Tag Archives: Aimee Bender

An Interview with Christopher DeWan

6 Oct
Christopher DeWan is the author of Hoopty Time Machines, which Aimee Bender said contains "funny, sharp, playful zingers of stories that reach right out to grab a reader."

Christopher DeWan is the author of Hoopty Time Machines, which Aimee Bender called “funny, hooterharp, playful zingers of stories that reach right out to grab a reader.”

Christopher DeWan is a writer and teacher living on Los Angeles. He’s the author of the flash fiction collection Hoopty Time Machines and has published over fifty stories in in journals including Hobart, Juked, Necessary Fiction, Passages North, and wigleaf, and he has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. He has had TV projects with the Chernin Group and Indomitable Entertainment and has collaborated on transmedia properties for Bad Robot, Paramount, Universal, and the Walt Disney Company. His screenwriting has been recognized by CineStory, Final Draft, the PAGE Awards, and Slamdance, and he is recipient of a fellowship from the International Screenwriters’ Association (ISA). He is currently chair of creative writing at the California State Summer School for the Arts.

To read an exercise on using emotion to make readers care about a story’s big-conceit elements, inspired by DeWan’s story “Voodoo,” click here.

In this interview, DeWan discusses the ways that second-person POV and first-person video games are similar, the pleasure of unknowing in flash fiction, and the emotional punch in works by Aimee Bender and Kevin Brockmeier.

Michael Noll

“Voodoo” is written in second person, which is one of those things that often happens without thinking at the beginning of a draft. But at a certain point, you must decide whether to stick with it or use reliable old third or first person. For this story, what made second person the right POV?

Christopher DeWan

I have a theory about second-person—wholly untested—that it works best for stories that are inherently about identity. There’s an effect that happens when I read a second-person story that reminds me a little of playing a first-person videogame, a sort of amnesiac effect where, in the game, I’m supposed to *be* this person but I also know almost nothing about this person: I stumble cluelessly through “my” home trying to collect information to understand who I am. Second-person fiction reads like that to me: the story is a series of puzzle pieces for readers as we actively participate in assembling the identity of the narrator.

In this story, “Voodoo,” the narrator feels alienated and confused by his daughter and, at some level, his whole life: he’s assembled all the trappings of a normal adult, but he doesn’t feel like one. His daughter and her room and his house and his wife should all feel very familiar to him, but they don’t—and I like the way second-person helps convey this alienation. Second-person blindfolds the reader, spins them around, and makes them feel a little lost.

Michael Noll

The story’s opening suggests, broadly speaking, a couple of possibilities: the daughter has made voodoo dolls and is using them to harm her parents or it’s all in her father’s head. The story never chooses one over the other. It also doesn’t escalate the premise into a plot that would require a much longer story, something that seems like it would destroy the great uncertainty that you’ve created. Were you ever tempted to enlarge this story, or did you always know it would hang in this particular moment?

Christopher DeWan

You’ve given away the secret of the entire book: a collection of forty-five short stories so short that I never have to decide anything!

This is one of things I love about flash fiction: the form allows me to write a story about the moment before a story, take it right up to the point that something catastrophic will have to happen—and then the story’s over. The reader is just left there in that moment, teetering on the cliff’s edge, imagining all the things that might happen next. For me, that not-knowing is a more interesting place than the knowing.

But there are many stories in this collection I could imagine enlarging. The book is basically forty-five inciting incidents for forty-five future novels. Now I’m just waiting for a forty-five book deal.

Michael Noll

Christopher DeWan's story "Voodoo" is included in his new collection, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan’s story “Voodoo” is included in his new collection of flash fiction, Hoopty Time Machines.

The book, Hoopty Time Machines is subtitled, “Fairy Tales for Grownups,” which gets at one of the weird things about fairy tales. The originals from Northern Europe were quite scary and told by adults–maybe to kids, often to each other. The death and other horrors in them reflected the very real dangers that people feared. Then, of course, they got sanitized. In this book, there isn’t much death, but there are a lot of unsettling situations: a changeling child, parents who seem to have been replaced by trolls. What is it about fairy tales that seems to convey the feelings we get from real life?

Christopher DeWan

There are a lot of people who study fairy tales as a genre and I should say I’m not one of those people: I’m no fairy tale scholar. But I am a big fan, and particularly a fan of a fairy tale’s ability to evoke deep, resonant, inexplicable horror: “Why did he grab himself by the foot and tear himself in half?!?” etc.

