by Brian Rocha
Brian Rocha: Your most recent book, The Affliction, is a novel told in stories. It seems like a natural pivot because your previous collection, The Halo, is essentially a complete story told through a series of poems. Did you feel that The Affliction was the natural progression of your work?
C. Dale Young: It might seem like a progression because of when the books came out, but most of The Affliction was written in the same time period as The Halo—the same seven to eight years. I was trying to work in larger structures with smaller parts. I didn’t have any sense of that when I was doing it, but it was hard to ignore once those books were out. They do have a kind of similarity. Someone even said that The Halo could be seen as a novel in poems. It’s the only poetry book I have that is that unified around a central character.
BR: What made you want to shift from poetry to fiction?
CDY: I was doing a reading and panel at Oregon State University, and for the afternoon colloquium most of the people who showed up were fiction writers. They didn’t really want to talk about poetry, so we were just talking about writing in general. And one of the fiction writers said, “It’s kind of surprising to me that you don’t write fiction.” And I said, “Well, when I started out that’s what I wanted to write, but I wasn’t very good at it.” And she said, “How do you know you’re not better at it now?” I didn’t really have an answer. The next day I got what I thought was a line for a poem and then thought, “That doesn’t sound like any line for a poem. That sounds like a first sentence.” So I wrote it down, and I started joking with myself that maybe I was going to write a story. Within a few days I did have a story, and it’s the first chapter of The Affliction.
BR: Having now written a novel, has your view on either poetry or fiction changed?
CDY: Instead of seeing them as distinct entities, I see them as being far more similar than I realized. Many of the poets I know, with the idea of writing a story or novel or anything over a page, they’re always worried about how to keep track of it, how to know where you’re going, etc. And it cracks me up because no one knows where they’re going in a poem, but the poets have been writing poems for so long that they’ve convinced themselves that they do know. The writing of it, getting the draft down, is not that different. And when you start revising and editing, the process is almost exactly the same.
BR: It’s interesting to hear you say that, because I feel that your verse reads like a short story. Your writing style already lends itself to that similarity.
CDY: I’ve always read voraciously in both genres, and most of the tools that poets and fiction writers use are the same. Poets often say, “I don’t have to think about the narrator.” Well, you do. Your speaker is a narrator; you just don’t call it that. And they say, “I don’t have to think about point of view,” but you do because of how the speaker is viewing the situation. Poets say things like, “I don’t set scene,” yet almost all poets set scene.
BR: Did having that realization make it easier for you to approach writing fiction?
CDY: I don’t know that it was easier. But when I started writing fiction I just wasn’t worried about it. I had already been writing poetry for twenty-something years. Writing fiction is amazing because I don’t have the same self-consciousness about it. Writing a poem, by the middle I’m already starting to say things like, “What’s the complication? What’s going to happen in this poem that’s different from any other poem about this?”
BR: Do you think it’s freeing partially because in poetry there’s so much weight on such a small amount of text, whereas in a longer form you have a little more room?
CDY: Fiction writers all see writing short stories as writing poems. I have friends who cannot write short stories. They only write novels. The argument they give is that just like in poetry—at least lyric poetry—you can only write so much before it becomes unmanageable and is no longer just a short story. That’s the hardest thing. I didn’t set out to write a novel in stories. I just set out to write stories. But I became obsessed or enamored—whatever you want to call it—with the characters, and I kept going back to them.
BR: The book is connected by a central narrator who puts together the larger story from either his own experience or second-hand experience. Did you do the meticulous assembly of all this beforehand, or did you write the stories individually and then re-work them to make the connections?
CDY: I didn’t have any sense of that structure until about four years in. My original idea, which now seems completely hokey, was to keep writing about the same period from different characters’ perspectives. The first one I wrote is the first chapter. The second is actually the second chapter. The third story I wrote, the one about the two sons, became the middle or pseudo-climax of the book. They were all written with different narrators and different points of view. It was after I wrote the story about the sons that I wrote a story about the guy who has leukemia. And all of a sudden I was like, “Wait a minute, they’re all connected. Not just connected because of the story, but they’re connected because of the characters.” Then I started using the one narrator, and I had to revise a lot of the original stories. The funniest thing is that the schematic was in the first story. Someone said, “It’s hard to remember when you’re reading that first story that it is actually a first-person narrator. So much of it is told in third person.” So I latched onto that and revised. But I was years in, and it’s not uncommon in fiction to spend years before having any sense of what you’re doing.
Poetry’s not much different. A lot of people say, “How early do you know a book of poems is a book of poems?” I’ve never had the experience of knowing that early on. It always takes me years before I start to see anything. I guess the question I would ask myself is, “Why am I comfortable with that?” Because it’s the most ridiculous thing, the idea that you would work on something for years without knowing where you’re going. I’m not a patient person in most of my life, but I somehow learned to be patient as a writer. Maybe that just happens with time and experience and lots of mistakes, but I don’t tend to worry too much about stuff like that. I just do the work.
