Forty-Four Thousand Pounds by Emma Copley Eisenberg, published in The Common.

I had a wonderful conversation with Emma Copley Eisenberg. She’s the kind of skilled and careful writer who understands that a character not having “the right word for what [he/she] want[s] to say” is a condition of experience as much as it is education or something else. That “something else” might be ambivalence or memory or even a condition of effort. Eisenberg’s structurally deft story, Forty-Four Thousand Pounds, is about a young woman attempting to understand three important relationships, but in so doing she’s also trying to better understand herself, and how a person might deal with growing ambivalence regarding these relationships, among other things, while not giving up hope entirely. Here’s our interview below. And please, do check out her story over at the The Common.

Keith Lesmeister: I’m thinking of all the trucker-like jargon used in this piece, not least the exact amount of weight for the coil in back of the semi, which becomes the title of the story. Tell me about the research – if any – you had to do for this story.

Emma Copley Eisenberg: I did a lot of research for this story, but most of it came in the form of interviewing and reporting. I asked a friend’s father who is a trucker if I could ride around with him for a day. He taught me much of what I didn’t know.

KL: Structurally, the story moves in a bold, non-chronological way. At first, I thought we’d return to the bike riding scene at the end of the piece, but that’s simply not the case. We bounce back and forth in ways surprising – and satisfying – to me as a reader. Could you speak to how the structure of this story evolved throughout the process?

ECE: I was originally inspired by “All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona” by Richard Bausch. I love the way that story starts in a present moment that is full of misery and loss and boomerangs back and forth from the present to the past to show the reader how and why things turned out so badly. I wanted to riff on that way of thinking about a story, except in this case things haven’t turned out so badly in the present for Kendra, or so we think. In many ways she has moved forward in her life—she has left town, and moved to the big city. Yet she still feels sadness, loss, and ambivalence. I wanted the structure of the story to highlight that ambivalence.

KL: That makes sense, and I think it works quite well, as the bouncing back and forth highlights all the emotions you just mentioned. In addition, objects play a huge role in this story: books, instruments, the semi itself along with the coil, and even the bike, among other things. Could you speak to the importance of objects in your story? How do you determine which objects have more significance than others, or does that importance emerge naturally as the narrative takes shape?

ECE: I’ve always loved the physical world, simply put. Watching people and their clothes on the New York City subway system as a kid is, I believe, what made me want to write. Stuart Dybek writes like this, I think, and Grace Paley too. Sometimes objects teach you what the story is. Ron Carlson taught me that. The minute I had the steel coil, I knew what the story was. The steel coil taught me that the banjo had to be there, and then the banjo the horse, and so forth.

KL: There’s a lot going on this story, but the most significant part – at least in my mind – is this coming-of-age love negotiation between Kendra and Carla (Kendra’s friend/lover), Kendra and her parents, and Kendra and herself. I don’t want to give away the exquisitely rendered conversation toward the end of the story between Kendra and her father, but I have to ask: did his placating to Kendra’s mother surprise you?

ECE: I think Dude is positioned somewhere between Kendra and Kendra’s mother. Kendra is queer, and wants what she wants. Kendra’s mother doesn’t want her to want it. I think families often work this way, where one parent is more in tune with the actual desires of their child than the other. Yet the parents, in some ways, still need to be a team and function as a unit. So in that respect, no, it didn’t surprise me.

KL: One of my favorite scenes is in the honky-tonk. The details, the tension between characters, the insights Kendra has about her family, namely her father and this younger woman – there’s just so much going on. How did you keep this scene so tight? With all the commotion, I could imagine it spiraling into an all-night corn-liquored extravaganza, but you keep the scene under deft writerly control.

ECE: I think that just because there is music and alcohol involved, it doesn’t need to be a scene that gets out of control. That was one thing I learned by observing actual musicians actually, particularly Bluegrass musicians—they have a lot of discipline and take a lot of pride in songs being constructed and played well. I felt that Kendra possesses that discipline, even as Dude doesn’t, totally, so I let the scene follow Kendra’s energy, which is: get in, play, get out.

