Joel Wayne is a writer living in Boise, Idaho. His articles, fiction, nonfiction, and other works have appeared in AdPulp, apt, Glassworks, The Moth, Salon, Story Story Night and the Sun Valley Film Festival. He occasionally teaches fiction at The Cabin, is an assistant editor at The Idaho Review, and can be visited at JoelWayne.com.
The editors of The Chattahoochee Review have been so impressed with this semester’s interns that we asked three of them, Justin Beaudrot, Tiffany Trivett, and Farhin Lilywala, to prepare the following Contributor Spotlight interview with Joel Wayne. His story “Brother’s Keeper” appears in the spring 2015 issue as Winner of the Lamar York Prize for Fiction.
The Chattahoochee Review Interns: “Brother’s Keeper” contains controversial subject matter that may offend some readers. How would you respond?
Joel Wayne: Clearly, it’d be thickheaded of me to think a story like this wouldn’t singe a few eyebrows. Clearly, my head must actually be that thick because it really didn’t occur to me when I first wrote it. Meanwhile, it wins this terrific award at The Chattahoochee Review, and I have extended family asking, “Oh, how lovely. When can I read it?” So now I’m thinking, “Oh, how lovely. Can I send you a different story instead?”
“Brother’s Keeper” is simply a story about connection—a strange and taboo one, but a connection all the same. It does have the hallmarks of a conventional relationship, namely: consent, a fairly equitable balance of power, and the absence of a victim. That’s not enough to legitimize it, obviously, from a cultural standpoint. I don’t deny that. But often that’s the charge of writing: to have a story boiling at the lip, to write it, to revise, revise, revise, and to move readers past their skepticism—or outright repulsion—with a confident and vivid enough telling that they walk away surprised they want more (even if their eyebrows are still smoking).
I know this story won’t do that for a lot of people; they’ll walk away repulsed, and I suppose I’m okay with that. But I hope it pulls in a few others who’d otherwise never read a story quite like it.
TCR: The story spans the youth and adulthood of two brothers over thirty-one years. Why write it as a short story? Were there any other formats of “Brother’s Keeper” prior to your decision to make it a short story?
Joel Wayne: The length was largely a function of giving myself a very tight deadline. I wrote the first draft in maybe two days, and it just poured out like sugar. In terms of other formats, I did make some small but noticeable edits in later drafts (e.g. deleting a bookended scene at the beginning that starts in the hospital before going back in time), but the heart of it is relatively unchanged.
Also, I’ve recently leaned toward shorter pieces—due to a poor attention span or my day job—which I’ve had better success placing. This isn’t necessarily good or fair, but I think slush piles are deep enough right now that when editors open a Submittable file and see it clocking in at a quick two, five, or nine pages, they’re unconsciously thinking, “Thank you.”
TCR: Throughout much of the story, you use lists of intimate, descriptive details. Was this a conscious decision to speed the story along or an experiment in style?
Joel Wayne: A bit of both. Again, some of it was the result of a tight deadline. I knew where I wanted the boys’ story to begin, and I knew where I wanted it to end. But there are a lot of acres in between, obviously. The result feels, at times, like one of those dot-to-dot books, with each dot a mini-scene or passing memory—the English boy who “warmly” greets his food, bullies, school, middle-aged weight gain, tossed-off emails about horses and god, etc.—which hopefully feel real and vibrant enough for a reader to confidently draw in the missing lines.
TCR: The character names have distinct allusions. What was your process in choosing them?
Joel Wayne: I was raised in a fairly religious, Pentecostal household. My ma was a stay-at-home parent early on, and occasionally she’d set aside time for my siblings and I to pray and reflect individually. I remember her saying: “Let Jesus tell you a story.” Well, I wasn’t really sure how to do that, and, looking back, I’d also likely misheard or misunderstood her. Whatever the case, I knew plenty of stories from the Bible, so I’d sit in my room and whisper those to myself. The story of Jacob and Esau—twins fighting in the womb, parents playing favorites, deception, the trading of a mysterious “birthright”—is one of those Amazing Bible Stories stewing with natural conflict. I’ve always been drawn to it. The names seemed too apropos and the origin story too fitting not to use for this piece (although Esau, unsurprisingly, doesn’t go by his Christian name).
TCR: What in your beliefs or personal experience inspired this story?
Joel Wayne: Some small, personal details are peppered throughout—Vacation Bible School, “the scrub box,” and certainly the experience of “shedding fresh layers of self-confidence”—but the genesis of the story comes from an unlikely place: I’m an advice-column junkie. Savage Love, Dear Prudence, Cary Tennis—I eat them up. Anyway, a couple years back, I was taken by a particular letter and wanted to stretch something around a similar frame immediately, which led to the central conflict in “Brother’s Keeper.”
In terms of my own beliefs inspiring it…I don’t know. There’s no easy or hidden answer to that. I’m interested in exploring the complexities of human nature, of societal pressures, of strange attractions, typical writerly stuff. There tends to be a thread of loneliness in most things I write, splashes of self-loathing and black comedy, all those appealing traits. But I don’t know. I’d encourage people to read it and choose their own adventure.
TCR: There are clear references to the Mormon Church throughout “Brother’s Keeper.” What inspired them?
Joel Wayne: I grew up in eastern Oregon, which is rural and fairly white. Any exposure to other religions or cultures was inherently fascinating to me, I guess. I knew a decent number of LDS kids and Native kids—the Umatilla Indian Reservation sits just outside my hometown. There was a growing Hispanic population. I knew two Jews. I have an appreciation for history, I suppose, and both the Mormon Church and Native Americans have rich, sad, violent, incredibly convoluted and incredibly troubled histories. They’re almost the inversion of one another: one started small and spread, against the odds, while the other started strong and shrunk (and continues to shrink, partly due to antiquated “blood quantum” laws). Those are deep wells to draw from.
For no good reason, I studied Latin at university. But I remember being surprised by how much I learned about my first language by fumbling through a foreign language. The same can happen with different cultures, religions. You get a sobering view of your idea of “normal” when you fumble through a few other perspectives. Not to get too spacey, but I think that’s one of the tasks of fiction (alongside entertainment). Fiction is an expression of empathy, of shared experience, a language suited for bridging. It can be simultaneously rich and sad and violent, convoluted, troubled, and wonderful.
TCR: How much does film or theater influence your writing?
Joel Wayne: I’m a visual guy and a bit of a couch potato, so that inevitably seeps into my work. I did a little screen and playwriting at my university. For whatever reason, that kind of writing has always felt like familiar territory, like a natural fit outside fiction or nonfiction. In its first draft, “Brother’s Keeper” started very much in that vein, with cuts and scene headings lifted out of screenplay formatting (e.g. EXT. A SHITTY BROWN HOUSE / EVENING / 1975).
By happenstance, when my wife and I first moved to Boise, I met a local filmmaker searching for a new writing partner. Again, all very fortuitous. So I’ve written a handful of short films and even got the chance to direct a few as well. I have some filmic ideas burning in my gut, but I know how hard they are to execute, even if I did have the time or money.
TCR: Do you plan on expanding on Doc and Jacob’s stories?
Joel Wayne: Absolutely. The responses I heard after passing around an earlier draft seemed to fall into two categories: A) “I like this . . . but why pack so much into so short a story?” and B) “I like this . . . but if it works as a short story, why make it any longer?” Why not both, you know? The bigger piece I’ve outlined—a novel or novella—veers quite a bit off the dot-to-dot version, but I’d like to think they could happily coexist.
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*Featured image by Diana Shafer.