Q: What prompted you to write this particular story? Is any part of it autobiographical?
A: Nothing in it is really autobiographical, and certainly not the major things, like character or plot. At least I hope I’m nothing like Casey. I first got the idea for the basic plot when a friend told me a story from his rough-and-tumble New Jersey adolescence. Apparently he and some of his friends got in a fight in a restaurant parking lot with some guys from a private high school, and the way he described it, the fight was just terrifically violent, more terrible and frightening than anything I could imagine experiencing in my own youth. Of course he could have been exaggerating. But the imagery of his narrative really stayed with me, as did the fact that he couldn’t remember why they had fought–I thought that was amazing, very indicative of where and how he grew up–and so I tried to write a story about it. But since I focused on the kids who were fighting, the story became just a boring bit of violent imagery, and writers can’t really compete with television and film in terms of vivid violence. Then a few months later I was on a road trip, and I stopped to eat at a restaurant outside of Scranton, and I started paying attention to the manager of the place. He generally fit the description of the character who would later become Casey–a very by-the-book kind of person, I thought–and I wondered what would happen if my friend’s high school rumble took place in this manager’s parking lot. He seemed so competent and organized, I was sure he knew every single detail about how to run the restaurant according to its headquarters’ rules and regs, but I had to wonder–and doubt–how well he would have handled things if he had to improvise, if he was called on to act independently and morally. It seemed to me that overdependence on rules and regulations could cause other parts of you–your more instinctive, human parts–to atrophy a little. So then I realized I had the perspective I wanted, and I started to tell his story as a short work, and it gradually grew into something longer, since the manager had to figure out how his seemingly infallible system of behavior had failed him.
Q: What kind of research did you do prior to writing it?
A: Well, I worked in a chain restaurant after college, so I drew on that a little. Mostly that helped me with some little specifics–the sights and sounds of the kitchen, the way the waitress zones are set up, the decorations on the walls, the scheduling things, et cetera. Once I got the idea for the book I spoke with a couple chain restaurant managers about the general way the places are run; I never told them I was writing a book, and they often seemed pretty suspicious, but I also found that they were enormously polite. For questions about medical issues I talked to a friend of mine who is a doctor. Many of his answers boiled down to the fact that the brain is an extremely unpredictable organ, and that no one can really say much with certainty about brain damage. This was a good thing to discover, as a fiction writer. The part where I thought research would come in the most handy was in capturing the landscape and the general feel of northeastern Pennsylvania, so I spent some time just hanging around the area, trying to see if there was anything about the accents or the weather I needed to know. Primarily I was interested in getting a sense of the small townships that are sort of hanging on; they’re very economically troubled places, because of failing natural resource industries, and they’re nestled in among some majestic scenery. The forests and tall hills are even more awesome and strange in the winter. And most of the details about the high schools and teenagers in general I learned from being a high school teacher for four years.
Q: The novel brings up some large questions, in particular whether we are morally obligated to act, regardless of the risk to ourselves, when we see something that we know to be wrong. When you were writing, were you primarily concerned with the development of large themes?
A: I had some grandiose ideas about theme at the beginning, but I found pretty early on that trying to imagine and bring to life the characters, and trying to sustain a vivid and cohesive plot, took up most of my energies. During the writing process, I wasn’t ever chewing on my pencil, thinking large thoughts about Aquinas, although I did read him and some other moral philosophers during my off hours. It’s important to at least think about some of the issues that your work seems to be approaching, and it’s important to be familiar with how your themes have been treated by wiser people. So of course I think it’s good for literary fiction to engage in philosophical ideas, and for the writer to be aware of their presence and development. I was very worried about the dangers of this, though; I really didn’t want to write the kind of book where it’s immediately clear what kind of books the author was reading–“He must have just finished Boethius when he wrote Chapter Ten,” that kind of thing. I was hoping, in the end, to imbue the novel with certain questions, certain things to consider about to what extent we are obliged to involve ourselves in the world, to what extent we are responsible to respond to things that we see, and to what extend modern life dulls our instinct to behave morally. And Lea’s story has some ideas of its own, some related to Casey’s, some not. But the first thing was to tell the story and to understand the characters, and I think if you focus on that, and continue reading and thinking when you’re not writing, the thematic elements will be there.
Q: Tell us about the decision to include two protagonists, with two perspectives, rather than just limiting things to either Casey or Lea.
