Ken Wohlrob is the author of Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners, a new collection of short stories, and The Love Book, both published by Bully Press. He was the co-founder and editor of Bully Magazine for six years. His work has also appeared in Opium, The New York Press, Six Sentences, and Go Metric. You can show him some love at www.kenwohlrob.com.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am still hip-deep in the multimedia project centered around my new short story collection, Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners. Each of the stories are set in New York City where I live and I wanted to find a way to bring across that cacophony of sights, sounds, and people.
The collection is really focused on the concept of New York City as a place that is constantly in flux. The neighborhoods in New York are never static – it’s not just the buildings that get thrown up or torn down, it is the population shifts and the changes in the economy. In the past decade, things have changed so rapidly that people who have lived their entire lives in a 12-block radius now suddenly find themselves out of place and among strangers.
While the stories in the book stand on their own, when I was writing them I always heard music, a mini-soundtrack on a loop in my head. Each story had its own theme, some of it pegged to movie scores I always loved, such as Neil Young’s soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man or Iggy Pop’s title theme for Repo Man. I wound up creating an EP of soundtrack music with one main theme for each story (you can listen to all the songs here: http://kenwohlrob.com/music/). The music gives the mood and feel of the story, but in certain cases, it also allowed me to bring out a different side that the reader might not pick up on at first, feelings that were more subtle in the text. You can hear different sides in the themes for “Claimus Flees Manhattan” and “Job in Williamsburg”, a sense of urgency and tension that underlies both stories, but is more subtle when read.
In addition, I started taking photographs of the neighborhoods where the stories are set (Hell’s Kitchen, Carroll Gardens, Washington Heights, Williamsburg, the East and West Village) as a way of letting people get a sense of the geography. So many stories set in New York City are pegged to a specific radius of blocks. If you’ve never visited this place, no matter how good the writer is at painting the picture, you’re still not getting a full vision. It’s the same with Paris or London – it helps to see the actual blood coursing through the veins of those streets. Plus, like the music, the photographs add an extra element, a little bonus to give the reader a better feel for the story. (You can view the photographs here.)
Finally, I’m just finishing up the podcast version of the book. I’ve always liked hearing authors reading their own work as you pick up on nuances that would be left out just in the reading. Like with Shakespeare, sometimes it’s the delivery that makes a line memorable, more so than the text itself.
When and why did you begin writing?
I’m a bit of a late bloomer. I wasn’t the kid who kept a journal in high school. If I read anything, it was usually comic books and Stephen King novels. To be honest, I was more of a music junkie. Even with that, I was a metalhead, so not a very sophisticated listener. I didn’t really start reading actual literature until I was out of college. But having an addictive personality helped and I quickly caught up with people who had a decade or so head start on me.
In the late 90s, I co-founded and ran an online magazine called Bully. After six years, I grew fed up with being nothing but a critic. Sounds cliché I know, but really I wanted to start creating things rather than commenting on them. So I didn’t really start writing seriously until 2005 or so, well into my mid-30s. Because I had no formal training, I really based my style on writers whose sense of character and storytelling appealed to me – Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, and Sinclair Lewis. I always felt they prized storytelling over prose. And there was a darkness to their styles that I connected with having grown up in America, that thread of suppressed human suffering just beneath the surface. And yet, they all had a great humor in their writing. It was a sign of their humanity. They understood everyone had their downfall and you had to laugh at it or go mad.
From the start, that was what I was shooting for – dark gritty tales with a macabre, black sense of humor. That right mixture of making people feel uncomfortable while still feeling compelled to read onward.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Not until I put out my first collection of stories, The Love Book. I think it comes with holding the finished product in your hands, so you have something tangible that makes you say, “this is the thing!” Also, that was the first time I had complete strangers discovering my work and reacting to it – in both good and bad ways – which I think is very important. We all operate under the delusion that we are writing for ourselves, that the final product is solely for our personal gratification. Any writer, I don’t care who you are, wants that reaction from other people. You are creating to get a response out of someone. Otherwise, why bother releasing it at all?
What inspired you to write your first book?
It really was the dismal failure of a bad idea for a book that I had after scuttling Bully Magazine. It was meant to be a humor book called God Sex Politics America, kind of a jumping off point from what I was doing with the magazine at the time. But it was a train wreck of bad ideas jumbled together into an incoherent mess that didn’t really work thematically. I should’ve come up with something clever like cat photos with humorous word bubbles. Now that’s publishing gold.
So I started from scratch trying to write short stories more in the vein of the writers I admired. I kept it simple – straightforward prose, a focus on the story rather than literary gymnastics, and solid characters you could sink your teeth into. The mantra I had was to think of it as crafting a good punk song – two minutes and out. Then I also discovered Yukio Mishima and Alain Robbe-Grillet who added these new elements to my style, completely different and unique ways of telling a story. Most likely because I had no formal training and didn’t really have a clue as to how to even go about writing stories, I wound up creating a style that was less solipsistic than my peers. I didn’t care to write stories based on my life; I focused more on telling interesting yarns.
I actually didn’t plan on publishing my first book. I had five long short stories that I felt were pretty strong, but all had been rejected by various lit magazines (so what the hell did I know). I had tried submitting the stories as a collection to a couple of small presses, but as anyone who has tried will tell you, short story collections are a tough sell. At that time in 2007, people had started podcasting their work, which to me at least seemed a more economical way of getting people interested in my writing than self-publishing. I wound up releasing the podcast on iTunes and through Podiobooks. Then, I got that instant reaction that inspires you to keep going. So I wound up publishing the collection through Bully Press.
