by Donald Ray Pollock, March 7, 2008 12:11 PM
Today's blog, my last one, is an interview with the novelist (The Life I Lead
) and short story writer, Keith Banner. The reason I wanted to finish the week off with this is that I believe, I truly fucking believe, that Banner's story collection, The Smallest People Alive
, published in 2004, is one of the best books of short fiction published in the last twenty years. As I mentioned yesterday, my wife went through some major eye surgery yesterday, and so I didn't have time to work much on the interview as far as tweaking my questions for Keith. Anyway, enough of my bitching. Another reason that I wanted to write about The Smallest People Alive
is that it seems most people have never read it, and it's an example of the puzzling way that short story collections, even brilliant ones like this one, are neglected and ignored by the reading "public." The following interview was conducted by email on March the 5th and the 6th, 2008.
Don: Can you tell me just a bit about the publishing history of The Smallest People Alive, maybe give me some numbers?
Keith: I think that 1,000 were printed up-front. I really haven't spoken with the editor at Carnegie Mellon University Press in a while (in fact, the one I worked with back in 2003 is no longer there), but I'd estimate about 5,000 sold maybe. The good thing about a university press for me was that there was no bullshit. I just got to have a book. Plus it never goes out of print.
Don: Why do you think short story collections usually don't sell very well?
Keith: You got me. I think possibly because most publishers and agents and booksellers consider short stories of any kind "literary," therefore they don't put muscle behind selling them and the writer. When was the last time there was a collection of short stories on the NYT Bestseller List? I don't follow that stuff too closely, but I bet it doesn't happen a lot.
Don: Where did you get the idea for "Is This Thing On?" (from The Smallest People Alive)? I know that's a dumb question, but that's one of the best damn short stories I've ever read.
Keith: That one came to me because I wanted to write a direct to the reader kind of thing. I got Shorty's voice in my head and then one night I saw this totally sad, cheesy, horrible Christmas movie, and somehow it came together in my head. Plus the landscape of where I grew up: nasty houses and apartments filled with stuff just lying around, and also wild animals hurt by lawnmowers and cars. I usually get the voice first and then the images kind of attack me and there you go. I wrote the thing in a hospital waiting room on yellow legal paper. I'm a social worker for people with disabilities and I was waiting for one of my folks who was having eye surgery.
Don: Speaking about your job, can you tell us a bit more about that?
Keith: I help people with disabilities try to get what they want and need out of life. I visit them where they live and talk with the support people that help them, in order to make sure no one is being taken advantage of, etc. I've also co-founded an art studio here in Cincinnati called Visionaries & Voices (V&V) for artists with developmental disabilities. Actually, there are two studios now. The art is incredibly beautiful. I help curate exhibits in galleries of their work, write about what they do, write a LOT of grant proposals (V&V is non-profit), and volunteer. Being with these artists is truly what has saved me from being a total sadsack. I go to V&V and I see folks making art without any idea of where it is going to go. They just make art because they need to, and once they're done, they move on to the next drawing/painting/whatever. They love to have their work sell, of course, and they love having gallery openings and stuff ? but mostly it's the work that matters to them. That's a great comfort to me, and also a reason to get up in the morning.
Don: They're are quite a few gay characters in your work. I don't know really how to put this, but do you think you're considered a gay writer?
Keith: Me, a gay writer? Hell yeah. I'm gay and I write, and I write stories about gay people. But I am not a Gay Writer, meaning I'm not really accepted into the Gay Pantheon, I don't think (if there is such a thing). My stories are so much about stripping away manners and diving into mystery ? meaning I write about characters who don't really "come out" and who don't really participate in an above-ground Gay narrative of self fulfillment though sodomy ? that I think the gayness gets dissolved into the overall tone of the story. It becomes a way to escape from the normal everyday bullshit, but I also tend to flatten out that meaning too. The gay characters in my stuff, in other words, are just as messed up and sad and beautiful as the straight characters I do. So, in the end, yup, I'm gay, but I don't think I am a part of any "gay writer" school. No one would have me over for tea I don't think.
Don: So what story collections have influenced you, or do you consider favorites?
Keith: All of Flannery O'Connor's stories, every last one. Mary Gaitskill's Bad Behavior. Anne Proulx's Close Range. All of Nabokov's stories. All of Dostoevsky's. A.M. Homes' The Safety of Objects.
Don: What are your work habits, as far as the writing goes, that is?
