“Hollis had never called on anyone’s god until the day he watched a deer fall through the sky.” So begins “Tonto and the Undertaker,” Tania James’s remarkable short story in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion, about loneliness and suddenness, and the power of culture to heal. Tania is the author of Aerogrammes, a collection of short stories just out from Alfred A. Knopf, and a novel, Atlas of Unknowns. We asked her about old-time radio lore, the allure of short fiction, and her story in the current issue of the magazine.
“Tonto and the Undertaker” begins with an image that’s sharp and indelible: a deer leaping over a guardrail and into highway traffic. How was this story conceived? Did you begin with a strong image in mind? Or were there characters or ideas you wanted to explore?
I built that scene off something my mother witnessed as she was driving—watching a deer plummet to its death. It chills her to think of it, to this day. What’s so harrowing about the memory, as she described it, was the humanness of the deer, the neck and legs flailing. Its emotions were as legible as any human’s would be in that situation. When I think about that image, I think of her describing it and shuddering. Maybe it was her deeply emotional, even slightly traumatized, response that made me want to write about it.
According to old-time radio lore, Tonto’s character in “Tonto and the Lone Ranger,” the 1930s radio show, was created as a foil for the Lone Ranger—but it’s Tonto who, in the end, sort of saves the Lone Ranger from loneliness. Can you say a bit about your story’s connection (if there is one) to that old-time radio program?
My sister calls me Tonto sometimes, which is about the extent of my experience with Tonto and the Lone Ranger. I think I’ve already said too much.
Neither of the main characters in this story are particularly verbal. At times, it seems they go out of their way to avoid talking about anything difficult, and yet they both experience difficult things. What is the role of dialogue in this story? Is it true to say that Hollis and Joel, the main characters, communicate in ways different than speech?
I’ve come to love living in the heart of a city, preferably where I can get anywhere by bike. But there’s some essential part of me that loves driving along a vast midwestern highway. The monotony lets the mind travel. I wanted the highway to unlock the same in Hollis, to have a life of its own, in a way. The dialogue that Hollis and Joel share, to me, is secondary to what carries on in Hollis’s mind. Both of them are comfortable in the silence.
Animals (both dead and alive) intervene in “Tonto and the Undertaker,” often changing the characters in important ways. How do you think about the role of the natural world in your writing?
I once wrote a story about a chimpanzee who gets adopted by a human family, but this might be my first story that directly interacts with the natural world. For the last nearly eight years of my life, I’ve lived in urban centers (NYC, downtown DC), so aside from getting bombed by the occasional pigeon, I don’t often run into wildlife. I did look at a lot of pictures of road kill, and it surprised me how anguished a squirrel could look. A squirrel—which I’ve only known to have one beady-eyed expression. So it was easy to see how a character like Hollis could project his own grief onto an expression like that, how he could so romanticize the natural world.
This story is full of the language of growth and renewal—while also being about road kill and death and burial. Why mix these themes? What is it about the act of burial that’s bound up, somehow, with the affirmation or safekeeping of life?
It makes sense to me, in hindsight, that the language of growth and death intersect in the story, but I’m not sure I was knowingly braiding these themes together. For Hollis, these burials are a way of defending against the violence and indignity of death, be it the death of a fallen deer, or the sudden death of his wife, or the shooting of his acquaintance at a gas station. Burial takes time. Burial requires him to handle the dead thing with his own hands. These all provide a measure of comfort and stillness, at least for a while.
The last question is a two- or three-parter: You’re a writer of short stories, but are you also a reader? As a reader, what do you enjoy most about the short story form? Is there a feeling or an effect you hope to impart to readers with this story?
I love short stories. I think I loved them before I did the novel. Of all the classics in my dad’s library, the short story collections seemed the least intimidating to crack open. I appreciate the tight focus, the speed, the containment. What I hope to impart is an even harder question. There are certain short stories that I’ve carried around for years, stories that delivered the sort of lasting emotional wallop that resists definition. As a writer, I wouldn’t venture to impart anything more specific than that kind of impact, which is hard enough to achieve.
Tania James’s short story in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion is available in print and digital editions. Go ahead, subscribe!