Friday, September 20, 2019

Q&A with Edward J. Delaney

Edward J. Delaney, photo by Beowulf Sheehan
Edward J. Delaney is the author of the new story collection The Big Impossible. His other books include the novels Follow the Sun and Broken Irish, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic. Also a journalist, filmmaker, and playwright, he teaches at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in The Big Impossible?

A: Over many years, at least 10 years. I don’t have an agenda for writing stories; I just write when an idea strikes me, and I see where they go.

Some of the stories in the book (in the final section) are related and stand as a novella; “House of Sully” started as a story, got longer, but didn’t turn into a novel.

And some stories just come from an urge. The opening story, “Clean,” was a story I wrote in a day, which is the only time that’s happened for me. But the story was published in The Atlantic and got a good bit of attention; the idea sprang up and I just dove in.

Q: How did you choose the order in which the stories were arranged?

A: We start with the stand-alones, and I think trying to vary in theme and style. Then on to the novellas. “Clean” seems to be a gripper, so for someone who doesn’t know my work, it’s a good start. I hope some of the less-intense stories create a bit of a variation.

Arrangement of stories is an interesting problem in itself, thinking about how one might lead to another. But I also know that as a reader of story collections, I rarely read the books in order. I usually bounce around with the presumption that each story was meant to be its own universe.

Q: What themes do you see running through the collection?

A: A key theme in my novels, I’ve come to see, is people in relation to their work, or their place. In other words, people as direct products of a place they occupy, and how that shapes them. Some of the stories in here do that, but others move a bit away from that.

Another theme I know is there is people in relation to the world as it exists now. We’re in a world of technology and of the changes technology has brought – the way the internet, and social media, and other such tools changes our sensibilities. Several of the stories are trying to think about that.

I am always fascinated how my students, in their own stories, rarely have characters using their phones, even though it’s all they do in real life. It’s like all those old TV shows in which you never saw people watching TV. But I think there is so much to confront in our increasingly complex and divided and information-saturated world, it’s fertile ground for fiction.

Q: In our previous interview, you said, “There’s very little of my experiences in my writing.” Was that true with these stories as well?

A: Absolutely. The novella “House of Sully” is a first-person reminiscence of growing up in a certain time and place, and has almost no relationship to my life or experiences. Because my life and experience wouldn’t make for as compelling a story.

Certainly there was a more “proper” era where people wrote autobiography as fiction to spare embarrassment or hard feelings; now those people just write memoirs – and probably sell more books because of it. And the record has shown a lot of those memoirs have a dose of fictionalizing, which seems to be accepted – the “based on a true story” approach.

So anybody trying to write fiction has to think about what fiction does that makes it useful. I think, and hope, part of that is a writer being able to see a reality in a situation that the person who lived it is unaware of, or whose predispositions keep them from seeing.

Some of the stories, such as in the “Big Impossible” section of the book, come directly out of my experiences as a journalist in the West. And “My Name is Percy Atkins” is inspired by a great-uncle who was indeed gassed in World War I, but all the rest in the story is fabrication, trying to imagine his experiences.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I always work on multiple projects that therefore take a really long time to finish. So right now I’m on three fiction projects at various stages, and I’m beginning to imagine a nonfiction work for the future. I work on things for the pure pleasure of working on them; I stopped worrying long ago about what might get published and what might not. I think the engagement with the work is what is the true pleasure.

For example, in The Big Impossible, I worked on “House of Sully” for a long time, meaning with no real hurry, with pleasure, and without a clue what it would turn into. I’m thankful to my wonderful publisher, Ruth Greenstein at Turtle Point Press, for putting it in this book, and the early responses seem to suggest it was worth writing.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Nothing coming to mind here, except my sincere thanks for your interest in the book.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Edward J. Delaney.

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