Chad Simpson lives in Monmouth, Illinois, and teaches writing and literature classes at Knox College. His chapbook, Phantoms, was released in April by Origami Zoo Press. New work has appeared or is forthcoming in Orion Magazine,matchbook, Wigleaf, and Crab Orchard Review.
His story "You Would've Counted Yourself Lucky" appears in Issue Forty of The Collagist.
Here, Chad Simpson talks to interviewer David Bachmann about a boy who does more with less, the importance of sounds in the night, and the transformative power of the calf muscle.
1. I see the boy in your work as existing in a state of purgatory, put there by his age (10), by parents who are drunk and indifferent but also intolerant, by his absent sister, and by his moves being dictated by a disabled neighbor girl. Is this true or does this character have more going for him than that?
I think purgatory is a great way of describing where this boy exists in the world. He’s definitely between stations. Annie Dillard has this line in her memoir An American Childhood, and I’m going to have to paraphrase it, about how at ten years old we become conscious for the first time of the world around us, of ourselves in that world.
The boy in this story is definitely in that place where he’s becoming conscious of his place in the world, and I think that’s something he has going for him. He hasn’t figured much out yet, but by the end of the story, he’s beginning to. I also think of him as thoughtful and curious and creative, so he has those things going for him as well. Ultimately, I don’t think this boy is going to grow up to be like his parents, even if he’s a little afraid of the idea of growing up any other way.
2. The flashlight quickly becomes an important object in this story, one with which the boy develops almost an obsessive-compulsive relationship. It acts as a vehicle for his speculation on the stars and space, it gives away his presence to Rebecca, and it stops his sister in her tracks. Did you originally have grand plans for this flashlight or did its uses become apparent only during the process of writing?
This story began for me with the image of a boy out in his backyard in the dark, later at night than he should be out alone, shining his flashlight toward the stars. I didn’t know anything else about what was going on other than that, so I certainly wasn’t aware the flashlight would remain in the story as much as it does. This story was kind of all process for me. I knew almost nothing about anything until I started making sentences.
3. Your work pays close attention to the senses, particularly sound as it occurs in darkness: “The familiar crunch of car tires on the gravel in the alley,” “the boy can feel the sound the door makes in the small of his back,” “her metal braces clack and squeak,” etc. In fact, the word “sound” occurs seventeen times. Can you comment on the role of sound in this work and how the acts of listening and hearing serve the boy and this setting in general?
Wow. Seventeen times? I had no idea.
I think one reason sound became important for me while I was writing this story is that most of the piece takes place at night, in darkness. There is less for him to see, so the boy has to rely more on what he hears.
There’s also that conversation between his parents the boy overhears very early in the story, during which they talk at but not to one another. I think this boy exists in a world where there’s a lot to hear but not much listening going on. Then, when he has his encounter with Rebecca, there’s a kind of shift that occurs. He has an actual conversation with her, when in the past, she’s just been shouting at him, teasing him.
4. Did Leanne ever have a larger physical presence in this story? If so, why did you diminish it?
No, Leanne’s presence grew as the story progressed. After I began with the image of the boy out in his backyard, shining his flashlight at the sky, the idea of the absent sister followed soon after. I realized that he was actually out there kind of waiting for her, that he wasn’t just being a kid and shining his flashlight at the sky. And then I started wondering about what was going on with the sister, and I liked the idea of this boy loving his sister but thinking she’s doing something wrong—via his parents—by dating black guys. I liked the idea of him trying to reconcile these things; Leanne, his beautiful sister, with whom he used to have a meaningful relationship, was kind of a vehicle for me to put the boy in that purgatory you mentioned.
5. This work features a young woman who often makes the boy and reader uncomfortable as a result of her insistence to remain a social creature despite her condition. The boy may well be with her out of a sense of human duty. Yet, when he rubs Rebecca’s calf, “It's like his world has become small. Manageable. Perfect.” Can you talk about what you are conveying in this moment?
Rebecca is very much “other,” especially as far as the boy is concerned. She’s older and physically different from him, and she seems to have suffered some kind of brain damage from the accident she was in, as well. The boy ends up having this real moment of intimacy with her, though, despite their differences. He has a specific physical reaction to this moment of intimacy, and he has a kind of general emotional/intellectual reaction, which eventually leads him to wonder whether it would be OK for him to have a relationship with Rebecca, if he were older, despite the fact she’s different from him, since it’s wrong—according to some people, including the people who’ve raised him—for his sister to date guys who aren’t the same race as her. Essentially, I think what I’m trying to convey in that moment is something about the transformative power of human intimacy, of human connection.
6. Part of the beauty of the boy’s last plea/demand that his sister stay right where she is is that it could mean a number of things: he’s trying to stop time for his own sake, trying to save his sister from intolerant parents, etc. What is the boy trying to accomplish with his last lines? What does he actually accomplish?
I personally like the ambiguity of the final image because it conveys those things you mention as well as the idea that maybe the boy wants to stop time because he’s confused and undone by that moment of intimacy he experienced with Rebecca. I feel like he’s been truly shaken, like he’s never going to see the world in the same way again, and this terrifies him. He’ll be better for it down the road, but right then, maybe, just maybe, he can keep his flashlight’s beam trained on his sister and things will remain as they are. I’m not sure he accomplishes this, of course, but he does have his sister’s attention; she is listening to him when he speaks. He feels like something of a ghost in his own house at the beginning of the story, but here, in this final moment, unseen, he has a voice and his flashlight, and he is making himself known.
7. What are you reading these days?
This afternoon I’m going to finish reading Patrick deWitt’s Ablutions, which has been great. I’ve also been reading Autoportrait by
8. What are you writing these days?
My writing is pretty scattered these days. My short story collection, Tell Everyone I Said Hi, was published this past October. I found out this was going to happen in early January 2012, and I spent much of the past year doing things related to that book. I also revised several stories and essays, but I didn’t work on much new stuff. So, now I’m having this problem related to that, which is basically that I have five or six things I really want to be working on. I’m mostly tinkering at this point. And I recently started a new project on tumblr: http://thewallyletters.tumblr.com/ It’s my hope that working on this project will magically lead me toward the thing I should be working on next.