Thursday, May 23, 2024

An Interview With Elizabeth Bruce, Author of Universally Adored and Other One Dollar Stories

 I have known Elizabeth Bruce longer than either of us probably cares to remember. A talented writer and remarkably generous person, Elizabeth never tires of promoting the work of other creative artists, regardless of their field. When she heard I was having trouble getting a bookstore to launch The Spread, she opened her home to me and a bunch of strangers. It was as enjoyable an event as I have ever had.

I could get into all the things she works on during what would be for her a typical week, but it’ll all come off better if you hear it from her.

One Bite at a Time: Welcome, Elizabeth. We’ve known each other more than twenty years now and I’ve been a fan of your writing since the first time I heard you read. What was your biggest takeaway from the workshop we shared with John McNally?

Elizabeth Bruce: Well, you're right, Dana, you and I've known each other now for 20 plus years now, since we were both in that remarkable Jenny McKean Moore Fiction Workshop at George Washington University with the incredible writer John McNally. John has written twelve or thirteen books, many works of fiction including The Book of Ralph: A Novel, which has a twentieth anniversary edition coming out soon, and story collections, Troublemakers, and The Fear of Everything, plus a thriller, The Pinned Butterfly. He’s also written fantastic books on the writing craft, including Vivid and Continuous which is for serious writers grappling with complex craft issues.

We were in the McNally workshop with a bunch of other terrific writers whose careers have really blossomed. Melanie S. Hatter is a fabulous writer who has several books of fiction out in the world as well as works in progress. She’s a fellow Washington Writer Publishing House author whose novel, The Color of My Soul, was the all-school read at a DC Public High School. Her recent novel, Malawi’s Sisters, published by Four Way Books, was the winner of the inaugural Kimbilio National Fiction Prize, judged by the esteemed Edwidge Danticat.

Carole Burns, who’s based in Cardiff in Wales, has several books out, including her award-winning debut novel, The Same Country. Nick Kocz, has published a huge number of short stories, as well as an Amazon bestselling thriller, I Will Never Leave You, under the pseudonym S.M. Thayer.  Lynn Stearns, who taught at the Writers’ Center for years, has published lots of stories and flash fictions. Plus, other fabulous writers Holly Johnson, Susanna Jech Paul, Gua Liang, Vineeta Anand, and the late Jim Munford, who was in his late 70s during the workshop and was also an award-winning photographer who had a beautiful exhibit at Rockefeller Center on The Bars of Hell’s Kitchen in New York in the 1950s.

John was a fabulous instructor. He really walked us through a bunch of issues of craft. One that I remember vividly was something I believe he called “the third element.” I've tried to track this term down, and I think it originates with the great writer Allan Gurganus, who’s best known for his novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.  Gurganus and John McNally, as well as Richard Bausch, are graduates of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, which literary folks know as sort of the gold standard of MFA Programs.

“The third element,” as I recall, is a deeper context of more mythic proportions that runs under a work of fiction. It’s like a literary Jungian collective unconscious—a more symbolic, more mythic resonance. It’s not something the writer can intentionally embed. It’s elusive; it surfaces on its own through this deeper cultural, almost ancestral knowledge.

As a proud English major, I was really struck by this “third element” as a quality that makes a work of literature endure.

John’s a really funny, jaded fellow, but he’s also incredibly generous. You and your lovely wife Corky, aka “The Beloved Spouse,” had beers with him down in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he’s a tenured professor at the University of Louisiana. And at your urging I reached out to him for a quote for my story collection, and he gave me the most beautiful quote:

“Elizabeth Bruce’s stories have that rare quality of feeling as though they have always existed, the way the best stories always do. In a lesser writer’s hands, the conceit of beginning each story with ‘one dollar’ might seem like a gimmick, but here they echo Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,’ and I found myself eager for what came next, curious to see how each new story amplifies the previous story while also diverging from it, often in dramatically different points of view and styles. These are exquisite short stories that give me hope.” John McNally

 

OBAAT: Your novel, And Silent Left the Place, is one of my favorite books. It’s a wonderful story with well-crafted characters that is beautifully written without letting the writing get in the way. What’s the origin story there?

EB: Oh Dana, thank you so much for your good words about my debut novel, And Silent Left the Place. As you well know, that novel was written over a long period of time and workshopped extensively in this wonderful writer's group that you and I and several writers from the McNally group, as well as Richard Bausch’s Heritage Writers Workshop at George Mason University had for a decade.

The origin story of this novel, probably like most novels, began with a first draft abandoned in despair. The first 300-page draft was really a coming-of-age story that came out of the short time I spent at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1970s before I went back to college in Colorado. It was both a love story and an exploration of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, but it had this ever-expanding plot that I wasn’t skilled enough to handle.

