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.