Heather Lang: Pete, congratulations on the publication of your short story collection, Little Black Dots, out with Chatter House Press. I know that “Little Black Dots” is also the title of one of the short stories in the collection, but I can’t help but note the connotation that comes with this title—for me, at least. When I hear the phrase, I think of ellipses, which can be used when omitting a word or words or, more casually, to indicate the trailing off of a character’s dialogue. Therefore, the title Little Black Dots leads me to pay special attention to what remains unspoken in the collection, and also to where each story begins and ends. How do you know when a story ends? On a similar note, how do you know when a story is finished?
Peter Barlow: Let’s start with the idea that Vonnegut is pretty much right: you should start as close to the end as possible, and should cockroaches eat the last few pages the reader could finish the story themselves. Let’s also throw in Aristotle’s unity of time – that the action in a play should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours. I try to do variations on all of those things. Most of the major stories in the collection, the ones longer than 4,000 words or so, have most if not all of the central action confined to a 36 hour period, maybe 48 hours. “Lake Effect” is spread over five or six days, but that’d be the longest one. Still plenty of wiggle room.
Now let’s talk characters. The biggest principal casts in a short story should be able to be counted on one hand. You can have bunches of supporting players, waiters and cab drivers and such, but not too many… can’t muddy the waters too much. Most of mine have two or three principals. “At Chichén Itzá” has four, but that feels crowded even to me. You don’t have room for a cast of thousands – or even a cast of several – in a short story.
Now settings. I like exotic, but it still has to be familiar. There’s some global references in mine, Chichén Itzá and Machu Picchu and the Galápagos, but even those come back to some really basic stuff: a hotel room, an airport, a restaurant, a beach, a remote cabin, a Midwestern town. I don’t have to describe much, because whatever you fill in from your own experiences or imagination will probably work. You’ve been to all those, even if you haven’t been to all those.
So, two or three characters, simple setting, and a time limit. Somebody’s walking in with a situation. There’s going to be some words, there might be a change of venue, but something’s going to get worked out. The situation won’t be completely resolved, but a roadmap has been established. Once I get there – once my characters figure out what comes next after everything has gone so horribly wrong (which is another Vonnegut idea. I, too, want to see what my characters are made of) – that’s when the story’s done. What actually does come next isn’t my responsibility. That’s for the reader to supply in their own heads. The story’s finished when I’ve gone back through and gotten everything down into the simplest terms I know how to.
HL: Where do you usually begin when writing a story? How often does the first sentence of the first draft end up being the first sentence of a piece in its final form?
PB: I usually begin in the wrong place. It takes me a few stops and starts before I figure it out, but that seems to be the M.O. I do all of my first drafts by hand, and what’ll happen is that I’ll write a sentence or two, or a paragraph, or a page, and then I’ll read it back and figure out something isn’t quite right with it and start again. I’ve dropped stories after two, three, seven pages before – I think most authors have at one point or another – but if I can get off the first page, page and a half, I feel like I’ve got something. The best case in point was “Sea of Tranquility.” I think I wrote thirty or forty different versions of the first page before it occurred to me that what I was writing wasn’t the first scene, but the last. Once I worked that out, it was cake.
The first sentence of the first draft almost never survives completely unscathed. There’s usually been something done to it, like a word or two dropped or something rearranged. The four short-shorts are exceptions to that. The published versions of those are essentially first drafts with cosmetic changes. “Little Black Dots” is an exception too. The first sentence has always been, “Everywhere he looked: sand.” But something usually changes. The titles change half the time too.
HL: Now that you’ve heard the ways in which I’ve completely overthought your title, one that I do love, would you please tell us a bit about your decision? What brought you to title the collection Little Black Dots? For example, in what ways does the title story represent the collection as a whole and/or why did you want to draw special attention to that particular piece?
