Every fiction writer knows that a first-person narrator can provide the kind of intimate access to a central personality that can be a lot harder to achieve in third. Of course, every fiction writer also knows that first person comes with certain built-in limitations, like the inability to break away from that personality when you feel like showing a scene your narrator is not present for, or providing direct access to the thoughts and feelings of another character. It’s the cardinal rule of first person: Don’t narrate anything your narrator cannot plausibly know.
And yet, great literature is rife with flagrant violations. Nick Carraway narrates a central scene in Gatsby’s drama as if he’d been there taking notes, when it’s clear he was nowhere near that fateful garage at the time. Most of Tristram Shandy is devoted to Tristram’s blow-by-blow narration of events he could not possibly have been privy to, notably his own conception and birth. And all of Madame Bovary—including the most intimate details of Emma’s adultery and despair—is presented as a memoir of a childhood acquaintance of her husband.
What’s going on here? Why are so many of the first-person narrators of the world’s great novels telling us things they have no way of knowing? And how are their creators getting away with it?
First person is often seen as the poor relation of third. I remember first becoming aware of the extent of the prejudice against an author’s choice of first person when I read Jonathan Yardley’s review of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys in the Washington Post several years ago. Yardley raved, “Chabon leaves no doubt that he is the young star of American letters,” but ended the review with a plea for Chabon to graduate on to third person: “Though Chabon has demonstrated a keen understanding of other people’s minds and lives, thus far his preoccupation has been with fictional explorations of his own. It is time for him to move on, to break away from the first person and explore larger worlds.” (1)
The criticism seemed to me unfair and—odd. Could first person really be such an enormous limitation? Was Yardley making the elementary mistake of confusing Chabon’s “I” with Chabon himself? But when I read the third-person masterpiece that Chabon eventually came up with, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I had to acknowledge that it contains riches of both depth and scope that it’s hard to imagine arising out of first-person technique, in which the only tellable information would be restricted to what one person could realistically know. How could a first-person narrator even approximate the variety of perspectives and locales and worldviews and social commentary of Kavalier and Clay? And we would all have to admit, a first-person War and Peace is practically inconceivable.
John Gardner gives us his own version of the Master’s view on the topic: “In any long fiction, Henry James remarked, use of the first-person point of view is barbaric. James may go too far, but his point is worth considering. First person locks us in one character’s mind, locks us to one kind of diction throughout, locks out possibilities of going deeply into various characters’ minds, and so forth.”(2) I can find no actual instance of James describing first person as “barbaric,” but he did call it, in the preface to The Ambassadors, “the darkest abyss of romance ... when enjoyed on the grand scale” and added that “the first person, in the long piece, is a form foredoomed to looseness.”(3) Not quite “barbaric,” but quite a condemnation.
Whether or not the disadvantages cited by Yardley, Gardner and James apply to every first-person narration, most readers can probably think of stories in which the first-person point of view limits the story to something slight, contrived, or self-indulgent. And yet—what about first person’s undeniable charms? It’s one of our most powerful tools for seeing the world through a unique individual’s eyes, for experiencing a story not only from within an individual consciousness, but within that individual’s uniquely revealing and enjoyable language patterns. It would certainly be a shame to have to forego all that every time we want to tell a story that ranges outside the personal, the intimate, and the small.
So the question is: How can we fiction writers reap the benefits of a first-person narrator without falling prey to its apparently inherent limitations of scope? And one good answer may be: by breaking the cardinal rule.
Referring to Flaubert’s strange point-of-view frame in Madame Bovary, novelist David Jauss writes, “How do we explain the fact that such a superb writer violated what so many consider the most basic of all ‘rules’ about point of view? My answer is that there isn’t, and never was, such a rule.”(4) Jauss points to many examples of narratives that employ what he calls “first-person omniscience,” starting as far back as “the oldest known collection of stories, the Egyptian Tales of the Magicians, which was written between 5,000 and 2,000 b.c.” and continuing into modern times. The fact that so many writers have successfully broken the rule throughout the ages, he contends, invalidates it altogether.
I don’t completely agree with Jauss—breaking the rule unconsciously or without sufficient reason is a real and grievous error—but breaking it judiciously, with a full understanding and exploitation of all the implications, can open up whole new realms of narrative power. Expanding first-person narration to tell what a narrator can have no way of knowing, if it could be done without outraging the reader’s sense of fairness, would seem to be a way of combining the breadth and dispassion of traditional third person with the depth and intimacy of traditional first. I believe many authors have used this technique to transcend the traditional limitations of first person, to complicate the intellectual and emotional lives of their narrators, and to integrate the complexities of storytelling into the substance of their stories.
One of the most daring and powerful examples of this phenomenon can be found in one of the most daring and powerful novels in all of world literature: Moby-Dick.
The book begins as a traditional first-person narrative, introducing us to the narrator through his famously intimate and quintessentially first-person tone: “Call me Ishmael.” We then experience, through Ishmael’s own senses, his search for a suitable whaling vessel to cure his blues, his acquisition of a bosom friend in the cannibal Queequeg, and his boarding of the Pequod. Up to here, there’s nothing unusual about the point of view.
But once the ship sets sail, something mysterious happens to Ishmael’s voice. We get the famous “six-inch chapter” about Bulkington and his presumed preference for the dangers of the sea over the comforts of the land, with some gorgeous writing about how dangerous those comforts themselves can be. This is a philosophizing, generalizing Ishmael, still beautifully human and believable, but certainly in a different way. What’s more, he purports to be giving us access to Bulkington’s private motivations! Where did he get those?
It seems unlikely that Ishmael has reliably received this information about Bulkington’s psyche from the man himself. For one thing, Bulkington disappears completely from the narrative with this chapter. And the passage is more about Ishmael’s metaphorical use of Bulkington than it is about the man himself: “Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea...?”(5) And yet we don’t question the motivations that Ishmael attributes to Bulkington; nothing in Ishmael’s language invites us to doubt what he tells us, so we assume he gets it right about the man while throwing in some philosophical musings of his own. In a way, we suspend our disbelief in what Ishmael is telling us, just as we suspend our disbelief in what Melville tells us.
When Ishmael gets into Bulkington’s head like this, we can feel the first-person perspective starting to expand. Melville hasn’t done anything “illegal” with the point of view (yet), but we’ve moved beyond Ishmael’s direct personal experiences, into territory that a strict application of the first-person rule might make a lesser writer shy away from.
And then things start getting weird. As the Pequod moves out to sea, Melville starts to do something really different with point of view. Ishmael himself almost completely disappears from the tale he’s telling. Practically nothing that he says or does on the long voyage is recorded in the book until the very end, when we hear a few details of how he is able to save himself by floating on Queequeg’s coffin. We don’t get any of the details traditionally associated with a first-person narration. We don’t know where he sleeps or what he eats or who he talks to, or even for the most part what work he does, even though he describes a great many whaling tasks in exhaustive detail.
After the wealth of realistic, humorous, and personal detail Ishmael has provided about his preparations for the voyage and his budding friendship with Queequeg, the shift to total reticence about himself is jarring, almost shocking. His own actions and experiences turn out to be not particularly important to the story, except for the most important action and experience of them all: the telling of the tale. In that sense, he remains the central character throughout the book.
It’s a pretty amazing feat Melville performs with his point of view, and one we mere mortals can learn from. Melville takes away the things Ishmael knows firsthand, therefore best, and allows Ishmael’s interests to expand out into unknown, or imperfectly known, aspects of the world around him, creating more of a third-person scope. As we follow the story of Ahab’s quest as seen and told by Ishmael, we learn more about Ishmael’s own predilections, interpretations, and obsessions than a strict limitation to his personal experiences could ever reveal, and at the same time Moby-Dick enlarges into a book about the Big Ideas.
Once the voyage is well underway, the question of what Ishmael “knows” gets more and more complicated. A simple example is the story of Queequeg’s “birthing” of Tashtego from the whale he has fallen into. Queequeg dives into the water, “and soon after, Queequeg was seen boldly striking out with one hand, and with the other clutching the long hair of the Indian.”(6) What an inspired use of the passive voice that we’re always warned against! By whom Queequeg “was seen” is not specified; the point of view seems to be that of a group of mostly undifferentiated crewmen on deck. As always, it’s unclear where Ishmael himself is positioned, but the readiest assumption is that he is among those watching and can, therefore, relate details that he and many others on the ship were actually able to observe. But he goes on: “Now, how had this noble rescue been accomplished?”—and proceeds to explain exactly what happened under the water, using details no one but Queequeg, Tashtego and Melville himself could have known.
