Darrin Doyle's first novel, Revenge of the Teacher's Pet: A Love Story (LSU Press), was described by the NY Times Book Review as “an original tale that earns its readers' trust, and breaks their hearts a little in the process.” Publisher's Weekly called his second novel The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo (St. Martin's Press) “relentlessly inventive.” Darrin's stories have appeared in Puerto del Sol, The Long Story, Alaska Quarterly Review, Laurel Review, Harpur Palate and other journals. He teaches at Central Michigan University.
Superstition Review Editor Christina Arregoces conducted this email interview with Darrin Doyle. She says of the experience, "I first came across the writing of Darrin Doyle when I read his unique short story 'Eyes.' Then I read 'The House on Eastern Avenue' and I couldn't help it—I read 'Mouth,' 'Neck,' and 'Foot,' and though every part of me wanted to go on reading every story of his that I could get my hands on, the only thing I wanted more was to be able to interview this talented author. Thankfully, I was given the opportunity to do just that when Mr. Darrin agreed, and I cannot thank him enough for his time and his answers. Flowing language, complex characters, an entirely original plot—Mr. Darrin not only incorporates each of these elements into his work, he masters them."
Superstition Review: In your short story “Eyes,” neither the wife who has received an eye transplant, nor her husband is named. However, in your short story “The House on Eastern Avenue,” your characters are named instantly. Why did you choose to keep some characters nameless? What does that add to the story?
Darrin Doyle: Those two stories have one thing in common: short length. Aside from this similarity, however, they're very different insofar as their modes and goals.
In the case of “Eyes,” the woman is known only by the pronoun “she.” The man is known only as “her fiancé and later, “her husband.” The first thing I should mention is that I was trying to evoke a dream-like quality, like V.S. Pritchett's concept of a short story as “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” I wanted to make this woman feel lighter than air, ethereal—even though the content of the story is actually quite grounded in realism. She and the man are intended to be presences, specters, rather than fully developed human beings. That's not to say I didn't want the woman to be somewhat complex in her motivations and psychology, but naming her would have suggested a broader palette for her emotional life—a larger palette than necessary for the story's purpose. The woman receives a pair of transplanted eyes, and so, for the first time since she was a toddler, she can see. She becomes fixated on the memories of three specific images from her childhood, and she tries to seek out these exact images now that she has regained her sight. I guess this could signify an attempt to re-capture lost youth or innocence, or it could signify an attempt to return to a moment before she was cast solely in the role of a wife to her husband. She does love him, but now that she has restored her vision, it's as if she feels the compulsion to re-set herself, to return to tabula rasa.
In the case of “House on Eastern Avenue,” I wanted to write a more conventional narrative of comic realism. Therefore, you get the middle-aged Jack and the overweight basset hound, Dilbert. Come to think of it, Jack's mother isn't named in this story. But there's nothing complicated about that decision: the story is in Jack's point-of-view, and he doesn't think of his mother by her first name.
SR: Many of your short stories—“Hand,” “Eyes,” “Mouth,” “Neck,” “Foot,”—are named after individual body parts. How did you decide on this theme?
DD: I originally wrote “Foot” about five years ago, and it honestly was a creepy experience. I wanted to begin with a surprising idea: “The man and woman didn't want him, but the baby came anyway.” This opening line just felt unnatural and mean, and I wanted to pursue it. So I was definitely going for dark and brutal from the onset, but I surprised myself with the bizarre turn it took. I like surprising myself, and so “Foot” spawned the concept of the “body part” stories.
Franz Kafka has long been one of my favorite writers, and I've always admired the casual, everyday oddness and humor of his short pieces. I was aiming for my own versions with these stories. Also, I've long been fascinated with body issues—deformities, injuries, diseases and so on. This probably traces back to seeing The Elephant Man as a boy; it gave me nightmares; I was terrified that I would wake up in the morning looking like him. Anyway, I decided that each piece would revolve around a single body part, and each would be strange and dreamlike and impressionistic, and the characters would never be named, and the stories would feature an abundance of lyrical language. My biggest stylistic goal, however, was simply to surprise myself with every line; I wanted each turn of phrase to sound amazing on its own. Come to think of it, I suppose this is a writer's goal every time he or she sits down to write; maybe it's more accurate to say that I wanted to never play it safe when it came to sentence structure, syntax, word choice, and so on. I wanted to see what I could get away with.
