Substantiations of Violence, Romanticism, and Lame Jokes: An Interview with Douglas Trevor

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Douglas Trevor’s debut novel, Girls I Know, introduces Walt Steadman, a romantic, a lapsed Ph.D., a reluctant building superintendent, and the sole survivor of a shooting in his favorite Boston café. What happens in the aftermath of tragedy? Trevor tells the story of the unpredictable shape of Walt’s grief with compassion, wisdom, and surprising humor. As a novel, Girls I Know is capacious and unafraid, engaging in a rigorous discussion of  unruly topics such as trauma, race, class, theology, logic, art, and Thomas Aquinas.

Trevor and I talked about Walt, violence, poetry, and the writing of Girls I Know via email.

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Your book engages ambitiously with the senselessness of forms of violence in our world. Random acts of violence–the shooting, of course, but also, the ethos of MS-13, the Salvadoran street gang implicated in the Early Bird shooting, the chaotic way in which Walt’s mother’s body is destroyed by Multiple Sclerosis, even the ineluctable cruelty of child bullies–all seem to point towards the shape of violence as a force with which we cannot reason or prevent. Your character Ginger has a desire to “submerge herself in the space evil occupied.” What has brought you to study the dark and scary shapes of violence in your fiction?

I hadn’t consciously tallied all these examples of violence in Girls I Know prior to reading your question; I suppose the book is more violent than I fully fathomed. But I think you are right that violence is, inherently, unreasonable. And as a shaping force in fiction I think that makes it particularly interesting. How, as a writer, do you manage violence when violence is, by definition, unmanageable? The restaurant-shooting scene in Girls I Know was unlike anything I had ever written before, as it required me to think through blocking and the heft and turns of bodies in ways I never had. In contrast, many of the pivotal, transformative scenes in my first book, The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space, occur offstage. A child or a sibling or a partner dies in these stories but always before the stories themselves, which then meditate on the aftereffects of the loss: the post-violent world.

One concern I had when I began to work on Girls I Know was that nothing would happen, which is to say, like many short-story writers who try to think in novelistic terms for the first time, I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough plot. Violence is, irrefutably, action of one sort or another: someone or something doing something to someone else. So I thought about a violent event that would impose itself on the kinds of characters I am drawn to conjuring as a writer—slightly withdrawn, internalized types—and a restaurant shooting came to mind: something seemingly random and unanticipated that any of us could hypothetically witness.

The violent decay of Walt’s mother’s body through MS came from a different place entirely. My mom doesn’t have MS, but she suffers from a cell fibrosis condition that causes her hands to tremor, and she is very unsteady on her feet. Her body is not in her full control. As I have watched her condition worsen over the years, I have felt compelled to ask some of the questions that Ginger asks in the book. Why do people suffer through no fault of their own? What does it mean for there to be such suffering? And so on. One of the things I really like about Thomas Aquinas’s theodicy, De Malo, as opposed to Augustine and others who write on the subject of evil, is his willingness to think about evil not just with regards to what people do to other people, but also with regards to what the world does to us. That’s a much tougher issue to examine, it seems to me.

But there are those people who, for whatever reasons, inflict suffering on others, like the gang members who pass through the first third of Girls I Know. In a way, though, these figures can invite such easy moral censure and diagnoses, I didn’t want to linger on them too much. Instead, I wanted to look at more confused, and confusing, substantiations of violence.

That being said, Girls I Know is full of levity and charm. There’s such wonderful humor in this book, especially as written in the goofy manner and lame jokes of your protagonist, Walt. Without this humor, Girls I Know would be a different book, much darker. Why is humor important to this book?

Wait a second . . . are all of his jokes lame? I think the humor is there, in part, because I couldn’t write the book without giving myself some space in which to clown around. Otherwise it would just be too serious and drab. And of course for the reader’s sake, I wanted there to be some levity. But I have also found, in my own experiences with grief and sadness, that humorous moments—albeit often dark ones—do present themselves, and I wanted to be truthful about that. Incidentally, I found that most of the jokes the narrative voice told to help me write the book fell onto the cutting-room floor, but Walt—and Mercedes to a degree as well—note the humorous in their worlds, although Walt, particularly in Mercedes’s company, tries to create humor sometimes and those efforts do, and really have to, fall short. Walt is only truly funny with Mercedes at the end of the book, when he is no longer trying to be.

Ginger accuses Walt of “misreading the world” because he is a lover of literature. While Ginger believes that life spools out wildly, Walt wants to believe that life has an arc. As a writer, where do you stand? Do you relate to Walt’s tendency to read the world as a person reads a work of art? Does Ginger’s stance, one that she describes as that of a philosopher, also makes sense to you?

As I grow older, I think I am—with some remorse—moving closer to Ginger’s worldview, although as a writer I would never adopt it fully. When I was younger I certainly thought of life in a Pilgrim’s Progress sort of way: there are bad stretches, but we learn from them and move on, etc. I encourage my kids to think in those terms, which I think is appropriate when you are in elementary school, because one bad day certainly shouldn’t be the end of the world. But when my sister died unexpectedly in 1998, when I was in my very late twenties, I realized that really whatever life lessons I was taking from the experience weren’t appealing at all, and that there was something monstrous about thinking of life as a journey when other people’s journeys are being cut short around you. I still think very much in terms of narrative arcs as a fiction writer, but in terms of my own life I am less inclined to think in those terms.