Keith: Since I work all the time at my job, I have had to just make writing a "habit of art," as good old Flannery says, meaning I do it everyday in any way and at any place I can. Waiting rooms, public libraries, my car
by Donald Ray Pollock, March 6, 2008 11:24 AM
First, I want to apologize for what will surely be the rushed and sloppy nature of today's blog: my wife is having surgery this morning to fix a macular hole in her left eye, and, well, things are pretty damn hectic around here. She's going to be sitting in something that looks like a masseuse chair for the next two weeks or so and staring at the floor. By the time she's recovered, it's predicted that we'll both be pretty much out of our minds.
Okay, so jm mentioned yesterday in his great comment about signings that he didn't "like being read at," and that got me to thinking about, well, readings. As you all know by now from the way I've been blowing off, I've got a book coming out soon, and I'm going to have to read at a few bookstores. I'm certainly grateful for the opportunity to do this, but, since I've read maybe six of seven times in the past, I also know how extremely nervous I get. The worst thing is that weird feeling that I can't breathe. My wife has given me some good advice on that one ? "Just breathe, dummy" ? but I still have trouble with that first page or so. Things get better after that (usually), but I'm a very self-conscious and shy person even on a good day. Any ideas?
Okay, but I'm digressing here, and what I'd really like to figure out is the amount of time should I read? Or, for that matter, the amount of time any writer should read? Jamie Attenberg, author of the recently published novel The Kept Man, told me to stick to maybe ten minutes. "Make it short," she wrote. A publicist at Doubleday said to have two different readings prepared, and then figure out when you get there if you should do the short one (ten minutes), or the long one (twenty or twenty-five minutes). In other words, read the audience. Now I do know that I've been to readings where the writer went over twenty-five minutes, and no matter how great the book might have been, it was obvious that he carried on way too long. In fact, I felt a bit embarrassed for him, wanted to go up and lead him down to his chair. But if you go with ten minutes, are you going to disappoint people? I mean, even if you take questions after? I'm thinking even as I write this, that fifteen minutes might be a good compromise. A few people can get in a quick catnap without actually rising a stiff neck and maybe the other customers won't be disappointed, either. Another thing I guess you have to consider is the venue. A reading in a bookstore crowded with customers who don't give a damn about your book is going to be entirely different from a quiet room where the people are all there to hear you. And then, talking about venues, there's the problem of what to do about the language in some of my stuff. Do I say "f-ing" or "fucking'? "Sonofabitch" or "S.O.B."?
So anyway, I'd like for some of you to help me out today (by the time you read this, my wife will be out of the surgery, and we should be on our way home). Please, if you have some free time, I'd appreciate any tips, advice, feedback on the whole reading experience (from either side of the podium); nerves, long-winded versus short, rudeness, snipers, cuss words, the gurgling expresso machine, etc. And, if you have any good stories (or bad ones!) about readings you've attended, it would be great if you could share them. And, oh, thanks to those who posted the great advice yesterday about
by Donald Ray Pollock, March 5, 2008 12:14 PM
Here in the next couple of weeks, I'm going to have to start signing some books, something I've never done before (except for a few review copies). Though I was vaguely aware that I would probably be doing this when my book came out, it really didn't concern me until Brenda, the lady at the only bookstore in my town, asked if I would do a "signing" at Book World. Now I can understand people wanting to have their copies signed because I've been sort of a hit-and-miss collector of signed books myself for the past few years. And now, because I want to do the job "right," I'm going to show my ignorance and ask for advice (yes, I can be a friggin' nut case at times). But I figure if the people who read the blog on Powell's website don't know if there's a "proper" way to sign a book, then probably nobody does.
So what do most people want when they ask a writer to sign his/her book? Do they want them inscribed with something goofy or profound or scandalous? Do they want the typed name marked out under the title page and the name signed underneath it, or just signed right over the type? Do they want the signature dated? Do they like little drawings (God, I hope not, not little drawings, Jesus!)? As I said, I've collected some signed books in the past, and being a hog, I've always asked for some sort of inscription, some way to set the book apart. For example, in a copy of Daniel Woodrell's The Ones You Do, I had him inscribe it with "Seven cigarettes a day!" because that's the number of smokes the main character limited himself to (and being in the middle of another failed attempt to quit the habit myself, this made a lot of sense to me at the time). And in my copy of Woodrell's Under the Bright Lights, I asked him to say something about writing in general, and I ended up with some of the best advice I've ever gotten: "Writing is a tough racket. But tough rackets are the only ones worth a grown person's time." Once, I asked Denis Johnson to tell me about his work habits (a dumb, dumb question, I know, but one I still have to refrain from asking when I'm around a writer). He graciously wrote on the inside of my copy of Jesus' Son: "I have no work habits ? I don't know who writes this stuff." That was a few years ago, before I began writing myself, and though I was a bit confused at the time, I now know exactly what he meant. Oh, and I probably better add that I wrote both of these writers first, asking for the favor, and then sent the books by mail with the proper return postage and SASE mailers.
