It starts early. They tell the boy what they feel is best: how to stand at his mother’s funeral, how to shake hands with the guests, how to keep his suit jacket buttoned. Afterwards, his two uncles hunch over watered-down whiskeys; a fly lands on the exposed potato salad. He is an only child, his cousins are in the backyard playing red light, green light, their laughter through the screen door makes his stomach burn. He is seven, a year he will remember as a thief.

At ten he will endeavor to play with others. Basketball tryouts, soccer, and some kid version of football. He will see what it means to parents, other children. He will not feel a reciprocation. It’s familiar, like performance, the same reason he sneaks a comic inside of a bible every Sunday. The coach is a six-foot something that resembles a film star, who never looks sad, his face unable to work in that turned-down way. He appears to have three hopes for these young boys: fall in line, walk it off, and seize the day. The boys decide it is sneeze the day and giggle when it’s shouted across the grassy field. In Houston the field is not so much wet, but humid, a green wafting sauna; he returns home with fresh streaks on his elbows and knees. He watches his grandmother resemble a woman from a detergent ad as she tries to scrub them clean.

Libby Flores

Libby Flores’ writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Tin House /The Open Bar, American Short Fiction, Gagosian Quarterly, Mc Sweeney’s, The Guardian, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Libby is a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Currently, she is the Associate Publisher at BOMB Magazine. Libby holds an MFA in creative writing from Bennington College. She lives in Brooklyn, but will always be a Texan. She is represented by Sarah Bowlin at Aevitas Creative Management. Find out more at libbyflores.com.

Manuel Gonzales on “The Past Collects Its Debts”

The new issue of One Story, “The Past Collects Its Debts,” by Libby Flores, begins simply:

It starts early. They tell the boy what they feel is best: how to stand at his mother’s funeral, how to shake hands with the guests, how to keep his suit jacket buttoned.

And yet, in the simplicity of Flores’s language, in the smallness of these captured gestures—stand, shake, keep—we find ourselves immersed in heartache and loss.

Flores invites us into the world of this boy, his heartache, his stumbling navigation into adolescence, adulthood, love, and loss, allows us to catch glimpses, and from these small glances, offers us a world, a life.

I’ve never read a story quite like “The Past Collects Its Debts.” Haven’t read a story that packs so much emotional heft and sorrow and tragedy into such concise, spare sentences. A story that wields language—a well-placed word, an indelible phrase, a stunning image—with quite so much effortless force. A story that is also at turns funny, sexy, and full of hope. A story that invites re-reading, that rewards each revisit with new emotional layers, deeper connection, a new kind of sadness, a different flavor of hope. We’re very excited to offer you Flores’s lovely elegy, “The Past Collects Its Debts.”

