Dead Mediums

A Conversation with Dan Leach



Dan Leach has published work in The New Orleans Review, Copper Nickel, and The Sun. He has two collections of short fiction: Floods and Fires (University of North Georgia, 2017) and Dead Mediums (Trident Press, 2022). He lives in Charleston, South Carolina and is currently at work on a lyric essay about trash.


Conor Hultman lives in Oxford, Mississippi.



CH: I notice irrevocable loss as a theme in the stories in Dead Mediums, whether the loss of love, the loss of health, loss of religion, etc. Was this conscious, or natural? What would a story look like where something’s gained?


DL: This question reminds me of something Richard Ford once said about the Thalia and Melpomene (the famous happy/sad masks of ancient Greek theatre). Ford said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that when we view the masks from the front, they appear to us as distinct and opposing entities–comedy vs. tragedy, gain vs. loss, et. cetera. He went on to say that our job as writers is to show that, were you to view the masks from the back, you would realize they are actually joined. To deploy Ford’s theory here is a fairly artsy way to address your question, and (at thirty-eight) I’m probably too old to be doling out artsyness; but, the truth is, I actually believe in this theory of duality. Both in fiction and in lived life, I think loss and gain are conjoined (contingent, if we really want to get artsy) in a deeply mysterious way. In Dead Mediums, for instance, the protagonist of “Brother Bill Leaves the Narrow Path” loses institutionalized religion, but he gains existential sobriety, doesn’t he? Or when the speaker in “Fixers” loses his marriage, he gains clarity about his role in the marriage’s failure (not to mention a serious case of nostalgia, the likes of which is required to tell a story such as his). I think all the pieces in Dead Mediums, to one degree or another, pursue this kind of ambiguity. Now, this is not to say that, from a craft standpoint, loss and gain are managed in the same way. At the risk of oversimplifying, I’d say that most of my stories tend to present tragedy/loss as explicit (or “shown”) and comedy/gain as implicit (or “subtextual”). For instance, in a story like “Places Without Porches,” the reader should be able to identify the speaker’s various losses (i.e., loss of geography, loss of acceptance, loss of love); but in terms of what the speaker has gained, you’d have to dig and do a bit of interpretative work. I think most contemporary literary stories work this way. We could make a brief list of exemptions, but (on this side of Hemingway) the move seems to be: show the loss, bury the gain, and let the reader do the lifting.


CH: “The Devil Is Beating His Wife” has a lot to do with the changing Southern experience, introduced by the skipped Faulkner seminar. Is Southern literature really so different from larger American literature right now?


DL: Speaking as someone who recently wrote an entire poetry collection in response to C. Vann Woodward’s essay “The Search for Southern Identity” (in which Woodward opens his argument by claiming, “The time is coming, if indeed it has not already arrived, when the Southerner will begin to ask himself whether there is really any longer very much point in calling himself a Southerner”), I can honestly say I’ve spent many hours thinking about this question. My problem (which I secretly love having) is that I can’t seem to find a position that sticks for more than five minutes at a time. Woodward, whose essay predates the internet by about fifty years, suspected that, as the South transitioned out of its agrarian past and as non-Southern transplants became more prevalent, the South would inevitably lose its distinction (I prefer the word “quirk”). He thought that anything that made the South feel “Southern” (i.e., its landscapes, its speech patterns, its regional ideologies) was fighting a losing war against juggernauts such as suburban sprawl, consumer culture, and the bland-but-palatable kind of nationalism dished out via national news cycles. So to the degree that literature draws on and responds to culture, I’ve often been tempted to surrender to the idea (to riff off Woodward) that “the time is coming, if indeed it has not already arrived” when there is no longer a point in a writer from the South calling himself a “Southern writer.” But do you know what gives me hope that the South is still alive and wailing? A wild gem of a book like Sophia by Michael Bible (who was born in North Carolina and who studied with Barry Hannah in Oxford). Or my favorite album of all-time, which is Constant Stranger by Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster (who plays out of Fayetteville, Arkansas). Or the strange-and-wonderful poetry of my good friend Stephen Hundley (who was raised in Savannah and went to school in Milledgeville, Georgia, not far from Flannery O’Connor’s farm). These regional geniuses make art that earns the modifier “Southern,” and if they have counterparts in the larger scene of American art, then I haven’t found them. I guess a skeptic would say, “But don’t you just love these artists because you yourself are a Southerner and their work is some weird kind of mirror that reflects and even mythologizes your own experience down there?” Guilty as charged.


CH: How do you see your work fitting into a Southern tradition (if you do)?


