Steph Post: In an event of sheer randomness, I read two of your short story collections- Commercial Fiction and If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home- right after reading Ben Tanzer's collection Lost in Space. You both include myriad, witty pop culture references in your work. What is the connection for you between humor and popular culture? Is this a connection that you think many writers exploit?
Dave Housley: Ben is a good friend and a writer I really admire in a lot of ways, so the comparison is flattering. For me, the pop culture thing is just kind of what comes out when I start writing. I’m interested in movies and music and television, and so are the people I write about. I think that kind of stuff, which on the surface might seem silly, is really important to people. I know people who care more about a football team or a band than they do, maybe, about their job. It’s also an interesting way to look at how you change, by choice and necessity, which are really different things, as you get older. I really like the Grateful Dead, but I like them in a different way than I did when I was 20. Part of that is by choice and part of it is just the situation I’m in (forty seven freakin’ years old with a wife, son, real job, etc). On a practical level, I think the pop culture stuff gives the work a little bit of a hook, some sweetening to make all the quiet desperation go down a little easier.
SP: As a novelist, and only occasional short story writer, I'm in awe of putting out a collection of short stories. How long does it take you to write a short story? Do they come in thematic waves or are they all separate pieces which you later organize into a collection?
DH: I’m trying to finish a novel and I’m pretty much in awe of anybody who can rightfully call themselves a novelist! I work in fits and starts. I have a full time job doing web work for Penn State, so my nine to five isn’t about writing, so I basically chip away at it whenever I can. It might take me two weeks to write a story, but that would be pretty quick and a shitty first draft, so probably it would take a month, maybe two, to write something that I think is even worthy of sending out to get some feedback.
I do try to work toward a collection, so if I’m writing stories I’m writing them with a goal in mind, and there’s some connective tissue that I hope will bind them all together. Or, that’s how I’ve been doing it lately. Right now I’m working on a collection where all the stories end the same way, in a massive cleansing fire (it will be called Massive, Cleansing Fire), which might be a terrible idea, but I feel like just having that idea has given the writing a kind of engine that keeps me writing.
SP: The first book of yours I read, Commercial Fiction, is a collection of very short pieces- each one an interpretation of a television commercial. As I was reading, I imagined you watching television and then jumping up to write down ideas when a Wrangler's commercial came on. What was your process for creating these pieces? Did you study the commercials or were they only a spark that you later ran with?
DH: Those were really fun. I wrote them originally for the literary magazine Hobart’s website as an ongoing column/project for them. Originally, I was trying to do one every other week, so I would literally watch television and then kind of hop up and run over to the computer to start writing. It was during football season, and if you look at the table of contents you can really see what our corporate brands think of the American male: fast food, erectile dysfunction, beer.
The spark for those was obviously the original commercials. I would just watch TV and commercials are so weird and obvious that something would always touch off that little spark of “what if?” The big what if is really “what if these were real people?” and the world of the commercial was extended beyond thirty seconds. I’ve always been kind of interested in that question, like what happens to the ancillary characters when the camera is turned off? There’s a thing television shows, even the best ones, do all the time, when two characters are having a dispute and one of them says something and the other one just kind of stares at them, and then the scene ends. But in real life that’s not the way that interaction works. The scene doesn’t end. Somebody has to break that staring contest, look away, maybe leave the room, fumble with keys, say something or not, walk out to their car and move the McDonald’s bag out of the way, etc etc etc. That’s the thing I’m interested in, I think- what happens when that scene doesn’t end. I like all that awkward stuff, the stupid small moments.
That project was really fun, though. I would recommend something like that to writers because it really made me get out of my own way and do some different stuff. That constraint was really useful and I wrote a lot during that period. It was all kind of ridiculous but it was fun, too.
SP: If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home has much in common with Commercial Fiction- your style is immediately visible on the page- but there is a seriousness bubbling under the surface of these stories, a bittersweet nostalgia, that lends weight to the stories. How was your mindset different in writing this collection?
DH: Thanks for saying that! I think the best compliment I ever got was from Steve Almond, who said “I bet people tell you all the time how funny these stories are, but they’re really sad.” I like to think I can make anything really sad, even a Wiggles concert or a Budweiser ad. The stories in If I Knew the Way have a lot of what a friend called “father/son shit” happening in them, a lot of reckoning with getting older and the disappointments and limitations that might bring. I tend to write maybe five years behind where I am in my life. I guess I process things slowly.
SP: Just as Commercial Fiction is an ode to, well, commercials, If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home is an homage to music. I'm not going to go so far as to ask you who your favorite band or musician is, but if you had to listen to only one type of music for the rest of your life- what kind would it be?
DH: I’d probably listen to Exile on Main Street or the second Band album, something from that early Seventies period when things were loose and countryish and a little sloppy.
SP: Similarly- (and just for kicks)- if you wind up in hell and there is only one song playing over and over for eternity, what would it be? (for the record, mine would be any song by Creed or Nickleback....)
DH: Hmmm…right now my son is watching some YouTube video called Stupid Orange, and the theme song keeps on getting stuck in my head, so I’d say that, but hell would also be full of modern country and autotune.
SP: In addition to being the author of three books of short fiction, you are one of the founding editors of Barrelhouse Magazine. How important do you think literary magazines and journals are today? What is their place among the glut of pop culture media outlets?
DH: I think they’re really important! I am obviously very biased, but I think literary magazines, and small presses, too, are the places where so much interesting stuff is going on. Writers are taking risks, doing things that are experimental and interesting and play around with form. It’s where a lot of the fun stuff is happening. Hobart will publish a bunch of stories based on television commercials. Barrelhouse will publish a section about dive bars or Patrick Swayze. Diagram will publish work that’s really pushing the boundaries of form. Ten years ago I think it wasn’t quite as much fun as it is now – there are more magazines, it seems to me, that embrace pop culture and technology and aren’t afraid to take themselves a little less seriously. It’s much more fun, or it can be, at least, than people think when you say “literary magazine.”
SP: Finally, most people I know haven't read a short story since high school. They read books, yes, thank God, but not short fiction. Someone the other day asked me- who even reads stories anymore? So, I'm putting this question to you: who reads short stories? And why should we?
DH: The cynical, realistic answer is that writers are reading short stories. I hope other people are reading them, though. Stories are so much fun, so quick, you’d think that in the age of the clickbait headline, stories would feel more fun to a general audience, more approachable than a novel. I think they get a bad rep as something that’s “good for you” when really they can be just as fun as a novel, and way shorter. A story can break your heart in a page.
I also love how flexible the genre is. A story can be a Yelp review, or an ebay listing, or a fundraising letter or an outline.
I know you a little bit, so I’ll give you the best pitch I think I can: Justified was based on a short story. Now I’m going to exit the scene like those television shows I was talking about. Bam.
See- I told you it would be a show! Pick up copies of Commercial Fiction and If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home today. Read, review, repeat....