In our January web exclusive story “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” a pair of loving parents (clowns, by trade) explain how they raised their son in order to try and make sense of his very troubling decision—a decision whose implications seem to depend entirely on the reader’s point of view. It’s a story that prompts an endless number of questions, so we were thrilled to have the chance to ask them of author Siân Griffiths.
Erin McReynolds: This story supposes an alternate present—or a plausible near-future—in which Congress passes a bill that places the key to the nuclear bomb inside a human volunteer’s heart. The president, in order to launch a nuclear attack, would have to personally end the life of a human being. I don’t even know where to start asking the questions I want to ask you. For one thing, when did this idea first come to you?
Siân Griffiths: I first heard about it as a thought experiment on a podcast… I’m trying to remember if it was This American Life or Radio Lab. It’s one of those hypothetical questions that illustrates how much more difficult murder is for us in our immediate experience than it is in the abstract. The idea really hit home for me, and I knew I wanted to write about it, though it probably took another year to figure out how to shape it into a story.
EM: Did you grow up up with Cold War terror movies like Testament and The Day After? Our generation’s childhoods were haunted—despite all the jubilant neon and Madonna and hairspray—by this constant, intense hum of nuclear fear. Are you feeling it re-ignited lately?
SG: Absolutely. I don’t think I even realized how deeply my childhood was steeped in nuclear fear until maybe ten years ago when I first rented Donnie Darko. That movie really captured the 1980s’ odd and constant sense of threat, the sense that you could die at any moment for reasons that were opaque and political and had nothing to do with you. I remember hearing people say things like, “Well, who cares what I do because they’ll drop the bomb and none of it will matter,” and I remember being taught all kinds of strange things about the Soviet Union and East Germany in elementary school. Some of the information was accurate, but a lot was distorted. I remember learning that, under Communism, the Soviet government picked everyone’s jobs for them and no one got any money and so they ate nothing but cabbage and moldy potatoes, and every phone was tapped so if someone voiced even a peep of discontent, the police came and the person was banished to Siberia, etc, etc, etc. (Do you remember the mini-series Amerika, about a Soviet take-over of the US? So much paranoia.) If you dug around, you found roots of truth in these stories, but things got magnified and exaggerated until it was difficult to separate myth from fact. The current political climate definitely reminds me of that—especially of the way fear can be wielded by those with a microphone as a tool of totalitarianism and mass control.
EM: I don’t remember Amerika, but I was terrified by Red Dawn. Which was its own form of propaganda: “Hey kids, the Soviets are going to cage your dads and shoot Charlie Sheen!” I seem to be asking some form of this question a lot lately, but what do you think is the role of the fiction writer in a world where propaganda is our constant companion?
SG: I wrestle with that question all the time, and lately it’s really been in the forefront of my mind. On the one hand, my graduate education really focused on the way fiction “lies to tell the truth,” and I hold that notion as pretty sacred, but also more complex than we ever talked about in the classes I had.
Right now we’re hitting a high water mark for fake news. If that weren’t bad enough, it’s clear that Trump is creating a “reality” in his own image rather than looking to any sort of objective facts. I’ve never seen a figure so willing to be presented with video of himself saying some heinous thing only to turn directly back to a reporter and say, “I never said that.” How do you respond? And why are so many people willing to blindly agree? It’s bizarre. He would be the ultimate fiction writer, but instead of lying to tell the truth, he’s lying to create false realities that manipulate. The ethics of fiction writing demand something else from us, something that’s as convincing but truer.
So there’s that. Mixed into this idea of fiction’s ethical standards, though, is my inherent distrust of the didactic. I don’t like being told what to believe and I don’t think most readers do, either. What’s more, I distrust the idea that there is a single truth. Which gets me to the pretty part of “pretty sacred and complex,” because how can we lie to tell the truth if there is no single truth? If the only truth we have is one subjective understanding of more objective facts, or rather, the multiplicity of our characters’ subjective truths and our readers’ subjective truths, then the idea of “the truth” gets murky really quickly.
Yet I still believe writing should serve a purpose. The last thing I want is for someone to read my work and wonder why they bothered. At the same time, I don’t think I’m some great Knower of Things who must bestow my holy wisdom. Ultimately I’ve settled on the idea that my job is to ask the questions that obsess me by putting them into play in some kind of dramatic situation.
