Interview with Brian Bedard - 2022
Interview # 12 (fiction, short stories, literary fiction, regional fiction)
Brian Bedard is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of South Dakota, where he directed the creative writing program and also served as Editor of The South Dakota Review from 1995 to 2011. His short stories have appeared widely in such forums as Quarterly West, North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cimarron Review, and North Dakota Quarterly. His first collection of stories, Hour of the Beast and Other Stories, was published by Chariton Review Press. His second collection of stories, Grieving on the Run, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award from Snake Nation Press, and was published by Snake Nation Press in 2007 and nominated by that press for the National Book Award in 2008. The South Dakota Council of Teachers of English honored Brian as the 2008 South Dakota Author of the Year. At present he lives with his wife, Sharon, in Spokane, Washington, where he is a member of the English Department at Gonzaga University.
Randal Eldon Greene: Hello, Brian Bedard.
Girl on a Float is a collection all about South Dakota – its denizen, its wildlife, its culture. I, of course, knew you when you were teaching Creative Writing courses at the University of South Dakota, but I'm wondering how deep your connection with this place is? I'm not just asking about how long you lived there, but what about South Dakotan soil has drawn you to write so much about this Northern Great Plains state?
Brian Bedard:: 1. Geographic, cultural, spatial, and environmental affinities with my home state of Montana. Easy to identify with South Dakota as an emblem of the American West, which is my country within my country. And easy to pay homage to the state's immense and undeniable physical bearing and scope.
2. The Character Pool. There are a lot of physical, energetic, grass roots people in South Dakota. And, as with Montana, there are several Native American reservations. Those two groups are a gold mine as prototypes for characters. You see and interact with these people and read about them in the newspaper. (I have saved newspaper articles everywhere I have lived.) These people act out the Northern Plains mythos you want to honor and capture on paper. Once you have internalized them over time, they surface in your fiction. They are all about action, and I trust action.
3. Story is conflict. No conflict, no story. The conflicts I witnessed, and experienced, for 21 years in South Dakota appealed to me artistically, especially the clash of Nature and Civilization, which contains the central tension that plays out in most of my South Dakota stories. The dynamics of the landscape are uplifting and inspiring, but they can, and will, kill you in all kinds of ways, and without mercy. Menace is the handmaid of suspense, and suspense is the key to narrative pull.
4. The wildlife in South Dakota is larger than life. You can't beat buffaloes or pheasants for their sensory charm or for the mystery of their existence. And the prehistoric sturgeons feeding at the bottom of the Missouri River defy logic and time. Something eternally untamed there, and as far as I'm concerned, the American West was never fully settled. Occupied, yes; settled, no. South Dakota is living, breathing proof of our tenuous hold on the world. Lots of drama in that perspective, and I am a dramatic fiction writer. I don't have a lot of time for, or interest in, exposition. If you want to talk/discuss, write essays. Unfortunately, we now live in a talk show culture. It's about all we do. Hence the term "Talking Heads." We talk everything to death. And talk culture has infiltrated our fiction, both short and long, in inflationary ways. I find this disturbing because you can talk something to death, and my understanding of short fiction, in particular, is to tell the story WITHOUT KILLING IT. Leave some things unsaid so that the reader can fill them in, complete the meaning, share in the story's genesis, and keep the damn thing alive, instead of explaining the blood right out of it. I approach a short story like it is a patient on an intensive care table. The schematics are that fragile.
As I see it, then, there is no emotional current in expository writing. Intellectual tension, maybe. But stories, with any kind of emotional current in them, don't spring from the intellect; they spring from the imagination. There have been millions of words written about the fiction of William Faulkner—more words than he wrote himself; a virtual industry. But for me the most important thing that can be said about Faulkner's achievement as a storyteller takes only one sentence: He listened with profound loyalty to his imagination. He is nowhere near as cerebral, erudite, or clever as James Joyce, but a hell of a lot more fun. But I have gotten off on too much of a tangent here. So, concerning your question about the depth of my connection to South Dakota, I have tried to listen primarily to my imagination in writing stories about any of the places I have lived. As a place, South Dakota speaks inspiringly to my imagination. The imagery in South Dakota is authentic and inexhaustible, and deep images don't die. They just keep pulsing.
Randal Eldon Greene: You don't shy away from the reality of violence that peppers life on the plains. You paint a car crash and whip up a tornado, you capture the moment of a fish suffocating on the floor of a boat and pluck a fictional youth from civilian life, letting him die in war and leaving us the story of his grieving mother. What is your philosophy in regards to the use of violence in fiction?
From a fiction writing standpoint, violence provides the most condensed and energetic form of movement available to the story writer.
Brian Bedard:: From a life standpoint, I see violence in a macro context as the unrelenting motion of the world at large—everything from a robin pulling a worm out of the ground to a tsunami or a forest fire. Nothing stands still, everything is in flux. The world appears and disappears in an endless reel of motion. I was driving Spokane's Garland Avenue last week and noticed, to my absolute surprise, that a commercial car wash on the corner of Garland and Ash, which had been there since my wife and I moved to Spokane in 2014, was gone. The entire operation—bays, pumps, hoses, lights, vacuums, signs—ripped out, carried off to the dump, and thrown on a junk pile. Blink too long, and something is missing. Or the reverse: Who left that broken-down couch on the sidewalk across from my house? And where did the dead sparrow on my front deck come from? How was it killed? Is there a bloodspot on the window?
