Taylor Campbell: Okay, I have to ask — what did you think when you both received my email invitation to submit to THIS.?
Shasta Grant: I remember asking Chris, “Do you think he knows we’re married?” I really didn’t know if it was a coincidence that you asked us both to submit, but Chris felt fairly certain you knew we were married.
Campbell: It was a complete coincidence, actually. I had no idea the two of you were related until you mentioned his name in an email. Is this the first time you’ve been published in the same magazine together?
Grant: Yes, it’s the first time. I hope not the last, though.
Campbell: I imagine each of you has a literary forte. Whose is what?
Grant: I write short stories and memoir. Poetry kind of scares me.
Chris Huntington: To me, Shasta specializes in these beautiful micro-stories, almost like black-and-white art photography. They’re completely “realistic,” whatever that means, and even when she’s telling a big story (like the memoir of her mother)(a story which covers, really, several generations of women and also the state of New Hampshire, and huge subterranean levels of parenthood and abandonment and identity formation), even then, she does it with scenes that seem fully-formed in themselves. You don’t really need to know the before or after for her scenes to work. They just do.
I think I’m at my best when I can convey that my head is made of lightning and what’s on the page is just rain. There’s more where that came from. When I’m at my best, there’s a whole life story in every paragraph; it’s clear that there is more to everything. All the feelings are mixed. But the end result is life-affirming. Or at least, I hope it is.
Campbell: What is your favorite published piece written by your spouse, and why?
Grant: I’d probably say Chris’s Modern Love essay in The New York Times: “Learning to Measure Time in Love and Loss.” He covers so much, so beautifully, in such a small space. It’s about nothing and everything at the same time, which is to say it’s about life. That’s so hard to do. We were lucky to be home for Christmas, in Indianapolis, when it was published. So we went to Starbucks together, with our son, and bought the paper, along with hot chocolate. It was fun to celebrate it like that together.
Huntington: I think I like this triptych she did in the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts the best. It’s not like her normal stuff; it’s not like what I just described as her forte, for instance. But I like it because it’s so honest and it’s kind of like Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”—I think he said he wasted four novels on that story because he put in all these ideas he’d been kind of saving. Shasta’s piece makes the reader work a bit, but it’s really not too hard to see a lifetime of hurt and wonder in it.
Campbell: It’s interesting — those particular pieces are what prompted me to reach out to each of you. Your Modern Love essay, Chris, and your “Inmate 31349” tryptych, Shasta. Let’s talk about your writing processes. Do they differ?
Grant: I don’t know that I have a special process. I write. I revise. I repeat this process until the piece feels done. Then I try to set it aside for a while because often times it’s not done. I’m a big fan of a shitty first draft. I print drafts out as I go and write the date in the corner and then keep all those drafts in a folder. I know it’s not helping the trees but the process of reading and revising on paper is entirely different from reading on the computer screen. I have a few trusted reader friends, including Chris, and I’ll give drafts to them for feedback. I try to do this when I feel the piece is mid-way – I don’t want to send them the shitty first draft, but I also don’t want to send what feels like a finished draft either, because I’m less receptive to feedback at that point. So I read the comments, usually sit with them for a few days or maybe longer, and then revise again.
It’s strange, but I don’t really know much about Chris’s process. I write during the day, when he’s at work, and he writes at night, when I’m zoned out in front of the TV. I think he tends to hold onto things longer than me – before asking for feedback.
Huntington: Process doesn’t really describe what I do, which is a kind of practiced luck. My writing life, these days, is a nocturnal thing, after everyone else is in bed. I wish I could write in the daylight the way Shasta does. I’m much more productive when I haven’t already been awake for fifteen hours. My writing time, unfortunately, only comes after I’ve dealt with all my students and washed all the dishes, taken the trash out, marked some papers, etc. It’s an old story. As Jim Harrison pointed out, Dostoyevsky wrote his books with a lot worse and busier days than most MFA graduates. I still see it as a fertile field of complaint, however.
Campbell: At the moment, what themes would you say characterize your work?
