Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Disappearing with Idra Novey: An Interview

Today, I bring you an interview with Idra Novey, author of the recently released novel Ways to Disappear. As well as being an author, Novey is also a poet and translator and both of these professions weave their way into her novel- a fast-paced, yet sensual, tale of a translator on the hunt for her runaway author in Brazil. Ways to Disappear is quirky, absorbing and filled with gorgeous language and imagery. Enjoy!


Steph Post: Ways to Disappear is part noir, part mystery and part literary manifesto. Interestingly, I also felt that there were overtones of magical realism, even though nothing exactly beyond the realm of belief happens. Do you think in some way you are influenced by authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Laura Esquivel? Or am I just getting this genre-vibe from the Latin America setting?

Idra Novey: The term "magical realism" refers to a specific era of 20th century Latin American writing.  As a 21st century writer and a North American, I see Ways to Disappear as having more in common with the work of Denis Johnson, Karen Russell, George Saunders, Kelly Link and others who push the limits of realism in unpredictable ways.  I wanted to keep things unpredictable in the novel, both for the reader and for myself as I was writing it. The slippery the realism became, the more I enjoyed writing the scene. 

SP: The main character in Ways to Disappear, Emma, is a translator of a Brazilian author's works. You are also a literary translator yourself. How difficult is it to transfer an author's exact meaning from one language to another? Like Emma, do you ever find yourself tangled up in your author's stories?

IN: The process of getting tangled up in an author's story is part of the joy of translation.  I only translate books I deeply admire and want to learn from as a writer.  I seek them out with the intention of getting tangled up with the words and ideas of the author who created them.  I find translation to be the deepest kind of reading and the reading that most influences the way I write.

SP: A sharp contrast is made between Emma's home of Pittsburgh, and her boring and predictable life there, and the bright, if wild, setting of Rio de Janeiro where most of the story takes place. Aside from the weather, and the men Emma loves in both places, what are the major differences between the places? How important was the sense of place and setting to the story?

IN: The novel is as much about Brazil as it is about the characters, who would be different people if they spoke another language or lived in another country. The particular kinds of violence that shape Brazilian life shape who the characters are and how they see a given situation in the same way that assault weapon murders in movie theaters and on college campuses in the US are shaping our lives here.

SP: Finally, in addition to writing and translating, you teach creative writing at Princeton University. What's the most essential piece of advice you've ever given a student about either writing or life?

IN: I encourage all my students to read beyond their century and their country. It's freeing to get out of one's particularly moment as a writer and remember how long literature has been around and how variously it has been approached in different languages and eras.  I find my students grow the most as writers when they read more international writers rather than focusing solely on what's being written on campus or in any given workshop or even in the United States. It's exhilarating and emboldening to think of oneself as part of something far larger than that, as part of a global community of writers and readers.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Complexities and Confrontation: An Interview with The Other One author Hasanthika Sirisena

I've already examined and praised Hasanthika Sirisena's short story collection The Other One over at Small Press Book Review, but now I'm thrilled to bring you an interview with the author as well. Read on as Sirisena and I discuss craft, book recommendations and why fiction should never shy away from violence and the truth at the heart of a story. Enjoy!


Steph Post: Since I usually like to jump right off into the deep end, I'll start with a point I mentioned in my review of The Other One for Small Press Book Review. The stories in your collection are not necessarily uplifting, to say the least. Violence, sorrow, and characters torn down by both, are the pervading elements of your stories. Yet, I felt that there was such a power in your work and that it Should be read, even if it didn't make the reader feel good. In some ways, I feel like there's a need for more literature out there that makes readers uncomfortable in the way that your stories do. What do you think? Do we need stories that bring us down or make us squirm? Should literature be confrontational and unsettling?

Hasanthika Sirisena: Yes, oh, yes. I personally love being made to squirm and to walk away unsettled. Being disturbed is a fundamental pleasure. So, yes, absolutely literature should be more confrontational.

That said, I wouldn’t want to tell anyone what a short story should do. Lightness and joy are important as well. I do think it would be hard to write about the Sri Lanka civil war and not address its brutal and sad history. So, maybe it has to do more with subject matter. I hope there are more stories about war and its effects. Do we ever need to stop being reminded?

Finally, for me, the issue is also about being a woman and a writer. As a woman, I feel I’ve been acculturated to make people feel comfortable and to consider violence, as a subject, taboo. So there’s a part of me that cringes when I read that the stories unsettled—oh no, I’m not supposed to make you feel bad! But then I realize that it’s important to push myself, to take on subjects that aren’t comfortable. But, again, I would never want to imply that should be a motivation for any other writer.

