I have decided to do an interview with Ryan Latini the author of Love Notes for Modest Young Men. Enjoy the interview below and get his book at amazon. Check out the full review tomorrow, Wednesday 4/22!
You do not describe who the characters are to the reader when they are first introduced and yet the reader does not need this information in order to understand the characters relationship. How do you manage to give us all this information while laying it out for us?
When I’m writing, I think of a first date or the online picture montage you creep on someone’s social media. The person you are seeing can describe their own character any way they’d like, curate the photos like a museum piece, and you could give your first impression to your friends on the phone, but it isn’t really until you see that person handle a challenge or deal with a character flaw that their true self comes to the surface. I like a book that is not a one-night stand, not a profile picture—rather an honest relationship that either flares up and burns bright, rekindles the doldrums despite the blisters from rubbing sticks, or fizzles out with a gasp or let down. I try to do the same with my own characters and appeal to Writing 101 of show don’t tell. Actions. That’s where character is determined. People that walk the talk. Is the lawn boy just someone who cuts grass? Or does his occupation highlight his ability to cut down all unwieldy growth? I could start there without being ham-fisted. Even certain things that seem passive can be written in an active way that moves plot (see the masterful Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things—she’s just talking about rain here (right?): “Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, plowing it up like gunfire.” First dates are bullshit (just ask my wife), don’t do that to your reader.
There seems to be a lot of surprise endings in these stories. Do you plan the story for the surprise or is it something that just comes to you while writing?
I find it simple to start with a desired epiphany. That is the surprise after all—the final action that precedes the realization. Drop that realization into the sea and then get it to shore. Keep subtly and narrative intrigue at the forefront and then leave enough of the opening for the reader to bust in and be culpable. My ideal short stories are “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish”—the realization for the reader is not, “How dare the author take me here to this end,” rather, the realization I strive for (again, ideally) is, “How dare I allow the writer take me here.” I want to be victimized at the end, I want to be culpable, I want to feel guilty for sharing the epiphany and riding along on the action that pushed the protagonist there. That is what the path looks like if I’m plotting out a longer work—start with the epiphany in mind, unfold the character until they look nothing like that epiphany [begin the story there], and then write the character to that end while covering your tracks.
The characters have so much depth to them. Where do you pull the inspiration from for each one?
The short answer is what I call “Scumbag-ery”—I am no stranger grimy ways and grimy folks having been one myself (that’s for another interview). So that same primordial ooze that birthed my own character is the well I draw from. Being withdrawn from that for some time, I’m now looking elsewhere for characters. The longer answer is emotive analogy between me and the character. I wouldn’t ever sit and say, “Let me write about this emotion”—that’s the stuff for a diary or the stall wall in a public restroom or a drunken Facebook post. But find a common emotive ground and build your characters there. It is solid. It is honest. It won’t come out maudlin. Vividness coupled with irrefutable action is vital. As writers, we must have humility to write characters that do something rather than muse and feel. I’ve never killed a dog and then helped the owner look for it, but like the narrator in “Some Sort of Stray,” I’ve ignored and misinterpreted certain causes and effects for the sake of self-preservation. Bored with my own stories of who I was (stories [lies] I was telling myself), I started with that feeling and felt it strongly at the time of writing “Some Sort of Stray,” so it came out as an analogy—a lost little boy, a scary black dog, a sloppy sexual encounter, a contrived sense of being a victim, all the while losing the truth of cause and effect (like the narrator in “The Infinity of Delight” that ends my collection). Whatever ooze birthed you or the interesting people you’ve met, pull from there as honestly as you can.
How did you pick these short stories to compose this collection?
They all felt pretty gritty to me. They all seemed to have a similar connection—ghostlike men who want to love or be loved. They shared a first-person narrative lens. Certain birds take dirt baths to get clean—I see the characters in these stories like sparrows trying to get clean in the gutter sand. There’s something panicked in looking at a bird like that—they almost look wounded in their fluttering, but the intention is to end up cleaner, better off. I felt that was the tie that bound these stories and they all belonged next to each other. For the sake of candor, they also seemed to turn-off editors of lit publications. Perhaps dirty birds aren’t their thing.
In some stories you bounce around in time. How do you plan stories like that so the timeline makes sense?
This playfulness with time is most evident in my story “A Man Above Peace,” where Sasha Chadov seeks revenge on an air traffic controller he blames for his family’s plane-crash death. It is played out backwards temporally. Why present the data this way? This could be a hokey crutch, and it often is in storytelling, but I think the temporal gymnastics in this story speak to the theme of revenge—that once the victim takes their revenge, they have nothing left to savor, nothing to look forward to, and through revenge humans rob themselves of that tasty hatred. So, when setting out to write this one, more than just doing fanciful backflips with time, I wanted to plan and emplot the story in a way that gave the avenger a satisfying ending. Chadov is a liar—to himself, to the authorities—but he gets honest in the end (beginning) when he talks about his love (for his children, his wife, his brother). I started with his honest moment, and soon realized that a person who has withered this much can only have that honest moment in rewind. I planned for a happy ending first and found that flipping the story backwards was the only honest way to do that (honest for the character and the reader). The plan for temporal elements in a story starts with your bias. What is your bias (perhaps a more honest word than perspective)? Timelines are just rulers—they don’t make sense until you do something with the data, the chronicle, the measurement. This is the job of the writer (and humans in general)—to take something that is just a chronicle and plot it with a story. So the time playfulness is just my bias coming through—that regret is dishonest and boring, but wonder is more interesting.
Is there anything you would like your readers to know?
Writing isn’t alchemy. It is a craft on par with cabinet building. Practice. Learn it from reading lots and lots. Find great teachers who are actually writing and found something that works for them and take their advice. Don’t spend more time on social media talking about writing than you do actually writing or reading. Edit and brace for rejection and criticism. Write because you like good stories, not because you have a point or message to get across. A good story trumps all.
Where do you find inspiration for your short stories? Do you plan them before hand or just let your mind wander while writing?
During a workshop in grad school, a writer friend said, “You have a knack for writing f’d-up dudes.” I didn’t have much at the time to hang my hat on as a writer (or human being), but I did have a mirror, so I kept looking at it, retching, and writing. I also spent over a decade in a cubicle, so the mind certainly wandered. Not every path leads to a city of gold—lots of puddles and dog poo, but you have to keep moving. In my experience, anything over 15 pages or so (it’s not a magic number), I usually have to plan the writing. Begin with mind-sketches, freewriting—whatever you like to call it—and if it is a thought or plot you want to see with more clarity if you were a reader, then add the color later. Just get it down immediately. The best advice I received was from a Jesuit priest who mentored my writing during undergrad: get it down, clean it up, and see if it says something. If it doesn’t, don’t waste a reader’s time to keep that ol’ ego going. Speaking of ego, I’m going to shut up now on this question.