Max Harris was born in England, received his PhD from the University of Virginia, and now lives in Wisconsin. He is the author of five nonfiction books, including Carnival and Other Christian Festivals (University of Texas Press, 2003) and Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools (Cornell University Press, 2011), and several short stories. His work has won the David Bevington Award for the Best New Book in Early Drama Studies and the Wisconsin Academy Review/Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops Short Story Contest.
Amoskeag: In Men With Yellow Ties, your main character, Doris, is convinced that there are little “fairies” inside of her hand bag that speak to her in sign language and protect her from people who try to harm her, such as the men with the yellow ties. How did they get to that point in their life? Why do they see the world the way they do?
Max: I have no idea. They were there at the beginning of the story. I don’t know where they came from. Nor do I know why they see things the way they do. Clearly, they’re very protective of Doris. Perhaps because she feeds them.
Amoskeag: Your story begins with a description of all the items contained in Doris’ purse. Why did you begin there?
Max: I suppose I’d been thinking about how much my wife manages to carry around in her purse. And, I’d been wanting to write a fairy story of sorts. The two impulses coalesced, and I discovered the fairies in Doris’s purse (or, since Doris is English, in her handbag). Then I had to decide what to do with them.
Amoskeag: Did you see the ending coming, or did it suddenly surprise you? How did you prepare for it?
Max: Some of my stories are planned in advance; others are not. This was one of the latter kind. The ending snuck up on me gradually, as the story unfolded.
Amoskeag: Is your character’s view of the world reflective of the way you see the world? Or were you surprised by what they saw and how they felt?
Max: Doris is nothing like me, except that we’re both English. I don’t believe in fairies, but I do believe that there is more to the world than we can see. The fact that my imagination often surprises me no longer surprises me.
Amoskeag: Doris and the narrator share a unique relationship. While it is not revealed to the reader as to how they know each other, they have a special bond. When she moves, they continue to keep in touch. The narrator visits her often and even pays her rent. . How did you construct the language of the piece? How did you capture their relationship? How did you come to hear and record the feelings of both the narrator and Doris?
Max: In early drafts, the narrator said at some point toward the end, “After all, she is my mum.” Although I took that out in the final draft, I still think of them as mother and son. Ah, the language! Well, on the one hand, it’s the language of the respectable English working-class, aspiring to middle-class life and values, into which I was born. On the other hand, the story is written throughout in sustained trochaic meter (check it out!), which of course is an entirely artificial construct, but moves the story along rather nicely as long as the reader never becomes conscious of it. I suppose, too, the relationship between Doris and the narrator was influenced by the fact that my wife and I spent a lot of time with my own mother in the last 3-4 years of her life, when she was suffering from dementia (not full-blown Alzheimer’s, but dementia nonetheless.) While Doris and the narrator are very different from my mum and me, their closeness in some way reflects that time of caring for my mum. I was not aware of this connection while writing the story.
Amoskeag: Your narrator makes a final statement at the end of the story. “I suppose she’s safe enough. I worry sometimes, though. What happens if some bugger in a yellow tie decides to ring her doorbell, selling triple glazing or religion?” Why does this line matter in this piece?
Max: It leaves the threat of danger still intact.
Amoskeag: How do you feel when a piece gets accepted and readers that you don’t know are now going to complete the story that you worked so hard at to shape?
Amoskeag: What’s next for you as a writer?
Max: The bulk of my writing time is spent working on scholarly books and articles. My current book project is tentatively called Christ on a Donkey: Palm Sunday, Royal Entries, and Blasphemous Pageants. But it’s still in the early stages, so who knows what it will finally look like? Writing fiction allows me to enjoy an entirely different approach to writing. I get to make stuff up (which scholars aren’t supposed to do), and to care about the aesthetics of writing. Learning to tell a story better also helps me to write more readable scholarship. Since “Men With Yellow Ties” appeared in Amoskeag, I’ve had stories published in A capella Zoo, The Madison Review, The Midnight Diner, and Windhover. Maybe I’ll get a novel published one day.