Brendan Stephens is a writer based out of Houston, TX. His work has appeared or is forthcoming from Epoch, Notre Dame Review, Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Currently he is in the Creative Writing and Literature PhD program at the University of Houston.
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions—and for submitting “The Waters” to SER in the first place! I really enjoyed your story and I’m so excited for this conversation!
In general, I love to study how a story begins—it’s a selfish focus because I struggle with openings in my own writing—and I was particularly struck with how much information you get on the page in just the first 100 or so words. And how organic to the story this information feels. Not only do you introduce all the big themes—addiction, grief, and the futility/possibility of communication—you also convey an immediate and full sense of Noah. He’s in pain. He’s funny. He loves music, but he’s frustrated that music isn’t helping him like he needs it to right now. All of this is a long-winded way of saying: could you speak more on how this opening scene came to be?
I’m really pleased that you found the opening to be effective. That’s always the struggle, right?—introducing the character, voice, and major themes in just a few short paragraphs without making it sound like throat-clearing. The opening in its current form didn’t change all that much draft-to-draft. Like it always opened with a drumroll moving into a text to Eliot and then a call to Terrell. There was only one pretty big revision when it came to the opening scene. Originally, the story was coy about whether Eliot was alive. Like it just said something like, “I texted Eliot, and he didn’t respond.” Throughout the story there were a bunch of hints and then having a reveal at the end. I was at the UCF MFA program at the time, and I took this story to a workshop and it seemed split 50/50 between those who liked the reveal and those who didn’t. Afterward I was talking to one of my friends about not being really sure which direction to take. He told me he thought that version of the story worked, but also made the point that it’d probably be way more interesting for the reader on page one to see a character texting a dead friend than some named character without a story until the final pages. That definitely sold it to me. So Brian Druckenmiller definitely deserves a shout-out for convincing me to make the opening way better.
For a story about grief and addiction, this piece is often quite funny. I was drawn to the humor that you laced throughout the characters’ dialogue and thoughts. It reminded me how important, even necessary, it is to keep a sense of humor when you’re working through pain. Humor can be a coping mechanism—it distracts us. But it can also bridge people—it helps us process. We see how Noah uses humor in both these ways at different moments in “The Waters.” Were you consciously including humor as you wrote, or was the humor more of an unconscious byproduct of writing about these specific characters and situations?
Honestly, this is something that comes up all the time in my writing. When I’m writing and in my own head, a story like this one will be one hundred percent tragic in my head. Just unrelenting sincerity and melancholy. But then at a reading, I start getting some laughs, and only then do I kind of think, “You know, I guess that is pretty funny.” So I’ve come to realize that the humor is there, but it’s pretty unintentional. Like Noah as a former touring hardcore drummer turned aspiring public school DJ to me is just an endless bummer of losing the thing that mattered most to him and refusing to move on. But it’s also pretty absurd—especially if you’re unfamiliar with the DIY music scene, which is full of people who cling to whatever their last grip to music is. It’s like the reverse of how Kafka used to give readings where he laughed uncontrollably at his work, but most readers only see him as bleak and alienating. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not purposeful, but I’m glad it’s there. There’s a part of me that has always wanted to be a standup comedian, so I’ll gladly take unintentional laughs.
You had some sequences and syntax in here that I thought landed so perfectly—that present a very exact amount of information while simultaneously leaving a certain amount of info missing. They’re also stunning prose. The opening paragraph for example. And this riff, not long after the opening:
This place used to look like a shit hole, but now on sleepless nights he cleaned with OCD meticulousness. Last week, underneath the pullout couch, he found dried blood. A lot of it. Now the floor shone.
Noah’s life has two parts: before Eliot’s death and after Eliot’s death. Or perhaps: before he got sober and since he’s gotten sober. He keeps a lot of these before-memories shut away. When I read passages like the one above, I felt acutely aware of this divide. How did you decide what about Noah’s past would be directly stated, and then how did you decide how to reference Noah’s past in ways that weren’t too direct, but that would signal to the reader what had happened?
