Author Interview: “Cough” by Jonathan Durbin

December 19, 2016

Our fifth anthology published in October, and we are conducting a series of interviews with each of the ten authors whose stories it features. Today, it is our pleasure to share an interview with Jonathan Durbin, whose story “Cough” impressed us with its precision. Here, Durbin chats with us about his careful craftsmanship—this piece went through about fifteen drafts before he submitted it—and how fiction can be “a reflection on a particular emotional state.”

“I tend to know my titles before I start, which is another way of saying that I know what emotion I’m trying to distill.”

Your story, “Cough,” is set just after 9/11. The protagonist lives in downtown Manhattan, and the story itself takes place over the course of a weekend he spends at a love interest’s country house. Now, I know that you lived in New York during that time, as well, and I am curious about your writing process. How long after 2001 did you begin to write “Cough” and how did the distance from these events (or lack of it) affect the story?

I wrote “Cough” earlier this year, but I’d been thinking about the story for much longer. Lately I’ve been interested in using stories to evoke a kind of suspended time—trying to describe the unsettling, distended way moments pass following a tragedy. That’s what I was aiming for here. If I was going to address September 11, it felt important for me to discuss it in an oblique way, more as an element of context than the focal point of the narrative. Having some distance from that time, personally, was critical to the story’s angle of approach. September 11 is still so immediate, so present, I worried it would drown out the story’s possibilities, and I wanted to get at something quieter and more intimate. I wouldn’t have been able to write it had the real-life events been fresher in my mind. Some degree of separation was necessary, a quality I hope the story mirrors. I wanted “Cough” to be a reflection on a particular emotional state.

How many drafts did this story go through? Were there any huge changes from the first draft to the last?

When it came to the writing, I remember “Cough” being fairly straightforward—I didn’t struggle with keeping an even tone, the way I sometimes do—but I see now that it went through around fifteen drafts before I submitted it. There weren’t significant changes, but I did do a lot of work on a line-language level. For me, the challenge was to make the story’s affect flat, but not boring, which meant plenty of tweaking. In contrast, the story I’d been working on previous to “Cough” is absurdly overheated, told in excruciatingly long sentences, and uses plenty of figurative language. It’s terrible. I started “Cough” the night I finished the first draft of that other story, almost immediately afterward. Writing “Cough” was like having an allergic reaction.

What is your writing process like? (Do you write at a specific time of day / in a particular setting / on the computer or by hand, etc.)

Generally, I write at night and during weekends. I like to pretend that I have an unlimited amount of time to play with when I write, but I have a full-time job, so I don’t usually sit down in the mornings before work—I’m too aware of the clock, too conscious that there’s a stopping point. Also, mornings are when I’m most junked up with caffeine and internet, which makes it difficult to slow down the racing thoughts enough to get into a story. I like working late at night, even when I’m exhausted. There can be a kind of magic then, a stillness, that makes stories easier to access. But putting myself in front of the computer is really only one part of the process. I’m always taking notes on my phone—ideas, lines, scraps of thought, and titles. I tend to know my titles before I start, which is another way of saying that I know what emotion I’m trying to distill.

What are some of your favorite stories?

Tough question to answer—there are so many that are so good. In the last few years I’ve loved “Reeling for the Empire” by Karen Russell, “Cold Little Bird” by Ben Marcus, “The Way She Handles” by Patrick Ryan, “Disgust” by Ottessa Moshfegh, “Wagner in the Desert” by Greg Jackson and “Who Will Greet You at Home” by Lesley Nneka Arimah. But I always find myself returning to “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver. That story has such power. In his Paris Review interview, he talks about how the inspiration for it was an anecdote he’d heard while out drinking with some writer friends. One of them asked who would write it up, and Carver did. I like to think it’s possible there are other versions of that story floating around out there, like some kind of sad modern-day folktale.

In what ways is this story similar to (or different from) your other writing? What are you working on now?

I’d say “Cough” is similar to other stories I’ve written in that it’s voice-driven but plain-spoken, as spare as I could get it. I prefer unadorned language in my own writing, although that’s not necessarily what I like to read. But I find that each story I write has its own rules—both its own internal logic as well as the way it wants to be told, if that makes any sense. In large part for me, figuring out a story is discovering how best to tell it, which usually means false starts, off-kilter registers and lumpy first drafts, among other issues. For a while there, every story I wrote I ended up shredding after I was about 5,000 words in. Right now I’m working on a novel, the idea for which I first had twenty years ago. I’ve written pieces of it a number of times before, but I’ve never gotten it quite right. I haven’t been able to shake it, either. I have to think that’s one way to know if the idea is any good. If I keep returning to it, then whatever attracted me to the subject must be worth exploring. One way or another, that story wants to be written.

Jonathan Durbin’s fiction has appeared in One StoryNew England Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Catapult and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and is is a former fellow of the Writers’ Institute at the City University of New York. He is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.

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