Remarkable by Dinah Cox
Dinah Cox’s debut short fiction collection, Remarkable (BOA Editions, 2016), won the BOA Short Fiction Prize. Her stories appear widely and have won prizes from The Atlantic Monthly, The Texas Observer, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. She teaches in the English Department at Oklahoma State University where she also is an editor at Cimarron Review.
Aaron said, Look Chet, I’m just like you, okay? I don’t use pesticides on my lawn, I give to Habitat for Humanity, and I vote for the Democrats. So what’s the big deal? I want my children to have a viable future, that’s all.
You don’t have any children, I said. That’s true, Faye said. We don’t.
Aaron grabbed two waffles from the platter and said, Oh, and I suppose we all should stop brushing out teeth just because we don’t have any cavities.
I’m getting false teeth, I said. Like George Washington’s.
Aaron reached across my place for the butter. Fine, Sylvia, he said. Keep on being irresponsible. Go team.
My husband complimented Faye on the waffles and everyone at in silence for a while. I tried not the think of the insides of our mouths, our tongues flattening against our gums, our incisors encrusted with syrup. My husband and I played these little dinner-party games with Aaron and Faye on a fairly regular basis, but we weren’t really friends. We were consumers who shared the same demographics. Chet and I just bought new bed linens, I said. Four hundred thread count sheets.
Chet started in on the magic of memory foam mattresses and Aaron nodded. Faye brought in another platter of waffles.
[Excerpt from “The Dot,” from Remarkable with permission from BOA Editions.]
CORINNE GOULD: I started with an excerpt from “The Dot” because of the beauty with which you honestly capture suburban discontent, in a marriage and the culture of small-town familial rivalry. Sylvia and her husband Chet visit her brother and sister-in-law frequently, but they are just “consumers who shared the same demographics.” How is this discontent uniquely American?
DINAH COX: That’s interesting that you call it suburban discontent. Mostly I’ve lived in college towns—and certainly they have much in common with true suburbs—but lately I’ve not wanted to write about the woes of the (white) retail shopper. There’s a certain psychic pain that comes from realizing, “look at me; my very existence is dependent on my status as a white retail shopper,” but it’s a fleeting pain, and largely inauthentic, manufactured, and banal. Maybe it’s uniquely American insofar as Americans love their goods and services. When you live, as I do, fairly far from the centers of commerce and even further from the centers of real influence, there’s a kind of pain—and a kind of freedom—that comes from knowing no matter how many of the newest products you’re able to buy or how many of the right television shows you take the time to watch or how much you make sure to listen to the latest music the minute it’s released you’re still on the outside of everything, and even with the benefit of supposedly leveling force of looking out the window into the great world wide web, you’re always caught somewhere between the Pioneer Woman and Bobby Flay and always want nothing to do with either one of them, even as you do, on occasion, make their stupid recipes and enjoy eating the results.
CG: The diversity of stories in Remarkable is just that: remarkable. “Three Small Town Stories,” “Three Sad Stories,” and “Three Stories of Prosperity” are brief vignettes collected in collage of images and character studies, while the other stories range from 2 to 20 pages. All the stories are set in Oklahoma and the surrounding areas. Were there any themes that you set out to focus on?
DC: I find myself returning to lonely characters, occasionally settings that mirror that loneliness, and characters in possession of a healthy sense of the absurd. I wrote these stories over a number of years—some of them a long time ago, some of them only recently—and I put them together with brevity in mind. I wanted to include only (or mostly) stories that had been previously published in magazines, and I remember thinking the editors at BOA like short-shorts and so wanting to include what I thought were my best short-shorts prominently, and I remember, too, hoping to emphasize first-person narrators, the desperation of Oklahoma, and an overall sense of “many voices from the plains, some of them gay.”
CG: “Adolescence in B Flat” includes some my favorite lines in the collection like “Sometimes, others take very seriously matters Marcella considers trivial, or worse, they work themselves into a lather staging morality plays for an audience of one,” and “Everyone would like Marcella to become a pillar of the community or, failing that, the wife of a pillar of the community.” What was your earliest inspiration for this story?
DC: I once worked in the basement of a library, in the College Archives, often alone for many hours at a time. “Adolescence in B Flat” began with the effort to recapture the strangeness of that atmosphere, and, looking back, I think it also began with wanting to write about a very young woman, something I’d never really tried before. Like a lot of writers, I often begin with a character; I have the sense I know something about this character but by no means everything, and sometimes the first question I ask the character is, what’s wrong with you?
CG: You’ve said “The limitations of the short-short mean the first few sentences must either establish setting—as I think I was trying to do here—or capture the essence of a character or conflict.” Tell us more about the benefits and limitations of short and short-short fiction.
DC: It took me a while—a number of years—before I really wanted to write short- shorts at all. They seemed to me a failure of will, reflecting in all the worst ways the diminishing attention spans of both writers and readers. Sometimes I still feel that way, but I’ve come around to thinking there’s value in a single note sounded with clarity and energy—you don’t always have to attempt an entire symphony. I like writing triptychs because the goal is perhaps something denser and more complex than a single 500-word short-short; they’re a cool, three-piece band.
CG: That reminds me of the narrative voice in “Old West Night” who says of his attention span “I, too, have taken to spending all day staring at my computer, waiting for someone else to eat and interesting lunch or otherwise brag about themselves. I know I’m not the only one who does this.” Can you draw some connections between brevity, distractibility, and social media?
DC: I wish I’d never heard of Facebook or Twitter, but the genie has been out of the bottle for a fairly long time now; I’ve had no choice but to shake his thieving little hand. It’s tempting to imagine looking at social media means you have your finger on the pulse of the nation, but I think the reality is more like looking through a telescope at a dying patient. For a long time, I would not submit to digital literary journals without a print equivalent, but—how to put it any other way—I became desperate and impatient and “times changed.” Many online journals publish very fine work; neither medium has a monopoly on quality at this point, though I’m not sure that’s always been true.
CG: As we know from research like that of the VIDA Count, women writers win fewer awards than their male counterparts. What has your experience been like getting accepted and rejected by print and digital journals?
DC: I’ve been sending various manuscripts to book contests for a very, very long time. The best word I can use to describe the submission process—both to magazines and to book contests—is painful. Most everyone finds it painful, and if they say they don’t they’re either lying or they’ve been very lucky or they began from a position of greater privilege. It is by no means a level playing field—both the VIDA numbers and the countless stories I’ve heard and read from other women writers prove that—and I don’t necessarily think more awareness in this case has led to more equality and certainly nothing even close to justice, even in the wake of those VIDA numbers improving.
CG: There are gay and lesbian characters throughout Remarkable, many of whom are grappling with their environment and communities—or maybe their environment and communities are grappling with them—but the characters’ orientations are just that, character details that are neither inconsequential nor all-encompassing. There is no feeling of tokenism and none of the hyperbole, stereotyping, or martyring that are so common. Can you speak to your specific characterization strategies?
DC: I appreciate the generosity in this question about my gay and lesbian characters. People “in the gay community” whatever that means, are neither heroes nor villains, they’re just gay, though I will say the lesbians in my household are plenty heroic. I gravitate toward writing about gay characters because, for one thing, I no longer care all that much about husbands and wives arguing over who ate the last of the Cheerios—I have an old, unpublished story about just that, so it’s all right for me to make fun of it—and for another the best characters are outsiders, always aware of their status as outsiders, and not exactly wanting back inside, where they’re not welcomed anyway and where everything is boring and there’s nothing to do or see but sit around and watch husbands and wives inventing passive-aggressive ways to get back at one another because they’ve already argued about who ate the last of the Cheerios.
CG: You are a resident of Oklahoma, and you have that in common with your characters. This unifying backdrop is what BOA calls “neither protagonist nor antagonist…instead the weird next-door-neighbor you’re perhaps too ashamed to take anywhere. Who is the embarrassing one—you or Oklahoma?” How does your sense of place influence the themes, images, and voice of your writing?
DC: Oklahoma is a terrible place—and I can say that because I was born here and continue to live here with at least some hope it
will get better—but the landscape and the animals save it from being completely uninhabitable. I’d like to write more about both the people here and their surroundings at the same time I’d like never to write about them again. It’s an interesting relationship, one I think a lot of writers must have with their places of origin, but I’m lucky, I guess, to live in a place no one much cares about or thinks about because there’s rarely a worry you’re in already- exhausted territory; rather you’re in this empty place some people on either coast aren’t even sure really exists. All this is not to say I’m without examples of great Oklahoma writers from the past and still writing from here and about here; there are many. But we’re all shouting into the wind in some ways—shouting and walking against its gusts, falling down and getting back up again and wiping the contaminated red dust from our clothing.
CG: Peter Conners says of your writing: “There is a knowing melancholy to her writing born when the arid remnants of Old West sensibility confront the sharp corners of sterile modernity.” Can you respond to the tension between old and new in your work?
DC: Sometimes I have the sense I’m writing out of an earlier tradition than a lot of contemporary short fiction writers, which is not to say I don’t like or don’t want “to experiment” with new and emerging—and original!—ways to tell stories. I’m also the kind of person, the kind of writer, who thinks about the past more than I do the present or the future; maybe all writers are like that. I like what Peter Conners says because it speaks very well to what I almost always find myself trying to do in my fiction, and that is living for a while with characters who face the world every day without wanting all that much to do with it; they grapple with changes even as they resist them, and perhaps the changes they resist most are the ones that are supposed to be “good for them.”
CG: Your hilarious and active Twitter account suggests that you are politically inclined. How do you incorporate current events or respond to political moments in your writing?
DC: This story collection, I am proud to say, contains references both to “Hillary Clinton herself” and “that asshole Donald Trump.” Both references appear in stories written well before either announced her or his candidacy for the presidency. Writing about current events can be difficult in the sense that by the time readers see your work the events will be more like historical events, but I always want my characters rooted in the news of their days, even if the news is something I’ve made up about their city council members or recycling laws or bad local cuisine. (And all the heroes in my stories will be voting for Hillary Clinton herself and not that asshole Donald Trump or anyone else). Most writers I know and admire take very seriously their responsibility to write with an artistic agenda to confront injustice in all its forms, and I aspire to count myself among them.
Thanks for saying my Twitter account is hilarious—talk about shouting into the wind. I’m laughing my ass off over here in Oklahoma at my own great and hilarious tweets; I’d like others to join me.
CG: You teach creative writing at Oklahoma State University. What lessons would you be flunking if you were your own student?
DC: I have a writing assignment called “Landscape” I originally meant more for myself than my students. As a general rule, poets have it all over fiction writers when it comes to writing about flora and fauna; I’d like to be better at seeing what the world actually looks like.
CG: What is next for you and your writing? What are you currently reading?
DC: I have a novel-in-progress. I’d like to make more progress. In part, it’s about a rich Oklahoma Quaker who owns an animal shelter and has a secret agenda to kill all the animals. I’ve been reading James Baldwin’s novel, Just Above My Head; the writing is so good it’ll kill you. I have to read it fairly slowly so that I do not die.
Originally published with Late Night Library on August 29, 2016.