The Fiction Editors, Rappahannock Review: “Forked Roads” is built on an alternating, yet parallel, structure. Did you write the two narratives separately and then work on structuring the rhythmic changing between the two, or were they written together as they now appear?
John Francis Istel: The story’s initial draft had the alternating narratives, the parallel worlds—the outer “reality” of a family gathering to celebrate a matriarch’s birthday and the more lively, passionate inner world of her memory. In revisions I tried to simplify the outer voice, solidify the relationships, stitch smoother transitions, and deepen the two women characters.
RR: We see that you have had a plethora of unique work experiences, such as acting, bartending, editing arts, playwriting, teaching, and valeting. How have these different experiences manifested themselves in your written work?
JFI: It’s funny. I have great stories about bartending in Times Square, for instance, or parking cars, but I can’t ever remember directly writing them into my fiction. I assume the more diverse the experiences you have, the more people you meet and the more dynamic the characters you can create. The advice of my college advisor at Columbia, poet Kenneth Koch, rings in my memory: “Don’t take creative writing classes; just travel and read.” On the other hand, Emily Dickinson didn’t travel that much and so I believe the interior domestic traveling you do is equally vital. Those personal experiences, like caring for my mother in an assisted living facility’s Alzheimer’s unit for eight years, clearly influenced this particular piece more than the jobs I had. Of the list you mention, my theatre background as an actor and a playwright definitely helps with the ability to empathize, to hear “voices” other than my own, and to create character monologues. In fact, my first published stories were all adapted from stage monologues.
RR: We see that you have a talent for writing both poetry and fiction pieces; which of these genres do you prefer writing, and why?
JFI: In college, I thought I had found my calling: if you asked me then, I’d tell you when I grew up I wanted to be a “poet.” I studied poetry, read verse voraciously, took workshops with David Young, Koch, W.S. Merwin, David Ignatow and others. But after I graduated, I pursued acting, which I’d done throughout college, and so playwriting was a natural next step and I received an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU. Fiction, ironically, is the last genre I’ve fallen for. It started about 6 or 7 years ago, and it’s my current ardent flame. But word still comes out as a poem or a play or a combination from time to time. I’m happy to take whatever spills onto the page.
RR: “Forked Roads” is a multivocal story; how do you manage to juggle two different voices while maintaining a coherent, albeit interrupted, narrative?
JFI: I guess the playwriting background helped me envision the scene: a woman in a wheelchair in a visitor’s lounge of a nursing home being served birthday cake and serenaded by her daughter and grandchildren. Then I listened for what the silent one was saying. I’ve only watched a few episodes, but I believe it’s not unlike the little kid in “Family Guy” who no one hears but is always commenting on the action. The irony is that the words said out loud, that anyone can hear, are the most artificial and least meaningful. The story Mona “tells” about the love of her life is the heart of the narrative.
RR: What do you think about the inner life vs. the outer perceptions of people?
JFI: I work with high school students and I have them freewrite in journals regularly, and I’ve found that the quietest kids, the ones who’ll never raise their hands or will only mumble one-word responses often have really loud raging, vibrant inner lives and passions. In contemporary society, there’s tons of “talk” and “text” floating around, such a multitude of “sound and fury signifying nothing.” To borrow from Shakespeare again, few remember Hamlet’s scenes where he puts on his “antic disposition” but his soliloquies are unforgettable. So as a writer I’m drawn to voices that have been perceived as nonexistent. My story “A Visit from Elyria” (Weave) is told by a female manager of a mining operation who lives alone. A story I’m working on currently is about two people who meet doing street mime. I’m intrigued with levels of consciousness and how even when no emotion or signs of life are perceived, there’s always a voice, a mind fighting to be heard. Think of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Like actors, writers have the power to make the invisible world visible, the silent sing. It’s really profound: we talk about silence, but in reality there is no such thing by definition. Certainly, no human being has ever “heard” silence. Even if we lived in a vacuum, if we’re alive, we’d hear the thoughts, the voices cajoling, bemoaning, laughing, whispering words of love.
John Francis Istel’s work in Issue 2.1: