Put This on Your Special Shelf: Not Everyone is Special, stories by Josh Denslow
Releases March 27, 2019 from 7.13 Books
Review by Adam Van Winkle
Everyone may not be special, but these stories sure are.
First, it's not a meditation on the current discourse of "snowflakes" we see everywhere. It's much deeper than that. It's a Kafka or Updike style look at oneself and the Other. Like Kafka, it uses a freak or two to drive this home. It's deep and rich. And very good.
For the title, there's quite a carnival of characters here. The tumor boy, the four-foot, seven-inch narrator who plays an elf at Santa's workshop, a murderous wife, Meat Locker, the Shocker, and Snappy.
If I had to pick a favorite in the collection, it'd be "Sonny Boy." Speaking of Updike, "Sonny Boy" is a kind of modern "A&P." Same elements are there-a high school grocery stock boy, a lame manager, a local pretty girl walking the aisles. But where "A&P" stops short at a glorious rebellion and immediate confusion (the stock boy quits in his manager's face and goes after the girl only to find her disappeared from the parking lot already), Denslow's local working boy story is much more humane to all parties: the boy between phases, the old woman who pays with coins, the manager who feels he isn't so much older than his employees. Rather than a storm out fantasy, "Sonny Boy" takes an honest look at an unmotivated working teenager, maturing beyond his peers, but with no certain future or plan after high school. Meat Locker (that's the narrator's nickname at work) admires Sonny Boy, the stock boy who doesn't do childish things like glue quarters to the ground and airhump the old ladies that try t to bend over and pick them up (that'd be Shocker and Slappy), the stock boy who has a plan for after high school. The narrator's nagging wrist injury throughout the story symbolizes the metaphysical limp--told ya it was Kafkaesque too-- he has in moving toward the future, that these stifling surroundings of low wages and immaturity (not to mention the established low economic status of he and his single mom) have hindered any notion of progress. Just brilliant. Stinking brilliant.
I think that about this whole collection. The word-of-the-day-womb-tumor-survivor in "My Particular Tumor" has an ability to hit your gut and tug your circumflex arteries in two pages, as much as the admiring wife in "Consumption" will in one page, as much as the surreal appearance of a special couch in a jail cell will on page seventeen of "Punch."
This one's gonna roll around in my head for a while. Until I read it again. I know I will. It's too good not to. This one's gonna go on the good, good shelf. With the collections from Brown and Pollock, and yea, Updike and Kafka. The collections that I know are the all time good ones. That I'm going to turn to when I need inspiration to write good stories again as I often do.
Not Everyone is Special deserves the same place on your shelf too.
In addition to publishing his debut, Josh is the editor at Smokelong Quarterly and is part of the band Borrisokane. Josh Denslow’s stories have appeared in Barrelhouse, Third Coast, Cutbank, Wigleaf, and Black Clock, among others. Find more here.
Rhinestone Cowboy Gardening:
Vern Smith's Awesome New Novel, The Green Ghetto
Released February 15, 2019 from Run Amok Books
Review by Adam Van Winkle
Detroit ain't the only thing that'll make you think about Elmore Leonard as you read this force of nature of a novel. The Green Ghetto by Vern Smith slams two Leonard genres together, the western and the hardboiled urban crime thriller, and comes up with something wholly original. And damned good.
If the inner-city is so ignored, isolated, and cut-off, it's just another form of the rural. Where cowboys with enterprising spirits reign and rule the prairie. Enter Mitchell Hosowich, a handle-bar mustache sporting, Tops rolling, snap-button wearing city cowboy. In the abandoned and overgrown ghetto of Detroit, Mitchell has created his own agri-empire, masking his pot plants with some rows of corn and tomatoes. Mitchell muses "if there'd been a good thing about the great American rust-out, it was that this part of Detroit had gone rural again, wild." So prairie-like is Detroit's abandoned ghetto that coyotes and snakes swarm the weeds. It is even rumored, a white tail deer or two is loose in the city. Like any old cowboy in a western saga, Mitchell too sees the short window of his prairie, and how it closes: "Slowly it was said, the people were coming back, and Mitchell, he couldn't reckon how much longer he'd be allowed to go on like this." Of course, it isn't just the population boom that threatens his cowboy ways. His empire is illegal. He can go legit, grow legal weed, but that takes bureaucrats and forms, something no cowboy ever has time for. And, then of course, there's the law and other outlaws to be wary of.
(If that's not enough for you, in the novel's opening pages characters literally enter a burlesque through swinging doors, saloon style, in "shitkickers.")
So, in the novel, Detroit's remnants are a new frontier, a modern western landscape. One where men outnumber women, and land and crop are under fire. Of course the law, the DEA, is involved, and lots of folks come up dead.
Most surprising about the novel is not the western characters or setting or plot, all of which tickle my grit lit fancy plenty, but the relevancy of this Leonard-like story to our present culture. Somewhere in this caper, this Robert Rodriguez ride of a book, there's a lament for the further bureaucratizing of the bureaucracy in a city in a post 9/11 world. There's also clearly a commentary on the border town. Did you know Windsor is south of Detroit? Do you know what borders mean? What they actually divide, or don't. Pressing concerns in our times. Add in the legalization debate, and this cowboy noir becomes perhaps the most relevant new novel I've read in a while.
My personal favorite part of the book is the music. The likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Neil Young bookend the novel's soundtrack. Between them are sermons on the punk origins in Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. I suspect here the author is moralizing on his own style and themes. Urban punk and country Cash ain't all that different. In The Green Ghetto we find an agricultural empire inside the city, and contemplations of farm land and subsidy. This city ain't that different than the country.
It's enough to make you think the story of the rise and fall of urban Detroit and the rise and fall of the American prairie farm were linked in some way, that the same mythos is at work in the cycle of both. In other words, Vern Smith does what great writers do. He takes his own narrative, masterfully woven and orchestrated, and makes it matter beyond its own story.
This is a highly recommended new read.
Vern Smith's new novel, The Green Ghetto, was published by Run Amok Books in February 2019. His fiction has appeared in Concrete Forest: The New Fiction of Urban Canada (McClelland & Stewart), as well as the Insomniac Press anthologies, Iced, Hard Boiled Love, and Revenge. His Novelette, The Gimmick, was a finalist for Canada’s highest crime-writing honor, the Arthur Ellis Award. A veteran of four newspapers and three magazines, Smith’s non-fiction has appeared in The Detroit Free Press, The Ottawa Citizen, The Vancouver Sun, Eye, Broken Pencil, and Quill & Quire, among other publications. He most recently managed CJAM 99.1 FM, where he founded the twenty-four-hour radio marathon Joe Strummer Day to Confront Poverty in Windsor-Detroit. He now lives on the edge of Chicago where urban Illinois meets the prairie.
A Brit Writing Grit:
CJ’s Adam Van Winkle Interviews Kirk Lake
Kirk Lake uses a piano top for a writing desk. At least, that’s how I imagine it. How else could he possibly get all the work he creates in writing, music, comics and film? He must be in constant artist mode. Or he’s just one really cool cat.
Kirk Lake first reached out to me after our special Harry Crews tribute issue last year and submitted the little trailerpark vignette, Low Expectations, that follows herein. I was hooked. I found everything I could of his to read, and it, like Crews, knocks me out.
I had to ask him some questions about his process, his creativity, and working with freakin’ Nick Cave. Lake don’t disappoint here, espousing on topics ranging from being a Brit writing American Grit to Crews, to the story behind the Leamington Licker.
AV: You mentioned that you found Cowboy Jamboree through our special Harry Crews issue. We dig talking about our grit lit heroes. How'd you come to Harry Crews?
KL: I think The Knockout Artist was the first I read. I would’ve bought it as a used book in the late 1980s. The yellow paperback with the boxer on the cover. I don’t know if I’d have heard of Crews then. I was always into books about boxing so that’s probably why I picked it up. Back then, pre-internet, it was harder to find books by people like Harry Crews. I’m not sure they were even published in the UK and so as imports they were either scarce or expensive. I was blown away by Crews and then bought his books whenever I found them. With Crews I felt that this was somebody who was being honest with the characters he was writing about and that the style served the characters rather than the other way around. Now of course you can go online and watch films of Crews talking and you can see that the man himself is right there in his books. I’d have already read Wiseblood and the Flannery 0’Connor short stories as they were easy to find but the more contemporary writers that are loosely in that Southern Gothic tradition kind of crept up on me slowly. Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, William Gay etc A couple of years ago I bought an amazing anthology called The Christ-Haunted Landscape, which features stories by and interviews with people like Crews, Brown, Reynolds Price etc and that book kind of put the pieces in place as to how these writers fit together.
AV: "Low Expectations" feels so real, so authentic. How do you write a woman in a trailer park saying "ain't" as a dude living in London?
KL: Well obviously I’m English and this was the first time I’ve really tried to write something completely American. I’ve spent a lot of time in the USA over the past twenty years and much of that in California and often out in the desert. This particular story, the characters I wanted to write about, their situation, was born out of a long road trip and days spent in tiny desert towns. I’ve read American fiction my whole life. I figured I could tell this story and remain truthful and honest to the characters and write it without anybody necessarily knowing I wasn’t American. I think for any writer once you get a handle on a character and you know how they speak and how they think and what they do and especially what they would be up to for all the moments during the time-frame of a novel when they’re not actually on the page then you can create something that seems real and authentic.
AV: Speaking of how you do it, you’re a musician, actor, writer, have created screenplays, books of fiction and poetry, and comics. So how do you do all that? What's your process for creating?
KL: With fiction, for me everything starts with a character and then a story develops. I conjure up an imaginary person and I put them in this imaginary place and I think well what would they do? What is it that makes them tick? What are their dreams or their regrets? What would they say and who would they say it to? What things do they notice and what would they ignore? Then a world gradually evolves and some kind of plot. Though if I’m writing a novel I’ll always know what the first scene will be and I’ll always know what the last scene will be. The tricky part is navigating between the two. I spend ages just sketching out ideas, writing random scenes, bits of dialogue. A lot of this stuff goes unused but it’s important for creating character and tone and in the process I’m identifying what my way into the novel is. Eventually I’ll come up with an opening line. So in the Still Water/ Neptune Blues novel that Low Expectations is extracted from the first line is “It was one of those dogs that looked at you with sad bloodshot eyes through rolls of loose, creased brown fur like a drunk man trapped inside a thrift store fancy dress costume”. And when I wrote that I knew I was good to go.
Film is very different. It’s a collaborative medium which can be a nightmare for a writer if they are in any way precious about the script they’ve written. You have to know that everything you write is going to be changed somehow somewhere along the line. I wrote a feature film called Piercing Brightness that came out in 2012 and I came onto the project very late and I was working on writing a script that already had characters, location and plot fixed. The version that came out is very different to what I wrote. Entire scenes are missing that for me were vital in terms of character and narrative but the director had a particular vision. You have to realize that, even if the film gets made and a lot of the time even if you’ve been paid to work on a script it won’t get made for various reasons, all these lines of dialogue you’ve written won’t make the cut or it’ll be edited in a way that changes the meaning or an actor will say something completely different to what’s written... You have to just let that go for the good of the film as a whole. There’s no point getting beat up about that stuff. Nick Cave described script writing as “dog work” and it often is just that. Sometimes though, you have a great actor and they can replace three lines of dialogue with just a look or a gesture and it’s way more effective than what’s in the script.
The most recent project I’ve been working on is a kind of film noir called The World We Knew which I co-wrote and appear in. I’ve been involved in this all the way through to the edit. It’s a completely independent feature film that’s due out next year. We’ve been billing it as Harold Pinter meets Poltergeist. It’s about a gang of men who are forced to stay overnight in an old house after the heist they have just pulled goes wrong. You’re never quite certain if there are literal or metaphoric ghosts coming after them. We’re using the tropes of film noir: the gambler, the boxer, the old timer out on one last job etc and playing with the form. I appear as a character called Stoker who fronts a night club for one of the gangsters. I don’t act very often, other than Stoker the last thing I did was play an American journalist in a television comedy about the time Alice Cooper worked with Salvador Dali.
With film I’d only usually be doing it if somebody had asked me to. In other work it’s usually a case of having the idea for a story or something to say at least and then figuring out the best form for that idea. I don’t particularly differentiate between very short stories or poems. There might be stylistic differences if I’m writing a poem/story that is going to read out loud as there’s things that work aurally that don’t read well on a page and vice-versa.
In practical terms of actually getting things done if I’m actively working on a novel I’ll work on it every day until it’s finished. But that would be from the moment I consider I’ve actually started by writing the first scene and knowing it’s the first scene. Before that, all the sketching and notes and dialogue snippets I’ll just go at whenever I feel like it and I’ll spend ages just thinking about it or maybe watching films that I think might be useful in getting the tone right or other bits of research. I always think of it as kind of circling around and around until I identify where I’m going to jump in.
AV: Your spoken word albums seem to enjoy a lot of acclaim. How'd this medium come to you, or you to it?
KL: The CDs and records happened because at the time I started writing seriously in the mid 1990s I was friends with a lot of musicians and somebody I knew from a record label suggested it might be interesting for me to read a few of the stories and poems I’d been writing over music. The music on the first album is provided by whoever was available. I ended up being given an okay publishing deal with a major music publisher and so I was able to put together a regular band. We made a few more records and played a lot of shows but it was always difficult to keep it going as there were up to eight musicians in the band plus we had super-8 projectors to cart around. Just a hassle really and not a cost-efficient set up. I made a final album around 2001 and since then I’ve just done the odd thing here and there. A few guest vocals on other people’s records, a few ultra-limited editions for boutique labels.
I’m not sure what I think about my records. At the time I wasn’t particularly convinced that they worked other than on a few tracks. They were generally well received by the critics and I sometimes get messages from people that are just finding them now. There wasn’t really anybody else making records like them at the time so I was never part of any “scene” and the gigs I played were with indie bands and I’m not sure their audiences really dug this kind of garage rock meets free-jazz with a man mumbling bleak stories over the top that we were turning up with. There was a zine-style book of lyrics, poems and stories from the records that came out a few years ago called Most Things Don’t Happen. It’s sold out but if anybody wants one they can email me and I’ll send a PDF. All the rights to the recordings are back with me now and I haven’t bothered releasing them digitally so other than tracks that have been uploaded by somebody else they’re hard to hear these days without buying a physical copy from a bargain bin somewhere. With all that said I am actually working on something new for early next year which will be the first proper album since 2001.
AV: "The Last Night of Leamington Licker" is a brilliant story. The comparison to Crews The Knockout Artist is so apt. Randy's turn from signing the autograph at the opening of your story to wiping down a table is such a fantastic moment of character, and says so much about where Randy's been and where he's at. Tell me about Rough Trade Books. What are these pamphlets and how did you get involved? And how'd you know about Randolph Turpin?
KL: Well the Randolph Turpin story is kind of like folklore in Leamington which is where I was born. This dirt-poor kid from the backstreets of a small Midlands town beat Sugar Ray Robinson, probably the greatest boxer that ever lived, against all the odds and became Middleweight Champion of the World. He was briefly a national hero. But he lost the rematch and then began a slow decline that eventually found him broke and running a transport cafe. My story is a fictionalized account of his final few hours. I’d been wanting to do something with this story for years but was never sure exactly how to handle it. When I was approached by Rough Trade Books to write one of their first pamphlets I looked at all the research I’d already done on Turpin and it all fell into place.
