Interview: D. Wystan Owen
D. Wystan Owen’s debut short story collection, Other People’s Love Affairs, is out this week from Algonquin Books. The ten stories that comprise the book are linked by virtue of their location in Glass, a fictional town on the British coast, but also by their quiet examination of character. Owen’s work is reminiscent of that of William Trevor and Yiyun Li.
We talked to Owen via email about his collection and about his craft. His thoughtful answers are so instructive, and he generously provides not only insight into his own work and process, but he also reaches out into the literary world, and suggests other books and authors to read. Owen is one of the founding editors of The Bare Life Review, a new journal which focuses on the work of immigrants and refugees.
CRAFT: Linked collections are so often the best of both worlds: the beauty of a short story combined with the scope of a novel. At what point as you were writing the stories for Other People’s Love Affairs did you think of them as joined? Were any stories written specifically for the collection?
D. WYSTAN OWEN: Quite late, actually. There was a long period—six, seven years—when I was writing these stories, setting them in small, unnamed coastal villages, unaware that they were really all set in Glass. Of course, even then I could see that they shared an aesthetic orientation, a grammar, various thematic concerns. Those connections still feel strongest to me.
Only one story was written specifically for the book. That was “Lovers of a Kind,” which I wrote just after finishing grad school.
C: This collection is linked in multiple ways, but certainly the town of Glass is the most constant presence. Was that there from the start in each of these stories, or was that a later addition when you began to assemble the collection? In your process, do characters or setting come first?
DWO: Character comes before setting for me. And before them both comes the sound. The sound of a story—its cadence, its tone—is elemental; it determines all the rest.
I grew up, as the children of immigrants frequently do, in a household touched by the loss of home. This was something I felt long before I understood its source, but its epicenter, and its clearest manifestation, seemed to me to be the language we spoke. Since my father was English, we were not a bilingual family; we spoke only one language, fractured. Consequently I think, I was conscious from an early age of the gulf that lies between what is meant and what can be said, and of the strength required to reach out across it. And because I was a watchful child, I became sensitive to this, even obsessed with the sub-verbal, sub-linguistic voice that spoke from pauses, from hesitations or avoidances, and that I recognized as a sound, like friction, of effort—the effort of speech, which is in large measure the effort of being human.
At those times when I have been frightened, or very sad, buffeted in the way one can be by life, I have felt as if that weak and tentative voice were the only part of me that existed. It is, as I say, elemental, like the sound of one’s own blood in the ears, or those telluric currents that run through the earth.
So what I mean to say is that characters, for me, are made of this sound; they may be known by its particular timbre or pitch. And place is made up in turn of the people; it is made from the woven chord of it all.
C: Glass is a fictional town in rural England and yet I found, by the end of the collection, that not only could I see the town, but that I almost had a map in my head of how the town is laid out, the different homes and shops, the town’s relationship to the sea. I’m curious about how one develops a small fictional world like Glass. Did you draw a map for yourself? Do you have images from other, real towns that you’re familiar with? How did it come into focus for you?
DWO: In fact I do have a small map somewhere, buried amid a pile of scraps in a drawer. I think I must have had a vague plan to embellish it, perhaps even to include it at the front of the book, but I never did.
I suppose Glass resembles a number of places I have been. My grandparents lived, in their retirement, in a small town called Preston, just outside of Weymouth, in Dorset. (Readers who have never been may nonetheless recall Weymouth as the site of Stevens’ final stop in The Remains of the Day). Of course, neither of these towns is like Glass, exactly, just as Hastings and Rye are not, and as Sidmouth and Mousehole are not either.
By the time I was writing the book, I had not been back to these places for many years. It was only after the first draft was finished that I returned, and in fact I was staying in Dorset, just outside of Lyme Regis, when word came from my agent that the book had been sold. Having visited those places again was surely helpful during revision, but I can’t help thinking that the scrim of old memory offered a more productive view for the drafting.
That has been the way in writing for me. One writes toward the lost or unknown: to discover things, or elsewhere to restore them.
But, returning to the subject of the previous question, there is another way—a truer one, maybe—in which Glass was for me never so much a fictional village in Britain as a place where a certain language was spoken. It isn’t precisely the language of the southwestern coast: I know that. It is, rather, the language I grew up speaking, one straining across the rifts of time and of space. Milosz said, “Language is the only homeland.” That is how I think about Glass.
