantic involvements and ultimate paths?
Ohlin: Both Vanessa and Kelsey come from pretty dysfunctional families, but Vanessa’s family dysfunction was more hidden because they had more money. Kelsey comes from a family that has no cushion and can offer her little support. Certainly this shapes what their lives become. Vanessa has the freedom to enter into this dreamy love affair with her high school friend. If it doesn’t work out for her, she’s going to be fine, at least financially, and on some level she knows that. Kelsey’s situation is very different, and her decision to marry Graham is a way for her to wrest control of her future. She doesn’t have the luxury to mess around the way Vanessa does.
Brown: The story’s ending note suggests that Kelsey may experience some grief for not getting to experience the type of love Vanessa has. Why did you choose to end with her thoughts?
Ohlin: To me this story is not about young love the way that Vanessa is experiencing it—long, lazy summer days going hiking and watching TV in bed. It’s a story about privilege, and Kelsey is the person in the story who doesn’t have it. She’s the one watching it from the outside, understanding what Vanessa’s privilege looks like in a way that Vanessa herself will never see.
Brown: What character did you most enjoy writing and why?
Ohlin: I don’t know that I could pick one of them. The parts of the story I especially enjoyed writing were moments of unexpected collision—the scene where Vanessa and Barry first meet up and she throws up on the beach, and the scene where Kelsey gets sort of aggressive while tasting cakes are two of my favorites. These are both types of scenes (young lovers on the beach, lovers picking their wedding cake) that are usually shown as being romantic, and it was fun to write them against the grain.
Brown: Do you have advice for any aspiring authors or TMR submitters?
Ohlin: My best advice is to read stories and emulate the parts of them you like. This story was written in response to a short story by the British writer Elizabeth Taylor, whose work I read a couple of years ago and fell in love with. Reading is always the best inspiration for me.
Sharon Dolin’s poetry feature “Excerpts from The Pocket Oracle” appeared in the Missouri Review’s Winter 2016 issue. Dolin is the author of six poetry books, most recently: Manual for Living (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016), and she directs the international workshop Writing about Art in Barcelona: http://www.sharondolin.com/barcelona-workshops/
TMR intern Abigail Jones asked Dolin some questions about influence and process.
Abigail Jones: The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, written by Baltasar Gracián, is often cited as “one of the first self-help books ever written.” Would you say there is truth in this statement?
Sharon Dolin: Baltasar Gracián wrote in the seventeeth century, but there are a lot older “self-help” books out there, such as Ecclesiastes (written over two thousand years ago) and Epictetus from the second century.
Jones: What was your first interaction with Gracián’s writings? And what made you decided to write poems based upon his work?
Dolin: It was pure happenstance that I found an English translation of The Pocket Oracle at a local bookstore in Barcelona, where I had been teaching. Of course, as Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” I never premeditate my next poetic project. Knocking around, after I had finished the manuscript of Manual for Living, with its title series of advice poems based on Epictetus, not sure what to do, I figured I might try another aphoristic sequence of poems based on Gracián, someone I had never heard of until I stumbled upon his book.
Jones: Manual for Living based upon works of Epictetus, and The Pocket Oracle based upon works of Gracián, are both groups of “aphoristic poems.” How would you say these two sources differ? How did you try to distinguish between these two authors in your own poems?
Dolin: I hoped that the “excerpts” from Gracián were less stoical and more, as I say, Machiavellian. My favorite one (coming out in New American Writing) is called “Don’t expose your sore finger.” That is, The Pocket Oracle poems are more concerned with appearances, with one’s effect on others. They assume a social environment, whereas the core of Epictetus’s philosophy is an argument for self-aplomb, for turning away from what others think of you. Of course there’s some overlap. I see, for instance, that I’ve used the term “self-aplomb” in one of the Gracián poems, which is the goal of the Stoic as well.
Jones: What do you hope readers will take away from your adaptation of Gracián’s work?
Dolin: I must confess that I write these poems for myself as much as for anyone else. They are bits of advice I myself should take. Mostly, I was interested in riffing on these bits of advice poetically, to see if I could give them a poetic charge and thus enliven what might seem overly obvious or platitudinous. I’m not sure that anyone goes to poetry for advice. I can only hope that if they do, these poems will “delight and teach,” as Sir Philip Sydney proposed in his “Defense of Poesy” about a hundred years before Gracián wrote. I’m probably more interested in delighting my readers through language than in teaching them, but I would be happy to hear that someone was inspired to follow the advice these poems offer.
Jones: If you were to write another series of advice poems, who would be your next source of inspiration?
Dolin: When I have attempted to do so consciously, I have failed, so I am waiting for something else to present itself to me. For a number of years, I’ve had a copy of Ben Jonson’s obscure little book Timber on hand, and I want to do something with it. I tried making an erasure book with it and failed. Perhaps I’ll try another series of advice poems based on Timber, but the poems must feel entirely different than the Epictetus and Gracián series.
Jones: Your advice poems draw from Western philosophers, yet there is a riddle-like quality to them that reminds me of the koan. Are there Eastern influences in your work as well?
Dolin: Not consciously, no, but I’ll take that as a compliment. I am interested in the art of compression, and I have sculpted these poems until there is not one extraneous word. I don’t think these poems are as cryptic as koans. After all, each one gives away its answer in the title, so a mystified reader can just return to its clarity at any time.
Congratulations to two former TMR poetry contributors who have recently published books:
Alexandra Teague is the award-winning author of two poetry collections, whose poetry has appeared in TMR three times–most recently her 2014 Editors’ Prizewinning feature. Her debut novel, The Principles behind Flotation (Skyhorse Books), was released March 7, 2017. A coming-of-age story about a girl determined to research a mysterious sea which has suddenly appeared in the middle of Arkansas farmland near her town, Teague’s novel has been enthusiastically compared to Karen Russell’s Swamplandia.
Andrea Jurjević’s work was featured in TMR 35:2 (summer 2012), and her poem “Would It Surprise You I Don’t Like Mornings?” was a TMR poem of the week. Her collection Small Crimes (Anhinga Press), released last month, won the 2017 Phillip Levine Prize for Poetry. Jurjević’s book chronicles the speaker’s life as an adolescent in the 1990’s during the Croatian war, before the poems transition into postwar years and the speaker’s life in America.
Allison Pitinii Davis’s collection Line Study of Motel Clerk launches this month. Poems from the collection previously appeared in TMR 39:1. Recently TMR senior advisor and graduate student Bailey Boyd talked with Allison about her new book, its influences, and her new poetry manuscript in progress.
Bailey Boyd: So many themes pervade the collection; hardly any themes appear in one poem without appearing again in another. The connection between each is so tight that Line Study feels as if you wrote the entirety of it at once. Could talk a bit about how this collection came to fruition?
Allison Pitinii Davis: The oldest poems in the book, including the title poem, are from around 2009, so I wrote the book across a span of nine years. I began “reporting” about the motel during elementary school for my Take Your Daughter to Work Day write-ups. I didn’t write about the motel as an adult until I took a course with the wonderful James Hall at the University of Cincinnati. UC is also where I first wrote about the Kent State Shootings, another theme in the book. Many people in my family have written ancestral accounts, so I already had inspiration and models.
From the beginning, the book was about immigration, Rust Belt diaspora identity, and labor. As an innkeeper, my dad takes his commitment to provide hospitality to strangers seriously, and as family members cycled through my book, I thought of myself as an innkeeper of the collection—each page number is a room number; how do I fix up each room? That’s how my collection came together. I was lucky to have a fantastic editor, Laura Wetherington, and publisher, Christine Kelly, to help me with this process.
Boyd: You’re a proud Ohioan and have said that writing about the state makes you feel closer to it and the people there. Did your relationship with Ohio change during the process of writing these poems? Instead of writing to get closer to the place, did you find that the place allowed you to get closer to the people in it?
Pitinii Davis: Yes, “the place allowed you to get closer to the people in it,” is an astute way of putting it. Ohio is where my great grandmothers sat at kitchen tables homesick for Greece, where my parents met dancing downtown, where I can’t go anywhere without recalling my life, my parents’ lives, their parents’ lives, their parents’ lives. Place is less of a backdrop than an atmosphere of communal memory. Youngstown is three-dimensional to many because it contains generations of memories. It has ruined everywhere else for me. Places where I only have my own memories are flat, underwhelming.
“Getting closer to the people” in the Rust Belt also means writing about the area’s complex racial, gender, and class inequalities. Within the collection, I try to make my white privilege and Youngstown’s racial injustice visible. I value the many texts that provided models of ethical approaches: The Rusted City by Rochelle Hurt, Phenomenal Women compiled by LitYoungstown, Jim Villani’s long-running Pig Iron, Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown, Ohio by Sherry Lee Linkon and John Russo, Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality by Bruce Nelson, The Unwinding by George Packer, articles from The Vindicator, and others. There is some exploitative work published about the Midwest because people from other places get “stuck” there and use Midwesterners as props in their work. There are many reasons why I chose Baobab Press as my publisher, and one is that, in addition to being an independent, female-run, small business full of wildly intelligent and passionate professionals, it’s committed to Reno, a place, like northeast Ohio, that is sometimes demoted to a punchline. Reno is also full of all these older motels. It felt like a western cousin to my collection’s landscape.
My relationship with Ohio did change while writing this book because, while completing it, I lived outside of Ohio for the first time. I won’t repeat some of the classist things well-meaning poets have said to me on both coasts, but their comments made me understand the significance of my project in a new light. I’m sure some of my uninformed comments more than returned the favor. Leaving Ohio made me redouble my commitment to support artists attempting nuanced explorations of misunderstood/underrepresented places and perspectives. It is beautiful how much we can learn from each other.
Boyd: In perhaps my favorite poem, “She Understands More Than She Lets On,” in which the Laundryman’s daughter is able to understand the under-her-breath Greek of a host on a college trip, language is a source of power and knowing, while in other poems, language is either vulnerable to loss or it acts as a barrier. As a person who comes from a family of many languages, and as a poet whose art is rooted in words, does this relationship to language change for you, depending on whether you’re writing, speaking, or listening to it?
Pitinii Davis: Thank you for the kind words about “She Understands More Than She Lets On.” This is a wonderful question, and I fear I’m still too close to the answer to address it sufficiently. I do know that writing is a way for me to get the languages I grew up with on one page so they (and their multigenerational speakers) can hear and know each other.
For many people of my generation in the Rust Belt, language was an implicit signal that our roots were elsewhere. My mother grew up sharing a room with her grandmother who only spoke Greek. My dad’s grandmother is a native Yiddish speaker. My mother used Greek words in her vocabulary when we were little, and I didn’t know that they were Greek. I thought they were just slang English words and was confused when my friends wouldn’t know what I was talking about.
For many, language was also a signal of our generation’s assimilation. While I went to Hebrew school for a decade, I can’t speak Yiddish or Greek and was given an anglicized name. My parents, because of their own experiences of being made to feel “othered” and perhaps also fearing the implications of their cross-cultural marriage, subconsciously wanted my sisters and me to feel “normal”—assimilated/whiter—and the result is that we have more privilege than our parents but less connection to our own history. Charles Reznikoff, a major figure in the book, taught me how to negotiate this.
Singing is important in ways that may not be apparent in the collection. My rhythm is influenced by metrical patterns in Jewish liturgy. I’ve met other Jewish writers internationally who share this inspiration.
Boyd: Finally, do you have any projects that you’re currently working on?
Pitinii Davis: I completed a novella about gender and labor in the dawn of postindustrial Youngstown, and I’m working on a poetry manuscript tentatively titled The Neighborhood Girls. It’s about a group of girls who work at a Dairy Queen in northeast Ohio and fall in love with the elusive local meteorologist. I spent about a decade working counter jobs in Ohio in addition to helping work the front counter at the motel.
