Glossary for the End of Days
by Ian Stansel
(Acre Books, September 12, 2020)
Interview by Authorlink Columnist
Ellen Burkett Morris
Ian’s Stansel’s Glossary for the End of Days is a collection of short stories that perfectly captures the anxiety of our times and the ways in which we can lose ourselves as we try to make sense of a disordered world. Stansel talks about its creation, his influences and how to jumpstart your work here.
AUTHORLINK: Your last book was a novel. What drew you to short stories this time? Does your work as a novelist feed your short story work?
“I think I instinctually need a change whenever I finish a project.”
STANSEL: I think I instinctually need a change whenever I finish a project. So when I finished my last novel, I had no desire to begin a new one. I wrote a couple of screenplays, and I worked on short stories. Both of these forms, on a very basic level, can be finished a lot faster than a novel. If one doesn’t work out as well as you’d hoped, well it isn’t the biggest loss. So there’s less risk, I suppose. Writing a novel, and even more so trying to get a novel published, is a very nerve-wracking experience in many ways. I couldn’t just jump right back into that state of mind. So stories allowed me to play around a bit, have some fun with form, with different storylines and characters.And I think that is something that stories give me. They allow me to experiment without the anxiety or fear that I might be ruining everything!!!
But maybe there’s also something to the idea that a brain just needs to do different things. Maybe it’s something like crop rotation in agriculture, where a farmer will crow one crop in a field one year and a different crop the next year in order to not deplete certain nutrients. Maybe different aspects of the brain are depleted by long and short forms. One returns to the brain the nutrients that the other uses up.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do stories come from for you—image, first line, character?
STANSEL: Well, it varies, of course. In recent years I’ve been interested in using what I tend to call “borrowed forms”—a grade school kid’s homework assignment or the glossary form of the title story. So I might start there. Or it might come from the concept, like the idea that John Lennon survived the shooting. Or it might start in the way Dickey describes Deliverance. I recently finished a draft of a novel that was born out of an image of young woman peering through a rifle scope and shooting a man as he runs away across a vast field. That was all I knew. And it took me three hundred pages to get to that moment in the initial draft.
But what it always comes down to is character. No matter where a story begins, with an image or a form or whatever, I don’t have anything until I have what seems like a real human character alive in my head. I’ve worked on stories before where the character just never came into focus, and because of that, no matter how cool or fresh seeming the concept, the stories just didn’t work. Once the characters are there, the story has a shot.
AUTHORLINK: How did you know you had a collection? Did you write these with building a collection in mind or did you find you had a set of stories that belonged together?
” I sometimes refer to my story collections as ‘accidental books’…”
STANSEL: I sometimes refer to my story collections as “accidental books” because I really don’t think of them as being connected in any way until very late in the process. I never say, “I’m going to write a story collection.” I’m just writing stories as they come to me. But at some point I notice that I have seven or eight or nine stories that might in some way communicate with each other. Here, they all seemed to be talking about resilience, or recovery, or survival. They were all about how we keep going after it seems like the world has ended. And I feel like for a lot of us that is what the last four-plus years have been about: just trying to get up each morning and take care of ourselves and each other even while the world seemed to be crumbling beneath our feet.
This collection really came together in the sequencing, though. I originally had the longer stories all together—ordered in a way that felt right, but again and again it still just didn’t feel like a book. It felt like a bunch of stories. I don’t write a lot of flash fiction, but I did have a few pieces hanging around on my computer, and so I thought I might see if any of them might do something interesting with the others. And once I did that I started thinking more about story length, and so I made the longest story, “The Caller” central, book-ended by those flash pieces. I think this sequencing guides the reader a bit more than the book was in its previous states. It feels intentional. Maybe a little less “accidental.”
AUTHORLINK: The mood of these stories with their sense of foreboding and redemption just out of reach fits our times perfectly. When were they written and how were they influenced by the political/social climate at time?
STANSEL: The first of these stories was the title story, and I wrote that back in—I want to say—2013. My wife had recently given birth to our first daughter and I was stay-at-home-dadding. I’d been working on a big, misguided war novel that had run out of steam, and as my interest in that project waned, I wanted to do something a little formally unusual, something that I hadn’t done in my first collection. So that was more of a personal challenge. But without a doubt the later-written stories were created in response to the Trump era. Most directly, the story “Coordinated Efforts” is about those terrible first months after our nation elected a mononic, racist cartoon character as President. It’s about the frustration of trying to communicate with people who refuse to abide by the rules of logic and sense. But it’s also about how easily a person might be seduced into their worst impulses.
And that idea carries over into “How to be Free,” which, in addition to the election, was sparked by two things. First, I read a New York Times article about people who, for one reason or another, believe themselves to “targeted individuals”—victims of clandestine organizations working to ruin their lives. And around that same time I met a man who claimed, in an otherwise casual conversation, that the government had been stealing his memories. This extreme paranoia was already visible in things like Pizzagate, and would later be even more prevalent and destructive in QAnon, but I was interested in the personal effects of this kind of delusional thinking.
In “Coordinated Efforts” the narrator talks about his thoughts regarding the people who voted for Trump, the way he alternated between wanting to know and not giving a damn. This was certainly my reaction. I think there is a huge double standard where liberals are expected to work to understand the Right, but no one ever says that conservatives need to open their minds to understand the Left. And I resent this. But as a writer I don’t think there’s a choice—at least for this writer, anyway. Even as I rage about the many injustices perpetrated by the Right, I feel the need, when I’m sitting down to write, to try to figure out how people come to feel and think in the ways they do. I need to empathize with all of my characters in order to find something that feels true.
