The Ecotone Interview with David Philip Mullins

Between 2003 and 2005, David Philip Mullins and Ian Stansel attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where they became fast friends and ongoing readers for one another. David’s debut collection, Greetings from Below, which includes the story “Arboretum,” first appearing in the fall 2010 issue of Ecotone, was chosen by David Means for the 2009 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and was published by Sarabande Books in January 2011. In addition to Ecotone, Mullins’s work has appeared in the Yale Review, the Massachusetts Review, Fiction, and elsewhere. He lives in Omaha with his wife, Seraphim, and their two children, Zoey and James, and teaches creative writing at Creighton University. Ian’s story “A Dry Season” appeared in the spring 2010 issue of Ecotone. Other stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Antioch Review, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. He is the editor of Gulf Coast and lives in Houston with his wife, Sarah. The following conversation took place over e-mail, between family visits and holiday meals in December 2010 and January 2011.
Ian Stansel: How did Nick Danze, the narrator and/or protagonist of the stories in Greetings from Below, make his first appearance?
David Philip Mullins: I started the first Nick Danze story, “True Love Versus the Cigar-Store Indian,” back in 1998. I was twenty-four and living in San Francisco, writing my first short stories—learning what it means to write a short story. I finished that piece in New York in 1999, and a few months later it was accepted for publication by New England Review. I was thrilled. It was my first published story, and I was twenty-five years old and I felt like I’d finally figured out what I’d been trying to figure out for years: how to “break in” to the world of publishing. I’d walk around Manhattan smoking cigarettes, because I thought that was what a writer should do, and I’d catch a reflection of myself in a car window and think, That guy’s a writer. A real writer. Bona fide. The problem was that I still didn’t know how to write a short story. I’d lucked out, and it would be another four years before I’d sell another one. But I knew I’d created a character I loved, and I kept writing about him.
IS: It makes complete sense that “True Love” was the first story. The one element that differentiates that story from just about all the others is that the father is barely mentioned. His passing really just comes up as a way to characterize Nick as a “stoic,” whereas in most, if not all, of the other stories, that event informs so many of Nick’s thoughts and decisions. When did the father’s death become a major current in the stories?
DPM: Nick’s father’s death first cropped up in “Driving Lessons,” and I remember writing it into that story almost unconsciously. It was one of those extremely rare writing sessions during which the words are coming more quickly than you can get them down, and the writing’s more or less effortless, and what you planned on writing that day would have been crap but what’s coming out of you is raw and real and better than what you’re normally capable of. Soon after that I wrote “Arboretum,” the only story in the collection that deals directly with Nick’s father’s death. I felt euphoric when I finished that piece. I knew right away it was the best story I’d ever written, and I still think so. At that point I was kind of in love with the idea of Nick’s dead father looming as a ghostly presence in the background of all the stories, and so I went back and wrote that line into “True Love Versus the Cigar-Store Indian”: “I told Mona about how my father had died when I was twenty-one.”
IS: Robert Boswell has an essay about just this kind of phenomenon called “Narrative Spandrels.” He makes a great metaphor where this kind of information (Nick’s father’s being gone) is a spandrel, an architectural feature that occurs when you place two arches next to each other. The upside-down triangular area between them is the spandrel. It is there only by dint of the shapes of the two arches, but it then becomes an important element in itself. In order to create full scenes or characters, they must have settings, props, traits, thoughts, backstory, etc. Though it was put there only to make the scene or character (the arch) complete, it becomes the most important thing we see. I think you and I have talked about this before, when you reread a story you’re working on and discover something essential that you had “accidentally” written. I’ve found these discoveries to be among the most satisfying moments of writing.
DPM: I like that metaphor a lot. Incidentally, the novel I’m working on is tentatively titled Spandrels. But sometimes it’s titled Isotopes, or Be There, or Portmanteau, or Followers, or Ocotillo. I’m shooting for the most cryptic and pretentious title I can come up with. So far, not a single one of them has anything to do with the actual content of the book.
IS: I struggle horribly with titles. The story I had in Ecotone, “A Dry Season,” originally had a really bad one: “My Father’s Son.” Terrible. Thankfully, Ben George came to the rescue and we came up with something more elegant and less opaque. Am I remembering correctly that “Driving Lessons” was called something else originally?

DPM: “Driving Lessons” was originally called “Rocketfire Red,” then “Virtual Vegas,” then “Vintage Vegas,” and then Stephen Donadio at New England Review changed it to “Driving Lessons”—which I was a little lukewarm about at the time, though ultimately I think it works for the story.

IS: Many of the “big” moments in Nick’s life, including his father’s death, happen between the stories. Was this a conscious choice for you?
DPM: Events such as Nick’s father’s death, or the day Nick and Annie meet, or Nick’s eventual marriage to Annie—I did intentionally place those “moments” between stories. For me, the short story is all about rendering smallish moments in a big way. The short story is about minutiae. It’s about depicting incidents that on the surface may seem trivial but are actually quite profound, at least on the level of character. Nick’s father’s death was meant to have ripple effects throughout the greater narrative. The death itself isn’t nearly as important as its psychological and emotional repercussions. The subversive things Nick does after he loses his father were what really mattered to me.
IS: Were there any linked story collections you looked to for guidance or inspiration during the writing of Greetings from Below? I suppose I’m talking more about the construction/structure of the book more than inspiration regarding subject matter or stylistic choices. Was it ever a situation where you had two versions of a story: one more stand-alone version for a journal and another that was designed to work off the other stories in the book?
DPM: There were a bunch of books I read over and over again that helped me figure out what exactly a novel in stories, or a linked collection, should do. Later, at the Bar, by Rebecca Barry, was one. So was David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan and Patrick Ryan’s Send Me. Also The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank; Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout; Monkeys, by Susan Minot; Foley’s Luck, by Tom Chiarella. Justin Cronin’s Mary and O’Neil was a huge help. The list goes on.

The most difficult things about writing a linked collection that you want to hold together like a novel are getting the transitions right and creating a narrative arc that somehow spans the length of all the stories. Then there’s the challenge of writing stories that are autonomous—self-contained—while simultaneously existing and cohering as “chapters” of a novel. The additional challenge for me was that I wanted to write in different tenses and I wanted to switch back and forth between the first and third persons. The only real consistency in all nine stories of Greetings from Below is the fact that we get only Nick’s perspective. I needed that thread to tie everything together. Otherwise, I felt the collection would be too disparate.

As for publishing the stories in journals first, every piece in the collection has been significantly altered. Working with Ben George on “Arboretum” was an eye-opening experience. I’d had editors make suggestions for revisions from time to time, but never the way he did. We cut that story from twenty-four pages to about eighteen, and the Ecotone version is much better than the longer version that ended up in the book.

When I read your story “A Dry Season,” in the spring 2010 issue of Ecotone, I was struck by the many similarities between our two Ecotone stories. A drought hangs as the backdrop to both stories, and each one is told in the first person from the perspective of an adolescent boy who’s experienced a sexual awakening of sorts—or at least a kind of realization. Each mother figure listens to Tchaikovsky (at least in the longer version of “Arboretum,” in Greetings), and both stories contain a penultimate paragraph that projects into the future—a future in which a parent has died. Each also ends with a description of a cloudless sky and with a final line of dialogue. Bizarre, no? What do you make of this?
IS: I wasn’t all that surprised. I think we have some shared preoccupations: childhood and fatherhood, abandonment, death, moral decency. These preoccupations are often the engines of the stories, and might be the reason we’ve become friends and readers for one another. It isn’t that writers can be friends only with those who write like them, but that a style or approach to writing is born out of writers’ personalities and the way they see the world, and those things are what do or do not connect people.

I’m glad you’ve brought up perspective, because I think that’s one of the most interesting aspects of your book. I remember reading Ken Kesey somewhere saying that point of view is the most important thing in a story, the thing that determines everything else. It took me a long time to understand what he meant, that, say, first person isn’t just a close third person with pronouns swapped out and some particular slang or twang.

The thing that I kept thinking while reading Greetings from Below was how much of it sounded confessional. Even in the third-person stories, it felt to me like Nick was still somewhat in charge of the narration. But the confession-box feeling is perhaps most immediately apparent in the first-person stories, in particular in “First Sight” with the great opening line: “We’re not the people I thought we were.” The direct address of the story really brings that tone home. It is also incredibly powerful in the final story, where we get what might be Nick’s deepest moment of shame. Did you think of the stories as confessions in a Lolita sort of way? And I’m also curious if any of the stories went through point of view revisions, if some started as first and then changed to third (or vice versa)?

