12 Winters Blog

Interview with Brady Harrison: The Dying Athabaskan

Posted in February 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 10, 2018

I’ve long been interested in the long story and novella; that is, literary work that falls in the gray-area length between a typical (nowadays) short story and a full-length novel — let’s say, about 5,000 words and 50,000 words. That’s an awfully large gap separating what most literary journals will consider and what most agents and commercial publishers will look at for book publication. Yet this is a fairly recent development in the publishing biz. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century it was commonplace for national magazines to publish longer pieces (often serially) which would then be picked up by a commercial publisher for book publication.

Think Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, and Joseph Conrad, resulting in works like A Christmas Carol, Cranford, The Cossacks, The Turn of the Screw, Ethan Frome, The Awakening, and Heart of Darkness, among many, many other great works that are powerful even though — or maybe because — they are not full-length novels.

My interest in the form led me to design a course on the long story and novella for Lindenwood University’s MFA in Writing program (online), which I’ll be teaching for the third time in summer quarter; and it led me to create the Publisher’s Long Story Prize via my literary press, Twelve Winters. The first calls went out in the summer of 2016, and the response was immediate. We appeared to strike a rich and largely untapped vein.  (See the Prizes’s page for further information.)

Dying Athabaskan - FRONT COVER 400From that initial round of submissions, we eventually culled our first winner: The Dying Athabaskan by Brady Harrison, a complex narrative about a freelance writer who embarks on discovering the inspiration for a famous sculpture, The Dying Athabaskan. We recently released our first Long Story Prize winner in paperback and digital editions, and author Brady Harrison generously agreed to be interviewed about his book, his writing process, and today’s literary landscape, especially as it pertains to these in-between-length works of fiction. Here are Brady’s unedited responses.

TM: Even though my main literary love interest is William Gass, by the transitive property of literary love I’m also a fan of James Joyce, and I seem to see a lot of Joycean influence in The Dying Athabaskan: experimenting with varying forms; alluding to other books and artwork, often within the context of working-class drinking establishments; playing with language in the service of lyricism; and even your treatment of dialogue is very Joycean, from a mechanical perspective especially. In particular I’m seeing a lot of Ulysses. Am I projecting that onto your text, or would you count Joyce among your influences?

brady harrison v2 - 150 dpiBH: Joyce: absolutely, and for all the reasons you indicate:  the restless mind, the interest in experimentation and blending different genres, the love of language and how it sounds, and the love of books, music, art. And, the love of bars, of course. In addition to Joyce, my favorite writers are the anatomists, those writers of big, all-over-the-place narratives that refuse to settle on one storytelling mode or style, but that keep experimenting, keep trying out new ideas and ways of expressing them. I’m thinking here of those great comic, yet serious writers like Melville, Sterne, Diderot, Flann O’Brien, Flaubert (in Bouvard and Pécuchet), Woolf, Stein, and Sebald, among many others.  Oh, and Gass, though I know you’re a bigger fan than I am.  For language, the same folks, and Faulkner, too.  A list of my literary heroes. (For the record, I’m also a big fan of Margaret Atwood, despite O’Keevan’s dig.)

In a relatively brief narrative you offer a variety of perspectives and forms. Is this typical of your style, or is The Dying Athabaskan a departure in some ways?

Left to my own devices, this would be my style, but over the years I’ve found it’s easier to place stories that don’t change gears so often, that don’t mix forms, but rather that rely on a consistent point of view and more straight-forward narrative strategies. And, I’m mostly ok with that: the straight-forward story imposes a kind of discipline that I need, and reminds me that I’m not just writing for myself. I remember something that was going around on the web: “Shakespeare wrote for money.” Whenever I find myself wanting to experiment, to turn a story into a play or a letter or a tale from the Arabian nights, and then turn it back and then into something else again, I usually have to reel myself back in. In the case of The Dying Athabaskan, however, I think it works because Ritu, in the process of trying to understand whether or not a thing can mean, tries out any number of forms and approaches. She’s also trying to find out about herself, about her own powers and mind.

Mainstream publishers — even mainstream literary publishers — aren’t inclined to embrace narrative experimentation. Yet you wrote a long, experimental story, perhaps doubling the difficulty of finding a publisher. Can you speak to your interest in experimentation?

After working on stories for a few years, I wanted to try something longer, and wrote a novel about a real-life French poet-explorer set in North Africa in 1930, and I wrote it in the form of an explorer’s journal. It began realistically — what would it be like to travel in the Western Sahara, about the only place in the world that’s not a country, while trying to avoid capture by Berbers and Moors? — but soon enough the journal begins to mutate into other narrative forms and the narrator begins to meet other writer-adventurers who died before he was born, or were born after he died, and at least one of his guides keeps changing shapes and sizes. The narrator, disguised as a woman, begins to turn into a woman. Of course, I thought it was great, comic yet serious, and a number of publishers asked to review the ms.: no takers, and one perhaps made plain what the others were thinking: how could we possibly market so strange a novel about a gender-shifting Frenchman to American readers? Oh, and some sections were written in French, and much of the plot turned around a letter written and mailed to the un-hero before he was born. All to say, I learned my lesson: experimentation and a sort of wildness, at least as I managed them, seem not to be suited to the contemporary marketplace.  Or, maybe it wasn’t any good.

