Interviewed by Rachel Wild
Read Anthony Otten’s fiction piece, Empty Houses
Rachel: This is a gripping story about a subject that is rarely spoken about, the effect on a grandson whose grandfather is found to be a serial killer. What gave you the impetus to write it?
Anthony: I’m an avid consumer of true crime books and documentaries. Of all the dark characters you find in these stories, I’m most intrigued by the serial offenders who conceal their criminal lives from their families—sometimes for decades. An elderly man in Massachusetts was revealed earlier this year as the culprit in a major bank heist in 1969 in Cleveland, Ohio. He had lived over fifty years under a different name, even after he married and had a family, and confessed his real identity on his deathbed. Scenarios like that provoke me to think about the doubled selves that can inhabit our lives, sometimes to sinister effect.
One or two particular criminals were in mind as I wrote about the grandfather, but for propriety’s sake I won’t name them. Looking back, I could have explored his adult children’s minds as they process the truth—the reevaluation of family memories, the vicarious grief they feel for their father’s victims—but what I found most compelling was this question: What would be the consequences for a younger person, just beginning to ask who he is, if he knew he was the descendant of a murderer? Stories proceed from if to if until you have something.
The protagonist fears that he carries the same murderous impulses as his grandfather. Can you talk a bit about this element of the story?
Wouldn’t you worry, too?
A belief in the significance of our ancestry predates modern science. See the passage in Deuteronomy about third and fourth generations, or even the old saying, “Blood will tell.” In our age we have connected the idea with genetics. That’s what Nicholas, the protagonist, encounters in his textbooks, to his dismay.
I am always skeptical, however, of any interpretation of a human being that focuses on just one factor: only on genes, or only on childhood and parenting, or only on culture and geography. I think the truth is complexity. I think we have a conscience, which you see at work in the story. That may be the reason that certain genetic tendencies rarely manifest in us in their most extreme and dangerous forms. How much chance and choice play into that calculation, I don’t know.
The loneliness of the central character comes across strongly to me. Can you explain why you decided to have this as an underlying theme?
Loneliness is what happens when we sense or imagine our separation from the understanding of other people. None of us escape it, and it’s not always bad, either. Embracing loneliness can humble you. It can give you the solitude needed for creativity. Adolescence, though, always involves a specific, lonely frustration that nobody around you comprehends your struggle with uncertainty and insecurity, your grasping for a self (And nobody does. Barely any adults seem to remember what they were like from ages thirteen to twenty). So I don’t believe any story about adolescence is complete without admitting the loneliness of that time. You want the world to see you, but you don’t yet know which you is there to be seen. Nicholas, as an inward-looking kid, enters a very dark space trying to answer that question.
What is your process for writing fiction? Do you have a tried and tested methodology, or does it change from story to story?
I don’t begin a story until a character’s voice arrives. It’s not enough to have a situation or what I think is a good line; I have to have a voice, a sense of their inner self. That may take months (even longer, for a novel). If the voice is enough like a real person—with its own fears and hopes and contradictions—then I can write. Character leads event, and from that you get a story. I write longhand in a notebook and then transcribe the story for revision. Eventually I send it out and collect my rejection letters. In the case of “Empty Houses,” however, I had my acceptance from Forge in three days. It was not expected. And I am very grateful to have work in such a good journal.
Thanks very much!