I was also startled into putting aside that first draft after talking to an old friend in Boulder, the late Vic Traibush, a brilliant man and World War II veteran who used to play the blues with Leadbelly and was a master Go player. I bought a life insurance policy from him when I was 24, and he became a friend and confidant. We were walking down the Boulder Mall when I was there with my husband Michael and our then 2-year-old daughter Maya, and telling Vic all about the novel in progress, and he says, Oh, so it’s about you and your mother. And I was stunned. Oh my gosh, I thought, I thought I’d disguised all the personal references. I can’t be one more middle-aged woman writing about her lost youth.

So, when I got back to DC, I shelved the first draft, and focused instead on a minor character who was about as unlike me as possible. I zeroed in this old man who had popped up in the first draft at his gas station in the desert of South Texas—Thomas Riley. I started thinking more and more about this old man.

Riley is a traumatized 81-year-old World War One veteran who came back from the Great War middle-aged and silent. He can speak, but he doesn’t speak—not to people anyway. The mystery of the novel is why Thomas Riley doesn’t speak. Riley dug himself an underground room behind his gas station, and he goes there to speak to his beloved wife Dolores, who is absent but not dead. Riley is very loosely based on my maternal grandfather who was a World War I veteran. He lost an eye and endured who knows what other horrors of that brutal war. He was a very quiet man.

The book, set in April of 1963, takes place in the Texas desert miles above Laredo in a tiny fictitious town. The whole present action happens in one 24-hour period in which a young couple passing through trespasses on a wealthy rancher’s land. The young man is arrested, and the young woman runs off into the desert. A search for her ensues, led by old John Hopper, the Body Hunter who “combs the desert looking for the dead. Bodies felled by heat or thirst or the hands of man that strung them up on scrawny trees, the bizarre brown fruit of a barren land.”

It’s s a very short novel with a very spare, plain-spoken style. There are no four syllable words in it. It’s also a “polyphonic” novel, meaning each chapter is told from a different POV character. The late, great writer Lee K. Abbott, with whom I workshopped at the Rappahannock Fiction Writers’ Retreat, told me the novel has a “3rd Person Central Consciousness POV,” meaning that the tone of the authorial voice mirrors the voice of the POV character. I asked Lee if he would sign a little POV ID card that I could laminate and whip out whenever the POV Police pulled me over.

 Short as it, though, the novel has a lot of backstory about the horrors of World War One and the Vietnam War, about racial violence, and the cruel, dry land itself. It's a pretty brutal, short work, told in a Texas vernacular and drawing upon an invented tall Texas tale. But through a series of plot twists, the reader does eventually learn why Thomas Riley doesn’t speak.

 OBAAT: Speaking of origins, your new book is a collection of short stories, Universally Adored and Other One Dollar Stories. The unifying feature is every story begins with the words, “One dollar.” Aside from that, they might be about anything. Where did the “one dollar” concept come from?

EB: A lot of folks have asked me that, and the short answer is, I don’t exactly remember. I’m pretty sure, however, that it started in a generative writing workshop at the Writers on the Green Line series I co-produced for 13 years at CentroN√≠a. It was a free, monthly, intergenerational workshop that had rotating facilitators, many of whom received small stipends from the Readings & Workshops Program of Poets & Writers. My late friend and colleague, the late, great Timothea Howard, and I launched the Green Line at CentroNia, and she, and my husband Robert Michael Oliver, and I anchored it for all those years. So many noted area poets & writers facilitated over the years—it’s an impressive list!

I started writing short pieces that each began with the words “one dollar,” and they were well received, so I kept writing them. I loved thinking of all the manifold ways the “universally adored” American dollar could factor into a character’s life. I had to keep shaking my imagination.

Sometimes the dollar is an “intimate object” and key plot device, and sometimes it’s a prop for some “stage business,” (meaning the ways in which an actor interacts with objects on stage). A friend of mine joked about how a lifelong anti-materialist like me (I’m freakily frugal) could end up writing an homage to the almighty dollar! I was thrilled and honored that our former teacher John McNally likened the repetitive theme to Wallace Steven’s iconic poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Michael wanted me to get fifty one-dollar stories so I could call the collection “Fifty Dollars,” but I never got that far. All but one of them have been published somewhere. I’ve been sending stories abroad for many years now, and have been published in the USA, as well as the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Korea, Israel, Sweden, Romania, Malawi, Yemen, and The Philippines.

