Archive | February, 2013

WIPs Conversation: R Dean Johnson on His Work in Progress

R. Dean Johnson

R Dean Johnson’s fiction has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize anthology, and his essays and stories have appeared in Ascent, Natural Bridge, New Orleans Review, Slice, Santa Clara Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction and creative nonfiction workshop in the Bluegrass Writers Studio, the Brief-Residency MFA program at Eastern Kentucky University, and his students all call him Bob. Originally from California, he now lives in Richmond, KY with his wife, the writer Julie Hensley (who calls him Bob), and their two children, Boyd and Maeve (who call him Da).

Bob, “Cards for All Occasions” comes from a work you’re titling Delicate Men, about the frustrations and guilt men often feel for not living up to cultural ideals, or even cultural norms. In the story, Erik demonstrates his own fragility in trying to “protect” his beloved cousin, falling prey to his own insecurities, jealousy, ignorance, and homophobia. He makes a living expressing sentiment directed for and on behalf of strangers for Hallmark—a modern-day Cyrano of sorts—but is entirely out of touch regarding the relationships in his own life. Are other protagonists in the collection marked by such irony?

There is a strong thread of irony running through the collection of stories that make up Delicate Men. I like that you reference Cyrano because as much as irony plays a part in the collection, it is often informed by a search for, or veiling of, identity.

The collection’s title story, “Delicate Men,” is about a middle school boy trying to fit in at a new school. He gains a tenuous acceptance with the most popular crowd but when he witnesses a one-sided fight between one of his new friends and an unpopular kid, he empathizes with the latter. By the time he gets home he’s crying and confused by his emotions. All along he’s been afraid he’d be the one who got beat up at the new school, and as certain as he is that he avoided this fate, the reader knows he has been beat up emotionally. But, I don’t know that the dramatic irony of that story would work as well if it weren’t informed by the protagonist’s struggle with identity at his new school.

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R Dean Johnson: Cards for All Occasions (from a Story Collection in Progress)

1.1       Afternoon. Erik and Annie in a rental car.

As they leave the interstate for the main highway, Annie can’t get over the fields of tall grass. She’s never been to California and never expected to see anything so natural and untamed just south of L.A. It almost reminds her of Kansas, she says, except the fields are more like a swollen prairie, undulating as she and Erik drive towards Laguna Canyon.

The fields fan out before them like an amphitheater, the road an aisle up the middle, leading into a canyon and then through to Laguna Beach where Erik’s cousin Walter has a house and a guestroom waiting for them. Everything is five minutes from the house, Walter has said, the beach, shops, restaurants—plenty for Annie to do while Erik is at his conference. And though Erik hasn’t been to the conference in three years, missing even the one in Hawaii, this year it’s just a few miles from where Walter now lives. Erik will be the first in the family to see how things are really going out on the coast, the first to know if the phone calls and emails are true, that Walter, finally, is as happy as he says he is.

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WIPs Conversation: Mithran Somasundrum on His Work in Progress


Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London, and currently lives in Bangkok, where he works in an electrochemistry lab.  His short stories have been published in The Sun, Natural Bridge, Inkwell, The Minnesota Review, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine among others


Mithran, The Mask Under My Face chronicles how a number of people’s lives and families are turned upside-down by a single event. Can you briefly encapsulate the situation for readers?

The situation is that an off-duty policeman is shot and killed in a nightclub toilet by the son of a rich and very well-connected businessman (Sirichai).  This leads to a country-wide outcry, as it’s not the first time Sirichai’s son (Surapat, nicknamed Gai) has killed, and up to now he has always escaped punishment.  Meanwhile, although Sirichai is well-connected, he has accumulated some very well-connected enemies — Old Money types who resent him as a nouveau riche upstart, and resent the politician he funds.  One of these people controls a newspaper, and she gets it to run a campaign on behalf of the policeman’s widow, Attiya, and her ten-year-old son, Den.  It’s easy to do as Attiya is beautiful and not at all well-off, while Den appears to be everything Surapat is not.  Apart from simply collecting donations, the campaign keeps the fires of outrage stoked (which is its main purpose) and ensures Surapat has to leave the country for an extended period.  Meanwhile, Attiya is forced unwillingly into the role the media creates for her, while knowing the public portrayal of her “heroic” husband is largely false.  He was a serial philanderer who was in the nightclub because he was selling drugs.

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Mithran Somasundrum: Excerpt from The Mask Under My Face


Chapter Nine

A family meeting is called. In Sirichai’s vast marble-floored sitting room, softly lit by many paper-shaded lamps—air-conditioned amber light inside and the hot night outside and drinks on tables and the servants gone—everyone apart from Surapat has gathered here to discuss Surapat. Sirichai is pacing in his house slippers, a glass of cognac cupped in one palm. He stops and swirls the glass, lowers his head, as though the fumes will provide the moment of striking insight that has up to now been lacking. At one end of a fat white sofa his wife sits, poised and alert, sipping a glass of white wine. At the other end of the long sofa, Benz, his daughter, is sitting cross-legged, in a skirt far too short for such a pose. She is the only one without a drink. Off to one side, in a fat white armchair, his oldest son, Noum, is taking ice cubes from a silver bucket and dropping them into a glass of beer. He brings his lips to the glass as the beer threatens to foam over.

“I would like everyone one in this room to start paying attention,” Sirichai says.

“We are,” says his wife. “We’re all listening.”  But this isn’t really what he means. He wants them to start paying attention to Surapat. To everything that Surapat has become and is becoming. He wants them to stop and pay attention to the last twenty-five years. Somewhere in that time are all the clues and minefields and missed opportunities; somewhere, hidden in his material success are all their collective failures.

“I mean …” says Sirichai and sighs. Sniffs his cognac again without drinking from it. “I mean pay attention to why these things keep happening to him.”

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