The Dying Athabaskan is the title story of a collection you’re shopping. How would you describe the other stories and their relationship to Athabaskan?

For a long time, the working title of the collection was “Sever,” and most of the stories turn around key moments when the protagonist breaks or severs ties with others or with themselves, usually through an act of emotional or physical violence. In The Dying Athabaskan, Brion wants desperately to sever himself from Sister, Briony breaks rather violently with Neil, and O’Keevan seems to want to push almost everyone away.  In another story, a no-longer-young man has finally resolved, at his mother’s urging, to leave his parents’ failing farm; in a third, a successful engineer abandons his family while on vacation. In a one page story, two friends follow through on a long-ago promise to murder, if a certain thing ever happens, a third buddy. And, then, having severed ties, how does a person go about reconnecting, reconciling, making peace?  Some of the stories are about trying to repair the damage done, or about trying to make meaningful connections where they seem unlikely. In one way or another, they all turn around that very human problem of loss and what to do about it. But I should add:  they’re not all as grim as I might be making them sound; some of them, I hope, are funny, and I’ll call the one about the brothers-by-choice killing their buddy a black comedy.

One of your pub credits is the journal The Long Story — a journal I’ve admired for years, decades perhaps (its editor has rejected my work several times) — which suggests that Athabaskan isn’t your first piece of long narrative fiction. Is the long story/novella a length/form you find yourself especially drawn to? And if so, why? (William Gass felt that the novella was his natural medium, and he was at his best writing in that in-between length, or perhaps his most comfortable.)

If I love the long, baggy, all-over-the-place anatomies (except Pynchon: can’t stand his work, save for The Crying of Lot 49, and have no idea why he’s so celebrated), I also love, equally, the novella, and routinely teach courses on the genre. My lure to students: “If, as Randall Jarrett famously remarked, a ‘novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it,’ and if, as some readers protest, short stories simply cannot offer the richness and complexities of longer works, then what could be more perfect than the novella, that rare, gem-like form somewhere-in-between?” Really good novellas seem to achieve a degree of perfection — I’m not making that claim for myself! — that novels cannot, and seem to offer a richer tapestry than can usually be achieved in stories.

And, some writers, I think, achieve their best work in the form:  I think, for example, that Joyce Carol Oates does some of her best work in the novella, and she’s one of the few contemporary writers who works consistently in the genre. Same thing for Stephen King: while I find his novels way too long, he seems best when he self-edits yet gives plenty of character and just enough plot in works like “Stand by Me” or “The Mist.” The truly sublime novellas: there are many of course, but I would say, Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, and any short novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. In the latter case, every time I read one of her short works, I wonder, How does she do it? Oh, and many of Georges Simenon’s roman durs, outstanding.

Ok, to sort of get back to your question!  I was really lucky (and really honored) to place a story in The Long Story, a journal that, like you, I’ve admired forever. “The Guest” is a really tough thing to read:  it’s about a driver hitting a homeless person, who then sails through the front windshield, and the driver, rather than calling the police and ambulance, drives home and parks in the garage. When I first wrote the story, it was about twice as long: I wanted to honor the tradition in the novella of a frame narrative, and I told, alongside the story of the accident and its aftermath, the story of the narrator, an investigative journalist, and how and why he was dying.  Suffering a traumatic injury of his own, this will be his last work as a reporter. In the end, I cut the frame, and while the story certainly gained in intensity and focus, it also perhaps lost something, too.  All to say, I hope to keep working on the long story: call it the best of both worlds, novel and short fiction.

Long stories are so difficult to place these days, did you think about that as you were writing it? Did you consider restraining the narrative to try to keep it within a more publishable length? How difficult was it to find a publisher for Athabaskan?

I’ll be blunt: I’m damn lucky you created the Publisher’s Long Story Prize! Like most folks, I’d like to see my work into print, but at the same time I’m just perverse enough to also want to write what I want to write and the market be damned.  But you’re right:  I was taking a chance in writing that weird in-between length. At the same time, the long story or novella has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the last decade or so. I’m thinking of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series (though of course they mostly republish the “classics”) and a few literary journals have novella contests every other year or so.  There seems to be a modest market for the form, and it’s not unusual for collections by big guns like David Gates or George Saunders to include a long story.  And, as I say, Joyce Carol Oates (who’s a force of nature) routinely does her part to keep the form alive and well.

