Your stories feature an odd assortment of occupations litter specialists, pirates, documentary filmmakers are any of these based on experience?
The only story in the collection that is directly based on my own experiences is Top of the List, a story about a trendy Boston restaurant on the night Bruce Springsteen comes in (though in real life, he never showed up). The rest, however, are just occupations that I found myself fascinated by. I know that writers often talk about how much they learn about themselves from reading their own work, and in my case, I simply never realized that I was so fascinated by peoples jobs until I put all of these stories side by side. In fact, I never even noticed that all of the stories were about strange occupations until we were trying to come up with a title for the book. At the time most of these stories were written, I was teaching freshman essay writing at NYU. Though people would disagree with me, I found it to be a wonderful job. You make no money, but the work itself is uniformly fun, and most importantly, it provides you with all sorts of free time to think and write about other peoples jobs. Currently, Im running a website design and management business a real job and Ill bet that if I were working on short stories, theyd be about business people doing stressful businessy things. Something about having the easiest, most pleasurable job in the world gave me a special fondness for work itself, and made me want to learn more about what other people were doing.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a child I wanted to run a website design and management business. Actually as a small child I probably never thought about the future at all, though I once expressed a desire to have a shining bald head. In my teens, however, I wanted to be a writer. The funny thing is that I had forgotten. About a year ago I got an e-mail from someone I knew when I was sixteen and she was telling me that I often used to talk about writing and becoming a writer. In college, I also wanted to be a writer, but I could never bring myself to write anything. It wasnt until Id graduated from college and moved to Germany that I wrote my first story.
The Veronese Circle is a hilarious satire of writers and writing programs. What did you learn during your education and what do you think you could have done without?
Im one of those overeager bumpkins who loved his MFA experience. It was so great being surrounded by people who cared about writing, and theres nothing more fun or more awkward than a creative writing workshop. Everyone in the class is critiquing one persons story, and that person just has to sit there silently and take it all. And people get so scared. I remember this one woman sitting there with a Diet Coke in front of her, a bottle of water, a cup of coffee, a pack of Nicorette, and the most genuinely frightened eyes. When I was being workshopped, I used to have to try so hard not to laugh. Theres something very funny about sitting silently while eloquent people tear you apart. Also, I think the desire to laugh came from being so happy to be in a space where so many talented people were doing their best to get better at what they loved.
The most important thing I learned in grad school was simply how to enjoy writing. Before graduate school, writing was something I loved in theory, but in practice I had to (usually unsuccessfully) force myself to do. I learned that if I left the house every day, went to a coffee shop, and wrote there, it was completely enjoyable, and there was no chance that Id leave the writing to go clean the house or masturbate.
Looking at Animals, which features a National Geographic photographer surveying his neighbors, reminds me of how a writer might observe people for his fiction. Would you care to comment?
That story is probably a lot about the writing process. Like the character in that story, Raymond, I love learning about the weird details in peoples lives and jobs. My wife is constantly elbowing me because she thinks I ask people, especially strangers, inappropriate questions. She thinks, I believe, that theres something parasitic about my questioning, as though Im only interested in them in so much as they can entertain me, or provide me with story fodder. I think there probably is something slightly unwholesome about being fascinated by the minutia of other peoples lives, but I also think the probing that Raymond does, and I suppose that I do, is done with genuine curiosity and empathy, not simply to find out their dirty secrets. The interesting thing is how willing most people are to answer personal questions; the impulse to want to understand others obviously extends to wanting to be understood yourself.
Your story Nautical Intervention has been optioned for a film. Do you ever see your work cinematically when you write? Any idea who you would cast as your pirates?
I never thought of any of these stories as being anything other than short stories. One of the strange things about Nautical Intervention was that, after it appeared in ZYZZYVA, I received five e-mails from people who had read it who commented specifically that they thought it would make a good movie. As a side note − raddest thing ever − this story was optioned by Bebe Neuwirth, who said that she received the journal as a gift. A month ago I found out who gave her the gift. Dramatic pause here. Huey Lewis! Isnt that great! The option, by the way, actually seems to be moving forward. Weve had a couple of meetings with GreeneStreet Films, and Ive written the first half of the screenplay. Its still probably a pipe dream that the film will ever get made, but for now, it feels pretty exciting and possible. As for casting, I dont think I know any actors names. Recently, when I met with Bebe Neuwirth and Fisher Stevens, the co-owner of GreeneStreet Films, they were throwing around possible casting names and I didnt know anyone they were talking about. I smiled a lot though, and nodded with real gusto. I do know some pretty great hippies from college who would made sturdy and surly pirate extras.
