Jeff Fearnside, author of Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air, A Husband and Wife are One Satan, and, most recently, Ships in the Desert, is a writer of fabulous range and grace. After his poem “What We Call Home” was featured in Mid-American Review Vol. XLI, Jeff agreed to speak to a few of our curiosities around his poem, his award-winning short story chapbook A Husband and Wife are One Satan, and the subjects of his work. Many thanks to Jeff Fearnside for sharing his thoughts and for making this interview a genuine treat.
—Mays Kuhail and Samuel Burt, MAR
Your poem “What We Call Home,” which was just published in Mid-American Review Vol. XLI, is a terrific celebration of belonging. Notably, this poem does not follow any specific speaker. However, the poem’s questions and attentive quality suggest that the poem comes from a place of deeply contemplative observation. What role does the natural world play in your writing life, and what has spending time in nature meant for you as a person?
Nature has played an extremely important role in my life ever since my earliest memories. I grew up exploring the fields and woods behind my childhood home, climbing trees, bushwhacking through sumac, searching for arrowheads in the sand. Those were much different times. It wasn’t unusual at all then for us kids to head out after lunch and be gone until dark. Usually it was me and my brother though often just me alone. I had an extremely difficult relationship with my father, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that nature saved me in many ways. Being in the outdoors was one of the few places where I felt like myself and free—there and in the world of books. So it’s not surprising that the two combined and nature has played such a prominent role in my writing. It’s not something I consciously think about. It’s just part of who I am.
Adrienne Rich wrote in her essay “Someone Is Writing a Poem” that to write a poem you must believe that “an ‘I’ can become a ‘we’ without extinguishing others,” and that “a partly common language exists to which strangers can bring their own heartbeat, memories, images.” This quote came to mind at the “We” in your poem’s title. As you entered this space of universality, what were you hoping the strangers who come across your work would find?
Those are beautiful ideas from Rich, and I completely agree with them. The “We” in my poem’s title certainly is meant not only to reflect all of humanity but also to invite everyone into the worldview of the poem and experience its sense of belonging, its sense of home. Its setting is a natural place. So the “We” is intended to include even more than just humans. It also includes the blackbird who is the focus of the poem and by extension all animals. It includes the cattail-lined water spot where the blackbird lives and by extension all of the natural environment.
This may seem like a lot to divine from such a short poem—it’s an unmetered sonnet with a Shakespearean rhyme scheme, so everything occurs in fourteen lines—so I’m glad you earlier mentioned the lack of any specific speaker in it, for that highly detached point of view emphasizes the scene playing out. This is about putting the reader right there with the blackbird. That’s where the connection is. That’s not just the world of the poem. That’s our world. Humans and nature are one.
As a writer, you work in many genres. Your poems have been published widely, your short stories collected in A Husband and Wife are One Satan won the 2020 Orison Chapbook Prize, and you’ve recently had a book of essays published by the Santa Fe Writers Project, titled Ships in the Desert. What is different for you, in terms of your process, feeling, and state of mind, when you sit down to write a poem like “What We Call Home” versus a short story like “The River?”
The feeling and state of mind remain the same no matter the genre I’m working in. There’s always a spark, an enthusiasm for an idea, that drives me to write anything, and I always write best when I allow myself to fall into that feeling and write uninhibitedly, without overthinking it.
However, the process for each genre is a little different, because there are different reasons to write in each. For me, poetry is best for those crystalline moments we encounter in life, where it’s more about image and feeling. The basis of a poem can come to me quickly, though it often takes many days to get everything just right. I usually write first drafts of poetry longhand. There’s something about producing work by hand that way, physically putting pen to paper, that seems to connect me to deeper parts of my subconscious. Scientific studies have shown that students remember more when they take notes by hand as opposed to typing them, and I sense something similar occurs in my writing, with writing and memory being so inextricably linked.