PB: Five of the stories in the collection were part of my Master’s thesis: “Layover,” “Little Black Dots,” “Sea of Tranquility,” “At Chichén Itzá,” and “Lake Effect.” They aren’t the oldest five in Little Black Dots by any means, but they seemed to fit together the best given the amount of space and what material I had to work with. By the time I got to putting the thesis together, “Sea” had already been published at Confluence and “Layover” was awaiting publication at The Puckerbrush Review. I looked at the other three and thought, “Okay, which one’s going to get accepted last? That’ll be the title piece.” Took me all of three seconds to figure it would be “Little Black Dots.” Compared to the other four, it seemed to me to be the most difficult, the one that would require the most from the reader, but it was still a fine story – a very good one, I think – and it deserved some attention.
Then again, if you view the collection as a whole, that story winds up being a crucial heartbeat to it. The biggest theme of the book (at least to me) is finding a measure of redemption after suffering some sort of abandonment. I was in the middle of doing a drastic rewrite of this story – and weeks away from finishing my bachelor’s degree, which I wrote that story as part of – when my mother passed away. That happening when it did prompted a reexamination of where this story was really headed, and specifically the question of whether or not the ending fit. The first drafts were more nihilistic. This version has at least a shade of hope. That, in turn, has colored how I view not just stories but the world in general—there has to be if not a happy ending then at least a little hope for something better.
Before I did my thesis, the plan was to call the book Meeting Monica Seles. The title I went with works a little bit better.
HL: That makes sense to me, Pete. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing you and of calling you both an MFA cohort and a friend for some years now. A few years ago, you were kind enough to record yourself reading a few of your short stories, per my request, so that I could share them with my Introduction to Creative Writing class. Thank you, dear writer, for taking the time and energy to record your stories. I’m thrilled that I can now refer my students to your collection, Little Black Dots! Do you have a favorite story to read to an audience? If so, which one, and why?
PB: The one that seems to be to most read is “Sea of Tranquility.” It’s a really good length for that sort of thing. End to end I can get through it in about 20 minutes, which is about as long as anybody wants to listen to anybody else drone on. I’ve thought about doing a reading grouping together all of the short-shorts from the collection and all of the ones that were published after the collection line-up was finalized. That’d be eight total, and at a gallop that’d be half an hour or so, but I wonder about reading so many that the efficacy of any single one of them would get lost. And “Liberty Bell” is fun to do out loud too, if only because the of the punchline. I wouldn’t mind doing “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” but I’m admittedly afraid of violating copyright law (it includes lyrics to two songs that I had to get permission to use which doesn’t cover performance), and I doubt anybody wants to hear me sing…
HL: Who knows! Perhaps you could start a Kickstarter campaign, or something of the sort, to earn the permissions’ money. The rewards for pledging could be something like personal performances – singing and all!
Shifting back toward reality, sort of, I’d like to chat about your take on creative nonfiction. If I recall correctly, you have a thoughtful and unique stance on the genre. I understand that Little Black Dots makes no claims to be nonfiction. It’s a book of short stories. However, could you please remind me of your take on creative nonfiction? Also, could you talk a bit about the story or stories from which you feel you pulled the most personal experiences.
PB: So, okay. The thing about creative nonfiction, at least from the outside in, is that it has to hold to all of the same tenets as fiction does: the characters have to be somewhat relatable, everybody’s actions have to make sense within context, an understanding of setting is vital… all of that. All of that’s true for fiction, and it seems to me that it would have to be true for creative nonfiction too. Say you’re writing a memoir. Take all the bells and whistles out, you’re still just telling a story. The only real difference is that yours is your own version of true. And given as you probably don’t have perfect auditory imagination, the conversations you had aren’t going to be precisely represented in any way except spiritually, so there’s some version of putting words in other people’s mouths. And real life – that thing we do every day – is so much more haphazard and scattershot than any book I’ve ever read, so your job as memoirist is to make sense out of it. Organize thoughts. Tell the underlying story that needs to be told.