Who or what has influenced your writing?
In addition to all the writers I’ve already mentioned – O’Connor, Vonnegut, Bukowski, Fante, Lewis, Mishima, and Robbe-Grillet — there are also some key writers such as Mavis Gallant whose short-story writing really taught me quite a bit. Evelyn Waugh and Mark Twain taught me how to create a dark sense of humor with balance. And honorable mentions go to Georges Simenon, Ray Bradbury, Balzac, and Albert Camus.
I also can’t give enough credit to Japanese writers like Kōbō Abe, Shusaku Endo, Kenzaburō Ōe, and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who have had a big impact on my writing over the past several years. Being that I had already developed a somewhat simpler writing style, their ability to craft prose that is boiled down to its simplest essence, not a single word wasted, really hit home with me. Those guys are masters. I wish more MFA writers read people like Abe or Ōe.
Music has also been very important to my writing style. I often craft stories as if they’re songs and think about the plot in terms of timing and impact. I’ll usually write to music and in certain cases have a particular song that fits a story. I considered the last story in The Love Book, “Taking the Happy Bus on Home,” the “When the Levee Breaks” of the collection – that final epic track.
And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was greatly influenced by painters. Often, the spark of an idea for a story comes from a painting I’ve seen. Seeing Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch Bauer I at the Neue Gallery in New York City gave me the inspiration for “Job in Williamsburg” in Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners. Odd Nerdrum’s The Dying Couple gave me the macabre idea of old folks committing suicide for “Taking the Happy Bus on Home” and I also worked Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” into that story. For me, certain painters are great storytellers, better than most writers. It is the power of suggestion in their work, the bits and pieces left up to your own brain that try to make sense of what is transpiring in the image. I just saw an amazing exhibit by Gottfried Helnwein that did that as well.How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
I think because I grew up in a working-class New Jersey family and didn’t get an English degree or an MFA, I view writing more as work, a craft that requires hours of labor and practice. I probably would have made a good blacksmith or cobbler. So I have more of a labor-intensive approach to it, putting my time in, especially when it comes to creating some of the multimedia facets to the new book. And I tend to be very project-focused rather than working on tons of different things at one time. I look at it more as doing one project at a time and making everything involved one cohesive artistic effort. That’s probably why I like designing my covers and interiors, or creating podcast versions of the book, or creating music to go with the stories. It is almost a punk DIY thing, but I take a certain pride in the spit and polish as well.
Also, because I don’t have any formal training, I learned to write simply, to avoid overwriting solely to try to impress. I picked it up from working-class writers who didn’t have the training of writers with greater technical skill, but also from the great Japanese writers of the 20th century who wrote in spare prose that still hit with a greater impact.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I prefer to keep my prose tight and focused, to not waste any words and get to the heart of the matter. At the same time, I like stories with grit and darkness to them. It’s rare you’ll see a happy ending from me, mostly because it’s rare in life that anyone gets a true happy ending (unless you pay for it at a massage parlor). There are always compromises and sacrifices that come with any reward. But in a weird way, I also think there’s a certain black humor to that, a sense of “ah shit” because it never goes quite as planned. And I’m a firm believer that you need to be cruel to your characters. You can’t romanticize them or you’re going to be too kind when showing their flaws.
Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?
I think what I’m most trying to get across to people are the gray areas in life. The idea that one man’s hero is another man’s villain. I love presenting to readers a character they should dislike or despise and convincing them to actually understand and even like that miserable wretch. I think my best stories have that element to them.
What book are you reading now?
I am reading Independent People by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness. I went to Iceland for the New Year and wanted to read something that fit the geography. It turned out to be a great choice. I had a better grasp of the Icelandic mindset just by reading the interactions between Laxness’s characters.
In a case of weird synchronicity, I was reading the book in a coffee shop in Reykjavík one morning, surrounded by old Icelanders who were debating the news of the day, using these long, drawn out “Já”s to indicate their approval of a statement by one of their colleagues. At that very moment in the text, Laxness had a group of sheepherders at a wedding, debating the various afflictions affecting their flock, with one man being declared a genius with diarrhea. The dialogue from the book had the same rhythm and pacing as what I was hearing in the coffee shop. Then, I came upon the line in the story where Laxness had written, “It was then time to think of coffee.”
Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
I’m lucky enough to have become friends with an inspiring group of fellow writers who are all working outside the boundaries of mainstream publishing and carving their own ways, continuing to put out interesting work by any means necessary. I think Tim Hall, Caleb Ross, Karen Lillis, Mike Faloon, Ben Tanzer, and Kristin Fouquet all tell great stories and have their own bent that you couldn’t match to anyone else.
What is the most misunderstood aspect of your work?
I often get accused of being heavy-handed in my writing. In my own defense, I chalk that more up to writers (and writing) having become too solipsistic in the past decade. I think we’ve had a complete overload of navel-gazing by writers from my generation. I’d rather tell an interesting story with characters that have actual blood in their veins (rather than being stand-ins for my relatives or ex-girlfriends). A lot of contemporary writers tend to be self-focused. But because readers have become so used to those types of stories, I think sometimes, they are caught off guard by my writing. The stories I tell are very rooted in the real world and those moral gray areas that confront us all. Some readers mistakenly think I have a strong message that I want to convey by writing in that manner. I’m really trying to drag the readers back into the thick of it, making them more actively involved in the story, forcing them to take sides as opposed to just sitting there as an unfeeling bystander. I don’t have an agenda in my stories, I just want you to be actively involved and think about the characters and their eventual outcome.