We recently spoke with author Gilbert Allen about his new Slant book The Beasts of Belladonna
Until recently, you’ve primarily published poetry. Beasts is only your second collection of short stories. What prompted you to write in this new genre and what does it offer you?
Oh dear. I’ll have to go back almost fifty years to answer that question.
While I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I wrote an occasional poem, but fiction was my primary genre. But by the end of my first year of graduate school, my stories were getting shorter and shorter. So in the spring of 1973, I began focusing entirely upon poetry.
By 1986, I’d been at Furman for almost a decade, and I was leading creative writing workshops with many aspiring fiction writers. I felt like a bit of a fraud trying to teach them something that I wasn’t doing myself. So I decided—for pedagogical purposes—to try writing prose fiction again.
Late one evening, I started the first draft of a story about a retired lawyer and his prizewinning Zoysia lawn. The next time I looked up, it was morning.
I hadn’t written fiction for almost fifteen years because I was trying to find myself as a poet, and I didn’t want to be distracted or confused. In the late 1980s that was no longer was an issue, so I began writing two or three stories a year. They added up. And the world of Belladonna gradually evolved.
As a genre, prose fiction is as rigorous as poetry, but in different ways. By the standards of contemporary American verse, my poems are pretty reader-friendly—but they’re still written primarily to be re-read. The first time through is a reconnaissance mission. Most fiction writers—myself included—figure the first reading is often the final reading, and they revise accordingly. Of course, I’m delighted if somebody likes one of my stories enough to go through it a second or a third time, but I know that usually doesn’t happen.
People talk about “getting lost in a book” because the language in a good novel or short story seems to disappear into the world that’s being depicted. It’s like a clear window you don’t notice unless you make a special effort to see it. In poetry, language is more like a lens that colors everything.
Because I come to short stories as a poet, the genre seems to offer me more space to develop characters, settings, and atmosphere. I feel more relaxed. I think novelists unaccustomed to writing short stories would have exactly the opposite sensation—they’d feel an unfamiliar need to compress and to work by implication rather than by accretion.
The stories range from satire and caricature to moments of grief and pathos—sometimes they demonstrate that range within the span of a single story. How do you pull that off?
It’s not something I try to pull off—it’s just the world I live in. I’ve seen kids driving BMWs with giant Confederate flags stenciled on their back windows. Bumper stickers boasting WHOEVER DIES WITH THE MOST TOYS WINS. A minister who wept on local TV when Elvis died—because he couldn’t believe the world was mourning such an evil man.
And I’ve also seen congregations forgive murderers who’ve gone on shooting sprees in their churches. Men running out in the middle of rush hour traffic to rescue stray dogs. Women who spend half their lives delivering meals to the homeless and making mattress pads for the bedridden.
So I guess you could say what I write is “non-creative fiction.” As the saying goes, you just can’t make this stuff up. If I lived in a different place, I’d probably see the world differently. But I’ve lived in South Carolina for almost all of my adult life, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
The subdivision called Belladonna in the book’s title is an upscale, upcountry suburban enclave. And yet, for all its being protected and privileged, it’s not completely isolated from the larger world. Could you comment on the political and cultural critique that seems to hover behind many of these stories?
I have a love/hate relationship with gated communities. They’re breathtakingly beautiful but potentially deadly—socially, economically, and ecologically. That’s why I call my imaginary one Belladonna.
I don’t live in a gated community myself, but my wife and I are fortunate enough to have a house on three acres in a nice neighborhood—and we spend countless hours in our yard. We regard it as a work of art—“nature still, but nature methodized” as Alexander Pope said, albeit in a different context. So the critique in my Belladonna stories is in part a self-critique.
The epigraph to The Beasts of Belladonna comes from Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the play, after Lear opts for early retirement, one of his evil daughters tells him he no longer needs his own servants—so she’s planning to dismiss them. His indignant reply ends with “Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.”
Lear is right. Human beings need more than food, clothing, and shelter to be their own best selves. But it’s also true that the desire to have “more than nature needs” can make us bestial in a different sense. For many Americans who are neither saints nor social Darwinists, figuring out a decent middle way is a daily challenge. I know it is for me.
What is it about pets that reveals character and identity?
I think it’s their dependence upon human beings—upon the folks I call in one of my poems “guardian bipeds.” How in the world can cats and dogs trust these inscrutable, lumbering creatures who are many times their size? Yet they do—often to their benefit, but sometimes to their peril.
Persons who abuse their pets usually abuse other human beings as well—whenever it’s to their advantage to do so and they think they can get away with it. Don’t mass murderers often start by torturing animals?
But pet lovers are more nuanced. Some show a similar kindness to other people, but many don’t flourish in human relationships. Some can’t love creatures they can’t control. Some employ their pets as weapons. Some use pets as shields to protect themselves from emotional injury. Some are pathologically shy, and only their pets allow them to reveal their deepest selves.
As a biped who speaks to felines in Cat Latin, I find these different coping strategies endlessly various and fascinating.