I’m not so coy that I won’t admit that “Poster” is very much about a girl I dated once, and what happened at the end of the relationship. It is. The who isn’t the point. And three stories (“Little Black Dots,” “Another Sunrise,” and “Sea of Tranquility”) all deal with the death of my mother in one form or another. “Another Sunrise” is the most direct of these. But then it represented a fairly large moment in my life, so how it wouldn’t bleed through somehow I don’t know. And the Liberty Trilogy (“Liberty Bell,” “Great Horny Toads,” and “Tornado in a Box”)… there really is a Liberty, Indiana, but the way I wrote that town it could have been virtually any Midwestern small town county seat-type place. You’ve probably been to one or three or a dozen. Liberty is the next town up the State Route from Oxford, Ohio. I did some of my undergrad work at Miami-Ohio… it was right there.
HL: While first paging through your collection, in part to get a feel for the book as a whole but also to see which stories I might recognize from past publications and workshops, I immediately noticed two particularly short stories. Both “Lament” and “Reservations” are less than one-page long. I thought these works of flash fiction might offer the reader a breather from more serious motifs. Boy, was I wrong! “Lament” and “Reservations” both have a compression of sorts that allows them to tell entire origin stories within only a page.
If I may paraphrase, “Lament” seems to be about a father who never expected to become a dad and is struggling with the complexities, both logistical and emotional, of this reality. The story brims with resonance and in ways that we’re able to connect with the character so empathetically that I don’t think I’ll give too much away by sharing the final sentence of “Lament”: “And as he drifts off to sleep he wonders if he’ll ever be that man that can hold his son without thinking, ‘How did this happen?’” How utterly human, Pete.
“Reservations” seems darker, exploring a relationship that might be physically dangerous or, at the very least, seems to be emotionally damaging. The juxtaposition of the giggling children playing outside and the silent woman, who might be paralyzed by fear, is heartbreaking. “She did not make eye contact. To do so would have been a mistake. Best to keep her head down, her hands clasped, her clothes off. That might distract him.” This female character, who remains unnamed, as a literary device, I suspect, seems to know that even her dinner suggestions, which the man in the room insists she gives, cannot be the right answers no matter what she says.
Could you talk a bit about writing these two pieces, the shortest of the collection? I have more questions than I should ask here, but I’ll prompt you with a few. Do these shorter works take you less time to write than the longer stories? I know you’re avidly involved with a local writing group in your Detroit area. How did they react to these two pieces? Regarding “Reservations” in particular, may I ask what prompted this story idea?
PB: The happy response to the time question is yes, but. “Ghost” was written in an evening, “Poster” in an afternoon, “Reservations” in an evening. “Lament” was spread over two nights, but the only thing written on the second night was the last sentence. I say “happy” but even that’s a bit of a lie. They were all of them difficult in one way or another, if only because instead of having six thousand words to get everything across I only had six hundred. Self-imposed. And you have to find the space in there to convey both emotion and depth. There has to be something there, even in that short of a space, for someone to latch on to. Otherwise, it’s ars gratia artis, and probably too insular for its own good. And there’s no real plus side to being able to finish something quickly, other than you can move on to something else sooner. The thing is there’s always a gap of time between the first and second drafts, anywhere from six weeks to six months. The short-shorts go through that process too, so is isn’t as if they really get churned out any faster than the others.
“Reservations” came pretty directly from a conversation I had with my (now ex-) wife one Friday night about where to go for dinner. We were neither one of us exceptional in the kitchen, and though we lived around the corner from Casual Dining Hell (something like fifteen restaurants of varying quality) we’d had them all before a few times, and – you know, after a while none of it seems appetizing anymore and you want something new. And of course, the story’s really about the lines in-between, but that’s for you to figure out. It was my first attempt at doing a short-short, and honestly I was a bit terrified of how it would be taken.
“Lament” was the last thing written that ended up in this collection, and the only thing in it completely written after the birth of my son. (“Another Sunrise” was being drafted when he was born. Otherwise, everything came before him.) And I wanted it to address, as directly as possible, that ambivalence of new parenthood: yes, you have a baby, but what have you lost? What was the trade? And you have to reframe yourself in this new reality, and there’s a continuing peeling away of confusion to acceptance – it’s almost Five Stages of Grief, but even then it isn’t quite.
