love, loss and insects with Dan Stockman

Dan Stockman is a writer who only recently made the transition from the factual world of journalism to the relative world of fiction. Before taking this step, he acquired some fifteen years of experience in journalism, striving for authenticity alongside his colleagues at The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His novel, Brood X, character driven and with an intriguing parallel between our world and that of the elusive seventeen years cicada, tells a story of love, loss and insects, a story that teaches us a valuable lesson: it isn’t death, but life that we have to constantly make peace with. The insects in the novel seem to know that well, in an atavist fashion their human counterparts’ lack.

A few things on love, loss and insects with Dan Stockman

M. Dan Stockman

 Changing the imperative of fact for the imperative of word carving isn’t the smoothest of transitions. Therefore, we will begin our interview, by asking the author how did he cope with the pesky need of the verisimilar, a need Mark Twain turned into a mantra for most of the budding writers out there, when he advised them to “write what you know”.

Considering that journalists write under the predicament of truth, was it a challenge to commit to paper a work of fiction?

It was very difficult at first, not because it was hard to write the words, but because it was hard to read them – in my head they just didn’t sound believable, because I knew I had made them up. It turns out I had a couple of things working against me: First, of course, was the fact that for the 15 years before that, my standard in everything I wrote was “Can I prove this in court?” That is a very good habit to have in journalism, but a difficult one to break for writing fiction. The second was that voice that any writer hears in their head, the one that says your words are not good enough, that no one wants to read them and that you have nothing worthwhile to say. The combination of the two made everything I wrote just seem so “made up” that I couldn’t get past the first page for a couple of weeks. I must have re-written that thing 100 times. Later, in revisions, I rewrote the entire first chapter, but that was only because I wanted it to flow differently.

What was the easiest part of the creative process? Also, what was most difficult in completing Brood X?

Let me start with the second question first: The most difficult part was the outline. Usually when I write, I know the characters and the ending – everything else comes later because, to me, everything else is in service to those two things, preferably both at the same time. In this case, I knew the main characters of Andy and Ashley, that they had been in love as teenagers until Ashley disappeared, and that in the end, Andy would discover not Ashley, but himself. But weaving adult Andy’s story together with the flashbacks to young Andy’s story with Ashley, plus the story of the cicadas, was like putting together a very complicated puzzle, especially since I knew I wanted it all to happen in exactly seventeen chapters. But once that puzzle was put together, the fun part began: The writing. I used my outline as a sort of roadmap for how the novel would work, but left the in-between parts open to the creative process. In other words, with each chapter, I knew which things I had to accomplish but left it up to the writing to figure out how to get there. For example, I knew that in Chapter Ten, Andy and Ashley needed to talk about the future and their plans for themselves and each other. I knew that Andy had to in some way help Ashley reach for dreams she never thought possible. But the scene where they visit the guidance counselor together just came together on its own.

Did you feel close to Andy Gardner? After a while, the readers begin to root for his happy ending. What about the author? Did you feel like siding with him?

Absolutely. In fact, I felt close to all of the characters, but especially Andy because I had spent so long trying to tell his story, and I wanted to do that because it’s a story that I think anyone can relate to, because we’ve all fallen too hard for someone at some point and lost ourselves in the process. So yes, I certainly was siding with Andy, but I also knew before I started writing how his story ended – not the particulars, but that he would, in fact, discover who he is and who he is supposed to be; his story was always about that particular journey.

If anything, I have become a bit protective of these characters: A few readers have asked for a sequel, with one suggesting she would like the sequel to be about Ashley. But I feel that, though she’s not real, Ashley deserves her privacy and that she’s been through enough already and it would just be cruel of me to punish her with another book, especially one about her.

In your book, Andy Gardner has his destiny entwined with that of the seventeen years cicada, but the link is fortuitous and the character isn’t giving it too much consideration. Other authors, like Philip Pullman for example, made a more apparent link between humans and what we loosely call the animal world: creatures like shadows moving about and morphing in the ages of the soul. Could it be that in Brood X’s case, too, the main character is morphing into a different age of his soul?

