In January of this year my short story ‘Post Youth’ was published by Thoughtful Dog. Some months later I was contacted by Dorothy Reno, a senior editor and columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books (you can find out more about Dorothy’s work here) who also had a story published by Thoughtful Dog back in 2017, the powerful Hockey Stick Feminism. Dorothy enjoyed my story and asked if I would be willing to answer some questions about it. I was flattered and jumped at the opportunity to discuss the piece in more detail.

Unfortunately we couldn’t find a home for the interview, but I thought I would share the conversation here. I certainly enjoyed returning to this particular character and his troubled world, and I’d like to thank Dorothy for her time and her engaging, thought-provoking questions.

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Dorothy Reno: Your story opens with a powerful dream sequence. The protagonist, Bill, is a war veteran and small-town mailman who journeys back in his psyche every night to visit the farmhouse where he grew up.

You write, ‘Youth was a grand farmhouse on a hill, surrounded by fields of long grass and crops that spread in every direction for miles around…’.

For Bill, it seems that youth represents an endless supply of opportunity, like those crops spreading out across the land. He wants to go back to a time before he harvested his hope and youthful energy. Why is he having so much difficulty recognising the opportunities in his life at present?

Nicholas J. Parr: Bill isn’t happy with his life right now, probably hasn’t been for quite some time. He went to fight in a war and he survived, but the experience undoubtedly changed him. For whatever reason he couldn’t handle life in the city, so he moved to a smaller town. This is where we encounter Bill. He seems settled in this new community, he enjoys his job, he has a local bar with at least one friend in Tom. Yet Bill still isn’t happy.

Even if the dreams are a recent manifestation, these constant thoughts to his youth have surely been on Bill’s mind for a while. If Bill hasn’t been truly happy since his childhood – those simpler times he recalls at the farmhouse – it’s easy to see why these memories might dominate his present-day thoughts, actions, and now dreams. Bill is stuck in the past.

The present hosts an abundance of new challenges and difficulties for Bill, and it’s easier for him to go through the motions of his day-to-day life, almost on autopilot as he delivers the mail, not thinking about what happens next, instead continually looking backwards. That makes it incredibly difficult for him to move on and grasp these ‘opportunities’.

DR: The old farmhouse in Bill’s dream has the feel of being burglarized or left in a hurry by the occupants. You write that Bill is a ‘twilight wanderer shambling towards the house’. To me this conjured an image of Bill as a zombie and gave a sense of helplessness to his stumbling journey through the dream.

NJP: That’s a really interesting thought. The sense of helplessness in the dream, with your image of Bill as a zombie, mirrors Bill’s sense of helplessness in his life. I think Bill wants to see the farmhouse in his dream as the warm and welcoming home from his childhood, rather than the derelict and abandoned building he experiences. Even through the medium of his own dreams he is unable to change these details and is a passenger in his dreamworld. I see parallels with anxiety dreams, the kind of dreams where, as the dreamer, you find yourself in an uncomfortable or frightening situation where no matter what you try, you are unable to stop something from happening. For example, trying to get to a meeting that you are already late for, but in your path you find locked doors, dead-ended corridors, people giving you the wrong directions over and over again, that sort of thing. And like a shambling zombie that is mindless and unable to change its own fate, Bill shambles through his dream and his life with resigned acceptance.

DR: In the middle section of the story, Bill delivers mail to a home and finds the occupant in shock over his wife’s death. Bill assists the old man, but the next day the old man says he can’t bear to see him anymore. Bill is the (literal) messenger who gets ‘shot’, so to speak. Why do you suppose people reject their helpers?

NJP: I think there are a number of reasons. Some people can be proud, and would rather handle their problems alone, in their own time, in their own way. Others see accepting help as a sign of weakness. And rejecting help can also be a way of remaining in denial, because to accept such help would be an admission that something is wrong.

The latter could be the case here. We encounter the old man sat in the rain. He says his wife died yesterday yet he has done nothing as a reaction to this news – the dead woman is still sat in her chair. The old man is in shock, he doesn’t want to accept what has happened. So when Bill arrives and calls the ambulance, he is forced to face reality, that his wife is gone and he is alone now. Maybe he resents Bill for that.

Or it could simpler. The old man just doesn’t want to pay for the local paper anymore. Perhaps he never cared for it, only ordered it because his wife liked to do the crosswords. Either way, you do feel that Bill is hit hard by the old man’s request.

DR: It seems that Bill is looking for a connection that can’t be sustained. First, he wakes up from his dream right before the pivotal moment. Then, he’s turned away by the old man, followed by a passage where Bill realizes that he and his sister don’t share the same memories of childhood. In the final scene he wants to connect with his friend, Tom, but he can’t because he’s too drunk.

These broken connections feel like a dark commentary on adult life. But it’s not all bleak. You write, ‘There was still something beautiful to be gained in the isolation, something beautiful hidden in the desolate ruins’. Is it too late for Bill to find that beauty?

NJP: I don’t think it’s too late for Bill to find some kind of happiness, but all these disjointed and broken connections you point out don’t bode well for him. They only contribute further to his sense of isolation. At least towards the end of his drunken conversation at the bar with Tom, Bill seems to acknowledge that some action, some decision will be needed soon. And Bill actually appears to gain some clarity in that final scene. At the very least, he seems to weigh up his options and possible consequences: Revisiting his childhood home, tracking down lost and distant relatives, getting some form of closure there. Or, if not that, then speaking to someone about his troubled and fragmented memories, not in an inebriated state under bar lights but with his sister, or a counsellor or therapist?

It’s left ambiguous, but I wouldn’t be hopeful. Bill agrees to have one last drink with Tom. Both men admit that drinking is contributing to memory loss, and promises and resolutions conceived late at night after too much whisky don’t tend to come to fruition, if they are even remembered come the morning.

DR: Bill fears that ‘He is old, irrelevant and fading out of existence.’ Is this his greatest fear, or is it, in fact, his heart’s desire? There are so many instances where it feels like Bill is leaning towards obliteration.

NJP: That’s a great point. These visions and memories Bill has of his childhood, of his youth, are bittersweet. Because he does remember those days warmly, the feelings the farmhouse evokes, the sense of family, being together, being happy. But the memories are fading with age, distorting with time, resulting in the dreams that torment him every night. I think his biggest fear is of these memories continuing to distort until they become unrecognisable, or losing the memories entirely.

But heading towards obliteration, his eventual death? Bill is probably apathetic about that. He encountered death early during the war and has carried his mortality with him all his life. He will keep living until he dies, it’s as simple as that for Bill. He’s a fatalist, he doesn’t see one’s path through life as something that can be changed. But his memories – he values those over everything, even his life.

Bill considers the implications of a return to the farmhouse, and his possible death, at the bar (‘to spend the rest of eternity discussing the past with dead relatives’). That might sound like a vision of hell for most, but we know Bill has a desire to return to and explore the past. If this is Bill’s idea of what death might bring, maybe he is leaning towards it.

DR: Bill has trouble interpreting his dreams. It seems to me that he can’t interpret his life, either. Do you think that is his real problem? Not war trauma, but the inability to extract meaning from his life?

NJP: It’s difficult to know whether Bill’s emotional disconnect is something that has always been a problem, or something that was exacerbated after experiencing war. But you’re right in that he has little meaning in his life. The problem could lie in the fact that he has always followed orders. Throughout his life he’s been told what to do, during his childhood, his time spent in the army, now in this small town. ‘They asked him what he could do.… They gave him parcels and packages to deliver’. Bill’s profession is chosen for him. Now that he is living independently, he has more time for inner thought and self-reflection, and that’s going to be difficult for Bill to adjust to.

DR: Bill thinks about nothing, while his friend, Tom, has many ideas he would like to express. Neither man is happy. Does this come back to lack of connection?

NJP: These two men both have different outlooks and different experiences and different troubles, and yet they both find some kind of solace in each other. But I wonder if Tom genuinely sees Bill as a friend or merely a drinking partner; someone who just happens to be there more often than not. That’s a sad thought. Clearly, they’ve spent enough time with each other to know about certain aspects of the other’s life. From their fractured conversations we can see that these two might not entirely understand each other, but Bill probably sees his relationship with Tom as one of the strongest connections in his life. He’s far more honest with Tom than he is with his sister, and while that may have more to do with the amount of liquor consumed, I don’t think his sister knows the extent of Bill’s tortured existence.

DR: I have the feeling that Bill could be trapped in one of those Joy Williams death fugues. Like, if he really goes back to find the house of his youth, as Tom suggests, he’ll have to admit that he’s a ghost, and then move forward into the afterlife. But then I thought perhaps this is too literal an interpretation and it’s more that he’s emotionally numb (because of PTSD) and the ‘afterlife’ is simply the rest of his life – whatever he can manage to make of it.