From a fiction writing standpoint, violence provides the most condensed and energetic form of movement available to the story writer. And though I might be misguided or out of touch with contemporary short story aesthetics, my understanding of the form is that it is about compression. It can only gain substantial meaning by driving downward centrifugally rather than across the narrative space, the way novels do. It seems to me that you have to think this way if you hope to master the form. And you also have to recognize that the artistic premise of the short story is, from a logical viewpoint, absurd: I'm going to tell you a meaningful story about one or more multidimensional human beings in 3,000 words. I'm going to manipulate past, present, and future in a persuasive chronology. I'm going to establish, escalate, and resolve an engaging conflict, and arrive at a denouement, which will make the whole process complete. The end will be the end, and I'm not going to tell you any more because everything you need to know is in the body of the story.
Is it any wonder, then, that a tool like violence is a key part of the story writer's toolbox? Violence is intrinsically dramatic—probably the most arresting and resonating dramatic element one can employ—and breathing life into a narrative calls for the skillful use of dramatic instruments, such as action, dialogue, and description. These elements, working together, establish and sustain the narrative heartbeat, like the lights, the bells, the bumpers, and the ball bearings in a pinball machine. The reason I love reading John Steinbeck's amazing story, "The Snake," is that it's like watching a juggler increasing the number of tennis balls he or she is keeping in the air until the number of tennis balls defies logic and transforms into a kind of magic. Contrary to the sequential, nonnegotiable left-to-right movement of linear art, all kinds of things are happening at once, as in a painting. Pure dramatic prowess.
Let me close with a distinction. When I talk about violence in fiction, I am not equating it with violent crime. Assault, torture, domestic violence, rape, and murder are not my idea of the kinds of movement I have spoken of above. More often than not, these forms of violence are gruesome and sensationalistic in character and spirit. They are reductive in the way they are often used to engage an audience via shock and terror. They are fascinatingly repulsive but presented as normal, a matter of entertainment. They appeal to our basest instincts, and we, in the boredom and predictability of our affluence, take the bait. Far, far too much of this going on in contemporary storytelling, and particularly in film.
But let me be clear. There are still lots of wonderful films being made, and even blood and gore have their place in depicting the dark underbelly of our culture. I just think we need to broaden the base on the kinds of violence we use in storytelling and to recognize the infinite ways in which a less criminalized use of violence can capture the wild, beautiful, and often transformative movement of the world.
Randal Eldon Greene: You say you might be out of touch with contemporary short story aesthetics, but what I see in your writing is artful representations of the world I knew while living in South Dakota. As the years went by, did you notice your students mirroring the world around them in their writing or was there a drift away from their reality and toward other topics than that of their environment?
Throughout my teaching career, I tried to impress upon creative writing students that a short story is like a stage play. In drama, think the stage and all its physical props. In short fiction, think a Sioux City, Iowa café or a reservation road in South Dakota.
Brian Bedard:: I was probably using a little too broad of a brush in saying that my deep image fiction might be out of step with contemporary short fiction aesthetics and methods since story writers are still crafting stories from third person omniscient point of view, which usually relies on action, description, and dialogue to generate a good share of its meanings; exposition has its role also. Where I am a little out of step is in my recurring use of limited third person point of view. This filtering of the story's development through the actions, reactions, and perceptions of a single character is something of a throwback to Modernist fiction; you don't see it used as much in Postmodern fiction. What you do see is the use of a more flexible third person point of view in which the perspective shifts focus to the perspective of two, three, even four characters in weaving the story together. (Let's just call this diversity the democratization of third person narration, inspired by social and political concepts of equality.)
In Girl on a Float, I don't deliver 15 stories in a row from a limited third person point of view. The overall ensemble includes first person plural, We ("The Saga of Webster World Turner'), second person singular, You ("Girl on a Float"), alternating first person narrators, I ("Big House on the Prairie"), and multiple third person perspectives ("When the Buffalo Roam"). In the end, though, the best match-up for me between point of view and storyline is the seemingly detached medium of outside observer, mainly because it guarantees me a terrific efficiency of focus, and free access to the images that provide a physical world to move through. Throughout my teaching career, I tried to impress upon creative writing students that a short story is like a stage play. In drama, think the stage and all its physical props. In short fiction, think a Sioux City, Iowa café or a reservation road in South Dakota.
Because setting has equal status with characters in my stories, I never stray far from fixed physical locations. They are my compass. The diction it takes to frame and color a setting also provides a substantial bonus in terms of sensory or poetic language. The visual charm and the sonic resonance of language that represents the physical world, and Nature in particular, assure that beauty will add its special dimension to the mix. Beauty is timeless and stands outside the social and political dimensions contained in a story. As I see it, those dimensions are fated for an erosion of meaning via the passage of time and the transformative process of social change. Beauty plays by other rules.
A couple of key words in your question are "artful representation." My fiction is unquestionably representational art. Representational art is predicated on the creative use of imagery—a correspondence no longer accepted in critical circles as sufficiently revealing or informative enough. Thus the explosion in the 80s and 90s of "Voice Fiction." Voice fiction, channeled through the framework of Dramatic Monologue, is expository. It is dramatic talking. (I pronoun, present verb tense) sometimes with stunning results (William H. Gass's "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country."). Voice Fiction's setting is the mind of the narrator—all part of a profound shift in our culture to overt subjectivity as the preferred reality. The "I' pronoun as the skeleton key to reality. They might have something there. I've tried my hand at this but ultimately find it too bloodless.
You mentioned appreciating a connection between my stories and the world of South Dakota you experienced personally in living there as a student at USD. My stories reinforced things you stored in memory through your powers of observation and your regard for the physical world you found yourself in. Paying attention to your physical surroundings is what empowered you to participate in the meaning-making process of my stories. It could be just the mystery of your character, but I think it's more than that. I think it's an imagination-driven curiosity that can't be taught. It's the reason you are still writing fiction at least a decade after the creative writing classes you took with me.
This takes me to the part of your question about my writing students at USD between 1990 and 2011. I will limit my remarks to undergraduates because they represent the 85 per cent in-state students at that school; they had a lot of South Dakota blood in their veins.
