Books A Conversation With PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018 Author Drew McCutchen
“I like melancholy and characters with weighty histories. I fell in love with Daniel. But I fall in love with all my characters.”
On August 21, Catapult will publish PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018 , the second edition of an anthology celebrating outstanding new fiction writers published by literary magazines around the world. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll feature Q&As with the contributors, whose stories were selected for PEN’s Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and for the anthology by judges Jodi Angel, Lesley Nneka Arimah, and Alexandra Kleeman. Submissions for the 2019 awards are open now . “Zombie Horror” is told from the point of view of a Reanimation Rehabilitation Specialist—a caseworker for zombies.
Drew McCutchen earned a BA in creative writing at the University of Washington. His fiction has appeared in the Baltimore Review and is forthcoming from Pleiades Magazine. Drew is an assistant editor at Fifth Wednesday Journal . A Washington native, Drew enjoys backpacking in the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. He lives in Seattle with his partner, Brooke, and their cat, Henry. Without the support of his friends and family, his writing would not exist. He is currently at work on a novel.
I had to eighty-six Daniel three times from beneath the overpass, hit my clipboard against his dirty blue tent, and wait for him to crawl out of his sleeping bag before he agreed to see his daughter. He’d been dead for sixteen years and back for nine months then. He’d done the usual reanimation cycle: shower off the dirt, six months in rehab, iris repair, tongue ligimentry, and then booted out on his own with the address of a group home and fifteen hundred dollars from Uncle Sam. Within four days he and his roommates were dragging their mattresses out to the backyard and burying themselves in the dirt. He didn’t get up, just lay there. He lost his job, lost his housing, and then got turfed to the streets. He was a typical zombie, and thus a typical zombie case, which made him my responsibility, or, to be more specific, made him my case: Case 7, Daniel Hedrig.
Every week there is some new theory out there by a scientist or mental health expert who comes up with a strategy for how to deal with the dead. Not how to deal with the problem of the dead. That’s a political conversation left to twenty-four-hour news channels and presidential candidates. But instead, how to deal with the individual dead. This issue is debated in academic journals, daytime television programs, and just about every single religious newsletter—both print and online versions.
Catapult: Where did you find the idea for this story?
Drew McCutchen: Credit goes to Diane Cook who wrote the wonderful collection Man V. Nature . I was so inspired by her weird stories, after finishing the collection, I set the book down and immediately wrote the first paragraph of “Zombie Horror”. I think the story was also inspired by living in Seattle where, like much of the United States, we are experiencing an exploding homeless crisis that every day feels hopeless. It’s an issue that is mired in self-interest and the dehumanization of those suffering.
Daniel, the main zombie case that the narrator oversees in the course of this story, comes back after taking his own life. What were you hoping to explore in creating a character who was gone by his own volition and now back in the world?
First and foremost, I wanted to create an entertaining story that made sense. It amazes me how hard it is just to create a logically sound narrative. And I mean that in the very simplest terms. Character A walks to Location 1, talks to Character B, and nothing illogical or unbelievable happens within the rules of the story. It shocks me how hard that is. I claim no original purpose for Daniel’s suicide. I think there are times in my writing when I am intentional, but I’d be lying if I didn’t just say that on the page that day Daniel had a hole in the back of his head. After that, I don’t know. It made sense to me that it might work well. I like melancholy and characters with weighty histories. I fell in love with Daniel. But I fall in love with all my characters.
The narrator used to be a chaplain before he became a reanimation rehabilitation specialist. He says, “After so many years, I’d finally had enough of dying and decided to take out the middleman. Work a job in straight death. No ifs, ands, or buts. The work doesn’t seem any easier, but I don’t have to talk about God and his grace.” Then later, as a zombie caseworker, he says: “I’m not made out for this kind of work.” In many ways, he seems to be struggling with not only his faith in God, but also his faith in the ability to comfort and help others in the ways they need to be helped. How does the narrator view “progress” in the cases he handles, and how do you think your story speaks to the struggles we’re seeing today, like the homelessness you mentioned, and our capacity to offer aid?
I think the narrator is struggling to understand what progress is or looks like, but I think ultimately he would argue progress is equal to something like trauma plus time. I think he feels a futility about his cases and about the problems of his society. I think some of the struggles we see today feel hopeless for many people. The issues are complex and overwhelming, and as individuals, we struggle to see how we can help. I cannot disentangle my own interests from providing aid to others. Nor do I feel any authority to tell people how they should live, how they should process their pain and trauma, or how to properly care for those with addiction and mental health problems.
How long did it take you to write this story?
I believe I worked at this story off and on for two years. The story went through many drafts, many readings from family and friends, and many literary magazine rejections. Prior to the prize, I came very close to abandoning this story. Many times I worried that it was gimmicky, that I was a hack, etc. The same issues I think we all struggle with on a nearly hourly basis.
How was the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
On a financial level, the prize money has made a huge difference. Short stories don’t make a lot of money, and you spend years working on them. Having this money has helped me pay off credit card debt and stress a little less about pressing bills. The prize also gave me a huge confidence boost in my writing. Three incredibly talented judges read my story and responded to it, voted for it, argued for it, selected it. When the email came through I was on the bus. I cranked the Arcade Fire in my ears and cried. In the last three years, every wonderful, loving person in my life has suffered for my passion. They have dedicated time to talking me through stories. They have allowed me to be absent, spending countless hours in coffee shops. They have patiently spoken with a singularly-focused egotist who has, by the sheer will of his arrogance, convinced himself that his voice is important. My wife has committed herself to living with, at times, an absent-minded ghost with paper-thin skin and a constant need to have their craft skills reassured. Many suffer for the sake of my writing, and it is a debt I will never be able to repay. This prize is theirs.
What are you working on now?
I have a few short stories I am working on at the moment, as well as a novel, a dystopian thriller, full of the sort of lonely, melancholy I love to savor slowly.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
Literary magazines. Literary Magazines. Literary Magazines. Working for a university comes with the perks of having access to one of the greatest libraries ever to exist on this planet. However, on that salary, literary magazines are prohibitively expensive, so I read the magazines my university and public libraries hold and then I subscribe to two a year that I want to support financially. These magazines provide not only vital research and pleasure, but they are full of so many amazing writers. Can I name names? I’m gonna name names. Chris Drangle and Maria Adelmann . I originally found Chris Drangle’s story, “Ursa Major” in Epoch and then “Optimistic People” in One Story , and finally “A Local’s Guide to Dating in Slocomb County” in Oxford American , which later won him a Pushcart. I was so blown away by his work, I emailed Chris to tell him and also express my pre-published angst. Chris responded with the kindest, most humble, supportive email at a time when I needed to hear those things. I wrote Maria after I read her stories, “None of These Will Bring Disaster” ( Michigan Quarterly Review ), “Only the Good” ( Indiana Review ), and “The Wayside” ( Epoch ). Maria and I have since corresponded numerous times and she was so generous she spent an hour and a half on the phone mentoring me on MFAs, publishing, and finding an agent. And now, Maria has a novel, Aftermath , coming in 2019 from Little Brown that is going to make her a household name. These two beautiful souls treated me like a colleague long before I felt any right to consider myself one. Writing, especially when you’re first getting started, can be so lonely, so daunting and untouchable. Read literary magazines, email the authors whose work you love, tell them how their worked opened up your soul. They’d love to hear about it. You don’t have to wait to be published to be an active participant in this community.