Contributor Spotlight: James Dunham

James Dunham’s short story, “Passage,” appears in Vol. 34.1 of The Southeast Review. Purchase the issue here.

Tell us about “Passage” and what inspired it.

I sometimes have surreal, unpleasant dreams, and “Passage” originated in one as the opening tunnel section where the societal outcasts gather. The image demanded exploration—that its story be discovered. Over the course of many drafts, I set up the physical journey through the tunnel as a manifestation of the struggle to move past trauma and abandonment, and because that’s a theme I find both worthwhile and labyrinthine, the narrative refused to relax its grip on me until it had reached realization.

I was also driven by the technical ambition of an amorphously plural third-person POV (the newcomers) that gradually narrows down to those very few or perhaps one who make the entire journey (the pilgrim), like a giant nebula gradually collapsing under its own gravity into a star. The challenge of these kinds of technical constraints, perhaps distant cousins of poetry forms, captivates me, and the most difficult aspect was to make the narrative emotionally affecting without a defined or even gendered protagonist, to evoke empathy for a group whose individuals remain anonymous. A voice in my head, internalizing workshop comments on an early draft, insisted I either focus on a specific character or sacrifice emotional connection, but I was determined to keep both my reader’s empathy and the nebulous POV, and prove that voice wrong.

 

What are you reading right now or what have you read most recently?

I own about a hundred books I haven’t read, so I’m working through the pile. I read a mix of fiction, memoir, informational nonfiction, and poetry. Most recently that includes Christian Bök’s vowel-constrained poetry delight Eunoia, James Wood’s memoir-infused essays in The Nearest Thing to Life, Steven Strogatz’s wonderful math book The Joy of X, and Douglas Adams’ absurd mystery The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. I also aim to eventually read every book by Ursula K. LeGuin—the next on my list is Four Ways to Forgiveness.

 

Photo by Richard B. Flores

James Dunham

What is the most surprising (to you in some way, whether it be the awesome plot or usage of language, or the subject matter, or anything really) piece of writing you’ve come across recently (in the past year)?

In terms of subject matter, probably Nicholson Baker’s book A Box of Matches, which I discovered through a friend and which in my mind is composed of nothing but those so-called “boring parts” you might pressure yourself into deleting from the manuscript of a more traditional novel: Baker takes these ostensibly insignificant details and moments such as figuring out how to tell if a full dishwasher has been already run, or how to avoid waking up too much when you use them bathroom at night, and he sculpts a much more meaningful human experience out of them than you might expect.

Another surprise was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Because I’d already read so many other books about writing, I put it off. Why force myself through another chapter on character and another on plot? But this was so much better than that—I laughed out loud through much of it because even though her writing career began as frustratingly as any of ours, she’s masterful at finding affectionate humor in anything, even tragedy. She rolls commiseration and encouragement together with wit, and bakes it into a pie.

 

Where do you turn for inspiration? (A writer, another piece of writing, a place?)

Because I often have more ideas than I can handle, you could say I need inspiration more for the second wind than the first. Partway or halfway or even mostly through a piece, if suddenly something stops working or I’m unsure where to go, I start to lose faith in it, and every roadblock requires its own insight.

I could read something that genre-wise, style-wise, you name it, is as far as possible from what I’m trying to do. This sometimes opens me to possibilities I wouldn’t otherwise consider. Or maybe I’ll do a writing exercise—list all a character’s motivations and obstacles, and isolate the best conflict for this moment. If I’m feeling like a scene is a chore to write, it’ll be a chore to read, so I can also ask myself what I could add or change that would excite me about that scene; if I’m excited about writing, I write. That’s how I started in the first place.

When none of these things work, I change stories. Go back and revise something I haven’t looked at it a year. Or I re-read the piece until it takes over my subconscious, and then do something else. Eventually, two things suddenly fit together, or I see what’s missing. This can take a while.