OBAAT: The thirty-odd stories of Universally Adored Etc. are broken into five sections:

Couples; Parents and Children; Brothers and Sisters; Known Associates: and Gathered Loved Ones. Did you have this overarching structure in mind when you began the book, or did you have the stories written and realize these were reasonable groupings?

EB: Oh, thanks for both noticing this structure and asking about it. I didn’t have a particular structure in mind when I was writing them. But after I decided I had enough for a collection, I went through them a bunch of times to see what connective tissue there was beyond the one dollar opening line. I had lists of different “given circumstances”—to use a theatre term—in the different stories. You know, how many characters have dead mothers or failed relationships, what are the time periods they’re set in, should I order them chronologically, etc.

 What surfaced was the central relationship of the focal character. Couples are both straight and gay, married and not, young and old, etc. Parents and children include fathers and sons, mothers and sons, mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters. Siblings are of different configurations.

 The Known Associates section---I thought of you, Dana, as a hard-boiled crime writer with this category!—includes folks who hang out together for better or worse. This ranges from ex-cons to childhood best friends. Gathered Loved Ones includes folks with kinship ties that don’t fit the other categories, including the last story in the collection, “All Knowledge” in which the “gathered loved ones” are all the great books the bibliophile character has gathered.

 I must give a huge shout-out to my friend and fellow writer, David A. Taylor, who was in the inaugural Richard Bausch Heritage Workshop at George Mason University with me way back in 1999. David is a brilliant writer and documentary producer who’s written a number of books, including his The Soul of a People: The WPA Writers Project Uncovers Depression America, which was also a PBS documentary. He’s also a fellow Washington Writers’ Publishing House author; his beautiful collection, Success: Stories, was published the year after my debut novel.

Anyway, I leaned on David’s extremely generous nature to read the collection and ponder its structure. David had some great insights and thought of various ways to cluster the manuscript, but he too agreed that the central relationships worked best, though he suggested simplifying them into the current categories. David also suggested that I open the collection with the flash fiction, “Sweat,” that’s the love song of an aging blind woman to her late husband, and the ending story, “All Knowledge,” that’s a love song to great literature.

 I added one story (with the developmental editor’s blessing)—“Mouse Socks” (which had recently been published in Samjoko Magazine  in South Korea)--after the collection had been accepted for publication by the Athens, Greece-based independent, literary press Vine Leaves Press.

 I must say, I’ve had the most wonderful experience publishing with Vine Leaves Press. Everyone, from Publisher and Book Cover Designer Jessica Bell to Production Director Amie McCraken to Developmental Editor Melanie Faith. They have all been extraordinarily welcoming and exquisitely professional, and made my publishing journey a wonderful experience.

 

I’ll insert a quick plug for Vine Leaves Press’ current 2024 International Voices in Creative Nonfiction Competition that’s open until July 1, 2024.

 

OBAAT: I don’t want to provide ammunition for others in the “literary vs. genre fiction” debate, but I’ll confess I don’t read a lot of “literary” fiction. It’s not so much because, as some put it, “nothing happens,” but more because too many “literary” writers let the words get in the way of the storytelling, by which I mean they become preoccupied with the words and forget the words exist to tell the story, not to stand alone. You are truly a literary writer who crafts sentences as flowing and beautiful as any, yet you always manage to get them to serve the story and not come off as “look what a beautiful writer I am.” Is that something conscious on your part?

EB: Well, Dana, you are an incredibly prolific writer—you have like, ten books to every one of mine! —but we are both undeterred from examining the darker dimensions of the human condition. I’m assuming your readers know your work well—from the Nick Forte series to the Penns River series and beyond. They delve deeply into the recesses of the human heart and have intricate plots that move the action forward.

 My work is very short—even my debut novel is short—and these 33 stories are also very short. A number are “flash fiction,” meaning 1,000 words or fewer, though several are much longer.

 I’m delighted you find my work both accessible and “literary.” There are a lot of definitions of “literary fiction” out there, but mostly I think it means that the work is more character than plot driven.

In a lot of my fiction, I have a very spare writing style. I write primarily about forthright, regular folks with analog realities. I don’t tend to write about cerebral elites, with their neuroses and ruminations, witty and erudite though they may be.

 Perhaps most importantly, though, I don’t often write ironically—where the authorial voice holds itself apart from the characters or their narratives and comments on the world of the play with great cleverness and, in my view, judgement. Old school as it is, my heart is almost always with the characters. I’m rooting for their resilience more than chronicling their depravity or destruction. Which is not to say there’s no cruelty in the work; there’s a lot of brutality and hardship, and not everyone makes it. But more often my characters find a way to get through the day and find some respite.

