Eugene Cross: Shelf Lives

Monday, August 20, 2012

It’s not every day that you can contact an author you admire and ask for an interview (even less likely that they’ll agree). Or maybe that is every day for you (it’s not for me), and if it is I’ll do you one better: I’ll bet it’s not every day that you can interview an author you admire and then barge into his home and demand access to his bookshelf to see what he’s been reading. If that’s happened to you then great, but it was a first for me and interviewing Eugene Cross was more writer’s whiskey (i.e. life-altering, motivating/inspiring, and maybe you shouldn’t drive afterwards because you’re too busy daydreaming about your next piece to adhere to posted speed limits) than work.

Eugene agreed to meet with me at a Chicago pub for a couple of beers before I visited his bookshelf and workspace (I didn’t actually barge in, he let me in—even held the door for me). We talked about his favorite music (a little Lou Reed and a lot of Bob Dylan), what he likes about being a writer (read on), and the kinds of things stories can do for people.

In addition to teaching creative writing at Chicago’s Columbia College, Eugene Cross’ Fires of Our Choosing was published in March by Dzanc Books. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine and American Short Fiction, among others. His story “This Too” appeared in issue 141 of TriQuarterly Online.

TriQuarterly: First off, your collection Fires of Our Choosing just came out a few months ago, so congratulations. What is the first and last thing you think of when holding your first published collection of stories in your hands?

Eugene Cross: Oh wow. Jeez, that’s a good question. The first thing: “Well, let me hold it in my hands.” I definitely am happy it came together as it did. From the beginning of the first story to the last edit I did was about seven years; it was a lot of time and a lot of revision and a lot of rewrites—shuffling the collection around. That’s the first thing: a sense of pride that I was able to make it a cohesive collection that worked together and the stories weren’t just in there because they had been published separately. The last thing I think about—before setting it down—is probably “I hope it’s as good as I wanted it to be, and what am I going to do next?” That’s always the nagging question for me. A writer named Darrell Spencer, who is friends with a friend of mine, said, “Well, it’s time to get started on the next one.” I like that—I think it’s interesting. Motivating.

TQ: You said it took you seven years. Was that a long seven or a short seven?

EC: It felt, at the time, like a long seven, but in retrospect I think I was pretty lucky. I’ve had friends that have had to wait a lot longer. We’ll see with the next book because, as Jeff Parker—a friend of mine—said, “You’ve got to do your time in the trenches.”

TQ: What can short stories accomplish that novels cannot?

EC: I think it was Edgar Allan Poe that said, “You should be able to sit down and read a short story in one sitting,” or something to that effect; I think the nice thing about a short story is what we call the unified effect—everything is working toward one end. A good novel will do that too, but a short story, in a very small amount of space, can transport you anywhere and put you in the lives of characters—like all good writing—that never existed. My old teacher Richard Bausch always said, “Writing is a magic trick,” because you’re making an audience, and a reader, care about people that never existed and situations that never happened, but they can literally bring you to tears and change your life. The way you see the world. And it’s all made up. It’s fiction. A short story can do that in a small amount of space, and the masters of the form can cover as much time as the best novelists can. Alice Munro covers lifetimes in her short stories; Jim Harrison in his novellas covers generations. So I think there are all the advantages of the novel in many ways, but with a short story, especially in a collection, you can encounter many different lives and situations—as opposed to focusing on a set of protagonists or characters as in a novel. I like that.

TQ: What does being an author mean to you?

EC: It makes me excited. A part of me always wanted to be a writer. The end goal is that somewhere down the line, hopefully, somebody is going to read a story I wrote and it’s going to have the same effect, or a similar effect, as the stories I originally read that really changed everything for me. For me that’s the highest aspiration: to one day write a story that means as much to somebody as the stories I read as an undergrad or the stories I read now—those stories that really stop me in my tracks. That’s the hope.

TQ: What are your responsibilities, if any, as a writer?

EC: This is good. To go back to my old teacher Richard Bausch, he says, “The writer only has to follow two rules.” You know, there are all these rules by writers, but Bausch’s I like. He says, “You only have to do two things: you have to use words and you have to be entertaining.” I think that’s a fair assessment. Writers do have to be entertaining. You can get across your point, you can make people think about how you see the world or how you think the world should be, but you can never forget that the reader must be entertained. That’s not to say you can’t write dense prose about important, layered subject matter, but we entertain. We entertain and then hopefully we show something—our characters show something—to people. I try to remember to keep this question present when I write something: if someone picked this up and had eight or nine books at hand and the TV and Internet in the corner, would this story keep that person in their seat and reading? Because nothing else matters if that doesn’t happen.

