“At times you need an almost delusional level of faith that the story will come”: A Conversation between Stephen Lynch and Young Rader

Last year, Stephen Lynch and Young Rader made the shortlist for the Desperate Literature Prize for Short Fiction with their stories Rossellini at the Circus and A Cape Cod Story. As a partner to the prize, Minor Lits asked the two writers to share some reflections on their pieces, processes, and the dubious pleasure of literary graft.

Stephen Lynch: I guess a good place to start would be the obvious similarity shared by our stories: they’re both set in the past. Yours in 1835, mine in 1945. For me, it was the first thing I’d written set in the historical past, which was both freeing and constricting in different ways. What was it that drew you to the nineteenth century for this story?

Young Rader: I’d been wanting to write a story set on Cape Cod for some time. I lived there briefly and was interested in the history of the place. I used to go to the Provincetown Public Library and sit in a room dedicated to books by local authors and books about the Cape. It was there that I read about how it was customary for school teachers on the Cape to board with their students in the 19th century. I thought it would be interesting to write about this teacher-student dynamic, and also to learn more about Cape Cod during that time.

I’m surprised to learn that your story was the first thing you’d written set in the historical past. What led you to write about Rossellini? And what was the process of writing this story like in comparison to your other stories?

SL: I was writing a novel about a homeless woman acting in a film and I came across the story of the film director Roberto Rossellini casting a circus boy because of the boy’s resemblance to his dead son. I was kind of stunned when I read about it. It was so bizarre and creepy and sad. It’s just a footnote in the making of the film but that moment of recognition in the circus tent struck me as such a strange dramatic moment. Something you could hang a story on.

Years ago, I wanted to become a film director. I studied film and TV production in college, and I loved the films of directors like Kubrick, Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Herzog, and still do, but I was just as fascinated by the stories behind the films as the films themselves. All the madness – Herzog getting the locals to push a steamship up a hill; Kubrick doing endless takes of the same scene, etc – it all seemed justified because the resulting films were so incredible. The film that Rossellini made with the boy, Germany Year Zero, is quite stilted and awkward. It was controversial at the time since it’s a sympathetic portrait of the Germans after the war, though it didn’t go down particularly well in Germany either because it was seen as too grim and pessimistic. 

Anyway, to get back to your question, the novel fell apart and some years later I dug out the Rossellini thing – I had sketched the scene out as a possible prologue – hoping it would work as a stand-alone story that I could finish quickly. I was desperate to finish something quickly. Of course, in the end, it wasn’t that quick, though, unusually for me, the structure and shape stayed much the same from the first draft to the last. What about you? How did Cape Cod evolve as you wrote it? Were earlier drafts much different?

YR: That’s interesting! There is a great cinematic quality to your story — the seamless and surprising movement, the setting, those striking details.

As for Cape Cod, I did some research, and then set everything aside for years. Six years, in fact. I kept thinking about the story, imagining something very long. But then one day I thought: what if I try to condense all that research into something compact? What if I don’t answer all the questions I have? Then I came across an article about Halley’s Comet, and I read that the comet appeared in 1835, and so I thought: why not begin there? After that, the story came out in a rush, well, after a six-year thaw.

But back to your story — tell me more about that ending. It’s really powerful, and moving. When I heard you read, I got goosebumps when you arrived at the final word. Did the ending change much from the first to last draft, or did that also stay much the same? Also, without giving it away, is there an ending to a short story or novel that’s left an impression on you?

SL: Yeah, the six-year thaw sounds familiar. When I was younger I thought it was a problem, that I was failing at writing in some way, and I would quickly abandon things. Patience is something that’s hard to develop I think and at times you really need an almost delusional level of faith that the story will come. 

Thank you for your kind words about Rossellini! The ending was always roughly there though the last few lines changed. For me, that’s the thing with endings — there’s the ending of the narrative itself (someone finds what they’re looking for, or doesn’t, or dies, etc., etc.) but then there’s the actual end of the text itself, the last few lines, which can do any number of things with the mood or character of the story. They can close in on the heart of the story or open it out to all sorts of implications. Finding those last few lines can be quite tricky. It’s like you’re in the airspace of the ending but now you need to land the thing, you know?

I think one of the best writers of last lines is Lydia Davis. There’s a story of hers called Mr. Knockly which I love. It has an almost too-perfect attention-grabbing opening line but is actually a very slow story where not a lot happens, and we learn nothing factual about the characters. Most of the story involves the narrator taking walks in the evening, hoping to bump into the old lover of a recently deceased aunt and becomes increasingly obsessed with the man’s whereabouts. We know nothing about the narrator, nothing about the aunt, nothing about the lover, Mr Knockly, or why the narrator ends up effectively stalking this man. And yet in the end, in the very last lines, there’s this sinister implication of guilt that made me smile like an idiot when I first read it. The whole story is so atmospheric and it’s the ambiguity of it all that pulls you along until the last lines.