 

Many of my stories are set in small communities, and often the characters speak or think in a vernacular from Texas or the South or West or the inner city. While the vocabulary I use is deceptively simple, everything I write is composed out loud. As a former character actor, I’m absolutely wedded to the cadence and rhythm of language. There are often extra words or long sentences that might look superfluous on the page, but if you read them aloud, you’ll hear the musicality of the voice.

 One of my all-time favorite lines, for example, comes from Chapter 1 of And Silent Left the Place. The highway patrolman coming off the graveyard shift remembers his father’s words: “You were raised on the parched flatness of south Texas where a man’s worth can be measured by the stillness of his shadow at sunset, and the liveliness of it at dawn.” The aforementioned great writer Lee K. Abbott loved that line, so I figured I was on to something.

 I have an author-read audiobook of Silent--which I invite all your readers to reach out to me for a copy--and I’m going to make an author-read version of Universally Adored, so stay tuned.

 But seriously, I’m thrilled that you like the collection, Dana. That is high praise!  I should warn your readers—though as your readers, I don’t imagine this is necessary---that a couple of the stories in Universally Adored & Other One Dollar Stories have a lot of profanity. A few folks have been put off by that language, but that’s just how those characters talk, so I figure either I don’t write about rough characters like these, or my readers just have to accept the roughness of their language.

 OBAAT: You and husband Michael Oliver do an entertaining and enlightening podcast called “Creativists in Dialogue.” How did that come about and how is it going?

EB: Yes, my esteemed husband and creative partner, Robert Michael Oliver, and I co-host and produce an audio podcast that we've been doing now for about a year and a half. It's called Creativists in Dialogue: A Podcast Embracing the Creative Life. It’s available for free on Substack at https://Creativists.Substack.com, though we’re thrilled, of course, with paid subscribers. We’ve been very fortunate to have some funding from both the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities and HumanitiesDC.

To date, we’ve interviewed 53 people, and posted weekly podcast episodes since January 2022.

Creativists in Dialogue was really born out of the long history of discourse Michael and I have had as creative partners for 41 years. Almost every day we have a conversation about some aspect of the human condition, current events, literature, etc. I’ve always been amazed by Michael’s ability to take in and synthesize so much complex information. He’s a theatre director, actor, playwright, novelist and poet, as well as a lifelong humanities and theatre educator, so he’s read and taught all manner of literature and philosophy. He has a PhD from the University of Maryland in Theatre in Theatre and Performance Studies and an MFA in Directing. He’s a brilliant man with, what I call, “x-ray vision” for structure. Plus, living with him for the 10 years it took him to get his doctorate spared me from ever having to get a PhD myself!

Both of us believe deeply that in our fractured, traumatized world, the creative process can be profoundly healing. We wanted to celebrate that process for everyone, to raise it up and validate it in the lives of many kinds of people, not just so-called “artists.”

Our current sub-series is called “Innovators, Artists & Solutions,” supported by the Commission on the Arts & Humanities. We’re talking to a wide range of innovators who have been using creativity to address compelling issues, from campus-wide creativity initiators to an art therapist working in a sobriety program, to a founder of a trailblazing early childhood organization, a teaching-through-creativity pioneer, a leader of a steel band for youth, a multicultural theatre leader, and more.

We actually just concluded a year-long deep dive into theatre in Washington, DC, from the 1970s to about 2019 through our series, “Theatre in Community,” funded by HumanitiesDC. We posted 28 podcast episodes of our dialogues with 17 theatremakers, from Joy Zinoman of Studio Theatre to Molly Smith of Arena Stage to actor/playwright Clayton LeBouef, who was a regular on The Wire, to Nucky Waler and Marcela Ferlito of Teatro de la Luna, and many others. It’s a tremendous resource for theatre folk and anyone interested in the cultural history of DC.

In our inaugural season of Creativists in Dialogue we talked with people from all walks of life about the role creativity has played in shaping who they are—from a Nigerian international chessmaster to master chefs, translators, early childhood educators, fashion designers, a Double Dutch leader, a birth doula, a chemical engineer, immigrants from around the world, and more, as well as artists and writers.

We have a small, but mighty team of colleagues who’ve helped produce the podcast, including our Audio Engineer Elliot Lanes, our former Social Media Manager Erinn Dumas of Dumas83, and our Transcription Editor Morgan Musselman.

Increasingly, we’re publishing our interviews in two parts, each part being about 30 minutes or so. The audio interviews are posted every Wednesday at midday, and the transcript posts every Sunday at midday. The theatre interviews also have hyper-texted glossaries of theatre terms and names mentioned in the interview.

We’ve been thrilled and honored to have had so many different people from so many different walks of life join us for this independent, civil discourse about the complexities of our world.

