Friday, January 29, 2016

Sex and Death and Dreams: A High-Speed Interview with Ben Tanzer

Ben Tanzer has been on my radar for while now, every since I read his short story collection Lost in Space last year. I interviewed him, he interviewed me and we bonded over Darth Vader (among many other things). Tanzer is a brilliant writer, a kind and hilarious soul, and a huge advocate in the literary world, both large and small.  He's the kind of guy you'd buy drinks for all night, just to keep him telling stories. I plan to do this if I ever make it out to Chicago, but in the meantime I can content myself with Tanzer's recently released collection Sex and Death. And this interview. Read on...

Steph Post: Okay, I'm going to go ahead and start with point of view. Most of the stories in Sex and Death (and many of your other stories) are written in 2nd person. It's a little unusual, but it absolutely works for your style. Do you find writing in 2nd person POV natural or is this a conscious decision? How do you think writing in this style changes the story-reader relationship?
Ben Tanzer: I rarely consciously start a piece in 2nd person, and I probably never shift to 2nd person when I'm editing, but the dreamier the pieces play out in my head, the more likely they are come out written that way, and ultimately stay that way, and I find that 2nd person reads, and feels, dreamier to me. And so, these pieces started dreamy as I pictured them, and they stayed that way as I edited them. They are stories that take place for the most part in the protagonists' heads and this is what they sounded like my head. As far as the reader goes then, my hope is that reader feels like I'm in their head as well, that I know how they would think and act if they were in the same position and that we are practically in real time as we experience the story - something I'm always interested in - and I think 2nd person invites all of that.
SP: This collection, Sex and Death, obviously contains stories that all feature sex and, less noticeably, death. How did this collection develop? Were any of these stories written specifically for this book?

BT: They were a series of pieces that came together at the same time, not necessarily with a collection in mind - though in general, I'm always thinking in those terms - but as a reflection of a certain kind of mood I was in, seeing things as dreamier, and at a distance, possibly in reaction to the more visceral, or dialogue-driven, The New York Stories - and then as the idea of these pieces were coming together in my head and as a collection started to feel like a thing, I thought of pieces I had written at other times when I was clearly in the same kind of dreamy, distant, out of body mood, and did some retrofitting to further ensure they hung together.

SP: You never seem to shy away from the awkward- whether this be in characters, narrative style or how you make the reader feel. Why is awkwardness something that you have embraced as a storyteller?

BT: I have a lot of things I am easily embarrassed about in myself - a lack of humility for example - but awkwardly making my way through the world is not one of those things, especially in retrospect. But I have embraced it because it's such a universal feeling, common even, and in that, it's such a rich material for writing. And yet, even with my own comfort with my discomfort, these people aren't me, not totally, and not in some of their worst behavior. So I get the feeling, and I can see what it looks like, and I can feel it, but that doesn't mean it is, or was, me, and so from that perspective, I am removed from it, not unlike the characters themselves and in that way it's easier to write about.
SP: My absolute favorite story in Sex and Death is "Dead or Alive." Even though the subject matter isn't exactly something that I can relate to, I think it effected me because it felt so deeply personal. Is there any truth to this story? And, for that matter, how much truth winds up in your fiction?

BT: I love that you dig it, it is the only piece that wasn't part of the dreamy mode I was in when so many of the pieces were written, and I didn't engage in any retrofitting. It just felt like a centerpiece sort of piece that captured the appropriate overarching beats and threads, but in a way more visceral sense. That is a visceral age though, and I felt such intense longing then, and was always on the make, like always, and in that way it is very personal, with some nuggets of truth. But all my fiction has at least a nugget of truth, it's how those nuggets evolve and play out and mash into each other, the fantasy and fears and confusions and the ways I allow them to breathe where they become fiction.

SP: Unless I missed something somewhere, I'm still not sure how the ice cream cones on the fence cover relate to either sex, death or the story collection. Care to explain?
BT: I see it as something akin to a quashing of innocence, something sad and full of loss, and not quite real, but right there, intimate and confounding, striking and visual, like sex, and death, or at least my experience with them. 

SP: You always seem to have something coming out- a collection, an article- or you're participating in literary events. You also run your own book review blog and podcast (and many other things as well). How important is it to be part of a literary community? And does all of this involvement effect your writing positively or negatively?
BT: It's important for me to be part of something, anything, and not because writing is lonely, because that is not my experience, writing is just one part, sometimes the best part, of a very full day, but that's the thing, I want a full life, doing cool shit, meeting people, especially writers, but comedians and artists and changemakers too - creating, running around, and consuming everything possible, trying to give back, support people, maybe transform lives, mine included. And so being part of the lit community provides all of that, which for me is a blessing. Now does it effect the writing positively or negatively, I don't know, but it makes me happier and feel alive, and all of that's definitely a positive.
SP: And to pass along the love- what are three upcoming novel or collection releases that you're particularly excited about?

BT: So many Post, you can't believe it. Or maybe you can. Anyway, Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow, The History of Great Things by Elizabeth Crane and The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod.
So many thanks to Ben Tanzer for coming by, keeping it real and infusing all of his crazy energy into what otherwise might be a very dull and different literary scene. :) Check out Sex and Death, Lost in Space, The New York Stories and Tanzer's many other collections and be sure to stop by This Blog Will Change Your Life- his rockin' blog/podcast/website as well. Cheers and happy reading!

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Sun Has Risen on Fallen Land: An Interview with Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown is an author I've been following for a while. We met as fans of Justified, discovered we'd both written at the same coffee shop (though not at the same time) and read each other's work. Taylor graciously provided the cover blurb for A Tree Born Crooked and I was floored by his short fiction collection In the Season of Blood and Gold. If you haven't read his story "Sin Eaters," you are missing out....

As impressive as Brown's short fiction is, however, it is his debut novel Fallen Land, which I have been shouting from the rooftops for the past few months, that is really the work to take your breath away. A harrowing and heartbreaking work of love, land and the transformative repercussions of war, Fallen Land is at once lavish and stark, lyrical and biting. Brown's prose can be quaking at times, mercilessly commanding the page and the reader, and also quiet, lovely and startling. There are moments of brilliance in Fallen Land that are nothing short of masterful.

Taylor in his own right is also kind, humble and supportive of others. He's the kind of author you can wish only wild success for (not that he needs it the way Fallen Land is flying off the shelves!) and someone whom I'm proud to call a friend. Without further introduction, I bring you a conversation with Taylor Brown- there's much to learn here, much to appreciate and much to enjoy.

Steph Post: The novel Fallen Land grew out of the title short story in your 2014 collection In the Season of Blood and Gold. Was it just that the characters wouldn't leave you alone or had you always intended for the story to be a novel-length one? What was the process for taking the initial concept of In the Season of Blood and Gold and fleshing it out into Fallen Land?

Taylor Brown: I certainly didn’t plan for the story to be novel-length. But I’d gotten to like the steely little buck from “In the Season of Blood and Gold,” what with his overlarge slouch hat and revolver, his clothes all stolen or handed-down, his tough face screwed on to confront a big, ugly world—as if he's size enough for it.

That story has a hanging ending—quite literally—but our boy’s prospects aren’t good. I had a little of an older brother feel toward him, I think, and I think I felt a little bad for putting him in such a predicament. I didn’t want that to be the end of his story, you know? Fortunately for both of us, I had the power to make him a little longer for the world.

As for the fleshing, I mainly just sat down and started writing, just going step by step. One scene to the next. What do they have to do? Necessities like fire and shelter and water and food and transportation—the rudiments of survival—became lodestars in the story. I was kind of living the ride with them. I didn’t really know what would be around the next bend, and neither did they, and I think that uncertainty helped me elevate the suspense, you know?

That said, I was about one hundred pages in when an agent reached out. My story “Rider” had recently won the Montana Prize in Fiction and caught his attention, and he wanted a synopsis along with the first 50 pages of the manuscript. This was 2009. So at that point, I was forced to outline what would happen in the book—in like a single day. (I wanted to strike while the iron was hot.) That synopsis gave me a broad arc, but only that—the story kept unfolding in a pretty natural way. It was kind of like pouring a stream of water down a cliff face. You know it’s going to get to the bottom, and you know where some of the big ledges and facets and fissures are, but you don’t really know where the stream is going to zig and splash and fork along the way.

SP: You're a prize-winning short story writer and Fallen Land is your debut novel. Have you had to approach writing in the separate genres differently? I noticed in reading Fallen Land that not one bit of the power and sharp grace that I so love in your short fiction was missing in this longer work. How did you maintain that edge throughout the breadth of the novel?

TB: You know, I trained myself with the short story, like most of us do, but I think there was a greater leap to the novel form than maybe I suspected. Fallen Land was actually the third novel I’d written, so I’d already been learning to bridge the gap, but I think I’ve had to learn to “decompress” my style for the longer form. You have more room in the novel, and you have to use it, I think. I’ve tried writing novels with my short story approach, and it just doesn’t work that well. It’s too knotty and hard. Too quick. And that makes it difficult for the reader to enter the dream, I think, or at least stay inside it.

I certainly made some of these missteps in the first drafts of Fallen Land, I think. Back stories were only hinted at, instead of fully fleshed—much like a short story—and certain swerves were too aggressive and sudden. On the other hand, certain sections were too dense, and I had to whittle down the prose and fracture the narrator’s voice with dialogue.

SP: Going back through my dog-eared and marked-up copy of Fallen Land, I realized that many of my circles and exclamation points were concerning passages describing landscapes. Your ability to render settings in gorgeous, atmospheric detail is quite breathtaking. How important is setting to you in a story and how important is it to get it right?

TB: Thank you for the kind words, Steph! Setting and landscape are really important to me in a story, and that’s probably because they’re really important to me in real life. I don’t know, this may sound weird, but I think I feel certain landscapes, and I really felt the Blue Ridge Mountains when I lived there. I’d never lived in a place where the leaves burned like that in the fall. I mean, the mountains explode into flame, and yet beneath them, you know the shadows are growing colder, bluer. The days shorter. You know you better have enough wood ricked, and soon it will be hog-killing time. I mean, you can feel that in the mountains, this juxtaposition of beauty and brutality, and that really informed the book, I think.  

SP: I also found a comment in my copy of Fallen Land that made me smile. I had written, with much underlining- "yes! He actually understands moonshine!" I think this definitely speaks to the authenticity found in Fallen Land. Considering that the novel takes place in the 1860s, you had to draw on more than just your own experiences in Appalachia. What was your process for research? Did any of your research lend itself to creating unexpected elements of the story?

TB: Absolutely. There was a lot of “required reading,” which I mainly did as I went along. This included histories of Sherman’s March and irregular warfare in the eastern theater of the war. I spent a lot of time perusing old daguerreotypes and such, and reading up on clothing and equipment in old cavalry manuals and settlers’ catalogues. A number of episodes in the book are inspired by anecdotes gleaned from this research, some of which would be difficult to make up. For instance, the lady in Milledgeville with a goose on a leash.

There was also the physical research. I was very lucky, because my good buddy Blaine Capone was living on a Southern Appalachian Highland Conservancy property west of Asheville. It was a very primitive existence: no cellular signal, wood stove for heat, gravity-fed water, and his only transportation about the property was by horse. I would go up there and help him with chores around the place, and in return, he would teach me about horses. Riding up there, we were on trails that had only known hooves or the odd four-wheeler, and it was a pretty short leap to imagine the world of 150 years ago. Many of the roads and creeks and meadows in the book are based on real places in that area.

SP: So much of your language is lyrical. In some ways, it steps out to the forefront of the story. For example, I love this line- "He thought of the skinless slabs of muscle over the flames, the red engines of the beasts fired black." That's just a small instance of the voice that permeates every part of your novel, but I'm curious as to how much conscious work goes into creating this poetic style. Does it come naturally from the story or is this result of careful crafting? How do you manage to not come off as pretentious (and you certainly don't) while still presenting the events of the story in this manner?

TB: Thank you! The language is really important to me. I wouldn’t really call the style conscious. I mean, I might skew it a few degrees this way or that—hard and knotty versus looser and rolling—but when it comes down to it, I’m just writing what wants to come out. What sounds good and right to me. I do think I was influenced early on by poets like Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey, and my favorite prose writers have a rhythm or cadence. The sort of prose that begs to be read aloud, you know?

As for avoiding pretentiousness, I’m not sure. I think it’s a matter of keeping a cold eye on your work, and cutting yourself when necessary, and scanning the work again and again for places where the language rings untrue, where it serves ego instead of story or atmosphere or mood.

In the end, I think it’s something intuitive, but based on years of hard scrutiny. Pretentiously enough, I’m reminded of a line from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

“And what is good, Phaedrus,
And what is not good—
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”

SP: When we first meet Ava, a character I love, of course, she bursts onto the page with this line- "Ava. Any closer and I kill you." Your dialogue is so precise, I believe, because you render it down to what is necessary. In doing so, you create gritty characters that border on mythological. Do you write and then edit down your dialogue to achieve this tautness or does it come as an organic result of working with brutal and poignant characters such as Ava and Callum?

