South Carolina writer Dan Leach publishes his first book of short stories in what George Singleton calls “a beautifully-written, soul-shaking collection.”
Dan Leach submitted his first short story to Deep South in 2013. It was titled “The Day Getting Dark” and unfortunately got snatched up by another publication before we could send our acceptance email. He responded with two stories that he hoped we’d consider instead. One, included in his debut book of short stories Floods and Fires, was “Everything Must Go.”
Leach mentioned that he felt something was missing from the story about a man who notices his ex-wife’s belongings at a garage sale, but wanted to know what we thought. After reading it, I responded and said that we wanted to accept the story but had a few questions that might help him flesh it out a bit more. It reminded me of a Jeffrey Eugenides story I’d just read in The New Yorker about a dad hanging around outside the house he once lived in, spying on his wife and kids. We discussed the addition of a flashback, along with more foreshadowing in the beginning.
He ended up revising “Everything Must Go,” and it became even better than it was in the beginning—and let me just say that it was clear how immensely talented he was even with that first draft. Since then, I’ve been honored to read more of his fiction and write a blurb for Floods and Fires. Each story in this collection just gets better and better, and I didn’t want the book to end. I also began to wonder how Leach has the time to nurture his gift for writing such original characters and heartbreaking scenarios with a wife, three children and a teaching career.
He humbly explains some of his prowess and reveals those writers who influenced him here, while also dispensing writing advice and riffing on what makes a good story.
Families will not be broken. Curse and expel them, send their children wandering, drown them in floods and fires, and old women will make songs of all these sorrows and sit on the porch and sing them on mild evenings.” – Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
EZB: Why the title Floods and Fires? What is the connection between the book’s themes and the Marilynne Robinson quote?
DL: With regards to the entire book, the connection is fairly loose. You could argue that, like the quote, many of the stories depict how tough and enduring families are, even in the face of tragedy and loss. But that’s pretty vague. If there’s a true connection to be explored, it would be between the quote and the title story, “Floods and Fires.” That piece, more than any other, encapsulates the spirit of Robinson’s idea. You’ve got a father protecting his son not just from the law but from a lifelong surge of cruelty and injustice. You’ve got immense pain and suffering; and yet, the bonds of family hold up and, against all odds, deliver Hap and Frankie into a better future. I even made the decision to end that story on a front porch, as a kind of final nod to Robinson’s quote.
EZB: You’ve been writing short stories for a long time. What do you find appealing about that medium?
DL: I have always loved the idea of condensing the power of a longer form into the space of a short story. Although most of my favorite books are novels—Rabbit, Run; The Moviegoer; The Sportswriter; The Brothers Karamazov—there’s an incredible amount of wasted space in novel-length work. A novelist can afford tangential exposition, meandering dialogue or even entire subplots that do little to advance the core of the story. And readers of novels, if they notice at all, are willing to forgive these qualities. Not so with the short story, where every sentence must be accounted for and every single word must serve its function or be ripped out like a weed. Economy impresses me. You take a song like “Shelter from the Storm” by Bob Dylan. There’s a whole universe in that song. He didn’t need a trilogy of books. He didn’t even need 7,000 words. That, to me, is something worth striving for.
EZB: Where does inspiration for your characters come from? Are they people you’ve known or come across during your lifetime?
DL: It’s funny, people who know me, especially my family, tend to read my work as thinly veiled autobiography. They’ll come across a character and say, usually with great satisfaction, “That’s your cousin, isn’t it?” or “Did you base that off such-and-such from back in school?” I never want to burst their bubble, especially since half the time they’re spot on. However, the truth is every character starts from a kernel and, as the story matures, gains layers and nuances and ticks that carry him or her further and further from that original kernel. So in a story like “Waxwing,” there’s an old neighborhood lady named Mrs. Vicars. And as soon as my family read that piece, they lit up and said, “I know who that is!” And I was forced to admit that, yes, the kernel for Mrs. Vicars was in fact the lady in question. There are several similar instances in the book, where the real-life inspiration seems to be crying out from its fictionalized counterpart. I suppose this is inevitable when you “write what you know.” But, at the end of the day, every word in the book is fiction.
EZB: Most of your characters are seeking some sort of redemption and having a tough time doing it. What are your own thoughts on redemption and salvation?
