by Evelyn Somers
The stories in Murray Farish’s debut collection—several of them prize winners—are smart and eccentric and indignant at all forms of injustice. Some are strange alternative histories; others give us families and workers whose lives have collided with the failure of American ideals. Farish has a fascination with politics and a brief history as a freelance journalist, but he says it’s unlikely he’ll return to long-form journalism or nonfiction until, or unless, he runs out of things to make up.
Evelyn Somers: Several stories in “Inappropriate Behavior” are alternative histories that deal with assassinations or assassination attempts, especially the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. How much of the Kennedy assassination literature did you read while you were writing the stories in this book?
Murray Farish: I read a lot of this stuff anyway, presidential assassination stuff. I don’t know why, but it’s a part of American history that’s fascinating to me. So when I got to writing these stories, it wasn’t really specific research because I’d already done so much reading. I checked to make sure I had a couple of facts right here and there, but for the most part, I did with the history what I needed the stories to do.
ES: “The Passage” reimagines Lee Harvey Oswald’s transatlantic voyage in the late 1950s, when he defected to Russia. It’s told from the viewpoint of the young college student who shared a state room with him. The basic setup bears quite a resemblance to actual events—Oswald did share a state room with a college student, Billy Joe Lord, who later testified before the Warren Commission. When you were working on “The Passage,” did you try to contact Billy Joe Lord?
MF: I absolutely positively did not. One reason, and it’s the less important reason, is that I don’t really think of Mr. Lord as the model for Joe Bill. Other than that Mr. Lord was on the boat with Oswald and the thing about Oswald helping him iron shirts (which I’m pretty sure I got from Edward Jay Epstein’s Legend), I—purposefully—knew little to nothing else about him, because then I couldn’t have done with my character what I needed the story to do. Second, and more important, Mr. Lord is a private citizen, who, to the best of my knowledge, still lives, and the last thing in the world he probably needs as he tries to live his private life is some dingbat like me pestering him. So it was very important to me to know as little about him as possible. Put it like this: you take a shot at a president, I figure that puts you pretty squarely in the public domain, and I can do most anything I want to with a character modeled on you. All Mr. Lord did was get on a boat, so to reimagine his character would’ve been unfair. The twist on his name was intended to be a cute little nod to the Oswald aficionados who would know this story the moment they saw the name of the boat. I probably shouldn’t have done even that, and I wouldn’t if I were writing the story today.
ES: In the story, Joe Bill observes many things that were not part of his testimony to the Warren Commission. He hears the crew talking about Oswald in French. He reads Oswald’s journal and learns of his plans to renounce his citizenship. Oswald predicts to Joe Bill that he will be tracked down and hounded because of their connection. These are fictionalized incidents that don’t occur in any documented account of the passage. Did you ever worry that you were inventing too much in the story?
MF: Well, see above, I guess. But I’ve always loved DeLillo’s line in Libra about how the Warren Commission Report is “the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.” The fact that we chuckle at that tells us something not only about the line but about how we perceive history, especially that particular history. People want to scoff at “conspiracy theorists,” but the Warren Report is replete with theories, is itself a theory. All history is a theory, all stories are theories—they say something like, “This might be how life works; test it against your own experience.” Other than whatever qualms we invent for ourselves, I think that’s a fiction writer’s only responsibility—to give readers something personal and distinctive that they can test against their own personal and distinctive experience.
ES: Toward the end of your story “Inappropriate Behavior,” about a suburban couple, George and Miranda, who are dealing with the challenges of George’s unemployment and a difficult young son, there’s a section of approximately four pages of questions from George’s perspective. Some are rhetorical, some not, and together they indicate the level of cumulative pain and frustration he’s experiencing. Four pages of questions is a risk—did you ever consider cutting that section? Did any editors ask you to?
MF: The questions may indicate the level of cumulative pain and frustration I had trying to find an ending to the story. If you think four pages of questions is a risk, you should’ve seen some of the other versions. It took me close to a year to find the ending for that story, and I’m pretty sure I tried everything—there was a version where George blows his brains out, there was a version where he just decides to drive off and leave his family, there was a version where aliens invade the planet, there was a version with learned footnotes, tables, and graphsAt a certain point, I looked at the principal’s statement to George at the end of the “realistic section” of the story—“I’m sure you have questions”—and decided to try to ask some of them. The thing that justifies the “question section,” to me, is that all of these questions are not from George’s perspective—some of them are, but some of them are from Miranda’s perspective, some of them are from mine, some of them are questions from American history and literature, but all of them ask the question, “What is inappropriate behavior?” Is it the stuff this messed-up but basically sweet little kid does to get himself in trouble in elementary school, or is it 10 percent unemployment, corporate greed, needless wars, genocide, and slavery? The “question section” also so resolutely breaks the “realistic section” of the story that it enabled me to end the story in the voice of the fairy tale “happy ending.”
The response has been polarized—some people really love it, some people really hate it. If I can’t do narratively satisfying, I guess I can at least do polarizing.
ES: Some of your stories incline toward the surreal. Have they been harder to publish than standard realistic stories?
MF: A man’s gotta write what a man’s gotta write. And in the event, none of my stories has been any harder to publish than any other. I think there’s so much energy and variety in the American short story today that it creates a lot of good readers for all different kinds of stories (or maybe the readers create the energy and variety, I don’t know). But I’ve also been lucky that the people at places I send stuff tend to be pretty open-minded. It’s a matter of finding the right reader for the right story.
ES: Why are you attracted to weirdness in fiction?
MF: To some degree it has to do with the way I see the world—writers are stuck with their subjects. They can change the characters, the situations, the settings, but writers will keep writing about the same two or three or four things over and over again. Weirdness is just one of mine, I guess. The principally and unaccountably strange. That doesn’t have to mean magical or surreal or you run into three witches on your way back from the battlefield. I think life itself just vibrates with weirdness.
ES: How does teaching affect your writing—other than, of course, allowing you less time for it?
MF: For one thing, if you’re a good teacher, teaching will take up all the time you want to give to it. I could very easily—and very productively—fill every waking hour with teaching-related activities. But it’s not really the time, it’s the words. My friend the writer and teacher Pete Genovese told me this a long time ago, when I first started teaching—you have a limited store of words each day; you can use them on writing or teaching or journalism or grocery lists, but the store is limited. I’ve really come to believe that this is true, at least for Pete and me, which is why I try to arrange things where at least four days a week, I can get straight to the desk in the morning—let the fiction words deplete the teaching words those days.
Other than that, I guess I hope teaching’s made me smarter, but I can’t guarantee that. The longer I do it, the less I rely on things like prepared lectures and such. I’m trying to put my preparation time into reading and rereading and commenting on student work, and trusting that in the classroom I can think on my feet. Some days it works really well.
ES: You maintained a political blog for a couple of years. Was that an interference, or did it contribute to your fiction?
MF: I’m not sure “maintained” is the right word for what I did with my blog. I think about the blog days the way I suspect people must look back on long illnesses. They’ve recovered, and life has gone on, but it’s never quite been the same again. So, um, interference, is the answer.
ES: Did you like working as a journalist? Do you miss it?
MF: Most of the journalism I did was pretty uninteresting piecework that I did strictly for money. Sometimes I think I’d like to do more of it, long-form stuff or depth stuff, but I don’t pursue it that hard because, again, limited store of words. Maybe when the kids are out of the house and I’ve run out of things to make up.
ES: What are you working on now?
MF: I’m working on something. I’m not quite sure what it is yet, but it’s getting me to the desk most every day.