Brandon Barrett is a practicing cardiologist living in rural Virginia with his wife and son. His stories have appeared in The Literary Review, The Cossack Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Jersey Devil Press, and elsewhere. His story, “Gerald’s Last Ghost Story,” appeared in Carolina Quarterly 65.3.
CQ: In many contemporary stories, we see a certain self-awareness of the narrative form, the difficulty and the delight that comes with turning relationships into stories. In your short story, “Gerald’s Last Ghost Story,” a character invents stories–ghost stories–of his own. How did bringing in these additional narratives enhance your central narrative?
BB: I frequently run into the issue of having a central concept for a story, but being unsure of how to optimize the mechanics of telling it. This story is an example of a concept that I liked (“what if every death resulted in a ghost?”) that I couldn’t find a framework for. I came back to this story again and again over a period of many years, trying out different approaches but always failing to capture the emotion I was looking for. It led me to think: what is it about this concept that appeals to me? Why do I keep coming back to this when I’ve tossed so many other failed stories aside? As I turned it over in my head, it started to seem more like an interesting “conversation to have” rather than “story to tell.” So I approached it that way, and decided not to just tell a story, but to demonstrate another character reacting to the story and turning it over in his own head.
CQ: In addition to the consumption of narratives in this stories, we see an excessive and harmful consumption of alcohol. How do you see this consumption functioning in this story, especially in terms of how characters cope with uncertainty and grief?
BB: One of the themes in this story is the notion of “there but for the grace of God go I.” An easy example that many of us have some experience with in our lives, whether first-hand or second-hand, is addiction. A common refrain from individuals who struggle with addiction is that the substance is serving a vital purpose for them: it is filling a void. It is a rare person who, prior to the fact, expects that they will someday become an addict. But then life happens and in what shape they come out on the other side is something I’m always wary of judging. It is easy to predict all sorts of optimistic things about yourself that often prove to be false when exposed to the extremes of the human experience. From a mechanics-of-storytelling standpoint, my concern was: is this example too easy? Is it too convenient for my purposes, too on-the-nose? (These unending circular arguments I have with myself are why my output is so low!) I had drafts of this story with no alcohol, but decided that my first instincts represented an authentic and realistic outcome.
CQ: “Gerald’s Last Ghost Story” depicts moments when parents’ emotions concerning their children are intense and exposed. Why do you think it’s important to explore this experience of vulnerability?
BB: I think the key for me to finally finish this story was recently becoming a father. Already being a very Type A and overprotective person, I was suddenly overwhelmed by even the faintest possibility that anything bad could happen to my son. I imagine this is a process that all parents go through, but it helped crystallize for me what the central theme of this story was and made it real for me in a way that just wasn’t before. Health and happiness is ultimately always precarious and is predicated upon a million unseen variables churning behind the scenes, the overwhelming majority of which you will never be aware of. If you sit and think about this too much, it will ruin you. And if you forget about it, it will surprise you.