Susan Tepper: David, I have read many stories about human need, but none, to my recollection, were written in such a forcefully economic way. I see “Tortillas“ as a story about human deprivation on a deep level. As its author, does it strike you this way?
David Ackley: The story’s like a little bucket of particularized human behaviour that you dip up from some elemental source: I don’t know how far or exactly where this pool extends, but I’d agree that it’s probably deep. When you say deprivation, I assume you’re talking about some prior condition of the observed family.
Susan: Yes, I am talking about something lacking here in this family. This piling on of food items listed so deliciously, and consumed almost as if they were a family of vacuum cleaners. It all gets sucked in so effortlessly.
David: Maybe they’re a kind of figure for consuming, which we’re all encouraged to do, past need, even past want, as long as it keeps coming we keep putting it away. Presumably they’ve come from somewhere else where even needs weren’t very well met and now have adapted to a fault to the opposite view where you’re not doing your part until you’ve grazed up everything in sight. I’m not just referring to food here, as I guess you weren’t either. The waiter in that sense is a kind of enabler.
Susan: The waiter is definitely an enabler! And we actually have two needy families running parallel here. The boy (Alan) who is visiting his dad in El Paso, they are one family, and the second family (the big eaters) who are the observed family. I have to say that I immediately related to this story on a personal level. When I was twelve, my brother and I visited our dad in El Paso, before we went on to Roswell where he was working that summer. My memory of El Paso is also hugely about food, only in my case it was a pancake house that served maybe 100 varieties. I had chocolate pancakes with whipped cream and chocolate drizzle. Flat like your tortillas. Food is symbolic and food is real.
David: You’re exactly right about the two parallel families, Alan and his father, who come from the cold northeast, and the observed Hispanic family, obviously from a warmer climate. Which brings in an emotional contrast as well. You can assume something wistful in Alan’s observation of a family whose needs, however basic, are being met against what’s missing between his father and him. The story is an excerpt of a larger work that’s struggling in the no man’s land between novella and novel at present, and the emotional hunger that Alan feels is played out more in that work of course.
Yeah, food and hunger seem to underpin much of the way we think and react to other things; all consumption seems like eating sometimes….
Susan: Right- and what is missing between Alan and his father is what drives the narrative here. And that you, as the author, decided to start by using a list- a food list, of all things, really gives the story its strong punch. It’s fascinating because it is a quiet story with a big impact. It’s almost ritualistic in the listing of the foods. I felt pulled in and right there with them all. I saw the foods, and in particular the warm tortillas which have an almost aphrodisiac effect- the way food can in certain circumstances. We are lulled, almost trance-like, into this story of warmth and food and deprivation.
Do you think there is a mother back home for Alan? Do you think he feels loved by his dad? I’d like to know some backstory if you’d care to tell.
David: In the novella (let’s call it) Alan’s mother died when he was 14 and when his father took a 2nd wife, within months, Alan moved out to live with his older sister. He and his father have been distanced (if not quite estranged, they’re on speaking terms, but not very often) since then.
The question of what each of them, Alan and his father, feels for the other is a complicated one that the novella plays out. And, whether whatever feeling is there changes, or is better understood, at least, is its central preoccupation.
Susan: Overall it sounds quite character driven, and it has been set up really well in this short segment that you have titled “Tortillas“. I love your ending line which finishes the piece quite poetically:
“… and it seemed to Alan that they were all prepared to indefinitely continue this way of giving pleasure to each other, they with their consumption of tortillas and the waiter with his bringing more, until the night came to an end.”
Read “Tortillas“ by David Ackley
Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories.Susan is fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.