TQ: One of my favorites is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien; the collection ends as follows: “I’m skimming across the surface of my own history… and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.” Who do you write for?

EC: Wow, that’s a great question. I write because I feel like I have to write, and I don’t know what I think until I write; so I guess I write for myself. A question that was posed to me a long time ago is, “If someone told you you’ll never publish another thing, you’ll never have a story in a magazine or have a book come out, would you still write?” And the answer for me is yes. It gives me a lot of pleasure to do it. It’s a challenge. And when it comes out, when it’s done, it’s worth it. To have that finished thing that you made. At the same time I hope I do have a reader out there that will read the book and enjoy the stories. And even if they don’t, that’s fine as long as it gives them something to talk about, something to question. I think that’s important. So I write both for myself and for an imagined audience.

TQ: In terms of story formulation and inspiration, would you classify your process as a faucet with a slow drip or as one of those bugs meeting your windshield on the highway?

EC: That’s a very good question. I like the metaphors. Regarding inspiration, I would call it a bug that gets caught in a spider web and can’t get free. For me that’s the thing: I’ll get an image or a line of dialogue—the kernel of an idea—that I just can’t shake free. I can’t lose it. And that’s when I know I have a story. Something that’s happened to me in real life, something I’ve read about, anything. And when I get that, I try to build a story around it. One of my favorite stories is “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham. The author got the idea to write it when he read this little article in the newspaper about a boy at a party who dies after running into a plate-glass window. He wrote this amazing story around this image and then turned it into a novel. For me it’s something like that. The process is more like water torture, like a slow drip. I’m definitely not a fast writer.

TQ: I love the way you end stories. How do you decide on an ending? Are you the kind of writer that knows how their story will end before it begins?

EC: You know, I’ve found that if I know how it’s going to end then it seems forced. I’ll have an idea of how it’s going to end, or of something that’s going to happen further along—maybe a dramatic action—but usually not the final action. And I’ve often written past endings and then had to cut back. I like the quote by Rust Hills, who was fiction editor at Esquire for a number of years; “You should begin and end a story as close to the middle as possible.” That is, most writers start stories too early because they’re getting their wheels turning and figuring it out. Once you hit your stride you might be three pages in, which is why in workshops you might hear someone say, “I think the story starts on page 3 or 4.” And lots of times a writer will write beyond where they need to write because they feel they have to have this great summation or wrap-up, when in truth they don’t. They’re not giving the reader enough credit. I do it all the time, feeling like “Oh, I need to make sure my reader is left with a very clear sense of how things turned out, and how things are going to go from then on.” The truth is, the reader probably already knows. Knows more than you do at that point.

TQ: Let’s talk books. What’s a particularly special book that you make sure to keep on your shelf no matter where you are, and why?

EC: I love Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. And I do love Rock Springs by Richard Ford. Those books have become so popular among my demographic—male writers in their early thirties, late twenties—that they have become almost like clichés. Hemingway and Carver both fall into the same vein. They’re great books. The one that really stands out to me, that really changed the way I read and really affected me—and I’ve gone back and reread it and taught it—is Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. That book I would take with me anywhere, revisit anywhere. It follows the Chippewa tribe of Native Americans. Two families with great, overlapping characters. It’s part novel, part short-story hybrid. It’s phenomenal. Love Medicine changed the way I read. And the way she wrote inspired me—her prose is just so gorgeous. It sets this bar that I will always try to meet. It’s a really great book.

TQ: Which author’s work do you buy as soon as it comes out?

EC: Dan Chaon. I think he’s one of the best short-story writers at work today. His novels are fantastic too, but the moment his short-story collection drops I’m out at the store buying it. It’s such a fantastic variety of work. Amazing. The other one is Anthony Doerr. His work is fabulous.

TQ: Out of the people who’ve earned a spot on your shelf, who has influenced you in particular?