SP: Many of your stories use animals to convey emotions and to reach readers who might otherwise be desensitized or unable to relate to unfamiliar situations. For example, in "Third Country National," a fish, a shrimp and a dog carry the weight of the story. Readers may not know a thing about Sri Lanka or its war, but they will certainly respond to violence against animals, because loving an animal is an almost universal experience. Did you consciously include animals in your stories for this reason?

HS: One of my favorite writers, someone who has had a lot of influence on me, is J. M. Coetzee. I agree with him that how we treat animals demonstrates our true capacity to comprehend another being’s suffering. I’ve also spent much of my life around animals, in cultures that focus on animals, so I have some fairly powerful feelings as to how animals should be treated. Many times when we witness the mistreatment of animals we’re also witnessing the fundamental breakdown of society. That breakdown might not be the individual’s fault. It might be the larger culture keeping him or her from fulfilling that duty. That’s important to chronicle as well.

SP: The Sri Lankan civil war, and its aftermath and repercussions, is essential to all of the stories in your collection. Do you think readers need to understand the war to really understand your stories?

HS: No, not at all. In truth, I wouldn’t claim to completely understand the Sri Lankan civil war myself. I’m certainly not a scholar of the conflict (and there are a number of excellent academic studies of the war). My aim isn’t even really to explore the war. I do want an emotional response from the reader, and I really want to examine how hard it is and why eventually we might fail to comprehend another person’s pain. I hope that’s what the reader takes away from my stories.

SP: One of things I really loved about The Other One is that all of the stories are complicated. They weave and waver and the characters cannot be boxed into types. In short, they are rich and complex. How long does it take you to construct a short story of this depth? Is it a straight-forward process or do you ever have the need for distance from the story in order to flesh it out so fully?

HS: My stories take anywhere from six months to a couple of years to complete. For “The Other One” for example, I did a lot of reading because I’m not a natural athlete, and I’ve never played cricket anywhere other than my backyard (and I was beyond terrible). I tried to understand what it might feel like to be an athlete, and I also wanted to understand what it might feel like to be good enough to play on an amateur level, but not be great. This was hard since 99% of sports narratives focus on an elite few. So the story ended up taking some research and a lot of reading.

After I finish a story, I force myself to put it away for three months. This is the hardest part of the process. I usually want to declare it done and start sending it out. But that waiting period is absolutely necessary for me.

SP: Finally, to share the love, what book releases are you most looking forward to this year? Who or what should I have my eye on in the coming months?

HS: Where do I begin? Kazim Ali has a book of short stories, Uncle Sharif, coming out in the fall with Sibling Rivalry Press. The wonderful Vanessa Hua has a collection Deceit and Other Possibilities coming out this fall with Willow Books. Kelly Luce has a novel coming out this fall, Pull Me Under, and I’ve pre-ordered that. I loved her short story collection. Those are only a few that come to me right now.


Many thanks to Hasanthika Sirisena. Be sure to pick up your copy of The Other One, available now!

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Light in the Dark: An Interview with Not Dark Yet author Berit Ellingsen

Not Dark Yet is a stark, gorgeous, eerie and thoughtful novel that at once tells the story of a man attempting to cope with his violent tendencies and explores the devastating repercussions of a world in the grips of unnatural climate change. Less an apocalyptic foretelling and more of a quiet, emotional examination of relationships (including our relationship with the environment), Not Dark Yet was truly fascinating and uncharted territory for me. I was thrilled to be able to catch up with its brilliant author, Berit Ellingsen, and dive deeper into both the story and the important topics presented in the novel. Read on….

Steph Post: Not Dark Yet takes place in an unnamed country. We know that it has mountains, a coastline and is cold. The cities are unnamed, the university has no designation, a war is alluded to, but never specified. Only the characters are named, and even then, their inclusion is somewhat spare. Overall, the setting is familiar, but also a blank. This is a clear stylistic choice and one which I think adds to the stark, eerie tone of the novel. Why did you choose to create a world which has no explicit identity? Or is there an identity, but one that has deliberately been kept from the reader?

Berit Ellingsen: I chose not to name the towns and cities and continents in Not Dark Yet, but instead refer to them as for example "the Southern Continent" and "the resort town on the coast." I did that to give the sense that the story could take place anywhere in our globalized world, where big cities, at least their new parts, have started to look rather similar no matter which continent you're on, and where you can find almost the same types of shops and restaurants and brands, and people working in similar kinds of jobs, from Vancouver to Mumbai.

The second reason for doing this was to not have readers think "well that kind of catastrophic climate change can maybe happen there, but it can't possibly happen here" and believe that they may remain unaffected by climate change.

Some of the places that inspired the towns and cities in Not Dark Yet are, in no specific sequences: Vancouver BC, Frankfurt, M√ľnchen, Copenhagen, Bergen, Portsmouth, the Alps, the Norwegian central mountains, and the Scottish Highlands.