Let me start by saying that the Great Plains, and the Midwest in general, are very "literal" places. I believe the legacy of an agrarian economy, and maybe even some elements of industrial economics, are at play here. And not just the legacies, but the actual impact of farming and ranching on human consciousness. Farming is pragmatism. The world is a fact, not a metaphor or a simile. A silo is a silo, not a rocket ship, a silver bullet, or a phallus. Dutch elm disease is just one more turn of events you take at face value. Face value as a world view is a powerful force.
I have no other explanation for the fact that, across the 21 years I taught creative writing at USD, my students didn't, as you suggested in your question, "drift away" from an image-based reality or a heightened sense of surroundings. It was more like they had never looked at their surroundings. Or, if they did, they saw no mystery or magic in the configurations—no ingredients of art. I used to assign 5 poems as part of a course portfolio in English 283, an introductory course in Creative Writing. (They also wrote a short-short story, a regular length story, and a short screenplay.) With a class cap of 21 or 22 students, that amounts to 110 drafts of poems. It was not uncommon for me to read all 110 poems and find maybe one or two natural images in the entire group.
I don't know what to attribute this dearth of imagery to other than the displacement of imagination by mass media in the culture at large. It was not an isolated South Dakota phenomenon. I saw this in Missouri students in the 1970s, in Utah students in the 1980s, and in South Dakota students in the 1990s and the 2000s. Invariably, the students would incorporate some impressive images, metaphors, and objects into their poems and stories, but only if I pressed them to do so. It was like the physical world was irrelevant, had no bearing on consciousness, knowledge, or creativity. Yet South Dakota was one of the most imposing, unforgettable physical places I've ever lived. The winters were like something out of an apocalyptic sci-fi novel.
But I can't hang this remarkable obliviousness on South Dakota students alone. It seems to be more of a generational, maybe double or triple generational, movement back to 1960, when mass media took over our culture. In short, the fabricated commercial image (an insurance dork riding in an open-top jeep, accompanied by an emu wearing sunglasses) has replaced the nature-based image as a measure of reality. This replacement corresponds with a profound loss of connection with the physical world, which characterizes the culture in countless ways. The destruction of the planet is predicated on this disconnection at every level, from the individual citizen to corporations and governments. Add cell phone and social media revolutions, and the relentless migration to cities to the mix, and the distance between humans and the physical world only widens. A textbook example of our estrangement from Nature are the comical, often ridiculous, and sometimes fatal stories you hear about or read about, involving human interactions with wild animals in Yellowstone Park.
So when you ask about my students "mirroring the world around them" or "drifting away from their reality," I can only say that they were never tuned to the reality you're referencing. Their writing was mostly social, emotional, or intellectual. A lot of fantasy and abstraction. Some of it was clever and insightful but floating somewhere in virtual space. In trying to make meaning, they didn't play human experience off the natural world. They didn't seem to recognize the things Nature has to teach us or to recognize its fabulous independence from human foibles. This blindspot troubled and disappointed me as a teacher and a person, but in the end, I can't hold them totally at fault. They were products of their historical window, of the ferocious advance of technology. South Dakota students were great people; honest, humble people; very centered; the most socially adjusted students I encountered at four universities in three states. They just didn't look twice or think twice about something like road kill, or about a hawk following a combine across a bare cornfield, waiting for the combine to overturn a mouse den or a rabbit warren.
If I did anything for them, it was to draw their attention to their physical surroundings, and MAYBE convey the value of sensory language in written expression. I used to tell them that if you really want to "see" the condition of the body or of the paint on a car, wash it. If you want to "see" Vermillion, ride a bicycle from the high school to the courthouse. Better yet, walk from the high school to the courthouse. I don't know if any of them ever biked or walked that one mile stretch. You can take a horse to water...
Randal Eldon Greene: I've always enjoyed reading and listening to authors being interviewed. Over the years I've noted that a good number of writers have mentioned that they walk regularly or are even avid runners. I've always walked all over the cities where I've lived. I don't pipe music into my ears or lose myself in an audio book. I even prefer to walk alone so I can take it all in without distraction. Do you walk, ride, or are you more of a person who drives?
[T]he brute majesty of the Spokane Falls is both expansive and dwarfing to witness. Daily exposure to this kind of colossal violence and splendor simply reinforces the place that the natural world claims in my fiction.
Brian Bedard:: I'm glad to know that you instinctively understand the value of walking in connecting with any given place. And so wise of you to leave the headphones out of the experience.
Spokane is a large city that covers a considerable amount of space. It is the main urban hub for eastern Washington and northern Idaho. So for practical matters—shopping, medical care, car repair/service, entertainment, and dining out—I depend on a car. But if I am not taking care of daily business, I choose a bicycle or walking, more or less for their own sake, though exercise is part of the equation.
On biking, Sharon and I ride the Centennial Trail—a federally constructed, 15-foot wide stretch of asphalt that runs from Spokane east to Coeur d' Alene, Idaho, a distance of about 35 miles. It is a welcoming trail—no cars and no motorcycles allowed. We ride only about nine miles to Mission Park and back. But that nine miles is animated with the Spokane River below the cliff edge and the city skyline to the sides and out front.
On a bicycle, I'd say the eyes track on larger shapes and outlines—city style movement of cars and people, dogs being walked on the trail, and bands or blocks of color. Mostly manmade color, except for the river, which tops the city in depth and range of color in its endlessly varied channels and speed of water. The play of light off the waves possesses a therapeutic beauty, which enlarges the spirit and counterpoints humanly devised systems of time. And the Spokane Falls—an enormous, pale green curtain of water in the heart of downtown (Washington Water Power buildings perched on the far banks) plunges into a raging white water spillway you have to see to fully appreciate. Beyond that torrent of churning waves, the gray-green water races forward into the main current of the river on its way west to the ocean. Like so many of the American West's geographic icons—Flathead Lake in Montana, the Grand Tetons, Mt. Rainier—the brute majesty of the Spokane Falls is both expansive and dwarfing to witness. Daily exposure to this kind of colossal violence and splendor simply reinforces the place that the natural world claims in my fiction.
Walking is yet another adventure in sensory stimulation. We walk the trail in cooler/colder weather, usually February through April. It is fascinating to me where the eyes go (Are enabled to go?) in the three modes of movement you asked about. In a car, the lessons are in the sky or in the sweep of land on either side of the road. Driving is all about distance and depth perception. On a bike, the eyes operate in a more near-sighted way, between the earth and sky. In walking, you look down at the ground more or at the 10-20 feet of space in front of you. In that visual sphere, what stands out most to me are colors and shapes. And how weathered things are in such a plain and homely way. There is a distinct kind of truth to these time-humbled surfaces.
I don't know what it is about color in Nature that is so arresting to me. It just seems like Nature's color palette has no equal. I have nothing against manmade colors—car paint, house paint, clothing, neon lights. I just find the color counterparts of those colors in the natural world to be almost impossible to duplicate. They seem to draw upon an autonomous realm of pigmentation—maybe something grounded in camouflage and survival. I recognize that civilization can do some phenomenal things with color; but for me, manufactured colors don't have the mystery or the artistic charm of the shifting black, green, and purple sheen on a magpie's back. I remember seeing, while living in Vermillion, South Dakota, a robin perched in an apple tree, which had only a few decaying brown apples clinging to its branches. The bird and the tree were a composition. The robin's russet breast and gray wings corresponded in uncanny harmony with the color of the apples and the bark. The bird was the tree and the tree was the bird. They were themselves, and something more.
I want to close with a couple of quotes from an essay I wrote as an introduction to the Fall 1997 issue of South Dakota Review, for which I served as Editor from 1995 to 2011. The essay is entitled, "The Pigments of Dreams" and was based on two visits I made to the Missouri River Aquarium, located only a few miles west of Yankton, South Dakota. We took our two youngest children there for a family adventure in 1991; then I returned by myself in 1996 to refresh my memory of the place and to focus harder this time on the details I hoped to incorporate into a short story I was writing. The things I had to say in the essay about what I saw the second time are about as close as I can get to everything I've been talking about in this part of the interview. I hope they will offer a useful explanation of my deeply ingrained biases about color in life and art.
"Once inside, I could feel the magnetism of a sand-centered universe, a dream walk into the realm of river dwellers. I was scanning a mural of tone and texture no chemist could concoct. I hadn't taken notes when I visited the Aquarium in 1991, but I took notes this time, altering the unexpected rush of raw images the first visit gave me, but preserving more details, focusing harder on the tanks, trying to find the words to account for the colors those creatures harbored in their river-born skins...I found this difficult to do because I soon realized that the colors and textures were blended into a third dimension, which sits outside the surfaces we paint and dye."
"Only the snapping turtles could rival the eel's fierce beauty. From the swirls of rose, black, and emerald tattooed on their shells to their stone-gray bodies to their armadillo tails and their thick, horny claws, they shone like beacons in the filtered light, noses brushing the rippled surface of the tank. They were large, powerful turtles, a marvel of time, adaptation, and the whims of the muddy Missouri. Of all the species I saw, the snapping turtles were the river's most inspiring artifact. They hung in the radiant dimness of rock and riverbed, and their shells were the clocks that guide the deepest of dreams."
Randal Eldon Greene: You've broken your collection into three parts: The Elements, Homesteader Legacies, and Ecological Angles. Did you specifically write some of these stories to fit these themed sections or did you simply notice three themes running throughout your stories and decided to categorize them this way for the collection?
Brian Bedard:: I actually owe the unity, cohesion, and cumulative meaning of this book to North Dakota State University Press. Once they expressed interest in the original manuscript, they provided me with a set of critiques/responses from two outside reviewers and from twelve members of a graduate class in Publishing at NDSU taught by the Editor of NDSU Press. Among other things, those critiques called for more apparent organization, progression, and sense of direction. In meeting those requests, I left most of the stories in the collection, but knew I would have to rearrange them in a more compelling pattern.
What had come across to me in the reader commentaries was a simple element of reader/text dynamics: more explicit transitions or connections. But let me digress briefly for the sake of clarifying what I mean by reader/text connection.
In teaching introductory composition part-time at Gonzaga University the past five years, I found myself often accenting external (paragraph to paragraph) and internal (within paragraphs) transitions in developing the expository essay as a form. In short, the idea of NOT ASSUMING your reader will automatically track your progression of thought without some guidance. So, at the risk of over-kill, I urged Gonzaga students to "take the reader by the hand" and make certain key connections for her or him through such transitional words or phrases as "moreover," "however," "for example," and "in this way." This transitional process is not "dumbing down." It is recognizing that you are attempting to bridge a very real gap between the movement of your mind on the page and the mental dynamics the reader brings to your essay.
I realize that I'm supposed to be discussing fiction here, not essays, but reader friendly linkage remains the same challenge in fiction. It's just not as obvious because the meaning of an essay lies on the surface whereas the meaning of a short story lies below the surface. Consequently, transitions in fiction occur in other ways (focal shifts, unfolding rituals, time references/symbols, etc.)
In putting the original collection together, I hadn't written any stories to fit a thematic category because I hadn't thought of them in categories, and I had used no thematic headings or classifications as guideposts during the 6-8 years in which I wrote the stories. As a result, I had to make a conscious decision to re-organize the sequence and improve the overall weave. I started by looking for commonalities of focus and conflict and then coming up with an accurate heading for each group. Once I stabilized the sections, I revisited the idea of making instructive connections for the reader and added the quotations presented at the start of each section. I had had so much practice as an Editor organizing issues of The South Dakota Review for sixteen years that the alignments and the headings came pretty easily to me.
In choosing the three section headings and the stories contained in them, I also tried to create a historical configuration, which evolves from the primal and the prehistoric to the ecological and political. Those patterns were already built in to the history of the state of South Dakota. Fortunately for me, North Dakota State University Press was pleased enough with all the changes in the organizational pattern of the revised collection to offer me a contract.
I can't tell you how pleased I am to have had the chance to re-think the macro design of Girl on a Float. The movement and coherence here are way beyond any organizational integrity I achieved in earlier collections. In fact, I doubt that I will be able to achieve that level of unity in any future collections. One could argue, I suppose, that a conscious imposition of an overt design on a group of stories is artificial or contrived, thus limiting the possibilities of interpretation. But, for me, the bird in hand overshadows the bird in the bush. The changes I made assured that the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. And I have no doubt that the distinct unity of this collection played a major part in the national literary awards the book received last year.
Randal Eldon Greene: I did recognize two of these stories from your collection Grieving on the Run, both of which happened to be stories that I thought about from time to time over the years. These are "The Saga of Webster World Turner" and "Curse of the Corn Borer." After looking into it, I found "When the Buffalo Roam" to also in Grieving on the Run. What made you wish to republish these three particular stories for this latest collection?
Brian Bedard:: I pulled these three stories forward into this new collection as a way to deepen the South Dakota DNA of the collection as a whole. I also needed to replace three other stories I decided to take out after the NDSU critiques made it clear that the success of the book would be riding on its cross-fertilization of stories.
"Curse of the Corn Borer" is probably the quintessential story in the Homesteader Legacies section of the book. It's the closest I ever got to rendering the farm culture surrounding Vermillion and the ways it defines an entire region from both economic and physical standpoints. You can't really live there and not have the whole agricultural dynamic impinge on your consciousness. But putting it all into a fictional construct is another matter. I was fortunate enough to have had a farmer friend who coached me extensively on corn growing and corn borers, and that is what allowed me to give the story its depth and detail. I had also met and talked at length with an alcoholic corn farmer who hung out at Leo's Lounge in Vermillion. He was the cornerstone for the story. I knew that "Curse of the Corn Borer" rang true the first time I read it out loud, and it's been one of my favorite stories ever since. I'm glad I wove it into the mix.
"The Sage of Webster World Turner" is also based on a local Lakota man whose harrowing story about being trapped in a car with two friends on an old Dakota highway during one of 1996's worst snowstorms appeared in the region's largest newspaper, The Sioux Falls Argus Leader. I knew when I read that newspaper article that Webster's predicament was my kind of story. Adding the story to Girl on a Float also widened the scope of personalities in the book to include more Native American characters and mythology beyond the only other Lakota character in the book—Henry Bald Eagle. His morning wake-up scene in his farmhouse near Red Scaffold during that same epic winter of 1996 opens the story, "When the Buffalo Roam." In the end, pulling those two stories forward from Grieving on the Run expanded the racial makeup of the book and allowed me to give some additional spotlight to two of my best stories.
The other point I want to make about including "When the Buffalo Roam" is that its fragmented structure enhances the diversity of angle and voice through the use of multiple perspectives. The story is, and is not, about buffalo, but about the storm that allowed them to walk over ice-covered barbed wire fences, thus triggering the interwoven responses of the entire state in a group portrait spread across an expanse of land. Like Kate Stewart's buffalo herd, all these figures, human and otherwise, struggle with an environment that is extremely vulnerable to the powers of climate and open space. South Dakota might be a specific shape on a map of the U.S., but as a geographic chessboard, its pieces are always moving. If you look at a map of the state, you will see that the Missouri River spills out of Montana and drops in a ragged diagonal down through South Dakota and into Iowa. The charming thing about the Missouri River, though, is that it doesn't stay in fixed channels. Farmers will tell you that from one year to the next, the river changes their property lines and the size and shape of their corn and soybean fields. A field of corn last year is under water this year. And locals in Vermillion, who don't swim in the Missouri, and don't allow their children to swim there either, know that gorgeous sandbars that look ideal for sunbathing will simply disappear without warning and be gone. You would not think that such a slow, friendly river flowing across flat, open land is considered one of the most dangerous rivers in the world, but you would be misreading the physical face of South Dakota. It's all about so much more than x number of square miles or names of towns or faces carved in rock. I suppose that's why I see the book as an attempt at a macro image of a distinct and magical place. Or maybe a prairie hologram.
Randal Eldon Greene: "Where the Buffalo Roam" is obviously about the great American buffalo (also known as bison). South Dakota and buffalo go hand in hand. While this story is about ranched buffalo, it may surprise readers who aren't from the surrounding plains states to hear that one can easily find themselves driving in the middle of a herd of these bulking bovines with a visit to the right location, such as Custer State Park where wild buffalo really do roam. What experiences have you personally had with these massive creatures?
Brian Bedard: As for experiences with buffaloes, I visited the Moiese Buffalo Reserve in western Montana while growing up there, and I have seen buffalo at close range along the sides of roads in Yellowstone Park, but I have no compelling personal experiences to relay. I love these gargantuan icons of the American West and consider them the skeleton key to the raw character of the Northern Plains and to the spiritual power of Lakota tribes past and present. I've read articles that put the buffalo herds during their peak at 60 million buffalo ranging down the continent—a far cry from the bison ranches and the national park denizens of today. Thankfully, though, someone recognizes the value of a creature so grounded in life and yet so much larger than life.