Rough Trade Books is founded by the people who were behind the original Rough Trade record label. Nina Herve is the driving force and is responsible for commissioning the pamphlets. So there are currently a dozen titles with a few more due soon. A real mix of things… the poet Salena Godden, a book of photos from punk historian Jon Savage, a short story from Joe Dunthorne, an art book from Babak Ganjei… They’re all limited editions of 500 and print only. It’s a beautiful, diverse series and I’m honoured to be in this first batch.
AV: Not to just jump around here, but I'm still so fascinated by the diversity of your writing. How'd you wind up writing for Nick Cave and acting in his movie?
KL: Around the time my first novel came out (1997) I met the artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard and we became great friends. We worked together on a few things. I scripted a film called Radio Mania for them which was this strange surround-sound 3D installation that was commissioned by the BFI in London. They started working with Nick on some promo films for the Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! albums and the first of these were a series of viral videos where Nick played a fake medium in recreations of old Victorian era séances (these may still be on line somewhere). I was drafted in to fill in for one of the band who couldn’t make it. I guess I was the closest person to hand who looked like he could be a Bad Seed. That was probably the first time I met him other than in passing after a show or something. So later I appeared in the More News From Nowhere video as a strip-club punter.
Then Iain and Jane and Nick had developed the idea for the film 20,000 Days on Earth which is a kind of hybrid docu-fiction ‘day in the life’. I don’t think Nick wanted any actual actors as the idea was to make it seem real so I was brought in to play an archivist and spent three or four days in this elaborately constructed imaginary archive under the town hall in Brighton. I was given boxes full of Nick’s actual archive and told I could ask him whatever I wanted so none of it is scripted. The bits you see on screen are obviously chosen as they fit the narrative arc and themes of the film but we shot loads more. Anyway, after that, I was asked by Nick to write an essay for the sleeve notes of the compilation album Lovely Creatures. I don’t know if he’d read my last book or had seen some of the films I’d made with Iain and Jane but for whatever reason he thought I was the man for the job. I went to Bordeaux for a couple of days and wrote the essay All Hands on Deck! – The Bad Seeds Set Sail and it appeared in the deluxe edition of the compilation.
AV: Back to your CJ story: "Low Expectations" is excerpted from a novel, Still Water/ Neptune Blues. Can you tell us more about that project? And that title?
KL: Well I can’t say a whole lot right now as the official announcement about publication date will happen later. But it’s coming out in 2019. It’s a story set in a desert town in California in 1986. The characters you meet directly in the excerpt are not the main characters. The preacher heard briefly on the radio is more important. It’s basically a story about a teenage runaway who, while attempting to hitch from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, finds himself abandoned in this dying, dusty, near derelict place. In the novel the town is called Baron but its geography and history are loosely based on the real town of Baker in California. Anybody who’s driven from LA to Vegas will have passed by that town but probably not stopped. It’s famous for having the world’s tallest thermometer. The title is the name of a blues record that one of the main characters once made, like A-Side “Still Water”, B-Side “Neptune Blues”. In terms of plot mechanics the discovery of this record is not a key point but in terms of theme and character development it’s really important.
AV: Besides Crews, what writers have shown you the light? Who are your writing idols?
KL: There are just a few writers that I’ve read every single thing they’ve written, obviously not including those who’ve only done a couple of books: Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, Hubert Selby Jr, Graham Greene, Denis Johnson probably a few more I’m forgetting now. Of those I guess Greene remains my go to guy. I’ve read most of his books more than once and a few of them many many times especially The End of the Affair. I was really thrilled when I found out that Crews had tried to teach himself to write by breaking down The End of the Affair. It’s such an incredible book and Greene is a masterful stylist.
Many years ago I was working freelance for a magazine and mostly I’d be interviewing generally quite dull musicians but I could suggest things to the editor and I managed to get a commission to interview Hubert Selby Jr. This would’ve been when The Willow Tree was coming out (1998). We did a phone interview and we talked about writing and his process and he was fascinating and inspirational. After the interview came out we spoke a few more times and I’d say he’s had the most influence on me as a writer. I don’t think I write like him at all but he taught me things about being true to your characters, about how to write prose the way a composer does music with tempo changes, crescendo, diminuendo, harmony, discord etc etc and I find myself thinking about this often. He was a lovely, generous, kind man and I always regretted not meeting him face to face. We were supposed to meet up one time I was in LA but he was ill and it didn’t happen.
In the early 1990s I published a zine called Twister and wrote to Bukowski to see if he’d contribute some poems and he sent a few batches of, at the time, unpublished stuff. I loved Bukowski and the fact that he still bothered to send stuff out to tiny magazines just raised him even higher. This was maybe 1993, I know he was writing Pulp at the time, so he was a well known writer. And I still love Bukowski but I think he has been badly served by not being edited properly after his death. This is probably not a popular opinion. When he’s at his best he is an absolute genius but this has been diluted by the sheer volume of work that’s been published posthumously. Some of it is not very good at all. And Bukowski, like Burroughs and Hunter S Thompson, has been responsible for inspiring a lot of really poor writers who think they can write in his style. He made it look easy and it isn’t. But I guess you can’t lay the blame on Bukowski any more than you can blame Bob Dylan for Donovan.
AV: What are you listening to?
KL: I never listen to music when I’m writing but I have always referenced a lot of music. Sometimes if I’ve written in that a certain song is playing in a scene then I’ll stop and listen to the song and work out how hearing that music might affect the characters or situation but then I’ll switch it off and get back to writing. In terms of what I listen to day-to-day… a lot of blues, a lot of jazz, a lot of reggae, always a lot of Elvis and all kinds of other stuff. Instead of trying to curate a list I’m just going to reel off the first ten CDs that are right now sat next to the machine; Bob Dylan – Live 1975, Alice Coltrane – Lord of Lords, Serge Gainsbourg - Vu de L'extérieur, Arvo Part – Passio, Billie Holiday – Giants of Jazz, Flying Burrito Brothers – Burrito Deluxe, John Coltrane – Afro Blue Impressions, John Coltrane – Ascension, Royal Trux – Veterans of Disorder, Tapper Zukie – Man Ah Warrior.
AV: What are you reading these days?
KL: I could do the same as with the CDs but the pile of books I have on the desk in front of me are all research for something I’m working on. It’s all esoteric and occult stuff, conspiracy theories, ghosts… If I listed those I’d seem like some kind of nut so I’ll try and remember what I read recently that’s kind of contemporary. I enjoyed the new Willy Vlautin novel, I don’t think it’s a great boxing book which might seem an odd thing to say considering it’s about a boxer but as a study of ambition, hope and failure I think it worked. I love Pascal Garnier who wrote bleak absurdist noir fiction, they’re not new but they were originally published in French and the first English translations have been coming out fairly frequently. I was introduced to the writer Brian Jabas Smith who has a book of stories called Spent Saints which is worth checking out. He has a new book called Tucson Salvage due later in the year and he’s coming over to the UK for that and we’re doing a couple of events together. He’s the brother of the musician I worked with most often back when I was making records regularly. The novel I just finished reading last night was Cain by Jose Saramango.
AV: What are you watching?
KL: I don’t watch much television. The last film I saw at the cinema was The Apparition which is a French film starring one of my favourite actors Vincent Lindon. I can be somewhat less discerning in terms of film than I am with books and music. I can and do watch virtually anything. If it’s something I’m not engaged with then I use the time to drift off and it becomes just light and shapes passing in front of my eyes while I’m thinking about something else. Usually though, especially since I started working on films, there’s something that you can take from even the worst movie. I’ll find myself thinking about the editing, about the structure of a scene, the set design, the dialogue. Just breaking the film down and trying to fathom what’s not working and why. I watch a lot of old film noir online as there are so many of them available to stream it’s never difficult to find one I haven’t seen and some of these really obscure, ignored B-pictures are just incredible.
