Q and A with Donald Evans, author of the new story collection, An Off-White Christmas
1. Tell us a little about your story collection.
There are 12 short stories, all set on or around Christmas. The voice and settings for each story vary, such that over the course of the collection I cover a fair bit of American geography and take on a range of views (young, old; male, female). The holiday sets up heightened drama for stories that often involve family, and lives on or below the surface less than what the characters might have imagined for themselves.
The magic and pressure of Christmas leans into the characters, resulting, in these stories, a reexamination of self, including the people and places that constitute self-identity. Pride is part of it. I don't want to make the collection sound overly cerebral, though it comes off that way when explaining what it all adds up to. I put a premium on fun and laughter in literature, and I hope also there is plenty of that. Mostly, Christmas is used as a unifying theme for stories in which characters find themselves at a crossroads and stare at their lives hoping for answers.
2. One of your stories, “Tiny Flakes of Bone,” is about characters on a serious Las Vegas gambling binge that's what I'd also have to describe as bacchanalian--it's so much (guilty) fun.
The characters, or at least the core truth of the characters, come from my life--people I've known, people I've heard about, people like some iteration of myself at some time in my life. The usual disclaimer here is that this is fiction--any resemblance and so forth. And of course that's true. In choosing to fictionalize the material, I gave myself license to exaggerate or tamp down or invent characteristics, quirks, and so forth. In some cases, it's the best of the people I've known that interest me; in other cases, it's the worst of the people I've known that interest me. The fiction here allows me to step outside myself and use observations collected over time to create something more cohesive than true experience.
3. Your first book, the novel Good Money After Bad, also features characters whose lives are seriously (and sometimes hilariously) affected by gambling--what is it about this subject that inspires you as a writer?
My younger self was a gambler, in fact it was such an obsession that I can now see I self-identified as such. I was drawn not just to the risk, or the opportunity for quick riches, but for what it said about me that I did this. It's been a long time since I gambled, and in most ways I wish I'd never done it. But I continue to be at least marginally fascinated with the world of the gambler, which from my experience is a world of continuous tension.
When you're gambling as I did, which is to say risking WAY MORE than you can afford, life is a serial drama with enormous highs and lows. Lots of climaxes and whatever the opposite of a climax is. Cliffhangers at the end of every episode. Danger and heartbreak; lying and cheating. I remember most of it with distaste, but I do remember the bonds I formed fondly--bonds with a large variety of unlikely companions and cohorts I would never have formed outside my own gambling world.
I used to meet one of my bookies, Hank, at Ann Sathers on Belmont near Clark Street--I'd give him an envelope, or he'd give me an envelope, and the winner would buy breakfast. One day, he asked me to meet at his girlfriend's place--this posh apartment on State Street near Lincoln Park--and Hank, a handsome, middle-aged, silver-haired low-level mob guy--was doing laundry. "Don't fucking tell anybody you saw me washing my girlfriend's lingerie," he ordered me. That kind of glimpse into lives, often incongruent with the traditional gambling narrative you see on television or read about in novels, is what attracts me.
4. As both a short story writer and a novelist, would you say you prefer one form over the other, and why?
I suppose at heart I'm a novelist. All 12 of these stories are on the long side, probably because over time I kept envisioning more--more details, more characters, more plot. One criticism I received was that "sometimes short stories need to be short." It's an adequate observation. The short story writers I admire most--Denis Johnson, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Joy Williams, Amy Hempel, and so forth and so on, have the capacity to trim stories to their essence.
Toby, who was my teacher at Syracuse, once said of his novella The Barrack's Thief, that he challenged himself to see "how much weight every sentence can bear." I've kept that in mind throughout my writing career, especially as regards short stories. But I have a tendency to want my characters to roam, and this instinct lends itself better to a longer form. With short stories, or any story, I think I want the story to tell me when enough is enough. During the process of revision, I often make the prose leaner and faster. Better. So I wind up with a short story when I feel like this is all there is, anything more would detract.
5. The title story of course centers on Christmas--and is a subversive look at the holiday and family dynamics. What inspired it?
An Off-White Christmas comes from a line in the title story, and it describes a Chicago landscape as it is rather than it's lazily labeled. Throughout the collection, it serves as a metaphor for lives that do not necessarily possess ideal qualities or even mirror one's own self-image. The phrase came to me just looking outside the window and hearing somebody say something about it being a white Christmas and thinking, "Not really."
6. The illustrations in this book are beautiful. What can you tell me about the choice to illustrate the stories?
I knew this would be a modest publication, but I also wanted it to have some lasting value. I collect books. I cherish books for a variety of reasons, mostly the writing but also for their merits as objects. I've got some of the Folio Society Books that pair a classic story with a world class illustrator, and I go back to those books time and again. I've two boxed sets of Sherlock Holmes--the spines of the short stories set form a silhouette of Watson; the spines of the novels set form a silhouette of Holmes. I love looking at those books on my shelf, and often tell people who happen to be in my living room, "You have to see this!" I greatly admire Hannah Jennings as an artist and designer, and was ecstatic that she was willing to interpret the stories through her lens. It became a collaboration, and I am always much more motivated when others have a stake in my project. In the end, I'd like for people--at least a few--to keep my book on their shelf and every once in a while tell somebody, "You've got to see this!"
7.What are you working on now if you don't mind telling us?
Here's my problem. For the longest time now, since my son Dusty was born, I've been juggling a bunch of different projects. I like all of them so much I can't focus, and so I have drafts of a variety of novels. It's a terrible way to work. Everything is unfinished. At the rate I'm going, I'll have six or eight novels, all completed around the same time. But I'll be 80 years old.
There are a variety of reasons why I've been stuck like this for so long, many that are solvable. I'm trying to change my work habits back to what they were when I was younger. I am close to finishing a novel about a T-ball player whose friend is kicked off the team for bad behavior. Like a lot of what I do, I've chosen the subject matter because I'm just so fond of similar stories that have preceded it, but also because I think I have a perspective that adds something to the body of work.