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David Means Makes It Work

Assorted Fire Events ranks among the most acclaimed story collections of recent years. "Astonishing," the San Francisco Chronicle raved. "Crystalline," said The New Yorker. "Lean, agile [and] unaccountably lovely," added the New York Times Book Review.

David MeansUnaccountably, indeed. To judge strictly on the basis of content, these thirteen stories should be downright depressing. A widow discovers a videotape of her love-making with the deceased. A homeless man interrupts a wedding reception to beg for food. An aging physician vengefully misdiagnoses a patient whose recent real estate deal will destroy the doctor's property value. A hobo clings to the side of a freight train, holding on for his life as miles of track pass beneath him. A landscaping company defends the negligence was it negligence? that caused a young girl's tragic death.

And yet. Simply stated, David Means is a writer of exceptional grace.

"These are stories about loneliness," Adrienne Miller noted in Esquire, "about the difficulty of human connections it's certainly worth noting that the most intense relationships these characters seem to have are with the dead and yet, wonder of wonders, they remain, above all else, generous, redemptive, and hopeful."

Dave: There often seems to be a vague distinction between fiction and nonfiction in Assorted Fire Events. Even some of the stories that I'm assuming are entirely fictional read as if the events might have actually happened.

David Means: Only one really skirts the line between fiction and nonfiction, "Assorted Fire Events," which is just about the last story in the book. I inserted a few footnotes to point out sections that were nonfiction as opposed to fiction. But even those seem suspect to most readers - I mean they don't really know if I'm being honest or not.

"What They Did," where the yard collapses and the child is sucked under the lawn, came from a dream I had of cement slabs being put over a river. I just sat down and wrote the story. Then a few weeks later I saw in the news that a kid was actually sucked into a yard, something like that.

But the authorial tone of the stories...maybe they do sound like nonfiction sometimes.

Dave: Also, in "Sleeping Bear Lament," you use your own name. I don't necessarily assume therefore that it's you, the author, speaking about real life, but it does blur the line.

Means: My name came into that story, I can't say exactly why. In junior high, I knew a kid that was buried in a sand slide. That's where that story started. So I guess there's a factual core to that one, too.

What's weird is that I don't like postmodern tricks at all. I dislike game playing for the sake of game playing, except maybe in Borges and certain authors that can make it work.

Dave: In terms of perspective: the camera-eye shifts, other more subtle shifts...We're with one character, then somehow we're with another. Do you have a vision beforehand, something like, I need to tell this story from many different angles? The stories seem to take shape as if a sculptor is working on a block of stone. They get more organized as the pieces fall away.

Means: There are certain writers who shift points of view. Alice Munro is one example. She makes amazing quantum leaps within the tight structure of a short story. Chekhov does it too, very subtly, in many of his great stories. He makes these shifts with more subtlety than what I'm doing in this book.

I never think it out or plan it out. In the rewriting process, that's where a lot of the chiseling away happens. And sometimes I'll chisel away and have nothing at the end.

Dave: Was there a point in the construction of these stories where you realized you were working on a collection, rather than a series of unrelated stories?

Means: I had a vision of something like a Winesburg, Ohio-slash-Dubliners. The book's coming out in the U.K., and I'm really happy because the reviewers there are looking at it as I'd hoped, as an entity unto itself.

I wanted to do a collection that was about a town and where the stories did sort of interrelate - but not the kind of collection where the characters appear again and again, not like that. I wrote a lot more stories. Several of the stories I've published in Paris Review and other places were left out of this book because they didn't fit in with the structure.

Dave: Where does a story start? With an event? An image?

Means: Usually the stories start with a small seed of an idea. Then I just write.

Often it's a situation. In "The Widow Predicament" there's a videocassette of lovemaking between this married couple. Then the husband dies. Well, what do you do with the videotape? In grief, what would a widow do with a videotape of her lovemaking? As I'm writing it I'm letting her act as she wants to act, letting her become a real person as a character.

The same thing with "The Interruption," where a homeless man walks into a wedding to beg for food. He disrupts the reception. How does this event radiate out through the marriage in the future? Can a small thing like a homeless man coming into a wedding reception actually screw up a marriage? I didn't intentionally set out to solve this dilemma. I just let things happen.

Dave: In "Railroad Incident, August 1995," you describe the character walking "with great purpose and no purpose." As I read through these stories a second time I thought that idea, that aimlessness, could be applied to a lot of the situations. In another story, a character has no great map of life by which to guide his behavior.

