A character type I find myself writing a lot is Person with nothing concrete at the center of their life, who, in their hunger for meaning, grabs ahold of a shaky set of principles / practices / ambitions and refuses to let go.
Author Ryan Eric Dull talks with NER fiction reader Andrew Kane about writing “The Corridor” (NER 41.2), which included “a lot of time pressed up against the wall trying to figure it out.”
Andrew Kane: This story is so thoroughly unexpected—it begins with the protagonist, Alex, relocating from Baltimore to Providence, and ends with him slathered in peanut oil, nude but for a belt, with enough food and water to survive several days inside an eight-inch-wide crevice. How did the idea for this piece come to be? Did it arrive more or less fully formed, or were extensive brainstorming and revisions necessary?
Ryan Eric Dull: The central idea kind of dropped from the ceiling. My wife wondered aloud why someone on social media was trying to lose weight and I said, “Maybe he’s trying to get through a really tight hallway,” which struck me as a funny thing to get passionate about, to be looking at this hallway every day thinking, “Soon.” From there, it was all step-by-step logical chain stuff: What kind of person does he need to be to end up wanting this so badly? What needs to be true about the building that it has this weird, barely usable hallway? The building renovations paralleled Alex’s self-transformation in a way that felt interesting, so I tried to make those elements dovetail. I wrote the first draft for a workshop (thanks again to Ben Loory and that whole group! Can I do shout-outs here? If so, my wife from a few sentences ago is named Allison) and I didn’t have a lot of time, so it was a lot of writing impulsively, letting one idea chase the next, that kind of thing. By this process, I gradually turned a spontaneous goof into a studied, laborious goof.
AK: There is a wonderful sense of physicality throughout the story, ranging from comical to terrifying—the scene where Alex becomes briefly stuck in the corridor reminded me of nothing so much as the starkest passages from James Salter’s rock-climbing novel Solo Faces. What was your vision for the overall tone of the piece? Was there any specific goal you hoped to achieve by working in the space between these modes?
RED: I’m glad the physicality works! I spent a lot of time pressed up against the wall trying to figure it out. Generally, I don’t think about tone in an instrumental way—I usually have a kind of intuitive sense of how I want the story to feel and then I orient all of the elements toward that feeling. In this case, I think the core concept of the story is so goofy that I had to keep the tone pretty earnest or it would have felt weightless. Maybe there’s a way to tell this story where Alex faces a little more ridicule from other characters and from the story itself, so the reader is a little more alienated from him and experiences the story more analytically. That could be interesting. But I wanted to take him seriously, which meant the struggle had to be genuinely arduous and the hallway had to be genuinely menacing. And of course treating something really undeniably silly with a lot of gravity creates kind of a funny dissonance for the reader, so everything feels heightened and strange. Ideally, I want to create an atmosphere where every sentence could plausibly end with a joke or a life-altering disaster.
AK: The character of Alex emerges in surprising ways. On the one hand, he willingly accepts his fairly dull workaday job; on the other, a primary reason for his return to Providence is that he remembers it as “alive with passionate intention”—certainly something he regains, though perhaps not in the way he had expected. What was it that drew you to writing this particular character, and how were you able to fully explore a protagonist whose primary arc is concerned with training to shimmy through a very tight space?
RED: A character type I find myself writing a lot is “Person with nothing concrete at the center of their life, who, in their hunger for meaning, grabs ahold of a shaky set of principles/practices/ambitions and refuses to let go.” Alex is reminiscing about a moment in his life where everyone around him had just finished the really purposeful, goal-oriented experience of formal education and was trying to ride that momentum into the rest of their lives. Now he’s becoming aware, without a lot of real understanding, that he never settled on any stable source of meaning, so he’s kind of drifting through his life, totally vulnerable to anything that can give him a sense of purpose. This is a pretty extreme version of that character type—he has to be searching so frantically with so little success or direction that this hallway adventure seems like a strong option. And once he’s invested, it’s like any other big ambition: he studies it, he approaches it from different angles, he arrives over and over again at junctures where he might reasonably decide it’s not worth the trouble, and every time he chooses to press ahead, he invests more of himself into the project, he makes it more and more this grand, totemic thing that has very little to do with his concrete goal and a lot to do with the heat of the ambition itself, everything else in his life is either incorporated into the ambition or discarded, and eventually he douses himself in peanut oil.
AK: The story walks a fine line between the straight-faced and the absurd, and the dialogue follows suit—a single spoken line can feel at once comical and vaguely sinister. Do you have a particular process for writing dialogue that feels so alive and believable on the page?
RED: Oh! My process is: I talk to myself a lot. I stage a scene in my head and kind of improvise through it over and over again and make a lot of dramatic facial expressions. When a phrase starts to feel resonant, I’ll iterate on that for a while and eventually write it down. This technique is easier to practice at home than at the library.
AK: Do you see this story as being part of a particular tradition of fiction writing? Who are some authors who have had an impact on you, either for this piece specifically or else as a writer in general?
RED: One possible influence for this piece that sticks out in my mind: I’d recently read the Brian Evenson story “Watson’s Boy,” which is about a family living a very narrow, ritualistic life in a labyrinth that is never explained or justified to the reader. It’s a real “begin with a blank space, then add a few elements” kind of story where the whole narrative universe is a handful of people in a fixed space, and it really drives home the lesson that any narrative circumstance can be visceral and affecting as long as the writer takes the characters’ experiences seriously. For a while after I read it, I was treating weird, implausible ideas for stories with a deeper respect. I probably wouldn’t have written this story if I hadn’t read that one. I definitely wouldn’t have written it so earnestly. Some other big names for me are Karen Joy Fowler, Steven Millhauser, Charles Portis, and Karen Russell, whose impact is maybe kind of traceable in this story, and Samuel R. Delany, Ted Chiang, E. L. Doctorow, and Annie Dillard, whose impact here is probably just about invisible.
Ryan Eric Dull lives in Southern California. His work has appeared in the Missouri Review and the Pushcart Prize Anthology and is upcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
Andrew Kane is a writer and editor currently living in Brooklyn, New York. He writes for NPR’s Ask Me Another, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Rumpus, Rupture, the Normal School, Rattle, and elsewhere.