Owen unearths what goes unseen in ‘Other People’s Love Affairs’
By Lou Fancher
Ten short stories in D. Wystan Owen’s debut collection, “Other People’s Love Affairs” (Algonquin Books, $15.95. 224 pages) read like a deconstructed novel. Joined by location in Glass, a fictional British coastal town, the protagonists never interact directly. Even so, the stories seem to revolve around a second locus as characters appear to exist on the periphery of their individual lives. The Marin County writer’s collection therefore spreads itself like an analog timepiece taken apart—the scattered pieces not required to reassemble but clearly parts of a unified structure.
Bay Area native Owen, 34, attended Berkeley High School. He holds graduate degrees in creative writing from UC Davis and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Co-founder of The Bare Life Review with his wife, Ellen Namakaokealoha Kamoe, and Nyuol Lueth Tong, the biannual publishes work by immigrant and refugee authors, often early in their careers. Owen’s work has appeared in A Public Space, The American Scholar, Literary Hub and more.
“I like the word “fragility” being used,” he says, responding in an interview to a word applied to his writing. “That was my whole goal: celebrating that people and things are fragile. We’re taught as writers that we’re supposed to tell stories with authority: take out adverbs and adjectives. I like to write against that.”
Writing “against” convention means Owen often uses the passive voice. Restating phrases or sentences is another attribute he employs to suggest uncertainty or differing points of view. The repetition, slightly altered, also represents a character’s attempt to document something with earnestness. Owen is also fascinated to encounter similar concepts applied to voices. “I love the way Billie Holiday will rephrase something so it sounds like a question, and then next, like something she can hardly bear singing,” he says. “I like to listen to people as they stammer, or hesitate.” His own father’s accent, he adds, has had tremendous impact on his work. “Reticences, hesitations, even if it’s all English, resonate to me. The manner in which a person speaks, distinctively, is definitive of that person or a description of a place.”
Which explains why, as a fan of baseball, Owen appreciates the game most for interstitial moments a casual observer might not notice. “It’s the pitcher deciding what to throw, the batter trying to guess what’s coming. That has subtext, it’s friction and emotion,” he says.
The keen power of observation carries over into his literature. Although the characters often appear estranged from their own and others’ feelings, there’s a sympathetic sheen, a nostalgia to his style. He writes, for instance, in the voice of Louise, the main character in his “Housekeeper” story, who is mulling over her lifelong feelings of alienation. “Even now, she felt that: at thirty years-old, her very life hung about her like an ill-fitting garment.”
“Housekeeper was one of the first stories I wrote. It felt like a milestone. I found an eerieness. The way Louise moves into Mr. Harris’ life, the takeover of his space, the parasitic nature, was something I explored. It’s one of the many things I took from (shnovelist and short story writer) William Trevor; the way people create imagined lives and slowly remove themselves from their real lives.”
Owen mentions other authors whose books or direct instruction influence him – in particular, Bay Area author Yiyun Li, who as his teacher introduced him to Graham Greene, V.S. Pritchett, Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield and others. In his reading, serendipity plays a role. “I move willy-nilly through my own list. Right now, I’m reaching back to (Greene’s 1938) ‘Brighton Rock’.”
Although the stories in the new collection were written non-consecutively, the order did not change after he sold the work to the publisher. “The order, with the wide angle view in the first story, was deliberate,” he says. Symmetrically, the last story closes in an intimate scene with two people, but one character’s thoughts zoom out geographically, suggesting outside, future possibilities.
Owen’s writing process is more unpredictable. Plot and events are unplanned. “It’s almost accidental. I’m exploring things that catch my attention as I’m writing. It’s an artifact of my curiosity that there are shifts in point of view that create dramatic irony. If I try to think up an idea, it’s never as good as the story having its own intelligence.” Even so, he doggedly examines each story for its emotional logic, through countless redrafts striving to “place an experience or feeling in the body of a reader.”
Naturally, peripheral characters—a fruit buyer here, a bus driver there—haunt him and invite thoughts of linking them in a second collection. Or a novel? Owen says the intensity of attention short stories require “won’t tolerate” the diffused focus of a novel. “I’d like to write a novel,” he admits, “but I won’t give up on short stories. I love the form.”