Matthew Neill Null’s short story “Five Days” appears in Southern Humanities Review issue 52.1. In the story, Miller, a beloved county surveyor, must reckon with the public’s tarnished perception of him when a man and his children become trapped in the caverns across from Miller’s house. In the following interview, Null discusses the story’s unique structure, the spectacle of public shaming, journalism, and the struggle to continuously produce fresh work as a writer.
Caitlin Rae Taylor: The structure of “Five Days” is very interesting to me, the way it breaks certain “Writing Rules” to achieve its ends. In fact, the first scene where the father and his sons become trapped in Trout Cave is written across three pages entirely in one paragraph. Then, the story shifts and we meet Miller, who we follow through to the end. How did the structure of the story change across revisions, and how did you decide which character to follow throughout?
Matthew Neill Null: This structure existed from the very first draft. I wanted that abrupt shift—William Trevor does it so well. My story is partly inspired by a “real” incident from decades past (except that, in our own reality, the father survived). While reading a couple pieces of journalism on it, I was struck by the gulf between the bloodless, factual grammar of the reportage and what had to be the pure human terror of the experience. The harder the journalism tried to convey emotion and dread, the more it revealed the limitations of the form. In that long, claustrophobic paragraph, I try to ape much of the stilted, “just the facts” language of those contemporaneous reports; if you put them side-by-side, the sentences really aren’t so different. This is a conscious choice. But I jam them together into one long paragraph to exaggerate the frustrating confines of that way of speaking. As the story leaves the cave, the language opens up. The sudden shift from the cavers to Miller is the entire point, really. I mean for it to be jarring. This “under-story,” of Miller’s guilt or lack thereof, is the story. Now we enter into the realm of ambiguity. I hope it is a subtle, more nuanced treatment of the world at hand.
When you say “Writing Rules,” I imagine you mean the narrative approaches instilled by the MFA workshop system, which has had such an influence on the way Americans write fiction. If you want to surprise the reader, I think, you have to wrench stories off that path.
CRT: “Five Days” centers a lot on public shame, the mechanisms of it and its effects on behavior. How did this story build itself around that particular theme, and did you challenge yourself to keep social media out of the conversation the story has with its audience?
MNN: Oh, I’m just like everyone else, wondering what will come of our grotesque little historical moment. As institutions falter, people turn to public shaming as an ersatz form of justice. What could go wrong, eh? Public shaming is interesting to me because the experience of real shame and regret is so interior and personal (I’m a paranoid and guilty person, so this eats up much of my private life); public shaming has more to do with the audience than the actual individuals involved. Americans can’t escape our Puritan roots, even the secular left. The performance of public shame, on the left in particular, reminds me of the camp meetings of my rural Protestant upbringing. You get up in front of the congregation and make a show. “Brothers and sisters, I come from the gutter, I did x and y, but now I see the light! I will make it up to you and to God and do better.” Whether or not the speaker feels guilt/shame/remorse is a mystery, but that’s beside the point—you’re appealing to the audience, you’re hoping to be taken back into the fold, and as the wise René Girard pointed out, it has a way of binding that congregation together. They get to kick back and enjoy their superiority; they also are performers. But in the back of the mind: “What will I do if I’m called up?”
Social media could have worked in “Five Days,” but it’s not of Miller’s time. But the dynamic is the same. He lives in such a small place that, as a politician, he is immediately recognizable and accessible to his constituents, so he might as well be on Facebook, etc. The Twitter mob (those spotless souls!) seems to go after the obscure private citizen as readily as it does for the mega-celebrity.
CRT: What’s your relationship with traditional journalism and journalistic sensationalism? What did you want to mine (forgive the pun) from this story in regard to the trend of scapegoating in journalism?
MNN: No relationship, really. Journalism is a blunt instrument, and sometimes you need that ax. A theologian I knew liked to point out, “A famine has never occurred in a nation with a free press.” We need the unadulterated, immediate information journalism can provide. But if you want a nuance, you must go elsewhere. The human experience, cradle-to-grave, is the navigation of ambiguity. Under the Volcano can tell you something about the human condition. A gossipy barber can teach you even more. The newspaper and Buzzfeed, I don’t know. It’s made worse that they rely on clicks (advertising). Shaming is lucrative. This reminds me of my favorite thing, what Quincy Jones said about producing music: “God walks out of the room when you're thinking about money.”
CRT: You’ve expressed some worry over repeating yourself in your fiction. What are the important differences you see in “Five Days” from the stories in your short story collection, Allegheny Front?
