In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Denton Loving
Your short story “Renunciation” in Volume 23 includes a scene that depicts Giotto di Bondone’s famous painting Renunciation of Worldly Goods. What was your inspiration for incorporating di Bondone’s work?
Just prior to writing this story, I read Thomas Cahill’s Mysteries of the Middle Ages. One of the chapters in that book features several of Giotto’s paintings while also attempting to place Saint Francis of Assisi’s life within the greater context of history. A lot of that chapter of Cahill’s book is also about the artists of this time period, and how art was interwoven with religion. Giotto was himself a lay person in the Franciscan order. I briefly became obsessed with the merging of all of this information, especially with Giotto’s painting Renunciation of Worldly Goods. Obviously, the story’s title is derived from the painting.
There is an almost imperceptible shift in character perspectives in the story. How do these shifts compare with di Bondone’s work that there are spatial and narrative elements outside of the viewer’s purview?
This is really interesting to me, but it’s hard to talk about, primarily because it’s dangerous to compare your efforts to those of a master like Giotto di Bondone. What I can say is that for me a narrative’s structure is one of the most interesting elements of fiction. By structure, I’m referring to the way a story is delivered to the reader. In this story, I was particularly interested in telling a story that not any single character could relay by themselves. I was interested in each of the three POV characters. I still believe each could successfully carry the weight of narrating an entire version of the story. But any of those three versions would have been limited and less interesting to me. By allowing access to all three characters’ perspectives, I hope the reader gains insight that none of the three have individually.
To begin with, it humbles me to realize how many fantastic writers are working so hard to tell their stories. Editing also helps me focus on the part of writing that isn’t merely creative. It’s easier to question if some part of a story is believable or too convenient, or if the character and action carries the right emotional resonance when it’s someone else’s work and not your own. But editing keeps those questions in the forefront of my mind when I return to my own work. I guess I would say that it helps give me an additional layer of perspective.
This issue was birthed during this pandemic and the political and social unrest that’s been spilling over on the streets in cities nationwide. It feels like day after day we witness more violence and division, and we felt that the title “hunger for tiny things” took on a multi-faceted poignance for this issue. I’m curious—what tiny things do you hunger for these days?
Most of my closest friends live pretty far from me. I’m like everyone else who is longing to see the people they love. But what I hunger for isn’t just the ability to travel and see people. I desperately want to feel like it’s safe and responsible to go back out to the world. I’ll be one of the last groups eligible to be vaccinated, and I’m okay with that. But I hope everyone who can get their shot will do it as soon as possible.
Writers tend to write what haunts or obsesses them. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing, or tend to show up a lot in your work?
One of the obsessions I write about a lot is the complexity of familial relationships. What do we owe each other? In what ways do we fail each other? And how do we manage to move forward while carrying the weight of those choices.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
There are two novels that I’ve been carrying around in my soul for a while now. One is The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason. The other is Salamanders of the Silk Road by Christopher Smith. Both books have haunted me for the last couple of years. Also, Kevin Canty and Michael Ondaatje are two of my favorite writers. Their work always leaves me excited to think about what can be accomplished on the page.
Mostly through sheer luck, I’ve had the opportunity to study with and be mentored by some amazing writers, and I’m hesitant to attempt to name names. But in general I’m inspired not only by the successful, best-selling writers, but by all of the writers who are emerging just now or will emerge someday soon. There are so many wonderful writers who haven’t published a book yet, but they are writing every day, and they make me want to keep going.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
Plot is definitely the element that I struggle with the most. My own work always starts with character and is focused on character. Sometimes I have to remind myself that plot is character plus action. Even after acknowledging that fact, I have to still question whether my characters’ actions are resonant enough.
What projects are you working on right now?
I always have stories and poems in various stages. But I’m working now to complete a manuscript of poems that I’m tentatively calling Tamp. Most of the poems are about my dad who passed away in 2016. It has taken a long time to feel that the poems were working the way I wanted them to work. Initially, I was afraid that they would come across as overly sentimental. I guess they took a long time to write also because writing the poems was one of the ways I was expressing my grief, and it just wouldn’t be rushed.
Denton Loving is the author of the poetry collection Crimes Against Birds and editor of Seeking Its Own Level, an anthology of writings about water. His writing has appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Threepenny Review, and other journals. You can learn more about Denton and his work at his website.