Randal Eldon Greene: Your story "The Fallen" concerns a woman who lost a son to the Iraq War. If I'm remembering right, you lost a nephew to overseas war. I'm wondering how much of this story and its grief and questions and resolution stem from you and your family's own tragic loss?
Brian Bedard:: You have zeroed in on the most personal and autobiographical story in the collection. My nephew, Andrew Dennis Bedard, Private First Class, United States Marine Corps, was killed by a roadside bomb a few miles outside Bagdad, Iraq on October 4, 2005. He was my brother, Denny's, only child. Gone at 19. I'm not punning here, but Andrew's death was a huge bombshell dropped into the center of our family. We had almost no record (one uncle, one cousin) of military service in our immediate family for at least two generations; consequently, it almost seemed like we were due to pay such a sacrificial tax to the military protection of the country.
We were also extremely reluctant to pay that tax, mainly because we just couldn't square the Marine Corps with what we knew, or maybe thought we knew, about Andrew's character and sensibilities. This perceptual discrepancy made the loss all the more difficult to accept. To this day there remains a lot of unresolved pain and bewilderment concerning this turn of events. For my brother, Denny, of course, I believe that his sanity and emotional stability hang on a perspective of patriotic sacrifice. Seeing his son as a war hero is, in many ways, his only option; it's existentially necessary, and I respect and support his position.
All that being said, "The Fallen" is almost a perfect synthesis of fact and imagination. And, at the risk of sounding calloused or exploitative, the story is as much about the character of a fictional Sundance, Wyoming waitress as it is about the death of her son. The son's demise is modelled on my nephew's military enlistment (He and two friends were drawn to a Marine Corps recruiting table in Missoula, Montana shopping mall, and the rest is history.) and his tragic fate. The mother I made up after seeing a commemorative photograph of a young fallen soldier on the wall of The Arc Light Cafe during a visit to Sundance, Wyoming with my wife and our two youngest children around 2006 or 2007. Those were not the only times we stayed overnight or had dinner at The Arc Light on our many vacation trips from eastern South Dakota to western Montana. But the photograph on the wall of The Arc Light made such an impression on me that it became the core image around which all the other pieces of the story gravitated and coalesced.
We had stayed at Bear Lodge in Sundance many times, dined at The Arc Light, visited the phenomenal Devil's Tower landmark not far from Sundance, and driven behind, around, and through hundreds of bikers headed for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held the first two weeks of August every year. The images were all stored solidly in my tucker bag. I just needed a dramatic situation/framework so that I could start hanging ornaments on the Christmas tree. The dramatic situation turned out to be a midweek shift for 49-year-old waitress, Charlotte Smith, at The Arc Light Cafe. I had the place, the person, the action, the time frame. I had the mythological response to my nephew's disappearance from the world. And I had Sundance, Wyoming (30 miles from the South Dakota border) as a stage for a story about the working class kind of person whose children the U.S. Government has been sending to war for about 120 years now.
These are the people whose sons and daughters make up a large portion of the two-three per cent of our population, who serve in the military. The working class are, of course, not the only ones who serve and die abroad, but their numbers are undeniable, and their premature deaths are a haunting reminder to those of us who have been spared a similar fate. I personally avoided being drafted and sent to Vietnam in 1967, the year I completed my B.A. in English at the University of Montana. I had received a draft notice in early June of 1967. Our daughter, Shannon, was born on July 9, 1967, and my draft status was immediately changed from 2A to 4S, according to the government exemption standards of the day. I seriously doubt that I would have returned home from Vietnam, and I remain privately uncomfortable about the 58, 000 names inscribed on a black marble Vietnam War monument in Washington, D.C.
Does this mean that "The Fallen" is an antiwar story? In part, to be sure. On another level, though, it's a story about survival, about a woman, who, in her own way, is as noble and admirable as her fallen son. The challenge of the story was not a matter of honoring the son's heroics, but of illuminating the mother's heroics, however pedestrian and commonplace as they might be. What Charlotte shoulders and carries without complaint across the unfolding of that single evening becomes her badge of courage. It is no accident that the story ends with a paragraph that follows Charlotte's reflections on all the people she has encountered throughout the evening at The Arc Light: "For Jarrod it was not so much about people as about an idea, his faith in a beautiful idea. And Jarrod's faith was good enough for her. It buoyed her up and urged her forward like the water that was relaxing her feet and legs, giving her the means to get up tomorrow and go on."
Going on. That is what Charlotte Smith is about, what South Dakotans are about. The truth in the story's closure is not a resolution drawn from my family's pain or grief in coping with the loss of Andrew. Writing the story did not soften the haunting disturbance of his death. Writing the story did not allow me to make peace with something I am still not OK with. But writing the story did give me a way to resolve the tensions at play in the story. It is a resolution I felt this story calling for in its fictional self containment—a realization on my part that all the elements of the story merged into an imagistic and dramatic logic. A thing of beauty arrested by fictional aesthetics in a world made of words.
Randal Eldon Greene: I'll never forget you quoting a long passage of Hemingway's writing to honor Andrew's memory. Set the context for us and tell us why you chose that particular passage.
Brian Bedard:: I am surprised and honored that you would remember the opening of The Harrington Lecture I delivered on September 20, 2010 at the University of South Dakota. You said that I "quoted," an Ernest Hemingway passage, which is accurate to a certain extent. But what I'm guessing made such an indelible impression on you is that my approach to "quoting" Hemingway actually consisted of reciting, from memory, the entire first chapter of Hemingway's 1929 novel, A Farewell to Arms. I did this on purpose, and at no small risk of having my memory fail me somewhere along the line. I didn't even have a typed version of the passage with me on the podium; it just seemed imperative to be that daring. What I feel is important to talk about here, though, is that reciting the chapter out loud had a three-fold purpose, only one part of the purpose being a salute to my fallen nephew. I will explore those elements of purpose once I explain/describe The Harrington Lecture for your readers.