KL: The story is marked by these poetic, melancholic rhetorical questions which gives a very intimate feel to the story, as if you’re asking the reader to think about these questions alongside the narrator, even if for a brief moment. Some of the rhetorical question are: “What is the word for the feeling when you don’t care where you go as long as it is somewhere that is not home and as long as you are in motion?” Or, “What is the word for when your people give up on fighting for you to stay?” I don’t know how to phrase the question. I guess I’m asking your thoughts on using these rhetorical devices.

ECE: I think this is a story about not knowing, in a lot of ways, or knowing what choice you must make but being deeply ambivalent about that choice. I wanted the style of narration to reflect that mood, one in which there is never quite the right word for what you want to say.

KL: Last few questions………

KL: Do you listen to country music? If so, who?

ECE: I love country music and listen to it a lot. Some favorites are: Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Townes Van Zandt, and Mary Gauthier. Of course, Bluegrass both is and isn’t “country music” in the way most people understand it. In terms of Bluegrass, I was taught by friends in West Virginia that there are really only a handful of “real” Blugrass bands and they are: Earl and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and The Del McCoury Band.

KL: Do you frequent honky-tonk, country bars?

ECE: I’ve only been to one honky-tonk in my life, but I’ve sat around in people’s living rooms while they play Bluegrass many, many times.

KL: Do prefer a waltz or a polka?

ECE: I’m not a big dancer, but I’ll do a waltz if it’s with the right person.

KL: Ham or turkey (for sandwiches)?

ECE: Ham or turkey equally.

KL: Interstates or back roads?

ECE: Definitely back roads.

Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in West Philadelphia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, The Los Angeles Review of Books, AGNI, Guernica, ZYZZYVA, No Tokens, and other publications. She is the recipient of honors and residencies from Tin House Summer Workshop, the Turkey Land Cove Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and Lambda Literary. Her first book, The Third Rainbow Girl, is forthcoming from Hachette in 2019.

The Taxidermy Museum by Steven Dunn, published in Granta

A person can read the first page of Steven Dunn’s story The Taxidermy Museum online, but to read the rest you have to purchase a subscription ($16 digital). I think it’s worth it. In the story, Dunn stretches and challenges our belief and understanding of what it means to cherish and honor people and ideals. And what it means to be alive and living and remembered. But it does so through the eyes of people/characters who might not be fully aware of themselves or what is going on around them. “I volunteered to work at the Taxidermy Museum of Military Heroes. It gets me out of work three days a week, plus it looks like I’m taking on extra duties for my brag sheet.” Little does this character know…

Also check out Dunn’s lively, humorous, heartbreaking, and powerful novel POTTED MEAT (Tarpaulin Sky Press 2016). His novel WATER & POWER is forthcoming later this year.

Free Fall by April Darcy, published in Shenandoah

I was so taken by the gentle power and precision of April Darcy’s story, Free Fall, that I just had to ask her a few questions about the story itself. I won’t tell you anything about the story leading up to the interview, but should you decide to read Free Fall — which you should — prepare to be spellbound starting with the first paragraph. How does the author mesmerize readers? Well, here’s a hint: multiple layers of musicality coupled with wise and well placed insights. Check out our interview below.

Keith Lesmeister: There’s a wonderful, melodic structure to the story, which moves naturally and allows for the protagonist to focus on one character at a time, mostly. And those four characters are introduced to us in the first paragraph — husband, sister, lover, and the protagonist herself. Did the structure originate with the story, or did you find the structure in later drafts?

April Darcy: Oh man, did you win me over with this question.

First, thank you for reading the story so closely and taking the time to ask such great questions. Second, it’s amazing that you used the word melodic right out of the gate. My first love in life was music. Growing up, I sincerely believed that I would someday be a musician, or I would die. (My childhood journals provide proof of dramatics.)

