In “An Elliptical Essay On Violence,” featured in our Spring 2010 issue, Edward Falco attempts to make sense of the motives for violence and the processes of coping. Falco, the director of Virginia Tech’s MFA program in creative writing, was prompted by the April 16, 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech to explore his own recollections on violence, and in his powerful essay, poignantly reflects upon childhood memories, manifestations of violence in his own fiction, and the disheartening frequency of violence-related news headlines. Here, Falco discusses his writing practices, his thoughts about memory and coping, and his plans for future work.
1. Could you describe your writing process?
I try to write every day, in the morning, for a couple of hours. This plan has faced multitudes of obstacles over the years, mostly having to do with the necessity of earning a living, but, for the most part, it’s a plan that has kept me at my desk, trying to write, most mornings. Typically, I’ll go to my study after breakfast and either pick up with an ongoing narrative, or try to get a new one started. When I’m writing short fictions (work that looks an awful lot like what everyone else calls prose poems), I’ll either try to get a start on a new one, or I’ll sift through the pile of pieces in process and continue editing and rewriting them. That’s basically it for my process. With longer stories, I like to work a little at a time, a page or two a day. After my writing session, I’ll often walk a mile and a half or so, carrying my digital recorder with me. On these walks, ideas and images often occur to me, and I’ll dictate them into the recorder and then transcribe them before the next day’s writing. I do my best to actually pay attention to the world around me on my walk, but invariable my mind goes back to the story I’m working on and suggests possible narrative developments. That’s not the case with short fictions, because there’s usually no, or very little, story there. Short fictions don’t lodge themselves in my thoughts. They come and they go, and then they exist on the page, or in my mind as a particularly rhythmic line or striking image.
2. In your essay, you mention haunting dreams that often involve humiliation or violence. Though you acknowledge that you mostly write in the mornings, do you ever resort to writing in these sleepless periods? And if so, does that writing differ from the planned writing in the mornings?
When I was in my twenties I’d write all hours of the night, but not anymore. I’ve learned that I write best when I’m well rested, and thus the morning schedule. The dreams I talk about in my essay are so frequent that they’re almost comic to me now. I’ll wait up and think, “Oh, right. Another dream in which I’m lost someplace and I can’t find my way. How original.” Really, I wish my unconscious would come up with a new storyline. I’m either lost or someone is, in some way, challenging me. Very repetitive. I’ve learned to clear my head of them and do my best to get back to sleep. Last thing I’d want to do is write them down. The stories I make up at my desk are much more interesting—though, again, that’s not saying much.
3. You explore the uncertainties of memory quite frequently, second guessing facts, thinking that you remembered a face plainly when you sat down to write the piece and then realizing you might have been merging it with another in your mind. Where does this impulse come from?
It comes from understanding that memory is wholly unreliable. Here’s an example: I have a vivid memory of being with my father at the moment of his death. Right before he died, he looked up to the ceiling and said “Jesus, Joseph, and Mary! They’re coming for me!” It’s a startling moment and a disturbing memory. Problem is, not one of the several other people present at that same moment remember him saying anything like that. What does that mean? Did I dream it? Are the others simply not recalling it because their own thoughts were elsewhere? I remember the moment clearly—but I no longer have any idea whether or not it actually happened. I don’t think I’m alone in recognizing the unreliability of memory. I know it’s one of the reasons I hardly ever attempt nonfiction. Even when I’m trying to write things as they actually happened, I’m making them up. For me, then, I might as well call it fiction and write whatever works best for the story.
4. You mention humor as a method of coping. How does humor play into your writing? Who are some of your favorite comedians or comic writers?
Stanley Elkin, Lorrie Moore, and Lewis Nordan come to mind as good writers whose stories are often funny. (By the way, let me take this opportunity to make a pitch for Lewis Nordan’s “Sugar Among the Chickens.” It’s a great short story and terrifically funny, too. If you haven’t read it, really, you’re in for a treat.) Unfortunately, my stories are hardly ever funny. I try sometimes, but not to much effect. Luckily, and for reasons I don’t understand, I find it easier and more natural to be funny writing plays. My plays are all funny, even the deadly serious ones. Don’t know why this is, but when I sit down to write a play, I find myself writing funny scenes. When I sit down to write a story, I find myself writing dark, dark, dark.
5. You have written short stories, poetry, novels, plays, digital work, the list goes on. Do you find any particular format most appealing?
I love the short story. As I’ve said elsewhere, when you get a short story right it’s a uniquely powerful form of writing, capable of the focused intensity of poetry. That said, I also especially like working on plays with a director, actors, set designers, etc. I like the collaborative aspect of playwriting, and the whole process of producing a new play is exciting. If any of your readers are in northern Virginia this fall, they might consider going to see Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha. Sabbath Night is my first play (it had its first production in 2000) and it’s being produced by Taking Flight Theatre Company at the Waddell Theatre on NOVA’s Loudon Campus.
6. Would you ever consider expanding this meditation into a book-length memoir?
Can’t really imagine it. As I’ve said, I have trouble with nonfiction. Plus, writing this piece was difficult. In fiction, I always have a mask. The reader never has any idea what material I’m actually taking from my life. In this piece, I’ve tried to render facts as accurately as possible—and that leaves me feeling awkward, exposed, and vulnerable. I love writing fiction because I lose myself in it. In nonfiction, I’m placing myself front and center––and I don’t like the way that feels.
7. What are you working on right now?
I just finished a play called In Red Rain and a new collection of short stories called Burning Man; I’m taking notes, getting ready to make a start on a new novel set in New York in the thirties; and, as always, I’m writing short fictions when they come to me.
8. Finally, what are you currently reading?
Recently read short story collections include Matthew Vollmer’s Future Missionaries of America, Jeanne M. Leiby’s, Downriver, Antonya Nelson’s Nothing Right, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, and Jane Bradley’s Are We Lucky Yet; collections of poetry include Campbell McGrath’s Road Atlas, Denise Duhamel’s Ka-Ching and Bob Hicok’s Words for Empty and Words for Full; novels include Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Josh Weil’s The New Valley, and Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate. I’m about to get started on Steve Yarbrough’s latest, Safe from the Neighbors.