Before David Means published a single story, he was studying poetry in Columbia’s MFA program, taking classes with the late Denis Johnson. In a piece he wrote for The New Yorker, titled “Denis Johnson’s Lasting Advice“, Means recalls Johnson bumping into him in the hall, putting an arm around his shoulder, and pulling him close, saying, “Hang in there, buddy.” A few weeks later, Johnson leaned over a pile of Means’s poems and said, “You’ve got something. Just keep trusting yourself, keep listening to what you’re thinking, man.” Means—a writer from the Midwest whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, and The Paris Review—took Johnson’s advice. His stories have since drawn comparisons to those of a daunting list of greats: Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, and Raymond Carver, as well as Denis Johnson himself.
Much of Mean’s new collection, Instructions for a Funeral, takes place in New York’s Hudson Valley. In fourteen deeply internal stories, there is a great deal of pained reflection, much of it taking place alongside the “New World” Nile. Means has lived and worked in the Hudson Valley for decades; his home is in Nyack, and he teaches at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. But Instructions also ventures to the middle of the country—Kansas, Detroit, Northern Michigan—in stories of a FBI sting gone wrong, a delusional factory worker medicated into state compliance, and a drifting pair of boatmen along Lake Superior. And it extends into the American West—Arizona, New Mexico, California—as Means writes about a wild hitchhiking trio, and a brutal bar fight turned love story.
On the whole, the stories refuse simple summation. Their architecture is often invisible. They feel both instinctual and cyclical, circling back and back again, through what was, what could have been, and what might be. Sometimes they offer profound illumination; other times, they suggest illumination cannot be found.
At the heart of nearly all of the stories in Instructions are ideas about memory, time, family, and trauma. Every story, and at times every sentence, seems to probe for deeper understanding within “the banality of sequential reality.”
— Sam Schieren for Guernica
Guernica: Why did you start Instructions for a Funeral with “Confession?”
David Means: I felt it was important to open up the book in a certain way. When I think about it, I trace it back to my father’s death a few years ago, and a sense that I had at the time that life was really short. That I should allow a little more autobiographical material into my work. On the other hand, that piece isn’t necessarily 100 percent autobiographical or really a confession. I think I wanted to set a certain tone for the book, which was to give the reader a sense of intimacy and being closer to me. I think a little bit about Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, and the tone of that book, where you get a sense you are actually reading an autobiographical work. But you’re not. I learned that the hard way. I once had a dinner with Tim O’Brien, and I asked him a question based on the book, something like, “How is your daughter?” And he said, “I don’t have a daughter.”
Guernica: Did you worry about “Confession” becoming a lens through which people would read the book?
Means: A little bit. When you write short stories, you have to trust that there are enough really good short-story readers out there to understand that each story stands alone. For example, in Jesus’s Son, each one of the stories in Denis Johnson’s book came out individually. When they’re put together as a sequence, it feels like a novel. But those are really short stories. On the other side of the coin, there are some autobiographical threads that weave through some of my stories. Basically, parenting and homelessness.
Guernica: The third through seventh stories have a first-person narrator who is a writer and a father. I’m curious about how you approach writing about family in fiction. How do you protect the truth and still tell a true story?
Means: I didn’t think of it at all as writing out of my own family. I work on each story one at a time. I’m just going as deep and as carefully as I can into the one that I’m working on. For example, with “The Chair,” I don’t have a big house along the Hudson; I’ve never had a son run along a retaining wall. But I have had the dynamic of having to make decisions about how much to control and how much to let freedom into the process of parenting. I was mainly tracing a parental dynamic in that story.
Guernica: Did the title “The Chair” intentionally have some connotation with the electric chair? The narrator says, “It’s the chair for you,” etc.
Means: I thought of it in a humorous way. I was thinking about how parents often say, “You’re gonna have a time-out.” Of course, I must have understood after I wrote the story that “The Chair” has a strange sound to it. That it resonates a little bit with the electric chair. The dynamic of punishment, the dynamic of control, the physics of it, is probably similar. To a kid, having to sit in a chair feels like a huge injustice. It feels cosmically large. For a kid, one small little thing feels like a giant thing.
Guernica: You write in such detail about place. Are you intending to memorialize places in some way?
Means: Setting, for me, is always a major character in fiction. As you get older, place takes on a more historical feeling. For example, The Midwest, where I grew up—the term Rust Belt, I’m not sure that term really applies any more to a lot of the Midwest. Most of the rusted factories have been bulldozed and are gone.
Guernica: Though you never mention Nyack by name, some of these stories seem to take place there.
Means: My stories take place in an imagined place that happens to have certain aspects of where I live. The same goes for the Midwest, and Michigan, and the West—it’s an imagined sense of locations that draw from real ones, and then the location itself changes as I watch the characters move around, as time shifts.
Guernica: A lot of your stories involve people that, as you’ve said, “live on the edge of the human predicament.” What draws you to that material?
Means: This sounds vague, but I go where my imagination takes me. I grew up in a family that had trauma. One of my siblings lived on the margins. That’s one of the factors in my writing about people on the margins. Stories are a way of saving us from having to live through certain experiences. They give us memetic instructions on how to go through something. They are evolutionary tools. I go into these different places to explore how it would feel to be on that edge. Though, I think Instructions for a Funeral pulls back from that. It isn’t quite as extreme.
Guernica: Many of the characters in Instructions seem trapped between the past and the future, which you would think would mean the present, but it doesn’t feel like that.
Means: That’s the way time works. When you live, you’re in many different time zones at the same time. You’re in your memory, your present-moment ruminations, your speculation of what’s going to happen to you in the future.
Guernica: How do you capture that phenomenon?
