Clancy McGilligan is the author of the novella History of an Executioner, winner of the 2019 Novella Prize from Miami University Press. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Columbia Journal, Santa Monica Review, Slice Magazine, Sycamore Review, Wigleaf and elsewhere. He grew up in Milwaukee and has worked as a journalist in the U.S. and abroad. Currently he’s a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at Florida State University, and he serves as the Reviews/Interviews Editor at Split Lip Magazine. He’s online at www.clancymcgilligan.com.
Brandon Teigland: Did History of an Executioner begin its life as a novella and remain one, or did it differ in respect of length, until it eventually became what it is today?
Clancy McGilligan: I always envisioned History of an Executioner as a novella, and the first draft was similar in length to the current version. I did have one early reader who, after reading an excerpt, said he thought History was a novel. I disagreed, but this raises an interesting question—namely, what is the line dividing a novella from a novel? The line is blurry, but the novella is associated with compression, which is an effect I wanted. Lindsey Drager, in her essay, “The Novella is Not The Novel’s Daughter: An Argument in Notes,” writes that the “novella is a form that requires brevity and concision—an attention to compression—while simultaneously gesturing toward a larger, expansive idea.”
BT: In different ways, History of an Executioner conjures up this old image of an alien profession, clearly still vivid in the Western European imagination. An image where executioners ruled over all that was morally problematic. For centuries, these people lived apart. And because carrying out executions was often a family affair, these families were mostly shunned by their neighbours and ostracized. In short: executioners were seen as damned people, even with their tombstones—simple, rough stones, without any sort of inscription that sat apart from public graveyards. Your text is laiden with similar historical facts and, perhaps, occupies a double role in establishing a context: by addressing both person qua executioner, as well as the greater dimension of society qua public servant. How much, then, do you think the genealogical history of an executioner—born and raised, as many were, into their unwholesome way of life—contributed to the overall prevalence of capital punishment as a form of enacting justice? And in conjunction, I would also like to extend the question by asking what the role of youth [the gang of boys, the jailer’s son, the young rebel] was meant to signify, if not precisely this multi-generational effect of political ideologies?
CM: The executioner in my novella has inherited his job. Similarly, the jailer’s son will inherit his father’s position as the town jailer. Like other characters in the novella, their lives are constrained by larger systems—social, political, et cetera. The individual can challenge those systems. However, for the executioner, who is committed to what he perceives as his duty, taking such a step is especially difficult.
BT: The story is set in a provincial town between two fictional countries, the Republic and the New World, where there is an uneasy, de facto peace, if not ongoing war, with the rebels and the extremists from the capital. I found this aspect of your book, this ‘geography of the mind,’ comparable to the French writer Julien Gracq’s novel, The Opposing Shore, in that both are stories of waiting: expressing not only expectations, but forebodings, apocalypse and, sometimes, even destruction. What purpose does this gradient of antagonism have relative to your plots use of postponement?
CM: In his essay “Stillness,” from the book Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter suggests that silence is an “intensifier,” and “that it strengthens whatever stands on either side of it.” For Baxter, the “parent condition” of silence is stillness. I would like to think that my novella renders moments of stillness. The executioner is caught between oppositions: work and not-work, the town and the countryside, the Republic and the New World, to name a few. Between these oppositions, stillness arises. During these moments, the novella focuses on the minutiae of experience. Baxter, in his essay, writes, “In a moment of stillness, the atmosphere supplants the action.” He also writes that, at such junctures, attention “flows away from what is supposed to command it toward the peripheries.”
BT: The Republic symbolizes history, tradition, and order, while the New World stands for the irrational and ahistorical. The executioners attraction to the New World (whetted by his continual reading of an often times mysterious, if not absurd, book of the latter’s anthropological system, entitled History of the New World), and his attempt to escape the reality of history, is often portrayed as both heroic and self-destructive. Was the New World ever a true exit for the executioner? If not, did his constant mindfulness, i.e. the meditative walks he regularly takes, during which he becomes introspectively more aware of his internal experience, bring him a sort of healing? I really want to believe that his narrative is being framed by self-care, but it is almost easier to say the opposite: that it is just another cynical view of hope. I’m skeptical, especially when considering the dark, spasmodic laughter, of what could be interpreted as a frightened executioner, in the closing scene.
CM: In my view, History of an Executioner makes room for both optimism and cynicism. On the one hand, it seems possible that the executioner will one day escape his current life and travel to the New World. On the other hand, his situation—his history—works against this outcome. His walks through the surrounding countryside are a way for him to explore his thoughts and create a distance from his circumstances. Oliver Sacks wrote about how nature produces “calming and organizing effects on our brains.” The executioner’s hikes have an effect a bit like this.