C: Even given the above, the stories aren’t linked as tightly within Glass as we might think from the outset. In comparison with Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold, for example, where we revisit characters and understand relationships in different ways, the stories in this collection more or less stand on their own. Did you consider returning to characters and connecting the stories in that way or were you more interested in linking the stories through place?
DWO: First, thank you for bringing up Jensen Beach. What a beautiful writer! I’d come across his work in A Public Space, I believe, but this mention of him has sent me back to read more.
As to the question: I have always admired books that work in that way. Anthony Marra’s collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno, is another. And the collections by Elizabeth Strout. I would have liked my own book to be more like those, I think, but my mind is not quite sufficiently… architectural. As a reader, I’m a bit of a goldfish. In many ways this is a deficiency, but we must learn to make the most of such quirks, and I hope that what this book lacks in intricacy of design it may make up for in part by an intensity of attention to the individual moment.
C: You have studied with Yiyun Li, and I know you are a great admirer of the work of William Trevor, as you wrote a wonderful essay about his work, following his death. Certainly this collection feels deeply connected to both of these writers. How has their work influenced yours and what other writers do you draw on for inspiration?
DWO: Trevor is without question my favorite writer, and also something like a north star for me. It’s true, I’ve written a good deal about him, so I’ll try not to repeat myself here. But I do want to say that, among other things, the quiet intimacy of Trevor’s work led me to see the project of writing as animated by a paradoxical tension: between, on the one hand, a hushed and deeply private communion with the self, and, on the other, an equally profound self-effacement or erasure. What we do, after all, is dream up worlds entirely of our own design, and yet where we do not exist. Writers balance these opposing efforts in different ways, but for Trevor the self-effacement was near total, which is why, I think, his work reads as so sensitive, and so generous in its compassion. Empathy is not something one performs, as love isn’t. It is something to which one surrenders oneself.
I could go on all day about Yiyun Li and her work—and would do if I didn’t care about embarrassing her. She is a writer and a person of extraordinary intelligence, compassion, and moral seriousness. (I can’t think of anyone for whom I’d sooner invest in Nobel Prize futures.) Stories like “Extra,” “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” and “Kindness” will always be a part of my personal canon. But in fact, for me, even stronger than the influence of her writing has been that of her reading: precise, joyful, and endlessly inquisitive. She introduced me to Trevor, along with Graham Greene, V.S. Pritchett, Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield, and many others.
My relationship with the world of contemporary fiction is sometimes uneasy, but there are, of course, any number of other living authors I love: Edward P. Jones, Marilynne Robinson, Paul Yoon, Elizabeth Strout, Helen Humphreys, Kazuo Ishiguro. I have also taken great inspiration from friends in the writing world, including (but certainly not limited to): Garth Greenwell; Jamel Brinkley; Fatima Farheen Mirza; Chia-Chia Lin (whose first novel, The Unpassing, is due out next year, the manuscript of which was the best book I read in 2017); and Maria Kuznetsova (who also has a first book due out next year, the delightful—and delightfully titled—Oksana, Behave!)
C: I’ve always been impressed with the way that Trevor was able to write men and women equally well. I think much of that has to do with his respect and his curiosity. And I feel the same about your work. Do you find it challenging to write from both perspectives? Is it easier for you to write from a male POV?
DWO: It’s kind of you to say, and I agree about Trevor. Curiosity, he said, was his principle characteristic as both a person and a writer. And it seems he often made use of small obstacles or occlusions to stimulate that curiosity: writing about Ireland from a distance, in England, for instance. And likewise writing often across lines of gender. Bewilderment is a good place for any writer to start.
For my own part, I’d say this: I find it incredibly challenging to write about all people. Certainly the weight of responsibility is more acute when writing, from a position of privilege, at a greater distance from one’s own biography—I wouldn’t wish to seem flippant or careless of that. And I have made failed attempts in the past (including, no doubt, at times in this book). But the truth is, I don’t think I do find it harder.
