It was our pleasure to talk with Andrés Carlstein, whose story “The Lindbergh Baby” was published in The Masters Review Volume V. In this precise and powerful story, a veteran who was stationed in Iraq unexpectedly gains custody of his eleven-year-old son, after being largely absent from the boy’s life. Here, Andrés talks about the making of this story and offers insight into the practicalities of the writing life. In case you haven’t read Volume V yet, learn more about it and purchase it here.
“Jesse wasn’t crying right then and maybe that’s why he looked, Ron thought, to see if his father was. Or maybe to show his father that he wasn’t.”
Your story, “The Lindbergh Baby,” is told from the point of view of a veteran who was stationed in Iraq directly after the First Gulf War, and it includes flashbacks to that time. Like the rest of the story, these sections are incredibly detailed. Now, if you don’t mind me sharing, I know that some of the details come from your brother, a Marine, who was stationed in Iraq at that time. The story itself is, of course, fictional. I also remember that many of the details about the Lindbergh Baby (a tragic kidnapping in the 1930s) came from your friend’s grandmother.
This leads me, naturally, to the questions: What first inspired the idea for your story? How did you gather the details for it? And how long did it take to develop? Did you start with research, an outline, etc.?
I typically do not begin with outlines or research. What most often happens is that something catches my awareness—an idea, a feeling, an image—and I try to let the story manifest as I write my way around that thing. I try to let the elements come out without too many limitations from my conscious mind. My first inspiration for this story actually came from my nephew, who was about eleven years old at the time. I’d actually wanted to interview my friend’s grandmother further about her Lindbergh anecdote. She lived an hour away from my sister’s house in Upstate New York; I asked my nephew if he would like to come for the ride. Although we never took that road trip together, the idea of such a journey was the catalyst. I imagined the light in my nephew’s hair through the window, felt the car seat under me. My brother had recently told me some more details about his wartime experience, so I was thinking about what he’d gone through. Although I had no kids of my own then, I wondered, what would it be like to take such a trip with my own son? What if he were already eleven when we met? He would be a stranger to me. The story coalesced from there. Regarding the research and details, I am indebted to the people I interviewed. As you say, my brother is a Marine veteran, and he had the same job in Operation Provide Comfort that the protagonist in the story had. Nearly all the specifics came from my brother’s experience, except for the actual shooting. Fortunately, my brother never saw combat. The technical details of the shooting and the physiological aftermath were researched separately.
How many drafts did this story go through? Were there any huge changes from the first draft to the last?
I am not sure if my process is unusual, but it sounds weird to me when I describe it. Half of the time when I am working on a story I’m not actually writing. After I have gotten an idea I’ll sit on it for a few weeks as the story gestates in my head. Then one day I will draft it, from start to finish, over the course of roughly 48 hours. Once I have that first semi-complete draft, it may take months or even years to figure out what is going on in the story and how to fix what’s wrong with it. Come to think of it, my process also sounds incredibly slow! This particular story was workshopped and went through many drafts. The biggest change was to the POV. Originally it was in first person, and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out how to make the narrator sound less self-pitying and unpleasant. It was hard to have any sympathy for him. When I finally realized the story needed to be in third person, things seemed to work better. The distance from his mind allowed readers to perceive him more empathetically. The second biggest change was the end. In earlier drafts Ron makes the decision to leave Jesse with Gram and race back to NYC, trying to get home and pass out before he knows Jesse will awaken in that house and realize that his father has abandoned him again. This story made me sad for a long time. I felt like the story was ready once I discovered that there was a way for a transformation to occur, for a more hopeful ending and a better resolution for this family.
What are some of your favorite stories and/or short story collections?
This is hard to say. Stories I loved (and learned to write with) when I was younger have often aged poorly. What I mean is that they’ve become less palatable as I’ve matured. I first started engaging with real “literary” stories through the Australian writer Henry Lawson. I’m not sure I could reread him now and feel okay with the subtext in stories like “The Bush Undertaker,” for example. I’m sure that other stories of his are still perfectly fine. A better example of what I am talking about might be Hemingway. Early on I was enamored of his style and blown away by how much he could achieve emotionally with so few words, but it is very hard to read his work today and not put the book down when one of his many prejudices appear. I think part of growing as a writer is becoming more conscious of others as we examine human nature and the countless ways to be in this world. If we are really inhabiting the minds and feelings of others as we go through this process, it can be hard to ignore the unconsciousness in things we read. Hemingway’s influence on style is possibly immeasurable, but his attitudes are too often problematic. One collection I was obsessed with for a long time is the debut by Rebecca Curtis, Twenty Grand. There’s this amazing juxtaposition of fearlessness and precision in her choices in those stories, along with an energetic power that simply bursts off the page. In graduate school I first started reading James Baldwin, and as a writing mentor once said to me, “Sonny’s Blues” is one of the greatest short stories out there. I also had the great fortune to study with James Alan McPherson and his story, “Gold Coast,” is right up there as well. My favorite authors right now are Louise Erdrich and César Aira. Erdrich’s story, “Fleur,” has been my favorite short story since I read it several years ago. It’s gorgeously constructed fabulist/realist story, with mythology and plot and a surprisingly deceptive narrator. It also has possibly the best opening line in a short story that I can recall.
