Hot? Yeah, so are we. Luckily, our August web exclusive is the short fiction equivalent of diving headlong down a Slip ‘n Slide: a brief-yet-exhilarating trip that’s guaranteed* to lower your core temperature a degree or two. With snow, glaciers, and a cameo by South Pole-navigating Sir Ernest Shackleton, “The Unicorns ” by Alexander Lumans is no-holds-barred fun and all kinds of cool. So go on, dive in, read “The Unicorns” on the ASF website . Plus, learn the story behind the story in our interview with the author, below.
MO: Tell us about the genesis of “The Unicorns.” Where did the idea for the story come from and what kind of evolution did it go through to get to us?
AL: The story is the result of several models, exercises, and images that all happened to coalesce at once: a Donald Barthelme story, a picture from Hayden’s Ferry Review of a satellite dish, my secret love for all things Ernest Shackleton, and my not-so-secret preoccupation with animals. But instead of just taking those elements as they’re already well understood, I wanted to turn them on all on their heads. Maybe it all started because I couldn’t picture a unicorn saying “Fucking” without laughing. I still can’t. I knew after I’d written that line that I had something worth building on. I just had a lot of fun writing the whole thing, seeing how bizarre it could get, following the logic of the absurd.
The writing itself was an experiment in trying to compose a corkscrewing sequence of prose, as opposed to more linear step-by-step stuff I’ve done in the past. I’m amazed by writers who can do that so well. I just read Tony Earley’s “The Prophet from Jupiter” for the first time a few days ago and it does exactly that. Each paragraph is about every character, over and over again, changing, rather than one paragraph about one character and then moving on to the next character in the next paragraph. It makes the story even more unpredictable because the sentences are unpredictable. The drafts “The Unicorns” went through each had to upgrade and downplay certain details until it wasn’t so scattered as to seem unreadable or unconnected. The more I repeated certain rhymes of images (the terns, the narwhals, the board games, etc.) the more they kept turning and tightening the story’s screws.
MO: Where did you write this story? Please say the South Pole.
AL: Alas, I have not visited the South Pole. Not yet. It’s on my list of things to do. But I have visited a pub owned by one of Shackleton’s officers (Tom Crean) who went with him on the disastrous Endurance expedition. It’s in County Kerry, Ireland. Crean never actually made it to the South Pole, but he named his pub the South Pole Inn so that in his retirement he could go to work at the South Pole every day. So, if I never actually make it to the Antarctic, I at least now know what my backup plan is.
MO: Explorers like Shackleton wanted nothing more than to experience for themselves the uncharted corners (er, poles) of the globe—and they were willing to risk life and limb to do it. Writers may rank somewhere below unicorns in their orienteering skills, but I wonder if there aren’t some parallels between what a fiction writer sets out to do in imagining a story and an explorer’s quest. A similar spirit of discovery, I guess. What do you think? Does your writing process ever feel like a journey into unknown lands?
AL: Absolutely. It’s no coincidence that the best stories are about some sort of quest because the acts of writing and seeking are so similar, streaming from practically the same water source. They are both in search of the new. If I’m not surprised by anything I’m writing, then I’m not interested, and if I’m not interested, then I need to start walking in a new direction. And through the process of writing a story, even as you’re coming up with new things, you’re also becoming far more familiar with the territory. The trick is not to get so comfortable that you become complacent or less alert of your surroundings because then you’ve stopped considering the what ifs. I want to keep investigating a place for its secrets.
I’ve always put major emphasis on my settings. They’re the keys to what can possibly happen in stories. Natural disasters, local industry, flora and fauna. I always end up performing a lot of research on different environments because it usually yields up something unique about that place that’s worth harvesting for my story. But at some point you also have to depart from the known. Some of my favorite places in fiction (Blood Meridian’s 1850 Mexico, Serena’s 1929 logging camp, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, World War Z’s future zombie war) adhere in many, many ways to the strict physics of their settings, but they also find ways to expand the reader’s understanding of that setting by bringing in surprise cells.
MO: OK, so who would win in a fight: a good unicorn or a bad unicorn? I bet bad unicorns could throw a mean snowball.
AL: You know, I would want the bad unicorns to win. I could see them starting out like longhorn rams and going toe-to-toe for a while. But a unicorn’s one of the ultimate symbols of purity and grace—combine that with an evil streak and you’re pretty difficult to beat. Besides throwing a mean snowball, I imagine they’d throw an even meaner victory party. All the tern you could eat!
MO: What are you working on now? Where else can we find your writing?
AL: I’m close to completing my first short story collection, and I’ve also been flirting heavily with different novel ideas. I’ll be at the MacDowell Colony this fall for two months, so hopefully I’ll be able to stick with one there. I have stories recently out in The Journal, The Yalobusha Review, and Prime Numbers. And I have stories forthcoming from The Normal School and two anthologies: Surreal South 2011 and The Book of Villains.
*OK, we can’t actually promise anything. But reading this story with an icy-cold beverage in hand? Instant happiness. And how.