In Invisible Men, Professor Eric Freeze’s latest short story collection, the award-winning writer and Wabash professor channels a wolf, a widower, a bodybuilder, a pedophile, and a young girl struggling through the trauma of being molested. WM asked him where his ideas and voices come from.
Carve Magazine finds in Invisible Men “a half-human, half-animal state of being—the place within us all where the rational and the instinctual collide.” In one story, the narrator is a boy who transforms into a wolf. How did you come to that story?
Freeze: That one actually came from a dream. As a kid I had this recurring dream for several years. I dreamt that I had been bitten by a wolf and that I would turn into a wolf whenever I got angry.
That’s where it started—I had a fascination with wolves.
Lately I’ve become more interested in fabulism and genre elements. “Lone Wolf” is a first-person short story with an unreliable narrator who in his own mind has gone through this change, so that allows me to bend reality quite a bit through his perspective.
From there I was just trying to figure out who would be this kid. What are some of the underlying psychological reasons for him doing this? I see him as sort of an overgrown Calvin and Hobbes character, who is really precocious, has a big imagination, but other people misunderstand and misread him.
He’s a good kid, but because of the way his exterior persona manifests itself in this world, he’s seen as being disruptive, as a bully—all these negative things.
Have you written a lot of stories from your dreams?
I think this is the first one.
Dreams are really powerful because they are your subconscious using story to try to make sense out of something that’s happening.
And that story was so driven by voice. I started a draft of it and it really wasn’t going anywhere. Later I went back to it and redid the voice, and once I had the voice down, it pretty much wrote itself. I put the story in present tense, upped his vocabulary, made him kind of nerdy, and kind of overwrote him, made him a little more unbelievable in his erudition.
Many of the characters in your stories are outsiders, and you have real empathy for kids living in the margins. Was that you as a kid?
Not really. But I seem to always have been the guy who was nice to everybody, so I knew a lot of kids like this. And I was a band geek.
The writer Pam Houston calls “Duplex,” the story that opens the collection, “a chilling thought experiment.”
That story is probably the best thing I’ve ever written. It started as a story about a girl who moves with her mother to the States, but there was nothing at stake. The girl was adjusting to the move, her father died, and the only thing that was really at stake was the father’s absence.
So I almost, just to see what would happen, I decided to have this other voice—this guy who finds a dead body. And alternate them and see what happened.
I’d never written a story with a dead body in it. So this was a way for me to play with the genre elements, like a whodunit.
So the story began as two separate stories?
When we had Dan Chaon visit Wabash, he talked about writing his novel Await My Reply. He said he had no idea how the alternating separate stories were going to connect. He just trusted the process, that they would come together. And it comes together amazingly.
But it was a process of discovery. He wrote the book to find out how the stories were related.
So I tried to approach “Duplex” the same way: I had these two alternating stories and I didn’t really know how they were going to interact. And through writing it I realized that this is a story the girl is telling herself about the trauma of being molested.
It was amazing to me! It was just like discovering the end of a mystery. I didn’t know how they were going to work out, and they just gradually did.
She seems stronger, the voice more confident and personal at the end. How do you get that strong female voice in your writing?
With female characters, sometimes I’ll actually mimic the syntax of a woman writer. I’ve done that with Pam Houston, also Alice Munro—she is so subtle and is a very interior writer, and writes psychological realism better than anybody writing today.
But that’s not how I got the voice in “Duplex.” The girl’s voice does come in more strongly at the end because she takes more responsibility for the story.
In the very last section she tells the story about her father, and that was a way for me to get to that absence that had been in the original short story, but in a much, much stronger way. Because this is a girl who has something horrible happen to her, yet she preserves the memory of a good man—her father.
That for me was the most gratifying thing about the story—that even somebody who has gone through that kind of trauma can still maintain positive feelings toward another man.
I like that story so much because it was such a surprise for me. It ended up resolving a lot of the things I didn’t even know needed to be resolved.
In the story itself, or for you personally?
In the story itself, but also for me personally.
I call the collection Invisible Men because I realize there are these kinds of men who often don’t get recognized in literature. Like, how do you write a short story about a good guy, right? It’s so rare to find stories like that.
I think men are still overrepresented in literature, and there’s the feminist in me that recognizes that men probably don’t need any more attention.
But there are certain kinds of men who get a lot less time on the page. Very rarely do you find men who are decent people.
Of course, there are plenty of men in this collection who aren’t decent people.
Eric Freeze is an award-winning author of literary fiction and non-fiction. His book of short stories, Dominant Traits, was a finalist for the High Plains Book Award and his book of essays, Hemingway on a Bike, won the 2014 Association of Mormon Letters award for creative nonfiction.