Our nonfiction co-editor, Katie Stromme, had this exchange with Alexander Barbolish, author of Issue #13’s “Whacking a Doe.” He shared his reflections on the scope of his work, on writers who have influenced him, and on how his writing has been influenced by his study of history.
In Whacking a Doe you use time in a very interesting way, expanding a scene that takes place over just a few minutes across a much more expansive narrative. I really enjoyed how the action was given breathing room and presented in such a stark and visual way. Is playing with the scale of time and memory a sensibility that has taken you a long time to develop in your writing? How do you feel that form interacts with your subject matter?
It’s definitely a form I’ve admired in other writers’ work for a long time, so to hear that I’ve mastered it, at least in this piece, is a great compliment. It’s a form I started experimenting with back in college. My creative writing professor had us write these pieces he called “shorts.” He would give us a word count, usually some weird number like 517, and we would have to write an essay within that word count, without going over. Part of his objective was to help us be more precise with language, but the constraints of the assignment really forced me to start thinking about narrative and subject matter. You can’t do justice to a long, complex story in only 517 words, but you can take one scene or event and expand it, really magnify it and its effects for the reader. So even when I was free of those constraints, working on my own stuff outside of class, I tried doing the same thing, except within the context of a larger piece, braiding chunks of one very focused story with that of a larger narrative. It’s a form that works well for much of my writing, which often relates my own experiences to a larger historical or world context.
Was there a point at which, during that experience, you knew you were having some emotions or ideas that you were going to return to later in some way? Was that event something you knew you were going to write about in order to make sense of it?
In the minute or so that everything happened, the emotions were there, but they were very raw, and I pushed them aside almost instantly after I fired the last shot because I had work to do. At that point, the sun had pretty much set; it was dark, cold, and the coyotes would be out soon. My first priority was to get the deer gutted and get her to the barn, where the property owner, an old family friend, helped me skin and quarter the carcass in preparation for the final butchering the next day.
About an hour later, we were sitting in front of his woodstove, talking, and that’s when I knew I needed to write about it. Brad is an older guy who’s lived close to the woods most of his life. I was sitting there listening to him talk about his philosophy of hunting and life and how the two relate, and I brought those emotions I had pushed aside in the moment back up, and started thinking about them and some of Brad’s ideas and my own ideas about what hunting is all about, and why I wanted to hunt. So that was the genesis of this piece, though it was really another two years before I got the story set down on paper.
There is impressive interplay between violence and tenderness in all of your writing that I’ve seen. Can you speak to that duality and how you’ve seen it in your life?
I think that duality is something inherent in all of us as human beings. That’s largely what fascinates me, and I think society as a whole, with warfare throughout history. In war there are unspeakable acts of cruelty committed sometimes literally side by side with selfless acts of courage and compassion. Conflict of any kind, but war especially, brings out this quality in us, strips us down to the reality that we all have the capacity for both good and bad inside us.
I’ve seen glimpses of this in my own life in the person of my grandfather. He joined the Marine Reserves while still in high school; because it was the ‘50’s and he and his friends all thought they would soon be drafted anyway when WWIII broke out with the Soviets. That never happened, of course, so he transferred to the Air Force after two years and became an MP. He guarded Eisenhower’s plane, served as a bodyguard for the commander of the Air Force, and patrolled the Pentagon at night.
Interestingly, despite his military background, he was never a hunter. He’d go out with my uncle and his friends, and they’d find him sitting up against a tree, gun unloaded, listening to the birds. He once killed a rabbit, and felt so bad about it he never went rabbit hunting again. So I’ve always had this double image of my grandfather: on the one hand, this tough MP who spent eight years of his life prepared to kill for his country, and on the other, the man I know, a really gentle, kind-hearted man who used to give me rides on the lawn tractor as a kid, and wouldn’t even hurt a rabbit. I think most people are like my grandfather; we have the capacity for both violence and tenderness, but on the whole we would rather lean more toward tenderness.
