John P. Loonam: Writing outside of your ethnic group in “Action Adventure”

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John P. Loonam’s  “Action Adventure,” in L&L

L&L: How did “Action Adventure” come about?

JPL: The story started as two writing experiments. I’d written a bunch of stories where protagonists were 50-year-old white guys. I was in a rut, looking for another kind  of narrator, and I was reading an Elmore Leonard novel that opens with a shooting in a video store. Being Elmore Leonard, he follows the criminals, but I wished we’d stayed in the video store with the victims. In the first draft, Kimmy was the only narrator, but, as the draft progressed, I realized that the story needed an element to balance Kimmy’s story. Bay Ridge was an old Irish-Italian neighborhood, and about half the residents are still third, fourth, or fifth generation, but there’s been an influx of people from all over the world. There’s a large Chinatown, for instance, and so I recognized that this gave me a chance to have Kimmy, who is Korean, representing this new population.

L&L: The victim’s infidelity and abandonment of his family—what’s the story behind that? JPL: I was close to Kimmy, who was close to the shooting, but not close to the character who got killed off. I thought about how he had a family. And I just didn’t want to write the typical grieving widow character. So I thought, OK, what if I had another kind of widow? I was intrigued by the notion that this second character was already grieving him [because he was planning to move out] and she thought, “Now I don’t have to live in the same neighborhood and see him all the time.” Some of her motivations weren’t all that noble. That made her more complex.

L&L: The story has multiple narrators. How did you decide to write a point of view outside your ethnic group? JPL: This idea of writing outside your ethnic group comes up in my classes.  We talk about the boundaries of cultural appropriation.  I think it’s important—the issue comes down to cultural power. If the Kimmys of the world had the right to tell their own stories, then having someone outside the ethnic group write from that point of view comes as an unalloyed good: It lends more power to them. I am not convinced that my telling Kimmy’s story is the issue – it is more whether the Korean American community gets to also tell its own story.  That’s one of the points I like about writing: I can examine my own consciousness and relationship to the world, but I can also get out of my consciousness and imagine what someone else’s world is like. Kimmy is partly me in that she comes out of my admittedly limited experience. And, of course, my imagination has been enormously helped by Chang Rae Lee, Young Jean Lee, Han Kang and others. There’s a way in which  I’m trying to bridge the gap [between cultures.]  To be able to do that without stealing someone else’s experience is really important. Certainly, in the course of my reading and coming to love literature, there were books from other perspectives that spoke to me.  Many books by African American authors have spoken to me.  I wouldn’t necessarily claim that those books are about me, but recognizing that connection [between humans] is important.

“The issue comes down to cultural power. If the Kimmys of the world had the right to tell their own stories, then having someone outside the ethnic group write from that point of view comes as an unalloyed good: It lends more power to them. I am not convinced that my telling Kimmy’s story is the issue – it is more whether the Korean American community gets to also tell its own story.”

L&L: How do you introduce a gun in a story? JPLI can’t think of another story I’ve written with a gun in it or even a story with the level of violence in “Action Adventure.” I have a story that ends with a brutal punch, but it’s two middle school kids, not murder. When I stumbled into the story, I was influenced by teaching: When you’re bringing a story to students, they’ve got to like the first page. If you’re bringing it to a group of 15- year-olds, the gun has to go off in the beginning.

L&L: How familiar are you with guns? Did you grow up hunting or handling guns? JPL: I grew up with a close friend whose father was a New York City police officer and avid hunter. I grew up on Long island. We used to go up to his hunting cabin in the summer. My father was not remotely interested in guns or hunting. But I’d go up to this friend’s father’s hunting cabin, and when my friend was twelve, his father bought him a .22 caliber rifle. We’d go into the woods and shoot cans. Sometimes his father let us shoot  his police revolver. I was just re-reading Mary Edwards’s story “The New Pistol” (in Lock & Load.) It reminded me of this police officer taking us shooting. We each got to fire six bullets. I had become a really good shot with the .22 rifle. But a .38 pistol is a whole ’nother animal and it terrified me. I was 12 feet away from this can and after I shot, I knew I’d missed the can, but I had no idea where the bullet went. I was immediately terrified. The father did what he thought was the right thing, which was to encourage me to keep going. I shot and shot but with no idea where the bullets were going and the kickback was so strong. After that, I never wanted to fire a gun again.

John P. Loonam’s fiction has appeared in The Madison Review, Modern Shorts (an anthology from Fiction Attic), The Santa Fe Writers Project and many other publications.  His short plays have been featured in The Mottola Theater Project’s Cherry Picking Festival and appear in their anthology Cherry Picking.   A teacher in New York’s public schools for over thirty years, Loonam received an MA in Creative Writing from City College, CUNY, and a doctorate in American Literature from The Graduate Center, CUNY. He has lived in Brooklyn with Maria, John James, and Joe long enough to be considered a native by anyone but his neighbors.

 

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Pinckney Benedict: the .30-06, his Lock & Load story, “Mercy,” and the future of Immersive Narrative Technologies

 

Pinckney Benedict author photo 2017

Pinckney Benedict

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.

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Gun story seems “dystopian,” but everyday violence can be all too real

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Mari Alschuler

Mari Alschuler’s story, “Revealed,” imagines a New York City in which every taxpaying citizen openly carries a 9mm Beretta.

L&L: When and how did “Revealed” come to you?

M.A.: I’m not sure. I may have dreamed it! Toward the end of the 1980s, I was living in New York City. At that time, the city was crime-ridden. There was a crack epidemic—you could hardly walk down the street without stepping on syringes and crack pipes. The story was triggered by that environment. I wrote the first draft after finishing my MFA in poetry at Columbia. During those years, I was surrounded by a “dangerous-city” feeling. I don’t think of myself as a dystopian writer—this was a one-off, yet this idea came to me that people needed to be armed to live in this city. I didn’t feel safe. By the end of the 1980s, I’d gone back to school, earned two master’s degrees in psychology, and gotten a job in a methadone clinic in the worst part of town—Alphabet City, which is the East Village. That was right around the time that HIV infections were moving into the IV drug-abusing population.  My clients started dropping like flies, even though they may not have shared needles. About 70 percent of my methadone clients died of HIV/AIDS. I lost half my gay male friends. And at a certain point, I thought, “I can’t do another funeral.”

L&L: Once the idea hatched, how did the story take shape?

MA: The first idea was the policy—a new policy that everyone in the city must carry a gun. The bureaucratic, aloof voice came easily to me—I’ve been a supervisor and middle manager for about twenty years. Then, of course, I realized I needed to tell the story through a character, and I came up with Sydney, the protagonist. She is not like me at all, although Matt, Syd’s boyfriend, is sort of like an old boyfriend I used to have. Once I’d chosen a protagonist, I imagined what it would be like to leave your apartment, go to work, and get on the subway under these conditions. Imagine what those travails would be like! Just getting to and from work—you never knew when you were going to use your bullet. Or, when someone was going to use their bullet on you.

I asked myself, “Why is Syd who she is today?” I concluded Syd is a stand in, an “everywoman” for those who would be in the same boat, in the same city, during the same time frame, one person’s story living under these deplorable conditions. The city residents of the story have become inured to violence—there’s no value on life anymore. Though the story seems “dystopian,” there are people in the world for whom the constant threat of violence is real—people who live in war zones or crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Mari Alschuler has been writing poetry since she was eight years old. Today she not only writes, but is also a social work professor at Youngstown State University and a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in LGBT issues. She earned her MFA in poetry from Columbia University in 1982, and, later, two master’s degrees in psychology, a master’s in social work, and a doctorate in leadership and education. She will discuss, and read from the story, at Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival at Youngstown State University, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2 p.m.-2:50 p.m.