What I’m hoping to do with this book is explore some of the lingering cobwebby corners of adult psychology that still resonate within those murky kid fears. There are plenty of things in our lives that don’t make sense, exactly, but we push them out of focus so we can function as adults in the world. They’re still in there, lurking, making a mess of our minds in ways we don’t fully understand.

Michael Noll

Your book is blurbed by Aimee Bender and Kevin Brockmeier, in whose footsteps it obviously walks, as do so many books. They, along with a few other people, basically created the genre of American fabulism and fairy-tale-inspired fiction. And, of course, they were drawing upon the work of writers like Angela Carter and Donald Barthelme. Was there a particular story that made you think, “Yes, this is the kind of writing I want to do?”

Christopher DeWan

Well, first, I can’t overstate how much I admire both of them—actually, all four of those writers you mention. I first read Aimee Bender around the time her first book came out, and I consumed that book in a single sitting, and I remember being dazzled and awestruck and most of all I remember feeling a great sense of liberation, like, “It’s okay to do that?!” I was always into fabulism—I mean, we all are when we’re kids, but I just never outgrew it. So Angela Carter and Donald Barthelme and then Aimee Bender helped me form a very permissive view of what literature can be, helped reinforce in me this idea that I think I held intrinsically: that strange, magical stories have value to adults, too.

But honestly, the thing I admire most about Aimee Bender and Kevin Brockmeier has very little to do with fabulism and has much more to do with the enormous compassion and empathy they bring to the characters in their stories. Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia is one of the most beautiful books I know, and I think the only reason it tips into fabulism is because the events in the book are too horrible for a person to reckon without inventing some fables to help mediate the horribleness.

I love these two writers. What gigantic, wonderful, fair hearts they both have. I learn so much from how both of them see the world—and yes, absolutely, that’s the kind of writing I want to do, too.

October 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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An Interview with Kelly Luce

2 May
Kelly Luce's debut collection of stories will be released in October by A Strange Object.

Kelly Luce’s debut collection of stories, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, will be released in October by A Strange Object.

Not many writer biographies can go toe-to-toe with the condensed history of Kelly Luce: She once attended a fiction seminar in Bulgaria, she was the writer-in-residence at the house where Jack Kerouac lived while writing Dharma Bums, and her forthcoming collection of stories has the knockout title Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaka Grows a Tail.

In this interview, Luce discusses first sentences, the challenge of finding the right publisher, and books that make her say, “Oh! Oohhhhh!”

Michael Noll

The story has a perfect first sentence: simple, yet absolutely essential to the story. It accomplishes in seven words what some writers spend paragraphs doing: creating and then breaking a routine in order to find where the story begins. What was your approach to writing this opening?

Kelly Luce

It’s funny; when I read this question I thought about the first sentence (“Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself.”) and felt sure that it had been there since the start, from draft one. It seems like such an obvious opening. Maybe too obvious, you know? Then I dug up my early drafts. After having a drink to brace myself, I was able to face them…and I discovered that that line didn’t show up until draft 7. I don’t remember what the process was like that brought me to write it. Maybe this is a testament to how hard it is to put into words what is simple and true.

Michael Noll

Very early in the story, this paragraph appears:

“Here’s a story: two people are in trouble and the wrong one dies. There’s been a cosmic mix-up, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it, and they all live sadly ever after. The end.”

I love this paragraph because of its speed. The distance between “two people are in trouble” and “the wrong one dies” is vast—an entire story lies in between—and yet the paragraph doesn’t bother with any of that. It keeps rushing along, moving from the comedy (in the Shakespearean sense) of “cosmic mix-up” to the tragedy of “they all live sadly ever after.” Is this speed something you purposefully strive and revise for, or is it present in the earliest drafts?

Kelly Luce

Thank you. Though this paragraph also came fairly late in the drafting process, after I decided to try introducing the cover-story subplot, it came out fully formed in one of those rare moments when the writing goes on auto-pilot for a few lines. Rhythm and sound is one of my favorite things about writing, the way syllables and commas pile up and suddenly stop, the way long sentences full of short words interact with short ones made of long words, the interplay between vowels and consonants, the way internal rhyme can create gravity. It becomes very physical. So I feel like the answer to your question is, both: I strive and revise for appropriate rhythm, and sometimes it happens in draft one; other times the conditions aren’t right for it to show up until draft ten.