For more information or to contact Kirk go to www.kirklake.net or via twitter @kirklake
The Last Night of the Leamington Licker is available at www.roughtradebooks.com or in various book stores, record shops and art galleries.
"To Be Perfectly Honest"-An Interview on Influence and Craft with Sheldon Lee Compton
Donald Ray Pollock says of Sheldon Lee Compton that he is "a hillbilly Bukowski, one of the grittiest writers to come down the pike since Larry Brown." Fitting then that we feature a new story and interview with the fantastic story writer in our Winter-Spring Larry Brown inspired issue, "My dog died."
Sheldon Lee Compton has been writing some of my favorite stories in the last few years. I don’t know if kinship is the word, but his prose speaks to me. The voices are so real, so authentic. I said recently of Larry Brown to a friend that I can smell the men and truck cabs in Larry Brown stories because I rode around in trucks like those with men like that when I was young. They’re real to me. When an addict swallows a pill in an SLC story, I can taste and feel that because I messed around with that when I was younger. It’s real to me.
I’ve read SLC interviews before and seen him talk about Larry Brown so I know the comparison is apt. I wanted to ask the man himself a little more about Brown though, and about some other things I suspected he might be up on—from Elmore Leonard to Hank Williams to addiction. I hope y’all enjoy the interview as much as I enjoy Sheldon Lee Compton stories. Check out “Remodeling” herein, and then go read all the rest you can. We are witnessing the making of a classic American author the likes of Pollock and Brown and so many other of my favorite grit lit authors.
AV: First things first: this issue was inspired by the opening line of Larry Brown’s “Big Bad Love” because, well, we love Larry Brown. I’ve seen you answer a question about writer influence before where you said something to the effect that discovering Larry Brown showed you it was okay to right about your own home place. I think I get what you mean, but can you elaborate?
SLC: “Big Bad Love” is one of my favorite all time short stories. I think Brown was a fantastic short story writer and a good novelist. I would have loved to have seen more collections from him before he was gone. Reading his work at the beginning did give me a sense that it was okay to write about the people where I come from in a realistic way, that is without sentiment. There’s so much about growing up poor or going hungry or looking for work and things like that that can become really saturated with a kind of preciousness if you’re not careful as a writer from Eastern Kentucky. And though Brown was a southerner, he understood the same point. Or at least that’s what his writing said to me. Also, he was just a real guy, as far as I can tell from listening to second-hand stories from writers I know who knew him. And the fact that a normal but hardworking guy like Larry Brown could write books, well that was also an inspiration. For me, that kind of knowledge effectively wrested the world of literature out of the hands of the people who wrote stories exclusively for The New Yorker or whatever and gave them to a young guy at the end of the world. That was a powerful thing for me, and I love Larry Brown to this day for that gift.
AV: Speaking of cool writers that died too soon, I’ve been a pretty big fan of the FX series Justified based on the Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens fiction universe. I’ve seen you mention some of your favorite TV and films elsewhere and surprised you didn’t mention the Harlan County-set series. Have you read Leonard’s Harlan County depiction? Have you seen the show? How good (or terrible) a job did they do depicting rural Eastern Kentucky?
SLC: Elmore Leonard equals legendary storyteller, and not every writer is a great storyteller. I’ve never read any of the Raylan Givens books, but I have watched the television series made from them. I watched it in its entirety, too. I liked it a lot. But was it an accurate depiction of Eastern Kentucky? Well, I don’t really think they were trying for that, to be honest, and I’m usually okay to take a work of art at whatever value it’s presented. But, if pressed, I’d say the characters are enlarged for dramatic purposes. Some more than others. Raylan certainly, which makes sense within the genre Leonard wrote these books. One aspect that was brought off at just the right pitch was this idea of a single family handling a lot of the crime-related stuff in an Eastern Kentucky town. That is a real thing here. I could rattle off a fairly long list of last names that are exactly those kinds of families. The fact that I won’t name them here, that says a lot right there.
AV: Writing labels can be both limiting and misleading. Same time, it’s useful to think in general terms of style and parallels. What do you think of the label “grit lit”? Do you think of yourself as this or any “type” of writer consciously?
SLC: I’m going to be perfectly honest in saying that I’ve become more uncomfortable with labels in my older age. I’ve identified in the past as an Appalachian writer, then a southern writer, but then, when I realized the label forced this kind of blinders effect on my work, I started to care less and think about it less. I write short stories mostly. I think of myself as a short story writer. Sometimes I write about people in Eastern Kentucky, sometimes I write about ghost dinosaurs; there’s days I write about dead coal mining fathers and others when I write stories that could be called fabulist historical fiction. I love all of it. I write westerns and even the occasional surrealist novel or set of poems with footnotes that have lines like “The last 11 emails in my inbox are from me to me,/but I stay categorically Red Dragon.” I can’t imagine not taking risks and exploring different themes and kinds of stories and ways of telling stories. It’s what makes all of this interesting for me. Grit lit is a good enough label. It’s a type of literature that’s been around for a long, long time, really, but I can appreciate folks wanting to place certain kinds of writing apart from others. I have no problem at all with it; I just don’t really have much input on it.
AV: Speaking of thinking of writing, what’s your process? I mean, how do you make sure you get words on paper in story form? Is this easy or hard for you?
SLC: I’ve tried a lot of different processes. I first tried an output schedule with a target of five-hundred words a day. That didn’t work very well. Then I moved to the time schedule, putting in about three hours a day writing. That didn’t work very well, either. Finally I ditched thinking about process, too. Now I do what I’ve done with most of my stories or books, I generally sit down with my laptop in my recliner and start working on whatever story I have going that draws my interest at that time. I usually have about five stories going at once, and there’s always something about one of them that is catching my eye. I dip in and start exploring around, trusting my instincts to lead me in the right direction. That sense of discovery is one of the biggest things for me as a writer. If I don’t have things to discover for myself while writing a story then there’s nothing there for me. Any time I’ve every plotted a story out and then sat down to write it, I’ve never had a bit of luck with it. The story was already told. Doesn’t matter if it was in outline form. The story has been told and is over. The most difficult time I had writing this way was the six years I worked on my novel Brown Bottle. I never plotted or planned a single thing in that book, and it was grueling. It’s not an approach that works for me when writing a novel, especially a realist novel. I’ve come to believe if it takes you two-hundred and fifty pages to tell a story then you’re probably not making enough choices. I can’t think of any novel I’ve read that wouldn’t have worked better as a ten-page short story, even books by Proust and Pynchon. In fact, you should read Pynchon’s short story collection Slow Learner if you haven’t already. He wrote some tight short stories, man.
AV: How’d you come up with a character like Wade “Brown Bottle” Taylor? It’s clear he’s displaced in the modern world. Several times the narrator seems to have to explain his lack of understanding of Gmail and caller ID and such. Like he never factored these into his existence. Do you know a Wade? Have a little Wade in you? I guess I’m asking, where’s the truth behind that character’s fiction?
SLC: Most of the time a character develops for me as this really organic part of the narrative. This happened with Wade Taylor. He first appeared in a short story of mine called “Purpose” in my short story collection The Same Terrible Storm. That story eventually became the first opening chapter of Brown Bottle. I knew I wanted to write more about the character because I felt him developing beyond the walls of the story. He’s based in part on a former step-uncle of mine, a young guy who sacrificed a lot of his free time to be a kind of father figure to me while his brother was off drinking and so on. The idea that he is awkward with technology is that part of myself I tend to put in my characters from time to time. So there’s a strange kind of patchwork when considering the truth behind that character. The largest part of Wade, that is all the key decisions he made in the book, were these very natural moments within the narrative flow, a part of that discovery process. But, no matter the flow, things were going to go the way they were going to go for him from the second I started writing the book. That was one thing I did plan, I guess. I always knew the end of that book.