Still, few readers are likely to consider this a breech of point of view because it’s a simple task to determine how Ishmael might have received this information he’s passing on to us. Just as we assume that he saw the surface details with his own eyes, we assume that the underwater details were given to him by Queequeg or Tashtego or both at a later time. And we learn a bit later that this is, in fact, the case.
The logic that is so easy to apply to an apparent point-of-view transgression in this rescue scene can be applied in many similar instances. Ishmael may not always be interested in telling us how he gets his information, but it’s not hard to see that he may in fact, at least some of the time, have “legitimate” sources. This is one of the ways Melville frees Ishmael to tell us more than he is able to directly experience himself.
But then he just starts making stuff up.
Consider an elaborated scene like the one in which Ahab insults Stubb on deck late one night. Ishmael clearly was not there. It’s highly implausible that the lofty Ahab would tell the lowly Ishmael about the encounter, and only slightly less implausible that the officer Stubb would do so, especially considering that Ahab makes quite a fool of Stubb in the scene. And even if one of them did tell Ishmael what happened that night, is it conceivable that either of them would present all the specifics of detail and dialogue, not to mention the resulting indelible characterization of both Stubb and Ahab, that Ishmael offers in passing the scene on to his readers? It’s so unlikely as to be virtually impossible, so we seem to have a real point-of-view gaffe. Plenty of critics have been willing to say that Melville, in this scene and others like it, simply screws up and forgets that he should only be telling us things Ishmael can know.
But if we give Melville more credit than that, we might learn that point of view is a more varied and wonderful thing than the restrictive “rules” suggest. The brilliance of the writing here is revealed in the title of the chapter. It’s called “Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb.”(7) That’s the language not of the novel or the memoir, but of the theater! Ishmael thus announces the chapter—the first in which he really plays fast and loose with point of view—as an imaginative enactment. The title asks us to imagine the scene acted out upon a stage—as Ishmael himself has apparently done. We’re not given direct access to Ahab and Stubb, but only to Ishmael’s imaginings of them. We have reason to believe that his knowledge of the two men (achieved from daylight observation, shipboard gossip, etc.) is sufficient to present at least certain aspects of their characters and the encounter faithfully, but the complexity (and I would also say, the humanity) of the scene is increased exponentially when it’s read with the realization that, even though this is a scene Ishmael could not have access to, we have never left Ishmael’s point of view.
Ishmael uses the theatrical technique again in several later chapters that recount scenes he could not have witnessed firsthand. He even presents two of these chapters (39 and 40) in traditional script format, complete with stage directions and speakers’ names centered above their “lines.” When he tells us at the end of his “Cetology” chapter, “This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught,”(8) he’s driving home the point of such “postmodern” experiments with form and genre—which I think should be an integral part of the experience of reading Moby-Dick: Ishmael is actively creating the story rather than simply telling it to the best of his recollection.
In other words, Ishmael is a writer. Every “I” narrator, in fact, presents himself or herself as a writer, at least implicitly. The words of the story have been written down and we read them as though the “I” has done the writing. Often, as here, the narrator’s status as a writer is made explicit, and that’s the case with many narrators who move beyond traditional restrictions to narrate what they cannot really know.
It’s a great technique for expanding the powers of first-person narration into realms traditionally reserved for third—and beyond. We still have the powerful hook of an intimate connection to a first-person consciousness, but we’re no longer concerned only with what he knows, but also with what he seems to know, or thinks he knows, or maybe even what he wants to know. The psychological stakes cannot help but rise.
A salient feature of Ishmael’s story-creating style is the constant drawing of metaphysical analogies to the anatomy of whales and the methodologies of the hunt: “All men live enveloped in whale-lines” is one example among dozens or hundreds (209). It’s in these overt metaphorical interpretations that it’s most important to remember that it’s Ishmael talking to us and not Melville trying to bypass his narrator to get his point across. Ishmael is a character whose only desire, once he boards that ship, is to extract as much metaphysical significance as he can from every event, every personality, every jawbone. The events of Moby-Dick constitute not a series of pre-planned symbols, but a rich human experience from which all significance of life and death has been mined—by its protagonist, not by its author directly. In an allegory the events and objects and characters embody concepts, but Moby-Dick starts with events and objects and characters and achieves conceptual significance through Ishmael’s interpretation of them, an effect that is a direct result of Melville’s restricting us to Ishmael’s first-person point of view.
