Welcome to “Behind the Byline,” the column in which we share conversations with our current NER writers in all genres. NER fiction editor Janice Obuchowski speaks with Steve De Jarnatt, author of “Wraiths in Swelter,” which appears in NER 36.2.
The ghost element bushwhacked me late. It was probably the last aspect of the story that materialized. I wasn’t consciously channeling any fiction author (except perhaps Stuart Dybek a bit for his extensive paean to the City of the Big Shoulders). I think it was more an attempt to emulate all the great creative nonfiction going on these days. None of the subject matter is from my life, but I was trying to convey a fictional character’s confessional memoir. Some cohorts from my Antioch Los Angeles MFA program—Antonia Crane, Patrick O’Neill, Jillian Lauren, and others—have published brave personal sagas of their lost years and redemptions. They lived through it—I just make things up.
JO: I was quite taken with the sophistication of the imagery—not just of death and destruction but of a kind of limbo between life and death. At the outset the young girl walks on the heads of the dying to escape a theater gone up in flames. Later a junkie is revived after falling into a near-death state. Buddy, of course, is between states too, having fallen out of the life he was leading and now casting about aimlessly. Does the notion of purgatory hold particular resonance for you?
There were a few main touchstones that sparked the story and perhaps the limbo of the characters. Foremost was remembering the mass burials of hundreds of very old people who had perished during the Chicago heat wave of 1995. I didn’t research much until a draft was written but tried to vet things later from various sources. A great book by Eric Klinenberg—Heatwave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago—is a must read on the subject of civic failure.
Writing this tale was also probably an attempt to find empathy for a few friends I thought I knew well, with great lives set out before them, who opted to disappear down rabbit holes instead, leaving me in limbo trying to understand.
The lingering image/anecdote of a child walking on heads to save herself in a theater fire remains a phantom. I used to pour through yellowing newspapers in library stacks decades ago, looking for film ideas, and thought I remembered this happening somewhere, though not the Iroquois Theater fire. All I had was a bad sketch and a few notes in an old folder but was unable to find mention of it anywhere on the net. Perhaps it was a dream or that ghost trying to get some ink.
Purgatory to me has always been just the images of Dore engravings in Dante’s Inferno I would leaf through as a kid. I was raised Unitarian (though I still have no idea what we are supposed to believe), and religions fascinate me. It’s been pointed out that I often have some spiritual element in my short stories, and characters seeking grace through ordeal are a recurring theme. Music and faith seem to me among the most magical of human creations, though I find most beliefs too insular and just too minuscule in their scope. If they weren’t prescient about the 10,000 galaxies the Hubble just found in a supposedly starless hole in the sky, then what could they possibly really know about the big picture?
JO: You’re a film and television director, along with being a writer. Notably you directed Miracle Mile (1989), an apocalyptic film. Does your experience with directing influence your writing? Or perhaps vice versa?
I think there is some comparison in the crafts in that you start with your inspiration or vision, you write a lot of words (or shoot a lot of footage), but the story or film is often found in the revision process or the editing room. I did get to witness genius in its prime while working as a projectionist and trim filer for Terry Malick in the Days of Heaven editing room. Observing him willing his vision into being was a huge inspiration for my filmmaking, and also for fiction, and anything else in life for that matter.
For this story I wrote blind a lot more than I usually do, though coming from film I can’t help but to feel plot a few curves ahead even if I try not to—imbedded in the muscle memory by now, I guess. But this one was written in a very inefficient, mosaic fashion—out of sequence, then stitched together and distilled from more than twice the word count. Cannot seem to keep a short story under 9K words these days. I almost always write in third person, and before I settled on first person for this one there was that sad attempt at the near impossible second person. After the umpteenth “You….” readers begin to scream unless the author is a true word master.
JO: Do you have any connections to Chicago, the setting of “Wraiths in Swelter”? You seem to have a good grasp of the city.
My father was born in a log cabin in southern Illinois and our family use to visit Chicago on cross-country trips out from the state of Washington where I grew up. I am told I saw a no-hitter at Wrigley—though to a young child that’s of course a total bore fest, I still have the program. I did direct some television there, a few scenes for ER and also the ’90s syndicated show The Untouchables, but mainly I just did enough research to feign verisimilitude.
JO: Your stories in general have violence at their centers and are richly textured—the prose being ornate, rococo, thickly detailed. Do you see a connection between your prose style and the topics you choose to write about?
I do seem to inflict a lot of misery on my characters, and I guess I view storytelling as a crucible or arena that often has severe consequences involved. Maybe that’s a fear of boring an audience, I’m not sure.
I am still very wet behind the ears when it comes to literary fiction and I am aware of my excess. Stephen Donadio had said of my other NER story, “Her Great Blue,” that it was a display of “unfettered imagination,” and I just might want that for the title of my story collection.
I love how you termed it—ornate/rococo—and I have to cop to that. Some of that might be due to mild dyslexia. My syntax arrives strange at first and I probably work too hard avoiding normal sentences. It can be exhausting for me (and perhaps readers), but that’s what’s fun about writing fiction—going a bit over the top. To make a cinematic analogy, at this point my prose is using a crane shot or circular dolly track much of the time, abusing the Vertigo shot (zooming in/tracking back) instead of employing the elegant, Bresson-style naturalistic coverage that more subtle and seasoned writers might use.
I am trying to keep things a little more fettered with a leaner, cleaner page-turning style in the two novels I’m working on at present. I think if/when I do go back and write a script, I will have made a quantum craft leap for having abandoned it for this apprenticeship in the art of fiction. Particularly when it comes to voluntary revision. I don’t think you ever really finish a story, and I could scribble eternally, whereas most screenwriters get self-satisfied with their gems too early in the game. Part of that is a protective instinct, since producer and studio notes often tear the heart out of everything you were trying to do. I am still astonished at how reasonable and universally helpful notes in the literary world are.
Steve De Jarnatt splits his time between Port Townsend, Washington, and Venice, California. His writing has appeared in Santa Monica Review, Meridian, Joyland, Cincinnati Review, Missouri Review, New Stories from the Midwest 2013, and Best American Short Stories 2009, among others. He was a fiction scholar at the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences in 2012 and 2013, respectively. He is also the director of two cult feature films, Miracle Mile and Cherry 2000, just released on Blu-ray. His story “Her Great Blue” appeared in NER 34.1.