Trinie Dalton's Wide Eyed is one of the most inviting and interesting books of short fiction to be released this decade. Her stories alternate easily between funny and sad, dreamy and harshly realistic. She writes like someone who wants to be your friend, but as a reader, you're not sure if she scares you or not. Some of her stories display a style of living that seems like it's on full blast, like the narrator is even overwhelmed by the emotions of her surroundings. Dalton lives in Los Angeles and is also the co-editor of a peculiar book made up of notes that she confiscated from students (as a substitute teacher) entitled Dear New Girl or Whatever Your Name Is.
Kevin Sampsell: With all the music references in your stories, I imagine you as someone who wanted to be a rock star. Is that an accurate guess?
Trinie Dalton: I started going to shows at an early age. My dad used to take me to shows like Peter, Paul, and Mary, or Linda Ronstadt. So as a teen, I was obsessed with music and going to shows. Siouxsie, Love and Rockets, Dinosaur Jr., The Sugarcubes, Jesus and Mary Chain, Ween, that era. Some good bands and some suck ass ones. For my twelfth birthday, my mom let me take a limo to see The Pretenders and Iggy Pop! I played in a band awhile back, Unicornucopia ??? all the songs were about unicorns. It was folky, kind of predating all the freak folk stuff. Fake medieval, with a big paper mache unicorn, and I'd dress up like a maiden, play guitar and sing in harmony with two guys. But now, I'm a music journalist. I write for Arthur and the LA Weekly. I want to get better at writing about music. I'd like to write more songs some day. It's fun to play live.
KS: Your stories have such an easy conversational tone to them. It's a style that reminds me of a really good zine. Did you ever make zines?
TD: I do make zines. In fact, the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco just hosted a show called "The Zine Unbound: Kults, Werewolves, and Sarcastic Hippies." I made Werewolf Express, a zine all about werewolves, then curated a show about werewolves based on the contributors. Each zine takes about a year to make. The one prior to that was Touch of Class, about unicorns, then there was Rodentia, about rodents. I've made a ton of homemade books too, like Strawberry Shortcake Meets the Aztec Gods. I make them to take breaks from my more serious work. I love making collages, and I enjoy graphic design and typography, so I get to play around with all that when I make zines. They're my dream magazines.
The zines I make now are like art world and music world fanzines, where I solicit work from my favorite contemporary artists, writers, and musicians. I do one interview per issue, and one spread about a '70s rock hero of mine. There's a basic editorial layout now, which has evolved over time. I like the idea of the fanzine, but in my fiction, of course, I want to go deeper. In my fiction, I try to take more advanced leaps stylistically, I'm more formal and rigorous about it. So I separate out my desires, and make the zines to include all of my extraneous thoughts and obsessions. I also get to hone my editing skills.
I love zines. I love Galactic Zoo Dossier, published by Drag City, and K48, curated by Scott Hug out of Brooklyn. I also love all the zines Paperrad have made, and the stuff that came out of Fort Thunder.
KS: In Dear New Girl or Whatever Your Name Is you compiled notes that you confiscated while being a substitute teacher. Have any of these notes inspired any fiction from you?
TD: Yes, but I didn't edit any of these pieces into my book. There was a piece called "Teacher," about loathing delinquent kids then going home everyday to do drugs. That was a composite of my exhaustion, and a couple of teachers I had, in 7th and 8th grade, who kept flasks in their desks and whatnot. There was a piece about a Bone Thugs and Harmony song, based on an essay that a kid turned into me about his favorite song and what it meant to him. I finished what was his one-paragraph "essay." There was also a piece, I recall, based on some guy's journal entry about his favorite pet, his box turtle, who was the "size of a pager." I wrote a story about a turtle based on this detail. Then there was the note passed in class to a girl named "Fish Lips." I, in turn, wrote a letter to Fish Lips. Rodentia, the zine mentioned previously, included some hamster-related journal entries from various children. I went through a phase when I was really into hamsters and Pokemon.
KS: Your stories have a personal honesty to them that some readers might find disagreeable, like your story about fur. It confronts and distorts what people may expect from you. Is it important to you to shock people a little?
TD: This brings up two sets of thoughts, one based on subject matter, the other based on the formal aspects of craft. First, I'll address the subject matter. I think all people have fetish-y thoughts, they just don't admit it. I don't go for shock value. I do expose, on the page, my deepest embarrassments, not to disgust people but to encourage them to admit their own weird thoughts. I don't find my obsessions unusual, abhorrent, or disturbing. In fact, I consider myself normal, even dull. It's not like I find my thoughts fascinating and assume other people will too. Those stories are heavily fictionalized. But when you write in a personal tone, there's a tendency for readers to really believe what you're saying, which I like the idea of. Maybe it's manipulative. I noticed this as I read JoAnn Beard's The Boys of My Youth. It seemed like nonfiction but I felt some fiction creeping in. That's the allure of the first person. I like the idea of writing fiction in a nonfiction voice. I should mention that I also love horror movies, and that's a strategy they use to create suspense. Make the viewer believe it's real. I'm starting to think that's a cheap strategy, so I'm writing more in third person these days. But at the time, I felt strongly about it.
That brings me to craft. I tend to detest diaristic spew that isn't well-edited, in which authors rant about themselves forever. What's the point of writing like that? For example, that's the literary world's stigma against "chick lit." Chick lit bugs me. I feel like some women should have phone conversations amongst themselves instead of write books. That said, there are many great authors who have succeeded formally by writing in a conversational tone. Flannery O'Connor did it so brilliantly. Even when she used the third person, she achieved intimacy. Virginia Woolf did it, in first and in third person, especially since she navigated so well the differences between essay and story.
So, I used a personal tone in Wide Eyed, but it was a formal choice. I studied poetry in college, then I studied with my editor, Dennis Cooper, the hard core minimalist. I read Lydia Davis, thanks to one of my writing heroes, Benjamin Weissman. In grad school, Amy Hempel and David Gates were my teachers, so there was some heavy editing going on. Extra words equal weak writing. I try to train my eyes to catch extra words on the page. Somehow, on my good days, they stand out visually. I read Gary Lutz for practice. As far as words having not only contextual but also visual meaning, I admire Ben Marcus. I have a hard time reading plot-heavy novels that may include tons of detail but lack the formal beauty of a sparsely worded page. I wanted Wide Eyed to be personal, but to the point. Maybe that's the tone that some readers may construe as confrontational.
KS: Are you sometimes surprised at how people read your work?
TD: Yes! I love it when people share their thoughts with me about the book, it's a huge honor. That's the beauty of publishing a book. People who read, I've found, internalize writing in a deep way. I have reverence for deep readers. For example, one reader wrote to me, saying that my evil grandma story, "Sinners," helped them to resolve some guilt issues they had with their family members. Another person wrote that my stories seemed "generated by their own DNA, not overly plotted," which was a massive plus for me due to my skepticism of plot. Mostly, so far, people have picked up on the trippy quality some of the stories have, and write me about dreams, the subconscious, mental illness, and hallucinogenics
KS: In "Fungus Mental Telepathy," you talk about your compulsive research on mushrooms. What other things have had this affect on you?
TD: Anything I take time to become interested in becomes an obsession. I have difficulty maintaining interest in anything I don't feel compelled to obsess over. It's my personality, so I try to make the best of it rather than turn into a crazed freak. Fortunately, my boyfriend is the same way and we share some obsessions, like mushroom hunting. I always have a few simultaneous obsessions. Various mushrooms, fairy tales, mythological animals, real animals, wilderness, especially the wilderness surrounding my home, Los Angeles, the Redwood Forest, magic, witchcraft, rainbows ??? these are constants. I love fantasy and horror. I go through phases, like the Pokemon/Hamster one mentioned earlier. Usually, too, I'm meditating on one or two rock idols, in the past it's been those in my book ??? Mick Jagger, Flaming Lips, Marc Bolan, Donovan ??? but there are so many more! Ozzy, Alice Cooper, John Cale, Roy Wood, Bowie, the list is endless, really. I think this all stems from my love of creating fantasies based in reality. Take your life and exaggerate it a billion times. It's so subjective.
KS: What can we expect from you in the future? More books? A novel? A rock opera? Visual art installations?
TD: Eventually more fiction, although I'm not a fan of cranking out fiction just to write fiction. When I write too much, I miss the visual arts. I feel the pressure of having to make a living taking its toll, urging me to write a book ASAP so I can make a living at it. But that doesn't generate good books, necessarily. I'm going to write my stories, which are so far taking the shape of a novel, as slowly as I need to. Pressure is trashy, but it's something you have to work with. I'm sick of being poor, so mostly now, I'm looking for jobs. For that reason, you can expect lots of music writing from me, as well as book, film, and art criticism.
Right now, my mind is full of visuals, so I'm working on drawings. I'd also like to make some costumes for my dog and make movies of him. Someday I want a goat farm, to make goat cheese. So you can expect Trinie Chevre, though probably not anytime soon.
KS: Here's your chance! Make up a question that you've always wanted someone to ask you, and answer it.
The Genie: Rub my lamp and make three wishes.
Me: A redwood hot tub, a million dollars, a big house, a new car, and a goat farm. Oops, that's five.
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Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.
Books mentioned in this post
Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir