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Current Issue: Winter 2016
Current issue: Winter 2016
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.
by Rosie Siefert
Congratulations to three past TMR contributors, who have new books recently out.
Peter LaSalle, whose fiction (“Istanbul Nocturne: Three AM, Maybe Four,” “Oh, Such Playwrights!”) and nonfiction (“Au Train de Vie: That Voice You Hear When Traveling”) have appeared in our issues, has recently published a collection of short stories, Sleeping Mask (Bellevue Literary Press). The eponymous opening piece beckons the reader to slip into the complex worlds the author has created. LaSalle’s narrative voice hypnotizes, and his enticingly evasive way of concluding each story leaves a dreamlike impression. The twelve stories in Sleeping Mask are nuanced tales of enduring subjects: desire, despair, the arts, and war.
Melissa Yancy, winner of our 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for her short story “Consider This Case,” has recently published her debut story collection. Dog Years (University of Pittsburgh Press) won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and includes her prizewinning story. Dealing with modern medicine, hospital settings, and other, more commonplace circumstances like supermarket shopping, air travel, and first dates, Dog Years undertakes the task of coming to terms with life as it comes at us. Inevitable frustrations are humorously portrayed, and the stories are infused with sharp metaphor and clear language. A common theme of the collection is time: its steady pace beats through the nine short stories in Dog Years.
Poet and essayist John W. Evans has published poetry and two essays (“The Polish Prince” and “Elegy and Narrative”) in our pages. His deeply moving new memoir, Should I Still Wish (University of Nebraska Press), chronicles his recovery from heartbreak. Evans, a young widower, grapples with the inexplicable grief of losing his wife, while setting out on a cross-country trip to San Francisco, where he reconnects with a woman who sparks joy in a time of mourning. The intriguing paradox of love amid heartbreak pushes the narrative forward, leading to moments of poignant honesty. Evans’s emotional journey is candidly conveyed and affecting.
Rosie Siefert is a second-semester intern at TMR. She is a dual-major in English and Journalism and also works at the Columbia Missourian.
Over the past few months, we’ve read and re-read entries for the Missouri Review’s 26th Annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. We’ve broken our contest record, receiving over 3,000 entries this year, and have been overwhelmed by the quality of these submissions, which made decisions especially difficult. We’re grateful to the writers who sent us their stories, poems, and essays and were privileged to spend time with so much wonderful work.
Many thanks to our team of editors, assistants and readers this year, who spent long nights laboring over manuscripts. Speer Morgan, Kate McIntyre, Kristine Somerville, Leanna Petronella, Evelyn Somers, Sherell Barbee, Traci Cox, Jeff Wasserboehr, Samantha Brown, Payton Kinnison, Rose Nash, Emma Quinn, Bailey Boyd, Sean Ironman, Mikella Marley, Alec Raimond and Dedra Earl, thank you for your time, work, and help.
Winners, Runners-Up, and Finalists are listed below:
“Instructions to the Living from the Condition of the Dead” by Jason Brown of Eugene, OR
“The Witness” by May-lee Chai of Wilmington, NC
“A Small but Perfect Happiness” by Edward Hamlin of Boulder, CO
“And How Much of These Hills Is Gold” by C Pam Zhang of San Francisco, CA
“Anorak” by Ed Allen of Vermillion, SD
“A Parable of Fausto Bruzzesi” by Robert Dorjath of El Dorado Hills, CA
“Coupling Is Not an Art Form, Children Are Not Art Supplies” by Mira Dougherty-Johnson of Southold, NY
“Fat” by Cai Emmons of Eugene, OR
“False Cognates” by Ladee Hubbard of New Orleans, LA
“Up in the Air” by Lisa Lenzo of Holland, MI
“Walter Bombardier Tells a Big Fat Lie” by Beth Mayer of Lakeville, MN
“Many Happy Returns” by Maia Morgan of Jersey City, NJ
“16 Days of Glory” by Jill Rosenberg of Montclair, NJ
“Other People’s Stories” by Carol Smith of Kirkland, WA
Karen Skolfield of Amherst, MA
Nancy Takacs of Wellington, UT
Heather Treseler of Newton, MA
Marcus Wicker of Lansing, MI
John Blair of San Marcos, TX
Tiana Clark of Nashville, TN
Cassandra Cleghorn of Pownal, VT
Cristina Correa of Ithaca, NY
Max Freeman of Brooklyn, NY
Emma Hine of Brooklyn, NY
Carol Quinn of Reisterstown, MD
Alison Rollins of St. Louis, MO
Safiya Sinclair of Lenox, MA
Patti White of Tuscaloosa, AL
“Swarf” by Tyler Keevil of Abergavenny, UK
“The Cataclysm of My Mother’s Spine” by Jamison Rankin of Ladson, SC
“The Magic Show” by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers of Conway, AR
“Nemerov’s Door” by Robert Wrigley of Moscow, ID
“We Who Are About to Die Salute You” by Caroline Beimford of Fayetteville, AR
“Taking the Census in Rural Arizona” by Geraldine Birch of Cornville, AZ
“Y.O.L.O.” by Jacqueline Feldman of Brooklyn, NY
“Pork Stock, 2013” by Carly Fraysier of Laramie, WY
“Marriage Proposal for Bachcha Mashi” by Madhushree Ghosh of San Diego, CA
“The Epic Unnecessariness of #wejustneedtopee” by C .J. Janovy of Kansas City, MO
“Shine for Me” by Peter Lang-Stanton of Portland, ME
“Up Fox Mountain” by Sarah Neidhardt of Portland, OR
“Dim All the Lights” by Natasha Orlando of Mishawaka, IN
“Area Woman, or Netflix is the New Crack” by Maureen Stanton of Georgetown, ME
We’re in the process of planning our Editors’ Prize weekend, an annual spring reading and reception to honor the winners of the contest. If you’re in the Columbia area, we’d love to have you join us. The Editors’ Prize issue, featuring our winners, will also be released in spring of 2017.
