1.) Many of these texts seem to explore nostalgia, a time-before, an Idyll in a way, but with a voice from the present, gazing back…Can you discuss the importance of the past in your work?
Nostalgia’s probably the emotion I associate with closest when it comes to narrative. Also, it’s no secret that this book is autobiographical. I changed a lot of details, put things together that in reality were very disparate, and made up stories entirely, so I think it’s still “fiction”. But the narrator here (let’s use a cliché and say he’s not “me,” but someone I know very well) is certainly retrospective, looking back, and kind of killing this old him that used to be. Even in other stories I’ve written that aren’t in any way autobiographical I have a fascination with the ways people change over time and how they look back on the people they used to be. There’s something both exalting and sad about it. The struggle is keeping it from being sentimental.
2.) I have a friend named Dan. He saw your book on my kitchen table and said he knew you, said one time you bumped a rail of cocaine at a bowling alley, out in the open, like atop those shelves where you pick out your bowling ball. He said that was a few years ago out west.
Is this true?
I used to know this guy that we called Dan-the-Man. I can’t remember his real last name, but this guy could hook up all kinds of drugs. His apartment was like an illegal pharmacy. In all ways it was like any person’s apartment, except that Dan-the-Man’s apartment came with a coffee table adorned with coke-encrusted mirrors. Once me, Fredo, and Dan-the-Man all jammed a bunch of psychedelic mushrooms down our throats at Dan-the-Man’s apartment. All night, Fredo kept calling the mushrooms “munchies”, and he wouldn’t stop eating them, until he curled in the bathtub laughing at the ceiling and calling down the hall for us to bring him more “munchies.” It was that kind of place. I might’ve snorted some lines with Dan-the-Man—or someone else named Dan—at the Starlight, which was where we sometimes went bowling. I don’t bowl. I suck at it, so for me it’s not much fun. But there’s beer involved at least, and the bar at the Starlight has a ceiling that looks like an enormous purple Ruffles potato chip. Once I snorted lines off the top of the bar at the Highlander in plain view of anyone who gave a damn. Eventually, Dan-the-Man got his girlfriend pregnant. Last I heard he was driving a truck, his belly flopping over his belt, as he helped his father erect townhomes in Fernley, Nevada. Dan-the-Man’s girlfriend stayed at home with the kid, and sometimes she and Dan-the-Man would fight. Also, sometimes they wouldn’t fight. They are exactly like everyone else.
And, follow up, is bowling a sport?
If bowling’s a sport, then so is snorting cocaine. Bowling requires dexterity, like crushing up a tough rock on a CD case without shooting chunks off into the carpet of your pick-up’s floorboards. It also asks precision of the bowler, and care. If you don’t want to go to jail, you have to know how to get your coke and how to do it. Especially when you’re out at bars, and snorting in a truck in an alleyway, or in the parking lot of Wal-mart. Once, my buddy Bob bought a ball of coke and did the entire thing by himself, locked up in this dank apartment that smelled like sweaty underwear, and that had an antelope head posted up on a wall, an antelope Bob had gunned down and that I named “Merle”. Bob still says, “If you didn’t kill it, then you can’t name it.” I saw Bob for a minute that night, and his eyes looked like tiny bowling balls about to rocket out of their sockets. A professional bowler has amazingly long tournaments. Bob looks just like these professionals, except maybe fifty pounds heavier. At my wedding, Bob’s T-shirt read, “I make my own gas.”
3.) I am sick of people who intimate that flash fiction is blooming now “because we all have short attention spans,” blah, blah. How would you answer those who claim this?
Flash fiction asks much more of a reader’s attention than, say, War and Peace. Everything’s so tightly controlled in flash that, as a reader, if you miss the tiniest detail, the whole story could be lost. In War and Peace, for example, you might forget about the scene—early in the novel—where Pierre is drunk and ties a bear to a sentry and somehow wrangles them into the Neva River. Forgetting that scene over the next thousand pages isn’t going to completely destroy your experience of the novel. There’s an obvious problem in my comparison, in that flash fiction is not a novel, but to say that lack of attention span is the reason there’s more flash today is naïve. For one, I’m not sure there’s more flash than in previous eras. Folk tales don’t bog the listener down with character or narrative development in the same ways that long-length fiction can; Jesus’ parables had a punch-and-run effect; some of Ovid works like very short fiction; and Aesop’s Fables are certainly precursors to modern flash; some of the tales of The Decameron, it goes on and on. If anything, flash fiction is closer to poetry than fiction, and so it’s language condensed, broken down to what really matters.
