By Jennifer Abel Kovitz

A man drives to the wrong mountain, a hubcap cleaner moonlights as a karaoke star, a delivery man’s urgent letters have no willing recipient — each of the 10 stories in We Were Flying to Chicago is contemporary without being ironic or glib, offering a glimpse of stark vulnerability, faith and hope. Hypnotizing us with the deceptively simple rhythm of the ordinary, the short story collection offers a moment of change: the view over the cliff, the breath before a decision, a sidelong glance of impending news. Award-winning author Kevin Clouther skillfully slows time to note the visceral, emotional impact of an everyday moment.

Kevin was born in Boston and grew up on Cape Cod and in South Florida. He holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he completed his thesis under Marilynne Robinson and won the Richard Yates Fiction Award for best short story. He has previously worked at The Iowa Review, Meridian and The Virginia Literary Review, where he served as Fiction Editor, and currently teaches creative writing at Stony Brook University, where he coordinates the Program in Writing Reading Series, and at John Hopkins. In anticipation of his book tour supporting We Were Flying to Chicago, we spoke with Kevin about the inspiration for his stories, conflict in fiction and grace in literature:

Jennifer Abel Kovitz: The stories in We Were Flying to Chicago are both relatable and sincere, and feel grounded in truth. Discuss the balance of real-life experience inspiring fictional stories. How often do you grab an idea out of nowhere and how often does the story evolve from a real person or experience? 

Kevin Clouther: I imagined each of the stories, meaning I took neither the characters nor the conflict from my life, but that doesn’t mean my life isn’t everywhere in these stories. I started writing the title story when I was flying from New York to Chicago on a plane that was supposed to land in Detroit. In “On the Highway near Fairfield, Connecticut,” the near-accident I describe is a lot like something that happened to my cousin and me on a highway near Fairfield, Connecticut. The stories take place in parts of the country — especially New England, South Florida and the Midwest — where I’ve lived. There are all of these real-life triggers that send me inward, and once I start writing, I have only a limited sense of where I’m going.

You have said that these stories were written over the course of the past 12 years. When, over that time, did the theme of small moments in the face of larger transitions emerge? Did you suddenly realize you had repeatedly written on this theme or was it an intentional progression? 

It wasn’t intentional in any way. I try not to think about theme when I’m writing, so as to commit myself completely to the character and the moment. Looking back at stories I wrote feels like watching a parade of my questions and preoccupations over the last 12 years. It’s deeply personal and surprising. Honestly, I think writing is a little spooky.

Elsewhere, you’ve said that you take seriously Faulkner’s maxim of the human heart in conflict with itself. Faulkner wrote, “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself ... alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” May you give us a few specific examples within the collection where this particular conflict arises? Do you agree with his assessment that, while these particular topics are agonizing and difficult to address in fiction, they are the most important themes about which an author can write? 

I tell my fiction writing students that every story must have a conflict — we talk all the time about “conflict” and almost never about “plot.” I recommend that they think of conflict in terms of competing desires. This conflict is more apparent in some stories than others. In “T-Bone Capone Loves the Lady Ace,” the protagonist both wants to be there for his girlfriend and doesn’t want to do what it would take to understand her in earnest. In “The Third Prophet of Wyaconda,” a stranger forces more than one character in the town to reassess his or her self-worth. That sort of exchange, where one character moves another to look frankly at 
who he or she is, fascinates me, maybe because the results can be so frightening.

In your research for We Were Flying to Chicago, what was the most surprising thing that you learned?

I was surprised by the particulars of brake systems in cars and by how people understand a state of grace.

What do you mean “a state of grace?” Where is this present in the collection of stories? 

Many of the writers I admire most — Andre Dubus, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor (in an explicit way), Denis Johnson (in an implicit way) — are writers sensitive to grace. While I have characters, such as the brother and priest in “Puritan Hotel, Barnstable,” who think of grace in Catholic terms, most of the characters in this collection are not obviously religious. They are, for the most part, people trying to do right without any real assurance that they’re succeeding. They might appreciate the assurance faith brings, but in the absence of that, they have to rely on their actions and decisions, which can leave a person incredibly vulnerable.

Let’s touch upon a specific story in We Were Flying to Chicago: “Open House.” You leave so many questions unanswered in this story. (Who is the Agency? What exactly are Tim and Josie doing? Are they planted in the real estate market to drive up sale prices?) Does a reader’s imagined answers to these questions matter to our understanding of the story? Are there several subjective readings to a story or did you have an objective interpretation in mind?

The reader’s interpretation is the only interpretation that matters to me. I think of a story as being actualized when a reader takes the time to visualize the scenes and hear the dialogue in his or her brain, so I would never push one objective interpretation. That having been said, it’s never clear in the story that either Tim or Josie fully understands why exactly the Agency has employed them to do what they do. I was happy to leave that aspect a mystery and explore what such a job would do to a person’s head. I will say that this story has a precise origin: I was listening to a news story on the radio about a town that consisted entirely of abandoned homes (probably in Florida or Nevada, one of the states where the real estate bubble popped, 
leaving a detritus of unsellable homes). It happened to be April Fool’s Day, and the whole report was bogus, but I made a note and started the story a few years later.

Do you have a favorite story in this collection? A favorite character?

Depending on the day, I like some stories more than others. I think that’s what happens when you read your own work over and over again. I remain fond of Jim in “Isabelle and Colleen.” He’s one of the few characters who arrived almost fully formed. I have a lot of sympathy for Cara in “Puritan Hotel, Boston.”

How has your background and education (particularly your time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) helped or hindered your writing career? Can you briefly share your experiences emerging from a very competitive program, one that has turned out many successful writers? Do you view this as a great asset or a great challenge?

Iowa was a great help. I loved the workshops, which went on for hours, and the conversations and disagreements that would continue afterward in the bars. People weren’t always kind, but they really, really cared about books. The competition — and Iowa was certainly competitive when I was there — pushed me to be a more thoughtful writer, and I’m grateful for that. I worked with Marilynne Robinson more than anyone, and she’s the smartest person I know, as well as the least conventional thinker.

Want more insight into the art of the short story and the state of grace in fiction? Catch Kevin Clouther on his book tour in support of We Were Flying to Chicago. He'll be travelling across the North East and dropping in on the Midwest to read from his new collection, sign copies and even swap his book, so be sure to catch him at one of these dates:

Jennifer Abel Kovitz was Black Balloon Publishing's publicity director for two years. She is the founder of 45th Parallel Communications, a literary matchmaking agency serving independent publishers since 2008. She's also a trail-running, gin-swilling Canadian.

(Image credits, all from: Black Balloon Publishing)

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