EM: It would be a huge act of wisdom, maturity, and thoughtfulness for Congress to say that we must be willing to bloody our hands literally if we are to do it figuratively. Does it strike you as the most fantastical element of this story, a Congress like this? What will it take to get there?
SG: I think you hit the nail on the head. I’m not sure I can actually see us getting there. It would take an extreme will of the people, and I’m not sure we share that will. There’s something so abhorrent of the idea of that individual murder, that I don’t think our Congress or the American people would condone it, even as a stop against nuclear war—which, of course, is what makes it such an interesting thought experiment.
Also, I suspect there’s a weird class-ism inherent in this resistance as well. . . like we expect our president in his tailored suit to be too gentlemanly to be brutal, though we have given him the power to enact brutality. We don’t want blood in the White House, even though we’re okay with war starting there, with the Commander in Chief. We foist the dirty work off on our soldiers, who are usually young kids, often from difficult circumstances, and we promise them college and future prosperity in return for unquestioning obedience. It’s pretty messed up. I teach a lot of veterans now, and the stories they tell of their experiences break my heart.
EM: The narrating “we”—and the big, beating heart of this story—is a couple of loving parents who are clowns by trade. How would you describe the life they’ve chosen and their ethics, in contrast to their son, who baffles them?
SG: The parents have chosen to swap financial prowess for the chance to make people smile, whereas their son’s value system is roughly the reverse, though he might come around if given enough time.
EM: It seems you’ve nailed a common theme for parents: the struggle to understand and accept and support their kids, even if they couldn’t be less alike. On the one hand, the key-bearer’s parents are sweetly naïve; on the other, they’re just trying to be evolved and progressive, to do the best they can. How would you want these parents judged by their society?
SG: I have two children myself, and so I know the struggle personally. There’s so much pressure that comes from the outside, telling you how and what to do. I feel like there’s always a new article on how you should raise your children, and if parents make a choice for their child that’s different from their friends, then there’s immediately this weird corrective pressure.
There’s part of me that wishes that these parents are not judged by their society. The camps, the lessons, the private school—these all suggest to me that they have been almost enslaved to white, middle-class parenting norms, none of which made their child a better person. At the end of the day, he makes his own decision. It’s one they fret over but are powerless to prevent. He’s a grown man, and they’ve done all they could to save him.
That said, when the voice for the story first came to me, what I heard in it first was that expectation that they would be judged, and their urgent pleading for the judgment to be light. Whether they are or not, they certainly feel responsible.
EM: The choice to be the key-bearer is so rich with implications. The act ought to be considered one of self-sacrifice, of peaceful protest: If you want to use nuclear missiles, you’ll have to go through me, first. But you’re set for life—wealthy and treated like royalty. It reminds me of reality TV stars; people volunteering to be used and discarded in exchange for money and fame (only lucky enough to endure in extremely rare instances). Are we to see his choice as heroic or cynical?
SG: As much as I relate to the parents, I also relate to the teenager/early adult who was angry without any real cause. I definitely did my own share of being an asshole at that age. I don’t think the key bearer really thinks he’s going to die, though I imagine he sees his role as tremendously important. For me, he embodies the kind of entitlement that might accidentally be encouraged by giving your child everything he wants—but saying that implies the exact kind of parental judgment I said I wanted to avoid.
It’d be interesting to think about what this story would be like from his point of view. I picture him as too self-serving to be heroic, but he might surprise me.
I love your tie to reality TV stars, by the way. There’s something going on in the common culture there. I don’t know if I thought a lot in this story about how celebrity worship might influence his choices—but it’s definitely something at the heart of a longer story I’ve been working on, and I wonder if the idea bled in. I imagine that the nation’s first key bearer would definitely earn a spot in the history books.
EM: I would love to see this from his point of view! I’d also love to see how a key-bearer would enjoy a form of celebrity. The possibilities are endless with this one, as are the good questions. Would you be interested in expanding this into a novel?
SG: Maybe! I actually started toying with this idea a week or so ago. Who knows what the future might hold? It would certainly be fun to play it out.
Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Ninth Letter, Redivider, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Quarterly West, and The Rumpus, among other publications. Her short fiction has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, once by Versal and once by The Georgia Review, and her debut novel, Borrowed Horses (New Rivers Press), was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at Barrelhouse. For more information, visit sbgriffiths.com.