TAINTED COFFEE PRESS
1. You speak so openly and honestly about your life, your childhood, parents, wife and children, your fears and insecurities, that this collection of short fictions often feels like a memoir told in tiny vignettes. Is that an accurate way to approach this?
Sure, you could approach my book as if it's a memoir, and if a reader did so I would take that as a compliment, because I love to read memoirs, such as those written by David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, and I love writing that's in the style of memoirs, such as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, but I would would never refer to my book as a memoir because the first word that comes to mind when I think of the genre is "nonfiction," and no matter how much of what I write is inspired by moments that I actually experienced, or at the very least witnessed, I cannot say with a straight face that any of what I write is nonfiction. I take liberties with the truth. I exagerrate. I speculate. I lie. And I do so for the sake of the story. To make it more entertaining. To make it a better read. But I suppose that's not to say that what I write isn't "true." Is that too much of a contradiction?
2. There is a level of honesty to your writing that is very very rare, even amongst so many contemporary writers whose intentions are to be "edgy" or "gritty" or whatever other label you wanna slap on it. Do you ever have any hesitations about putting the private lives of you and your loved ones on display for public consumption? Do you ever fear the repercussions of discussing you and your wife's sexual practices, your young son's seemingly feminine bathroom habits, your mother's bulimia, your personal feelings of shame and guilt? How does your family feel about being publicly dissected? As a father of two girls I am always curious about other writer's opinions on this subject, so please feel free to riff for awhile. I'm sure there are plenty of people interested in this subject, but I dont hear it discussed very often. Please dig in.
I suppose I lack something that could be considered a basic self-censoring function. I'm generally a pretty shy and restrained person, but once I open up I have difficulty holding back, and when it comes to my writing process I suppose I don't really try to think about how revealing I'm being, at any given time. If something happens, and I think it'll make for a good story, I'll write about it, no matter how personal it may be. No matter how unflattering it may be. And I think, for the most part, I don't write anything that's mean. My goal isn't to insult or offend anyone. And if there's anyone in my stories who's being made fun of its usually me. I have a pretty self-deprecating sense of humor.
My intention is never to be edgy or gritty, because I really don't think anything I write about is either of those things, I just aim for honesty, and I think it generally works in my favor. I seem to get a generally positive response from those who've read my stories. Even my firends and loved ones, who I tend to often incorporate into my stories, they love it when I write about them. I actually have a couple firends who recently notified me that they were dissapointed that they didn't end up in my book. (So maybe I'll take a second now to acknowledge Say Moua and all my other Asian brethren.) My significant other/lady friend/partner, Katie, enjoys my stories...I think. My mom enjoys my stories. Maybe that's a problem, but I don't see it as one. I remember a Bukowski quote of one sort that stated, in so many words, that if your parents like your writing then its gotta be bad, but I don't think that has to be the case.
My kids, on the other hand, they're still far too young to read just about anything I write, though they know that I do write, and I don't know how I feel about them eventually reading my stuff. Perhaps they won't ever. Maybe they just won't care. But if they do, I'm concerned about what they might think. Because I think some of what I write about could be taken in the wrong light. But I have to admit, my children make me nervous. They scare me, to an extent. And now they're growing and changing in front of me and it seems so alien. Like they're these weird, radioactive, mutating things. And its not like I wasn't disgusted with my own changing body, because I was, and still sort of am, but now I have these things in my house, and they're changing in front of me, rather quickly, and somehow I'm supposed to pretend like it doesn't freak me out. But it does! It makes me nervous. Very, very nervous.
And so I write about it, and I think that maybe that's connecting with some readers, as well. I get responses from parents who compliment me on how I write about having to wipe my son's ass, and they've never seen that in a story or poem before, and they like that, and then I'll get a response from someone who liked the exact same story, but they don't have kids, and their response is, like, "Wow, I'm so glad I don't have kids!" It works on different levels, but I'm glad there's some flexibility in there. Maybe there isn't much to interpret or analyze in the story, itself, but those varying reactions fascinate me, even if I feel someone has read the story incorrectly. If that's possible. But still, I do not attempt to correct them. That's not my job.
3. There are a lot of things that happen in these stories that would make most people say "that was pretty fucked up." But your narrator rarely, if ever, condemns, critizes, or passes judgement on people or situations (except on himself). Your general attitude seems to be that of a journalist, stating what happened and moving on to another significant event in your life. Is that a fair statement or am I off the mark? Did you make a conscious effort not to overanalyze too much for the reader or is that your own personality finding its way into the pages?
