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Interview: Alan Heathcock

by: Adam Segal of WBR

My first brush with the writings of Alan Heathcock was this fascinating blog post, “Why I Write: The Battle of Right Hand, Left Hand,” in which the author frames his writing as a noble-minded if Sisyphean endeavor “to investigate, to seek out answers, to calm the hurt, to stroke the troubled mind.”

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This is hardly an exaggeration on Heathcock’s part. The stories in his 2011 collection VOLT wrestle with oft-repressed feelings of grief, remorse, and alienation; with the sense of impotence we can feel in the face of the lot we’ve been unceremoniously handed. Each story takes place in the fictional rural town of Krafton, a town afflicted by flood and fire, by poverty and violence, full of youth
who need to escape and adults who’d very much just like to get on with their lives.

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Recently I spoke with Alan Heathcock about repression and regret, heroism and selfishness, and the “sense of oblivion” that real freedom can be.

WHOLE BEAST RAG: So I want to get right into this: What is evil to you? What does that word mean?

ALAN HEATHCOCK: Oh, gosh, that is an incredibly difficult question. The more I play around with stories, which is to say that I’m always picking a particular question from which to write, the definition of evil is going to shift. Certainly, if we look at every war in the history of the world, there isn’t any side that would consider themselves evil. Especially those cultures that believe their
violence is justified, or those cultures that are openly aggressive, would celebrate war more than others. The Vikings, for example, would celebrate the heroism of their own violence. But they would not see themselves as evil.

So this evil is a shifting term that seems to denote a malevolence that goes in opposition to an individual’s idea of moral rightness. Maybe there is some general senseless violence; something that’s just crazy or random. Maybe that’s evil? But that’s so specific, so small, so guttered, that it seems to take all of the bite away from the word, evil. It’s a slippery thing to get your head around, and I think about that a lot.

WBR: I’ve often thought that the key to sympathizing with another human being is simply to follow them around long enough to see what their lives are like. That is, it’s difficult to assign blame to someone when you can see the broader context of their actions. In Volt, many of your protagonists do what might be called “the wrong thing,” but they all are still more or less sympathetic. I’m wondering: Have you ever written a character who would still be utterly reprehensible even if they were the protagonist?

AH: That’s a tricky question too. There have been a few times—nothing that I’ve published—where I’ve written from the perspective of an individual who I personally thought I was in opposition to. My worldview was directly oppositional to theirs. Trying to experiment to see if I could find my way into some empathetic connection with this other human being. I don’t know if it’s even surprising that I’ve found there to be some course of decency to what they’re doing. Certainly there are traits and impulses that should not be rewarded. Greed for the sake of greed, the sort of thing that benefits only the individual. These are big Shakespearian things. Ambition and greed. Probably certain sexual and violent impulses that only benefit the individual. So I think to a certain selection of those cases we can assign the term “reprehensible.” It’s just a weakness or a sickness within an individual that they’re not able to see beyond their own selfish impulses, and the destruction that their impulses bring into the world.

WBR: A lot of terrible things happen in Krafton over the course of your book, but I don’t think I’d necessarily say any of the characters are outright cruel. No one’s doing anything bad for the sake of being bad. Everything seems to fall within the scope of realistic human impulses, as troubling as those impulses sometimes become.

AH: Yeah. Just from where I grew up, from things I was in close proximity to, a great deal of what I saw from people who ended up in prison or in other trouble with the law, they weren’t bad people. They weren’t necessarily trying to do bad things. They would have preferred to do something else. But they were caught up in a moment of survival, or in a situation where they had to make a decision between three bad options. They did their best to pick the right one. Good people made bad decisions.

So I’ve seen more of that. Of all the people I know who have gotten in trouble and will somehow be labeled by society as “bad” people or “problem” people, there are only a couple I know who I think are actually sick. There is a sickness within them—that we can call evil.

WBR: I was talking with friends the other night—this reminded me of your story “The Staying Freight”—over drinks and I asked one of them what the worst thing was that he’d ever done. I was expecting some sort of choice he’d made, something he’d chosen to do that he knew was wrong.

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But what he told me instead was a story about accidentally letting his dad’s garage burn down. And sure, in a way he was at fault—he knew the truck had been running hotter than usual, he knew certain materials in the garage were inflammable—but it also wasn’t a choice that he made. It wasn’t a result of the thought, “I’m going to burn down my dad’s garage.” So I loved that answer to the question, because it wasn’t at all the answer I expected. I thought about Winslow, the protagonist of “The Staying Freight.” Near the story’s beginning he says “Now and forever I’ll be the man what killed his boy. A man what shoved his wife.”

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That’s what he’s most worried about. But those things weren’t his choice, weren’t the result of his own volition. The worst thing he does, as far as I can see, is to walk away. So with a character like Winslow, how do we assign the blame? Sure, he does “the wrong thing,” but is he at fault?

AH: I think we all struggle with how we define ourselves and how we see ourselves defined by others, especially within our communities. It’s the whole self-fulfilling prophesy: the way we see ourselves is the way we become.

So, being in close proximity to seeing an event like what happened with Winslow—that actually happened—you see that a person’s grief turns inward. And their shame, their blame. It becomes a part of how they define themselves. That guilt is so overwhelming. It can’t help but completely take over a person. It often does. Those who can recover from such things are the people who can somehow release themselves from completely defining themselves by these actions.

You know, guilt and shame play a huge part in influencing how we act in appropriate ways. They stop us from committing some outward aggression, like “I’m going to do something against that person.” The reaction to an event, the guilt and shame, those are powerful parts of any situation.

If I think about the things that I most regret in my life, it would be a similar thing. It would be the times when maybe I didn’t even force something to happen, but I didn’t stop it from happening. Or I couldn’t change it from happening. I felt like those things were defining me. We have to face ourselves.

In a way, Helen does that too at the very end of the book. If she hears the voice of God call out to her, will she just lay there, and think herself crazy? Or will she get up and do something? That’s the question for all of us. Your friend is asking himself that, too. “Why didn’t I stop the fire? Why did I let the garage burn down?” Nobody may be blaming him, but there’s a part of him that thinks, I could have done something. Metaphorically speaking, I heard the voice of God, and I just lay there. That guilt, that shame, it’s something we carry with us.

WBR: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. As you said, much of what we most regret are things that are utterly outside our control. And it does seem that where we should really put our own personal responsibility is what we do in the aftermath; the small choices we make after the big choices are made for us. Does that sound reasonable?

AH: I think that’s completely reasonable. I think that’s what I keep exploring. By and large, in my stories I ask, Why is it that we can’t recover? Why is it that we can’t come out of tragedy and do something heroic? Winslow is the perfect example of a man who couldn’t recover from his own grief. It would have been much better if he could have just found his way to reengage with his life, with the love of his wife and his community.

But that’s not the way we do. The human frailty is the thing that says, We don’t deserve this anymore. By saying we don’t deserve it we walk off into the wilderness and allow ourselves to be pummeled by other people. To be made a spectacle of. I think that’s human nature.

If I look out at the people I know who are good people, most everybody is struggling in some way or another. Even if they’re succeeding in all other ways—they have a good job, and they have a stable family—they are struggling with something within. I think we’re a lot more fragile than we need to be, to have a society that functions as well as it can.

We see profound examples of that on a daily basis, when we have big national tragedies. Finally we see people—the desire to be heroic and to say something positive finally comes to light. We have trouble being that kind of person on a daily basis, in our own private tragedies.

WBR: But…and perhaps I’m restating what I’ve said before, but don’t you think our responses to our own private tragedies, on a daily basis, have more weight than how we respond in the big critical moment?

I.e., The Carnegie Hero Fund gives out awards for spectacular heroics, people endangering their own lives in order to save the lives of others. In interviews with these award winners, asking why they did it, it was never a premeditated “I need to save that life for the following reasons,” it was more like “I didn’t see any other choice.” So for me the most important things are the tiny choices we make at every instant when the situation isn’t dire.

AH: Yeah, well, I think that’s why we’re all a mess. People struggle with just taking care of the small things, or even the bigger things within their own lives. Recently I gave a talk at a book group, and we were talking about grief—that comes up quite a bit when I give my talks—and people are really uncomfortable in talking about grief. Usually somebody, in the course of talking about my book, will say “Well, it’s well-written but you know, really, your book is kind of uncomfortable.” Then everybody in the room will laugh.

That’s what happened recently. One woman spoke up—she was a kind of loud, obnoxious,
boisterous woman—and she said “I don’t know why people have to talk about this stuff. I
remember back when Princess Diana was killed tragically, and everybody was crying about her
dying, and bringing flowers to her grave, and I just rolled my eyes and said ‘Oh, you people are so weird!’” She laughed, everyone laughed, and I said “No!”

