Featured Fiction Writer: Jared Povanda
For our winter issue, we have a special treat: an interview with three-time Lammergeier author Jared Povanda. We spoke with him about his story "Hen of the Woods," the challenges of letters as fiction, the importance of questioning both real and unreal narrators, a bone that makes the tongue happy to say, and more.
Ethan Brightbill: The pink earplugs in the beginning of this story foreshadow that James might not want to listen to everything Will, the protagonist, has to say. As the story progresses, however, it becomes apparent that Will isn’t able to hear everything James is saying, either. How would you break down the relationship in this story?
Jared Povanda: Telling this story from Will’s point of view, and through a letter, was very intentional. Will is the one who is recreating the dialogue between them. His memories of what he believes happened are guiding the reader through this crucial point of their relationship. His biases are on full display here, and he centers himself as the hero in the narrative. At the beginning of the story, I wanted the reader to really empathize with Will.
James wears these crisp dress shirts and slacks, and he always seems to keep his back turned to Will. And then we have Will who is toying with his dirty shoelaces. Poor Will. Will tries to comfort a seemingly cold James that first night in Cornwall, but even then, the cracks start to show. He says, "I knew you were crying on the inside.” This is an assumption, though. Will does a lot of assuming throughout, and as the story progresses, he begins to construe James’s actions through a more sinister lens than may be warranted.
At dinner, James eats the mushrooms they gathered off the tip of his knife. Will is understandably freaked out! How could he be acting so cavalier when his father just died? But Samuel was an awful homophobe. James was scarred by his childhood, and to keep himself
safe, he had to put distance between himself and Samuel. James only survived because of that distance. I don’t know if James would say that he was celebrating his father’s death, but it is a relief for him. As bad as it might sound to an outsider like Will, one of his boyhood monsters can no longer menace him. We don’t know the relationship James has with the rest of his family, but since his sister sounded so upset on the phone, I’m going to assume that she was a lot closer to Samuel than James was. Maybe his passing will allow James to have a better relationship with the rest of his family? Maybe he’ll even be able to come home. It’s not that these thoughts never occur to Will, but Will has this habit of putting himself under the spotlight: “I thought you’d admit to something then. I thought you’d fall apart in the soft candlelight, and then I’d feel useful and needed and strong enough to reform your shape.” He wants to be a savior when James doesn’t need to be saved, and that’s a real problem. Will admits that they fight a lot, but that it’s James who always wants them to be kings. It’s James, then, who may actually be trying to save this relationship from Will. I don’t think Will wholly understands how his actions impact James and their relationship.
Their divorce, to me, is inevitable. And I’m so glad Will finally makes it to therapy. James may be cold sometimes, and he may process his emotions differently than Will does, but you’re right when you say that Will isn’t able to hear everything that James is saying either. These men aren’t compatible with each other, despite their best efforts, and I’m sure they’ll be happier and healthier now that the relationship has dissolved.
EB: Because of the letter format of this piece, we really only get Will’s take on events even as the story’s overt focus is on James. How does that shape the narrative of the story? And what challenges did that pose for you as a writer?
JP: The epistolary format of the story really narrows the focus of the piece. Will immediately apologizes to James when he starts the letter, and then he does admit that his therapist thought this letter would be a good idea. How manipulative is Will being here? That’s up to the reader to decide. Is this letter a genuine love letter? A true piece of his heart he wants to share with James? Or is it a way for Will to reframe these difficult events in a way that best suits him? Is it both? I think everyone who reads this story will have a different interpretation of Will’s intentions. If the letter was from James to Will instead, the narrative would be entirely different. I think Will would come across as more obsessive in James’s recollection than he does in his own memories. And if I got rid of the frame of the letter entirely, if I told the story in strict first-person or even in a third-person perspective, I think some of the narrative tension would dissolve. To me, Will becomes the definition of an unreliable narrator when the letter is introduced. The reader isn’t getting fresh reactions to these events. Will is reconstructing the timeline years later. Will, then, is the creator of this universe. Without James’s perspective, the reader is always forced to consider how truthful Will is being. By the end of the story, I can only hope the reader has questioned every line that’s come out of Will’s mouth.
The biggest challenge with the form, though, was knowing where to stop the narrative. I started writing this story in the fall of 2018. I was actually going to use it to apply to MFA programs! I had this grand idea of writing a long and tense narrative that centered on Powerful Human Emotions, and then I completely stopped writing the story. I got about 900 words into it, and I couldn’t figure out how to proceed. The characters weren’t cooperating with me, and as soon as they walked into the Cornwall hotel and I wrote the line about promises being like air, I was stuck. I couldn’t figure out how to make Will and James reach any kind of climax. When I picked up the story again years later, I wanted to write to discover the way through. At first, I thought I was going to have Will write from Cornwall all the way to their divorce. As I said, I wasn’t sure where to snap the narrative off. This all changed when I stumbled on the knife scene. From Will’s perspective, the moment is grotesque. Unbalanced. Who brings a basket of mushrooms into a fine dining restaurant? Who eats a big chunk of raw mushroom off the tip of a knife? It’s this moment that unravels the rest of their complicated romance. Will says a little later on that he can’t think of mushrooms without thinking of Samuel dying, and again Will is centering his trauma. What would have happened if he took James up on his offer? If he stabbed a mushroom and ate it along with James? Would the grotesque have transmuted into love? Would Will have found that connection with James he was so yearning for? Would he have been able to see a tender joy in James’s eyes? Who knows.
Instead of finding connection with James, Will accuses him at the end of the letter: “You looked ahead at something in the far-off dark. Did it slither?” Beyond connecting to the pigeon line earlier in the story, Will is referencing Satan. So, when he says, “I hope you’ll tell me if anything has changed. You can, you know. I hope you know you can. You can tell me anything,” when he tries to reach an olive branch out to James again, I want the reader to doubt Will’s intentions. I want the end of the letter to sound loving in one light and sinister in another. The “Always and forever” that Will signs off with? I want that to be a promise for better and for worse.
EB: Longtime readers of Lammergeier will remember your story “Scratching Post” in Issue One and your nonfiction (“After a Mass Shooting, I Dream") in Issue Three. What connections do you see between these pieces, and how do they tie into the larger project of your writing?
JP: Like “Hen of the Woods,” “Scratching Post” is a story about unreliability and familial tension. That story was told in the second person as a way to make things more immediate for the reader. I think the gift of the second person is allowing the reader to slip into a character’s skin without having to actively think about it. As soon as the reader reads the first “You,” they’re already with the character. Just like that. The letter also, I feel, draws the reader into the tension easily and quickly. Most stories aren’t told in an epistolary form, so I want the reader — even unconsciously — to question why I’m doing this. What are they going to discover through the reading of this letter? Because letters are extremely intimate. They’re a form of private correspondence that no one, besides the intended recipient, is supposed to read. That intimacy, uncomfortable at times, is crucial in “Hen of the Woods.” And the second person in “Scratching Post” also achieves a kind of intimacy not found in any other type of tense. Also, in “Scratching Post,” the main character’s aunt can be read as complicit or innocent. Is she a witch who casts some kind of curse on the main character? Or is the curse pure cosmic coincidence? Similarly, how morally pure are Will’s actions? There are no easy answers.
“After a Mass Shooting, I Dream” is a different animal altogether. Because it’s nonfiction about real tragedies, I wasn’t trying to misdirect the reader in any way. Now, like Will’s letter, does the characterization of myself paint me as some kind of hero or savior? I don’t think it does, but maybe a reader (an outsider) would think that. And it’s a fair point. Nonfiction writers constantly have to analyze themselves while trying to get to a greater emotional truth. Nonfiction writers also have to be constantly careful of mythologizing themselves. There’s an easy tendency to cast everyone else as aggressors or villains — to make sure I, as the central figure, come off smelling like a rose. As such, nonfiction writers, myself included, have to interrogate the self to avoid this critique. Will doesn’t quite manage to do this in his recollection of himself; he doesn’t view himself as someone who could be in the wrong. At least, not to the extent that he should. I wrote “After a Mass Shooting, I Dream” from a place of fear and pain. Gun violence is one of the biggest problems currently plaguing the country, and I felt like I needed to write this piece to speak against it. As a form of power or control over a spreading epidemic. Will, too, tries to assert power and control over his narrative. And in “Scratching Post,” the unnamed main character asserts control over their body to achieve their goals. I guess all writing is a way of trying to bring chaos to order — even these fictional characters of mine hope to order their narratives in a way that leaves them as unscathed as possible.
As far as the larger project of my writing goes, I’m always trying to craft complicated characters with real emotional heartbeats. I want them to feel three-dimensional and whole. And the surest way to do that is to put them in tense and uncomfortable situations. As I grow as a writer, I find that I don’t need to be as heavy-handed as I once was. I think “Hen of the Woods” is subtle in a lot of places (my early 2018 draft was more bombastic), but subtle in the way a dagger is subtle. Will doesn’t even realize he’s been cut until it’s too late. When a reader reads one of my stories, I can only hope that they’re gripped until the end. And when they get there, I hope my characters make them ache a bit. I hope they come away from my writing a tiny bit changed. That’s really the goal — I want my stories to shift people the way so many of my favorite books have shifted pieces of me.
EB: Your work has been nominated multiple times for both Best of the Net and Best Microfiction; it’s appeared in Pidgeonholes, Hobart, Cheap Pop, and elsewhere; and it spans fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. What’s next for you and your writing?
JP: I hope 2022 is a year of quality for me rather than sheer abundance. I want to take more daring risks with my prose. I want my fiction to become even more polished and complicated, and I want my creative nonfiction to speak to even deeper truths more elegantly. Poetry is something very new to me. I love writing poems. I love that first drafts can come together a lot quicker than first drafts of fiction or nonfiction. And I love to tinker at the sentence level. Lyric writing is important to me, and I think my work will never be considered gritty.
I’ve written six books, but none of them are good enough to publish. Oh, I tried at the time, but looking from a critical vantage point now, I can clearly see that these younger offerings aren’t ready for the big time. But every single time I finish something — from the smallest poem to the biggest novel — I feel like I’m getting better. I’m honing my craft and closing the gap between myself and some of my favorite writers. That’s the hope, anyway. Maybe 2022 will see me writing another book? Or maybe a collection of stories? I’m not sure yet. I love the lit mag space so much, and publications like Lammergeier have really boosted my confidence over the years. I’m not going to stop writing or submitting, that’s for sure. I’m a writer, and I’m a reader. I love words. I love stories. And that love will hopefully always live inside me no matter what project currently has my focus.
EB: Finally, our traditional closer: what’s your favorite bone?
JP: The clavicle! It’s a very attractive bone. Wing-like. Swanning, almost. But it’s also very sturdy. Very connective. Bridging. I also love the sound of the word itself. Clavicle. It makes the tongue happy to say. Try it.