David Means, Defender Of The Short Story, On His 'Instructions For A Funeral'

Mar 6, 2019
Originally published on March 6, 2019 5:40 pm

David Means is an enthusiast, and a defender, of the short story. As he once said, "We don't tell novels at the kitchen table."

"Of course, that's sort of a sales pitch for the short story form," Means says in an interview. "But I really believe that they're really usually, at the core, relatively simple. You know: This happened, and then this happened."

He says you "can't just stretch" a short story to make a novel. His new collection, his fifth, is called Instructions for a Funeral.

It includes a wide range of characters, times and locations — from a 1930s FBI sting to an exploration of how Raymond Carver and Kurt Cobain may intersect. Quite a few deal with the tensions and joys of family (he's the father of twins, now adults).

Right from the start, the collection raises questions. Is the first story, "Confessions," meant as an author's note to introduce the book — or is it the voice of another character altogether?

"Both, I think?" he says. "I don't really believe it's me, but I did realize that it sounds like it could be me, so I'm being cagey. I'm going to hedge my bets and say it's not me, but it's sort of me."


Interview Highlights

On the line that each story is "a particular expression of an axe I must grind"

The energy for telling a story: It comes from things that bother us, or the things that are causing pain. And we tell each other stories, and we tell ourselves stories, and they come out of moments of, usually, anguish and problems.

On "the best part, knowing that you'll be betrayed by the reader"

Yeah, because you write a story, and then you know that it's actually taking place in the reader's mind. The reader does most of the work. The reader does all of the imagining. You're just giving them a set of instructions on how to hear and see something. And I love that. I love the fact that I'm going to write a story, and it's going to go out there, and I'm not really in control. I think it feels good. ... [It is a] betrayal because the thing that I wrote, I thought I had a complete understanding of it. The betrayal comes from the sense that the reader is going to take something else from it.

On "The Chair," a story about parenthood

I was at home for a number of years as an at-home father. I think the whole process of being at home with the kids — and all that hairbrushing and all of the little needs — I had to wait a few years before I could process it all, and have enough distance to see what was really going on at the time, or at least to imagine what was going on at the time. ... How much discipline do I give? How much freedom do I give? What happens if I don't give them enough freedom to learn what they need to learn in how to navigate the world? You know, all of those complex things that are going on in a parent's mind — the minute-by-minute, you know, on-the-ground parenting thing. ...

Well, my father died about three years ago, and then my mother died in October. ... When my father died, I felt this grief, but also this release, as a storyteller, to maybe go into material that covered the parenting ground. So I think part of the fact that I'm going back to the parenting — you know, to being a younger parent — is that my father died. Everything shifts and you reassess everything from a totally new perspective, and you realize that your parents, for all of their faults, did this incredible job in just getting you through to where you are now.

On the title Instructions for a Funeral, and the story with the same name

Means: Well, that actually came because I was walking around, always sort of thinking ... after my dad's funeral, I was thinking, you know: What do I want at my funeral? The story has nothing to do with that really, but I took that energy, that narrative energy, and I used it to write a story.

Cornish: And actually kind of a funny story, listening to the character with his bulleted list of what he wants.

Means: He's in a protective mode, and he's defending himself, and he's trying to control the narrative that might come if he ever gets killed, and there's a sort of feeling that he might, because he's been involved with the mafia. So it's a funny dynamic.

Cornish: I think we all do that, right? You don't have to be a character in a book who's dealing with the mafia to feel like you're trying to be in control of your narrative.

Means: At some level, we should be at least aware that we are going to die. And I think we stop every now and then — at least some of us do — and reassess, and say, "OK, what have I done with my life?" And: "What kind of narrative is going to be told when I'm gone?"

Cornish: How are you feeling so far about yours?

Means: I have mixed reviews, I think.

Cornish: That's a perfect answer.

Means: Three stars, I think so far? I'm shooting for five stars, but no one can do that.

Art Silverman and Justine Kenin produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Writer David Means is a defender and enthusiast of the short story. He says you can't just stretch one out to make a novel. His new collection of stories, his fifth, is called "Instructions For A Funeral." It includes a wide range of characters, times and locations from a 1930s FBI sting in Kansas to an exploration of how Raymond Carver and Kurt Cobain may intersect. And quite a few deal with the tensions and joys of family.

When we spoke, I asked David Means about the first story, called "Confessions," and whether it was meant as the author's note to introduce the book or if it was the voice of another character altogether.

DAVID MEANS: Both I think. I think - I don't really believe it's me, but I did realize that it sounds like it could be me. So I'm being cagey. I'm going to hedge my bets and say it's not me, but it's also sort of me.

CORNISH: Well, either way, it's a writer, and he says some interesting things. And one of the things he says is that each story is an expression of a particular axe I must grind...

MEANS: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Which really is a confession. I talk to so many authors who say, like, this is not about me; these are the characters.

