Short stories spark discussion of guns in American culture

Deirdra McAfee and BettyJoyce Nash collaborated on Lock and Load: Armed Fiction, which brings writers’ voices into the gun conversation. Courtesy of the artists Deirdra McAfee and BettyJoyce Nash collaborated on Lock and Load: Armed Fiction, which brings writers’ voices into the gun conversation. Courtesy of the artists

Deirdra McAfee and BettyJoyce Nash first met 10 years ago as teacher and student (respectively) in a creative writing class in Richmond, where they both lived at the time. Nash, a journalist who had recently turned to fiction, was surprised when a gun turned up in a story she was writing. “My palms got sweaty, my mouth got dry,” she says, “and I realized it’s a powerful metaphor and I had to be very careful with it.” This sparked a conversation between Nash and McAfee about how difficult guns are to handle, even in literature.

“They’re so powerful as metaphors and meaningful as objects that you have to be careful about how you introduce them and use them in the story,” McAfee says. “If you throw them in in the beginning, people are transfixed by them. If you pull them out at the last minute, you stop the story and the gun isn’t as useful if you’d introduced it more skillfully.”

Nash eventually enrolled in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, where she wrote her thesis on the role of guns in fiction. Her adviser, Pinckney Benedict, said to her, “If you’re an American writer, you’re going to have a character eventually pick up a gun.”

Indeed, it was the ubiquity of guns in American culture that fascinated Nash and McAfee. American language, McAfee points out, is steeped in its metaphor, with such expressions as: “He took his best shot” and “Someone shot him down.”

The two writers became “interested in [guns] from a literary standpoint,” McAfee says, and decided to build an anthology around them. They solicited stories, such as one from Benedict and another from Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx. Others came to them in response to a nationwide call for stories. The editors used a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to sift through submissions and find “the best contemporary stories,” McAfee says. The result, published last month, is Lock and Load: Armed Fiction.

Their work on the anthology began shortly after the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012. “We thought, we have to talk about this,” McAfee says. “The loud debate about rights and restrictions was obscuring the larger conversation about how do we as a nation feel about guns and how do we understand them.” Nash, who relocated to Charlottesville that same year, says both she and McAfee believe that “art, and fiction in particular, can help people think about these things in a different way.”

There’s something mysterious about the short story form, she says, that helps bring the reader “to a larger consciousness,” and a collection of such stories offers a wide range of experiences. “The idea,” McAfee says, “was to take people into 19 different worlds and look at 19 different ways of using a gun.” As they write in the introduction, the stories vary from “tender to violent, from chilling to hilarious. Love stories, war stories, coming-of-age stories and revenge stories, they occur in landscapes familiar or ordinary, distant or dystopian.”

Five years after they began their project, mass shootings continue to happen. On October 1, the day of the book’s publication, 58 people were killed by a mass shooter at a concert in Las Vegas. The editors hope the anthology will help readers find common ground. “Almost nobody in the U.S. thinks that these shootings are the price of freedom,” says McAfee.

Based on what they’ve witnessed on their book tour so far, the anthology is accomplishing what they had hoped, sparking significant discussion. “As people think about their own experience with guns they move beyond ideological divisions and talk about what they really mean,” McAfee says. “And what they really mean is the starting place. In a way they’re like statues and flags. They are objects but they’re also symbols. They mean different things to different people. But there are ways to talk about symbols that don’t involve dissension and violence.”