SP: As strange as a world without designation is, the settings are still familiar to the reader. The technology used by Brandon and the other characters is nearly identical to what we have now and items like food and entertainment are recognizable, even if they are often only vaguely alluded to. There is evidence in the novel, though, that the climate has shifted and this suggests that the story takes place sometime in the future. How far from now is Not Yet Dark actually set? How realistic do you believe the future that you present to be?

BE: The world of Not Dark Yet is our world, just maybe next year or the year after that.

When I wrote the book, which is now three years ago, I tried to make the effects of climate change in Not Dark Yet as realistic as possible with the climate data and projections available at the time. Since my day job is science writing, I follow general science news and that includes climate science, so the information wasn't hard to find.

I imagine that the world of Not Dark Yet has passed to the stage where climate change has "gone exponential," meaning that many climate variables, such as atmospheric CO2, ocean temperature, sea level rise, ice cap melting etc etc, are changing exponentially instead of linearly as they have done so far, due to reinforcing feedback mechanisms in the Earth's global systems. Thus, the climate and biosphere in the world of Not Dark Yet has changed a lot in recent years, but also in less apparent ways decades before that, until catastrophic climate change starts to make itself known.

The Paris climate deal tries to limit the rise in global mean temperature to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, because at temperatures higher than 2 C the Earth's weather will become noticeably more dangerous, and not only in warm places along the equator. But we've already passed 1 C and the window for 1.5 C is closing very fast.

Some things are going the right way, such as the world wide interest in renewable energy, and the deal in Paris last year. But changes take time and so far, every single climate variable, from ice cap melting to ocean warming, has gone faster than the scientists anticipated. I don't know of any climate change factor that has changed slower than it was believed it would.

It's hard to say how close we are to the world of Not Dark Yet, but according to recent science news, we just passed 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere also for the southern hemisphere. That means there is now more of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere than there has been for as long humans have existed.

Already, several low lying islands in the Pacific have vanished and about half of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened by coral bleaching, ie the corals losing their photosynthetic ability and starting to die.

Catastrophic climate change for inhabited areas may be closer than we think. And it is already a catastrophe for the many animal and plant species that are struggling right now.

SP: The novel's main, and dominating, character is Brandon Minamoto. Though much of his past is shrouded, we know that he has committed violence in the name of military operations and we know that he has cheated on his boyfriend. He considers joining his friend Kaye on an undetermined political mission that most certainly will involve more violence. Yet, as with any complex and complicated character, Brandon has his good side and, more importantly, invokes pity from the reader as he struggles with personal, mental and physical issues throughout the story. Are readers supposed to sympathize with Brandon?

BE: They don't have to, there is certainly no requirement for that. A sort of understanding was more what I was aiming for.

I didn't set out to make him unlikable on purpose, it was more that I wanted him to be so used to living under dangerous and strenuous conditions during his military profession that he has to push his own limits. He's also used to staying in the background and making difficult decisions by himself, so he doesn't let other people in on them. Some readers found him too distant and ghost-like.

Personally, I thought Kaye would be seen as unsympathetic and ruthless, but few readers have said they disliked him. Maybe because it's somewhat understandable why he does what he does.

SP: One of my favorite parts of Not Dark Yet is the inclusion mid-way of the story of the monk who starves himself and becomes a mummy even as he is still living. Again, because there is no real context of history or cultural, the story is jarringly unfamiliar and unsettling. Where did this story come from and what is its purpose within the novel?

BE: The mummy chapter is one of the things people have reacted the most to, and I actually didn't think they would. I thought people would react more to the military scenes and the political violence alluded to by Kaye. But the mummy chapter probably stands out because it's described in detail.

Mummification in religious context has a long tradition in Buddhism, both Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism, from Tibet to Vietnam. In a few places the local herbs and water were such that certain monasteries and groups of mendicants developed forms of extreme self abnegation that culminated in self-mummification. It was rare and is no longer practiced, and only few individuals were even allowed to start on the path to becoming a mummy. But the traditions and techniques they used are documented and even a few articles about the subject have been translated to English.

The self-mummification chapter was meant to show the protagonist's relationship to his brother and their different attitudes towards the world and the "good life," what we in the modern world think of as happiness. I can see why people react to the mummy chapter though, because such a degree of asceticism is difficult to understand.

Some readers interpreted the mummy scenes as reflective of the protagonist's training for the astronaut selection, and see that too as a sort of self-abnegation process. Others said that mummies can be viewed as a kind of astronaut, someone who leaves the Earth voluntarily to go somewhere the rest of us can't follow. I really like that thought. The Ancient Egyptians for example believed the souls of their mummified pharaos traveled to specific stars.

SP: Without giving too much away, I'll say that Not Dark Yet doesn't necessarily end on a positive note. While Brandon ultimately makes a final choice, the world we are left with is one that is still damaged with seemingly no hope in sight. If Not Dark Yet is portentous, it would seem that the earth is doomed. Is there hope then, for the future?

