Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Louis Wenzlow’s fiction piece, Grace
Sommer: In “Grace,” you take a seemingly blasé event and turn it into a very moving experience about love, self-respect, friendship and the forgiveness of time. I’m in awe. It seems that one way in which you were able to accomplish this is by the simple fact of narrative distance. How did you negotiate the aspects of time and memory when writing this story? Did you know you wanted to start in the past and end in the present? Were you ever tempted to let the older, present-day narrator periodically poke his head into the story?
Louis: Thanks so much for the compliment. I guess I should start by confessing that I wrote some of this story over twenty years ago (when I was in fact a waiter, as well as a cook for a time), and some of it just recently. But interestingly enough, the original draft already included this looking back aspect. It was always intended that the narrator was telling the story from a changed perspective after the experience of that night. Was it intended to be twenty years later? No, not in the first draft. But when I dusted the story off and viewed it with older eyes, the retrospection still resonated with me, and I decided to make the time distance correspond to my actual experience. This also allows for the playful convolution of the narrator and the author, which is a technique that I use in many of my stories, and which for some reason I never cease to get a kick out of.
On the “poking his head in” question, one of my motivations for writing this story was to capture what it’s like to be in the thick of a brutal night in a restaurant, the immediacy of it, with its own weird time glitches, and I think that overtly introducing the older-self earlier may have taken away from that immersion, so I never went down that road. But there are little hints of this future-self in the first paragraph, and later in the story, during the “I remember, I remember…” section, and when he references the sous chef and bus girls whose names he’s forgotten.
Often, we come down too hard on our younger selves. In “Grace,” though, the narrator ends up learning to be kinder to his younger self, which is a truth we don’t often hear but probably should. One of my favorite lines is, “I started squinting for the cracks of light.” Did you foresee this ending to the story? Do you think writing can be a process of discovery? How?
I almost always draft a story without initially knowing where it’s going to end. I usually start with a character, a sense of place, the general arc of the conflict (in this case the “death and resurrection” of a hard-nosed waiter in the weeds), and a first line that points in a direction that seems to me to be worthy of pursuit. The rest is that process of discovery you reference, discovering how my characters and the narrative will move and end in unexpected ways. This is one of the things I love about writing, the finding of odd little, sometimes big, things along the way of the story, and then hopefully, the destiny that the first line was pointing to. I always knew that the narrator would go from hating his customers (himself?) to something more positive, but not how it would happen, what form his redemption would take. In fact, the sentence you reference wasn’t added until the final revision.
That’s discovering the story. But there’s also the discovery and evolution of ourselves as humans through writing. This maybe doesn’t happen with every story or poem, but those pieces that I’ve spent a long time working on (thinking about, chiseling, revising) usually reveal something to me about my inner self, what I value or dislike, maybe not just reveal but actually create. They’re a part of my “who-I-am” matrix. I’d be a different person if I hadn’t written them.
You do a wonderful job at bringing to life the story’s handful of characters. Did you outline each character before starting or was it more of an organic process? And on that note, did the dialogue just sort of come naturally within the scenes, or did you plan it out?
I think that anyone who has worked for a while in upscale food service maybe has met versions of these characters. Maria is the uber-waiter who can handle anything, which is why she needed to be dispensed with. The narrator cares only about himself and his tips, at least on the surface. Manfred is the cool, nurturing chef who makes delicious food. Kyle, I have to admit, is probably a bit like me when I first started waitering, a nervous wreck trying to manage just a few tables. But then I got better at it, though of course never reached anything near Kyle’s apotheosis. So to answer your question, there was no special plan for the characters or the dialogue, more like a cobbling together of different personalities and voices from my own experiences, and tweaking as needed with a little jet fuel to make them interesting and move the story forward.
Another aspect I admire is the way you build suspense and tension. Do you have any tricks or suggestions for creating suspense and tension? Is it attention to environmental details? Is it constantly checking in with the feelings of you the author? With the feelings of your main character?
I start from the perspective that writing is in part an act of entertaining myself, and thereby, hopefully, the reader. This relates to the “discovery” question above. The only way for me to keep a story’s momentum moving forward, for me to keep caring enough to write to an actual conclusion, is for there to be a stake, and associated risk, in what happens next. From the very beginning, I am working toward a close but keeping things as open as possible so they remain unpredictable until something interesting is revealed, something unexpected that still works, that makes me/you think differently, and when perfectly executed feels inevitable. Not that anything I’ve written meets this ideal, but that’s how I approach it, what I strive for. It’s also what I value in the fiction that I read.
In the context of “Grace,” I think the ingredients that contribute to the tension are all those you mention: the situation or environment is Bruno’s “best (busiest) night ever” in the restaurant, with the environment evolving as we move toward and into “the rush,” and then the narrator’s skewed perspective that begins to get punctured as things start to whip out of control. Having these pieces made it possible for me, as the author, to keep finding interesting new details before eventually plunging the narrator into his abyss, and then pulling him out.
Any advice to writers about handling rejection?
When rejections come in, I think it’s natural to feel that pinch of disappointment that probably harkens back to the time we didn’t get picked first, second, or fifth by the captains of the dodgeball teams, but there are certain domains—writing, acting, sales probably—in which even the most successful practitioners get far more rejections than acceptances. So much of this issue relates to ego and expectations. We now live in the age of Duotrope and the proliferation of so many online literary journals. And go figure, you can sort them by acceptance rate, you can shoot for the stars or just work to find the right place, the right fit, for your piece. Odds are, if you’ve worked on the story or poem enough, it will eventually get placed (maybe twenty years later J), and if not you can keep chiseling or else call it a day and move on to the next piece. I’ll squeeze in here that, while it would be great to get placed in prestigious, highly selective print journals, my preference is to bypass those types of venues and send to journals publishing writing that I connect with, but that also respond in a reasonable amount of time rather than a year later, that publish an accepted piece within a few months rather than another year later, that make the piece available online, so that my friends and family can see what I’m doing in my spare time, venues like The Forge Literary Magazine, which of course is also highly regarded and selective. Thanks for all that you do for us readers and writers.
Thank you so much for taking time to do this interview with me!
Thank you! It’s an honor to have been selected, and it’s been a pleasure corresponding with you.