QUESTIONS FOR DONALD LYSTRA
AUTHOR OF SOMETHING THAT FEELS LIKE TRUTH
Q. Tell us about the stories in Something that Feels like Truth.
DL. Most of these stories were written between 1998 and 2004, a few years after I'd reached the age of fifty, when I was starting out to become a writer. For the most part, they are set in the cities and suburbs and countryside of Michigan, since those are the places I've lived and know most about, and the time periods range from the 1950s up to the present, which is to say the time I've been alive. In general, the stories deal with ordinary people confronting rather commonplace troubles, though I'd like to think I've found the moments of grace and courage and wisdom that lift the situations, and the characters, above the ordinary.
Q. What do the stories have in common?
DL. I would say that most of them show a character exploring some boundary—usually a very personal boundary—and deciding whether to cross it or to step back. In that sense they are stories about the willingness to confront change and to risk regret.
Q. The title: Something that Feels like Truth. Where did it come from?
It’s a phrase that's intended to refer to that sense of enlightenment or discovery that comes at certain moments when you read a work of fiction, or, as a writer, when you’re writing it. It refers to the blending of fact and imagination which, when done well, provides insights that are honest and true, and perhaps not accessible through other means. It’s that sense of certainty you have about a work of art that defies clear explanation. You know it’s true but you can’t exactly say why.
Q. Where did the story ideas for Something that Feels like Truth come from?
DL. In most cases I started with a situation or characters I'd seen or experienced firsthand. Usually there is something in the situation that feels unresolved or out of balance, something that is not apparent but that you feel is slightly wrong. Then I move the characters forward, seeing how they interact and deal with each other and with their circumstances. If I can do that with honesty, a point will usually come when something gets revealed, a character will have some insight that gives him or her a better or more honest grasp on their life. Someone said that the ending of a short story should be "surprising but inevitable" and I think that's a good way to think about it. Something is wrong but it's not clear what that thing is until a character has struggled for a while to uncover it
Q. This kind of unresolved situation is apparent in your opening story “Geese,” in which a man and wife are forced to make an almost impossible choice. What was your inspiration for this story?
DL. I wanted "Geese" to be a love story of a certain kind; the kind of love that finds expression in the messy situations that comprise most of married life. So I put a married couple together in an unusual setting and I gave them a complicated task—to get the woman's bachelor brother, who has a fiery personality and is filled with fear—to the hospital to have a cancer operation. That's all it was, a simple everyday situation. But I wanted to trace the give and take that happens between the couple as they struggle together to carry out this very ordinary task, and to find the affection that underlies their actions.
Q. Your use of objects in these stories is fascinating. For example, in “Rain Check,” an old parking ticket creates important connections between two characters. In “Treasure Hunt,” a gym bag tossed on a bed hints at a brother’s future life. In “Parallel Universe,” an oxygen tank is a catalyst for the twists and turns of a difficult journey. How do you choose these objects for your stories, or do they just appear as you’re writing?
DL. When I'm writing I'm not aware of all of the significance an object can have; I'm just making a choice that seems appropriate to the character and the situation. If I do that well—make the right choices—those extra connotations should arise naturally. Likewise, I don't want a reader to be consciously aware of these connotations—at least not on the first reading. The physical objects, and almost everything else in a story, should operate at an unconscious, emotional level.
Q. Which of the stories in the collection do you like best?
DL. Well, of course I like them all for different reasons, but I would say that "Rain Check" has a special place for me, possibly because it was the most difficult and time-consuming to write. It's the story of a man and his daughter who take a trip together several months after the death of the wife/mother. The man is torn between a host of conflicting emotions and urges—as anyone would be in such a circumstance—concern for his daughter, for himself, for the memory of his wife, for the daughter's feelings about her mother—and in the span of a few hours he works through these emotional cross-currents to arrive at a slightly different place, hopefully a better place that will let him go forward with his life.
Q. These rich, multi-layered stories are certainly not typical for a beginning writer. One gets the feeling that they’ve been brewing in your mind for years.
DL. I wouldn't say that the stories have been brewing in my mind, but the emotions and the issues—which are the emotions and the issues of life in general—have been percolating in my mind for as long as I’ve been alive. I guess that’s a consequence of starting to write late; you've lived long enough to understand how complex life is, and maybe to have a few thoughts about it.
