Recent St. Rose MFA Graduate Joshua Sheridan speckles the internet with stories.
“What We Knew Then”
“Ain’t No Me”
“A Man’s a Thief”
He also thinks about writing, and talks about it too.
Ben: Your stories utilize and disrupt common symbols from popular culture, yet, despite that, maintain an affection for the symbol being used. In “The Narrators,” for example, the mother sings the first line of “Happy Birthday,” and each child riffs on the melody transforming “Happy Birthday dear Lucy” into “The rehab worked wonders.” Later, when the family embraces for a communal group hug, the (mostly) absent father spoils the moment.
In both these cases, the moments contain all the sweet domestic peace of a real happy birthday or group hug, albeit smudged by circumstance. Could you talk a little bit about your treatment of these cultural family moments? How do you decide if the disruption is too extreme or not extreme enough?
Josh: For me, there’s no pre-planning that goes into a piece of writing with regard to “How am I going to shake up this or that preconceived notion of cultural norms with this story?” I’d say what you’re seeing when you notice those sorts of things, or at least I hope what you’re you’re seeing when you notice those sorts of things, is more reminiscent of a well-thought-through scenario and a story populated with characters who don’t succumb to predictability. For instance, the family in “The Narrators” will take any opportunity they get—including singing “Happy Birthday” to their recently-returned-from-rehab sister—to tell someone else how they look, or to make wagers on someone’s illness, or to make fun of people driving by the restaurant where they’re eating. If the story is successful, it’s because of those choices that the characters make: they would never sing through “Happy Birthday” when they can tell their sister she looks like shit instead. As for the extremity of the disruption… well, again, I hope that’s just a matter of knowing your cast, of knowing the personalities you’re working with. If you know your characters, you’ll know, as a writer, what they would or wouldn’t say–or, maybe more importantly, what they would or wouldn’t let someone else get away with saying to them.
Ben: Your stories end, though the action hasn’t ended. “Locusts,” leaves us with “Not making a choice is the same as making a choice, Renee says.” “The Narrators” left me wondering, Cleaveland? “What We Knew Then” brings about a new dark freedom found in finally moving away. “Hunger” totters over the edge. So, how do you differentiate between the plot/action and the story itself? And do you have thematic reasons for these endless endings?
Josh: Endings have always been a challenge for me: the stories I’ve written that don’t work have crappy endings, and the ones I’ve written that I’ve been lucky enough to publish have endings that, on some level, work, and that’s really been the difference. It’s a feast or famine thing with me and endings. I either come up with something that satisfies the rest of the story and it kind of congeals, or I don’t, and the whole goddamn thing is a flop. What can I say? I’m working on it. One of the problems all writers must run into is that there’s no real guidebook on what comprises a good ending. Some people think a good “hook” or “twist” is what makes a good ending; others would rather be left hanging (these are the types writers must really like, right?). Do you need closure, or not? Or should the story be anti-closure? Or does the amount of closure needed depend on the individual story? Or is closure a pipe dream, because one reader’s closure is another reader’s what the hell just happened?
If somebody wrote a foolproof algorithm for good endings, I’d patronize their establishment. My overall sense, though, is that a story is like a snapshot of a person (or sometimes of two people, or less frequently of a group) who is either doing something, just did something, or is about to do something. Maybe we can say that snapshot, for the sake of color and backstory and characterization, is taken in the front yard of a church social. There are people in the snapshot that not only add flavor to the story, but some of them might help explain the things that the main character does or will do (maybe one of the people in the background is the mother who was addicted to pain pills, for example, or the uncle who once robbed a bank and got away with it). This picture includes some local foliage for setting. It shows the character wearing a certain face: of disgust, maybe, or of longing. But while it’s a particularly good snapshot, with some nice elements to it, it doesn’t necessarily explain the beginning of any occurrence, and it doesn’t necessarily explain the ending. A story, to me, is kind of like that: here’s one moment in a person’s life, a moment maybe where things went particularly wrong (or, less often, particularly right), and here is the supporting structure you need to know in order for the person’s story to shine as brightly as possible.
In the case of a story like “Locusts” (which is flash fiction, so the timeline is even more stringently applied), we’re seeing the moment a relationship ends, a man who’s unable to decide how much it matters that his wife is having an affair, and his wife, in that last line, doing what she’s done before: making the call for him. I guess I’m not sure what ending would satisfy other than the one the story has. Does ending in this sense mean sense of finality? Does someone need to die? Do the divorce papers need to come in?
Ben: Sense of finality describes what your successful stories achieve. There is no need for the papers. It’s a small leap to imagine they’re in the mail.
Josh: As with “The Narrators” and Cleveland: Lucy, the sister who’d been away from the family on a years-long bender, comes home from a stint in rehab to find out that nothing has really changed in seven years; her entire family has done basically nothing with themselves, with the exception of their father, who has, since Lucy’s leaving, fallen into a deep depression. Lucy has been a tourist on a crazy, dangerous cruise, and at the end of the story she’s explaining to her brother that, Hey, I may have been all messed up, but at least I’ve seen some things, while leveling this half-hearted What the hell have you done with YOUR life question, simultaneously.
Ben: Which isn’t so hard to relate to. And your stories regularly contain these wise, yet relatable sentiments, “He wanted to teach us how to stay alive, how to be decent. It was just his shitty lot in life that none of us ever actually learned from him,” for instance. A person who has not felt regret for disappointing someone, and so would be unable to identify here, would be a rare, and perhaps sad, find. In “Hunger” you do something slightly different, by showing the difference between two characters in identical situations, and why this difference occurs. Do you go into you stories with lessons in mind, or do they develop in the process?
Josh: The short answer is: I don’t go into writing something new with a fixed idea about what it’s going to be by the end. If I do have some idea, some half-assed notion that I thought up on the highway or in the shower or something, I don’t carry any expectation that it’s actually going to work out that way in practice. I certainly don’t have any desire to project a “lesson,” or to posit any system or morality, or anything like that. But I do think that good writing probably has some kind of moral aptitude; it has to, doesn’t it? Good writing should make you want to call your dad, or go donate blood, or tell your wife you love her with a little less apathy than you might otherwise feel. It so happens that by the end of writing a story my most common feeling is that I need to tell somebody I’m sorry for something that happened to them. Which, I admit, is strange.
As an example: my new project is a series of interlocking stories—vignettes, really, with no particular arc to any of them—about the people, both directly-related and on the fringe, who made the life of one man possible—a man who, it turns out, has been the victim of handgun violence in his workplace. We don’t know what’s happened to him; we only get stories from the people he knew, and they’re frequently stories that don’t have any close connection with his life at all. And the whole thing, though, is really me saying I’m sorry not only to the victims of gun violence in this country but to the lives that are affected—rendered moot, or senseless, or directionless, or simply saddened—by the loss of those people. It shames me that we can’t do better for innocent people in America. Our exorbitant level of violence is a stink that follows us everywhere. Anyway.
I guess I go into a project like that wanting to say something, and having an obvious political agenda, but by the time I’m done writing it, I’ve been into the back corners of my brain, down in the crevices, and I’ve had the heart on my sleeve under a powerful microscope, and hopefully it comes together to be something that isn’t so overt as it was in its conception. Because nothing is as black-and-white as my opinion of it makes it out to be, and so writing has to be a tool I use to understand what I think of something for real and not just what I think of something on the surface. Writing becomes the method I use to understand who I am, and what I believe, and what, in the end, I don’t really give a shit about.