 

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Nancy Floyd: “She’s Got a Gun”

 

Photographer focused lens on women and their guns

Nancy Floyd bought her first gun because she wanted to understand her brother’s love of guns, and, by default, ultimately learned about him. He died in Vietnam when he was twenty-one and she was twelve. Operation Desert Storm ignited Floyd’s curiosity when she saw a neighbor, a veteran,  crating his guns. “I thought of my brother, who loved guns and wanted to be a gunsmith.”  She thought she’d soon tire of her gun, but found she enjoyed shooting and the people she met. They may have differed politically, she says, “but we never talked about that.” She paged through Women & Guns magazine, attended Ladies Nights at shooting ranges, and watched the film “Thelma and Louise.”

Her photographic series of women with guns will be on display at the Joshua Tree Art Gallery in Joshua Tree, CA, from Sept. 8 through Sept. 30.

Her book, She’s Got a Gun, is a visual history of women with guns. “The idea of women and guns really began to intrigue me.” Floyd had worked as an artist, primarily in documentary photography, for years by then. She’d already photographed nuclear power technicians, for instance.

In 2008,  Temple University Press published the book–a mashup of Texas childhood memories, historical and contemporary photos, and research about American gunwomen, in fact and fiction. She singled out women who shoot competitively and for sport, women with guns in films and TV, and women in the military and police forces. Her environmental portraits of these women in their homes or at gun ranges blur the lines, she says, between portraiture and documentary.

Guinan_CCP_FIG157_WFP-GUI031The book also charts the rise of women and guns in films and television. By the 1980s, “women who had guns didn’t apologize for having a gun. They ‘owned their guns,’ ” Floyd says. She cites earlier stars, too, including silent film star Texas Guinan (“The Gunwoman”), Diana Rigg (“The Avengers”), Joan Crawford (“Johnny Guitar”), Barbara Stanwyck (“Annie Oakley”) , and Pam Grier (Foxy Brown) as female leads who carried guns with authority. “Grier and other female heroines in the Blaxploitation films were all powerful,” Floyd says. She’s Got a Gun also includes archival information about famed gunwomen Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane, and others. “Annie Oakley demonstrated the ability to market herself as a virtuous woman—she spoke and dressed well, and rode sidesaddle—who worked in the Wild West Shows. She wrote articles for newspapers and, from the start, managed her image. She was savvy about how she was perceived.” She conformed to the era’s expectations of ladylike behavior.

Nancy Floyd found  her brother through her work on She’s Got a Gun; the journey took fifteen years. She discovered that he, like her, was an artist. “While I was writing the book, I went through his military information and examined his notebooks. He would take notes from his classes and transfer them neatly into another notebook. That is who he was—an artist with guns. He did designs in the stocks of the guns. He was just as fascinated and curious about what he could do as a gunsmith as I am about making art.” To learn more about Nancy and her work, visit nancyfloyd.com

Buy the book on Amazon or  Temple University Press

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L&L’s Mari Alschuler Reveals the Story of “Revealed”

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Mari Alschuler, L&L contributor, is an associate professor of social work at YSU.

In a dystopian future, everyone in New York City must carry a gun in Mari Alschuler’s story, “Revealed,” recently published in Lock n Load: Armed Fiction, available from the University of New Mexico Press.

Alschuler said as a young college student she walked through the city, rode the subways every day, and saw “the dangerous aspects, including the rampant drugs and prostitution.”

Another anthologized story, “Patsy Cline Rolls Around in Her Grave,” took place in the town of Gulfport, off the coast of Florida. The story was published in 2017 in the anthology “Dispatches from Lesbian America.” According to Alschuler, the story follows a single woman who visits her two friends, a lesbian couple, on Valentine’s Day. The friends attend a show put on by a Patsy Cline impersonator, which is based somewhat on Alschuler’s real-life experiences.

Alschuler read both stories in February at the YSU Barnes and Noble. The audience really enjoyed both stories and “laughed at all the right points,” she said. “It was a totally different mood for each story, almost an entirely different atmosphere, like night and day.” 

There was much more discussion following “Revealed” since much of the audience felt the themes were still relevant. “The point the audience got that I agreed with was that, considering I wrote the story more than 30 years ago, how prescient the story was.” 

