By Anna DeNelsky and Alexandra Schneider
Amy Gustine is the author of the story collection, You Should Pity Us Instead, a 2017 Finalist for the Ohioana Book Award in Fiction. Her work has also received an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award and Pushcart Prize special mention. Her fiction and essays have appeared in several publications, including Tin House, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and Fiction Writers Review. Keep up with her at AmyGustine.com or on Twitter at @AmyGustine.
West Branch: How does the story “You Should Pity Us Instead” serve as a microcosm for the entire collection?
Amy Gustine: A parent-child relationship figures prominently in most of the collection’s stories, and “You Should Pity Us Instead” is the most direct engagement with the tension all parenting involves—the tension between uncertainty and responsibility. In that particular story, the uncertainty involves spiritual questions—Does God exist? If so, what is God’s nature? Should a parent impose their own view of God on their child without exposing the child to other views? In “Coyote,” the uncertainty and responsibility have to do with ensuring physical and emotional well-being. In different ways “Half-Life,” “AKA Juan,” and “All the Sons of Cain” deal with questions about love and caretaking vs. identity and belonging. “When We’re Innocent” poses questions about the uncertainty of what goes on in our own child’s mind vs. the responsibility to know them in order to protect them, even from themselves. When you’re a parent, there’s no way to opt out. Despite the uncertainty, you have to act—and take responsibility (fairly or not) for the outcome.
WB: How did the themes of parental tension and religious identity come into play when choosing the order of the stories in the collection?
AG: They didn’t play into my choice of order much at all. The religious identity of the characters only features prominently in a few of the stories, and the nature of the parent-child struggle is different enough from story to story that I felt any order would highlight the variety. Instead, I focused on making sure the order showcased the diversity of other elements—length, tone, whether the story featured Americans or not, whether the story had a hopeful ending or a more foreboding one, whether it was set in the rough present or the distant past, and whether the point-of-view character was primarily a parent or a child. For example, the point-of-view character in All the Sons of Cain is a parent, in AKA Juan it’s an adult child, and in Unattended the POV character struggles equally as both a parent and a child.
WB: In “Coyote” the mother is constantly consumed by the potential dangers that might harm her son, and spends every waking hour trying to protect him. In “Bully Girl,” which is forthcoming in West Branch, the narrator feels that she did not do enough to protect her daughter from a bully and prevent her suicide. In “When We’re Innocent,” a father is tasked with cleaning out his daughter’s apartment in the wake of her death and struggles with the reality of her suicide. How do these stories relate to one another?
AG: Short stories are rarely about the moment of crisis. I think that’s because what happened is just a fact. It doesn’t engage the human need for meaning and control—the making sense of what happened. That’s why short stories are usually about either the lead up to crisis or the aftermath of crisis. Whether looking forward or looking back, the story is exploring the how and why of humanity’s heartbreaks. In “Coyote” the mother is looking forward—anticipating her inability to protect her child—while in “Bully Girl” and “When We’re Innocent” parents are looking back at the very same inability. Despite this shared theme, the stories explore different terrain. “Bully Girl” explores the anger grief often involves. All three stories also confront cultural questions. In “Coyote” there’s a sense that aspects of our society (multi-culturalism, capitalism, pollution) play a role in the angst we feel as parents. In “Bully Girl” social media, the judicial system, and educational practices take the stage. In “When We’re Innocent” there’s a cultural struggle that has to do with sexuality—what sort is acceptable, what sort is not. That said, when I write, it’s never with a theme in mind, or a subject even. I start with personality and situation. The other stuff emerges organically. At least, that’s how it feels to me, and I hope it feels that way to the reader. Good stories can only be experienced, never summarized.
WB: What elements of writing do you believe make a story feel like an experience, as you say, rather than a summary?
