Short Story Collection review: The Last Stand of the Apache and the Valedictorian

Louis Catron was one of the first people I ‘met’ at the online writing workshop: Zoetrope. It was a fortunate meeting for me, as many other people who enter these online venues find themselves trolled and bedevilled into giving up their participation, if not their writing lives, entirely. Lou has been a constant friend and supporter since then, and his advice is always cogent and good-humoured, as well as being infused with his experience as an educator, an actor and a director. So when Lou announced publication of The Last Stand of the Apache and the Valedictorian, I was fascinated to find out what it contained and why he’d felt he wanted to move into one of the most demanding and yet under-appreciated areas of writing life: the short story collection.

The Last Stand of the Apache and the Valedictorian is a collection of short stories, plus one novella. It's an inspiring read, which is not something one says very often these days - most of the characters we encounter are people who are struggling with, and eventual resolve, the kinds of problems that many of us come across. There's a nice juxtaposition between the title story, in which two youths on the brink of manhood come to terms with leaving behind childhood and their friendship for a future of adult success and "Canon in D" in which a man confronts his father's degeneration head on, and explores what it would mean to help a parent commit suicide. Some stories have a fantastical element (I particularly enjoyed Fat Busters Inc., having written on a similar theme myself) but most are grounded in everyday experience and an examination of dilemmas and solutions. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of reading the stories and have found added pleasure in batting questions and answers back and forth with Lou. I hope you too will find pleasure in our conversation.

How did you get into writing short fiction: I know you say in your introduction that you always knew you’d be a writer (or an astronaut!) but there are thousands of people out there who don’t manage to achieve their childhood dreams – what brought you to the fulfilment of yours?

For reasons I don’t understand, I started writing when I was a kid. Grade school newspaper. High school newspaper, yearbook. Lots of, er, em, “poetry.” When I was a brash 19-year-old I applied for a newspaper job at the large daily in the capitol city. And was hired. In hindsight, I have no idea why the editor took me on, but he was a fabulous mentor who taught me about striving for perfection, never settling, respecting the rules of writing, and being accurate. I adored him. Editor of the college weekly. I also did tons of publicity for various theatres. I wrote some short stories that I now pray have permanently disappeared and sold a few to Playboy imitators and pulps. As a college freshman I wrote what I intended to be a deeply psychological religious play called “Husband of Mary,” and the college theatre presented it. Lord, it was dreadful! Brr. I started learning to be more critical of my stuff. Also while in college I wrote a TV version of The Christmas Carol and it was shown on the local station. Poor Mr. Dickens.

I never thought of myself as a capital W Writer; writing was just simply something I did.

Also, again for reasons I don’t understand, I acted. High school plays. My hometown had a marvelous outdoor muny opera and I was in those productions, quite often Chorus Member #8, even sometimes with actual lines. I was in a number of college productions, in good roles, probably not doing good acting, but when I was a junior I had a major epiphany when cast in the lead of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. I suddenly saw, for the first time, the fabulous challenges and beauties of theatre. I was totally, completely obsessed, and my life was forever changed. Up until then I was a triple major in Religion, Psych, and English. Theatre would be my career.

A second life-changing event took place some years later in grad school when I was going for a Ph.D. My mentor, a marvelously intelligent man who still is a good friend, came to me and said that his playwriting class didn’t have enough enrollment and it would be cancelled unless he got a few more students. He asked me to take the course. “Me? I don’t know anything about playwriting. I’m an actor and director.” “Oh, come on. You’re a damned good writer. Anyhow, all you need do is enroll. You can drop the course.” I enrolled. And got hooked. I wrote and wrote and wrote, play after play, what now strikes me as an amazing outpouring of one-acts and full-lengths. They were produced at the college by serious and talented actors and directors. I was awed when Buckminster Fuller and his crew came to one of my plays, a pretty strange one involving the Id and Ego, et al; Bucky thought it was a marvelous portion of his master concept of Design, and took me into his inner group. Wow. Some were published, some produced off-off Broadway, one optioned for a full Broadway production (that of course never happened but I met true gods of the theatre).

Flash forward a few decades full of directing, college teaching, writing non-fiction, and enjoying every part of it and, I like to think, doing them well, winning quite nice awards. A number of my former students were excelling as directors, writers, screenwriters, and actors, some of them becoming known around the world. They’ve written about 30 books. But I developed an itch, a vague sense of discontent and curious disappointment, a feeling that I wasn’t reaching out for the brass ring. I was a jigsaw puzzle that was missing pieces. During a summer recess I idly started writing a short story. Lightning bolts. Ah ha. That’s what I was hungry for. I felt I had come home. That kid I used to be smiled at me. Once again I was hooked, this time by fiction.

