It’s Only a Matter of Time: A Conversation with Jack Driscoll

By

Jack Driscoll is the author of eleven books—four novels, four poetry collections and three short story collections. Quite a few of these have been chosen for awards over the years. The World of a Few Minutes Ago, released by Wayne State University Press in 2012, won the Society of Midland Authors award for fiction, and was named a Michigan Notable Book. His first collection of short stories, Wanting Only to be Heard, was chosen for the Grace Paley Prize. His first novel, Lucky Man, Lucky Woman, was selected for Pushcart’s Editors’ Book Award.

The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot, Jack’s recent and stunning story collection, came out this past spring from Wayne State University Press, as part of their Made in Michigan Series. These stories capture the stunning and sometimes brutal beauty of northern Michigan’s lower peninsula where Jack’s characters live on the edges of the American dream. Under the shifting light and color of the aurora borealis, beneath three feet of new snow, or below “the illuminated undersides of clouds,” their stories are told. Here is a son who watches as his mother is set alight by a troubled boyfriend, a woman who faces her latest birthday while remembering each one before, the disappointments and delights clear as a Michigan cold winter morning. Here, too, is a boy who floats on an inland lake in the star pierced dark of a summer night with a friend’s stepmom he longs for, a woman who longs for something other than this isolated, unsatisfying Michigan life. All of Jack’s characters want so much, and despite how little they get, their desire and hope transcend their loneliness and losses, lifting them up, driving them forward.

***

The Rumpus: You are a poet as well as a prose writer. Is it your work with poetry that influences the lyric quality of much of your prose? And are there other writers you read whose sentences invite you to read them more than once as yours do for me?

Jack Driscoll: It wasn’t so long ago that I was introduced at a reading as “a poet masquerading as a novelist,” which I liked a lot. Once a poet always a poet, and even though I haven’t written poems for a long time, I can nonetheless say that everything I’ve ever learned about writing lyrical fiction has been informed by three decades of writing in lines and stanzas. For me the real drama of fiction is almost always the drama of the language. Or, as David Roderick says, “It’s not the tale that pleases, it’s the telling,” and I could not agree more. Or what Mary Karr calls “the delivery system,” and I’m always looking for poetry’s place in the prose. For that moment, let’s say, that arrests time, or that sentence in which the musical matrix or trope, the sounds of the words arranged in a way that heightens perception, a tunefulness that more clearly defines and transfers the feeling I’m after to the reader.

When Robert Bly visited Interlochen Center for the Arts so many years ago, he spoke to the creative writing majors and said, “The eye reports to the brain, but the ear reports to the heart.” Perhaps this is the thing that musicians can do that writers can’t ever, quite, but it is what I aspire to, that sense/power of the auditory, and the belief that to hear more clearly is to see more clearly, and that to see more clearly is to feel more deeply. And so when Kevin Brockmeier says, “Everything, given the possibility, would choose to be a song,” I recognize the implicit truth of such a miracle, and which no doubt explains why I have seventeen covers of “Danny Boy,” its reach and range and gorgeous sadness, on a single CD. What can I say, I’m Irish, and we take naturally to that sort of thing.

Rumpus: It would be near impossible to talk about your fiction without talking about the role of place and landscape. Your novel Lucky Man, Lucky Woman was set against the backdrop of the seaside town of Mystic, Connecticut. Two of your novels, Stardog and How Like an Angel, as well as many of your stories are set in the northern parts of Michigan near where you live now. Each of these communities draws tourists, summer people and part-time residents to them. But your characters are often the locals, those who live in these places year-round, either by choice or necessity. This creates another layer of tension to your stories. Is this a tension you are aware of in your everyday Michigan life?

Driscoll: Jose Ortega y Gasset says, “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” Asserting that character/community is formed, at least in part, by the physical landscape in which he/she resides. And this is underscored by the fact—and not all that long ago—that people and place were, in fact, synonymous: Sapho of Lesbos, for example. Or my middle namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. Jesus of Nazareth.

I would argue that place is character, and which is certainly the case in A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky. As it is in all of Flannery O’Connor’s work. Ron Rash’s Appalachia, Charles Dickens’s London, Wendell Berry’s Kentucky, and so forth.

I was once referred to in a Kirkus review as a “northern Michigan version of Andre Dubus.” My editor called me after the review came out and asked if I was okay with that. What part? I wondered. Finding myself in the same sentence with Andre Dubus? What could be better than that? Or perhaps—and more likely, my editor meant being pigeonholed as a writer of this remote region “mostly ignored by the rest of the world,” as Jim Harrison says.

