Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Mark Brazaitis' Orphan Stories

In the 29th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Mark Brazaitis, author of Truth Poker (Autumn House Press), discusses two stories he had trouble fitting into previous collections.

The eye man came to town with doctors and nurses who carried suitcases full of medicine and Bibles. They were accompanied by boys and girls who dressed up like daisies and frogs and sang religious songs in English in the park. The eye man wasn’t a doctor himself. And neither the doctors nor the nurses nor the boys and girls who dressed up like daisies and frogs knew, or would tell me, what he was. He was simply “the eye man.” 
— from “The Eye Man”
     Grace and I laughed and kissed, and I ran my hand through her long brown hair. I put my hand up her skirt and felt her smooth thigh.
     “Uh oh,” Grace said.
     She was off my lap in an instant.
     “Get up,” a voice said in Spanish.
     I turned around and saw three policemen, one of them shaking a billy club at me.

—from “The Bribe”
Call it "Two Stories in Search of a Collection."

For more than fifteen years, my stories “The Eye Man” and “The Bribe,” both of which appeared in The Sun, had failed to find a home in one of my short story collections. This wasn’t because I disliked them. The opposite: They are two of my favorites. But they didn’t fit in with the tone, temperament, and themes of my first three collections. They were a couple of literary orphans, all dressed up (plot! character! conflict!) with nowhere to go.

My first book, The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, is a collection set in a small town in Guatemala’s northern mountains. But although “The Eye Man” and “The Bribe” are Guatemala-based, they are told from the perspectives of North American characters. The stories in The River of Lost Voices are told exclusively from Guatemalan characters’ points of view.

My second story collection, An American Affair, features point-of-view characters from both North America and Latin America. But what ties the stories in An American Affair together is their exploration of the complexities of cross-cultural romance. “The Eye Man” and “The Bribe” have different concerns.

All of the stories in my third collection, The Incurables, are set in a small Ohio town and feature characters who struggle with mental illnesses. “The Eye Man” and “The Bribe” would have been most out of place here.

For years, I debated whether I could call “The Eye Man” and “The Bribe” creative nonfiction and include them in a memoir or a collection of essays. The first two-thirds of each story comes straight out of my life. (I was a Peace Corps volunteer and technical trainer in Guatemala in the early and mid 1990s, and the first-person narrator in both stories might as well be me.) But the latter third of both pieces is invention. I wondered if I could tell my nonfiction readers, “Hey, I’m about to deviate from the truth here, but you will be entertained—I promise!” In the end, this seemed an unsatisfactory compromise. Imagine a symphony whose final movement becomes a blues song.

Several years ago, I began writing stories whose characters have a complicated, and sometimes compromised, relationship with the truth. In “What to Expect When You Say You’re Expecting,” a woman fakes a pregnancy in order to fit in with her three pregnant friends. In “The Juror,” the title character is convinced he knows whether two young men on trial are guilty or innocent because empathy or magic returns him to the day and place of the murder they are accused of. In “Authorship,” a wife must decide whether to give her husband credit for her work in order to save his career.

Before long, I realized I was close to completing a cohesive collection. And, lo and behold, “The Eye Man” and “The Bribe”—the former about a man who claims to have the power to help people who see his blind patient, rather than the patient himself, see; the latter about an impoverished police officer whose ethics prevent him from accepting a traditional bribe—at last had a collection to join. More than fifteen years after their creation, my orphans found a home in Truth Poker.