Beyond the light of the jukebox: An interview with Dean Paschal

By Pia Z. Ehrhardt

Dean Paschal grew up in a small town in southwest Georgia called Albany. Upon sensing the twilight of his official childhood in the seventh grade, he began to read every children’s book he could get his hands on while they were still, by society’s regard, age-appropriate. He was an indiscriminate reader, though, so along with classics like Winnie the Pooh and Little Women, he digested lesser works like Black Beauty, which he chose as the subject for an English paper. His teacher scoffed at his pedestrian choice and asked if he couldn’t do better. At that challenge, young Dean marched to the library, scanned its shelves and found the thickest book it contained—at 872 pages, a single-volume edition of David Copperfield. He followed that with Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and James Fennimore Cooper’s The Spy, and thus his literary life began.

Paschal attended Duke University, where he studied electronic engineering and zoology, and later the Medical College of Georgia. He completed his medical residency at Charity Hospital, which is how he arrived in New Orleans. His specialties are internal medicine and tropical medicine, but he has always done emergency medicine. He likes to tell people he was an E.R. physician before George Clooney was.

Paschal’s short stories have been collected in the book By the Light of the Jukebox and published widely in journals and anthologies, including the 2003 Best American Short Stories. He will read at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 15, with Michael J. Lee as part of the Live Prose at the Antenna Gallery reading series (3161 Burgundy St.). Lee will be celebrating the release of his new book, Something in My Eye. As always, the event is free, complimentary libations will be on hand, and donations are accepted.

This interview was conducted via email over the week of March 4, 2012.

Room 220: I know you work in the E.R. Did you start writing short stories after you went to medical school?

Dean Paschal: By the time I actually went to medical school, I went for one reason: in order to become a better writer. I felt the medical training and the ability to walk through certain doors that are locked to most people would be good for me. I had had an elementary-school/adolescent dream of being a physician—and that was an easy dream to come by since my entire family has been physicians back to the eighteen seventies. Still, by the time I actually did it, the nature of my dreams had changed significantly. I had already written the first draft of a novel, which had a medical twist, and I wanted to be sure the details were right at all levels.

Rm220: Why did you choose E.R. medicine?

DP: I chose E.R. medicine because it is modular. I don’t carry a beeper and I’m never on call. When I am not working a shift, I could be in Paris and no one would object.

Rm220: Did you ever study creative writing?

DP: My training is not in literature. I have never been in a writing workshop in my life.

Rm220: Where do you hide? Your writing’s gorgeous, strange, scary, sensitive, smart, but you seem to keep a low profile in a town noisy with writers.

DP: It is true, that I am not much of a participant in the writing scene here. I find that it really doesn’t help me to be around other writers, and I never discuss—in any sort of detail—things that I am working on. I do a tremendous amount of my writing in bars and restaurants. The Maple Leaf is a particular favorite. But I can basically write anywhere. I do not need peace and quiet. In fact, it disturbs me. I understand that James Joyce liked to write in his kitchen, surrounded by his noisy wife and children. I feel I understand why. I sometimes say to people that I realize my work is most likely to be read in distracting situations, on airlines or busses, on
streetcars or at the beach. If I can muster enough concentration to write it in such a situation, then maybe it has a chance.

Rm220: Did you grow up with storytellers in Georgia?

DP: I grew up in Georgia with a mother who wanted to write. I grew up with a mother who all but worshiped ideas and serious fiction. She was never really published though, in any significant fashion, so I guess you would have to say she failed—though she succeeded in passing that particular baton on to me. My mother was the profound influence in my literary life. There is no one else even close. I learned from my mother at a very early age that fiction was just a very, very serious thing. I learned that writing was work and hard work and it was supposed to be hard work, not a hobby. That lesson has entered my bone marrow. It was one of the fortunate things in my life that my mother was still alive and in possession of all of her faculties when my first book, By the Light of the Jukebox, was published.

Of Paschal’s 2002 book, Joyce Carol Oates said, “No more disturbing first collection of American short stories has been published in decades.”

Rm220: Do you write many drafts? Do you start and stop, or do you work a story from start to finish and then come back?

DP: I rewrite absolutely endlessly. In fact, by the time I finish a piece I am scarcely aware of having written it—I am aware only of the editing. That doesn’t even stop with publication. I will, on occasion, significantly revise a story that has already been published so that, should it be anthologized, it can be better.

I pretty much never begin with a blank page anymore. I carry paper with me at all times—also two pens and one pencil (the pencil is in case both pens die) because I know that if something condenses in my mind and I don’t write it down, it will be gone forever.

When I have a certain quorum of notes—scraps of dialogue and description (almost never plot ideas) I type them out and arrange them and begin to connect the pieces. I take the various drafts somewhere—most often a restaurant or a bar—edit the typed sheets longhand then come back to my apartment and type the additions in. After that, I have a new sheaf of papers for the next day. That is how I write now. I used to write by sitting at my desk six hours each day with sheets of blank paper, the alarm clock set, and the face of that clock turned toward the wall. I don’t do that anymore, haven’t done that in years, but then again, there’s a level in which I simply never stop writing now.

