Conversation on a Story: "A Suicide Gun"

A few days ago, I put a previously-unpublished story up on my website, "A Suicide Gun", and gave a little bit of background here. Somewhat to my surprise, a number of people read the story immediately and then asked questions. (I'm not being disingenuous about the surprise — it's not just a somewhat off-putting story, but it's also pretty long. I certainly hoped some people would read it, but I didn't expect anybody to get to it quickly.) The questions led me to think again about the story and what it's doing, and they also got me thinking more generally about how and why we read stories, and about the aesthetics of short fiction.

Thinking that some of those ideas might be helpful, interesting, provocative, or at least of passing interest to a few people, I decided to write up some of the questions and my responses in a kind of interview.

Note, given the subject matter here: 

If you are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 

1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential. 

Q: Surely you didn't exhaust every possible place to publish the story. Why publish it yourself now?

A: You might be surprised how few venues there are for literary short fiction of more than 5 or 6,000 words. This clocks in at almost 8,800 words. That reduces the markets significantly. But no, I certainly didn't send it everywhere that would have looked at it. Why bother? The kinds of places that would publish this story don't pay much, if any, money, and they don't have much circulation, so there really isn't much point to putting lots of effort into trying to get a story like this published just for the sake of getting it published. There are a handful of periodicals that I enjoy publishing with or would like to publish with; if a story gets rejected by them, or exceeds their length limits, or doesn't meet the theme of their upcoming issues, or whatever, then I don't feel any great motivation to shop the story around to other publishers that I have no investment in as a reader. I can put it on my own website and if five or six people read it, then that's about as many actual readers as I would have gotten if I'd published it in Nobody Ever Actually Reads This Quarterly

Q: Don't you want to support the small press, though?

A: As a reader, yes. And I do. I subscribe to more journals than I have time to read, switching up my subscriptions every year or two. (The one journal I subscribe to consistently is Conjunctions, and have for about twenty years now, I think.) I spend significant amounts of money buying books from small presses, usually directly from the publisher. I'm just saying that at this point in my life as a writer, I have limited patience for sending things out to one tiny venue after another when I can just as easily release the writing into the world myself and then forget about it. Really, that's my ultimate goal with publication — I'm not seeking love and attention and all that jazz, nice as they may sometimes be. Publication allows me to stop thinking about a text. It puts it out there in the world and I feel I can then move on. It's why I've kept this blog going for more than 17 years now, even as the audience has, quite understandably, diminished. Regardless of audience, the blog gives me a way to put words and ideas out there so they no longer obsess me. Even though I began writing "A Suicide Gun" a year and a half ago, and had started formulating it in my mind more than two years ago, it kept nagging at me, and the only way to make it stop was to release it into the world.

Q: Clearly, though, the story is still unresolved for you, because you're writing this interview.

A: Yes. What I discovered, releasing the story into the world, is that some of what was nagging at me in it was not finished by the story. Which may be part of the story's failure. Or also its suggestiveness.

Q: Do you think the story's a failure?

A: It is not a failure to me — it is the story I want it to be, it is finished, I'm not going to revise it, I'm actually quite satisfied with it. But the story is absolutely dissatisfying to many, if not most, readers. So in that sense, it is a failure, because while I shaped the story quite deliberately to be dissatisfying in some respects, I hoped that there would be other satisfactions to overcome the sense of dissatisfaction or even annoyance that I built into the story's structure. But it's just as likely that the story simply falls flat for most people.

Q: What do you mean by saying that the story's structure is built to be deliberately dissatisfying, even annoying?

A: The first part of the story sets up an expectation that this is going to be a straightforward, dramatized narrative. The scenes of Malcolm and Billy read like a one-act play. There's an energy to those scenes, a humor and weirdness and mystery. If readers like anything in the story, they seem to like that part, at least based on what people have told me. But then, systematically and deliberately, the story takes away what they like. 

Q: It takes away the, for lack of a better term, more dramatized narrative.

A: Right. It becomes more and more an interior monologue. It reduces both its perspective and its world. If I were to make a chart of this story, it would be an upside-down pyramid. It starts with an open sense of the world, an open narrative landscape, and then it brings us, the readers, into Malcolm's perspective more fully, and as we enter his perspective more fully, he is also narrowing his perspective. He's growing more and more paranoid, more and more isolated. He's stuck in himself and we're stuck there with him. The story has stopped being pleasurable or entertaining.