BT: There are many instances where cruelty and kindness are indistinguishable; in fact, much of this novella occurs where the two overlap, especially when regarding the relationship the main character has with his wife, Lena, who suffered a debilitating accident. One passage that immediately comes to mind is: “I don’t see how, for example, cruelty reflects the ‘natural order.’ I guess these people saw the world as cruel, but such a view does not make much sense to me. Things like Lena’s accident, or me not having enough money to see Emmer, might be called cruel. But others are clearly not, like my meeting Emmer or my still being paid at all. Also, a lot is neither cruel nor kind, like how the stream flows downhill and not up, or the fact that cottonwood leaves turn yellow in fall.” What else can you tell us about why you have chosen the neutral, grey issues over the black and white ones? Personally, I interpreted the entirety of the work as very deeply coloured by compassion, if not loving-kindness.
CM: In fiction, I am often drawn to nuance and complexity. In this novella, I was interested in portraying an executioner who could be seen as compassionate. One problem the executioner faces is balancing his performance of his duties with his sense of compassion. Paradoxically, the suspension of executions brings this problem to the forefront for him.
BT: The ending is when the story really began for me, i.e. when the consequences of the main character’s actions start manifesting themselves. The story, of course, finishes as it starts: with an execution. Though this time around, after the temporary stay has been lifted, and when the waiting is finally over, the executioner of the former differs considerably from that of the latter. The town manager (the executioner’s employer), rather than replacing the executioner, decides to adopt a mechanized solution to what amounts to human failings. A Kafkaesque ‘execution machine,’ reminiscent of the French guillotine but with needles, is invented and brought in from the capital, so that, in operating this machine, we imagine the executioner now only officially inflicts capital punishment ordered by the capital’s authority via a lever. But, I wonder, what is the difference here? Really?! Between a basic axe and a complicated machine, there is an obvious alienation of labour because of the introduction of a new technology, a definite preference for sidestepping the issue of capital punishment for an advancement in efficiency. That said, I do feel strongly that you wanted to say a bit more by including this part. Can you elaborate?
CM: As you point out, the adoption of mechanized executions does not change the underlying fact that executions are being performed. As a result, this adoption does not meaningfully alter the executioner’s predicament. In the U.S. and other countries, of course, executions are mediated technologically. This gives these executions the semblance of being more humane. However, this semblance can break down. To take one example, in April 2014, during an execution in Oklahoma, a man writhed and groaned after being sedated. Although his execution was halted, he died after forty-three minutes. Opponents of capital punishment have argued that the practice is inhumane. Opponents have also made other critiques. In 2015, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that there was convincing evidence innocent people had been executed, that death row exonerations were frequent, that death sentences were imposed arbitrarily, and that the capital justice system was distorted by racial discrimination and politics. I mention this to illustrate aspects of the ongoing debate around capital punishment.
BT: The motto given to the executioner by Emmer, a prostitute he frequently visits, quickly becomes an obsessive ideation for him: “I only do as I am told.” This maxim seems to uncover the core evil of his banal task: an executioner is ordered to execute the sentence therefore the authorized order protects the executioner from the charge of murder. Point blank: Is he a murderer, as most of the town must believe, or does a warrant to kill exempt him, on both an official and a personal level, from what he actually does in reality?
CM: Legally, an executioner is not seen as a murderer, of course. In a related way, a soldier who kills enemy soldiers is not seen as a murderer. In these instances, governments officially sanction violence. However, there is a disjunction between this sanctioning of violence and the question of personal responsibility. Italo Calvino’s story “Conscience” highlights the tension created by allowing certain kinds of killing. In this story, the protagonist volunteers for a war so he can kill a personal enemy named Alberto. However, after he volunteers, he is told he can only kill enemies of a specific type. He ends up killing many people, but not Alberto. This bothers him: he reasons he has killed these people for nothing. The war ends. Then he happens to encounter Alberto. He kills him, only to be tried for murder and hanged.
BT: In a sense, the nucleus of History of an Executioner, although grossly reductive, could be: can remediation through violence ever reverse or stop the damage that has already been done by past violence? More exactly: does the action of violence remedy anything? Nowhere do we see this tendency to reflect on violent action more than through the main character himself, your executioner, who, throughout the text, very reliably inserts a pause into his every engagement, as if to score keep his wrongs, instead of outright abusing his power over others; sometimes he does become violent and sometimes he does not. Could you share a few words with us on this.
CM: The executioner, as a character, is generally inclined to deliberate before taking action. When it comes to violent action, his inclination to deliberate is only more pronounced. This is because he is someone who is intimately familiar with the effects of violence.