In a press release from Scranton University congratulating you on a recent publication, it was mentioned that you took multiple creative writing classes while you were majoring in history as an undergrad. Did you ever consider majoring in English or creative writing?
No, I never considered it. In high school, I knew I liked writing and I was good at it, but it was never something I advertised about myself or pursued, much to the dismay of my English teachers. I was too busy trying to be a cool kid/athlete to really acknowledge that I was a writer and writing is something I’m passionate about.
I loved history, though, and went into college knowing I wanted to study it, but unsure what I wanted to do. I thought I would go into archaeology, and I worked on a couple digs in the summers. I found I wasn’t much of a scientist, so instead of pursuing that interest after graduation, I got an internship with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Historic Preservation. I helped restore mostly colonial era sites all over southeastern PA. It was an awesome job, and I was on track for a good position in that field, either with the state or in the private sector, but the job lacked a lot of human interaction, which I realized I needed in a career. So, I quit and moved back home to get my teaching certificate. That snowballed into a master’s degree in secondary education, and this time next year I will actually be certified to teach both English and history at the high school level.
The line between English and history is a fine one and I’d like to blur it even further in my own classroom. For example—I’d like to teach history entirely through literature, a combination of primary documents and historical novels. Or even contemporary, non-historical novels. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, for example, is basically an allegory of World War II—Voldemort’s obsession with “purebloods,” the Order of the Phoenix as the resistance, etc. Imagine a social studies class where the teacher used a book like Harry Potter to help teach history—it’d blow kids’ minds, and hopefully help them see that the broad themes of history are really what’s important, not all the names and dates.
How do you think studying history has influenced your writing, in terms of subject matter and stylistic decisions?
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that we are not makers of history; we are made by history. I think that is true for all of us, whether we are conscious of it or not, but I think it is something that as both a teacher and lifelong student of history, I am much more attuned to. At the most basic level, history is really just a whole bunch of stories of individuals, some famous and some not, but all important in the way they link together to create the world we live in today. I pick up on that when I talk to people, when I hear their stories. In my writing I make those links between my own or the individual’s experience and the wider narrative of the world we call history. Everything has a historical context and origin, and I try to include that in all my pieces. Sometimes the connections are obvious and explicit, and central to the theme of the piece. Other times they’re not as explicit.
In terms of subject matter, naturally I’m drawn to stories that resonate with themes or events in history that particularly fascinate me: war, memory, and the contrast between the natural landscape of the past and that of today. In addition to my nonfiction dealing with history and historical themes, I’ve also written a few short pieces of historical fiction, one of which has been published, the others hopefully to follow.
What do you see as the role of writers in times of war or political unrest?
I think the role of writers in any type of conflict, whether an all-out war or not, is to capture the truth of events in a way that journalists reporting on the same conflict cannot. A journalist’s job is to report the facts—who’s fighting whom, how many dead, etc. Historians will write their textbooks based on the journalist’s facts.
The writer, with his license for creativity, must go beyond the facts and capture what is in the hearts and minds of those who are fighting—their emotions, moods, motivations, hopes, and spirit. We get our history from journalists, but we get our past—our cultural memories, assumptions, and baggage—from writers. Imagine if Hemingway and other Lost Generation authors had written novels glorifying their service in World War I, or if Tim O’Brien and Tobias Wolff wrote memoirs of Vietnam justifying American intervention as necessary and right. The way we as a society view those conflicts, and by extension ourselves, would be very different. That’s the role of the writer—to write the truth of events through the eyes of those who were there and capture for the future a slice of the human spirit at a time when it is pushed to the limits.
Which writers have most influenced you and why?
1. Michael Perry- When I was in college, taking writing classes and discovering myself as a writer, my mother gave me a bunch of books by Michael Perry, among them Population: 485, his memoir about being a volunteer firefighter in small town Wisconsin. Coming from a rural area myself, I identified strongly with the book. Perry’s conversational style and ability to link small town happenings to larger themes and ideas helped me find my own voice as a small town kid at an urban college.