BR: The Affliction deals a lot with disappearances; one of the characters actually has the supernatural ability to disappear. But there’s more than just the vanishing: there’s healing and prophecies. What drew you to creating a world where people possess these kinds of gifts in a setting that’s otherwise ordinary? Why magical realism?
CDY: I don’t think of it as magical realism. I understand why people say that, but in a lot of Latin-American traditions stories like that are commonplace. What I wanted was the sharp, almost dissonant quality of something so extraordinary happening in a very mundane way. I think it’s easy to write mundane, it’s easy to write the extraordinary, but it was placing them together that held my interest.
BR: Did you find that having different perspectives gave you license to do things you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise?
CDY: I had to figure out how it all fit, and that worked to drive other parts of the book. That’s not dissimilar from my experience writing poems. Often I know how a poem starts and how a poem ends, and the thing that drives me is to figure out how you get from A to Z.
BR: How did that affect the way the events unfolded and the relationships between the characters? Especially because a lot of them end up romantically involved.
CDY: Not only romantically involved, but a lot of them end up being familial without realizing it. That is another kind of disappearance, that you have two people who have no idea they’re cousins, but somehow they end up in the same place. That was a lot of fun, figuring that out. The characters took over. I used to hear that when I was in graduate school and think, “That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” But being willing to be patient with the characters and think through how they think, what they do—that ends up driving the narrative. When you map it out ahead of time, those stories are rarely as interesting because they’re too pat. They’re too expected. People in real life do things that are incredibly surprising. A man sitting in a bar at the airport waiting on his flight that’s been delayed happens to be sitting next to another man whose flight has been delayed. They are related, distantly, but they don’t know. Part of the intensity for the reader is, are they going to figure out they’re distant cousins? It’s up to the characters to drive what happens because how much one character reveals to the other is what’s going to be the trigger that says, “I had an aunt named blank too.” If they don’t talk, nothing happens. So it sounds strange to say the character drives what happens, but they do. If you’re driving everything that happens by plotting it all out, there’s not much room for surprise, or serendipity, or coincidence.
BR: Was the idea of coincidence a driving factor or something that just generally interested you?
CDY: I wouldn’t say it drove me, but I was aware that what some people see as coincidence, other people see as fate. What some people see as coincidence, other people see as willful negligence or willful disregard of what’s actually there. It just became fascinating to me. It became, how many ways could I push against the notion of coincidence?
BR: The latter part of Torn focuses on the emotional difficulties of being in the medical field and treating patients. Contrastingly, a lot of the poems in The Halo are from the perspective of someone who is a patient. Was being an oncologist and treating patients on a daily basis a motivating factor for writing from the perspective of a patient?
CDY: Well, I was a patient before I was a doctor. I was in a car accident before I started college, and I broke my neck. I tried to write about it when I was a graduate student, but I really didn’t have the tools or the experience to do it. They were kind of “woe is me, I was in this terrible accident” poems. I kept trying doggedly, and finally a teacher was like, “I don’t think you can write about this. You’re too close to it.” Then, when I was still editing poetry for New England Review, a poet whose poems I had rejected went on a screed online about how I was a dilettante. Why am I a physician? Why do I think I can write and do all these things? The answer comes from the fact that I almost died. I’m very aware that I’m on borrowed time. So I wrote the poem “The Halo.” Months went by, and I wrote another poem that was similar. Another several months went by, and I wrote another poem. At that point I was sick of them, and I remember saying to friends, “I think something’s wrong with me. I feel like I’m writing the same thing over and over.” My partner, Jacob, said, “Well, I wouldn’t worry about it. Write ’em till they’re done.” And when I wrote the last one, which is a very long poem called “The Wolf,” I knew that was the last one. I just knew it. The ghost was gone. I didn’t have any desire to write any of those poems again.
BR: Maybe the outpouring of poems related to your accident was a crystallization of a time when your mind was constantly working but you couldn’t physically do a lot.
CDY: I don’t know. I think the anger I had about that poet going on a screed called up a lot of emotions in terms of why I am the way I am. And it’s hard to escape the fact that it stems from a very specific moment in my life.
BR: Did you find that your profession helped formulate these poems?
CDY: I’m sure it did. People all the time say things like, “I don’t write autobiographical work, I don’t write confessional work, my work is divorced from my life,” and I look at them like, “You need counseling because that’s just not humanly possible.” Down to the word selection in any given piece, you betray yourself constantly. Someone pointed out to me in a very early poem of mine that I commented on a beam of light crossing a sidewalk in terms of a scalpel. No one outside of medicine would see that. I have students all the time who say things like, “I don’t want to use ‘I’ because then the reader is going to think it’s me,” and I’m like, “What are you talking about? So you think if you use third person they’re not going to think it’s you?”
