L&L: How did “Mercy” come to you? “Mercy” started life as a short film. I was playing around with video editing and I’d taken a whole bunch of footage of my daughter and dog playing in the snow on the farm [which is actually a miniature horse farm] just to the south of my family’s farm in West Virginia. I had footage of the ponies, and she’d have been about the age of the kid in the story. The father’s attitude in “Mercy” was my father’s attitude when the miniature horses went in near my place. That line—Can’t work them, can’t ride them, can’t eat them. Useless.—those were about my father’s exact words. Every time I hear that line, I hear my daughter’s voice. The film was just an experiment in video editing and voice over. I got a call from a National Public Radio show [Living on Earth]; they wanted a Christmas episode, with readings of stories, and they asked if I had a winter story. I didn’t have one done, but clearly the stuff from the film was a winter story. I sat down and wrote the story then, to be read aloud on that show. I already had chunks of it. I knew what I wanted the story to be. There were some surprises, like what happens with the fence, but I didn’t really know where that scene was going. (The broadcast of “Mercy” can be found here.)
L&L: Mercy’s been out 12 years. Did you expect that it would be so well and widely received? I had no idea. That’s one thing I tell my students now—when you finish a story you have no idea which stories, out of all that you’ve written, will have the most life to them.
L&L: Tell me about the Remington .30-06—how’d that influence the story or did it evolve organically, that boy’s “old man” would threaten to shoot a pony? One thing about a character with a gun: That character in some way is a figure of death, the grim reaper with his scythe. That’s the image I tried to make of the father. He’s hidden behind the cowl of his hood, and he’s carrying the instrumentality of death. For me, the .30-06 —just saying the word is evocative. It’s a very particular round, a very heavy .30 caliber round [patented in 1906.] I wanted a rifle that resonated when you said its name, effectively, its caliber. To me, there’s something old fashioned and really powerful about a .30-06. That’s the reason I used a rifle at the end of the story; they are totemic items. They don’t seem weirder to me than a hammer or an automobile.
L&L: Do you shoot? I was a hunter as a boy and a young man. I still do a fair amount of shooting. There are a lot of deer around here in Southern Illinois, and they file past, big and fat, but mostly I’ve got a big hill behind house, and I shoot into that.
L&L: What are you working on now? I’m doing a lot of research and stuff in Virtual Reality, and I’m trying to put together a virtual reality narrative lab at SIU. One program I’ve used is an accurate gun simulator that models real-world weapons very accurately; if my students want to write about shooting I can take them to my office. In terms of handling, appearance, what the magazine is and how it works, how the slide works, and so forth, VR is good for giving people experiences they couldn’t otherwise have. Or, I could put you in a race car or I could put you in a blimp; it’s not exactly like being there but it’s close. Technological narratives are the future of narrative, in the same way that the novel was the great narrative form of the 19thcentury, and cinema, of the 20thcentury, and, later, television. Some version of immersive narrative will be the novel of the last two-thirds of the 21st century. It’s not really my field, but, at the same time, I’m teaching young people because this is where their narrative lives are going to be lived, and I need to give them as much of a taste of that as I can while they’re in school.
L&L: What’s compelling about VR for writers? It’s an amazing narrative technology that makes two-dimensional cinema or television look silly by comparison. You can make different sorts of VR experiences. They can be like stage plays that you watch in 3-D, but you’re not watching it, you’re physically present and that’s substantially different. There are lots of studies now that talk about the power of empathy with VR. To actually be present with physical “others” is a powerful engine for empathy.
You might think you’re a short story writer, novelist, or playwright, but it’s broader and more powerful than that: If you’re good at this stuff, you’re good at more than you think or imagine you are. I’ve watched my students move into whole new areas effortlessly. People who write good short stories can compose good VR experiences.
Nobody knows what VR narrative is, so it’s a great time to be involved with an art form where nobody knows what the rules are, and there are no gatekeepers, no editors or agents for these new narrative technologies. For somebody like me who’s reasonably established, that doesn’t matter so much, but for students finding the frontier, finding a place where there aren’t established gatekeepers is pretty important. I just did a dramatic podcast with grad students this summer—a 6-episode dramatic podcast. We put it on iTunes and Stitcher. Anybody around the world can find it, download it, and listen and nobody gets to say yay or nay. It’ll either be good or bad. It’ll rise or fall on its own, but it doesn’t have to appeal to establishment gatekeepers.
Pinckney Benedict grew up on his family’s dairy farm in the mountains of southern West Virginia. His stories have appeared in Esquire, Zoetrope, StoryQuarterly, and Ontario Review; the O. Henry Award and Pushcart Prize series, and New Stories from the South. His work has been anthologized in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories and The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. He has received a Michener Fellowship from the Iowa Writers Workshop, an NEA fellowship, a Literary Fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, an Individual Artist grant from the Illinois Arts Council, and Great Britain’s Steinbeck Award. He is a professor in the English Department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.