Interviewed by John Bolen
How did you come to name the antagonist of the story John F. Kennedy in the first place?
It was mostly an accident. A boy who antagonized me in high school was named after a different US president, and I used that name in the first draft and then I thought, “Oh, shit, what if he read it?” So I just picked another president.
Music appears often in your stories. In “Kennedy,” Jamie tells us that he likes Tevin Campbell and Britpop, Kennedy is into Death Metal, and the art teacher plays John Tesh: Live at Red Rocks in class. In the title story of your latest collection, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine, the main character, Adam, has just been forced to leave his indie-rock band. He moves back in with his mother, and, in perhaps my favorite scene of the book, plays Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as a dirge, while his mother listens.
What kind of music do you listen to? Do you ever listen to music while you write, or do you need complete silence? Music is such a major component in our lives, and yet I rarely see it incorporated into fiction as seamlessly as I see it incorporated into your stories. How do you do it so well?
This is all stuff from my own life. In junior high, I was deeply obsessed with Tevin Campbell. In high school, while everyone else was listening to grunge, I was into Britpop, buying import CDs and magazines at Tower Records and staring at pictures of, like, the lead singer of Suede for hours. My art teacher played nothing but Yanni and John Tesh CDs while we worked. A friend of mine does a version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as a really, really slow song, and it’s so wonderful.
I pretty much just listen to rap music, and then I listen to whatever my two boys (Griff, eleven; Patch, six) like, which right now is BTS and Froggy Fresh and the Bob’s Burgers Soundtrack.
It’s very kind of you to say that about my stories and how music works within those stories. Ever since I was a kid, music has been really important to me, as I imagine it is to most people, but I have obsessive tendencies, so I sometimes get way too invested in music (see: Campbell, Tevin). I’ve always loved the way Jennifer Egan used music in A Visit from the Goon Squad, especially the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” and “Ask Me if I Care” chapters, the way the music serves as this point of connection, to pull two people together for a brief moment, to share the sound. And for someone like me, who struggles with anxiety and being around people, music is a kind of common language that lets me connect with other people. So I try to bring that into my fiction.
I do listen to music while I write sometimes. For my last novel, I listened to Phoebe Bridgers on a loop, one album, over and over and over. For The Family Fang, when I did the revisions, I listened to Sam Amidon’s “Relief,” a single song, over and over and over for hours and hours while I revised. I wish I could remember what I was listening to when I wrote this story. Oh, actually, it might have been the Silver Surfer NES soundtrack. Or the Robocop Gameboy soundtrack, since I was writing about videogames. Videogame music from the 90s is about as perfect as it gets.
Did you play video games growing up? Do you play them now?
A majority of my childhood was spent playing video games. Going to the arcade with five dollars and just playing Mortal Kombat and Cyberball and NBA Jams for a few hours, I was as happy as I could be. It was a way for my brain to kind of calm itself, let the colors and sounds do their work. And videogames were a great way to figure out narrative, to break down a larger story into smaller chapters, to see the progression.
I haven’t owned a system since my SNES in high school. I kind of lost the desire and then games passed me by, and I wasn’t good at them anymore. But now that I have kids, they love to play, so we have an Xbox and it’s made me really happy to play with them, though I am very bad at it. I also still have my original Sega Master System, so the kids love playing those games with me, like Shinobi or Pro Wrestling, and I can really wow them with how goddamned good I am at them.
About halfway through the story, we, as readers, realize that there is at least some narrative distance between the events that transpire in the story and Jamie’s retelling of it. (“Looking back on it, I want to take myself and just shake and shake, like, what the fuck is wrong with you? Why did you let that happen? But I can still remember those moments, when it felt like I was paralyzed inside my own body, like I had to pull myself deeper and deeper inside myself, away from the surface, in order to stay alive.”) It’s clear to the readers that, years later, Kennedy still has an impact on Jamie’s life. When you write a story like this, do you have a mental image of Jamie as both a teenager and as an adult? If so, what is his life like now? Does he have children of his own?
One year in high school, there was this boy. And he wore Cannibal Corpse T-shirts. And one of my friends and I were in an art class with him. And he poked us with X-ACTO knives and burned us with glue guns while we made a Parthenon out of cardboard. He’d hit me. And he said pretty bad things to us. I never once tried to protect myself or tell anyone or ask for help or stand up to him. It didn’t even really occur to me, even though I was fifteen years old. I think that my complete passivity was repulsive to him, to the point that I angered him, my existence. Now, I don’t even think that boy would remember me. And I don’t think he’d consider anything he did to even be bad.
But the ending of the fictional story is not my story, thank god, so there’s this point where Jamie, who is me, becomes not me. He becomes what I guess he always was, just a character. And I have a family and my life is good. But I don’t think Jamie’s life is good. I don’t think he has children of his own. And I feel those echoes, where our stories separate, and who he is. It’s a strange sensation.
