Dustin Horner: Thanks for joining us, Professor Bill Meissner. The Road to Cosmos is a book of linked shorts, from which this particular story first appeared. Who are some writers, both classic and contemporary, who have helped to inform your own work?
Bill Meissner: I consider John Updike one of my writing mentors. I’m also inspired by Tim O’Brien, especially in The Things They Carried. A classic writer—and one that I patterned COSMOS after, in a way—is Sherwood Anderson in his Winesburg, Ohio. When I began writing poetry, the people who first lit a poetic fire in me were James Wright, Robert Bly, and William Stafford. Bob Dylan’s early lyrics also had an influence on me during my high school years. I clacked out many of his lyrics on an old manual typewriter so a buddy and I could perform—[laughs] and I use the word ‘perform’ loosely–his songs at a coffeehouse in Wisconsin.
DH: You taught creative writing for a number of years at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. Do you feel that teaching somehow informed your own writing? Or is it simply an obstacle to be worked around in order to focus on your own stories?
BM: Teaching has always informed or energized my writing. I’ve really enjoyed my classes at SCSU, as well as the high school and elementary school classes when I’ve taught as a visiting writer. Many times, I’ve learned a lot from students—especially the talented ones, and I’ve often been inspired by the energy in a group. I’ve written pieces of my own based on writing assignments I’ve given to students. “Mesmerizing Minnie,” in The Road to Cosmos, is one example. I asked students to write a paragraph from the point of view of an unusual character. One option I listed for them was a crystal ball reader, and I eventually wrote a story about that character, who turned out to be a teenage girl.
DH: You taught and write poetry as well as fiction. Do you feel that writing poetry can help improve one’s fiction?
BM: Definitely. Poetry improves your concentrated language, and makes your details more dazzling. I’m talking about poetry that uses concrete and specific language here, rather than vagueness or abstractions. If you look at a great descriptive paragraph by Updike [such as in the Pulitzer-Prize winning RABBIT series], many of the details are poetic. His first chapter in RABBIT, RUN—about a 26-year-old playing basketball with some kids in an alley–has many poetic moments that I admire.
DH: You’ve written a book, Spirits in the Grass, which is your first novel length work. What is it about short fiction that attracts you?
BM: I like short fiction simply because you can create the arc of a story in a short period of time. A character is confronted by a conflict and either overcomes it or faces it in just five or ten pages. Most of my stories were written in one or two hours. There’s a certain thrill to envisioning a whole story in a short period of time. Of course, I revise the stories over and over, but the initial spontaneous drafts pour out rather quickly. I feel a huge sense of accomplishment in completing a novel, of course. But it took about seven years to cross the finish line rather than a couple of hours.
DH: In The Tug of War, the narrator seems to be resisting the pull to become like his father. He reflects at one point, “I began to see my life in the future. I thought about how every step on that creaking stairway was like another genuflection, another nod of agreement to his plan, another cower to his rule.” Do you think about balancing scene versus exposition while writing, how much “telling” to do versus how much “showing”?
BM: That’s a tough question. There’s always a tightrope walk between telling and showing, and, of course, it’s a writer’s cardinal rule to show. Otherwise, a story turns into a philosophical essay rather than a vivid series of events. I always feel like if you’re going to use some larger concepts in a story, they should be tied directly or indirectly to specific details. In Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam story, “The Things They Carried,” the abstract ideas of fear and obligation and love are tied to concrete objects—such as the letters and pebbles and the various good luck charms the soldiers carry in their backpacks.
DH: The cop who pulls them over after they’ve been speeding is someone who knows them intimately because Cosmos is a small town. The boy and his father seemingly benefit from knowing the police officer because neither of them get a speeding ticket. I grew up in a similar kind of town in the Midwest, one in which everyone seemed to know things about everyone else. Do you enjoy writing about small towns? And what kind of challenges/benefits do you see in writing about rural environments as opposed to more urban ones?
