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?
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 — in-between doing my job-job.
Don: What are you working on now?
Keith: Stories. And I finished another novel a year ago. It's in the rejection cycle now. My agent sent it out to maybe five places, and guess what? "Too depressing." Here's a good one, too: "No one wants to know about this character." Stuff like that. I (and you) focus our attention on people who are normally shut away from not just the imagination but from the actual world, so I figure most publishers and most people find it hard to approach what we do.
Okay, folks, that's it. I want to thank Keith Banner for graciously answering my questions, and I also want to thank all the people out there who have put up with me this week. Too, I want to thank Powell's Books for asking me to blog on their great website. And look, I hope, if you took anything at all away from my posts this week, it was this: BUY Keith Banner's The Smallest People Alive!
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Donald Ray Pollock grew up in Knockemstiff, Ohio. His stories have appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review, the Journal, Third Coast, Chiron Review, Sou'wester, Boulevard, and Folio, and he has contributed essays on politics to the op-ed page of the New York Times.
Books mentioned in this post
Donald Ray Pollock is the author of Knockemstiff