These questions are about the short story “A Small Man Takes a Stand, Or Not, Depending”, and definitely contains spoilers which, once seen, cannot be unseen. For the actual short story itself, please go here.
First of all, why did you write it in the second person? I’ve read a lot people saying that’s the very worst way to write a story.
The main reason I wrote it in second person to make it more like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’TM story.
Aha. And… well, why make it like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’TM story though?
I’m not totally sure. I just had this idea for a story I wanted to write, a story that ends with the reader having to choose between a bunch of shitty alternatives, where none of them are good choices. Because I had this idea that sometimes in life, there just aren’t any good options, and the best thing you can do is choose the least bad option, and I wanted to do that in a story. It also seemed like a really nice story-telling tool, a cool way of telling a story and leaving the end open, but not completely open – it’s open, but limited to a specific range of possibilities. So I had that idea of using that technique to tell a story, and this story seemed to lend itself to that kind of ending: the only good choice is one he can’t choose, because of his own internal fuckedupness. To be honest, I actually really like how it worked. So clearly I have a very different idea of what works, compared to what actual professional magazine editors think works.
You sent this one to journals?
Yup, lots of them. No-one wanted it. I waited for a long long time before I self-published this one, so confident was I that someone else would see it for the literary masterpiece it was. But, as usual, I was way off the mark.
No-one wanted it?
Nope. I still don’t know if it was the writing, the story, the ending, the topic/themes, the second person thingie, or what. Oh well, eh?
Maybe it was because it’s not really a story, it’s a vignette.
What? No, it’s a total story!
Yeah, but, well, it doesn’t have an ending. No-one learns or grows or changes or redeems or anything. You’ve got this unlikeable guy who stays unlikeable, doing unlikeable things, and planning on doing more unlikeable things. That’s not a story, that’s a whatsit, a character study. It’s like you’ve written a nice background piece to the actual story, or something.
It totally has an ending! In fact, it has more endings than most stories do, so nyer. And yes it’s a complete story. Inciting incident: daughter says he’s got a small penis. Arc: he descends into a spiral of self-sabotage and self-defensiveness, which, in classical tragedian form, means his personal flaws drive him to his own unpleasant destiny. If Macbeth is a story, then so is this, dammit.
You seriously just compared this silly little half-tale to Shakespeare?
Meh. I never liked Shakespeare, to be honest. Anyway. Any more questions? Because I’ve got important fiction to write-
What motivated you to write this ‘story’? Are you self-conscious about the size of your own penis?
No, jeez, my stories aren’t about me. Seriously, they’re about the characters in my stories. Why does everyone think every story I write is autobiographical? For the record, I have no problems with the heft of my own petard, it’s not about me. It’s about this mega-privileged old-school economically-elite middle-aged male plagued with toxic masculinity. I’m really interested in writing about toxic masculinity, because I think that so much of the damage to our shared world comes directly from the way males tend to be raised. The way males are raised to be these emotionless touchless softnessless arseholes shits me no end. I never understood it, and I’ve fought against it all my life, and I think there are a lot of benefits in lifting the various veils that shroud toxic masculinity, so, really, that’s what I was trying to do here. It’s about interrogating that feeling of being trapped in an imaginary world with only a few choices to choose from – so often a man’s choices come down to hit or be hit, when there are a whole world of other valid choices out there. Traditionally, men aren’t taught how to stand down. Men aren’t taught how to concede or compromise or let things go – and they’re taught to resolve conflict through fighting, either with their fists or their raised voice. And they’re given so much leeway when it comes to being overbearing and/or antagonistic and/or unreasonable (the whole “boys will be boys” bullshit). And so bad dumb unnecessary shit happens. They’re also traditionally trained to care an awful lot about their penises, as a locus of worth. That the size of a body part could mean so much to someone speaks volumes about how we’re fixated on the wrong things here. So the story’s really about interrogating all of that sort of stuff.
So it’s not about your penis then.
You’re quite sure.
Definitely sure. Not about me or my penis.
Okay, fine. Hey, so what’s the cocktail?
It’s a Last Word, an American prohibition-era cocktail that seemed sufficiently specific enough to be the chap’s signature drink. I wanted something that could be quite expensive (illuminating the chap’s financial privilege) and quite fancy in a very specific direction, if you know what I mean, something to drink with the Better Half that still was classic but not common. I also thought that it would be a very difficult cocktail to make non-alcoholic, as it contains three different spirits, and so I could imagine mastering such a challenge would be a huge source of pride for the second-person chap through whose eyes we see the story unfold. Because he’s all about show, isn’t he: really, it’s all about what other people think about him. That’s his big flaw.
Is it possible to make one non-alcoholic?
Haven’t found one online yet. All the more reason for him to be so proud that he managed to pull it off.
The Worse Half in this story is a complete misogynistic arse, and yet you claim to be quite a nice person. Was it difficult writing someone so allegedly different to yourself?
Unfortunately, no. Our culture is so steeped in unpleasant self-righteous misogynistic arseholery that I really didn’t have step too far outside my own head to access the right mindset. Sucks, but true. Also, as a small aside, it occurred to me while writing this that normally “misogynists” are fictionally represented as working-class, or thuggish, or uneducated, or hillbilly, in some way intrinsically different to well-off educated mainstreamers, so I felt it was important to represent the misogyny of the “head of the household”-type of character – the ugly presumptuous misogyny of mainstream male privilege.
So, which of the endings do you think he chose?
I like to hope it was the last one. I like to hope that he chose to inflict his crippled internal feelings of unworthiness upon himself only. But, well, you read the news reports every day – you know that’s not often how things go down.
It’s hard to face the world sometimes, isn’t it.