In the first story of Eugene Cross’ debut story collection, Fires of Our Choosing, a boy takes another boy to a corner of the playground and beats him up because he can, and because he’s sad. In Cross’ stories, hurt people hurt people, and while sorrow and unhappiness might not excuse their behavior, it can illuminate. This is what Cross accomplishes with his bullies, harvesters, housepainters, housebreakers, and pool sharks — he lights them up, and reveals their humanity. Tout savoir c’est tout pardonner: to know all is to forgive all.
Cross’s stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, American Short Fiction, Story Quarterly, TriQuarterly, and Callaloo, among other publications. His collection was published by Dzanc and recently was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
The Millions: Reading your stories, I thought often of Flannery O’Connor’s work, and what she said about violence being an “extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially.” What role might violence play in your writing?
Eugene Cross: When I set out to write the book, I didn’t intend for violence to play such a pivotal role. However, many of the characters in Fires are at their breaking points, especially some of the younger ones. Like many adolescents, rather than deal with a situation rationally, they act out with violence. Having been a kid myself (and having held onto that mentality for much longer than society would deem appropriate), and having worked with kids in the past, I’ve seen violence from both sides, the bully and the bullied. I tried to explore that in these stories, and also was intrigued by just how quickly those roles, the abuser and the abused, can reverse.
TM: Erie, Presque Isle Bay, Waterford, I-79: from what Google tells me, much of your collection is set in northwestern Pennsylvania. Nomad that I’ve been, I’m ever interested in the ways writers like, say, Munro and Faulkner root their fiction in a particular location. Do you feel any storytelling attachment to this part of Pennsylvania?
EC: I do! Like so many beginning writers, I tried desperately to escape where I was from. From my first creative writing class on, I was hellbent on writing stories that took place anywhere but where I grew up. I wrote stories set in the swanky social circles of Manhattan, places where people drank gimlets and actually used words like swanky. Or pieces set in Hawaii or Texas or the underbelly of LA or even, God forgive me, stories set nowhere.
TM: What changed?
EC: A teacher of mine very kindly pointed out that all these exotic and vague locales sort of sounded like the same place — that is, they began to sound like the place I’d been trying to escape all along. The place I was from. And so finally I embraced it and all it had to offer. The farmlands of northwestern PA, the grit and resilience of cities like Pittsburgh and my hometown of Erie. The people and places I’d spent my whole life observing.
TM: You say you tried desperately to escape where you were from. What do you think pulled you away from home?
EC: In large part, I thought that most people wouldn’t find where I was from interesting enough to read stories set there. This, however, was a product of my own restless adolescence. Like many kids raised in small towns I couldn’t wait to get out, to see the big city, to move on to other places where I was certain life was exciting and magnificent, and moved at an altogether faster pace. And so I used my stories as a sort of escape, until I myself could escape for a while. When I gained some distance and grew up a bit, I finally realized that the place I was from wasn’t all that bad, and was in fact pretty great. That the people who built their lives there and the stories that occurred were the foundation of my life.
TM: Before publishing your collection with Dzanc, you also received a Dzanc Prize for a community service project with refugees in Erie. Can you tell me about the project?
EC: Dzanc very kindly provided me with the means to run a creative writing workshop for refugees living in my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. The class was composed mainly of Bhutanese refugees who’d been living in refugee camps in Nepal. The United States served as a third-country resettlement for them. That being said, the bulk of participants were high-school-age students, kids who’d been born and raised in the refugee camps and lived their whole lives under extremely difficult circumstances, usually without electricity and running water. When they were resettled in the United States they came to live in cities like Erie and Pittsburgh and were often placed in the poorest areas of town and attended public schools with the worst reputations.
Take all of that and add a language and cultural barrier and it would be enough to break almost anyone, but not them. We did exercises where they wrote letters to friends and family they’d left behind in the camps, or who had been resettled elsewhere, and they were heartbreaking and amazing.
TM: You seem to have a particular affinity for younger characters. If you could give your younger self some advice, what would you say?
EC: I would say, “Younger self, stop taking everything so seriously and brooding all the time, and stop worrying so much about being accepted and just try and be yourself for a little bit, whoever that is, and be nicer to your parents and sister who love you, and don’t get annoyed when they want to talk to you and ask you questions they won’t always be there to ask, and don’t think you have to screw up and get into loads of trouble to be a writer, and enjoy your life, every second, ‘cause it all goes so fast. And stop letting your mom, as much as you love her, dress you in those god-awful turtle-neck sweaters with the deer printed on them, especially on picture day at school. It’s not helping you or her or anybody.”