DPM: I didn’t realize it when I was writing the stories, but you’re right—the collection does seem confessional. In fact, Publishers Weekly, in its review of the book, called it “rawly confessional,” and I do think there’s something to that. Nick’s central struggle in the book is with his own crushing guilt, and I suppose several of the stories do sound like avowals of one sort or another. We’re always in Nick’s head. But even though guilt was of course always a theme, the idea of a “confessional” sort of narrative overall—or even for the stories individually—never entered my mind.

Many stories went through point-of-view revisions. Almost all. I nearly always start in the first person, then rewrite a story in the third person, and then switch it back and forth and back and forth again until I figure out what works. A couple of the stories in Greetings from Below were initially written in the second person as well. “Longing to Love You,” for instance.

Do you ever switch back and forth between the first and third to see what works better? Or do you know from the start that a story is going to be a first-person or a third-person narrative? “A Dry Season,” it seems to me, could really work as either. We don’t get all that much on the level of interiority. The narrator is more of an observer than anything else. He isn’t trying to manipulate the reader; he’s simply showing what is.

IS: That story swung from one end of the spectrum to the other more than anything I’ve worked on, probably. The end result is a pretty straightforward retrospective narration, a bit quiet, a bit sad. It started off with a sort of po-mo-ish frame around it. It was very aware of itself as a literary product. The narrator was a writer who addressed the reader directly. He did not really want to be telling the story, and that ended up remaining in the story only in that, as you point out, there isn’t a lot of talk of his interior life. I suppose I felt a bit self-conscious about just how simple the story is because of how it started. There was a later draft where the narration jumped forward forty years to the narrator’s own son’s college graduation. But that didn’t work, either, and I was left with what ended up in Ecotone, which I’m really quite happy with now. All that playing around led me to the voice of the narrator, who, yes, is a bit reluctant to reveal too much about himself. Like many of your stories, the driving force in this one is shame.

I had a story in Ploughshares recently called “Dukes and Duchesses of Park Ridge” that takes a first-person-plural point of view. This of course has been done before, but I want to explore the way a narration can do what we cannot in reality. We cannot, for instance, speak in unison spontaneously. We cannot share the exact same thoughts. But we can in a story. That story of mine never claims to be coming from one voice within the group, and it moves into the interior thoughts of multiple characters. It makes no logical sense. There are probably untold numbers of lit-theory books about this very thing, but I’ll probably just keep noodling with it.

I wanted to bring up setting with you. Las Vegas plays such a crucial role in the life of your main character. He would not be the same person without that city in his life. Nor could the stories have been the same had they been set in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago. The city is much more than a place in which the action can take place. It determines the action, to one extent or another. Can you talk about Nick’s relationship with Las Vegas and how you tried to present the city in the book?

DPM: Las Vegas does take on a kind of personality in the stories, I think—it exists in the collection as both setting and character, and that was definitely premeditated. It always rankles me to see Vegas portrayed in film and literature as nothing more than a cliché—the glitzy, tawdry vacation destination, the adult playground, etc. That’s certainly a part of Vegas. But the Strip is to Vegas what the French Quarter is to New Orleans. It’s the glittering nucleus of the town, but the surrounding environs, the concentric miles of suburban sprawl, are the real city that visitors rarely see. The unfolding expanses of planned developments, of strip malls and stuccoed tract homes and desert—that’s the Las Vegas I grew up in, and I wanted to show people what living there is really like. Sure, people who live in Vegas work in gaming, a lot of them do. And so naturally the Strip and Fremont Street are parts of their lives. But mostly Vegas is about these homogeneous little communities of desert-landscaped houses and big-box stores and fast-food restaurants, these concocted communities that more or less all look the same, piled on top of each other all the way out to the mountains—mountains that when I was kid seemed a hundred miles away. And now the city has expanded to such a degree that its boundaries have reached the feet of those mountains: Black Mountain, Frenchman Mountain, Sunrise Mountain. In this sense Vegas is no different from most of the rest of the country. We live in an America whose cities are becoming indistinguishable from one another. Every town looks the same now: Walmart and Applebee’s and Best Buy as far as the eye can see. I wanted to show readers that Vegas is no different. And I wanted to show how the far reaches of the city, for all their homogeneity, can have an unexpected uniqueness about them that I hope colors the stories as the backdrop of Nick’s life.