BE: Both hope as well as certainty of doom carries a sort of blindness. Personally, I try to keep all options open, but it is clear that the window of time for avoiding the first licks of catastrophic climate change is closing really fast and that we may be past it.

There is a slow but growing understanding that we need to switch to renewable energy as soon as possible, but the amount is yet too low and extraction of fossil energy sources continues almost unabated, including shale oil, with all the negative consequences that has for the local as well as the global environment.

I don't see the world as doomed yet, at least not the natural world. Human civilization may not be able to survive a long term global climate change crisis, but I hope that some parts of the biosphere will. Some scientists think the human population will peak at around 11 billion people and then fall due to industrialization. Combined with a worldwide transition to renewable energy, the biggest rise in global temperature might be avoided.

The question is though, what will happen with the methane stores in the Arctic ocean as the temperature rises. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas and the big unknown in the climate change models. I wouldn't have taken the chance on the methane staying put, but that's what we're doing right now.

Climate change as it is now and might become in the nearest few years, will perhaps be a threat to security first and foremost. The conflicts between regions and nations, and the displacements of people that climate change may cause through for example flooding and drought, might be a more immediate threat than one single big disastrous weather event caused by climate change will be.

The wars and conflicts alluded to in Not Dark Yet have been worsened or caused by climate change. There is more of this in my next novel which is a loose continuation of Not Dark Yet.

SP: Not Dark Yet is in the climate genre which, to be honest, I'm pretty unfamiliar with. Many films, from the cartoon Fern Gully to the recent Interstellar deal with the topic of an environmental apocalypse, but it's not a topic I've experience much in literature. Who else is writing in this genre? If readers want more books like Not Dark Yet, what titles or authors should they seek out?

BE: I just read Clade by James Bradley, which follows a branch of the same family through several generations of climate change and technological change. It's a well-researched novel that addresses many of the big issues of today and the near future.

Love in the Anthropocene by Dale Jamieson and Bonnie Nadzam is written by a novelist and a climate scientist and is a collection of short stories set in the era of humankind. Some of these stories deal with climate change as well.

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer deals with ecological disaster in a more personal and symbolic way, and shows the effect of such a disaster on the immediate community as well as the human psyche, without turning into a Mad Max post-apocalypse story.

There is a lot of post-apocalypse stories like that, where the apocalypse is caused by climate change or one or two select aspects of it, such as only water shortage or only melting of the poles. They're not very realistic and climate change is mostly a vehicle to set up an apocalyptic scenario or a post-apocalyptic dystopia.

The Dark Mountain Project creates anthologies of writing concerning our age. In their own words: "We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unraveling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it."

Jeff VanderMeer has said that he expects, as climate change continues, it will become a part of all fiction because it will become widespread and felt by everyone. I very much agree with him about that.

For non-fiction, the documentary series The Tipping Points gives a very good overview of the most pressing aspects of climate change. The documentary film Chasing The Ice shows how quickly we are losing the ice caps.

Terje Tvedt's A Journey in the Future of Water and Mark Lynaas' Six Degrees are very informative about the consequences of climate change. This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert might be interesting too.


Thanks so much to Berit Ellingsen for one of the most interesting and illuminating interviews I believe I’ve ever done. Please check out her book recommendations and, of course, get your hands on a copy of Not Dark Yet, available now from Two Dollar Radio, as well as her short story collection Beneath the Liquid Skin and her novel Une Ville Vide. And, as always, go forth and spread the word about books you love. Cheers!




Monday, May 16, 2016

Not Just Another Day At The Beach: The Spicy Miami Noir Novels of Alex Segura- An Interview

I’m excited to bring you an interview today with Silent City and Down the Darkest Street author Alex Segura. While our conversation focuses primarily on Segura’s debut novel in the Pete Fernandez series, be sure to check out the second installment as well, which just hit shelves last month. Enjoy!

Steph Post: Silent City is a Miami novel through and through. Although the noir premise could have any setting for a backdrop, I think that the location of Miami, and how authentically you portray it, is essential to Silent City. Do you think Pete's story could have taken place anywhere else? And how important to you was it to get all of the setting details right?

Alex Segura: Well, first off - thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed Silent City. I’m also glad you felt Miami was essential to the story, because that was really important to me when writing the book. When I first started writing the book, I had no idea how a novel was created. But I knew what I wanted to write - and it was something close to the books I’d been reading and enjoying. I wanted to create a PI who maybe wasn’t yet a PI - I wanted to show readers his origin story. I also wanted the setting to be different. I’d read so many NY PI novels and I wasn’t sure I was ready to write that kind of book yet. And I’d really been enjoying PI series that featured really strong and evocative settings - like George Pelecanos’s Nick Stefanos DC books, or Dennis Lehane’s Pat and Angie Boston/Dorcester books or Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan Baltimore books. Those characters took me on tours of their cities, and I felt like I was exploring new areas while hanging out with some really compelling people. It made for great reading, and I wanted my entry into the genre to hit similar notes.