In what ways is this story similar to (or different from) your other writing? I know that you have a novel in progress. Could you tell us about it?
I tend to write either so-called “realist” stuff like this story, or fabulist work that sounds like it comes from a previous century. In some of my writing I’ve attempted to combine these two styles, with greater and lesser degrees of success, I think. I feel like some writers are so much themselves that you can pick up a few lines anywhere and say, “oh, this is George Saunders,” or, “Flannery O’Connor.” I don’t think I’ve found my real voice yet, or if I have I’m not aware of it. The novel I am working on is based on an abduction that happened in the 1850s in Argentina. I have spent several years on it but then I had to set it aside for a while as I adapted to being a new father. My son’s arrival brought a lot of work and life changes.
You attended the Iowa Writers Workshop, and you have also spent time writing at MacDowell and Yaddo. Would you mind telling us a little bit about any or all of these experiences?
I feel lucky to be doing what I am doing. I have been given many opportunities that I couldn’t have imagined ten years ago; the three you mention figure prominently among them. The debts I owe (to the State of Iowa, to the University of Iowa, to the Workshop, to Samantha Chang, to Connie Brothers, to other teachers and peers, to MacDowell, and to Yaddo), are difficult to overstate. In recent years people have been having that “NYC vs MFA” debate. I kind of roll my eyes about it because I did NYC. I worked in the city for a decade beginning just before 9/11. I was a technical writer for a software company when the Towers came down. The whole city was in shock. I think that while the rest of the country took some time to fully register what had happened, the people of NYC had to take the hit and keep going. After the attack, I traveled to and from work for months seeing the smoke rising from the rubble. So many businesses abandoned the city—gave up on it. The people who were there were sticking it out. I was laid off a few months later and became a bouncer and then as a bartender just to get by. Meanwhile I was working on my writing, trying to learn how to say what I felt I needed to say. At that time I had no idea people studied fiction academically. I’d never heard of the Writers’ Workshop. Eventually I went to Argentina for a year to write a novel, and then I came back and a friend suggested we attend a six-week novel workshop. The instructor had an MFA and that’s where I first got the idea. I applied to several programs with two short stories and got lucky. My point with all of this is that I toiled in literary isolation for years, with no sense of access to anything that NYC had to offer a would-be writer (except for an MFA-style workshop I paid to take). I had two writer friends and no mentors. Nobody was inviting me to literary parties. To get anything out of NYC as an aspirant means you already have means of access and, in that sense, a privilege that is probably far more exclusive than any MFA program. At least the bar for entry to grad school is more democratic. And many programs pay or have work/study tuition programs. It wasn’t until then that things started to change for me. For example, at the Writers’ Workshop that I learned about the wonder that is an artist residency. People laugh at me when I say this, but the greatest benefit is the food. To make a meal you need to go to the store, buy ingredients, prepare them, eat, and then clean up. For three meals this can take hours from your day. Yaddo and MacDowell both have amazing spaces to write, and the food is incredible. You wake up at seven, go eat, and after you’re done it’s still only half past seven. Now what? You have nothing else to do until lunch, which sometimes is even delivered to your room. There’s no television, limited internet, and a bunch of brilliant, committed artists sit in cabins and rooms all around, toiling away, inspiring and motivating you to get after it. The amount of creative work produced in these places is unreal. At my first residency I was burned out after finishing my degree and couldn’t produce much. I also didn’t really understand what a residency was. At the second I was prepared going in, and I wrote seventy pages of the novel in two weeks. Places that support the arts are rare and important for so many reasons—especially in these days of targeted budget cuts on programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts. I am extremely grateful for every opportunity I have been given, including this one. Thanks so much to Amy Hempel and The Masters Review for selecting my story.