That’s exactly the problem. That sentiment is exactly the problem. We don’t allow ourselves to even be heroic in our own lives. We all have these small tragedies, or things that even feel big to our lives—the death of a loved one, say, a grandparent or a parent dying. A friend dying. We don’t allow ourselves to show grief because we don’t want that obnoxious woman at the table talking crap about us. [Laughs]

We wait for these big national events. Princess Diana dies and finally I get to express my grief openly! It’s now publicly acceptable. That sort of scenario plays itself out—that’s just with grief—but it plays itself out in so many different ways.

Or, like in your example, just yesterday I read a story about the Chicago interstate: A truck was on fire, and two guys ran to the truck, pulling the driver out right before the truck exploded. They interviewed one of the guys, and he said, “Uh, yeah, we were just parked behind the truck. We decided to see if anyone was in it, and then he was in it, and we just rescued him. Come to think of it, that was probably a really really dumb thing to do.”

That’s what he said, “a really really dumb thing to do.” But that’s how a lot of heroism works. If they had thought it through, they might not have wanted to endanger themselves. But that’s what it all really boils down to. How am I going to endanger myself? And how am I going to be seen?

Even this guy, who’s just done this great thing, just saved another human life. His first instinct is to protect his own reputation, “no, that was kinda dumb. I’m not so sure why I did that.” How many people do you hear interviewed who own up to it, who say, “I believe that it is right to run into the fire and save another person’s life.” No one says that. We don’t even have the right to say that. We live in a strange world. So we have to say, “that was dumb.” No it’s not. From my perspective as an author, if you’re sitting in that car, and you don’t save that man’s life, then you have to live the rest of your life with the thought that you did nothing.

So it’s not dumb. It’s very smart to try to run and save that guy. Because otherwise you live with the thought that you inadvertently caused the death of somebody else. It’s tragic that you’re placed in that situation, but that’s the truth of it.

WBR: It also raises the question of moral luck. You didn’t ask to be in that situation, and yet here you are. You either have to live with a death on your hands for the rest of your life, or you get to be a great hero and everybody applauds you. But if you’d just sat home and watched TV, you wouldn’t have even been in that situation. It’s a little crazy how that comes out.

AH: Yeah, and that’s most of Shakespeare, right? Most of Shakespeare’s stories, you have some poor schlep who’s just minding his own business, then something happens and he realizes “Oh wait, I can be king now.” So he starts down a pathway of making decisions and moral compromises and defining his way through ambition and greed and whatever else it may be.

But maybe that’s everyone’s story though. We’re not placed into a situation until we are. And every one of my stories is that exact scenario. A man accidentally kills his son in a farming accident, people have to recover from a tragic flood, a woman is placed in the role of being sheriff and has to handle a dire situation. A great purpose of art, particularly story, is that it lets us rehearse these complicated situations so that we can make sense of the world as we walk out our door every morning, wondering if we’re going to be on the interstate behind a truck that explodes.

WBR: This leads into something that’s really been troubling me. At the end of the final story, “Volt,” Jorgen talks about his sergeant overseas. The sergeant tries to inspire the troops by framing their war as a war to keep the world of chaos and pain away from the world back home of happiness and peace. But Jorgen realizes that he never had that happiness or that peace. His whole life, all of it, was chaotic and painful. Going over to a warzone didn’t change that. This bothers me a lot.

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Many of your characters, the people in Krafton, who suffer these tragedies…they’re not doing bad things because they’re bad people. They do what they do because…because their parents aren’t there or they have parents who are violent or they’re desperate, or there’s no other way around it.

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The thing that troubles me so much is this: How can any of these characters be judged, in the end? I’ve lived a really easy life; I don’t think I’ve ever been put in a situation in which all three choices were the wrong one. So how could I ever possibly judge anybody like that?

AH: Oh I agree, I agree, it’s an impossible situation. I was thinking. .here’s a perfect example: The other day I was in a convenience store, filling up my truck with gas and I went into the convenience store to get me a drink. There were two young women, the clerks of store. They were both dressed in pajama pants and fuzzy slippers. They had an iPhone out, were watching some video, and they were just dancing around the store, completely oblivious of me. And I’m trying to get them to sell me this bottle of water. But they were completely oblivious.

