To celebrate the official launch of Stevan Allred’s A Simplified Map of the Real World, Portland author Robin Cody posed a few questions (and made some insightful comments). Pull up a chair, maybe even pour yourself a beer, and enjoy these two as they chat about points of view, literature, nature, and where Stevan got that fascinating title.
RC: I was reading these stories and thinking, “This Stevan Allred guy is knowledgeable about logging. And about beef cattle. And about pole dancing.” You write convincingly from the point of view of an old man or of a woman, and I don’t think you’ve been any of those, either. How do you do that? Do you show a first draft of these stories to a pole dancer, for example, or to a logger?
SA: I’m fond of quoting E. L. Doctorow, who has written so many great historical novels, including Ragtime, and Billy Bathgate. When asked how much research he did, he said, “Not nearly as much as you think.”
The key thing, when you’re doing research, or just observing life happening in front of you, is to watch for the poetic detail. You’re looking for that one fact that lifts the veil on how people really feel. A woman looks at herself in the mirror in the morning, examining the hang of skin from the bottom side of her upper arm. She’s fifty-four, and she’s pleased that her arm doesn’t sag there—you can learn so much about how she feels about her body from that. Her vanity, her insecurity, her pleasure in how she has held up so far.
I see myself as doing the work of a character actor. I’m writing a human being first, and if the character I’m writing is a woman, or gay, or older than I am, those character notes, as crucial as they are to the particularity of each, are always rooted in our shared humanity. If all I think about is the parts that are different from me, I shut down as a writer. Instead, I just keep asking myself “What would a human being who happened to be a woman, or a stripper, or gay, feel right now?”
And then, it’s time for my imagination to kick in. I think of my imagination as a muscle–the more I use it, the stronger it gets.
RC: In your stories, extremely likeable people do extremely stupid and funny things, like driving a car off a cliff into the lake, and charging admission to the show. Do you have a history of trying funny and stupid things? Or is it the people you hang out with? Some of this stuff you can’t just make up out of whole cloth.
SA: My brother used to have a 1960 Valiant like the one in the story, so I knew about the push button transmission. When the Fremont Bridge was under construction in Portland in the early 70’s my friends and I used to go up there on weekends and fool around. Security was a lot looser back then. I fantasized about running my brother’s car off the bridge before they put the center span in, but without a driver at the wheel. You’d have needed a parachute to survive that drop.
RC: If you were to share a few beers tomorrow with just one of these characters, which one would you choose? Why? And where?
SA: Lenny Lingstrom, on his front porch, on a Saturday afternoon. I want him to tell me about his carnival days, and his life after “Vortex.” Did he ever find his true love? I’d like to think he did.
RC: A lot of people in A Simplified Map of the Real World struggle in comic and often heart-breaking ways with divorce. Do you have some real life experience in this area that you’d like to share with us?
SA: I was married for seventeen years, and have been divorced now for four. Going through that divorce was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life so far, but it was also one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. I had to grow as a human. I had to take stock of myself, and come to terms with how much of the failure of that marriage belonged to me. I’m a better person for that. I learned a lot about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process, not an event. I had to forgive my wife, and her new husband, and then I had to work on forgiving the hardest person of all to forgive: myself.
RC: You live in the woods, and alone, I think. What’s that like, if it bears on your writing?
SA: Yes, alone. I like the solitude, and being able to set my own schedule. I like to write whenever I wake up, which might be 4 or 5 in the morning. I like being able to play music as loud as I want, whenever I want. I like the quiet of my woods, and the deer wandering through my yard. At night the coyotes yip and sing to each other, sometimes three different packs. When I mow my lawn one of the local hawks follows me, and swoops down on the field mice who run from the mower’s blades. All of this keeps me rooted in the world, in the sheer physicality of it, the sensual pleasure of it, the harsh truth of it, and that, I’m sure, comes through on the page.
SA: Life is complex, and isn’t a simplified map of the real world something we all want? For me, it’s something I didn’t know I wanted until I named it.
For years I taught at Haystack, PSU’s summer arts workshop held at Cannon Beach, on the Oregon coast. We took over the local grade school, and taught our adult students in classrooms with the alphabet written out on a long banner above the blackboard for first graders. One year I walked into my classroom with my teaching partner, Joanna Rose (author of Little Miss Strange), and Kate Gray (author of the forthcoming Skin Drag). There was a map pulled down in front of the blackboard. Across the bottom of the map were the words “A Simplified Map of the Real World.” All three of us zeroed in on that phrase, and all three of us yelled “Dibs” at the same time, and all three of us have used the phrase in our own work.
RC: Do your read and re-read Raymond Carver? Who else?
SA: Carver, yes, absolutely. He showed me that the ordinary lives of ordinary people were full of poetry, and dignity, and drama. Also Alice Munro, from whom I derived the notion that I could fit pretty near a whole damn novel into a short story. She’s the reigning master of the short story as far as I’m concerned. And Annie Proulx, with those amazing Wyoming stories. Her love of the landscape, and the people who were a part of that country almost as much as the rivers and mountains—I found that inspiring.
RC: Switching narrators from one story to the next, we see many of the characters first as the observer and later as the observed. By the end, this collection of 15 stories has all the best elements – lead characters, place, and story – of a good novel. It’s a freaking great literary effect and a fine entertainment. This is not a question, I guess.
SA: Not a question, but a welcome observation. One of my inspirations is Michael Chabon, who has made a point in his work of bringing together the excellence of writing we expect from literary fiction with the page-turning entertainment we want from genre fiction. That’s what I want my stories to do–to make you think, and feel, and to entertain at the same time, and to do all of this with an ear to the sound of the sentences and the quality of the metaphors.
This hybrid form, the collection of linked short stories, has roots going back at least as far as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Lots of writers are doing it these days, and Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer in 2009 for her collection of linked stories, Olive Kitteridge. The form gave me a chance to do several things. Each story has its own voice, its own sound, and I loved the element of play and experimentation in that. I made my own personal study of point-of-view as I built the collection, using first, second, and various forms of third person, so this was a learning tool for me. Sometimes I’d finish a story and I’d know, because I’d discovered it in the writing, that the next story needed to be about someone who was a minor character in the one I’d just finished. Other times the chance to link the stories together came through an object, or some bit of language that carries from one story to another, like the way Arnie Gossard says, “That so?” The links were another level in the writing, and that was pleasurable for me.
The official launch of Stevan Allred’s A Simplified Map of the Real World is Thursday, Sept. 12 at 7:30 pm, at Powell’s City of Books on Burnside, just as the marquee says.
Stevan Allred is a writer, a teacher, and and editor. A Simplified Map of the Real World, published by Forest Avenue Press, is his debut collection of short stories. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
Oregon native Robin Cody is the author of Ricochet River and Voyage of a Summer Sun, both of which appear on the Oregon State Library’s “150 Oregon Books for the Oregon Sesquicentennial” list. Voyage of a Summer Sun won the Oregon Book Award for literary nonfiction and a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award.