Growing older and discovering music hiding underneath my love of language was such a joy–writing brought musicality back into my life in a new and concrete way. When I write I am almost purely focused on rhythm, sound, repetition. I read out loud for beats and drum along with my hand on my desk. If it doesn’t sound like a song, it’s not done yet. It’s subtle, of course, and it’s not like I do it on purpose, but sound and story go hand in hand for me.

And no, focusing on one character at a time wasn’t conscious when I drafted this story, but I see it now that you’ve pointed it out. (Thank you!) And that’s not unlike a song either, right? Bringing one instrument to the forefront while the rest falls into background briefly. I so wish I could say structure dictated anything, but no, this story flew out of me in one weird swoop and in more or less this structure from its conception. I fussed with it for years, of course, but to be honest it was a gift. I was not in charge. (I am never in charge.)

KL: I found myself pulled into the story by the conflict, certainly, but also by the language and specific phrases, specifically the repetition of some of these words or phrases. For instance, “Her hair was plaited over her ears, like a farm girl but somehow sexy, always so sexy.” In this case, those last words.

Or in dialogue: 

“Her eyes widened. She put down her fork. ‘Why would I do that?’ she said. ‘It’s just sex, Taylor. So what?’

‘So what? Don’t you think it would hurt him?'” 

In this case, the “so what” connects. 

And there are other instances throughout, and these moments often feel like a kind of echo. But echos can get distorted as they bounce off canyon walls. Or — as is the case with your story — they’re clearer, and more powerful, than the initial burst of language. I think it’s an excellent effect. Could you speak to how/where/when you employed this technique? 

AD: This technique was in fact purposeful, so I feel smarter now! In my first drafts there tend to be little beats that stand out upon re-reading. When I look at the text they pop as if written in yellow highlighter. Once I find those moments, usually by scanning my eyes over the page to see what leaps out, I know they are the sections that need to echo, to make the most of their power.

For instance the story ended with “So what?” in its first draft, which I found exciting, but it didn’t have an echo yet—the ending was the first time those words appeared. I wanted to create an echo there, and it finally occurred to me that although the words hadn’t been said before, Jessica’s whole vibe was a giant “so what” to the entire world. I just had to put the words into her actual mouth. In a diner. Because everything I write accidentally has a diner in it.

So yes: echoes create emphasis, extra beats create resonance. That style is purposeful and sort of done with a musician’s ear as best I can: to make certain moments ring.

KL: In addition there are a lot of short declarative statements that contain a lot of power: “I still wish for sex.” Or “Duplicity is easy, turns out.” Or “That was it.” Or “She never would again.” I guess this isn’t really a question, more of an observation. Though feel free to comment as you see fit.

AD: I love varied sentence structure, and find it vital for compelling reading. One of my writing ticks is that I too often lean into long, meandering, sort of complicated sentences. I’ve learned the hard way that the only way to pull off sentences like that is to balance them with short plain ones. Long long short. Complex complex simple. You can hear the beats if you’re reading aloud.

At first I did this unconsciously, and in my very first workshop Susan Cheever pointed out what I was up to. She said I had written a couple of beautiful sentences but that she sensed I “didn’t know what made them good, and that talent without knowledge wasn’t good enough.” I couldn’t tell if I’d been complimented or insulted (both were true!). Although humiliating, that moment was exciting. I vowed to learn the mechanics of what I had previously been doing kind of by ear, so I could employ it with better control in the future.

From that, I learned the value and power of simple declarative sentences, but that they stand out most beautifully set against a more complicated line.

KL: Did you listen to any music/musicians while you wrote this piece? Do you listen to Tom Petty?

AD: I can’t listen to music at all when I write. The story has its own rhythm and I can only focus on that. I can’t listen to music if I’m doing anything of value, honestly: at my desk at work, emailing, talking to people, nothing. The song takes over and I sing like a fool and embarrass myself. I can only listen to music when doing mindless things like driving, cleaning, or running, so I can ignore everything else.

I wish I was one of those cool-kid writers who listen to smoky music as they bang away on a keyboard deep into the night, but I am so very not.

