Don Waters Recalls “A Distant Episode”

When Robin Romm emailed me her essay for Beatrice about her favorite Grimm fairy tale, she mentioned that her partner, Don Waters, was also a short story writer—in fact, he’d just won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for his collection, Desert Gothic. Would I be interested in an essay from him as well, she asked? I wrote her back almost immediately with my assent, and the following essay came soon after that. It will almost certainly send you off to a bookstore or a public library to track down not just the Bowles story Waters has chosen to write about for us, but his own collection, to see just how the influences have played out in his prize-winning stories.

don-waters.jpgLanguage is at the center of “A Distant Episode,” Paul Bowles’s magnificently brutal tale that guides its reader, along with its protagonist, from the “high, flat” country down into a hot desert hell complete with a “flaming sky,” “sharp mountains,” and odors that reek of “sun-baked excrement.” It has come as no surprise, years after reading “A Distant Episode,” and now returning to it, that I’ve carried this story inside me. It is a story to learn from and be frightened by. Such is the strength of Bowles’s story worlds.

My tastes in character types run similar to Bowles’s. He digs into fevered human psyches. He writes of solitary figures. (No frilly lace or restrained Victorian intrigue for him.) He likes to spin myths that unfold a half a world away, in lands with words like ‘qaouaji’ and ‘mehara’ in them. Like Bowles, I write about the desert. I enjoy the gothic quality of pushing characters off onto strange journeys. And now and then, a touch of cruelty enters my stories. The cruelty is not meant to elicit a stock response. Cruelty happens, as Bowles might agree, because sometimes it is in our nature.

Nature is not a commercial, as many Americans are trained to believe. Nature is a brute force, and as nature’s brainy, opposable-thumbed spawn, human beings long to contain it in order to make sense of it. We make do with what we have: neurological chemicals, brain circuitry—a mish-mash of evolutionary confluences that somehow produced in us language. Language is our miracle. But as creatures of the natural world, we also have the capacity to exact the most deliciously creative horrors upon each other, which brings us to “A Distant Episode.”

Bowles wastes no time setting up his protagonist, a linguist known only as “Professor,” a traveler in a remote, sun-stroked land—supposedly Morocco, where Bowles was writing at the time. The Professor has come to this desert outpost to visit a long-lost friend, a “café-keeper,” whom the Professor quickly discovers has died.

The Professor is a stranger in this place. He’s unfamiliar with the language, the customs, the small signals that would otherwise keep him safe back home. As the Professor ponders his dead friend’s fate, the moon replaces the sun in the sky. He strikes up a conversation with an unlikable waiter, and our Professor grows interested in buying camel-udder boxes. He wants to own a collection of them. A nomadic tribe known as the Reguibat makes these camel-udder boxes, and the waiter says that he will show the Professor where to find them. And so our journey, and the Professor’s, begins.


17 December 2007 | selling shorts |

Dave Housely Finds Inspiration in “Bad Decline”

In Dave Housley’s fictional universe, the one that builds up in the stories comprising his first collection, Ryan Seacrest Is Famous, Jack Kerouac and Jimi Hendrix never died; one’s abandoned his artistic ambitions to become an informercial guru, while the other struggles against an indifferent industry to make a comeback after years of recovery. A young Nepali woman fakes a royal background to bluff her way onto a reality show; the veteran announcer of a pro wrestling program gets roped into one last ridiculous story arc before his retirement, with unintended consequences; clowns and victims of identity theft dwell on their failed relationships with equal frustration. Then, of course, there’s that title story, where one of the American Idol host’s former college classmates wonders how the hell this is what fate dealt out for them. So, when I read the essay he sent in about one of his favorite short stories, his selection made perfect sense to me (as it has to other writers before, and probably many more to come).

dave-housely.jpgGeorge Saunders’ “Civilwarland in Bad Decline” is the story, and the book, really, that had the most personal and literary influence on me. I remember finding the book in some used bookstore and thinking, bad decline, that’s a really interesting phrase. I think I bought it on the title alone. At the time, I had finished a novel, a Daniel Woodrell-inspired/ripped-off rural noir thing called Fresh Fruit and Ammo, which is still sitting in my closet somewhere, and I had just started writing stories. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of the way most people do it, which is to write stories and then, once you kind of know what you’re doing, start working on a novel. The stories I was writing were all these very straightforward, realistic takes on folks I’d grown up with and around in Central Pennsylvania. They were no good, these stories, and I kind of knew it, but I also really didn’t know what else to write.

And then I read “Civilwarland” and it was like this whole thing, the idea of the short story and what it could be, just opened up. Wow, these things can be surreal and funny and they can exist in these alternate universes, and all the while they can still say way more about the actual world that we live in, and specifically that world of real, working, striving, good hearted but not necessarily brilliant people who I was trying to write about in the first place.


16 December 2007 | selling shorts |

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