Fiction is Trouble

By Jim Roberts

The late Chuck Kinder1—creative writing teacher to Michael Chabon and close friend to Raymond Carver—once told me that “fiction is trouble.” This was sometime around 1990 when I was just starting to write seriously, having fantasized about it for over twenty years, imagining myself vaulting the wall of my gray corporate cubicle and steady paycheck and going rogue among the literati.

Fiction is trouble. Of course it is. Why had I never grasped that? Three words that set my hair afire. I was Kekulé, awakening from his dream of the ouroboros, discovering the long-sought key to benzene buried deep in his subconscious. Like all profound insight, it’s so obvious when finally revealed. Obvious and elegant and powerful. It is my writing mantra, my guiding principle: when creating a work of fiction, begin from a central axis of trouble, conflict, hard times, desperation, etc.

For each of the stories in my debut collection of short fiction titled Of Fathers & Gods (OFG), I imagined each story as a tree. A tree where the trunk is the conflict—the trouble—and the characters are the branches that sprout from the core. Hopefully, if done well, the reader sees why the branches grow as they do. Some straight, some twisted. Some arc downwards, some up. But all are shaped from and by the trouble that bears them.

And what’s a good source for trouble? From what seed grows our trouble trees? I can think of no better source than family. The poet Billy Collins said that family is the original insane asylum, where each inmate searches to find their own room. John Ciardi, another poet, said you don’t need to suffer to write because you already did, during adolescence, during that formative time before leaving your family. Families take many shapes of course, some formed by blood, others by circumstance. Mothers and fathers and siblings are absent or present, or sometimes most present when they are absent, because it is often the missing piece that weighs heaviest around the neck. Presses against the enduring—visceral and binding—human desire for connection and belonging. Fathers are notorious missing pieces.

In OFG, I focus on the father force within families—present or absent—drawing upon my own life experiences as a child and a father, and upon observations of fathers in the wild. The nine stories in the collection delve into the relationships between fathers and their children: the good, the bad, and the awful, from the points-of-view of the children whom they shape—for better or worse, knowingly, or unknowingly—and from the viewpoints of the fathers themselves.

As a kid, I once saw a man slap his young son to the ground for bringing him the wrong wrench. That moment was a key rung on the ladder between childhood and adulthood for me, a moment of context and epiphany where I saw how my life was not the life of others, that all is not good. There is darkness out there. Beware. Your father is supposed to protect you from the wolf. Not be the wolf.

That scene festered within me for decades because my father would have never done that. He might have complained or huffed in disappointment, or most crushing of all, said nothing and let me cook in my own shame as he had to climb down from some difficult and precarious work perch to correct my mistake, and lose time I could have saved him.

Roy Dee Roberts, Ironworker, Circa 1960s.

My father was flawed, to be sure. Beautiful things are never perfect. But to the very young me he was an iron man—an ironworker and welder by trade—climbing up and down high-rise buildings, defying gravity—the very force that keeps the universe aligned—and exerting his will over big and heavy and rough things. Hard, malicious things poised to squash you. He used fire like a lightsaber to cut iron, for God’s sake. He brandished flashing, burning wands to fuse steel together. These things were always done in the sky, him walking effortlessly along an I-beam, commanding power and magic against a backdrop tower of billowing clouds. So god-like up high and yet so human and funny and caring back on my turf, on earth.

Some writing coaches advise: “write about your fears.” I drew heavily on this advice in the construction of OFG, this and the mental game I play when writing called “what if?” As in, what if (-insert fear here-) happened? Or had happened in the past? What if I was twenty-five and my pregnant wife and unborn child were taken by a random act of violence? What if my father had abandoned my pregnant mother before I was born? What if my father doesn’t love me? What if I’m not good enough to be loved?

One of my favorite movies is Searching for Bobby Fischer, a story about a seven-year-old chess prodigy and his parents’ struggle to let his genius bloom without destroying his childhood. There’s a scene in the movie where the parents are arguing about why the boy is overly fearful of an upcoming tournament. The father thinks the boy is afraid of losing. But the mother knows better. She knows the boy’s true fear. She asks, “How many ballplayers grow up afraid of losing their father’s love every time they come up to bat?” The father stammers but finally answers, shouting, “All of them.” That scene shatters me. What if I had been born to the wrong-wrench father?

My parents were pious, but not church goers. I can count on my fingers how many times I attended Sunday church services as a young child growing up in East Texas, so I lay no claim to having a sophisticated understanding of Bible teachings. But there is one Old Testament story that is burned into me and cannot be sidestepped by anyone attempting to address the subject of fathers.It’s the story of Abraham and Issac, where God demands proof of Abraham’s love for, and devotion to, Him. God’s implicit command being, “Love Me more than your children.” The proof of that love being the sacrifice of Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac. Isaac is a precious miracle to Abraham and his wife Sarah, because he was born to them when they were both very old.Abraham is distressed at first, but relents and dutifully marches Issac up a mountain, binds him to an altar, and lifts his blade overhead to slit the boy’s throat. But wait! An angel of the Lord appears at the last moment and stops Abraham from killing Isaac.

So I’m a second or third grader in the early 1960s on a Sunday morning, sitting on a pew among starched shirts and clip-on ties and wafting Jungle Gardinia, and I hear this story for the first time. It crushes me. My little kid brain conjures up some equivalent to today’s WTF long before it was ever typed on a keyboard or smartphone.

That was it, I think, the moment an image of great trouble and fear and “what if” worthy of mining for loads of fiction was etched into me, just waiting for rediscovery. My own personal ouroboros, so to speak. The fear poor Issac must have felt, brought to that place by those he trusted as protectors, then finding himself prone beneath a knife wielded by two of the most primal forces of the universe: a father and a god.

1Chuck Kinder was a novelist who taught creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh where one of his undergraduate students was future Pulitzer-winning novelist Michael Chabon. The movie Wonder Boys—in my opinion one of the best movies about writers and writing—is based on Chabon’s novel of the same name. The “Grady Tripp” fictional character in the movie is based on Chuck Kinder and is played by Michael Douglas.

Jim Roberts

Jim Roberts grew up in rural East Texas. After college, he lived and worked briefly in Houston before moving to Cincinnati, Ohio, in the early 1980s to pursue a business career. Now a full-time writer, he and his wife, the artist Donna Berry Roberts, split their time between Ohio and Texas, depending on whim, changes in the weather, or the beckoning of distant haints.

His fiction has appeared in Prime Number Magazine, Rappahannock Review, Snake Nation Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and The Arlington Literary Journal (ArLiJo). His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and twice named to the finalist list for the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story Award. Of Fathers & Gods is his first book.