For one thing, with regards to gender, I’d push back gently on that word, both, on the idea that this might be a question of choosing from among two discrete, fixed perspectives. If anything, I think we’re learning now how untidy and insufficient such distinctions are (an untidiness that applies to the author as well as to the characters). For another, and perhaps more to the point, the characters in this book were never intended to serve as avatars for sociological constructs of masculinity or femininity writ large. I have little interest in writing that way.
The way I have tried to approach this book is from the inside of experience out. By which I mean the inside of the body. Demographics have a great deal to say about the conditions or events we are likely to experience in life (opportunity or its lack, religious rite, violence), and perhaps also about our outward response: whether, for instance, we are inclined to mourn in silence or in full throat, to show affection with words or with touch. But how love or grief make landfall within us—I am less certain that these differ along the same lines.
I know that many writers feel differently about this, and I am respectful of that. I’ve written one kind of book—private, perhaps a bit insular—and I’m glad other people are writing different kinds.
C: One of the reasons that your work feels so connected to both Trevor and Li is the way in which your characters wrestle with and ultimately understand something crucial about the human condition. There’s a wisdom that runs through this collection that’s enhanced by your attention to the line. Every sentence feels well-crafted and considered; hardly a page goes by without a meaningful insight. What is your process with regards to this? Do you revise each sentence as you go, or do you write initial drafts and then return later to refine and perfect?
DWO: I am a great believer in this idea that a good story develops its own internal wisdom, an intelligence far exceeding that of its author. It is an article of faith with me, really, because—though I can’t speak for other writers—I am certainly not wandering around all the time with enough interesting thoughts to fill a book. The process of drafting a story, for me, is one of constant probing and occasional discovery. I rewrite obsessively, at every stage. The sound, as I’ve said, has to be right (and what is right changes from one draft to the next). I am also a prolific eraser. I’ll follow a line of incident or thought, retreat, find another. Intuition plays a large role. Observation does, too. What you hope is to reach a point where something has emerged that could not have been arrived at otherwise, that catches even the writer off guard. Any wisdom belongs to the book; the curiosity, I suppose, is my own.
But it also feels important to point out that the conclusions these stories, or these characters, reach (about their lives, or about “the human condition”) don’t necessarily always feel definitive or final to me. Understanding, in other words, might be a bit strong. “Epiphany” has become something of a dirty word amongst writers, I suppose ever since Charles Baxter buried it in that essay of his. It is unfashionable for a writer to presume to answer any of life’s great, insoluble questions in the span of a single twenty-page story, but I don’t think that gives us license to avoid engaging with them at all (like a stone skimming the surface of a lake, trying desperately to avoid plunging into its depths). It isn’t hard to find examples of stories where epiphany is something half-formed, or fragile, or available to the reader but not to the characters; or that serves to complicate a story’s view of the world by laying bare the nuance of another being’s experience (from Trevor, for instance: “She does not know why the pity she feels is so intensely there, only that it is, and that his empty love is not absurd.”) As often as not in life, we find that on the other side of one problem lies a host of other, more difficult ones. (From Chekhov, famously: “…and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.”)
If bewilderment is a good place for a writer to start, it’s also probably an inevitable place to end up.
C: “Lovers of a Kind,” which opens the collection, starts with an omniscient POV that slowly narrows its focus. It also uses the present tense to open and close the story, acting as a frame of sorts. Can you talk a little about why you made these craft decisions for this story?
DWO: It’s a good question, but one to which I’m not sure I remember the answer. So often these decisions come about in unconscious ways. I do know that the story’s structure was in place from the earliest draft. “Lovers” was, as I mentioned earlier, the last story I wrote for the collection, and I think I must have had a sense that it would open the book. So I wanted that kind of wide angle establishing shot, something that would introduce setting as well as character and tone. I probably copied the idea from elsewhere, in concept at least—Thomas Hardy, perhaps.
The omniscience of those opening pages does not return very often in the book, but I hope at least some trace of it can be felt in the last lines, when Rose Gudrun kneels beside her ill sister, thinking of geological time.
C: A young boy assumes the POV for part of “At the Circus.” A child’s POV is so difficult to do well, especially without a retrospective voice that helps to make sense of the events. Part of the reason it succeeds here, I think, was your decision to alternate his POV with that of his aunt. Was that part of the original design of the story? Did you find yourself aligned with one character more than another as you wrote this?
