Thursday, February 7, 2013

An Interview with Jesse Bier

Fly-fishing, War – Where Two Stories Meet On Rivers

In your short-story, "Incident On The Clark Fork," your descriptions of fly-fishing are pitch-perfect. Are you a fly-fisher, Mr. Bier? More importantly, are you a bait fisherman and a fly caster, like the character of that story?

Predominantly, yes. I bait fished also in full-sun afternoons. I was no fisherman at all. But I had comrades quickly enough in the English department to teach me. I started with lures, and bait, mainly. But then I would be fishing with a fly-fisherman and the sight of that fish striking just like that was so far superior to the excitement underwater with bait. And even on the lure. But action with a trout on the line is action no matter what. It was the visual aspect. Oh, my. But I really never perfected it to my satisfaction. I couldn’t get a long enough cast, wasn’t artful enough.

Both, “Incident” and “1945: The Twins” have remarkable endings—powerful and definitive. When you read, or re-read, a memorable short story, what is the impression you want to be left with, and what impression do you aim to leave readers with at the end of your stories?

Of course, you know, the main action of "1945" is a veteran's story. I wasn’t the particular veteran. I was a squad leader, 11 men, in the infantry in Europe. And for most of the time I was the youngest, and my apprehension was that I was too young to be leading 30, 40 year old men into battle. So the ending of "1945" was my fabrication. Had nothing to do with the body of the story. What interested me in the course of that story is the same  as "Incident"—pacing. I hoped it would start fast and keep going. Though I’m leisurely in “Incident.” So I was interested in different pacing. Was I capable of two different kinds of speed? Of course in "Incident" it’s all threat. It strikes me also the impact of some of these events in a war, the last 50 years, to get back to that thing now, and it really evolves Japanese atrocity. We were capable of stuff there and continually after. I’m ashamed of us, sometimes—our military. But the Japanese were often vicious. What they did with the Chinese—and with us. But we retaliated.

But you know, that wasn’t true on the Western Front—wasn’t true in Germany. We captured German troops. Often on the islands, surrendering Japanese were not taken—they were shot.

In my own experience, there was an incident of coming through a German town... The only real incident of atrocity... German citizens would put out a white sheet to inditicate “don’t shoot,” but often, in small towns, maybe we’d be held up and the soldiers would pull out, and the town was left. Then the German populace—older people, women, children—would be hiding in two places: in the basement of a church or in the city hall. So we’d come through the main street, sheets would be out. Once, one of my own men threw a hand grenade into the basement of a city hall. Nothing authorizes this. Nothing like that ever happened to me, except that moment. I grabbed that guy—I was squad leader—and had the opportunity of reporting him. I remember ramming him against the window. He was surprised by my reaction—like I was overreacting—“they’re the enemy no matter what age," he said. "I wanted to throw a grenade." He had never thrown one. All armies have guys like this. I didn’t report him. I made him promise never to do anything like that again.  

In, "1945: The Twins," I’m intrigued by your ability to describe these military flight missions so vividly. Were you a pilot in the war, also? What was the inspiration for this story?

There is a time after war when veterans somehow get together. Half the student-body at my college were GI’s. You gravitate towards the veterans. You gravitate to 25-30 men who had been in the war and had seen combat. There is, for instance, an episode in Transatlantic Lives about a man who fought at Bastogne, who I met in college. We traded stories—the action I’d seen, the action he’d seen. He told the story of a man who was dropped into China. In Western China. And then this story “The Twins” must have come from that exchange. That was told about twins. Now how much have I elaborated? I almost elaborated nothing in the battle of Bastogne story, in Transatlantic Lives. But it seems to me that I put a couple of things together about the twins that I heard about—one of the most earnest and horrendous stories that came to me about the exchange. And, yes, there were stories from Pilots, which helped.

When did you write this story?

10-15 years ago the story came to me. Revised it 5 years later, and then last year I revised it.

The final line of this story informs the reader that the writing came from, “Wildcat Road, Missoula Montana,” and this seems to put a profound kind of importance to the story. What was the intention behind including a specific place where the story originated.

I had none. Some things I pre-meditate. This, no. I’m surprised that this had an effect. The contrast between horrific war material and Montana—I guess that was not intended.

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