Inside the Mind of an Executioner

In his debut novella, History of an Executioner, Clancy McGilligan forces his first-person narrator (the executioner) into daily moral and emotional gray areas. Given the title, there’s a constant expectation that the executioner will be called to perform his state-sanctioned duty, but instead, the complexity of his character is revealed through his time off. The executioner, like anyone else in McGilligan’s unnamed republic, is simply someone who has a job to do, but it is not the job that defines him.

In our conversation, McGilligan expressed wanting the novella to have “a fable-like texture,” and indeed, History of an Executioner excels in its quick pacing and spare prose. There’s a delightful amalgamation of specificity and mythic universality that’s difficult to pull off.

McGilligan’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Columbia Journal, Santa Monica Review, Slice Magazine, Sycamore Review, Wigleaf and elsewhere. He also serves as the Reviews/Interviews Editor at Split Lip Magazine.

McGilligan and I overlapped for a year in Florida State University’s creative writing program before he moved to Cincinnati, where he’s finishing up his dissertation. Our interview has been edited for clarity.

Did living in Florida change your writing in any way? Has where you lived influenced the subject matter or style of your writing over time?

Where I’ve lived almost always seeps into my writing in one way or another. Partly this is because I try to end up in places that interest me, and partly it’s because my lived experience exerts an inevitable pull on my imagination. Relocating to Florida made me more attuned to the natural world (and climate change), which shaped a novel I’m working on that deals with environmental transformation.

Why the natural world? For one, a hurricane struck or affected Tallahassee every year I lived there (three years in a row), though the last direct hit had been some three decades earlier. Two, nature always seemed astoundingly lush in my corner of Tallahassee (the Myers Park neighborhood).

From January to December, one plant or another was flowering. And outside my windows, I regularly saw a menagerie of animals, from lone hawks to clouds of swallowtail butterflies. This was a sharp contrast to Las Vegas, where I got my MFA, although the flora and fauna of Las Vegas has its own beauty. It was during a long Las Vegas summer that I wrote the first draft of History of an Executioner, and I think something about the daily heat and sense of isolation (I typically stayed inside until the sun went down) worked its way into the writing.

Your novella, History of an Executioner, interestingly shirks a specific geography. The setting is provincial—a small town obedient to a distant capital in an unnamed republic. How or where did you imagine the setting when writing it? Can you talk about your intentions in avoiding placing the characters in a particular nation and region?

This was an experiment for me: I wanted to create a sense of specificity without tying the setting to a particular historical era and place. Partly this was because I wanted a fable-like texture. And partly it was to limit the amount of research I needed to do. That said, I imagined the Republic as being somewhere in Europe or a place like Europe.

Your narrator is even further isolated, living out of town because of his profession. As a third-generation executioner, he sees his job as something ordinary, nothing more than a way to make money. That is to say, outwardly he doesn’t offer too much moral or emotional turmoil over his work. How did you go about developing a character who is both a functionary of the state and simultaneously excluded from its citizenry?

The executioner, as someone who has grown up with his work, accepts it as having a place in the world. At the same time, he resents his treatment by people in town, who ostracize him. These two forces are at odds. I was interested in creating a character who has to deal with that tension. I was also thinking of how, in our country and in others, certain jobs are viewed as necessary yet also as tarnished and undesirable. The people who perform these jobs are kept out of the public eye and generally live in a state of obscurity. If they do get noticed, they are looked down on or promptly disregarded. The executioner is an extreme variation of that.

It seems important to the novella that the narrative is told from the executioner’s first-person point of view. His emotions and thoughts are often more muted than might be expected, a fact he even acknowledges several times when people around town mistake his stoicism for dim- wittedness. What challenges did you find in maintaining a sense of balanced interiority? Was it difficult to find the voice of an executioner?

In this novella, I set out to explore how an executioner might see himself and his work. I did find it difficult to write from his voice, and I almost gave up on the novella at one point. I think the muted quality of his thoughts and emotions arises in part because of his relationship to his work — this muting enables him to carry out executions. He ends up muting everything in his life.

In publishing right now, there doesn’t seem to be a large marketing push for novellas or short novels, but they’re incredibly fun to read. Can you talk a little bit about what interests you about the novella as a form? As a writer, what excited you about novellas?

I’ve always loved the novella form, and when I talk to other readers and writers, they often say the same thing. It’s slender — usually a novella can be read in one sitting — but has some of the reach of a novel.

Lindsey Drager, in her excellent essay “The Novella Is Not The Novel’s Daughter: An Argument in Notes,” writes that the “novella manipulates scope, offering a refined and dense narrative that feels much larger in scale than it is.” Because of its shorter length, I first encountered a number of authors through the novella form, from Roberto Bolaño (By Night in Chile) to Franz Kafka (Metamorphosis).

It’s true that American publishing has been relatively unwelcoming to the novella. However, the novella has its proponents here, including John Keene, whose Counternarratives includes multiple novellas. Additionally, there are a number of novella prizes that have recently been launched.

Returning to geography for minute. I know that now that you’re a PhD candidate you had to take rigorous prelim exams covering a wide range of literature, well over 100 titles. I wonder if in your reading you thought about region or literary geography in new ways, whether in relation to the American South or somewhere else?

One of the areas I focused on was transnational fiction, so I studied literature dealing with the flow of people, culture, or ideas. This made me more conscious of the ways in which place (and change of place) influences narrative and character. It also made me mindful of how place can function like a character in a book. Examples of this might include the desert in The English Patient or the town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

What books were integral to writing this novella? Did you use any specific models?

There’s a passage in Waiting for the Barbarians, the novel by J.M. Coetzee, where the narrator wonders, mockingly, how executioners go about their lives after discharging their duties. This passage lodged in my brain, and I began imagining an executioner. I was also struck by the form of Coetzee’s novel, which is narrated by a magistrate in an unnamed empire. This form served as part of the inspiration for History of an Executioner. Later, after writing my novella, I read Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, which I suspect influenced Coetzee’s book, and which tells of a soldier’s lifelong wait for a war at a border fortress. In my mind, my novella belongs to a lineage that includes these two books.

What books are on your radar for the coming year? What are you excited to read?

I’m excited to read Katie M. Flynn’s The Companions, Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands and Karen’s Tucker’s Bewilderness. I’m also looking forward to reading Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (both of which are on my backlog).

History of an Executioner
By Clancy McGilligan
Miami University Press
Published January 7, 2020