INTERVIEW WITH FRED BUBBERS
Rappahannock Review Prose Editors: We’re compelled by how “No Direction Home” deals with the struggles and family tensions with drug use. How did you approach these themes and tensions, to include them without demonizing the characters?
Fred Bubbers: Two of the writers who have inspired and influenced me the most are Anton Chekhov and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway said it best when he advised a young writer, “As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.” When I’m writing early drafts of a story, I don’t think about theme at all. I usually don’t even have one. I concentrate on believability and keeping the reader’s attention. Do these characters seem like real people that we might know? Are they authentic? Is this true human experience? Theme comes later, after the story reveals to me what it’s about. I think that the truest themes that resonate deeply with readers arise organically from the narrative with as little interference from the author as possible.
What I see in Chekhov’s work is the author’s enormous compassion for his characters, no matter how unlikeable they may be or how much we frown upon their behavior (“The Lady with the Pet Dog”). Often it’s a matter of a good person losing his or her way or giving in to some personal weakness. Each of us is a unique combination of beauty and brokenness. I try to stay out of the way of my characters, including the narrator, present them as honestly as I can without judgment, and let them speak for themselves.
RR: The end of the story circles back to the opening scene when the narrator and Miriam are headed home. Although Miriam and Ben were able to talk before she left, it is unclear how much those few minutes solved the family tensions. We read the ending as tense and unresolved, but we also saw the possibility for growth and familial reconnection. How did you decide to end the story in this way?
FB: I can’t say that I made any conscious decision to end the story that way. I don’t think it’s realistic to believe that all of the tensions and conflicts in the story can be resolved, at least within the story’s framework. That would require a novel. Ben is essentially living in exile and quite possibly on the road to a tragedy. Any true resolution of his story can’t happen until he gets clean and returns home, probably sans Miranda. If his arc ends in tragedy, then reconciliation will never come. Either way, his resolution lies in the future.
Originally this was supposed to be a very short story depicting a bedraggled couple pulling into a seafood stand at the end of their rope, in the process of breaking up. When I finished that scene, I realized there wasn’t anything there. It wasn’t even a story. So, I decided to write about the events that led up to this snapshot. After spending three days on the road with John and Miriam, my conception of the story completely changed. Rather than breaking their bond, what they experience together strengthens it, so there’s a reconciliation for them. The tensions and conflicts in their relationships with others, however, will continue. Life is a continuum.
RR: Is there a method you use to create such realistic and fleshed-out characters? For instance, do you start a story with complete characters or develop them as you write?
FB: In this case, I had already written two stories about these characters, so I had a bit of a head start. That being said, I don’t plan. This story is just one long improvisation. I’ll start with some sketchy idea for a scene (a bedraggled couple pulling into a roadside seafood stand, for example), start writing and hope something will happen. Sometimes nothing happens and I just stash the fragment away on my hard drive. I’m a method writer and I usually write in first-person, so I try to place myself in the moment. If it’s working well, I start reacting to what the characters are doing and saying. It’s a cliché to say that the story writes itself, and I know that it’s all coming from somewhere within me, but that’s how it feels. My only concern is that every element rings true. In my final round of revisions I look for places that are either boring or don’t feel authentic: a scene where nothing happens (due to my method, that’s a frequent occurrence), or a scene where a character suddenly sounds or acts completely differently than the person I have come to know. Ultimately the characters are as much a result of what I remove as what I put in.
RR: This is a longer short story that focuses on family relations. Does the length of your stories change what themes you like to focus on?
FB: I primarily write long stories and I tend to focus on the same themes: family and intimate relationships, love, despair, regret, dysfunction, anomie, and other uplifting subjects. When I do write shorter pieces I usually cover the same territory but with a different approach and affect. The shorter pieces are more like snapshots of a single moment in time. The long stories try to take the reader on a journey: literally and/or figuratively.
RR: We see some possible connections to characters in other work you’ve published, such as in your pieces, “Reunion” and “Brothers;” will this story tie into a larger project?
FB: I don’t have any plans for a novel-in-stories, although that’s not out of the question. The first story I wrote was “Brothers,” which I set in 1965, when John and Miriam are ten years old, and then put it aside. About a year and a half later I wrote a story called “Come Together,” which I set in 1970. “No Direction Home” followed several years after that, and “Reunion” took even longer. After writing each of them, I was always at a loss as to what should happen next. Absolutely clueless. Eventually I’d get an idea for what happens next and I’d start another story. While they’re connected, I insist that each story be able to stand on its own. That gets more difficult with each new story. because the amount of backstory I have to manage grows. After writing “Reunion” I’m back in that clueless state where I don’t know what happens next, so if there’s another story in this cycle it’s going to take a while for my subconscious to figure it out. Meanwhile I work on other things.
Fred Bubbers’ work in Issue 8.2: