1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?
Dubliners, by James Joyce, is the book, but in reality I’m just talking about “The Dead,” which is the final story in the collection. Reading “The Dead” for the first time was one of those “moments” that felt like a turning point in my life. It made me want to be a writer, and it made me want to write short stories. Aside from all the egg-headed reasons I loved this story, I should start with a much more immediate experience: “The Dead” affected me physically more than any other story I’ve ever read. “The Dead” practically leveled me, and it still does.
I think “The Dead” is a great story, simply, because it doesn’t feel like a dense, intellectual story (somewhere, my students are disagreeing). I hate feeling like history and allusion and symbols have been injected into a story (Note: I also similarly mistrust when food is “enhanced” with vitamins). But in THIS story—all of these themes fold effortlessly into one another, and they THEMSELVES are metaphors for a relatively down-to-earth story.
“The Dead” is a story about a man who feels sort of “constricted” by the close-knit community he grew up in and the centuries of “tradition” that trail behind his community. It is a story about being a “sell-out.” It’ s a story about someone who has chosen the life of an intellectual and now feels uncomfortable around the people he grew up around. And, being conscious of this, he is endlessly “presenting” himself in a manner which he feels will be most acceptable to his local community (and consequently walling himself off from that community).
This is also, most poignantly (it hurts just thinking about it, literally… this story makes me ache), a story about a man who thinks he has a “moment” with his wife. About a man who gets a little drunk, a little drunk on himself, and silently catches his wife in a particular mood, a mood that he assumes is the same as his own. We have all experienced this before (or hoped to). Unspoken communication, mutual feeling across a room of crowded people—it is the most exciting promise of being in love with someone! Erotic Telekinesis! The main character catches a glimpse of his wife in a particular scene, feels a certain way about her, and knows that she feels the same way (spoiler alert)…
But simply, and tragically in this story, he is wrong. He has misread her. Haven’t we all done this before? Her mood isn’t seductive, it is contemplative, even melancholy, and most importantly nostalgic. I won’t retell any more of the story, but for someone who has such a difficult time naturally connecting with the members of his community, this simple act of misreading his wife carries enormous weight.
And finally (quickly!), I love this story because the complicated narratives, politics, history, etc. all fold seamlessly into this final scene of the main character and his wife together, alone, in a hotel room. And I love this story because I don’t read it as an allegory. We can see numerous complicated “Irish” themes in the characters, and in that sense the characters are symbolic, but they aren’t symbols—one thing I learned from this story is how important that is to me in the fiction I love.
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
I was in Edinburgh, Scotland where I took my junior year of university. 1998.
Important facts: this was the worst physical year of my life. My skin revolted against the climate, and I think it had every right to do so. There are many areas of the world that prevent their inhabitants from darkening their skin. The United Kingdom, however, is one of the only places in the world that—aside from not darkening your skin—actually sucks pigment out of your skin. Caucasian people look sort of off-white. The word “mottled” was invented to describe the skin of the Caucasian people who live in that region. I’m not sure why I brought that up. OH—this year was an intellectual awakening for me. I won a poetry award. I started writing short stories. I think I saw intellectual pursuits as my only hope of being successful at anything, probably because my skin was devolving and, two months into my stay, I received a haircut that made me look like Oliver North if he were in a Brit-Punk band (that was a low point).
Also—I assumed that my year abroad would be full of cross-cultural romance. I assumed I would find love like I had never known before, and that I would be torn from that love, mercilessly, have to fly home, goodbyes at the airport, write adult poems upon my return home, etc. With my skin, and my hair, and the “changes” my skin and hair endured, at some point I decided to seek out these formative experiences in literature rather than actually, tangibly, experiencing those experiences with real, live British people.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
This story differs stylistically from something I would write, but nevertheless has influenced me a good deal. As I mentioned above, it made me want to be a writer. More specifically, Dubliners was one of the first “short-story cycles” I had ever read, and I became immediately fascinated with the form. Further, “The Dead” is the concluding story of the cycle. “The Dead” seems pretty close to a perfect short story to me. It seems close to a perfect concluding story in a cycle, as well. So, as a writer (and teacher) of short fiction and short fiction cycles, in terms of my interests, there aren’t any stories that have influenced me more.
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
I used to write poetry, but now I can’t remember how. I’ve been writing only short stories for the last seven years or so. Aside from losing my inspiration (and understanding) of poetry, however, I would have to honestly say that I became allergic to my own tendencies. For example, the last line of 99% of my poems always HAD to be a line of the utmost metaphoric significance, always had to expand outward, and it almost always was suggestive of death. DEATH! This is not just a poem about autumn, ladies and gentleman, this is a big, HUGE, interrogation of the biggest of all big things! I couldn’t control myself.
But, despite my allergies, don’t we LOVE when a story or poem does this well? And Joyce absolutely KILLS it at the end of this story, and it’s a neat little manipulation of 3rd person limited (that is subtly flexible throughout the story). The language gets increasingly symbolic, increasingly (consciously) poetic, and this telescoping, metaphoric-expansion is the PERFECT end to a story where—in the story itself—the large, abstract, nation-wide, humanity-wide themes are converging with an intensely personal scene between a husband and wife, AND as the perfect end of a short-story cycle that is tying together all of the “voices” (stories) that came before it in the collection. The abstract and thematic are converging with the concrete and individual human experiences; we know it, and the narrator knows it, and it’s a perfect time to let the language reflect that blend of the literal and the figurative:
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Oh, heavens, it still gets me.
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
I have sent this book to everyone who ever was going to visit Ireland. I don’t think this is stupid. It really is a “place-specific” story. We get history, geography, politics, music… it’s a good primer. I have also made all of my students order this book. And in the coming years, they will really appreciate me for it.
Drew Lindsay teaches short fiction and writing at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, as well as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the winner of one poetry award—the Lewis Edwards Memorial Prize for Poetry—but now writes only short fiction. He is the most unpublished author of short fiction in North America. He is also the co-founder, keyboardist, and vocalist for Chicago-based indie-rock-soul group “JT and the Clouds.” The Chicago Tribune, in a recent column, said that the Clouds made music of “surpassing beauty,” but did not indicate whether they thought Drew himself surpassed beauty. See them, hear them: www.jtandtheclouds.com.