Brad Felver is the author of the story collection The Dogs of Detroit (University of Pittsburgh Press), which won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was named one of the best books of 2018 by Library Journal. His other honors include the O. Henry Prize, a Pushcart Prize special mention, and the Zone 3 Fiction Prize. His fiction and essays have appeared widely in magazines such as One Story, New England Review, Hunger Mountain, and Colorado Review, and his story “How to Throw a Punch” appeared in Issue #6 of The Adroit Journal. He lives with his wife and kids in northern Ohio.
Brad Felver knows how to write a story that aches. A few stories into his award-winning collection The Dogs of Detroit, I found myself having to push through mental barriers to keep going, realizing that these were stories I had to be prepared to read. Felver is in clear-eyed, unashamed pursuit of honesty in exploring the difficult subjects he tackles. Where other writers might turn away, his gaze remains fixed, looking at his subjects and asking what they might do if pushed a little further—how they might exhibit what it is to be human when pushed right to the limits, and what the days, weeks, months, and years after tragedy leave in their wake. Felver and I talked about grief, how he structures his stories, and how becoming a dad has influenced his work.
Joel Pinckney: If there’s one idea that you really explore in your stories, it’s grief—how people grieve, how people respond to the grief of others, what grief does to our relationships with others, and so on. What is it about grief and the various ways people respond to it that interests you?
Brad Felver: You know, so often the way it works with writing is that you don’t know you’re obsessed with a thing until you’ve been writing about it for a long time. I’m always wary of answering that question as if I really had this clear vision, and I knew what I was doing, and I made it work out. It almost happened in a backwards sort of way, that I had clearly been interested in the idea of grief as a driving force for a long time, and was writing stories in that vein, and only later did I realize that I was fixated on it. For me, that’s how it often works.
But I also found myself interested in the way that grief and violence tend to interact with each other. A lot of times in these stories it’s physical violence—the notion that sometimes it’s easier to be angry, it’s easier to throw a punch, than it is to be purely sad. I think there’s no rawer emotion than just pure sadness, and so we have a tendency to kind of push that to the side. One of the things I’ve noticed is that I think people have a tendency to move towards something like violence, whether it’s physical violence or some other form of violence, when they are grieving. That struck me as a really interesting confluence for story, that there’s really good conflict to explore there.
One of my favorite writers is Chekhov, and Chekhov wrote about grief a fair bit, and he did it really, really well. One of the things I’ve noticed is that he was really good at animating grief. He has a great story called “Misery” that’s about a taxi driver whose son has just died. The taxi driver is just trying to get people to talk to him about it, and nobody wants to do that, but he’s always animated, he’s always trying to talk to someone, and he ends up talking to a horse at the end of the story. It’s just heartbreaking. And so the idea of taking a grief story, which wants to be this kind of lethargic affair where nothing happens, because grief is when you’re kind of stuck in an orbit—finding a way to animate that. That’s where I think the idea of exploring the confluence of grief and violence came about, too. Again, I think all of this kind of happened on an unconscious level, and only later did I start to realize what I was doing.
JP: The father in the title story, “Dogs of Detroit,” says to his bereft and tortured son, “We must learn grief.” It’s interesting reading that story last—and I wonder if this is part of your thinking in arranging the stories as you did—because it struck me that several of the characters in earlier stories are struggling from not having learned how to properly grieve.
BF: Yeah, I feel like that’s absolutely it.
JP: Was that part of your thinking in structuring the book as you did? And do you think that violence as a way of animating grief, as you talk about it—is that natural, or is that sort of a mislearned way of grieving?
BF: It’s a great question. I hope it’s the latter, for sure, although I’m skeptical of that, unfortunately. When I was a kid, there was just a lot of casual violence in the neighborhood. I think part of it was people who just felt that they weren’t getting a fair shake, or that they were navigating a world that just wasn’t fair to them, and they probably recognized it, and responded with forms of violence. I didn’t really realize that when I was a kid, it was just kind of normal, but looking back at it, people very quickly, especially kids, devolved into that sort of violence, and I think they were grieving over something. So unfortunately, I think there probably is something natural about it, which is one of the reasons that I want to write about it. I want to talk about it, because it’s also obviously not okay. You know, I’m a dad, and it’s not okay that my kid hits. That’s not an okay response.
In terms of structuring the book, that was definitely part of my thinking. In some ways, I spent a long time thinking about how to structure the collection, and in other ways, I also recognized that if you have the right grouping of stories, and if you have pretty good stories, it’ll probably work no matter what—and there’s also a reasonable chance people are going to jump around in the collection, even if you don’t want them to. So I also recognized that I didn’t need to put too much pressure on it. But the idea was that over the course of the stories we see these characters progressively trying to deal with grief, sometimes not knowing how, right? And then by the time we get to the title story, we have a father who says kind of outright that grief is a learned skill. You need to learn how to grieve, it doesn’t come naturally. I like that kind of clear declaration of it, too.
