‘Nothing says America louder than a gun’
“I always tell my students that, if you’re an American writer, sooner or later one of your characters is going to pick up a gun.”
So said former Greensboro News and Record reporter BettyJoyce Nash in a phone conversation about Lock & Load: Armed Fiction, a short story anthology edited by Nash and Deirdra McAfee and recently published by University of New Mexico Press. The editors, who both have stories in the book, will be reading from their work and talking firearms and fiction at Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books at 3 p.m. on Dec. 17.
“Nothing says America louder than a gun,” said Nash’s co-editor and former fiction writing instructor Deirdra McAfee. Whether we like it or not, declared McAfee, firearms are part of our national identity. “The gun has been domesticated in the American imagination. Most young children have seen more fictional incidents with guns than fictional incidents of affection between people or imaginary creatures.”
As I and just about every other fiction writer I know can attest, eventually your protagonist will surprise you by doing something you had no idea would happen when you began writing that story. Nash, who had been publishing what she called “domestic tales of marriage and relationships and such,” after moving to Virginia and switching from journalism to fiction, never expected her protagonist to pick up a gun. It was quite a shock.
“I’d never written a violent story before,” she said. “I felt a change in my pulse and my palms were sweating and I realized this had really hit me.” She was earning her MFA at Queens University of Charlotte at the time. When she described this experience to her advisor Pinckney Benedict, he suggested she write her thesis on the role of guns in fiction.
Nash had previously met McAfee when taking a creative writing class from McAfee in Richmond. When Nash told her friend and former instructor she’d surprised herself by writing a gun story, McAfee was intrigued. She’d written one, too, and had given much thought to the role of firearms in American life.
Unlike Nash, McAfee had grown up with guns and was experienced in handling them. “I actually took the NRA gun safety course a while back, and we were able to fire all kinds of weapons, including an MP5 9mm submachine gun,” she said. “I’ve not spent a lot of time on the range in the last few years, but I’m eligible for concealed carry.”
Also unlike Nash, she’d not been surprised when a gun turned up in her story “The Shield of the Norns,” about a woman fired from her call center job who comes back with a 9mm pistol. That story, reprinted in Lock & Load, won the University of Alabama at Huntsville’s H. E. Francis prize in 2007. At that time, there had never been a workplace shooting by a woman. Ironically, McAfee said, three years after the university gave her the award, the first one happened there. “A woman who didn’t get tenure shot her whole department.”
Both writers stress believe there’s never been an anthology like this before. “It’s not your grandfather’s anthology of dead men’s fightin’ and huntin’ tales,” McAfee said, adding “it’s not your leftie gun-control agenda and it’s not your rightie call to arms.” Nash said that, whereas most stories on this subject are about firearms and masculinity, “women wrote more than half the stories in Lock & Load.”
The first story in the anthology is “A Lonely Coast” by the award-winning Annie Proulx, best known for the novel The Shipping News and the story “Brokeback Mountain.” Other contributors include Mari Alschuler, Gale Walden and Bonnie Jo Campbell. Men contributed too, and Nash cited acclaimed African-American novelist John Edgar Wideman’s “Tommy” as a story that made a friend of hers think differently about some things. “That’s what fiction can do for you,” she said, “make you engage with characters evening really alien or intolerable circumstances. It opens your mind and enlarges you.”
McAfee also spoke on this subject and plans to do so again at Scuppernong. “Good literature, great literature, which is what we’re after, doesn’t offer answers,” she told me. Instead, she said it poses questions, and that she and Nash wanted to start a conversation that went beyond politics. “There is a distracting and noisy rights versus restrictions debate that is both illogical and really has nothing to do with how people understand guns in the United States.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.