I suppose some people might like to say that flash occurs in online literary magazines because the medium more aptly appropriates the form, or that flash is derivative of the fragmented world we live in, or some other postmodern evaluation of Earth—or Western culture. But I don’t necessarily see that this hasn’t always been with us, while at the same time epics were recited, and novels and lyric poems were written. Maybe to some readers flash is like a music video, a short film, or a commercial, but these forms are explicit unto themselves as video art in the first two examples, and kitsch in the latter. Flash deals with language as its subject matter (also, sometimes narrative) and because of that it’s literary art, not schlock.
4.) Here I go teaching a lesson or two on titles to my students, and then you go NO TITLES. Explain.
When I wrote these things—the initial drafts—they came out mostly title-less. But, when I published them in magazines I gave them titles, and had fun thinking of good ones. With many of the individual pieces I used titles that were part of the first clause of the story. The pieces from which the titles of the sections came start with “When I moved to Nevada,” or “When I moved to Atlanta,” etc. The title seemed apt, in that it highlighted the action of the story, and ran right along as part of the first clause. I also had titles that were a glimpse into the story, like “Praying in the Snow,” which you mention in a question below. My students also go forgetting titles on stories and essays, and I teach the importance of them, but when I collected all these little stories into the overall story that makes up this book, I realized that from story to story, as they move along, they’re telling one story about this guy who’s a fuck-up who fucks up until he stops fucking up. The individual titles broke up the continuity. So the titles had to go.
5.) The beverage Zima appears in your writing. Zima is generally known as the lamest drink on the planet. Can you explain the importance and/or role of Zima in your writing? More seriously, the role of alcohol? Device, or something else?
Zima is indeed the world’s worst drink. Ever. Zima shows up in a story when the narrator is a teenager. Teenagers don’t know what the fuck they’re doing when they drink. They’ll drink shit like Zima, Boone’s Farm wine, Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Anyway, Zima, in that particular story, shows that this guy’s an idiot, the same kind of idiot we all were when we were sixteen.
As I said, this book is autobiographical, and my friends in Reno and I were like that Alice in Chains song, “Junkhead.” Our drug of choice was whatever you had. Alcohol was more readily available and cheap in a place like Reno, Nevada than any other drug (casinos, twenty-four hour gambling and drinking). But, to say it’s in these stories because that’s the way it really was isn’t an explanation. It contributes to character and story development. Also, lots of flash seems to deal with the absurd and surreal, and alcohol and drugs certainly fuel that—at least in this book.
6.) Can you discuss PLACE? You seem to continually juxtapose the natural world with us humans (part of the natural world, but so not). Can you discuss this?
Like nostalgia, place is prominent in my writing probably because when I started loving literature it was because I read Of Mice and Men. I’m from the Monterey Bay Area, and when I was a kid and read Steinbeck’s novella, it was the first time I could relate directly to a writer. Before that they all lived in England and wrote about Narnia. I knew the Salinas River—practically the exact spot Steinbeck describes in the opening to Of Mice and Men. Since then I’ve been interested place—especially the natural (nonhuman) world—and how humans interact with it. Maybe this is symptomatic of growing up on the west coast. There’s a lot of “place” out there. When you stand at the top of Castle Peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, you can see. That’s harder to achieve on the east coast. There are too many trees, the “mountains” are actually hills, and suburbs filled with assholes waiting to give you high fives wind through the landscape. But, the top of Castle Peak is desolate and dangerous. The first snow in the Sierra Nevadas usually falls sometime around Halloween. One day it’s 80 degrees, the next it’s dumping powder, and fast. It’s easy to get snowed in, like the Donner Party did. My grandfather used to tell me stories about the Donner Party, so that’s also an example of the tie between place and human that’s not as pretty as a river winding through a valley.
7.) Will you trace the path to publication (as a collection) for these works?
I first started by sending the individual pieces from this book to many of the traditional print literary magazines. From many I received form rejections, and some editors sent back notes, saying that they liked what they read, but it wasn’t quite right for them. I figured beforehand that that might be the case (because of the flash form), but why not try. I thought places that might be more receptive to the form would be online literary journals, and print journals that weren’t associated with colleges and universities, or at least seemed to feature more innovative writing, or that specifically looked for flash fiction/prose poetry. The first acceptance of these pieces was at NANO Fiction. Then other places started taking pieces, too: 3:AM, elimae, Hotel St. George, Mud Luscious, Wigleaf, Keyhole, Oranges and Sardines, PANK, etc. When Carl Annarummo, editor of The Corduroy Mtn. and Greying Ghost Press, accepted some pieces he asked if I had enough to put together a chapbook. I told him that I did, and then scrambled and put a chapbook together. I did have enough of the short pieces, but hadn’t really organized them in any way. So I worked on the chap that became When I Moved to Nevada for a while before I sent it to Carl. A while later he accepted it.
I put the short pieces of WIMTN as a section into a book along with lined poems, this thing that at the time I called “The Donner Party Picnic Area.” Some writer friends who read that book all said that the section stuck out by itself, and—while it felt linked to the other poems thematically—it was distinct in form and content and deserved its own book. I knew I could go on telling stories like the little ones that appeared in that book, so I continued writing them. Altogether, I probably wrote 150 pages of these short stories/flash fictions/prose poems. Then I started culling them, pulling the best out, and forming them—along with WIMTN—into this book. I continued sending the individual pieces out, and also divided the other sections into chapbooks.
I sent the book as a whole off to Barry Graham at Paper Hero Press, around the time that he was finishing up with Sam Pink’s book. Barry offered to publish the last section as the chapbook Atlanta. At that point, I figured why not publish each section as chapbooks before publishing the book as a whole. So I sent the first section to Adam Robinson at Publishing Genius. I’m really grateful to those editors (Carl, Barry, and Adam) for publishing the chaps. They all knew I had a book as a whole, and that I published the other sections, but they all said that they loved the writing, and that it deserved to be published. They made me feel really good about what I was doing.
While all of that was going on, I was revising, restructuring, toning up the book as a whole, and I sent it out everywhere I possibly could. I wanted to send it to Hotel St. George Press, but this was right when the economy took a shit, and they didn’t have any money. I asked Adam Robinson if Publishing Genius would be interested in the book-length manuscript and he said it was possible, but it probably wouldn’t be until 2010 or 11, as he only published so many books per year and already had his plate full. Call me impatient, then. I also sent the book to Starcherone Books, Spuyten Duyvil, Etruscan Press, Blue Road Press, Pecan Grove Press, Keyhole, and there’s probably a few places I’m missing. Meantime, Jason Behrends at Orange Alert Press had reviewed Atlanta and also mentioned some of the individual pieces on his blog, so I emailed him, asking if he’d be interested in seeing the full-length manuscript. After I sent it to him, he got back to me in about two months, which was the quickest anyone had yet. He accepted the book. I held off, though, because I wanted to see how it would do with the other presses. I told everyone that I had an interested press, but that I hadn’t yet signed a contract. Everyone was really great about that. I just wanted to go with the best thing I could possibly get, and there were a number of factors I wanted to consider. Orange Alert offered to have the book published by the following autumn, which was fast, and attractive. Also, since I design books for C&R Press, I knew how I wanted this book to look. And if I could design the book myself, I knew I would be happy. Orange Alert also said they could accommodate me there. So, that’s who I ended up with, and the editors of the other presses were understanding and generous with my wants in this regard. They didn’t make me feel like a dick, in other words. Almost all of these editors said something to the effect of, “we know it’s a tough business out there, so if you’ve got a press that already knows they want to publish it, go for it. No hard feelings.” It wasn’t like they all wanted to publish it or something—most of them were still considering it, and hadn’t made a decision—I just didn’t want to waste their time, with their readers reading it, and all.
All that said, while the chapbooks came and so too the book, it wasn’t like I didn’t get rejected, or that it wasn’t hard. I did a lot of footwork to see who I thought would receive the book best, and I think that cut out a lot of unnecessary postage. What I mean by footwork is that I looked up presses’ website, ordered their books, read those books, and evaluated. In the end, when it comes to the initial drafting and final publication of the book, in total it was about two years’ time.
8.) The first time your writing snarled off the page for me was one Tuesday I was leafing through an issue of NANO Fiction. You had this flash (on page 72 of this book) and it opens with a reference to Halloween. So the reader has a tone and mood and subject anticipation. Then the flash ends up having an absolutely different tone than expected. It’s homage (again nostalgic) to the almost kissed, the what-could-have-been, the stirring smoke of regret, etc. It’s a touching, beautiful work, and a reversal, is my point.
That’s a long way of asking, Are turns and reversals a thing you look for/enjoy in your writing, or maybe they surprise you?
Thank you. The guy who suggested the title for the book (Mike Dockins, a poet) really loves that one, too, and I think it’s his favorite. It means a lot to me when you and him—two people with writing and critical approaches to literature that I admire—say that about something I wrote. When drafting the parts of this book, I didn’t think about things like reversals, and probably few people do. I did a lot of writing without thinking, a technique that’s working more and more for me. I talked to Dean Young about this a lot when he came to Atlanta once. It’s not automatic writing like Kerouac wrote about. I write without thinking to see what comes out, but in revision and rewriting the actual story or whatever shapes itself. When I wrote this book, I would start off with whatever character/situation/place, etc., came to me without really thinking about it, then I shot the details out. Since I was dealing with nostalgia, narrative came along with the territory. I was thinking about what things were like then from the perspective of the here and now (which is now then). So there’s automatically a sense of time-passed. When I would get to the end of the shorts, I wanted to get some turn of phrase—or image, detail—something that made the prose click closed, like a box, a la Yeats’ idea of how a poem works. I suppose that reversals are built into us, as products of western civilization? Some would likely disagree with that, that Aristotle has wound his way into our collective consciousness so indelibly. Perhaps in revision I saw things that I could turn for surprise. I do love irony. Not all reversals are ironic, though. I don’t fucking know.
9.) The title of this book seems to want make cake and eat it too. Can you expound on the title?
The title’s a bit of a joke, or a challenge. One of the pieces in the book is about rattlesnakes, with the word/image “rattlesnake” repeating throughout it. That thing was titled “Rattlesnakes: An Essay: On Rattlesnakes” when it was published in a magazine. The book’s title, like this rattlesnake title, makes fun of genre, and titling conventions. I had about four or five different titles for this book, including “They Called Me Larry,” “Feel the Inside of the Back of My Skull with Your Fist,” “Looking Back, it’s Only Now that I See What Kind of Idiot I’ve Become.” When none of these satisfied, I said, I’m just going to call it “Prose.” A friend—Mike Dockins, the same guy who suggested the rattlesnake title—said, “yes, ‘Prose,’ colon, ‘Poems.’” I laughed, and he went on, “colon, ‘a Novel.’” We were drinking. You can see what kind of dorks we are. I didn’t consider the title seriously for some time. After a while though, it worked on me. It’s a dork’s-tongue-in-his dork’s-cheek done in a dorky way. It is just like making the cake and eating it. The title is about what the fuck it is that you’re reading, which is a book of poems, written in prose, that, when collected, make up something that is at least novel-like.
10.) Does a writer write best when deeply in love?
Yes. Not necessarily romantic love. Maybe just in love with life, or the world. That’s sentimental. Maybe it is more like romantic love. Sometimes you really hate your lover, or you want to do something to hurt your lover, because you love them so much. It helps to feel this way about writing. Really love it, but also hate doing it, want to hurt it, hate it.