The Harrington Lecture (1953 to the present) is named in honor of Elbert W. Harrington (1901-1987), Professor of Speech and Dean, 1945-1970, of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Dakota. Each year a committee of the faculty of Arts and Sciences selects a member of the faculty to be honored with the privilege of delivering the annual address. "The lecturer shall be one whose record as a scholar teacher is in the best liberal tradition, and whose achievement warrants recognition by the entire college"; and the speaker "shall prepare a non-technical lecture on some phase of liberal education in which he/she shall relate part or all of his/her own subject matter field to the whole concept of the liberal arts." Originally called the "Annual Lecture on Liberal Education," the name was changed in 1966 to honor the man who conceived the series and delivered the fourth lecture.
Now that we all know what The Harrington Lecture is, I can turn to my reasons for opening the lecture with a verbatim recitation of the first chapter of Ernest Hemingway's novel, A Farewell to Arms, which took me about nine minutes to deliver. (A couple members of the audience told me after the lecture that they were looking all over the auditorium for a teleprompter. THERE WAS NO TELEPROMPTER. I had spent six months memorizing the chapter.)
Once I completed the Hemingway passage, I felt I had established a clear military affinity with my nephew's death in Iraq. I noted Andrew's passing, to the extent I felt my voice could hold up, dedicated the lecture to his memory, and then moved into the remainder of the lecture. But this was only Part One of my purpose in opening the lecture without a prologue or explanation of where the opening chapter of Farewell to Arms was coming from.
The second reason I opened with the Hemingway passage is that it was an instructive example of the central idea for the lecture, as identified in the lecture title—"Dreaming Dakota: Image and Story." As I meant to convey in the title, there is a distinct difference between dreaming Dakota and documenting Dakota. Documenting South Dakota is what South Dakota Magazine in Yankton does, and does quite well. As a commercial publication, South Dakota Magazine strives to represent a literal, actual South Dakota, FOR ITS OWN SAKE, and as a gift to the people of South Dakota.
Dreaming South Dakota, on the other hand, involves a mythological or spiritual relationship between image and story. In more specialized terms: the artistically manipulated interplay of local image and global image. To put it another way: the image within the world and the world within the image. My understanding of this reciprocal process involves breaking the surface of the local image and coaxing a story out of its interior.
While I can't prove in any scientific or even objective critical way that the genesis of the opening chapter of A Farewell to Arms is grounded in this deep image concept, I can make an educated guess as a Hemingway scholar that the opening chapter of Hemingway's novel has strong affinities with the thesis of my lecture. The specific evidence lies for me in a short passage from the chapter I recited. It goes like this.
"There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain and the trucks splashed mud on the road and the troops were wet and muddy in their capes; their rifles were wet, and under their capes the two leather cartridge belts on the front of the belts, grey leather boxes heavy with packs of clips of thin, long 6.5 mm cartridges, bulged forward under the capes so that the men, passing on the road, marched as though they were six months' gone with child."
This core image, which lies at the center of the chapter, is quite likely a local image, something Hemingway saw and saw keenly, and which serves as a catalyst for a global image of men marching off to war. However, while the larger picture is a timeless, large scale image of all wars—Peloponnesian, Gallic, Napoleonic, American Civil War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam War, Iraq War, etc.—the counterpoint image, along with the timeless, cyclic beauty of the pastoral scenery, is an image of life and hope that pervades human history and culture: the image of the pregnant woman.
Hemingway's use of the pregnant woman image is no accident from either a practical or a philosophical standpoint. While the image, at face value, is ironic, it nevertheless provides him with an element of affirmation in the midst of a pretty dark daydream. It rounds out the integrity of the global image, which is the entire chapter, and it offers the only reliable antidote we have for the poison of war. The antidote is love. With A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway gave us one of the great novels of the 20th Century, but more importantly, he gave us one of the great anti-war novels of the 20th Century because, at its core, the novel is a love story. In the world contained within the image of the soldiers resembling pregnant women are both the ability to wage war and the ability to love. Unfortunately, we seem to do the first much better than the second—an imbalance we clearly need to work on. The question, of course, is Will there be time?
The third reason I chose to open the lecture with a recitation is that, unlike a number of Harrington lecturers who preceded me, I had consciously, deliberately rejected the use of PowerPoint and told the audience that early on. I appreciate the efficiency and the expedience of PowerPoint, and I recognize its place and value in higher education in the 21st Century. But there is an earlier, much older form of PowerPoint I believe to be embodied in the energized bond between the speaker's voice and the imagination of the audience. That unifying wavelength is what I was seeking to establish by speaking the chapter rather than reading it. The idea—maybe just a fantasy, maybe not—is that, without any kind of technological interference or split focus, the single voice and the imaginations of the audience merge, however briefly, in a single time/space frame. And while that transport is transient as a nine-minute bubble, the dream zone creates a magical, unified consciousness—a rarity of rarities in our profoundly fragmented existence.
I think I have outlined pretty clearly the biases and hopes that formed the premise for my lecture and for my high-risk opening gambit. In the end, I suppose I am either arrogant enough or perverse enough, or both, to believe that I could dreamscape the Harrington Lecture.
Randal Eldon Greene: I want to return to the subject of your new collection because we have to talk about the title piece, "Girl on a Float." Title pieces are always important in collections like this. What's your reason for choosing "Girl on a Float" to be that piece?
Brian Bedard:: I chose "Girl on a Float" as the title piece for several reasons. The first is that, as a story, it has the deepest, most comprehensive Dakota DNA—characters, conflict, setting, imagery, lyricism, and detail. Secondly, its 14-year timespan arcs across a network of events, which accent a number of high profile South Dakota icons—Wall Drug, the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, the University of South Dakota.
