Welcome to a new semi-regular feature on the 9L blog, 5 (or so) Questions. The concept is simple: we ask our contributors five or so questions about their work appearing in Ninth Letter. First up is Bryan Furuness, whose story "Man of Steel" can be found in the current issue (vol. 6, no. 1).
In "Man of Steel," ten-year-old Revie seeks solace in his imagination, and in his love of superheroes, after his mother abandons him and his father. Revie is convinced that he can avoid further heartbreak if he listens to his own internal warnings. Of course, they're not as easy to decipher as he first thought.
9L: At one point in the story, Revie is remembering his mother before she left and says, “That was back when my father didn’t mind strangeness so much.” By the time we see Revie’s father in the story, he seems to fear what an active imagination could mean for his son’s well being. How did you decide on Revie’s particular strangeness?
BRYAN FURUNESS: While none of the events of this story are drawn from “real life,” I have to admit that the character of Revie is pretty much me as a kid, amplified only slightly. I was a spaz with an overgrown imagination and more than a few compulsions. Did I ever, like Revie, slam a dictionary onto my own head? No. Not that I remember. My compulsions weren’t so violent, but were (unfortunately) more public and embarrassing. Like my throat-singing period in middle school, for instance. For a while, I made these whale sounds in the back of my throat, believing that no one else could hear them until finally the kid next to me in Mrs. Moscowitz’s social studies class said, “Dude, would you cut that out? I’m trying to read.” And that’s when I found out I couldn’t stop.
9L: In a lot of ways, “Man of Steel” seems like a story that could only happen in the Midwest. You live in Indiana. Is it important for you to represent the Midwest in your fiction and particularly this story?
BF: In one of the more stinging passages from Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor lays into a group of writers at a conference. “With the exception of one story,” she says to these poor souls who’d sent her their stories before the conference, “there was practically no use of the local idiom . . . All the addresses on these stories were from Georgia or Tennessee, yet there was no distinctive sense of Southern life in them. A few place-names were dropped, Savannah or Atlanta or Jacksonville, but these could just as easily have been changed to Pittsburgh or Passaic without calling for any other alteration in the story. The characters spoke as if they had never heard any kind of language except what came out of a television set.”
I don’t know if this story could only have happened in the Calumet Region—after all, any kid anywhere could lose his mother and react in weird ways—but my hope is that the telling of this story, from the language to its “texture of existence,” as Miss O’Connor puts it, is purely of the region.
9L: One of the first things that struck me about “Man of Steel,” was the intimacy of the voice, which made it feel almost like a nonfiction piece at times. Did it take you time to find Revie’s voice or did it come easily?
BF: Well, nothing about writing comes easily for me. But I can say that voice is something I really like to think about and play with, and it's usually the first element of a story to come to me. That's how it worked with the Revie stories—but the voice that came to me first belonged to the mother. She’s got a sprawling imagination—way bigger than Revie’s—and she likes to make up games and stories, including Bible stories that she calls the lost episodes of Jesus Christ. I remember that I was driving along 465, the highway around Indianapolis, when her first lost episode popped into my head. “Growing up, Jesus and Lucifer were best friends. They went to the same school, where they both ran track. They made mostly B's. Lucifer could wing a baseball so fast only Jesus could catch it. They had that brooding look down cold. People called them two peas in a pod, brothers separated at birth, you know.” I was like, Eureka! Then I whipped across three lanes of traffic and parked in the EMERGENCY STOPPING ONLY area so I could write those words down on an old receipt before I lost them.
I just realized that I made it sound easy there, didn’t I? Like I take dictation from the schizzy voices in my head. So, okay, voices or story lines arrive like that about 1% of the time, but the rest of the time it’s a long, hard slog. A joyful, challenging, meaningful, long, hard slog.
9L: According to your contributor note, characters from “Man of Steel” are featured in your novel in progress, The Lost Episodes of Jesus Christ. Is it difficult to write stand-alone stories about characters that figure into a larger work? Will we get to see Revie as an adult in the novel?
BF: Yes, I MEANT to write stand-alone stories as satellites to the novel, as a way of showing how wild and unconventional and form-bendingly brilliant I am, and—oh, who am I kidding? The truth is that this mix is an accident of circumstances.
Initially, I set out to write a novel-in-stories. Deep into that project, I found a structural flaw that couldn’t be patched up, so I burned the whole thing down and started it over as a novel. What remains of that novel-in-stories are four or five orphaned pieces, including “Man of Steel,” that didn’t get re-integrated into the book.
In addition to those orphans, there are earlier Revie stories in my drawer, and chapters that I’ve since cut out of the novel. I guess it’s kind of fitting that the Lost Episodes has a lot of lost episodes. Which is fine as long as the whole project doesn’t tank, because that would make the bulk of this decade a lost episode of Bryan Furuness.
9L: I have to ask. If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
BF: The power to finish this novel.
Kidding. Mostly. Unless you’re actually granting superpowers, in which case, call me.
If you asked Revie, or the twelve-year-old me, they’d pick invisibility. And then they’d camp out in the girl’s locker room, for the purpose of eavesdropping as much as ogling.
But me? The now-me? The power I really want is a little less creepy, and maybe a little more sad. At least once a day, I find myself wishing I had a magical remote that could pause time. Like, it would stop clocks and everyone would freeze. What would I do in that paused time? Boring adult stuff, mostly. Catch up on work. Lay waste to my inbox. Read. Nap. But maybe, after a while, I’d do a few Revie-like things, too, like stuffing odd things into people’s pockets, or arranging frozen people to make them kiss.