This week’s story, “Underground,” follows a man named Michael Salter, “forty-seven years old, but only two years clear of the proverbial closet,” through his day, from breakfast with his new boyfriend to lunch with his mother, to the after-school pick-up of his daughters and the start of their subway ride home. When did you first start thinking of Michael and did you always know the story would unfold over the course of one day?
I always knew that it would take place over a single day, and a relatively short day at that—the original title was “Short,” which was in reference to many ideas I had floating in my head about the story: how we come up short in our lives, in our own sense of ourselves, the way we make meaning and then the meaning is often situational and does not hold up under scrutiny. Michael as a character was an expression of that concept—how one can change everything yet change nothing at all, the underlying issues untouched, unexamined. That sort of grasping for something bigger yet always out of reach.
The story traces Michael’s emotional state, and the way he fluctuates between exhilaration and self-loathing. Yet the physical world of the story is important, and you describe the outer trappings of Michael’s life with great precision. Why do these matter so much to the story?
That’s the surface world, in many ways the world Michael is trapped within, so it’s important to try to nail those details, or nail Michael to those details, to the performative element of his life—the song and dance of lunch with his mother, for example—which hopefully hint at the deeper personal cost, the fear, the inability to grow or to be an emotionally present adult rather than an overgrown child. The superficial can be very shiny and comfortable, playing our role till we play our death, never listening to the nagging humanity underneath, the want and need not found in the Neiman Marcus catalogue.
Michael, like most of us, spends a fair amount of time on his phone. It contains both the possibility of his new life—“the thrill of this fuckable radar,” he thinks, as he scrolls through Grindr—and, in some ways, regret at the loss of an old one. What’s it like as a writer to figure out how to deal with the omnipresence of new technology in so many aspects of our lives?
There’s a dread to it, to this technology, to where it is going, to how we’ve been rewired, to the inability to turn back. Every swipe of the phone screen infects us further. It feels like the lead in the Roman pipes—was it lead? Let me just quickly check Wikipedia. That said, it’s here and it’s not going away and it’s pretty good fodder for writers, whether actual or metaphorical. We used to be the heroes of our own stories, now we are the Kardashians. But that’s an all too easy joke, which is the danger as well. The question is how do we maintain our humanity with our head lowered, checking the status of humanity.
You mentioned that “Underground” was inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In Hemingway’s story, which was published in 1936, Francis Macomber, on safari in Africa with his wife, panics while hunting a lion, humiliating himself—and his wife—in front of their guide. It’s a long way from the twenty-first-century subways of New York. How do the two stories intersect for you? How significant is Hemingway’s exploration of cowardice to your story?
I read the story as a boy, probably in seventh-grade English class, something like that, and I think poor Francis introduced me to irony for the first time, how the title sort of slanted all the words that followed, how the class reached the end and then had to go back and reconsider the title, the story, the teacher guiding us along. Perhaps it was a cheap “Aha!” but it was an“Aha!” nonetheless, and it seemed exciting and very adult. So when I was writing about a man who is essentially trapped as a boy—as Hemingway called them, the “great American boy-men”—Francis Macomber seemed a natural inspiration for Michael Salter. But I wasn’t thinking about cowardice. I was thinking about courage, how we can be courageous and yet the act itself very well might change nothing about ourselves; we are stuck being the same person inside. The idea that Francis Macomber has evolved into a full-blown “man” because he faced this physical fear is incredibly superficial. No wonder the story appealed to a bunch of thirteen-year-olds. The deeper story is understanding that nothing has changed. We might feel free, but the underlying core remains based on boyish fears. How do we move beyond fear, beyond the gestured self?
The safari guide, a white hunter named Robert Wilson, views Macomber with a mixture of disdain and sympathy. In one passage, Hemingway writes, “It’s that some of them stay little boys so long, Wilson thought. Sometimes all their lives. Their figures stay boyish when they’re fifty. The great American boy-men. Damned strange people.” Do many of your fictional characters fit into this line of American boy-men? Do you think they want to escape boyhood, or remain within it?
See above. And I think they all want to escape boyhood, yet the bill of goods they’ve been sold, on what it means to be a man, can be pretty soul-crushing.
In Hemingway’s story, Macomber’s moment of bravery, when he confronts a charging buffalo, results in disaster. Did you consider following suit?
Not really, because surviving seems scarier.