Michael Onofrey's short story, Chardonnay, appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Agave Magazine. This year he published his first novel, Bewilderment, a tale of a man returning home to Los Angeles after three decades abroad to care for his dying mother and come to terms with his memories. We took the opportunity to catch up with Michael and find out more about bringing Bewilderment to life.
AGAVE: You’ve written and published over 70 short stories, but this is your first novel. What was the most difficult aspect of moving from short fiction to a longer format, and what prompted you to make the leap?
MICHAEL ONOFREY: Actually, this is my first “published” novel. I wrote two others before Bewilderment, but they, thus far, haven’t been accepted for publication. But, regarding your question, the most difficult aspect in moving from short to long fiction is the investment of time. Bewilderment came off rather quickly, but the first novel I attempted didn’t. I thought it was done and I sent it out. But I understand now that it’s not done, and I want to return to it. Returning to that book represents a chunk of time. Returning to a short story doesn’t represent so much time.
I made the leap to that first novel because an agent had read a story of mine and sent me an email, asking if I had a novel going. A few weeks later a second agent sent me an email asking the same question. That agent, though, had read a different story. So I figured I should start writing a novel. But of course, like most fiction writers, a novel was something I wanted to try at some time. As a footnote, both those agencies turned down the novel (50 pages) that I sent them, which was the first novel I wrote.
One other thing: With short stories you have to keep thinking up new ideas, one after the other, as you move from one story to the next, which can be exhausting after a while. With a novel, once you got the idea you can start chewing on it without having to think up a new idea. In that sense a novel is kind of a relief. It’s not a bad policy to go back and forth between long and short fiction because it breaks up the monotony of one format going on and on and on.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing Bewilderment?
There were two big challenges. In the order that I dealt with them, the first was the handling of tense: past and present tense. Chapter 1 is present tense. Chapter 2 begins with past tense, but then switches to present tense at the story break on page 18. Chapter 3, a short chapter, is all past tense. So why did I go back and forth? The first reason was that it felt right, which is to say that it felt fresh. I thought it worked well, or at least worked well for me. In the first draft, I tried different approaches. I tried, for example, sticking with one tense throughout, present and then past, but in both cases the narration started to drag. Then I tried putting the Los Angeles scenes in present and India/Pakistan in past, but that was too pat, too formalistic, too mathematical. So I went with what felt right, which might appear random, but of course I went over this any number of times, so how could it have been random? At the same time, I liked the suggestion of random because it somehow served to enliven the narration in an organic way. And then, which leads to the second challenge, I thought that the play of tense would help bring memories into the present, kind of like how we have memories bubbling in our minds while we operate in the present.
The second challenge was how to suggest past and present coming close to one another, and in this regard the novel begins with the past (India) and the present (Los Angeles) far apart, but as the novel progresses the past and the present shift back and forth more rapidly, and so the distance between them narrows.
Many of the characters in Bewilderment deal with profound bouts of loneliness. Who do you feel deals best with the situation?
Evelyn. Evelyn is the most grounded, and in the end she is the one who moves beyond loneliness. Ironically, she is the one who has lost the most because she is the one who had the most. In addition, she worked for what she had, and then lost it.
What books did you learn from, and what lessons did you keep in mind while writing Bewilderment?
Like everyone else who writes (or wrote), I learned from a lot of books. But to name a few that I think were (and are) extremely pertinent, I’d single out How Fiction Works by James Wood and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Along the lines of fictional work, there were (are) Madame Bovary (Lydia Davis translation) and A Sentimental Education (Douglas Parmée translation) by Gustave Flaubert. And the thing that kicked this whole deal off with regards to Bewilderment there was In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (Penguin Classica Deluxe Edition, separate translators for each book, Lydia Davis doing Swann’s Way). Proust got me thinking about writing a novel that involved memory and memories. Another way of looking at it: Flaubert for realism, Proust for modernism.
Lessons I kept in mind? James Wood: narration, particularly free indirect style (moving between character’s eyes [or characters’ eyes] and author’s eyes, but I’m tempted to say narrator’s eyes and character’s eyes [characters’ eyes]), and then the arbitrary quality of memory which can yield the unexpected. Francine Prose: every rule regarding fiction has been broken at one time or another in a great work of fiction. But this doesn’t mean a free-for-all. It means doing what’s appropriate, which might mean breaking accepted rules. Flaubert: author ought to be careful in keeping his or her opinions out of the story. Proust: fiction is wide open; Proust wasn’t even sure if what he was writing was a novel.
Do you plan to write another novel?
I hope to.
Michael Onofrey's Bewilderment was published by Tailwinds Press. It is available in paperback and as an e-book.