But I also just like the idea of putting a title story last, because it suggests a sort of accumulation, this sort of ramp-up over the course of the stories, and it’s kind of telling the reader, “Hang in there, there’s something big coming at the end.” When you have a collection of stories and one of them is the title story, you are saying to the reader, “This one is more important.” And so I like the idea of almost using that as a base to say, “Just keep reading, keep reading, keep reading.”
JP: “Stones We Throw,” the shortest story in the collection—page-and-a-half, two pages—seems to me to be as close as your collection comes to not necessarily a happy story, but a more resolved story, because it seems that in that story the father and the son, grieving the death of their wife and mother, come together in their grief, as opposed to characters like the husband and wife in “Queen Elizabeth,” who, at their daughter’s funeral, “each faced the same choice at this moment—anger or sadness—and each opted for anger.” And then a few pages later—“How easily grief could mutate into something else entirely.” So in their grief, they faced this choice, and they went down a path of separation rather than connection. Were you trying to send a different message in “Stones We Throw,” present a different set of possibilities, or did that story just come together that way?
BF: Maybe, though I don’t know that it was conscious. I know that when I wrote that story, it all kind of came out in one big gush. It was just an hour-long sitting, and that never, ever happens for me. It’s always more of a slog than that. I put that story in the middle of the book, the idea there being that it’s kind of a chance for the reader to catch her breath, because I realize that the stories can be kind of unrelenting and dark—that’s not lost on me. But I also like the idea of that breath you catch being this moment where you see a sort of positive father-and-son relationship, where so many of them are fathers purposely or accidentally training their sons to be miniature them, in all of the bad ways. I like the idea that it doesn’t have to turn into that.
I also wanted “Stones We Throw” to hopefully echo with the end of the title story, where the idea is that I try to entrap the reader a little bit—the reader, just like Polk, the child in the story, is really interested in finding mom. Ostensibly, that’s what’s driving the story. We want to find mom. But hopefully, with the story’s final turn with his father, the reader comes to realize that it hasn’t been a story about that this whole time. It’s been a story about a kid and his dad—dad has been there, and it was always dad who was pulling him up. I wanted those two stories to kind of rhyme with each other.
JP: Your narrators each have very distinct voices—do you feel, as a writer, that you decide on and shape the voice first, and then the story follows, or do you have a vision of what the story will be that determines how you approach voice?
BF: That’s a really good question, and it’s a messy answer. It just feels different every single time. Sometimes it’s a gesture that I think will drive the story that comes first, like in “Stones We Throw”—I love the idea of a kid throwing rocks up into the sky and pretending they’re becoming stars. That felt loaded in interesting ways. In “Out of the Bronx,” it was this idea of a kid trying to burn rats, the visual image of that, which seemed kind of ripe to deal with. Other times, it’s just a turn of phrase that sticks with me, or something that’s interesting that a character might say. That’s when the story tends to emanate from voice, and then the voice starts to drive it.
So I think usually, especially when I have a first-person narrative, it’s the confluence of voice and structure that drives the story, and one of those will tend to come first. And it’s going to be different each time, but I need the voice in very obvious ways. I also need to figure out how I’m going to slide through space and time, and that’s always a really difficult logistical challenge, but once I figure out voice and structure, it gets a little bit easier. That feels like a really nebulous answer—the reality is I have no idea.
JP: I want to ask about point of view as well, because your collection does have a really wide range—you have some stories told in the first person, at least one in the second person, one in “Country Lepers” that’s a sort of variation on the epistolary form, and so on. How do you decide on point of view? Is that a similar answer to voice?
BF: Yeah, I think it probably is. If the voice seems really important, than I’ll more than likely end up in first person. Maybe in second person, though. It’s interesting to think that, yeah, I kind of have two stories in the collection that are second person, or quasi-second person. Second person is weirdly not a point of view I’m really all that interested in, and so the fact that those stories ended up in second person would suggest that maybe that’s just where they had to be—I can’t imagine telling them in any other way. Usually, too, I find that if I’m writing stories with younger narrators, I am more likely to end up in the first person, if only because I think kids have these really distinctive voices that get a little bit more vanilla as we get older. Which is, you know, not a great thing, but I think it’s probably a pretty normal thing too. So I really like trying to capture the child voices in first person.
