Lones Seiber is a retired aerospace engineer who lives in Morristown, Tennessee. “Via Dei” was the winner of the Roanoke Review 2013 Fiction Contest. His stories have appeared in GSU Review, The Pinch, Lynx Eye, The Wordstock Ten, Tall Grass Writers Anthology, Inkwell, Pearl, and Indiana Review. His nonfiction has appeared in American Heritage. He won the 2005 GSU Review Fiction Contest, the 2007 Pinch (River City) Fiction Contest, and the 2008 Leslie Garrett Award for fiction. He also won the 2011 Indiana Review Fiction Contest and the 2011 Warren Adler Prize for Fiction. His story "Icarus" was selected for inclusion as one of twenty stories in The Best Mystery Stories of 2012 anthology published by Houghton Mifflin. Alexandra Reynolds speaks with Lones below.
Tell us about your inspirations for “Via Dei.”
I don’t believe in inspiration. I believe in ideas and hard work. Writing to me is an addiction. Most of my stories are written in a week or two. “Via Dei” is an anomaly. It took a decade before I submitted it to you. I was living in Gastonia when the murders occurred. Front page, with school pictures, for a day. The thing that intrigued me was the lack of community outrage over the murders. A quick read and you would have concluded that the girls were tramps, but they weren’t. They were little more than children, products of their environment and parental neglect. They seemed to have been mourned by no one but a lady with whom they were placed twice by child services when their mother was cited as being unfit. I guess if there is such a thing as inspiration, I wanted to say that they mattered, that they were not disposable.
This seems to be a story about reactions to tragedy rather than tragedy itself. Why did you decide to tell Nikki and Marianne Baker's story from the perspectives of people who were on the periphery of their lives?
I think it happened intuitively. I didn’t decide. But perhaps it’s because I’m a writer, not a reporter. The reader did not need to know the salacious details, that both girls had their throats cut and had been stabbed multiple times in the chest, that one had a venereal disease. I never really considered writing it in any other manner. Thinking about it, I’m not sure I could. I wanted the story to be emotive without being profane. The uncovering of the bodies was purposely coupled to the workers’ moments of self-reflection so that it was more than just a graphic narrative. I think the most important section of the story is the exchange between the waitress and the two detectives. She knew things they didn’t and vice versa. It was also the most difficult to write, relaying information to the reader through dialogue so it wouldn’t seem contrived. Although the detectives were just getting through their day, or night, and reflected the general indifference of the community, Thelma became a surrogate of hope that they might have escaped what she never would, although it was obvious she doubted they did.
Do you think there are special considerations or ethical guidelines in place when writing fiction about horrific events? In particular, I think back to the reaction of the girls’ teacher, Brenda. It’s an unbecoming, but genuine portrayal. You write, "In a perverse way she envies them, because they are free, while she remains shackled. Death has cleansed. Death has unburdened. Death has liberated. And how long could they have suffered? No more than a few minutes."
If there were ethical guidelines in fiction, Cormac McCarthy would have never gotten “Blood Meridian” published. One reviewer wrote that he could only read the first forty pages before throwing up. The final section of “Via “Dei” reflects a theme I’ve used over and over from Housman: “Fields Where Glory Does Not Stay.” I’ve had three stories published with that title and have two more out for consideration. It defines life. It defines her. To me, Brenda is the perfect character. She embodies all human instincts: compassion, jealousy, empathy, envy, sorrow, regret, insecurity, hate, love, and so on. We are cursed at birth with passions that must be suppressed, as she has done overtly, if we are to blend into society.
Masterfully crafted imagery graces “Via Dei.” At what point in your writing process do you sharpen and define the images you use? Can you talk about your process as a whole?
Masterfully crafted? I love it. Thank you. I never know where a story is going when I begin. Some writer said: “Chaos is the first step to the creative process.” I finish the first draft, (if I haven’t impulsively hit delete) and then refine it, and then refine it, and then refine it. I imagined really good writers just pecking away, the story all laid out in their heads except for an adjective here and there. But then, as I studied Raymond Carver’s works and his life, I read where he sheepishly admitted in correspondence to some other famous writer that he never knew where a story was going when he began. I think that whatever works for you is the best way to write. There is no formula. You are you, and you are a good writer. I have to keep telling myself that. Also (his name will come up later), Allen Wier wrote a beautiful story called “Things About to Disappear.” He laughed as he admitted that a reviewer had given him credit for a metaphor he never intended. To answer your question, whatever keeps you at the keyboard so that you don’t want to quit is the right process for you. And if you storm away but always return, that’s okay, too.