AV: There’s a lot of violence, even sudden violence in Brown Bottle. I noticed though that the violence is delivered with almost a whimper and often in ways that subvert violent stereotypes. The narrator does not embellish the acts and is quick to inform the reader that movies don’t get it right and no characters really get “blown away.” I guess I’d suggest the narrator seems very uninterested in violence and wants to reign it in when possible. Was this intentional?
SLC: Ha! There’s so much of what I do in my books and stories that is not intentional. I honestly just cast out into the dark, as Ondaatje so beautifully puts it when talking about his writing process. I cast out then eagerly and carefully reel in whatever my gut and stubbornness brings back. I’ve been asked before about violence in my work, and, of course, it’s understandable. But the thing is, I live in a generally violent place. A lot of guns, a lot of fighting, a lot of crime, a ton of drugs. For instance, when Fay Mullins reflects on his first job as a hired gun, the one where he disposes of the body in the coal mine, every detail of that murder was bonafide truth. That murder took place where I live, back in the early 80s. I grew up hearing that story and a hundred more very much like it. Violence, in one form or another, is part of where I live, part of who I am, even, though I like to deny that sometimes. But to fully answer the question, I never considered how much violence or how little I put on the page. To an extent, I drew on military vets I actually know. These guys want to avoid violence once they get home, it seems to me. They’ve had plenty enough of it in their lives. I had that idea in mind to a certain degree, so maybe more thought went into it than I realize. But, in general, if I write a story set in Eastern Kentucky, it’s going to present violence, because to leave it out would be unbelievable to the narrative. It’s just a huge part of this area. It’s the same reason if I have a large family dinner scene there’s going to be soup beans and fried taters on the table. It might appear stereotypical, but that’s just the way it is.
AV: I’ve been reading your short stories for a while. It seems like each one, at some point, feels shot through with such authenticity, I can’t stand it (in a good way). I’ve written characters who use pills and that’s based in some personal experience. I gotta say, the way Deb regrets her method in “The Same Terrible Storm,” “wishing now she had chewed the pills” instead of dry-swallowing them, feels real as hell. Based in any experience?
SLC: Thanks so much for reading some of my stories. I truly, truly appreciate that. Yeah I’ve dealt with pain pill addiction, nerve pills, and for years and years alcoholism. I’m a recovering addict and alcoholic, full blown. I have two years sober from drinking and about a decade from the pills. I never snorted pills; I always took them regular. Dry-swallow, as Deb said. So some of that specificity comes from first-hand knowledge for sure. Other details come from living here and being around it all the time, being around addicts day in and day out. It might seem hard to imagine, but the majority of people here are addicts, not the other way around. And they come from all walks of life and ages, so pulling for details can happen no matter what kind of character you’re writing. The key really is to write drugs and drinking as if it is as normal to that character as someone else drinking a cup of coffee, because that’s the truth. Talk to a opiate addict from Eastern Kentucky for five minutes and you’ll see what I’m saying. They are second- and third-generation pill heads and alcoholics. It’s their norm, so when I write about it I keep that in mind. I don’t make a big deal out of it when I’m writing a scene where someone’s crushing pills or lying their way through a doctor’s exam to get another script. I write it about the same way I’d describe them taking an afternoon walk.
AV: Little Walter. Hank Williams. Seems like maybe you and Cowboy Jamboree got the same musical tastes... Who are your favorite musicians? Do you play any music?
SLC: I’d bet we surely do. I love the purity of traditional music - blues, folk, gospel, Irish ballads, whatever it may be. And the contemporary artists and bands I like, they bring some of that along with them. Singers like Tom Waits, Shane MacGowan, Nick Cave. I listen to a lot of indie music and absolutely no popular top ten stuff. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single song on the local radio station, unless they’re running an evening 80s hits. Then I’m open to all of it. Bring on Culture Club! I mean with the 80s it’s all good because it’s all nostalgic. But, yeah, Hank Williams Sr., Townes Van Zandt, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, bands like The Pogues, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Those Poor Bastards, modern musicians like Sturgill Simpson and William Elliott Whitmore. I could go on and on. I love music. In fact, my interest in music nearly predates my interest in writing. My dad was a really talented guitar player who aspired to be a studio musician. He started teaching me guitar when I was five years old, and I’ve played ever since. So that’s nearly forty years experience on the instrument. I can play a tune or two, that’s a fact.
AV: So less trivia, more big-picture: Why do you write? I read once where you said “reading is prayer.” I totally get that. If reading is prayer, what is writing for you? Confession?
SLC : Yes, reading is prayer. Reading has become more important to me than writing in the past four or five years. I’ve kept a reading log during this time and tried to make an effort to read as far and wide as my tastes will allow. Some surprises along the way include my love for Tolstoy’s work, especially the short stories. Other reading insights have been not so surprising, such as the fact that Proust makes me want to put my head through a wall. In that way, reading is also an act of discovery. Not to say that writing has become less important. I like how you posed the two, though. Writing as confession and reading as prayer. That’s cool. But writing isn’t confession for me. Lately I’ve come to realize it’s just something I do. I write to tell stories, and that’s important enough as is. When we were all gathered around some fire in the middle of the night with the unknown moving in the dark all around us, it was stories that kept us from going crazy.
AV: What’s next from Sheldon Lee Compton? What larger project(s) are you at work on?
SLC: Well, I tell you what, I’m looking forward to this upcoming issue of Cowboy Jamboree, that’s for sure. You guys are putting together some interesting work. Other than that, I’m putting together a collection of short stories set in Eastern Kentucky. It’ll be the first stories of that kind I’ve written since the publication of my first book The Same Terrible Storm in 2012. And I’m always working on a few other projects, too. I have a collection of stories finished in second draft called Sway made up of all the other kinds of short stories I write, which range in topic from towns devoted to amputee worship to dragons that live in small ponds. There’s also a novel I’m about a year into called Evergreen that’s about an immortal serial killer and his three immortal siblings, one of whom played a large role in a previous book of mine called Alice and the Wendigo. So, yeah, I’m fairly busy most of the time. But it keeps things interesting, and, like I mentioned earlier, it keeps me from going crazy. I can only hope it does the same for others.
Night-Writer: Willie Davis, Nightwolf, and Kentucky in Literature
By Adam Van Winkle
As I read Nightwolf, I felt fully borne to the street grit of Lexington, Kentucky. As I read, I began to find a kindred spirit. An author that lingers on the behaviors I do, whose characters are defined by their ticks and anxieties more than anything, whose violence is so real and so passive it punches you in the gut too—that is a writer truly worth his salt.
Read “Thieves” here and you’ll get what I mean. Hallahan will instantly churn your stomach if you’ve ever tried to learn from or please a naturally violent and bombastic person. Davis nails that persona over and over again in a hopped up urban southern novel, come art commentary…maybe.
As for the rest of Nightwolf of which “Thieves” is excerpted, just order it. Read it. You’ll see.
Who was this writer who’d hit the mark so well for me? He must dig some of the same street art and music and literature as me. I like his writing too much for it not to be. With a name like Willie Davis, I hope he digs the blues too.
I was partly right, though as you’ll see here in what he says about art and music and literature he’s as complicated as Kentucky literature itself.
AV: How'd the story in Nighwolf evolve for you?
WD: The acorn of this book came from when I was killing an afternoon with a friend in a local bar. We saw a sign on the back that said, "YOU ARE BEING FILMED FOR YOUR OWN SECURITY!" Something about that phrase--the faux helpfulness, the casual way they assume they own our interactions, how they want our grattitude for spying on us--cracked us up. It felt like it could be the America's motto (this was maybe 2013, before we all decided to make it worse). My friend works in TV and film and was looking for a project, so we kicked around an idea called "You Are Being Filmed For Your Own Security," about a group of friends searching for fame in increasingly desperate ways. They were performative and self-conscious people, but they wanted to film themselves for their own security. Knowing they were being recorded is the only way they can feel secure they exist. Shortly afterward, my friend lost interest or got busy, but I dove into it. I wrote a short story about these people that eventually found a home. They weren't actively seeking fame at this point, but were still knowingly performing. Like any group of friends, they share stories about themselves that they all remember. The problem was that those stories had a lot more life to them than the main story I was telling about them in their thirties. So I decided to root it when they were kids. At the time, I figured I would use that as prologue and come back to tell the story of them as adults.
