[We asked Robert James Russell, author of DON'T ASK ME TO SPELL IT OUT, to talk to us about story origins. This is about the first story in the collection. The story is called "Frans." You can buy your own copy of DON'T ASK ME TO SPELL IT OUT in the WhiskeyPaper store.]
A tornado swept through my hometown when I was a kid—not Kalamazoo, and not 1980. At least, I remember it—clearly—and I remember this small house my family used to live in. But when I got older, my folks told me the little house I remembered was from before I was born. And I’d only ever seen it in photos. And the tornado, they still dispute there ever being one, but I found a website that says there were two in the 1980s—although small—so I’m not sure who’s right. This sort of fragmented reality—where you think you’ve lived through something but you’ve only ever witnessed it second-hand—is where this story was birthed from. At any given moment, this is my childhood but not my childhood; this is my family but not my family. The truth is, my folks did have a neighbor growing up—well into college, actually—who was Dutch, and he did proudly fly the Dutch flag on his flag pole. They did have an older daughter I was smitten with, but I was very young and never broke into their house—she was married before I was in middle school, moved away, and out of my head at that point.
But still, I’m fascinated with how we remember things—with how we want to remember things. We want to create life where there is none; we want to forget pain when we should be holding onto it. Frans in this story—his house, his life—is this whole other stable life that the unnamed narrator is recalling. He barely knows him, only knows fragments of this man’s life, but it still seems so much better. After all, Frans is willing to go out during a horrible storm to pick up his flags, bring them home. That’s a man with conviction. But the whole piece was something I felt compelled to write—re-writing our own histories in our minds to be something else entirely. Even doing it subconsciously. Misremembering on purpose. How important are our childhoods, or memories, if we can’t fully know them? How much of a role model is Frans if the characters don’t ever really get to know him? It’s so easy to look at someone, something, and guess how good it is, I think, without ever actually knowing them/it.
Frans is us. This memory—while not real—is us.
About the Author of DON'T ASK ME TO SPELL IT OUT: Robert James Russell is the author of the novels Mesilla and Sea of Trees, and the founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com.