This week the Review caught up with contributor Peter Fish, whose story “Lull Lane”—a 2019 fiction finalist in the Review’s Summer Fiction and Poetry Contest—appeared in the Spring 2020 issue. In this micro-interview, we asked Fish about the advantages of a Bildungsroman short story, developing narratorial awareness, and the genesis of “Lull Lane.”
—Hellen Wainaina, Assistant Editor
SR: “Lull Lane” is incredibly tactile in its construction of the lives of children, particularly that of our narrator, Dwight. It concerns itself with the different types of education: experiential, formal in-class learning, and self-directed. Dwight at one-point notes, “One thing I’d learned from attending three schools in three years: you went for a follower. Give the leader someone else weak to hate.” Such education (self- and otherwise) brings to mind the tradition of Bildungsroman. What’s the advantage of approaching aspects of the Bildungsroman in a short story? What does such compression allow and what does it restrict?
PF: Part of me thinks that Bildungsroman is too fancy a term to use for a story about a kid in 1960s Southern California—especially when it’s a term I associate with classics like Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education or James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But “Lull Lane” is a story about a boy discovering—then to an extent accepting—the world he finds himself in, so I guess the description fits.
What I wanted to do in telling Dwight’s story is capture the loony, obsessive passions—here, a love for astronomy—we’re capable of at Dwight’s age, passions that push us out to explore the big world. At the same time, I wanted to show the process by which we come to understand that the world is more complicated and troubled than we imagined. The pleasure and challenges of presenting these things in a short story are parallel to the pleasures and challenges of doing anything in a short story. Space is tight, you try to accomplish much with little. To borrow an aviation metaphor, you don’t have a very long runway. You hope each moment and each detail is the right one, and that they will come together to create a story with velocity that will linger in the reader’s mind.
The disadvantages of a Bildungsroman short story are the opposites of the above. In a short space you can only reveal part of your character’s journey. By the end of A Portrait of the Artist, you know Stephen Dedalus so intimately, and you know his family and Dublin and Ireland intimately. I can’t imagine accomplishing that in a short story. Although, come to think of it, Alice Munro regularly does, in stories like “The Turkey Season” and “Family Furnishings.” But she’s a genius.
SR: As a narrator, Dwight is observant, and his attention is generous and acute, as in “What I am saying is our parents were enthralled by the trapeze act of their own lives and paid only polite attention to ours” or “[Mrs. Corrigan] was petite and birdlike and fretful: her husband was at Camp Pendleton, waiting to be sent to war.” Why did you imbue Dwight such a larger-than-life awareness?
PF: For me, in a first-person short story, the most essential task is to capture the narrator’s voice. If you don’t have that, nothing will work. If you do have that, things usually fall into place. I was happy when I felt I had gotten Dwight’s voice. He is quiet, a little bit of a loner, a little wrapped up in himself—but, as you say, observant. Yet you’re right that as Dwight tells his story, his awareness—or at least the language he uses to express his awareness—is more sophisticated than it probably would be for a boy his age.
My explanation: there are a couple of places where I hint that Dwight is, in part, telling the story from some point in his future. The opening line, “For a while we lived on Lull Lane,” indicates that time has passed, that the Lull Lane chapter of Dwight’s life is over, that he has moved on. And, near the end, when Donn reassures Dwight, saying “You’ll be fine,” Dwight tells us, “It was strange how fiercely I clung to that judgment over the next few years.” Again, he’s looking back. I guess I wanted to have it both ways—for the story to possess the immediacy and vividness and energy of a boy’s experience, but also be shaded, lightly, by the recollections of an older Dwight.
SR: This story came to us through the Review’s Annual Fiction and Poetry Contest. Can you tell us a bit about its genesis? In the time between submitting this story and its publication in magazine, what has the story revealed to you since you first conceived of and then submitted it?
PF: “Lull Lane” had a long genesis and a short one. First, the long one. As a writer, I’m very influenced by place. Maybe it’s because I worked for many years as a travel magazine editor and writer. There was a period in my life when I regularly flew in and out of Los Angeles’s Burbank Airport for business. One afternoon when I was attempting to find the airport rental car return lot, I made a wrong turn and ended up on Lull Street. It was a small, dead-end street lined with unassuming houses. But there was something about the contrast between the soothing street name and the overpowering cacophony of jets taking off and landing at the airport a block away that stayed with me. For years. I found myself thinking, I’d like to write a story about that place. Who would live there? What would they do?
A couple of years ago, space opened up in my mind. The first line came to me. “For a while, we lived on Lull Lane.” I changed street to lane because I liked the alliteration. After that, the story unfolded. There would be a boy. He and his family would be new arrivals to California, to Lull Lane. This would be in the past, in the 1960s, when Los Angeles and California shone with the promise of new starts. Burbank was a center of the aviation industry—maybe the boy’s father was an aerospace engineer. Maybe the boy, too, would become fascinated with the sky. And so on. I am not usually a fast writer—I worry, I revise, I second-guess—but this time I was fast. The story was a gift, as was its acceptance by the Sewanee Review.