A Writer’s Insight: Doug Ramspeck

Doug Ramspeck’s story “A Map of Years” appears in the winter 2018 issue of The Southern Review. Below, he discusses tapping into the creative unconscious, writing from the perspective of characters with animistic world views, and his process of generating stories that seem to arrive on the page “of their own volition.”

Garrett Hazelwood: You’ve said before in an interview that you often feel as though someone else is doing the work when you write a poem, and that when composing you become a conduit for a voice that is not yours. Do you have a similar experience when writing fiction? What was the origin of this particular story?

Doug Ramspeck: The first draft of “A Map of Years” was written in a single sitting, while I typed as rapidly as I could, probably over the course of a couple of hours. All I knew as I began was that the protagonist viewed the world through an animistic lens, and that he was going to witness the shadow of a crow passing into the body of his brother. Everything else that occurs in the story, including Cal’s attachment to his brother’s wife, were things I discovered in the writing. This method of leaping blindly into stories and poems has long been my preferred approach. I attempt, as I write, not to decide what will happen next, or even to make stylistic choices, but to simply listen to what the work is telling me. This is not always a successful method, of course, but I have learned, over time, to simply abandon poems or stories that don’t arrive seemingly of their own volition. Writing slowly, for me, is almost always a sign that things aren’t going well. I have come to accept that my conscious mind is less skilled as a writer than my unconscious one. Listening to a story arrive at its own destination, on its own chosen track, brings its own kinds of pleasure, not that far removed from what I find when reading. But it is also a little unnerving. The stories do what they want, and they have little interest in my opinion.

GH: This is your first story in The Southern Review, but our readers have seen a number of your poems over the last several years. Could you speak a bit about the difference? In comparison to poetry, do you find any particular advantages or drawbacks to writing longer prose pieces?

DR: I turned to the writing of poetry at the age of fifty, to escape a severe writer’s block that had persisted over many decades with fiction writing. It was liberating to be able to call a work done after a page or two. Still, because I had always thought of myself as a writer of stories, I brought that mindset to poetry as well, and, indeed, focused almost all of my early efforts on narrative poems. I wanted to join the chorus of storytellers, which is what has always drawn me—both as a reader and a writer—to poetry and fiction. Because of this, I don’t see a large difference between the writing of stories and the writing of poems. Even length isn’t always necessarily a deciding factor, since I have written a great many flash fiction stories and a number of longer poems. Indeed, there have been cases where I have written works that I thought were stories when I began but that ended up as poems, and poems that turned into stories. Even with longer works, like “A Map of Years,” I employ many of the same types of compressed storytelling I attempt in my poems, covering a great many years in just a few pages. These days I move back and forth between fiction and poetry, often on the same day, trying to let the one inform the other.

GH: In “A Map of Years,” Cal seems to read nature, as though occurrences in the wild spaces and bodies around him convey a coded message about the order of things to come. While he struggles sometimes to keep pace with verbal exchanges, he is uniquely receptive to the language of a hawk’s shadow or leaf meal in his brother’s hair. This receptivity to a sort of language beyond language gives him a deeper insight into the way things are, and it also strikes me as a way of seeing that might have profound benefits for a writer. Do you find yourself reading the world in a similar way? What do you make of the connection between wildness and meaning that seems so much a part of Cal’s daily experience?

DR: I have become increasingly interested as a writer with the idea that the primitive brain exists side by side with the rational brain. I am not superstitious myself, but I often create characters who see the world in animistic ways, who assume the natural world is a map we might read if only we could learn the code. Before writing “A Map of Years,” I had written a number of what I thought of as “demented little boy stories,” where the savagery of male children was fully on display. With Cal, though, I wanted to create an adult character who was sympathetic, who viewed the world as a mystery just beyond the reach of his understanding, but which he seemed to think he might access if only he were attentive enough to the signs. So is this how I see the world myself? Not really. Or, more accurately, it is the way I see it only when I am writing poetry or fiction, and then it is difficult for me to see it any other way. This voice has seeped into my sense of the fictional, and I find it very difficult to envision any story without it, though I have written a few.