Q&A by Manuel Gonzales

MG: In “The Past Collects Its Debts,” we never learn the name of the boy (who spends the story becoming a man), and yet I find myself wholly moved and undone by him. What was behind your choice to keep him unnamed, and how do you think his lack of a name affects a reader’s connection to the story, to the boy?
LF: The story and the language directed me there—that is true of any story I write. I wanted the masculine trajectory and arc to remain intact, and for that to work he had to be us in some way. I was operating under the belief that the specific becomes the universal and naming him removed one layer of distance I wanted to keep. Also, it seemed to make the story difficult, balancing that anonymity with the individuality of his experience. It never fails to seduce me into any story I write—does this seem challenging enough for me to accomplish? Although in the revision process it was like a pronoun war if another male entered the sentence. Writers before me like Aimee Bender, Lydia Davis, and Amy Hempel have given me permission in many ways to do this. Names can crowd the consciousness and if you are slipping into a world in a particular way—you want the reader to be untethered, liberated a little.
MG: What I admire—or a small slice of what I admire—about your writing and this story in particular is how keenly observed your descriptions are. What’s more, you have a concise, insightful way of putting these details to work—the way the magazines curl at the edge; the metallic aftermath of sweat lingering in a bus seat; the crisp smell of burning flour on a stovetop—these details accumulate a particular emotional weight and bring the world into sharp focus. Do you find you naturally see the world in this detail-rich way or did you find you had to train yourself to pick out these specific sharply rendered details? Train yourself to capture them in language?
LF: That is very kind of you to say. Like many writers, as a kid I was always watching and observing people and situations closely. I’ll go out of my way to avoid the well-worn detail or cliché. The writer Janet Fitch told me about an exercise where she’d describe, for instance, a lake and at first she’d write down all the easy stuff to describe, things the writer has seen before, the clichés: glassy, a mirror, still, etc., and the game is to push past it, go further, deeper and find the unusual word that feels fresh—basically mine for new language. I am drawn to that in what I read. In Annie Dillard’s short essay “Living Like Weasels” (if I attempted to quote it this interview would double in its size so I won’t) is full of this hot descriptive language, words that bite (some literally) and stay with you and halt the reader. George Saunders has this great line in his story “Sticks”—“the seeds of meanness bloomed within us”—no matter how many times I teach that story that line stabs and halts, like a needle stuck in carpet—but does so with a configuration of language and where it is, the placement in the story. Timing as precise as a cymbal crash. Aimee Bender referred to this as hot language and would point to it as the barometer of a story. If the language was getting too timid, too dull, the story was most likely, too. All of these things you have kindly pointed out in “In the Past Collects Its Debts” were specific to him, what he touched primarily, what mattered, what he made personal contact with. Points of lights to his becoming.
MG: This story—and others of yours I’ve read—is compact and yet almost overflowing with emotional weight. Writing short, in my opinion, is far more difficult than writing long. How long did it take you to write this story and how long does it generally take for you to finish a short story or a piece of flash?
LF: I wrote the first draft last August. I then sent it to my agent, Sarah Bowlin, in October and it was ready for submission by winter. That feels fast to me. This story runs on the shorter side, a little over 3,000 words. One story for me can take years. Two or three is standard which is why I joke I will be ninety-eight when I finish this book. No one talks about the actual choice involved in being a short story writer or how long it takes to solve the riddle of a single story.
MG: This story traffics in grief, in identity, in ritual, in the breaking of ritual, manages to pull the reader through large swaths of time, and does so in a stunning display of just nine pages. Can you talk about where this story came from, how it came about?
LF: I was stuck. I’d just finished a novella and had not jumped into the next story yet. I was taking time off to write upstate for a few days and I had the germ for this story. I knew the first paragraph. I was spending my days on the phone trying to find a memory care home for my mother who was suffering with dementia. I knew grief that summer in a new and stunning way and would soon know it more intimately as the year unfolded. Those who have the horrible luck to know that disease understand it steals a person you love little by little, the ground forever shifting. Being a witness to the brain dying is heartbreak of another size. So I was in the middle of that task and I knew I had a limited time to write, so in the words of Raymond Carver: it was what I could do.
MG: Your sentences are so spare, so precise, so direct, and yet still obtain a musicality and emotionality to them—can you talk a little bit about how you tackle the sentence, your process of crafting them?
LF: I am not sure this will make sense, but in my work in the very first draft, the sentences that are building the story need to have a kind of music to them, or a sound, a rhythm. I hear it and if it is not there then there is likely no story. I believe in that barometer I mentioned earlier for language. It is my way into a piece. I will of course draft and tighten language as a story comes into shape, but I rarely change many of the sentences. Maybe this explains why I am such a slow writer! It is wonderful to hear that word precise. A writer, a friend of mine, gave me a sticker that has a quote on it and it lives on my computer case as a reminder, “The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart,” Maya Angelou. I believe in the line in this way.
MG: Throughout the story, the narrator sneaks in to remark on observed language—he understands the term “split in two”; he knows “admire” means a kind of looking; his grandmother murmurs sucia, sucia—and I wonder if you’d talk to the importance of language itself to the story, how the boy responds to language, what it might mean to him.