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Guns and the American Imagination

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Guest reviewer June Skinner Sawyers is a writer and editor; she has published many books on music and travel, including works on Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen. She is the proprietor of the Phantom Collective, a pub theater group specializing in history-based staged readings.

Owning a firearm in contemporary America can almost be construed as a political act, yet the history of and folklore associated with the gun looms large in American history and, indeed, in the American imagination. One could even say that the words “America” and “gun” go hand in hand, as inextricably linked to each other as muskets and the Shot Heard ‘Round the World at the Battle of Lexington, the opening salvo of the American Revolution. If you follow this particular mindset, having a gun in one’s possession can lead to feelings of power, a sense of security, and the illusion of control it wields.

In “An Act of Mercy” by Sara Kay Rupnik, for example, one of the characters admits to taking the gun everywhere with her. She especially likes the feeling of it bouncing against her hip when carrying it in her purse. “Mostly,” she says, “I liked its reassurance that I could go anywhere unthreatened, that no one could come along and take what was mine.”

Rupnik’s piece is just one of a collection of 19 stories in this impressive anthology of what editors Deirdra McAfee and BettyJoyce Nash refer to as “armed fiction.” And rightly so since “armed” is the operative word here. The writers represented, from Annie Proulx to Bonnie Jo Campbell to John Edgar Wideman (to name a few of the better-known writers), offer complicated stories with complicated characters who are often dealing with conflicted emotions. What the stories all have in common is the presence of a gun and all that it suggests and embodies.

The character of Josanna Skiles in Proulx’s “A Lonely Coast” is a cook at a dead-end job in small town Wyoming who tends bar on weekends to make ends meet. The writing here is classic Brokeback Mountain-era Proulx: hard-edged, unsentimental and tough, like the characters themselves. (Proulx describes Josanna’s husband Riley as having “a thin, mean face, one of those mouths like a paper cut and he doesn’t say much.”) Thus, voices are raised, tempers flare, and someone pulls out a gun or a rifle, yielding to what Proulx calls “the dark impulse.” Some people die, others are injured for life but nobody emerges entirely unscathed. In these stories, as in life itself, there is always a price to pay.

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“Whenever a strong voice comes to me that way, it is a gift.” Patricia Schultheis talks about her L&L story, “Grand Bizarro Day”

Schultheis headshotL&LYou’ve said that Andrew’s voice came to you and the story flowed quickly—how so?

PS: Shortly after [the shootings at] Columbine, I was teaching a composition class at a community college, an evening course for older students; they could not stop talking about it. Another impetus for the story was that my boys went to a private school and there was a rumor that one of the students there didn’t make it into any college—that was the story I heard from one of my children—and I put those events together.

L&L: His voice compels us to read every word.

PS: Whenever a strong voice comes to me that way, it is a gift. Andrew is so unhinged, and I can sympathize with that. This is a kid who’s saying sexist things and racist things because all his defenses are utterly gone and he’s baffled by that. He’s smart. He knows he’s smart and yet he is terrified. He can’t control himself. He can’t control anything.

L&L: Violence seems random and we feel helpless in its wake.

PS: And it’s getting worse. We act as though the event in Florida is the last. There’s almost a supposition that it is the watershed event that will make us look at gun legislation, but that is a false assumption.

L&L: “Grand Bizarro Day” opens after the tragedy. How did that come about?

PS: The aftermath of violence is what really fascinates me. Sadly, in terms of the effects, how do people manage to go on with their lives? They are forever marked. Sooner or later they have to go out in the world and get their teeth cleaned or pay their taxes and no one will know they were at Parkland, Columbine, or Las Vegas.

 

Baltimore writer Patricia Schultheis’s fiction has appeared in the Sycamore Review, the Alaska Quarterly ReviewPassages North, the Dalhousie Review and others. Her story collection, St. Bart’s Way, was published by Washington Writers Publishing House. In addition to her memoir, A Balanced Life (forthcoming, All Things That Matter Press), she wrote Baltimore’s Lexington Market (Arcadia Publishing). She received an MA in writing, as well as a Master of Liberal Arts degree, from Johns Hopkins University.

 

 

 

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