There is an interesting blend of natural and religious imagery present in "Via Dei." For instance, you write, “Derelicts in tattered coats, tugging collars against the chill of the uncaring gloom, have gathered outside the Baptist shelter across the street, sharing a cigarette and a bottle before going inside for the night. The salmon colored streetlights paint their faces with an ocher glow, as if they’re jaundiced.” Do you think that imagery related to nature and imagery related to religion are complementary forces or opposing forces interacting in this narrative?
I hadn’t really thought about it. The inclusion of the scene with the derelicts had nothing to do with religion, at least I didn’t think so. It was meant to show that the societal neglect leading to the girls’ murders was not an aberration. It was, and is, systemic. But I did have them standing in front of the Baptist shelter, didn’t I. Now I’m not sure why. And there were the crosses that failed to protect Nikki or the crusaders. Maybe they can be both.
As I read "Via Dei," I noticed that both the macabre nature of the story and the writing style you used when rendering your characters reminded me of Joyce Carol Oates' fiction. Who are your influences?
James Agee, Amy Hempel, and Cormac McCarthy. And I have to include my mentors: Professors Allen Wier and Michael Knight. They made me believe in myself as I competed against students over half my age.
The ending of "Via Dei" is brilliant. Can you share your reasons for ending the story as you did?
I agonized over the ending, writing it this way and that, nothing working until I vaguely remembered a line from Stuart Dybek’s story “Death of the Right Fielder.” I finally found a copy and the line: “It’s sad to admit it ends so soon, but everyone knows those are the lucky ones.” Something clicked, loudly. I had my ending. Of the characters introduced, Brenda, their teacher, would most likely have been the one to remember the anniversary of the girls’ burial. All I had to do was recreate the personally disastrous year to cause her to envy the girls for having been spared the disappointments that most certainly awaited them. Once I found the line, I had the ending done in an hour.
At what point in your life did you decide to write fiction? Why?
When I read “East of Eden,” I knew I wanted to be a writer, so when I entered the University of Tennessee in 1957 fresh out of high school, I enrolled as an English major. I worked odd jobs to pay the $65 quarterly fee and rent a basement boiler room, where a sump pump cycled every two hours, for $25 a month. At the end of my sophomore year, however, I got married and realized writing would never pay the bills. Fortunately, the space race was heating up, so I switched to engineering physics and, after graduation, was recruited by Pratt Whitney Aircraft to work at its research facility in Florida. I was making more money than doctors or lawyers. I bought a three bedroom Cape Cod with a pool, which I paid off in two years and bought two new cars paying cash. However, after fourteen years, the job and the marriage went away. I did this and that for the next twenty years or so and wound up in Gastonia at the same time the murders in “Via Dei” occurred. And then my mother, who lived in Knoxville, began suffering from dementia, so I relocated to care for her since I was an only child and my father was dead. She lived eight more years. A week or so after the funeral, I read where the Knoxville Writer’s Guild was soliciting manuscripts for the Leslie Garrett Fiction Contest. So at the age of sixty-seven, I decided I would be a writer.
I got a book entitled “How to Write a Short Story” from the library. It seemed logical and contained little I didn’t already know. What intrigued me was the caution that second person was archaic and one should know what they are doing before using it. I needed something to catch the judges’ attention, so I wrote “Mirages” in second person. It won third place. That convinced me I had some talent, but I needed more instruction. I contacted Professor William Wier in creative writing at UT about enrolling. He asked to see something I’d done. I sent him “Mirages.” He responded that it demonstrated I had the technical expertise to skip the introductory junior course in creative writing and go directly into the senior workshop, but I took the junior course anyway and afterwards he recommended me to Professor Michael Knight to participate in the senior workshop. Each student submitted two stories during the semester to be critiqued by the group. I submitted “The Sound That Clouds Make” and “Flight,” both of which were eventually published in literary journals. Professor Knight then recommended me to Professor Wier to participate in the graduate workshop, which was a real honor. I submitted “Grace”, which won first place in the GSU Review (now New South) fiction contest, and “Children at the Gate” which, ironically, was judged an honorable mention in the Roanoke Review Fiction Contest and published in the spring 2008 issue.
The murders in Gastonia stayed with me over the years, so I returned and spent a week doing research, intending to write a book. I copied everything the Gastonia and Charlotte papers had. I visited the site where the girls had been buried in a shallow grave. I also found the rural cemetery where they are interred side by side with a common marble marker. It’s a beautiful spot. I spent a lot of time, between writing short stories, on the book, but it never materialized. I guess the short story will have to suffice. I continue to write short stories, and I’m marketing another novel. I’ve had a couple dozen stories published, half of which won first place.
You asked why I became a writer. Why does anyone become a writer? Because they have to.