Cape Cod is a story full of ambiguities too, in a way that brings so much mystery and foreboding to the story. I liked what you said earlier about asking yourself ‘What if I don’t answer all the questions I have?’ How do you decide what questions don’t need answering? I know it’s probably instinctual, right, but do you have a sense of how you feel your way through it? Are there any writers or stories etc., you look to or guidance with that?

​​YR: I couldn’t agree more with the delusional level of faith! I also like the idea of being in the airspace of a story’s ending. Those landings can be quite tricky indeed. And I’m a huge fan of Lydia Davis. I have her collected stories here, so I’m going to read Mr. Knockly tonight.

I suppose a lot of what I choose to include or not to include in a story is instinctual, and also largely informed by the kind of stories and novels I’m drawn to. I particularly enjoy the short stories of Joy Williams, and her essay, ‘Uncanny the Singing That Comes from Certain Husks’. When I was a teenager, I soaked up Kafka, and even though I haven’t read anything by him in quite a long time, he’s influenced my writing, and the choices I make while writing. Generally, I’ll know if I’ve answered too many questions, or questions that didn’t want to be answered — the story will flatten out. But sometimes by answering a question, another much more interesting question arises. And that can be exciting.

In her essay, Joy Williams writes: ‘A writer’s awareness must never be inadequate. Still, it will never be adequate to the greater awareness of the work itself, the work that the writer is trying to write.’

Was there a moment in writing Rossellini that surprised you? Or something you found particularly challenging?

SL: I hadn’t come across that Joy Williams essay before. She cuts pretty close to the bone, doesn’t she? The vanity and the shame about the vanity, especially. It’s funny, I think that well-worn question she asks herself at the end — why do I write? — is mostly of interest to the writer asking it of themselves. I don’t really care why Joy Williams writes, I’m just glad that she does.

But of course for her, or any writer, it’s an existential question and I’d say it’s one I only ask myself when things aren’t going well. I can’t imagine finishing a paragraph I’m happy with and thinking — why am I doing this? Maybe I should. There’s something threatening in the question, perhaps based on a fear that whatever the answer is, it may not be a good enough answer. The ‘great cold elemental grace’ that Williams suggests as a reason why writers write is hardly enough to get you out of bed in the morning. That said, unlike our friend Joy, I think I do experience varying degrees of enjoyment from writing, mostly before or after the actual writing takes place, the anticipation of it and the sense of having done it.

The writing of the Rossellini story was unusually smooth, most likely because I wasn’t inventing the character and story from scratch. I knew the parameters of the thing so I could settle into it. There were some silly worries late in the process about accuracy — did German circuses actually have elephants and tigers in the 1940s, etc. — but for the most part it was a matter of pacing and trying to find the right emotional register. So yeah, less flailing about than usual.

What about you? Do you enjoy writing? What is it that makes you keep at it?

YR: I enjoy writing. It’s funny, it’s always tough for me to sit down and actually start writing, but once I do, I really enjoy it, especially not knowing where I’ll end up once I begin something new; ‘fumbling around in the light’, as Williams puts it. I guess for me the delusional level of faith you mentioned earlier is also important. Something urges me to go on. I try not to give it too much thought. I just try to honour this impulse by writing regularly and trying new things out.

Speaking of which, I have one last question for you—you said that Rossellini was the first thing you’d written set in the historical past. Now that you’ve done it, do you think you’ll write more stories set in the historical past?

SL: Well, I’ve nothing like that in the pipeline but who knows. My instinct is to stick with the present – better to make a mess of depicting the times you live in than the times you don’t. The time needed for research feels substantial too, not to mention the nagging sense of responsibility in presenting the past in particular ways. I remember a few years ago reading a critic, possibly in the Guardian books section, grumbling about the sheer number of literary novels set in the past and how this was an unfortunate sign that so few contemporary writers were willing or able to write about the present moment. The argument felt pretty thin to me, but it did make me wonder if writing about the past is always going to be read as a reflection on (or avoidance of) the present moment? A question for another day perhaps! Either way, it’s a bit mad to sit down and tell a story set in a time before you existed. What a strange thing to do. But here we are.

The Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize 2023, to be judged by Mariana Enríquez, Tiffany Tsao and Ottessa Moshfegh, is now open for entries. Deadline 16/04. For more information, visit their website: Desperate Literature Prize 2023

Stephen Lynch is from Dublin, Ireland. His work has appeared in Winter Papers and Two Thirds North. Twitter: @stephen_lyynch

Young Rader lives and writes in Berlin. His work has appeared in the New England Review, Little Star, Passages North, and elsewhere. He was a 2014-2015 Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.