As you know, the Press publishes Grant Tracey’s Hayden Fuller Mystery Series, and Hayden is Grant’s alter ego ex-NHL star turned detective, gumshoeing his way through the mean streets of 1960s Toronto, where Grant grew up. Hockey is a major element in Athabaskan as well. Can you talk about hockey’s influence on your creative psyche growing up in Canada?

Grant 5Grant! The G-man! I love Cheap Amusements (and Parallel Lines and the Hockey Universe) in no small part because of the hockey connections. And, I remember vividly the hard-boiled short films Grant made while we were in grad school:  in the Fuller mysteries, we get two of Grant’s passions, two-fisted action on and off the ice.  More on Grant in a moment.

Hockey? I guess you could say I’m about as Canadian as they come. I still play hockey two nights a week, skate in as many pond hockey tournaments as I can, and will often hang around after our games to watch other buddies play; I still count the Montreal Canadiens as my favorite team (the arch enemies of Grant’s beloved Toronto Maple Leafs) and try to catch their games on TV. I love everything about hockey: the speed, the way skates work on ice, the team play, the sheer thrill of scoring a goal. I also love weird things about the sport: I love the sounds of the game, and I’m fascinated by the way players talk to one another in mid-play. I’m a true rink-rat, for sure, always have been.

Ok, that’s a long preamble to a question that I probably can’t answer: hockey’s always been a big part of my life, but The Dying Athabaskan is my first story to include the game. Winter: that has shaped my imagination in every way possible, and hockey is a part of my winter mind: I find in so many of my stories that the cold creeps into the action, that snow and ice and how it feels to be out in winter creeps into the characters and how they move and perhaps even think. There’s a certain caution that comes with winter, but also a genuine exhilaration. I’m rambling: I know and love winter, I can say that much.

After selecting The Dying Athabaskan for the Publisher’s Long Story Prize, we learned that you and Grant have more in common than both being from Canada and writing about hockey. You actually went to grad school together. Can you dish a favorite grad school story on Grant?

Ok, this is the question I’ve been waiting for!  Grant was such a big part of my life in those days, and we’ve remained friends over the years. Back in the day, Grant had a punk rock show on the local public radio station, and he was kind enough to invite me, on several occasions, to sit in and have some time on the mic talking about the music and the history and evolution of punk. I remember the hot, cramped little booth at WEFT, and most of all I remember Grant’s passion and encyclopedic knowledge. What a blast it was: the Clash, Patti Smith, the Ramones, MC5, Iggy, X-Ray Spex, the Pistols, real old school turned up to 11. Grant was such a great host, and the show was on late, and who knows who was out there, listening, but we had such a brilliant time. (G-man:  if you’re reading this, hit me with your ultimate Spirit of ’77 playlist: now that the smoke has cleared, what’s the one, perfect show’s worth of songs?!)

One other story: one day, we hopped in his explode-able Pinto and drove from Champaign-Urbana to Washington, D.C., to see, at the Library of Congress, an alternative ending to Kiss Me Deadly a noir starring Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer. We were just kids, and we had the time of our lives: Grant was doing research on hard-boiled films, and I had never seen the capital, and we talked music and movies and books for hours and hours. Did the alternative ending actually exist? That’s a secret.

You’re also attracted to the poetry and essay forms. Is one your strength, would you say? What are some of your current projects?

I enjoy trying out all forms, but I’m really committed to two: one of my heroes is that great wildman of American letters, Leslie Fiedler (who wrote many of his masterpieces while at the University of Montana), and when asked if he preferred writing articles or stories, he remarked that he saw no difference between writing stories and writing about stories.  I’ve taken that as my cue (as perhaps you have!), and these days I seem to divide my time about equally between fiction and scholarly research and writing. In terms of “creative writing” — truth be told, I can never understand why scholarly writing is not considered “creative” when, to my mind, it’s absolutely as creative as writing, say, stories, poems, or personal essays — I’m interested in narrative. So, I hope to find a good home for the collection of stories I’ve put together, and if that works out, I have a couple of ideas for novels. We’ll see. In my day job, I’m currently writing a book about, of all things, quantum physics and literary interpretation. I’m really enjoying the research—quantum physics is just so damn strange, even comic, at least to me—and hope to finish the book in the next year or so. I’m also co-editing a collection of essays on teaching Western American literature in colleges and universities. I can say this: I’ve been lucky: I’ve had the opportunity to work on things that interest me.


Brady Harrison’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Cerise Press, J Journal, The Long Story, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, Serving House Journal, and Wascana Review, among literary journals others.  His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and recent poetry appears in the anthology, Poems Across the Big Sky II.  He is also edited two books on Montana literature, These Living Songs:  Reading Montana Poetry and All Our Stories Are Here:  Critical Approaches to Montana Literature.  His most recent book is Punk Rock Warlord:  The Life and Music of Joe Strummer.  He lives in Missoula, Montana, and teaches at the University of Montana. (Photo credits: Brady Harrison / David Baumstark; Grant Tracey / Mitchell D. Strauss)

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