What projects are you currently working on?
I find that I work best when I have multiple projects at various stages of development. The reason is simple. Having things to work on drives away the terror and despair that seem so much a part of the writing life to me. And working on a new project you are passionate about goes a long way toward soothing the rejection bruises that are inevitable when shopping a manuscript around. The other reason I work on multiple projects is because it allows me to take a break from one project, to get distance from it without falling into the aforementioned terror and despair because I have nothing to do! So, I finish a draft of one project. Let it sit for 6 months or a year while I work on a draft of another project. Then back to the first and so on. At this time, I have one complete project I’m shopping around called “Domestic Disturbances.” It’s a collection of surreal flash fiction pieces in a contemporary, suburban setting. The second project is in its fifth draft and will probably have to go through a couple more rewrites. It’s a novel about the Ojibwe in Minnesota in the 19th century, and I’ve been working on it for the last 4 years. As you might expect, it’s research intensive. That said, it is not a historical novel. The novel moves in and out of 3 different time frames that eventually start blending into each other. I consider it a magical realist novel closer in feel to my first two novels than to the flash collection. That novel is entitled “X.” The third project is a novella (possibly a novel) based off a short story I published in Boulevard back in 2007. That short story was 12 pages. The current incarnation is 50 pages, and I’m thinking of expanding it to 100 plus. It’s called Wait Your Turn and is told from the perspective of the Creature from the Black Lagoon as he takes on family life in L.A. of the 1950’s. Finally, I’m about half way through a collection of essays on writing the irreal called Exploring the Cracks. All of my work (with the possible exception of Arsenic Lobster) falls into the irreal. I’m fascinated with how non-realist works allow us a fuller access to human experience. I turn to the essay collection whenever I want a break from writing fiction.
When and why did you begin writing?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. But I remember thinking I wanted to be a writer in high school—after reading Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and Irving’s The World According to Garp. I’ve always been a reader and a writer, but for some reason those two books gave me permission to actually think about writing as a way of life. That said, the idea of taking a creative writing class in college was completely foreign to me. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of 12 people sitting around a table taking themselves seriously as artists. The permission I got from those books didn’t extend that far yet. Then, after having a few poems rejected by the University of Colorado student literary magazine, I figured I didn’t have what it took and devoted my life to the sport of fencing instead. I started writing again 11 years later when I lived in Spain but thankfully all of those horribly sentimental and self-absorbed stories were lost when my hard disk crashed. The following year I returned to Colorado where my younger brother, Daniel, encouraged me to start writing again. I’d encouraged him back in college, and he’d never stopped. So, in 1998, after the birth of my oldest daughter, I started getting up at 5am and writing for 2 hours every day before work. I’ve been writing ever since—though thankfully I don’t have to get up at 5 am anymore.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever considered myself a writer. That’s probably why I teach! Maugham and Irving gave me permission to write, but to be a writer. That still feels very uncomfortable to me. It may have to do with my working class, Midwestern upbringing, but I can’t help agreeing with Rick Moody when he says: “If you want to be a writer rather than simply to write, then you are doomed.” I get nervous around writers who seem more interested in marketing their books than in the writing of them. It’s a sad truth that if you want to be read today, you have to do your own marketing. But I’m always reluctant to do it—much to my wife’s dismay. I still feel like a beginner every time I sit down to write. I think this is a good thing. Because I teach creative writing, it helps me understand what my students go through. The terror of the blank page. They ask me if it get’s easier, and I tell them no. That’s a bit of a lie, but it’s true enough. Though you gain a bit of confidence with each book, you also gain knowledge. Knowledge of your habits. Knowledge of your crutches. Knowledge of your weaknesses. Knowledge of what good writing is—and how far away from it you sometimes seem to be—especially in those early drafts. The kind of knowledge that comes with experience counterbalances the confidence so that you always end feeling like you’re writing for the first time. But again, this is the healthiest way for a writer to think.
Who or what has influenced your writing?
This is always such a difficult question but also a great one. I think writers are only half-aware of who their true influences are—and I think that’s important. If a writer was ever fully conscious of all the work that influenced his writing, it would probably paralyze him. Think Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence multiplied ad infinitum. That said, I read voraciously. I read all the time. I read so much my wife and children roll their eyes whenever I’ve disappeared because they know I’m closeted away in the bathroom or the car or the basement trying to sneak in a few pages. And all of it—even the bad stuff—shapes you. Which is why you have to be careful of what you read, watch, etc. I can barely sit through a movie any more—even the ones that are supposed to be good. But books. The list of writers would go on and on, but it would start early in my reading career with Tolkien, Bradbury, LeGuin, Orwell, Huxley, Asimov, and Clarke, then move on to Maugham, John Irving, John Gardner, Faulkner, Hemingway, Carver, Coetzee, Okri, Beckett, Quin, Lowry, Ondaatje, Kafka, Klima, LeClezio, Goytisolo, Süskind, Sebald, Grass, Calvino, Abe, Oe, Murakami, Schulz, Milosz, Lem, Swir, Müeller, Saramago, Pessoa, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Cervantes, Javier Marias, Ambrose Bierce, Melville, Whitman, Sherwood Anderson, Hawthorne, O’Connor, Paul Bowles, William Goyen, Baldwin, Coover, Maxwell, Kinnell, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Aleksander Hemon, Steven Millhauser, and of course the Latin Americans, who have probably exerted the profoundest influence on me: Borges, Cortázar, Rulfo, García Márquex, Donoso, Fuentes, Mistral, Neruda, Huidobro, Puig, etc.The list goes on and on…I’m sure I’m leaving many out. It’s impossible to quantify that influence. Whatever I am as a writer is due in large part to who I’ve read as a reader. I should also take this opportunity to say that my brother Daniel has probably been the greatest influence—both because he is the one responsible for pushing me back into writing but also because I look to him as the consummate wordsmith.