At another point in the story, Jamie speaks directly to the reader, saying, “In such a short amount of time, my life, which was boring but tender, a thing that mattered to me even as I understood that it would eventually change, had become a kind of dream. I keep trying to explain to you why I didn’t try harder, but maybe you understand. Maybe you don’t think this is as strange as it feels to me.” Those lines split the story wide open for me. In the most beautiful way, they add another dimension. What is the reader’s relationship to Jamie?
I’m not sure. It kind of works like this for me. At first, it’s just me talking to myself. And then it’s me talking to the reader. And then it’s Jamie talking to the reader. And then it’s Jamie talking to Ben.
I like those moments in fiction when you’ve been with the story for a while and then the narrator suddenly talks to you, pulls you into the narrative, and you have to give yourself over to that intimacy. It’s startling, but I love that moment, when I feel like the narrator can see me, knows me in some important way.
At the end of the story, after Kennedy has committed his final—as far as we know—atrocity, I immediately thought of the poem, “The Second Coming,” by Yeats, particularly the line, “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” I’ve always understood that line to imply chaos, and the fact that Kennedy repeatedly destroys the miniature Parthenon—a monument of exactness—seems to play into that same idea. Does Jamie’s inability to understand or comprehend the events that occur in the story suggest an attempt to apply order to a world where order is seemingly absent? Should the writer concern himself with questions like that, or is that the literary critic’s job? (Or is it no one’s job, because it’s a stupid question?)
No, I think a writer needs to think about that stuff, but I think it happens after the fact, when you realize what you’ve done and you’re trying to make sense of it.
At the heart of the story, it’s a boy trying to understand why someone did a bad thing to him. And there’s no good answer. It’s just random cruelty. But it’s your life and you can’t really just shrug your shoulders and go about your business. Or at least I can’t. So you try again and again to look at the moment and figure out what it meant, how you could have changed it.
So I wasn’t thinking about chaos and order. I was thinking about JFK, the force of his anger and agitation. And I was thinking about Jamie, completely unable to protect himself. And the story just happens. Afterwards, I can see those things, but not in the moment.
You’ve now published two story collections (Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and Baby You’re Gonna Be Mine) and two novels (The Family Fang and Perfect Little World). At what stage do you determine the form an idea takes? Have you ever condensed a novel into a story, or expanded a story into a novel?
In most cases, I know pretty quickly if it’s going to be a short story or a novel. I spend so much time just worrying narratives in my head, spending a long, long time visualizing them, so once it comes time to actually start writing, I have a sense of how long it will be.
I turned a failed novel about a half-human/half-bear baby into a short story. And I turned a short story about a brother and sister who play Romeo & Juliet in a high school production into a chapter in my novel The Family Fang. I think this is mostly because I never want to throw out anything that I write. I’m always trying to figure out some way to reshape it into something halfway decent. So sometimes figuring out the form can do that. Sometimes it doesn’t, sadly.
You also have a novel coming out in November called Nothing to See Here. Could we hear what it’s about?
It’s a weird little thing about friendship and children and spontaneous human combustion, which is a neverending obsession with me. It all takes place over a single summer and it’s this really compressed narrative with weird elements, so it was fun to write. I wrote it so fast, in about ten days.
How do you manage to get all that writing done?
Honestly, I don’t really write for much of the year. I think it probably averages out to about two or three months out of the year when I’m actually on my computer writing. When I’m teaching and grading and reading, I don’t have much time for writing. And my kids need my attention and I like hanging out with them, and they don’t really want me to go sit in bed and write all day, so I don’t even try. I used to feel like a failure, and I’m always telling my students to write as much as they can, but I don’t do it. I have friends who write every morning for two hours and I admire that, but it’s not something that I’m capable of doing.
So I kind of save it all in my head. All the time, I’m trying to figure it all out in my head, and I just go over it again and again and again. To me, that’s my real writing process, just holding it in my head, cycling through it, building it up. So when the summer comes, or I go do a week-long residency, and I can sit down and actually write, I tend to be a frantic writer, going really fast.
Subtropics is incredibly lucky to have the pleasure of publishing both you and your wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, in the current issue. Is Leigh Anne your first reader? Are you hers?
Leigh Anne is one of my favorite writers so I’m honored to share space with her in this issue. Leigh Anne is my first reader. I actually don’t show my work as a draft to anyone except Leigh Anne and then my agent. That’s it. Those are the two voices I trust. And Leigh Anne has known me for so long that she knows what I’m trying to do, so it’s helpful for me to hear from her because she can help me figure out how to make it exactly how I envision it.
Leigh Anne goes to residencies a few times a year to write and I love that moment, after the kids fall asleep and it’s just me awake in the house, when she calls me from some cabin, and she reads me what she’s written that day. I love hearing it for the first time, in her voice. It’s probably as happy as I get.