So, to answer your question - no, I don’t think Silent City could happen anywhere else, and that’s by design. I wanted to show readers my Miami, not the idea people see elsewhere. A city that’s flawed, has crime, is experiencing some major growing pains and isn’t just a beach. There’s a lot to it, and I wanted to welcome people in and give them the sites they might not see on a tour bus.

The details were really important. I wanted the book to feel genuine and also to show off parts of Miami that I felt were important. I let a few things go - there are some bars that are now closed that I kept open for the purposes of the story, and I also created spots wherever anything too terrible happens. So, if you’re reading a scene in a Pete book happening in a fictionalized restaurant or bar, you know something terrible is about to take place!

SP: The protagonist of Silent City, Pete Fernandez, is down-and-out and on the verge of wallowing in self-destruction before he finds his purpose as a private detective. When we first meet Pete, in fact, he is waking up with a hangover and hazy memories of the night before. I'm not sure how many people would want to BE Pete, at least at the start of the novel, but readers are obviously drawn to him. Why do you think this is so? Do you think that readers just love messy characters, or is there something else going on here?

AS: I think a love for flawed, messy characters is part of it. But I also feel like Pete rises above that - he’s not just a screw-up. He shows flashes of smarts and is very much heroic, even if it’s sometimes in a stubborn way. He’s not afraid to take a risk if it gets him to the answer faster. As a reader, I’m drawn to messed-up characters. Not just in terms of addictions, but in general. It could be anything. I just don’t want to read about bland characters. I want them to be flawed or to be struggling with something. Preferably something relatable and compelling. The goal with Pete, for me, was to create someone I could personally relate to and that allowed me to tell a version of the stories I loved reading, but involving a protagonist that grew up in Miami and was very much a product of that city.

SP: Although, as stated, Pete is a mess, in more ways than one, he's also part of a long line of newspaper reporters-turned-detective in the classic noir tradition. Were you consciously tapping into this element of the genre? Or does the reporter-PI connection lend itself so naturally that it rises above a literary hallmark?

AS: It seemed to fit, so I tried not to question it too much. Like I said earlier, I love the Tess Monaghan books, and something that struck me early on was that being a reporter made a lot of the research of the PI life a bit easier and more believable. It’s nice to have a foundation and some tools. I also feel like the mind of the PI and the mind of the reporter are similar - they come from a curious place and both have this desire to resolve things. By the time you meet Pete, though, he’s burned down his reporting career and is riding a desk. But he still has the tools the newspaper provides him, so as he starts to investigate the central crime of the first book, you see him become reenergized and more engaged, which dovetails with his arc as a character. Making him a newspaper person helped that along. I also, as a former newspaper person myself, wanted to showcase that world a bit. That vampire existence. You really live in an alternate reality, almost. Sleep in the day, work all night, stay out late with coworkers. You feel like you’re on a different frequency. There’s also a language and rhythm to newspaper that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. It’s really addictive.

I also feel like spending time as a journalist or reporter for any length affects you - your work ethic, how you see the world. I wanted to showcase that a bit in Pete.

SP: One of the unique trademarks of Silent City is its constant inclusion of music and musical references. Whether a character is playing the jukebox or the narration is using a song for invocation, music is everywhere in the novel. Why is this so?

AS: I love music. I wanted Pete to also share that, and I felt like there weren’t - at least, based on my limited reading at the time - enough PI books that featured a strong musical element. The Pelecanos books do, and Connelly’s Bosch loves jazz and Rankin’s Rebus loves the Stones. But I wanted Pete to be a bit of a music nerd, and have his tastes inform the world around him. It also gave me an excuse to create soundtracks for each book, too!

SP: In addition to being a novelist, you've also worked on comic books. How is the writing process for both genres different and the same? Do you think that your Pete Fernandez series would lend itself to being adapted as a comic or graphic novel?

AS: I’d be open to a Pete graphic novel, sure. I think - depending on the artist - it could work really well. That’s the big difference in terms of prose vs. comics. Comics are much more collaborative. You have an artist who basically takes your script and gives it life, in the same way a director visualizes a screenwriter’s words. It’s less about turning a phrase or description and more about direction and pacing. Obviously, the writer is still very important, but you’re part of a team hoping to join forces to create a stronger whole. With a novel, you’re sitting alone in the dark and are completely in control. Sure, there are editors and agents, but they show up toward the end of the process. You’re the one driving the car for most of the journey in terms of creation. I love both methods and I find that they reinvigorate me for the other. I’m finishing up the script for Archie Meets Ramones now, and it’s completely different from what I was working on before - the first pass of Pete book 4, tentatively titled Relics. It keeps me fresh. I’ll always have a foot in each world, I think.

