Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Of Wonder and Shadows: An Interview with Christopher DeWan, author of Hoopty Time Machines

Christopher DeWan's Hoopty Time Machines: fairy tales for grown ups debuts on September 22 and let me just say, you're in for a doozy. Wild, imaginative, poetic, and disturbingly familiar, the stories found in this collection are so much more than fairy tale reduxes. They are gem-like bits mined from our collective childhood imaginations, viewed through the lens of maturity and polished to a high shine. And a lot of them were written on the subway.... Christopher DeWan clearly has a fantastical mind and his interview doesn't fall short of the honesty and quirkiness that I so loved about his collection. Be sure to add Hoopty Time Machines to your To-Be-Read list, but in the mean time, sit back, relax and step into another world:

Steph Post: Hoopty Time Machines is a collection of flash fiction and what may be described as “mirco-fiction.” Several stories are only a single sentence long. What’s the secret to telling an entire story in such a condensed, limited space?

Christopher DeWan: A lot of the stories in Hoopty Time Machines got their start while I was living in New York City: I would use my morning subway commute to write, so if I stumbled on an interesting idea around City Hall, I knew I had to find a way to wrap up before my stop at Union Square. I think that really did help me hone in on an aesthetic of suddenness: how much can I squeeze in, how many worlds or ideas can I explode, in the next ten minutes?

A few years ago, I moved to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter, and the writing I do for that is longer: nobody wants to buy a TV series that lasts for ten minutes. But screenwriting requires so much efficiency that I think my background writing flash has really helped: scenes have to start at the very last possible moment, and they have to end as quickly and effectively as possible. Screenwriting has also made my fiction tighter: there’s a story in Hoopty Time Machines that was initially around 2,000 words, and by the time I finished editing, it was 83 words long.

SP: As the complete title of the collection suggests, Hoopty Time Machines is comprised of “fairy tales for grown-ups.” Almost every story is in some way a modern re-imagining of a classic story. This includes everything from Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales to Greek myths to 20th century superhero adventures. What drew you to traditional children’s literature and why do you think adults still find these genres and stories so fascinating?

CD: You know when people say, “Write the book you want to read"? I think about the stories I used to read when I was a kid, and the way they plunged into my heart—and I really wanted the stories in this book to do that, somehow, to tap into some of that under-the-skin feeling of wow and wonder. So many books I read now, they’re so good, but I feel myself read them with my head instead of with my body. I wanted to see if I could reconnect with this other way that I used to read—with my body. My gateway into that wound up being these stories I read when I was younger—not just fairy tales and myths, but superheroes and backwoods monsters and Stephen King, too. I wanted to get back in touch with anything that gave me a vocabulary for that feeling of “Wow.”

SP: As I previously mentioned, all of the stories collected in Hoopty Time Machine are re-imagined fairy tales. Did you write these stories with the intention of putting them together in book form? Or were you just on a thematic kick for a while there and the collection grew from stories you were already writing?

CD: I don’t know how conscious this was at the beginning, but in retrospect, I think what was happening was that I hit an age where things stopped going the way I wanted. My relationships weren’t working out. I didn’t get the jobs I thought I would get. Things weren’t getting easier; they were getting harder. So my experience of the world was going through a transition from a very youthful, “fairy tale” way of thinking—the belief that I was always going to get what I wanted—into a harder, more realistic understanding: that often I would not get what I wanted, even when I worked hard, even when I thought I deserved it.

So, intentional or not, this was a theme that was on my mind: what happens to a fairy tale hero when they realize they aren’t going to get to be a hero, or at least not in the way they initially imagined. I think the stories in this book are, purposefully or not, about me learning to make that transition—learning that “Happily ever after” isn’t a place you earn and then arrive at, once and for all. It’s a place you make for yourself a little bit every day for the rest of your life.

SP: Although the stories in this collection are based on stories familiar to children, your versions are often gritty, violent and not exactly G-rated. Was this part of the subversion of the original fairy tales or are you expounding upon and modernizing the violence already found in the stories?

CD: We really maybe should have boldfaced the “for grown ups” part of the subtitle…

It was never my intention to “retell” classic fairy tales; I don’t think I ever once sat down to write what I thought was a clever new interpretation of an old story. For me, it always starts with a feeling, and what I found, as I started writing about these feelings, is that often these mythical characters were great vessels to convey the thing I was trying to articulate.

I think these fairy tales and myths and childhood heroes are lodged so deep in our collective brains, but also in its murkiest unlit corners. There is so much violence, so much that’s unexplained or impossible to understand or resolve—and I think that’s why they still feel so vital to me, and maybe it’s why I find them so helpful for exploring a lot of these murky feelings: there’s so much shadow.

SP: At the end of Hoopty Time Machines, you include a section titled “Notes and Origin Myths” in which you comment on every story in the collection. I’ve never seen this kind of personal annotation included in a book of short stories. What was the reason for this section? Did you write the commentary after you completed each story or did you go back and write each piece for the purpose of the published collection?

CD: Haha—the honest answer is that my publisher was worried our book was too short. But there were already so many stories in the collection, I didn’t want to overwhelm a reader by adding more—so I thought it might be fun to offer this sort of “DVD special feature,” a little extra “behind the scenes” for people who want it.

SP: Finally, to share the love- what books are you most looking forward to reading in the coming year?
CD: Ah, I’m falling so behind on my reading list! There are so many books I’m looking forward to reading, but the next bunch on my queue are Amber Sparks' The Unfinished World, Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble, and Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot. I want to go to a cabin in the woods without internet and read all three of them in one big gulp, and probably fuel my dreams and nightmares for the next five years. Can’t wait.

Many thanks to Christopher DeWan for stopping by! Be sure to pick up your own Hoopty from Atticus Books on September 22. Cheers!

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