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Williams HeadshotIn The Antioch Review, Summer 2013, Volume 71, Number 3  issue Evan Morgan Williams has a story titled, “The Limousine.” It is a deftly told tale of a young man trying to come to terms with his own sexual desires. The setting is Las Vegas in the 1950s, a time when the family packed a picnic lunch and headed to the ridge above the desert to watch nuclear bomb test explosions. It was also a “…man’s time, and if you needed proof, there was the woman, the wife, the mom, more feminine than was proper for a man to behold.” It was a time when “the car defined the era, more than a woman in her dress, more than the bomb’s roiling mushroom cloud.”  Williams does a superb job of taking the reader into the period and into the life of a boy on the verge of adulthood, and we are proud and happy to have him as a contributor in The Antioch Review.

Evan Morgan Williams’ debut book of short stories, Thorn, has been named the 2013 winner of the BkMk Press, 2013 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize and will be available sometime in 2014. “The Limousine” is one of the stories from the manuscript. Following is an interview in which we talked to Evan about the book, the story, and his writing process.

AR      Congratulations! Can you talk about the BkMk Press, 2013 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize. What does it mean to you to have won?

EMW      I was very happy the book won. I had entered it in several other contests, and it had been a runner up in a couple of them, so I felt this win was more about the manuscript finding its home. BkMk (pronounced bookmark) is a good press. Their books have won honors, and they have a deep catalog, so I was happy my book won this particular contest.

The manuscript was selected by Al Young. I had heard of Young but I wanted to learn more about him so I looked him up online and checked out several of his books from the library. He is a poet, novelist, essayist, well, you name it. He’s won a number of awards: the Wallace Stegner, the Guggenheim Fellowships, the PEN-Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, two The New York Times Notable Book of the year citations, and many others. He’s Poet Laureate Emeritus of California. From what I read of his work, it’s quite different than mine, and yet he picked my manuscript. That’s when I realized the book had a life of its own.

Also, I found out he often writes about jazz. Interestingly, I mentioned the prize to my next door neighbor, who is a professional jazz guitarist, and as it turns out, he knows Young. Again, this makes me feel like my manuscript won the right contest.

AR      What is the significance of the title, Thorn? Can you talk about the book a little more?

EMW      Thorn connotes something prickly. That felt like an apt description of the stories. They’re not happy stories. The characters are grappling with change, or with the choices they’ve made, and I don’t go easy on them. This is the common denominator. There are some troublesome things going on in the stories, but the characters aren’t necessarily misanthropes.

The other thing is that these were stories in which I felt like I was sticking my neck out a little more. That might not be as obvious to readers, but when I was assembling stories for a collection, that sentiment was my gatekeeper as to which stories got in and which didn’t. I was taking risks by writing them.

AR      How so? What is riskier about these stories?

EMW       The characters are a little edgier. There’s more discord.  Take the character of Jimmy, in “The Limousine,” for example. He is grappling with the shame that the culture of the Fifties imposed around the issue of sex. The story is about how he handles his shame. It caused him to assign risk to his own sexual thoughts and desires. It’s a psychological riskiness. In fact, in the last scene when he is having sex with Debby in the limousine out on the ridge, he has to disassociate somehow before he can agree to it. He puts the sexual act in a mental box, i.e., the car won’t start so they might as well do it. When they are done, he puts the car in neutral because it still won’t start, and he bumps and scrapes the guard rails during the long drive down from the ridge, representing the damage that he feels he deserves in his shame. All of the fifteen stories in the book have characters in these kinds of situations.

Aside from “The Limousine,” which is set in Las Vegas in the 1950s, the stories in Thorn are set in current day. There is a good balance of male and female protagonists. I’ve lived a lot of my life in the Rocky Mountains so many of my stories are set in that area or elsewhere in the west. About a third feature Native Americans. There are several stories set along the Pacific ocean, where I’ve also spent a lot of my life.

AR      Since you’ve mentioned your story, “The Limousine” which is in the current issue of The Antioch Review, I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about it. I’m going to mention some lines from the story and have you comment on them. So, here is the first one:  

“Everything that needed to be known was known.”

EMW      I’m glad you brought up that line. It appears at the beginning of the second paragraph. I realized when I wrote it, that it was going to be the line that propelled the narrator forward in his telling. It gave me a framework within which to work. The line sets up boundaries and gives the story something to push against, because, of course, everything that needed to be known was not known at all, and that’s the story. Everyone in the story is pushing against it. Even the mother and father push against this idea in their own ways. The father pushes against it with his clandestine trips to the ridge. The mother pushes against it when she is sewing her dresses in private. And of course, the narrator is pushing against it throughout the book. For instance, when his mother tries on a dress she has just completed, and looks into the mirror, Jimmy, who had been watching her through the window, has to look away because the mother’s moment of looking at herself is too intimate.

The line sets up the narrator’s sense of shame about discovering things he’s not supposed to know about. It’s kind of like The Truman Show, that movie where Truman lives his life thinking he knows all he needs to know and slowly discovering he doesn’t know anything at all about what’s going on. I knew it was an important line when I wrote it. I remember thinking, ah, I know where the story is going.

AW      The character, Sarah, Jimmy’s older cousin, plays a big part in the story. Can you talk about her role, especially in this context of characters pushing against each other?

