“A man will be physical, he thinks, forsake things he should never have forsaken, his kin, himself, the ground that gave him life. Death will be the arms to hold him, the final word to give him rest.”
~ from “The Great Divide” in American Masculine
I love this book. As I prepared the post for this interview, I flipped back through the pages of American Masculine, skimmed the stories, and realized again what powerful literature lies between the covers of Shann Ray’s book. In the introduction to American Masculine, Robert Boswell uses words like “grace” and “muscularity” to describe Shann Ray’s writing, and says that images in the stories “carry the visceral weight of memory” as well:
You finish each story with the understanding that…you have lived through something powerful and significant.
It’s true. You can’t walk away from this book unaffected, after reading stories that show the tender underbelly of a violent man and that reveal the pain of an absent father. I am thrilled and honored to share with you this book, and this interview. After you read the interview, drop your name in the comment section for a chance to win a copy of the book (courtesy of Graywolf Press). And now, welcome Shann Ray.
CC: In American Masculine, your characters are tied beautifully to the setting, so much so that asking a question about which inspired your stories first, setting or character, seems moot. Would you share with us, though, how your collection unfolded?
SR: The collection unfolded over the years with a lot of failed attempts and then quite a bit of patience and listening. Especially to my wife Jennifer, an amazing mind with passion for lit, dance, art, and music. I’ve always been in love with the Montana landscape and spent a ton of time embedded in that landscape, the rivers and mountains, the plains. I think of the wildlife and the splendor, and I think how is this possible, such grand intimacy in a package capable of great violence. This reminds me of people. Consider a Wolverine can cross 9 mountain ranges in around 30 days. Now consider how a person can ask forgiveness and make atonement even in the face of the most desolate human conditions, and further, that man can be welcomed back into the community: this occurence, across people and cultures, America, South Africa, the Philippines, Colombia… people and the wilderness inside people comes to me in the night when I’m writing. I hope I can listen enough to speak of our humanity, our desolation, our consolation.
CC: The story in your collection that struck me most is “Rodin’s The Hand of God”. The prose reveals the relationship between a father and a daughter with such power, and when I finished reading it, I couldn’t go on to the next one right away. I felt compelled to sit, quiet, with the last few lines. Do you have a favorite from your book or one from which you didn’t want to walk away?
SR: “Rodin’s The Hand of God” is a favorite for me too because I’ve been in that place with a loved one who is ready to be loved into a better condition but is fighting the voice that speaks to them. “How We Fall” and “The Way Home” have a certain love as well, for how they bring me to a better sense of my faults and the nature of atonement. I think we’ve all been there on both sides of that pathway that acknowledges and is in need of something very graceful having to with heart, soul, and breath. Sometimes we are then given the gift to hear more clearly. Sometimes we fall. So painful when a loved one falls all the way down. Vaclav Havel, the artist and former president of the Czech Republic, referred to suicides as the “gaurdians of meaning.” I agree. In his own country, which is also my country of heritage, Jan Palach gave his life 20 years before the Velvet Revolution, through self-immolation. He burned himself to death in order to awaken the country from its slumber. Our deepest harms have that latent capacity, to awaken us and heal us and make us whole again.
CC: Your bio states that you teach leadership and forgiveness studies, and in this touching post on the website, The Nervous Breakdown, you talk about a friend who’s story illustrates the power of forgiveness in our lives. You say, “In coming to a better understanding of our own existence, we must pass through the history of our mothers and fathers, and our choices in this regard are of paramount importance.” I love this, and the idea behind this quote surfaces throughout your book.Though the stories in American Masculine are fiction, what do you hope readers will take away from your collection?
SR: I love the transport great lit gives us. A sense of something true touching our face and drawing us to look into the eyes of that immeasurable power of which we still know so very little, a power I see as love, kindness, and strength in the wake of human degradation. From that gaze we understand there is mystery involved at the deepest levels of our humanity and at the foundation of that mystery there is love. I think we experience love in all true art, for example in the work of the profound contemporary philosophers, theologians, scientists, and poets that range from bell hooks to Weil to Gadamer to Bakhtin, from Lonergan to Bonhoeffer to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Worthington to Enright to Ornish to Gottman, and from Alexander to Alexie to Oliver to Williams.
CC: What are you reading these days?
SR: The Divine Milieu by Jesuit mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, two gorgeous and fiercely imagined books of poems:A Thousand Vessels by Tania Runyan, and The Man I Was Supposed to Be by John Strulhoeff, and my friend Jess Walter’s evocative and multi-layered jewel of a novel Beautiful Ruinsdue out on Harper in June. This year I also loved You Know When the Menare Gone by the infallible Siobhan Fallon; Beautiful Unbroken, a book of tremendous grief, loss, and recovery by Mary Jane Nealon; and the sheer torque and drive ofVolt by Alan Heathcock.
CC: What advice would you offer for writers on the rise?
SR: There is a discipline that is formed of hours and days and years. That discipline, if approached through love and beauty, will carry you and those around you for the rest of your lives.