First of all, I don’t think of myself as a northern Michigan writer. I think of myself as an American writer who happens—and yes, by choice, and for a long time now—to live in this particular place, and where, as the joke goes, there are only three seasons: July, August, and winter.

This does indeed “create another layer of tension” to my stories, given that nothing is more fatiguing than winter, the extreme and unrelenting snow and below zero temperatures, and the seemingly unbearable sameness of the days without sunshine, and the measures one takes—if they’re locals, permanent residents—against an environment such as this. And most vulnerable/susceptible are the kids, who have no options other than to scheme and dream themselves into all kinds of trouble.

There’s also, by the way, an implicit tension created by what a place provides and what it can’t possibly deliver.

As a writer, I find it a literal impossibility to disengage from whatever the location might be, given how everything that eventually transpires as part of the ongoing narrative is informed by it. In other words, try relocating the stories elsewhere, and what’s the effect? They almost immediately cease to exist.

Rumpus: The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot is filled with stories about families, about parents and their children in particular. You capture the deeply complex thoughts, emotions and actions of young people struggling to make sense of the world around them. For decades, you taught creative writing at Interlochen Arts Academy, where you worked with emerging writers of high school age. I wonder if this experience informs these young characters for you.

Driscoll: I joke sometimes that I live a protracted adolescence, that a part of me will always be twelve years old. Not so much that I’m suspicious of adults, or my ability to capture who they are, and the protagonist of my most recent story is a retired, seventy-nine-year-old navy officer, so I’m certainly not locked in to writing only about kids, not by any means. But yes, and especially when I first turned to prose fiction I found myself more often than not writing about them, and trying, as you say, “to capture the deeply complex thoughts, emotions, and actions of young people struggling to make sense of the world around them.”

It’s likely that the stories in Wanting Only to be Heard constitute my most autobiographical stories, feelings that I’d experienced at their age, and attempted to recast as fiction. Feelings that manifested as a quite powerful turbulence.

I doubt that teaching emerging writers factored in much, if at all, given that my young characters, by and large, are the children of blue collar, working class parents, oftentimes struggling, out of work, existing-on-the-edge parents. I can’t really recreate or reconstruct exactly how or from where any of my characters originate, young or old, though chances are at least decent that once I name and begin to know them, young or old, I can then attempt to reveal each as psychologically complex and nuanced, and to speak through them, as William Matthews says, “What it feels like to be human.”

Rumpus: You also plumb the complications of parenting, especially single parenting in The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot. If the parents on your pages are together, there is still a sense of impermanence or potential abandonment. “Have I mentioned,” Wayne, the narrator of the title story asks his reader, “That my dad is my dad, but everything in this life is conditional, like it or not?” What draws you to these damaged and shaky family structures in these stories?

Driscoll: Even when things appear harmonious, in sync, perfectly arranged, it’s only a matter of time before what existed, doesn’t any longer. Joe Wilkins says in a story I read recently, “And the way the world was, it isn’t. And whatever it was you held, you don’t. And whoever you were, you aren’t. Not anymore.” Nicely said, and so true, given that everything exists in a perpetual state of disappearing, and which, naturally, is the nature of time and change and mortality. It’s also why everything is adumbrated with human expression, and why what’s commencing is, in essence, made more beautiful and compelling.

It’s not only family structures but rather the impermanence of everything, which is why I sometimes argue that the world is all verb, ever changing, and the future, time that is not yet born, but soon to become the present, and then the past, and then the deeper past.

And what draws me shaky family structures is what draws me to every story I write, and that, of course, is trouble. If there’s nothing wrong, if the fallacy of happy-ever-after presides, then there is, in essence, no story. As Graham Greene asks, “What’s there to write about happiness?” Or Elizabeth McCracken: “Surely there is happiness somewhere in the world.” Possibly so, but not in stories. The emotion is, first of all, unsustainable, and more problematic for the writer is that when everything appears hunky-dory, your characters will feel no need or compunction whatsoever to seek you out.

Rumpus: It’s interesting, too, how your characters create new, nontraditional families for themselves. Your characters are in second marriages, have step- and half-siblings. The mothers often have replacement, live-in boyfriends who sometimes cause great harm or may create a temporary harmony. While there is much hurt leveled in the name of family, in the name of love, these stories and your characters still seem to yearn for love, for family. This yearning often creates a sense of hope.