Only after I committed to writing about them when they were teenagers did the story of Nightwolf come to me. It wasn't a story about fame, but about obsession. Most people who achieve fame do it through absolute obsession and dedication. That's not Milo's desire--his obsession is with his brother, with having a quest in the first place. Though almost none of the original plot remains, these are people who know they are performing and, if they came of age a few years later, would likely put a lot of that obsessive energy to becoming famous.
AV: I love street art, been teaching a unit on street art a few years. Why'd that become a focus, a motif for your story?
WD: On a practical level, I know nothing about street art. One of the inspirations for the character Nightwolf was the DC tagger Borf. Borf was this absolutely relentless tagger who would write his name on every flat surface in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area. When The Washington Post did a story on him, it turned out he was a kid whose friend committed suicide, and this was his way of absorbing that pain. I felt tremendous empathy for him, though, no doubt, he'd tell me to cram my feelings up my urethra. Street art is both showy and anonymous, which is kind of where these characters are.
Also, when I started writing this, I was living in a cramped apartment in Baltimore, sleepless for too many nights in a row. One morning, I walked outside to see someone wrote "Let's Be Friends!" on the sidewalk. For a minute, I thought the city had come alive and was talking to me. I regained sanity soon thereafter, but that feeling stayed with me. I wanted that feeling to animate Milo, so hopefully the closer he gets to Milo, the reader could share my stress and relief in his opinions.
AV: Reading the novel, it felt so many times like I was in a Crews-esque hypermasculine world where any sort of pleasure, accomplishment, belonging to a group involved a kind of physical endurance of pain. In the opening, the narrator is is hurt by Hallhan while Hallahan is helping him. In "The Best Thieves" you write "When I graduated to cars, Egan set Ollie Hallahan up to be my mentor. He pinched my cheeks when I did well and cracked my skull when I fumbled with the locks. Egan told me to follow Hallahan, ape his every move. If I made a mistake or showed up late, Hallahan treated my spine like a kid treats a sheet of bubble-wrap." I recall a question asked early in the novel of how many fingers one can have broken and still play bass. Why so much physical abuse, or nods toward it?
WD: Violence is the young man's performance art, and though the bruises are real, these kids are definitely performing. They talk awfully big about how they're going to stomp each other to death. When they're alone, they can admit these very obvious truths: their bodies aren't made for what they put them through. They're scared, and starting to suspect that mortality is real. But in a crowd, they put on shows, even if it costs them their well-being. There's an awful lot stupid about that mindset, but something beautiful in it as well. Because they are at the age when getting punched in the face feels righteous, and when the body can bounce back from abuse. In the second section, when they're in their early twenties, a lot of them have already started to shy away from it. Maybe it's because they've started to spend more time alone and less time in crowds, so they can be more honest with themselves. Still, even at that age--honestly, at any age--the call to theatrics is pretty irresistible. If you want to cultivate a violent image, you strike a threatening pose and you'll do it. The face calls the tune, and the brain dances.
AV: There's a lot of Biblical and religious language in Nighwolf. The opening claims a miracle. There's a character Thomas the Prophet. I've written two novels with heavy biblical allusion now, and for me it comes from growing up in a heavily Southern Baptist area and is mostly tongue-in-cheek. Where does this come from for you?
WD: I grew up in a bit of a religious hodgepodge. My mother was raised a fairly secular Jew in Pittsburgh. My father was raised Christian in small-town Appalachian Kentucky. They both seemed to half-believe, but they didn't bother with services. I frequently called myself a "Heeb-Billy" and then, later, after I married an Episcopalian and baptized our son in the Episcopalian church, an "Episcopagan." All sides of my family knew the Bible very well as literature, philosophy, and to varying degrees, spiritual truth.
I'm comfortably agnostic, and while I suspect God exists, I neither believe nor disbelieve.
I have no faith in my faith. If anything, I'm a belief maximalist. I think anything we can think of is true in some way. Dreams exist and are therefore real. Humans approach those spiritual truths through stories. These characters care about miracles, spirits, and ghosts because they care about their stories--their Gods are their stories.
AV: Backing up a little bit, we really dig our literary heroes at CJ. Who are some of your literary idols?
WD: While my writing does not resemble his at all, I love, love, love James Joyce. I love the way he experiments with normal forms, but what I find far more rewarding is the way he describes human interactions. People focus too much on the shiny bits, but ignore the grits and gravy of what he actually writes about. It's all about our flawed human interaction. I'm blown away by the stories of Mark Richard, who depicts the world of children better than anyone else I've read. He makes it seem both magical and unsentimental.
AV: Tell me about your experience with Kentucky in literature--how it's been depicted and how that influences you, maybe even depictions you don't care for? We really dig Justified and Elmore Leonard's Raylan Givens stories, though our good writing friend Sheldon Lee Compton has assured us the TV show misses the mark some on Eastern Kentucky depictions...
WD: Appalachians get pretty bristly about our depictions in the media. Our accent is often used as shorthand to show how stupid or racist a character is. We're called southerners though Morgantown, West Virginia is closer to Boston than it is Atlanta. I used to date a girl who lived in Boston, and her friends would say "What part of the south are you from?" I'd say, "Oh, I'm not from the south, I'm from Kentucky." And they'd look at me the way a dog looks at television. Actors playing Appalachians (or really anyone from south of Cincinnati and east of San Antonio) do a strange slow accent that no human has ever had (think Foghorn Leghorn after going on a date with Bill Cosby) and everyone calls them brave. I don't begrudge actors doing this, by the way--actors are supposed to act. But if an actor plays a guy from Queens with a Brooklyn accent, they get pilloried by professional wiseacres for years. It's completely explicable (you're more likely to hear nuances of people and places you're familiar with and most of the media is based in large cities) and it's rarely intentionally mean-spirited. But you could very logically decide that poor, Appalachians aren't worth accurate reflection.
I love Elmore Leonard, but I'm unfamiliar with his Raylan Givens stories. I've seen a few sporadic episodes of Justified, and I thought they were pretty good but I felt no real urge to keep going. (Though it's worth noting, I thought the actresses in that show did a good job with the accent. The men were a little too southern). I really like Sheldon Lee Compton. Sometimes the Appalachian literary scene can try to expel one if their own for being insufficiently Appalachian. It's a tiresome process I call "Holler Than Thou", which seems determined to make sure no one gives a shit about us.
All that being said, NIGHTWOLF isn't an Appalachian story. It takes place in Lexington, which is a flatland city, kind of an overgrown college town. The city of Lexington (both the real one and the one in my novel) is full of Appalachians who have left home. They form Appalachian communities as a way of reconnecting with their roots. (Detroit, Baltimore, and Chicago have huge Appalachian communities as well). That's what my characters are doing with these big, wild parties. They feel slightly displaced and are searching for home. I grew up with one foot in Lexington and one in Appalachia (my mother and father lived three hours apart from each other and I split up my week in both places).
The best Kentucky literature reflects this complexity. Gurney Norman writes these brilliant stories about Appalachia, and about the (very sizable and almost completely ignored) place where hillbilly and hippie culture overlap. Ed McClanahan has written hilarious books about the Kentucky experience. Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Rebecca Gayle Howell: I love all of their work because it doesn't try to distill all of the Kentucky experience in one flash. And because so much of it is funny. A lot of the literature that tries to prop up the region by showing how virtuous we are is insulting. They create an Appalachia I've seen on PBS of chair-caning and apple-butter, and reading it is a goddamn chore. If you want to show a positive depiction of Appalachians, make us funny. Make it seem like an fun place to live. You don't have to shy away from the poverty and the pill-heads, but it is a fun place in spite of that. I love Appalachia. (Though, to be honest, we vote like assholes).
