Defamiliarizing the Familiar


Jason Ockert’s “Your Nearest Exit May Be Behind You” appears in our Fall 2019 issue. Derrick Bracey, Ockert’s former writing student and current peer at Coastal Carolina University, recently discussed where this story fits into Ockert’s larger body of work and his approach to turning the typical on its head.


Bracey: I’d say I’m pretty familiar with your writing and there are some similar themes here in “Your Nearest Exit May Be Behind You” to earlier work—a strange semblance of loss and guilt, the lone character searching for meaning in the stages of grief. Here, you allow the story to carry readers through a slipstream of genres. Slipstream isn’t new to you. I mean your novel Wasp Box centered around brain-eating insects, but did you know you would incorporate this slip before you started writing or did this unnatural progression naturally develop during the writing?


Ockert: First of all, I hope that you, the Shenandoah family, and readers at home are healthy and safe. Thank you for taking the time to discuss this story.


Slip is a fine word. It’s been tangled up with Freud. It can be worn beneath a dress. It’s the act immediately preceding the fall. I think merging it with stream and anointing it a genre (first attributed to Bruce Sterling) is a terrific idea.


When an idea for a story finds me, I don’t think much about its origin. The idea is the starting gun and I just go, go, go. The story is the slipstream in the wake of language. Some stories require me to sprint while others, like “Your Nearest Exit May Be Behind You,” force me to slow down and settle into a steady rhythm. The emotional contours of this story kept shifting so I had to be really patient. I suck at patience. Thankfully, I had a steadfast and shrewd editor in Beth Staples who helped me drag the story across the finish line.


Bracey: The beginning of this story feels like we’re working through a logistics word problem about a plane leaving Chicago and bound for New York. Did you do this to add a playful approach to a really heavy story?


Ockert: I like stories that defamiliarize the familiar and show me something new that maybe I already knew but had forgotten. The act of reading is akin to remembering. In terms of my own story, yeah, in order for me to disorient the reader I have to orient her first. The opening of this piece is the buckling up, and I hope that the reader will trust me enough to follow along to the end of the journey. There are no parachutes.


Bracey: This idea of defamiliarization is interesting to me. When you mention the readers buckling up for the ride, is the goal to bring the reader along on your journey of remembrance or to help them find their own forgotten memories?


Ockert: The goal is to interest the reader so that she’ll finish the story. I hope that the piece makes the reader feel something—sad, nostalgic, hopeful, disquieted—and that she is compelled to go back and reread the story when she’s done. In rereading, a narrative becomes more familiar, even if it doesn’t necessarily make more sense. What I love about the short story form is that it doesn’t pretend to know all the answers to questions raised within the confines of the story. There’s pleasure in puzzling through it. When you do, it becomes yours.


Bracey: Can we talk a minute about how you framed characters by seat numbers? It’s an emotional push and pull—distancing us by referring to the guy in 9C, only to pull us into snippets of these characters’ lives—it makes for a turbulent ride.


Ockert: Everyone on the surface is a stranger. Familiarity comes with interaction. There have been plenty of times when I’ve gotten to know the person sitting next to me on a flight that I’d never met and will never meet again. In the cramped and temporary space of the airplane cabin the stranger is the story she tells. And so am I.


Since “Your Nearest Exit May Be Behind You” is about the transference of public pain to private pain (and vice versa) it made sense (in my tiny brain) to begin in anonymity and then swerve toward the personal.


Bracey: The point of view also takes a few turns. Why did you switch to second person about a quarter of the way through?


Ockert: What started as a digression—a way to take your eye off of Laura for a moment—turned into another avenue for me to pursue the story. The title was taken from the preflight safety briefing announced in that calm automaton voice right before liftoff; you know the voiceover I mean computer-splaining the obvious? I was curious about the turn of phrase—“your nearest exit may be behind you”—and how I was receiving this information. The “You” referred to everyone on board, yes, but also me specifically. And yet, of course, not me at all. The You was a Me that was also A Passenger. Identity is fractured, if you think about it, and yet it makes perfect sense when you’re sitting on an airplane half-listening and waiting to move.


Bracey: I love to talk about the elemental composite of characters. These characters make what seems like a very intentional jump from passengers on a plane to people wanting and needing and worthy of empathy. Would you consider this empathy for strangers or passers-by the emotional core of the story?


Ockert: Empathy is generated by identifying with the thoughts and feelings of other people. When we learn about something bad happening to a stranger, the better part of us feels bad too. For example, say that I discover via social media that a girl named Ruby in Indiana has lost her golden retriever puppy. It squeezed through the gate and bolted. That sucks. I know what it’s like to have an animal run away. So—to use a curious phrase—my heart goes out to her. I hope Ruby finds that puppy and her unhappiness abates. There’s part of me that believes that my hoping is an active agent of good; that somehow (and this doesn’t make sense) my desire for Ruby to find the dog will bring it back. Can my hope will Ruby’s world better? Uh, no. Of course not. But it’d be nice if it could. In the vast mystery-stew of story it can be rendered plausible.


Bracey: Can we dive into Zig? Why does he become the recipient of all this discarded regret? What made him the destined target?


Ockert: Zig happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can relate to that. Some days, it seems like everything is going wrong: I wake up late, my car has a flat tire, my umbrella is broken and it’s pouring.


I can also relate to the passengers aboard flight 1745. Some days bring good luck: A story I’ve written is accepted by Shenandoah magazine, that pain in my shoulder is gone, all the traffic lights are green.


While we cannot control the Good or Bad Days, we can try to manage them. We have the free will to roll over in defeat or rise up to meet adversity. Through no fault of his own, Zig is the recipient of the “boulder-sized agony bomb.” He was no more destined to absorb the fleshy regrets than the passengers were destined to lose it. What matters, I think, is what the characters do in the aftermath of the event. Will the passengers appreciate their slimmer bodies and breezy new attitudes? Hopefully. Those characters live lives off the page. On the page, we learn that Zig doesn’t give up. In fact, his misfortune may end up being the best thing that ever happened to him.


Bracey: It’s a curious move you make at the end of the story. Can we talk a sec about how it feels like you’re going to leave the reader without a resolution to the baby problem, but then you literally drop an answer on the curb to be picked up or abandoned? It feels more hopeful than you may have intended?


Ockert: Well, I’m glad you read it that way. (Hell, I’m glad you read it at all…) I slant toward absurdity, not nihilism. Spoiler Alert: there’s hope left at the bottom of Pandora’s box. While I’m skeptical of the collective, I believe in the spirit of collected individuals.


The world will get better for Laura and it will get better for Zig. Will it get better for You? That’s up to the reader.


Bracey: So what’s next? Is this part of a larger planned collection? Is this a weird one-off?


Ockert: I’ve recently completed a collection of short stories. “Your Nearest Exit May Be Behind You” is part of the collection.

Jason Ockert is the author of Wasp Box, a novel, and two collections of short stories, Neighbors of Nothing and Rabbit Punches. His honors include the Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize, the Atlantic Monthly Fiction Contest, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award, as well as inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories. His stories appear or are forthcoming in Granta, Oxford American, McSweeney’s, and One Story. He teaches at Coastal Carolina University.