EMW       Sarah doesn’t have any shame about her sexual drive the way the narrator does. That’s what makes her role so important. I once had a chance to work with Anthony Doerr in a workshop. He talked a great deal about opposition in a story. He suggested that characters have to be pushing against one another in some way and that the character has to be one step ahead of what the reader expects. Sarah fills that role for the narrator. She puts truth to the lie, i.e., the lie of the idyllic life in the 50s, the truth about desire and longings. Her presence undermines the notion that everything that needed to be known was known. Her presence dashes that to pieces. She pushes so hard that she even tells the narrator that he’s never going to have what she has. She recognizes the power his shame has over him.

AR      Here’s another line I’d like you to talk about, if you will:  

“Disclosure, not secrets:  that’s what the Fifties was really about. Forget the narrow waist and the wide skirt. The naked body underneath was beautiful.”

Do you mean this in the literal sense?

EMW      In a literal but sarcastic sense. The narrator is calling out a lot of the repression from the 50s. The more you repress, the more you call attention to it. We often think of the 50s as the time of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson. But, it was also a time of hypersexuality. Look at Marilyn Monroe and Little Richard. It was hidden in plain sight. Also, people had scripted secrecy around so many things—sexuality, the war, family conflict. But the 50s became about exposing what was underneath. For example, there was a tendency during that time to “out” all the deviants, to call out anything that was perceived as being deviant, for example, Communists, or even the alcoholic down the street. In the story, a neighbor, Mr. Thompson loses his job because he drinks. He is literally cast out of his company. We wouldn’t think of doing that today. John Wayne with his WWII stories was what we wanted in a war hero. He was the model, but there was plenty of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in those days, and there was nowhere to go with that. The injunction was to forget, to live like they lived in Grease or in Happy Days.

AR      Here is the final line I’ll ask about.

“When Sarah had said that, [choose Debbie], she was telling me to choose to be happy, but I wanted to tell her that happiness was the hardest thing to choose of all.”

EMW       This is the character fulfilling his role as a character burdened by shame. He can’t own up to his desire to be with Debbie. He has to choose it, not just accept it as a natural feeling. Debbie must even work to persuade him to have sex because he has such a strong sense of being undeserving. This goes back to the image of the car bumping its way down from the ridge after they have sex. It serves to emphasize the shame he attaches to his desire. He has front-loaded shame onto the act. He is not ready to accept his longings.

AR      Is the story autobiographical in any way?

EMW       No. I didn’t grow up in the 50s. It actually came from two nuggets of information given to me by my mother. When she was growing up, her father bought the family a used limousine because he thought it would be good for hauling around their large family. For some reason, my mother, like Sarah in the story, was compelled by her parents to drive the car at the age of twelve. That’s where the similarities end. Just some nuggets from which to start a story.

AR       Who has influenced you?

EMW       Those that I can list off the top of my head include Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Barry Lopez. Of course, there are many others. In fact, a wonderful writer I studied with during my MFA at the University of Montana in 1991 is Kent Nelson. He also has a story, “The Way Out,” in the current issue of The Antioch Review. I was thrilled when I saw that. I have always admired his work. I also had a wonderful mentor here in Portland, Martha Gies. She still runs a writer’s workshop out of her home. In her pedagogy, we spent as much time studying famous stories as we spent on our own. Reading is such a critical part of my process. There is a huge connection between what we read and what we write. Admittedly, anytime I have tried to imitate a particular style the effort has fallen flat, but one thing that is productive for me, when I am studying a piece, is to write the entire story out in longhand and annotate as I go along. There is something about that process that gives me insight into what is going on in the story. You can see little pieces of tension that are being set up. Later you can see how things begin to tighten up. Then, you can bring that awareness into your own stories. That process has been extremely valuable to me.

AR      What is the writing process like for you? How do you approach a new story?

EMW      I write whenever I can. I am a middle school teacher, so I’m really busy during the school year. Small chunks of free time are extremely important to me.

As far as how I approach a story, well, it’s variable. Typically I get a kernel of an idea, or a vision of a character, or an interesting choice someone needs to make, or even an object. Then I do a ton of free writing. I call this the “kitchen sink” phase. I throw anything and everything, including the kitchen sink, onto the page. At some point I feel like I have enough and I begin to aggregate the writing. I begin to put it into some kind of order on my computer. From there I start on the opening. I am always looking for the voice. If I can find the voice early on, I know the story is going to tell itself. It’s almost like the story takes over any intention I had for it. If I can’t find the voice, I go back to free-writing.

Of course, there have been some that didn’t work out. The voice that I thought was taking over the story was wrong. I feel like I might as well give up everything and start over. That’s what makes the kitchen-sink phase so critical. If I’ve gathered enough in the initial phase, I’m less likely to have to waste time pushing forward with the wrong voice.

The opening of the story is so vital because if I have found the right voice, the entire story is evident in that opening paragraph. This is one of my Kent Nelson tips. I know it’s not considered good writing to open with a lengthy first paragraph but sometimes the voice feels so exactly right for the story that it just expands the first paragraph like a balloon. In fact, in “The Limousine” the initial paragraph was actually more than one page long. I reworked it into three smaller paragraphs to make it more readable.

AR      What’s next? A novel?

EMW      More short stories. I don’t feel like I have the time to write a novel. I’ve started a couple and have some drafts but I’m not happy with them. Maybe I’m like Raymond Carver and will only write short stories. If I remember correctly, he blamed his short stories on his kids, as he was folding their clothes in a laundromat. But I’m probably more willing than that to own the fact that I like writing short stories.

© 2013 The Antioch Review