NER author Douglas Silver talks with editorial panelist Alicia Romero about his new piece “Borders and Crossings” in 39.4, a captivating personal-political primer on US history from the switchboard of the White House. Silver speaks of creating endings that would make the great Flannery O’Connor proud with their unexpectedness, and his hope that “by the story’s conclusion the reader has reassessed his or her notion of borders.”
Alicia Romero: You parallel a chronology of American history from after WWII to the Vietnam War with the chronology of a marriage. How were you able to keep such a laser focus on the evolution of a relationship within the context of this long, tumultuous timeline? Are there parallels between the historical events and the marital conflicts, in terms of mistakes, disappointments, dishonesty, and racism ?
Douglas Silver: Deciding which historical moments to spotlight and omit was a challenge, but my first loyalty is to the characters and their desires. By rooting the tension in the shifting intimacies and conflicts of this family, I hoped to draw on historical events in a manner that would complicate the characters’ personal struggles without the narrative slipping into a primer on US history during late capitalism. The obstacles of this piece varied depending on the day, but certainly there was a balancing act of sorts—though I would say all stories demand balance. Through the initial draft, a voice in the cheap seats of my brain heckled me over the story’s length. Once the narrative exceeded the boundaries of a traditional short story, I accepted this would be a difficult piece to place in a lit mag and so why not go all out. Thankfully, it didn’t scare off the intrepid Carolyn Kuebler and you wonderful folks at NER, and for that I am eternally grateful. There are parallels between the evolution of a family and of a country, and I will resist the urge to spell out too much and risk spoiling the experience for a potential reader.
AR: The switchboard operators filtered some of the content to the White House during the years that this story takes place, but very little gets filtered now. Has the world communicated electronically about politics for longer than we think? Did using the switchboard as a vehicle for political views present any challenges?
DS: Foregrounding the switchboard was an initial challenge, largely because I did not know the first thing about switchboards or White House communications. But as I began delving into the history of the profession and its role in government, I saw numerous opportunities to depict the sociopolitical climate and the gamut of concerns Americans bring to (or blame on) their commander in chief. You ask, “Has the world communicated electronically about politics for longer than we think?” I appreciate your phrasing; it has been doing so longer than I thought it was before I began my research. The first telephone (and switchboard) was installed in the White House in 1877, under President Rutherford B. Hayes. (However, it would be another fifty years before a telephone was placed in the Oval Office, at the request of newly-elected president Herbert Hoover.) As for filtering, I’m not sure there is significantly less filtering today. For one, the White House switchboard is still in place. There was a funny incident in 2010 when Secretary Clinton could not get through to a White House official because the switchboard operator did not believe the woman on the phone was in fact Secretary Clinton. Sure, anyone can hop on social media and @ the president, but that’s more of a feel-good exercise, akin to the complaints Genevieve receives from piqued callers she has no intention of connecting to the Oval Office. It’s my understanding that most people, including Congress members and high-ranking diplomats, don’t have a direct line to the president. In this White House in particular, I suspect a message undergoes a tremendous amount of filtering and paraphrasing before being delivered to the chief executive.
AR: Right from the start, the title and the first sentence upend the reader’s expectation of the story’s subject. The characters behave in unexpected ways. How important is the element of surprise for you as a writer?
DS: Yes, the title does not suggest the ensuing subject matter. My hope is that by the story’s conclusion the reader has reassessed his or her notion of borders beyond traditional landmasses, and the title feels apt. I’m glad the story surprised you at points. Subverting a reader’s expectations is an aim of every story I tell; often the most lasting influence of a narrative occurs at those junctures of startlement and disorientation, when the writer generates a sense of cognitive dissonance that the reader must reconcile. How it happens I never really know; the parts of my stories that people usually deem most surprising to read are the parts I was most surprised to write.
AR: Short story endings can be problematic. In this story the reader is left with the question: Will Tyler be a good father? Describe how you approach endings and do you recall ones that you have admired by other writers?
DS: The dramatic irony of Genevieve contemplating Tyler’s future fatherhood is a heft I hope weighs on readers well after the story’s final page. To your point, endings are hard. I think many writers, myself included, strive to achieve an earned and devastating conclusion that would make Flannery O’Connor proud with its “inevitable surprise.” But more than anything, I have to be true to the characters and what I believe they would do. Surprise at the expense of verisimilitude is a poor bargain. Predictably, some of my favorite endings belong to some of my favorite stories: “The Mappist” by Barry Lopez; “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff; “The Reverse Bug” by Lore Segal; Daniel Alarcón’s most recent collection The King Is Always Above the People is chockfull of stellar endings. I could go on and on, but I will leave it at that.
AR: You weave American history so fluently throughout the story. Are you a history instructor? Why did you choose to structure your story using historical events?
DS: I am not a history instructor, but I appreciate that the detail led you to believe I was one. Several factors contributed to the narrative structure, one being that I’ve been hankering to investigate a character’s life over a protracted swath of time. Secondly, upon learning about the machinations of the White House switchboard I was fascinated by the operators who helmed those posts. Genevieve’s position makes world events a central element of her daily interactions. This not only facilitated the integration of history but to some extent demanded it. To ignore history would have meant to ignore the person.
AR: Do you believe in American institutions and the institution of marriage? Do you think they’ll survive?
DS: I believe in people. Institutions, be they governmental or matrimonial, are only as resilient and venerable as those who inhabit them. My belief in this country, though it has wavered in recent years, remains intact and speaks to a faith not in bureaucratic levers but in the decency of a majority of our populace. Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve taken away from our current political and social turmoil is that we cannot rely on our institutions to save us; we are their custodians, not vice versa. This, too, can be said for any relationship. It must be tended to and respected if it is to endure, let alone thrive. Of course, if history is prophecy (as it invariably is), since the dawn of humankind every empire has eventually fallen much as every marriage has eventually ended; nothing, flesh or regime, survives forever. One day, the United States of America will be no more and we and our partners and partnerships will have expired and all that will remain, if we are lucky, are various stories, by and about us for future generations to pick over. But until then, we must fight.