Every two weeks we will be showcasing original fiction from an emerging writer, as part of our New Voices feature. The first in our series is ‘Sign of the Gun’. Its author, P.D. Mallamo, speaks to Granta’s Roy Robins about how his story came to be, the pleasures and practicalities of writing short fiction and the ‘endlessly fascinating’ American west.
RR: Where are you from?
PM: I was born in Tucson and raised in Arizona, the son of an Old World Italian (a builder) recently transplanted from Brooklyn, New York, and a Midwestern mother of Swedish descent who had just graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in Latin American Studies. At seventeen I matriculated Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. I was not Mormon. In cultural terms it was a lot like going to school overseas and having to learn a new language, and as such was one of the great experiences of my life (I graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology). Nothing brings you out of yourself more completely than adjusting to a new paradigm, especially one you had never dreamed existed yet had lived next to all your life.
When did you start writing fiction?
I began writing fiction backwards, with long forms instead of short. I came to short stories not through necessity, as a learning tool or precursor to something longer, but because of their flexibility and portability in a busy life. They’re also tremendously fun to write. Short stories are absorbent: If one is in the habit of taking notes on random observations, there’s always a place to put them, if not in one story, then another.
Early and close readings of ee cummings, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade, The Bushwhacked Piano) and later exposure to Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian) and James Joyce showed me what’s possible with the English language.
How did you come to write ‘Sign of the Gun’?
‘Sign of the Gun’ probably has roots in my years-long fascination with Maule aircraft, which are rugged little short-takeoff-or-landing (STOL) planes flown by northern bushpilots. The Maule factory is in Georgia, from where the protagonist of ‘Sign of the Gun’ hails – and somehow there you are. Most of the foundational work was done subconsciously.
A Mormon woman and a drifting, drug-dealing loner: these characters have every reason to come across as unconvincing or contrived and yet they feel to me entirely real. The way you capture the characters’ ongoing conversation – which is to say, their relationship – is especially skilled. The dynamic between your characters benefits as much from their differences as from their similarities. Both characters are conflicted, in limbo in some sense. Both have had unhappy family lives; both have suffered. How did you come up with the back stories for these characters?
The short answer is, I lived with them. I grew up in southern Arizona, in a little cow town called Buckeye, just east of the Harquahala Valley. Until an interstate was constructed some miles north, Buckeye straddled a major artery from Phoenix and other parts of the south-west to the Pacific Coast, Highway 80. Well-represented were both a substantial Mormon population and a large, diverse transient population – farm and ranch labourers and seasonal workers, truckers, railroad men, cowboys following the rodeo circuit, assorted drifters and criminals and those among my peers who would some day become drifters and criminals, a fairly high number. They were Asian, Native American, Hispanic, African-American, Southern and Northern European. Buckeye was hot, primitive and violent. It was also unique and endlessly fascinating.
You live in Kansas. ‘Sign of the Gun’ is set in New Mexico, in a rugged landscape that is vast and spare and sometimes brutal. The emotional landscape of your characters complements the story’s setting. To what degree does landscape influence your writing, and ‘Sign of the Gun’ in particular?
Broadly speaking, the American west stretches from Topeka in eastern Kansas to Los Angeles, and from northern Mexico all the way up through the Canadian provinces and Alaska. I include the Great Plains in my calculations because they are contiguous with the Rocky Mountains and spiritually of a piece with them. In human terms (as opposed to cosmic) this area is astonishingly large and empty. What seems boundless is also elegiac, and this is especially true of the West. Life can be hard in the more isolated stretches. It can also be lawless. People do what they want out here – search for gold, run stock, cook meth. Along with this incipient anarchy there is a kind of respect and restraint, a vestige frontier ethos, if you will. That an itinerant Mormon audiologist and a marijuana grower/pilot should not only meet out here, but find honourable equilibrium, is not only plausible, it has likely already happened several times.
Did you do an MFA or attend any writing classes? And what do you think of the whole MFA circuit?
I carefully avoided the MFA. I think this degree is as likely to harm as help a writer. Finding your voice is difficult and is best done by living – working, writing, travelling, reading, maybe even raising children, God help us. Gore Vidal wrote an essay years ago that dealt with the ‘U-Novel’, or university novel. He considered the mannered, calculated prose one finds in these novels an abomination, and, generally speaking, so do I. Vidal never attended university. Ditto Capote, Hemingway and lots of others. That said, I can also say that some writers I greatly admire, like Thomas McGuane, completed MFAs, so I suppose it is not really fair or accurate to condemn these across the board.
At any rate, the MFA is big business in post-literate America, a dynamic I find interesting. Aside from the actual instruction involved, many seem to think it also enhances access to agents and editors. Since many agents and editors are also MFAs, they may be correct.
Your prose lends itself to fluidity and narrative compulsion. For example, you wrote ‘Sign of the Gun’ in third-person present, which is a tense that complements both distance and immediacy, and moves the narrative ever-forward (whereas past tense is, by its nature, more reflective).
Writing and reading in third-person present is like a high-speed drive through Nevada at two a.m.: incredibly invigorating and somewhat dangerous, with a lethal surprise just over the next rise. You’ve got to keep your high beams on and look way ahead, but you can also open all the windows and turn the radio up.