Interview: Michael Coffey, Author of The Business of Naming Things

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shelfunbound What’s a typical starting point for you in writing a story, for example rebounding 30-year-old Price Chopper employee Carla in her “transitional phase,” in which “she was and was not a lot of things, and in there, in between things, she felt free.”

michaelcoffey
In looking back at these eight stories, I find that there are several “starting points.” In some cases, it is a single line, such as in the title story: “He was in the business of naming things, like Adam.” I don’t know where that line came from and in fact had to check Genesis to make sure that, among the biblical Adam’s many activities, one of them was giving names to things—he got to name the cattle and the fowl and the “beasts of the field.” From that, I wrote a story about a modern-day Adam who names liquors and condominium developments. We are after the Fall, after all! Likewise, the final story, “Finishing Ulysses,” had only a first line—“You stand in the mirror.”—and a notion to conjure a story about my birth father, who I never knew but about whom I had learned quite bit. In that first line I was given two things: the second-person voice and the mirror. The rest just flowed. But sometimes, starting points are a little more prosaic. The story “The Inn of the Nations,” about a very bad night for a Catholic priest in a motel in 1963, was prompted by seeing a vintage T-shirt of a now-vanished Adirondack motel, or motor court, as they were often called. It was a Tomahawk Motel T-shirt, I think, and the next thing I knew I had a priest in room 11 with his faith falling apart. I tricked the story out by reading all of the magnificent J.F. Powers, our poet of the priesthood, and visiting an Ursuline convent in Quebec City. As for the story you mention, “I Thought You Were Dale,” about Carla, the single mother working at a Price Chopper, it was seeing a Mike Leigh film and wanting to do as he does—dignify working class citizens as being not only self-sufficient but fully in touch with who they are. 

shelfunbound How do you develop your characters, such as the troubled product namer William Claimer in the title story?

michaelcoffey One of the bits of learning that is baked into this book stems from it having a distant source as a memoir. So such characters as Claimer—the man who names things—have elements that I know from my own life, details about place and local history. His business of naming things—consumer products and such—is very much informed by my life as a poet, where finding the name for something or some feeling is a large part of what it is about. But this book is not memoir, and once I released myself from the little tyrannies of being factual and moved into what might be less factual but somehow, if I could recognize it, more true or honest, that was where I got traction as a fiction writer. So William Claimer developed according to his wiles, which he accumulated as we went along. I think he even turned out to be a Republican.  

shelfunbound Do you have a favorite story in this book?

michaelcoffey
All these stories have blemishes, but I love them all regardless, and equally. All are part of a process that I appreciate, so I thank them for their role in it. But I would say that the last story written, “The Newman Boys,” is the one that, in being the last, has in it the most I learned. And, for me, it was the most daring, conceptually. I had two experiences from my childhood—the presence of a calf called a mooley in my father’s little herd, that is, a cow that will never have horns, and the arrival in our small town of a boy with hydrocephaly. I wanted to bring these two things together in one story, which for me was a big challenge, because the two events did not cross in my actual experience, but I made them do so in the story. When I had written through this melding of things successfully, I had a story that had no ending. I thought, let’s finish this story fifty years ahead and see where these people are now. I had to change the voice from third to first, and I gave it over to a character named Michael, a retired gay man in a longtime marriage living in Greenwich Village. That is not me, but I tagged his character because I wanted to claim it, etch my name in it, because I was proud of it. The name Michael worked for other reasons well.

shelfunbound
How do you find the entry point for your short stories, such as the first line of “Moon Over Quabbin”: “The woman is in Iowa now, I hear.” 

michaelcoffey Again, coming from a poetry background, the runs of certain sounds, in this case, a very assonantal line—all those lush vowels—opens the floodgates of speech. And please note that “Moon Over Quabbin” is the only story here that could be called a monologue. It is spoken, and the one I most often read in public because of that, so its sound is paramount.

shelfunbound
A short story is like  

michaelcoffey… a day—it has a beginning and a visible end and in between something unique passes through in some fashion and then is over, a part of something larger perhaps, but unknowingly. Some stories are like Sundays—they are longer. Some are like a Saturday night.

shelfunbound
What is the appeal for you of writing short stories?

michaelcoffey I think it is simply a matter of scale. I don’t think there are any differences in intensity or depth, from poetry to short stories to novels. It is mostly material differences in scale. I have preferred working for most of my writing life on a smaller scale—the poems, now the stories. My day job was at a very busy publishing magazine. Now that I am writing full time, the scale may change.

shelfunbound
If you were teaching a course on short story writing, what is the primary piece of advice you would offer?

michaelcoffey Write short stories. Malcolm Cowley told John Cheever to write a story a day. He did.

shelfunbound
What’s a favorite book you read in 2014?

michaelcoffey
Believe it or not, Samuel Beckett’s Watt. It is rigorous and hilarious and shames language and its supposed logic, but it does so lovingly. 

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