Q. What caused you to begin writing at such a late stage in your life?
DL. I worked as an engineer for many years but I loved language and literature and I knew that some day I would try my hand at writing fiction. Then, in 1993, I had an operation that required a long period of recuperation. I suddenly had a lot of idle time to fill up, and I decided it was a good opportunity to finally try to write. And then I found that I enjoyed writing to the point of wanting to make it a permanent part of my life. When I went back to work I made some changes that allowed me to write on a regular schedule. It required a pretty drastic career shift but in retrospect I’m happy I made that decision.
Q. What's the difference between working as an engineer and working as a writer?
DL. Quite a big difference but not an impossible one to bridge. As an engineer you assemble a set of facts and work through them to a conclusion, going from one level of certainty to another until you arrive at the final answer, which is never in dispute. As a writer of fiction you make instinctual leaps that are sustained only by the sense you have about the world. The conclusions you reach—if that's the right word—are only as true as your feelings. Being confident about that, to make those instinctual leaps, is very hard for someone trained as an engineer, though once I understood the difference I found that I could deal with it.
Q. What was the experience like of having your novel Season of Water and Ice be published?
DL. Season of Water and Ice didn't achieve a wide distribution, but I was very gratified and heartened by the awards it won and the strong reviews it received. It was a story I believed in and certain readers connected with it in a very powerful way; as a writer you really can't ask for much more than that.
Q. Did you always love books and reading?
DL. Not in the beginning. I was very slow at learning how to read and was sent to remedial reading classes during my elementary school years. In retrospect I think I suffered from a form of dyslexia—though I don't know if the condition had been identified back in the fifties. My remedial reading teacher—Miss Evelyn Baker—gave me exercises which trained me to focus on words one at a time. It was a very slow process but I think the experience taught me to pay attention to language, to the exact words that are used to express an idea or to create an image, and maybe it taught me something about the rhythm of words as you encounter them one by one. In any case, eventually—by about the sixth grade—I could read with some proficiency and after than it became a kind of passion.
Q. Describe your writing schedule. Do you have any rituals or routines?
DL. I write in the morning and I like to write in places that are rather stark. I don’t want things around me that provoke thoughts or memories because I want to concentrate on the characters I'm writing about. Most of the stories in Something that Feels like Truth were written in a carrel of the Hatcher Library on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, which is the town I live in. Generally I make my way to the Library when it opens its doors at 8 am and stay until about noon.
The final revisions to the manuscript were made last year while I was living at our farm in Leelanau County in northern Michigan. There’s an old pump shed on the property that I’ve cleaned out and turned into a writing studio. It has a beautiful view of Grand Traverse Bay, which violates my rule about starkness, but I manage to deal with that.
Q. Are there any particular authors that inspire you and your work?
DL. In high school and college I read the big names of the day—Hemingway and Faulkner and Steinbeck—and I'm sure I took something from each one of them. I suppose I had a particular affection for Hemingway, since he was a Midwesterner and spent his early summers in northern Michigan. Nowadays I'm drawn to books that deal with everyday life in a more-or-less realistic way. The books I read tend to have quiet stories and the challenge for writers of such books is to find ways to make the ordinary seem compelling. Some of the authors who do it especially well are Marilynne Robinson, Richard Ford, Alice McDermott, Chang-rae Lee, Kent Haruf. I’m sure I’ve learned from all of them and from others.
Q. You’ve lived most of your life in Michigan. How do you think that's affected your writing?
DL. I’ve lived most of my life in Michigan but not all of it. I lived in Berkeley, California from 1968 to 1972, which was a very interesting time and probably affected me in certain important ways. And I’ve lived for extended periods in France and Mexico and Canada. But I do consider myself a Midwesterner, and not with any reluctance. I like the qualities of Midwestern people, the sense of purpose and fortitude and resolve that's embedded in Midwestern culture. And I like the sincerity, the lack of guile and affectation. On the other hand, I think it's important to be aware of the particularities of whatever place you live in, whether it’s the Midwest or New York or Paris, and to try to take account of that in your thinking about broader issues. I try to do that. I don’t know if I always succeed, but I try.