Love and Community in 'Don't Make Me Stop Now'
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
An abusive husband seeks redemption by training for a triathlon in the middle of the night. A man tests his girlfriends by their reactions to his darkest secret. A husband discovers the woman he should have married in the grocery store aisle. These are some of the stories in a new collection by Michael Parker called "Don't Make Me Stop Now." Michael Parker joins me from member station WUNC in North Carolina. Hi there, thanks for being on the program.
Mr. MICHAEL PARKER (Author): Oh, thank you.
ELLIOTT: Now, you've said that this is a collection of love stories, although some of the romance here has a bit of a dark twist, I would say.
Mr. PARKER: Right, yeah. I think that most of the characters would conceive of them as love stories. I'm not sure all the readers would agree, but I think most of the - especially the men in the stories would think of these as love stories because sometimes there's a great confusion in their minds about what love exactly is.
ELLIOTT: Most of the stories are from the perspective of men. One story I'd really like for us to focus on is "Off Island." And your male character is an old African American man. And he is on this North Carolina barrier island with these two sisters. And basically it's a story of these three stubborn old folks who have refused to leave this island, even though it's been battered by hurricanes and everyone else has left. Can you introduce us to the characters in "Off Island"?
Mr. PARKER: Sure. There's two - actually I should say that this is based on a real island in North Carolina, which was called Portsmouth Island. And there were three people left on the island, I think, in the 1950s. And I've done a little bit of research and then I've taken a whole lot of liberties because I obviously wanted to write fiction and not nonfiction. But the story that I heard was there were three people left - two sisters and then this older black man who took care of them. And they decided that they were going to leave the island and then he was actually forced to leave the island as well.
So they've been there forever and they're the last three people there. Henry Thornton, who's lost his wife in one of the hurricanes that have come through, and then the two sisters, one of whom is extremely sort of somber, a joyless person who gets Henry's goat often and he has a sort of contentious relationship with her, and then the other sister, who is a lot looser and a bit of a party girl. So there's some variety there in the sisters as well.
ELLIOTT: Now, Henry's son Craw keeps trying to get him to move inland, to get off of this island and leave these sisters be. But he refuses time and time again. I'd like for you to read a passage for us from your story, if you would.
Mr. PARKER: Sure, I'd be glad to.
Mr. PARKER: Craw was always after him to move off island, had come after him six times since Bertha. You don't got to stay here looking after the sisters, daddy, till they die or you won. Come on, get in the boat. Craw showed up wearing his hair springy long and those wide-legged pants made out of some rust something. It looked like cardboard to where your legs couldn't breathe. Boots don't ought to come with a zipper.
Why would Henry want to climb in any boat with duded up Craw? He would keep quiet and watch his grandbabies poking around the beach and going in and out of the houses standing empty, waiting on their owners to come back, sitting right up on brick back haunches, pouting like a dog will do when you go off for a while. He would watch his grandsons jerk crabs out the sound on a chicken liver he give them and having themselves some big easy time until they hit that eye-cutting age. Look at granddaddy fussing after his white women, what for? Henry would look at them not looking at him and hear the words out of Craw's mouth all across the Pamlico Sound and all the way back. Your granddaddy don't want to change none. That island gonna blow and him with it one of these days.
ELLIOTT: So where's the love story here?
Mr. PARKER: Well, he's lost his wife and he misses her deeply. And I think a lot of his decision to stay is conflicted by what she would have done. He thinks about her and he thinks about how she probably would have urged him to leave, but also she lost her life on the island and I think he has a loyalty to her that allows him to stay on the island and to, you know, do whatever he does in the end of the story.
ELLIOTT: His wife's name is Sarah and he'll sometimes talk to her. You get the sense that he might feel a little bit of guilt because she died in a hurricane when he was off of the island running errands for these sisters.
Mr. PALMER: Exactly. Yeah, I think he feels terrible about that. And that, you know, sort of heightens the whole relationship and the present action with the sisters, which is very conflicted. I mean, he says himself, you know, why should there - he doesn't live even in the same part of the island with them. So there's three people left on the island and the island is still segregated after all these years. And yet they have - I mean they get together every night and sit on the steps of the old church and talk and they read him mail. And so they have a community, but it's also a very sort of segregated community. So they're holding on to ways that should have long since passed.
ELLIOTT: Well, he says in the end, I am that island, which clearly evokes and even resonates maybe against John Donne's famous line, no man is an island. What does it mean for Henry to say that he is that island and yet he is so involved in the small community, the mankind, if you will, of this island?
Mr. PALMER: Yeah, that's a great question. I think he's trying to preserve whatever dignity he can by separating himself from what he sees as the injustices of living on that island, especially after everyone's left and there's no real society except for those two sisters. And so he says that, but at the same time it's a very ambiguous statement because he does feel a part of it and he does have a working relationship with these sisters. So many of these stories, I think, especially the love stories - and they all have an element of love in them - are about people who are trying to square their reality with the rest of the world's reality. And that seems to me what love is; you know, it's those kinds of compromises that you make when you enter into some sort of union and you have to come out of your self.
And so, again, that's sort of the central conflict of "Off Island" as well. You know, to what extent do you leave your island and come to the mainland?
ELLIOTT: One last question for you, if you would.
Mr. PALMER: Sure.
ELLIOTT: I read that you said the distant editorial voice in your head would be whispering make me stop now as you would sit down to write these love stories. Is that where you got the title for your collection, "Don't Make Me Stop Now"?
Mr. PALMER: Oh no, I confess that I stole this title from Otis Redding, which is where I get most of my ideas, frankly. I would love to have the sort of power and the immortality of an Otis Redding song or a Sly Stone song. So the title comes from a song called "I've Been Loving You Too Long to Stop Now" and towards the very end - it's a very short song and a very famous song. Otis Redding says, please, I'm down on my knees, please don't make me stop now.
So since the singer in that - since Otis Redding in that song, and the character in that song was so adamant that this love not stop, it just seemed to really fit these stories, which are all about obsession and clinging and trying to let go.
ELLIOTT: Michael Parker is a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. His new collection of short stories is "Don't Make Me Stop Now." Thank you for talking with us.
Mr. PALMER: Thank you.
(Soundbite of song, "I've Been Loving You Too Long")
Mr. OTIS READING (Singer): (Singing) There were time and you want to be free, my love is growing stronger, as you become a habit to me, oh I've been loving you a little too long, I dont wanna...
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.