MEANS: You know, this energy for telling a story comes from things that bother us or the things that are causing pain. And we tell each other stories, and we tell ourselves stories. And they come out of moments of usually anguish and problems.

CORNISH: A lot of these stories in "Instructions For A Funeral" have to do with fatherhood.

MEANS: Yes.

CORNISH: Where are you now in your fatherhood journey, so to speak? You said that you were raising twins.

MEANS: Now I'm in the whatever - stage B. That's when they're out of college. My daughter's getting married in May. And I'm finding that parenting just doesn't end. It shifts gears, and it changes forms, but your parental duties are just always there.

CORNISH: And I remember in one of the stories, one of the characters talks about a kind of just-in-time wisdom that happens...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...With parenting.

MEANS: Yeah, you - it's interesting because you live vicariously through your kids, and it's incredibly emotional. And I found myself isolated and also double-questioning every move I made. And there was never the right answer, and everything felt kind of wrong at some level.

CORNISH: So we can talk about this now.

MEANS: Yes.

CORNISH: Your kids went to college. They're successful. They are successfully launched. So now we can get into the terror (laughter) that you describe of watching them grow up or these characters experiencing fatherhood in this way. And there's one story in particular called "The Chair." And I want to just have a moment where we can read a section of that where this father is describing what love is.

MEANS: Sure. (Reading) Love isn't in the actual grab and heft of body when he comes out of school and runs into my arms crying with glee. No, love is the moment just as he comes out of the schoolhouse door, standing amid his friends and searches for my eyes. Love is in the second he sees me and I see him dressed in one of his outrageous outfits - bright, startling coats; weird hats; drooping, strange pants. That's what love is I thought each time I went to school to pick him up. Then as I lifted him and felt his weight, the purity of the moment vanished, and I would smell the stale, tart odor under his collar while he smelled, I suppose, the smoke and coffee on my breath and something else that later at some point perhaps even in memory he would recognize as the first hints of decay.

CORNISH: I think that your writing is incredibly vivid in terms of depicting the kind of emotions you can have as a parent in very quiet moments. And over the years, had you collected kind of notes or scraps of writing, things that you thought one day might be stories that kind of contributed to this?

MEANS: Yeah. I was at home for a number of years as an at-home father. I think the whole process of being at home with the kids and all that hair brushing and all of the little needs - I had to wait a few years before I could process it all and have enough distance to see what was really going on at the time or at least to imagine what was going on at the time.

CORNISH: And we should say the plot of this story is this child is running down a hill and running very quickly, and the parent is following. And you feel that terror of, like, the kid is exuberant and enjoying this run (laughter). And you're...

MEANS: Right.

CORNISH: ...Just like, this is going to a dangerous place; please stop - and all the emotions you feel when your child is kind of teetering on the edge of danger.

MEANS: Yeah, and how much discipline do I give? How much freedom do I give? What happens if I don't give them enough freedom to learn what they need to learn and how to navigate the world and all of those complex things that are going on in a parent's mind at the minute-by-minute, you know, on-the-ground parenting thing?

CORNISH: When you look back at that now, when you were writing these stories, how did it affect the way you thought about your own parents, your own father?

MEANS: Well, my father died about three years ago, and then my mother died in October.

CORNISH: Oh, I'm so sorry for your loss.

MEANS: Thank you. When my father died, I felt this grief but also this release as a storyteller to maybe go into material that covered the parenting ground. And so I think part of the fact that I'm going back to the parenting - you know, to being a younger parent is that my father died. And then you - everything shifts, and you reassess everything from a totally new perspective, and you realize that your parents, for all of their faults, did this incredible job in just getting you through to where you are now.

CORNISH: It sort of brings into relief the title of the book, which is "Instructions For A Funeral."

MEANS: Well, that actually came because I was walking around always sort of thinking, you know, what would - after my dad's funeral, I was thinking, you know, what do I want at my funeral? The story has nothing to do with that really, but I took that energy - that narrative energy, and I used it to write a story.

CORNISH: And actually kind of a funny story...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...Listening to the character with his bulleted list of what he wants.

MEANS: He's in a protective mode, and he's defending himself. And he's trying to control the narrative that might come if he ever gets killed. And there's a sort of feeling that he might because he's been involved with the Mafia. So it's a funny dynamic.

CORNISH: I think we all do that, right? You don't have to be a character in a book who's dealing with the Mafia to feel like you're trying to be in control of your narrative.

MEANS: At some level, we should be at least aware that we are going to die. And I think we stop every now and then - at least some of us do - and reassess and say, OK, what have I done with my life, and what kind of narrative is going to be told when I'm gone?

CORNISH: How are you feeling so far about yours?

MEANS: I have mixed reviews. I think...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: That's a perfect answer.

MEANS: Three stars, I think, so far. I'm shooting for five stars, but no one can do that.

CORNISH: David Means - his new collection of stories is called "Instructions For A Funeral." Thank you for speaking with us.

MEANS: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.