SR: Where did the title come from?
DD: Scoundrels Among Us is a story in the collection, and I named the book after it. Once I assembled the stories and read them together, I realized how many were about people doing bad things to each other. Obviously a lot of fiction contains somebody doing something bad or wrong, but often they’re making bad decisions for themselves (or to themselves). My collection features many folks (mostly men) behaving in creepy, questionable, violent, or otherwise unseemly ways – which seems to mirror our own culture at the moment, I might add. Plus, I like the word “scoundrels.” It’s cool and old-fashioned and should be brought back into our lexicon.
SR: Tell us about one of your favorite stories that’s included in your collection.
DD: I’m pleased with the story “Second Home.” It’s sci-fi, for starters, and I don’t usually write in that genre. I should say that it’s sci-fi light in that regard, but it’s modeled on classic writers like Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, and Kurt Vonnegut. There’s not really hard science, but there’s a futuristic atmosphere and a utopian (or is it dystopian?) society and a moral/ethical question underlying the plot. I actually wrote it based on a prompt. A former graduate student of mine said he wanted to solicit sci-fi stories based on space jobs. Jobs in the distant future! That sounded interesting to me, so I took a stab at it.
My first thought was to have a dentist, probably because dentists and doctors give me anxiety. The story focuses on a patient at the dentist. The society in “Second Home” is entirely geared around keeping people alive for as long as possible with minimal stress. To that end, the main industry is body revitalization. People occupy their entire lives visiting robot doctors (called Mandroids) who replace and upgrade their body parts. Disease, aging, and sickness are things of the past. The robots do all the work, so people don’t even have jobs. Humans routinely live more than 200 years.
When our hero visits the dentist, he has a panic attack. He’s never felt this way before, and he’s confused about such a scary experience. It’s the first time he’s experienced a taste of mortality. The story becomes a meditation on death (and life), and the idea that if we take away death and physical imperfection and discomfort, what remains? If we are only living to remain alive, then what’s the point? If we never have to fear death or sickness or disease, what emotions remain? Is it possible to be truly happy if we never experience adversity?
The guy also finds out that they’re replacing all of his teeth with virtual teeth. Full extraction. This raises other questions about the physical self vs. the metaphysical, spiritual self.
SR: What is it about writing short stories that appeals to you?
DD: I love the small canvas, the contained experience for both writer and reader. As Edgar Allan Poe said, a story should ideally be read in one sitting, and every word should be in service of a “singular effect.”
Scoundrels Among Us features not only short stories, but brief stories. That’s my term for a story that’s longer than flash and shorter than a standard short story. I’m talking about 1,000 – 2,000 words. I was intentionally writing in this range, which presents unique challenges but also has the potential for meeting Poe’s dictum: easy to read in a single sitting, and ripe for creating a singular effect.
The brevity puts pressure on every word, every sentence. It means there is little time for subplot or deep backstory. The risk is that the stories may feel “incomplete” to some readers, but I’m OK with that risk. The reward, as I said, is a more streamlined emotional impact, and I hope that I’ve achieved that.
Plus if you don’t like one story, you don’t have to wait long to get to the next one!
SR: How do you think short story writing has strengthened you as a writer overall?
DD: When I was younger I wrote poetry as well as short fiction. The processes are similar for both forms, and if I had to boil it down it would be that they both force you to write distinctive, memorable, accurate sentences. Create a memorable voice through your sentence structure, and pay attention to every word. Cut any word that isn’t adding something essential. Choose muscular verbs and descriptive, concrete nouns. Use figurative language, but not at every turn. Vary the sentence structure and length. Surprise yourself. Every word is a building block toward that singular effect – toward an emotional, intellectual, or psychological response.
As a writer I don’t even need to consciously know what the desired “effect” will be. That’s because it’s ideally not something that can be nut-shelled into a simple phrase. The effect is more complex, more ineffable than that.
As the great Flannery O’Connor says, in a short story 2 + 2 always equals more than 4. Through the accumulation of imagery, voice, character, conflict, setting, figurative language, and so on, the story becomes more than a sum of its parts. It becomes, as she says, a way to “intrude upon the timeless” – to usher us toward the mysteries that make us human.
SR: When you looked at your stories as a collection did you notice anything about your writing or themes that hadn’t really stood out to you before?
DD: I noticed that beneath the humor and absurdity there’s a persistent loneliness and melancholy. The characters have a difficult time connecting with one another. This wasn’t intentional at all! I don’t think of myself as lonely. I wrote many of these pieces (although not all) to make myself laugh. But in the process of trying to capture the “whole person” of my characters (another idea from Flannery O’Connor), the humor revealed souls who feel deeply estranged from humanity.
I’m not sure what this says about me. But I’m not sure that it matters, either. I never want to be mistaken for my characters because they aren’t me; they’re an amalgamation of observations and people I’ve known, mixed together with some of my psyche. Probably it suggests, if anything, that I’m scared of being alone (and yet I crave solitude all the time).
SR: What’s one of the first short stories that you really remember reading and how did it impact your approach to short stories or your writing style?
DD: Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is a landmark for me. In the 7th grade, I read this and realized the power of storytelling. Up to that point, I had read a lot of Piers Anthony and Stephen King, but this story changed my entire reading trajectory. The piece is a survival tale in one sense, but it’s also a story about facing death – a microcosm of all of our experiences on this planet. We all have to face our mortality, and this story did it in such a cool way as this fellow and his dog try to survive trekking through the Arctic. For English class we had to do a “presentation,” and I read this entire story out loud. It’s a pretty long story! I’m shocked that I read the whole thing. But this is undoubtedly one of the reasons that I still like fiction that’s existential – that raises questions of our purpose and existence in this life without sacrificing entertainment value. Because in the end, nobody’s going to read your work if it isn’t entertaining.
SR: Everyone needs an outlet to help them recharge. What hobbies do you have outside of writing?
DD: I’ve played music for more than thirty years, mostly guitar but also banjo, mandolin, bass, ukulele, piano, and drums. It’s a terrific outlet. I’m part of a trio called Daryl & the Beans, which is me and poets Jeffrey Bean and Robert Fanning. Check us out on YouTube or Facebook or at https://darylandthebeans.wordpress.com/
SR: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
DD: Read. Write. Persist.
Check out what’s on Darrin’s To Be Read Pile here.
Scoundrels Among Us is reviewed here.
Darrin Doyle’s most recent book is the story collection Scoundrels Among Us. He has previously published two novels – The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo and Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet:A Love Story – as well as the story collection The Dark Will End the Dark. He believes in Bigfoot, shaves on days of the week that contain the letter T, and teaches at Central Michigan University. His website is darrindoyle.com.