Knowing I needed support, I joined internet writers’ boards, probably hitting all the wrong ones first, and finally found a home at Zoetrope where I’ve met genuinely excellent writers and great humans, made good cyber-buddies, and I hope I’m making contributions. Members of Zoetrope owe a huge debt to Francis Ford Coppola for generously providing the site. No, it isn’t perfection. There are people who cause major problems and need to be permanently ejected to eliminate the stench they make. But the others, genuinely talented writers, those who generously share and offer support, make it damned good.

This move to writing fiction feels like my final evolution. The circle is completed. I’ve written short stories, finished a novel that I like and that is searching for an agent, have in progress another novel and a YA book.
Yeah, I still have to learn to cope with the frustrations and disappointments and harsh realities of writing fiction.

I think that even if I hadn’t known about your impressive theatre background, I’d have known you came from some part of the visual arts field, because settings are incredibly important to your stories – most of them happen in highly specific places that cause or influence the development of the tale. But which comes first for you, character, or setting - or is it something else that sparks an idea?

I think characters and theme—a word I rather dislike because it sounds so English professor pedantic—often come first to mind. They dictate setting. Because of the characters and their interchanges, “Snipe Hunting” just has to happen in a bar; the characters in “The Good Stuff” belong in a home.

But it works the other way, too: setting certainly influences characters, can dictate action, even become a major player in the action. I have a completed novel which deals with a New York fashionista and people-person high-achieving lady whose new husband transplants her to a dreary North Carolina mountain top because he wants them to become organic farmers, then during their honeymoon leaves her totally alone when his Marine Reserve unit is called up. She’s miles from the nearest neighbor, the locals shun flatlander outsiders and make clear she’s as out as a sider can be, and she’s forced to live in a creaky pre-Civil War house that has a cemetery in the front yard. There simply wouldn’t be character development, conflict, or action without that setting.

More accurately, however, I don’t think there’s one answer. The ideas seem to have various sources. For one example, I once directed A Thurber Carnival, a play that is a collection of James Thurber’s marvelous short stories. One was “Mr. Preble Gets Rid of his Wife.” Wanting to get rid of her the deadly way, the husband smiles and says to his wife, energetically, “Let’s go down to the cellar!” She calmly shakes her head. “Gee whiz,” he says, like a five-year-old who is immensely disappointed because he doesn’t get to go to the circus. “You never do what I want.” That sprightly comedy hung in my mind and I think it emerged with “The Good Stuff,” which simply came to me unbidden and told me how to mix the realism with the fantasy. Some readers have said they thought “The Good Stuff” has roots in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and I see what they mean, but, honestly, that story never was in my mind.

For a second example, inside me is a guy who wants to scream about aspects of society. When I was young I must’ve been greatly influenced by works like Upton Sinclair’s fiercely angry novel about Chicago slaughter houses, The Jungle (which I suspect gave birth to the vegetarian movement), John Steinbeck’s vibrant protest about poverty, The Grapes of Wrath, Dostoevsky’s potent Crime and Punishment. Like playwright-novelist Paddy Chayefsky says in his movie Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” there’s a lot that purely pisses me off and I’m something of a closet social do-gooder.

So my story “Snipe Hunting” was my scream of protest about the Bush-Chaney war in Iraq which I thought was Vietnam redux. (Note to self: Self, writing about a current event isn’t a good idea because the story gets dated quickly.) In “Canon in D” I wanted to show that we simply have to find a better way of dealing with the aged. “The Circus Barker Says You’ve Got Mail” expresses a personal, genuine disgust with the damnable ‘Net merchants who spew sewage. A full-length play, Centaur, Centaur!, is strongly anti-war.

One of the (too many) stories that I’ve not yet been able to put in order wants to be a razor slash at the trolls who haunt ‘Net discussion boards, provoking discontent, their entire existence based on lies and false personas, often pretending to be the ever-so-injured and ever-so-innocent party while they perform massive acts of cruelty and ugly slander. I know about acting. Trolls are actors playing roles and they’re skilled at deception, although deeply out of place on a writers’ board where a community spirit requires honesty and trust. But while the trolls are actors, I never would want them in a theatrical company because they’d destroy it. They’re junk yard pit bulls who make an ugly stench at Zoetrope, the otherwise excellent writers’ board you and I frequent. I haven’t been able to finish this story probably because I don’t know enough about abnormal psych and can’t understand trolls’ motives to con people with lies and be so destructive, just like I can’t understand Bernie Madoff. Or maybe that troll story needs Monty Python or Jon Stewart.

