"Holding Hands for Safety" is in my collection of stories The Smallest People Alive, available on Amazon...
L. A. Fields, a sweet and kind MFA student from Chicago, messaged me about answering a few questions she had about what I do fiction-wise for a class she's in. Here goes...
I looked up the anthology where I first found “Holding Hands For Safety” (in Men on Men 7) and found a review calling your story “fierce and funny,” which is not at all the impression I got (it seems very quiet and serious to me). How would you characterize this story? Or at least what is the impression you hoped to give with it?
It’s both funny and sad to me, and I don’t think you can have either in a story like that without both humor and tragedy working at the same time together to get you through. That said, I also think the class aspect of everything I write can sometimes be misinterpreted as insouciance and “black comedy,” when really it’s just the way people live, point-blank. Poor people, like rich people, have beautiful idiosyncrasies – it’s just that rich people often have more elaborate and intricate ways of hiding those idiosyncrasies, or to transform them into sweet little eccentricities. When Flannery O’Connor talked about why many of her stories featured “white-trash” people, she said something about how many of her characters are stripped of manners and decorum, and that allows the reader to look into their souls. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist. And I think in “Holding Hands for Safety,” all the characters are stripped down to their essences to the point you have access to their souls, and while those souls might be a little ugly and a little worn out, they are beautiful souls none-the-less, especially the souls of the three main characters: the teenaged gay narrator, his punk step-cousin, and the six-year-old girl the step-cousin kills.
You said in an interview with Donald Ray Pollock that you’ve written another novel since The Life I Lead—would you mind telling me what it’s about, and if it’s any closer to finding a home?
Actually it’s Holding Hands for Safety turned into a novel, funny enough. I opened up the story to include many other points of view (including Courtney and Troy), and what happens after the murder. It’s going around now to different places. No good news, yet. Or maybe ever. But I keep trying. That’s the essence of all this stuff: you can’t get deterred. I have a draft of another novel I’m working on now called Johnson City Divas. It’s a homage to James M. Cain and other noir writers. It’s kind of like Mildred Pierce spliced with Jean Genet. A middle-aged drag-queen who lives in Johnson City, Tennessee is one of the central characters. I liked the idea of going with a plot-driven gig for a change. In The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, Cain’s plots have both an artificial dexterity and a weird existential necessity. It’s the nexus between reality and phoniness where murderers live. A lovely place for a story.
Having written both novels and short stories, which do you enjoy writing best? Are there differences in how you approach long and short pieces of fiction?
I like writing short stories, but then I get sick of them because I want the terrain of a planet instead of the intimacy of a condo. But they go well together, and most of the novels I write come from the short stories. They intermingle. And some of my favorite novels, actually, read like collections of interrelated short stories. The best I’ve read recently: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.