But for the most part, I've always focused on the first books by new writers, mainly because I thought (and this was partly due to the influence of Robert Wilson's Modern Book Collecting) that those would someday turn out to be the most valuable. And, though I'm not much of a collector anymore, I still go after the signatures of new writers when I have the opportunity, people like Kelly MaGee, a fiction writer you're sure to hear a lot more about in the coming years, who wrote a lovely inscription inside my copy of Body Language at a reading. Something that amazed me about her was that all the while she was inscribing the book, she was answering my bothersome questions (heck, I can't even sign my name on a check at the supermarket if the clerk is talking to me).
So I guess what I'm asking, at the risk of sounding repetitive, is this: if you were going out and signing books at a store next week, what approach would you take? Is there a proper way to sign a book that satisfies everyone? Is there something you should never do, something that pisses people off? Maybe use the wrong type of pen? Misspell the person's name? Denounce Bush on the title page? Any help with this matter is greatly appreciated, so, if you have a moment to spare, just post your advice (even off the wall shit) below or check out my website for my email address.
I'd like to add one more thing. Sitting here tonight, staring out my window into the dark and cold and working on this blog, I thought of two books that I wish I had signed copies of, but never will, not in this life anyway. One is The Stories of Breece D'j Pancake, and the other is The Light the Dead See by the poet Frank Stanford. Both of these men died young, and that's sad. But it also helps you to understand why some people like to have their books
by Donald Ray Pollock, March 4, 2008 11:42 AM
When I was in my teens, I used to spend a lot of time sitting around my aunt's house with my cousins. We'd smoke cigarettes and watch the three channels on the TV and talk about sex and rock and roll and sex and what we were going to do once we left the holler. But it grew boring every so often, all that talk of escape and Blue Cheer and girls we could never have. And during one of those lulls, I noticed a fat yellow paperback that one of my cousins had bought in town lying on the coffee table. Hell, the fact that there was a book in the house was in itself a major event as far as I was concerned. That book was Earl Thompson's A Garden of Sand
, and within the next few months I read it at least five or six times. Later, during one of the times I ran away from home, I missed the damn thing so much that I shoplifted it from a drugstore in St. Petersburg, Florida. A Garden of Sand
was the first book that made me want to be a writer, something I vowed I would do once I made my final escape from Knockemstiff. That was in 1970 or '71, and I was around fifteen years old (yeah, it took me a while!).
I had never read anything like Thompson's novel. True, it was filled with sex and lice and grime and alcoholism and mean poverty, but it was also beautiful in its own sad and sordid way. The characters were real, so real that I loved some of them and hated others with a passion. And I'd never read a book that had people in it who were so much like the ones I'd grown up around in the holler (though Thompson's world was far rougher). Of course, you must realize that I hadn't read much of anything before A Garden of Sand except the books stored in the small library at Huntington School, and there sure as hell wasn't anything even close to Earl Thompson on those shelves. I'd read some of my old man's "dirty" books, though I knew, even then, that the writing was atrocious. But Earl Thompson could write, and I entered into that Depression-era Kansas world like I was walking through the flimsy screen door into my aunt's house.
A Garden of Sand was Thompson's first novel, and he would go on to write three more before he died of a heart attack in 1978 at the age of forty-seven in Sausalito, California (one of those, The Devil to Pay, was published posthumously). Today, few people read him, or have even heard his name, and that's a shame. So here's what I'm getting at with all this: a couple of years ago, I decided that I would write a biography of Earl Thompson. Believe me, I didn't even know how to begin, but I somehow managed to get in touch with his literary executor, Gilmer Waggoner, who had also been Thompson's accountant. However, Waggoner, a good man who loved Thompson and his work, was in failing health, and I mostly corresponded with his wife, a fantastic lady who even managed to find me the addresses of one of Thompson's children and an ex-wife. But I also began to discover that I didn't have the patience (or the money) for the kind of research necessary. Many of the facts about Thompson's life weren't easily available, and he'd moved around a lot. So, in the end, I gave up, emailed Mrs. Waggoner that I was going to have to put the project on the backburner while I concentrated on my own fiction (a poor excuse). And ever since then, I've harbored some guilt about that decision, partly because the Waggoners seemed so excited that someone was finally going to bring their friend some of the attention he deserves, and partly because I feel like I owe Thompson big-time. Who knows? If I'd never read his novel, I might not be writing today.
