John A. Maloney is a writer, coder, fermentationist, intermittent musician, lover of maps and etymology. MFA at Columbia College Chicago. From time to time guilty of believing himself the actual reincarnation of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Find John on Twitter at @itsjohnamaloney
Read “The Surfers” in Issue Six
TCR: Where did “The Surfers” come from?
John A. Maloney: I wrote ‘the surfers’ while I was living in Honolulu for a while, watching my wife do interesting work and kind of trying to figure out what I wanted to do, myself. I was already in my late twenties so by a lot of metrics I ought to have figured those things out already, but then again so what? I would wander around Waikiki a lot, just sweating and being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of commerce that tourism can generate. I had an interesting conversation with a guy whose job it was to get people to sign up for timeshare presentations off the street. He didn’t have to sell them anything, he just had to find promising-looking targets and funnel them into the elevator with the promise of easy money for sitting through a presentation. He’d do that for a while then go surfing the rest of the day. There was something delightfully self-contained about that kind of life. The surfer in my story kind of wishes he could be that guy, wishes he could be so laid-back and easy about things, but he can’t really, he’s got too much going on in his own head. The real-life guy I based him on probably has plenty going on in his own head, too, so it’s kind of about how we perceive things from the outside v. the inside, as well.
TCR: How conscious were you when writing the story of needing to strike a careful balance between its levity and the seriousness of what the two surfers are dealing with?
JAM: I think that’s sort of what I was starting to try to elucidate in the answer to the first question up there; there’s a viewpoint from which you look at these guys and think they’ve got it made, they get to go out and bob around in the ocean all day, what a life. There’s another viewpoint from which they look like losers, slackers, guys who haven’t grown up. I feel, and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling, this tension about viewpoint all the time. Part of it is that you need to be confident about viewing yourself from your own viewpoint and being comfortable with what you see. Part of it is the anxiety that comes from being able to see yourself from more than one of these viewpoints, and not being at all sure that any one of them is the right one. Do I have it made, or am I ignoring the important stuff? That type of thing. So I wouldn’t say I was conscious of needing to strike that balance, per se, but it was carved into the support beams of what I had to say when I wrote the story.
TCR: Talk about the challenge of creating compelling characters in a rather short short story.
JAM: No matter what length your story might be, I think if your character has a problem that they’re struggling with in an honest-enough sort of way, it’s going to be compelling. In a shorter work you have a lot less time to create nuance and complexity, you can’t plant a seed and wait for it to germinate 200 pages later, so you’ve got to show them sort of in the middle of the struggle, rather than at the beginning, if I might be permitted to generalize.
TCR: How has being in a writing program helped shape your work, if it has done that at all?
JAM: I have quite a bit to say on the subject, but in compressed format: being in an MFA program has been great in terms of the friendships and resources that it’s opened up for me. Before attending the program, I had few writer friends, and now I have several. To have a small group of friends who share your odd desire to see their own imaginations put into print is no small potatoes. To listen to visiting writers read their work and talk about their own writerly lives is often inspirational. To have talented authors as mentors and professors is invaluable. All this contributes to increasing your own commitment to the craft, keeps your inner flame burning. I’ve been writing intermittently almost my whole life, and it’s pretty hard to keep yourself going sometimes without another voice or two out there offering encouragement.
TCR: What has the role of research been in your work so far?
JAM: The piece I had published in TCR Issue 5, ‘three workers,’ I did a lot of research for. A coworker of mine was telling me all about this idea for a short story he had, and it was all about these Irishmen who built the I&M canal and whose work was rendered obsolete in such a short time. He had this telling detail about how the workers would be so tired from swinging the pickaxes that they’d have to go swing them on their days off just so they wouldn’t seize up, which is an awesome detail that I completely forgot about when writing the story. He wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the horse. I decided to kill the horse instead, which probably tells you something about the differences in our personalities. (He told me I could have the idea, in case this anecdote makes me sound like a thief.) My approach to researching a story is to read a bunch about the history and time period I’m writing about, then try not to think about it when I’m writing. Otherwise I get hung up on ensuring each detail is historically accurate and then I have some kind of arid history instead of a story. You’ll be fact-checked to death because it’s so easy to do these days, but that’s OK, don’t worry about it. I think about it this way: if someone’s read my piece closely enough to quibble with the historical accuracy, they’ve read it pretty closely. Which is a compliment.
TCR: Is there a writer you keep coming back to in your reading?
JAM: There are so so many, but lately I’ve been going back through the novels of Donald Antrim. The Hundred Brothers is this amazing meditation about life and manhood that’s written as a single uninterrupted scene in an impossibly large family library, and Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World contains the only depiction I’ve read of a man being drawn and quartered on a suburban lawn by four automobiles. He’s so smart but never seems to be showing off about it, which I respect. He’s like the opposite of the shorter surfer in that way.