Andy is definitely changing; the cicada metaphor is particularly apt for his transition because of the long period in which cicadas appear to be dormant but only show the changes they have made in the last few moments of their lives. In Andy’s case, not much appeared to change in his life in his first seventeen years – though we know from our own experience that humans change dramatically in that time. But outwardly, and to him, the change only came that seventeenth summer when he met Ashley. The next seventeen years of his life outwardly also seem to be a type of dormancy – he was emotionally paralyzed and still stuck where he was in that moment when Ashley left him. All the action – at least all that we see in Brood X – is in that (second) seventeenth summer when he decides to go find her.

However, I didn’t want Andy to be aware of the link, at least not fully aware. He realizes there is some kind of link with him and the cicadas, but in his mind, he thinks that Ashley may be the cicada and he the cicada killer wasp, as if he was somehow responsible for her disappearance. A lot of his decisions and emotions are based upon that mistaken notion.

Most authors admit to having used “hooks” or “crutches” well embedded in their surrounding reality, in order to be able to keep on going down the path their writings took them. Does Brood X contain such real life elements, neatly added to the fabric of its fiction?

Yes, and for Brood X, it was definitely a crutch. As I said earlier, it was very difficult as a long-time journalist to write things I knew hadn’t actually happened. The way I overcame that was to include many elements from real life: I set the story in my own neighborhood. The house Ashley lives in exists in reality a few blocks from mine. Andy drives my brother-in-law’s red Grand Am and works at a job he used to hold, in a cabinet factory. Adult Andy lives in a neighborhood I’m familiar with because of flooding in recent years, his favorite restaurants are my favorites: Coney Island and Powers Hamburgers.

All of those things ground the story in a real place, which I think is important, but they also let me get past that feeling that the story wasn’t believable. Otherwise, it may never have been written.

The book also makes for an interesting audition. The characters are surrounded by the cicada song, but also, every here and there, as their story unfolds, the important moments are accompanied by music. Are their songs your favorite songs too? What made you choose the soundtrack of Brood X?

I think the only song young Andy listens to that I would call a favorite would be “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House, the song he and Ashley dance to when they’re worried about their future together. I love 80s music, but that song is one of my absolute favorites – I’m mesmerized by it.

The other song that’s important both to Brood X and to me personally is “A Song for Someone” by Elaina Burress. I was working on the end of the book when an old friend from high school posted some songs by Elaina on her Facebook page; Elaina at that time was a student at the high school I went to in Muskegon, Michigan, until she transferred to the singer-songwriter program at Interlochen, a prestigious school for the arts near Traverse City. I was immediately taken by her music, but the lyric for “Song for Someone” just fit so perfectly with what both Andy and Ashley were going through that I knew I had to use it somehow. Fortunately, Elaina granted me the rights to use the lyric, for which I’m very grateful. You can hear the song at: http://www.elainaburress.com.

Towards the middle of the book, Holden Caulfield is mentioned. This prompted us to consider the reason why Brood X sounded so fluid, so familiar: the narrative voice is original, yet archetypal. And this is something we’ve encountered before, in the short stories of one J.D. Salinger. This made us curious as to what inspired the author: Which classic voices does he hold dear, and does he think they have an influence over his style?

