Fiction reader Josh Michael recently had this exchange with Issue #49 featured fiction author Bill Bruce. Here’s what Bill had to say about his revision process, the inspiration for the characters in his story, what he’s working on now, and more.
“Judas Sheep” is a deeply affecting story that deals with issues such as family, death, and illness. What are some of the contributing factors that inspired you to write a story such as this?
I think those issues are doorways into the really messy, complicated, internalized stuff. I don’t think it’s unique to face death and illness, especially within a family. Unfortunately, that’s fairly universal. What’s unique is how each person deals with the ripples and echoes that radiate from those events. That’s what reveals soul and character. I started with an image of a young boy in a window as seen from the street. It was a tall, rectangular, double-hung window, framed in red brick. The sun’s reflection obscured everything but a portion of his face and shallow expression. In conjunction with that mental photograph was the idea that we can learn so much more by simply listening. Which seems to be a novel act these days. But, at the same time, I didn’t want this to become a voyeuristic or fly-on-the-wall disquisition. It was about being present. So that was all I had. Then I started asking myself questions. Who is he? Why is he not outside playing? Where does he live? Where are his parents? Does he have siblings? Also, his expression said to me that someone had died. But who? Those answers interested me enough to start digging to find out what his story was. Beyond that, I knew this shouldn’t be a contemporary story. I didn’t want smartphones, tablets, television or any other modern convention that distracts and influences to get in the way. I felt it was important that the story live in a time and place from the recent past yet, at its core, remain very much present.
Setting and historical relevance play a large role in your story “Judas Sheep.” How much of this setting comes from your own experiences and why is it important to your story?
I was reading about the history of Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century. I don’t remember what caught my attention but I gravitate toward anything to do with history. And so, I went down that rabbit hole and kept digging. I was fascinated by the communities that had formed along the docks. The culture and way of life. The fact that the people were very close. Not just in proximity but everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business. It was like one big extended dysfunctional family.
There was also a dynamic tension as the city went through its growth spurt. Brooklyn was expanding in population and modern advancements, moving from a rural community to a budding metropolis. But there was also uncertainty and struggle. Especially for the newly arrived immigrants trying to achieve the dreams that brought them to America in the first place. There was also a level of anxiety and fear. Certainly with diseases like polio.
I became interested in the dichotomies that growth revealed. Advancements such as the Manhattan Bridge construction project was underway while horses still pulled carts and livestock was herded through the streets. And while not always in safe or healthy work environments, parents labored to improve the lives of their families, while the children went out to play and get into trouble. Kids had no choice but to grow up quickly. It made me feel like the city itself was similar to a child. Perhaps a nine-year-old boy full of dreams, rising beyond what was and into what’s coming, then ultimately blindsided by destructive forces and robbed of innocence. All of that texture and history played well into the story that was formulating. But other than reading, researching, and imagining I have no connection to that area or community.
The juxtaposition between the character arc and the sheep being led to slaughter is a powerful addition to this story. What do you hope your reader will gain from this comparison?
The truth is, I jumped before I knew where I was going to land. The first draft included Connor’s story and the Judas sheep story, separate but parallel. At the time I didn’t know why. I just kept working and was energized about how things were going. But something about those two stories running analogous seemed right. I just didn’t know why. After the first draft was done, and I read it beginning to end, I had a minor epiphany. This sort of thing doesn’t happen often, but I felt there was something meaningful in there that I didn’t consciously set out to achieve. I realized that the Judas sheep is not unlike the guilt and self-loathing Connor was feeling about the death of his mother. Connor had, as we all to some extent do, his own Judas sheep. But at the same time, I felt this allegory had another level of meaning in today’s world. The way politics and specifically this administration uses lies and deception to create darkness, despair, and division in order for a select few to control the narrative and profit at everyone else’s expense. This president without a doubt is the Judas sheep of our time. He’s betrayed every oath he swore to uphold and abandoned the people most in need. While others, many of whom are willfully ignorant, will follow him anywhere. And for what? Just another version of a warm bed and some clover and forb. Once I understood that, I adjusted and edited the story to accommodate what, for me, was the real story.
