Richard Farrell Interview With Karen Stefano
“I unchained the door and Serrano stumbled into my living room. Then he turned, reached for a match, and threw up on my floor.”
“I crumpled in a crisis. But Ken would know what to do. He could handle anything except the truth. I lifted my phone off the floor and dialed. It had been two months since I’d last heard Ken’s voice, two months since he’d packed up his things and walked back into that world he’d struggled for so long to leave. The mere sound of his hello almost made me forget why I’d called.”
“Ken didn’t want to love me at first. He didn’t want to yield to his desires. But he was running out of ways to pretend they weren’t real.”
Rich, so many parts of this story delighted me, made me laugh out loud –and yet every single bit of it also kind of broke my heart. Tell me, what was the inspiration for this piece?
This story started from an exercise I did, based in part on a workshop I’d taken with the poet Doug Goetsch. The exercise suggested we steal a snippet of writing from somewhere else—a poem or a newspaper story. Well, someone had given my wife one of those cheesy self-help books, the kind with lots of insipid advice and ample bullet points. When I flipped open to page 43, I discovered a “checklist for anti-nagging techniques.” I loved the notion that someone would need to make a checklist for such a thing. I gave that line to my narrator, and that’s honestly how I started this story.
Over time, I developed a deep affection for this character. He’s strong, brave, but conflicted too. He feels himself getting older. And Ken, as brutal as he might appear in this story, really was the only person who ever loved the narrator deeply. Being in love is such a radical thing. Sometimes love exacts a high price. The question is, always, whether or not love is worth it? I say yes. And so the battle ensues, alas at the expense of the gravely wounded Serrano.
Your narrator shares how “since Ken’s untimely departure” his “entire life felt cleaved in half.” At the risk of being obscenely over-personal --have you ever experienced such a feeling? And if so, would you be willing to share that experience with our readers?
Like most people, I’ve experienced heartbreak. When it occurs, the world feels split. And yet we emerge from such states. We might even be better off for it. I think my narrator does too; he emerges stronger and with more wisdom.
But you wanted a personal story, didn’t you? And I’m avoiding the question you asked!
I went to the Naval Academy for college. “Strict” doesn’t begin to describe that experience, especially during the first year. I had fallen for this girl back home. In October of my plebe (freshman) year, she came to Annapolis for a dance. There were so many fucking rules! I was so afraid of getting in trouble. I think my anxiety confused her. I kept running back to my room, kept avoiding having any public contact with her, since PDA of any sort was forbidden. By the time the dance started (I kid you not, the dance was on a Sunday, from 12-3 PM), she’d had enough. I didn’t want to dance, didn’t want to relax. So she started dancing with one of my classmates. She ended up making out with him on the dance floor. That was a long day!
But I recovered. I laughed about it, even with her, later. We are all trying to make sense of love. Thankfully.
Have you ever “crumpled in a crisis” –to use the words of your narrator in this piece?
I don’t think so, but I also don’t think my narrator necessarily does either. I think he says that he crumples in order to justify his desire to reconnect with Ken. But no, blood and guts—the kind of crisis facing my narrator—never much bothered me. I’m thinking of another story, if you’ll indulge me.
I was teaching high school a few years ago, and a student rushed into my room and said someone was hurt outside. I rushed to the courtyard and discovered a boy having a seizure. This poor kid had fallen and cracked his head on the cement. There were people standing ten feet away and watching. I’m not exaggerating when I say there was a pool of blood on the ground, but the bystanders wouldn’t move. I didn’t do much at all, except hold the kid's head, and try to comfort him. By the time the EMTs arrived, I was covered in blood. Blood stops a lot of people cold. The kid, by the way, was fine.
Do you agree with your character, Ken, that falling in love is like driving a race car?
Falling in love certainly mucks with our perception of time. Time with the beloved accelerates, time apart slows to a crawl. I suppose intense emotional states heighten our awareness of sensory inputs. The more romantic way to say that might be that we feel more alive when we are in love. I would imagine race car drivers would have a better sense of the kinship between speed and love, but I think there’s a similar endorphin release.
In many ways, this was the first story I ever wrote where at least one character was still acutely in love. We run into so many clichés when we talk about love. I tried to avoid that in this story. The compliment that Ken pays the narrator is sincere: “My lady husband.” Ken sees the narrator exactly for who he is. That’s what we are all after, right?
I love the title for this piece. Coming up with just the right title for a story can be tricky. How do you approach this?
I had the title first. This title literally was the first thing I had, before I wrote down a single word. I’ve only written one other story with the title first. Having a good title can help steer us in the right direction. A bad title can ruin a story. I have a story right now that’s almost complete, and I have no idea at all what the title will be.
There’s a wonderful essay by Nance Van Winckel, called “Staking the Claim to the Title.” In the essay, she compares a poet’s finding the title of a poem to the way a painter might find the title for a painting. “He or she is looking for ways the title might speak back to the painting.” I loved that idea. In this case, the title not only spoke back, it helped me write the story.
Why does fiction matter in our society? Why should people read it?
There’s so many reasons! I interviewed David Shields once. I really enjoyed him, and I think he’s a brilliant man. He was very forthcoming in our talk. I learned a lot from his books, too. But last summer, at Bread Loaf, I heard him deliver a lecture in which he railed against the novel. With all due respect, I think he got it wrong.
We tell stories. We always have. The novel isn’t dead. It’s evolving. Fiction is changing, sure, but it’s still vital. More and more I see the critical importance of how stories shape the way we understand the world. What did Toni Morrison once say? “Fiction has never been entertainment for me. It has been the work I have done for most of my adult life. I believe that one of the principle ways in which we acquire, hold, and digest information is via narrative.” I think I’ll take her word for it.
What are your aspirations as a writer? What are your aspirations as a human being?
I started writing later in life. My first passion was flying. I was going to be a pilot, and devoted my life to flying. While in Navy flight school, I found out I had epilepsy. I knew I could never again pilot an airplane. I struggled with this for a long time, for more than a decade. When I started writing, it felt a bit like being reborn. But I was so far behind. I still am. The simple answer is I want to keep writing, to read more, to learn from more experienced writers, and to give back, to people like me, who have discovered writing as a way to apprehend the world.
One of my favorite songs these days is “Rexroth’s Daughter” by Greg Brown. For many reasons, I love that song, but toward the end, he has this great line: “I don’t want too much these days, a field across the road and a few good friends.” That seems like more than enough. Of course the song is wonderful because he seems to be searching for something just out of reach, something beautiful and transcendent, and that’s always nice to think about too.
As a writer, are you big into social media, or do you tend to shy away from it?
Like most people, I suppose I have a love hate relationship with social media. When the rejection letters pile up, Facebook and Twitter become torture chambers. Everyone else is winning awards and publishing in The New Yorker. Right? But social media often remains the only way to stay connected. We can support each other. We can cheer each other on. I’m horrible at it sometimes, but on my better days, I hit the like button and let go of my own ego enough to realize that we are in this together.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve been trying to read a lot more poetry these days. I am reading Jack Gilbert, Marie Howe, Rilke, and as always, Rumi. I’m also reading Elegy on Kinderklavier by Arna Bontemps Heneway, Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans, the collected stories of J.F. Powers and Finding Abbey by Sean Prentiss.
Rich, thank you for this. You’re not only a terrific writer, you’re a fascinating, passionate, gem of a human being. Connotation Press is delighted to feature you in this month’s issue!
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