An Interview with Murray Farish

12 Jun
Murray Farish

Murray Farish’s story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes stories about Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley, Jr.

Murray Farish’s debut story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken. Farish’s short stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Epoch, Roanoke Review, FiveChapters, and Black Warrior Review, among other publications. His work has been awarded the William Peden Prize, the Phoebe Fiction Prize, and the Donald Barthelme Memorial Fellowship Prize. Farish lives with his wife and two sons in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches writing and literature at Webster University.

In this interview, Farish discusses the accretion of American pain, the despair of not finding the right ending, and writing stories in a world in which CEOs make 350 times the salary of their workers.

To read the collection’s title story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” and exercises on breaking narrative rules, click here.

Michael Noll

Early in the story, George and Miranda are discussing their son’s behavior and the problems he’s causing at school, and George says, “I just thank God that he’s healthy.” The conversation that followed really struck me for a couple of reasons. One, I have kids, and I think that I’ve probably said something similar to this. Two, the conversation seems to announce that this story is going to run counter to some basic ideas about propriety. Generally, thanking God for a child’s health wouldn’t be considered morally bankrupt, but that’s exactly what Miranda suggests, and both the reader and George come to realize that she’s right. Did the story always begin this way, or did you write the dialogue to perform a particular function within the story?

Murray Farish

The first thing I wrote that made the cut in the final draft of “Inappropriate Behavior” was a version of a much later scene where Archie is lying on the couch trying to figure out which of his toys he’s taking to heaven when he dies. I have to write a lot of pages and take a lot of false paths before I figure out what a story is about and what I want to do with it. Once I figure that out, I try to orchestrate everything—scene, setting, dialogue, situation, character—around that realization. That orchestration became even more important in this story, which I think of as nearly plotless and almost totally free of character development.

Michael Noll

In several places, you create catalogues of George’s thoughts and snippets of news that he hears. I’ve seen stories make similar moves before but never to the extent that you make them. The catalogues are very long–and so there’s the inevitable risk of losing the narrative thread. But that’s not what happens. The juxtapositions in the catalogues are savage, and the paragraphs contain some of the most gut wrenching lines in the story. This is generally true of the story as a whole. There’s another section about paying bills that isn’t a catalogue but works in a similar way. I can imagine a lot of writers drafting a couple of lines about bills and then moving forward into the story, but you stay with the bills for ten paragraphs. I kept expecting the narrative to stall, but it never did. How did you keep the momentum moving?

Murray Farish

Especially in a story that is plotless and free of character development? I worried about it a lot, until I decided to trust in the orchestration—or if that’s too grand a term to keep repeating—to trust the design of the story. Once I figured out that the story I wanted to write was about the Great Recession and how it was the natural result of four decades of political, legislative, and cultural malpractice and neglect of the commonwealth—of the failure to live up to ideals that we the people are obligated, by ink and by blood, to try to live up to . . . well, you can see the problem, for a fiction writer. But if that’s the story you’ve got to write, that’s the story you’ve got to write, so you’ve got to figure out how to write it. I decided to create this little family and inflict upon them a steady accretion of American pain, and hope to build narrative momentum out of that accretion.

Michael Noll

I have to admit that I felt a thrill at the story’s description of St. Louis: “It feels like exactly what it is: a static, lifeless, dead-water burg, a place that lacked enough imagination to remake itself when people stopped using beaver pelts as currency, and that runs, after a fashion, on the inertia of old money.” And that’s just one sentence in a long paragraph that ends with a line of bitter sarcasm: “Here’s something people say about St. Louis: It’s a great place to raise kids.” I can’t remember the last time I read such a brutal takedown of a place. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to write something like that. Given that you live in St. Louis, do you worry that someone you know will read this story and get upset?

Murray Farish

Well, of course that’s George’s description of St. Louis, and St. Louis is a place he feels victimized by, in a way. All this bad stuff is happening to him and there’s no one around to try to help him out. But however St. Louisans would feel about the description, to the extent that they would find it accurate, we also have to realize how places like St. Louis have themselves been victimized by that same neglect I talked about before. One of the most troubling things I’ve seen in my forty-some years as an American is precisely that lack of imagination, a fearful inability to conceive of how things might be different, might be better. That lack of common vision hits places like St. Louis particularly hard. To the extent that a St. Louisan might find the description inaccurate or unfair, I guess I’d have to plead artistic license.

Michael Noll

By the story’s end, you’ve put the characters in such an intensely difficult situation that it’s natural as a reader to want to look away, to avert our eyes from what we suspect will happen. And that’s exactly what you do–you shift the point of view in a way that’s bound to bother some readers who will expect a neat conclusion. But I actually loved the ending. In a way, it reminded me of what Richard Ford does in Independence Day: His narrator, Frank Bascombe, fails repeatedly to connect and successfully parent his son, and when it seems as if nothing good can happen, Ford knocks the kid out of the novel–literally. The kid gets hit in the head with a baseball and is knocked unconscious. I found that particular move frustrating—a cheat on Ford’s part—because then everything starts going Bascombe’s way again. But in your story, the shift in POV (the looking away) doesn’t change the characters’ fortunes. But it makes them easier to read—not less disturbing or emotional but readable, as if there’s only so much misery readers can take before they walk away. Your ending kept me with the story. That’s a lot of words to ask, how did you approach the ending?

Murray Farish

Finding the ending was as close to real despair as I’ve ever had as a writer. I had worked for months to winnow hundreds of pages down to the final version, up to the scene where George goes for the last meeting at Archie’s school. I knew I loved this story, but the steady accretion of pain had left the Putnams, and me, in a corner where there was no way to write a narratively satisfying and honest ending that would change their fortunes in any way. Do some sort of Horatio Alger bit? Launch an alien invasion or some other cataclysm that renders the economy irrelevant? Have George blow his brains out? I wrote versions of all of these, and many others, including one ending replete with learned footnotes and pie-charts and bar-graphs, which I think you’ll agree with everyone else who read that version that it was a bad idea. Somewhere in the midst of that despair I looked at the school principal’s statement at the end of the last “realistic” scene: “I’m sure you have questions.” So I put the story away and just started making this long list of questions—some from George, some from Miranda, some from American lit and American history, recent and ancient. My notion was not that this catalog of questions would become the ending, but I hoped that some question in there would trigger an ending. Then I saw that those questions could be orchestrated in a way that felt to me very honest and risky and perhaps even resonant, and if I couldn’t do narratively satisfying, I could at least do those things. Jumping out of the third-person, realistic mode also allowed me to return to the Putnams in the voice of Archie and the style of the fairy tale. Archie may be in a lot of trouble, anchored to this sinking family of his, but at least he still has imagination, and he’s not afraid. That’s about the only note of hope I could stand to build into this story, the notion that the future might be better if we don’t lose our courage and our imaginations. But realistically, Archie’s probably screwed.

Michael Noll

A. O. Scott of The New York Times didn't like the way the film Away We Go portrayed red America. You can read his review here.

A. O. Scott of The New York Times didn’t like the way the film Away We Go portrayed “regular” Americans. You can read his review here.

Many stories create unlikable side characters and then reveal some redeeming part of them. But not this story. George thinks this: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything it is very likely to be my good behavior: what demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” Because I think we’re supposed to empathize with George and his point of view, this is a pretty damning indictment of a great swath of the population of St. Louis. It reminds me of the Dave Eggers film, Away We Go, about a couple on the verge of parenthood who travel America trying to find a good place to raise their kids. But everywhere they go, they find people they don’t like. The New York Times critic A. O. Scott angrily criticized the film’s “smug self-regard” and its portrayal of “red state grotesques” and said, “This movie does not like you.” Do you feel any obligation to find the good in every character? Or, to put it in the negative, do you think fiction suffers when it’s too nice and open-minded?

Murray Farish

The quoted question about good behavior is from American lit, one that Thoreau asks in Walden, but of course it applies to George as well, as well as to the overall point that this section and this story is trying to make—what is “inappropriate behavior?” Is it the stuff this goofy kid does to get in trouble at school, or is it unnecessary wars and drone strikes and cutting off people’s unemployment benefits? Is it one little kid hugging some other little kid or is it the Trail of Tears? Is it hyperactivity or the abjuration of our responsibilities to one another? If the fact that CEOs make 350 times the salary of their workers isn’t at the very least inappropriate, I don’t know what is. I think the only obligations fiction writers have are to write the best story they possibly can, and to give the reader something they can’t get from anyone else.

June 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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