As a young writer in college, I struggled a long time to try to find my own voice. Then, in journalism, I worked very hard to hide my voice. So when I set out to write Brood X, I knew I wanted it to be similar to the very clear, plain voice that I use in journalism, but with the freedom granted by the novel. In short, I wanted the voice to be my own, but also to have the ability to create the beauty I don’t get to develop for the newspaper. This was especially true when I read Leif Enger’s “Peace Like a River,” which flows so easily between clear, straightforward text like Salinger and Hemingway (both are favorites) and passages that are just gorgeous. At the same time, as a journalist I work very hard to use the voice of the people I’m reporting on, so I knew I needed to be very careful about what books I was reading while I was writing this novel, because I did not want another author’s voice to start coming through in my own writing. So while I think Barry Hannah’s writing is so beautiful it hurts, I knew I should not be reading his work while writing Brood X. Eventually I settled on some of Toni Morrison’s older novels, “Sula,” “Tar Baby” and “Song of Solomon.” I was certain that Morrison’s voice was so distinct and so different from my own that it would have no effect on my own writing. And it didn’t – at least as far as voice goes. But “Song of Solomon” ended up being a big influence, because the main character’s transformation gave me the assurance I needed that Andy’s transformation was strong enough to hold its own as a narrative arc.

When we speak of the novel, we are compelled to mention cicadas. Chapter eight, for instance, is entirely dedicated to these fascinating creatures.  The manner in which their life cycle is depicted, tell us that there is perhaps more to them than just a plot detour. What is it about seventeen years’ cicada that interests you most?

Many things, from their synchronized emergence (scientists now believe it is probably based on soil temperature) to their long dormancy and amazing changes. There’s certainly something tragic about their life cycle, but also something beautiful. And that is how I think of humans: You can choose to look at our lives as short, tragic cycles of birth, pain and death, or as something made even more beautiful and precious by its fragility.

The characters spend some time driving. In fact, the main character goes on a self-seeking journey right out of a bildungsroman.

Contemporary writers give a great deal of significance to the ritual of driving and often use it to portray key moments in a character’s life. Annie Proulx, for instance, used driving in the The Half-Skinned Steer to take the character to a funeral.

In Brood X too, the car ride is isolated from other events and gains significance. The meditation and remembrance, combined with the growing Song of the cicada makes us consider the impediment of doom. Was this part of the building momentum all along? Is there any particular significance to their driving?

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by watching traffic, in that each car is sort of its own bubble, a piece of someone’s world. In this car is a professional woman driving to work; surrounded by the things she owns and carries, maybe in her mind she’s contemplating a divorce. But in the very next car are three teenagers, with all the tension and drama of the complicated relationships between them, their search for who they want to be in life, and a great song on the radio. In the next car is a farmer, maybe he’s coming in to the city to buy life insurance. All of these individual worlds, in tiny spheres of metal and glass, rolling past like a parade of the human condition. That being said, I didn’t think of the driving itself so much as the journey Andy takes. Dostoevsky once said there are only two types of stories: A stranger comes to town and a journey of discovery. Andy’s on a journey of discovery; I suppose if the story had been set in Europe he would take much the same journey, only he would do it on a train.

The novel has scenes from Kalamazoo and Muskegon, would you consider both the scenes and the characters states of mind as telling of mid-Western sensitivity?

Yes, and that was deliberate. So much fiction these days is about self-obsessed people on the East Coast of America who have nothing to do but go to therapy and worry about what’s wrong with them while complaining about everyone around them. Some of those books are great; but they’re not about people I know and live around. I wanted to write a book about people that might live next door to me, the kind of people I know and grew up with. It is definitely a Midwestern book.

And lastly, what is Dan Stockman currently working on and what should the readers expect next?

Right now I’m working furiously on my master’s thesis; if all goes well, I’ll graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University in August with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. I hope that thesis will become a non-fiction book or at least a long magazine piece about a tragic auto accident that occurred in the area. In the meantime, my wife and I are working on an adoption memoir, together we write a wine column at Cheers! Wine Consultants, and I’ve got a few ideas for the next novel kicking around in my head…

Thank you for your time, Dan, we wish you the best of luck with future endeavors and we are eager to read more.

Brood X by Dan Stockman

Dan Stockman’s novel, Brood X, debuted in November 2013, and is readily available to the readers on both sides of the pond, via Amazon. You can find more about the book here, or purchase the novel on amazon.  Also, you can check out our article on topic, here and even get a glimpse of chapter eight in the pithead chapel’s archives.

by milena with the excellent collaboration of m. dan stockman © 2014.

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