My writer’s group wondered what the hell I was up to. There were a few years between “Reservations” and the other three – at least five years, might have been closer to ten – but there was some skepticism. This is a group that’s entirely fiction writers. Some do genre work, but it’s almost all novelists. I’m the only one who does short stories as a matter of routine. So there was some trepidation on their part. I understand that. It’s almost poetry, but it isn’t. It’s something else.
HL: Yes. For me, these short-shorts are reminiscent of poetry largely due to their compression. Pete, I think I’ve pointed out, either implicitly or explicitly, that your work is gravid. I want to also take a moment, however, to note that it is never heavy handed, and that there are moments of contentment laced throughout Little Black Dots. What would you consider the most joyful moment, even if it is complexly so, and why?
PB: I don’t know about joy. Todd has a version of it at the end of “Meeting Monica Seles.” It’s a false joy – he hasn’t actually met her by the end – but he doesn’t know that he hasn’t met her, so it’s at least a joy that exists in his head. Muted happiness, and more importantly, hope – there’s tons of that.
HL: Like many of us, you serve as an adjunct professor. You’re an educator. What advice do you have for emerging writers? How can they dig into the darkness without falling into the cliché or the graceless? What would you recommend to beginning writers, and even to emerging writers, to help them avoid TMI-ing their readers?
PB: One of the things I tell my students when we start talking about writing is that they’re not going to write the perfect paper. They just aren’t. So, step one, start by accepting that your first draft is almost never going to be what gets stuffed in the envelope. You can be goofy, you can be visited by the cliché police on multiple occasions, whatever, with the understanding that what you’re doing isn’t ready for public consumption.
The second thing is to accept failure. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (That’s Beckett. Worstward Ho. There. Now you know.) Not everything is meant to work out the first time around, so don’t fret too much if you have to put it aside for a while before you get it right. Leave the first-draft-best-draft stuff for the people on Top Chef.
The third is to notice as much as you can around you. People watch, if you can, and people listen. Listen to the choices they make, both in their words and in their actions. If you’re in a situation where you see someone, not a loved one, every day and something subtle (or not so subtle) changes about them, observe it, and don’t be afraid to ask why. Don’t mock if you do. That isn’t the point.
Finally, look at your story like a bonsai. The trick is to trim as much as possible but still leave a tree that can be mistaken as a work of art. That work of art you leave behind needs to make sense to someone else not you.
Oh, and one other thing, and it’s one of the last things my capstone professor at Miami-Ohio told me: the world doesn’t want you. Do it anyway.
HL: Thank you, Pete, for taking the time to chat with me today. May I please ask you about your current and/or future literary projects? Also, are you up to any peripheral activities, major or minor life events that might be information your writing subtly or directly?
PB: The beat has gone ever onward. There’s been an additional eight stories published since the collection was finalized. I catalog all of those on my website (mylittleblackdots.wordpress.com). Beyond them, there’s maybe a dozen in the hopper either out for consideration or waiting to go out. I may be the only author I know that isn’t actively trying to write a novel… I don’t know that I have the attention span for it just now.
My son is autistic, and I spend a lot of time getting him either to and from his therapies or out into the world to experience what he can. I spent the weekend filming him on my phone, and the videos have been uploaded to YouTube… hopefully people see them and figure out what it is parents of autistic children go though, and the people that are parents of children like that find out that they aren’t alone. But he’s – he’s the most fascinating person I know. He’s just five, five going on three in a lot of ways, and he hasn’t lost that adventurousness, that wide-eyes sense of wonder. I’m trying to remember that when I write. Sometimes it comes through, sometimes not.
And I’m still adjuncting at University of Detroit-Mercy. It’s tough work, and the pay isn’t all that good for the work I put in, but it’s some of the most rewarding stuff I’ve ever done. Lately, I’ve tried to put an element of teaching into my stories… you know, hopefully, you learn something you didn’t know before.
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Heather Lang is World Literature Editor at The Literary Review.
Peter Barlow’s Little Black Dots was published by Chatterhouse Press (Indianapolis, IN, 2017).