Grant: Right now, in my fiction, I find myself writing a lot about class tension. I’m also intrigued by religion, and the role it plays or doesn’t play, in the lives of my characters. As far as memoir, I’m primarily writing about my mother, who died ten years ago. I keep circling back around to various questions: what does it mean to be a mother? A daughter? Can we ever really know our parents? Should we dig into the past?
Huntington: I think a lot about fatherhood and race because I feel so powerless in the face of both. Everything I have written in the last three years seems to have been about one or both of these topics.
Campbell: Let’s talk about that. Your family is tri-racial, isn’t it? Has this informed or influenced your writing?
Grant: Our son was born in Ethiopia; he’s black. I’m white. Chris is mixed-race (Chinese and white). I think this has influenced his writing more than mine. I’ve written one short essay about having a black son and maybe at some point, I’ll write more. I think and talk about race frequently but I haven’t yet figured out how to write about it.
Huntington: It’s not even being tri-racial as much as being personally tied to the conversation of blacks and whites in America. I have been mixed race my whole life, but as my son pointed out to me, “Chinese and white are the same.” They’re not really, but both are in some ways dominant cultures and do not have to fight the same institutional and social prejudices that American blacks face.
Campbell: Chris, you begin your poem “On Seeing a Man Die in the Bangkok Airport” with the words,
Ten years of prison told me that the blond man
with surfer abs and tan arms—
well, I felt little, if anything.
That early in the poem, my curiosity is piqued. Later, you mention “ten years of prison” a second time. Can you explain the significance of this phrase?
Huntington: When I moved back to Indiana, I took a job in the prison system teaching high school drop-outs, and I did that for about ten years. I wrote a novel called Mike Tyson Slept Here, based in part on the prison where that boxer famously did his time. Some of my co-workers kid me that I start a lot of stories with the same phrase: “When I was in the prison...” It’s probably true. When we left the prison system, one of my co-workers self-diagnosed himself as having PTSD. He’d worked there for 25 years or something and felt it had done undeniable damage to his core. I worry about that sometimes. I know I’m not as nice as I used to be.
Campbell: When you witnessed the scene that you describe in “On Seeing a Man Die in the Bangkok Airport,” did you think that you would write about it? Or did you later draw on the memory?
Huntington: I was writing a lot of poems then, but also I felt it was something that, if I didn’t write about it, I would forget it —which seems crazy, but that’s how life is. If it’s not part of your day-to-day life, you erase it. It doesn’t fit the narrative. Kind of like the way you forget a dream when you wake up. The details just don’t seem to make sense, so you can’t retain them.
Grant: Can I also chime in here? When this happened, I knew immediately I wanted to write about it – I started talking about it with Chris once we were on the plane. I did write a flash fiction piece centered on the incident that was not any good and I didn’t submit it anywhere. I’m so glad Chris wrote his poem – it is much better than my story could have ever been.
Campbell: Chris, a few stanzas stood out to me from among your three poems in our inaugural, and I’m wondering if you could comment on them:
It chilled me, to think I would never see him with
a beard this white.
But sometimes I think about this little boy getting
old without me
and then I feel like the earth is a broken bell
Life goes on
in better places than my body, which is
after all a selfish knot of meat.
These stanzas are each from different poems. They resonate with me, I think, because my wife and I are expecting a child in June—our first—and I’ve been contemplating my own brevity recently. How has your approach to writing changed since becoming a father? Do you believe parenthood affects every writer’s craft and content?
Huntington: I don’t think it changes everyone. My friends who were parents warned me: “Oh, when you have kids, you don’t have time to be selfish. The kids just take priority” or “I didn’t really know what love was until we had our baby.” That kind of thing. And yet, clearly, having a kid does not flip an inner moral switch and make everyone unselfish. If it did, people would complain less about their own mothers and fathers. Hollywood and literature are full of paternal resentment (“I’m your father, Luke”). Grimm Fairy Tales are full of spite about cruel mothers.