Stories lend themselves better to prose. Which stories move me toward fiction and which to nonfiction depends entirely on whether they would be better served by use of imagined details, in which case I generally opt for fiction, or a grounding in realistic information, in which case I generally opt for nonfiction. That’s not to say my fiction can’t be realistic and my nonfiction imaginative. It’s more about the mode of storytelling. If a story is better served in third-person omniscient point of view, for example, then I would be tempted to render it in fiction. But many others writers use third-person omniscient to great effect in their nonfiction. John Hersey and John McPhee immediately come to mind for this with their reportage or literary journalism style. Being a former newspaper journalist myself, I also sometimes employ that style in my nonfiction. So it’s not cut and dried. I don’t follow a formula for anything. I trust my gut feeling about each idea and allow it to lead me. Once I settle on a prose genre and begin writing, I typically use a computer, even for first drafts. It’s a simple practical matter in this case: While it’s easy enough for me to type a poem based on a longhand draft, it’s too time-consuming for me to do so for longer prose pieces.
Editing is the same for everything I write. After completing a draft—and in the case of poetry, typing it on a computer—I print it and go over it on paper. I can do some editing on a computer, but it’s a lot easier for me on paper. This is an important part of my writing process. This is where I try to understand what a piece really wants to say. I’ll go through many drafts, adding, cutting, rearranging, refining. When I get to the point where I begin putting back punctuation I removed earlier, or vice versa, then I know I’m done.
Your chapbook A Husband and Wife Are One Satan is a rich collection of stories on culture, history, and quotidian life. How do you capture the setting, in this case Kazakhstan, and all of its particularities in a way that’s almost familiar to readers who have never been there?
I strongly believe that underneath the cultural apparel we wear, humans are fundamentally alike. So the best way to make a foreign culture familiar is to expose the similarities that are right there already. We all love, hate, feel crushing disappointment and rising joy, take pride in our work, mourn the deaths of loved ones, and so on. No one culture has a monopoly on any of these universal feelings. So making a particular culture seem real involves tapping into the commonalities we share while at the same time rendering the culture as accurately as possible in its details, which comes from observing those details in real life, really paying attention to and absorbing them. It’s probably obvious, or at least should be, but it can’t be stressed enough: Being a close observer is essential to a writer.
Despite the stories in A Husband and Wife are One Satan tending to be short, your characters come across as complex and three-dimensional. How do you develop vivid characters in little page space?
I’m happy you feel this way! I don’t know if there’s any trick to it other than simply remembering and having curiosity about people and their behaviors. For example, many of the epithets the couple of the title story exchange with each other are real phrases my wife’s grandparents sometimes used with each other. I loved the vividness of these epithets and the richness of Russian idioms in general. It was that interest in language that prompted me to write that story.
But those two characters are otherwise nothing like my wife’s grandparents were! The story isn’t anything I had heard or witnessed. It all came out of those phrases, which led me to the further idea of a bickering couple who also cared for each other more deeply than they realized. That’s where the universality of human feelings comes in. There’s often a thin veneer between love and hate. So I just followed that. And I peopled the world of that story with composites of those I knew or had observed while freely imagining the details of their lives. For all of the stories in that collection, even the characters with some basis in reality are 90 percent invented.
Earlier, I said it’s important to have curiosity about people instead of an understanding of them because I don’t think understanding is necessary. Can anyone really know the heart of another? But in being curious about others, we want to reach out to and connect with them. So that’s also essential, not just to a writer but to anyone who wants to get along in the world.
In this short story collection, we got a variety of full-bodied stories revolving around such subjects as normalized wedding rituals in “Accomplices to a Tradition,” or metanarrative storytelling in “The River.” How do you decide which stories are worth telling, and what challenges do you face in making these narrative decisions?
I’m very much an intuitive writer when it comes to those kinds of decisions. I always try to get a sense of what the story wants to be, not what I think it should be. Certain stories seem to demand certain perspectives. It just seemed clear to me that “Accomplices to a Tradition” had to be told from the first-person point of view—the story essentially demanded that the narrator take part in what was happening, however reluctantly, for as the title alludes, our societal traditions are collectively built, not just by those who actively do so but also by those who remain quiet about their dissent.