Q: Why should somebody read a story that is neither pleasurable nor entertaining?

A: They shouldn't. Unless it's for school or work or some obligation. Other than that, it's just self-punishment. However, it's possible that there are other pleasures than ones that are immediately apparent. And I really am just talking about pleasure here, not entertainment, which is different. Entertainment means a certain quality an experience possesses, and it's not a quality I think is always necessary. In most cases, I think we can judge whether something is entertaining pretty quickly, but pleasure is different. We tend to think of pleasure as feeling good, and that's a terrible flattening of its meaning, particularly when it comes to fiction. Richness of experience is also pleasurable, at least for some of us. I learned this reading Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! in college. I literally threw the book across my dorm room three times when I started reading it. It made me feel stupid, it exhausted me, I thought it was wasting my time, I hated it. Hated it. But something kept me going back to it, and eventually I figured out some of what it was up to, and it became one of the great reading experiences of my life. It has remained my favorite American novel ever since. Is it entertaining? No, not really. You've got to be a real nutball to finish Absalom, Absalom! and say, "Well, that was a fun read!" It's confusing, brutal, disturbing, unsettling, and depressing. It is also an extraordinary vision wrapped in some of the most magnificent prose ever written by an American. One page of that book has more in it than most novels that are published each year. The richness of the experience — of the vision, of the language — is the pleasure. But to feel that pleasure, you've got to gain access to the experience. Not everybody can, but that's true of every book, every movie, every art form.

Q: What, then, is the experience of "A Suicide Gun" that allows for pleasure?

A: That will depend on the reader. Even the small number of readers who find a rich experience within the story will likely find it in different ways.

Q: That feels like you're dodging the question. Surely, you had an experience in mind for the reader when you were writing, or else how would you shape the story, how would you know it was finished or worth sharing with anybody?

A: It's true that the story provides a rich experience for me when I reread it, but that may simply be because I am the writer. The words in a text create images and effects in our brains, and those images and effects rely on what we have previously read, thought about, lived through. My experience of the story is therefore going to be richer than most people's because I chose the words — they came from what I had previously read, thought about, and lived through.

Q: Okay, but what is that rich reading experience you have with the story?

A: For me, the richness of the story lies in the mystery of Malcolm's trajectory, the way his character develops and what that development suggests about his world and his perception of his world, which is quite skewed.

Q: That's one of the things that can be most annoying about the story. He's clearly got a problem, but it's hard to say exactly what that problem is. What is wrong with Malcolm?

A: I think that may be the most important question of the story. There's evidence for a few answers, but nothing conclusive. To have any chance of a satisfying experience of the story, readers have to decide for themselves what they think is wrong with Malcolm. Think of it this way: The best plays and movies, at least within the psychologically realistic mode, always leave room for actors to make some decisions about the characters' motivations and behaviors. It's true for any script of even the slightest depth, but the classic example is Hamlet. People have been arguing about Hamlet's motivations for centuries. Nonetheless, if you are cast as Hamlet, you have to make some decisions for yourself about what is going on with him, or else you will play the role vaguely, and that will be disastrously boring. Many people would say that a short story writer's job is to make choices as an actor would, thus presenting the story to the audience of readers. I prefer to think of myself more like a playwright (and a bit of a director) and to think of the reader as being in the actor's position.

Q: If the reader is in the actor's position, who's the audience?

A: The reader as well. Because what we do as readers is take marks on a page and translate them into performances in our minds. We are thus in two positions as we read: the interpreter-performer and the audience. (I don't want to carry this metaphor too far, because I think it probably collapses when made to bear too much weight. The metaphor serves my purpose here, but to dig more into reading, I'd point us to Peter Mendelsund's What We See When We Read.)

Q: It still feels like you're dodging the question, though. What are the possibilities for what is wrong with Malcolm?