But then kind of the bigger, and in some ways I would say maybe more ambitious stories, like “Queen Elizabeth,” or “Evolution of the Mule,” or “Dogs of Detroit”—I end up in something more like omniscience there, and I love omniscience as a point of view. I think it’s a really, really difficult point of view to write in, because you have to establish so many other sensibilities, and knowing everything doesn’t necessarily make things easier. You have to establish a whole kind of secondary narrative voice too, but I love that sort of big, booming voice that you can get from it, and I love the way that it allows you to move through space and time, and I love that it allows that narrator to kind of inject perspective into it also. I find that more and more I’m pushing myself toward omniscience.
JP: So your stories, they’re all about grief—they’re also all about surviving. Lots of your characters are simply doing what they have to do to survive, either figuring out how to cope in the lingering days and years after tragedy, or just seeking out how to live in a set of circumstances that they never imagined they’d face in their life. How much of a driving force do you think just the sheer will to survive plays in your stories?
BF: I think a lot, probably. I try to situate a lot of these characters and their predicaments when they’re really close to being at the end of their rope, if only because I think that’s a good crucible for story. Like the way I was talking about “Queen Elizabeth” earlier—I started with a happy couple, and at some point, you’re going to have to make them deal with things, right? The conflict is really what’s going to end up driving the story. So yeah, I think it’s in some ways just a basic plotting technique, is starting where the conflict is, and writing outward in concentric circles from there.
JP: Let’s talk briefly about “Evolution of the Mule,” one of the more unrelenting stories in the collection. The visitor in that story, this wandering traveler who appears on the dry and isolated farm of the story’s subjects, seems exemplary of some of your characters who are at the very edge of what we consider human. How do you approach writing a character like that, and what drives you to that type of figure?
BF: It’s a good question. In some ways, I don’t know where that character came from, so much as you’re right, I wanted him to kind of be on the edge of human. We’re playing with realism there—are we in realism, or are we verging on something else? He’s very clearly connected to something that’s more apelike, which brings in the idea of evolution, or devolution, too. And I really wanted that character to pop and be memorable and menacing in unique ways. One of the things I wanted for that character was for him to feel kind of uniformly awful, and in some ways, I wanted that to set up the line that the uncle offers toward the end, where he says to Wiley, “You see, there are things out there that are worse than me.” We’ve trained the reader over the course of the story to absolutely hate the uncle—that he is absolutely terrible, and yet it’s worth remembering that out on the horizon, there’s probably something worse. I like that sort of looming menace that hangs over the story.
JP: Do you find it challenging to write stories with the sort of harshness, and violence, and sadness that often permeate yours?
BF: The violence, yes. And even more so now. It’s funny, some of these stories are pushing ten years old now. I wrote them when I was quite a bit younger, and they’ve been in magazines, and then they’re just kind of hanging out, and over the course of that time, I think that my palate has changed. What I’m interested in writing about has changed, too, and I suspect that part of the driving force there is becoming a dad myself. I think that softens you in ways you can’t really predict. I’m less interested in writing about violence now, in part because I feel that through a lot of these stories, I’ve exercised that compulsion, and I don’t know how much more I have to say and write about it at this point. Which is kind of a good feeling, actually—that I did the thing that I set out to do, even if I didn’t know it while I was doing it.
JP: Did you write most of the father-son stories before you had kids, or are those mostly since you’ve had kids?
BF: Most of them I wrote before, the exception being the first story, “Queen Elizabeth”—I started that story when my wife was pregnant, and I was just writing these vignettes about this happy couple, and I didn’t know where it was going, and they just kept being happy and happy and happy—and obviously that’s terrible for story. And so then my son was born, and you know, that’s…you just kind of feel your world rock when that happens. And I realized that if I needed to inject some conflict into the story, if I needed to separate the happy couple, I had the most obvious thing in the world to do. So then the challenge became, how do I do that in a way that doesn’t kind of feel cliched and melodramatic?
JP: Thinking of the setting of “Evolution of the Mule,” how do you choose where your stories take place? You’re sort of all over the map with your stories—so there’s rural Ohio, there’s Montana, there’s Boston, New York, and some of your stories wouldn’t necessarily require you to name the place in which they are set (and you don’t always do that), but you do usually choose a specific location. What factors influence that decision of place?
BF: Yeah, I think usually I don’t start with where the story will take place. The character, the voice, the structure, the predicament, will probably dictate that. I often think of place as not just this character that sits there quietly throughout the story acting as a prism through which you look at things, but that it sets the crucible for the story. I teach writing for a living, and one of the things that I tell my students pretty early on is that story, at its most fundamental level, is very often conflict with parameters around it. And I think a lot of times, the setting can be those parameters. So in “Evolution of the Mule,” the parameters are this world with no rain, where nobody else is around, and there’s no money. But in “Out of the Bronx,” it’s this claustrophobic place where there are rats everywhere, and there’s nowhere for the rats to go, and there’s nowhere for these kids to go, either. And so then when one of the kids does escape, there’s a line in there that’s something like, “It felt like he escaped by standing on his cellmate’s shoulders.” So much of that probably builds from the claustrophobia of that setting. So usually the setting, for me, is going to work for the particular needs of the story, and that’s often driven out of what the central conflict for the story is.