Last night, when I decided I'd write about Thompson on this blog, I discovered that A Garden of Sand is now out of print (the last paperback edition was published by Carroll & Graf in 2001). Granted, it's still fairly easy to buy a used copy, but, Jesus, this isn't a book that should ever go out of print. So today, I urge all of you to buy it before you miss your chance (and if you've still got a few coins left, pick up Tattoo, his second one). And I'd also like to propose that you all think about the first book that really knocked your head off, it was so friggin' good. And heck, while we're at it, let's pray that some brave souls finally begin working on those few biographies that truly deserve to be
by Donald Ray Pollock, March 3, 2008 11:45 AM
It seemed like I had been famous for only a few minutes when I ran into one of the pitfalls of super-stardom. Coming home the other night from a 12-Step meeting in Chillicothe, Ohio, I found a message on my ancient answering machine from my old man. Because my dad never calls unless someone has died, I thought about waiting until morning to contact him, wondered if I wanted to go to bed that night with death on my mind. But I went ahead and called, and to my surprise, the first thing out of his mouth was, "I think maybe I been bamboozled." Then he asked me if I knew a certain gentleman by the name of ---.
"Sure," I said, "he works for my agent."
"Well, okay then," he said. He then proceeded to tell me that a man by that name called him from Coalinga, California, and gave him a sob story about losing his plane ticket. The man explained that it wouldn't be such a big deal, but he was supposed to fly to Ohio that afternoon and present me with a big fat check worth thousands of dollars. When my dad suggested that he call and let me know what was happening, the joker protested that he wanted the check to be a surprise. He then tossed some more names at my 78 year-old father, pleaded with him that time was wasting, threw him off balance, got him thoroughly confused. "I want you and your wife to be there when I give him the check," the crafty bastard added. "We'll be taking photos." Then he asked the old man for $200.23. All the time my dad was telling me this, I was getting more and more pissed, but at the same time I couldn't help hearing that loopy Laurel and Hardy music playing in the background (I'll be the first to admit I'm still a little sick). I love my father, but just for a second, I had a vision of him slipping on banana peels, putting his coat on backwards, running into walls in his mad scramble to send this S.O.B the money. And yes, that's exactly what he did ? he sent the S.O.B. the money.
The next morning I dug up some change for gas (believe me, just because you've been blessed with super-stardom doesn't mean you have any money) and drove out to my old man's house in Knockemstiff, figuring maybe he needed some reassurance that he wasn't losing his marbles. I also got the name of the person who was supposed to pick up the money transfer at the Western Union office, though I assumed that individual was smart enough to use an alias. I then found the email address of the police captain in Coalinga and explained the situation. And guess what? An officer called the next day said he knew the woman that picked up the money. And then, the day after that, he called back again, let me know that the woman had confessed. So everything ended well, I guess. Though the crime is just a misdemeanor, and the money's probably gone, my dad learned a valuable lesson about trusting people who are calling about his son, the big shot. And I have nothing but praise for the police force in Coalinga, California.
But here's the thing: I figure these people must have read about my poor collection of stories and gotten my name and the names of my agent and co-agent off the Internet. They then concocted a story of their own and called my father, hoping for a hit. Look, because I haven't lived the most exemplary life myself in the past, I can understand that part. If the cards had been dealt another way a few years ago, I might be out there right now doing the same kind of shit (though I hope that I'd have a little more guts than to prey on old people). But, Lord, why go to all that trouble for just $200.23? That's what I can't figure out. So if anyone has any idea why a scammer, calling long distance, would only ask for such a small amount of money, I'd sure like to hear it.
My dad getting conned wasn't something I even considered when I got lucky and my agent sold my book, or when people then began writing about it. I mean, I wasn't expecting to be invited to the Oscars or Dog the Bounty Hunter's house, but at the same time, I didn't think I'd have to worry about anyone getting hurt either. In the end, I know my old man's fortunate that he only got took for a paltry sum, but shoot, now I've begun to worry about all those illegitimate children out there that people might try to say I fathered, back in the day, before I became a super