BR: Do you have a strategy for balancing two very demanding careers?
CDY: Nothing other than time management. I don’t know many writers who just write. Unless you’re John Grisham or Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, most writers have other jobs. In the current era, they’re mostly teachers. But teaching takes an incredible amount of time, and lots of things are expected of you outside of teaching. I get up at 5:30 every morning during the week because that hour and a half before I have to get ready to go to the hospital is when I work on revisions, when I read, when I answer emails, etc. It’s just become my time. People will say, “Well, that’s not a lot of time.” An hour and a half, five days a week, week after week, adds up to a lot of time.
BR: Part of the balance is also the right brain/left brain thing. People may have a hard time envisioning a writer doing something that’s very scientific—
CDY: Medicine isn’t scientific though, that’s the thing. Medicine requires the use of science, but medicine itself is left brain/right brain. If you’re too much of one you’re not going to be a very good physician; you’re not running an experiment, you’re taking care of people. Unless you’re going to be a pathologist where you process tissue samples and run assays on laboratory stuff, you’re going to have to deal with people. And writing is also left brain/right brain. If you can’t master the craft level of things you’re not going to be able to tell your story or write your poem.
BR: It’s funny you say “dealing with people” because writing is kind of dealing with people. Do you think dealing with a lot of people has helped you understand a wide variety of characters and create people?
CDY: Both medicine and writing involve being attentive. Almost every writer I know can’t help but notice and hear people’s conversations. You probably have this experience when you go out with your family and you’re like, “Can you believe she just said that to him?” And they’re like, “What are you talking about?” My mom would say we’re nosy people, but I think it’s very hard to write poems or stories that engage a person without having some sense of people. And the only way you get that is by being observant, by being attentive.
BR: Your poem “The Bridge” from Torn is something you’re often asked about. Do you know what it is about that particular poem that seems to resonate with people?
CDY: I have no idea. It gets attention both good and bad. A review published not long after the book came out savaged the poem as being essentially sentimental schlock. I don’t know why some people like it and why some people don’t like it. I know for me it was the first time I ever wrote a poem where I tried to capture my actual voice as if I were talking to my partner. It’s not that I hadn’t written love poems before. Starting out I never wrote any kind of love poem; I thought they were kind of silly. And a poet, Sidney Wade, said, “Do you know how hard it is to write a love poem? You shouldn’t be so critical until you’ve tried.” They’re more difficult to write than almost any other kind of poem, and part of it is that so many love poems have been written that it’s very hard to do something that doesn’t sound imitative, cliché, weird. I suspect part of the reason that poem gets noticed is because I was trying so hard to capture my own everyday voice that it doesn’t sound like other poems. It sounds like me making fun of myself for being narcissistic and acknowledging that my partner makes fun of me for being narcissistic. It’s funny that the two most commonly shared poems of mine come from the same book but are completely different.
BR: What’s the other?
CDY: The title poem, “Torn.” I doubt most people have actually read the book (laughs). It certainly didn’t sell as well as my other books. One of the strangest things as a writer is that once you publish your work you have no control over it. I have poems that I particularly love and think are among my best work that no one else seems to care about at all.
BR: How does that feel for you?
CDY: It used to be confusing, but now I just face the fact that we don’t have control over it. Who knows why things connect with people? In the age of poems being online, it’s often interesting to me when a poem of mine runs online. Sometimes it runs and that’s it, and other times a poem will keep popping up in different places. I’m not on Twitter, but apparently lots of poems get shared on Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram. I don’t have a sense of why that is. And another thing you realize is that different types of people like different types of things. Some noted critic might say this is the standout poem of the book, but it’s not what anyone else ever talks about.
BR: What means more to you in the end, if a poem is received well critically or if it gains more traction with the general public?
CDY: I don’t know that one is more important to me than the other. In some ways I feel like a critic is just one person, but I also know that mobs of people like things that I think have no value at all. People will tell me, “Oh, you have to watch such and such TV show,” and I watch the first episode and I’m like, “What in god’s name is this? Why are they into this?” Taste is taste. And taste changes. One of the examples I love to use is a poet named Christopher Smart who wrote a poem about his cat. The poem is really long, and in his lifetime nobody would have read this. They would have said this is the work of a crazy person. Now that poem is often anthologized, often shared online as if it’s this great funny thing, and I’m like, “This man’s been dead for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
BR: If you could choose to be “afflicted” with any of the abilities presented in the novel, which would you choose?
CDY: There are actually more of them than you realize. The novel I’ve been writing for the past three and a half years is essentially a prequel. I can’t get away from these people. There are actually seven of these gifts.
BR: You do mention that in the book.
CDY: But you actually get to see the others, besides the last three. I think most people would assume I want the healing gift, considering my everyday work, but the one I’m most fascinated with is controlling the weather. It would be great right now, because it’s gray and rainy outside, to just make it sunny.