That’s another balancing act that I really hope I pulled off. I’ve written some other stories with these characters, so I have a lot of backstory, but most of it doesn’t matter. I feel like I have to be more deliberate in what details I give because I don’t want to go off on some riff about the band that doesn’t have any payoff in the narrative present. If anything, I might be a little too coy with backstory because summarizing things I’ve written elsewhere is far less interesting. In “The Waters” in particular, I wanted to show Noah in transition. Compared to the backstory of addiction and overdoses, the story begins with Noah in a more stable place than before. And obviously stability doesn’t make for an interesting story. But it isn’t really stability—the clean house, the job, the meetings—none of it is actually working for him. The backstory, I hope, added to this by also giving enough hints that throughout the story he is risking that shaky semblance of stability that he’s managed to carve out for himself.
I really liked Terrell and I was pretty convinced your story was going to end with Noah and Terrell having gained a special connection. So, I was surprised—and thrilled to be surprised—when Noah failed to speak at the meeting and Terrell decided they weren’t a good match. This is a piece about second chances. But it’s also a piece about the reality of our choices. I thought Terrell and Noah’s imperfect relationship spoke to both those ideas so well. Was it always your plan to end their sponsor-sponsee relationship? If so, why? Or, if not, what led you to figure this out?
That’s really interesting to hear that you thought this would end with Noah and Terrell. I guess I never even considered it because I always knew the story would end with Noah losing his “support-system.” I know that a lot of writers have story come to them sentence by sentence, never knowing what really is going to happen. But that isn’t really me. I tend to have a pretty solid outline before I start drafting—potential scenes, scraps of dialogue, a few sentences about each major character. Things change, and I don’t feel like I’m bound to the outline. But this story was one where the outline mostly worked. So I never really even considered that maybe Noah would have some public, emotional speech with Terrell or that things would turn out well for Noah in the end.
The moment when Noah and Samantha are both sharing part of their stories with one another was lovely, emotional, and felt completely natural to the story. And it happened during a middle school dance, a setting I never would have placed either of them in together. Yet the scene feels 100% organic to the plot; both narratively and emotionally, Noah’s series of tortured silences during NA makes his and Samantha’s later conversation all the more triumphant. How did you get to that moment?
This one totally stems from the fact that I taught middle and high school English for a number of years, and chaperoning the dances was always mandatory. I didn’t necessarily try to shoe-horn the setting into a story, but I guess it was just always on my mind because chaperoning dances was always so bleak and weird for me. Like it is funny for fifteen minutes, but then you have another two hours and forty-five minutes to pour soda and watch what is one of the most awkward social situations for kids in their most awkward years. And the DJs are obviously phoning it in, cycling through roughly the same songs from the last ten years because all of the songs need to be “clean.” I’m not trying to downplay school dance DJs because maybe there are some really passionate ones. But the ones I saw were more like Noah—just people waiting out the clock, largely ignoring everyone else. So I guess it just made sense to me to use that setting since it wasn’t all that strange to me and because I liked the idea of there being a lot of noise despite the silence. Like for Samantha, it’s literal silence, but for Noah it is just caring so little for the music that he is playing that he’s mostly tuned out.
During the scene mentioned above, Noah feels more uncomfortable than he ever has in an actual NA meeting. He thinks, “it felt more real than reality”. I love that line and I found myself re-reading it several times. What do you think this line means to Noah?
I think to Noah it is sort of like a moment of clarity at something he already knows. I don’t know how to more precisely say it, but, to put it in my own experience, I know there have been times where I feel like I’m having some insight into how the world works that I already know. Like death or something for example. Like I know that someday I won’t exist, but I can distinctly remember a few times reaching some insight into nonexistence that seemed deeper even though my original concept was basically unchanged. I don’t know. It’s hard not to talk about it in abstractions. But that was what I was trying to capture with Noah. Everything that has been working isn’t anymore. NA at this point isn’t helping—to him, it’s kind of a performance. He sees all these people behaving in the ritualistic way that the NA program depends on, and he just can’t buy in anymore. He kind of gets a glimpse of his addiction and world, and it just makes it more comprehensible for some reason.
