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.
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.