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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Spotlight on Dennis Must

Dennis Must is the author of two short story collections: OH, DON'T ASK WHY, Red Hen Press, Pasadena, CA (2007), and BANJO GREASE, Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA (2000), plus novels: THE WORLD'S SMALLEST BIBLE, Red Hen Press, March 2014, and HUSH NOW, DON'T EXPLAINCoffeetown Press, Seattle, WA, October 2014. 

His plays have been performed Off Off Broadway and his fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary reviews. He resides with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts. For more information, visit him at www.dennismust.com

The Interview -- Part II

Scroll Down to Read Part I

How has the Internet and online publishing (especially short stories) impacted your writing career?
For me the primary impact of the internet and online publishing has been shorter pieces, resulting in fewer avenues to explore, say, a story’s character, conflict, or theme. I began publishing short fiction in 1995 and mainly in print and often university related literary journals. The suggested word count for a submission then was 5000 to 7500. Over the succeeding years as the number of online journals began to outpace those in print that number continued to shrink so that today the preferred word count for most journals is 2500 to 3000. Since each of my published stories has gone through twenty or more revisions, the shorter pieces haven’t necessarily been made stronger because, as some might suggest, “the chaff has been edited out.” 

You write about WWII in two novels, both during and after, what intrigues you about that war and/or time period?

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Picasso

I have never felt as alive as I did as a young boy during those years. Being that our country was at war on two fronts, and neighbors and relatives were increasingly hanging gold stars in their windows honoring their fallen, it took scarce imagination to fear that one’s family could also succumb. The chaplains were a common site on the streets of our town. As children our innocence was swallowed in their shadows.

So that period of horror and death consumed our daily lives. During periodic air-raid drills  lights were mandated extinguished and blankets thrown over windows to conceal any possible illumination emanating from within. Air-raid sirens became the new refrain in effect, as if some entity was wailing death from the darkest corners of town. With the glowing crucifix from above our bed, my younger brother and I would take refuge under the covers while covering our ears.

It’s that experience which awoke us preternaturally in a manner that we might not have been in a more peaceful time.

As Anais Nin affirmed: “We write to taste life twice.” 

What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel several years in the making. Once THE WORLD’S SMALLEST BIBLE and HUSH NOW,DON’T EXPLAIN were released in 2014, I began rewriting and expanding its early draft. Tentatively called BROTHER CARNIVAL, it is an exploration of the various selves we adopt in our lifetime, some with greater fidelity and possible success than others. The book finds its premise in a short story I wrote called Going Dark in which the protagonist in his final days perceives that his life has been merely comprised of the sum of the roles he has performed. That in essence he entered life as a tabula rasa.

“. . . Every role I’ve ever performed is now rising up because they can see where this is all headed. I’m going to die soon. Christ, does that word send them into a dither. They stir nervously about the room, sharing smokes. Their chatter a raucous din that causes me to lose even more sleep.”

In BROTHER CARNIVAL the protagonist becomes aware of a brother he had not known existed and, in the untiring quest to find him, begins to wonder if in truth he is on a mission to discover his own identity.       

Final Words of Wisdom

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) thoughts regarding the “Task of Art.”

“The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory. That is our duty. If we don’t fulfill it, we feel unhappy. A writer or any artist has the sometimes joyful duty to transform all that into symbols. These symbols could be colors, forms or sounds. For a poet, the symbols are sounds and also words, fables, stories, poetry. The work of a poet never ends. It has nothing to do with working hours. You are continuously receiving things from the external world. These must be transformed, and eventually will be transformed. This revelation can appear anytime. A poet never rests. He’s always working, even when he dreams. Besides, the life of a writer, is a lonely one. You think you are alone, and as the years go by, if the stars are on your side, you may discover that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends whom you will never get to know but who love you. And that is an immense reward.” 

The Interview - Part I

What draws you to work in a specific genre? 
The circumstance in which I find myself is what mainly determines the genre. The opportunities for writing and directing plays were abundant when I resided in New York City. Once I moved to New England, and no longer part of an active theatre group, short fiction became my primary writing outlet. For many years I’ve employed a service that requires me to have a new or revised story every two months which they then submit to various literary journals and magazines. This has functioned as a beneficial albeit artificial deadline for me without which my productivity would certainly have suffered. Concurrently I always have a novel in the making. The short fiction time limit permits a periodic return to the novel-in-progress with a fresh eye. Trading off between genres has worked well since I trust that one’s best work occurs in the rewriting.

You chose a career in the theater over completing your final year at seminary and becoming ordained. What led you to go down the literary/performance path over a life in the clergy? 
Actually it was more of a crisis of faith that induced me to leave the theological seminary and enroll at the University of Iowa’s Playwright’s Workshop. Why the theatre? I venture these boyhood memories were persuasive: the dramaturgy surrounding the sacrament of High Mass, accompanying a vaudeville troupe of my father’s to entertain wounded World War II soldiers at various Veteran’s Administration Hospitals, and the heady attraction to the careers of paternal uncles, one a Monsignor and the other a performer in a traveling circus. It is no mystery why as an adult I became attracted to the work of such playwrights as Genet, Brecht, and Ionesco. Also, as my faith began to erode at seminary, I’d spend more time at McCarter Theatre on the Princeton University campus, witnessing rehearsals by established directors and actors. It was during those late evenings in the dark bowels of the McCarter that I realized this was the calling I’d answer. “The greatest mystery of all is reality,” writes Max Beckman, the German expressionist artist. It was in this sphere of exploration without answers that I felt more at home.

How did your work in the theater inform your work as a fiction writer? 
My last play, NIGHTMOTHS, was performed at Westbeth Theatre, Bank Street, Greenwich Village, NYC, in 1974. Having settled in Boston soon thereafter and no longer having a troupe of actors to call on or an available theatre, I began writing and submitting stories for publication, several of which comprised my first fiction collection BANJO GREASE, released by Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA, 2000.

The years I spent writing and directing plays do materially inform my fiction writing. Specifically, when creating a character I often refer back to my study of Stanislavski and his seminal texts, AN ACTOR PREPARES and BUILDING A CHARACTER.  It was at the McCarter rehearsals for STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE where I witnessed Peter Falk, of later Colombo fame, prepare for his role of Stanley Kowalski and learned about “affective memory.” It was customary to see him oblivious to the world walking about the campus prior to rehearsal getting into Stanley’s character . . . fundamentally transforming himself rather than “acting” the part in the more traditional manner once on stage.

When preparing to draw a character I rely on emotional memory to resurrect that “person” within my consciousness. It’s more an eidetic and less cerebral process in many respects.  

I regret to say I am not involved in the theatre any longer. I reveled that it was a truly collaborative experience whereas the story or novel is mine alone. It takes one writer to bring a story, a novel, or a poem alive. The joy of working in the theatre is that one becomes several who share equally in the creation. I miss that.       

Check Back on the Ides of March for Part II