An Interview with Hugh Sheehy

By Callie Fried and Layla Gordon

Hugh Sheehy is the author of The Invisibles (University of Georgia Press), winner of the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award. His fiction has appeared widely, most recently in Story, West Branch, and Five Points. He lives in Beacon, New York and teaches at Ramapo College of New Jersey, where he is Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Literature, and in Miami University’s Low Residency MFA Program.

West Branch: We are fascinated with the concept of “invisibles” in your first collection. How does this concept manifest in other stories in this collection and beyond? Is there an invisible in every story?

Hugh Sheehy: “The concept of “invisibles” comes initially from the story “The Invisibles,” and when I was putting the book together I wanted to call it anything but The Invisibles, probably because I wanted back then to think it was about more than I understood it to be about, and then the Flannery O’Connor Award editor, then Nancy Zafris, got me on the phone and told me point-blank that the title I’d submitted the manuscript under, “Variations on a Theme,” was vague and boring and pretentious, and she was so obviously right that I surrendered the conceit that I’d soon find a better title than The Invisibles then and there. I was sitting on somebody’s steps on 10th Street between 8th Avenue and Prospect Park West, and it was about ten in the morning and I was sweating profusely although it wasn’t very hot and I remember looking up and down the empty street and thinking “I’ll probably remember this,” and, sure enough, I have. Nancy helped me immensely back then. She’s a great writer and editor, and she helped me in all kinds of ways, from choosing my book to making very sharp observations about where I could improve it.

Thematically, the concept of the invisible, whether we’re talking about individuals or places or forces, takes shape in all the stories, I think (it’s been a while), in one way or another. Beyond the character Cynthia in the title story, who literally thinks she’s got a distinct existential condition, there are characters with secret lives, like Henrik the Viking or the bad husband in “The Tea Party” who simply feels unseen by his wife and family. The killers in “Meat and Mouth” materialized for me out of nothing to terrorize a working class girl and the child she’s stuck watching in a church day care facility nobody’s watching, the snowstorm in “Whiteout” renders Mason, whose family knows nothing of his whereabouts and has not for a long time, and the world around him a mass of wintry whiteness in which almost nothing can be seen. There’s the comic element in life that Erik in “Ghost Stories” seems to see but seems lost on the family whose party he and his parents attend. I think it’s in all the stories, in one way or another.

 I do return to this idea a bit, both in short stories and in the novels I’m currently writing, though nowadays I understand it to be a dimension of some larger set of writing concerns. I think it was maybe the foothold I needed to start developing stories I genuinely felt I could call my own, and it’s only been in the past couple of years that I think I’ve found a way to bring my learning to bear on writing fiction that gets to the things I’ve been struggling to write about for decades in a voice that belongs to me–this is especially true of the pair of novels I’m working on. As everybody knows, John Gardner suggested that a “psychic wound” could be productive for some writers. I think that, in my case, it’s more like stupidity can be productive. I don’t mean I think I’m a dummy, though I do think that sometimes and I’ve met plenty of people appear to think that on the rare occasions they do think of me, so much as I mean being caught in a constant state of amazement and speechlessness about certain aspects of being that I feel are not sufficiently articulated in our literature. I think the best pieces in my collection mark my first real steps toward telling my own story.

WB: We were struck by the power of memory in, “Translation,” “Uses of Enchantment,” and other stories.  In the first, Marcus is paralyzed by his loss of memory, but in the second, Leon is paralyzed by his memories overtaking him. You mentioned using fiction to tell your story; how do your own memories drive your characters lives? 

HS: “I suspect memory is as fundamental to fiction writing as the imagination, in that it largely supplies the material one modifies in both the ideation process and the fiction-writing process. And as you point out, it also has a thematic value and maybe even an elemental force in some of the stories I’ve written. But I take your question to have to do more with the way I consciously use memory in fiction writing. That’s something that has changed over the years. When I was younger and feeling more wounded by the world, I think I wrote stories that were more personal. That changed several years back, when I guess you could say I accepted the fact that the world doesn’t really care about my grievances. I’m a slow learner, and I wish I’d figured this out sooner. Anyway, once I made my peace with that, I became more interested in writing about other people and thinking about what makes them tick and do what they do. For the most part, I’ve used memories to help me fashion the concrete details for imaginary things and events and, in a few cases, give shape to a plot or a scene.”

WB: Many of your characters could be called “Middle-American,” such as Maddie from “Meat and Mouth,” Daniel from “After The Flood,” and Pete from “A Difficult Age.” How do you conceive of your audience? Would your characters read your stories?

HS: I imagine a reader very much like myself, someone who likes literary fiction devoted to both style and story, so I suppose my answer is no, I don’t think my characters would read my stories. I tend to think of characters as being unlike most of us in that they are more willing to take risks we never would; they’re all busy having experiences I hope most of us will never live through to do much reading. In general, I believe fiction should tell a good story–though I’m aware that sounds simpler than it is–that manages to bring the reader to a point where the possible touches the impossible in a way that is both meaningful and compelling. I also believe fiction should be artfully crafted.

WB: Can you please expand on the concept of the possible touching the impossible in fiction? Can you give us an example of this in your own work?

HS: What I mean by the possible touching the impossible is that fiction tends to have a metaphoric dimension, a point or boundary where pretenses to straightforward mimesis dissolve into a gesturing at something un-sayable in plain speech. I believe this is what Joy Williams means when she writes of fiction having an “anagogical level.” And it is not dissimilar to what I take Peter and Iona Opie to mean when they call fairy tales “the space fiction of the past,” which is more or less what John Gardner tells us when he calls the fairy tale “the place where myth and reality meet.” While those latter two statements are limited to fairy tales, I believe they can be extended to all successful fiction, even the most pedestrian realism, where the impossible is usually smuggled in through the construction of a character whose essence can be distilled in the elegant theoretical language of narration. Take Holden Caulfield, for example. Who has inner life so consistent, coherent, and articulated? Character requires shaping: It is an illusion. I think it’s kind of funny that we fall for it. We must deeply wish for it to exist.

That said, I will confess that I tend to prefer fiction in which writers have not taken such pains to bleach out the feeling of magic or myth, and I’m most excited by my own ideas when I feel like the impossible is speaking to me in some way. In the story “Uses of Enchantment,” for example, there is a player piano that has a haunted feeling about it, and that haunting spirit is connected to a world the protagonist believes, though he might not know it, that he cannot enter. It’s not always so subtle, though. If you look at my story “The Invisibles,” the narrator has some evidence to believe she exists in a supernatural realm in which she and a select few others are especially vulnerable to a homicidal maniac who may or may not have mystical powers.

WB: You previously mentioned earlier that you are working on a pair of novels. What can you tell us about those? 

HS: One novel is a bildungsroman narrated by a high school kid who’s convinced himself that all people are con artists, and it’s a study of how distorted the world can seem if you think that way, as well as what courses of action become possible when you think of others in those terms. The other is a kind of longitudinal study of a character who is basically a bad guy who thinks he’s a good guy, and the novel’s two halves narrate a couple of defining points in his life. That one’s more of a mixture of the thriller genre and social realism. Both books are fairly dark, though not without comic elements, and it’s my hope that they give some shape to the uncertainty and danger that are so abundant in the world.

WB: From your description, the novels’ characters seem similar to your short story characters. How are they related?

HS: If there are strong similarities between the characters in my short fiction and those I craft for longer narratives, I suspect they follow from a persistence of my interest in certain types of characters and narratives. I suspect one can only write a novel if the subject matter seizes one’s interest and demands one bring it into the world–to make it real, or to prove it can be written–and my hunch is that I’m just as fixated on my own set of aesthetic and metaphysical concerns as the next person. There are some authors who invent vast worlds populated with many kinds of characters, but I’m not sure I’ll ever join their ranks. Lately my thinking has been moving in that direction–toward characters and stories that wouldn’t have interested me five years ago–but my practice lags behind my thinking. For me, there is always a delay of ten or so years between having experiences and being able to fictionalize them well. This used to frustrate me, but I’ve always been a late bloomer, and I’ve come to look forward to the unforeseeable changes in my thinking and writing.