King of the Ferns features first-person narration by a man, a woman, a dog, and a fern. A fern? Where did that come from?
Im not sure where it came from, but I wrote it in my second semester in graduate school, and I remember being consciously aware that my writing had turned some sort of a corner. Before that story, I think my writing had been unnaturally opposed to absurdity. Id somehow gotten it into my head that serious fiction had to resist both absurdity and even excessive humor. Or in any case, Id never read anything that succeeded in being both serious and hilarious. At the time I wrote King of the Ferns, I was reading Haruki Murikami and George Saunders. They, along with a few other writers, helped me to understand how humor and absurdity could accompany a serious piece of fiction in the same way that they accompany the serious moments of our actual lives.
Are there characters that you have found yourself becoming very attached to? Some you have grown to hate?
Im not sure if Ive gotten attached to one particular character, but I do love a lot of these characters. I think I love the unself-conscious ones the most, the ones who are crude and unapologetic for their compulsions and idiosyncrasies. Unapologetic is probably the wrong word, because the characters I love most (Cap from Nautical Intervention, Ape from Disorder Destroyers, Don Carlos the dog from King of the Ferns) would have no idea that there would be anything to apologize for. I deeply dislike confrontation in my life, but I love awkwardness and inappropriateness, and I love the people who make everyday situations ridiculous.
What is your writing process?
Setting always comes first. When I lived in New York City and was ready to begin a new story, I would walk around, and keep walking until I had a setting, a traveling writers colony for example, or the boat of a modern pirate. From there, characters come next, and then a lot of notes. I always write in coffee shops, try to write every day, and once Ive finished a draft, I put the story away for a couple of months, revise it, put it away again, and so on, usually for many years. I have a lot of problems getting any story to work until the twelfth or thirteenth draft. Often each draft is drastically different from the next. In the case of Maryville, California, Pop. 7, the story has had drafts in second person, third person, and only recently, after six years and nine drafts became a first person story.
Do you add or subtract much to a story from the first draft?
I sort of love the first drafts of my stories. Theyre so stupid and obvious, but theyre often funnier than the final drafts in a cock-and-balls kind of way. Normally what happens is that, over four to six years, I finally figure out what the story was really about. At the time I figure it out, the stories have usually bloated to about 8,000 words. I then try to be as merciless as possible and cut away 1,500 words. It sounds stupid, but most (if not all) of the stories in this collection have gone through that exact process.
How long do your stories take to become whole?
Years. Im a terrible planner and outliner, so I find myself fumbling around for draft after draft, year after year until, as though by blind luck, I stumble across what the story is really about.
What is it about the short story form that satisfies you?
I love the way short stories can so completely capture a whole world within just a few pages. And I love that, in writing short stories, youre able to explore many different worlds.
Have you had a teacher or editor that had a profound influence on your writing?
My wife, the poet Jennifer Chapis, is the best reader I have. In addition, the novelist Irini Spanidou, who teaches at NYU is the most impressive reader of fiction Ive ever met. She has the amazing ability to pinpoint exactly whats going wrong with a story. Shes simultaneously the most critical teacher Ive ever had and the most kind. Michelle Wildgen, a novelist and a senior editor at Tin House Books, has helped this book in so many ways that I cant begin to describe them. It wouldnt be inaccurate to say that the book would be half as good without her edits and suggestions. You may still think its sucky, but it would be twice as sucky without her. As for actual influences on my writing as a whole, I think its the authors Ive never met but admire who have had the most influence. To name a few: George Saunders, Rick Bass, Ron Carlson, Lorrie Moore, Kevin Canty, Adam Johnson, Antonya Nelson, Steve Lattimore.
What are you working on now?
Im halfway through the screenplay for Nautical Intervention. As soon as I finish it, Im looking forward to returning to the novel I was writing before I started the screenplay. I started the novel because I realized that a lot of the stories Id been writing were about the same characters. None of the stories wound up working, probably because it wasnt a story that could be told in twenty to thirty pages. Im about 100 pages into the novel, and so far, its been a lot of fun to write. Its awesome to ramble on and on, knowing that I have all the space in the world. With short stories it had gotten to where I was constantly counting words to make sure I wasnt being too long-winded. Im sure Ill pay for all that rambling in the revision process, but for now, Im enjoying the extra space.