A Conversation With Best Debut Short Stories 2020 Author Shannon Sanders
“Every interaction between adult siblings presents a chance to get more clarity about the past. Hopefully, we’re able to seize at least some of these chances.”
Tracy O’Neill, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Deb Olin Unferth. Submissions for the 2021 awards are open now.
Shannon Sanders is a Black writer and attorney, and a graduate of Spelman College and Georgetown University Law Center. Her fiction appears in One Story, Electric Literature’s The Commuter, SLICE, Strange Horizons, Joyland, and elsewhere. She was a 2019 finalist for One Story’s Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship and has placed in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award contest. Find her at ShannonSandersWrites.com, on Twitter @ShandersWrites, and on Instagram @i.exaggerate.
“The Good, Good Men” was originally published in Puerto del Sol.
Theo had come all the way from New York with no luggage. From the parking lot Miles watched him spring from the train and weave past the other travelers, sidestepping their children and suitcases with practiced finesse, first of anyone to make it across the steaming platform. His hair was shaved close on the sides, one thick strip left to grow skyward from the crown of his head. In his dark, lean clothing, hands shoved deep in his pockets, he was a long streak of black against the brightly colored crowd. He alone had reached their father’s full height.
He made no eye contact with Miles as he strode to the car and yanked at the door handle, as he folded himself in half and dropped heavily into the passenger seat, releasing a long breath.
“Fucking hot,” he said, pulling the door shut.
Miles threw the car into drive and steered out of the parking lot, out of the knot of station traffic. “Summertime,” he said by way of assent.
Where did you find the idea for this story?
“The Good, Good Men” started with a piece of gossip I overheard. An acquaintance of my parents’ mentioned in passing that she had a friend whose adult sons disapproved of her boyfriend and teamed up to intimidate the boyfriend into treating their mother as they believed she deserved. The acquaintance told this story with admiration for the sons—they were painted as gallant and loyal. But the story haunted me afterward for what it said about the mother’s agency and the way it was regarded by the various men in her life.
When I started writing, I had a half-formed agenda involving what I wanted to say about the presumptuousness behind the brothers’ actions. (Note that Miles and Theo are inventions—not modeled after the real people in that overheard anecdote, whom I’ve never met.) But in starting to write it, from the opening scenes, I found myself feeling real sympathy for the characters. Sibling interactions are always supercharged with history anyway, and I knew this one would be simmering with more than garden-variety paternalism. I just had to figure out what. In a sense, that became the story.
How long did it take you to write this story?
My drafting process is a little bit harrowing—I usually walk around thinking about the story for a while, and then try to get a draft written in a single sitting (while the whole thing fits neatly in my mind). Here, I drafted all but the final scene on one day in 2016, took a second day to catch my breath, and then wrote through the end on the third. If I remember correctly, I had a workshop deadline on that third day! I finished just in time.
Of course, that first draft needed work. I revised the story in bits and pieces over the weeks after the workshop, began submitting it to magazines in 2017, and finally in mid-2018 made what I now think was an essential change before sending it on the round of submissions that led to its publication in Puerto del Sol’s Black Voices Series.
While “The Good, Good Men” explores familial dysfunction, it also depicts relationships—between brothers, and between parents and children—that are incredibly tender and loving. These relationships are complicated, yes, but at their core is unconditional care. Theo and Miles in particular have an interesting bond, burdened by the past but buoyed by a profound fraternal connection. Can you talk about how you approached drawing out these complex relationships with such nuance and empathy?
Wow, what a kind question! I don’t know that I have a great answer—relationships (particularly familial relationships) are the main substance of my writing, so the success or failure of any story I write turns on the realism of these relationships. I have a younger brother, which is why I have whatever insight I do into sibling dynamics. No conversation between siblings (or any duo with a long history) is ever superficial. There’s always an underlying stew of subtext, shared memories (some treasured, some painful), and very deep familiarity. Every interaction between adult siblings presents a chance to get more clarity about the past. Hopefully, we’re able to seize at least some of these chances.
In the 1990s, my brother and I spent many very happy hours playing Super Nintendo together. I always hoped to nod to that in a story somehow!
“The Good, Good Men” ends on a bit of a cliffhanger—that is, at the very start of a confrontation between Theo, Miles, and “Mr. Signet Ring” that we have been anticipating since the beginning of the story. We never learn how the confrontation ultimately unfolds. Can you talk a bit about the choice to keep the conclusion open-ended, and how might the ambiguity of the ending relate to the themes of the story as a whole?
As I saw it, the story is not about the end confrontation so much as it is about the other revelations that unfold beforehand. I have an idea of what might happen next—and I hope that, by the final sentences, the reader does too—but for me it’s more interesting to focus on how an absent character’s legacy has driven things to this point. There’s a chance, of course, that the brothers come to their senses, or that their mother defends her agency more valiantly than she has in the past. But it’s more likely that patriarchy wins, as it so often does.
I did second-guess this ending more than once. Most early readers in my workshop expressed strong emotions in response to the final paragraphs as they exist now, but others said they wanted more. (I will say that I don’t always believe that readers actually want the added scenes they ask for, even if they think they do!) The story received some rejections that were otherwise complimentary, but noted that the open-endedness made it feel incomplete. I considered extending the end scene, but nothing I could come up with improved the story at all. I think the story is complete, even if the narrative account isn’t literally so.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
While of course the prize money is very nice (especially as it arrived right on the eve of a huge upheaval to life as we’ve all known it), I’ve been most grateful for the way the PEN/Dau prize has helped me to build the writing community I’ve long hoped to find. Getting to know some of the other contributors—and their fabulous work—has been great. Hearing from readers who appreciated my story has really motivated me to keep writing and submitting. And excitingly, the prize announcement helped me to find my way to my literary agent, Reiko Davis, who’s been a wonderful help!
What are you working on now?
“The Good, Good Men” turned out to be the first of a string of stories I’d write about the members of this family—others have since appeared in One Story, Strange Horizons, Hobart, and elsewhere. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a collection of linked stories (including some that extend beyond the branches of Miles and Theo’s particular family tree). I’m also working on a novel, which I’m not the first to note is a very different type of challenge!
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Literary magazines! I think any writer who’s actively submitting to these publications should also be reading them. Some of my favorites (New England Review, One Story, Joyland, and many others) have been home to work by some of my longtime favorite authors (like Danielle Evans) and others who are newer to me (Lisa Taddeo, Tony Tulathimutte, Rion Amilcar Scott). And while I don’t love everything about social media, I do find Twitter to be a great outlet for following literary discussion and getting to know authors whose work I admire.