LF: His relationship to language is a little bit of an unrequited love. Similar in its inescapable quality, how it whispers to him, and how it holds a promise. He resists it. So much of what masculinity in its traditional forms does is ask men to just do, get on with the task at hand, then keep going, not to wait, to question, to ruminate. And literature, books, writing—ask you to do those things. That part of the piece dawned on me slowly, then later when editing with you—it started to feel louder. He never relents to that undertow, but it calls to him and it even has traces of it when he dates the playwright. What’s the expression what you resist persists? That is Carl Jung but my mother who was a therapist had that framed in her office, so I credit her with it too. What’s occurring to me now as I answer this question: perhaps my wish at the end of the story is that he allows it to happen to him, he finally stops running from that desire.
MG: What draws you to the form of a short story, a piece of flash, over something longer?
LF: Funny, I was talking to a writer friend of mine and I mentioned this. Most specifically, short story writers are never like, oh yeah, I picked that lane. Novelists will say, ooh that form is way too hard and there is lovely regard for short story writers. There is respect for the form, but I have never known a writer to say I went out of my way to become a short story writer. I know the factory application of the MFA is, of course, novels are too long for the time permitted in a program so that becomes the default. I fell hard for the form after I read “Cathedral.” I wanted to know how Carver did it. It became a technical feat that had incredible emotional resonance. I wrote a novella last year and that was a trip. The only way I can describe it is that I could no longer see the shore, hold on to the side of the pool, etc., all the water metaphors. But I figured it out slowly the same way a story takes its shape. I am not afraid of the longer form, I just don’t know it as well. I’ve heard writers tell me you write a novel and that teaches you how to make one. Flash was kind of where I began. I was also writing regular sized stories, but this form kept coming through. I teach flash and I love it. I firmly believe that any writer of any form can glean something valuable from it. The management of words, the brevity, the music of language (yes, there it is again) all there in one amuse-bouche. Perfect in its container, but not limited in its effect.
MG: Can you speak to writers who’ve influenced your work? Stylistically, thematically.
LF: God, so many. I went a long way without traditional schooling so they were my teachers in a very definable way. Very beginning: Anaïs, Nin, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley, Stuart Dybek, Jamaica Kincaid, every single short story anthology at the Book Stop (RIP) in Houston Texas where I read on the floor until closing time. People that gave me permission to write in the short and nontraditional form and lean into the sentence: Amy Hempel, Aimee Bender, and Lydia Davis. So many more then at Bennington: Paul Yoon (permission to dream), Bret Anthony Johnston (Texas forever), David Gates (editor extraordinaire), and Amy of course (care deeply for the sentences but make great meaning in those sentences). Thematically less so but each one of these writers (and more than I have real estate here to mention) took to the root of what I hope I bring to any page.
MG: What are you working on now, and does “The Past Collects Its Debts” fit within a larger collection?
LF: Oh yes, the book. I am working on a book of short stories and a novella dealing with the question, “what does it mean to be a good man?” In the collection each story examines the complex choices a man must make to be a “man.” My investigation of masculinity was born when I began to hear these characters’ voices and was fascinated by the corrosive nature inherent in traditional masculinity (the making of man). My own Hispanic father assimilated—that led to the question: why do so many men conceal or sacrifice their truth? I hope to mine these characters for their desires, their losses, and finally the cost of their choices.
MG: What are you reading now?
LF: Dream of a Common Language—Adrienne Rich , A Lucky Man—Jamel Brinkley, The Power to Change—bell hooks, The Door—Magda Szabó, back issues of One Story—of course.
MG: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received/heard?
LF: I started out as a writer reading every author interview I could get my hands on. Especially as an autodidact, I was always seeking the answer. What I found was a million contradictory pieces of wisdom. A friend of mine said recently that the ideal advice arrives when you most need it. So here are a few: Aimee Bender, who I have mentioned here already, gave me permission to write short, weird pieces—the thing that I wasn’t seeing out in the world. I was complaining that I wasn’t writing traditional stories and she essentially said then just be the thing you are. Toni Morrison gave an acceptance speech—I forget where it was, I’ve tried to find it on YouTube since—but she says (of course, I am paraphrasing) to the crowd of people, I was always looking for that permission, and if you’re standing here tonight, I give it to you, write whatever is in your heart. I heard Jim Shepard at Bennington give a lecture. The advice there was don’t forget to play, basically don’t take yourself too seriously—don’t forget that most artistic discovery comes by accident, and by stepping into the unknown with a sense of wonder, not certainty. I believe in this so much that I impart it to the writers that take my classes because we’re so determined to get it right on the page that we forget the art of play. Lastly, I read this wonderful piece by Hannah Tinti at the right moment. I was so lost. I had just moved to New York and had been writing a story for two years (stuck) and my time was spent in the mornings in the great age-old practice of writing and crying. So forever now this T. S. Eliot passage holds great meaning. It is a place to right your compass when publishing and all the rest of the world is loud in your head, when the writing, the real beauty of making art gets lost, or is not coming as fast or bending to your will:  “there is yet faith / But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.”