DWO: I hope I am aligned equally with all characters, or at least that my commitment to each is total in the writing. One naturally feels protective of children in stories, but it was important to me also to explore the ways in which Tony is likewise protective of the adults in his life. That’s something I remember distinctly from childhood: the sadness I would feel at the sight of weakness or fragility in grownups, and how often this was what made me love them. Later, in adolescence, that sort of weakness can instead begin to inspire contempt, but not yet for Tony. This is something his Aunt Beryl can’t quite conceive of. I think we have a tendency to underestimate children: there are, of course, aspects of our world that they cannot comprehend; but there are aspects of theirs that we cannot comprehend, either. I was interested in that irony.
There are many authors who write well about children, and the best ones take them very seriously. Edward St. Aubyn, for instance, in Never Mind and Mother’s Milk. I love Trevor’s novel, The Silence in the Garden for this. Fatima Farheen Mirza has several beautiful passages of this kind in her new novel, A Place for Us.
I find the visual arts instructive in this, also. Paul Klee (whose work, coincidentally, is mentioned elsewhere in the collection) was a great collector of juvenilia. Of artwork by children, that is. The same was true of Picasso. They took this seriously. We have a tendency as contemporary readers, I think, to confuse cynicism with intelligence, and likewise naiveté with stupidity, but it’s a mistake to do that. It is possible for a certain kind of naiveté to be radical, to possess an extremity of aesthetic, intellectual, or moral clarity. Take, for instance, those extraordinary students from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. There is a wonderful book, written by Colm Toibin about Elizabeth Bishop, in which he says of her and Thom Gunn, “…it was as though they had just arrived in the world.”
C: Many of these stories switch POV within the story, at times doing so within a paragraph. You do this beautifully and seamlessly, and I find your POV decisions always make sense in terms of the story. As you are writing, do you stay in one character’s point of view and think through the entire story, or do you move back and forth as the story unfurls?
DWO: I am glad you feel this way. It’s something I’ve occasionally been chastised for doing. Writers have become so prim nowadays: there are rules about this sort of thing. But then you go and read Chekhov, or Mavis Gallant, and you find that they just do whatever they want. Or Tolstoy, who seems at times simply unable to restrain himself from leaping into the point of view of a horse.
I have a simple rule when drafting a story: write every sentence from the perspective that feels closest to the emotional heart. You can’t always revise that way, because sense and clarity have to be prioritized at some point, but I find it’s a good way to start. Those mid-paragraph shifts you’re describing are probably artifacts of that early stage. Moves of that kind won’t be confusing, I trust, so long as they follow the story’s internal, emotional logic.
The other thing I like about these point-of-view shifts (with apologies if I’m stating the obvious) is how they create a sort of instant dramatic (or comic) irony. If the book is largely concerned with solitude, privacy, it’s useful to observe how differently two people may experience the same set of events.
C: In “A Bit of Fun,” the third person narrator returns to Glass and to his memories of the past. Rather than moving back and forth in time with delineated sections, the story is set up to allow the narrator’s thoughts to move in time, moving from the present to the past and back again, sometimes paragraph by paragraph. How did you decide on this structure for this story?
DWO: This is something I picked up from Yiyun, by way of William Trevor. Time, in Trevor’s work, doesn’t really move in a linear way. Or, it isn’t experienced as linear. It flows not like a river but a floodwater, or perhaps like a river as seen from its midst—in a small boat, for instance—not flowing direct from its source to the sea, but eddying in places, and churning, and elsewhere seeming to flow in reverse, or to breach its banks and stagnate or pool. (As an aside, I suspect this accounts for Trevor’s being known more for his stories than his novels: because novels—with exceptions, of course—are largely defined by movement through time. For Trevor, “movement through time” is something very close to an impossibility.)
This approach has the added benefit of more nearly mirroring human consciousness, at least as I have experienced it. By bringing backstory or reminiscence into the present action, one implies its primacy in the mind of the narrator. He or she lives at once in the present and the past. We don’t really think of one thing at a time, do we? We don’t feel one thing at a time. And likewise, I don’t know that we ever have the sense that we’re living in one moment in time. The past is at once something hauntingly present and hauntingly, irretrievably lost.