TB: I think I’m going for that tautness from the beginning. Part of it comes from daily life, I think. We don’t actually speak in neat paragraphs or complete sentences, you know? We speak in fragments and spurts and rambles, and so much of what we say is nonverbal. When writing, you can communicate some of that nonverbal communication through beats and descriptions of body language, but not all. So syntax and diction becomes that much more important, I think. And I think I’ve always been influenced by the snappy, direct dialogue of noir and crime masters like Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard. There is so much to learn from these writers, and I think you ignore them at your own peril.

SP: Quite a few writers have been compared to Cormac McCarthy. It's a high honor, but one that I find is rarely fulfilled. It's easy to make comparisons; it's another to live up to them. Fallen Land is the first work I've read, actually, that I would nod and say "yes, this is akin to Cormac McCarthy's work. This is in the vein, on that level." The comparison to McCarthy has been coming in from other quarters as well. How does it feel to hear, and know, that your debut novel is reminiscent of a novelist that I'm sure has been influential to you?

TB: I’m honored, surely, but I don’t take it too seriously. I feel like everything gets compared to Cormac McCarthy these days. “It’s like Cormac McCarthy in the bayou!” “It’s like Cormac McCarthy in the Pacific Northwest!” “It’s like if Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor!” 

He was writing in Faulkner’s shadow, and we are writing in his. This book certainly begs the comparison, what with horses and pistols and wide-brim hats, and I’m okay with that. Maybe I even wanted it; to some extent. I’d have a hard time thinking of someone I’d rather be compared to, and comparisons are part of this business.

On the other hand, I think that our philosophy, approach, and style are a good bit different. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from his work, and will continue to. But in the end, you don’t want to be the next Cormac McCarthy. You want to be yourself.

SP: Finally, you've got an exciting year ahead of you with Fallen Land. I'm sure the entire experience of bring this novel to light has been a journey. Can you put it in a metaphor?

TB: Well, I think the metaphor of a ride is fitting. This novel was certainly carried through some lonesome valleys in my own life, and there was the need to just keep going, going, hoping the sun would someday rise :)

And your readers are going to be in for a ride along with you!

Many thanks to Taylor Brown for stopping by! Now seriously, go pick up your copy of Fallen Land today....

Friday, January 22, 2016

No Fear of Fiction: An Interview with Brown Bottle author Sheldon Lee Compton

Sheldon Lee Compton's first novel, Brown Bottle, debuts early next month and I'm excited to bring you an interview with the author as a preview. Compton has a reputation as a hardcore short fiction writer, one who isn't afraid to embrace authenticity and grit, and his novel contains everything that readers have come to expect from him: memorable characters making tough choices as a means to survive in an often cruel, but sometimes beautiful, world. Read on as we discuss embracing a genre, writing dialect and what it means to be a writer representing eastern Kentucky.

Steph Post: I've been a huge fan of your flash and short fiction ever since I read your collection Where Alligators Sleep. Brown Bottle is the first novel-length work I've read from you, but I could clearly see the influence of short fiction in the precision of your writing. What is the biggest difference in how prose is used in short versus longer fiction?

Sheldon Lee Compton: There's a lot, for me at least. The biggest would be that the prose had to be more stripped down, functional. I really didn't care for that all too much. If I hadn't been working on stories while writing the book I would have been a pretty unhappy writer, to be honest. But then I've just finished a second novel called The Wendigo where this wasn't the case. It's a bit shorter, and that helps I guess, but I was able to sustain a more lyrical prose style throughout. Something I don't plan on is writing another book where I have to work so much to keep the writing so stripped down. I mean, I'm happy with the book, entirely happy, but it was at times burdensome.

SP: With that same idea in mind, how did you approach the process of writing a novel? Was it more or less enjoyable than writing short fiction?

SLC: It was less enjoyable, but still rewarding. The Wendigo felt more like a series of short stories - was in fact written in this way - so that made it a project that spoke more to my tendencies as a short story writer. I consider myself a short story writer first and a novelist second. The short story form is my favorite. It's the form I most like to read and most like to write. It's taken me several years to finally accept this about my work, mostly because it seems the novel is held in higher regard and, well, every writer wants to be held in high regard. But lately I've just embraced being a short story writer. It's fine. It's more than fine, it's what's most desirable for me. As far as the process for the novel, I tried for the first year writing it in the same way I write short stories, no planning, no outline, all discovery. It absolutely did not work. I had to end up doing all the things that I don't prefer. Planning a story out kills the energy for me, kills what I find most enjoyable, those beautiful moments when something just happens seemingly all on its own.