DL: A very old writer once said, “Remember that all are frail; but none so frail as yourself.” I like that. I believe it. I think everyone, no matter how strong and put-together they may appear, is inherently feeble and therefore vulnerable to great loss. So in that sense, I think we all experience seasons where we’re hurting from something, possibly something we don’t fully understand. And what do we do? We grasp for redemption. We cry out for salvation. As the Psalmist says, “I lift my eyes up to the hills. Where does my help come from?” Regardless of your answer to that question, the fact remains—we are all frail; we are all grasping.
EZB: What were some of the biggest obstacles in the creation of this book?
DL: I love making lists. Let’s do one here, from biggest to smallest.
1. The day job. If you’re serious about writing, there’s no getting around the fact roughly one-third of your time and energy is being poured out on something that is not writing. I don’t know of a single writer who doesn’t struggle with this. And, as I understand it, even the fortunate geniuses like Junot Diaz and Cormac McCarthy with their half-million dollar grants and fellowships, are plagued by obligations and work-related responsibilities. In the realm of obstacles, nothing can compete with a nine-to-five.
2. Family and friends. Ever seen the Salinger documentary where they talk about him building a bunker and not coming out for weeks on end? Unless you’re that devoted to protecting your work habits, the people you love will stand in the way of your writing. And because of what I believe in terms of family and friends, I have to see this as an obstacle that is best embraced and celebrated. Would I get more work done if I neglected my wife, turned away my three kids and failed to keep up with my friends? Absolutely. Can I think of a piece of writing that I could produce that would ever justify Salinger’s bunker approach? Not in a million years. So family and friends are obstacles. Let them be so and love them all the more for considering you worthy of their distractions.
3. Reading. I won’t spend too much time sermonizing here, but I will say that writers should create more than they consume. But good books make that tough, don’t they? Let’s say you’ve dodged the first two bullets—the day job and the friends and family—and you finally have a small window of time that could be used to write. How tempting is it to spend that time reading a great book? For me, immeasurably so. When it comes to books, I’m almost like the alcoholic who can’t keep booze in the house. Barry Hannah, Lewis Nordan, David Bottoms—you better keep those guys away from me when I’m trying to write. One page and I’m done for. I’ve been on benders where all I do is read for weeks.
EZB: Your writing has been compared to Larry Brown, Ron Rash, William Gay and Barry Hannah. How does it feel to be included in that circle and who were some of your influences for these stories?
DL: You know that weird thing that happens when you see one of your old teachers in the supermarket? And even though you’re 30 years old and they’ve been retired for years, and it’s been a quarter of a century since you were their student, you still call them “Miss Williams” and stand ready like a good kid would to obey their next directive? Am I the only one who does that? I saw an old teacher at a swimming pool once. She was wearing a two-piece and asked me to call her ‘Tammy.’ I couldn’t do it. Felt like sacrilege. That’s how I feel when I get mentioned in the same conversation as Larry Brown and Ron Rash and all those great old guys. Those are my teachers. No matter how accomplished I get, I’ll always feel like a kid in their presence. In my mind, they’re too big, too brilliant, to meet eye to eye and address on a first-name basis.
EZB: In my blurb for your book, I used the Faulkner quote “all good stories were about people in conflict with themselves.” What do you think makes a good story?
DL: I’m convinced that a good story comes more from voice than plot. Another way of saying this is to say that what happens in a story is not nearly as important as what words and patterns are used to tell it. Many fine writers and probably the bulk of contemporary readers would disagree with me on this. Plot has become (probably due to the addictive nature of television combined with the waning influence of the classics) the driving force behind most fiction these days. People can’t stand a story in which “nothing happens.” People get bored and almost irritable if something doesn’t seem to be at stake. But Faulkner himself is the perfect rebuttal to that trend. Faulkner could riff for page after page on something that had nothing to do with the plot, and the sheer beauty and power of the language made it OK for him to do so. His voice made it OK.
Alice Munro once said of her stories that she wanted them to be “rooms” rather than “hallways.” She said some stories are written like hallways—to be crossed from the beginning to the end as quickly as possible. Something happens, but once you’ve read it, there’s no reason to return. On the other hand, to write a “room” story would mean populating the page with language and textures and moments that a reader doesn’t want to leave, that he or she would want to visit and then, having left, come back to. Maybe that’s the best definition of a story I’ve ever heard—a room you don’t want to leave and then dream of coming back to.