Ernest McLeod: “Phoenix” opens with the story’s narrator, David, recalling how much a particular writer meant to him: “He was my writer. The writer whose verse I could recite on loop, by memory, whose words were literally etched into my skin.” When a friend gives David the writer’s book, he “stayed up all night that night reading with the sort of urgency one only musters at sixteen, when life still appears to bloom for you alone.” These lines tap into the special way art or artists can speak to us when we’re young and trying to discover our place. It led me to reflect on my own formative artistic influences. Were there writers or other artists who really rocked your youthful world and did you have any of them in mind while writing “Phoenix”?
Rob Franklin: There were definitely a bunch of inspirations for the character Roland, mainly my favorite gay writers. Both ones who loomed large in my adolescence, like Richard Siken and Edmund White, and ones, like David Wojnarowicz and Hervé Guibert, whom I first read more recently and to whom I felt an immediate (and perhaps unearned) kinship.
I was also thinking a lot about parasocial relationships and fandom in the internet age. There’s a poet, my generation, whose work I first encountered on Tumblr, years ago when I was a freshman in college — he had this project where he invited strangers to answer a series of questions about sex over email, then replied with answers of his own. A kind of experiment in intimacy and the internet. It’s funny because he’s now a friend of mine, but I’ve still never told him that I was a participant, that we corresponded many years before meeting.
EM: David, at loose ends just after the quarter-century mark of his life, learns from social media that his writer has had a “minor stroke.” He ends up responding to a Facebook request for volunteer visitors to help Roland (the writer) in his recovery. Impulsively, David buys a one-way ticket from New York to Phoenix, where Roland lives, and settles into a cheap Airbnb. Phoenix gives the story its title and provides such an interesting and unexpected setting for the story. David muses that Phoenix resembles a strip mall or “to be less generous but perhaps more accurate, the parking lot of a strip mall” and notes how the “sun glared with a punishing, almost biblical intensity.” How did you arrive at Phoenix and how do you see it functioning as the story’s backdrop?
RF: I’ve actually never been to Phoenix, or Arizona at all, so much of that landscape imagery came from Google Street View. I was drawn, just imagistically, to a desertous, barren landscape. Also because the speaker, David, has a sort of snide New York smugness about the rest of the country, it felt fun to filter that landscape through his consciousness. To frame it as a wasteland.
But once I’d set it there, and added that to my doc as the work-in-progress title, I did start to think more about the double-meaning of Phoenix—the mythic bird that rises from its ashes. It seemed suited to a story about stealing from your heroes, about youth and aging, illness and death. So the title ended up inspiring the final scene in which David walks away with the stolen manuscript.
EM: One of the things I appreciated about “Phoenix” on first read was its restraint. David and Roland are guarded with each other and, as a narrator, David withholds as much as he reveals. I felt that this restraint gave the story a mysterious, almost coded quality, leaving a lot between the lines. I know during the editing process we talked a little about David’s motivations and a balance in the narrative between opacity and transparency. Can you talk about the balance of stated and unstated, as it relates to “Phoenix” and/or to your writing in general?
RF: That was a tricky balance to strike, as I don’t think David’s motivations are entirely legible even to him. For instance, there’s clearly something a bit sinister about his relationship to the writer and how he capitalizes on the man’s poor health to get close to him—but I think David would defend his intentions throughout most if not all of the story. I’m very drawn to characters like that, for whom there’s a gap between their self-perception and their actions. Characters who act on strange impulses and only figure out their motivations, bit by bit, in the aftermath.
EM: David feels such an intimate kinship with Roland’s writing, yet within the intimacy of Roland’s house, there’s a real distance between them. David also has to confront the divide between Roland’s work, which is suspended in time, and Roland himself, who is physically diminished by time. I’m fascinated by these paradoxes within the writer/reader relationship. What inspired you to explore these themes and, since it’s Facebook that brings David and Roland together, how do you think social media influences how we relate to our artistic idols?
RF: It’s an age-old paradox, right—the (often vast) distance between the artist and their work. Definitely one I’ve witnessed in real life, though not with quite the intensity or disappointment of David. But I think it’s only worse now that so many of our relationships, real and imagined, are mediated by technology. Virtual access of the kind David has to Roland gives this illusion not just of proximity but ownership. He feels owed something, precisely because he’s cathected his identity onto this writer he loves, a projection of his own desire for depth, and he can’t quite square that with the man he encounters in Arizona. It creates a dissonance, which, by the end, he can only process as rage.
EM: Throughout the story, David compares his own life to Roland’s—or, Roland’s as it’s presented on the page many years earlier. We learn that Roland’s output was limited and centered on “his lover—the one who’d died, the one he’d written about in ways that still broke my heart and against which all my small loves had been measured.” Some of my favorite passages in the story reference Roland’s work, through David’s perceptions. They’re quite minimal, yet I think the story’s success hinges on them. Was it a challenge to capture the historical and emotional weight of Roland’s work (on David) in a few lines, and what were you striving for tonally in these passages?
RF: Absolutely, it was one of the primary challenges in writing the story—to communicate what would have been so weighty and impactful about Roland’s work without having it on the page. I think about that a lot with films and books that hinge on the audience’s belief in the strength of a particular performance or piece of art without actually showing it. It doesn’t always work. In this story, I tried to communicate something of Roland’s style by filtering it through the psyche of a speaker who considers himself a student, a “devotee.” So what matters, more than the actual work, is David’s perception of it. Tonally, I wanted to use those sparse lines and sections to communicate a grandness or depth in scope. The hold something can have on you simply for its having been your first.
There’s a moment, late in the story, after David finds the unpublished manuscript and takes it to read in bed, that I thought of as a fugue-like collapse of that articulation of style, where it becomes felt more than understood, and David’s voice can merge with his hero’s.
EM: You’re an emerging writer who has published poetry and short fiction. I believe you’re working on a novel? How was it navigating the leap from shorter pieces to a long project?
RF: Yes, I am! Right now, I’m editing a manuscript for a novel, which is at a very high-level about race, class, and addiction. I think that with poetry, short fiction, and now this longer project, I’m often circling themes of intimacy and identity formation—how young people seek out experiences with which to define themselves and often hurt others in the process. What I’m working on now is no exception, though I do think it’s a stylistic leap. There’s a more essayistic bent to much of the prose that just emerged as I was thinking and writing about the nature of narrative: what stories we tell about ourselves, what stories our bodies tell without permission.
Ernest McLeod is a writer and artist living in Middlebury and Montréal. He has served on the admissions board for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was a longtime NER reader before becoming fiction editor in 2018. He is a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. His writing and photography have appeared in The Sun, Men on Men 7: Best New Gay Fiction, Salon, F-Stop, JPG, File, as well as in numerous Vermont publications.