Ahab shares Ishmael’s metaphorical bent (“O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.”) and so does the rest of the crew at times, as when they perceive and fear a “spirit spout” following the ship (231). But if we continue to grant Melville the benefit of the doubt where point of view is concerned, we can’t escape the conclusion that even Ahab and the crew are refracted through Ishmael’s consciousness. Moby-Dick is symbolic only because it is symbolic for its narrator. Ishmael is so consumed by his own metaphysical interpretations of events that he himself seems to disappear into them—they are all we know of him because they are all he cares about telling us—and the assimilation is so thorough that generation upon generation of readers seem to have been seduced into thinking it’s the story itself that is so full of meaning—for example, that the whale represents evil or justice or the meaning of life, whereas all we can know, and all we need to know, is that the character Ishmael equates the whale with evil or justice or the meaning of life in compelling ways. Moby-Dick is the story of a whale and his hunter as seen through the eyes of a unique consciousness, and even though we may forget he’s there, it’s his manner of seeing and telling the story that gives the story its power.
The story of Ahab’s quest could have been told in an omniscient voice without resorting to an Ishmael at all, but Melville’s choice to tell that story through a questing, perceptive, far-ranging, and inventive first-person point of view allows him to give us two great characters instead of one. The obsessive captain’s story achieves its magnificence only through its interpretation by an equally obsessive seaman, and thus Melville inextricably embeds symbolic interpretation into the very structure of the narrative. That effect would not have been possible without a bold and creative interpretation of the cardinal “rule,” and the lesson has not been lost on some of today’s most innovative and powerful writers.
One of the finest examples I’ve found of an expanded first-person narration in contemporary writing is Marjorie Sandor’s short story collection Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime. Taken together the stories form a kind of novel, though not a very traditional one. As the title suggests, they add up to a portrait of a mother—perhaps a cubist portrait, a mother perceived from many different perspectives and never completely reassembled. The title also announces that this is necessarily a creative rendering: a first-person narrator will be telling us some intimate things about her mother, things a daughter might be unlikely to know firsthand. The subject is Clara, whose daughter Rachel narrates all the stories in the first person, chronologically beginning with Clara’s birth. Sandor allows Rachel extensive access to the thoughts and feelings of several members of her family throughout the book, including her mother and father, her grandmother, and her brother. Rachel herself, like Ishmael at sea, fades into the background, except in her role as the filtering imagination. And as in Ishmael’s story, the line between telling and creating is blurred.
Rachel’s point of view might at first seem less “illegal” than Ishmael’s often does, because she is at pains to let us know where her information comes from. She admits to passing on stories that have been passed on to her: “A narrow kitchen, a tragic life—that’s what she tells me now ….”(9) Sandor seems to be transcribing Rachel’s transcription of Clara’s description of her life. Clara has allowed Rachel this access into her understanding, by telling her a story.
But as we read, it becomes clear that this simple explanation does not hold up. For one thing, the stories that are passed on to Rachel, and that she then passes on to us, are told in great detail and in evocative, “writerly” language, with ample reconstruction of thought processes and analyses of emotions, so they take on the immediacy of “reality,” or of a strong work of fiction. If at first we sense that Rachel is imagining these details, elaborating on the basic story her mother has told her, it’s very easy to lose that feeling as we get caught up in the mother’s story, as though the mother were the protagonist in a traditional third-person fiction written by Rachel, and Rachel herself did not come into it at all. We stop worrying about how Rachel became privy to these thoughts, and allow the conventions of fiction to work on us. We suspend our disbelief.
That in itself is a daring and powerful expansion of first-person technique, but Sandor complicates things even further. Just when the fiction has consumed us, when we’ve settled into a page or two of the mother’s story, allowing ourselves to believe we’re experiencing Clara’s life as she herself experienced it, the author throws in a reminder that we’re getting the information second- (or third-) hand. “There’s not much to go on; a mother will only tell you certain things.”(10) So now the emphasis is on the daughter’s experience of her mother’s story, rather than on that story itself, and we have to wonder: Whom, if anyone, do we believe? And when this is the question dominating the reading, it’s easy to start taking things with a grain of salt. Surely the mother did not tell her story to her daughter with such precision, such grace, such exquisite vocabulary, and so we must assume that Rachel is speculating, at least about the nuances, and the speculations may tell us as much about Rachel as they do about anyone else. We’re accustomed to ascribing the sensibility of an author’s writing to one of her characters—whether through a first-person narrator or a “third-person limited” tone—but surely it’s too much to believe that two characters—both Rachel and Clara—are able to use language this well! And when the grandmother, father, and brother offer their own stories, it turns out that they, too, share Rachel’s (and presumably Sandor’s) finely modulated voice.
