WELCOME to this new version of my blog where I interview prose writers and post a short clip of each one reading from their book. Today on the blog, we will be listening to Dorene O’Brien reading from her new book, “What It Might Feel Like to Hope.”
A Few Questions for Dorene
How did you come up with the title of your collection, What it Might Feel Like to Hope?
Unless a title sweeps into my brain seemingly unbidden—and this rarely happens—I really struggle. In fact, all the stories for WIMFLTH were written before I had a book title, so I searched for an underlying theme or connecting thread that knit together what on the surface are quite disparate tales. After all, there is a man whose mother sets him up on blind dates, a writer hoping to sell her zombie story to Tom Hanks, a health nut who communes with her neighbor’s pet lizard, etc. Many of these characters’ plights seemed so hopeless to me that the original title of the book was A Kingdom Called Denial. But then I flipped that coin when I realized that being in denial is tantamount to being hopeful, that these characters would never have found themselves dining with strangers or penning horror stories or talking to reptiles if they did not imagine a reward for their efforts. George Carlin once said, “Scratch any cynic and underneath you’ll find a disappointed idealist.” In these dark and anxious times, I chose to see my characters as idealists and not cynics, and then the title swept in.
Which of the stories in your collection provide you with the most hope?
The three women who lose their mother in “Little Birds” may seem hopelessly self-involved, squabbling over her possessions and, in one case, demanding a daughter enter the fray and growing obstinate when she refuses. But Dina, the teenage daughter, has inherited her grandmother’s quiet strength and steady composure, so giving her the opportunity to teach her elders a lesson—and giving her the final word—was deliberately optimistic. I felt hopeful for future generations of this family once Dina took control. “Harm None” has a similar vibe, the student becoming the master in the story’s final scene.
Which story in your collection would you say is your personal favorite, and why?
I’m going to cheat here a little and choose two, but for vastly different reasons. “Eight Blind Dates Later,” the only full-on comedy in the collection, offered an opportunity to lampoon the romance novel, which is utterly formulaic (heroine falls in love on page 38; heroine’s heart is broken on page 87; cad is punished on page 151). The story was just fun to write. Conversely, “The Turn of the Wind” was a bear to write because I made the mistake of studying and initially incorporating crystallography in a heavy-handed way so that it read like a science manual. Complicating matters was my giving the scientist narrator Alzheimer’s. I added and removed scenes; I changed the story from first-person to third-person point of view; I added mythological references and weathervanes. Then I let it sit for years until I could untangle and rewire it into a story of which I’m finally quite proud.
I’d love to know about the genesis of “Honesty Above All Else.” Have you ever studied the tarot or worked as a tarot reader?
That’s an interesting story so I’m glad you asked! When the editors of Detroit Noir decided to put together the anthology, they reached out to local writers to request “dark” stories set in Detroit for prospective inclusion, making it clear that they would not select more than one story per region (Midtown, Delray, etc.). I set my story on Belle Isle and when I was halfway done a friend who had also been contacted told me she had finished her story, and guess where it was set? So I had two weeks to choose a new neighborhood and write my story. In order to avoid “competition,” I considered neighborhoods I thought might be overlooked because they were too small or too “sweet” for a noir story, and that’s how I chose Corktown and O’Leary’s Tea Room, which was an actual restaurant at Brooklyn and Porter with white lace tablecloths where tarot readings were conducted on Saturday afternoons. I set the story in 1999, a dark time for Corktown as the nearby train depot had closed, the Hudson’s Building had been razed and the Tigers had moved downtown after playing major league ball in Corktown since 1912. Voters were also faced with a third vote on whether to welcome casinos to the city (they had already voted against them twice but in typical “money talks” fashion, the issue would continue to appear on the ballot until the promoters got their way). So this was the backdrop for “Honesty Above All Else.” The landmarks–the Seven Sisters, the Parabox, DuMouchelles–are real, but Mrs. O’Leary, her young employee and the victims are fictional.
I am a collector of tarot cards because they are so visually compelling, and while I’m not a tarot reader, the cards did generate a large part of the plot. After a good shuffle, I simply turned them and then read their meanings in A Pictorial Guide to the Tarot before turning to the keyboard to type. Leaving plot to chance is atypical for me but it was really fun.
How long did it take to write the stories in this collection?
I wasn’t really writing a collection as much as I was amassing stories and then trying to corral them into a book. The oldest and darkest story in What It Might Feel Like to Hope, “Reaping,” was written while I was in college, and the newest and lightest, “Eight Blind Dates Later,” was written decades later. This was also the case with my first story collection, Voices of the Lost and Found, which features 11 first-person stories narrated by a variety of characters from different social and economic backgrounds and written/reimagined/revised over the course of many years. When I wrote those stories, I had not intended them to be part of a collection until I realized that the voices themselves could be the link, just as hope was the link in my most recent book.
Please share some of your literary influences.
Mark Twain was an early influence, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in particular. After reading it as a child I recall thinking, I want to do that! I’m a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s funny yet biting social commentary and his blending of sci-fi and literary genres. Short story writers who inspire me are Andrea Barrett, who was trained as a scientist and showed me that it’s all right to get your geek on in writing. George Saunders has a brilliantly eccentric mind that inspires risk-taking, and T.C. Boyle’s wit and comedic timing confirm that writing can and should be fun. I also love the work of Lucia Berlin, Tobias Wolff, Lorrie Moore, Anthony Doerr, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver and Ray Bradbury.
Dorene O’Brien is a Detroit-based creative writing teacher and writer whose stories have won the Red Rock Review Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the Nelson Algren Award, the New Millennium Writings Fiction Prize, and the international Bridport Prize. She has won fellowships from the NEA and the Vermont Studio Center. Her work has been nominated for two Pushcart prizes, has been published in special Kindle editions and has appeared in the Baltimore Review, Madison Review, Best of Carve Magazine, Short Story Review, Southern Humanities Review, the Chicago Tribune, Detroit Noir, Montreal Review, Passages North, and others. Voices of the Lost and Found, her first fiction collection, was a finalist for the Drake Emerging Writer Award and won the USA Best Book Award for Short Fiction. Her fiction chapbook, Ovenbirds and Other Stories, won the Wordrunner Chapbook Contest and was published in 2018. Her second full-length story collection, What It Might Feel Like to Hope, was named first runner-up in the Mary Roberts Rinehart Fiction Prize and will be released in 2019 by Baobab Press. She is currently writing a literary/Sci-Fi hybrid novel. https://www.doreneobrien.com/