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Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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by Annam Manthiram




AM:  Why did you choose this particular quote by Patricia Highsmith? Would a quote from another writer have changed the tone of your story?


CM:  Um, I keep a notebook of quotations culled from a lifetime of reading. If I think a written piece needs a good quote to set it up I trawl through them to find something I think is appropriate. Sometimes, and this is the case here, a quote suddenly appears out of the ether that fits something I am working on. This is writing sortilege, that literary serendipity that cannot be explained.  I could probably use another quote that would subtly affect the reader’s experience but it’s rare that I change a quote once I have settled on it.


AM:  Please forgive my ignorance, but what exactly is “organ grinder stew”?  Is there a recipe for this dish somewhere, and more importantly, is it tasty?


CM:  Ha, I made it up. Maybe I’ll invent a recipe if you’re interested. Be forewarned. I am a horrible cook.  The story would taste better than the stew.


AM:  I found the names of the characters in your story very unusual and thought-provoking as a result.  What is the significance, if any, of all of their names, besides the bear, following an alpha order (Diggory, Eveline, Flint/Fletcher)?  Okay, call me crazy, but if you substitute Nessim as “B” for “bear” and include the dog’s name (Artegal), you get AB-DEF.  Am I onto something with the missing “C” or just overanalyzing?  If you do include the bear’s name (Nessim) and rearrange the letters, you get the word F(F)END.  Any importance to this arrangement?


CM:  You know, they say sometimes the writer is the last to know what something means. I appreciate your close scrutiny but would rather not explain the names because my explication would ruin the sort of analytical fun you had with them. I do choose my names carefully because I believe Proper Nouns carry an authoritative hoodoo that is particular to them.  Instead I will add this John Updike quote which will either illuminate or further confound. “Their simple names had a magic, the magic of a caress that searches out the something monstrous and tender in the genitals of another.”


AM:  I love how calm the narrator is with the unraveling situation and his relaxed, if not slightly subdued dialogue.  He is so unbearably polite (“‘Hi,’ I said.  ‘Can you tell me what this is about?’”).  If the narrator were less subdued and became enraged or began shouting in panic, would this have changed the dynamic of your story?  How so?  Is it possible that he would have been able to keep his wife if he had acted more violently?  Or were the events on some fated course?


CM:  The events were fated, yes. He is un-bear-ably polite because he understands that magic gives and magic takes away. This is part of the distinctive rules to his cosmos, the cosmos of the story. If he became enraged, or incredulous, or even baffled, it would be a different story, a story by another writer perhaps, a writer smarter and more plot-conscious than me.


AM:  What a delight when we get to the reversal – when it is revealed that the narrator is, after all, the stranger – “and that I have always been the stranger.”  Not the bear as predicted.  Was there a greater meaning signified in this shift?  What is the narrator saying about those we hold dear to our hearts, and even further, the intimacy of human companionship?  Is it better to love a dog than another human being?


CM:  No, I don’t think it is better to love a dog than another human, even though dogs, when they break up with you rarely throw things or call you hurtful names. A friend of mine told me that dogs were proof of God’s existence. I think she is right. Here, the narrator is the stranger because we are all the stranger. And that may be more cryptography than I want to employ. I don’t want to give away my secrets, the few good ones I have. Of course, I may be lying, and that hedge saves me.


AM:  I think what I enjoyed the most about this story was its range of feeling – its interplay between sadness and comedy.  The story is definitely funny at turns, but there is an element of profound sadness as well, especially at the end when the narrator has lost his family.  As a writer, do you think it’s possible to have comedy without sadness?  Was it easy to include both, and which in your mind is a more effective device in characterization?


CM:  Thank you. That’s as kind a compliment as I could ever dream of receiving. As you know, sadness is easy, comedy is hard. All sadness is tinged with comedy and the commutative law, if I remember my high school math teacher, Mrs. Reed correctly, works as well: all comedy is tinged with sadness.  I don’t set out to write either a comic story or a dark story, or in this case, a comic story about loss. The story tells me what it wants, if that’s not too oblique, if I am having a good writing day. Every book you write teaches you how to write it as you go, just as every good book teaches the reader how to read it. On a good writing day the comedy, or the sadness, weaves itself in and out of the narrative the way the random drift of ice and wind forms a snowflake.