The constraints and possibilities of communication are a big theme throughout this piece. Noah continues to leave voicemails for and send texts to his dead best friend. Noah also struggles to be honest with his sponsor and to open up during his NA meetings. Samantha is a deaf person and speaks ASL, which Noah begins to learn so that they can speak together. Thinking about communication as a theme had me considering your choice to write this story in third person, which I loved. What do you think the story gains because of the third person point of view?
Generally, when I write in third person, I don’t venture too far away from a close-third. This story is actually one that at one point I returned to after a few months and was like, “Oh yeah. It’s not in first.” Usually the point of view that I at least begin with tends to be based on intuition. However, recently I’ve been feeling more and more comfortable writing in third. There is an artifice to first person narration about the telling of the story to an implied audience that I sometimes end up spending too much time thinking about. You know, sort of a why is this character telling this story to this audience? Would this narrator really reveal some crucial story element? Not that third person narration is easier and doesn’t require answering those sorts of questions. But at least for me, I’ve lately been feeling a little bit more free because there is just enough distance to keep my momentum going. But who knows, maybe soon I’ll switch back to favoring first person for some reason.
The title. I can’t read your title, see the name Noah, and not think of Noah’s Ark from Genesis. In the Bible, Noah’s faith in God leads him to survival. You’ve written a Noah who is also looking for a path forward, a path towards survival. Your Noah makes reference to water as dope. He wants to “[tread] forever in an endless ocean” so that the waves can never “force him under”. I’m also thinking about Noah during his NA meeting at the Methodist church and how he hates “all the God shit” having to do with NA. Do you see Noah grappling with ideas of faith (religious or otherwise)? Can you talk about the choices behind Noah’s name, the story’s name, and other biblical references made throughout the piece?
Some of that is kind of happenstance. Since I’d written other stories in this universe, Noah was always the name. It wasn’t until after titling the story based off the metaphor for recovery that it even occurred to me that there was an obvious allusion going on. I’m sort of a recovering Evangelical, so Biblical allusions tend to seep out of me consciously and subconsciously all the time. I definitely don’t want it to be a red herring, but I think it might be one on accident.
If I taught this story, I imagine my students would debate the ending: are we left with hope for Noah and Samantha, or are we left fearing for Noah and Samantha? Whether Noah and Sam’s relationship takes a destructive or curative route, I’m interested that a reader could interpret their futures going a multitude of ways. How do you hope a reader interprets the ending?
I actually have to give credit to Karen Tucker for helping me get the ending in its current form. The current ending really stemmed from some conversations I had with her about the piece. Originally, I had another paragraph that was still ambiguous, but also kind of explained away the mystery more and also added a hypothetical third option that he knew he’d never take—that perhaps at some point in the near future Noah would drive Samantha away, accepting aloneness whether that is sobriety or a relapse. Karen helped me make the story do what is trying to do better by just tweaking a few sentences and cutting that third option since once it’s moved out of a binary and into a hypothetical choice kind of opens it up to limitless other possibilities. But to get back to your question, I don’t want to ruin anyone’s interpretation, but I don’t see there being a lot of hope for Noah. When Terrell tells him that Noah is only trying to be sober for Eliot’s memory rather than for himself, it is true. So while Noah is making progress with sobriety day-by-day and there is some sort of kinship made with Samantha, until Noah actually wants to be sober, I don’t see a lot of hope.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Honestly, I’d just like to thank you and the Southeast Review for not only taking the story but for giving me a chance to talk about it. I’m a big fan of the work that you all do. And this has been a lot of fun.
Colleen Mayo’s writing has appeared in The Sun Magazine and Bluestem. She was a 2017 winner of the FSU Creative Writing Spotlight Award for Nonfiction. Colleen is an MFA student in Fiction at Florida State University