One of the great things I learned in my MFA program was how to read as a writer. In my very first class, the instructor told us (the students) that it didn’t matter whether we liked the books we were assigned to read. It was more important to learn how to figure out what was working, deconstruct what the writer did to make it work, and then steal that technique for our own prose. The program trained me so well that I have trouble turning the analyzing and deconstructing off. There are times when I’d like to read a book just for the pleasure of getting to know the characters and getting lost in a well crafted plot. I want to get back to being a reader and try to zone out the nagging voice behind me that points out clever craft tricks on the pages.
Reading Frank Zafiro’s short story collection Dead Even was one of those times when it was a possible to both get lost in the words on the page and enjoy picking apart the author’s technique. Zafiro put together the collection with the assumption that the readers were already familiar with his River City series. Those novels are written in third person and one of the things I so enjoyed in Dead Even was spending time with familiar characters in first person. Katie MacLeod is by far my favorite character of Zafiro’s and the first story in the collection, “Last Day in Paradise,” is in Katie’s voice and takes place twelve years after Under a Raging Moon. There are two more stories about Katie, both told in third person, and each gives me a different perspective of her character than I got from the River City series.
It’s great fun for readers to visit with old friends and finding out more about them, but it must also have been a blast for Zafiro to thoroughly explore his characters this way. I sometimes try out scenes from alternate points of view and then decide which one works best, but have never thought about exploring characters through both third and first person writing. Usually I pick one perspective and then stick with it for that character. Since reading Dead Even, I’ve been switching between first and third person during free writing sessions and love how it opens up new aspects of my characters that I wouldn’t have discovered if I’d stuck to just one voice.
The other thing I’m “stealing” from Zafiro’s collection is how he organized it. Those of us who decided to write our MFA thesis as short story or essay or poem collections know how there are endless combinations of how to order your pieces. How do you pick the work that should be next to each other? Which story needs to be read before all the others? Does it even matter since I don’t have any control over the order in which the reader will read? (Will anybody other than my mother ever read the thesis?)
Dead Even groups stories by the characters that appear in them, but the order of each of those sections is also carefully planned. Some of them clearly “speak” to each other. For example, it’s more rewarding to read “The Meat-cutter’s Wife,” which appears in the Dominic Bracco section, after you’ve already read “Running Into Darkness” in the Paul Hiero section. What appears to be a random event in Hiero’s story turns out to have great significance, but you don’t realize this until you’ve spent some time with Bracco. Reading the stories in order ends up a richer experience than randomly exploring the book, which is how I sometimes, actually often, read collections.
Another “reading like a writer” treat in this collection is Zafiro’s introduction to each of the sections. He describes how he got to know each of the characters, how they speak to him, and why he enjoys spending time with that particular narrator or point of view. It’s a little like watching the director’s cut version of a DVD with the commentary turned on. The range of different character voices that Zafiro masters is amazing. Hiero is very dark and at times I almost felt uncomfortable with how bleak and self-destructive his attitude can be. MacLeod can also be bleak, but has a self-deprecating humor that lightens the mood.
So, if you’re looking for shorter work to keep your attention between football games and tryptophan-induced naps this holiday, pick up a copy of Dead Even. Just remember to read the stories in order.