BM: I grew up in a small town in central Wisconsin, and people did know a lot about each other’s business. That created a kind of complex web among the townspeople, which is both comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. I tried to create that same atmosphere in Cosmos, as well as in Clearwater, Wisconsin, the small town that’s central to my novel, Spirits in the Grass. I write about what I know, and so the subject of a small town—with all its uniqueness and oddities and provincialism—comes naturally. When I go back, I prowl around the old haunts. The alley behind the theatre where I smoked stolen cigarettes with my junior high buddies, my old high school and grade school, the run-down cafes and bars, the baseball field with a river meandering beyond it, the town bank with the clock that always reads 5:10—all these places churn up memories for me. Also, for what it’s worth—once, when we returned for a ten-year class reunion, my wife and I were pulled over by a town cop, who turned out to be a burly guy from my graduating class. [Laughs.] When he recognized me, and vice versa, he chuckled and let us off the hook, and the incident embedded itself in my brain.
DH: After the narrator has a seemingly small victory for himself in taking back his keys from his father, he gets a glimpse of something, saying, “For a moment an image of that tan lawn mower appeared in my head. I pictured it in a field: stained with oil, low on gas, sputtering, my father trying to cut a straight path through the long weeds and not really knowing how.” This seems to reveal something about the father trying to maintain order and trying to succeed as a parent but not really knowing how. Do you think about symbolism at all while writing or simply focus on telling the story?
BM: For me, symbols have to enter the story naturally. I write stories all the way through, opening the floodgates of imagination and letting all the ideas flow on the first draft. I let the details inform the story, and sometimes they end up becoming symbolic. But I don’t consciously think about that when I write. Maybe later—while revising—I might see something that works as a symbol and then enhance it. And, to touch on another point, you’re right about what these sentences suggest—the father is the lawn mower, not quite carving out the path he thinks he should. This shows another dimension in his character, and that’s essential to giving any character depth. If he’s portrayed as being totally authoritarian and strong and unwavering, then the reader doesn’t see anything under the surface, and he’s one dimensional. But he sputters, and he’s stained. It’s those under-the-surface traits—the weaknesses, the idiosyncrasies, the hesitations and doubts that make a character real. They let us see the motivations for why they act the way they do. So I always strive for that in my writing.
DH: Finally, and I like to ask this question because writers seem to be somewhat divided on the subject, do you feel that writing can be taught? Are writers born or made?
BM: They’re both born and made. Look at any famous writer’s early or adolescent writing, and you’ll see glimmers of unique creativity mixed with flaws. During my early years of writing [laughs]–not that I’m a prime example, but this is just my experience–when I tried to write a story, I couldn’t write more than a page and a half. Each time I tried, I didn’t know what else to say. I simply ran out of words and stopped. Eventually, I learned more about writing fiction, my stories expanded, and I ended up with a 350 page novel manuscript. I think life experience has something to do with it, too. As years pass, you realize that there’s so much unique and complex material to write about.
DH: Thanks so much for joining us, Bill.
About Bill Meissner
Bill Meissner’s first novel, SPIRITS IN THE GRASS, about a small town ballplayer who finds the remains of an ancient Native American burial ground on a baseball field, was published in 2008 by the University of Notre Dame Press and won the Midwest Book Award. The book is available as an ebook from the UND Press. Meissner’s two books of short stories are THE ROAD TO COSMOS, [University of Notre Dame Press, 2006] and HITTING INTO THE WIND [Random House/SMU Press, Dzanc Books ebook].
Meissner has also published four books of poems: AMERICAN COMPASS, [U. of Notre Dame Press], LEARNING TO BREATHE UNDERWATER and THE SLEEPWALKER’S SON [both from Ohio U. Press], and TWIN SONS OF DIFFERENT MIRRORS [Milkweed Editions].
He is director of creative writing at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. You can find his personal web page here.
You could also find him on Facebook.
Courtesy of Bill Meissner