I went on a five day trip to India this fall, and my son got up at four in the morning to hug me in the dark and ask me not to go. He was crying. And I thought: “#$@#, he misses me. Already. No one ever cries about me.” And that’s probably part of why I worry so much about it. My apologies to Shasta, but she never misses me like that. She didn’t get up at four in the morning to cry and ask me not to go.
I feel it as a responsibility. I hope you do, too, Taylor. It’s been so great, to be a dad. But I also feel, for various reasons we’ve touched on above, that I may be just a few years away from complete failure as a father. I can’t protect my son from all the forces in the world that will tell him he doesn’t belong or that he doesn’t belong with me, with us. Or that he’s dangerous, or that he’s a stain of some kind, or that drugs are a good idea (there are my ten years in the prison). I’m sure every parent feels this worry (to some degree). I know some unhappiness is just a part of the world, but if our son is truly in pain someday— inside, as part of who he is— then I’ll more or less wish I’d never been born, and I don’t know that this is a good trade in a life. I worry. I write.
Campbell: Shasta, your short story “Don’t Ever Change” reads like a personal essay. The voice, the emotion, the detail—everything’s quite vivid. I wonder how much of it reflects your own personal experience? Do you identify with a particular character in the piece?
Grant: I grew up in a town similar to Josh’s. The story was inspired by my own 20-year high school reunion this past fall, which I wasn’t able to attend. Very few people from out-of-town ended up going to the reunion, which got me thinking about people who stay and people who go. Obviously I’m one of the people who left, as I live in Singapore now, but I’ll always have a nostalgia for my hometown and sometimes I think about what would have happened if I had stayed there. And I wonder about what those two groups of people think about each other. I spent a lot of time thinking about high school and reunions and yearbooks – and the way we tell each other not to change but of course most people do, and should, grow and change from that person they were at 18 years old. I identify a little bit with Josh, in his desire to see what else is out there, and how he sort of thinks of himself as an island, but I’m much less of a jerk than him!
Campbell: Readers might ascribe the voice of “Don’t Ever Change” to someone who possesses no more than a high-school education. It’s not complicated or verbose. The diction is organic and readable. It complements your main character. Is this intentional? Why did you decide to use the voice of a man?
Grant: Yes, this was intentional. Josh didn’t attend college – that probably wasn’t an option for him, or something he would have even been interested in doing. I wanted to tell the story in a voice different from my own. The story was always a man’s—it started with the idea of this guy who felt he really knew himself because he understood he wasn’t good at relationships but he was good at being single. And it grew from there.
Campbell: Becky comes up at different points throughout the story. Each time, her presence evokes a sort of discomfort and uncertainty in me about how I should perceive Josh. What exactly is her character supposed to represent to readers? Can you divulge more about her significance to the main character?
Grant: Becky represents that kid in your high school who was mercilessly teased for no good reason—the kid with no friends. For Josh, she’s sort of a baseline barometer of success. The fact that she is looked at as more successful than him (because she’s married, because someone loves her) makes him uncomfortable. In a way, he feels like he did her a favor all those years ago in the boy’s bathroom, by noticing her. He doesn’t want Becky to waste her time worrying about what other people think about her now. Josh thinks he’s doesn’t care whether other people notice him, or care about him, but obviously he does. Part of him probably would have liked to drive Becky off into the sunset. At least for a little while.
Campbell: This final question is for both of you. Every interviewer, I think, is obliged to ask it when speaking to a writer — what book do you wish you had written?
Grant: Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I love everything about this book.
Huntington: There is a story—I think it’s from a movie version of The Three Musketeers— D’artagnan is a prisoner and going to be executed. Richelieu comes and asks if D’artagnan has any last requests. D’artagnan looks up from a piece of paper:
“Can I finish what I’m writing?”
“Certainly,” Richelieu says. “What is it?”
D’artagnan says, “The History of France, Monsieur. I’ve just started.”
When I read your question, I couldn’t think of a book I admire—The Brothers Karamazov, Slaughterhouse Five, The Sun Also Rises—without also remembering that the authors are dead. I would rather be alive than to have written any book. To answer your question: I’d like to have written something that hasn’t been written yet, but which I’ve just started. I’ll let you know when I’m done.