The fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: What was the inspiration for this piece? Was it an accumulation of multiple experiences, whether personal or through new stories?
Greg Bottoms: The key inspiration came from a story I heard many years ago. A lawyer acquaintance told me she was prosecuting a case where a teenager killed his friend and then kept the body in a box. The questions of course are how and why would someone do this. This story offers up a scenario, and, in doing so, probably a cultural commentary on the strange isolating and warping effects of our society on some. Another inspiration comes from spending several years doing journalism off and on and knowing that world.
RR: One of the greatest achievements of “The Box” is the narrative voice. Did you originally set out to use an outside character as the storyteller or did you decide to switch narrators during the writing process?
GB: This is the second story (or chapter) in a novel-in-stories. The set up is an ex-crime journalist remembering and retelling stories from his work that couldn’t be written for a newspaper audience because they were too grim, or strange, or complicated. This formal conceit possibly preceded the actual stories. Actually, I think it did. I love books like Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Cather’s My Antonia that set themselves up as nonfiction—documentary or memoir. Also, I have always been a student and devotee of the short story, and I’ve used fictional techniques in several nonfiction books. Here, I turn it around and use a fair bit of nonfiction techniques from the essay and journalism and criticism to write fiction.
RR: What do you think drives people like Danny Glover?
GB: I think my story suggests that there is a way in our culture, so mass, if you will, so media-saturated, so value relative, to become very lost in who you are, divorced from an authentic sense of self and unable to have a clear view of reality and thus, sometimes, the value of others. That’s a basic description of all the young, white male mass-murderers that are in the news about every three to four months in America. If a flock of birds all drank from a pond and then died, we’d look into the water quality ASAP. Yet these horrible, violent tragedies happen in America and for about a week there is a little sociological talk about cultural causes, then we drop it and write these kids off as peculiarly crazy in an isolated way rather than part of a fairly clear and really disturbing pattern.
RR: What was your inspiration for having the central character share the name of a famous actor?
GB: This story, and others from this book-in-progress, calls some attention to the way it is simply a fact that now pop culture informs our day-to-day realities as much as reality informs pop culture. A lot of the postmodernists—Coover, Barthelme, Acker—used pop culture references in stories to show the accelerating shallowness of culture. To me, literature after postmodernism ought to depict pop culture with more sincerity as simply part of the fabric of our lives and our minds. I think that’s reality now.
RR: Why did you choose to frame the narrative as if it were a “true-crime” story?
GB: I could answer this in a lot of ways. But one thing, technically, it allows me to do is write a kind of “metafiction”—storytelling about, on one level, storytelling—but smooth out the hard, too-clever edges of that kind of writing. I want all of these stories to be formally complex and layered, but not in a way that detracts from the feel of just reading a good story that moves along smoothly from beginning to end.
Greg Bottoms’s work in Issue 2.1: