WIPs Conversation: Sean Ennis on His Work in Progress

Sean Ennis is a Philadelphia, PA native now living in Water Valley, MS where he teaches for the University of Mississippi and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.  His work has appeared in Tin HouseCrazyhorse, The Greensboro Review, LITnIMAGE, The Good Men Project, Talking Writing, Down and Out, and the Best New American Voices anthology.

Sean, I’ve read many of your wonderful short stories, and am happy to be introduced to your work here in your novel. How did it arise?

I wrote about a 100 pages from the point of view of the people who kidnapped the kids.  Maybe it had its moments, and maybe that work will inform what I’m writing now, but it’s a hard perspective to make sympathetic to readers, and at some point it felt necessary to explain why people would do horrible things.  It wasn’t a question I had a good answer to, or really wanted to delve into too much. It seemed to me that you would only murder and kidnap if you were genuinely ill, or an asshole.  Maybe it’s a lack of imagination on my part, but a point of view that might have to justify illness or plain old shitty behavior stopped being appealing to me.

The central drama of the story was initially tied up in my mind with things like events at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, and unfortunately, there have been more incidents repeating this sort of violence, which made me feel even more that the point of view of the perpetrators was something I’m not interested in exploring. When these sorts of events felt like anomalies, they held some intrigue for me.  But these days, they just don’t. I guess I have pity for people who feel so lost that such drastic acts of violence feel necessary, but I stopped wanting to try to imagine what it was like to be them.

Also, between the original conception of the novel and now, my Claire and I have had a child of our own.  Obviously, that has a tendency to change a writer’s perspective a bit. Switching to the point of view of someone who lost a child in the event, and who found the violence of the event absurd, makes the project a lot more intelligible to me.  On some level, the issue of motive for the kidnapping is off the table.  A parent just wants their kid back.

How did you develop the storyline? What role has personal experience played in determining the narrative?

I was always a nervous kid, and, for some reason, I imagined I would be the victim of a kidnapping while in grade school.  If I thought a car was following me on the walk home from school, I would pretend my shoe needed to be tied, to see if the car would keep going when I stopped.  I can’t say where this anxiety came from.  Maybe the D.A.R.E. program.  I saw myself as a target, for whatever reason, and I’m playing that out a bit here, I guess.  I’ve written many short stories where this is the focus as well, either literally or figuratively.

I also took a class in grad school that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy, much less influence my fiction, about Native American Captivity Narratives–a genre I didn’t even know existed.  But the stories these people told are truly wild.  I started to think about what an updated version of them might look like. In the old stories, Indians take “famous” kids, and exploit their parents for guns, or money, or political points.  Some of the captives fought back and scalped their captives in the middle of the night.  Some of them just became Indians. Some of them seemed to think they were actors in a drama where God himself was playing a role.  The stakes are usually incredibly high, and as dense as the language can be in some of them, at their core, the stories do a lot of what some of my favorite modern story-tellers do. To say something well above my pay grade: lots of American stories are about being captured and fighting for freedom.

Do you find vast differences between writing short stories and writing a novel? In reading this chapter excerpt, I enjoyed the piece and admired its prose and observations in the same way I have all your work. That includes your use of humor (even in the face or dire circumstances), which can be subtle or dark, but always keeps me grinning.

My main struggle is in figuring out the ways that a novel is not simply a long short story.  Sustaining a drama over many pages is tough.  Introducing and then, more importantly, managing minor characters and plot-lines is a challenge too.  How important will Carey, or T.J. be before all is said and done?  I have some ideas, but they’re not set in stone yet.  The novel format allows for some digression, which for a short story writer might be welcome relief to the otherwise breathless nature of the short story, but it doesn’t mean those digressions will be meaningful.  I have some anxiety about this.

But humor, for me, is very important.  If you can make a reader laugh, I think they are much more willing to follow you if you also want to make more serious points, or even absurd ones.  As a reader, I’d like to laugh a lot more when I read than I do.  My guess is most readers would like to, too. I think with my writing students there is sometimes the notion that making use of humor keeps a piece from appearing “serious” or “meaningful.”  For me, the opposite is true.  Humor is often the best way to say something important.

The backdrop of the son’s kidnapping looms large. How does it affect scene and character development and the general tone of things as you keep the story moving forward?

This is probably the most important question I’m facing with regard to the set-up.  What would it mean for a couple to have a sustained separation from their young child?  In the early parts of the story, I’m interested in the potential upside of this absence.  My plan is that this couple will be without their child just long enough to imagine or remember what life might be like without a child. For me, the challenge at this stage in the story is to figure out a way where obviously the narrator and his wife are distraught by the kidnapping of Ben, but also might come to terms with it in a way that doesn’t seem totally cold.  They can’t just cry about it for 2 or 3 months, and I want to convey the sort of impatience of the world around them, the changing of the news cycle, etc. I’d like Owen and Molly to be making what seem like good decisions, or at least understandable ones.

What stage are you in the process? Is there a timeline you’re following in completing the manuscript?

The novel is coming to me in bursts.  I don’t write 1000 words a day, or have a great writing schedule.  The project sort of heaves forward in chunks, and then settles for a while.

I do have some vague organizational sections for the manuscript–the first third tracking life without Ben, the second third tracking Ben’s return to the family, and the third third tracking what his kidnappers may have really been up to.

Thanks, Sean. Is there anything else you’d like to mention or explain to readers?

To be honest, I was a little hesitant in participating in a project like this.  Writers are often pretty protective of their ideas, motivations, etc. in early stages, but it’s been fun to talk about them, and also helpful for me to articulate what I see as going on with the project as a whole.  One of my teachers, Barry Hannah, used to say something like, a writer needs to “win the battle against loneliness,” and this has been useful advise to me.  I don’t get to talk much about this project, but I do feel less lonely about it now.

Read  Sean’s Work in Progress, “Did I Miss Anything”