Writer John Gorman’s story “A Private Language” was featured in Issue #4 of Newtown Literary]. We interviewed him about his writing, and his answers are below. Check out his blog and GoodReads page for more great writing, and follow him on Twitter!
Thanks for taking a moment to share your inspiration behind your piece “A Private Language.” Is this a story about your childhood?
Yes, and no. There is a short story by Jack Driscoll called “Wanting Only to be Heard” that I really love, wished, in fact, that I’d written. I was blown away by the urgency of his characters, how on the surface they are these awkward pre-teen boys, but beneath the surface, a dangerous curiosity is lurking. I wanted to try and emulate that.
What kind of danger did the boys in that story encounter?
The young Michiganders are ice-fishing at a shanty and they are telling stories. One of the stories really gets their juices going. It’s about an Irish Terrier that was said to have dove twelve feet down the spearing hole in the freezing water and swam another fifty yards and rose up into another shanty. The boys share their various views as to the accuracy of this and Ashelby Judge (the Rebel without a Cause) decides he can do it himself.
So “A Private Language” appears to be more of an homage to Driscoll’s story than an account of your youth?
As far as the impetus behind writing this story, yes, but there are many seeds from my childhood that I peppered into the story. For example, The Amazing Spider-man #11. A couple of my buddies were itching to get that very issue. It was the oldest comic we’d seen, that we had an outside chance of getting, if we scrounged up enough nickels and dimes. We did a lemonade stand, recycled cans, and begged for advances on our allowance. We didn’t, however, shake down folks by pretending to collect for the poor kids in Africa. That’s just my evil imagination at work. Really.
Part of our Journal’s mission statement is to have stories that reflect the accent of Queens. Do you believe your story is an accurate reflection of the borough?
I believe so. Specifically, it’s an accurate reflection of the surrounding neighborhoods where I grew up, in the 1980s. I call my neighborhood Rego Park, which technically is a couple of R-train stops away from where I used to live in Forest Hills. I describe the middle school yard, Russell Sage, the way I recalled it, which was behind the 112th precinct. Also, where the meat of the story takes place, Deepdene, is in Forest Hills Gardens. We used to sleigh ride there in the winter and skateboard down those hills in the summer. I remember taking some pretty wicked spills coming down those slopes, skinned my knees really badly a bunch of times, but nobody ever ended up in a hospital.
The scene where Steven’s mom has the narrator dressing in her dead son’s clothes is really freaky, and yet he seems to go out of his way to indulge her.
It’s so tragic what has happened to Steven and my storyteller has witnessed it, but Steven’s mom obviously hasn’t accepted her son’s death. I wanted to go beyond the closing of the coffin because death doesn’t end at death. Survivors have to come to terms with the loss of a loved one the way that works for them. If I ended the story with the funeral there’d be a few awkward hugs, kisses, and whatnot, but it would’ve been stilted. Steven’s dad could’ve wobbled in drunkenly, but that would’ve been clichéd. I wanted to come up with something fresh and really weird. I come from a hand-me-down household. My mom always gave my clothes (when I grew out of them) away to cousins, and sometimes I got hand-me-downs in return. We had a neighbor who was once a nanny and she used to give my mom these laundry bags full of freshly-laundered hand-me-downs from the boys she used to take care of.
There seems to be an underlying spiritual leitmotif in this piece.
I’d like to blame my Catholic School upbringing on that. Fortunately, I went to public university. My awakening. Anyway, there is a kind of spirituality to the piece that goes beyond the usually corny Hail Mary stuff. I did pigeon-toe Steven into a philosopher for that very reason. I tend to equate philosophy with spirituality, I’m thinking more like Unitarian, which I’ve actually, as a so-called adult, attended a few “masses”. They discuss Plato, Seneca, Einstein, and Bart Simpson. I can get into a “religion” like that. As a theme, I considered Leibniz’s desire to create a universal language as parallel to the desire for my young characters to connect with each other, but also the bigger pond they are about to inhabit. Steven is not a ringleader; he just wants find deeper meaning for himself. He’s smart and the boys respect him, but really, my narrator is the only one who gets him or thinks he does.
I feel as if I’m right in the heart of the story, as it is unfolding, but there’s this tinge distance as if the narrator is looking back.
The voice of the narrative is accessible, youthful enough to still be connected to the white fleshy orange skin of their boyhood past, yet wizened up. This is my attempt again to emulate Driscoll’s chill in “Wanting Only to Be Heard”, before his boys get to the spearing hole. In my earlier drafts, it was a breezy kind of anecdotal story. Actually, an editor from another journal really liked the story and wanted me to revise it. That editor said the story was good, but came off a little too anecdotal. I worked really hard to push the boundaries, less about trying to buy a comic book and more about the pain of youth. I guess I took this a little over the edge by killing off Steven, but I also wanted his beautiful mind to not have to suffer the pain of adulthood. Is that macabre? Maybe this is my “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” story more so than “Wanting Only to be Heard”.
Thanks for contributing to issue 4.
It’s been my absolute pleasure. I am honored to have been chosen by a journal in my hometown.
We have a lot of events coming up! Mark your calendars for REZ Readings on October 9 and November 6; Boundless Tales Readings on October 9, November 13, December 11, and January 8; and of course the First Tuesday and Third Friday series have started up again for the season.
Also, if you’d like to support Newtown Literary and enjoy a night out in the process, tickets are now on sale for Trivia Night on November 10. Show off your knowledge, win some prizes, and support the writers of Queens!