DL: This question triggers my purest form of ambivalence. Because on the one hand, I love Southern literature, basically spent my first five years as a writer ripping off Ron Rash, and still can’t help but see myself as a tryout for the weird team of Southern stylists captained by geniuses like Julia Elliott and Padgett Powell. In this regard, I very much see my work fitting into a Southern tradition, and I get kid-on-Christmas-level thrilled when a reviewer compares my work with someone like Lewis Nordan or Larry Brown. But then there’s this other team that I’m constantly trying to make, and its roster is filled with non-Southerners and (in some cases) non-Americans. Lyric essayists like Maggie Nelson and Sarah Manguso. Poets like Nick Flynn and Joy Harjo. Theorists like Jack Halberstam and Slavoj Zizek. The early novels of Haruki Murakami (whose influence you should see in stories like “Fixers” and “A Forest Dark and Deep”). I draw heavily from all these artists, none of whom fit (or care to fit) in the ludicrously rich Southern tradition. Is it possible to be intensely and consciously Southern while also being intensely and consciously non-Southern? Is it possible to position yourself within a field of influences so as to almost induce vertigo (not unlike my wife, who once said of her drinking, “I love it when I hit the spins.”)? Is it possible to feel both deeply connected to but also entirely disconnected from the place where you were born? If so, that’s me. Ultimately, when I think about my relationship to place, I align with a character in Padgett Powell’s neglected masterpiece Edisto, Revisited. “He believes in where he is,” Powell’s narrator observes. “And that happens to be the South.”r


CH: A questionnaire, the five stages of grief, thirteen ways of looking at a whale corpse; there is a lot of formal experimentation going on in your stories on the basis of structure. Do your forms usually decide your subjects, the other way around, or something else?


DL: I almost always start with subject. If I can get properly fixated on a subject then it’s pure joy for me to think about how that subject might present across various structures. “Whale Fall,” for instance, concerns a kind of COVID-era depression (particularly depression that seeks refuge in digital spaces). As such, it employs a fragmented structure. It’s built around thirteen bursts (or, as David Shields would call them, “shards”). Why this structure? Because (for me) depression feels asthmatic. It feels like struggling to catch the next breath. Both “Fixers” and “A Forest Dark and Deep” take up the subject of a broken marriage. Knowing how tired this subject can seem (especially for a white male writer whose prose is already giving off some serious Ray Carver vibes), I wanted to employ various structural qualities of fairy tales (e.g., the call to adventure, the crossing of a threshold, the supernatural intervention) as a way to a.) acknowledge the bottomless familiarity of the story’s subject; b.) transplant traditionally adult themes (i.e., sexual infidelity) into a traditionally childlike medium; and c.) create a hopefully-unsettling kind of ironic tension. Finally, you mentioned “A Brief Questionnaire For the Creature That Became The Fur That Became The Coat That My Wife Received From Her Rich Friend Then Wore Obsessively All Winter,” which (as the title implies) assumes the structure of a questionnaire. Full transparency: this the one piece in Dead Mediums that emerged in response to a writing prompt. Writing prompts almost never work for me. In fact, they depress me and almost always freeze me up. But during COVID I took an online poetry workshop with Ed Skoog, who is the zen master of generative writing prompts, and who said something like, “Maybe your poem needs to literally interrogate its subject. That is, maybe your poem needs to take the form of a survey or a police interview or a questionnaire.” I had already been obsessing over this weird memory of my wife trying on a coat that her rich friend gave her, but Skoog’s scaffolding put the match to the burner and–poomph!–out came “A Brief Questionnaire…” in one white-hot burst. I don’t generally like to promote writing classes (since the majority of the ones I’ve taken have been viciously overpriced and depressingly underwhelming), but if you ever get the chance to study with Ed Skoog, you should do it. Dean Bakopoulos is another one who is worth the price of admission. Brilliant teacher, generous friend.


CH: “A Forest Dark and Deep” has a deep, psychically emotive core. The subject, the breakdown of a marriage due to infidelities both consensual and not, is full of dark potential, but I was impressed by the waves around this story that were suggested, and not explicitly said. Do you think every good story needs to have such a core? Is it possible to write dispassionately and well?


DL: Do my stories have “cores”? God, I hope so. One of my greatest fears (not only as a writer but also as a teacher and a father and a human being in general) is that I improvise too much to develop a “core.” I’m sure you’re familiar with that old writing prescription (which I think can be traced back to George R.R. Martin) about how some writers are gardeners and some are architects. Gardeners throw down a subject (or possibly just a sentence) and, after a bit of attention, see what grows. Architects start with a blueprint (e.g., a plot outline, character notes, an ending in mind) and build according to their plan. Holding this dichotomy in mind, I guess I’m an unredeemable gardener. I hate plot and never make outlines. I “get to know” my characters in the real time of writing and never have a clue where the story is going (until it actually gets there). Given how obsessed I am with sound and syntax, I probably should’ve been a poet or at least a lyric essayist along the lines of Sarah Manguso. Given how indifferent I am to dramatic action and book-length arcs, it’s unlikely I’ll ever write a traditional novel (though I did recently finish a fragmentary novel that might be the best thing I’ve ever written). The truth is, I am obsessed with images and with capturing images in sentences that sound cool to my ear. If I do that, and if a “core” emerges in the process, I’m genuinely grateful but also somewhat baffled. At the end of the day, that’s all I’m really doing–I’m just playing jazz.


