James Scott’s story, “With Your Own Heart upon Your Bed,” appears in the spring 2016 issue of The Southern Review. Interview conducted and condensed by The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer.
Megan Feifer: What inspired you to write “With Your Own Heart upon Your Bed”?
James Scott: I think the first thing was the realization that the generation that had been through Vietnam could have grandchildren who were in the armed forces. The Vietnam War has loomed so large in our culture that to have it so far in the past was a shock to me.
The second thing was an article (a very small article that I have never been able to find again) about the taking of a palace by U.S. forces. The thought of those exhausted soldiers in that opulent surrounding stayed with me.
Writing this story was a way of processing that information, the oddness of those things, and others, of course, but those were the initial sparks.
MF: The title is interesting in relationship to the theme of in-betweenness present in the story. Can you discuss the relationship between the title and the deferred state of being the main character experiences?
JS: The title comes from Psalm 4:4: “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” It’s aspirational, though, to be able to do so, whether in prayer or meditation or even at the end of a long day.
In the story, it’s always out of reach, partially because the concept of “your bed” is a complicated one for the main character, as it is for a lot of people. “Home” is a relative term, and none of the places the main character has been really satisfy what one would think of as a space of comfort and safety, the kind of place where such stillness would be possible. He’s in between, always, reliving his grandfather’s war, whether he wants to or not; experiencing his parents’ failing career, but not being present for it; fighting in a war where he’s apart from the others; and coming back home to a place that has changed. Nothing is his. He doesn’t know who he is, and so he’s following in the footsteps of someone that doesn’t want to be followed.
The awkwardness of the phrase struck me and made sense for this world. I’ve spent a lot of time really breaking it down, and the more you do, the stranger it becomes.
MF: Was the continuous shift between historical and contemporary settings essential for the story? What were some of your initial thoughts about this temporal shifting when writing the first few drafts, and how did the timeline finally coalesce?
JS: I hope so! I think it follows the dislocation of the character. The timeline is one of the things that fell into place right away. I always knew I wanted to flip back and forth, and the timing of it came naturally (one of the only things that did, honestly, in a story where I felt unsure of my footing for a long time), though some of the pieces changed. I like the idea that this is how his brain works; if asked to relate the events of this story, this might be how he would go about it.
MF: Would you situate this story within the genre of veterans’ literature? Is there controversy around whether or not nonveterans can write this type of conflict narrative?
JS: I’m not a veteran, so no. In terms of putting a story, any story, anywhere, it’s not really my place. Those kind of overarching questions are too overwhelming in the process of writing and editing, especially when you’re dealing with things that people experienced and experienced so recently that the emotions are raw and the psychology is so tangled.
I will say I tried everything I could to get things right, and I had a couple of veterans look over the story, and I took their comments as gospel. At no point did I say, “Well, right or wrong, it’s good enough for me.” The details I used were somewhat sparse because it was the feeling I was chasing. I hope I came close to the heart of it.
I think that there is some controversy about conflict narrative, though I haven’t followed it. I read Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds and Phil Klay’s Redeployment, though not until I’d completed many drafts of this story, and thought they were both incredible books. I understand both sides of it. It’s impossible to argue with, “I was there,” but I also believe that there shouldn’t be a line drawn in the sand in terms of what people can and can’t write about. Although one has to earn the ability to do so. I hope I did.
MF: Tell us about your podcast “TK with James Scott.” Why do you think it’s so important to host conversations that focus on the intimate reading and writing practices of fellow authors?
JS: Whether it’s the story or the podcast, we all want to know we’re not alone. As a writer, especially as a newer writer, I often didn’t know where to look for information and I didn’t know who to model myself after. In a lot of ways, I’m talking to that earlier version of me. The conversation is an attempt to make a connection between writers and readers that hopefully provides reassurance that there are lots of us out there and everyone approaches the craft and the career in different ways.
However, for the majority of writers, there’s a flash of interest in your work when you have a book out (hopefully), but once that noise fades, the world can be awfully quiet, and the muscles that you’ve newly acquired doing readings and talking about the book atrophy. I want to talk to people in those quieter moments, in the in-between phases.
I’m a few episodes in, and I hope people enjoy the conversations whether they know (or like) the writer or not, and whether they’ve read the book or not. I try not to spoil anything, as I’m not really interested in relaying the plot of the book, but it’s the deeper truth of the thing that I’m after.
James Scott is the author of the novel The Kept. His short fiction can be found in One Story, Ploughshares, and American Short Fiction, while his nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Boston Magazine. He lives in Massachusetts.
Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.