Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Jack Caulfield’s fiction piece, A Bump in the Road
Sommer: I appreciate how you structure the narration of the lead-up to the story’s actual traumatic event: no line breaks, a manic breathlessness to the pacing and lengths of the sentences. I’ve noticed that some people close up after trauma; for others, it comes spilling out. How did you know this particular story for this particular narrator would be one of words instead of silences? Was it difficult finding those words?
Well, this particular narrator sort of has it both ways. The reader hears the story, but the narrator is only able to begin telling it by framing it as a hypothetical, and the feeling is that it’s a hypothetical she views as unlikely to ever come true—that this imagined narration is the only form this story will ever be told in. Which I think is what licenses this outpouring. As for the words themselves, I essentially just tried to write a long list of all the trivial details which you might associate with an incident like this and which collectively constitute this unassimilable story stuck in the narrator’s head.
One of the reasons I love good fiction, and find it so essential, is that it demands we see and think about all the complexities of a thing, even if that thing is taboo, makes us highly uncomfortable, or asks us to imagine stepping onto a predetermined “wrong side.” You do this so well in this story. The woman has been violated by a man she loves. To further complicate matters, she ultimately “colludes” with her husband in order to forget the “unhappy interlude.” Who do you think writes particularly well in this respect? Would you mind sharing some of your favorite stories or novels in this same vein—ones that encompass or gather instead of divide or declare?
One of my favourite stories is ‘The Man I Killed’ by Tim O’Brien, which consists largely of this obsessive circling around a trauma—the narrator’s killing someone during the Vietnam War. The narrative goes back and forth between enumerating all the grisly details of the corpse’s appearance and building up a kind of fanciful backstory for this dead man about whom the narrator knew nothing. It’s an incredibly striking piece of writing and formally it served as an oblique inspiration for this story.
I also think Elena Ferrante, in her Neapolitan Novels, writes brilliantly about the fraughtness of relationships, romantic and otherwise. Those books are full of frank reckonings with the kinds of mixed feelings for other people we often find ourselves simplifying or sweeping under the rug.
And my favourite contemporary novel I’ve read in years is Milkman by Anna Burns, which also deals with those sorts of fraught relationships, with an incredible abundance and originality of voice which I find really inspiring.
That final image, “leaving a thick black streak in the blonde,” is so fantastic. Don’t tell me that just came to you because then I’ll have to hate you for life.
Haha, it was actually that line and the ‘a very sincere expression’ passage that came to me first. I keep notes on my phone of all the ideas that come to me and then try to figure out how they fit together later. In this case, those were the first building blocks of the story. Don’t have a clue where they came from, though!
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
Not really—I’m guilty of thinking it’s the end of the world whenever I get a piece rejected too. I suppose just bearing in mind as much as possible that the rejection of one piece of your work needn’t be a dismissal of the value of your work in general!
What do you find most challenging about writing/the writing life? What do you find most joyful/exhilarating about it?
The most challenging things are probably motivating myself to write consistently (I have a terrible work ethic) and not becoming overwhelmed, not only with rejection, but with the process of figuring out where to send stories in the first place. It’s a big and daunting world out there.
The most exhilarating is when I feel really inspired and can just write a story straight through, or finally find that missing piece that makes the whole thing click. That and the feeling when someone reads something of mine and really connects with it, so I know it’s not all in my head!
Thank you, and congratulations!