KL: Jessica, the protagonist’s sister, is this larger than life character who does who/what she wants whenever she wants. She seems invincible, as though nothing in the world could ever bother her. Until… until her sister rivals her behaviors and attitude. Did it take mad skills to keep Jessica from taking over the story? 

AD: Until the moment the story begins, Jessica had taken over Taylor’s entire life. This was Taylor’s story, for once. Her chance to break free and to breathe. There was zero chance I’d let Jessica steal the show in Taylor’s pages. (But yes, it was tricky.)

What’s funny is that Taylor recently showed up in another story as a side character, and in that story she is older, single, lives at sea, and has Jessica’s name tattooed on her wrist. Again: I am not in charge.

KL: So is this a hint to what you’re working on currently? Perhaps a linked collection of stories? Or a novel similar to, say, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (which is really just a collection of stories)?

AD: Oh god, isn’t Olive Kitteridge wonderful? Another collection that blew my mind recently was Andrea Barrett’s Servants of the Map, where the characters overlap but in gentle, subtle ways that could almost go unnoticed. Another favorite is Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid. Something about linked work soothes me—the surprising connections, the refracted quality. I’m fascinated by that kind of storytelling.

So yes, I’m working on either a linked collection, or a true novel in stories, and I have no idea which way it’s going to land yet. This isn’t purposeful either: I just keep finding the same handful of people strolling around in the background of my stories. Like party guests who won’t go home. I’m not sure if the connections will be subtle or overt yet. I’m waiting for them to fill me in.

KL: How has writing this story enlarged your view of the world? Or yourself? How has it changed you?

This story was my first attempt at fiction after a couple of years of writing nonfiction, being awful at it, and deadly bored of myself as subject matter. I wrote this story like an animal let out of a cage. It changed everything for me as a writer. I am stupidly grateful.

As a human though, what I was interested in is character. Are we who we are because we were born that way? Or do we become who we are because of circumstances beyond our control? Who are these people who do the things we believe we’d never do? Have wild affairs, lie with abandon, steal, commit crimes, walk out on jobs and families. It’s easy (and common) to judge people who do extreme things, but it’s possible, even likely, that at some point those people were not so different than you or me.

I think of John Williams’ beautiful novel Stoner, in which the protagonist falls in love with a younger woman and has an affair. In a scene where his wife confronts him, this text follows:

“For a moment he saw himself as he must thus appear; and what Edith said was part of what he saw. He had a glimpse of a figure that flitted through smoking-room anecdotes and through the pages of cheap fiction—a pitiable fellow going into his middle age, misunderstood by his wife, seeking to renew his youth, taking up with a girl years younger than himself, awkwardly and apishly reaching for the youth he could not have, a fatuous, garishly got-up clown at whom the world laughed out of discomfort, pity, and contempt. He looked at this figure as closely as he could; but the longer he looked, the less familiar it became. It was not himself that he saw, and he knew suddenly that it was no one.”

I think of cheaters, addicts, criminals—people it might be easy to judge—and I try to look closely instead. Every time I step over a sleeping homeless person (which happens weirdly often) I feel a shudder of awareness as to how easily I might be them, and they me. Taylor learns this in this story, when she judges Jessica until she becomes her.

In no way am I advocating for bad behavior. Understanding isn’t the same as endorsement. What I do advocate for is empathy. The line between a “good” person and a “bad” one is thinner than we realize. In the end, it’s just another fiction.

KL: Do you prefer root beer or cream soda?

AD: Ugh, gross, they’re both the worst.

KL: Raspberries or strawberries?

AD: Strawberries! By the bucket.

KL: Walnuts or pecans?

AD: Pecans, especially if candied, warm, and from a NYC street vendor on the first chilly October day.

KL: Canoes or kayaks? 

AD: A canoe is a boring, uptight, old-man version of a kayak. And there are always spiders hiding in the inside corners. Kayaks for life!


April Darcy is from Jersey City, New Jersey. Her work has been shortlisted for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers and Family Matters competitions, the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize, and the Iowa Review Nonfiction Prize. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Free Fall is her first published story.