GH: Your writing is at once so lyrical and full of images in “A Map of Years.” As you craft and edit your lines, do you find that one sense predominates over the other? Are you more likely to see through the eyes of your characters or to hear the rhythm of their thoughts?

DR: I will admit something here I probably shouldn’t. I don’t do a lot of conventional revising. Indeed, whenever I return to multiple drafts of the same work, this is usually a sign that it’s time to pack things in. Why? If I failed to listen attentively enough early on, it is highly unlikely that I will be able to “reason” my way toward a story or poem that coheres. Most of the revising I do, in fact, consists of cutting rather than rewriting. With poems I often carry this to an extreme. I might write a hundred lines then cut the work back to twenty lines or even ten. I also like to cut up poems for pieces. I will take the best lines from four failed poems then try to arrange them into a new work. I have attempted similar methods with fiction, occasionally taking two failed and unconnected stories and rewriting them into one. And I am always searching for new ways to make the revision process as unconscious as possible. I do remember, though, that with “The Map of Years” it wasn’t until after I read aloud the first draft to my wife, and we were walking our dog and discussing it, that it became clear to me that Cal might be suffering from some mild form of autism. Knowing this (though I don’t really “know” it, of course) helped me return to the story and to adjust several things. I also received a number of excellent editing suggestions from Emily Nemens. I envy any writer/editor who can point out ways to make focused improvements on almost every page. I consider this a deficiency on my part. Once I start looking too closely at individual sentences, I am just as likely to muck things up as to improve them.

GH: I found myself particularly interested in your descriptions of the landscape during the funeral that takes place toward the end of the story. Up to that point, Cal seemed to perceive the natural landscape as something foreign to and set apart from the realm of human interactions. But suddenly in that scene, we encounter the landscape taking on human dimensions: the “open mouth of dirt” and the sun imagined as “a plucked eye.” What does it mean for Cal to experience the natural world merging with the human world in that moment?

DR: Well, I can’t say I was aware of this merging when I wrote the story. Indeed, I have to admit I wasn’t thinking about imagery much at all while I was writing. So what was I contemplating? I was trying to hear Cal’s voice inside my head, and trying to block out any of my own thoughts that might interfere. Cal, apparently, began imagining the landscape taking on human dimensions, and undoubtedly this was connected to the loss of his brother, who was at the center of his life. I could certainly try to analyze from the outside what this shift in imagery might mean, or why it might have occurred at this moment, but I can’t claim any real inside knowledge. I suppose, if I were to give a somewhat tongue in cheek answer, I would say, “Why are you asking me? Ask him.”

GH: I understand you recently won a prize for your first story collection, The Owl That Carries Us Away, which is forthcoming from BkMk Press. Can you tell us about the book?

DR: The twenty-nine works in The Owl That Carries Us Away, which received the 2016 G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, are split evenly between flash fiction and full-length stories. Many of the pieces include idiosyncratic and distorted voices at their center, and the characters include a young boy who finds a possum skull and brings it into his bed as compensation for a family tragedy, a newly married woman who imagines that mushrooms are growing from her husband’s body, and a woman who absconds with her sister’s baby and envisions a life for them in Florida. In other words, these are stories about characters at emotional and psychological extremes. The book is in the final stages of production and is likely to appear very early in 2018.

Doug Ramspeck is the author of six poetry collections and one collection of stories. His most recent book of poems, Black Flowers, is forthcoming from LSU Press in October. His books have received numerous awards, including the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, the Michael Waters Poetry Prize, the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, and the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry.

Garrett Hazelwood is the editorial assistant at The Southern Review. He was the 2017 recipient of the Kent Gramm MFA Award for Literary Nonfiction and his work was recently anthologized in Eclectica Magazine’s twentieth anniversary anthology of speculative fiction. He’s currently writing a novel and at work on a book-length essay about the usefulness of pain.

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