While we’ve been very fortunate to receive some funding, absent that funding Michael and I will have to scale back the whole project. It’s extremely time-consuming and costly. So we’ll see.

Again, your readers can check us out at https://Creativists.Substack.com.

OBAAT: You typically have more irons in the fire than I can keep track of. What else is on your horizon?

EB: Well, I do have a lot of irons in the fire! In addition to the podcast, I’ve been really focused on book promotion these last few months, having lots of book launches and readings, and reaching out for reviews and interviews, etc. I’m working with a lovely young social media guy, Liam McCrickard, so there are a bunch of cool posts on my author pages at (1) Facebook. I have a great review in the Washington City Paper, and a bunch of online reviews.

But it's been great, and really satisfying to have a lot of people enjoy the readings and buy the collection and enjoy the stories.

As you know, we writers labor over our work, and labor over getting published, and labor over getting the word out, so actually having other people read and enjoy our stories is hugely gratifying. Granted, I’m not gonna be on Oprah anytime soon, but that’s ok with me.

I am also working on a novel-in-progress. I'm approaching a first draft. It’s kind of a sequel to the $1 collection. I take about 10 characters from different dollar stories and plunk them down in a fictitious diner in 1980 in a small town on the Gulf coast of Texas. It’s not my hometown; it’s a neighboring town called Texas City that’s a petrochemical, refinery town.

There’s a lot of backstory (of course, I am a queen of backstory) And there’s a lot of cross-fertilization between characters who either meet each other for the first time or have known each other for a while. A lot of my $1 characters are pretty lonely, and I’ve been worried about them, so I decided to introduce them to some other characters and see what happens.

While the novel is set in the analog days of 1980, there’s also a deep backstory about this horrible industrial accident in 1947 called the Texas City Disaster. A French ship full of ammonium nitrate blew up in the Port of Texas City, and that set off a cascade of other explosions at the adjacent refineries. Then another ship also full of ammonium nitrate blew up. The blast was heard hundreds of miles away. People thought it was an atomic bomb. The town was just flattened.

Almost 600 people died, and many thousands were injured. All but one of the 28 members of the Texas City Volunteer Fire Department were just vaporized. Until 9/11 it was the deadliest loss of firefighters’ lives in US history. In fact, the Texas City Disaster is still the deadliest industrial accident in US history.

In those post-World War II days, the industrial, petrochemical sector was roaring. There weren’t many occupational health and safety protocols. There certainly wasn’t an Environmental Protection Agency. A lot of safeguards about toxic substances came out of this tragedy.

My novel-in-progress has a somewhat unreliable narrator, who is a deeply traumatized survivor of both that disaster and Pearl Harbor who is haunted by the dead. He’s the absentee dad of the two brothers in the “Tuesday Theory” story. The younger brother is autistic, and his older brother became his guardian after their mother died of cancer. There’s also a lot of cancer in the backstories of several characters, this area being awash in carcinogens.

Like my debut novel Silent, this novel-in-progress is “polyphonic” (meaning more than one POV/point-of-view character). It has a “discontinuous” structure with intersecting story lines—think of the movies “Crash” or “Nashville” or the novel Let the Great World Sing. There isn’t just one central plot, the various narratives of a large cast of characters connect to each other, though they all eventually come together.

I’m having a lot of fun fleshing out the stories of these characters, including some very minor folks mentioned in the dollar stories. There’s the alcoholic grandfather and his daughter and grandson from “Flounder.” There’s the bibliophile from “All Knowledge,” and the Depression-era farm worker girl from “Evening in Paris.” There’s the woman fleeing her abusive ex in “Magic Fingers,” who’s the daughter of the waitress in “Tuesday Theory,” plus the abusive husband himself. Manny the Cook from “Tuesday Theory” is there as a Filipino veteran of the last mounted cavalry unit under US command in WW2, and Chester the bait man from “Flounder” resurfaces as well.

On the personal front, Michael and I are the happy new grandparents of our daughter Maya and her husband Nico’s baby daughter, Lucia—the joys of which I know you can understand, Dana, having just become a grandfather yourself. And there’s visiting our son Dylan and his partner Megan and daughter Ava in Colorado. I’m also trying to do this “Swedish Death Cleaning” and get rid of a ton of stuff that has accumulated in our little rowhouse in NE DC.

We have almost 1,000 theatre books—plays, methodology, history—that I’ve categorized and hope to sell for super cheap to a theatre institution. I’ve managed to sell about 1,000 of the other 4,000 books of fiction, critical theory, etc., though I haven’t even started on the poetry.

Plus, we have some domestic house projects, and the endless granular business of life. So, on a personal level, life is good.

 

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