Monday, December 28, 2015

Q&A with Charles Haverty

Charles Haverty is the author of the new story collection Excommunicados. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including AGNI and The Gettysburg Review. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Q: How did you decide on the order of the stories in your collection, and do you see certain themes running through them?

A: Part calculation, part intuition. I was shooting for variety of subject matter, setting, point of view, tense, age, gender, etc., along with a less articulable sense of progression. Of course, if my readers are anything like me, they’ll jump around from story to story according to their own intuitions—and that’s okay, too.

As for recurring themes, I suppose most of the stories concern questions of identity in one way or another. My characters seem to share a special awareness of what one of them calls “the performative aspect” of life—the dissonance between what one is supposed to feel and what one actually feels. This is often played out in families, where that disconnect feels especially acute.

It also occurs to me that there’s a secret or lie driving each of these stories; that I might very well have called the book Secrets and Lies; that most short story collections could probably be called Secrets and Lies.

Q: Do you know how your stories will end before you start writing, or do you make many changes as you go along?

A: I like to think I know the ending, but more often than not I’m wrong—and happily surprised. The truest, most useful piece of writing advice I know of comes from Robert Frost’s “The Figure a Poem Makes”: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

Without giving too much away here, the endings to “Crackers” and “Black Box” genuinely surprised me—arrived—to my great pleasure.

Still, there are times when I begin with the ending and work my way backwards (that was certainly the case with “The Cherrywood Heart”), but the story invariably goes where it wants or needs to. The task, the trick, is to make the ending feel both surprising and inevitable.

Q: Several of the stories are linked. Why did you decide to explore those characters at different points in their lives?

A: You know that Jesuit business, "Give me a child of seven, and I will show you the man"? The three linked stories here (“Excommunicados,” “The Angel of the City,” and “Trappings”) let me play out that notion by following the progress of Lionel Detweiler from his Catholic school boyhood through middle age.

The less highfalutin truth is that it’s always fun (and a little liberating) to write about Lionel. He’s my Zuckerman, my Rabbit, my Nachman. He allows me the freedom to live a sort of alternative life on paper in a way the specific demands of other stories might not.

Q: Which writers have inspired you?

A: Saul Bellow said that a writer is a reader who’s moved to emulation. Reading Bellow works that way for me: I can’t get through a paragraph of “Something to Remember Me By” or Herzog or “The Old System” or even his letters without reaching for pen and paper.

There’s an engagement with the language that’s contagious, that inspires me, that makes me want to write (and God knows, I don’t mean in an imitative way). Despite their different styles and sensibilities, Don DeLillo, James Salter, and John Updike have a similar effect on me.

And then there are those writers who confer a sense of permission, of possibility, formal and otherwise, and here I’m thinking of Alice Munro, Muriel Spark, Evan S. Connell, Jane Gardam, William Maxwell, Lorrie Moore, Peter Taylor, and many others.

Anyway, that’s the long answer to your question. The short answer is James Joyce’s “The Dead,” my alpha and omega.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve put together a second collection of short stories, which will doubtless require further fiddling; I’m writing a novel; and I’ve been invited to participate in the development of something for television, though the less said about these the better.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I practiced law for two decades before quitting to write fiction. So I’ll put in a plug for joy here, the joy of working with language and memory and imagination, of making things up and getting them down right. I’m very lucky to get to do what I do, and I know it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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