Working in Murky Territory: Four Questions with David E. Yee
David E. Yee’s story “Donut Man” is online at AGNI.
Grace Yun for AGNI: Here is a life lesson from “Donut Man”: “You know the best way to lose something, Beak? Let someone know you have it to lose.” Do you think this statement also pertains to the process of writing (e.g., withholding information from the reader)?
How I see the absence in narration, specifically in “Donut Man,” is an extension of “show vs tell.” For instance, when the father sleeps in the car, leaving the son to sell everything by himself. The narration almost defends the father, describing his exhaustion, explaining the hours the father works. Yet, the narrator couples every moment of luxury between the father and son with a scene describing how bad things are in the mother’s household. I was trying to insinuate the charisma of the father, how he can be irresponsible and yet the other characters in the story continue to believe in him, to trust him, to love him.
What is it like writing about your personal relationship with your father? Are the physical details from your childhood the most salient or your emotional state?
My father is my buddy in that I have no ill will toward him. We aren’t very close. If I hurt his feelings by telling a story from my perspective it would cause me little pause. I don’t feel the stories are unkind.
I submit real stories as fiction because it allows me to more fully utilize an emotional memory rather than a factual one. My father never called me “Beak” but I always felt like he saw my mother in me, maybe not physically, but in how she was raising me, and treated me with some distance accordingly. I find a lot of inspiration in Stuart Dybek who writes often true accounts as fiction. I wouldn’t say I embellish the details of a story, rather I streamline the truth to make a better narrative. The day I sold us out of donuts was not this day in my memory—the first time I sold by myself. But the days of our visitation, as short-lived as they were, often blend together.
I don’t mind working in a murky territory between the two genres. I’d also have no issue submitting this as nonfiction. Nothing that happened in the story is untrue of my life. I usually submit based on the tone of narration. If it is more narrative, like this story, than I submit it as fiction. Which is not to say that every piece of fiction I’ve written is factual, but typically, there is some emotional memory in my life that I’m trying to emulate in a story.
The physical details from this time are what bring me to the page. I can recall vividly odd sensations from this time. The smell of the cleaning product. The brown ottoman he kept in the middle of the van as a “backseat.” The way his voice pitches when he yells. I don’t recall as clearly how I felt. I remember always waiting for him to show up. I remember feeling a sense of adventure. Those things are easier to make up, though, which is why I often submit mostly true stories as fiction. Real life is often boring. Getting to give the details, the feelings some direction make it a story.
Has your father or mother read your stories?
My mom is a huge supporter of my work, even more so now that I spend most of my time bartending. I know she reads everything, even some of the stories I try and hide from her because they are about moments in my life that hurt her feelings. I’m not sure if my dad does. I don’t think he knows most of the time when I get something published. He takes a lot of morphine, prescribed.
Do you like donuts? What’s your favorite flavor?
Everyone likes donuts, even if they don’t eat them regularly, which I don’t. At the time this story was about, I could eat an entire dozen Krispy Kreme glazed, but there is honestly this saccharine smell to old garbage that reminds me of them and vice versa. When I was a kid, the lemon-filled ones would be what I’d call my favorite. Now, I think I like buttermilk/cake-style.
Grace Yun is an editorial assistant at AGNI. (4/2018)