Interviewed by Heather Cripps

Read Tyler McAndrew’s fiction piece, Lake Shore Limited

Heather: This piece is so quietly beautiful, but also packs such a big emotional punch. What was your inspiration for the story? What came first?  

Tyler: Sadly, this story was born out of an actual experience I had when I was in my early twenties—probably in 2008 or 2009. I was on a train that had to stop for several hours because someone had jumped in front of it. It was such a sad and strange experience, and it became one of those memories that’s like a thorn, something my mind always wandered back to at lonely moments.

Of course, this story went through whatever bizarre process of imagination makes fiction out of memory, but I think that every draft began with just trying to capture that experience with as much detail as I could. The first thing, usually, was the drizzly, gray, winter view from the window of the train that I had all those years ago.

The ending of the story is so moving, yet so unexpected. Did you always know how you were going to end this piece, or did it come to you while writing? 

That’s a tough question because this story went through so many drafts—more than a dozen, all of them spread out over a period of almost ten years. In most of the drafts, I was never able to get anywhere close to an ending, let alone find much in the way of shape or momentum for the story.

But somewhere among all those drafts and all those years was a little fragment of a poem that I was once trying to write about this experience I’d had on the train. When I wrote the poem, I was living in a neighborhood in Pittsburgh right near the Allegheny River. There are train tracks that run along the river, and I would often be trying to fall asleep and hearing train horns blowing in the nearby dark and they would feel like some sort of weird lullaby. So I ended up with this little chunk of a poem that included both of those things—being stuck on a train after a suicide, and then, also, the comforting sound of trains moving in the night. When I wrote that poem, the line came as a total surprise—one of those good writing moments when these weird, beautiful, unsettling associations somehow rise up out of the subconscious. The poem itself was pretty shabby and I never bothered to do anything with it, but I liked the juxtaposition of those elements, so I kept that little bit in the back of my mind. I didn’t try to force it as an ending, and it was a long, long time before any drafts of this story ever really took form, but when this one finally did, I sort of half-knew—or at least hoped—that those lines from the poem could be transmogrified as an ending.

The description is beautiful in this story, and we spend time on little details that really ground us in the moment with the characters. Are you often descriptive with your writing?

My level of descriptiveness often depends on what story I’m trying to tell. When this story began to take shape, I knew that it was going to have to be very detailed and descriptive because there just wasn’t going to be a whole lot of action or dialogue to propel the narrative; it was going to have to rely on texture and imagery and whatever emotional resonance I could build with those things.

For other stories that involve more plot movement, I might be less focused on description because I don’t want it to slow down the pacing. Pacing and rhythm are usually the things that I feel most attuned to in my writing, so my descriptiveness is very often in service of those things.

With that said, I think I’ve been a lot more descriptive in my writing recently, in part because of what I’m doing at work, at my job as an adjunct instructor in a creative writing program. I mostly teach Intro to Creative Writing courses, and detail and specificity and imagery are things that I’m always trying to drive into my students’ brains. In recent semesters, I’ve built a lot of my syllabi around stories that are very meticulous in their descriptions—“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” by Jhumpa Lahiri, “Mother” by Andrea Lee, “A Fight Between A White Boy and a Black Boy in the Dusk of A Fall Afternoon in Omaha, Nebraska,” by Wright Morris—and I’m sure that some of those stories have rubbed off on me.

If you could have dinner with one other writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you ask them? 

Carson McCullers would be at the top of my list. She’s among my favorite writers and for whatever reason, I’ve always thought I would get along well with her. In photographs, I’ve always thought she had a very kind face. And she and I have a lot of the same preoccupations in our writing: loneliness, childhood, class struggles, gothic violence.

I don’t know that I would have many specific questions for her—I tend to get bashful and am always worried that other writers will be bored by shop talk. I’d probably just want to hang out and try to become her friend! One of my hobbies is playing music, though I’m not very technically skilled at it; McCullers was an accomplished piano player, so if there was a piano nearby, I might ask her to teach me how to play something simple.

What else are you working on currently and where can we read more of your work?

My big thing right now is that I have a finished manuscript of short stories (which “Lake Shore Limited” is a part of) and I’m trying to find a home for it. My other two current projects are extremely dissimilar from each other: I’m very slowly working on a novel about an old woman who lives as a hermit, off-the-grid, in rural Pennsylvania during the fracking boom of the 2000s, and I’m also finishing up a script for a middle-grade graphic novel horror story about alien abductions and Christmas…You can read some of my more recent stories at Electric Literature, HAD, and Epiphany, and there are links to more of my publications over on my website.