Means: I like stories that helix on themselves, and twist. But no matter how complicated a story might be, I try to make sure I’m telling a story. That, beneath the surface, there is still a point-A-to-point-Z narrative happening. Again, it’s up to the reader to hold the whole thing in their head and feel the energy that vibrates out of it.
I feel like most short-story writers who dedicate themselves to the form figure out a way to make that work. Really, there’s nothing expensive about making a time leap. You just have to work within the context of the story. Of course, if it doesn’t work, it can be a disaster.
Guernica: It seems like something that might be more typical of poetry. I know you wrote poetry before you began writing stories. Is there any influence there?
Means: I was influenced at an early age by the poet Philip Levine, whom I got to know when I was an undergraduate. He writes poetry, a lot of it out of the industrial Midwest where I was from. So I began writing poetry, and it was great training for paying attention to vernacular and being acutely aware of each word. I still love poetry, and I read a lot of it, but after a few years in New York I made the transition. I really had to teach myself how to write short stories. That was back in the day, before I had a computer. It was still a lot of cutting and pasting. Lots of really physical work. I still write by hand. A lot of my first drafts are by hand, in a particular kind of notebook. Then I put it in the computer and see how it looks.
Guernica: In “Confession” you talk about revision, saying it clarifies and sharpens what was already there. You also mention that readers often take something away from stories that you didn’t intend. Does that sometimes happen while you’re drafting, and so you bring it out further?
Means: I think life is a form of revision. We’re constantly working on revising our own stories, and rewriting them, and trying to make them better—if we’re good people.
I think what I was saying about being betrayed by the reader is that the reader is going to hold it, own it, and make it their own. It’s not my beach, not my Lake Superior; it’s the readers’. That’s a feeling that’s incredible. This sense that other people are going to take it and make it their own. It doesn’t mean they’re going to like it. Maybe they’re going to be terrified by it, or maybe it will touch some chord in them they didn’t know they had or didn’t want touched. But once you publish a story, it really is out of your hands. It’s cliché but it’s true.
Guernica: You’ve said, “A good collection has a deep coherence buried inside.” How do you find that coherence?
Means: I think the way I see it is that a story writer, even if he or she doesn’t know it, is working on a larger project—one that goes on through life—and so it’s inevitable that one’s going to find threads, and maybe even characters, weaving from story to story. I become aware of it after I’ve written the stories, when I’m looking through them, trying to see what they are trying to do together, putting them next to each other. Putting a book together is like forming a ragtag family out of disparate members, all born from the same basic genetic material but also complete individuals.
Guernica: Did it feel good to return to writing stories after working on a novel?
Means: It did, for sure. It felt incredible to write the novel, and I was happy with the reception. I learned immediately that the entire world takes novels with a different kind of seriousness than they do stories. But there is something about the story form that feels very comfortable.
They’re completely different animals. The novel is more like a horse or a buffalo. The story is more like a cat or a small dog. With a story, I feel the way you feel when you have a cat in the room. With the novel, I felt like I had a horse in the house for several years. Not even a broken horse. It’s just an entire different sense of work. [With the novel] you’re going back in every day, and you don’t quite know where you’re going—although I don’t with a story either—and you keep going in deeper and deeper. Then you have this big manuscript. It’s a completely different feeling.
Guernica: Do you have any advice for a writer who wants to write stories?
Means: Listen to stories. Listen to the way people tell stories, everyday stories. At the bar, at the mall. Wherever you are. And find your own way into telling a story.
Also, reading is absolutely key. Not just reading contemporary writers, but reading deep into the literature. Really deep. You should be holding those classic, Everyman Library editions. Old books. You need to go back and listen to as many voices as you can, across all cultural spectrums, not just centering on one or two writers. You may find writers that are annoyingly old-fashioned and stiff, or incorrect in their views. But they may teach you something about the form in some way. Or you may write against them. You may say, “I’m never going to write a thing like that.”
One thing I always talk to my students about: You don’t have to like literature. It’s not like you’re supposed to just like Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, or something. We hold writing up to a different kind of scrutiny than we do visual art. You don’t say, “Oh, Picasso, he should have done this.” You look at the entire Picasso, and maybe you don’t like it. Maybe it makes you feel uncomfortable. Like his painting of Guernica. But you just let yourself feel it. Writing is different. Every writer—even a beginning writer—has to begin to understand their own process, their own ways of doing it. One thing I would never say is I have any kind of answer on how to make a short story. My way is to try and respect the demands of the story I’m trying to tell. Lean as much as I can into that story, and hope that the reader can take the care to let it resonate.
Guernica: Are there writers you feel have continued to be under-recognized?
Means: There’s a writer named Gayle Jones. She wrote a novel called Corregidora, and a number of short stories that are brutally brilliant. Lucia Berlin—she’s having a renaissance, and I think it’s so deserved. Raymond Carver was getting all the attention but if the world had been just, she would have been getting just as much attention. Another is Christine Schutt. She wrote a collection years ago called Nightwork. She’s still writing stories, and she’s really challenging and interesting. A more contemporary writer who is getting a lot of attention is Nane Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. He wrote Friday Black. There’s a writer named Danielle Evans. She’s a young writer. Her book was called Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. I think she’s got an extraordinary talent as a writer. Her first book was rock solid. And an older writer who should be paid attention to more, as a short-story writer, is Nelson Algren, a working-class Chicago writer.
Guernica: I was struck by the idea of “instructions for a funeral.” A lot of this book is about storytelling. Does it feel like writing, in some way, is a preparation for death?
Means: The title, Instructions for a Funeral, was more tongue-in-cheek in my head. Because my father died, I was thinking about what would I want at my funeral. I would want Glenn Gould to be played. I started writing those things down. Then I ended up making it into story. But I don’t think writing is preparing for death. I think it’s a way of trying to be more alive.