Then I think there’s a third aspect. One of the secret joys of writing is that the author can explore personal history, personal actions; the author can re-shape past personal events so they come out the desired way instead of the ugly truth; the author even may find answers to questions that have ghosted in dark cobwebby corners of the mind for decades. I don’t want to disclose too much and open myself to a law suit (!), but “Horses” and “The Candy-Red Schwinn” and to a lesser degree “The Last Stand of the Apache and the Valedictorian” reflect aspects of my younger days and, wondrously, gave me answers to personally important haunting questions I simply had not been able to answer until I wrote the stories. I’ve never written about marriage and divorce, though. I wonder why not.

Finally, I think there’s pure serendipity. I suspect many writers just don’t know where a given story came from. “Fat Busters, Inc.” may have started from television advertisements pimping “lose weight fast!” I don’t know. What prompted a Sherlock Holmes story? Again, I don’t know. Why did I think of a bicycle at all, much less a candy-red fat-wheeled Schwinn for one story? Or a Harley for another? I’ve no idea. Why did Coleridge want to write about Kubla Khan and create such magic? I bet he didn’t know. Did E. A. Robinson know where his Mr. Flood came from? I doubt it. These sorts of questions must’ve been what prompted earlier generations to speak in awed voices about “The Muse.” To me, serendipitous ideas are more likely to jump out, almost full-blown, when I’m actually writing, and much less when I’ve alibied procrastination by saying, “I need a break. I’ll go off and think about it.”

Candidly, reading what other writers say about where they get their ideas sometimes reminds me of playwright Edward Albee. Asked what this or that play of his is about, Albee replied, “I read the critical interpretations of my plays then I select the one that makes me sound most intelligent and say, ‘That’s what I meant in my play.’” Ha.

You describe your collection as ‘an anthology of eleven short stories and a novella about choices’ but I think it could as easily be described as a collection of works about indomitability. Even your most downtrodden and apparently unhappy characters like Mark in ‘The Good Stuff’ and Lucy in ‘Fat Busters, Inc,’ transcend their problems. In fact it’s only Martin in ‘The Circus Barker Says You’ve Got Mail’ who doesn’t turn his circumstances into a better life. Does this reflect your personal experience, or is it just the world view you wish existed?

“Indominitability”? Wow. What a great word! That’s a fascinating insight, Kay! I wish I had seen that. Do you, I wonder, think the character in “Moon ‘Scape” transcends her problem? I hope you do, although I suspect there are those who would think her solution is immoral.

Yes, you’re quite right, Martin in “The Circus Barker Says You’ve Got Mail” doesn’t overcome. But at least he wages a good war, at least he battles against the evil he perceives. Yes, I know that some people will think he exaggerates the problem, but for him, it is a genuine, real, absolute, deadly threat. I admire the poor guy for fighting so totally for his beliefs. But then I’ve always admired Don Quixote.

More directly to your question: I’m not much given to introspection, but I suspect I’m both an idealist and cynic. I always liked former Israeli Prime Minster Abba Eben’s cynical-idealistic statement, “History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other alternatives.” I think part of me is a romantic (perhaps illustrated and even influenced by this: as an actor, of all the roles I played, my favorite was Cyrano de Bergerac and—lucky me!—I got to be Cyrano for three different companies).

The romantic battles the cynical other part. I want to believe William Faulkner was right when he said, “I believe man will not only endure: he will prevail.” Then my interior cynic looks at rampant acts of humanity’s stupidity, avarice, and cruelty and I conclude that cockroaches will be the ultimate survivor.

I don’t want to consider if that mixture of idealist and cynic means I’m schizoid.

On a personal level, I don’t think transcending is as important as is the struggle. John Proctor in The Crucible may lose in one sense, but he wins because he does not, can not, give up. The musical version of Don Quixote gives the want-to-be knight that glorious song, “The Impossible Dream.” I think that’s an excellent motto. Lord, I’d like to write on those levels.

Do you use a different approach to writing for each of the different fields you’ve succeeded in: non-fiction, (what I suppose we could call didactic writing), short fiction and plays?

Having written plays, non-fiction, and fiction, I’ve learned that while they all share a need for mastery of the same basic writer’s tool kit, they’re quite different critters. They necessarily demand different approaches.

First, I now see that I got spoiled with plays and non-fiction. Every play I wrote was selected for production rather quickly after I finished it, a rare event for playwrights. Every magazine article was accepted by the first editor I contacted. Every non-fiction book was immediately accepted by the first publisher. Yes, I had an agent—Ms. Bi-Polar—but she turned out to be increasingly useless and ultimately disappeared. I placed stuff myself. With that background, when I started writing fiction I was thinking, “Hey, this ought be easy.” Ha. Naïve moi. It’s been a rude awakening.

