Categories
Interviews

Creating Writing Rooted in Autobiography

An Interview with Brad Shurmantine

by Andrew Miller, Mud Season Review, Creative Nonfiction Editor

This story is about my mother’s heroism. If I had been a teenager, I would have been telling her what to do and getting us all killed. “Mom! Chill! It’ll blow over!”

–Brad Shurmantine

At the beginning of “Inconceivable,” you and your friends were dismissive of tornadoes. Later in life, you became more interested in them and wrote this essay. What triggered your change in perspective?  

I’ve always thought tornadoes were super cool and frightening. My direct experience with them made me an “expert,” and I told our family’s story whenever I could. After I moved to California, people back home would ask how I could be happy there, what with all those earthquakes constantly decimating the region, and we’d have a lively back-and-forth. I’ve lived a conventional life, and this is one of the rare non-boring things that ever happened to me, so of course I’d write about it.

In your essay, you weaved together your memory of three separate tornadoes, quantitative information on the Ruskin Heights tornado, and other family traumas. Why did you make that choice rather than just concentrating on the Ruskin Heights tornado?

This essay was largely driven by research, albeit on a Wikipedia level. I wanted to verify some facts about the Ruskin Heights tornado, and couldn’t stop. The “research voice” transformed what was essentially family folklore into a more universal and, to me, more interesting story. And I cannot tell this story without including what happened to my father six months later. The two events are soldered together.

How would “Inconceivable” be different if you had been older when it occurred?

This story is about my mother’s heroism. If I had been a teenager, I would have been telling her what to do and getting us all killed. “Mom! Chill! It’ll blow over!” 

How important is it for an author to have had personal experiences with events they write about?

Everything I write, including my short stories, is rooted in autobiography. I write to make sense of my life and extract its meaning. In writing fiction, I take major liberties with “the facts,” and I agree with Peter Orner that “our memories lie . . . our autobiographies are merely compilations of the greatest hits of our own bullshit.” Our remembered experiences are necessarily fictitious to some degree. Still, I feel a little amateurish, relying on them so much. I wish I had more pure imagination. I admire Jennifer Egan, who claims her personal experiences stifle her and she can’t cut loose and write unless she blocks them out. I keep hoping someday I’ll get tired of mucking around in my memories, strike out, write something really different. But time is running out on me.

On your website, you state that you dreamed of being a writer as a young man. What triggered that dream, and why didn’t you fulfill it until retirement?

Rod McKuen, of all people, inspired me to become a writer. I devoured his poetry when I was a high school kid, would lie in bed for hours listening to In Search of Eros, his “spoken word” album. I thought I could do what he did, because I had feelings too! I discovered T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner soon enough, but I’ll always be grateful to Rod for triggering my desire to write. He was honest, vulnerable, moved people. He moved me. (The fact that he sold millions and millions of books mattered not at all.) What caused me to basically hang it up as a young writer was isolation. I was just speaking into a void, and I convinced myself that I sucked, that I could better expend my time and energies, and be more useful as a human being. So, I became a high school English teacher and was more useful. The most important advice I can give young writers is to make writer friends. Find a community. That’s the best argument for MFA programs. Connect.

What did you expect readers to take away from “Inconceivable?”

I wanted to move them. I wanted them to see and feel the majesty and awe of tornadoes. The weight of history. My mother’s bravery. The sadness of my father’s and R.W.’s deaths. How the big public events we talk about, and the little private ones we don’t, shape us inalterably.

You point out that warning systems for tornadoes have improved in recent years. Does an early warning of any event (and consider the death of your father) make them more tolerable?

I’ve always thought those tear-jerkers about people told they have cancer and just six months to live are crap. The friendly family doctor gives them the bad news; the camera pans in on their trembling faces. I can’t stand those movies. How is that sad? It would be great, knowing you have X amount of time and can put your life in order. Walk around the park, soak things up. Eat a big bag of salty potato chips and savor each one. Tell everyone you love them. Nothing tragic there. What happened to my father, however, was tragic. He created a family and all he wanted was to take care of us, for his children to know him. Tragic in Aristotelean terms because my father’s greatness consisted in his desire to provide for us, and that’s what brought him down—being out on the road, making a living. What happened to him could happen to any of us, and usually does. Death without warning. Like the man says, “Readiness is all.”

What works of other authors inspire you?

I am primarily a short story writer. Two writers in particular, Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, have instilled in me the aesthetic that guides my writing, which can be summed up in one word: grace. In the spiritual sense (God’s healing presence), grace suffuses all of Flannery O’Connor’s characters and drives all her plots. Her characters reach for grace, ignore it, reject it, as do Carver’s alcoholics and losers. I, too, want to write stories about characters who seek or fail to seek grace. My family was saved from the tornado by God’s grace, as both my parents recognized. Chekhov provides another definition: “When a man spends the least possible number of movements over some definite action, that is grace.” Raymond Carver, the “American Chekhov,” exemplifies that kind of grace in every story and sentence he wrote, and Flannery O’Connor is just as accurate and precise. A third dimension of grace motivating my work comes from Hemingway: “Courage is grace under pressure.” The kind of courage that matters to me is fearless honesty. O’Connor was writing about herself in “Good Country People” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” and she was ruthlessly honest. Carver inhabits everything he wrote, and stories like “Careful” or “Gazebo” are awesome in their honesty. Finally, grace is buoyant, comic. Stories without humor are second-rate to me (sorry, Sophocles). Much of the pure delight I feel when I read O’Connor and Carver comes from how damn funny they are.

By Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is the creative nonfiction editor of Mud Season Review. He has a BA, MS, and Ph.D. in biology and spent most of his career at the US Army Engineer R&D Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After retiring from the government, he taught at Thomas University in southern Georgia. He now lives in Florida, volunteers in prisons, restores antique stained-glass windows, and writes.  His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Front Porch ReviewBlue Lake ReviewThe Meadow, The River, Arkansas Review, Northern New England Review, Northern Woodlands, Maine Homes, Fatherly, and Toastmaster Magazine. His website is http://www.andrewcmiller.com/