"Thinking about how to transition": David Means and Luke Mogelson, short story masters, contemplate the novel

Two great writers -- one veteran, one newcomer -- discuss breaking out of cubbyholes and pondering first novels

Published June 5, 2016 7:30PM (EDT)

David Means, Luke Mogelson   (Beowulf Sheehan/Nama Vanier)
David Means, Luke Mogelson (Beowulf Sheehan/Nama Vanier)

Luke Mogelson: Reading "Hystopia" is a bit like watching the grande finale at a fireworks show: you're still dazzled by the last explosion when the next one sets off. Where to begin? I guess an obvious starting point would be its structure. At the outset of the book, in an "Editor's Note," we learn that the fictive universe of "Hystopia"—a universe in which, for example, Kennedy survives multiple assassination attempts—was conceived by Eugene Allen, a young Vietnam War veteran who later killed himself. But it turns out that the universe Allen inhabits is also fictive, only a degree or two closer to our own than the one he has depicted in his book. Allen seems to have created "Hystopia" as a way of confronting his war-related trauma, just as you seem to have created Allen as a way of confronting America's war-related trauma. How did this layering and the interplay between the layers help you do that? Why did you decide to put the novel in a novel?

David Means: That’s a good question and an incredibly tough question to answer, partly because I don’t want to explain away the mystery for the reader, but I can say that I didn’t simply want to write just about war trauma, but also, somehow, about a domestic situation. I don’t really think of it as a novel within a novel, but simply a single novel. Allen is confronting something that happened to his sister, Meg. I wrote the beginning frame material first (in a somewhat different form) and I suppose it helped me understand the world I was creating. Some of the names in the first part—some of the interviewees—are real names. So I was working on a personal angle at the start.

Luke Mogelson: You could also say that many of the characters in the novel itself—I mean the novel within the novel—sometimes act as their own chorus, describing events that haven't happened yet. This is especially true of Rake, a homicidal maniac who seems as possessed by the need to talk about his crimes as he is by the need to commit them. In one incredible scene that has Rake explaining to his sidekick/captive how he's going to murder two police officers, you get the sense that he's making the thing inevitable just by saying it. Others in the book use language to conjure the past (which, in "Hystopia," is often as inscrutable as the future). These hyper-verbal characters are often men, and the kinds of men you might normally expect to be brusque or taciturn: veterans, toughs, lumberjacks, authority types. Do you know guys for whom language is such a potent force, or is it more just that language is such a potent force for you?

David Means: Rake talks a lot, but from my experience certain male type, criminals of a certain type, a trickster—and drug addicts in particular—spin stories around their deviance, or their own addiction, trying to stay ahead of it. There’s somehow maybe a connection with the way a war story, or a story about a particular tragic event is told after the fact, turning it around in an attempt to locate some particular truth.

Luke Mogelson: Eugene Allen's language is also extremely charged. Fans of your short fiction will be happy to discover that you somehow manage to preserve, in"Hystopia," all of the intensity of the prose from the collections. I won't ask you to dissect your own style, but it does seem that a major theme of the book is the relationship between language and trauma. Maybe you could address one effect in particular that trauma seems to have on language, in the book and in life: that is, the prompting of irony. A character in "Hystopia" raises this explicitly when he says that the Battle of the Somme "introduced pure irony into the world," a reference to the idea that irony became a dominant mode of modern thinking and writing after the unprecedented destruction of World War I. The so-called "Grid" in Hystopia, meanwhile, where traumatized Vietnam War vets go to be rehabilitated, is described as "a repository for irony." Why do you think trauma, war-related or otherwise, leads to irony? How else can it affect language?

David Means: To me trauma, I mean acute violence, the point of impact, the exact moment of destruction is silent, beyond language. A person getting shot—anywhere, in South Chicago, in Hue, in Ferguson, isn’t, at that precise moment, surrounded by words. People in the moment of actual combat aren’t creating stories—they’re simply trying to survive. Perhaps irony comes from the fact that when the trauma is transpiring—and then afterwards, as the event keeps turning in the mind of the victim (or those close) other things are, or were going on at the same time.  Maybe that’s where irony forms—in that disconnect. But irony can become—as one of Hemingway’s characters said—linked with pity. Irony and pity make life pretty shitty, something like that. Man, there are times I think America had become so saturated in irony—starting in the late seventies—that we lost touch with the fundamentals: birth, love, death. I experienced trauma as a kid, and outside, down the street, I could hear the click of whiffle ball bats. Anyway, I’m drawn to landscape—as a writer, as a person—so that’s where I went in"Hystopia."  I went back to the Michigan landscapes of my youth, and to the war that touched me early, in my formative years. Paul Fussell’s incredible work, "The Great War in Modern Memory," has a section about sunsets, about vistas; the boys—and they were boys—in the trenches learned how to look at the sky in a different, new way—and that way was imported back to London, via poetry. As a matter of fact, he argues that the whole sublime sunset thing can be traced only to the World War I.  Anyway, your work is a good example of how irony works in a good way; your story “Peacetime: is a peacetime story, but the characters, who work an EMS job, are building stories around trauma. I’d love to hear your ideas, and how you came to write such masterful stories. I know you’ve seen combat.   How did you arrive at the story form? Straight out of the box, your first book of stories is pristine.

