Make way for our winner! Dean Jamieson, the winner of our 2020-2021 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers, chats with assistant editor Melissa Hinshaw about his story, “Straight to My Heart,” published Monday, which you can read here.
This is the only one of the winners that’s under 10 pages. How did you manage to do so much story in five pages? Tell us your secret!
Yeah, this interview may end up being as long as the story. I think I’m drawn to short stories that are really fast and really merciless, that don’t give the reader the benefit of “settling in,” but that just kick you in the head and are over. I was also thinking a lot at the time about verbal storytelling, how someone who’s telling a story out loud knows, intuitively, how to cut the fat and make it move in a way that someone who writes ‘literary short fiction’ may not. I also don’t have the best attention span with my writing.
Lines like “My brother, he was a saint, god rest his soul, but he was a follower” help show the complicated nature and phases of not only grief but an entire past relationship. Did you have a full backstory of Patrick and his brother in mind as you wrote this, or in other writings elsewhere?
This story was probably an exception in that I really just wrote it all at once. I came upon the central image, the stolen sneakers, at the same time I came upon Patrick’s voice. Everything else followed very naturally from that. I formed, from that image, and that voice, a very clear idea of Patrick’s psychology and his relationships. I wanted to imply rather than state them.
Is “Straight to My Heart” typical of the sort of work you like to write, or does this piece stand out for you somehow?
I think it’s typical in the sense that I’m sometimes drawn to gritty, intense subject matter, as well as to protagonists who challenge a reader’s natural empathy. “Likability” is not something I think about. I think this story is an exception in the sense that it was written in a first-person voice very far from my own. I had never been able to do that before. It felt more like acting than writing.
Despite only scattered specific mentions (i.e. the BQE), this is still a story so grounded in its neighborhood community. In what ways do you see this as a New York story?
I’m from New York City, but was upstate at the time I wrote it, up at school, missing home, and so in a way the story was a way of getting back there. I understood the story as taking place in an outer-borough, mostly white working-class neighborhood, and eventually settled on Maspeth, which is a neighborhood in Queens. I spent some time around there and tried to insert some geographic indicators—the BQE, Elmhurst.
Do you relate to Patrick and if so how? Do you know other Patricks in your own life? Where did Patrick come from?
Yeah, fortunately, I don’t know anyone like Patrick. I’m not sure I’d want to. But I found while I was writing this story that I was able to really identify with him. Again, it felt like acting. I was able to take this image I formed, of this twenty-nine year old body-builder ex-heroin addict, and channel my own feelings of fear and loathing through him in a way that felt distanced from myself but emotionally authentic. Because there was very little personal experience involved. I think that’s difficult today, where there seems to be an expectation that all fiction should be grounded in a writer’s personal experience. That was not the case with this. This was fiction. I’m not a former heroin addict. I don’t beat people up. I sit in my parent’s kitchen in Brooklyn, trying to write stories.
I love the moment with Patrick’s mom and the Uber driver, this moment of grief gone public. I get the sense Patrick is defending his mom as much as avenging his brother. How is this story really “Patrick’s Big Moment”?
I definitely think Patrick thinks of this as his “Big Moment,” in a way that’s reflected in his voice but maybe not in the reality that is shown through it. He thinks of himself as avenging his brother, protecting his mother. He’s kind of playing out this cinematic fantasy of redemption and violence that is really just a fantasy. Because all he’s really doing is beating someone up at a bar on a Saturday night and going to jail for the weekend. This wouldn’t even make the 6 o’clock news.
I was surprised by the slight religious undertone of this piece, the Jesus mentions. How does spirituality or a religious background of some sort typically inform your work?
Yeah, I’m not sure how to speak about that. I’m not particularly religious, at least not consciously. But the religious references felt true to the character. They felt true to the place. They felt true to where I was at the time.
Not all writers can do violence well (i.e. clearly and non-melodramatically). Tell us about how you made the fight scene—and the moments leading up to it—feel realistic.
I think people who have been around violence for a while tend to describe it casually, in language people wouldn’t expect, and so my goal was to take these precise, vivid details and to filter them through a voice that was almost blasé, almost savoring the act. I hoped that this combination would be more unsettling than just one or the other.
What sorts of influences informed your writing of this piece — did you have any other authors or even movies in mind?
I’m a big fan of the 20th-century Jewish writers—Isaac Babel, Grace Paley, Leonard Michaels, and so they were all a very big influence for me. But definitely movies, too. The Safdies’ Good Time, as well as Mike Leigh’s earlier movies—Naked, Mean Time, Bleak Moments.
If this story had a soundtrack, what songs would be on it? Would it even have a soundtrack?
Maybe Suicide’s first album. “Buenos Tardes Amigo,” by Ween. I don’t like Eminem but I feel like Patrick does, so maybe some Eminem.
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw