Finite Paragraphs & “Golden Gloves”: Talking with David Huddle

Doug Carlson: When I read the typescript version of “Golden Gloves” for the first time, I confess I was most of the way through before I noticed something odd about its shape. And only after I looked back did I figure it out. Obviously I was more taken by the characters and what they were doing. But it raises an obvious question: would you talk about the format of the story? At what point did the section shapes emerge? Did form eventually guide the overall narrative, or did it influence your choices only at the sentence level?

David Huddle: Fairly early in composing the story I saw that some paragraphs were about the same length, and so I decided to try to make all of them six lines long (they ended up being four and a half lines long in the magazine). Once I made the commitment, I enjoyed the challenge of keeping the story moving while at the same time spending a lot of time tinkering the sentences to make each paragraph almost exactly the same size as all the others. The challenge, the difficulty, the pleasure is akin to that of writing syllabic poems or even writing in fixed forms like sonnets and villanelles—except that finite-paragraph discipline—as I came to call it—is slightly looser. I’m pretty sure my desire to write this way comes out of an obsessive-compulsive inclination on my part. All that tinkering slows me down, but it usually pulls me deeper into the moment I’m trying to make real with sentences. It’s a writing method that helps me concentrate and envision the scenes more clearly.

An example of how this discipline might affect a specific sentence is at the end of that first paragraph: The compactness of “But of course they weren’t and they didn’t” most likely came about because I needed to cut some words to make the sentence conform to the available amount of space. The resulting sentence conveys a quality of Hazel Hicks’s mind—she’s one for setting forth the facts succinctly, a no-nonsense girl. I wouldn’t have found that crisp little compound sentence if I hadn’t felt the line-length obligation.

Working within finite paragraphs is a labor intensive “writing trick.” A similar one I used thirty years ago in writing the stories in Only the Little Bone was to compose the story in present tense, then after I’d finished drafting it up, changing it into past tense. And this was back in the day of typewriters when revision brought with it the punishment of typing everything over again! The benefit of that method was that present tense brought forth all the details that make a story feel immediate, while past tense gives a story a “considered”—or slightly “tranquil” tone. I’d be the first to admit that both these “tricks” make writing harder rather than easier. They’re secrets I don’t mind revealing, because I doubt anybody would be fool enough to try them out.

DC: Since your book list is pretty evenly divided between two genres—by my count, 11 poetry collections and eight books of fiction—one might think that this versatility is somehow involved in writing a piece that resists categorizing. Were you thinking about genres as you worked on “Golden Gloves”? Are labels like “long narrative prose poem” or “flash-fiction hybrid” as unnecessary as they are silly?

DH: No, those labels don’t apply, and I wouldn’t wish my reader to consider “Golden Gloves” anything other than a traditional short story. I do think the prose has a slightly heightened cadence because of the strict march of its paragraphs toward a conclusion. But I’d prefer that my reader not be distracted by anything that is a result of my peculiar method of composing the story. I once read an interview with John Updike in which he said that he always tried to put at least one very short sentence in his paragraphs. That makes a whole lot more sense than trying to make all your paragraphs the same length, but both self-assignments are nothing the writer especially wants to a reader to notice. The reader who sees what the writer has done will not understand the story any better than the reader who doesn’t.

DC: You’ve listed Flannery O’Connor as one of the influences on your fiction, and the disturbing character of Ace Lucas is a good example. Is it fair to say that rural western Virginia (your roots) and small-town Georgia share cultural traits that contribute to similar approaches?

That’s a fair statement, yes, but it doesn’t apply to “Golden Gloves,” which is set in Burlington, Vermont, where I’ve lived for the past 32 years. Ace Lucas was a boxer whom I saw fight in a Golden Gloves match in Burlington probably 20 years ago, and I seem to remember that at one point in the match he dropped his gloves, stood still, taunted his opponent, and let the man punch his face bloody. Ace would probably be comfortable in a Flannery O’Connor story—though I’d not made the connection until trying to answer this question. But it’s Hazel who brings an O’Connor consciousness to the surface of the narrative: “She shivered with the thought that maybe it had been a kind of religious experience. Hazel had always hated the crucifixion story, because of its crazy violence. She couldn’t place herself anywhere in it, not as Jesus or a soldier or somebody in the crowd or God or Pontius Pilate.” I should say that I composed “Golden Gloves” maybe a year after giving a talk on O’Connor in Milledgeville and visiting Andalusia on a sunny afternoon. I didn’t think about Flannery O’Connor or her work while I was writing, but from the beginning she’s probably had a little say in just about everything I’ve written.

DC: You once wrote that employing speculation is “the most thrilling experience available to an artist.” Can you reveal how that worked for you in the composition of “Golden Gloves” as the story moves toward an understanding of its characters?

DH: Speculation and empathy were what I most depended on in imagining a fifteen-year-old girl’s thoughts, feelings, and observations at an event I’d experienced as fifty-year-old man. Writing across gender can reveal one’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the other sex, and it’s especially risky for a male to write from the point of view of a female character. I’m grateful to the character of Hazel Hicks for granting me access to her interior life in this story. In the last paragraph I realized that Hazel sensed Felton wanting to sit back down beside her again; though it was a small thing, it gave me a little shiver to imagine I was that close to the thinking and feeling someone so different from me. I liked Hazel in this story, and I liked believing that I’d mostly “gotten her right.”

 

 

Doug Carlson joined the Review staff in January 2007 and works primarily in manuscript evaluation and nonfiction editing. He also oversees the intern program. Carlson's essays on natural and cultural history have appeared frequently in magazines and journals as well as in several anthologies, including A Place Apart (W. W. Norton) and The Sacred Place (University of Utah Press). His work has been collected in two books: At the Edge (White Pine Press) and When We Say We’re Home (University of Utah Press). His most recent book, Roger Tory Peterson: A Biography, was published by the University of Texas Press in 2007. Before coming to the Review, Carlson was visiting writer-in-residence at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is currently a member of the UGA Press Faculty Editorial Board and has served in editorial or advisory capacities for Ascent magazine, White Pine Press, and New Rivers Press.