SP: Down the Darkest Street, the sequel to Silent City, just recently debuted and continues the story of Pete Fernandez in Miami. Are there other works planned for the series? Would you ever consider taking Pete out of Miami or is the setting too essential to his character?

AS: I’m about to hop into the third Pete book, Dangerous Ends, for a revision. I’m also halfway through the fourth, Relics (tentatively), and I have a really creepy idea for the fifth that I’m hoping lines up okay. I feel like Pete will be around for a while, as long as I think I can believably tell his story. From the beginning, I always wanted Pete to be the kind of guy who evolves from book to book. I didn’t want his adventures to be evergreen. I’m just not interested in telling those kind of stories. I want the Pete you see at the end of each book to be notably different from the one you met at the beginning. And, so far, that’s worked. But at a certain point I also feel like he’ll come to his senses and realize he might not want to put his life on the line so much. Thankfully, he hasn’t yet - and I’ve built a really interesting cast of people around him, so that keeps me engaged, too.

As for setting, that’s a great question. I feel like every book will deal with Miami in some way. Dangerous Ends zooms out a bit and looks at Cuba as Castro took over and different eras in Miami while also placing Pete somewhere else for part of the story. That worked out fine, I think. I feel like as long as Miami is a strong element in the story, then Pete can move around. I know book 4 plays around with it more. The fact is, I don’t live in Miami anymore. I spend a lot of time there - I visit friends and family every few months. But I also live in New York. It changes my perspective on the city a bit. When I started Silent City, I’d just moved to New York and Miami was all I knew, and I was homesick and wanted to tell stories about my home. Since then, things have changed and I may want to take Pete in another direction for a case or a bit. That said, the books will always have a lot to do with Miami. Miami pulls Pete back no matter where he is.

SP: And just to throw you a curve ball here, out of all of the private detectives in the noir genre (go back as far as you like) are there any you would want to be?

AS: Oh wow, great question. So many choices! I guess if I had to pick just one, it’d be Lew Archer. I love the Ross Macdonald books and I feel like Lew is just a stand-up guy. I’d probably have a different answer on a given day, though. Tomorrow it might be Spenser. Thanks so much for having me!

Thank you, Alex! Readers be sure to check out Silent City and Down the Darkest Street and also keep an eye out for Bad Beat- Segura’s collaboration with Rob Hart incorporating both Pete Fernandez and Hart’s Ash McKenna. All are available now from Polis Books. Cheers and happy reading!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Straight Up with Sam Slaughter, author of God in Neon

Sam Slaughter’s full-length debut short story collection God in Neon contains everything you’ve already come to know about Slaughter’s fiction aesthetic (if you haven’t read his chapbook When You Cross That Line or read some of his fiction that is Everywhere online- do so now). His characters are down-and-out, but with a quirky edge. There are moments of dark humor and moments of startling poignancy. And most of all, there is heart. Slaughter is dedicated to his craft, but he equally as dedicated to the literary community of which he is a rising star and his engagement with readers and writers is boundless. God in Neon just debuted from Lucky Bastard Press and I urge you to check it out. To hold you over until then, read on for a conversation about crazy Floridians, loser characters, writing about alcohol and what it means to be a literary citizen. 


Steph Post: Okay, before we get to your story collection God in Neon, I have to ask about South Carolina. When we did our last interview, you were still in Florida and your first chapbook, When You Cross That Line, filled with Florida-related stories, had just debuted. Whenever I hear of yet another crazy Florida happening (which is pretty much every day down here), I think of you and wonder how you would turn it into a story. So, are there just as many weirdos in South Carolina for you to write about? Is it the same kind of bizarre or does it have its own Carolina flair?

Sam Slaughter: My first inclination is to say no, South Carolina doesn’t have anything on Florida, but the more I think about it, I’m not sure. When I was living in Florida, I was in school for a little bit, but I also spent time working and living and being out and about. Now that I’m in South Carolina, most of my life revolves around school and teaching, so I’m being a bad writer in that I’m not keeping my eyes and ears open as much as I should. I mean, there have to be people just as weird or crazy or criminal as there are in Florida, but I haven’t experienced them.

That being said, I went and looked through some news over the past few months and I have to say, I think Florida does have an edge or something when it comes to the bizarre. I don’t know if it’s the humidity or the water or the fact that no matter where you look, you’re liable to see a gator, but I think there is a special breed that comes out of Florida. Part of that, though, may in part be self-perpetuation, if that’s a thing. The words sound funny, like maybe that’s not a phrase, but I’m going with it. Now that Florida is the butt of jokes when it comes to crime in the nation (finally, people are not calling Jersey the armpit of America, and for that, I am thankful), it makes me wonder if people have thoughts like, well, might as well, when in Florida…Part of me doubts that that is true, some of the crimes committed don’t really reek of forethought, but the writer in me wants that to be true. I want that angle.