An additional point is that the voice is two-dimensional in that the first 5/6 of the story is told from second person (You) point of view. This is an aberration for me in narrative voice. This decision, however, is what enabled me to create a novelistic arc while sustaining a rhythm and tension I usually strive for in any story bounded by a single location and squeezed into a single afternoon, such as "Meltdown." For whatever reason, speaking directly to Vivian Walsh provided me with the same sense of immediacy that is at play in all the other more condensed stories. The "illusion of being there," which I urged my creative students to pursue for almost forty years at four different universities, is consistently at play on this bigger canvas.
Why I haven't used second person point of view in any other story in this collection or in my other two collections, I don't know. I guess it just didn't match up with my sense of the story at hand; I couldn't "hear" a You voice as a way to open a story. (I don't mean to be mystical here, but hearing the voice out of which the story will emanate is something I've learned to trust and listen for, even when I know who and what the story is going to focus on.)
I've never fully trusted second person point of view, and that uneasiness came into play in "Girl on a Float" when I felt artistically compelled to switch to third person point of view for the final section of the story. This maneuver jarred and surprised some people who have heard me read the story out loud and also some people who have read the story on their own, but I stand by this decision as instinctively and ethically sound. You never really want to trust a writer's explanation for choices made in a given piece, but let me just say that I honestly felt before I ever finished the story that I had presumed to speak for Vivian Walsh, had claimed to know all kinds of things about her, had told her what to do and how to respond. And even though I might not have been intentionally bullying her, I felt I had simply pushed her around enough. Which is why I deliberately shifted to third person, stepped back to observer narration, and attempted to restore her privacy as a character in the closing section of the story.
One other thing I would like to say about choosing "Girl on a Float" as the title story for this collection is that the book is not as gender balanced as some people would ask of it, but choosing a title story focused on a female protagonist was intentional as a way to balance the collection and acknowledge the six stories centered on female characters.
I take stories where I find them, usually embedded in an image that casts a big shadow and resonates indelibly in memory. This was the case with "Girl on a Float." I was traveling with my USD English Department colleague, Nancy Zuercher, one October afternoon back to Vermillion from Rapid City, where we had attended a two-day meeting of the South Dakota English Discipline Council, consisting of two representatives from all the English Departments at the five state universities. We met in both fall and spring to compare, contrast, and collaborate on ways to make English curriculums consistent enough to facilitate interchangeable transfer credit for courses taken at any of the five schools.
This particular October afternoon, Nancy and I decided to take the Wall, South Dakota exit off Interstate 90 and make a quick pass, just for fun, through Wall Drug. To my good fortune, this happened to be the day of Fall Homecoming for the Wall Eagles football team. It was a chilly, overcast afternoon, the usual wind and fast-moving black clouds spitting sleet intermittently on the stark brown and gray landscape and on the city of Wall. Driving through town, we were crossing an intersection not far from downtown and paused in the middle of the intersection when we heard marching drums and loud band music. Looking down that side street, we saw first the tawdry, barely- in-step high school band marching enthusiastically forward, then a float appeared with three or four female attendants sitting on the lower decks in their bright pastel formals, and atop the float a thin, long-necked girl, bare-shouldered in a lavender chiffon dress, with white gloves and tiara, waving to onlookers as the wind and sleet bore down on her.
That image was absolutely arresting. It was a magnetic field, charged with beauty, pathos, and inspiration. Unforgettable. The story that it became is at the heart of the collection in all the right ways.
Randal Eldon Greene: You anticipated my next question about point of view. So that leaves me with a final bit of curiosity on my part: What's next for you as an author? Do you have any other books envisioned in your mind?
Brian Bedard: I don't have any new books envisioned at the moment. I have about twelve or thirteen stories completed, but I'm not sure that they will fit into a cohesive collection. But then maybe I can't expect to achieve the focus and coherence of Girl on a Float because these new stories are more scattered geographically and don't reinforce common conflicts and themes in very obvious ways. So are they bedfellows or not?
There is also the process of sending the stories to magazines as a way to give them some literary credentials as members of a collection. Consequently, it could be a while before I am able to place another story collection. And placing any story collection, as you and many of your newsletter readers are probably aware, is a very tall order. Publishing individual stories in magazines is a struggle of its own; publishing a collection is a much more elusive quest.
I am also somewhat distracted right now by a screenplay project that I want to undertake ASAP. My daughter, Bridget, is an established and successful screenwriter in Los Angeles, and has encouraged me to convert "Arrow in the Neck," the final story in Girl on a Float, into a full-length screenplay. She will then review my draft and determine if she can market it, with the idea that, if she can get a studio interested, she will seek to direct the film. She has a fair number of credits to her name (Madmen, Men of a Certain Age, Night Shift, Transparent, and Love Life) and has been an executive producer and a "writing room" director since 2008. So it is quite plausible that she could find a home for a script based on "Arrow in the Neck," provided I can adapt the story to a screenplay. This is my most hopeful and ambitious envisioning of new work at this point. The whole idea is very exciting because I think this story could make a very powerful movie due to its haunting and daunting perspective on the dynamics of tough love. But I'm not taking any bows yet.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings about Girl on a Float. I have enjoyed the interaction immensely and hope that my responses to your questions will provide your readers with some illuminating and expansive ways of understanding and enjoying this book.
Randal Eldon Greene: And thank you for taking the time to do this interview. A correspondence with my old mentor all about his latest book is something I am beyond pleased to have had the chance to do. Truly, it was an honor.
About the interviewer:
Randal Eldon Greene is the author of Descriptions of Heaven, a novella about a linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death. His typos are tweeted @AuthorGreene and his website is AuthorGreene.com