In “The River,” the first-person is working much differently. There, the point of view highlights the element of unreliability in a distinct way, which is important to the metanarrative you mention, the nested cups of stories within the overarching story. I don’t plan something like that as much as feel my way through it. That I can to do so undoubtedly stems from my having read a lot high-quality literature and absorbed the techniques used. That and a lot of practice.
As to challenges, the main one is remaining open to possibilities. A story can go in any direction until you put words on the page, and then it becomes committed to something, and once that commitment is made, we as writers can be reluctant to go back and play with other possibilities. I’m not immune to that any more than anyone else. I can feel stubbornly wedded to my own ideas, my “darlings,” as Faulkner called them. But we have to be willing to give up on any idea, no matter how much time has been spent on it, if it isn’t working. We have to be willing to get it right.
At one point in “A Husband and Wife are One Satan,” the character Raim greets a Muslim customer, Murat with “Assalamu alaikum,” then welcomes a Christian customer, Kolya, in Russian, shaking each of their hands in accordance with their respective cultural customs. How else does your work reflect the cultural diversity and pluralism of Kazakhstan?
My most recent book Ships in the Desert has a section devoted to just this idea. The book is a collection of essays about different subjects, from the environmental catastrophe of the Aral Sea to my host family during my first months in Kazakhstan, but the most relevant essay in relation to your question is “The Missionary Position.” The United States has often been called a melting pot or, more recently, a salad bowl, to better represent how cultures here both integrate and remain distinct, but we’re far from the only country that has embraced multiculturalism. Kazakhstan is home to more than one hundred different ethnic groups. My students there came from many different backgrounds: Kazakh, Russian, German, Uzbek, Korean, among others. This reflects how the country and Central Asia in general is a literal crossroads between Asia and Europe. It’s been an important region economically and strategically for centuries. In fact, it and not Europe was the center of world power in medieval times. The Great Silk Road facilitated not only the trading of goods but also the trading of ideas, fashions, and religions. It wasn’t and still isn’t a homogeneous region. I talk about all this in more detail in “The Missionary Position,” but really, anything I or anyone else writes about Kazakhstan or Central Asia has to reflect cultural diversity and pluralism if it wants to be accurate.
The title of this collection, and of one of its stories, A Husband and Wife are One Satan, is a translation of the Russian saying “Муж и жена – одна сатана.” How else does your knowledge of Russian, Kazakh, as well as other languages influence your writing in English?
I have to give a big thanks here to my wife Valentina, for I rely on her a lot to help me work through understanding many things about the Russian language. I’m not fluent in it. I can follow it pretty well in normal, everyday circumstances. Just don’t ask me to translate War and Peace from the original! But I studied it and used it a lot while living overseas. I studied Kazakh as well, though less intensively, and I used it far less often. Both languages helped me understand my own language better. I taught English overseas, and my students constantly asked me questions about things I as a native speaker had simply absorbed at an early age. My students’ questions forced me not only to analyze what I had absorbed but also to compare it to their native languages. I had studied other languages in high school and college, mainly Spanish but also some German, but that kind of classroom experience is very different from the immersion experience I had in Kazakhstan. It was there for the first time that I fully understood how we actually have to think differently when speaking another language—and how it works the other way around, too, that another language can change the way we think.
How that plays out in my writing is subtle, but it’s there. Even though my dialogue is overwhelmingly rendered in English, I’m always considering whether it sounds right to the way certain characters would think and speak in their native languages. In my mind, I try to hear them in their native tongues, and if I don’t know exactly what that might be like, I ask my wife, at least for Russian. Then I try to get the feeling of that into English. It’s a lot like translating.
Still, even though our different languages suggest differences between us, just as our cultures and traditions do, these differences are essentially cosmetic. I believe strongly in the underlying unity of humanity. So I try to write characters that behave true to their own humanity. To achieve this more believably and consistently is an ongoing, lifelong task. There’s always more for a writer to do. The work is never finished.