Categories
Interviews

An interview with Meagan Johanson, author of “Spent” and Sudden Fiction winner

What first informed your writing process for “Spent”, and for other stories you write? Would it be a character, a scene, a theme, the beginning and end?

For me, story ideas usually come while I’m working on something completely unrelated to writing—dishes or laundry or something physical, but mundane enough to let my mind mumble for a while. Sometimes, a first line will pop into my head and the story will root downward from that. But usually, it’s a flash of a feeling winking at m e, and then the characters and their surroundings build from it.

“Spent” came like this—from a feeling, the remorse of only having one life to spend. Even if we hold love in armfuls—real love, true love, good love—there will always be a life you can’t be living, a timeline you’ve left behind. I think this feeling is akin to the German word, Fernweh: a longing for a place you’ve never been. But in this case, it’s a life you will never have.

Would you describe your writing process more as a schedule/regimen or as free-flowing, when the inspiration strikes?

Not going to lie, when I have a steaming cup of morning coffee in hand, and the sun’s slipping inside the room just right, sideways, highlighting the steam, and my cat curls up at my feet, well, I certainly feel like an official writer then, which must count for something.

I like to write in the morning, until after lunch. These are my best hours, and I do stick with them, give or take a few quarantine detours here and there.

We all face writer’s block one time or another. How do you deal with writer’s block?

I take a break from writing. Some writers work through writer’s block by forging onward, but I’ve found that doesn’t work for me. I could spend hours poking at the keys, creating nothing, frustrated. I will get up and do something else productive—read, clean the kitchen, exercise, spend time with my family, make music—until the dam loosens and an idea comes.

On social media, you participate with the #vss twitter hashtag which posts small poems online, and you participate with the Barrelhouse write-ins. Though writing is often portrayed as a solitary process, how much does community play into your writing process?

Honestly, I probably wouldn’t write without the writing community. I enjoy interacting with other writers on social media, reading their pieces, and am constantly learning new things from them. I thrive within limitations, deadlines, someone holding me to task, as it were, and the online write-ins, classes, and prompts all do just that. I adore participating in them.

Of course, the counterbalance of Twitter is the time alone writing. But ultimately, I don’t want to write into a void. I do hope that someone, somewhere will read my 280 characters, and enjoy them—and maybe even my longer stories too.

What would you say is your cat’s role in your writing process?

I love this question. I read a comment somewhere that having a cat doesn’t automatically make you a writer. Sure, but they do make excellent and quiet companions, especially to the mostly immobile—i.e., writers.

You write both poetry and prose. In your writing, how solid is the line that separates them?

I lean towards the poetic in my prose, without a doubt. It sneaks in and I can’t help it and I don’t think that will ever change.

I noticed in your author bio that you also took German as an undergrad—does knowing another language inform your writing process at all?

I would say it affects my writing process only in that it has given me a better understanding of English grammar in general—dative, accusative, etc…. I have always wanted to try writing poetry in German.

In your short story “The Coffee Can” published by Lunate, you made a brief mention of Oregon where you live, but semi-autobiographical details like that aren’t always as obvious. To what extent do you think your writing is autobiographical?

It depends on the story. While not purely autobiographical, there are parts of my life that bleed into my writing, memories I’ll always hold tight, like all of us have, I imagine. I cut plenty of burrows in blackberry thickets as a child, and buried many a coffee can. But most of the time, even if the story has the roots of my experience, the characters invariably take over and write their own tale, of which I am no part except as medium.

I was struck by the narrative arc of the endings of your three published stories. In “The Runner”, it ends on a positive note, “all she could hear was hope”. In “The Coffee Can”, it was a note of resignation, “maybe I need nothing more than this”. And in “Spent” it ends on a note of cyclical, never-ending repetition, “as if I never got up at all”. Across genres, across forms, do you think of your writing as tracing a development? Or in your mind, do you think of them as completely separate entities?

Almost all my stories and poems are separate entities, each with their own voice and backgrounds and quirks. And only a few of them crossover. But I’d argue they do all end with hope, even the sad ones. I think even in the worst situations, there is always hope, and believe this seeps into the corners of my stories, even if it doesn’t fill the centers of them.

Your story “The Runner” was published in an anthology of resistance poetry and fiction. Do you view your writing as resistive? If so, what do you think it resists?

Some of my writing speaks to resistance, absolutely. Words matter, for good or for folly. And for all the folly coming from the mouths and signatures of some of our leaders right now, the least I can do is try to use my words for good. For me, that means easing the seams of hearts with stories in attempt to show that all humans want the same things: a safe place to live and sleep, food to eat, access to knowledge, a wage on which to thrive not just live, and most importantly, the opportunity in the first place to achieve these things.