SP: One of my favorite elements of your work is your ability to capture and render dialect perfectly. The characters in Brown Bottle are brought to light by their actions and descriptions, yes, but also by the dialect that clearly implies a place and a culture. A people. How do you go about converting the spoken word to the written word?

SLC: Since my first year of college I've focused on retaining my eastern Kentucky accent and dialect. My professors tried to convince me to clean up my talking because I was an English major and I should speak "proper" English and it basically pushed me to work harder to keep it. Because of this, I've actively studied the local dialect a great deal. When I'm writing a character, I really only have to think of how I would say something, then consider the character and what they would say about a certain topic, and then go with it. I surely thank you for noticing and saying kind things about it. It's good to know that it's being noticed. I think our dialect and accent are beautiful and unique.

SP: Like myself, you write about hard people in hard situations making hard choices. Brown Bottle is no exception and because of the length of the work, the reader is able to become totally immersed in the world of Wade, Nick, Mary and the others. To many readers, these characters and their circumstances will seem alien, but I know they will be captured by them all the same. Do you think, however, that readers will be shocked by the gritty reality of Brown Bottle? Do you think everyone can relate to the story on some level?

SLC: It's going to be a hit and miss with various readers, but I do think the general idea of striving for a better life is something everyone can relate to in some way or another. Mostly I think readers who may not be familiar with eastern Kentucky could make the false assumption that some of the details in the book are less than realistic. But to be clear, nearly every detail in the book is based on some true story from where I live, even Fay Mullins and his backstory. In fact, Fay Mullins is based on a group of four people from my hometown who did exactly the same first murder-for-hire job detailed in Fay's introductory chapter. 

SP: Brown Bottle is being published by Bottom Dog Press as part of their Appalachian Fiction Series. Tell me more about the series and how Brown Bottle fits into it.

SLC: Bottom Dog Press has put out a lot of good books, particularly anthologies, that deal with Appalachia. The general goal that publisher Larry Smith has with the series according to Bottom Dog's website is to "strive to bring you the best writing from this vital region. Writing meant to reveal and share a sense of people and place." My knowledge of the press before working with Larry on this novel was having been included in the anthology Degrees of Elevation, which brought together a lot of established and emerging writers from the hills in one place. It was this anthology I had in mind when I contacted Larry about publishing Brown Bottle. I sort of worked through Charles Dodd White, the editor of Degrees of Elevation, in order to see if Larry would be interested. But the fiction series works, I think, on a lot of different levels, the most important of which is to share what life is like in contemporary Appalachia. This sensibility for the here and now in their titles is what most drew me to Bottom Dog. Working with Larry has been rewarding. He is a man who knows what he wants to publish and has been doing it for a long time. I respect him and his vision a great deal.

SP: I have to ask- what are you working on now? Have you permanently made the jump over to novelist or can we expect more short collections from you in the future?

SLC: I haven't made the jump exclusively to novelist, but I did just finish another novel, the one I mentioned previously called The Wendigo. That novel I suppose will be classified as a horror novel, and I'm perfectly fine with that, but it's also part fabulism. I'm working on edits with it now while writing two or three new short stories about every month. I will write more novels, just not the type and style as Brown Bottle, most likely. I like doing something different with each project I work on. Most of the new short stories I'm finishing lately are for a linked collection of western stories that revolve around a main character named Buckaroo and his friend Jim. I've wanted to write a linked western collection for a long time and only started that project about three months ago. So right now it's edit on The Wendigo and various stories, most of which will be for the as-of-yet untitled western collection. I'm having a ball with both.

SP: Who are you reading right now? What books should be piling up on my kitchen table?

SLC: I'm reading a lot of Etgar Keret lately and anthologies of short-short fiction and flash fiction. I really am enamored by how well Keret can write these stories with magical, strange elements without losing the heart that makes any story truly move forward. Also a lot of Japanese short stories, both classic and modern, but most recently the stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa. His story "The Dragon" just killed me. I definitely recommend him if you've not dipped in yet. Another writer I've been checking out is David Slade. Cloud Atlas was a little tough, but worth it to see the innovation at play and Slade House was just a fun, fun book. I'm also working my way through some Italo Calvino. Next up on the nightstand is Borges's short fiction.
Be sure to pick up your copy of Brown Bottle next month!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Review of Ben Tanzer's Sex and Death

My review of Ben Tanzer's brilliant story collection, Sex and Death, is live now on Small Press Book Review. Take a look!