Luke Mogelson: I think I was drawn to writing about the character in "Peacetime" because he'd had these extreme encounters with death and violence as a civilian paramedic, not just as a soldier, and in many respects the medic's engagement with all of that is closer to my own. I've only seen combat as a journalist—as a witness rather than as a participant—and so even when I'm in the thick of it I'm also outside of it. The medic is similar. He enters people's lives at moments of peak distress and agony and mourning—he's in the same room, breathing the same air, hearing the same screams—but he's not part of the story that led up to the moment, and he's not part of the one that will continue after it. Still, I've noticed that medics and war correspondents employ irony, at least in conversation, much like soldiers and vets do. It's the kind of irony you're talking about, the kind Fussell describes, not to be confused with sarcasm or cynicism. It's a sort of recognition, I guess, that whatever you're saying—or writing—doesn't quite touch the truth of the thing.

David Means: Your stories, like all stories that are precise and clear, are ironic, but not in a fuzzy, or snarky way. And they’re often extremely funny—in that dark way. “Total Solar” is a brilliant story. When the character Sue is killed, it happens in a single sentence. The entire narrative pivots around that moment, and it seems to me that there’s something going on that can only happen in a short story, tapping the economy of the form. I need to ask you: how did you come to writing stories? That’s a question that I don’t like to get from an interviewer, so feel free to twist it anyway you want. But I see that stories like “To The Lake,” which is about a vet who is home, and your combat stories, play off of each other—and that’s what’s great about a curated collection, one that has been thoughtfully put together. I have to wonder who influenced you and your thoughts on the form?

Luke Mogelson: Well, I was reading and trying to write stories long before I went to Afghanistan or had any experience with, or interest in, war. I think what happened was: I loved reading novels and wanted to write one; stories seemed less daunting; and when I began, for that reason, to seriously read them, I fell for the form. One of the first collections that hooked me was Dylan Thomas's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog." The humor was definitely a major part of the spell. In fact, many of my early favorites—"Jesus' Son," "Girl With Curious Hair," "Birds of America"—share a similar kind of warped humor that seems less common in novels. Do you think that's directly connected to the neccessary brevity and concision of stories? Did you find it more challenging to be funny in "Hystopia" than in your short fiction?

David Means: I think with a short story, coming in at acute angles, mere glimpses of something larger, you’re going have humor that comes out of love and attention or you’re not going to have it at all; there’s no middle ground because the story form exposes everything. In a novel you have to sustain a plot, and one long cartoony joke isn’t going to work. In a novel like Heller’s Catch-22 the larger joke is actually in the structure of the book, as it was in Gogol’s "Dead Souls"; the reader isn’t completely in it until the novel is finished. But to answer your question: I’d say there were moments in writing the novel when I realized that I was watching the characters be funny; but they didn’t know they were being funny. That brings me back to your work. War isn’t supposed to be funny but it’s often absurd and wildly antic and without some kind of sense of humor those in combat are in even deeper shit. There’s a lot of wordplay going on, double-speak, signification. Your story, “New Guidance” started out seeming comic—the use of language, the signification—“The New Guidance was: No More air.” Then it became, in the end, deeply painful but still humorous because of all the bullshit bureaucracy. The last line—“There wasn’t going to be any big reunion.”—is for my money a perfect ending. It threw all of the weight and pain back onto the story. I know you’re writing a novel—are you thinking about how to transition to the long form from the short?

