A Conversation with Author Stephen Parrish

Recently, I interviewed author Stephen Parrish about his new novel, THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN. Although one of us kept trying to make the interview about me, I did manage to get him to answer a few questions about the novel, his new literary journal, and himself.

Steve, thank you so much for agreeing to let me interview you. I've known "of you" for years--you have quite a reputation among people I respect--and so this is really a thrill. So the book. You have a new book out. THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN. There is a lot I want to ask about this novel, but let's start with the title. It is such a great title. Why did you choose it?

 (Also, why do I feel like there's a 50-50 chance you're only going to give me your name, rank, and serial number?)

My dog tags recorded my name, SSN (the modern day "serial number"), blood type, and religion. I wanted "Heathen" as my religion, but the closest they would allow was "No Preference." If I fell on the battlefield the chaplain could take his pick: "What did we make the last No Preference?" he'd ask. "A Jew," his aid would reply. "All right, what the hell, this guy's going out as a Catholic. Our Father, who art in Heaven . . ."

The title THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN is from Plato: "To the feasts of lesser men the good unbidden go." It's the word "unbidden" that grabbed me. My protagonist Jimmy Fisher has a good heart. The question is whether his avarice is bidden or simply his nature. Or human nature.

I understand a certain level of reverence in the military, but it seems to me that if you're willing to die for your country, you should be able to call yourself whatever you want.

I assume you have an opinion on whether Fisher's avarice is bidden or simply his nature or human nature, and I'm not going to ask you for it. What I'm wondering is if you had a sense of the answer when you started, or was writing this novel a way for you to explore the question?
You certainly force the reader to grapple with it. I guess I'm wondering to what extent you, as author, did as well.

I wanted to create a protagonist that did every despicable thing he could get away with, have him tell his story in first person, and make him likeable to readers. Whether I succeeded is of course up to readers, but I love the guy; he's my alter-ego; whenever I had to decide what awful thing he'd do next I asked myself what I wouldn't do.

As for the human nature question, I like a Socratic approach to the answer, which I'll abbreviate for this interview. Question: Should the grass be green? Answer: The question is meaningless, since the grass is green whether or not it "should" be. Question: Should foxes chase rabbits? Answer: The question is meaningless, since foxes are going to chase rabbits whether or not they "should." Finally...Question: Should men steal from other men?

The metaphysical question of whether the universe is by nature benevolent or malevolent is, I think, a no-brainer.

Don't give me flashbacks to law school, Stephen Parrish.

You don't ease the reader into Fisher's capacity to do the despicable. He is grave-robbing on page one. He's scamming a prostitute by page 23. He's insulted a woman's
weight by page 48.
Not to make this interview about me, but I came to this story as an unabashed feminist--the kind who not only doesn't shy away from the term but who may, at some point, tattoo it on her forehead--so I'm reading, and I'm thinking what an ass. An ass with a quick, dry sense of humor, but still.

And then I read Chapter 17. And I emailed you. I don't usually email an author while I am reading, because I assume that he is not, probably, interested in my real-time, play-by-play reaction to his book. But I emailed you because I was gobsmacked. First of all, Chapter 17 is just so well done--the dialogue, the tension, the description. The humor. But the reason I emailed you is because that's when I realized Jimmy Fisher had gotten to me. I was rooting for him. I was on his side.

Did you write that chapter intending for it to have that effect on the reader? Do you see it as a pivotal moment in the reader-Fisher relationship?

I wish I could say I wave my hands like a conductor and dictate when readers feel things. In this case I strove from the first sentence to make Fisher likeable. You'll no doubt argue I failed; in the first sentence he's preparing to rob a grave. But the only reason you don't like him from the beginning is because you don't yet know him.

Not to make this interview about me (ha ha) but I too am a feminist, in large part because I'm a humanist, which would suggest I'm also a secularist, which happens to be true, and which also has nothing to
do with the question, but this interview needs to get a lot more dangerous before we're through.
I'm actually not arguing that you failed. I think I'm saying that you succeeded rather hugely. Because it's not like Fisher suddenly became Mother Theresa in Chapter 17--in fact, another rather unseemly offense is revealed therein--it's just that that's where I had my little epiphany.

So let's get dangerous.

When you say you are a secularist, does that mean that you want religion to stay out of the public square, or that you are skeptical of religion in general? Never mind. I know the answer to that. But, not to make this interview not about me, you strike me as a very spiritual person. Maybe more so that the average person. Is that a fair characterization? And what do you make of my perhaps outrageous and possibly inappropriate contention that only a spiritual person could write this particular book?

Depends on what you mean by spiritual. In the eyes of the Catholic church, in whose shadow I was raised, I'm an atheist. I dislike the word because it's like republicans calling members of other parties "arepublicans." My spirituality is very personal and doesn't involve a sentient deity. It's probably fair to characterize me as more spiritual than average because the average person restricts his spirituality to one hour a week, if that.