Ginger’s artistic mode of working really does interest me, as she is interested exclusively in the real world, and imagines herself to be aligned against nostalgia and sentimentality, but I think part of that alignment is itself somewhat sentimental. I think, by the end of this book, she has learned this as well. Walt’s romanticism enables him to make the career choice he does at the end of the novel, which I really admire, but the possibility of disillusionment looms very much on his horizon as Girls I Know comes to a close. Ginger is always already disillusioned, which is why I think she isn’t a fiction writer.

Girls I Know tackles issues of class and race pretty explicitly, while also seeming to vindicate poetry as an art for everyone. In a beautiful passage, Mercedes reflects on the poetry of Robert Frost, on water symbolism, and on trees, and imagines her dead mother as a poet. Why does poetry do this work in the world of the book, and why Robert Frost in particular?

I wasn’t thinking of poetry explicitly as a vehicle of vindication so much as the material book and reading and the value of being able to loan a book to someone and discuss what one reads with someone else as a way of mediating racial and class divisions. One thing I really dislike about the idea of electronic reading, on Kindles and Nooks or what have you, is how exclusionary that is. What if you can’t afford a Kindle? I loved the idea of a book owned by Walt’s grandmother making its way into Mercedes’s hands, and sparking an opportunity for Walt and Mercedes to connect.

That said, since Walt is interested in American poetry, and since he is from New England, it made sense to me that he would have an awareness of Frost’s work, and moreover that his grandmother would like Frost a lot, and I wanted to tease out the implications of that in an urban setting in 2001. When I was studying at Harvard, I got to know Walter Jackson Bate, a professor who had first come to Harvard in the 1930s as a student. He had spent 70 years in Cambridge, had met every poet and writer who had ever been through Harvard, and the one he was absolutely transfixed by was Frost. He thought Frost was a much more interesting poet than Wallace Stevens, which just floored me. But I realized that his generation felt an abiding loyalty to Frost’s work. So when I thought of the kind of poetry Walt’s grandmother would like, Frost jumped to mind.

But there is more to it than that. Frost is a poet that young people are still routinely exposed to, even though he is also incredibly dark and melancholic. His life was something of a tragic one—particularly in familial terms, where the worst kinds of tragedies occur—and so I thought it would be interesting for Walt to re-encounter the poetry as an adult and see the dark underbelly of the work for the first time, which he does, and for Mercedes to connect to this dark underbelly immediately, which she does, owing to her incredibly insightfulness and her own situation.

I’m really interested in exploring the life goes on after trauma. How do survivors cope? I’ve been reading a lot about Emily Rapp’s new book The Still Point of the Turning World, which is a memoir of her son’s diagnosis with the fatal genetic disorder Tay-Sachs.  I haven’t yet read the book, but I was so struck by the lines from it I read in a New York Times book review: “Writing would not save Ronan. But, I thought, it might save me.” How do writing and despair fit together?

I think it is really dangerous to think that writing can save you, as the Rapp quote indicates. Maybe therapy, or a really great interpersonal relationship, but writing is work, and usually solitary work at that. I did a reading from Thin Tear this past April at the University Liggett School and it was the first time I had read from those stories in awhile so I decided I’d read a little from the last story in the collection, which is about the aftermath of my sister’s death. The story reminded me of the dark place I was in at the time I wrote it, and I appreciated being reminded of that place, but I was also reminded of what I had known all along—writing that story didn’t help me cope with my sister’s death. It transcribed the experience, it testified to it, but writing it didn’t make me feel any better. I think the idea that writing makes people feel better is usually mistaken.

Finishing a book, or a story, or an article, is an accomplishment and that should bring a measure of joy and/or relief, but I think when people set out to write about painful experiences they delude themselves when they claim that they will feel better at the end of the experience. They might feel better by virtue of finishing the book or the story, but I don’t think that means they will feel better about whatever was ailing them when they started out. I just don’t think writing cures despair. Melville says as much in his diaries, and so does Shakespeare’s speaker at the end of the Sonnets: “Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.”

Your novel takes place during the winter of 2001, and today’s reader anticipates another act of  violence that will arrive in September of that year. How did you decide to place Walt’s story on this timeline, and how might a reader consider the fictional shooting in relation to the violence of September 11 that exists just outside the frame of this novel?

I’m really glad you noticed that. The idea was, and still is, to write a sequence of three novels, the first of which takes place immediately before 9/11 (Girls I Know) and focuses, broadly, on the shift from old to new America (the America of Puritan New England being replaced by the America constituted by people like Walt and Mercedes). The second novel, which I hope to really dig into here in the next little bit, is intended to explore the post-9/11 US, which for me means largely the post-Patriot-Act world, in which civil liberties are being eroded, the specter of surveillance is everywhere, and there is a kind of low-grade anxiety about an apocalypse.

This novel is set in the West—Denver, where I grew up—and it is intended to be a Saul-Bellow-esque coming-of-age novel about a guy graduating from college who realizes his family is not constituted in the manner he had thought and that everyone in his life, himself included, is pathologically dishonest and untrustworthy, although I hope also lovable. The first bit of the book, the third chapter, entitled “Slugger and the Fat Man,” is appearing in the next issue of New Letters. Before I really dig into this novel, though, I’m trying to finish another collection of stories, of which “Slugger” is a part. This collection is comprised of stories about people with problematic fixations, big and small. One of these stories, “Sonnet 126,” is appearing in the fall issue of MQR, and another is going to be in the next issue of the Minnesota Review.

Thank you so much, Doug! 

Thanks so much for your questions, Gina!

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