Monday, December 5, 2022

Q&A with Jack Driscoll


Photo by Cate Hotchkiss



Jack Driscoll is the author of the new story collection Twenty Stories: New and Selected. His other books include the collection The Goat Fish and the Lover's Knot, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Georgia Review and The Southern Review. He founded the Interlochen Center for the Arts creative writing department and teaches in Pacific University's low-residency MFA program, and he lives in Interlochen, Michigan.


Q: How did you choose the stories to include in your new collection, and over how long a period did you write them?


A: I began as a poet, and promised myself after I completed a collection called Building The Cold From Memory, I’d try my hand at fiction. That was in 1988, 34 years ago, though I did during that time also write three novels.


Over a career a writer’s work naturally evolves, and what I’ve always attempted to do is break through to that next place where I hadn’t yet arrived, this as a safeguard against writing different versions of the same story.


And my hope as I arranged the contents of Twenty Stories: New and Selected was to provide a sense of that arc. How the themes, let’s say, or what I might even call obsessions, shifted and reformed, though at the time I was not conscious of, nor the least bit interested in terms such as that. I simply, as the poet William Matthews says, wanted to write, “… as well as I could speak what it feels like to be human.”


Not all, but in many of the stories in Wanting Only To Be Heardmy first short story collection—the relationships between fathers and sons not only kept surfacing, but also provided much, perhaps even most, of the tension and drama and I wonder in retrospect if the recurrence wasn’t inspired by James Joyce’s promise to all of us Irish lads that we would in the end reconcile with our dads.


I can’t unravel or conclude the truth of that one way or the other, but rather to say, those were the doors I first opened, and walked through. Whereas more recently the thematic designagain unconscious—concerns itself with the nature of time, and our moving through it.


Stylistically, the voice—what Mary Carr refers to as the “delivery system,” and David Long “the brain of the story”—became, at least to my ear, more attuned linguistically to each story’s overall orchestration, sentences I was pleased to have written. Sentences, I hope, that the reader might even stop to reread, as I often do with the work of the writers I love most.


Q: The Chicago Tribune said of your work, “Driscoll's stories are masculine in the best sense of the word. They have a brusque, button up quality that relaxes only sporadically to let the inner lives of their characters, men who don't wear their disappointments on their flannel sleeves, briefly show through.” What do you think of that description, and how would you describe your characters?


A: Part of the art of compassionate characterization is to reveal what the characters wish, and oftentimes fiercely, to keep hidden. As J.D. McClatchy says, “I have given away all my secrets, they are what I miss most.”


However, if you love your characters enough, love them not in spite of their foibles, missteps, troubled hearts, flaws and vulnerabilities, but rather because of them, these people we divine will in time take off their masks, peel away those layers of concealment, and reveal what’s going on in the deepest reaches of their hearts and psyches.


I define serious fiction by the writer’s ability to transfer to the reader the interior wrench and roll of the characters. That’s when they need us most, need desperately to confide in us everything they’re thinking, and feeling, and why. Or as the reviewer you quoted said, “…to let the inner lives of [my] characters, men who don’t wear their disappointments on their flannel sleeves, briefly show through.”


It’s what Eudora Welty means by “the deep-grained habit of love.” Honest emotion earned by bearing witness to who they are, likable or not. What went wrong, and the belief, sometimes even against seemingly impossible odds, that things might get better.

It’s what we mean by empathy, and that for me is an act that places the writer, no matter the circumstances, in a position of grace, a position by which we might better understand motive. Anything less seems to me a formula for the creation of what we in the trade call cardboard, or herd-type characters, outlines, personages instead of persons, and who therefore grow unpredictable, and tiresome, and instantly forgettable.


I stand with Edward Hopper who says, “The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm.” Mining that seems to me the only way in which the reader can possibly be expected to care.


Q: Another assessment, from Michigan Public Radio, said, “Jack Driscoll has made northern Michigan his subject as well as his beloved home...and has shown us a landscape both magical and real, filled with love and loss...” How important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Place is not merely a backdrop against which the action occurs. Place is a source that informs everything, and which is why I agree with Garth Greenwell who says, “One sign of the success of a piece of writing is the extent to which I feel immersed in a physical environment”: William Kennedy’s Albany. Jamaica Kinkaid’s Aruba, James Joyce’s Dublin, Flaubert’s Paris, Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia, and on and on.


Read Winter Range by Claire Davis, and you’ll understand the psychology of her pushed-to-the-brink characters, and why they’re driven to do what they do is to confront in the extreme the conditions of such a brutal, mind-numbing, unrelenting Montana season.


The place from which I write, and which incites and inspires my fiction, is northern Michigan, and where I’ve lived for 46 years, a place, as Jim Harrison says, “…largely ignored by the rest of the world:” its topography, seasons, isolation, values and attitudes, its voices, its stories.


There also exists an implicit tension between what the place provides and what it can’t possibly give, and that ignites in certain characters the need to flee, to jump the fence, to leap outward.


You see it in the fiction of James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, its final words, “…he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.” And Rabbit does, though without any clear sense of where he’s headed, as long as he’s headed elsewhere, away from where he feels cornered, trapped, even panicked as he lights out into the unknown of endless distances.


More often my characters only dream about other places, and the intrigue of what lies beyond the boundaries they currently occupy. Especially the kids, when consumed by boredom, the most fatiguing of all enterprises, and then take measures against it, wild, crazy notions put into action and which combine to create the plot, and the trouble.


My stories are born of this place, rooted here, and with any attempt to locate them elsewhere they would immediately cease to be.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the collection?


A: That I’ve contributed in some small way to the genre being alive and well. And that what’s possible in the short story, and by which, I mean, among other things, an economy, the intensity of language will attract readers, rather than be ignored or misconstrued as an apprenticeship for the longer and more often read—and sold—fictional form.


Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” springs to mind. As do the stories of Australian writer Cate Kennedy, Elizabeth McCracken, Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Lee K. Abbott, and many others.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: As I said, I began as poet, moved to short stories, then to novels, then back to short fiction, where I’ve hung out for the last 25 years. My wife, Lois, used to ask if I thought the pendulum might at some point swing all the way back to where I started.


For a while I thought, maybe, though now with Twenty Stories: New and Selected, in the world, I think differently, given that I’m already at work on new stories, and with no intention, at least not yet, of changing course or slowing down.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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