From Our Authors | April 03, 2018

John Fulton’s story “Box of Watches” depicts a grandson and his dying grandfather who are suddenly faced with the possibility that they will be victims of gun violence. You can read the story hereTMR intern Allyson Sherwin recently discussed the elements of a good short story, the portrayal of the unconventional family dynamic, and “Box of Watches.”

Allyson Sherwin: Your short story “Box of Watches” features two marginal characters, a dying old man who runs a pawn shop, and his grandson, who lives above the shop with him and is his caregiver. Their relationship is occasionally tumultuous, but the grandson chooses to look after his ailing grandfather instead of finishing his college degree. What does their relationship say about the nature of the family unit?

John Fulton: My fiction has always been interested in family units that don’t fit the mold. In some senses, this is a story about the failure of the traditional family unit and the success of an unconventional one, between a very old grandfather and a young grandson. While there is certainly mothering going on, this family lacks a female, just as it lacks a recognizable home, which, in this case, is a pawnshop in a rough neighborhood. Yet A. J. and Shaun eat family meals together and share bedtime reading (at least, in the early years). The story is Dickensian in its extreme situation: a small boy is dropped off by his mother at his grandfather’s pawnshop. She promises to return but never does. But, as in Dickens, true kinship and care are found in unlikely places.

Allyson Sherwin: The grandfather and grandson relationship in this piece is unusual because the grandson is playing the role of the caregiver. Why did you choose to depict this type of relationship?

John Fulton: Caregivers have always fascinated me. They have the toughest, most indispensable, and ultimately most thankless role. While it’s not entirely selfless, no one can be very selfish and do it well. It’s exhausting. A parent loves and protects, but her final aim is to relinquish control and facilitate independence. That’s a counterintuitive and contradictory endpoint. What made the story interesting to tell wasn’t just that Shaun, a young adult who’d rather be with his peers experiencing the rites and initiations of the college experience, is having to nurse and ease his aging grandfather toward death. It was also that their roles are now reversed. Initially, as a young boy, Shaun is the troubled ward who wants his mother back and resents his grandfather for taking on her role. Now, in the story present, A. J. is the unwilling dependent, angry about the large and small humiliations of the body and the vulnerability of dying slowly.

Allyson Sherwin: When an addict enters the shop with a gun, both characters are faced with the possibility of death and react in different ways. The last line of the story seems to indicate that both grandson and grandfather are shaken when confronted with the possibility of finality. What do you think their different reactions reveal?

John Fulton: Often, when I’m working on a story and developing my characters, I think of something that Charles Baxter talks about in his essay “Counterpointed Characterization.” He talks about the masks that characters wear and the telling moment when those masks come down to reveal something as yet unseen in a story. The idea of a mask is an interesting metaphor for all the roles that we play, all the identities that we put on for different purposes. And while it’s hard to say if there is something essential beneath these masks, something more true about a person or character waiting to be shown, I think there’s a certain drama in removing a mask. A. J. is a fairly old-world and conventional man. He handles his disease and impending death with a tough-guy pretense. He sees this hold-up as a chance to end his life and suffering. But when death doesn’t come, his insistence that he wasn’t afraid is, of course, a kind of admission that he was and is terrified. Shaun is also terrified, but he’s going along with his grandfather’s game even as he helps him light a cigarette. The final gesture is a simple grasping of hands, and both characters are shaking. I suppose what we see (and they see) in their denial of fear is a vulnerability that they can’t quite acknowledge even as they need to find a way to comfort each other. When the masks come off, they’re both holding on to the other, both looking for care.

Allyson Sherwin: You have published a novel, More Than Enough. Is that the only work of long-form fiction you’ve written? What do you think short stories accomplish that longer narratives cannot?

John Fulton: The conventional answer is that stories work by getting drama and interest out of compression and distillation. You focus, look closely at a few characters in a certain situation. The reader imbibes it in one sitting and, if it’s really good, is bowled over. I think of Poe’s single-effect theory. Stories do much less than a novel, but they do it much more intensely. In my own experience, you have to know a lot more about your characters when you’re writing a novel. Development, heightening of tension, extending points of interest are all challenges here. It’s very easy to become repetitive over hundreds of pages. There aren’t a lot of writers who are equally good at both forms. (Henry James comes immediately to mind.) It’s also not very hard to contradict all that I’ve just said. Nicholson Baker writes his novels like short stories (Vox is all one phone conversation and The Mezzanine takes place in the seconds it takes the protagonist to complete an escalator ride), while Alice Munro finds room in her stories for the entire lives of her characters. My own favorite form, both as a reader and writer, is the orphaned and forgotten novella. But it’s hard to find readers for them. Journals don’t like novellas because they’re too long and book publishers don’t like them because they’re too short. But they have the compression and intensity of the short story and the sweep and development of the novel. In fact, I’ve written several novellas. I’ve also written a few other novels, aside from More Than Enough, though they remain in the drawer for now. Most of my work does. On occasion, I go through the shelved projects and often see what one of them needs, take it up again, and finish it. That’s a wonderful experience when it happens.

Allyson Sherwin: What are you working on right now?

John Fulton: A novel, of course. I’ve also been working on a linked short-story collection when taking breaks from the novel. Both projects are focused on the late Cold War, the Reagan and Clinton eras, and on the “culture wars” between right and left in this country. I’m particularly interested in the religious right, which doesn’t get a lot of play in literary fiction. And since this conflict more or less played itself out in my own home, the material is also personal.