NER fiction editor Janice Obuchowski caught up with author Tamas Dobozy to talk about his story “Steyr Mannlicher” from the current issue of NER (37.3).
JO: This story is a wonderful take on contemporary noir. Is this familiar territory for you as a writer—working with these themes of violence and detective work—or was this story a departure for you?
TD: Violence, not a departure. Detective writing, yes, a departure. Though aren’t all works of fiction detective stories in one way or another? Trying to get through that muddle of misinformation that we use to guide our lives? Did Paul Auster say that? I can’t remember. But this is the first story in which I actualized the main character as a police detective. It was fun to do that, wander into more obvious genre territory, and then play around with that. If I’m to be totally honest, though, I was thinking less of detective fiction than of doing something with a clear political bent, focused on issues around poverty, addiction, the law’s response (or not) to violence in certain quarters, gun culture. The detective character just seemed to me a great character to explore that through, but, then, of course, as the story moved from idea to actuality, the main character took over and made it his own, as always happens, and the specificity of ideas (or my take on them) disappeared under the specificity of his view of the world. This story was actually borne out of an earlier and much shorter story that didn’t feature the main character, Costa, at all. In fact, the only thing that survived from that story in this one is the first paragraph and the description of the gun. Another writer looked over that earlier story and told me it was a total failure, so I just salvaged what I could and moved in a different direction.
JO: The writing takes on this extraordinary play when it comes to the gun. It’s an instrument of pointless horror—used to kill Theresa Dallaire and her four children, and spurring the policeman Costa to investigate this crime—but the gun also suggests an ordering principle. It has engraved on it the initials TD, and as the story progresses it appears that only people who have these initials use the gun. Thomas Dorchester, Tetyana Dedov, Theresa Dallaire, and perhaps, in the end, Tony da Costa. I love that in a story about meaningless violence, a pattern emerges. Or, a layering of meaning occurs, at least, to Costa as he investigates his crime. Were you thinking about this contrast as you drafted the piece?
TD: All that really happens with the gun, for me, is that poor exhausted Costa, looking for some way out of his considerable trouble, personal and professional, decides to read an ordering principle into it, to try to cut down on the white noise around him, and it nearly destroys him. I think it’s a common thread through much of my work, our attraction to various ordering principles, and how misguided and fatal this can be. I wrote a story once about a zookeeper who comes to see a lion as his salvation and it ultimately kills him, though maybe in some way that’s what he wants (so even here the symbol kind of collapses on itself through its internal contradictions). I love how Flannery O’Connor does this in her work, especially “The Geranium,” or Joy Williams with the hotrod in “Rot” and the snake in “Lu-Lu,” but Faulkner does it best, probably in novels such as The Sound and the Fury, Go Down Moses, etc. The failure of symbolic ordering.
But in some way this answer is a bit misleading or maybe presented backwards. I don’t set out with this kind of notion in mind. I look back and see it in the writing. What I do when setting out is write about characters in extremis or at a crossroads in some way (and which writer doesn’t do this?), who then become obsessive or fixated on something, someone, or some idea (and which writer doesn’t do this?), pinning to it various hopes and dreads. That’s all. What is the gun in this story a symbol of? I have no idea. It functions differently for all the characters, just like anything else. It’s very hard to break out of solipsism, if at all.
JO: I was also interested in how the investigation spurs constant small narratives in the text—people who owned the gun or came in contact with Theresa erupt in stories. Ed Dorchester talks of his father killing himself. One of Theresa’s exes begins grossly cavalier and ends in tears talking about Theresa’s children and her poor job of taking care of them. It struck me as Chaucerian, all these people briefly telling tales, revealing things about themselves to Costa, even as some of the central mysteries—Why is Costa’s wife so ill? And who killed Theresa and her children?—remain unresolved. Was this another contrast you were interested in exploring? Thematically it seems to pinpoint that we can live in a world crowded with stories and yet still remain confused about why things are happening around us.
TD: Yes, absolutely. See my answer above. This is the same sort of thing: the stories we tell are also ordering principles. We use them to secure some kind of meaning, even if it’s only causal meaning, in our lives. I do love Chaucer, and also Boccaccio, those narratives about people telling each other stories. One of my favorite films of all time is Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Have you seen it? It’s also a book, but I haven’t read it. I watch Rashomon every six months or so to remind me how crazed we are for stories and symbols and various other handholds on reality, and how it all ultimately fails. The end of that film, the sheer horror on the face of the character at the edge of the ruined temple (note: ruined temple) is fantastic. As for the lack of resolution, I think that’s fairly commonplace these days, such as the anti-epiphanies of a writer like Alice Munro, where the realization at the end is that you can’t make realizations, that knowledge is ripped away, that the whole apparatus you were depending on was illusory at best, and harmful and fatal at worst.
JO: Did you have any writers in mind as you were writing “Steyr Mannlicher”?
TD: No, not really, other than the usual stable of writers I always have in mind: Alvaro Mutis, Joy Williams, Patrick Modiano, Mavis Gallant, Claudio Magris, Alice Munro, Paul Bowles, Camilo Jose Cela, Gyula Krudy, Agota Kristof, Max Frisch, etc. I do know that I wanted to write it very lean. I wanted it to fly along. I think it does represent a shift in that way. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with sentence fragments to that extent before, so there was a technical aspect to it that I wanted to explore. It’s funny, but that’s almost always what gets me writing. Not character, not situation, not idea, not narrative. It’s really just this one question: How am I going to write today? What will my sentences look like? What kind of diction will come into play?
JO: You dedicated this short story to Colleen Murphy, a Canadian playwright. Did she inspire this work? If so, how?
TD: Yes, Colleen won the Governor General’s award for her amazing play, Pig Girl. Colleen was the writer mentioned above who read the initial version of this story and told me it wasn’t working. She was writer-in-residence here at Laurier—the university where I work—a few years ago and her work just blew my mind. It was so direct, so confrontational, so fearless. It made me think that when you sit down to write it really needs to matter. You shouldn’t be just mucking around. There were such extremes of emotion there, and it was so utterly political (but not in a doctrinaire or partisan kind of way; rather, politics as a disposition of imaginative and empathic openness). And all of it was handled with such flawless technical precision. I left the two readings she gave kind of mesmerized, driving home, that sort of white glow around the edges of my vision.
JO: What are you working on now? More stories? A novel?
TD: Stories. Only ever stories. I am not a novelist. It requires too much discipline and patience. I get bored by the length of it. I’m working on fusing the essay with the story and have a piece coming out in Agni any day now that does just that. Same with a piece coming out in the next Chattahoochee Review. Plug, plug.