AG: Often writers would answer this question with a pedagogical cliché—show don’t tell. This advice is usually taken to mean writers should privilege scenes with dialogue and vivid descriptions of sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes. We’ve all heard the advice, and there’s truth to it, but like any pithy command, it’s reductive and can be misleading. In fact, there are probably as many ways to create a sense of experience for the reader as there are writers. Take the short story “Lush” by Bradford Morrow. Narrated first-person by Ivy and James in an alternating pattern of first-person, the story is all summary. There are no full or partial scenes, no direct dialogue, and the sensory details are minimal. Specifics (such as the types of alcohol James and his deceased wife Margot preferred) are listed rather than embedded in actions. Despite all of this “telling,” the reader still feels as if they’ve had an experience. In this particular story, that’s achieved through the first person narrators confiding in the reader, admitting to heavy drinking, violent marital arguments, and distracted driving. In fact, the characters’ way of telling us all this becomes the “showing” in this story. James, for example, often uses rhetorical devices which distance him and Margot from responsibility. When Margot gets pregnant, then miscarries, he describes her efforts to reduce her drinking as, “Sobriety wasn’t Margaret’s calling.” He relates their increasing isolation from each other by saying that, “Evenings eventually witnessed a new routine in which rather than always drinking together we spent some quality time alone,” and, “The drinking had taken Margot and me to a precipice and we had no choice but either to back away into sobriety or jump.” Notice how “evenings” and “the drinking” are the sentences’ grammatical subjects as if they were agents with a will of their own acting on James and Margot. These syntactical strategies reveal James to the reader, helping them experience him as a person, and his life as it must feel to him, as much as the actual events he relates do.
WB: Can you tell us about your journey as a writer? What projects are you currently working on?
AG: Like a lot of writers, I started with short stories because they’re short. It took a while to learn that writing a collection of them is harder than writing a novel. You have to keep starting over, conceiving new characters and situations and compressing meaning seven, eight, twelve times, before you have a book-length work. As a writer, I’ve always been interested in capturing duality. I like to go against the grain, and challenge binaries like yes/no, good/bad, which I hope makes my work rich, but I’m sure sometimes I just stumble into strangeness. Right now I’m working on a novel that takes up controversial women’s issues and braids fictionalized biography with invented characters.
WB: Can you elaborate on what you mean by fictionalized biography?
AG: The biographical novel is a novel which tells a fictionalized account of a real person’s life. There’s some bleed over into the historical novel category, but not all historical novels use real people as main characters. Sometimes they are merely set in the past, and real people only play a peripheral role in the story. Biographical novels always feature one or more real people as central characters, and they tend to feel more intimate, to take a more contemporary approach to narrative distance. I’d put Mantel’s series about Thomas Cromwell as well as several T.C. Boyle novels in this category. Riven Rock is an imagined narrative of Katherine Dexter McCormick and her husband, Stanley, heir to the International Harvester fortune who suffered with schizophrenia. The Women takes on Frank Lloyd Wright’s life through the perspectives of his four romantic partners. A good biographical novel isn’t a plodding account of someone’s real life fleshed out a bit with some dialogue, or a few saucy private moments. It burrows into the psyche and takes an attitude toward their life from a contemporary perspective. You see this in Boyle and Mantel, a sense that they’re framing the past and its people for us in light of modern sensibilities. Though typically a writer wouldn’t change known facts about their subject’s life, or invent transformative events, I suppose she could. More often, the genre provides room for invention in the details, in the space between the public facts. In the mind. Biographical novels try to make the reader feel as if they’ve lived in the person’s skin. I used the term ‘fictionalized biography’ because the book I’m writing has four point-of-view characters, two fictional characters and two people from history, so it’s something of a collage.
WB: Given the pandemic and current political and social climate, what responsibility do authors have in the larger public conversation?
AG: Authors are already doing what most people don’t—looking closely. Trying to report honestly. Most people don’t have time for that. They’ve got children to feed. Xrays to read. A house to clean. Cases to try. Electric lines to repair. Crops to plant. Streets to pave. Authors often do a lot of these things too, but while they’re at it, they also look, and then they write, and try to get words to follow the contours of life, so that everybody else can sit down in the evening and read and say, Oh yeah, that’s it. That’s how it works. That’s true. That’s what I didn’t notice because I was busy doing my job. What kinds of truths you try to tell, and how good you are at it, well—that’s going to vary from author to author. I think that’s enough responsibility for anybody, at anytime.
Amy Gustine’s short story “Bully-Girl” appears in West Branch 95, Winter 2021 in the print issue.