Matt Izzi lives in East Boston. His stories have been published in Post Road Magazine, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. A short play of his appears in the current issue of Third Coast. He is originally from Rhode Island. His story, “Bully Bus,” appeared in Carolina Quarterly 65.3.
CQ: Your story, “Bully Bus,” is a great example of close third-person narration. Although Hilda isn’t narrating the story herself, we very quickly get a strong sense of her perspective. Is this a technique you’ve consciously studied and developed? How do you get into a character’s head so seamlessly?
MI: I’ve written other stories in close third before, so I’ve practiced it, for sure, and I’ve read a lot of fiction that uses it (a good example is “Al Roosten” by George Saunders). The only conscious thing I do is free indirect speech, a technique I’d used before knowing the term for it. I’ve been using the device more deliberately since coming across the term in James Wood’s How Fiction Works.
While revising “Bully Bus,” I simply tried to observe people and events as Hilda might. I wrote the first draft from her POV, but it took many revisions to bring the story into her head. I wanted the narration to be somewhat unreliable—to make the reader sympathize with Hilda but also doubt her sanity and assessment of her own abilities. Close third-person gives you a lot of flexibility. First-person wouldn’t have worked as well here, not least because readers often assume a first-person narrator and the author are the same gender.
CQ: Where did you get the idea for this story?
MI: The seed of the story was a sentence in Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines: “Nurse Elise Bachmann, whose day off was yesterday, put on a public display of insanity.” Right away I dreamed up Hilda on the bus. I copied the line into my notebook as a sort of epigraph and then wrote the sentence “The running man was laughing and the passengers who had already caught the bus laughed too.” That inciting incident came from real life, but everything else was invented. Meanwhile I returned Fénéon to the library shelf and never read another page.
CQ: One of the best things about your story is the surprising, ironic reversal at the end, which in some ways reminded me of a Flannery O’Connor sort of ending. Do you agree with that assessment?
MI: I agree with any statement that links me and Flannery O’Connor. Her stories did influence this story, but only in revision. The plot is mostly unchanged from the first draft. However, while editing this story, off and on for nearly two years, I also read Everything That Rises Must Converge. Each time I read a story, pretty much without fail, I would get an idea to improve “Bully Bus.” I can’t remember any concrete examples. Lots of my ideas for fixing stories—or enriching them—come from reading other fiction, and never when I’m looking for them.
You could argue the ending is a cross between the endings of “Greenleaf” (the charging bull) and “A View of the Woods” (the grandfather’s dying vision), but that’s me analyzing things after the fact.
CQ: Regarding that ending: do you personally feel like Hilda “wins” in any way at the end?
MI: Not really. Maybe she’s found some peace. Maybe she’s let go of her pride. But I felt sad for Hilda at the end. I can’t say more without giving away the ending.
CQ: Do you think the running man had some previous grievance against the bus driver?
MI: I’d always imagined it was their first encounter. But it’s possible the driver could have been toying with the running man for weeks. More likely, the running man had been burned by other bus drivers in the past and had accumulated a lifetime of public-transportation rage.
CQ: Are there any lesser-known writers out there you find particularly inspiring or interesting? Anyone you want to recommend to our readers?
MI: Juan Pablo Villalobos and Valeria Luiselli are funny, serious, playful, and inventive writers. I first read Villalobos in an issue of the now-defunct Coffin Factory; I laughed so much I sought out his books (at that time, only Down the Rabbit Hole had been translated into English). He’s got a novel coming out this August, which I’m looking forward to. Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth is one of my favorite novels from the last couple of years.
As for short stories, I enjoyed John Jodzio’s new collection, Knockout. It’s full of wild comic stories—especially “Our Mom and Pop Opium Den,” which is the best one in the book and maybe the epitome of his style. I don’t know that any of these writers inspire me in any direct way, but their fiction is a delight to read.