EC: One of my teachers, I would say. I keep a special section for him on my shelf, and he just passed away not that long ago. His name is Lewis Nordan, but everyone who knew him called him Buddy. He was from Mississippi, and I had him as a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. I was lucky enough to have him for two classes: senior seminar and Contemporary Fiction. His health was already fading back then. He wrote about really tough subject matter: alcoholic fathers, unhappy mothers, suicide attempts. His most famous novel—Wolf Whistle—is a retelling of the Emmett Till lynching in the South and is one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, tragic books I’ve ever read. The thing about him as a writer is that he’d make you laugh out loud and at the same time break your heart. Something he would tell me was that either I was being melodramatic or I was not risking any sentimentality at all. Once in class he told us that if you’re not risking sentimentality, you’re not in the right ballpark, because you have to engage those emotions. That’s always stuck with me.

TQ: Which books do you find yourself forcing on your friends and loved ones?

EC: Definitely Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. I recommend that to everybody. One that came out in the last few years is Miles from Nowhere.

TQ: By Cat Stevens?

EC: Ha, yeah, by Cat Stevens! No, by Nami Mun. She teaches here at Columbia (in Chicago). Another one I love and recommend a lot is The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter. Then there’s Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos. I’ve given that book away twice.

TQ: Which book are you not willing to lend out?

EC: The first edition of Rock Springs I won’t lend out. It was a gift from my girlfriend, and I’ll hold on to that one. I also have an early edition of The Catcher in the Rye, and that one I’ll hold on to. Early editions of those books are pretty hard to find. But the one I won’t lend out because I love it so much and I only have the one copy is a book by Frank Conroy called Stop Time. I would encourage anybody to read it. It’s a memoir, but it stops when the author gets to eighteen and goes off to college. It’s all about his childhood, and it’s fucking phenomenal. He writes in a novelistic form, and I think it changed the way memoirs were to be written. He was one of those writers that I wanted to meet and never met. It’s a great book.

TQ: I like wearing a book in: I don’t mind spilling a little coffee (admit it, you do it too) or getting a little blood on the pages (don’t ask). Do you think a book gains beauty with age and wear?

EC: Yes, yes, I do. I totally get where you coming from with the coffee, the blood, the tears, some beer on there. I absolutely agree, and the reason is this: when you first read a book you’re probably reading it for pleasure, for entertainment. And then over time you go back to it because you loved it so much and you want to read it again, still for pleasure, for entertainment. And then maybe the third time you go back to read it you’re starting to look at it like a writer would. How did this author do what he did? How did he make me feel what I felt? And that’s when you’re really starting to go line by line. I’ve done that with a story by James Baldwin called “Sonny’s Blues” because the construction of it is just so gorgeous. You ask, “How did the author do that? How did he use that turn of phrase? How can I use that to my own effect?” Because in the end fiction writers are liars and thieves. So when you see a book worn down like that, you think the reader really loves that book but at one point or another started reading it the way an author would, the way a writer would—dissecting it and reading it for construction and inspiration.

TQ: What makes a book beautiful to you, and which is the most beautiful on your shelf?

EC: That’s a tough one—it would be hard to narrow it down to just one. I love the anthologies because I can read so many different authors in them. For example, the Scribner Anthology is fantastic. For me a book that’s beautiful is a book that can make me forget everything else, forget that it’s fiction. And by the time I’m finished and I set it down, it has made me look at the world in a new way or look at my life in a new way.

TQ: When can we expect the next collection from you? Are you working on any novel-length pieces?

EC: I am. But I’m finding it a hard transition, because I keep thinking I have to write to twenty pages and stop. I’m continuing to work on stories as well, but it’s going to be a while.

TQ: I think most people like advice if it’s free; any parting words of wisdom for our readers?

EC: I wish I adhered to this, but I don’t: write every day. I should and I don’t, but I think about writing every day. When I start a story, I don’t let myself escape a day without spending some time ruminating on it. Keep the story alive, revisit it, as a writer.

More broadly, if you know you’re meant to do it, then stick with it because there is nothing better. A friend of mine said, “Writing a story is the toughest thing you will ever do in your life, because the world doesn’t care if you don’t do it.” Nobody’s going to come to your door like they would if you weren’t paying your bills, nobody’s going to shut off your electricity. Yet it’s so valuable. So don’t listen to anybody who says it’s not. Otherwise there will come a time when you realize, “I should have spent more time doing this.” Don’t ever forget that it’s your calling, your purpose. You love it.