Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Richard Farrell’s fiction piece, The Weanling

John: One of the things I love about this story is how relatable it is, even in its extremity. We’ve all continued on some disastrous course of action, even with the full knowledge of its disastrousness. Are we all just a few wrong turns away from doing something really, really awful?

Richard: Twice a year, I have the pleasure of teaching at River Pretty, a writing workshop in the Ozarks. Two years ago, on the second day of the workshop, the North Fork of the White River began to rise. All day the water kept climbing the banks. By dinnertime, the water was up against the front door of my cabin. By the time we finished the faculty readings, my cabin had been ripped from its foundations and was gone. Literally gone. Two hours later, fifty writers evacuated the property. We spent the night in our cars as the worst thunderstorm I’d ever experienced rumbled overhead.

What struck me about that nearly catastrophic night was how slowly we all reacted. Only in retrospect did I understand the danger.

I used to be a pilot. One of the ways pilots train is by studying accidents, and learning from the mistakes that other fliers made. More often than not, a chain of events leads to disaster. It’s never just one thing. That’s what Parsons, the narrator of “The Weanling,” struggles with as the fire closes in. And yet, this is a story about Parsons accepting his own mortality, not just in the fire, but in the larger scope of his life. Not to be grim, but mortality is also a slow-moving disaster. Parsons does everything he can to deny reality (maybe to include writing fiction!) His husband’s aging body, his failed ambitions, his love of Sami, all these are links in the chain of events that leads him into peril. The fire is only the culminating event.

When writers are depicted in fiction, it seems that they usually don’t come off very well. Is this because we, as writers, tend to see our own flaws more clearly, or simply that writers are terrible, terrible people?

I hope not! I know a few writers (at least) who are quite wonderful! But yes, depicting writers in fiction is a tough sell. For one thing, it always flirts with narcissism. Writers writing about writers is a tired cliché, one I try to avoid it at all costs. But I began to feel that my avoidance was also problematic. So, in “The Weanling,” Parsons represents a man who happens to be a writer, a man desperately searching for his own authentic voice, not just in his work, but also in his being. (Hell, does that sound familiar?) He’s an outsider on this ranch, a city-dweller, a klutz. At that same time, Earl, the man who Parsons admires as authentic, would be just as klutzy in a bookstore. We all live on our own ranches. Writers and cowboys and bankers alike put on our work clothes and feel confident in our own silos.

But comfort breeds complacency. One of the fun parts of this story was figuring out how Parsons would react as his trip to the ranch grew increasingly less idyllic. As I mentioned above, watching fifty writers evacuate rising flood waters reminded me that confidence has limits.

The narrator has something akin to a near-death experience, which allows him to see life in less nihilistic terms. Why do you think we so often need extreme measures like these to act in more sane ways?

Another great question! Running back and forth in our busy little lives, we forget our humanity. Our egos become trapped in the maze of our own making. Steve Almond writes, “What matters is not the quality of a particular life, but the quality of attention paid to that particular life.” Near-death experiences heighten attention, shift the focus away from the mundane and back onto the cosmic. At least they have in my life.

An interesting question might follow this one: How long before Parsons returns to his old ways? In other words, is the experience temporary or enduring? In this story, Parsons comes face-to-face with his own bullshit. His pettiness, his arrogance, his vanity, all that feels pretty small in the face of this awful fire. And I do think that the human capacity for compassion gets focused when our backs are against the wall. His focus at the start of the story is incredibly narrow: gin, sex, ambition. As the fire closes in, his soul expands a bit. I want to believe that this poor bastard really feels bad for the horse, which of course is a projection of his own fragile mortality. We act saner when we remember how delicate life is. Ram Das says, “We are all just walking each other home.” Parsons, like most of us too, forgets that sometimes.

What is your favorite maladaptive coping strategy?

Not answering questions about maladaptive coping strategies!

I wear a lot of masks in my life. I think I have a strong sense (probably wrong) of what people expect from me and so I am quick to step into a role. I admire people who don’t wear masks, people who are the same wherever they go. That’s not me. I’m chameleonic. Is that a word? All those masks make me weary, too. Mask wearing is about conflict avoidance. It’s easier to slide into that expected role than to push back. This is where Parsons and I connect: he, too, is a mask wearer, until the fire reveals something else about him.

Twice in the last few years, I’ve had the privilege to attend a silent retreat. These retreats are run by my friend and neighbor, a former Jesuit priest, now a father, a teacher, a shaman. How he ended up living across the street from me continues to baffle me. But he hosts these retreats: eight or nine people who share six days of communal silence. A community, but with no one to talk to. No one to worry about. No masks to wear. Those retreats remind me that the world doesn’t need me as much as I sometimes think it does. Silence unmasks me. Being still is an ‘adaptive’ strategy, as opposed to a maladaptive one. The poet Marilyn Nelson says, “Silence is the source of so much of what we need to get through our lives.” Hard to wear masks when you’re quiet. That’s a good place to end, in silence.