C: Many of these stories are interested in the connection between the past and the present, and how decisions and events of the past create a weight on the present. In some cases, like in “Virginia’s Birthday,” you use the present tense which creates a type of tension in the story, when so much of the story is about the past. Can you talk a little bit about your process of deciding about which tense a story should be written in?
DWO: Well, from a practical standpoint, the present tense can be useful in a story like that one, where so much of the important incident occurs in what we would traditionally think of as “backstory.” It simplifies the language because one can burrow into the past without bogging down in the pluperfect tense.
Speaking more broadly, and returning in some sense to the previous question, one of the things I like about present tense is the way it suspends a story in time. There exists, I think, a common assumption that present tense will function to make action more immediate. In fact, the opposite is more often true. Verbs in the present tense are less active, less propulsive, because they do not suggest completed action. Everything in a present-tense story exists in a state of transition, a state of becoming. So if what you want is a sense of time as stagnant or collapsed, this suits that purpose quite well.
C: “The Patroness” is the only story written in first person, and it is also the only story that takes place outside of Glass, although the narrator is from Glass. I loved this view of Glass from the outside, as it were. Why is it important to have a story somewhat removed from Glass?
DWO: Yes, that story is quite different from the others, isn’t it? It’s more comic, for another thing.
There were moments during the assembly of the collection when I wondered if “The Patroness” belonged. I wrote it originally as a sort of one-off. (It began as a response to Chekhov’s “The Kiss”—which also involves a young, naïve protagonist who receives a mysterious kiss at a party—and wound up borrowing a great deal as well from a famous V.S. Pritchett story, “The Saint.”) But I liked it, and affection for one’s own work is a rare enough thing. More importantly, as time went on, I began to feel as you did, that a different perspective, and a variance in tone, would do the collection some good. I wanted to open things up just a bit. The book has a sort of hermetic quality—I recognize that—and while it’s something I wanted (and something the book seemed to want), I can also see that it helps to let the air in a bit.
C: One of your current projects is a beautiful, new journal entitled The Bare Life Review, which focuses on the work of immigrants and refugees. Can you talk a little about this project, both why you founded it and also your hopes and plans for its future?
DWO: Thank you for asking! I feel so privileged to be part of that project, and so completely in awe of its writers. We founded the journal for a number of reasons, but chief among them was a deep reverence for the courage and conviction that sustain the artistic spirit in the face of often-violent displacement. These writers’ work has provided affirmation of life in what have otherwise been pretty bleak days.
Our inaugural issue is out now, with fiction and poetry by Ariel Dorfman, Jenny Xie, NoViolet Bulawayo, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Safiya Sinclair, and many others, both established and emerging. From the latter group, I’ll highlight two: Dariel Suarez, whose first book, a collection titled A Kind of Solitude, will be out, I believe, in October; and Iracema Drew, who gave us the honor of publishing her first short story, a small miracle called “The Lost Elegies of My Late Friend Maria.”
All of this is the product of tremendous effort by an editorial staff working mostly on a volunteer basis: Nyuol Lueth Tong (our editor-in-chief), Maria Kuznetsova, Ariel Saramandi, Rebecca Liu, Etan Nechin, Scott Schomburg, and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (whose immensely intelligent and ambitious debut novel The House of Stone is already out in the UK, and will be coming Stateside in 2019).
We have begun reading now for our second issue, and our greatest hope is to discover more first time authors, especially those who have not yet managed to access more typical avenues to publication (writing conferences, MFA programs, and so forth). To this end, we are eager to partner with organizations whose missions align with our own—the well-known Syrian writer Osama Alomar, for instance, came to us through a wonderful organization called City of Asylum—but simple word of mouth is vital, as well. We are also on the lookout for translators. I hope any eligible writers will consider submitting their work—we always consider it an honor to read.
D. WYSTAN OWEN is the author of Other People’s Love Affairs: Stories(Algonquin Books). A 2015 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his fiction and essays have appeared in A Public Space, the American Scholar, Literary Hub, and the Threepenny Review. He is a citizen dually of the United States and the United Kingdom, and now lives in Northern California.