Can you talk more about the process of writing “Photographs?” Was it always flash? It strikes me as a story that in some ways could have been much longer.
For me, “Photographs” was always a flash piece. When I started writing it I was living in Washington, D.C., and spending a reasonable part of each weekend at museums—maybe the Sackler and the Freer or the Hirshhorn. I didn’t spend too much time in the National Gallery, but would stop in when they had new exhibitions. I think I had recently seen the Gary Winogrand exhibition there, and it just sort of stuck with me. It got me thinking about what it would be like to recognize yourself in a photograph—potentially a very famous one—that you hadn’t known existed up to that point.
That was the genesis of the story. I didn’t really see a long chain of causality attached to that recognition. It was the recognition itself that interested me, but of course that’s not even enough plot to hang a story on, so I kept hunting around for conflict and wound up writing the rest of what became “Photographs.”
I think that original focus on the recognition helped keep the story brief. That’s unusual for me. I tend to be longwinded.
You might already know this, but indulge me in some speculative thinking for a moment. What happens during the car ride home from the exhibit between Nemanja and his wife?
I think it’s a quiet car ride. Nemanja is disturbed by the reaction of the people around him and his own unwillingness to admit he can’t see what’s going on in the photographs. I think he has to sit with his deceit, sort of let it fester inside until it requires action. I think his wife is more likely to act, to talk about what they’ve just experienced, but I don’t think she’s capable of really drawing Nemanja out. Who or what could? He’s just been deceiving a roomful of people and maybe himself. He doesn’t seem likely to stop.
Where does a story start for you? Is it usually through an idea or a concept or is it through imagery or character? And if it’s at all possible to answer, why do you think it starts there for you?
Different stories start in different ways. The impetus for the story I’m writing now was the line, “The stonemen sing with the dawn.” That image/line just refused to flush itself from my brain. With “Photographs,” it was the idea of discovering yourself in a famous photograph. To begin with, the tension was originally invested in the character’s wife being present. Would the photograph reveal some hidden part of his past? Would it treat him unfairly or unflatteringly? How much could the photographs matter? What if it made apparent something he didn’t know about himself?
I suppose for me stories begin with the desire—sometimes desperate—to explain something, to be understood. The stonemen line is pretty dorky, but for me there’s a sense of wonder underlying it that is maybe related to my religious upbringing and the line from Luke 19:40, “And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.” That’s not to say I’m religious, but the feeling that I get when I think about the stonemen line, that’s what I want to evoke in the reader. The art is finding and using the correct tools to evoke that feeling in someone else.
You get to (or have to depending on how you might feel about other writers) have a dinner party with three other writers. They can be currently living or just reanimated for the night, whatever. Who do you choose? Why?
Andre Dubus, Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor. I would love to be a part of that conversation. Some brilliant folks who would inevitably get to the important questions and come to complicated, humane answers in a reasonably civilized way.