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Novels and Short Stories, Marriages and Affairs
TMR Contest Editor AnnElise Hatjakes interviews fiction writer John Fulton on the publication of his new short story collection, The Flounder.
John Fulton’s short fiction has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, cited for distinction in the Best American Short Stories, short-listed for the O. Henry Award, and published in numerous journals, including Zoetrope, Oxford American, and The Southern Review. He has also received grants and fellowships from the New York Writers Institute, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.
Check out AnnElise Hatjakes’ interview with him below for an insightful, inspiring discussion of fiction, family, and perseverance.
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AnnElise Hatjakes: As the author of both novels and story collections, can you speak to how your writing process differs between the two mediums?
John Fulton: On this subject, Lorrie Moore said, “A short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage.” My mentor in graduate school, Charles Baxter, used to jokingly make the distinction between the two forms by saying, “Characters in novels make plans. Characters in short stories rarely do that.” Most of my book-length projects, whether they work or not, take anywhere from 3-5 years to complete. I have two novels and countless (at least, I’d rather not count them) attempted novel drafts in boxes and folders at the back of a few very deep drawers. I can write ten or more lengthy short stories in the time it takes me to write a novel. The disappointment of a failed story is palpable. But the sting fades and you start over or begin a new project. A failed novel, on the other hand, haunts and shadows you.
Of course, I’m talking more about the psychic toll of writing novels versus short stories. For me the process of putting a story collection together feels radically different from writing a novel. The stories in The Flounder came together over a decade of intermittent work, starting with the story “What Kent Boyd Had,” which was incidentally published in TMR in 2013, and ending with the title story, which also appeared in your journal last year. During this same period, I was at work on a novel (which is one of the two novels still in the drawer) and many stories that either didn’t make it into the collection or didn’t make it out of the drawer. Most of the stories in The Flounder came out of the last three years, a very productive period for me, which began in 2019 when I was on sabbatical with my family in France. I was exhausted by my work on the novel, had many story ideas, and found working in the short form a huge relief. Living in France also evoked a period of my life in the 1990s when I spent three years in Switzerland and a year Berlin, Germany, a rewarding but difficult time for me. In the proceeding few decades, I tried to write about that experience of living abroad, learning a new language, feeling very self-consciously American, and being in my first serious relationship. For whatever reason, the material didn’t work. Returning to Europe a few years ago, the landscape, the cities and villages steeped in millennia of history, finally gave me access to that time. Most of the stories have a slightly haunted or strangely lit quality about them. They’re works of psychological realism with a hint of dream logic or illogic at their core. In fact, many of them are structured around folktales and fairytales, though I was only vaguely aware of doing this while writing them. The first story in the collection, about a fraught relationship between an elderly woman and two neighbor children, is a retelling of “Hansel and Gretel.” Another story concerning young people traveling in Eastern Europe soon after the fall of the Berlin wall, is structured around the strange German folktale “The Death and the Maiden” while the title story, about a young couple struggling with infidelity, has at its core the Grimms’ fairy tale “The Fisherman and His Wife,” which concerns the dangers of desire and having wishes fulfilled.
These stories arrived organically and focused on similar themes and concerns, though the process was accidental and came out of my obsession with and access to this time in my life. Putting the collection together was more curatorial—selecting stories and placing them alongside one another so that their differences and similarities were in a kind of dialogue—than an act of will and determination, which is what the novel writing process feels like to me. With the novel, you commit to years of living with the same characters, the same situations, the same narrative mode. As in a good marriage, you’d better know your characters well—what they’re like at home, at work, at school, with friends and family. If I don’t know these things, I start repeating myself, saying or showing the same few things that I know about my characters again and again, and the long middle of the novel becomes reiterative and repetitive rather than a developing and dynamic narrative.
Hatjakes: In an interview with TMR intern, Allyson Sherwin, you said that your fiction “has always been interested in family units that don’t fit the mold.” Praising your collection, fellow author Jennifer Haigh said that you “writ[e] about men caught in riptides, navigating the rough emotional waters of love, marriage and family.” How does your exploration of family figure into your new collection?