I guess what I’m saying is I have not clue. It could, for all we know, be something as simple as there’s such a variety of people in Florida coming into contact with each other that it breeds discontent.

SP: So, God in Neon just came out from Lucky Bastard Press. It, too, is a story collection. What draws you to the short story genre? Do you consider yourself primarily a short story writer or is there another genre waiting in the wings? And does a writer even have to define him/herself by a specific form or genre?

SS: I really hope that writers don’t have to define themselves by a genre. It’ll still happen, I’m sure, because defining by one characteristic is easy, but, I don’t know. Obviously marketing comes into that—personal branding and all that—but it seems reductive. I don’t want to do just one thing because doing one thing, even if the stories are vastly different, can get boring. I think it would be easy to fall into a rut. So, instead, I force myself outside whatever comfort zone I’ve gotten into. After I finished my first novel, I went back to short stories, and now I’m back to working on a novel (which has radio script-like elements in it). I’m also working on spirits stuff, as well, so it’s just a mish-mash of everything. It keeps me on my toes, I guess? Maybe?

When I think of stories—both short and long—I like them for their ability to rock me, to punch me in the gut and then kick me when I’m down. When a story does that, then celebrates by pouring one out over my prone body (am I taking the image too far?), I know I’ve found something I’m going to come back to again and again and again. For me, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son does that for me, among many other collections and stories I’ve read in the past ten or so years. But that is the one that, every time, I put it down and go, damn, just damn.

The stories and novels that interest me the most are the ones that stop time. I forget that I’m reading on my couch or in bed or crammed into a coach-class seat. They’re the stories that, when you look up from the book, life has changed in some way because of what you’ve just learned about the human condition. I’m going to keep writing stories and novels and whatever else I can that will, hopefully, evoke that in someone else, even if I never meet them.

SP: The stories comprising God in Neon, while standing out individually, are linked by their inclusion of gritty, sometimes strange, mostly alcoholic, bottom of the barrel types of characters. This is one of the many reasons why I love your work- you're not afraid to embrace the "losers." Why do these types of characters haunt your stories? And do you think they will always be present in your work?

SS: They haunt my stories because they’re interesting. I’ve never sat at a bar by myself and talked to the guy who has his shit together with a 401k and no debts and wanted to continue that conversation past one beer. The complacency of that, to me, makes them boring. Not to say that they’re not good people, many of them are, but when thinking about stories—short or novel-length—that can get boring quickly. I think there’s more potential in the less savory characters. Part of it, at least with the characters I find myself writing about, is because they have less to lose. When your back is against the wall, why not try everything you can to change the situation? It’s those moments, when everything seems like it’s up for grabs (even if it isn’t), that interest me the most.

As far as writing into the future, I’m sure they will continue to be present. How? I’m not sure. Will they still be the ones that populate dive bars in small mountain towns? Probably not. As I get older, I’m obviously learning more about the world, watching more people, seeing how things happen and it’s all of that that will wend its way into my fiction. I’m just as curious as you are to see whom I’m writing about in a decade. Maybe I’ll have to eat crow because I’m writing about a hedge fund manager or something similar because I’ve realized the intricacies that pilot a life like that.

SP: Out of all of the stories in God in Neon, "The Dead Rabbit's Society" is my favorite. It's the sort of story which sticks with you, because it bites down to the quick. It's brutal and, at the same time, profoundly poignant. Can you give me a little background on this story and how it developed?

SS: Sure. The short, easy answer would be “I don’t know, it just happened,” but that’s cheap, so let’s see. I wanted to try and write a story that looked at a father/son relationship because I hadn’t really (at least not one that was worthy of people seeing it) and this is what came out. I was also thinking a lot about the mountains, and isolation, and how those things changed relationships, and how that would matter in the life of two people when communication as we know it—words, sentences—was not necessarily an option. When I write fiction, too, I’m interested in body language. What we say without saying anything is interesting to me because we’re trying to render these things without the ability to actually see it, which leaves it up to the writer to be good enough to help the reader visualize it. There’s a lot that can be said about watching a couple sit at a restaurant, silent, holding hands while they wait for their food. Are they looking at each other? Is one person rubbing the knuckles of the other with his or her thumb? Is one person’s knee bouncing uncontrollably under the table? All of these things matter and change how we perceive the situation. Maybe they’re quiet and comfortable. Maybe it’s been a long day. Maybe they’re in mourning and they forced themselves out of the house. Or maybe this is a day or two before they break up and they’re doing this because they feel they have to. The body language here matters, and I try to make it matter in my own stories. When you have a character that doesn’t necessarily speak, it becomes even more important.