Driscoll: I don’t believe that I’ve ever divined a character that radiated hope, though each and every one at least dares to hope, which I hope fosters compassionate characterization. To enter another person’s perspective, and which defines empathy, acts to humanize. Without this degree of compassion, you’re likely to diminish, and misjudge, not only who these people are, but everything else in the story as well. Compassion is the belief that things might improve, and even when there’s little, if anything, to sustain and engender that belief. It’s the place from which I write, and the more troubled the circumstances, the deeper into the hearts and psyches of these characters I’m likely to go, opening every door in that dark hallway, and walking all the way in.

Rumpus: Your stories can hold brutal moments that you often envelope or juxtapose with some form of beauty that can entrance a reader. In “The Alchemist’s Apprentice,” a woman is badly burned by an unhinged boyfriend while her son watches. Beyond the terror though, the corn in the field “was golden cloaked in the dying sunlight.” In “After Everyone Else Has Left,” a story from The World of a Few Minutes Ago, a father attends the execution of his daughter’s murderer, and in a stunning final story moment, holds the hand of a grieving, praying woman and they sit “more remote in their singleness than any truth he could have possibly, in this human life, ever believed or known.” How do you find your way to this brutal beauty in your work?

Driscoll: “Even the sun has its dark side,” or vice versa, and too much darkness feels oppressive to me, singular, even hopeless, and, as such, would certainly diminish the ability of my characters to dare hope for something better even against seemingly impossible odds. But no matter how dire the circumstances, I’m committed, in every conceivable way consistent with the story’s needs, to always let in a little light, a little beauty, as you say, though without ever shying away from the tumult in which we find these struggling, living-on-the-edge characters.

It’s simply how my sensibility and imagination work, what one might, I suppose, refer to as a moral point of view, as I enter the psyches and hearts of these people I’ve divined.

Rumpus: I once heard you talking with a group of new writers in a workshop, and when a story was up for peer review and its author had deliberately left her main character unnamed. You said something like, “When we name our characters, we come to know them.” How do you find your characters’ names? Some of them are ordinary, names with which most of us are familiar: Wayne, Marjorie, Glen. Others are not so familiar: Sam Lee P., Trinity, Priest, Fritzi. When you find these names, do you come to know the characters better?

Driscoll: The first decision I make—always—is to name my narrator or protagonist. It helps, first of all, to orient the reader. And it isn’t until the naming that we’ve been formally introduced. At which point I begin to hang out with them, follow them around, jot down what they say and do. Most of the time I don’t have even an inchoate sense of where the story is headed, no clue whatsoever, and I’m entirely comfortable not knowing, given that a name alone, absent any preexisting context, is almost always enough to get me started.

For example, here’s the opening of “Wanting Only To Be Heard”: “Ashelby Judge was an odd name for a kid growing up in northern Michigan, so we just called him by his last name, Judge. Everyone did. In a way he always was holding court, pronouncing sentence…” Already, right out of the gate, I have more than enough to move forward, one sentence leading to the next and the next, and each one taking me a little deeper into the developing narrative. Also, I love to be surprised by what I discover, by what and how it is that I inscribe.

I am by nature not a list-keeper, but I do keep lists of names and add at least one or two every single day without exception. First names, last names, middle names, combinations of. I’ve collected more over the years than I can possibly ever use in a single lifetime, but I keep the list going nonetheless: Connie Pleeshaw, Romulus Gilroy, Destiny Meadows, Judy St. Louis, Macare Lumbrezer, Tammy VanSipe, Pearl Wojinerski, Johnny Barbulesco, Geraldine Dale. I tell my students that it’s a habit, an act of attention, that will keep them engaged, keep them thinking about characters and stories, and how that match might get made.

Rumpus: So, what’s next?

Driscoll: I began as a poet, moved to short fiction, then to novel writing, and, for the past twelve years, back to stories. I sometimes wonder if the pendulum will swing all the way back to where I began. As T.S. Eliot says, “In my end is my beginning,” but for now I’m staying put, sitting tight, and loving the short story form way too much to leave it quite yet.

***

Author photograph © John Campbell.


Patricia Ann McNair's most recent book is an essay collection called And These Are the Good Times: A Chicago gal riffs on death, sex, life, dancing, writing, wonder, loneliness, place, family, faith, coffee and the FBI (among other things.) Her short story collection, The Temple of Air, was awarded Book of the Year by Chicago Writers Association and Southern Illinois University's Devil's Kitchen Reading Award. She is the director of undergraduate programs in creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. More from this author →