Soleil was on her way to meet Warren for their first date when she ran out of gas. The engine shuddered on its last fumes, and she looked down the highway at a long stretch of nothing. She was alone on the road, save for one pair of headlights drawing closer in the rearview. She put her hazards on, hoping to coast as long as possible, but the vehicle behind her, a black SUV, raced up to her bumper and stayed there. High beams filled her mirrors. She braked and pulled halfway onto the shoulder, and still it loomed close. Teenage girl, no gas, highway at night—she felt her vulnerability like a chill in the air. But as she rolled to a stop, the SUV swerved and accelerated, finally passing her with a snarl of engine rev. She didn’t want to look but did; two men in the cabin stared back, lit red by the instrument panel. The driver had a dark beard.

When the SUV was gone she sat still, waiting for her pulse to calm and trying to convince herself, without much success, that Warren was worth the trouble.

Chris Drangle

Chris Drangle is a writer from Arkansas. He has taught creative writing at Cornell University, where he earned his MFA, and in Kazakhstan, where he did not speak the language. His fiction has appeared recently in Epoch, Crazyhorse, and the Oxford American, and has been recognized with a Pushcart Prize, the Margaret Bridgman Scholarship at Bread Loaf, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. He lives in Oakland, California.

Will Allison on “Optimistic People”

This month we’re excited to bring you one of the most shocking, suspenseful short stories ever to cross One Story’s submission desk: “Optimistic People,” by Chris Drangle. Set in rural Virginia, “Optimistic People” is the tale of two teenagers on their first date. Warren and Soleil have plans to meet up in the woods to watch the sunset. Warren is well meaning but dim; as Soleil puts it, “There was a thin line between being good and being a moron, and he straddled it.” Soleil is the new, weird girl in town, her parents having fled Washington D.C. to escape a congressional staff assistant turned stalker.

The teens’ plans go awry when Soleil runs out of gas en route to the meetup. Meanwhile, Warren stumbles upon two men burying a mysterious something in the woods. Minutes later, we meet friendly, disheveled Tom, whose prayers are answered when Warren unearths the pine box in which Tom has been buried alive.

I’m guessing you’ve never encountered a character quite like Tom. (If there’s such a thing as your typical buried-alive guy, this guy is definitely not it.) I won’t spoil the plot by revealing more, but you should know that a man being buried alive is not this story’s most chilling plot twist. That comes later, and it unfolds in a fictional slow motion that will have you turning pages with a delicious sense of dread.

Chris Drangle is still new on the literary scene, having published just a handful of stories, but we look forward to seeing a lot more of his work. You can get to know him in our author interview, where Chris discusses techniques of suspense, his fondness for story titles, and the importance of figuring out why the junebug collapses.