Over the years, I've really struggled with the amount of commentary, or lack there of, in my writing. When I first began writing, I received a comment from a professor I looked up to that my writing was didactic. That I used to tell my readers how to feel. And that struck a nerve with me, because I wanted the reactions to be natural. I wanted them to react how they might naturally react, had they witnessed or experienced a similar situation. And so I consciously stepped back, as a narrator.
But then, oddly enough, several years later, I was in a manuscript workshop with the poet Tony Hoagland and he said that my writing seemed unorchestrated. There didn't seem to be any clear sense of rhyme or reason, which I thought was pretty ironic considering that I had previously been called didactic. And so, since then, I think I've tried to strike a balance between the two, but maybe I still lean more towards Hoagland's comment. Maybe I'm still a bit too unorchestrated. But really, I don't want to tell my readers how or what to think about my stories, so maybe that's why I tend to get varying responses.
In my opinion, it just seems more natural that way.
And when it comes down to the more "fucked up" moments that I write about, I guess I'm just not that shocked by them. I react to them, and I'm moved by them enough to the point that I feel that they're worth writing about, but to me they just don't seem that fucked up.
Its not that I'm jaded or calloused or emotionally stunted or anything like that, I just think I have a higher tolerance for shit than most people, and I have a rather twisted sense of humor, and so I try to make those moments as entertaining and engaging as I can.
4. When most writers deal with childhood in short fiction, it is done in one of three ways: 1) My childhood was great and I miss it and wish I could be young again. 2) I wish I could go back and do things different, make things right, not make the same mistakes, etc etc. 3) My childhood was more fucked up than yours, blah blah blah... But you manage to avoid those three avenues. You seem to say, "ok, this happened... then this happened... and this happened..." You don't point out correlations between childhood and adulthood for the reader. You don't try to offer any cause and effect. Any that might be found is done so by the reader drawing their own conclusions. How have you managed to avoid the first three pitfalls (maybe not pitfalls but I can't think of a better word) and adopt this very matter of fact way of telling the reader about your childhood?
I guess how I manage to avoid those three pitfalls is that I really don't feel that way about my childhood. I don't miss my childhood. I don't really have any regrets about what I did or how I did them. I really don't think my childhood was that fucked up. Of course I'm nostalgic about certain things, but I don't think I've ever wanted to relive my childhood. Ever. And it wasn't because it was that bad, but I had a hard time with many things, and so I always looked forward to growing up and experiencing newer, better things. And I still do. I sort of look forward to aging. I don't have any regrets, though I've definitely made some mistakes, big mistakes, in my life, but those mistakes eventually lead me to where I am now. And I would never get into a pissing contest with anyone about how fucked up my childhood was because I know some people, people I'm very close with, that have had legitimately fucked up childhoods and mine doesn't even come close. My childhood really wasn't that fucked up, it wasn't hard, per se, but it may have been nontraditional. And, of course, for the sake of my stories, I emphasize those nontraditional aspects. And I guess maybe why I seem so matter of fact is because I'm still not quite too sure about how I should react to some of things I've experienced and written about. My reactions to various memories have changed as I've gotten older. Some things in my life that I used to really kind of mourn over I think I've gotten past. For me, its about moving on, and writing really does help me move on.
I think I've psychoanalyzed myself to death.
5. There is a tenderness to your prose. You treat many of your characters with care and fragility despite their flaws. Was that deliberate? Were you making a greater statement about all of humanity being worthy of love and redemption? Is this the narrator's subconscious balancing out his own sense of shame and guilt? Are my psychoanalytic lines of questioning getting annoying? Give us your own analysis.
Oh, its absolutely deliberate.
I mean, I'm writing about my family and my friends, for the most part, so I do care for them, I care for my characters, I care immensely, and in life its never my intention to be cruel to them, though that's not to say that I haven't been known to be an asshole, on the occasion, but I don't see my writing about them, or characters based upon them, as an opportunity to mock or insult them. For me, that wouldn't be honest. That wouldn't be who I am. I wouldn't use my writing as a way to stab them in the back, even if they didn't eventually read it. Even if, say, I used a pseudonym. I wouldn't change what I say about them. And the flaws are what make them beautiful, you know? It gives them character and substance and depth.
Who wants to be friends or lovers with a "flawless" man or woman? For one, I don't think there is such a thing, but if there was they would be fucking boring!