Michael Noll

When I was in graduate school, the term “magical realism” was popular, mostly due to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. There weren’t a lot of American writers working in that style, and some critics wondered if it was possible to use it in this country. Yet here we are a few years later, and the most influential American short story writers are Aimee Bender and George Saunders, whose absurdist, fantastical stories are perhaps an American adaptation of magical realism. Your writing also seems to fall into this category, so I’m curious how you would explain its appeal. How did the American short story move from the dirty realism of Raymond Carver to the contemporary mixture of fantasy/comic-book/genre/absurdist/supernatural elements?

Kelly Luce

I’d love to know more about this, myself. I have no idea why the American short story has moved beyond Carver’s realism, other than to say that things always change, and what’s fashionable in one era is sort of inevitably not in the next. I mean, what made Carver who he was as a writer (other than Gordon Lish)? What was he shifting away from? That might help us figure out why we’ve moved on from his example, at least somewhat. It could be that this generation of writers and readers is reacting to that generation, looking for something different, or at least being willing to consider something different. Certainly other countries have not suffered as much (I consider it a suffering) from a dearth of imaginative/non-realistic writing during this time. What was it about America, specifically, that made realism the desired form of expression during that time?
Still, from what I’ve read of lit mags and recently released collections, as well as at workshops I’ve participated in during recent years, I’d say the dirty realist story still has quite a following. Maybe, with the advent of online publishing, magazines have been able to take a few more chances on what they publish, so there’s both more supply and demand of the weirder stuff. Or maybe the rise of the reputable online venue let publishers who were outside the box get a foot in the box. A story from my collection, for example, was published by the Kenyon Review Online, which purports to publish more experimental work than the regular KR. Would they have printed my story five, six years ago, in KR proper? I don’t know. But a lot of readers have been able to connect with that story and say, hey, this is my kind of thing and I want more, and we’re lucky that there are places like Fairy Tale Review and KRO and Unstuck and a ton of others meeting that demand.
We all loved reading as kids, and kids’ books are often extremely imaginative. In this age of extended adolescence and “be yourself” messages, maybe those writers who wanted to play a bit more with fantasy/genre/supernatural stuff felt free enough to do so. Or maybe like me, they read Girl in the Flammable Skirt or Pastoralia and went, Oh! Oohhhhh!
Michael Noll

You’re a really talented writer with an enviable body of work—stories in reputable journals, prestigious fellowships. Your debut collection of stories, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, will be released in October, and reviewers will almost certainly compare the writing to that of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, two highly regarded and popular writers.

A Strange Object is an independent press in Austin that publishes books that take risks, buck form, and build warm dwellings in dark places.

A Strange Object is an independent press in Austin that publishes books that take risks, buck form, and build warm dwellings in dark places.

As a result, your book seems like it would be awfully desirable from a publisher’s perspective.

Yet when readers open it, they won’t find the name of a major, New York-based publisher. Instead, they’ll see the name of a new independent press based in Austin—A Strange Object. Can you write a little about how this relationship with A Strange Object came about? What makes A Strange Object a great partner for your collection?

Kelly Luce

Will you marry me? Or can I pay you to come over every day and tell me nice things?

The relationship with A Strange Object started a few years ago, when Jill Meyers was editor of American Short Fiction and accepted a short-short of mine for a series on their website. That’s how I met her and Callie Collins, who worked at ASF as well. When they started A Strange Object, I was one of the writers they contacted about submitting a MS.

I always had a sense that I wanted this book to go to an indie press, and that my novel, which I’ve been at for a few years, would be the New York book. Maybe it’s because I heard so many rumors about story collections being treated like redheaded step-kids by the big house publishers, or maybe it’s because I never had the guts to push my agent, who represented my novel, to do anything with the stories. A\SO is the place for this book, absolutely. They get the strangeness, they love things about it I’d forgotten, and through editing they’ve made it a way better book than it was when I submitted it to them. The design is gorgeous, smart, clean. The cover artist is incredible. When you’re working with a small press, you’re pressed right up against the taste of the people who run it. And these guys are like…I don’t know. They’re not like anybody, which is the point. I have a crush on them.

May 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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