D. Wystan Owen didn’t know he was composing a collection of linked short stories when he first wrote many of the pieces that make up his debut collection, “Other People’s Love Affairs.”
“During the drafting period of the stories, I hadn’t really given a lot of thought for a long time to the fact that they might be linked even by place,” he said. “There was a long period when I was writing these disparate short stories, and at some point I realized that many of them were set in this little coastal community that seemed to be the same coastal community. And at that point I think I started exploring that to see if they might coalesce around that place.”
That place is Glass, a small town on the English coast. Owen, whose father is British and whose mother is American, grew up in United States, but brings a kind of hybrid English to his writing.
“I grew up in a household where we spoke a kind of English that was not British English, but not quite American English. I didn’t realize that, of course, as a child,” he said.
In fact, it wasn’t until he was in a graduate program in California — where he studies before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — that he realized his speech patterns were subtly different from many of his peers.
“One of my classmates gave me a piece of advice that seemed cryptic to me at the time. She said, ‘David, you need write the way you speak.’ And I didn’t really know what she meant because I thought I just spoke like everyone else... Reflecting about that I began to recognize the ways that certain syntax and certain emphases or avoidances or the cadences of speech were slightly strained in my household. Strained might be a strong word... but something almost uncanny, like one degree, one click of the dial, was sort of off in what I would hear at home and what I would hear out in the world.”
He found he could make good use of this on the page.
“For me, that resonated with other types of displacement or disconnections that occur between people when they tried to communicate,” he said. “It made a linguistic problem out of what can be an emotional type of isolation. That felt important to the book on some level.”
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In much the same way he wasn’t cognizant of the links between his stories in the early going, he also didn’t have a clear sense of where they were set.
“I didn’t really give a lot of thought as to whether they were set in the UK or in the United States. They seemed to me to be set in the world of the imagination. These are the kinds of things that, when finishing the book, became important to pin down, but while you’re drafting a book it can be important or not. There was a period when it didn’t feel as important, and it became important when I started to recognized that this landscape was a linguistic landscape as much as a physical terrain.”
The stories in “Other People’s Love Affairs” are linked loosely, but also purposefully.
“Even though the characters don’t really reappear as significant players in subsequent stories in the collection — you may catch a glimpse of someone or someone may be referred to obliquely, but they don’t act particularly powerfully except in the stories where they’re central — I felt that, in and of itself, did a little bit of work,” Owen said. “The fact that we have this community where people know each other but they also are isolated from one another by virtue of appearing in these separate stories and only catching each other in glimpses, that felt somehow important to the project, as well.”
Isolation and loneliness, Owen acknowledged, are prominent themes in the stories.
“It is not the thesis of this book that people are unable to connect with one another. That is not what I think,” he said. “But I do think that the effort to make connections, to expose oneself to others, is one that’s really fraught and feels like it demands a tremendous amount of courage to me. And I don’t feel like I see the summoning of that courage depicted in fiction as much as I think it is relevant in life. I wanted this book, not to be about the impossibility of human connection, but about the difficulty and the effort that is required and the courage that has to be summoned.”
He describes the simultaneous need for and fear of connection as “friction.”
“I wanted the kind of friction that underlies that to be present in the book. And that happens on a plot level but also linguistically,” he said.
There may be friction in the collection, but he didn’t encounter anything of the kind in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Owen had “a pretty unambiguously wonderful time at the Workshop.” He fell in love with Iowa City and was impressed and inspired not just by Workshop faculty, but by his peers, as well. Those peers, including Garth Greenwell with whom Owen will be in conversation at Prairie Lights, didn’t evince the stereotypical “cultivated jadedness” often associated with workshops.
“One thing I had not experienced that was almost universally the case at Iowa was being in a workshop with people who just loved books as deeply as my classmates did. They read really rigorously and didn’t let you get away with lazy writing, but they were also really excited about the work... I found a much more open-hearted readership there, and that taught me a lot about writing and reading.
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His was a diverse class, with writers from Zimbabwe, South Sudan, India, elsewhere, but in this diversity was also a unity of purpose and passion.
“It didn’t feel like I’d gone to a place where people were putting their own books at the center of their lives,” Owen said. “It felt like a place where books and literature in general were at the center of life. And that was just so important for me.”
• What: David Wystan Owen will discusss his book, “Other People’s Love Affairs,” in conversation with Garth Greenwell
• When: 7 p.m. Monday
• Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
• Cost: Free