2. Bierce and Hemingway- I’m going to start with Ambrose Bierce, because I don’t think he gets his due these days. No one reads him anymore, except for the obligatory analysis of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” everyone sleeps through in their high school American Lit. class. If they’d been contemporaries, I think Bierce and Hemingway would’ve been good buddies. In particular, I like how both men were adept at identifying the minute details and coincidences in life which make or break us. The idea that individual human choices matter and have far reaching impact is a theme both communicate in their work, and one I’ve tried to show in mine as well. Also, riding off with Pancho Villa? Hunting Nazi subs in the Caribbean? They were just plain badass guys, enough said.
3. E. L. Doctorow – He’s an author I’ve recently discovered and instantly loved. Doctorow is superb at weaving history with fiction. His focus on ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events has impacted not just my writing, but how I think about and teach history as well.
4. Ben Fountain- Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is one of my favorite books. I think Fountain manages not only to capture perfectly some fundamental truths about contemporary American society, but also that dichotomy between history and the past that I mentioned earlier. It’s also a great example of how to really use the scale of time/memory to tell a story, which is something I try to work with in much of my own writing.
5. Charles Frazier- Frazier is an incredible writer; the imagery and descriptions in his work are amazing. One thing I’ve taken from his work is the importance of conjuring the setting, creating a realistic world in which a story takes place for the reader. In Frazier’s novels, all of which are set in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina/Tennessee, the setting plays such an important role in the story; it is almost a character itself.
What has the process of submitting your work for publication been like?
The physical process itself is very easy thanks to submission management systems most publications are using now. It makes it particularly easy to keep track of simultaneous submissions—which is something I do believe in. I’ve encountered a few publications that still discourage them, but as a new writer just trying to get my name out there and build a body of published work, it’s a strategy that makes sense. The internet is like the stream near my house on the first day of trout season—everyone and their brother are out there trying to land something big. In that environment, you can’t spend all day sitting on the bank figuring out what bait to use; you’ve got to wade right in and start casting.
That being said, my submission process is not entirely haphazard. I do a lot of reading through different publications before I find 3 or 4 I think will be a good fit for a piece. I’ll spend a couple of days or a week just reading different journals and magazines. That’s what makes the submission process almost as fun as the writing process, getting to read a small chunk of all the great new writing out there.
What are you working on now?
I’m notorious for working on several things at once. Currently, I’ve got a short story floating in submission limbo, waiting to be accepted by some fine publication. I’ve got another one that’s been rejected several times now, so I’ve decided to rewrite some of it before sending it back out there. I’ve also just recently started two nonfiction pieces—one of them related to the old men and their war stories that I mention in “Whacking a Doe.” I’ve also started some research for a novel.
Since MSR was born out of a writing workshop, I’m curious: do you have any standout moments—either negative or positive—you can recall from workshopping pieces in writing classes you’ve taken, or in any community critique groups you’ve participated in?
My whole experience is one big positive standout moment. I took two writing classes at college–an introduction to creative nonfiction, and an advanced creative nonfiction class. I enjoyed both classes immensely, but the advanced class was really my favorite. We wrote longer pieces and spent more time writing and critiquing our own work, whereas the intro class involved a lot more reading different journals and examples of nonfiction.
Most classes we all sat around a big table together–there were maybe a dozen of us–and people would share different things they were working on and the others would comment and there was just this constant flow of ideas and suggestions back and forth. Almost everyone in the class had also taken the intro, so we knew each other really well at that point in the year, and everyone was really honest and comfortable with each other and there was this great camaraderie that developed.
The funny part is that I almost didn’t take the class. It was the second semester of my junior year; I was taking a lot of upper level courses in my major that required some intense research and writing, and I was worried I couldn’t balance all those assignments with the addition of another writing class. Dr. Joe Kraus, who taught the class and remains a good friend and mentor, talked me into taking it anyway. Good thing he did, because my first three published pieces all came from assignments in that class, and ended up being published in the university’s literary journal.