Interview with Author Jack Driscoll

I was fortunate enough to call Jack Driscoll a mentor during graduate school at Pacific University. We’ve kept in touch for the past 11 years and he even met River last April when I was teaching at Interlochen Center for the Arts (a place also very near and dear to Jack’s heart). Below is an interview with the author, conduced by email. Warning: you may find yourself blissfully lost in story and song as you read along. Enjoy!
Jack Driscoll
Katey Schultz: One of my good friends, novelist Abigail DeWitt, likes to say that many writers have “a creation myth.” Hers is related to WWII–a bomb that killed every immediate and extended family member except for Abigail’s mother. Abigail says that, in some ways, she is always writing toward that impenetrable loss, that inexplicable sense that everything can be taken from you at any moment. Even when she’s not writing about WWII or about family…there’s always an undercurrent that hints of that creation myth. I’m curious about what your creation myth might be, Jack. Can you tell us about it, or perhaps muse a little bit on whatever that “thing” is that you’re always aware of when you write fiction, that thing that informs every emotional beat you compose?

Jack Driscoll: For me it’s not so much a “creation myth” as it is an obsession, and never is it a deliberate, conscious construct, something tangible I have in mind when I sit down to write. If I did it would likely feel over-willed, and stop me in my tracks.

For a long time I found myself writing about the relationship between fathers and sons. James Joyce, one of my heroes, assured all the Irish lads like me that we would, in the end, reconcile with our dads, though I think now that maybe I never did. My awareness of this as the focus or signature of my work—both in the poems and in the early stories—made itself known to me only post facto, after reading reviews of my own work.

In The Goat Fish and the Lover’s Knot, the unifying theme is time, and time as simultaneous or composite, or, the term I like best, stereoscopic. As Judith Kitchen says, “The past and the present in tandem.” As for the future, it hasn’t yet arrived, but it will, and then suddenly it is the present, and then the past, and, finally, the deep past. And, as it turns out, it not only goes but it goes fast. Margaret Gibson says it this way: “Something that was here, expected / to continue being here, / isn’t.” Or Jim Harrison: “We are here but seconds in cosmic time.”

Again, I was unaware, as a point of reference or “vision,” that each story in the collection was, in one way or another, preoccupied with time and change, and this confronted most directly in the story “On This Day You Are All Your Ages.” When Scott Momaday says that “…the imagination is a kind of divine blindness,” all I can do is nod and say, “Amen.” It’s how I make my way through.

When you ask about that “thing…you’re always aware of when you write fiction, that thing that informs every emotional beat you compose,” it’s clearly for me the music. Remember, I began as a poet. If I can’t hear the prose, I know immediately that something’s missing.  David Roderick says, “It’s not the tale that pleases, / it’s the telling,” the delivery, the drama of the language itself. I live/write by this, believing that the ear is an eye, and that to hear more clearly is to see more clearly, and that to see more clearly is to feel more deeply.  No doubt this is what Eliot meant by the auditory imagination, and what Lee Martin means when he says, “The words don’t matter, only what you feel when you hear them.” That’s what music does—it goes straight to the heart, and, even if I don’t musically score each sentence, I can’t move on to the next one until the one that precedes is on key. Eventually the plot, or so I hope, will discover itself in the process of moving, sentence by sentence, deeper into what the story always meant to become, and without me having so much as a hunch. I’m entirely comfortable in the not knowing, and discovering what that is as I move along.

KS: Stuart Dybek comments on “the authentic way in which his [your] always credible narratives earn their mystery…” What techniques do you use to earn mystery?
JD: I suppose the real mystery for me occurs as the seemingly unruly, disparate elements of the story-in-progress eventually coalesce. How? Well, not only couldn’t I recreate the process, I wouldn’t want to, given that every story places its own set of demands, follows its own rhythms and momentum. And so I try never to be too purposeful, always keeping the lines of possibility open. For me mystery discovers its equivalent in the realm of uncertainty, in not knowing  what will or might happen. If I find the action predictable, premeditated, or in any way self-imitative—too much enamored of that previous story, let’s say, then the odds of the narrative performing its intrigue or magic are not only diminished, but might likely prove nonexistent. Frost says, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” and that, for me, is where mystery resides. In what I hadn’t yet calculated, or anticipated saying, a pivot or action or detail, a line of dialogue, a transition I couldn’t have foreseen, but suddenly there it is, pointing me in the right direction. And that seems to me inherent in, and commensurate to the great mystery and complexity of the human heart and psyche, the place that all serious fiction attempts to enter.
KS: Please share a “tiny moment” with us–that’s the phrase I use for a moment/experience/millisecond in time that has stayed with you for years. This should be a true story from real life–a flash nonfiction of your own. If you can, try to share what the “before” and “after” were like for you, as you render this memorable moment and why you think it has stayed with you for so long.