This is where Sandor’s project is revealed to be much more complex than it at first seems, and where her unorthodox point of view yields its riches. She’s not just telling a story about a family. She’s telling a story about telling stories. The reason we never arrive at a clear “portrait” of the mother is that the project of the book is to explore the complexity (and ultimate futility) of any attempt to tell a complete and coherent story. Sandor is interested in questions of how stories interweave, how they contradict each other, whose stories are more and less credible, and who’s telling a particular story and why:
“But this is supposed to be my father’s version, my father who on his deathbed wanted to tell me a love story.”(11)
“God, how I want to change their stories before they become my own.”(12)
“Other passengers, men and women with unknowable lives, slept or told each other stories, making them better or more horrible than real life ….”(13)
“It was a sentimental love story, embarrassing at any distance. … And it wasn’t exactly a lie, my father thought. What was true about it could not be spoken, that was all.”(14)
So Rachel, like Ishmael, is a speculator, an imaginer—a writer—and as such she invites and requires the reader’s active involvement in her stories more fully than any traditional first- or third-person narrator. Like Ishmael, and like Nick Carraway and Tristram Shandy and any number of other rule-breaking “I” narrators, Rachel is an obsessive quester after the truth of experience, and hence cannot stop herself from imaginatively inhabiting the lives of the people around her.
The effect is kaleidoscopic. It’s not that the raw material doesn’t matter, but it gains its beauty only through its shifting patterns. This could be done to an extent by moving the point of view from character to character, but by presenting stories in a fluid first person, Sandor and her fellow rule-breakers put the emphasis on the individual mind working to make sense of things. It’s what the mind of the writer herself must do, of course, and it’s also the task presented to the reader. The intimacy forced upon us by the first person implicates us in the narrator’s quest. In Portrait of My Mother…, we’ve heard less about Rachel than about anyone else by the end of the book, yet it’s her sensibility that alternately focuses and diffuses the shards of narrative. We are forced to question and judge her as we strive to put the story together for ourselves. Her decisions about what to tell us form yet another story, the only story of herself that she allows us to hear, and the expanded first-person point of view makes it a story that blurs distinctions between mother and daughter, reality and imagination, writer and reader.
The book ends with “Malingerer,” a story about Rachel’s father’s experiences in a hospital during World War II. Stricken with an ear infection, he’s at first accused of being a “Jewish fake”—a “malingerer.”(15) This false story that others tell about him almost costs him his life. The story that then saves his life is the one about the hospital aide he falls in love with. She nurses him back to life and opens his heart in ways he didn’t think possible. But when he’s discharged, no one can find her. The Colonel tells him, “with a fever like yours, hallucinations aren’t uncommon.”(16) This woman is an important part of the puzzle of the book, explaining a lot about Rachel’s parents’ relationship after the war, yet we’re left wondering if she ever even existed. Thus the book ends with the greatest unresolvable ambiguity of all, particularly when we remember that much or all of this story has been invented not by the father but by the narrator! This first-person narrator has ultimately failed—as Ishmael does not—to make sense of her material in a way that she and the reader can fully embrace. What’s clear is that the beautiful tangle of narratives is as complete as it is going to get.
It’s a quintessentially “postmodern” yet deeply human perspective. We alternately believe everything Rachel tells us and reject her authority completely. From her twenty-first-century vantage point, Rachel experiences the complexity of storytelling more fully even than the ahead-of-his-time Ishmael, and through Sandor’s expert exploitation of the combined inwardness and outwardness, the intertwined intimacy and range, of an expanded, rule-breaking first person, her readers experience it, too.
Contemporary writers have continued to find new ways to exploit the technique of expanded first person. In “Mister Squishy,” the first story in Oblivion, by the late David Foster Wallace, it’s not until page 57 that we learn that an “I” is involved at all, through a single “my” and a single “we,” and in a footnote, at that.(17) This “I” is a plausible direct observer of much of what is related in the story, but certainly not everything, especially the long accounts of various characters’ thought processes. To have the “author” of the story identified, even in this minimal and rather preposterous way, produces an effect similar to Sandor’s. We read differently from that point on, believing in this character’s creations just as we did when we thought they were merely Wallace’s. Perhaps we even grant the fictional narrator a little more credibility, somehow, than we grant to Wallace, because we understand the eyewitness basis of this narrator’s authority. Yet at the same time we question his right to tell us anything that should be beyond his ken, as we never questioned Wallace when he did essentially the same thing. It’s wild, bizarre, illuminating about both human nature and the nature of storytelling, and a ton of fun.
