The Rumpus Interview With David Means

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Twelve years ago, at the McDowell Colony, a new friend told me that the best short story collection he could remember reading was by a young writer named David Means (he told everyone actually). I bought the book, and was summarily blown away. The stories in Assorted Fire Events weren’t like anything I’d ever read. There was a brilliant and dark propulsion to the work; the sentences were brutal and beautiful and true to its title there was nothing safe to be found. Critics fawned and the book was a finalist for National Book Critics Circle. The Secret Goldfish, Means’ next book earned him a much wider readership, and brought him into any conversation about the best and most ambitious short story writers working today. His new collection The Spot is out now, and Means did me the favor of talking about where these terrific stories came from, a little about how he works, and why stories matter so much to him, and to the rest of us.

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The Rumpus: This seemed to me to be an intensely internal collection. Each story contains a powerful evocation of a consciousness, and in some cases more than one. What’s interesting is that your subjects – Bonnie and Clyde disciples, Brinks truck observers, sex traffickers – would seem distant ones for most readers. And you manage to get so far inside these folks, into their plans and dreams and missteps, that these otherwise exotic tales felt to me personal, and plausible.

David Means: They are deeply personal, and I think they’re plausible.  Flannery O’Connor said—and I’m just going to go ahead and quote her—that “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live, and so far as he is concerned, a living deformed character is acceptable and a dead whole one is not.”  I just wanted to go in as deep as I could and to tell stories that were compelling and sparked my creative energy, but also to find some way, each time, in each case, to get into the lives of these characters, one way or another.

Sometimes I’m tempted to say: we’re all criminal in some ways. But maybe that’s not true. I think most of us are criminal one way or another.  My view of the world is deeply—if not problematically–religious.  I mean I like to believe in a much larger, wider cosmic moral order with some kind of justice at the center. Yeats was right, the center cannot hold. But hopefully there is a center.

We just work within the lines of the status quo, finding ways to keep our impulses within bounds.  Mailer said: “No matter what you find yourself writing about, if it’s giving you enough energy to continue, then the work bears a profound relationship to you at that point and you don’t question it.”

Rumpus: Which of these stories came to you first? And what was the idea behind it. When did you conceive of these stories as a book?

Means: It might’ve been the short piece called “The Actor’s House,” which is about people passing a house along the Hudson River. Each soul passing the house speculates on what might or might not be going on in the house, or they briefly ponder the history of those who have lived in the house.  It’s based on a house down the hill from me that was owned by a famous stage actress and then later by a talk show host/actress.  One great thing about writing stories is that you’re not locked into one single mode, and this one ended up being not only about the house and the actor who lived there, but also maybe about the mechanics of projection. Then I think I wrote “Nebraska,” inspired by the BLA Brinks robbery that took place right down the road from my house years ago.  But I remember writing the first draft of “The Actor’s House” on July 4th about six years ago.  There were fireworks going outside.

About two years ago I had a feeling that I was reaching a kind of critical mass of stories for another book.  I don’t set a deadline, or a time line, and I work slowly and sometimes hold onto stories from one collection to the next. I think most short story writers do that.  A good collection has a deep coherence buried inside. I think the way one story plays off another, the way a collection adds up to a single vision is a deeply complex thing, one that hasn’t been addressed enough in criticism. I’m a big fan of original collections.  I love the way the stories line up in a book like Hemingway’s In Our Time, or George Saunder’s Pastoralia, or Christine Schutt’s Nightwork. You feel a small thread weaving through them, almost invisible, maybe simply a thread made of the fact that they all have some deeply complex nuanced style and a concern passing from one story to the next. As a reader, you’re moved from one completely individual unit to the next, and you know that they’re not linked and that they can stand on their own, but you still have a kind of sense, in the end, that you’ve been through an experience that comes from the complete entity.  (I’ve said this before, but it’s akin to listening to something like Radiohead’s OK Computer, or, better yet, Bach’s French Suites.)  In my book I obviously couldn’t really see what that might be until I lined them up, and even then, even now, of course I can’t really see it.  But when I put one hobo story near the beginning and one at the end, and then thought about how those stories, really different in some ways but both about storytelling as a way of surviving, it felt good to me.  I put “The Knocking” first because it was new, and knocking could mean knocking on the door of narrative, knocking to open the collection up. Now that the book is out in the world, I’m starting to see that, yes, there is a common theme between some of the stories that has to do with crime, and with storytelling.  Crime is a classic subject for writers because it is where moral and social beliefs meet head-on; it’s the apex where love and hate confront each other, and it’s the place where language dances itself into frenzied shapes, and those shapes, for me at least, can have a kind of beauty–sometimes like the polished gloss of a Brancusi sculpture, and other times like his square, abrupt, wooden bases.

Rumpus: What were you looking to do with this collection that you maybe hadn’t done in your previous books?

Means: Again, when I was working on the stories, I don’t think I was looking to do anything but write stories that worked, one after another.  In general, I simply wanted to put together a complete collection of stories that worked as a book. No filler. Every story does the best it can, each one different, nestled up against the others.  But after you publish a book you’re forced to start thinking about it, partly from doing interviews like this, and I’ve been thinking a little bit about my previous stories, and I was thinking that I was a father of little kids back then and maybe–big stress on maybe–my imagination was working to confront extreme fears, deep fears that had to do with the world and beauty in relation to God, or whatever was holding it together.  I mean when you hold a baby and it looks up at you with your own eyes, you start thinking pretty seriously about life itself, and when you think about life you also, if you’re a writer, think about death, too. But with this book, in the last several years, naturally, like any other writer, things have shifted, my kids became teenagers, and I’ve found myself for one reason or another writing further out on the map, throwing my imagination into more isolated situations, and thinking about family and manhood and responsibility in relation to sex slavery and bank robbery, and so on—all combined with the fact that talking and storytelling are the way we sustain ourselves, and at the same time, in some cases, exploit each other.

Rumpus: There’s often an unbridled energy to the sentences, and yet they’re tight because of your complete command of the story, and each character’s internal vernacular – these stories are myths, legends, stories told around a table at a pub.


Tom Barbash is the author of the novel "The Last Good Chance" and the non-fiction book, "On Top of the World." His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Tin House, One Story, The Believer, The Observer, The New York Times, Narrative, Story, VQR, Storyquarterly and other places. He is on the faculty at California College of the Arts, and his most recent book, the short story collection "Stay Up With Me," comes out in paperback this month with Ecco/Harper Collins. More from this author →