CH: How do you know when a story is finished?


DL: For me to know that a story is finished, I have to revise it about forty to fifty times. Then I have to feel like it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, so much so that I send it off to a bunch of literary magazines with respectable editorial staffs and impressive circulations. Then, instead of starting new work, I have to reread the finished piece and realize (usually halfway through the first page) that it’s not the best thing I’ve ever written because it’s actually the worst thing I’ve ever written, and the fact that I didn’t see it sooner means I’m a fraud and a joke. This despair usually prompts me to withdraw the story from all the literary magazines with respectable editorial staffs and impressive circulations, gloomily consume a gallon of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and seriously consider deleting the whole thing. If I don’t cave to the deletion strategy, I might revise the piece another forty to fifty times, send it back out to the same magazines, wait until it gets picked up, read it in print, feel grateful for the literary community (such as it is), still feel like a fraud and a joke, and (finally) realize that (for a self-loathing mess such as me) nothing will ever feel “finished.”


CH: It’s maybe cliche to ask you what kind of writing you aspire to (but answer that, too, if you want). What kind of writing do you seek to avoid?


DL: Lately I’ve been trying to avoid writing that stumbles into a kind of cool obtuseness. For instance, I recently wrote a poem called “Blue Heron in Retention Pond.” On the image level, it’s about this blue heron who camps out in this shitty little pond in my depressingly suburban neighborhood. With respect to theme, though, it tries to tackle what C. Vann Woodward called “the bulldozer revolution,” which is basically the South losing its “Southernness” because all of its neighborhoods/restaurants/speech patterns have become increasingly indistinguishable from those found anywhere else in the country. The poem has the decency to begin on a mostly-concrete image: “He stomachs the empty hours, waiting / for what is under the surface / to draw near.” A nice little David Bottoms set up, right? And when I shared this poem with a non-writer friend of mine (a construction guy, if we’re being honest, who lives one block over from me), he said, “I know which heron you’re talking about! I could see him as I read the poem!” This was high praise, since (again) I’m just chasing after the decently-evoked image. But then my friend asked a question that exposed a certain kind of bullshit in the poem. He asked about the final stanza: “He works in possibilities: to snatch / a shadow from the murk, to retreat / into the sky, still alone, still alive, / a pilgrim caught between two gods.” He said, “What do you mean by ‘pilgrim’? Who are the ‘two gods’?” These are fair questions, especially since the poem ends on these metaphors. And I had an answer, but it was a theoretical one and (as such) highly unsatisfying. The truth is, I stumbled into those lines and (if they mean anything in connection with Woodward’s “bulldozer revolution”) then I’m going to have to sell that meaning, since it doesn’t organically generate from the contents of the poem. That, more than anything, is what I’m trying to avoid–writing whose meaning you have to sell. What did Nietzsche say about poets? “They muddy the waters to make them seem deep.” I want the opposite. I want something deep, but I want the water to be clear.


CH: Are you working on anything now, and can you talk about it?


DL: I am, and I can. I’m currently taking a break from fiction, a break which could easily last forever (hence the title Dead Mediums). Instead, I’ve been working on lyric essays. I’ve got two going right now. One is about trash. The other is about sex talk (particularly how the imperative mood functions in the bedroom). I’ve had more success publishing creative non-fiction (see “Invitation” which got picked up by The Sun or “Never Trust a Man with a Pinky Ring” which ran with The New Orleans Review), and I’m having more fun writing them than I ever did with fiction. Why is this? I have a writer-friend from Seattle who once told me, “Patterns of thought should dictate patterns of style.” He is brilliant, this friend, and this was his brilliant and quotable way of saying, “Hey, Dan, I think the reason you struggle to write fiction is because your mind doesn’t naturally organize material into narrative. In fact, based on our conversations, I think your mind loves to riff. It loves to jump around from topic to topic, all the while developing a kind of associative thread for your audience to follow. You know what kind of writing would be perfect for a mind like that? Lyric essays.” I’m grateful for this Northwestern pal, and if I hadn’t met him, I’d probably still be forcing myself to write short stories. He gave me permission to call the medium of fiction “dead,” which felt (for me) like the start of a new life.”