A: Lea came later, and the decision to do that came after I’d written about four chapters of Casey’s story. Some of my reasoning was rational and practical, and some of it was just instinctive. For one thing, I felt that the reader needed another perspective to see this story through, because Casey’s perspective is so subjective. Many novels that contain highly subjective perspectives–most first-person novels–have protagonists that the reader is supposed to generally side with, love and admire, or at least pity, et cetera. And Casey is not an easy person to root for in some respects. I hope the reader comes to understand him and like certain things about him, or at least accept him as a realistic, interesting person, but he does a bad thing early on, and the reader is not really going to be on his side one hundred percent. So I wanted to look at the events from another point of view, in part to give some kind of relief from the subjectivity of Casey’s experience, even if it meant entering into another character’s subjectivity. I should say, I don’t think it’s a matter of shifting from a likeable character to an unlikeable one, though–in both these people, I think there are things to admire and things to detest. But to add some richness to the story, and to add another perspective on the fallout of the Friday night, it seemed natural to include the one other character, besides Colin, whose life would be completely altered by the fight. It also seemed natural, once I started developing Lea, to have her be somewhat conflicted about what happened, and to feel some guilt for being conflicted. I certainly didn’t want her just to be a grieving mother, so she became a mother who wasn’t sure she had a right to the grief, since she hadn’t really loved her son the way she thought she should have. Her inner conflict seemed like a kind of match for Casey’s.
Q: The narrative perspective, while not first person, is limited to two very different people. Were there difficulties involved in sticking with these perspectives, especially since one of them–a middle-aged woman–must be somewhat removed from your experience?
A: I thought Casey’s perspective was harder than Lea’s, actually, since we just share nothing in common. Although again, I hope I’m not just flattering myself. His need for order and precise guidance, his upbringing, his relationship with money and work–most of his attributes are just not at all a part of my character. I don’t really know how I would have acted if I’d been in his position during the fight, but if I had acted badly it would have been for a whole other set of reasons. And since he’s superficially like me, in terms of ethnicity and gender and age, I had to guard against slipping my traits into him, I had to consistently think about what he would think and do, not what I would. With Lea I was a little worried about writing a woman’s perspective inaccurately, giving her thoughts that simply wouldn’t be in the head of a middle-aged, upper-middle-class mother. But of course you can’t think that way when you’re writing, or when you’re reading. I think it’s very, very rare that anyone can accurately say “A woman would never do that.” I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable saying “A man would never do that.” There are a lot of different kinds of men and women out there, and no one knows all of them. Anyway, the hardest part was figuring out how to portray her feelings as a parent, since I don’t have any kids. When I was writing this many of my friends had babies, and it became clear that the feeling of parenthood is something that can’t really be described. But it also made me think that, as much as new parents feel enormous love for their children, perhaps that love is finite for some people, and the reserves of it can run dry in time. I wondered about a person who was generally good and sane, who had once felt massive love for her child, yet who had simply run out of it, who couldn’t feel love for her son anymore because he had turned into something terrible to her. I just believed that this had to happen to some people, even though I’ve never even experienced parenthood. That’s the thrill and the challenge of it all, of course, using your imagination like that.
Q: Is this book representative of the kind you tend to write, or that you’d like to write in the future?
A: It contains some basic elements of the kind of fiction I like to read, and therefore the kind of fiction I tend to write. It has a plot that, I hope, moves along with some propulsion and interest, and it has characters that are complex and vivid to me, and the whole package brings up some ideas that I think are interesting to consider. That’s a pretty vague and not very original definition of literary fiction, of course, but there are a lot of books that don’t see plot as an important player. I’m never going to write a book that is not in some way dramatically structured. I’m not comfortable just making up some characters and sending them on a road trip or putting them in a room or something. Some writers and teachers will advise you to focus almost exclusively on character development, the idea being that, if the people are fully realized, they will take care of the action themselves. But I think it’s artistically valid to worry about plot construction and the creation of forward momentum, and I enjoy doing it. Character development is primary, of course, but I like fiction that accepts the human need for suspense in storytelling. In terms of what I may do differently in the future, at some point I want to write a lighter work, not necessarily a comic novel, but perhaps one that doesn’t begin with something as serious as a teenage boy getting brain damage. There wasn’t much room for levity in this novel, because of the way the story is structured, and because the tone I decided on just didn’t leave much room for it, but I like to write in a lighter vein sometimes.
Q: You now teach creative writing at Missouri State University, and you were a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so you seem to have involved yourself in creative writing as an academic discipline. Has the experience of teaching and studying creative writing greatly influenced your work?
A: Maybe I’ve been influenced by writing classes, but I’m not sure how much. At Iowa I mostly learned self-discipline; the director really made you feel like you were wasting your life if you weren’t writing three hours a day, and some part of me still believes that. And I read a lot when I was there, and found out what kind of things I needed to study. I swear there were people at Iowa who wouldn’t talk to you if they found out you’d never read Chekhov. I remember a few technique things from my classes, but most of what I got out of the workshop came from other places. As a teacher of creative writing, I deal with craft issues that I wish someone had taught me when I was younger–the definition of sentimentality, the dangers of metaphors, the problem of originality. Not that I have any of those things mastered, but they’re just not the things I worry about when I sit down to write. Reading a number of student works helps me clarify some of what I believe about fiction, though, and that probably carries over into my own work.