The POV of a character addressing the reader as “you” is one of my favorites, and I don’t see it in fiction very often. How did you decide on this point of view?
I’ve loved that mode since I first ran across it, either in epistolary stories or Choose Your Own Adventure novels.
It’s a tricky thing to manage because you’re making a very specific demand of the reader right off the bat. This mode of direct address implicates the reader in the story, and if the reader resists that, the story falls apart right away. So the trick, I guess, is to make the reader curious enough to overcome that potential resistance. Then, by the time the story makes a turn, it’s too late for the reader to back out.
I thought it was important for this story because I wanted the reader to feel implicated in what’s happening, the same way we are all implicated in real-world things we might not spend too much time thinking about.
I really liked how the cheery initial tone gave a sense of instant foreboding. Did the voice come with the story when you first started writing it, or did it take a few tries to work it out?
I had the story’s basic conceit in my head for a long time before I figured out the best way to tell it. Then I think “The Cask of Amontillado” floated through my head, and the lawyer’s character came to life. This story isn’t the same kind of unreliable narrator tale as “Amontillado,” but what I took away from that story was the narrator’s absolute certainty about what he says and believes, contrasting violently with the reader’s emerging understanding. So thanks, Poe!
I have to ask . . . I noticed the reader stand-in is given the name “John” which matches the name of a certain editor here at Lightspeed. Was that a coincidence?
It is a coincidence. I chose that name both for its popularity and its slang association with . . . well, I don’t want to spoil the story in case readers are coming to this Q&A before reading the story. (JJA, honest, I meant no aspersion!)
What is your typical process for writing a short story? Did “The Atonement Path” match your usual pattern?
My typical process for writing a short story begins when something out in the world pings this part of my brain where stimuli turn into story responses. Sometimes that’s a news item, sometimes it’s a song lyric, or an overheard snatch of conversation . . . could be anything. But once that ping happens, the initial idea or element of the story sits in my head for a long time. Even years. Usually I write down a sentence or two in a notebook. Then over time, I return to the initial idea once in a while, seeing if it’s grown into anything. I used to push ideas harder, but I’ve learned to let them sit until I really have them figured out beyond the initial conceit. Then I start writing. If I’m lucky, and have let the idea mature, the story gets written pretty quickly. If I’m having trouble with the story, usually that’s a sign that there’s something I haven’t understood yet: character, voice, approach. So I leave the story alone for a while when that happens. Overall, this process can take a couple of months or ten years. Either way is fine with me. I’ve got plenty of ideas in various stages of conception.
“The Atonement Path” fit the process insofar as I first had the idea years ago, after reading an article about abuses in juvenile justice. I got the title right away, but it took a long time to find the voice of the story. The first line popped into my head one day last winter, and once I wrote it down, all I had to do was figure out who was saying it, and to whom. Then I had the rest of the story figured out in a couple of days.
What else do you do to keep busy when you’re not writing?
Well, I have four kids, which is enough to keep anyone busy. Whenever I’m not at a practice or game or rehearsal or lesson, I like to get outside and do a little hiking, fool around in the garden with a ballgame on the radio, catch up on the kinds of projects you’re always in the middle of when you live in a 170-year-old house . . .
What are you working on right now?
I’ve got some other short stories cooking, and a couple of novels. A graphic-novel history of baseball called The Comic Book Story of Baseball just came out in May, with beautiful art by Tomm Coker and C.P. Smith. I finished a novel last year, my first original novel since Buyout, called Across the Water Is Always North. On the licensed front, I’m working on a couple of games—Marvel Battle Lines and The Walking Dead: Road to Survival. Also a few different comic projects, both creator-owned and licensed. Halo: Collateral Damage is just out. Lots going on, which is just how I like it.
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