WAG: Your stories have wonderfully original
settings—an outdoor diorama park where the
participants aren't allowed to leave, a self-help
seminar aimed at booting unwanted individuals out
of your life, a Humane Raccoons Alternatives business
in which captured raccoons, supposedly destined
for an idyllic release into the wild, are in fact
bludgeoned with a tire iron and dumped in a pit
("our corporate secret"). How do your
stories usually develop? Do you scan newspapers?
Watch infomercials? And how did you train your eye
to pick up on good story ideas?
Well, I wish I could say I had a system,
but really it's all pretty irrational. Of the ones
you mentioned, only the raccoon one came out of
real life—I saw a yellow page listing for
a company called Humane Raccoon Alternatives. Other
than that, they just sort of come as I'm typing.
The result, I suppose, of a lifetime of living in
America with an odd brain and my eyes relatively
wide open, occasionally.
The biographical note in your first book, CivilWarLand
in Bad Decline, stated that you were, at that
time, "a geophysical engineer for an environmental
company." (A side question: what, precisely,
is a geophysical engineer?) The biographical note
in your new book, Pastoralia, says that you
now teach in the Creative Writing Department at
Syracuse University. To most people, that's a surprising
change of careers. How did you manage to pursue
science and art, and why did you ultimately decide
to follow art?
The side question: a geophysical engineer,
at least the kind I was, is someone who uses geophysical
principles for practical ends. In my case, I was
trained to obtain and analyze seismic data, in order
to prospect for oil. So we'd drill a hole, put in
dynamite, blow off the dynamite and record the resulting
soundwaves on a computer, yielding a sort of 3-D
picture of the stratigraphy underneath. (Sorry you
asked yet?). I worked in Sumatra and Indonesia,
doing this sort of work for about two years.
I was a scientist, albeit a largely
incompetent one, since my freshman year of college
at the Colorado School of Mines. I was writing all
that time, but without any contemporary models,
and while awash in technical homework. In the end,
the two interests dovetailed: the tech writing I
was doing influenced both style and subject. And
any claim I might make to "originality"
in my fiction is really just the result of this
odd background: basically, just me working inefficiently,
with flawed tools, in a mode I don't have sufficient
background to really understand. Like if you put
a welder to designing dresses.
Many writers—and publishers—argue that
the short story has become merely a writing exercise.
The pay isn't good enough to sustain anyone who
isn't independently wealthy or currently living
in a monastery, they say, although they acknowledge
that writing enough short fiction can make you into
a good novelist, once you've matured. On the other
hand, you've now published two resoundingly mature,
critically acclaimed short story collections. So
I'm curious: do you think the naysayers are wrong?
Is the short story genre indeed commercially viable?
I'm not even sure that writing novels
is 'commercially viable.' Most people I know who
write either teach or live very frugal, often single
lives. So I think it's important to simply disconnect
the two things. The story form is incredibly challenging
and beautiful and rewarding, in and of itself. A
worthy thing to spend one's life on, no matter what
the financial rewards. And I think you sort of have
to end the discussion there. You can make some money
with good stories of a certain type, while other
good stories of another type won't make a cent,
but a good story is a good story, and is worth the
time, simply in terms of spiritual benefit to the
person writing it. And then, secondarily, to the
person reading it.
What do you tell your students, when they ask about
the writing market?
I basically tell them to try not to worry
about it too much. Really great things will not
get done if you have one eye on the market. Period.
What pays well is not necessarily what is intense
and important. We would all like to think that doing
our best work will also benefit us in the physical
world, but history is full of people who did amazing
work and never got a break in life, and, conversely,
people who did sucky work and lived like kings and
died never knowing their work was bad. There are
also, of course, those who did great work and
lived like kings. And there are those most rare
of birds, those who did great work, had the means
to live like kings, but instead spent their time
and energy benefiting other beings. So let us aspire
to be part of the last class, cautious not to be
part of the second class, and willing to be part
of the first if necessary.
What attracts you to the short story genre? Does
it offer you something that a novel can't?
To be honest, I'm attracted to it because
so far it's the only thing I can do. What limited
skills I have are short-story skills: compression,
brevity, deletion of non-essentials. I would love
to take Isaac Babel's advice, which went something
like: "write very good and long novels, very
quickly," but of course he never did this himself.
I plan to continue to be overjoyed if even the shortest
piece works out, because they so often don't.
Why do you use dioramas so often as the settings
for your short stories? Do you see them as a metaphor
for something about contemporary life or—more
prosaically—did you simply work in one as
I'm really not sure. They just often
yield language and situations that are interesting
to me. Sometimes I've thought that I use them because
using them makes it impossible to revert to what
is, for me, a fatal mode, namely: literal realism.
Having set a story in a bloated, exaggerated theme
park, you've committed yourself to a certain kind
of ironic satire that, I've found from experience,
is where I do my most intense work. I would sometimes
like to think of myself as a Tolstoyan realist,
or a Robert Stone realist, because I love those
writers, but hard experience has taught me that
I don't have both hands on the bat in that mode—so
starting out in a theme park sort of corners me
into the place where (sometimes against my momentary
instincts) I do my best work.
Your stories are either set in the present or, in
some cases, possibly an indeterminate future (aside
from the satiric dioramas of the past, of course),
and their themes are resoundingly contemporary.
Have you ever considered working in an earlier time
period without the diorama's ironic quotation marks
being placed around it?
I've tried once—the novella "Bounty,"
from the first book, was originally an attempt at
a mock slave narrative. But then you get me, Mr.
Working Class, trying to imitate 19th century speech
and sounding like some drunk frat boy doing bad
Monty Python. So, give me Contemporary Voice, or
just Post-Contemporary Voice....
Finally, two related questions. Many writers have
a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone they
think has been unfairly ignored by the general reading
public. Do you have one yourself? And who do you
think is the best under-appreciated writer working
I'm not sure that these guys are really
underappreciated, but I love Isaac Babel and Henry
Green—two of the great writers of the century
and probably not always acknowledged as such.
I consider almost all of my favorite
younger contemporary writers to be underappreciated,
since I think they should all be given mansions
and free computers and full refrigerators and told
to go go go. So that list would include, among many
others, and in no particular order: Ben Marcus,
David Foster Wallace, Paul Griner, Dave Eggers,
Mary Caponegro, Rick Moody, Arthur Flowers, Lee
Durkee, Mark Sundeen, Junot Diaz, Chris Offut, Julia
Slavin, Paula Saunders (my wife), Brooks Haxton,
Michael Burkard, Kevin Canty, Edwidge Danticat,
Larry Brown, Nicholson Baker....I could go on and