And I think only a questioning person could write this book, someone who asks, "What is loyalty, anyway?" and "What is a country if not the citizens who comprise it?" The novels I enjoy are those that ask tough questions, even if implicitly.

As a lawyer, I should know to define my terms.

 I think, by spiritual, I mean someone who grapples with Big Issues. For herself. Who tries to get away from whatever dogma has been drilled into her. Things like what is the greater good, or, to use your question, yes, what is loyalty. You seem like a grappler to me. I base this mostly on your blog. This is what I knew of you first.

(Well, first, I knew that many of the writers I admire and respect in the blogosphere held you in such high regard that when you made a two-word comment on a piece of flash fiction of mine, I was hugely flattered. And not flattered like my ego was stroked. Flattered, like it felt significant to me. It actually meant quite a lot.)

And now I'm waiting for you to say, "I commented on something you wrote?"

Because you seem like a grappler to me, and a stand-your-grounder, it is, in some ways, difficult for me to picture you in the Army, where you are not at liberty to question things, or at least not to act on things you question. Jimmy Fisher actually strikes me as someone who would have an easier time with the military. He did what he needed to do to get along. He did whatever else he could get away with.

But I feel like you must have grappled.

I guess I'm just wondering what it was like for Stephen Parrish to serve in the Army and where you see intersections between your experience and Jimmy Fisher's. (Not that. We are not talking about grave robbing. Or whorehouses.) (I mean, right?)

I grappled for years with premises, because I knew if I got those down, every judgement I'd make from then on would be easy. The only thing I grapple with now is whether to speak up about something or keep my mouth shut.

The way my army experience intersected with Jimmy Fisher's formed the basis for the novel: my boss was convicted of espionage and sentenced to life in prison. Others in the office received sentences ranging from eighteen to thirty-six years. I was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury, and in the process of everything coming to light I had a priceless opportunity to see the underbelly of a spy ring like one's never been seen before. Anyone who saw more than I did is in jail.

It's not James Bond or John le Carre. Or anywhere close. Today's spy, in fact pretty much every spy since the Civil War, is necessarily a traitor to his country. It's much easier to pay an insider for information than train someone to get inside. Spying is thus little more than selling documents to which you have access.

But that in itself poses fascinating questions, at least to a definitive opportunist like Jimmy Fisher: they are, after all, just documents, right? National boundaries are more or less arbitrary, right? Loyalty to a friend or a cause, fine, but loyalty to a piece of cloth or a patch of dirt? And what if what you're doing doesn't hurt anyone? What if---this is a major point made in the novel---the enemy already has the information to begin with? I'm not by any means Jimmy Fisher; whenever I needed to know what he'd do next I asked myself what I wouldn't do. But that is one point I wanted to make about the security of military intelligence: it is so sloppy, not only can a lowly infantry private turn a secret vault into a retail outlet, but the enemy, by merely reading unclassified reports and following units on exercises, can construct accurate facsimiles of everything in that vault, without buying anything.

As I said in the novel, "It's much easier to steal secrets from the United States government, it turns out, than to snatch a high school class ring from Zales." I wasn't exaggerating.

For someone standing outside of the military, it really is a fascinating look inside. This is what I meant with my Amazon review -- the book could be read as one thing (a suspense/thriller) -- it could stand alone as that -- and it would be a success. A page-turner. But it is so much more than that. So there are these competing instincts on the part of the reader -- the desire to read quickly to see what happens and the need to slow way down and think. 

I'd say I'm impressed here, but this interview isn't about me?

So we know a little bit about the book -- enough, I think, that people should know they should go buy it --so let me ask a little about the author. What does writing a book look like for Stephen Parrish? Are you a plotter? I hate the other word, but are you that? Are you disciplined? Do you let yourself write a horrible first draft? Do you look forward to it, or does it feel like a tortured process? Where do you write?

Have you tried writing while jacked up on the better part of a two liter bottle of Mountain Dew?

Diet Coke. My only remaining vice. Sniff. I used to think I couldn't write sober but, unfortunately, I can. I plot meticulously. The outline of my first novel was 90 pages long. I happen to think pantsing (that other word) gets writers into trouble. I am more disciplined than I used to be; I require at least 500 words a day on my WIP before I go to bed. Often that means the scene is weak, but that's okay, because I'm more of a rewriter than a writer, and more of a cutter than anything else. I hate to use the sculpture analogy, but that's what it amounts to: cutting crap away until it feels right. The Feasts of Lesser Men is about 90,000 words long; the first draft was 181,000 words.

I love rewriting. I love working with material when it's already on the page. The hard part for me is filling up all those blank pages. I'd do better at it if they invented a harmless cigarette.

Sorry for the delay. I had to write 501 words before I could pose the next question.

When you say you love working with material once it's on the page, I have to ask about other people's on-the-page material, and The Lascaux Review. You founded this new literary journal with good friend of this blog, Wendy Russ, and you act as Editor. Can you tell us a little bit about the journal (say, how you are in dire need of fiction with self-importantly long word counts), why you started it, and how your role as editor is going?

I've wanted to start a literary review since the early 90s. Back then, of course, such things had to be printed and distributed, and they lived or died by subscriptions. I could never get the numbers to work out (and in fact most print journals belly up if they're not subsidized by a university or grant). The internet era came, and at first the online-only journals were less than prestigious. Eventually that changed; electronic publications lost their stigma and some big name literary journals went online. It was time. I'd mentioned the idea to many people over the years, but Wendy was the first to express enthusiasm. We're looking for a few good stories.

I guess it's the rock hound in me that wanted to do this, the guy who always stares at the ground when he goes for walks, perpetuating a childhood fantasy of finding gemstones in the gravel. I've read stories by friends, including Wendy, that have made me think, and say, "This should be submitted for publication." Yet there aren't enough markets to take all the good stories. One of the problems, obviously, is there aren't enough readers of short fiction and poetry to support the markets. At the same time, though, there aren't enough editors willing to hang a literary shingle without a reader base to start with. Does the world need another literary review? Yes. Indeed, yes. The Lascaux acceptance rate is about one percent and sure to decline in the future.

Thanks to donations, all of which go to writers, we've been able to pay for every written piece we've published. We're proud of this: most literary journals pay nothing but contributor copies, and if they're online like us, pay nothing at all. Don't get me started on books. Given the amount of work that goes into creative writing, and the hourly pay rate, it's generally more profitable to spend your time searching parking lots for dropped change.

We need more donations: to accept more work, better work, and to pay more for it. The arts are the height of civilization, and in my biased opinion literature is the highest of the arts. It's a shame it's compensated so poorly, and most isn't compensated at all.

I actually love short fiction. One of the best things I've ever read is Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain". Also, Jhumpa Lahiri's "A Temporary Matter." So I, for one, am always glad for new journals on the scene. But this isn't about me?

We should probably end with something light, like how your new vegetarian diet is going or why you spell so funny in emails. But that feels like letting you off the hook.

Instead, let's go with this: We started by talking about great titles, specifically your great title. Another title that I am particularly fond of, and maybe because I am intensely fond of the author (who inspired my own vegetarianism) is Alice Walker's POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY. This novel, as you may or may not know, has something to say about breaking taboos and telling secrets. It is not without controversy, but this interview, in addition to not being about me, is not about that book.

So, Stephen Parrish, in your opinion, what is the secret of joy?

The underlying theme of my next novel! I'm afraid I must disappoint you, however. I've given up on joy as a goal. Because there is no such thing when defined as a state of emotion consistently higher than some arbitrary norm. The norm exists as a statistical mean between happy and sad, ecstatic and miserable, and a typical person will experience the whole range of emotions, more or less cyclically, throughout her life. If I could be "happy all the time," as used to be my goal, I could only do so by raising the norm---and consequently falling below it on a regular basis.

Happiness is more usefully defined as peace of mind, which is the habit of accepting things the way they are, of taking the good with the bad and knowing that not every experience will be a positive one. It's a habit practiced by people who know their place in the world and occupy it; who pursue their passions despite obstacles and setbacks, pain and frustration---often without even being aware of the negative aspects. The more beautiful the rose, the less noticeable its thorns.

In my next novel, a juvenile delinquent redeems himself and finds peace of mind. By embracing a passion. Next time you interview me, you need to ask me about passion. I'm (sorry! can't resist!) passionate about the subject.

I look forward to reading your next novel. For now, everyone should read this one. Thank you so much for doing this, Steve. I enjoyed it!

Stephen Parrish is the author of The Tavernier Stones and The Feasts of Lesser Men. He edits a start-up online literary journal, The Lascaux Review. He lives in Germany.

THE FEASTS OF LESSER MEN is available in paperback from Amazon here and as a Kindle edition here, and from Barnes & Noble here.

PLEASE NOTE: It is FREE in e-book form on Amazon from April 15th to April 19th.

Writers for Richard: Helping a Friend in Need

Sometimes, it's time to help one of our own.

This is that time.

Writer and blogger Richard Levangie is having neurosurgery today. He has suffered for years with debilitating migraines and eventually was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor.

We wish him all the best for a successful surgery and a swift recovery.

It is not enough.

Years of illness have been devastating financially for Richard. This surgery and the months off of work will be crippling for him financially. That's where we, the blogging/writing community comes in.

We have created an anthology of stories, poems, and essays to benefit Richard. Facing the Sun: An Anthology of Short Works.  Make a donation, in any amount, and get an e-copy of the anthology.

Richard has given a lot to the writing community. Please help us give back.

You can find more information, and make a donation here.*

On behalf of all who contributed to this project, we thank you.

*Please note: Richard came through surgery just fine. As he is now home and doing well, the project has been moved to his blog: http://richardlevangie.com/blog/