Has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
We can’t escape our past. I think for most people a lot of energy goes into trying to escape their upbringing, their family, their parents, and childhood friends. How else can you remake yourself as an adult? Like Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, I think artists have an anxiety of upbringing. They’re always dealing with their past, even if unconsciously. My typical middle-class suburban childhood was chronicled in my memoir, The Arsenic Lobster, as was my own drive to escape that past. Each piece in the current collection of flash pieces I’m shopping around, Domestic Disturbances, is set in a middle class, suburban setting. The characters in each of the pieces are inevitably trying to escape that setting or being substantially transformed by that setting, usually for the worse. I rail against TV now as an adult, but as a child I watched hours and hours of mindless TV like Hogan’s Heroes, Gilligan’s Island, or Bewitched. I played hooky from school to watch old Errol Flynn movies or the B monster movies. And I think my imagination absorbed all of those thousands of hours of TV and ground them up so that they come out now in my writing in some pretty bizarre ways, like the above-mentioned collection or the novella about the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Same for the place I was raised in. I grew up in a suburb of Denver called Aurora. At the time, we were on the edge of civilization. There was nothing around us but fields and dirt roads. Now of course it’s completely developed. But when I was young (and when I wasn’t watching TV) I was out running around in the fields, getting in trouble, having bottle rocket wars, or skateboarding in the spillway of the reservoir, or towing my friends on sleds tied to the backs of cars, . . . All of which is to say that those fields represented another limitless horizon for the imagination. We were latchkey kids. We could do anything. And we did. That kind of upbringing can’t be reproduced today. Those empty fields where we hunted lizards and snakes opened my imagination to wonder. I think those fields more than anything else led me to the irreal because only in the irreal can you capture both the banality of the suburbs and the rapture.
What genre are you most comfortable writing?
When I first started writing, I tried to write narrative realism. I even published a few stories in that “genre.” And notice I do call it a genre. Narrative realism is really what we’re talking about when we talk about “literary” fiction and it has its own set of codes that are no less arbitrary than those of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or mystery, for example. I read everything Hemingway wrote. Same with Carver. But I always felt like I was banging my head against a wall trying to color within the lines. Reading Paul Bowles was my first experience with a different vision. His iconoclastic stories opened up a whole new world. Then came the Latin Americans, and my head blew off. I simply didn’t know you could write like that. Literature in this country is so narrowly defined. In terms of reading and watching movies we are by far the most insular country in the world. No other civilized country publishes fewer translations or screens fewer foreign films. I think that hurts us tremendously not just as writers and artists but as a people. But I’m getting sidetracked. All of my writing with the possible exception of my memoir The Arsenic Lobster plays with the “irreal.” I use “irreal” as an umbrella term encompassing a range of writing from magical realism to new wave fabulism and surrealism. I would classify my first two novels as magical realist. Same for the one I’m currently working on. The collection of short stories and the new novella are very much floating between fabulism and surrealism. What all these “isms” give me is a way of talking about my experience of life. For me, life doesn’t play out as we see in narrative realism. That genre seems incredibly artificial to me. The simultaneity of time I experience can best be expressed in the irreal. Same with the disruption of space and identity that seems to be so much a part of my life at least. Narrative Realism spends 300 pages preparing the reader for a subtle but supposedly profound change in an otherwise consistent character. I think identity is MUCH more fluid than that. “Literary” fiction as practiced in this country has far more to do with our cultural values than it does with how accurately it represents reality. I’m more concerned with playing with first person plural narrators as a way of expressing a communal narrator than I am doing another, tired first person singular narration that seems so typical of the culture of “I” we have in the U.S. today.
Are there any new authors who have grasped your interest?
I’m so glad you asked that question because I review a lot of books and am always on the lookout for an interesting writer. I believe very strongly in partaking of the literary community. Everyone wants to write and have others read their books, but few people seem eager to read the work of others and most importantly talk about it! Here are a few whose books have blown me away in the past year or so. Alta Ifand’s Death in a Box, Craig Morgan Teicher’s Cradle Book, and Alissa Nutting’s Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls are each wondrously subversive if you want to venture into the irreal. For books that are formally interesting yet still pack a political punch, Lance Olsen’s Head in Flames, or David Toscana’s The Last Reader. The best realist work I’ve read recently has been Tim Z. Hernandez’ Breathing, In Dust. Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water is an amazing memoir. I should also add the short stories of Jane Delury, whose work you can find in various literary magazines. She hasn’t published a book yet, but when she does, she’s going to make a big mark.