Chris Dennis | Interview

Chris Dennis & Ellah Allfrey

Our latest issue, Aliens, introduces new writer Chris Dennis, with his story ‘Here is What You Do’. Set in a prison, it is narrated directly to the reader by a young man arrested on a drug charge, who develops a strange and intimate relationship with his cellmate. Chris spoke to Deputy Editor Ellah Allfrey about point of view in his writing, as well as the unexpected origins of this particular story.

EA: ‘Here is What You Do’ is set in a prison and is about a relationship that develops between two cellmates. Is this a love story?

CD: The story actually began as a satire of gay pulp. There’s a good amount of gay erotica set in prisons. The story is not erotica now, obviously. But I’d read some vintage erotica and was thinking about the lies pornography wants to tell us about sex and relationships – dated erotica, especially, where the social mores are glaring and stilted. The existence of the fantasy makes sense; men do have sex with each other in prison. But closetedness and aggression play a central role in these stories. And the more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed that the characters of an erotic piece of fiction – if we can even call them characters – possess desires fuelled by homophobia and violence. They’re meant to be sexually arousing, of course, catering first and foremost to the assumed imagination of the reader – like most genre fiction. But the predominance of aggression and closetedness in a sexual fantasy seemed, well, weird, and sad, and then suddenly, exactly like life. True things happen in pulp, but all is varnished in sensationalism, and everyone achieves climax. I wanted to interrogate that fantasy.

The story I was trying to write was meant to be a criticism of those old hyperbolae, but I kept encountering real danger, and humanity. The inquisition of the formula sort of fell apart there. I was trying to be satirical, but when I pushed too hard against the sensational scenarios of gay erotica, the whole scene just became awkward and human. In the story I ended up with, Donald and Ricky are testing one another, trying to see – in a way – who will confess to an honest feeling first, who can hide the longest, who might say, ‘I love you.’ It’s an immature love, selfish and destructive and driven by insecurity. They want to own one another. Socrates says, ‘Consider this, fair youth, and know that in the friendship of the lover there is no real kindness; he has an appetite and wants to feed upon you: As wolves love lambs so lovers love their loves.’ By this definition, it’s certainly a love story.

This is your first published piece. How long have you been writing?

I wrote a lot in high school. My reading tastes were juvenile – lots of psychological thrillers. My writing was worse than the bad books I read. I wrote my first serious story as an undergraduate, maybe eleven years ago. I was taking a creative writing class with a wonderful teacher, where we mostly read contemporary writers. I hadn’t read much innovative, or even good literature up until that point. She encouraged me. We read a Richard Siken poem, ‘The Dislocated Room’, and the next semester I switched majors, from photography to English. I didn’t know a person could write about the devil and have him be both ordinary and terrifying. It was a few years before I wrote anything I felt sincerely good about.

‘Here Is What You Do’ has a very distinct voice. It’s told in the second person and yet it’s a deeply intimate piece. That point of view is a brave decision. Why did you choose to tell the story this way?

I can’t remember how far along I was in writing the story when I switched from the third to the second person, but it happened by accident. I’d read something in the second person, and with that voice still stuck in my head sat down to work on the story. I wrote for a while before realizing I was writing everything in a different point of view. I’d been struggling with the voice anyway: the tone was all wrong, and the third person was proving too limitless for me. In third, I was letting too much information in, and there was no pain or discomfort in the narration. I started thinking about how the second person works, what its implications are – one of them being that the narrator is giving directions to a reader. In the page or so I had accidentally composed in the second person it sounded as if the character were giving directions to himself, coaching himself. I liked that. So I made the whole thing second-person and let someone read it. They immediately said, ‘No, no, no, please don’t do second-person, I hate this point of view.’ People are often opposed to it. But something good had happened. The speaker was uncomfortable now, though free to tell the story in a way that a first-person narrator never could. Second-person narrators usually have something to hide. They seem shy to me, and this story is no exception. It reminds me of an ashamed person asking for advice: ‘So I have this friend who really likes eating human hair …’

Even though much of this story takes place inside prison walls, the scenes in which Ricky is on the outside have a very strong sense of place (a bar in Mexico, the grandmother’s house). Where do you live? Does your location influence your writing?

I live in St Louis, Missouri, but I grew up in southern Illinois. Everything I write about is influenced by that place. Most of my work is set there. I’ll pretend it’s somewhere else – that I’m writing about a place that isn’t home – but it always is. The other day I was discussing Raymond Carver’s ‘Cathedral’ with my students; we spent too much time talking about the logistics of blindness, for whatever reason, which prompted one student to ask, ‘How is it we dream of things we’ve never seen or done?’ I said, ‘We just manipulate all the stuff from our waking life.’ It was a beautiful question, even if my answer was obvious. A story is a dream, and no matter how fantastic the dream is, it’s still constructed from reality. I guess I can’t help but furnish stories with material from my home county.

What do you do when you aren’t writing?

I watch a lot of videos on YouTube. I also teach Literature and Composition at a career college, which involves me weeping over Yeats’ passages in a room full of Veterinary Assistant majors.

What are you working on now?

Stories and a novel. Lately a short piece about a white mid-western housewife who longs to be Native American, becomes obsessed with Cher, and starts neglecting her children.

The novel is about a gay teen growing up in the Appalachian Mountains in the late 70s and early 80s. He dreams of becoming a female Country music singer. He’s visited by a shape-shifting angel who takes on the form of Dolly Parton. The angel convinces him to move in with his neighbour, a drunk hillbilly widower, and assume the role of the neighbour’s dead wife.

My Body