NJP: I find dead narrators fascinating. Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is a wonderful novel that takes place in a literal ghost town, and Roberto Bolaño’s short story ‘The Return’ also deals with a character waking up ‘on the other side’. But in this story, no, I don’t think Bill is dead, not yet. Although something in Bill might die if he does return to the farmhouse.

Bill doesn’t know if the farmhouse still exists. Maybe it’s been demolished. Or it sits there on the hilltop, abandoned and derelict, just like he sees in his dreams. That would hit Bill the hardest, because it confirms that all he has left of his youth are the tortured memories that he knows can’t last forever, and will die with him. But what if Bill returns, and the farmhouse has been given new life, occupied by a new family, lived in by a new generation? How might that make Bill feel? Might the dreams finally stop? If life has continued at the farmhouse, maybe life can continue for Bill too.

For what it’s worth, I think Bill should return to the farmhouse. Take some time off work, get on a plane. See if he can rope his sister or Tom along for a road trip.

It’s been months since I posted last. Recently I started a new job. I haven’t written much (or read much) in a long time because I’m always exhausted at the moment. Everything’s a bit overwhelming right now and I really hope that changes soon (it will). I read some wonderful books while I was away and while I don’t have the time to give them the attention they deserve (in the past I might have dedicated a whole post to some of the books listed here) I wanted to write a few brief words on the words I read on the other side of the world.

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The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
The visceral realists are a poetry movement consisting of young idealistic junkie romantics. They are tough and rough yet full of heart and  The journey of Arturo Belano (that’s Bolaño himself) and Ulisses Lima (Bolaño’s friend and fellow poet José Alfredo Zendejas Pineda) as they escape Mexico City to locate a mysterious and elusive poet in the Sonoran desert. The majority of the book consists of interviews and testimonies from dozens of people from Mexico, South America, Europe and beyond, people who saw Belano and Lima and the visceral realists pass through their lives in some vague and spectral capacity. It’s a book about love, the idea and the ideals of love, about the intensity of youth and its brevity, life and its harsh and sad realities, the people who wander into your path, those who settle, those who die, those who change and those who can’t, those who are remembered and those who are forgotten, fond memories and past lovers lost and found. It’s a powerful book. A road trip that spans twenty years, The Savage Detectives is funny, melancholic, beautiful.

Of all the islands he’d visited, two stood out. The island of the past, he said, where the only time was past time and the inhabitants were bored and more or less happy, but where the weight of illusion was so great that the island sank a little deeper into the river every day. And the island of the future, where the only time was the future, and the inhabitants were planners and strivers, such strivers, said Ulises, that they were likely to end up devouring one another.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
A heartwarming little book that champions the human condition. On the surface it may appear simplistic and humdrum but Steinbeck’s descriptions of Cannery Row and its inhabitants reveals a charming set of characters, pimps and whores and homeless drunks, who despite their ordinary lives share wonderful experiences together. You can read this in an afternoon, but it will leave you enchanted for some time afterwards.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
In just one or two thousand words Denis Johnson can write a vignette that transports you to rural America, puts you into the life of a relapsing drug addict, in the company of other addicts, drunks, petty criminals, burnouts and wasters. The narratives are chaotic and often inconclusive in these interlinked tales but the imagery contained within dimly illuminate this world in a hopeful light.

Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Despite being published back in 1955 Lolita remains a controversial book. And for good reason. What the poor, hopelessly romantic Humbert Humbert would have us understand as a tragic love affair, we know to be the lusting (and ultimately, rape) of an eleven year old girl. Humbert is despicable and depraved, veering from unapologetic manipulation to self disgust at his perversions. Nabokov succeeds in making Humbert both a vile villain and a sympathetic protagonist. And his prose is so playful and deep and full of symmetry. A disturbing book that is at times tough to read, but equally tough to put down.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August by William Faulkner
You know, I’ve read essays and critical analyses for both Absalom and Light in August, and it left me feeling inadequate and underprepared. I’m not going to lie to you and say that I find Faulkner easy to read but I enjoyed these two books and I thought I had a good grasp of what occurred within each narrative. Turns out I missed a hell of a lot of symbolism, double meanings and thematic values the first time around. Faulkner’s writing is heavy and severe and his stories sprawl in a nonlinear way. Sometimes I get lost, sometimes I have to turn back and start again. Sometimes it’s the getting there, the way a story unfolds, that makes it a story worth telling.