Q&A by Will Allison

WA: Where did the idea for this story come from?
CD: As with most stories, I think, the finished product here is an accumulation of ideas—lots of little elements that got added to the pot over a long drafting process—more than it is the result of one big brainstorm. But the originating kernel was one of those odd thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere. You know: you’re doing the dishes, trying to change your dishwashing music with your elbow because your hands are wet, wondering how long you can put off going to the grocery store, and suddenly you think, “What if someone found someone else buried alive?”
WA: I think a lot of writers would have chosen a title that referenced the notions of being buried or unearthed, which are so central to the story—but I like it that you went in a different direction. Could you discuss your choice?
CD: I love titles. Love thinking them up, debating good ones and bad ones, listening for all the great titles that pop up everyday in poems, subway ads, news tickers, etc. And so it especially pains me that I can’t take credit for this one. An early, very different version was called “Let Me Just Breathe for a Minute,” which I still kind of like. Then it was “The Good, True Heart” for a while, and I spent a massive amount of time worrying whether to take that comma out or leave it in. Finally, I had the very good fortune of being in a workshop with Jackie Thomas-Kennedy, who pointed out another phrase from the text that she thought had potential and was completely right. Thank you, Jackie! If this title works, in the end, I think it’s because these really are optimistic characters. Not all of their brands of optimism will (or should) be palatable to those of us with consciences, but they’re all thinking through their worldviews. They’re trying to make the best of circumstances. So maybe that title is closer to some kind of motivational core, as opposed to the burial/unearthing aspect, which is a mechanism.
WA: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
CD: There were a lot of challenges, but an early and long-lasting one was trying to find the right tone: something that had space for both humor and horror, that could accommodate some decidedly out-of-the-ordinary events without completely departing from verisimilitude. And tone is a slippery yet intrinsic thing; it’s not like you can just flip through a bunch of digital filters and pick the one that makes your story’s skin look clear. To switch metaphors—a few years ago George Saunders gave an interview in which he compared writer and reader to motorcycle and sidecar. The writer wants the reader close enough that they can lean into the corners together. He’s talking about reader expectations, but I think tone plays into this. Tone tells you which way to lean; the adjectives on page one help determine whether a reader will accept the twist on page 20. It’s subtle, maddening work, but that’s what so great about having readers and editors you trust: you get to do human testing. “Here, sit in this sidecar while I drive around like a maniac. Holler if the rig breaks and you go flying into space.”
WA: The structure of this story is somewhat unconventional in that you have two viewpoint characters. Why did you do this, and how did the dual viewpoints make writing this story different from writing a story with one viewpoint character?
CD: The first draft of the story did not have two point-of-view characters. Warren was the star, and Soleil appeared on one page in the middle, as a complete cliché. In trying to revise her out of cliché-dom, she just became more and more interesting to me, and Warren seemed duller and duller by comparison. So then I tried to complicate his dullness a little, and by then it seemed like an interesting dynamic: two characters with varying levels of pragmatism and self-awareness, visited by a very self-aware and pragmatic lunatic. I don’t think writing dual viewpoints is radically different from writing a story with one, but it is trickier. The sections have to interact in a more sophisticated way than merely existing next to each other. And if the viewpoints are too similar, the characters will feel less substantial, more like puppets that a single narrative intelligence is controlling, without even the courtesy to paint different faces on them. But if they’re individuated enough, and the reader buys the viewpoints as coming from discrete humans, then we’ve got the potential for harmony, dissonance, resonance.
WA: I’d like to nominate the character Tom for the Unforgettable Villains Hall of Fame. Please tell me he’s not based on anyone you know.
CD: He is definitely not based on anyone I know! But I think we’ve all met people like this. Or, hopefully not like this, but people who we sense are bad news, and yet who—it must be acknowledged—possess some kind of inexplicable energy, even a magnetism. To me, that ambivalence is fascinating and frightening. I’d like to believe that if I’m attracted to a personality, it’s because that personality is a positive force. But charisma is morally neutral.
WA: This is the most suspenseful story I’ve read in a long time. What techniques of suspense do you find most useful?
CD: Thank you! You mentioned the dual viewpoints, and that’s a great structure for suspense, because the reader can get a relatively whole picture, while a given character sees only a piece of it. Dramatic irony in the most basic sense, right? Think of horror movie tropes—Ramona places her hand on the doorknob to the cellar, and we’re terrified because we know that Old Man Jenkins has been feeding something down there... That said, our level of engagement is directly tied to how much we care about Ramona aside from this cellar beast business. If she’s a thinly written stereotype, and we have no emotional involvement, then we’re just waiting on the blood and guts, the cheap thrills. So I think some of the most effective suspense-making techniques are things you should be doing in any story—making characters that a reader will care about. You want the tension to be there whether they’re being chased through the woods or just suffering through a bad date.
WA: Have any authors in particular influenced your work?
CD: Yes, although I think that process is indirect and mysterious. Sometimes I’ll try to “learn” (steal) a particular piece of craft from someone, but more often I’m just reading authors I love, and hoping that some tiny bit of magic will transfer through osmosis. I mentioned George Saunders before. Alice Munro is essential. Toni Morrison is probably the writer who made me want to be a writer—I don’t think my ego is quite sturdy enough to claim her as an “influence,” but I’d like to eventually be worthy of her influence. Deborah Eisenberg is my favored deity.
WA: How long did it take you to complete this story?
CD: Oh, forever. Four or five years? But that’s including drawer time, which is an unsung part of the process. After the first draft, and a lot of great feedback, and some revision, I put the story in a drawer and forgot about it. The next time I took it out, months later, it was clearer to me what needed to change, and how to change it. Drawer time makes it much easier to kill your darlings. I went through that cycle a bunch of times, which is pretty typical for me.
WA: What are you working on now?
CD: Guilty of the standard cliché—I’m working on a novel. It’s about heavy metal, New Orleans, and system failures. And sex and death, of course, but all literature is about that.
WA: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
CD: I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of great writing advice over the years. Can I pick two? The first is a quote I read from Anne Enright, who said that all description is an opinion about the world. That has stuck with me—a reminder that a chipped blue coffee mug looks a certain way to someone who plans to propose to her girlfriend tonight, and another way to someone whose ex-husband overdosed on this day last year. Setting and character are not separate boxes. The other bit is an offhand comment from an undergraduate poetry workshop I took with Peter Cooley at Tulane. Our class had just finished discussing the elegant style of a student poem in which a junebug attempts to cross a kitchen floor but collapses piteously in the slatted light from the window. We noted the accomplished line breaks, the vivid imagery, the controlled tone—and then fell silent long enough for Dr. Cooley to chime in, marvelously: “But why does the junebug collapse?” He looked around at us. We looked at the table. Someone tapped a pen, someone coughed. “My life is hard,” he said, “and I need help. How does this poem help me? Why does the junebug collapse?” He was being facetious, yes, but I also took the question as a genuine yearning for the merger of style and substance, for work that uses every tool at its disposal to generate empathy, insight, clarity of one kind or another. So I still ask myself that question, as a check against making shiny, hollow things. “What if someone found someone buried alive” is a fun place to start, but sooner or later you have to figure out why the junebug collapsed.