A: At the risk of dodging some more, let me say that it's important to note that Malcolm is damaged before the first moment of the story begins. I'm confident in declaring that if you think Malcolm is basically okay at the beginning of the story, you are misreading it. Here's why: In many respects, it makes no sense that he goes to help Billy, a person he doesn't see often and maybe doesn't even like all that much. We have no reason to believe that Malcolm is some self-sacrificing saint of generosity. There are probably people he likes more than Billy, probably people he trusts more than Billy, but we don't see him helping them. We see him go to Billy, which is quite strange. What ought to be clear, though, is that he goes to Billy both to escape something and to seek something. What he's escaping and what he's seeking is entirely up for interpretation. But this is not a story of someone who starts out fine and goes a bit off his rocker. He is off his rocker from the first word. It's been building up for a long time. The story is not the story of the build-up, the story is the story of the collapse. Going to Billy is an act of desperation. I don't think Malcolm fully or consciously knows why he is desperate, or knows what he is escaping or what he is seeking, but we must not read the story as the tale of a good guy who goes to help his friend and gets somehow corrupted into madness. The fact is, Billy, for all his problems, is actually more stable than Malcolm. There's a certain irony in that. Billy is an alcoholic who has trouble holding down a job, who has often ruined things in his personal life (mostly because of his alcoholism). But he has a self-awareness that Malcolm lacks. He knows he's a mess, and he knows, for the most part, why he is a mess and what it's doing to his life. He hides very little. Malcolm, on the other hand, disastrously misidentifies his own problems and hides all sorts of things. I have great hope for Billy. I think he's going to get his act together, get sober again, and find some real joy in life. I can't say the same for Malcolm.

Q: Do you think Malcolm will commit suicide? Is that what the end is implying?

A: I wouldn't want to say one way or the other. Because I don't know. What I know is in the text.

Q: There's a character a little bit like Malcolm in your story "How Far to Englishman's Bay", and that character does kill himself. The title story of your collection, as well, has both murder by and suicide of people who love their guns. And then there's "After the End of the End of the World", where a fanatical character blows himself up, but could just as easily have used a gun, given his enthusiasm for them. Am I seeing a pattern here?

A: In the US, we basically have more guns than people, which leads to a lot of deaths by guns. As disturbing as the high number of gun homicides is, the number of suicides is higher. The majority of deaths by gun in the US are suicides. It is more realistic in a story to have someone kill themselves with a gun than to have them kill somebody else.

Q: What about Celeste, Malcolm's wife? It seems to me the story could have been just about Malcolm and Billy, their time together, but instead of continuing with that, you bring Malcolm back to Celeste and the story is as much, really, about his relationship with her as with Billy.

A: That's also something that bothers people about the story, particularly when they first read it, because the gravity of the situation with Billy in the first section makes it seem like the story is going to be about — should be about — Malcolm and Billy. But the story is equally about Malcolm and Celeste. I very deliberately made Celeste's name the first word of the story.

Q: Could we say, then, that what is wrong with Malcolm is his relationship with Celeste?

A: Clearly, his relationship with Celeste is messed up, but I think it's important to emphasize that everything we know about Celeste is filtered through Malcolm's perceptions. We get some extended conversations with Billy, and they're presented in a way to suggest that they are more or less separate from Malcolm's perception. Through those conversations, we get a sense of Billy beyond how Malcolm sees him, and we can judge Malcolm's perceptions against what we have seen of Billy in conversation. We have much less such evidence to separate Celeste from Malcolm's perception of her.

Q: Is Celeste part of what's wrong with Malcolm?

A: Certainly, Malcolm's perception of Celeste is part of what's wrong with him. Because Malcolm becomes consumed by paranoia. He perceives threats everywhere, and there's part of him that perceives Celeste as a threat but also a part of him that perceives Celeste as threatened, and he wants to rise to the status of her protector, her savior. He's falling back on an old and sexist social script, which is something that happens to plenty of ostensibly liberal and open-minded people when they get into some sort of crisis. Those social scripts have a deep hold on us. I would be skeptical of any interpretation of the story that does not take sexism and patriarchal attitudes into account. 

Q: The story seems to link guns not only with a desire for power but with desire generally.

A: It would be reductive but not inaccurate to say the story is about the erotics of guns. Erotics both in the sexual sense and the sense of desire more generally. And the erotics of guns can't be separated from the erotics of power. I've known plenty of people who have seemed to be using guns to compensate for a feeling of not having the power and control and prestige that they would like to have. Paranoia is also a common response to such feelings, and I've certainly known paranoid people who own personal arsenals — my father was one of them. As his sense of control and power in his life diminished, his paranoia grew. Paranoia gives us scapegoats. Rather than reflect on my own failures, I can blame somebody else. My life would be just fine if THEY weren't out to get me. It also provides a sense of importance. It's not that I'm an inconsequential person in a large country in a large world in an infinite universe. Rather, I'm important enough for the government (or the Illuminati or the aliens or whoever) to be keeping tabs on me. My family may think I don't count for much, but The Powers That Be know I do!