Our 10th Annual Miller Audio Contest is also open for submissions. The deadline is March 15, 2017.
This week on The Missouri Review Soundbooth Podcast, as part of our podcast series covering the Citizen Jane Film Festival, we had the opportunity to speak with Cara Greene Epstein, executive producer, writer, and co-director of Dragonfly.
Dragonfly began its journey in the world of film as a 10-minute short and grew, with the help of its wonderful cast and crew, to become a 76-minute, full-fledged feature film. Cara, a professional actor, writer, director, producer, and teaching artist, wanted to begin producing her own films, pitched her idea to friends, and thus Dragonfly has taken flight as a delayed coming-of-age story examining themes of homecoming, family, and disease. It follows Anna Larson and her quest for truth as she returns home to help her mother who has recently been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
In this podcast, Cara shares her adventures in filmmaking, inspirations, passions, and professional ambitions.
Podcast conducted by Audio Intern Rosie Siefert.
Today, the Missouri Review offers a variation on Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Lise Saffran, TMR board member and author of the novel Juno’s Daughters.
I teach a course called Storytelling in Public Health and Public Policy at the University of Missouri. The public health students in my class arrive skeptical about the value and even the morality of storytelling, unlike creative writers or indeed Missouri Review readers. They think stories are great as long as they stay in their place. It’s kind of like how my kids used to like mashed potatoes and green beans fine until they touched each other on the plate. My students want to prevent disease; they don’t think they should have to manipulate people with stories. In their minds, stories are the domain of people who try to get others to forget about evidence with anecdotes about a child who just “never seemed the same” after he got his shots.
Happily, it doesn’t take long for that skepticism to fade. My students begin to understand that they are doing their issues a disservice if they show up with their stacks of figures while everyone else–journalists, politicians and advocates–provides compelling narratives that often stand in opposition to the numbers. And that’s when the real work begins. We ask ourselves: What is a good public health story? What is a true public health story? What are the ethical obligations of the public health storyteller? The kinds of things that make a story good–concrete language, an interesting structure–will be familiar to writers of fiction and creative nonfiction. Things get trickier when it comes to ethical obligations. Public health workers aren’t usually journalists. They’re not necessarily doctors or nurses. They’re not, or at least not exclusively, artists. They’re managers of food banks, of health education campaigns in communities, of small nonprofit organizations or state agencies. The difference between a public health story and a literary work, I often argue, centers around relationships. For example, are my students telling the stories of marginalized communities? Do people in that community depend on their organization for services? Will those people feel like they have been fairly represented or exploited?
I urge my students to think about their relationship to people and communities as they tell their stories and to expect to be accountable to those people after the story is told. I encourage them to think less like a journalist who might visit a community, report on an incident once, and never visit again and more like a memoirist writing about people who are likely to remain part of the fabric of their lives. Necessarily, an examination of relationships prompts a deeper examination of self. Not just what is this person’s relationship to me, but what is my relationship to the story? How do I know that my truth is the truth? These are appropriate questions for a storyteller working in places where there are often big differences in power, not to mention access to media outlets and decision makers. Sounds like memoir again, and perhaps it is, but maybe it is also fiction. Or perhaps it should be.
The thing that got me thinking about this question of relationships this morning was coming across a link to an old issue of Crab Orchard Review, which contains a story that I published following my public health internship in Sri Lanka. As with most stories, it was a hybridization of real and imagined events, an effort to create something that was, in the words of Alice Munro, “not real but true.” I made up things about my own life (my mother was not ill) and I included real things about the family I stayed with (their older son had left Sri Lanka for Canada). In the story I referred to that son as “difficult.” It was fiction and in that alchemy of real and true, of knowing and imagining, shouldn’t everything be possible? Isn’t thinking about relationships and considering how other people might feel when they read your story a form of self-censorship? I can hear myself during the writing of this story, in my mid-twenties, asking those questions. I can hear myself now, many years later, answering them differently.
I’m proud of that story. I’m proud of it except for that one word. Difficult. What if I had asked myself the question I urge my students to ask themselves: when the story is published, will the people I am writing about feel they have been fairly represented? I believe that if I had, I would have recognized that description as a mistake. It wasn’t a mistake because I valued the truth over my relationship with the family. It wasn’t a mistake because I valued my right to invent fiction over my relationship with the family. It was a mistake because I didn’t have the slightest idea of why the son left for Canada. I didn’t understand their family’s relationship. The word “difficult” was a lazy way of papering that over. Were there other things they might have objected to in the story? Things that felt both real and true to the story I was telling, even given an honest accounting of who I was and what I knew and what I didn’t? Possibly, but I never got to ask. I sent them story after it was published, but I never heard back.