Dune by Frank Herbert
Dune is considered a sci-fi classic by many, so I was a little disappointed when I finally got around to reading it. Perhaps it hasn’t aged as well as other science fiction? While the desert planet of Arrakis is a fascinating setting and the world building by Herbert is superbly vivid and rich, almost everything else I found to be lacking, the prose, the dialogue, the cliched fantasy characters. I can see the influence Dune has had on the science fiction and fantasy genres but it doesn’t quite hold up to those high standards now.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov
In some ways my criticisms of Foundation are somewhat similar to my criticisms of Dune. Asimov, as he did countless times during his life, created an innovative and original premise. The sense of scope and scale is impressive too. But again, one dimensional characters engage in fairly dry (and sometimes downright dull) discussions of politics and trade negotiations and faith in the Foundation itself. Some of the concepts are interesting, but others really did feel like a slog to get through.

London Fields by Martin Amis.
A bit rubbish to be honest. Amis creates a lot of ideas, potentially interesting ones at that, but none of them stick. Unlikeable characters pegged precisely into their social classes do awful things over and over again. It’s all rather aimless. Not too dissimilar to this blog.

Cheers, N.

Good news! My short story ‘Post Youth’ was selected to be part of Thoughtful Dog’s latest issue. You can read it HERE.

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‘Post Youth’ follows a man plagued by dreams of his youth as he struggles to move through difficult times in later life. It’s a story I wrote roughly two years ago and to be honest, I had nearly forgotten about it. It had been rejected a few times so I’m delighted to have the chance to share it.

An online magazine, Thoughtful Dog publishes literary fiction and non-fiction inspired by the world around us. The current issue also contains fiction from Lauren Villa, Paul J. Laverty, and an interview with Leland Cheuk of 7.13 Books.

Please don’t hesitate to pass on any comments: I would love to hear any thoughts or feedback you might have.

I have returned.

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Playing with perspective in the salt flats. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Having spent six months exploring twelve countries across two continents, taking hundreds of buses and dozens of planes and of course using my own feet to walk an indeterminable number of miles, I’m finally home. It feels strange to be back – but a good strange, I think.

Travelling exhausted me. It broke me, it humbled me, it pained me. It was the best thing I have ever done. I’ve met amazing people, seen beautiful places, and lived out some amazing experiences. If you get the chance to get away, to explore the world, even if it’s just for a month at a time, do it.

Did I get any inspiration? Hell yes. Did I write? Nowhere near as much as I would have liked to. But yes, a little, and I hope to share the results soon.

I trust 2017 is now firmly in the back of your minds, and I hope 2018 treats you right.

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I’m writing this from a motel room in Banff, Canada.

Roughly three weeks ago I quit my job. Over the next six months I will be travelling through Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

And so this blog will come to an end. Or maybe not. Certainly an indefinite hiatus. Ideally I’d like to update when I can over the coming months, but more than that I’d like to keep writing several projects as I travel – short stories, longer pieces, as well as general impressions and observations along the way. It’s going to be hard enough for me to devote time to that.

I’d like to thank those who have regularly read my posts on here, especially those who have taken the time out to give feedback, positive and negative. And perhaps some of you will still be around if/when I do come back.

All the best,

Nick

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Photograph taken by Andy Schwetz. See more of Andy’s work on his website here.

The crowd grew restless. They had been waiting a long time for tonight’s performance. But the speaker was late. It was quarter past nine, with the speaker due to start at eight. It was a warm evening and in an attempt to keep the noises of the city out, all windows had been sealed, and the hall was already at full capacity, so the doors had been locked, and in these conditions the atmosphere was fevered and close and the audience began to foam at the mouth. Any spark threatened to ruin them all.