This is going on while the entire city of Boston is on lockdown. This is going on while my nephew who is serving in Afghanistan is doing whatever he’s doing. Part of me says, well that is freedom.

We talk about what “freedom” is, that thing we’re protecting. Freedom is that sense of oblivion. That sense that nothing bad is right around the corner.

It’s a precious thing. I’m not even trivializing it. That is a precious thing. Maybe I’m feeling it right now, maybe you’re feeling it right now. I’m not feeling a sense of threat that a bomb is going to drop on my house, or that there are snipers in my trees. That’s a very precious thing, freedom, the sense of comfort we have as Americans. Absolutely there are people out there, my nephew is out there right now. Who knows, because of the things that he sees on a daily basis—I’ve seen pictures of where he’s patrolling, it’s not a pretty place—will he ever have the sense of freedom that those girls in that convenience store had?

I helped a friend who made a documentary. He was in the battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam—a group of Marines were trapped in this valley for 77 days, pretty much under constant bombardment—a terrible battle. In the documentary he interviews 15 survivors, who are now in their 50s or 60s.

One of them struck me. One of them was a well-dressed, well-spoken man. You might see him as a bank president, or sitting down the pew from you in church. Some of the others had problems with alcoholism and generally rough lives, but he seemed to find his center. And toward the end of the movie he said that every morning, he put his feet on the ground and he heard mortar fire. Every morning. So that struck me. This is years, years, years and years have gone by. Some people will take on the burden. And I’m not so sure that burden has ever left them, once they’re indoctrinated into that burden.

So even freedom itself is felt differently by different people. I think about that all the time, which is why I really think that sense of peace that you feel, that freedom, is so precious, and also so tenuous.

WBR: And the thing about Jorgen’s whole family is that I’m not sure that what they’re feeling at any given moment is that freedom. The family matriarch, when Helen speaks to her, admits that they as a family have these problems and they do work through them. But it’s obvious that there is some degree to which they don’t have all the essentials for a good life. Even back home, even when the country is at peace, I don’t think they have that sort of freedom you describe. The feeling of safety, the knowledge that you have everything you need.

AH: That’s right. I think there are a great number of people in that position. And not just weird, drug-running families out in the sticks. They’re on every street, in more houses than we would think.

People who are affected, who are ill-equipped to accept that sense of peace into their lives. One of the tragedies in America, maybe one of the things I write about a lot, is this two-pronged understanding that being an American, you’re afforded a sense of freedom and peace, and that is the great and beautiful thing. But it’s afforded to some people. But there are entire portions of our country in which nobody is afforded that sense of peace. At the same time too often I think America is represented in pictures and text as a place where everyone afforded that sense of peace. Which means that it is at the discount of this huge group of people, at the discount of everyone who is not afforded the sense of peace on a daily level. That’s one of the great American tragedies, I think, dealing with that tremendous misunderstanding.

WBR: I really enjoyed that blog post about why you write. It seems like every writer has for themselves—not quite an excuse—but an explanation, a definition, or a justification of what it is they are really doing. I think every fiction author knows that it goes beyond entertainment, that they’re trying to achieve something more.

But you really frame it as a struggle with moral ambiguity. Do you think that to be a fiction writer is necessarily to be a moral figure? To be someone who wrestles with that? Or is that something you’ve chosen to take on for yourself?

AH: A story is a unit of communication. It is a discussion of something. We can use that word, “moral,” and depending on how we use the word moral, I think it would apply. We’re trying to make sense of why people behave the way they do. I know a lot of writers who would feel that it’s too much of a pressure, to accept it as a truth of their own writing.

I consciously accept the role that I am investigating moral truth. It sounds pretty pretentious and it scares a lot of people away. But I know that’s what I’m doing. And I don’t feel it as a big and pretentious thing, either. I feel it as a symptom of who I am and the life that I’ve led and the things that I’ve seen. It’s the most natural thing. It’s the thing that I did every day getting on a school bus trying to make sense of looking down the aisle, trying to figure out if someone’s going to smack me in the head or try to pull a fast one on me, or will someone offer me a seat?

That’s the truth of our lives. So it’s extended itself into my writing, in a way that I feel is the most graceful and natural thing I can do. So I just openly accept it. Even though I think I could make an argument that everybody else is doing it, too. Whether they want to admit it or not.