Our fiction co-editor Natasha Mieszkowski recently had this exchange with Eric Barnes, our Issue #15 featured fiction author. Here’s what he had to say about the setting that inspired “The Minister,” his writing process, and his attention to style over plot and character.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I have always liked industrial landscapes, the more abandoned and desolate the better. I think this started with growing up in Tacoma, Washington, a big blue collar city where a massive port and pulp mill and oil refinery were all carved out of a bay as beautiful as any in the world. For a while, we lived in a house that had a fraction of a view of that port and I would stare out at it. My friends and I would go driving through that port, for no reason other than to drive there, or we’d walk along the train tracks and through the tunnel underneath the edge of Tacoma, or wander through the woods along the bay, woods that were littered with strange and abandoned concrete utility buildings.
Those images were imprinted on me at a young age. As I got older, I started buying books of photography of industrial wastelands. There are many such books and they are beautiful. I was looking at one, focused on abandoned industrial areas inside of cities, and I’d recently finished a novel and wasn’t sure what I was going to write next and, suddenly, I thought I wanted to write about a person who lived, by choice, in the sort of industrial wasteland that I’ve always found so interesting and beautiful and horrible.
What do you hope readers take away from it?
That’s almost impossible for me to answer. Not that it’s a bad question. But I don’t know. I want readers to enjoy it. To be immersed. What they take away, I’m not sure.
There is a great amount of mystery in this story. Despite the rich characters and implied motives, you deny the audience a lot of information about what is actually going on and why. How do you balance ambiguity and clarity of story? How do you decide how much to give away and why?
That’s a great question that I will struggle to answer. I can say this: I usually love books and stories for the writing and the setting and the tone, not the plot. Not the characters. It’s shocking, actually, and vaguely embarrassing, how much substance I will miss in reading something I really like. I get so immersed in style, writing, place, that I completely lose track of what’s happening. Blood Meridian, for instance, and White Noise, I had to read twice to actually understand what happened because I was so overwhelmed by the style of the writing.
(I have a similar reaction to movies – so swept up in the feel of them that I’ll not pay attention to what is happening or even how bad the plot or dialogue might be. In music, also, I never listen to lyrics, only the sound of the singing. I couldn’t begin to tell you what some of my favorite songs are about. And, some of my favorite music, like all the albums of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, have no lyrics at all.)
So how do I do balance ambiguity and clarity? I think the earliest versions of “The Minister” were all place, scene, voice. No plot, no development of the characters. I have to add that in, later, because I know it’s supposed to be there. But I end up adding only a minimal amount, because I’m more focused on the place, the tone, the rhythm of it all. I think that approach, somewhat inadvertently, creates the spareness and ambiguity.
What are you working on now?
I’m going back to a series of stories I wrote about two people on an acid trip through the South. The stories are terrible. I wrote them twenty years ago. But they linger somewhere in my mind and I’m going to see if there’s some way to salvage them.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Write every day and don’t feel bad when you don’t.
Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?
I tend to work on an idea in my mind, usually a place, a setting. Maybe a character, but probably not. It’s usually place for me. Then eventually I’ll find a first sentence. With my novel Shimmer, I was thinking about a building in Manhattan and a company built on a lie. I’d been thinking about it for months or years.
Then, one day, at my desk, I was struck by a first sentence: “I’d started having dreams where I could fly.”
Over the next few weeks, I wrote sixty pages off that sentence and the idea of the building that housed a company built on a lie. No outline, no idea where it was going. I just wrote, moving the narrator through the building, from office to office, making up characters as I went.
Then I stopped and made an outline, began to take notes, began to think about structure, characters, plot. But, for me, it’s all about whether there’s enough in the setting, and in the first sentence, to keep me writing.
I also write out of order. I’ll work on the end before the middle. I’ll leave notes to myself – for example, “[fill in with new character and some sort of plot and make sure it’s meaningful and interesting]” – and just assume that that will get done, some day, as I move on. Often I’ll have multiple windows open on my computer, writing various paragraphs as simultaneously as I can.
It’s not very efficient, but I’m stuck with it.
What is the first story you remember writing?
The first story that was any good was the first story I published, “All I Can See,” which is about a teenager working in a fish processing plant in Kenai, Alaska. Before that, I’d written a bunch of crappy college workshop fiction built around self-pity and melodrama.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
Best experiences were various teachers/professors whose input I valued. Honest, but supportive. Eventually, after two years of workshops in undergraduate school and two years in graduate school, I got to where I was a little wary of some of the students around me. There’s a need some people have to find fault. To hear themselves talk.
And, probably worst of all, too many people in workshops want to make someone else’s writing more like their own, or like that of their favorite writers, versus reading the story for what it is or is trying to be.
What authors give you inspiration?
Don Delillo and Cormac McCarthy are probably my favorite writers. But Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being changed my writing pretty dramatically. And had I not read Raymond Carver’s short stories and, especially, Richard Ford’s collection of stories Rock Springs, I’m not sure I would have started writing. I read those stories and they were about the people I grew up with and I realized that I had all kinds of stories to write.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
As a child, my favorites were Where the Wild Things Are and Where the Sidewalk Ends.
For my own kids, the William Joyce books were just so much fun to read them. But there is a board book call Truck which I loved reading with my son, even though there are almost no words in it. It’s a very quiet book about a truck making its way across the country. No adventure, no humanizing of the truck, no great moral to be told or syllables to be taught or rhyming to be practiced. Just a deeply quiet book that we would read every morning, lingering on each page, the two of us in near silence throughout the book.
What is your ideal creative weather?
As a child of Tacoma, Washington and Juneau, Alaska, a few days of rain have a remarkably positive effect on my productivity, particularly in writing a quiet, vaguely dark story like “The Minister.” Growing up I didn’t know it was strange for the rain to last weeks and weeks. So, now that I live in a more normal climate – where a few days of rain leave most people depressed – I find a few days of rain nostalgic and peaceful and pleasant.