AUTHORLINK: What authors and stories influenced your writing of these stories?
STANSEL: Jennifer Egan, Antonya Nelson, Michael Cunningham, Edward P. Jones, Maggie Smith, Roald Dahl, Craig Finn, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Perrotta, George Saunders, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Olivier Assayas, Justin Torres, Emmylou Harris, Sufjan Stevens, Ann Patchett…
“We’ve Got Tonight” borrows a lot from Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. “Modern Sounds in Country and Western,” perhaps obviously, is influenced by my appreciation for country music. TV shows like The Sopranos and The Leftovers have taught me a lot about character and plot and pacing. And, of course, there are all of the newspaper and magazine articles that have helped to inform my understanding of the world.
“…I’m also heavily influenced by stories that have been told to me.”
But I’m also heavily influenced by stories that have been told to me. There’s the guy who thought his memories were being stolen. There are the thousands of conversations about music I’ve had with my brother. When I was in my early teens, a friend’s sister gave a piano recital where she played The Smiths’ “Asleep” and got the whole audience crying. Thirty years later I nicked that story for the end of “John is Alive” (though the song is different). Stories are all around us.
AUTHORLINK: What themes emerged in stories as you wrote? Were you surprised by what came up?
STANSEL: It wasn’t surprising, but grief comes up a lot. As with my previous book, much of this was written in the wake of my sister’s death. This event changed the world utterly for me, and I am a different writer now because of it. But along with this devastation, there were the months and years that followed wherein my brother and I became, I think, more consciously devoted to each other. We talk and text often, visit each other, travel together. He is more essential to my life now, and of course that is the reason the book is dedicated to him. My previous book, for all of its Western influences and cowboying around, was really about the loss of my sister. This book, I think, is just as much about that, but it is also about what we do after devastation hits, how—and with whom—we carry on despite the pain. So I guess that was a bit of a surprise, how much the book ended up being about resilience.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing these stories and how did you overcome them?
STANSEL: Finding time to write them! With a teaching gig and small-ish children, just getting quiet time is the biggest challenge. Of course, over the last year this difficulty has increased many-fold, but even in “normal” times it is tricky. I love my job and I wouldn’t trade having these children for anything, but some days I do get a bit jealous of writers who, at least from an outside perspective, seem to have fewer encumbrances on their time. I’ve just had to learn to do what I can when I can. The circumstances are almost never ideal, but the writing still needs to get done. So if I need to write while the kids are running around, well, a good set of headphones is nice to have.
AUTHORLINK: Which story is your favorite and why?
STANSEL: Looking at the collection today I would say I like “The Caller” a lot, but the answer might be different tomorrow. I like how this story incorporates many modes of communication: Facebook, blogs, podcasts, newspaper articles, radio shows. This was one of the challenges I set for myself, to try to reflect the ways we really engage with the world these days. So we have a lot of people looking at phones and computer screens, which may not sound terribly engaging, but hopefully I make these moments important enough on a plot level that they work.
But I also like “Modern Sounds in Country and Western” because it’s romantic. It’s probably the first time I’ve written something that puts a love story front and center.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
STANSEL: One of the good things about a story collection is that for at least some of the stories you’ve already had some editorial thoughts from editors of journals. I published about half of these stories before it became a book, so I’d already benefitted from the keen eyes of editors from Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, Bennington Review, and other outlets.
“Nothing can be learned from a defensive posture.”
But I was also very lucky to be working with Nicola Mason and Becky Adnot-Haynes at Acre Books, both of whom brought much needed outside intelligences. I think for an author-editor relationship to work well, both parties need to come to the table with a good dose of humility. Nothing can be learned from a defensive posture. You need to recognize your limited view of the world and that others’ views are equally valid. At the end of the day, it’s your book and you need to stick by what your vision of what it should be, but you should also be open to the many possibilities you hadn’t previously imagined.
AUTHORLINK: You are a professor at University of Louisville. What advice do you offer to apprentice writers on craft? On staying encouraged?
STANSEL: I talk about structure and form quite a bit, encouraging them to try new ways for a story to be told, and to explore how things like structure can determine story.
As far as encouragement goes, I tend to think that the best encouragement is the feeling of having done something you are pleased with, something that you didn’t previously know you could do. Basically, I think students are encouraged most of all by their own accomplishment. But of course we all have moments where we need a bit of a boost. In those moments I often ask them to do something very specific, to write a scene with very strict parameters or a poem that contains certain words—something like that. I find that having something they can look at and say, “I did this thing and it’s not half bad” can sometimes be enough to get them over whatever psychological hurdle they’re facing.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
STANSEL: I’m editing a new novel, which is slow but ultimately satisfying work.
Ian Stansel is the author of the short story collections Glossary for the End of Days (Acre Books, 2020) and Everybody’s Irish (FiveChapters, 2013), a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and the novel The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous venues such as Ploughshares, Salon, Joyland, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. A native of the Chicago area, he holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the University of Houston. He currently directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Louisville. He lives in Kentucky with his wife, the writer Sarah Strickley, and their two daughters.