On a similar note, do you feel about dystopian stories in a time that already feels quite dystopian?

I love dystopian stories, especially now. I see them more as cautionary tales, then as fiction.

And finally, I’m curious how you might re-imagine “Spent” that takes place in a stay-at-home world. As a thought experiment, what do you think would change about their relationship? How would the husband’s patronizing “imprisonment” (“don’t wander too far”) and lack of recognition for what she does at home change when he must stay imprisoned at home too? Or would it change at all?

Oh, this is an interesting story world to consider. I’d say, sharing the full burden of taking care of the baby, would come as quite a shock to the husband and I don’t think the narrator would settle for anything less than equal time in this alternative universe. A schedule would be set, for households chore, as well as self- and childcare, and duties split evenly as such. Both of them would be stay at home parents, in the same environment, with the same simple expectations: Keep the baby alive. Clean the house. Cultivate quality time, if possible.

I’d hope the time together would allow them both to see the value in each other. And if not, I guess it’s much easier to be alone in a pandemic, then keep someone’s company who doesn’t honor your worth.

Categories
Fiction

Excerpt from “Abandoned Things” by Kristina Kim

I’ve been here for as long as I can remember, but I never thought it was lonely. The shadows of Tall buildings follow me around all day and give me little reminders.

“Remember to wash behind your ears!”

“I know, Tall.”

“Don’t sit so close to the edge! He’s old and might collapse!”

“It’s fine, Tall. He won’t drop me.”

Sometimes, it can get a little annoying.

Luckily, they can’t follow me underneath Trees. It had taken some time, but eventually, the forest had pushed between buildings and through the concrete. Trees push Tall’s shadows out, and they talk to me instead. Well, more like they whisper while I just listen because it’s hard to respond to all of their chatter, but it’s cool and colorful and safe to rest on their broad branches. I like to sleep with Trees at night, and then during the day, I play with Small.

Small buildings are the most common, and they’re very polite and shy. They ask small questions like: “Oh, how was your morning, even tinier one?” “Oh, how was your night, even smaller one?” “Oh, how was your afternoon, even punier one?”

They don’t mean to be rude—they just enjoy not being the smallest thing around. Besides that, they are quite kind, and I always answer back, “You’re not so large yourself, Small!” even though they’re all at least two stories tall and I’m not even one. They know that, but they still get irritated, and we run and climb until Tall pulls me aside and huffs about how it’s dangerous to run and climb so fast.

“It’s just for fun, Tall!”

“No fun when you get hurt, Little One!”

“Oh, we wouldn’t hurt even smaller one!”

“Oh, we were just playing, Tall!” Small would cry and yelp.

“Shush, shush, it’s nighttime. Time for Little One to go to sleep.”

I think Tall assumes I just find a pillow and go to bed after that, but I don’t. I climb up to the top of Trees and they tell me which branches are young and can’t hold me so I don’t fall. Up high in Trees, I can see past Tall and plan out what I’ll do when the sun comes back. Sometimes I go to Factories, which are the biggest and the strongest. But they’re also the quietest. It took me a long time to realize, but Factories are actually very kind. They’re just very stern as well, and when I go climbing on them and they suddenly say, “No,” or “Stop,” then I know that something isn’t safe. The only time I’ve ever heard Factories say more than those few words is when they send rust whispers to the forest. Trees pass along their message, and it’s always the same: “Man is here. Don’t let the Little One come.”

And then Trees will erupt into whispers.

“Man.”

“Man is here.”

“Be careful, Little One.”

“Don’t let him go.”

“Stay here.”

“It’s Man.”

“Don’t go.”

“Man.”

“Stay here, Little One.”

“Careful, Little One.”

“Man is here.”

I’ve tried many times to go see what Man is, and why Trees become so anxious and noisy. But every time I start towards Factories after they say Man is there, everyone starts to scream.

“No, Little One!”

“You cannot go, even tinier one!”

“Stay here! Stay here!”

“Man is there! Do not go to Factories!”

And any step further from where I stand will be blocked by Trees’ branches and Tall’s walls and Small’s windows. They’ll start breaking themselves apart and throwing pieces in my way, and I have to scream, “Stop! I’m not going!” before they break themselves so badly they collapse. 

Tall watches me for the rest of the day, until Factories say that Man is gone. They keep me distracted with reminders and lessons.

“Don’t forget to wash between your toes!”

“I know, Tall.”

“Man can be very dangerous, you know. They always go so fast.”

“It’s fine, Tall. I won’t go looking.”

And they love me and kiss me for staying.

Categories
Culture

The Ethics of Writing Trauma – from the author of “Please, be Sensitive”

Content Warning: discussion of rape and repression

I wrote a story for the second time last summer. At a time when churning out 10-page papers could be done mechanically, when my own hands could move without any connection to the brain, it took a surprising amount of time to write 845 words. But I loved those hours. I was supposed to be spending my time researching the silence of victims in Roman comedy but narrating the imagined life of a survivor who was able to express herself felt…fulfilling. Rather than remaining in the structures of Roman society that repressed victims, rather than giving attention to problematic texts that should perhaps be left behind completely, I felt compelled to write a different narrative that vocalized the experience of those so often silenced.I felt that I was stepping outside of the confines of patriarchal structures by speaking to the experiences of silenced women. And so, I trawled Roman comedies looking for the brief moments when victims would speak. One woman said she felt probed by all the questions that were asked of her; that discomfort became a narratological question in my story. Another complained that everyone dodged around the issue and never asked her to speak about her experience; In my story, I supplied characters that cared for my character and asked questions when she wanted to be asked. In my world, she could choose the questions she wanted to answer.

In Roman comedy plays, victims don’t get the chance to choose much of anything. That’s basically a one-line summary of my Latin thesis that I probably should have been working on instead. Victims, who are exclusively women, are systematically kept off the stage in Roman comedy; if they do get a line in the story, it’s a cry of pain from giving birth to the rapist’s child. Their cries, if allowed (rarely so), are cries of anguish, of violence, of trauma. If not to give a voice to these victims, attempts have been made to give a voice to other characters in Roman comedy that do express criticism: mothers, slaves—the subaltern and oppressed. Their lines, unlike those of male characters, are often accompanied by the Roman version of the oboe, which lends them a kind of force, of tempo, of forward movement, of narrative aid. It almost seems as if the play itself is lifting up their words.

This belief is only speculation, of course, widely persuasive as it is in the studies of Roman comedy. As easily as music could lend these voices support, so too could these instruments serve to drown out their voices in the wide-open arena of the theater. Or they could be a distraction from the message these subaltern people are delivering. Whether or not these instruments serve to support or repress the voices of women is an ambiguity that can never truly be resolved. This ambiguity may even be intentional on the part of the playwright, designed to appeal to the varied demographic of the audience. Survivors in the audience could take comfort that the play was lending force to traditionally oppressed voices, and rapists could pretend not to hear their words. “There’s something for everyone,” essentially.

When I began to spend hours on my story, re-reading, re-writing, to make sure that none of the same ambiguities that plagued Roman comedy were present in my story, I wondered if I too was an instrument that was serving to, even if not intentionally, drown out female voices. I am a cis male, narrating the experience of a female survivor, at times inspired by (one might say taken from) the experiences of survivors, and—if I were to be published—perhaps taking physical and literary space from underrepresented female voices. Perhaps these Roman authors were taking the higher road here: refusing to have female victims on stage to publicize their trauma, refusing to make the statement that they could accurately or fully represent their voices. Rather than potentially distort their voices through the lens of a male playwright and male actors, these playwrights instead chose not to put representations of victims on stage for endless public reproduction and criticism.

Although subordinate peoples (besides victims) are allowed to speak in Roman comedy, all the plays end in a marriage between rapist and victim. No matter how hard or how loud they voice their resistance and despite the sometime fantastical extent of their agency, subaltern people do not and at times cannot change anything. A Marxist would call this dynamic of powerlessness and ineffectualness “hegemony” where resistances are only expressed within the limits that the dominant class defines. A narratologist might classify this under “high modernist fiction” where the narrator has ultimate control over how characters are represented to the audience. How might I classify my own story, which resists the ending of Roman comedies and allows for a survivor’s recovery, but does not make space to effect change? Can there ever truly be an ethical way of representing a character that has violence done to them, even if they “recover” from it?

At the end of “A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth, the speaker makes known to the reader that he has been speaking to his sister, a presence that has been hidden throughout the poem; ostensibly, he has just been speaking to the air. A popular story about the poem’s creation goes that Wordsworth composed the entire poem in his head when walking next to the river, when it is more than likely that his sister was there to record down his wonderings and thoughts. The cult of “male genius” came at the cost of excluding a female contribution to the poem, even if the shape of her character was represented literarily within the text (she has/gets no words to say). If you read my published story, you’ll encounter shapes and representations of women, fictional constructs. I cannot say for certain that they are representative of the real lived experiences of women, that I could ever hope to fully represent female voices. These female voices will answer questions you might have, although they might not have been able to choose.

 

Mackhai Nguyen wrote this blogpost, as well as the story “Please, be Sensitive” appearing in BFR Issue 40.

 

Categories
Culture

Let’s Talk about Inclusion

For much of my young adult life, I had a secret. A secret that carried a lot of shame and disappointment. As a person that prided myself on my writing and reading ability from a young age, the circumstances of my secret was devastating. For many years I couldn’t speak of it, even if I was alone. After years of hiding, I can now string together the words with strength: I never graduated from high school. I’m not proud of it, but it is a fact of my existence that I’m no longer interested in hiding.

At the time, I felt that this one fact marked me as undesirable. The stereotype that dropouts are ignorant, lazy, or unintelligent is the result of a huge social blindspot concerning education in this country. For me, the absence of that 11’ by 14’ piece of paper made my value delicate, like the fickle flame of a birthday candle; I feared for the moment the world would snuff me out. As the child of a long line of high school dropouts, I was naive in thinking that I would not be one. I thought that if I worked hard maybe I would have a chance at a life outside anything I knew. But like so many others, I didn’t have the privilege of an uninterrupted education. The opportunities of my youth seemed to crumble before me and I gave up on my childhood dreams of college or authorship. After wasting many years working a dead-end job and feeling sorry for myself, I managed to get an equivalency and start community college. I am now 24 years old and a current junior transfer at Cal. I worked hard to bring what was essentially an eighth grade education up to college level. As I reach new heights I never thought possible, I have allowed my vision to turn toward long-abandoned possibilities. However, even with so many new opportunities at my disposal, I am finding that there seems to be little space in the literary community for people like me. 

Part of the issue is visibility. There is a huge social stigma associated with poverty and lack of education. Most people aren’t exactly lining up to declare that they didn’t graduate high school, or that they struggle to read and write. Even when someone is willing to admit it, as soon as they enter the literary world they become tokenized. Impoverished or uneducated folx only seem to get published when their stories serve as “poverty porn” for the privileged. If you try to search for authors who were dropouts, you’ll find the same small list over and over again, many of those included are far from being modern authors. This leads me to believe that either we are hiding, or that we are simply not being included. It’s a real restriction on access and creativity when people like me only seem to be published when our pain and struggle can be used as entertainment. Our own stories are fed to us as extraordinary, as if lack of education is not a common experience. In fact, despite the general consensus that Western countries don’t have these problems, experiences like mine are fairly common. According to the most recent adult literacy data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, 14% of Americans have below basic literacy level and 29% have only a basic literacy level. That means that more than 140 million Americans are struggling with literacy. Additionally, 15% (or more than 49 million) Americans do not complete high school. And what is interesting about these numbers is that they are not improving; there is actually a downward trend in US literacy levels. And of course those from historically marginalized communities are over-represented in this data because class stratification is invariably linked to racial discrimination. If the literary community is at all interested in true inclusivity, then the understanding and resources afforded to folx from lower socioeconomic and educationally underprivileged backgrounds needs to extend beyond objectification and tokenization. In a country where a quality and uninterrupted education is still a privilege, we cannot afford to exclude uplifting these voices in our push for a more representative literary world.

You might be wondering how I am advocating for illiterate or uneducated people to write books if they don’t have writing skills. I think this is a limited and stagnant view of a large part of the population. It erases the realities of those of us who have struggled to rectify the mistakes of a defunct education system. It erases the possibilities of those who are self-taught. And it restricts those who only need a little help and understanding to get their work up to “standard”. Education is a constant process; we must allow those without education to see that spaces are available to them, or we undercut the possibilities of their educational journeys. Representation and inclusivity are huge buzzwords, including in the literary community, but as a member of an under-served community I am hoping that these are more than just words. It is not enough to say that you’re inclusive. True inclusivity requires action. If we are interested in making marginalized communities visible in literature, we must look at how we as a community contribute to inequity. We must eradicate the air of superiority that at times has marred the literary world. We mustn’t be pretentious in our critiques; after all, not all of us were raised on classics. And as more publishing houses are branding themselves as inclusive, we must have a keener eye. If publishers are truly pushing for more diversity and representation of marginalized voices, they must look at how they perpetuate barriers of exclusivity. This means looking at work with a new lens, appreciating that the inequities of our society have created unique voices that are often under-served. There is a lot of good writing ignored for lack of technical skill. I’m not saying we should lower our expectations, but that we must take a hard look at how our standards can be adjusted in light of the harsh realities of our society. As a community that thrives on creativity and innovation, what are we missing out on when we refuse to open doors?

— Seyo Talbert, Fall 2019 Staff

Categories
Culture

Writing in Ten Easy Steps

Step 1: Once you are roused from slumber by thoughts of the monumental task at hand, brew some coffee. If you don’t drink coffee, thoughtfully bob a bag of tea into a cup of microwaved water. Optional: Add alcohol to taste.

Step 2: Flip open your laptop, preferably in a tranquil and solitary setting, but if there happens to be a spectator in the vicinity, take a moment to glance up and pause meaningfully, as though to silently acknowledge some unlucky muse. Savor the screen’s oddly comforting dentist chair glow, and feel good (this is the last time you will feel good for a very, very long time.)

Step 3: Launch the word processor of your choice. Starting with a template is always encouraging; you can prematurely enjoy your editing prowess as you happily chip away at its  inadequate stock phrases, and fill in its inviting designated gaps. Your piece, which is currently titled “New Document,” should excite you by sheer virtue of its newness. You are already halfway through the beverage prepared in Step 1, and through you surges a sense of halfway accomplishment.

Step 4: Name, date, title, and “Save As” your document. It is now real and your worry shifts from worry over its conception, to worry over its existence. It “is,” and “has” an “as.” You don’t realize the beverage has somehow completely chilled until it slides down with a shiver.

Step 5: Back away from the computer. You’ve been writing for at least a solid twenty minutes, and therefore you deserve a two hour nap.

Step 6: You’ve reluctantly returned to the screen after your (both long and all too brief) wayward jaunt, because if you don’t, x will happen. (Hopefully y will, but y is a long-shot and thus not currently your strongest motivator.) Your cup is empty, but the dregs of your mind remain. This brings us to the most important step of all:

Step 7: Word vomit. Type everything you want to say/any idea that comes to mind, even the things you are unsure or afraid of, because this strange ectoplasm will be the material that negotiates your thoughts with the rest of the world, and…and, it must spew forth—wait, gross, no—be expelled, before it can be shaped (molded, fashioned…should I extend the sculpting metaphor, or is that cliché? I’m leaning towards cliché, and, ugh, I forgot to remind you earlier that we have to be original, too…)

Step 8: Cut and Paste. The mad process of severing and conjoining, made to look natural. The one where you actually have to try. The preceding step forces you to face your inadequacies, and this one forces you to actually fix them. (Remember the “screen’s dentist chair glow?” It’s still here, illuminating you pulling your own teeth.)

Step 9: You have enough material to submit, the ache has transferred from your mind to your limbs; your agony dulled, you wonder whether it’s finished enoug—

Step 10: You hit “Send.” You’re just really fucking tired of finding synonyms for the word “collective.”

Real accomplishment. Congratulations! You’ve officially written something.

— Raven Pearson, Fall 2019 Staff

Categories
Announcements

A New Set of Blogs for Issue 40!

After a long hiatus, BFR blogs are back! In the lead-up to the publication of BFR Issue 40, we’ll be publishing a blog a week from our staff, editors, and contributors. You’ll see a creative piece describing the well-known arduous writing process, a thought-provoking narrative describing a staff member’s experience with the exclusiveness of the literary community, and a meditation about the ethics of writing trauma from a contributor to the upcoming issue.

We’ll be posting one every Wednesday so stay tuned for more, as well as our upcoming BFR Issue 40 which comes out on May 1st!

Hope to see you then, and safe health during this time,

– Mackhai Nguyen, BFR Editor

Categories
Interviews

Interview with Michael Caleb Tasker

In the most recent issue of The Kenyon Review, international editor John Kinsella says that “there’s a drive, an enthusiasm, and a shout-out in Australian writing at present that demands it be heard.” Writer Michael Caleb Tasker has lived in Australia for fifteen years and, though not a native of the continent (a problematic phrase itself), he is, I believe, proof of Kinsella’s claim.

Mr. Tasker’s short story “Snowbirds”—the story that won him first place in Fiction Southeast’s 2014 Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Prize—was what initially caught my attention. He writes:

The women were getting louder and I watched them from the mirror. I recognized two of them, they had asked for dances and money before and I knew they wouldn’t remember us and that they would try their luck again. They saw me watching and smiled their crooked and beaten smiles. I nodded back.

I emailed Mr. Tasker to tell him how much I enjoyed his story. He promptly emailed me back, thanking me for the kind words and offered an author recommendation. I thought, then, that that was that.

A few months ago, I received the Winter issue of Ploughshares and I once again saw Tasker’s name. Following a writer who is rising through the ranks of literary journals is very satisfying, like a scientific discovery or, even, looking in a mirror and catching something new. His most recent story, “The Luckiest Man in Town,” carries the same sensitivity without sentiment, credibility without arrogance, and subtle complexities that I first noticed in “Snowbirds.”

The following interview took place over the phone on February 27, 2017.

Michael Caleb Tasker: I’m honored and yet very nervous… I’ve never been interviewed before.

Elie Piha: When I first emailed you, I think it was two years ago, I was just looking for short story contests myself and I wanted to see what the previous winners – you know – what their pieces looked like and I liked your story, “Snowbirds,” so much. That was the first piece of fan mail I ever sent out. 

Tasker: That was the first piece I ever got. Still the only piece I ever got.

(Both laugh.)

Piha: Was “Snowbirds” the first contest that you won? 

Tasker: Yeah. It’s my first and still my only that I’ve come first place in. 

Piha: Do you remember what you felt when you won that contest?

Tasker: I was really thrilled, stoked, proud. There was a moment of disbelief. Pretty basic.

Piha: From your biography on your website, it sounds like you have had a pretty interesting upbringing, moving around a lot, internationally.

Tasker: Before eighteen, I pretty much lived in Montreal, where I was born, and New Orleans. I did a lot of back and forth, and I did a couple years in Toronto and did two years in Argentina. Now I’m over in Australia.

Piha: How long have you been in Australia?

Tasker: Fifteen years. Something like that.

Piha: I was so happy to see your name on Ploughshares [2016-17 Winter issue].

Tasker: Equally as exciting as winning the Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction contest—such a reputable magazine.

Piha: “The Luckiest Man in Town” seems similar to “Snowbirds” in that it’s very setting driven, like it is a New Orleans tale.

Tasker: I spent a good seven or eight years in New Orleans and it’s a pretty powerful place. Pretty influential. A heavy place, an intense place. But, with that story, I don’t think the inspiration came from the city at all. It just wound up being the setting.  I can’t say what inspired that story. I do most of my writing really early in the morning before my family wakes up. I’m kind of in a daze. No coffee or anything. Not quite sure what ends up on a page sometimes. Sometimes it’s absolute crap. This one managed to work all right. Yeah. Inspiration, hell of a question. I don’t know where that comes from. 

Piha: It’s exciting to be your first interviewer because I get to ask you all the questions that writers eventually get tired of answering.

Tasker: I just have to think of answers.

Piha: Who influences you?

Tasker: My writing owes a great deal to Steinbeck and Farley Mowat. There are other writers, other books, that mean a lot… John Cheever’s short stories, James Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney, Richard Yates, Jim Thompson, Knut Hamsun, Willa Cather, Teddy Roosevelt, Dickens, Fitzgerald… I love John D. MacDonald, not long ago I read Slam the Big Door and was blown away… I could, and perhaps did, go on. But Steinbeck and Mowat are the big ones.

Piha: When did you first start writing?

Tasker: I don’t really know when I started writing. Not in any real sense. I wrote some small things as a child, in grade three or four, and again as a teen when I’d have some odd burst of creativity and write a couple of whacked out shorts. Always for my own pleasure, not for school. Somewhere in university I wrote my own smelly derivation of a novel I liked… but I don’t really know. I guess it grew slowly but surely… somewhere along the way.

Piha: The first and last lines of “The Luckiest man in Town” were about fear. Does fear influence your writing? Perhaps, a fear of failure, or even success?

Tasker: I’ve never understood that fear of success thing. I probably suffer from a fear of failure, fear of mediocrity. I’ve known people personally who’ve said they’d like to write or act or paint, but that they’re afraid of success. In terms of how fear affects my writing—in this particular story, the fear affected the character and so it drove the story. He had once been a boxer and he was always scared in the ring which kept him safe. He once ended up killing his opponent, that’s why he doesn’t box anymore. After that he’s having nightmares about his wife killing him and he becomes afraid of his wife, and when he’s afraid he becomes violent or deadly. The story, in terms of its structure, is probably closer to a crime genre piece than a so-called literary piece.

Piha: Crime genre is something you’re drawn to.

Tasker: A lot of my stories, even if they’ve ended up in literary magazines—I guess because of the way I write—they are oftentimes crime pieces, or a piece set around a crime. I read a lot of crime. Donald Westlake—

Piha: —The Parker series.

Tasker: They’re fantastic. In his book Memory, there’s no actual crime that takes place. A guy gets hit in the head with a chair and that’s the extent of the crime throughout. It’s thrilling, but there’s no actual crime and I love that. That mix of crime and literary, that’s probably where my work best exists. Not that I’m doing myself any favors. Most literary magazines don’t want anything with any crime in them and most genre magazines don’t want anything too literary.

(Both laugh).

Piha: Well, Ploughshares is no small publication.

Tasker: I still can’t believe that I’m in there.

Piha: How often to do you submit a year?

Tasker: Oh, a lot. “The Luckiest Man in Town” had four or five rejections. I’ve had other pieces that got—well, I’m embarrassed to tell you how many times they were rejected. But, you know, they ended up in pretty good places. You’re just at the subjective of what the reader likes or doesn’t like. At a certain point, you get to the logic of “Oh, well, fifteen rejections,” but just because one person doesn’t like it doesn’t mean the next person won’t. I don’t know if I answered that question. I submit a lot. 

Piha: You said you’re a morning writer.

Tasker: The last six months I’ve been really slacking. I’m ashamed of it, I haven’t done much recently. But usually that’s the only time I have. I have a four-year-old and I’m pretty busy. I would get up a 4:00 or 4:30 and that hour or two before work is usually best because you’re fresh from sleeping. You’re in just a bit of a daze so that you’re not worrying about what else you have going on in your life. 

Piha: As for your writing process. Do you first produce a whole draft, or do you get a few lines out and think about it, then maybe do some outlining?

Tasker: It’s different for every story. I’ll have a basic idea for a character of a story, or I’ll be listening to a song and some phrase or just two little words in that song will make a good title, and a story works itself around that. Generally speaking, I’ll have too many ideas. I’ll write them down and when I come to it, whether it’s a week later or a month later, I’ve done some thinking about it. I’ll write the first 200 to 600 words, usually trying to do that in one or two sittings, and that’ll turn into a 5000-word piece. Once I’ve got that first 600 words, I’ll do a bit of “What should happen here or there” and then it’s fairly organic. Many times, I’ll find out that what I’ve written in my notebook doesn’t work at all and I’ll have to take it in a new direction. As I’m working on the piece, I’ll do a bit of editing on the way. Once I finish a piece I’ll put it away for five to thirty days and work on something else and then I’ll come back to it and edit and do any rewrites that I need to do. Generally that’s how it works. What I am wondering about is novel writing. It’s easy to rewrite a not-very-good 3000-word-piece if you like the idea, but when people rewrite a 100,000-word draft, how does that rewrite work? 

Piha:  I think I’ve created a few files and titled them “Novel 1,” but it has never got past that. We’ve already talked about fear but, when it comes to sending out stories, getting published—

Tasker: Failure and rejection are just a part of it. It’s quite natural that for every story I write that’s publishable I write one to four that don’t deserve getting published. Maybe I’ve had so many rejections that I’ve just got really thick skin. Or I’ve read enough about other writers who’ve been rejected so many times. It’s just as much persistence as it is actually writing. James Lee Burke famously had one of his early novels rejected by one hundred or so publishers, and then when it got published by a small firm it went on to be nominated for a Pulitzer. I read that story, the Lost Get Back Boogie, when I was 17 years old. 

Piha: Did you read a lot growing up?

Tasker: Yes and no. My mother was a big reader and she had to pay me to read my first book when I was in grade two or so. She wanted me to actually get through something. I think it was a children’s book, Uncle Wiggily. Then my first year in Argentina, I was about 14 years old, and I think loneliness and not having any English around got me reading. When I got back to Canada I was the best-read kid in my class. 

Piha: You have a master’s degree in professional writing, correct?

Tasker: They changed the degree title half way through. They called it professional writing at first, and it was a lot of nonfiction writing and some journalism, and then they switched it to creative writing. I don’t actually know what I should call the degree, but I’m looking to get my Ph.D. in creative writing. I’m in the application process. 

Piha: Do know other writers, spend time with them, or just other artists in general?

Tasker: I’m fairly solitary. I knew some in college. I have a friend who has just written a novel and has just submitted it, but I’m not surrounded by it like I was in college. I love talking about reading, but it’s hard to find people that have anything to say about it. 

Postscript: Michael Caleb Tasker’s recent projects are centered around film production and screenwriting. He says, “Movies have always been a big part of my life, been a big influence. Hitchcock, Clint Eastwood (Play Misty for Me and High Plains Drifter are terrific), Rod Serling, I used to see Lawrence of Arabia every year on the big screen.” 

— Elie Piha, BFR Staff

Categories
Culture

Personal Essay: Averting the Apocalypse, Quietly

The Academy Award for Best Picture — arguably one of the most monetarily valuable honors given anywhere in the world, a fact which is itself absurd — was recently bestowed upon the wrong film. Tens of millions of people from around the globe watched as the most famous humans, with the biggest possible stakes, royally fucked up, a fuck-up which was, even more preposterously, not rectified for minute after minute of unadulterated stupidity.