AV: What's your process for creating? How do you get words on paper, turn and idea into a novel?
WD: I tend to write very late at night and I try to write in noise. So music, news, sports on TV: I want to hear all of it when I first put things down. Then after a long time (sometimes a very long time) the story will start to form, and then I need silence. Almost always, the story ends up wildly different than it was when it started. NIGHTWOLF was originally supposed to be a light comedy. I was a few hundred pages into it before I realized the light comedy plane was headed for the "everybody hurts each other" mountain.
AV: Back to Nightwolf. Art is a big thing in this novel. The graffiti of course. Nightwolf then becomes a comicbookstyle vigilante hero ala Batman (and then not of course). I was thinking while reading as with Wily Vlautin's Motel Life that you were a writer metaaware of the art in your story. We've got a heavily illustrated issue this time, and you can probably see where those influences come from (Shel Silverstein, Kurt Vonnegut, Nate Beaty). What role has art or comics or illustration played for you?
WD: Just this morning, I was reading my son a book called Mars Needs Moms by Berkeley Breathed, the same guy who wrote Bloom County, and I realized I owed him a huge debt for NIGHTWOLF. My narrator, Milo Byers, is not consciously named for Bloom County's Milo Minderbinder or Mars Needs Moms protagonist, but it's not a complete coincidence either. Breathed creates a world that is instantaneously familiar and foreign, and I wanted to be part of it. As a child, I loved comics in the newspaper like Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, and really most of them. It went beyond the jokes on the individual days and down to wanting to join their world. The DC and Marvel Comics that have now taken over the world never meant much to me, and I think the dominance of Superhero movies taking over our culture has helped lead us to this political nightmare we find ourselves in. I have nothing against their art, but it never moved me. But something like Bloom County was its own functioning universe.
AV: Covering more of the arts here, what do you listen to? Music like Nighwolf depicts--the Violators, "respectable punk"--I'm thinking? With a name like Willie Davis, surely you listen to the blues...
WD: My favorite singer--really my favorite artist of any stripe--is Bob Dylan. I was in, I think, seventh grade, when my brother came back from the library and said, "Hey Willie, listen to this." And played "Desolation Row." That song just marked a gigantic bright dividing line in my experience. Once I heard it, I couldn't go back. Twenty-five years later, I'm no closer to understanding it, but it feels satisfying and bottomless in a way practically no other song does. I love pretty much all Bob Dylan. Even when he goes down a road I don't understand or I think he's made a misstep, I find myself re-evaluating that same work a few years later, and I love it. In that way, he's always ahead of me on the path.
I tend to like the songwriters in music. I know that that is an unfair genre because Cole Porter, Phil Spector, Hank Williams, and Sam Cooke are incredible songwriters that nobody puts in that genre. But I guess I mean people like Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Otis Redding, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, The Clash, Townes Van Zandt.
I love a band like The Pogues, so steeped in Irish folk tradition that they could have been a straight folk band and had immense success, but they not only had these incredible original songs but this willingness to be a Molotov Cocktail in the face of folk expections. It showed this great punk attitude and their songs were undeniable. Maybe my favorite musical story of the past ten years is that Cadillac used their song "Sunny Side Of The Street" in their commercial. It's a bouncy, catchy, hard-driving song, but it's about being addicted to heroin. In the commercial, this peppy suburban family is loading the kids into their overpriced car, while the lyrics behind them are saying, "As my mother wept, it was then I swore/to take my life as I would a whore" and "With a heart full of hate and a lust for vomit/I'm walking on the sunny side of the street." Sarcasm has become so mainstreamed that no one knows who's subverting who anymore. Those commercials help remind me that the artist still has one up on the marketer. And the song remains undiminished.
As for the blues, I don't want to be a traitor to my name, but a lot of the blues is just lost on me. I like Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotten, and the folk blues a lot. But that nightclub twelve bar blues feels boring to me. I'm sure part of it is that I'm not an accomplished guitar player who can hear the complexities of the sound. I'm similar with the Coltrane, Miles Davis style of jazz. These are musical geniuses operating at peak power, but, I'm just looking at my watch, waiting for the song to end. Of course, it's more fun to dislike jazz because jazz fans are so pretentious.
AV: What's a reader gonna get from your art, from Nightwolf?
WD: I sincerely hope that just one person, somewhere, gets from this book, a screenplay that turns into a movie that makes a billion dollars, netting me the ability to never work again. Short of that, I'd like for people feel the energy of youth, feel the value of telling stories, to understand there are no villains in life and no real endings, just a bunch of flawed people in the middle of the most important narrative of their life. And that there's tremendous humanity in telling jokes, especially to people you don't like or respect. We all struggle, and we all want to laugh. When we lose ourselves in laughter, we remember we're all on the same road.
The Drevlow Show: On Grit Lit and Larry Brown and the Writing Life with Benjamin Drevlow
By Adam Van Winkle
I first met Benjamin Drevlow at a wedding. A writer friend of mine leaned over and pointed to the guy with the Harry Crews mohawk and a Heineken in each hand and tells me, “That guy’s a good writer.” “I could see that,” I joke, but I trust this writer friend so I ask, “Who is he?”
Turns out, as I met him later that night, Drevlow was just taking over as Editor-in-Chief at one of my favorite all time litmags, Bull Men’s Fiction. I came to Bull because it has featured the likes of some of my favorite authors (see Bonnie Jo Campbell and Donald Ray Pollock). I stuck with Bull because it’s an overall badass rag, every online and print edition worth reading. Color me impressed.
So I read his fiction. And it’s fucking great. Seriously. Fucking. Great. Bend with the Knees (and Other Love Advice from My Father) from New Rivers Press (2008) won the 2006 Many Voices Project and is one of my all time favorite story collections. As the title implies, the stories chronicle an upbringing (like “Rusty, The Jesus Years” herein) where family and love are gauntlets that toughen (sometimes by mangling). You’ll see he writes romance the same way if you read “My Baby Loves Me So Hard” over at one of my other favorite litmags, Split Lip Magazine.
One thing that occurred to me as I read is this dude with the Harry Crews cut must be a Larry Brown fan. So I asked him about that. And some other stuff about his writing and editing and all that.
AV: First things first: this issue was inspired by the opening line of Larry Brown’s “Big Bad Love” because, well, we love Larry Brown. What’s your experience with Brown? How much does he matter to you as a writer?
BD: How’s this: for our honeymoon, my wife and I went to Oxford to see his papers and to hang out in all the spots he used to write about. He was the first writer that I found out of grad school that I was like, I didn’t know you can do this? I spent a good five years trying to write like Brown before if I realized I couldn’t do it. “Rusty, the Jesus Years” is the closest I ever came. It was definitely inspired by “Big Bad Love” and the guy riding around in his truck waiting to bury his dog.
AV: “Rusty, The Jesus Years,” is an odd, like really specific chain of painful events. Any truth to that fiction?
BD: Yeah, most everything I write is maybe 85% true. Basically everything in that story happened but not all that night, the night I got a flat in the middle of a bridge and pissed off the side. I tried to write that scene for at least three years before one day I got an email from my mom, which was basically verbatim from the story. I was like, Christ, that’s a depressingassed email. Then I was like, what if I just throw all this shit at the wall, see what sticks.
AV: Speaking of truth working its way into fiction, “Life Story” seems to be just this: a writer trying to resolve writing the painful truth. There you write “I’d meant it to be both figurative and crude and a cruel joke on the narrator’s entire pitiful existence, which is to say my own entire pitiful existence.” Is this your approach to fiction writing? Or at least, an approach?