TM: Speaking of previous editions, I remember having read an earlier version of your first story, “Rosaleen, If You Know What I Mean.” Do I remember correctly that you changed the first line of that story? If so, do you mind talking about what changed, and why?
EC: In the original version of the story, the opening line read, “The day after his brother left the house for good, Marty Hanson picked out the smallest boy in his sixth grade class and beat him badly.” The line now reads, “The day after his brother left the house for good, Marty Hanson picked out the smallest boy in his sixth grade class and waited until the boy was alone.”
What happened is that I got the opportunity to take a workshop with the wonderful writer and teacher, Charles Baxter, as well as with an amazing group of fellow students (including the incredible author conducting this interview!). Baxter pointed to the line immediately and told me I was “telegraphing my scene.” In other words I was telling the reader what would happen before it happened. When writing the story, I needed this hint, as it was one of the first things that came to me and pointed me in the direction the story would eventually take. However, in revision, I could pull it out and hence create tension for the reader. Baxter’s advice seemed so simple, and yet, I never would have come to it on my own. It made perfect sense and so I went back and changed the line.
TM: I’ve been thinking recently about what makes a story collection versus a pile of stories. Fires of Our Crossing feels very much like a collection, with unities of place, situation, and tone. When did these stories start coming together as a collection for you, or had you planned them as such from the beginning?
EC: Thanks so much for saying that, as I’d definitely hoped for it to come across as such. At first, I was just trying to write good stories that could stand on their own, attempting as best I could (and probably quite naively) to ignore how I would someday market the book, or try to sell it. Thankfully, the stories began to link themselves in terms of place and theme, and for that I was grateful. I don’t know if I’ll be as lucky in the future, but my goal is always to write strong work in the hopes that it will organically coalesce. I never want to try and force a theme or a character or connect stories that otherwise wouldn’t benefit from it, simply because it would make a book more marketable.
TM: Can you tell me more about the collection’s title?
EC: Well, first off, I’ve found that it’s a bit divisive. People seem to really like it or really hate it. I’ve felt both ways. But mostly it has something to do with a certain amount of accountability. The characters in the book have awful things happen to them. There are fires (obviously), drownings, robberies, break-ups, impending imprisonments, and all nature of tragedy, and through it all many of these characters are looking to blame anyone around them, anyone but themselves. Growing up, a lot of my friends were like that. I was like that. Willing to take credit for anything positive that came my way, but so quick to dismiss trouble as not being self-inflicted.
TM: The characters of Fires of Our Choosing seem to look for their respective salvations in, by turns, work, gambling, or violence. Which do you think is most likely to save us?
EC: I’d love to say gambling, but I’m a subpar card player who never knows when to stand up and cash in, Kenny Rogers be damned. Truthfully, I don’t think any of these can save us, but I’m often less interested in the outcome than the attempt. What do we turn to and why? Leisure and work, they both have their places, but require balance. Raymond Carver has a story entitled “What Do You Do In San Francisco?” where a postman contemplates how work got him through the toughest times in his life: the disintegration of his marriage, two kids he hasn’t seen in twenty years, and so on. “A man who isn’t working has got too much time on his hands, too much time to dwell on himself and his problems,” he states. But there’s also the reverse. No time at all to dwell, so much work that we can forget those around us, reassess our priorities and cloud our losses.
TM: What about you — what are you working on these days?
EC: I’m in the very early stages of a novel that is so tiny and clouded for me that it resembles one of those magic-grow capsules you had as a kid, that, when dropped into a tub of warm water, would expand into a giant foam turtle or dinosaur. My only hope is that mine doesn’t expand into a giant foam short story.
TM: What’s your workday like?
EC: I’d love to say that when I’m writing I sit down and stay put. That I “don’t leave the room” as the wonderful Ron Carlson suggests. But that would be a lie. I do. As my third grade teacher told my horrified mother many years ago, “He’s like a fish out of water.” I pace. I stall. I hit the fridge. I research, oftentimes too much. But once I’ve gotten some of that restless energy out, I’m ready to work. Sometimes it’s for a couple of hours, usually not more than three or four. I shoot for a page, knowing full well it might get tossed later and yet I try to treat it like it’s the most precious thing I’ve ever written. Whether it finds itself into the finished piece or not, every line deserves as much.