Sean Bernard is the author of the novel Studies in the Hereafter and the collection Desert Sonorous, which received the 2014 Juniper Prize. He directs the creative writing program at the University of La Verne.
Bernard’s nuanced and compassionate story “Samaritan” appears in our current double issue with a special focus on neighbors. This semester’s intern, Jesus Hernandez, assisted in writing the interview questions.
JH & LS: What inspired “Samaritan”? Tell us about how you came to write it.
SB: A couple years ago, I was visiting Salem, Oregon, to give a reading at Willamette University. The prose faculty there, Scott Nadelson, suggested that if I had time during the visit, I might check out “OSH,” the Oregon State Hospital—the same place One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is set (both film and book; and that Scott said he’d taken Lydia Davis there a couple years prior and she adored it only helped his recommendation). So one morning, I walked through the museum for an hour or so, and it was great—actually a very patient-friendly, very progressive center of treatment.
Usually when I travel, I try to gather the experience into prose—usually fiction: I take the strangeness of different settings and, too, that sense of dislocation that comes with travel, and I try to spin it all into a narrative. Same with most authors, I imagine. So the genesis of “Samaritan” was that; without the trip to Oregon and Salem, and without Scott’s recommendation to visit OSH, the story wouldn’t exist.
JH & LS: Most of the story is in close relation to the perspective of a private school teacher, Allison, and then switches to the perspective of Allison’s housemate and a teacher at a public school, Sharee. When we saw the title “Samaritan,” we thought of the parable of the Good Samaritan, but “good” is absent from your title. Why choose Allison’s perspective for the shooting at Sharee’s school, and were you thinking of the story’s title in that choice?
SB: I’ll answer that in reverse: I went back and forth between “Samaritan” and “Samaritans” for the title before ultimately settling on the singular; it’s an ironic title, ultimately, or at least is intended to be. I intentionally left out the “good” to echo Allison’s lack of “good”ness. Allison is given several opportunities, if quiet ones, to be a “Samaritan,” or at least to be a good person to someone in need. But she always fails . . . and she fails in ways (that I hope and think) are small, ways that many of us fail every day: certainly with the student in her class and the student’s mother; certainly her neighbors, especially the son; certainly Reggie; certainly, and most of all, Sharee herself.
I think that Allison’s failings, like I said, are quiet ones; individually they’re ordinary—not great, but also usually not so awful. And I also think that, barring some awful act or thought by that character, a reader generally aligns herself with the point of view character. Allison’s transgressions are small ones . . . so the reader probably, or hopefully, stays “with” Allison. But those transgressions do pile up. I wanted to preserve the switch to Sharee at the story’s end (vs. shifting to her during the shooting) as the very first time we get to step away from Allison and actually see Allison—especially from the point of view of someone who was close to her and sees her more fully. I think if a switch were done prior, the impact would be a little softer.
JH & LS: The story is set partially at a standardized testing retreat for teachers and is peppered with student answers to the writing prompt: “respond to a passage in which a well-known author defined what it meant to be a good person in the contemporary world, especially as a United States citizen.” How did you want both the student responses and the main characters’ neighbors to reflect on the characters?
SB: This is a fun question to answer. First, I wanted the high school students’ answers—or small sections from implicitly longer essays—to add a layer of authenticity to the setting at the faux-AP scoring session. I attended one of these sessions years and years ago, in Florida, and the range of responses—in terms of tone, effort, interest—was very similar to what I tried to convey in the story. (The “not so serious” is actually a phrase that many students included in their essays the year I did the scoring; apparently some AP students devise a nationwide joke phrase they embed in their essay responses; that phrase is anachronistic to when my story is set, but I liked the tone and suggest-ability of it, so it stayed.)
More than anything else, I wanted the student texts, at least on the whole, to reflect a larger self-awareness about their sense of what it means to be good as a direct counterpoint to Allison’s general failure in the very same area: they’re trying to think about what it means to be good throughout the story. She never does.
JH & LS: Where do you go for writing inspiration in general?
SB: Inspiration comes from so many different places for me that it’s really hard to track, but I’ll do my best on this. With “Samaritan,” at least, I mentioned this before: the primary drive was trying to take a specific experience and turn it into something textured with (hopefully somewhat nuanced) characters that is, ultimately, emotionally meaningful for the reader. And that’s true for a fair deal of my work: taking my own experiences and trying to reshape them, often drastically so, into something meaningful.
Just as often, I’ll write about situations, characters, and settings that have nothing to do with my own experiences . . . save emotionally. I’ll try to use that emotion, those strong emotions within me, and try to build out worlds that convey those emotions in exaggerated, unique ways.
And of course social issues and anxieties, and certainly the works of other writers—all these are hugely, hugely inspirational. Sometimes the sheer ambition of other writers, the sheer originality that they put on the page, is itself a sort of lightning-bolt charge that runs up and down my spine: Do. Better. (I’m thinking here of, among many others, Calvino, of Berlin; lately of Sara Majka, an amazingly talented writer.)
JH & LS: What are you working on now? What can readers look forward to?
SB: I’m in the last stages—the last days, literally—of doing a final edit of a novel-in-stories about a couple that in some ways resembles my wife and I (the two characters are academics and writers); they are also far different (they fight zombies in one story; we have not yet done this). The collection has a general narrative arc (they age together), but it also splinters and detours—sometimes they aren’t married; sometimes they never meet; sometimes they live; sometimes they don’t. It’s a work, at least I hope it is, of contemporary realism while simultaneously functioning as a light and strange novel of magical realism.
And I’ve also been working in fits and starts on a project that marries together telescopes and observatories, notions of seeing and unseeing (e.g. into space, e.g. race), contemporary social issues (immigration, driverless cars), and the relationship between power and writing. This is rangy, to say the least, but I’m excited about it, and I think I can see pretty clearly into its distant horizon. Check back in three years!