Luke Mogelson: "Thinking about how to transition" is exactly right—so far, I've done a lot more "thinking about" than actual transitioning. Which brings me to a question I've been wanting to ask: How did you, after four story collections, do it? And why? Reading "Hystopia," I often had the sense that you were really reveling in the freedoms of the form. The intricacy of the imagined world and the structural innovations are obvious examples of that. But your language also does new (and thrilling) things. For instance, when Hank submerges Meg in the water. Tell me if I'm wrong, but I felt during those pages as if the space between the fictive universe and the real one almost collapses and there's a kind of coalescence, in the voice, of Eugene Allen, his characters, and yourself. It makes for electric reading, but I imagine it must have been tough to write. It also seems like a register you could only hope to access in a novel. Were you compelled, in part, to write "Hystopia" because you wanted to go to places that were difficult or impossible to reach under the constraints of the short story?

David Means: Faulkner wrote the opening Benji scene in "The Sound and the Fury" first and then had to write a novel around it; I did it the other way—I drafted a novel and then had to write that central part to figure out how to revise it all again. So you’re right: Billy-T’s voice a coalescence. The novel form is freer in some ways than a short story, but in many other ways, for me at least, it’s much more restricted; you can’t just go in, catch a glimpse, and come right out; you have to plot to have a wider arch of narrative structure—so it might seem like I’m reveling in freedom in "Hystopia," and of course in certain ways I am, but it didn’t feel that way when I was working on it. Now it feels that way. That freedom is an illusion that novels provide the reader. As a matter of fact, that’s the warning I’d give short story writers about the novel: don’t think that because you have more space you’re going to just be able to go wild and write for the sake of writing, and above all you can’t write a long short story and stretch it out like warm taffy. I become annoyed by novels that would’ve worked better as a short story.   On the other hand, there is more breathing room within scenes, and you can allow things to play out more.

Obviously, the transition from the stories to the novel for me was a long process. Years ago at an reading event for an anthology of Esquire stories with Tim O’Brien and Robert Stone, we went out for dinner afterwards—I was in total awe, just being with them--and I blurted out to O’Brien that I wanted to write a Vietnam novel. He gave me this strange smile and shook his head. It was one of those things that I sometimes say, off-the-cuff and maybe even ahead of my own creative vision. It was an intuitive comment, but I knew that eventually I’d have to live up to it somehow because the Vietnam War was the war that seemed to shadow my childhood. Don DeLillo and I have had a written correspondence for several years. He wrote me these short notes that encouraged me to do whatever work was the most demanding in an enjoyable way; in other words, he said, don’t be afraid to just keep writing stories if that’s the form that pushes you the most as a writer. I took that advice and shifted it over to the novel: I thought, man, I have to go in deep and do whatever I have to do. Then I got a fellowship, and during that year my father died and I thought you’ve got to do the work, to put in the hours.  Luke, reading your wonderful stories kept thinking about how as a book, "These Happy, Heroic Dead" did something new in the way it approached the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts; like Hemingway’s "In Our Time," you come in from various angles, put vets in nature, in the home front, in domestic situations. Thinking about Vietnam, I saw the combat as it was seen in relation to home, and nature and language. I felt the same thing in your work, too: landscape is important in war, it’s the terrain that is part of engagement, the thing between you and life and death, and that sensation, that acute attention to landscape is imported home. Are there other recent war writers who do the same? Do you feel a relationship with other contemporary writers who are addressing the subject. I dislike the simplicity of the phrase ‘war writer.’ Do you dislike it too?

Luke Mogelson: I don't love it, and I don't think of myself as one. I hope someday to write fiction and journalism that has nothing to do with war. But I also think that it would be somewhat disingenuous of me to try to do so now, since war has been and continues to be such a crucial element of the world as I've experienced it. I can't really imagine writing anything involving contemporary America that did not at least acknowledge its disastrous ongoing conflicts; that would feel a bit like setting a romance on the Titanic and omitting the iceberg. Maybe the problem is that, despite the best efforts of the terrorists, there remains this fixed divide between the parts of the world that are at war and the parts that aren't, so as a writer you're seen to be either addressing one or the other. For a variety of reasons—the most obvious being the absence of a draft—that seems to be, in our country at least, something new. You said the Vietnam War shadowed your childhood. For how many young Americans growing up since 9/11 have Iraq and Afghanistan been an equally significant concern?

It's interesting that you mention Robert Stone because for me "Hystopia" was reminiscent of "Dog Soldiers" in that they are both mostly set in the U.S. while being mostly about Vietnam. I don't mean "about" in the literal sense. I mean that even when it's not referenced you can feel the war on every page. You feel it in the language and, especially, as you say, in the depiction of landscape, its relationship with the characters. That's obviously a result of great skill on Stone's part and yours, but I wonder if you'd agree that it's also a reflection of a very different war-time America—an America that was far more affected, culturally and psychically, by the Vietnam War than it has been by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One contemporary book that achieves a similar kind of blurring together of "over there" and "over here" is "Preparation for the Next Life" by Atticus Lish. In that remarkable novel, Lish manages to do with New York City something akin to what you do with northern Michigan: He imbues it with the weight of traumatic memory. But whereas "Hystopia" and "Dog Soldiers" seem to reveal an American experience of reality that has been fundamentally altered by Vietnam (and whereas Fussell describes a Western experience of reality that was fundamentally altered by World War I), "Preparation" seems to shows us how Iraq fundamentally altered one citizen's experience of reality—which if anything only alienates him from the rest of America, whose reality hasn't changed at all.