Now that I’m writing fiction, non-fiction books seem remarkably easy to write, in sharp contrast to a novel. The chapters in non-fiction can rather exist solitarily on their own (and indeed, while writing some of those books I extracted chapters almost word-for-word and sold them to magazines). Yes, those chapters are linked by a common theme, of course, but each new chapter isn’t quite a continuation of previous ones. The non-fiction writer can pretty much write one chapter at a time without making it foreshadow the following chapters. Each chapter is linked by the basic idea, but not necessarily by interior structure. I quickly learned that one can even write them out of order quite easily and later shuffle the chapters together with few problems.

A novel, in contrast, has to be organic, tighter, more cohesive; a thirty-chapter novel, say, can’t have a new protagonist in each chapter. Each new chapter has to build atop earlier ones. So, too, with plays, with the obvious exception of one-act plays.

Too, my experience says non-fiction is easier to place. Publishers seem open for it. That is directly opposite of fiction where there seems to be a hostile “prove it” attitude.

I think plays, non-fiction, and fiction do share some commonalities. Aside from the obvious aspect of the essential disciplines of writing, re-writing, re-re-re-writing, perhaps a primary one is the need for research. The ‘Net is a marvelous resource, although a certain amount of skepticism about sites is wise. In grad school I had to learn library research techniques and, with a shameless lack of modesty, I got quite good at it. But the ‘Net! Zoom! For “The Good Stuff” I had to find intimate details about Monte Carlo, both the casino and the town. Using the ‘Net I found everything I needed in two or three hours. It would’ve taken me at least a week, probably longer, to dig out the details from a library. (By the way, there’s a funny story about that. Someone who read “The Good Stuff” contacted me and wanted to know when I was at Monte Carlo because he was convinced we had been there at the same time. Apparently the research paid off. I fear I sharply disillusioned that reader when I said I’d never been to Monte Carlo.)

The ‘Net was also an extremely valuable research aid for “Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Devil’s Raven,” and without a great deal of difficulty I was able to find a large number of important details that I think were crucial to give the story authenticity.

For me, the process of writing plays, novels, and non-fiction also share a stupid writing habit. I revise constantly, over and over, going back to page 1 again and again. I think that’s the wrong way to write. An illustration is the easiest play I ever wrote, one that unfolded clearly in my mind from the beginning and one that has had productions in every U.S. state and often in Canada: because I kept going back to the first page I went through an entire ream of paper to come up with the 30-page one-act. Far better would be to plunge to the end and then go back to revise. I just can’t do that.

I’ve been told that my fiction distinctly shows a playwriting background. Without consciously intending to, I seem to tend to use “stage directions.” That is, my characters will nod, shake their heads, walk to a window, just as a playwright writes directions. Often, as you point out, the environment is a player, rather like the scenic set for a play. I also am told my dialog seems actually spoken and reflects characterization, which is another legacy of playwriting.

Which of your short stories would you most like to adapt for the stage? Or do you feel that you write a short story simply because whatever the story contains can’t be ‘done’ on stage?

I think a film version of “Fat Busters, Inc.” could be great fun, as would “Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Devil’s Raven.” “Canon in D” is pretty much ready as is for the stage and wouldn’t be hard to adapt although it is a story that has to be told quietly; if I adapted it to a play, I’d move it from the restaurant, where they necessarily have to sit at a table all the time, to perhaps a park bench from which they can move at significant moments. Nice, simple, easy set. That exterior set, though, would mean losing the music, which I’d hate.

Of them all, though, “Snipe Hunting” would be the one I’d most like to see on stage. The intensities, pains, and angers would play very well and any actor cast in the primary role would love it. The shift from fiction to a play would present technical problems. For example, it would be a one-act, and one-acts seldom get much production value so the set would be a difficulty because I think the bar is essential, as is the TV set. Too, the actors playing the “suit” characters, who don’t speak, would likely feel (rightly) they had unrewarding roles. Still, problems aside, that’s the one I’d like to stage.

If you were abandoned on a desert island, with just one book for company, what would it be?

Just one? Owch. Tough question. I momentarily thought of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, partly because as a college undergrad I belonged to an Ayn Rand cult that primarily focused on The Fountainhead and I dreamt wistfully of finding my own Dominque, and partly because struggling to read that long (long, long) Atlas would likely last years of isolation. But those aren’t adequate reasons.

May I cop out and ask for a collection? The Complete Works of Thomas Wolfe. H’mmm. Or The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Or Edward Arlington Robinson?

No. No, not those. Now I know. I’d want The Life and Complete Speeches and Writings by Abraham Lincoln. (Being isolated on that island and therefore likely prone to depression, I’d skip his poem about suicide.) While I’ve read a goodly amount of his work and about his life, I don’t think I’d ever tire of reading it again and again. May I also have a computer on that island so I could re-write my full-length play about Mr. Lincoln?

The picture is of a Schwinn Panther and it's a surprise for Lou: a great writer, a good friend and a really fine answerer of questions!

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