Kate McIntyre teaches at Allegheny College. Most recently, her work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Cutbank, and Cimarron Review, and she had a Notable Essay in this year's Best American Essays. She is writing a collaborative novel based on "The Outpost." She would like to thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for their support of the project through a summer grant that funded two student researchers.
Joe Aguilar is the author of Half Out Where (Caketrain). He teaches at The College of Wooster.
Here, Joe Aguilar and Kate McIntyre talk to interviewer Thomas Calder about the collaborative process, Arthurian legends and characterization through dialogue.
Did this story begin as a collaborative project or did it evolve into one?
J: I was trying to write an apocryphal Arthurian legend but it didn’t feel right, and I wasn’t having very much fun with it. Kate and I had collaborated before, so I asked her if she’d want to write the story together. We talked it through and decided to shift our source of inspiration away from Arthurian legend to the folklore and mythology collected in The Mabinogion. We also decided to make our protagonists less heroic and more pathetic.
K: Unlike Joe, I hadn’t grown up reading Arthurian legends, so at first I was unsure what I could contribute to the project. My initial lack of familiarity with the material resulted in some funny moments—I discovered that my ideas about medieval England and Wales were heavily informed by Disney’s Robin Hood cartoon. I was finally able to access the project through my knowledge of more contemporary travel stories and quest narratives. Once I drew inspiration from texts about meandering quests—Patrick Dewitt’s The Sisters Brothers, for example, the characters in “The Outpost” started to come alive.
Were there any challenges that surprised you in writing a collaborative piece?
J: If anything, it’s easier for me to write collaboratively than to write alone, although Kate’s ideal to work with. She’s really great at thinking through the larger architecture of a narrative. It also helps that we think the same things are funny.
K: It really is fun. When we’re drafting, we write 500 words or so each and send it back and forth. Frequently I write with an eye toward making Joe laugh. He’s especially good at language-level editing—I’ve learned a lot about compression from watching him work.
Could you talk about writing the dialogue for these characters? I love the naïve enthusiasm they express early on and the fact that a quest will be good for them in that they’re getting fat.
K: I’m glad you liked it! Frequently, I think, questing characters bring a sense of self-seriousness. What they are doing is Very Important, and thus, there is no room for clowning or pettiness. This doesn’t strike me as quite realistic. We wanted characters who stumbled across a cause and peripatetically pursued it when it suited them. We wanted to resist and trouble the hero narrative.
J: We also wanted to characterize largely through dialogue: We’d originally written far more description of characters, histories of characters’ relationships, and an account of the outpost and its surroundings, but the narrative started to feel so unwieldy that we decided to cut everything way back and let the dialogue do more work. Also, Gabriel Blackwell had some on-point editorial suggestions for sharpening the dialogue and excising more unnecessary back-story.
At what point did you decide to further develop this story into a novel and how is the novel itself coming along?
K: We showed the story to our friend and mentor, Speer Morgan, who edits the Missouri Review, and he said we should turn it into a novel. Speer has been unfailingly right about both of our work, so we listened. We had a really productive summer, in which we visited Wales, enlisted some student researchers, and finished a first draft.
J: Yes, Speer’s the best! The trip to Wales was especially useful. It’s one thing to read about a landscape but it’s another thing to hear the rain and to see the hills and to touch the walls of old castles.
What were some works that may have inspired your story’s style?
J: The Mabinogion was important. It packs an incredible amount of narrative into such spare sentences. I also admire that quality, an extreme compression of time, in works like Natalia Ginzburg’s Voices in the Evening and Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography.
K: I’ll second Cellini’s Autobiography, though for me, the voice was most important. Cellini is so brash and willing to make all sorts of moral compromises. He is quick to cut himself slack when he behaves badly, but he holds himself to very high standards in one area—his art. I try to channel this voice when I’m working on The Outpost.
What are you guys currently reading or excited to read?
K: I’ve been reading novels and nonfiction by Christopher Isherwood. He’s such a flawless stylist, and he doesn’t get read nearly as much as he should. FSG is bringing out lovely new editions. I also highly recommend Sara Pritchard’s short story collection, Help Wanted: Female.
J: I just read The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, which is amazing, and now I’m reading At Swim-Two-Birds. I’m also reading The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya and The Blue Lantern by Victor Pelevin. Pelevin’s “The Life and Adventure of Shed Number XII” is a new favorite story.