Fulton: I have to quote the famous first line to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’m not sure that I entirely believe this assertion. Are happy families really “all alike”? But unhappiness and uniqueness do make for more interesting stories. I don’t think, by the way, that an unhappy family is necessarily a dysfunctional family. Family dysfunction can be interesting. It can also be mere spectacle and used to titillate or fascinate. The families I write about are stretched to the breaking point by real problems: mental and physical illness, poverty, the resulting loneliness, and the sort of basic human flaws that we all share. But my characters aren’t miserable as a result. When the traditional family fails, we tend to go out and find or make our own families. We form families with like-minded friends or neighbors or more distant relatives. In my story “Box of Watches,” which I discussed with Allyson Sherwin in the earlier interview and which focuses on an armed robbery in a pawnshop, the main character, Shaun, a college-aged kid, is taking care of his terminally ill grandfather. His grandfather raised him because Shaun’s mother couldn’t finally take this role on for a variety of reasons. Among other things, what adds to the tension in the story is the fact that Shaun is now the caretaker of his fragile grandfather. While he loves this elderly man, he resents having to spend years of his young adulthood looking after and worrying about him. Nonetheless, they establish something like the unconditional bond between parent and child that we see in more traditional arrangements. Likewise, in “Saved,” the story structured around “Hansel and Gretel,” two neighbor kids, whose parents are distant and overwhelmed by the sort of real-world pressures I mention above, befriend an elderly woman who lives on their street. What they don’t realize at first is that this woman may need them more than they need her. She’s a complicated “witch figure” because her care for these kids is essentially benevolent even though what she shares with them and requires from them is more than they can give her and finally repels them.
Other stories are, as Jennifer Haigh suggest, about marriage, a subject that fascinates me as someone in his fifties who has been married for a long time and understands how challenging and rewarding this kind of commitment can be. The story in the collection most focused on this subject is “What Kent Boyd Had,” which is what I call a chronicle story. It looks at an entire life from beginning to end. Some great examples of this sort of story are “Job History” by Annie Proulx, “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, the novel Zorrie by Laird Hunt, and most of the stories in Alice Munroe’s collection Open Secrets, which is my favorite collection of hers. What holds my story together is its focus on Kent’s marriage, which develops, changes, and surprises Kent and, I hope, the reader. Romantic relationships that last a lifetime have something unknowable about them for those who look on from the outside. What sustains them and keeps them vital is one of life’s mysteries.
Hatjakes: How did you approach arranging the stories in The Flounder?
Fulton: Trial and error. I’m not sure how many times—perhaps five—I reordered the collection. Thank goodness for my editor, who made some great suggestions and got us closer to the final order. Then another editor in the press read it and suggested some fine tuning. Now that I use this metaphor, I’ll say that what I like about story collections and what often distinguishes them from novels is the way they work as a whole. Unless we’re talking about linked collections, the sequence of stories isn’t casual or chronological. Instead, the arrangement can be musical, with similarities and differences creating a counterpoint, echoing themes, images, events, situations, emotional tones and intensities. I know that music fans don’t often talk about albums anymore. But that’s one model for putting a collection together. You want variation. You probably wouldn’t put all the ballads side by side and all the up-tempo songs together. One of my mentors in grad school gave this axiom for ordering a story collection: the first story should be the strongest in the collection, the second the second strongest, and the final story in some way reflective of the whole collection. The stories in the middle should be placed to maximize variation and difference.
Hatjakes: How do you think your roles as a writing professor and as a writer inform each other? For example, do you find yourself applying your professor’s eye to your own work in the way that you do your students’?
Fulton: About a decade ago, the physician and writer Atul Gawande published a provocative essay in The New Yorker called “Personal Best,” in which he muses over the fact that in many disciplines, including sports and the arts, people achieving at the highest level continue to receive coaching, training, and/or feedback as long as their careers last. He notes that the very best athletes (Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Serena Williams) all have or had coaches, that the very best opera singers employ voice coaches, even Yo-Yo Ma continues to take instruction from a mentor, that actors have directors, and so on. At the same time, Gawande observes that once most partitioners or professionals achieve a certain level of mastery, they no longer receive feedback or instruction, and that doing so would even call into question their competency. He imagines himself explaining to a patient before a major surgery that a colleague would be in the operating room to give Gawande tips on how to improve his technique and performance. This could create some anxiety for the person about to go under the knife! But after many years as a surgeon, Gawande had reached what he called a “plateau” in his practice. He wanted to improve and decided to ask a former mentor, now retired, to observe him in surgery regularly, give him feedback, and help him develop and progress in his discipline.
It’s a great essay and helped me understand why I often can’t do for myself what I do for my students. I’m too close to the work, too deeply involved and absorbed in it. Time away from a project can sometimes result in enough distance to allow me insight and impartiality. But I need someone else’s intelligent and informed eye on my work as much as my students need that. While I’m not currently in a workshop, I have three trusted readers and I show them most of what I finish before anyone else, especially an editor, sees it. I also enjoy returning this favor whenever my readers need feedback on their work. Of course, my knowledge of craft and the writing process, which (I hope) is always developing and which I share with my students, must in various ways inform what I do at the desk. But it can’t stand in for the invaluable perspective of a smart reader whose aim is to give instructive criticism.
Hatjakes: You have been described as a “master of the [short story] form.” What draws you to this form, and what do you think makes it distinct from the novel?
Fulton: Again, I’ll go back to something one of my mentors used to say: the path of least resistance is often the one to take, by which he meant that as writers we should emphasize and favor our strengths. I have dyslexia, which means that I’m a terrible speller, a slow (but, I hope, careful) reader, and that I have issues with spatial relations—directions and the way physical locations are arranged or laid out. When I was a teenager, I went to a learning specialist who gave me a battery of tests and then told my mother and me that I should avoid professions and disciplines that involved lots of reading and writing and that I should not become an architect. I didn’t become an architect.
My experience of working on novels is one of wandering in the wilderness, spreading breadcrumbs in the forest, trying to find the path forward, and trying not to look back. I end up making charts and visual representations of what has already happened, when it happened, and how these events could be consequential to what might come next. The story form, on the other hand, fits more easily in my mind. Perhaps compression is more intuitive to me than expansion.
But there’s also my predilection and affection for the story form as a reader. I love stories and appreciate the experience of sitting down for an hour and taking in the entirety of a piece, which necessarily makes the power of a short story more immediate. Depending on my other commitments, a novel can take me weeks to read. Of course, I love novels, too. I’ve published one. I think I have at least one or two more in me. We’ll see.
Hatjakes: If you could give one piece of advice to someone who is early in their writing career, what would you tell them?
Fulton: Persevere! As an instructor of both undergraduates and MFA students, I’ve seen again and again that those who succeed keep at it. This is easier said than done. It takes more than will power and stubbornness. The writer’s life is difficult. There’s so much rejection and disappointment in it. There’s success, too, of course, and writers need to enjoy these moments. A refusal to quit often comes from an inner need to do this thing that our culture often doesn’t value. But I also think that those who keep writing are good at finding and building community and know how to nurture and sustain a writing life over the long haul. A huge part of this for me is reading the sort of exquisite work that takes us out of ourselves, the ego’s need for gratification and immediate praise, and reminds us why we write. Find the books that do this for you and return to them when you need them. One text that works for me is the diaries of Virginia Woolf. They’re breathtaking, the portrait of an extraordinary mind. They also show us that even a genius, if we can still use that word, experiences self-doubt. Here are her thoughts after finishing the famous Time Passes’ section of To the Lighthouse: “I cannot make it out—here is the most difficult, abstract piece of writing—I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to: well, I rush at it, and at once scatter out two pages. Is it nonsense? Is it brilliance?” And here she is right after the novel is published: “I am not sure if it is good; I was disappointed when I read it through the first time. Later I liked it. Anyhow it is the best I can do.” I think we can all take solace in these last words.
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