Pushing out words that don’t work until some of them do might be quicker, but I’m always doubtful that pushing a derailed train further along will somehow set it right—maybe I’m wrong. Maybe if you have enough of confidence, you don’t need inspiration, you just need the will to write crap and fix it later: push the train wreck with a bulldozer all the way to the terminal and then go back to straighten the track you tore up along the way. But I’d rather be excited about a scene than write something I know won’t work. There are times that’s a strength, and times it’s not. Maybe if I can spot when it’s not, I’ll try the bulldozer.

 

Is there a certain writer or piece of writing you find yourself turning to over and over again?

The stories and essays of Andre Dubus. He wrote with such unconditional compassion about the people in his stories, able to see their intrinsic humanity no matter their cruelty. He reminds me to remember the people at the heart of the story, to feel what they feel, let that motivate them, and let them carry the story where they will. His work is one reason I push my stories to maintain an emotional core and not merely a technical one. The technical and emotional can co-exist. I think in the best stories, they’re indistinguishable.

 

Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does it entail?

I have a routine when things are going well. My overall process is that I’ll start in “development mode,” working out kinks willfully or subconsciously. I love writing fictional cultures, but don’t trust myself to simply invent them convincingly, so I also have a “research mode,” which can take over everything if I let it. When I have a piece that’s ready to write, meaning I’m excited about it (or it just gnaws at me until I feed it), I’ll work on it every day, and that will be the routine. This is my actually my goal for growth – to read and write every day no matter what, even it’s just revision, even when I work a day job six days a week. The only differences between writers who finish things and writers who don’t are discipline and persistence. So every day, in one way or another, I refuse to give up on writing.

 

What do you hope readers come away from your work thinking or feeling?

Lately a common theme among some of my stories has been the struggle to maintain hope before a dismal reality. These stories often end when that hope is at least glimpsed or tasted, and if readers don’t taste it too, then I’ve failed.

There are also things I hope for when I myself sit down to read, and ideally, I want to fulfill those same hopes in readers—the deep experience of an emotional truth, a sense of wonder and delight, a sentence so beautiful that it begs to be re-read. Many great writers have given me these. I seek to give them back.

I also write and read to experience the sublime: that moment when you perceive the infinitude of time and space and realize how infinitesimal and inconsequential you are, and yet how wondrous and perhaps even profound it can be to acknowledge that smallness, to revel in how enormous reality is compared to you. I chase after that feeling in what I read and what I write.

 

What are you working on right now?

Several novels at once—and stories. One good thing is being able to switch between projects when I get stuck, and I’m a better writer for having written whatever gets me typing. But the more ambitious and lengthy my ideas get, the more of that discipline I need, or nothing gets finished. The idea of revving up that bulldozer gets increasingly appealing. The novels I’m working on at the moment are set in sci-fi or fantasy worlds, and explore exterior themes—mythology, religion, science, political power—and interior ones: what it means to be strong, be vulnerable, be hurt, and forgive.

 

What short story or collection of short stories would you recommend to our readers? Why this specific short story or collection?

My favorite short story might be Elizabeth Graver’s The Mourning Door. It’s dreamlike and intense, and regardless of whether you see the story’s surreal element as metaphor or if you impose no such interpretation, the emotional heart keeps beating. It uses surrealism to convey the piercing emotion of the protagonist, a similar tool as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis except the feelings aren’t self-disgust and hopelessness but rather maternal grief and the possibility of healing. Graver uses tragedy more warmly than Kafka, whose despair seeps into everything. Graver makes readers feel both grief and strength, and her surrealism opens a back door to places we might be unable to bear head on. In my opinion, that’s one of the most valuable and powerful things that metaphor, and fiction as a metaphor for life, can do. It’s a monumental achievement.

 

James Dunham’s stories have appeared in Dog Pond, Philadelphia Stories, and Necessary Fiction. He received his MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University, and his BA in creative writing and philosophy from Susquehanna University. He currently lives in New Jersey and is working on two novels. He can be contacted at jamesdunhamwrites@gmail.com.