The fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: What kinds of books or genres did you gravitate towards when you were younger? What about now?
Justin Carmickle: I never enjoyed reading much when I was a child, and I believe this is because too often teachers force a type of book onto boys, and another onto girls. I remember having to read stuff by Jack London and Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain. Stories about people roughing it in the woods just didn’t do it for me. What got me into reading were Holocaust memoirs, many of which are YA. The first writer I read that made me think I might want to give it a shot was Andre Dubus—the father—when I discovered his books in a used bookstore my first semester of college back in 2007. These days I read a lot of the influential gay writers like Edmund White and Andrew Holleran, as well as favorites such as Alice Munro, Richard Yates, James Baldwin, and Alice Adams. Obviously, I have a thing for a certain style of realism; it avoids flash but can still devastate, I think.
RR: At the end of your story, things seem left a little undone in the sense that readers do not get to see how things turn out between Ian and Fran or between Father Effie and Cecil. What kind of reaction did you hope to evoke in readers with this conclusion?
JC: Well, Father Effie’s life is essentially over and is one of regret. There is no getting around that. There is no second chance for him. Ian is a young man who believes—for complicated reasons—that he does not deserve love. He fears it and commitment. When you open yourself up to the idea of commitment, abandonment enters the picture. At the conclusion Ian realizes he may be open to this relationship evolving, that he may have little choice in the matter.
RR: The Saint Agnes house serves as the focal point for how Ian interacts with an older generation, while at home with Francisco he interacts with his generation. Why did you keep these two worlds, and the people that inhabit them, largely separate until the end of the story?
JC: Saint Agnes house is a place where regret lurks around every corner. Father Effie has lived in the closet for decades and aside from his love for God, has only loved one man in his entire life. A love abandoned from self-hatred, a love that became a monster for him. Blanche has devoted her life to her brother, but has never known passion. And Ian’s mother, Yolanda, cannot forgive herself for the failed relationship she has with her son. Even if Ian forgives her for being a neglectful mother, she will never allow herself forgiveness. Francisco, on the other hand, is able to express his love for Ian, his desire for a future, and he does not live in the past. I wanted to show these two very different spheres, and only when they meet at the end does Ian start to choose which life to lead.
RR: Looking through the lens of relationships between the characters, religion, health, and age, seem to have a large role within the story. What was your intention in developing this interesting dynamic?
JC: Honestly, there is no brilliant answer here. I started the story with an image of a senile priest living on the top level of a giant rectory house. Then I added Ian, a character I often use, and his mother and Francisco. From there came religion, and the other ingredients that make up the narrative. In many ways, the story was very much a response to an Alice Munro story. But, I’ll keep which Murno story a secret!
RR: Was there any defining moment for you, like Father Effie’s choice to take his vows instead of being with Cecil, where you knew you would be a writer?
JC: I suppose the realization came from a bunch of baby steps. I did my undergraduate studies at Indiana University, and I fumbled around in a lot of different fiction workshops. I was learning some craft techniques, but writing some dreadful stories. I had a teacher—a guy with a lot of published books named Tony Ardizzone—who was kind of like a football coach. Boy, was he critical. Then, years later when I took a workshop with him I wrote a story that he had some praise for. I used that story to apply to an MFA program, and I got accepted. So, like I said, it was several baby steps. I think many writers are insecure creatures, often tossing aside our confidence the second we sit at the computer. I’m no different. Often I think perhaps I should just become a dog walker or open a daycare for exotic pets.