Q: What about the suicide guns, though? That attraction seems different.

A: With those particular guns, you have the mixed attraction of death, sex, and taboo. What, I wonder, would have been Malcolm's reaction if he had seen those guns when he first wanted to, when he and Billy were much younger? Would they have had the same power over him? Malcolm's feelings for those guns is not the same as Billy's father's feelings for them. There may be a few possible answers for why Billy's father kept them — clearly, they're tied to his wife's suicide, but also perhaps to a sense of discomfort, maybe conscious and maybe not, with his whole career of selling the tools of death — and the text doesn't offer any evidence one way or the other, really. Every character in the story who encounters them has a different reaction to the suicide guns. 

Q: And the title is "A Suicide Gun", pointing to one.

A: Originally, it was going to be "Suicide Guns". I stuck with that for a long time. Then, briefly, "The Suicide Gun". Too definitive. Went back to the original, but it didn't feel right. I like the sound of "Suicide Guns", the clarity of the two words, the balance of an S at the beginning and end. But ultimately I realized that the only possible title for the story is the one it now has. I've been fiddling with a new story collection manuscript, and had thought of calling it Suicide Guns, so was reluctant to give up on that title for the story, but then I realized that people thought the title of my previous collection, Blood: Stories, was too gruesome and depressing — even though "blood" refers to life and ancestry, not just gore — so I think I should probably abandon Suicide Guns as a title for the next one. (I'll probably go with The Last Vanishing Man instead.)

Q: Suicide guns are a real thing you have some experience with?

A: Tens of thousands of people kill themselves with guns each year, so yes, suicide guns are a very real thing. The first eighteen years of my life, I lived in a house attached to a gun shop, so I did get to see some suicide guns, not because my father collected them, but because people would bring them in to get them cleaned or to sell them. I remember three in particular, though only saw two of them. The first was a short-barreled rifle, and I'll never forget it, because it had flesh and gore inside the barrel. I don't know why my father showed it to me. I was pretty young, and maybe it was to impress on me the seriousness and danger of guns. Or maybe he just thought it was morbidly interesting. His job was to clean it and then sell it, which I know was not something he particularly enjoyed. It's possible the person he bought it from didn't tell him what it was, that he discovered it when he took the gun apart to clean it. I don't remember the circumstances, really, just the gun and looking down the barrel. The second one I saw was a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver that a good friend of my father's had used after he was diagnosed with cancer. My father had volunteered to clean and get rid of it for the widow, or at least that's what I remember. I remember that gun sitting on his desk in the front room of the house. I don't think he ever showed it to me directly, but I knew what it was. Then the third was one he told me about, later in his life. It was a gun he sold to a woman and then a week or two later she used it on herself. That really shook him. Her brother brought it back just to get rid of it, and my father was surprised that the brother didn't blame him more, or at all, just wanted to get rid of the gun. My father certainly blamed himself for not somehow seeing the woman's intentions, even though her intentions were probably nothing he could have seen, even if he had been trained to do so. He said again and again to me that she just seemed so normal, just like any other customer. He liked her enough that he remembered his conversation with her. And then her brother brought back to him the gun my father had sold her, the gun she used to kill herself. I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't sell it but destroyed it somehow, buried it out behind our house or something.

Q: Was this story influenced by other stories, writers, movies, anything?

A: Nothing that I'm consciously aware of, no. A little bit of James Purdy. Malcolm's name comes from Purdy, because I happened to be rereading Purdy's first novel, Malcolm, when I started writing the story, so I just stole the name. I'm always lazy about making up names for characters. My Malcolm has nothing to do with Purdy's Malcolm, though, it's just that I needed a name and the book was sitting there. There may be other echoes of Purdy in it, since that's who I was reading most enthusiastically at the time.

Q: What, after all is said and done, do you hope readers get from the story?

A: I hope they will feel that, whatever their ultimate assessment of the story, it did not waste their time to read it.

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