Many of these new poems have collective female speakers. I was raised in a big group of women—sisters, cousins, aunts—and I wanted to pay tribute to the complexities and richness of that “we.” The collective voice also reflects how women workers are often addressed and controlled: as a uniform group. The new poems are more lyric and voice-driven than those in Line Study.
Ironically, in Line Study, because it involves my family, I made thematic decisions collectively. I shared poems with family members and asked what to cut, what to reword. In The Neighborhood Girls, because it’s based on my own experience, I feel uncensored despite the collective speaker. Then I realized that I’ve always felt bravest speaking my mind when I’m part of a group of women; the collective voice was no coincidence. Many poets and collections have inspired me to explore the complex intersections of gender and voice, most recently Shelley Wong’s Rare Birds, Rosalie Moffett’s June in Eden, poetry by Heather Price, and poems forthcoming in Kathy Fagan’s Sycamore and Raena Shirali’s Gilt. I keep learning.
Nathan Oates’s gothic story “Mile Point Road” appeared in TMR 36:2 and is currently showcased in our viProse section. You can read this fine “haunted” story here. We talked with Nathan about his ongoing interest in the gothic genre.
The Missouri Review: How does “Mile Point Road” interact with the conventions and expectations of the horror genre?
Nathan Oates: Certain elements of the story are directly from the gothic horror genre—the moment of terror in the dark hallway, the incident with the attic door, the repeated image of the threatened children, the sudden transformation of a loved one into a stranger—and these found their way naturally into the story, which, after all, is about a haunted house. At the same time, I don’t think of the “horror” as the point of the story. The real tension, for me, arises from the narrator’s instability and the increasingly blurry boundaries between his perceptions and reality. I wanted to write about a character whose life is coming apart, which is a trope of many horror narratives, but my character is still in a comparatively safe and comfortable position. After all, he’s not at some massive, haunted hotel in the remote wintery mountains of Colorado, as in The Shining, a narrative I was certainly thinking about while writing this story. The main trouble for the narrator is in his mind: specifically, his loosening grip on the boundary between the real and the nightmare. This is the state reading a great story induces, at least in me, and the narrator experiences a similar, albeit far more intense, disorientation to what a reader feels when we fall into a well-made short story.
TMR: Is horror a new genre for you? What genre do you normally write?
Oates: My first book of stories, The Empty House, is almost entirely in the tradition of literary realism. More recently, as in for the past five or so years, I’ve been interested in stories that blur the boundary between literary conventions and other genres. Horror is one, but I’m also very interested in mystery stories, and speculative stories. I believe ardently that one should write the stories you want to read, and many contemporary writers I admire—George Saunders, Kelly Link, Julia Elliott, Ben Marcus, Brian Evenson—blur or even dissolve genre boundaries in ways that have been extremely productive and exciting for the contemporary short story.
TMR: What draws you to the gothic genre?
Oates: In some ways, the gothic feels like the most natural story form and is surely one of the oldest: when I imagine people gathered around a fire, telling stories, it’s gothic, ghost stories I imagine them telling. The gothic is also a natural story form in that it’s about the boundary between the observable world of verifiable experience, and the unseen and inexpressible realm of feelings and dreams. All stories grapple with the exchange between the visible world and the unseen. We live our lives between worlds even in the most basic sense of our experience of consciousness: our inner life, our secret, hidden self, responds to and is developed in relation to the “real” world of things and objects in space around us, but it is also independent from this world in some important way. The same is true of our dreams: they are built on our experiences in the waking world, but they are not limited to those experiences; they carry us to exhilarating, or sometimes terrifying, new spaces of the imagination. This is a problem of the mind, of being alive, and of storytelling that has always interested me. So many of the writers I revere have written gothic stories at some point, including writers who were incredibly important to me as I was learning to write: Henry James, Edith Wharton, George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, and many others. One of my favorite stories is James Joyce’s “The Dead,” which is, in its way, a ghost story.