Means: Yes, the characters are always searching, and they don't fully understand their situation in life, or their place, but that's pretty natural and, as far as I can see, the condition we're all in most of the time. And without getting too deep into religious stuff, there are also questions of God, or no God beneath the surface of the stories, too. And I should also add, where do you find grace, and what is it when you find it, if you do?

I'm not sure if the word aimless is exactly the one I would use. Some of the characters are homeless. Some have lost loved ones and are trying to find a foothold. None are really pointed in the kind of direction you might expect in a society that values mainly making money, or having a career, or that kind of thing.

Dave: Do you feel like some of the stories work better than others? Do you have favorites?

Means: I don't really have a favorite. "Railroad Incident" seems to get the most intense response, one way or the other, positive or negative. And "The Widow Predicament" right now, with 9/11 that story has had a tremendous response. In Britain, reviewers have been looking at it in terms of Americans and how we deal with grief.

I'm really happy with the collection as a whole, how it works as an entity.

Dave: There's a line in "Railroad Incident" about "the kind of man who would have his jeans dry cleaned" that's been quoted in literally half the reviews I read. Always that line.

Means: It's strange what people will pick out, but I really can't complain about the critical response. Reviewers were very kind, and much to my surprise the book won the L.A. Times Book Prize against Philip Roth. I didn't think it had a chance. But there were certain stories that most reviewers didn't touch - like "Assorted Fire Events," most didn't go near it. It's weird, the way they respond.

Dave: Maybe it's in part the fact that the stories are fairly open-ended. In "Railroad Incident," for example: what is that middle section? The story ends, then it steps back, starts up again, and ends differently. One reviewer read that middle section to be as valid as the actual ending. I didn't read it that way. I thought the literal ending is what actually happened.

Means: Which is what we have to hope the reader thinks.

All really good short stories are open-ended. The bad short stories are the ones that resolve and wind up in a nice neat conclusion. You don't have room in a short story to close things down. You just have room to give a narrative push and let the reader move forward with whatever happens.

I'm thinking of a story I read by Andre Dubus: "A Father's Story" [reprinted in Selected Stories]. He sets up this really incredible scenario where the father protects the daughter who has hit somebody with her car. He hides it. That's the end of the story: he hid it. He did what he had to do.

Dave: What recent collections have you enjoyed?

Means: I like George Saunders's stuff. I've been reading his work for the first time. I like his humor, his wit. And I've been reading Andre Dubus, the collection called In the Bedroom where they brought together a lot of his stories that influenced the movie. He's an amazing writer. He seems not safe, but conventional - but he's not. I think he's a better writer than Raymond Carver, and he covers the same kind of territory.

Also Thomas Bernhard. I've been reading all his stuff. I just reread The Loser. I think that's an amazing book. He's an Austrian writer. And Kafka.

Dave: He's not bad, Kafka.

Means: Kafka's pretty good.

Dave: Do you work on novels, as well?

Means: I've written two monster manuscripts. One is seven hundred something pages; I put that one aside. I wrote another that my agent likes but it's not quite the way I want it to be.

I'm continuing along the story course. I had a story in Esquire called "Lightning Man," a sort of folkloric type story. I'm writing funnier, weird folk tales. I'm not sure what they are yet.

Dave: You mentioned Alice Munro. I find her career so fascinating. To focus on short fiction for so long, so successfully...it's a difficult form. It's almost like writing hit song after hit song and filling album after album with them for years.

Means: If you look at her career though, even though she had success early on it's been a slow development. Her early books were critically acclaimed but pretty unknown.

I think if you're really good at something you should keep doing it. One of the things that's going on with a lot of writers today is that they get big contracts for two- or three-book deals, and they get caught in the intense need to fulfill that contract. They crank the novels out. As a short story writer, I'm under pressure to write a novel now, but it seems stupid to me to just make yourself work in a completely different genre if you're already doing what you want to do.

Dave: One of your stories was included in Best American Mystery Stories 2001. I read it, and I thought, Okay, this is the work of the same man I've been reading. But how many of the stories in Assorted Fire Events would be considered "mysteries" by these standards?

Means: I was very surprised when that story was picked. I was like, "Is this a mystery?" If you look at the whole collection, you'll see there's a Joyce Carol Oates story in there that's basically not a mystery, not by the definition that we traditionally use. It's just a crime story about a psychopath. And there are a couple of others in there like the one by William Gay. So I guess it depends on your definition of Mystery.

Dave: What do you read for pleasure?

Means: I read everything. I read contemporary fiction and I read classic stuff. I read nonfiction and poetry, too - a lot of poetry. And I teach, so I read my students' work.

