Alan Heathcock’s debut collection of short fiction, VOLT, was released in 2011 by Graywolf Press and was called one of the best books of the year by Publisher’s Weekly, the Chicago Tribune, Salon.com, and GQ, among others. It was an Editor’s Pick for both The Oxford American and The New York Times Book Review, while also being a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Award. Heathcock’s stories have appeared in the Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Storyville, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story. He’s been a Tin House Writers’ Conference Scholar and twice a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellow. His awards include a Whiting Award, a GLCA New Writers Award, a National Magazine Award for Fiction, and he took the Boise Weekly Best Living Idaho Writer award in 2012.
Alan Heathcock grew up in the Hazelcrest suburb of Chicago, Illinois. He earned a Journalism degree from the University of Iowa, followed by MFAs from both Bowling Green University and Boise State University, where he now teaches creative writing workshops.
VOLT collects eight linked short stories, set in the anywhere USA town of Krafton. With characters who beg attention for their eccentric, strange, dark, fleshy humanity; with circumstances both impossible and likely; with words that connect to each other with the evidence of artful, precise architecture, VOLT’s stories drill readers to the core. Heathcock navigates his stories with ultimate regard to their people, and without forgetting reader needs or betraying trust. His writing models a musician’s crafting of melody and tempo, the invitation to settle into its movement and be carried along through its rises and falls. True to the standard of great, contemporary storytelling, Heathcock inspires other writers, not with his growing market success, but by his exemplary craft commitment, his attendance to the level of the sentence, and his human-centric approach.
Alan Heathcock spoke with Lunch Ticket editor Lee Stoops.
Lee Stoops: Thank you for taking the time to share with Lunch Ticket readers.
My first question for any writer is: when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
AH: Oh gosh. Probably a professional baseball player or something like that. I mean I think whatever you imagine yourself as an adult, it’s whatever role you feel you are being rewarded in as a child. I always felt I was being rewarded playing baseball.
LS: So how did you come to storytelling?
AH: I think storytelling is a huge part of my family. This basic old-fashioned, sitting around telling stories to one another. It’s not anything we even think about. It’s just what we do. I’ve come to understand that it’s unique even though I thought growing up that’s just what families did.
In high school, I had that moment where I read something that changed the way I viewed the world. A friend tragically killed himself. I remember not long after that, I was struggling with understanding, even to say trying not to process what had happened. For a class assignment, I was reading Hemingway stories. In the story Indian Camp, the little boy asks his father, “Do many men kill themselves?” And he says “Yes, sometimes they do.” The feeling that that question was maybe the question that I had. That somebody else had that question in their mind made me feel less alone. It didn’t happen until later, in my junior and senior years of college where I started trying to write and express myself with words. But I think my love of stories had always been a part of who I was.
LS: What does your writing process look like?
AH: I think biggest part of maturing as an artist has been freeing myself of processes that were implied to me. I’ve figured out the way my brain works and the things I believe about story and how I need to get my imagination to a certain place.
I generally write chronologically through a story, so I’m accumulating along with the characters. On any given morning I decide what I’m going to work on, a scene or a little chunk of the narrative. And I attack the problem of how do I get my imagination all the way down into that moment.
For example: I started thinking on the scene I’ll be working on today, yesterday. Trying to get my head around it, to get my imagination down into this character’s point of view. I want pure empathy. I need her feelings, what she smells, the light, the sounds. For this scene: in a stable in the middle of a storm.
When I get to what I call the point of critical mass, when I know my imagination is there, I sit down and I write it as fluidly as I can, without stopping. To capture the truth of the experience that’s in my imagination, as powerfully and vividly and palpably as possible. And then I immediately get onto revising to make sure the language is accurate and precise. Then I do that over and over and over again.
LS: The stories in VOLT each stand alone but take place in the same imaginary Midwest town with the same cast of characters moving throughout. How did you come to the decision to link these stories instead of just writing them as a novel?
Four of the stories in VOLT come from failed novels. As the novels failed, I would pluck out the dramatic movements I thought were powerful and could stand alone. There is some freedom for them being highly particular, highly specific commentaries rather than connected in the larger thematic sense that comes with a novel.
AH: I was trying to write novels. Four of the stories in VOLT come from failed novels. As the novels failed, I would pluck out the dramatic movements I thought were powerful and could stand alone. There is some freedom for them being highly particular, highly specific commentaries rather than connected in the larger thematic sense that comes with a novel. I accumulated this familiarity with the characters, with the place, and I was pretty deep into it when I started thinking about the book.
And there, very clearly, influences like Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson’s book, or James Joyce’s The Dubliners came in with that familiarity with a place, with a sentiment, which enabled me as a reader go with them to a greater depth and feeling into each particular story. I just love those books so much I found it very attractive.
LS: What do you feel your roles and responsibilities are as an artist engaging in your local community? And in the literary community?
AH: Well, that’s twofold: as an artist myself, and as an advocate for the arts. As an artist, I have to write my preoccupations, to write deeply into things that confound and scare me, and places where I find great hope and great caution and try to express those things in stories so that people can read them and have the same conversation with themselves. That’s the human connection that we find through art. I think one of the main purposes of art is to allow us to see ourselves in a way that is bearable so that we can make sense of this crazy world and how we’re supposed to make sense of ourselves. And I take that very seriously.
And as an advocate for the arts. To go out and make sure that people understand the value of literature, the value of that art. Deep value. I’m very passionate about it. I do what I can to help people to be reminded of the power and the necessity of literature in our schools, in our community, in our civic lives, whatever they may be. Literature is terribly important. It needs to be cherished and curated and practiced.
LS: One of my favorite characters in VOLT is sheriff Helen Farraley because she was jokingly elected, but takes the job seriously. And, she takes justice into her own hands. Can you talk a little bit about justice as a theme in your stories?
AH: I think justice has always been a hard concept for me to get my head around. Too often, especially in America, we talk about justice as being this black and white thing. From where and how I grew up, things were not always black and white. I knew people who were known as good people who did things that I thought were unjust. And there were people who were seen as criminals, who were beautiful people and did a lot for the community. I’ve been in close proximity to terrible tragedies and seen the affects, especially with these horrible, violent acts where there’s just … We seek answers, something to settle our minds.
I used to go to this small town, Waseca, Minnesota. Beautiful, bucolic small town. We loved to go fishing, go on long walks through the fields, and that kind of stuff. In 1999, some guys came to town and were robbing a house and a teenage girl came home and found them. They raped and murdered her and left her body. I was there a few weeks after that happened. There was a pall over everything. The way people interacted changed. The community started talking bringing the criminals to justice, to restore peace. And those guys were caught, tried, and sentenced. And you think, “Okay, now we can find our peace.” But it wasn’t true. In 2009 they had a memorial service in the park. People were still just weeping. What justice will heal that?
Justice is a word we use in hopeful ways to settle things inside our souls. My stories, in part, look at how justice is not black and white, how justice is a concept, and how it can be a failing or a misunderstanding of how people cannot always be settled.
LS: Many of the characters in VOLT struggle with what they see as universal morality – right versus wrong. Are those struggles at the root of your stories, or do they work their way in as you develop the characters and the situations?
AH: Before something is a question, it starts as a feeling of being scared or confounded or confused. You know, how am I supposed to feel about this? My initial impulse is to create, to express this stuff inside me. Purging is not the right word, because these things don’t go away. I need to let people know what’s inside me, if for no other reason than to feel like I’m not alone. If I’m feeling scared or if I’m feeling furious or if I’m conflicted—if I start writing from that place, then I know I’m writing a good story. Eventually, it always seems to come to something, generally a moral question of how we operate as human beings in dealing with the great wars that rage inside us. I write for myself first, right? Even if I didn’t publish another thing, I would continue to write. The impulse to explore these things, express them on the page, is how I deal with these things that won’t go away.
LS: Some of these big, unanswerable questions—they’re dark. But within that, you also write toward redemption. Do you think fiction has to have both these qualities?
AH: Has to have? I think I have to have them. We understand the scope of love because of the scope of pain or grief or despair. That’s just a truth of the world we can’t deny. For me, I think those are the things I’m drawn to, even though I’m a naturally hopeful person. These things are not just for the depressed. Grief and tragedy happen to the happiest, the wealthiest, most well-adjusted. I don’t want to be in despair. I don’t want to be grounded by grief. My work is generally informed by characters who, though put into these places of tragedy and grief, are fighting as hard as they can to find their way out. I’m interested in their struggle because their struggle is my struggle. For what I do, yeah, it’s a necessity. I want to be good. I want to be hopeful. I want to be free from despair and from grief. But there are obstacles. And that’s where there is a story. A despaired person who has no hope—that’s not a good story arc. [he laughs]
LS: And, what about humor? You’re a funny guy—how do you reconcile that in your writing?
I think there’s a part of me that thinks I could write a really, really funny book. I love laughing. I love laughter.
AH: I think there’s a part of me that thinks I could write a really, really funny book. I love laughing. I love laughter. My wife jokes all the time, “I’m very happy that Al has it situated this way—where he has a place to put all this serious stuff so that when he walks around the world, he’s the happy go-lucky-guy.” I don’t think I have an explanation for it. I think I need years of therapy to figure that out. I love comedy, and it has a great role in my life. But I know that when I sit down at the desk to do my work, for whatever reason, I’m there to root around in the muck. I know that’s why I’m doing it. It has to have a certain temperament to it. And that temperament is humorless. [laughs]
LS: One of the things I admire most in your work is your ability to write images that cannot be forgotten. For example: Winslow Nettle’s son Rodney laying in the field behind the tractor “like something fallen from the sky” after slipping into the tiller discs. Writing unforgettable images is one of the hardest and most important things writers do. How do you settle on yours?
AH: Two things here: One is I’m always engaging in empathy. The truest experience for the character. Fiction, at its heart, I believe should be empathetic—connecting the reader with the experience of someone who is not them. As long as the character is sighted, I have to have powerful images because that’s the nature of the human experience.
The second part of it is how I choose. One of the coolest things I started doing, and I got this idea from a friend of mine who was a poet in Chicago. I would go to the art institute of Chicago—every Thursday it was free for students—and I would pick a painting. Stand in front of a Monet one week, and a Salvador Dali the next, and I would not just try to write the image, but I would try to understand the painting itself. Its temperament. I did it week after week, and it taught me some very important things about executing the power of an image. I started taking that back to characters, to what they see and how they mix that with whatever they’re feeling.
I have to write the image that captures that temperament. All images are an expression of the character’s temperament. All images are an expression of character.
LS: Your short story Fort Apache was adapted into a short film. Smoke is now in pre-production for the same. How involved have you been in that process? How has it been watching your characters come to life in a different visual way?
AH: It’s been an interesting process. With Fort Apache I wasn’t very involved. It was very exciting when they started sending me scenes. This stuff that was born out of my imagination, and now I could see real live human beings, people throwing bowling balls, breaking windows, the older brother swinging clothes he has lit on fire above his head. I wasn’t here on the set to see the reality behind it, so there’s something there that keeps the magic intact even for me.
With Smoke I’m much more involved. I’m a full producer and I’m engaged in every creative conversation. Though in some ways it’s diminished because it’s like the magician finally learning the tricks, you know? There is no magic for the magician, and there’s some tragedy behind that, but at the same time it’s cool to know all the magic tricks and to be able to influence things. I’m a huge movie fan. Films are a big part of who I am. For a long, long time, I sat by myself at my desk doing my own work. This film is a collaborative process that I get to do with guys I really like as human beings. I get to hang around with smart, artistic, creative people, and there’s something wonderful about that.
LS: What is the most unexpected thing that has happened to you since you’ve committed to this work?
AH: The way it’s changed me as a person. When the book was coming out, I had this overwhelming feeling of dread. I had written these stories over the course of a long time, over a dozen years, sitting by myself, recording my very private preoccupations. These stories were what would be characterized as dark. I was afraid that I would scare people, that people would cringe away from me. The very first out of town reading I gave was at Powell’s in Portland, and a woman came up to me after the reading. She said she had read the first story, The Staying Freight, which is about a father who accidentally kills his son in a farming accident. She had driven an hour and a half to talk to me because her own son had, about six months before, been killed in a car crash. She told me the story had allowed her to look at some things that she had not previously allowed herself to look at. It was such a privilege for someone to say to me, “I had this tragedy in my life, and this intimate thing that is a book helped me.” I found that wherever I went. Over the course of time, I switched from being a used car salesman about my book to saying, “This is my book. It is about grief, and fear, and confusion, and the invasive nature of violence, and the tenuous nature of peace and how these things scare me to death.” I have become, in this odd way, completely vulnerable and relatively fearless about being open. That wasn’t something I think I could have anticipated. It makes my job as a writer easier now. I don’t fight with myself any more. I know that my job is to immediately go into that place and to investigate those things, and that has tremendous value. It has real value in the world and in people’s lives.
LS: You teach writing workshops and classes at Boise State University. What’s your favorite thing about teaching?
AH: That’s easy. I think most students have a story that they’re meant to tell. And most of them aren’t writing that story. I get to know the students, form relationships with them in ways that I can have conversations with them about how to find the story they’re meant to write. And seeing them light up at the prospect of being able to tell the story they’re meant to write. Being a writer, being artistic, is having the license to indulge any and all of your curiosities. The older we get, the harder it is to find space where anybody will say “I want you to indulge your curiosities.” As I remind them of that gift and how they need to be finding the thing that they find deeply interesting, it just changes the dynamic of the way they understand writing, and the way they understand themselves.
LS: What are you working on now?
AH: I’m working on a novel. And I’m trying to figure out exactly what it is. I think I know what it is. In a ballpark sense, and I’m fairly certain I know what it is in a precise sense. I know that there’s another great flood. A world-wide flood. The characters don’t know that. They just know that it keeps raining, that everything is flooded, that they’re drifting around the world trying to survive. Something that some people might call a war breaks out over some of the last remaining land: mountain peaks. I know at some point, one of the characters sprouts wings, which some people in the story, and some readers, will wrestle with the question, “Is that an angel?” I never use that term in the book. But then other people start spouting wings. I won’t say much more about it. I’m interested in the question: If everything is leveled, flooded over, and all of our politics and laws, churches and everything else is underwater, how will we behave? How will we begin to recreate ourselves, civilization? What will that look like? I’m wrestling with that right now, and I’m having a lot of fun.
LS: What have you read recently that’s moved you or changed how you come to the page?
AH: Two things: I’ve re-read a book called Being Dead by Jim Crace. I read it a long time ago and remembered liking it. The storytelling is very unique in that it starts in climax and works its way backwards. And the way the storytelling obsesses over ideas is very interesting, compelling to me. And the others are these big, sweaty Game of Thrones novels. I’m not writing my stories in the way he’s writing, but I’m completely fascinated by his storytelling and his ability to keep a story going, keep me deeply engaged. And I’ve probably learned as much about writing a longer work, of how to sustain narrative drive and interest, as much from Game of Thrones as from any other book I’ve read in a long time.
LS: If you were only able to share one piece of advice with other emerging writers, what would it be?
AH: I think when most people start off writing, it’s because they’ve found something moving, they’ve had something come to life inside their imagination. They have some notion that they’d like to try it themselves. They start off by imitating, which is great, it’s fine. We have to learn by imitating.
But there comes a point where they want to transition into becoming a writer, becoming an artist. And, so to them I always say not to be afraid to take yourself seriously. You need to get looking inward and asking questions about what makes you angry, what makes you scared, what makes you hopeful, what makes you swoon. No matter where you’re from, no matter what experiences you’ve had, you’ve experienced profound things. Those are the richest part of your human experience and the most potent weapons you’ll have as an artist.
Do not be afraid to take yourself seriously. You are not a cliché. The moment you decide to take yourself seriously, to look inward, is the exact moment you’ll stop imitating others and will become original.