JD: Although my father lived in the same house with us, I rarely saw or spoke to him, this man who owned an Irish pub in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and who served—or so I’ve heard—enough mugs of green beer on St. Patrick’s Day to fill the public swimming pool. John Francis Driscoll, my namesake, and year by year whenever I dare to lean a little closer toward my own reflection in the mirror, it could be my dad who’s staring back, the likeness almost spooky. He who worked 364 days a year, sixteen hours per day, up and gone before his five children awakened, and then back home again only after we were asleep.

But not soundly in my case, afflicted at eight years old by his perpetual absence, and by the sudden onset of severe insomnia. It’s chronic, and the reason I continue to rise every single day to another four or five hours of darkness.

We lived in an English Tudor with parallel staircases and a wall between them. Side-by-side stairways, one wide and carpeted, as if for royalty, and the other narrow and creaky unless you stepped just right. And which is where I sat, exactly halfway down, waiting in the pitch dark for my dad to arrive as the rest of the household—my mom and my three sisters, and my identical twin brother—slumbered on. I have little recollection of just how many nights I maintained that vigil, how many nights my dad turned on the kitchen light by the entryway, and then turned it off as he rounded the corner, and where he ascended that other staircase without a sound, oblivious to me being there, a literal two or three feet away.

These where the systolic 1950’s, and my dad, who did graduate high school, believed that his children might leverage for themselves a better place in the post-war world with a college education. And thus those endless hours behind the bar, working and working, a renunciation so complete that it announced itself in one word and one word only: love. And the only way he knew how to show it? Nothing for him, everything for us, and to think of it otherwise might likely, three decades after his death, bring me to my knees. On those rare occasions—Christmas, for example, the one and only day he did not rise before dawn and go into work—he was as likely as not at the breakfast table to call me by my brother’s name, or vice versa.

What I’m trying to say is that I grew up in a household without my father present, and in a household without music. No phonograph or radio, and so just imagine, after all those nights alone on the stairs in the silence of almost total darkness, how my dad’s voice—a tenor, I’d later learn—called to me a kind of attention I’d never before known, or would ever know again, though I’ve been chasing after it in one way or another ever since. What it did to me, and why, when Kevin Brockmeier says, “Everything, given the possibility, would choose to be a song.” I recognize the implicit truth of such a miracle. And why it is that I have a CD with seventeen covers of “Danny Boy,” the song my father sang to me without any awareness that he did. Quietly, so as not to wake anyone, and pausing afterward to make certain that he hadn’t. It’s not an easy tune to get right, its reach and range, its gorgeous sadness. Remember, I’m Irish. We take naturally to that sort of thing, and which is why I keep trying, and trying in that same way, to catch my reader’s ear.

KS: Talk to me about inhabiting your characters’ voice (for those stories narrated in first person). What craft tips can you give a writer trying to write “in voice” to this extent?


JD: Point of view just might be the single most important decision that the writer makes. Whose story is this to tell, and why? From where and from what distance? David Long calls point of view the brain of the story. Mary Karr refers to it as “the delivery system.” But no matter the teller, what the reader expects is a confident narrative voice, a trustworthy guide to lead she or he into and through the story. First-person narration is, of course, told by a character, as opposed to third, or second person, which is told by the writer.

Imagine Catcher in the Rye written in third person, given that its appeal is born of amplitude, the surging, and often comic bounty of Holden’s gripes, the exaggerations, the farce he conjures adulthood to be. The voice is a symptom of his particular perceptions, and it’s the rant, the quality of the voice that propels the novel forward, and becomes its shaping force.

But none of this is ever simple or straightforward. Meaning that character can, of course, be accessed via any point of view. Take The End of Firpo in the World, by George Saunders, as a case in point. In fact, I even misremembered it as first-person narration until I went back and checked. But voice-driven it is nonetheless, a surging verbal exuberance that constitutes its own reward: bold, unchecked, hilarious and devastating, rollicking, freewheeling. Off-brand, if you will, and which is precisely how I felt when I first read Catcher in the Rye, disarmed, emboldened, charmed by the quality of the “telling,” and its deep insight into character.

As for any tips I might offer, I guess I’d experiment to see what the voice can bear. Dial it up a frequency or two, and see where it leads you, and how it works in the service of the story or novel overall.

“Inhabiting [a] character’s voice,” means, first and foremost, inhabiting that character. In other words, know everything there is to know about them, and then some—more than you can ever use. Compassionate characterization requires insight into what they are thinking and feeling, and why. Stay patient and they’ll let you in on their secrets, if you love them enough, which is what it’ll take. And close listening as you divine a proper translation of the action that’s taking place in the narrator’s heart and psyche.

“Craft,” as Stephen Dunn says, “is an act of…discoveries and excitements,” and “a permission for wildness to be wild.” Try it and see.  Try everything you can imagine at least once. If you do, you’ll acquire a better sense of what you’re arguing for or against in pursuit of taste and aesthetic, in pursuit, that is, of your own original voice.

KS: Let’s end by celebrating the work of another author. Tell us about a book(s) that recently rocked your world and why.
JD: The book that comes immediately to mind is Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You. In a recent New Yorker interview he said, “I often think of narrative structure in musical terms.” This is evident in every sentence, and every note on key. Reading such gorgeous prose reminded me of Walter Pater’s assertion that “all art conspires to the condition of music.”

Another ‘keeper’ is Julia Elliott’s short story collection The Wilds. I came across a story of hers in a recent issue of “The Georgia Review.” As soon as I finished reading the story I called our local bookstore and ordered the collection. I have already, and will continue, to recommend it to all my graduate writing  students.

Every story in Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck compelled me, and almost instantly after reading each, to reread them once again. Right, not unlike “Danny Boy,” playing and replaying that same tune for the simple best reason there is: you love what it does to you.


KS: Jack, thank you so much! Your words continue to mean more than I can express.

Showing 8 comments
  • Maureen Connolly

    Thank you, Katey!

  • Sharon Cin

    Wow! I’ve read the interview twice and will need to keep reading it over & over. There’s so much to absorb. What a treasure it must be to have such a long-standing friendship with Jack. Thanks to you & him for sharing.

  • Christina

    So this delves more into “writing for discovery” which we explored last month. It makes me think about free writing and how even though I am kind of an outliner, I need to do more freewriting to open up the floodgates now and then. Driscoll finds discovery by writing flat-out and seeing where it takes him. How do you do that if your brain inherently works in small chunks/phrases/keywords, out of order? Is one method better for discovery/creativity than the other? Is my personal outliney approach too limiting?

    The Danny Boy scene was amazing. Love it (also feel sad, though!).

    • Katey

      Great takeaways and questions. Let’s talk about it live during our upcoming MM webinar this afternoon!

  • Harry Griswold

    Hi Katey, Thanks for this delightful interview with Jack. It’s 10 years since I graduated from the great Pacific program but of all the many people I listened to I can still hear Jack reading his stories, not necessarily the content but a definite feeling of being charmed by how he made his music. From a long perspective here is my very slow-motion analysis which I could not understand at the time. With every word there was a very slight interval before the next one and the question would rise there — where will this word lead? Then the answer. Oh, I hear, I feel, I see the pleasure of the next. And the cycle would repeat. That’s the clear feeling I’m left with after a decade, and which I’ve just now drawn from deep inside. So thanks. Just don’t tell Jack, it’ll go to his Irish head. “From glen to glen and down the mountain side.”

    • Katey

      So well stated – and wow, ten years. Yep, it has been a while indeed. I love your observation here and it rings completely true. Thanks for reading and sharing!

  • Julie Lambert

    Thank you, Katey! I’m catching up on emails and this one is definitely one I’ll read again and again.

    • Linda Robiner

      Katey, If you’re still monitoring this, I knew Jack Driscoll oh so many years ago and would love to get in touch with him. Can you tell me how? I met him at a workshop he taught in Escanaba, Michigan, and we corresponded for years. I have a portion of a shelf of his books. Thanks. Linda Robiner

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