BD: A lot of the stories I write, yeah, for better or worse is me making myself the butt of the joke, or at least the villain of the story. It’s all therapy for me. I take a lot of pride in how hard I work at writing, but I wouldn’t say that I’m a writer, per se. I’m a storyteller. I’m a confessor. I’m a guy at a bar who needs professional therapy. I don’t feel like I’m writing worth anything if I’m not opening a vein and letting it bleed. A lot of the time, I’m asking myself, What’s the worst thing that could happen to me? What’s the worst thing I could do in this situation--past, present, or future?
AV: I like to ask authors I dig this question for mostly selfish reasons but our readers who write will want to know too: what’s your process? By that I mean, how do you make sure you get words on paper in story form? Is this easy or hard for you?
BD: My process is a little bit of everything. For years I was a binge writer. I would procrastinate and procrastinate, then write for twenty-four hours. I’d stick with a story and obsess about a story for a week straight. I still do this from time to time, especially during the semester when I’m teaching. I’ll go a week or two without writing, then write straight for two or three days when I get a break. That’s hard on me mentally, though. The ups and downs. For the summers, I’ve gotten pretty good at sitting my ass in the chair for four or five hours a day. I’ve never struggled putting words down. I struggle with going somewhere. I often joke that I can sneeze out 10,000 words without thinking about it. Out of this, I currently have a 700-page novel (which was once a 1200-page novel) that I wrote in two summers, that may never be published because nobody wants to read a book that big. I’m no David Foster Wallace and this ain’t exactly Infinite Jest. What happens? A fuckup janitor named Rusty pisses and moans about wanting to kill himself for 300,000 words.
AV: Speaking of process, you have to balance all this awesome fiction writing with managing Bull Men’s Fiction. One rag editor to another, I know that can be a struggle. But beyond the struggle, how do you think working as Bull’s editor makes you a better writer?
BD: It definitely motivates me to raise my game. We get so many great pieces from great authors that I end up having to reject. I’m constantly like, How have I ever gotten published? I end up thinking of my own stories as an editor and asking, What would make someone want to publish this for others to read? I’ve also started to become better at snuffing out my own posturing. Sometimes I think we want to get published so much and thinking that we have to stand out, what often happens is that we write from this dishonest voice that we think will make us sound more clever or more badassed than we already are. What’s an honest story? What’s an honest voice? I think a lot about that now.
AV: Otherwise, how has been taking the reins of Bull been for you? That’s long been one of my favorites with Donald Ray Pollock and Bonnie Jo Campbell and Sheldon Lee Compton and too many other awesome authors to note…
BD: It’s been really great on so many levels I never really expected. I never really planned to do a magazine. I completely appreciate the great things that lit mags do for writers and readers, even more so now that I’m on the other side. I just wasn’t sure that I had anything to bring to the table, or more more importantly, I wasn’t sure that anybody out there wanted to read what I would bring to the table. It was only through finding writers I appreciated online and then being able to talk to them about my favorite writers and find out their favorite writers that I started to feel like maybe this was something for me. In Bull, more than anything, I’ve found all these connections with a community looking for writing that doesn’t always get published other places. Usually writing with some teeth to it, writing with some ugly truths laid bare without an easy moral at the end. And in so many ways, I’ve found this communal safe space to dig into all the ugliness and pain that often goes with navigating masculinity--for men and for women.
AV: As an editor of a magazine with an awesome reputation among writers looking to submit, who are the authors and what are the books that shaped and continue to shape your literary tastes?
BD: I never really read as a kid, and I didn’t really discover writing until I was drinking way too much and suicidal and an all-around fun person to be around. It’s so cliched to say this, but Thom Jones and Tim O’Brien, those guys saved my life. I didn’t know people like their people existed. I didn’t know you could write about that, or like that. After that, Sherman Alexie and Amy Hempel basically taught me how to write a short story. Like I said, Larry Brown got me through my late twenties. I read every book he had, every interview I could find. When I think about the writing work ethic, I always think about old Larry. Of late, I’ve been consuming everything I can of Scott McClanahan, Bud Smith, and Troy James Weaver. These folks from outside the MFA world kill me. It’s like I didn’t know you were allowed to write those stories. But all these folks, I think of them like my crazy uncles and zany aunts, my fuckup cousins always telling the messed up stories.
AV: Obligatory trivia: What do you watch on TV? What music do you dig?
BD: I’m terrible for TV habits. There are so many options with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. It stresses me out how many good shows there are to choose from every night after work. And then all the shows now seem to have connected plots where you can’t just watch one, which don’t get me wrong, is cool, but addictive. Half the time I just settle for a good old Law & Order with Lennie Brisco that I’ve seen fifty times.
John Moreland writes these killer bluesy country songs. He just came out with Big Bad Luv. I’m not sure if he even knows about Larry Brown, but it’s pretty great just the same. There’s this Americana band American Aquarium that kicks much ass, a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. Their album Burn. Flicker. Die. hasn’t left my car’s cd player for close to six years.
AV: Watcha working on now?
BD: The big ugly beast I was talking about earlier is called Mama’s Boy (“Rusty, the Jesus Years” is actually the first chapter). It’s done and I’ve gone through and cut it down a couple times to get closer to something more manageable. It’s basically about a suicidal fuckup who decides to write a book about why he’s so fucked up for his mom, but it doesn’t go so well, because he is, after all, a fuckup.
I’ve also just finished up a collection of connected stories called Ina-Baby (which I kind of stole from Sheena Baby, one of LB’s characters). It’s the story of a dysfunctional relationship from start to finish, but told in reverse order. You asked me earlier about “Life Story” and how I tend to write stories to figure out my own pathetic existence. Both these books are essentially me asking myself, What’d be the worst shit that I could do? What’d be the worst shit that could happen? I’m still not sure this is a healthy coping mechanism, but it’s what I do. Thankfully, I’m blessed with a very understanding wife and family who put up with me writing the way I do.
AV: Writing labels can be both limiting and misleading. Same time, it’s useful to think in general terms of style and parallels. What do you think of the label “grit lit”? Do you think of yourself as this or any “type” of writer consciously?
BD: I know the actual writers of “grit lit” were often conflicted about the term, or for some it didn’t even exist when they were writing. I love it. I have this visceral image that I can feel in the back of my teeth every time I say it--this little bit of grit that I can’t chew or swallow. To me that so epitomizes what I love about LB’s writing, but also William Gay, Harry Crews, Donald Ray Pollock, Daniel Woodrell, Dorothy Allison, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and a hundred others. It’s definitely my favorite genre to read. Gritty, to me, also describes the ethos of writers like Brown, Gay, and Pollock who didn’t travel the typical MFA route, the ones who painted houses and worked at the paper mill, the fire station for years before they got anywhere with their writing.
As for me, I don’t know. I’ve definitely been heavily influenced by those folks, Larry Brown most of all. I definitely try to mine my roots growing up farming and working as a fry cook and summer hand. If I could, I’d always write about the lives of working class people with minimum-wage jobs and manual labor jobs. Those are my favorite people--the humor, the work ethic, the complexities of their often skewed morality, etc. But honestly, I haven’t lived that life for a long time, and I tend to write to cope with the life I’m currently living. I’ll never probably write a book about professors; I would kind of hate myself. I’m not sure I truly fit in with any genre because I steal a little bit from all the different authors I dig, and these days I’m trying harder to be okay with that. I’m trying my best just to write the best stories I can write, wherever they fall in terms of audience and genre. An honest story about shit that bothers me without any posturing.
More on Drevlow
Benjamin Drevlow was the winner of the 2006 Many Voices Project and the author of a collection of short stories, Bend With the Knees and Other Love Advice From My Father (New Rivers Press, 2008). His fiction has also appeared in The Blue Earth Review and Passages North. He is a fiction reader at BULL: Men’s Fiction, teaches writing at Georgia Southern University, and lives both in Georgia and online at www.thedrevlow-olsonshow.com