SR: Your short story “My Dead” deals with several macabre topics and images. Where did you draw your inspiration for the story?
DD: The impetus for that story isn't macabre at all. I was living in Cincinnati, and the neighborhood where I lived held an annual chalk-art contest. The contestants would chalk these huge, colorful pictures onto the surface of a street that had been closed to traffic. I was imagining a guy doing this on a blazing hot day (it gets very hot in Cincinnati). At the time, I was also very much into idiosyncratic narrative voices, in immersing the reader in a character's perspective that is so offbeat that the voice itself becomes a source of tension and discomfort. David Foster Wallace has an amazing story called “John Billy,” and this was very influential on a number of my stories of this nature.
The macabre material entered the story only after I asked myself what this guy would be drawing, and why he would be there, and why he would have such a freaky worldview. In the spirit of surprising myself and creating conflict, I made him unapologetically drawing a huge, anatomically correct, naked woman who also happens to be a corpse. Then of course I wondered why he would be doing such a thing. The answer: he's just been jilted by the girl in the picture, and this is his way of getting closure on their relationship, or punishing her, or punishing himself, or all of the above. And then I realized that of course this guy—being an out-of-shape bohemian artist alcoholic with an appetite for hallucinogens—would have a history of drawing ex-lovers as dead people and posting their pictures on telephone poles around the town. Comedy ensues!
SR: In your short story “Neck,” you use punctuation (specifically colons) both often and in a very unique way. Why did you decide to do this? What does it lend to your writing?
DD: Thanks for asking this question. I'd been working on that story for quite a while, months and months. (For those who haven't read it, it's only about 400 words.) I kept tinkering with it, refining it, honing it. I do this with every story, but this one kept eluding me. No matter what I changed, it just didn't sit right with me. I liked the characters, the situation, the setting, but whenever I read it, I came away feeling unsatisfied.
At the time, I had been teaching ten-minute plays in my introductory creative writing class. I've never written a play, but I've always enjoyed reading them. At any rate, I first thought about changing the story into a play format. For example:
Dad: Hi, Monica! Monica: Hi, Dad!
But then I had a brainstorm: “What if the first sentence of every paragraph began this way?”
I tried it, and the results were interesting:
The young boy's nose: whistled. The mother: lay atop her sleeping bag in the dark. Her eyes were open. We're all going to die someday, she said.
Adding the colons saved the story, in my opinion. Although it's probably not grammatically correct to use them in this way, they gave the story a lift. They injected the piece with the kind of “off-centerness” that those stories were thriving upon.
SR: What literary works inspire you most?
DD: I mostly read contemporary (the last fifty years or so) novelists and short story writers, and I gravitate toward books that aren't on any bestseller list. I think it's important to read a balance of men and women, white writers and writers of color, and so on. This isn't because of any urge to be politically correct; I just enjoy seeing all the various ways that storytelling raises issues about who we are as human beings. My favorite books tend to be ones that are funny (but not exclusively so), dark, and risky either in style or content.A few of my favorite authors right now are Kathryn Davis, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Shirley Jackson, Percival Everett, Ha Jin, and Joy Williams.
I also love to go back to the classics, too—Nathanael West, James Baldwin, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, and Flannery O'Connor, to name a few.
SR: In your short story “Foot,” you use a lot of dark, beautiful imagery and detail. Describe your process for creating images. How do they come to you?
DD: First of all, thanks. I appreciate that you find the imagery beautiful and dark. There's still a paragraph in that story that unsettles me whenever I read it. It's the passage that ends with “When he opened his mouth, great waves rushed forth to blacken the world.” I have no idea where that story or its imagery came from, but I'm glad these grim ideas came out in my fiction rather than, say, kicking a squirrel or something on my way to work. Just kidding, I would never kick squirrels; only chipmunks.
The simple truth is that I write what I write. What I mean is that I'm not exactly sure where my ideas come from.I think most artists are sponges who soak up small puddles of observation and conversation and experience without hardly noticing that it's happening. But then all this daily flotsam comes out. It seeps onto the page, or the canvas, or the guitar, or whatever medium we use. When I sit down to write a story, I don't have any plans or agenda. I simply try to entertain myself and push my characters and stay faithful to the world that I'm depicting.
My process for creating images, if it can be called a process, is full immersion in whatever fiction I'm trying to make believable to the reader. Put it this way: In my first graduate workshop with Stuart Dybek, I received my story back from Stu with scribbles covering the opening page. I'm not exaggerating; it was like his pen had exploded all over the paper; I could hardly see my original prose. I had waltzed into class so proud of myself, so proud of the clever and flowery ways I had described the setting and characters. But it was all wrong; I was favoring the showy turns-of-phrase above accuracy and clarity. Stu's evisceration of my story ended up being the best thing for me, which is probably why I still remember the experience 15 years later. One of the phrases he wrote in the margins was “You're over-describing, but you aren't seeing clearly.”
I didn't fully understand what he meant at the time, but now I do. For someone like me, who loves the sounds of words and who tends to fall in love with pretty-sounding phrases, it's easy to get carried away and to prioritize the music of the language over the viability of the image or the accuracy of the metaphor. The imagery that I use in “Foot” and “Hand” and the others in the body part series represent what I hope is a balance between reality and fabulism that takes the reader—even momentarily—beyond language and into the realm of dream.
SR: In your short story “Foot,” about a mother sacrificing her own foot for her son, you end the story on a rather haunting thought by the mother. Why did you choose to end on that thought? How do you know when a story is finished?
DD: Endings are so difficult. They're difficult to write, and they're probably impossible to teach. Once in a while, an objective reader can help by telling you, “Cut this last paragraph,” or “Switch these last two sentences around,” and suddenly you go, “Yes, that's a great way to end it!” But that doesn't happen very often, unfortunately, and as writers we're left on our own to determine what the final moment or image should be. That's a lot of pressure. No wonder we get paid the big bucks (insert sarcasm emoticon).
I do, though, tend to agree with Flannery O'Connor's idea that the end should involve some gesture from the protagonist—to paraphrase O'Connor, a gesture that is both in-character and out-of-character; one that is both surprising and yet totally inevitable. This isn't any easy feat, and I'm not saying that I've accomplished it by any means. However, that line by the mother at the end of “Foot” might fit this criterion. She is, after all, the boy's mother. And so she doesn't want to rule out a future chance at connecting with her son, however destructive and unsettling that gesture of connection might be.
SR: In addition to your short stories, you have also written books such as The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo and Revenge of the Teacher's Pet: A Love Story. How different is the process of writing a novel compared to writing a short story? Did your novels originate as short story ideas?
DD: The difference between writing a short story and writing a novel is like the difference between thinking you are pregnant and actually being pregnant.
In the first scenario, it's intense. It's either euphoric or terrifying, depending on your circumstances and desires. There might be a week or two of nervousness and trepidation, and in the end you're left questioning what happened and how you got so lucky or unlucky and what you might have done differently and what if so-and-so actually had been the father or mother of my child and so on. Lots of high-blown emotions and residual questioning of life and love and purpose and destiny.
In the second scenario, your emotions are up and down for months. You live with the situation every day until it actually feels commonplace. One day you're happy as hell; the next day you're terrified, convinced that you simply aren't prepared. And while you may receive steady assurances from obstetricians and nutritionists and midwives that you are doing everything correctly and your baby will be wonderful—well, you simply cannot be sure. Your brain won't stop believing that something terrible has gone wrong or is currently going wrong or will go wrong during the final act. Then one glorious day that baby with ten fingers and ten toes and a healthy urinary system sploops out and gazes up at you with big wide eyes and you breathe a humongous sigh of relief and shed some tears and say, “Wow. I did it!” And then the real work begins…
SR: In an interview with the blog pHd in creative writing, you describe the grind of being a writer. Describe your writing practice? What techniques do you use to overcome the difficulties of writing?
DD: Raymond Carver's essay “On Writing” mentions a sentence that he wrote on a 3x5 card and taped to his wall: Write a little every day, without hope and without despair. Back when I began writing seriously, I was so nerdy that I taped a 3x5 with this sentence to the wall above my desk. The card isn't there anymore, but I still try to live this advice. Even if I'm only re-reading some fragment of a story that I started, or rearranging a few words, or correcting punctuation—even if I'm only doing these small things, I count this as writing, and I try to do it every day. Or, more accurately, every night. I'm a night owl.
SR: What are you currently working on?
DD: I've got a new novel that's finished and I'm hoping will see the light of day.I don't want to say too much about it, for fear of jinxing anything.
I've also started another book that takes place in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan and revolves around the murder of a local teenage girl. This particular “pregnancy,” however, is still very much in the “terrified, convinced that you simply aren't prepared” stage that I described above, so I don't have much to disclose about it, unfortunately.