Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read William Lychack’s fiction piece, The Shard
John: I’ve increasingly come to feel that almost all of our actions spring from mixed motivations—that the selfish and generous often live together quite easily in something we convince ourselves is completely altruistic. Do you agree, and if so, how do we negotiate these situations?
William: I’d go so far as to say there’s an element of self interest in everything we do. I mean, what in the world gets done without some trace of selfishness? Even the most altruistic acts—something like the Buddhist metta (loving kindness) meditation—has at its heart a kind of self gain, a kind of merit accruing also to the giver. Just because you stand to gain from an action doesn’t mean it can’t also be sacred (productive and nourishing) to all parties. So, yes, I agree. I suppose we negotiate this selfishness by not falling prey to a kind of profane (destructive and antagonistic) view that everything is a zero-sum game. To put it another way, the real work is to try to care about what you do.
In this story, Brownie is rebellious to the point of self-destruction, and his father’s generosity comes with an implicit level of control. Arguably the seeds of both of these—an assertion of independence and the desire to help ones children—are wholesome. How do these things go so dramatically off-track?
I don’t know, I’m not sure helping ones children is always the kindest thing. I can’t speak for those characters, but I can say that never really knowing my father was a gift-curse for me. I can say that I was allowed to make my own mistakes and follow my own path, however haphazard and wandering that was. I can’t say how things go off-track between fathers and sons, because I’m sure each black box of that relationship is private and singular. But I sure can imagine a moment and a feeling where two young men would leave a fang of glass in someone’s drink. That feels very real to me. I just wanted to evoke the feeling.
Writers, like the narrator in this story, are natural observers. Is there a value simply in this, in being a witness to the actions of others, both good and bad?
There’s some value in observation, but it also has to serve the story, in my opinion. Great details only go so far. Truly, as a fellow writer, I’d just as soon ask the question to you, John. I imagine you must read a whole helluva lot of stories for the magazine, and I’m sure a kind of tedium sinks in if all you’re seeing in a piece is a pileup of gorgeous details and beautiful writing. Ultimately, nobody cares about details. They care about stories and people, and all our observations have to be geared toward revealing character and moving action forward, don’t you think? (Again, I think you’re in a better position to say. I’m just a guy out here trying to do this; you’re in the trenches wading through all that prose.)
I completely agree that well-wrought sentences and compelling details only go so far, and that plot and character are paramount. I have no scientific evidence to back this up, but I think that the human mind is deeply oriented toward processing two basic things: social situations and cause and effect relationships in the external world. The literary equivalent of these is, of course, characterization and plot. That’s why these two things, more than anything else, tend to draw us into a story. In fact this effect is so strong that I think that this sort of processing might be something that we are physiologically adapted to do. (As an aside, it seems that the post-modernists managed to convince us to look askance at plot, as if having things actually happen in a story is somehow vulgar. I’ve been in more than one workshop where the phrase “plot driven” was bandied about as a pejorative term. But there’s a reason that a strong narrative arc is a universal aspect of popular writing. It’s a really powerful literary tool—why not use that to our advantage?) I’ve certainly read really successful writing that had neither deep characterization nor plot, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule.
This piece is an excerpt from a novel. Tell us more about that.
A couple of years ago, on my fiftieth birthday, I felt a kind of now or never urgency to try to say what I felt about the world. It seemed a number you couldn’t hide from. My father had died at fifty, so maybe that had something to do with it, this sudden pressure to get down whatever I needed before it was too late. My best and longest friend from childhood had committed suicide a year earlier, and I’d been having a hard time getting beyond our two very different paths in life. I kept wondering where we had started to go wrong, exactly, and why and how I’d failed him as a friend. The gun seemed a way to pinpoint the moment when things began to change—our first worst thing—and one afternoon became a way to explain all the bad things that would enter our lives.
I see this novel as a turning point in my work and life—a before and after project—and I believe it will be the final word on my hometown and my childhood. That was the goal of the book: to give myself permission to turn and look forward at last. If my first novel was striving to create a father I never knew (an attempt to find a place in a father’s heart for a boy, or, better yet, to find a place in a boy’s heart for a father), and if my collection of stories was trying to honor the voice of my mother (an attempt to capture her spirit, while also giving her a husband and marriage that could change), then this novel is hoping to somehow deliver my own childhood and hometown (lay those two young boys to rest, finally, so they can move on in some meaningful way, free of this place and past).
The writer and editor William Maxwell once gave me a piece of advice: “Do a rough draft all the way to the end, then you can polish, edit, rearrange, perfect, to your mind’s content.” He also wrote in a letter to me: “Listen to your feelings as you would to the sound in a sea shell, and then put them down on paper.” I tried every day to do those two very simple things—actually, I tried to do only those two things for the last year and a half—and I see the book as a kind of breakthrough, as if I made some peace with my process and myself, the draft coming together in ways I could not have hoped for or expected. It’s not for me to say what it means or if it works or anything, but I can describe the way I see myself turning a corner here, not so much writing to save my life any longer, but more writing to make my life now.
I’m impressed that you knew William Maxwell! Thanks so much for doing this interview with me.
Thanks for having me in the Forge!