BY NICO VREELAND
[This is the second in our series of interviews with authors featured in our anthology of outstanding stories from the web, The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology. You can find more information about the anthology and download it for free here, or you can read all the interviews and find new ones here.
Roy Giles is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Central Oklahoma. He is a founding member of Arcadia Literary Journal where he serves as the drama and assistant poetry editor. His story “Black Night Ranch” was first published with Eclectica Magazine where he was chosen as a “Spotlight Author.” You can find “Black Night Ranch” in Eclectica here.
Nico interviewed Roy by email.]
Chamber Four: What did you do between undergrad and enrolling in an MFA program?
Roy Giles: Those were the most boring eight years of my life, particularly from a writing standpoint. I’d call them wasted except that I think I needed to be bored a while. I managed a clothing store during that interval. I worked for good people, but the job felt meaningless, which made me feel meaningless. I wrote almost nothing. I finished a first draft of a full-length play and maybe a half a dozen bad poems. That’s it.
When I look back on it, I don’t know where I got the idea that I might be a writer. Maybe because other people thought I was. I remember sitting in my driveway about to mail an application to law school when I got this panicky feeling I was screwing up. I called my friend in Dallas and told her I was having second thoughts. She practically yelled at me, “Why aren’t you applying to a writing program?” It was like I suddenly had permission. I scrapped law school and found a program.
C4: Where did you grow up?
RG: I grew up in the country outside of Holdenville, Oklahoma. Little town. I hardly ever make it back anymore, but it seems like everything outside of there moves at mach pace, but once you top the hill just as you enter town, you hit a brick wall of slow. It’s nice when you’re in the mood for slow.
C4: Where did you get the inspiration for “Black Night Ranch”? And place it for me in the history of your writing, if that makes sense. I understand it was your first publication, but I’m guessing it wasn’t your first story. Is it the first one you’ve tried to get published?
RG: It was my first story, actually, and Eclectica was the only place I sent it. I got lucky. My first day of class we were given a writing prompt in which we were asked to describe the worst job we ever had. I didn’t feel like writing about that, so I wrote about the best job but from the point of view of someone who hated it. Since I’d never written a short story, I never thought anything would come of the freewrite. I fancied myself a playwright at the time. That’s how it got written, but I suppose the real inspiration lay with the lamb and the knife.
I married young. Eighteen. My cousin Brian and my friend Moose wanted to throw me a bachelor party. We struck on the idea that we’d sneak out to the Black Night and grab a lamb to roast. Moose caught the lamb, but he couldn’t kill it. Brian took the knife but wound up asking me to do it. I couldn’t either. We put the lamb back and left defeated. That always stuck with me. We thought we were pretty tough boys, desensitized by years of hunting, but that was one quiet drive home.
C4: So Black Night Ranch is a real place? Was it in Oklahoma?
RG: Yes, it’s a real place, and it is in Oklahoma, but the geography of the ranch is different than I described it. Also true is that I did work there, and my boss really was a guy named James Carl. I wouldn’t have used real names except that I considered the story merely an exercise and sticking to some familiar truths helped me put words on the page. As things developed with it, I realized I wanted to keep the names because they worked better than any alternatives I could come up with. I called James Carl for consent. He said, “Hell son, they’re just names.”
C4: And you loved working there? What was the appeal of it? (I’ve spent some time on farms, and I’d never want to go back.)
RG: I loved that job. It could have easily been miserable, but James Carl treated me like a man. I got to operate heavy machinery, carry a rifle, drink beer. Not the safest combination, but at eighteen it was heaven. And at that time in my life I don’t think anyone had ever trusted me like he did. At least that’s how I felt. It was the little things. He’d drop me off at some corner of the ranch, tell me plow or seed or fertilize something, and he wouldn’t wait to see if I got the tractor started. Some of those tractors were ungodly expensive, but he turned me loose on them as easily as handing me a shovel.
C4: Did marriage change your writing plans? In the movies, it’s always after somebody gets married—or has kids—that they have to get a real job. In reality, I could see marriage providing some sense of stability and fulfillment, and the urge to write decreasing because of that. Did you experience anything like that?
RG: My first marriage didn’t affect my writing at all because I had no notion whatsoever of being a writer. As far as I knew I was just a country kid with no prospects. The second time is a different story. I can tell you that if you want to write and be married, you’d better find someone who supports your choices. I don’t mean someone who tolerates it, either. I mean someone who truly understands that your successes and failures aren’t measured in money. If you don’t, you’re likely to quit one or the other. I’m not married now. I have no kids. These days I keep my commitments simple and contracts out of my relationships.
