An Interview with Kevin Grauke

20 Jun
Kevin Grauke's new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been called X.

Kevin Grauke’s new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been compared to the stories of John Cheever, Anton Chekhov, Andre Debus, Richard Ford, William Trevor, and Richard Yates.

Texas occupies a iconic place in American literature. The state has given us Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and—to some extent—the later works of Cormac McCarthy. Its politicians tend to channel the persona of John Wayne. And yet a truer depiction of modern Texas culture might be the band Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs. A writer whose work reflects this changing nature of Texas is Kevin Grauke, whose new collection of stories, Shadows of Men, recently won the Steven Turner Award for Best First Work of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

Kevin Grauke is a native Texan who now lives with his wife and two children in the Historic Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is Associate Professor of English at La Salle University, where he teaches creative writing and American literature.

In this interview, Grauke discusses what it means to write about Texas and how to write a fight scene. (For an exercise based on the fight scene in his story “Bullies,” click here.)

Michael Noll

At the end of Part Four of “Bullies,” two men get in a fight. You describe their fight in close detail, moving back and forth between physical action and one of the fighters’ thoughts. Many writers find such passages difficult to pull off without sounding like a choreographer: hit here, kick there, etc. But this story doesn’t have that problem at all. I’m curious how you approached this scene.

Kevin Grauke

I think brevity is the key; the scene is only about half a page long, and most of it concerns Dennis’s thoughts, rather than a cataloguing of punches and feints and such. Keeping such a scene as short as possible is important for a couple of reasons: for one thing, “action” sequences such as this tend to start dragging very quickly, to my mind, and for another, most fights that actually take place are nothing like the ones we see in the movies. They don’t involve a lengthy exchange of haymakers; instead, they’re usually quick and clumsy, and I wanted to convey that this fight was definitely of the quick and clumsy variety.

Michael Noll

The fight also occupies an interesting position in the story. It’s the climax, releasing the tension that has built up, and yet the scene that follows has little to do with the circumstances of the fight. As a result, the emotional consequences are felt far away from the scene of the action. Was this intentional–did you plan it early in the drafting process–or was it a happy accident?

Kevin Grauke

I think I knew that the story would play out in this way once I realized that Dennis was going to bully the father of Karl’s bully. Like Dennis, I think we tend to want intensely dramatic moments, in both what we read and in our own lives, to “mean” more than they often do, so I tend to want to problematize the significance of such moments just as soon as they happen in my stories. For instance, Dennis hopes that this action will boost his ex-wife’s opinion of him, and this (probably misguided) hope of his becomes what’s most important, not the fight itself.

Michael Noll

The story appears in a journal, FiveChapters, that has an unusual format. Every story is published serially, over the course of five days. Did you write “Bullies” with a five-part shape in mind? Or did you adapt the structure for FiveChapters?

Kevin Grauke

I didn’t write it with that shape in mind, nor did I adapt it for that structure, as a matter of fact. I have Five Chapter’s great editor, David Daley, to thank for finding the best places to break the story into five “chapters.”

Michael Noll

Many of the stories in Shadows of Men are set in Texas, but it’s a Texas that is suburban rather than dusty and western in nature. This view of Texas seems to becoming increasingly common. The writer Scott Blackwood writes about a similar landscape, and even the band Arcade Fire named its last album (inspired by The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston) The Suburbs. Yet most Texas literature classes taught in Texas focus on cowboys and oilmen. Do you think the literature of the suburb will ever be embraced by the Texas literary establishment?

Kevin Grauke

Kevin Grauke's collection Shadows of Men won the XX prize from the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters. You can read a review of the book here at the Dallas Morning News.

Kevin Grauke’s collection Shadows of Men was published by Queen’s Ferry Press, an independent publisher in Plano, Texas.  According to a Dallas Morning News review, “Grauke details the fecklessness of the American 21st-century urban male with humor and insight.”

Well, if the Texas literary establishment is the Texas Institute of Letters, I would say that it already has to a certain degree, since Scott’s outstanding novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, won TIL’s Jesse Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction in 2009, and my collection, Shadows of Men, won the Steven Turner Award for Best First Work of Fiction this year. Whether we like it or not, large portions of Texas are just as urbanized and suburbanized as the rest of the country, so more and more Texas writers will undoubtedly write about such homogenized landscapes. However, cowboys and oilmen live on as myths, and these myths will continue to exert a certain degree of influence in Texas, even if it’s a Texas of malls and subdivisions.

June 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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