Half past nine: several people get to their feet, and are followed by the rest. They climb onto their chairs, they shout obscene chants. A member of the entourage emerged from behind the curtains. She reached for the microphone and began to apologise, but programmes and plastic cups and even chairs themselves were thrown onto the stage, and the entourage and venue staff soon retreated. In anger the audience swept into the aisles and stripped the wood panels from the floors, the padding from the seats, the paintings and the light fittings from walls. Like a rising tide they engulfed the stage and tore down the decorations and the displays. The curtains were set alight and burned down as ashes in a matter of minutes. Howls and roars erupted from the mouths of the protesters. A brick was hurled through a window. The doors were hacked open. In their frenzied hysteria they ran down the steps of the theatre into the streets, where onlookers stopped and watched in bemusement. Feeling somewhat sheepish the protesters fell silent. Their anger dissipated into the starless night sky and they walked away the streets. The damage was done and the accused speaker forgotten.

Several years later, the accused, a tall old man of lean build with dark glasses, tottered forward onto the stage, using a stick for guidance. Shattered glass cracked beneath his feet as he went. There was debris strewn over all. Animal droppings covered the aisles and splintered chairs. Graffiti decorated the walls and doors. He found a square tile of carpet and stopped, knowing he was stood in the centre of the stage, but as he reached out ahead of him, the microphone stand was not where he expected it to be. He got to his knees to feel for it, but all he could pick up was trash, and he dropped his stick to kneel on the ruined stage. The sound startled a bird in the mezzanine above, which cried and flew out one of the holes in the ceiling, and the old man looked up and smiled. He gave up looking for the microphone and sat himself down, cross-legged, on the tile of carpet, allowing his hands to rest gently on the glass shards and rotting flyers.

Clearing his throat, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for waiting. I want to apologies for the circumstances surrounding this evening, most notably my lateness, but also the troubles we’ve had with seating arrangements. I trust you are all now seated comfortably. Now,” the speaker paused, tilting his head as if straining to interpret something inexplicable in the air. He thought he heard footsteps, but it could have been the echoes of his own words. Or perhaps the bird had returned.

“We can begin.”

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.

Roberto Bolaño’s dreamlike prose is something I adore – I’ve made no attempt to hide the impact his sprawling classic 2666 has left on me, along with the compelling short story collection The Return, containing some incredibly dark and saddening tales. The ‘floating’ feeling Bolaño’s words can elicit is in plentiful supply in Last Evenings on Earth, published in 1997 and translated into English by Chris Andrews in 2006.

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The collection of stories written by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, found within Last Evenings on Earth, are profoundly character – rather than plot – driven, focussing on the thoughts and fears of the protagonists. These narrators are often struggling poets or writers (and seem to me like imprints of Bolaño himself) and frequently speak in the first person as if confessing, or re-examining, their actions and thoughts, trapped in a paranoid and tortured void between Europe and their various (Latin American) homelands.

The titular Last Evenings on Earth is one of the highlights, in which B (presumably Arturo Belano, Bolaño’s alter ego) and his father go on vacation to a beach resort in Mexico, which ominously builds to a violent climax. Dance Card‘s narrator returns to Chile in 1973 to help rebuild socialism, is arrested and imprisoned and accused of being a terrorist, only to be released by a pair of detectives he knew from school (the class mates from Detectives, the story within The Return). 

A quote from Gómez Palacio, where a 23 year old poet takes a position teaching creative writing in the titular town, and goes on an unusual car ride with the writing director.

…at first I couldn’t see anything, only darkness, the sparkling lights of that restaurant or town, then some cars went past and the beams of their headlights carved the space in two… And then I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light, that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road – a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground – but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.

In Dentist, the narrator visits an old friend, a dentist, who introduces him to a poor Indian boy who is a literary genius and whom the dentist appears to be in love with. A fantastic quote from Dentist on the nature of art in one of many tequila-inspired conversations:

That’s what art is, he said, the story of a life in all its particularity. It’s the only thing that really is particular and personal. It’s the expression and, at the same time, the fabric of the particular. And what do you mean by the fabric of the particular? I asked, supposing he would answer: Art. I was also thinking, indulgently, that we were pretty drunk already and that it was time to go home. But my friend said: What I mean is the secret story…. The secret story is the one we’ll never know, although we’re living it from day to day, thinking we’re alive, thinking we’ve got it all under control and the stuff we overlook doesn’t matter. But every damn thing matters! It’s just that we don’t realize. We tell ourselves that art runs on one track and life, our lives, on another, we don’t even realize that’s a lie.

Bolaño is, here and throughout his body of work, evasive, elusive, transparent, but also observational, coherent, inspirational. The dreamlike quality of his texts blend surrealism, wit, political and philosophical analysis, and I will continue to study and enjoy as many of his stories as I can.