Dave: I was searching on Google for information about you, and I found a description of a course that you teach: "Intro to the Apocalyptic Dreamscape." Tell me about that.

Means: I taught this course last semester. It's sort of a hodgepodge of pseudo-apocalyptic writers. It's a cultural studies course, too, a combination of that and literature.

We talked about "old weird America" - Greil Marcus, the music critic, coined this phrase for what is authentically weird in America, what's really out there and part of our weird, dark tradition. It's a 101 course, a course to get students reading and writing, so you can basically teach anything you want.

Dave: Putting these books together on a reading list, arranging and devising an organizational system, is that helpful to you in your own work?

Means: Yes, some of the time. I think teaching Literature instead of Creative Writing can be extremely good for your writing. To explicate and explore the work alongside students - and the students at Vassar bring a lot to the work - is a way of learning to see the work yourself. It can be a good thing, teaching. It's also a lot of work.

Dave: Did students respond strongly to particular authors or stories?

Means: We had a hard time because 9/11 happened a few weeks into the course. That day we were studying Edgar Allan Poe. The apocalyptic landscape we were studying was actually happening around us.

They really responded to Corregidora by Gayl Jones, which is a very dark book about abuse. They loved Denis Johnson, of course: Jesus' Son. They loved it. It's a great book.

I was going to do Vollman, but I ended up not doing it because we were all just too tired and depressed to go into The Rainbow Stories. It's always interesting. The course will change next semester, but I don't yet know how. I'm teaching Creative Writing now.

Dave: Are you teaching one course per semester?

Means: I'm teaching two right now, and it's good. It's like Dead Poets Society. It's a lot of really interesting, very genuine strong writers, not jaded, willing to really work. Undergraduate writers seem to be, in a way, more open to letting themselves just write.

Dave: I was looking through the list of people who had written something about your book: Donald Antrim, whose books I love, Jonathan Franzen, Aimee Bender, another person whose books I like a lot. Do you feel like you fall into any particular circle of writers? I ask because I often see many of these names appearing together in one place or another.

Means: I don't think so. I suppose you're going to have groups of writers who know each other because they like each other's work and are close to the same age, or they lend each other a hand, critically. I think in a way I fit in more with Paula Fox than some of those others. She writes really interesting, sometimes kind of dark tales. And Jonathan and I are good friends, and we read each other's work, and we give each other a tough time critically. I think we definitely listen to each other and have a good creative relationship.

One of the big differences between my view and some of my contemporaries is that I have nine-year-old twins. I was an at-home father, taking care of them for seven years when they were babies. I was one of those new age, at-home dads. Some of those writers that you named have kids, of course, but most don't. I wrote these stories while being a father, taking care of children, fixing a house, driving around - in the time between all that parenting stuff.

Dave: You seem to have a fairly natural understanding of landscape. Everything from the sand slide to the fire, the way the land is described. Are you reading up on grasses and plants when you're writing, or is that just an interest of yours?

Means: I don't do any research, except maybe after the story just to make sure it's okay. It just comes out.

Dave: What did you study at college?

Means: I studied English at the College of Wooster in Ohio and I did an M.F.A. in Poetry at Columbia. I like landscape, I guess. It's kind of a game to see how you can describe it.

Dave: "Sleeping Bear Lament" made me think of Being Dead by Jim Crace. One is a story, the other is a novel; the subjects are quite different; but the same care is taken the way you each describe the landscape. The land is alive.

Means: That's interesting because he beat me for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Now that you mention it, there is a similarity to that landscape.

Dave: You were describing the grass by the water, I think, when the connection first occurred to me.

Means: Yes, that was dune grass along Lake Michigan, in the dunes at Sleeping Bear, which are really amazing and hard to imagine, right in the middle of the Middle West, these huge towering dunes. And I now I suddenly realize that I was pre-med for a couple of years as an undergrad.

Dave: There you go.

Means: So I had all this biology and science stuff even though I knew I was never going to go the full route. When I was a junior I officially switched majors.

Dave: I noticed that the story in the middle of the collection, "What I Hope For," about not wanting your characters to die, hadn't been published previously. Did you write it for this collection as a bridge between the two halves?

Means: No, I wrote it a few years back and then I debated whether to use it. I knew that it would change the whole context of the book. But I decided to put it in. So there it is.

David Means visited Powell's on March 11, 2002.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Being Dead
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  2. Jesus' Son: Stories
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  3. Pastoralia
    Sale Trade Paper $7.98
  4. Selected Stories Used Trade Paper $8.50
  5. Selected Stories (Vintage... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  6. Assorted Fire Events: Stories Used Trade Paper $5.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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