From Our Staff | August 16, 2017
In conversation with John J. Clayton
Recently TMR fiction intern Lily Hobbs talked with John J. Clayton about his story “Joy,” from the spring issue 2017 issue of the Missouri Review. Clayton’s fourth collection of short stories, Minyan, was published in September, 2016. He has also published four novels, including Kuperman’s Fire and Mitzvah Man.
Lily Hobbs: In your story “Joy,” you deal with themes of loss and the acceptance of death. Did any of the struggles of your protagonist/narrator Dr. Margolis stem from your own personal experience with these difficult topics?
John J. Clayton: Loss is a background of the story, a given. The situation. It doesn’t seem to me exactly the main theme of the story. Given the fact of death, the story asks, how can one maintain joy? Everyday joy. Maybe the main theme is the conflict between victory, success, etc., and joy. Edith wants her strengths to be acknowledged, admired. The doctor feels that victories don’t bring about joy. The Wordsworth poem seems at the core of the story. It’s not the acceptance of death that’s crucial in the story—it’s the engaging with life.
Of course I’ve had my losses—especially the loss of my son. But the story isn’t autobiographical. How can you live in joy? Or if not joy, can you find in life a passional core? Do you know Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Leaden Echo” and “The Golden Echo”? Take a look. http://www.bartleby.com/122/36.html.
LH: Joy is a thread throughout the story, and one that the narrator discusses often. How do you personally define joy?
JC: The story points to a moment of real joy, when the doctor is surprised by his son. At that moment, joy comes easy. But you can’t count on glorious moments like that. The tough and crucial joy is what we do or do not experience in everyday life. The goldfinch at the feeder, the crocosmia exploding into bloom, a kiss, a melody by Dvŏrák, a glance between friends.
LH: Your narrator, Dr. Margolis, is a psychologist, and much of your story is internally focused. What challenges does this present in terms of the action of a short story?
JC: Good question. There’s a real danger in writing a character who’s a psychologist or, say, a philosopher. Ideas can seduce the writer so that conflict isn’t rendered, dramatized in action, but rather is spoken about, left in the abstract. Example of a dramatic rendering: the doctor chooses to visit Edith—against all his rules. Suppose the doctor simply spoke about the problem of routinization. That generalizing is something to avoid. My final paragraph—all generalized. Has the wisdom been earned? Or is it a failure? I think I learned to take a chance on expressing larger truths from Saul Bellow, who writes the ordinary, ordinary, ordinary, then an explosion into a transcendent vision.
LH: How do you think Dr. Margolis’s relationship with his dying patient, Edith, changes him over the course of the story? Does his viewpoint on death mirror your own?
JC: Yes, he’s changed, as she’s changed. Life becomes—maybe not joyful but—rich, meaningful, full of the sacred, even in the absence of reference to God. Does his view mirror my own? Yes, but the character has more wisdom than I have. That’s not unusual. In their ordinary lives, writers can be foolish yet able to express wisdom through characters or in their prose.
LH: What is some advice you have for aspiring writers hoping to publish in literary journals today?
JC: Don’t feel you have to be hip, edgy, cool, outrageous. It’s okay to find a voice that’s truer and goes deeper.
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