MNN: Yes, as I think I told you, I spent the last two years writing stories that went right into the drawer, because they felt too close to what I’d already done. Seems pointless to repeat myself. I want to break a bit of new ground. “Five Days” felt promising. It’s perhaps not a radical difference, but the mechanics of narrative I point to in question #1 are what kept it fresh for me. I could be wrong. Publishing more could help my “career” but that seems so repulsive, artistically. Before she died, Lucie Brock-Broido told me this great thing: “I find it vulgar to publish too often.”
CRT: You started writing “Five Days” while you were in Rome. What were you there for, and was there something about being in that particular place that helped this story along, or had it been brewing in your mind for some time?
MNN: I was in residence for a year at the American Academy in Rome, the best run of luck I ever hit. It usually goes to glitzier souls. I’d been rolling the story around in the back of my mind for years, then suddenly I had a quiet studio, thin responsibilities, and time to write. And maybe crawling around in catacombs and aqueducts stirred it up.
CRT: How do you see the land reckoning with the human choices we make in real life on more micro scales, the way it does with the father and Miller in your story?
MNN: It’s everything in my work. I’m from West Virginia, and the relationship between humanity and the landscape is so fraught and personal there. The same person who loves the mountain with their entire being will hack the coal out of it and turn the rivers orange. That’s how you make money. If I had grown up in a happy place, I probably wouldn’t write.
CRT: Is there anything in particular you want readers to take away from “Five Days”?
MNN: I’d like for the reader to be unsettled, at least. But the real aim is higher. When you encounter the best works of art, you see the world in a new way and you can never un-see that. The world is forever changed. The ground has shifted. Joy Williams once said that the best writing “startles the reader back into Life.” I don’t know if I’ve ever done that for a reader, but every time I sit down, that is what I work to achieve. Maybe I’ll get there before I die?
CRT: Do you have any advice or any commiserating sentiments for writers who are trying to challenge themselves into producing new, fresh work?
MNN: Oh gosh. I’d tell them to pay as little attention as possible to who wins the awards, gets published in the Right Places, and is reviewed in the New York Times. Art is not a beauty contest, careerism is the enemy and the destroyer. (The literary world is risk-averse. That’s why a few names pop up endlessly—there are countless talents out there, in every corner, but gatekeepers fear getting it wrong, so it’s easier to bet on proven winners.) But fast forward fifty years, and no one will care about those things, they’ll care only if the book has lasting resonance. The other trappings fall away. I’ll give a lollipop to anyone who can name the 1987 fiction winner of the National Book Award without googling. You get double lollipops if you can name the publishing house and the writer’s agent. Because no one cares!
Don’t feel pressured to emulate anyone in order to succeed, because you won’t develop a startling and original voice, the one thing that will make your work live on. Be yourself. Write the kinds of stories you want to read but cannot find. Your work is precious and important. It has an intrinsic value that has nothing to do with plums, awards, and sitting at the cool kids’ table. Let the publishers and magazines catch up to you, not vice versa. And if an experiment fails, throw it in the drawer. No one has to see it. No harm done.
CRT: What are you currently working on, if I’m allowed to ask?
MNN: Sure. I am writing a novel about workers. They are constructing a massive dam, circa 1963, in my birthplace of Nicholas County. They change the place forever.
CRT: Have you done a lot of cave spelunking in your spare time?
MNN: No, but I did go back in caverns before I abandoned my geology major in college. The idea of the underworld attracts me. Caves have a way of appearing unbidden in my work, as do prisons, foxes, coke ovens, abandoned wives, and mental asylums. I can’t explain that. A couple years ago, I visited relatives in the karst-lands of Slovenia, where I got to commune with the famous “olm,” aka “the human fish,” aka “proteus,” a pale, blind cave salamander that can live on for a century, awesomely ugly with its tufted gills. It didn’t seem built for this planet. I felt we had a lot in common.
CRT: What are you reading right now, and what do you have to say about it?
MNN: A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. A novel so dreamlike and bizarre it has struck me dumb, except to say that it captures the amoral, rich, and unsettling pageant of childhood. All horror and laughter.
MATTHEW NEILL NULL is author of the novel Honey from the Lion and the story collection Allegheny Front. A writer from West Virginia, he is recipient of the O. Henry Award, the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, a Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship, and, from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize Fellowship in Literature. His creative nonfiction has appeared in Oxford American, Lit Hub, Guernica, Catapult, and other journals. His books have recently been translated into French and Italian.