Then there are the other ways in which the gothic story has been used to examine questions that are otherwise difficult to grapple with without descending into political didacticism. For example, many of the great British and Irish gothic stories are directly about oppression in the class system. Social class, and class conflict, and class exploitation—these are issues I’m very interested in, and which the gothic story allows into the narrative without swamping it. “Mile Point Road” is in part about class: the family in the story are not wealthy themselves, Matt is a teacher and his wife is a freelance editor, but they are able, through familial wealth, to stay in what in America is an equivalent of a manor house. The house itself is haunted by the horrors that class privilege allows: the ghosts the narrator imagines are children who were systematically abused by some patriarchal figure. These issues can be, and have been, directly engaged in politically driven fiction, but I find my own political attitudes tend to spill into didactic hectoring unless constrained by some sort of narrative form. And the gothic form, along with the speculative, is one I’m currently most interested in exploring the possibilities of.
TMR: You wrote a lot of gothic work in high school inspired by your own fears. What brought you back to the genre?
Oates: I wrote “Mile Point Road” and the other stories in my second collection, almost entirely after my first book of stories, The Empty House, won the 2012 Spokane Prize and was set to be published, which it was in early 2014. As I mentioned already, most of the stories in that book are realist literary stories, and publishing my first book, which I’d been trying to do for almost a decade, was a relief, and a release: I felt more confident, better able to try new forms that have always interested me, but which I was always afraid would turn out simplistic and formulaic, or would fail in some way to be serious art. I also think the new confidence I felt to write stories, such as ghost stories, which I’d loved when I was younger, was just a consequence of coming to the end of my long apprenticeship. I always loved the gothic, but didn’t feel I had the skills, once I understood how much there was to learn, to do it in a way that wouldn’t be derivative. Hopefully, I’m able to write something in this tradition that is pleasurable and interesting. It’s certainly been a lot of fun, which is usually a good sign. Though one has to be careful not to conflate the enjoyment of the author with the enjoyment of the reader.
TMR: What’s your favorite work by another writer in the gothic genre and why?
Oates: Shirley Jackson’s stories are often terrifying, even in those when nothing terrible seems to explicitly happen. She manages to tap into an anxious, largely unconscious space that sticks with me long after I’ve finished the stories. More contemporary writers are Christopher Coake, whose novel You Came Back is a great example of contemporary gothic, as is Sarah Waters’s haunted English manor house novel, The Little Stranger, and Dan Chaon’s story “The Bees.” I like that they are largely realist fiction—all have complex, layered characters, vivid landscapes that the reader can inhabit—that are infused with an eerie, troubling strangeness that warps our perceptions just enough to see the other, hidden world that might lie on the other side, or might only reside in our minds.
TMR: Do you see a difference between horror and gothic? What is the difference?
Oates: I think of horror as an element, and, eventually, as a commercial offshoot of the gothic. My understanding of the gothic is that it is a literary approach that contains more than just moments of dread, though horror and dread are, of course, vital components. I also believe, though by no means am I an expert, that what is marketed as horror fiction is really an approach to writing what are essentially gothic stories, with perhaps more emphasis on the terrifying moments than might be found in, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton. In my own writing I am drawn to the greater ambiguity in the gothic form.
TMR: What are you working on now?
I’ve recently finished a second collection of stories, all of which combine literary narrative techniques with another genre: gothic, mystery, speculative. “Mile Point Road” is the title story. Some of the writers, like “Mile Point Road,” hew more closely than others to a genre tradition. There is a speculative dystopian story, and a murder mystery story, while others edge closer to the strangeness of writers like Donald Barthelme. Still others are largely realist, quietly incorporating elements of genre fiction.
Nathan Oates teaches writing and literature at Seton Hall University. His debut collection of short stories, The Empty House, won the 2012 Spokane Prize and was published in 2014. His short stories have been published in Antioch Review, Missouri Review, Witness, and elsewhere and included in the anthologies Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Best American Mystery Stories 2012, and Forty Stories. He is currently at work on a novel and a new collection of short stories.