As far as the rabbits and the taxidermy, I wanted something that the father could do that was desperate, that most people wouldn’t really think of doing. Gestures like that interest me because as humans we do crazy shit to show love, I’m sure both you and I (I know I have), and anyone who ends up reading this can think of at least one time where you’ve done something for someone that, looking back, you’re like, “Wait, I did that? Why?” At the time, though, it made perfect sense. It was how you proved you cared. It was your John Cusack with a boom box moment.

SP: In addition to writing fiction on your own AND being an MFA student AND writing and reviewing for several publications AND who knows what else, because you are a literary social butterfly, you write for an online magazine called The Manual where, it appears, you get to drink lots of expensive alcohol and then write about it. I'm just your average bartender-turned-teacher-writer, but what's it like writing about spirits professionally? It sounds like the perfect job, but I imagine that it's harder than it looks.

SS: I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s harder, it’s just different. As a writer, I’m sure, you’re at a point where reading for enjoyment means you’ve got a pen and you’re underlining or highlighting or making notes or something regardless of what you read. Gone are the days of picking up a book and not necessarily thinking about anything beyond what’s going on in front of you. Or, in movies, for example, watching and saying something like, “Why did the director choose to start at this point?” or “What’s the advantage of using this character’s POV in this scene? What does it add to the movie?” I’ve realized that these workshop-y questions are now part of what I think about when I drink something, even if it’s not for TM (though, when I drink, I’m always thinking about whether or not I can write about the beverage sitting in front of me). That manifests itself in some simple ways—nose, mouth feel, finish, et cetera. But it goes a little bit beyond that, as well. If it’s beer, I’m wondering about the hops, and how they impact the aforementioned qualifiers. If it’s a cocktail, I’m thinking about the process as well as the product—was it shaken or stirred? Are the ingredients made in-house? Is there balance? What makes what I’m drinking desirable? At the same time, if I’m out, I’m thinking about the bartender and the environment. How does this drink go (or not) with this place. What are the bartenders like? Are they interested in engaging with me, a stranger, or is it just a transaction of alcohol for money? If it’s Sunday, and I’m drinking a Bloody Mary, I’m thinking about the spice blend in the drink, about the garnishes, about how everything works together. So, I guess, in a sense, it’s like reading a book as a writer. After a while, your sense of enjoyment changes, it becomes more complex.

That being said, I wouldn’t change a damn thing about it. I love what I do. I’ve gotten to meet some amazing individuals and experience some crazy stuff. The anthropologist Mary Douglas talked about how drinks are one of the ways that we as humans socialize. A meal shared is for friends and family—you don’t typically sit down to eat with strangers. A drink, however, a drink can be for strangers. You can drink with an acquaintance or a stranger and still make some sort of connection. It’s that social aspect—the community that could be formed, the potential that is there—that keeps me coming back to the bar, so to speak.

SP: As mentioned above, you're a tremendous supporter of the literary community, doing everything from reviewing books to writing for literary magazines to promoting your fellow authors. Why is the lit community so important to you? And why does being a "literary citizen" matter?

SS: When it comes down to it, they’re the people that matter in my life because they’re the ones that are as or more often more passionate than I am about their art, whatever it is. I want to support the people that are baring themselves for whomever to see. They’re showing us what they’re made of, and aside from the strength and courage that that takes, they’re doing so with poise and grace and beauty, and if that doesn’t make you want to support them, then I’m not sure what will. As far as being a literary citizen, we’re for the most part our own audiences. Our friends and associates are the one’s reading our stuff, they’re the ones sharing our links and telling others to read us. If you’re not doing the same—if you’re so focused on yourself that you forget that you’re just one writer out of millions, no matter how good you are, you’re being an asshole. Straight up. Wherever you are in your career, you got there with the help of someone because they believed in you even if you didn’t believe in yourself. It only makes sense to pay it forward, not just with people that come after you, but with the people who are your peers. What it comes down to for me is, again, don’t be an asshole, and, hopefully, people will recognize that.

SP: As always, I love to end by bringing up other authors and their works. And if anyone has a pulse on new releases, it's you. So, what debuts should I be looking for in 2016?

SS: Hmm. You’re calling me out on a question I feel ill-equipped to answer, so I’m going to not answer it. There are a couple presses, though, that I’m looking forward to books from.

Archipelago Books does wonderful translations, and as I try to broaden my own reading horizons, I’ve found myself picking up more and more books by them.

Two new presses that are poised for some kick-assery are Jellyfish Highway Press and StillhousePress. They’ve both only put out a few books so far, but what I’ve read, I’ve really enjoyed, and I look forward to what they’ve got coming out in the future.


So many thanks to Sam Slaughter for stopping by! Check out God in Neon, look up his many other works, and buy him a drink if you ever to happen to meet him on the street (I know I will....). Cheers!