JP: What about the concept of home in your stories? In “Out of the Bronx,” the narrator who, as you mentioned, “escaped by standing on his cellmate’s shoulders,” comments, “We go off and change, but home always waits for us. Stay away long enough, though, and it starts to feel like returning to the scene of a crime.” Can you expand on that a little bit and what role the idea of home plays in your stories?
BF: Yeah, it’s something that I’m really, really interested in. The idea of whether you can return home is something that a lot of writers have written about, and there seems to be this sort of divide. It’s either, Yes, you can, or, No, you can’t—there’s nothing in between. And just the idea of, what is home? And as you get older and as you go other places, what does that do to home? Do you take home with you? Does home just stay with you? If home stays the same, which I’m not convinced that it does, what does that mean when you return? Do you bring other places with you when you go back home, and how do those forces interact? I just think that all those questions are really, really interesting territory for story, because I think the reality is that the people, and where you live, and the concept of home—none of it is ever stagnant. It’s always going to be a moving target.
JP: Is the concept of home something that you’re more interested in now that you have children of your own?
BF: Yeah, it probably is. It probably seeped its way in when I wasn’t paying attention, which is how that often goes. Being a dad has changed me in so many ways—hopefully it’s made me more patient and more empathetic; I like to think that. More willing to give the benefit of the doubt kind of roundly, I hope; or at least that’s what I aspire to. Which is a way of saying that’s what I hope my kids end up aspiring to, if that’s the sort of thing I can pass along.
I’ve also found myself less interested in writing about violence, and I think there’s probably a relationship there. I’m more interested in writing about things like grief, and familial bonds, and home. The book I’ve been working on for the last few years is much more about that kind of stuff, too. And I’m sure being a dad plays into all of that. But yeah, it always feels really messy. We always want this one-to-one—being a dad has led to this sort of thing, and I’ve never been able to pin it down in clear, satisfactory kind of way.
JP: There’s a definite exploration of the urban/rural divide in your stories. You root characters in each, and some of the characters do reflect on the difference between them and the other—I’m thinking specifically of “The Era of Good Feelings,” where one of the brothers says about his brother who has moved away from their rural hometown, “He worked at a bank over in Fort Wayne, which meant we didn’t know how to talk to each other anymore.” Although there is this stated difference, it seems to me that most of those characters have more in common than they might think, and that you’re sort of interested in exploring those commonalities in terms of similar griefs and common motivations, that sort of thing. What’s your take on that, and could you speak some to, in our political and societal time in which the urban/rural divide generates a great deal of interest, what you make of the fundamental differences between the two (if there are fundamental differences)?
BF: Yeah, you know, it’s a ripe time to be talking about this kind of stuff, isn’t it? And it feels very much loaded. I’ve got to tell you, I’m just pleased as hell to hear you say things like, you know, these characters are thinking about the ways they don’t connect, while we’re watching them on the page probably connecting more than they realize, right? Because I feel like that’s probably where we are as a society in a lot of ways. That we have all of these people who are debating these really, really important issues, and often the divide is between urban and rural—that’s often a pretty good proxy for left or right, or blue or red, or whatever it might be in our country—and we talk in these kind of big, booming absolutes. And yet, I think kind of the basic things that so many of us want—a decent job, a living wage, good schools for our kids, a safe place to live—are all things that we share in common. And yet, we seem really, really bad at coming together and talking about those things. So yeah, I’m really interested in having these characters who are not really aware of the fact that most of them have a lot in common, even while they’re saying that they have nothing in common, because that’s been my experience with the urban and rural divide.
JP: Do you have experience of both personally, and does that inform how you write those two perspectives?
BF: Yeah, for sure. I grew up mostly in the Dayton, Ohio, area, but I spent a lot of my childhood on our family farm, kind of in the middle of nowhere, Ohio, and in a cabin in the woods where my father lived in the center of the state, too. And then I lived out west in Colorado for a while, kind of up in the mountains, and then I lived in downtown Boston for a number of years. I found that going to each place made me look at the other places differently. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re taken out of your known world, and you start to realize how this country isn’t one country so much as it’s eight or ten different countries with different cultures and customs and histories and worldviews, and I find that really, really interesting. And yet, at the same time, I still think those basic needs that I was mentioning before seem to be the same everywhere, too. Where we live, urban versus rural, seems to ostensibly drive what it is that we care about, but I’m not convinced that a lot of that isn’t just window dressing, actually.