And is this some sort of grand statement about human nature? About loving your neighbor and all that jazz? Not intentionally, no. When I write, I really don't have any sort of grand idea in mind, I just try to be as specific, and as precise, as possible. I'm not aiming for a message of any sort. Do I think that all of humanity is worthy of love and redemption, as you asked? For the most part, I do. But I don't have that goal in mind while I'm writing. And until you mentioned it I wouldn't have said anything like that in regard to my stories. But that's the great thing about literature (and I sincerely apologize for just referring to my writing as literature), that the reader can take something away from it that the author didn't intend. To hell with authorial intention, you know what I mean? It gets in the way. If that's what you take away from my book, that's fantastic! Who am I to say otherwise? Someone else might just like it that I like to talk about masturbation.
And maybe my, or the narrator's, shame and guilt does have something to do with it, but who among us has no shame, no guilt? So maybe that's how we should all behave?
I think the world could do with a little more love and redemption.
And masturbation, too.
6. Quite a few of these stories, including the collection's opener, "On a Train Back to Michigan" make reference to states from the Great Lakes region. Being a native of this area, how have the Great Lake states influenced not only your writing, but you as a human being?
I'm not really too sure about how the Great Lake states have influenced me as a human being, because I really don't have any basis for comparison. Its really just a matter of the fact that that's where I've lived my whole life. I was born in Wisconsin. Spent my first four or so years there. Moved to Iowa for about six months. Moved back to Wisconsin and stayed there until I was 23, but moved within the state, on average, about once a year, then lived in Minnesota for a couple years, then shipped out where I've lived for the past six years, in Michigan. I would have to say that more than where I've lived, geographically, what's influenced me even more is how often I've had to move. There were times, such as when I was in the first grade, that I moved three or four times in one year, and attended three different elementary schools. So I would have to say that that influenced me more than where I actualy lived.
7. Do you think prose from the Great Lakes has any unique qualities of its own that differentiates its from prose from other more established, recognizeable cultural regions? Who are its authors?
But maybe, to follow along with general ideas about the Midwest, or the Great Lake states, there's a sense of politeness that doesn't seem to be so prevelant in other areas. And I don't think there's nearly as much of a sense of privelege or entitlement. But, then again, I've met plenty of self-entitled assholes from the Midwest, so I hate to generalize.
When I think of Great Lakes/Midwest authors, the first names that come to mind are Tim O'Brien, Philip Levine, Carl Sandburg. The working man's writer. The working man's poets.
David Blair was/is an incredible poet/songwriter/performer from Detroit (born in New Jersey) that just passed a couple weeks ago. An absolutely mind-blowing talent.
A voice of the people.
8. If this book were a movie, what actor would play the narrator? KT? What about some of the other characters, who would play these folks?
Haha!...You have no idea how many different people I've been told I resemble over the years. Scott Baio. Corey Feldman. Tony Danza. Charlie Sheen. Michael Madsen. James Gandolfini. But, Jesus, who would I have play me/the narrator in a movie? Not that I look like him or anything, but maybe Mark Ruffalo? Or Seth Rogan, if he shaved his head. KT could be played by Cate Blanchett or Uma Thurman. Jack could be played by, I don't know, some unknown child actor. And Bella could be Elle Fanning (Dakota's younger sister). Ellen Burstyn could play my mom. I see her receiving a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
9. Who or what were you reading / watching / listening to at the time you crafted this collection? How long did it take you to complete, start to finish?
What was I reading, watching, and listening to while I wrote this book?
Is that vague enough?
It took a rather long time to get this thing out, probably much longer than it should have taken me, and so I couldn't even begin to say what, exactly, I was taking in at the time. I would say, though, that during that time I discovered Raymond Carver and James Baldwin. Yes, I know I found them kind of late in life. Sharon Olds, too. A lot of comic books. Alternative comic books, like Johnny Ryan, Ivan Brunetti, Charles Burns, and Daniel Clowes. I love the Walking Dead and have been reading it for about five years now.
I listen to a lot of stand-up comedy albums. I'm a big comedy nerd. Louis CK, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Bill Hicks. Lenny Bruce, of course.
I spend a lot of free time wathcing documentaries. Profiles on odd and eccentric personalities like in American Movie, Crumb, and Grizzly Man.
I tend to stray to more character driven work. In movies and books and other creative outlets, I'm atttracted to characters, and so that's what I tend to absorb.
The oldest story in SIX MONTHS is about five years old, but I feel like I've been writing this book since about 1999, when I first began to write with serious intentions. Ever since then, I've been working towards something, and this one book is the culmination of all that time and ink.
Its a rather short book, I know, but I kind of like the fact that you can read it in one sitting, in an hour or two, which is fine with me.
Its like, how long does it take to listen to your favorite album or watch your favorite movie?
You can have a damn good time in an hour or two, and I hope that's what this book will accomplish.
And I just want to say thanks for writing this book. Much much respect. Very well done, sir.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for your support. And thanks for the questions!