Did you ever consider basing "Hystopia" in a fictive version of post-9/11 America? It wouldn't have worked, would it have?

David Means: The Lish sounds great. I haven’t read it yet, but believe me, I’m going to buy it right away. I guess history seep into fiction in different ways, and it takes time. No, I wasn’t ready to write about post-9/11 America, except as perhaps as it fit into the arch of history that began with Vietnam and ended with the Iraq War. For me, 9/11 felt literally too close to home—neighbors of mine died that morning. Some of the stories I wrote before 9/11, in particular one called “The Widow Predicament” seemed in retrospect to be about that kind of suffering. On the other hand, I think narrative of trauma and loss at the fictive level are about deep fundamentals related to the nature of being human, so you might say Isaac Babel, or Virginia Woolf also wrote about the aftermath of 9/11. "Mrs. Dalloway" is one of the great novels to come out of the World War I, but it’s also about the aftermath of historical trauma manifested in an individual with PTSD, inside the structure of Woolf’s creation.

Luke Mogelson: One big difference, though, is that Woolf and Babel were writing about PTSD before the advent of the term "PTSD" and the libraries of psychological and neurological and sociological literature dedicated to it. Now we have this whole popular lexicon of trauma, and the lexicon, of course, has been politicized too. I often think about, for instance, how frequently “trauma” is invoked as a way of understanding the American experience of these wars compared with how rarely it is invoked to understand the Afghan or Iraqi experiences (even though their experiences, by any empirical measure, are far more traumatic than our own). For me, "trauma" has kind of gone the way of "heroism" and "patriotism," and I think that's why I cringe a little bit from talking about any of those things explicitly. That's my perhaps cowardly default solution: Write around it. In "Hystopia," on the other hand, you take the opposite—and, no doubt, more difficult and courageous—approach: You confront these concepts head on, as well as their attendant vocabulary. You turn the language inside out, and in doing so, you expose its seams. Was that a conscious objective you had while writing? Did you wrestle with how to tackle trauma, patriotism, and heroism in the context of a culture that is oversaturated with fucked-up interpretations of them—a culture that exploits them constantly for propagandistic and commercial purposes?

David Means: The terminology changes, the lingo used to define, to quantify, to diagnosis certain aspects of the human experience changes, but to me the writer’s job is to cut through all of that to the primal. Those words—patriotism, heroism, trauma, shellshock, PTSD, —have nothing to do with what makes a good story, which to me has always been specific characters in specific predicaments. The Iliad is a good example. We care most about the dynamic, about the rage coming out of a particular loss. If I wrestled with anything, it was trying to be true to history, to those who fought in Vietnam, to the details of their combat experience. Maybe it’s an old fashion attitude, but to me art tries to touch on certain realities of the human experience and human nature. For example, slavery was a horrible historical reality, but what Toni Morrison did in "Beloved" was create a mother named Sethe who had to make a terrible, horrific choice about her daughter in relation to her historical moment. Sethe acted out of love and created a ghost. But I’ll also admit I wanted to go in full gonzo. I kept my focus on the story. In my life, I’ve seen people destroyed by war—so my own energy was personal; on the other side of the coin, if someone like Eugene, who has lost his sister, is going to come back from the war and write a novel, it’s going to confront those concepts—the American war machine, bullshit bureaucracy structures, male paternalistic chauvinism, the political haze of language built around that damage, the retrospective conspiracy. I did feel an urge, writing, to reclaim some of the good things the '60s had going: the idea that things could looked at in a cosmic way, that “the Man, the system” was worth fighting; that the American Dream was an idea worth fighting for and questioning, and that drugs were not just harmful but also useful—at least in fiction.  All of this is just a long-winded way of saying no, I didn’t really have an objective in mind beyond trying to tell a story in my own way.

Luke Mogelson: And now that Eugene Allen's had his say, what's next for you? Back to the short story, or another novel?

David Means: Well, back to whatever I can do. I’m hoping to write another novel, and I have another story collection lined up to go.

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