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"The So Common Inglorious End": An Interview with Nathan Oates

Nathan Oates's debut collection of stories, The Empty House, won the 2012 Spokane Prize. His stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, The Antioch Review, Witness, Copper Nickel, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. His stories have been anthologized in The Best American Mystery Stories (2008 & 2012), as well as in Forty Stories. He is an associate professor of English at Seton Hall University and lives in Brooklyn with his family.

His story, "The Dead Forest," appeared In issue Fifty-Seven of The Collagist. 

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about nameless speakers, Richard Yates, and being in conversation with authors we love.

Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for “The Dead Forest”? How did it begin for you?

More so than almost anything else I’ve ever written, this story had a direct and powerful inspiration that I can point to. I wrote the first draft of this story during the two months or so that it took me to read 2666 by Roberto Bolano. During my reading of that very long and very terrifying novel I noticed that my experience of reading it was shaping the way I saw the world beyond the page. I read much of that book late in the fall semester during my commute from New York City to New Jersey, where I teach at Seton Hall University, and I kept looking up from those pages and out at the passing swamps of Seacaucus, or the slums of Newark, or the affluent houses of the suburbs, and everything was heavily tinted by the horror and darkness of that novel. The rain streaks on the window of the train seemed poisoned, the battered cars parked crookedly in front of a liquor store seemed to throb with menace, the scorched mattress rotting beneath an overpass, everything was freighted with the feelings of dread and anxiety I felt in the pages of Bolano’s book. This was one of the most intense reading experiences I’ve ever had, and I began to think about the way that fiction can shape the way one sees the world, the way the dream life of the page spills into the waking world, the way that, if one is a writer, one’s sense of self is built explicitly on the imagined works of strangers. This has often struck me as hopeful and even beautiful, but I saw more clearly through Bolano’s great novel that it could also be terrible and frightening. This story was written in that space, when my entire mind was redirected, refocused, through Bolano’s work.

In “The Dead Forest,” a woman is driven and inspired by a novel she loves. When you sit down to write, do you feel you’re in conversation with the writers and books you admire? If so, how?

As I mentioned, the writing of this story was done in response to my reading of Bolano, but that experience made me think about other books that have influenced me in that way – books by Richard Yates, Flannery O’Connor, Paul Bowles, Shirley Jackson, William Trevor, and others – and about that strange dissociating and yet somehow pleasurable feeling of having your view of the world beyond the page, the “real world” radically altered by the act of reading. Everything I write is in response to what I read, though rarely as directly as happened with “The Dead Forest.” I think it’s vital for writers, especially young writers, to find their voice, but I also believe that one discovers one’s voice in writing through reading, by listening to the voices of other writers, and then adding one’s own voice to the conversation. This, as it does for the character in the story, who is at the beginning of her apprenticeship as a writer, often comes through imitation, and out of that, if one is dedicated and obsessive and has some talent, one’s own style and voice begin to glimmer up. That said, I also think writers change and develop, at least I hope I have as a writer. This story was also written when I was beginning to become more interested in gothic fiction, in ghost stories, and wanted to try my hand to writing something like the works of Shirley Jackson, which, like many other people, I’d recently rediscovered. This was the first such ghost story I wrote, and several more followed.

The star of this story remains nameless, while the author we never meet, James Williams, is known by name early on. What are the importance of names in fiction? Why did you make the decision to only give a name to the author? 

I’ve taught creative writing for over a decade and have found that students love to leave their characters unnamed, and I tend to argue that they shouldn’t do this. I argue that an unusual decision of that kind needs to be justified in the story, that it needs to somehow add to the meaning, or the feeling, the story is generating, not just be because one couldn’t think of a good name (which is, admittedly, hard to do). But even as I occasionally argue this in class, I resist, as I think most writers do, the idea that there are “rules” in fiction, so I wanted to give it a try, to see if I could write a story with a nameless main character (she has a name in my head, but I didn’t put it in the story) and to use that namelessness to add to meaning, tone, and feeling in the story, rather than just be distracting. By focusing so much on the name of the famous writer, I hoped to add to this. The main character is a young, aspiring writer at the beginning of her writing life, James Williams is a once-famous, now-faded literary star at the end of his life. I wanted to play with the notion of identity and selfhood as tied up, for the fiction writer, with the making of the work, that one becomes named and known through one’s work, but also to consider how tenuous this makes one’s identity: James Williams is revered by the main character, but most of the other people in the story, including her peers in her creative writing classes, have never heard of him, and only care about him once he’s dead. As your question suggests, I considered not giving the writer a name – basically, not giving anyone a name – and wrote the first draft that way, but once I understood better what the story was about, I decided he should be named, the only named character in the story.

What were the challenges of inventing a literary genius for the purpose of this story? Were you tempted to use a real author?

James Williams is a combination of a number of different writers, though he is probably most heavily based on Richard Yates, who, toward the end of his life, had faded somewhat from the center of literary culture, and who was in a wheelchair and who died in Tuscaloosa, Alabama while a visiting writer at the University of Alabama. I knew about this situation in Yates’s life, and that he died in poverty, his work largely ignored – though thankfully it has had something of a resurgence recently – and this haunted me: the so common inglorious end that so many great writers and artists come to. Though Yates was the model for the character, I didn’t want the story to be freighted with his name, or to have to be true to the facts of his life – Yates lived for a while in Tuscaloosa before dying, for example – and since the story is so much about the porousness of the boundaries between fiction and life, I wanted to write about a fictional fiction writer based on a real fiction writer, in order to add another layer to the interplay of these elements in the story.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a novel and have recently completed a short story collection. Both the novel and the story collection play with genre, as this story adapts the tradition of the ghost story. The collection includes a few ghost stories, some speculative stories, a few that might be called mysteries. The novel is speculative and political.

Who are you reading these days?

As is probably clear from earlier answers, I read a lot, or at least as much as I can, mostly contemporary fiction. Two authors I’ve recently discovered are Jane Gardam, whose Filth books, especially Old Filth, are some of the best written novels I’ve encountered recently, and Antonio Tabucchi, whose novel Pereira Declares is a gorgeous and brilliant book. But to say I discovered these books is not exactly right: I’d heard of both of them for years, but only read Gardam when my wife, the writer Amy Day Wilkinson, told me I should, and I read Tabucchi’s novel after reading an essay by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Moshin Hamid, in which he recommends it. In this way my reading is in conversation with other writers, and the larger community, in a less creepy way, I hope, than it is for the character in “The Dead Forest.” 

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