So, I guess, to answer your question, I hope anyone who reads it feels something. Because it was just a feeling that ultimately clarified and sharpened what I think. The idea of “seeing” people for who they are and not how they look is an important theme, and it reveals compassion through the characters’ ideas about connection and loss.
Was this initially what attracted you to the characters?
Definitely. Often, we don’t choose to really see people. We’re quick to judge by nothing more than the surface trappings that, for the most part, people are born into. We have no say how or why or where we come into this world. In this story, Connor becomes convinced that because of his paralysis and the growing guilt over his mother’s death that he is now worthless. Not just because she was the only one who really saw him for who he is, but also because his dad seems unable to look at him, Mrs. Sullivan only sees what she wants to, and his friends have stopped looking in on him. Only Connor’s uncle is able to see and value him. Connor doesn’t judge his uncle. He doesn’t see the imposing, frightening human being others do. He sees the kind, sympathetic uncle who still treats him like a normal boy. Perhaps it’s due to his youth, the part that hasn’t calcified with age, but Connor is able to search and see people for who they are–the result of their choices and actions. In turn, he helps others do the same. The real villain here is the one that hides its true nature, cloaked in lies and betrayal.
What do you hope your readers will think about after they finish reading “Judas Sheep” and why do you feel this is an important story to tell?
I just hope they feel something and that maybe it lingers for a bit. And I’m not sure I can say with a straight face that this story has such an importance that it needs to be told. All I can say it was important to me. And thank you for reading.
Your title proves to be an important part of how the story is to be perceived. How and at what point in the process of creating a piece do you decide on its title?
It varies for me. Sometimes it’s in the first draft. Others come after a number of drafts. When I struggle finding a title I worry that I’m not entirely clear on what I am writing about. In this case, the story about a sheep in Brooklyn in the late 19th and early 20th century that would meet the newly arrived flock at the dock and lead them through the streets to the slaughter house is true. The fact that a sheep betrayed its own for a warm bed and a nice meal was a mind-blower to me. There was something sadly human about it. The title came after the first untitled draft. Once I knew what I was writing about.
How did this story evolve as you worked on it, especially the ending?
I didn’t really know how the story would end. But I also wasn’t feeling a need to wrap things up either. I was in no hurry. Then, one morning, I started writing. And I didn’t stop. I didn’t take a break the entire day. Those are the kind of days I don’t mess with. I just ride that wave as long as I can. When I finished that night, the final five pages were done. And even though I was spent, it felt right. There’s honestly a lot of stuff buried in there that I won’t get into. But I will say that even now, it still gets me. It’s still raw. So, for better or worse, it was the right way to end it.
Your characters have deeply human attributes and it’s easy for your reader to quickly become attached to them and their difficulties. What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?
I don’t know that I lean to one topic or theme. It’s usually a story idea and then I think of the most interesting way to tell it. But who knows. I guess hindsight will have a better opinion. For now, I’m just moving onto the next thing. But I really appreciate your comment about the characters. I miss them. I enjoyed spending time with every one of them.
Revision and editing are important and unique parts of finishing a story. What’s your revision process? Do you have any personal editing tips for our readers?
Typically, I write and then edit two or three drafts depending on when I feel it’s in a good place. Then I let it sit. Sometimes for weeks, but usually a month or two. Then I go back and see all the glaring holes that need to be filled and all the superfluous mountains that need to be leveled. I try to be merciless. And then I fuss and noodle and fuss and noodle. I am also never finished with anything. Even after something is published. So, I need, at some point, to just walk away. But I love the editing process. I love collaboration at a certain point. I especially enjoyed it on this story with the editorial help of Kathrin Hutson. She was a great help and made the story better.
And lastly, what are you working on now? Can we expect any new writing from you in the near future?
I just finished a story that initially I intended to shoot as a short film. But a friend suggested I write it. It’s about a young deaf boy who has a remarkable gift that no one else is aware of. The general theme is that all too often we think we know what’s best for everyone else. It’s a bit heartbreaking.