This month, our online fiction came from Keith Lesmeister, whose tight fist of a story “Imaginary Enemies” clocks in at a trim 965 words. That’s less than half of the 2,000 word maximum we here at ASF have imposed on our web fiction. That cap exists, in part, because we know that great stories come in all sizes and that the web—for all of its faults and all of its cat videos—is a particularly good venue for short work. Still, it’d be a mistake to think that any story, regardless of length, pops into the world fully formed from an author’s head. As Lesmeister told us in this recent interview, the process of writing a 965-word story is, at least for him, more like Michelangelo chipping away at that block of marble until the David within came into view. Whatever his process, the short form seems to suit him; Lesmeister recently kicked off Tin House‘s Flash Fidelity series, which features nonfiction pieces of 1,000 words or less. Whatever the genre and whatever the length, Lesmeister’s prose punches you right in the nose—in, you know, a good way. He emailed with us from his home in Iowa.
Nate Brown: “Imaginary Enemies” functions as a study in contrasts between our unnamed narrator and a guy named Elbow, who is both the narrator’s brother-in-law and a Marine combat veteran recently back from Iraq. Did you set out to write a story of such enormous contrasts or did it develop more organically than that?
Keith Lesmeister: It definitely happened on its own. The first drafts of this story featured Elbow, the narrator, and several adult characters who contrasted with Elbow. The more I wrote—the original drafts were much longer—the more I realized this was about Elbow and the narrator.
NB: We’ve seen a good deal of writing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including domestic work that explores the home turf of characters returning from war. Why do you think, 11 years after first invading Iraq, stories about the wars and the effects of these wars still resonate with readers?
KL: This is a great question, and I’m not so sure I have the answer. What I do think is that it takes a lot of time to process the effects of war and Military service in general. I know of former Military-people who served in Vietnam and they still suffer from PTSD. Their experience in war has had a life-long impact. With regard to Iraq and Afghanistan, I think that recent studies and research dedicated to returning soldiers is deeply profound and felt, and when that new information is shared, such as suicide rates among war veterans, it garners a lot of news and media attention. But those studies take time to develop which is partly why eleven years later we’re now seeing art and literature reflect some of the trauma soldiers are enduring after coming home.
Let me add to that by saying that I think it takes a good deal of time and energy for writers to fully develop a war narrative. I’m thinking about books I’ve heard a great deal about, but have yet to read: Jen Percy’s new book “Demon Camp” or Kevin Power’s book “The Yellow Birds.” Again, I have yet to read either, but they’ve both been celebrated for their honesty and vision and research, and their close, in-depth look at war and its effects. I think it takes a lot of time to construct a convincing, sensitive narrative in general, but especially as it relates to war.
NB: We’re not fully aware of the family logistics at play in the story. We know Elbow and the narrator are brothers-in-law and that Jack is mutually their nephew. So, there’s a third sibling (other than Elbow’s wife and the narrator’s wife, neither of whom we see in the story) who is Jack’s parent. In a story about major disparities in values and experience within a single family, what led you to the decision to only include Elbow, Jack, and the unnamed narrator? It’s a very limited view of what seems to be a larger and presumably more complicated family situation.
KL: As mentioned, the first drafts of this story were much longer, with several involved characters—the other adults and relatives you mentioned—and lengthy dialogue about guns and ammo and politics, and those early drafts felt stuffy and heavy-handed. It sounded more like a political debate, and that just didn’t feel right for the story. Also, in those early drafts, Jack wasn’t a major character. He slinked around the edges, playing with birthday gifts. At some point, I decided to drop the other adults and focus on Elbow and the narrator. Even then I wasn’t sure how to fully realize their differences. Then Jack came to life. When that happened, the rest of the story fell into place.
NB: That’s interesting because Jack is totally present in this version. He’s completely on board with the toy guns in the story, and Elbow sort of takes him under his wing when playing with the guns. When Elbow encourages Jack to “do the deed” by shooting the narrator in that final scene, it’s both funny and terribly dark—and that darkness resonates far beyond the borders of that limited game. Elbow is, essentially, calling the narrator out for being weak even as he’s encouraging Jack to be more aggressive, and the reader gets the sense that what’s taking place says a lot about how Elbow feels about his family and civilian life more broadly. Can you tell us a little about what you think Elbow is trying to accomplish by encouraging Jack to shoot the narrator?
KL: It is certainly more than a game at this point. My take on Elbow is that he doesn’t dislike his in-laws as much as he dislikes their smug attitudes, the way they shake their head at his gifts and position themselves in a different room when he’s around. And I’m not convinced that Elbow dislikes the narrator, but rather finds him weak for not sticking up for his beliefs. Elbow lives, or lived, in a world in which self-doubt could cause a person harm or death. And some of that belief system is still working on him in significant ways. So when he encourages Jack to shoot the narrator, it is a comic move, but deeply imbedded in Elbow’s motivation is this notion that weakness will kill you. And throughout the story the narrator has been perceived by Elbow to be weak.
NB: Right, we see—in explicit terms and implicit ways—that Elbow thinks the narrator is … inadequate. The narrator tells us that he shops at a food co-op and that he voted for Obama, and we clearly see his discomfort with the discord between himself and Elbow throughout the story. But we also learn that the narrator works with his hands, that he’s working to retrofit older homes to be more energy efficient, which doesn’t seem at all like something to be ashamed of, and yet he seems reluctant to get into it with Elbow. He doesn’t even respond when Elbow calls it “feel good” work and punches him on the arm. He even wonders what Elbow would think of the cake he eats back at the house, as if the cake itself is so effete as to be emasculating. Why is the narrator so concerned about how Elbow sees him?
KL: I agree with you that the narrator’s line of work is very much a worthy effort. The significance here is that both men are serving, or have served, their country: one in the Military, the other through a branch of the Americorps. I think, at the heart of this, the narrator is terribly insecure and Elbow simply is not. And when the narrator is around someone with such a strong personality and such strongly felt beliefs, like Elbow, he feels that his character and decisions and beliefs are called into question. While the narrator also believes whole-heartedly in the work he’s pursing—as he should—being around Elbow causes him this self-doubt.
Keith Lesmeister was born in North Carolina and raised in Iowa. An MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars, his stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Meridian, River Teeth, Midwestern Gothic, and Monkeybicycle, among other publications.