Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Brandon Dudley’s fiction piece, Coyotes
John: This story gives us a very vivid portrait of the often-brutal ways that boys are socialized. Even Alton’s father seems to have some doubts about his methods at one point. And yet these sorts of extreme hazing rituals are disturbingly commonplace. Why do you suppose we are so attracted to these things?
Brandon: I’ve thought about this a lot, both as I was writing this story and as I’ve been raising my own sons. We treat manhood like a merit badge, a status that you have to earn through some sort of test or hardship. It was probably really useful when we were fighting to keep bears out of our caves, but now it’s probably just fucking us up.
My boys are both young, and I struggle sometimes with this idea of teaching them how to be a man. My six-year-old is pretty sensitive, and sometimes I catch myself wanting to toughen him up. My four-year-old loves purses and his favorite piece of clothing is a pair of pink girls’ pajamas because they have donuts on them. Sometimes I think I can’t let this keep going, that I’m going to have to put a stop to it eventually. And then sometimes I think, why? Why do I give a shit?
It’s difficult, because I know exactly why I should care, because I know it’s going to be easier for them in the long run. Act like the “right” kind of boy and you won’t get picked on by the other boys.
And there are other times I think it’s all bullshit. Cry if you want. Wear your donut pajamas every day. Be whatever kind of boy you want to be.
One of the things I like about this piece is that there are no villains. Alton’s father is right: it is much more difficult to go through life ruled by fear. It seems as though he is acting out of love for his son, and yet his actions go terribly awry. Is this as an essential element of the human condition, that even in the face of our best intentions, we often do terrible harm to each other?
That irony is infinitely interesting to me, those moments where a character tries to do good but just causes harm.
There’s a level of cruelty to what the father does here, but it’s minuscule compared to the love that motivates the act. He’s doing this because he loves Alton, and this is the way he feels he can best teach him, the best way he can prepare him for the world. I think for the father this is the ultimate act of love, being willing to hurt Alton right now to prepare him for the rest of his life. He’s doing his best. It might not be what we’d do, but I hope it’s obvious that it comes from a place of love.
Alton seems to have an ambiguous sort of victory in the end. He has engendered fear in his family, while he is calm. Also, he leaves the door to the house open, something he would have been unlikely to do at the beginning of the story. Is it possible that his family’s methods have been successful?
Absolutely. And for me that’s the tragedy of the story. Alton has become someone willing to cause pain in people he loves, just to prove a point. The family was completely successful in the end, and while Alton might be better off in some ways because of it, there’s something lost there that he can’t get back.
There is a strong sense of place in this story—the barn, the house, the fields are all vividly depicted. You have lived in some fairly disparate places (Maryland, Massachusetts, Maine). How do you think this has affected your approach to writing?
I think living in different places, even for relatively short periods of time, gives you a better sense of people and the myriad ways that they are totally different and exactly the same. New and interesting locations are always helpful, but what good is an interesting setting if you can’t populate it with unique characters?
That said, the setting here sometimes felt like cheating. The farm is based heavily on my grandfather’s farm in Maryland. I grew up there until I was 7, then we moved next door, so it was a place that I was intimately familiar with. I didn’t have to make much up.
I especially loved describing the barn in the story, which is just my grandfather’s old barn. It was destroyed in a storm about ten years ago, so it was nice to go back and remember the way the tobacco hanging in the rafters smelled and the way the dirt floor felt. I tried to remember what it was like to be a kid in that barn again, though it was never the scary place I made it out to be here.
There’s a new barn there now, but it’s not the same.