Colorado Review Associate Editor Derek Askey interviews Matthew Shaer about his story “Ghosts,” which appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Colorado Review as the winner of the 2012 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, selected by Jane Hamilton. Read the full text of the story here, or listen to Shaer read the story on our November podcast!
Derek Askey: What prompted your decision to choose David as the POV character? What about a seventeen-year-old made him appropriate to see this story through his eyes?
Matthew Shaer: Well, the obvious answer is there a lot of me in David. The story started with a kernel of something that had happened to me, too, and spun out on its own from there. In that sense, there was never a selection process—I never sat down at my desk and picked and chose from among potential protagonists.
I should also say that “Ghosts” is very much an homage to a much better story—“Pigeon Feathers,” by John Updike. In “Pigeon Feathers,” the narrator—also named David, also a teenager—grapples with the specter of death, albeit in a drastically different way. I must have read that story a hundred times, and each time I’ve been inspired anew by what Updike had accomplished. It’s a really beautiful piece of writing.
As a side note: You mentioned David’s age. In fact, some of the folks who read early drafts of the story told me that a 17-year-old could not possibly know so much, or be so deeply in touch with death. I disagree—I think when we’re young, we’re sometimes more in touch with certain realities that we eventually learn to avoid or shirk as adults.
DA: The feature of “Ghosts” that I found most striking was its dreamlike quality in describing a very real event. Many of the dreams in the story seem like memories (David with Opa, trying to catch the train), and many of the memories seem like dreams (David with Opa, again, walking to the burned-down house). Can you describe how dreams helped you to understand these characters, and how we use dreams and memories to process things that are difficult to cope with otherwise?
MS: “Ghosts” started as part of my thesis at NYU, where I got my MFA. Originally, there were more dreams in the piece, but my thesis advisor, the novelist Rick Moody, sat me down and told me a lot of it had to be jettisoned. Dreams in fiction are dicey things—they’re fun to write, because you have so much free rein, but for readers, the effect can be like sitting in the audience at a Phish concert, and listening to the guitarist noodle on for just a little too long. It comes off as incredibly self-indulgent. So I took Rick’s recommendation, and stripped some of that back in subsequent drafts. But yes, the dreams that do remain are subconscious attempts, on David’s part, to process some of what is happening around him.
As for the stories that seem like dreams, like the moment where David recalls the visit to the burnt-out house, I wanted the reader to understand that the incident had attained the status of myth in David’s mind, so I altered the tone accordingly.
DA: The book that David reads to Opa is interesting to me because it’s another example of what I referenced above—these small narratives that are woven throughout the story, which enhance our understanding of it. Is this a real book? If so, what is it? If not, how did you come to insert this into the story?
MS: No, it’s not a real book. It’s actually a fragment of a story I wrote about four years ago, and which I never really finished to my satisfaction—still, it’s been rattling around in my head ever since, and when I came to this scene in “Ghosts,” I found myself just kind of regurgitating it. Which is not so surprising: That story was about a father and a son, and the intersections of a dream world and the real one. Also, it’s worth noting that Opa is actually the German word for grandfather—it’s what I called my mom’s dad.
DA: The choice to have a story set with a character on his deathbed seems like a risky one; I’m reminded of so many Victorian novels with very emotional scenes between characters, dying in their loved ones’ arms. But there’s nothing cheaply sentimental about “Ghosts,” and it seems to resist this at every turn: the incontinence, the drug-addled confusion, the familial infighting. Is this something you were conscious of as you wrote the story, something that you were deliberately resisting?
MS: That’s kind of you to say. Was I conscious that there were a whole lot of clichés involved with writing deathbed scenes? Definitely. But I think I’d point to the answer I gave to the first question, about the decision to make David the narrator: In many ways, the story evolved on its own, and didn’t leave me with many choices. I’m aware of how horribly pretentious that sounds, of course. And no, it’s not like stories come out fully formed—we trim and cut and hack and slash and revise and revise and revise. That’s what workshops and critiques and the endless drafts are for. But with most stories, we all start with a concept, a theme, I guess, that’s pretty much inviolable. If was to subject myself a 30-second self-psychoanalysis, I’d say that in the case of “Ghosts,” that theme came about because I’m still working, years later, to understand my reaction to the death of my own grandparents, and of a childhood friend, who, like Matt Corey in the story, died very young.
DA: When describing your story, the judge for the Nelligan Prize, Jane Hamilton, cites Frank O’Connor’s assertion that good short stories have “an intense awareness of human loneliness.” Is this reflective of your understanding of David, Lucy, Opa, and Petra? Do you see Opa’s impending death as driving that loneliness, or do you believe it might diminish it?
MS: Oh, yes. They’re all terribly lonely, although I think it’s a different kind of loneliness in each case. David, for instance, might not categorize it as such—he’s naturally withdrawn, happy being alone. But Lucy’s loneliness is an active loneliness. She feels it acutely, and gives expression to it, both with tears and shouts, which may in the end make her, paradoxically, the most emotionally healthy of the bunch. As for your question about the old man’s death—it’s a very good one. The truth is, I don’t know the answer. It might drive the family further apart, or it might, as the last scene between David and his mom suggests, bring them all closer together.