Rm220: How does the writing of your stories usually begin? Did “Moriya” begin with an image, with an idea, a setting? The details of the room, the house, the doll, are so vividly drawn as to be three-dimensional. The boy’s relationship with the doll is driven by curiosity and how-does-she-work, but movingly, by the fact of her connection to him, her interest in him. When you set out to write this story, did you know where it was going? The plot keeps opening and expanding and I felt like I was keyed in to the writer’s pleasure of discovery.

DP: With most stories I could not begin to tell you when and how I actually began. But “Moriya” is different. I know exactly what initiated that story. The year would have been 2000. I was still a member of the New Orleans Film Society—something I had been on the Board of Directors of for most of the previous decade. The film society had a fundraising party at Anne Rice’s St. Elizabeth’s house on Napoleon Avenue. Ms. Rice was not there (nor have I ever met her) but she made virtually the entire first floor of St. Elizabeth’s available for our party—including a living room/parlor area, which was filled with a magnificent collection of antique dolls. I remember several of those dolls were very large. They were not “baby” dolls either, but young girls. One, a brunette, looked like she might be about four and a half feet tall if she were stood up. She was wearing a fancy dress and looked like she might have been made around 1890. She was sitting either on a sofa or chair. No sooner had I seen her than I imagined a 14-year-old boy coming in and finding her there, alone. The possibilities for that seem rather limited, though. On the other hand, if she were a mechanical doll, the possibilities were endless. I could then use mechanics and mechanism throughout the story as a metaphor for sex. I felt I was on to something then. In fact, I had the first line while still standing in that parlor: “He’s very mechanically minded.” The story came together in less than a month, which is a breakneck speed for me.

Rm220: You write so knowingly from the point of view of dogs, snakes, puppies. After reading “Death of a Street Dog,” I’ll never look at a stray and not think of the dog in your story, his posture, the neighborhoods that shun him, the flat meal he knows he shouldn’t have eaten, his humor and dignity, his brilliant final line. What draws you to write from the point of view of animals?

DP: That’s really part of a larger question, which is why am I driven to fantasy generally—especially since I read almost none of it. The fantastic (and a talking animal is by definition fantastic) gives me complete control of the dialogue. I do not have to clear the hurdle of being realistic. I can compress things, even emotional things, in ways I could not if I were dealing with so-called reality. For instance, Charles Dickens would not have written “Death of a Street Dog” as a dog story. He would have written it as a story about an orphan. But orphans nowadays can’t fall to the physical and emotional depths my street dog has fallen to. There are too many protective mechanisms for them in modern society. In the time of Dickens that was not true.

Charity Hospital, where Paschal worked as an E.R. physician until it closed after Katrina.

Rm220: “Genesis (G.I. Bleed)” is a thrill ride. The story feels like it’s running in real time and the narrative distance from the event is almost nil. I’m convinced that only a doctor could write this. It was 1,000 times more visceral and tense than any episode of E.R. I have a medical question: Why isn’t bleeding to death painful?

DP: Bleeding to death is not painful if it’s pure bleeding, because the nerve-endings for pain are not in most blood vessels. Pure bleeding means pretty much that the blood is coming from an internal location—a bleed from the G.I. tract, from the kidney, a leak inside the brain. The most common internal bleed is G.I bleeding, by way of a spontaneous rupture of a venous plexus or an artery. The bleeding can be massive, pints and quarts of blood. The patient will be a sweaty—we call it “diaphoretic”—anxious, worried, even embarrassed (as I think I mentioned in the story). But they are never screaming in agony. If, however, the internal bleed is triggered by an external trauma, such as a gunshot wound to the abdomen, those people will be in agony. Not so much because of the blood, but because of the damage to the skin and nerves and intestines and other
such structures traversed by the bullet.

Rm220: Do your stories ever give you bad dreams? Or reveal more of themselves in your dreams?

DP: Many of my stories have come out of dreams, bad and otherwise. And sometimes a dream provides a much-needed connection. The stories seem to be out there somewhere, in my mind, and I feel that the more I work and concentrate, the more I will be able to see and hear them. That’s why I never outline or plot a story—it limits to me what I can “think up,” and what’s out there is liable to be far more powerful.

Rm220: How important is living in New Orleans to the writing of your stories?

DP: I think ultimately it has been very important indeed, but in a rather indirect way. Most of my stories are not really set in New Orleans, and even those that are could easily have been set elsewhere. New Orleans has not been important to me the way, say, Oxford, Mississippi, was important to Faulkner or Chicago to Saul Bellow or San Francisco to Raymond Chandler. I don’t tend to make much use of the atmosphere or locations in New Orleans. I use New Orleans more as a tool to help me personally get my work done. I have benefited from being a workaholic in a nonstop party town. I have benefited from the closeness and exotic small-town feel of New Orleans, benefited from a city not driven by the pendulum of the weekends like the small towns of my youth. New Orleans is easy to belong to, easy to get around in. I like the restaurants, the coffee houses, the used-bookstores, the universities, the dive bars and strip joints. I like the very-lived-in, highly territorial, urine smell of the Quarter. New Orleans has been good for me. I hope ultimately to be good for it.

Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of Famous Fathers and Other Stories. She recently completed a novel.