by Katy Bowman
We recently interviewed Rick DeMarinis, whose story “Afternoon in Byzantium” ran in The Antioch Review, 2014 summer all-fiction issue and garnered the Review recognition as a finalist in the fiction category of the 2015 National Magazine Awards from the American Society of Magazine Editors.
The story is about the death of Winston Harp, a retired car salesman who has been falling into dementia. Through several perspectives—that of Winston himself; his wife; his wife’s boyfriend, who also happens to be his former business partner; and the policeman who responds to the scene of his death—we learn not only about the story behind his death, but how that story is shaped and appropriated by those around him.
AR: “Afternoon in Byzantium” is about a lot more than the death of an unambitious car salesman. It is about—among other things—our complicity as humans in the things that happen to us, whether intended or not. Can you talk about what you wanted to accomplish in this story?
RD: Stories, good stories, are always about more than they at first seem. The writer has an inkling about these unexpected things, an inkling that becomes clear when the first draft of the story is complete but usually not before. Here’s what I mean by that: the story doesn’t begin with meaning, it ends with meaning. What I had in mind initially was a story about unintentional suicide. In his dementia, the old man dreams of a happier period of his life, childhood. Death to him seems to be the way back into that period. Dancing backward toward the deep end of the pool is his unconscious plan to achieve that goal, even though Corliss has a hand in his final act. His life has been unfulfilling and relatively sad. Corliss and her boyfriend are active accomplices in the old man’s plan.
AR: Corliss seems unusually cruel—calling the police to report Winston’s death before he has even fallen in the pool. Can you tell me more about her?
RD: Corliss is not cruel, but indifferent and fed up with her marriage to a passive man who, though a decent provider, has never been ambitious, either as a salesman or husband. She also may have a streak of madness. She feels she has enough youth left (though she’s in her mid-sixties) to make the rest of her life joyful. We find out differently through the inventive ideas of the policeman/writer as he tries to elaborate his notions in a fiction workshop of the events he’s just witnessed. (That part of the story–and the most fun to write–wasn’t in any way planned. It took me by surprise.)
AR: What do you mean that it took you by surprise? What about it was so much fun?
RD: It took me by surprise in that I hadn’t planned to have a cop/writer discuss the case as if it were a subject for fiction. Based on his superficial investigation, he “creates” the characters the reader, “knows” are real, or at least partially real. The metafictionists of the 1960s did this sort of thing. As I suggested previously, a good story will subvert any “plan” the writer has in mind if he or she isn’t flexible enough to abandon some or all of it. If the writer knows all the answers prior to writing, he or she will produce a very dull story indeed. This is true of all the arts. Painters make discoveries as they paint; colors and forms they didn’t plan appear on the canvas. There’s no fun in art if this doesn’t happen.
AR: Do you see Winston as a tragic character? Do you think he was complicit in his own death?
RD: Winston’s life is not any more tragic than that of most folks. The difference in Byzantium is that the reader gets the inside story, whereas an obituary account in the local newspapers gives only flattering details. Imagine the newspaper account of Winston’s life–“half owner of H and L Buick, member of chamber of commerce, honorably discharged army veteran,” etc. Fiction’s job is to correct that sort of pollyanna nonsense. Byzantium in that sense is over the top, but that’s also what a good story can do if handled right.
AR: Every time I read this story, I see new details that shed more light on Winston’s life and character. For example, I realized that Winston is dancing backward because he is happiest when he is not leading. He has never wanted to lead. What kind of work does it take to get details like this right? Do you obsess over them or do they come naturally (or is the truth somewhere in between)?
RD: I do obsess over stories. I love them. Do I lift them from other peoples’ lives? Yes and no. But if I do, the people whose lives I colonize would never recognize themselves. In fact, I would only use a fraction of the their truths. We, as writers, can never know the whole truth anyway. That’s the part we invent. I work best when I’m writing about aspects of myself, true or not so true.
Rick DeMarinis has published nine novels, six story collections, and a book on the art and craft of the short story. Magazine publications include The Antioch Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Epoch, Esquire, GQ, Grand Street, Harper’s, The Iowa Review, The Paris Review, and others. He taught fiction writing at several universities, retiring from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1999.
Katy Bowman is a writer living near Dayton, Ohio. She has had writing published at The Rumpus, Flash Me Magazine, Circa, and Dayton Mom-Spot. She has also volunteered as an Assistant Fiction Editor for the Antioch Review for the last three years.
© The Antioch Review 2015