Woodshop Talk: AN Block
AN Block is the author of the short story “Family Business”
and winner of the Inkslinger Award in fiction for Issue No. 11.
Here we chat with him about his process and his art.
This is Woodshop Talk.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: To what degree is this story reflective of your own family history? If this piece does signify a reflection of your own past, might I ask what brings you back to the old ‘family business’ these days?
AN BLOCK: The story is true without being at all literal. In other words, none of it happened, and the characters, real as they are to me, are not representational portraits of any flesh and blood people. My take is that all families are magical and sacred, but also a little insane, each involved in creating their own mythical fantasy world. To me this is what makes them, and Mom and Pop, an endless source of fascination. In one sense, everything I write is reflective of my own family history, but in another, this story is not biographical, not even close. Certain random facts are taken from families I have known and observed, including my own, but much more so from those that I have imagined, those that are on some sort of journey of self-definition, maybe by creating a business.
BA: You’ve said that “Family Business” took over fifty rounds of revision to complete. What did that process look like? Can you walk us through all the little pains of your process?
AN: First of all, not pains but joys. Big question. To me it always comes down to zeroing in on the exact voice I want, which I don’t often find easy to get. It’s about what sounds right and what conveys the inner meaning of the emerging story most effectively. So I experiment a lot and, if necessary, do many revisions: 1st person, 3rd person objective, 3rd person close, etc. Same with tenses. Same with pacing. Then I try to get the tone right. My acid test: does it sound right? But characterizing it in this manner makes the process sound mechanistic or analytical, which is not accurate. It’s all about the feel and the sound.
What came to me, after I first played with the story long enough to know it with any degree of intimacy, was to make the unnamed gender neutral narrator (who might just be the child of “Mom and Pop” and who might just be telling this story many years later, perhaps after they’re dead, or divorced, or who might be the unborn child, or who might not be a child at all) sound like the voice over for a classic Alain Resnais movie. Once I heard that voice in my head, I was like, Yes! That’s what this story needs. So the tone I decided to go for was somewhat flat, bloodless, world weary, detached, episodic, a monotone actually, reporting all this weirdo behavior at a remove from the characters. Each paragraph its own self-contained scene in a movie about characters who take themselves and their dramas a bit too seriously. But not just any movie, I wanted a specific black and white feel, with maybe some sepia, and very few bursts of color. I wanted a soft focus, mostly long shots that faded out, alternating with a smaller number of close ups and explosions of intensity, where the “camera” zooms in, all narrated in a suppressed distant tone. That wasn’t easy for me to get to. I found I had to ruthlessly eliminate most of the description. So I had to keep rewriting.
BA: Pop is such a curious figure, a sort of lax genius whose Keep on Truckin’ persona belies a much more bitter interior life. What’s more, he seems to dominate Mom from the get-go, dictating the structure and circumstances of her life until her best recourse are adult coloring books. So who is Pop—eternal flower child, or something more dire?
AN: I love Mom and Pop equally, although I can’t really explain what motivates them in any rational sense. Like many couples caught up in turbulent times, they are a bit off center. They’re also quite fuzzy, intended to be somewhat of a Rorschach Test. There’s a lot of negative space in this story. In other words, the implications of what I’ve intentionally left out are almost as important as what I’ve actually written. Is there hope for these two? Are they representative of “their generation?” I see them both as passive aggressive, self-aggrandizing, delusional, overly sensitive, unwilling to grow up, two lovably absurd losers who have found one another and are bonded together, but are not sure whether they want to be. To me Pop is less connected to other people than Mom is; he’s also more of an optimist and a free spirit, although he’s more dependent on her than she is on him. Mom is more part of the “real world” and she is a worrier. Maybe there’s a connection. The point is that they’ve got each other’s number and neither one likes to look at reality too hard, especially Pop. He’s certainly more of an “escapist” and dreamer. So, in that sense, maybe he is an aging flower child, with all the freight that carries, being a close to thirty year old unemployed know it all.
BA: What is “the revolution” that Pop looks forward to? You joke that it’s the once-and-forever defeat of lawn mowers, but it seems your characters are awaiting something more profound. Will it ever come?
AN: They’re waiting for Godot. Waiting to be rescued, to be swept away, to experience something transformative but they don’t know what it would even look like. Pop’s offhand comment about the revolution coming is meant as a self-effacing joke. Mom throws it back at him and he has no reply: he is a self-indulgent, lazy under-achiever, although this is not meant as a value judgment, he just hasn’t found what it is that inspires or means anything to him. On the other hand, maybe the ending, with Mom yelling WATCH OUT, holds out some hope. Are they about to crash? Will that shake them out of their trap?