In “Good Old Neon” Wallace allows his first-person narrator what may be the ultimate in unauthorized access: Late in the story the narrator narrates the process of the story’s creation by “David Wallace.” In the last few pages of what has hitherto seemed to be a traditional first-person story, David Foster Wallace becomes a character who is created by the narrator, who is himself created by David Wallace ….
The narrator seems to be telling us the truth about how he himself was created, but since we’ll never know, both he and his David Wallace must remain characters rather than real people. The unorthodox technique helps make them as complex and interesting as any characters in contemporary fiction. Both the narrator and “David Wallace” assign themselves powers of creativity to rival those of Ishmael. We watch these characters create themselves through their creation of others. That is perhaps the ultimate existential activity, and certainly one of the most serious and worthy subjects literary fiction can take on.
Whether applied subtly as in Moby-Dick or overtly as in “Good Old Neon,” the idea that characters can create characters of their own provides a framework for expanding the power of first-person narratives beyond what a human narrator could reasonably be expected to know. If these examples can be trusted, the best narrators for this kind of experimentation are narrators who are obsessed with something or someone—in other words, really intense and engaging narrators, which are the best kind, aren’t they? Such narrators can tell what they know and what they imagine, surmise, suppose, and decide, and that creativity gives them and their stories a powerful extra dimension. Moby-Dick, Portrait of My Mother…, and “Good Old Neon” are as much about processes of perceiving and creating as they are about anything else, and the same is true of Tristram Shandy and The Great Gatsby and countless other rule-breaking fictions. They are quest stories in which the narrator’s quest for the truth of experience mirrors the fiction writer’s own and, by inescapable extension, the reader’s.
(1) Yardley, Jonathan, “The Paper Chase,” Washington Post Book World 19 April 1995, 3.
(2) John Gardner, The Art of Fiction. (New York: Vintage-Random, 1983), 75-6.
(3) Henry James, preface to The Ambassadors. (New York: Barnes, 2007), 14.
(4) David Jauss, “From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction Writing,” Writer’s Chronicle, September 2000. <http://www.awpwriter.org/magazine/writers/djauss01.htm> (accessed January 13, 2008)
(5) Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Great Books of the Western World no. 48. (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952), 78.
(6) Ibid., 254.
(7) Ibid., 91.
(8) Ibid., 105.
(9) Marjorie Sandor, Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime: Stories. (Louisville: Sarabande, 2003), 46.
(10) Ibid., 44.
(11) Ibid., 65.
(12) Ibid., 85.
(13) Ibid., 152.
(14) Ibid., 210.
(15) Ibid., 193-4.
(16) Ibid., 210.
(17) David Foster Wallace, Oblivion: Stories. (New York: Little, 2004), 57.
Buzz Mauro’s stories and poems have appeared in Prime Number, Willow Springs, New Orleans
Review, River Styx, Poet Lore, Tar River Poetry and other journals. He lives in Annapolis and
works as an actor and acting teacher in Washington, D.C. He received his MFA in fiction writing
from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. More of his writing can be
Q: What surprised you most while writing this piece?
A: I’d say the biggest surprise was how passionate I found myself getting about this fairly obscure
aspect of point of view in fiction. I think writers always think of their characters as people, and I
discovered that critics often don’t, and that riled me. I wouldn’t have thought I would care so
much about defending Ishmael’s personhood, but I really did.
Q: Can you share a little about your current writing project?
A: I’ve made a little specialization out of writing short stories with various kinds of mathematical
content, and I’m currently shaping a bunch of those into a collection.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer? Did you follow it? Why or why not?
A: This will sound facetious, but the best advice I ever received about writing was to do it with
coffee. That nugget came, semi-facetiously, from the great David Huddle. I followed it
religiously until I traced my frequent headaches to too much caffeine. I still follow it, but less
Q: If we were to lock you in a room for a single hour with a writer of your choice, who would that writer be, and why?
A: Probably Fyodor Dostoevsky, assuming he could be alive for that hour. The Brothers Karamazov
– my favorite book – was supposed to be the prelude to another novel, but he died before he
could write it. I’d love to ask some questions about what was going to happen next.