C4: I liked the story’s James Carl, because he had the feel of a solid good ol’ boy, but one who was both lonely and stubborn enough not to compromise his way of doing things for the sake of company. So James Carl the character was named after a real person, was he based on the real James Carl, too?
RG: No, my James Carl and the real James Carl have very different personalities. Both the character and the man are big, but any other similarities were unintentional.
C4: Did you ever consider ranching as a career after working on Black Night?
RG: I didn’t consider anything as a career until two years ago. I would like to have kept working for James, but my guess is I would have tired of it like most ranchers.
C4: Another reason I really liked “Black Night Ranch” was that it’s full of great, precise, stand-alone moments—like the scene where Billy’s trying to speak Spanish and Miguel sees through him immediately. Then, of course, there’s the last scene, where the little brother kills the lamb, and Billy decides to tell James Carl about it. And in between, there are many more—James Carl’s opening thoughts about “sheep are born to die,” the dogs attacking and James Carl shooting his own sheep, the boy who keeps lying about his name, etc.
So how did you go about writing this story? You talked about the lamb scene being based on a real night, where did you come up with the others? Did you have a collection of these moments that you used to set up the bones of the story? Or did you write toward that lamb scene, and come up with the other scenes along the way?
RG: Thank you. First, I wrote the real version of catching the lamb, but I didn’t know what the story was. I made a list of things I remembered about working there and then studied the pieces until I found a connection between them. So yes, I had a collection of real moments that formed the bones. But the story didn’t really take shape until I noticed the inherent Christian symbolism of the setting. I had maybe ten pages of loosely fitting scenes when it hit me: damn, James Carl is a shepherd. After that, all these other accidental symbols started popping out at me. I knew I had to change the ending. Once I knew what would happen, everything else fell into place. Narrative distance, POV, the characters I’d need. Of all the stories I’ve written to this point, it was the easiest. The symbols were like a road map. I wasn’t a very good reader of my own work at that time. I’m still shaky. But I often wonder if I would have noticed the story’s possibilities if my boss’s name hadn’t been James Carl.
C4: I completely missed the Christian symbolism. Tell me more about that. James Carl doesn’t seem exactly Christ-like in my estimation, and while the story is largely about Billy growing up and taking responsibility for his actions, I still don’t see that as inherently a Christian theme. So how did you intend the reader to interpret the Christian symbolism, and how did it help you in structuring and writing the story?
RG: I agree with you that James Carl isn’t exactly Christ-like, but he is an imposing figure of mythical proportions. That said, in no way did I intend to write a Christian-themed story and do not believe that I have. I only meant that after I had the basic arc of the story in mind, noticing that James Carl shared the same initials as Christ keyed me in to certain possibilities. For example, I struggled with the end of the story because I had a hard time separating what really happened from what could happen. But once I entertained the idea that I might have a Christ-like figure on my hands, one who had been betrayed, then it became clear to me that a sacrifice and subsequent redemption would follow.
C4: That’s interesting, writing a story with Christian elements that you don’t intend to be Christian-themed. It sounds like you didn’t even want readers to pick up on those Christian elements. Why not? Are you Christian?
RG: I can’t say for sure the story contains Christian symbols that most will recognize, nor do I think it’s important that they recognize them. Any symbols present arose organically. I only mentioned them because they helped me revise the narrative, not because of any relevancy they may have to the story’s meaning. If readers discover literary devices that enrich their experience, then of course I’m pleased, but really I just want them to enjoy the story. And no, I’m not a Christian.
C4: So were you anxious that readers might pick up on Christian elements or symbols and interpret the story with a moral or a meaning that you didn’t intend? I know I would have read it differently if I’d picked up on anything like that.
RG: That’s fair to say, yes. I think my anxiety about such things will fade as I gain experience. Outside of the workshop environment, I haven’t had many readers. It’s still difficult to know how far I can push certain things before they crumble or take over: voice, symbols, metaphor, etc. And I’m still somewhat insecure. It worries me that people might think, oh here’s a guy with a message. I don’t have any messages. But I live in Oklahoma, the buckle of the Bible belt. If any symbols accidently crop up in my stories, it’s a solid bet they’ll have a Baptist tint to them whether or not I’m personally religious. This is where I live. Between Blake and the Bible I can scarcely even look at a lamb without thinking sacrifice. However, I view literary devices like inviting people to my home. I’d never want my guests so preoccupied with my house that we couldn’t have a decent conversation. Story must always come first and literary devices function better when they don’t overshadow characters. I’ll go further and say that I think they work best when I’m not aware of them at all, when they’re just little thorns poking nerve centers, shaping tone.
C4: Thanks for doing this interview, “Black Night Ranch” is a terrific story.