More consequential stupidity, of course, has wreaked far greater havoc than this debacle at the Oscars. Indeed, as our species struggles to cope with catastrophic and self-inflicted crises like rapid climate change, shocking wealth inequality, and the ever-mounting peril of nuclear holocaust, all that we seem able to do in response is fight over the meaningless differences in the pigmentation of our skin, over the irrelevant distinctions between which sexual organs we prefer, over the invisible borders we’ve established to divide us, and over our imaginary friends in the sky. This is not how educated and responsible adults are supposed to solve problems. On the contrary, this is how toddlers act before they get time-outs.

Moreover, the democratically elected leader of the (perhaps formerly) free world during the escalation of these existential-level crises is a stunningly inarticulate, insecurity-driven, orange reality TV star and pathological liar who has no previous political experience, who brags about sexual assault, who mocks disabled reporters, who openly advocates for the U.S. military to kill the innocent relatives of terrorists (itself an act of terrorism), who approves of torture, who calls global warming a Chinese hoax, who dislikes the freedom of religion and freedom of the press clauses in the Constitution, and who rose to power by bullying his political opponents about their appearance, accusing them of literally founding ISIS, and threatening to throw them in jail. In light of our collective choice to entrust this objectively thin-skinned and uniquely impulsive man with the nuclear codes, Earth-orbiting aliens deciding whether to save our failing planet would surely find it devoid of intelligent life and move on.

Such developments have led me to the horrific yet unshakable conclusion that humankind is essentially doomed, assuming that we don’t right the ship in the immediate future. My father, who shares many of my desperate concerns about our present state of affairs, has recently dedicated himself to doing what he can to prepare people for a much less comfortable time to come: helping found a university charged with solving global problems, securing land on the outskirts of Los Angeles to build housing for the city’s homeless residents, and so on. My conversations with him on this subject have, unsurprisingly, been fairly depressing. More than that, though, they have also burdened me with a persistent guilt about my planned direction in life, which has always been to become a novelist. After all, how could I possibly justify dedicating myself to writing, and to writing fiction, no less, with the knowledge that I could alternatively be working like him to assist my fellow Americans? And on the other hand, how could I live with myself if I chose not to write, with the knowledge that nothing else makes me feel so deeply whole inside?

This cocktail of emptiness and selfishness and confusion began to seep into my stories and poison my paragraphs, not ruining them outright, but instead giving me the vague, drunken suspicion that they were simply the single-spaced secretions of an overly inflated ego. Indeed, it wasn’t until a week ago, as I passed by one of the more ornate local churches, that this intoxicated feeling finally subsided (one of the rare occasions that a church has had such a sobering effect on me). Standing there, I remembered vividly the thoughts I’d had as a boy while reading Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, an almost thousand-page work of historical fiction about the construction of a cathedral in the 1100s, and, in retrospect, a bizarre book to recommend to a twelve-year-old.

Tedious as it may sound, that novel was one of the fastest reads of my life — the chapters flew by as I engulfed myself in not only another world, but also in another worldview. Even as a staunch atheist, I could feel the overwhelming awe that Follett’s characters experienced as they admired the practically anachronistic, approximately supernatural creation before them: this magnificent, colossal sanctuary and tribute to their Almighty God, rising majestically at the heart of the town, towering forty times higher than the humble dwellings in its environs, its iridescent windows illuminating a landscape of grey walls and colorless monotony, its every detail constructed with the utmost care over the course of decades and generations and hundreds of pages, this product of countless man-hours and several lost human lives, once burned to the ground only to be rebuilt yet more spectacularly, its architects undeterred, undeterrable, most of them knowing they’d die before they’d ever see their masterpiece completed, hoping against hope that it might serve as a beacon of salvation for their descendants in the next millennium. Among all my real-life encounters with beautiful cathedrals — St. Peter’s Basilica, Westminster Abbey — none have kindled within me such a profound sense of reverence for my species and its capacity to achieve the seemingly unachievable as did that mere ink-and-paper text. And frankly, it’s not even my favorite book.

In the shadow of the much less noteworthy Berkeley church, I was struck by a series of semi-spiritual epiphanies. Writing, it occurred to me then, is something incredibly pure— without sound, or pictures, or someone else to guide your words. It’s just your brain and the page staring back at you, daring you to say something no one has ever said before, shaming you when you lazily recite the ideas of others, compelling you to unearth what your true values are, and pressuring you with the prospect of posterity to do so with a stark elegance that is forever the envy of other mediums. In the end, it’s just naked words, naked arguments, and naked humanity. Perhaps this literary nudity has revealed my hidden speckle of optimism, but beneath all the dogmatic intolerance and the capitalist greed and the manufactured anger, I guess I think that we, in general, prefer to love rather than hate.

Of course, hate has gotten a gigantic head start, and its lead may in fact prove insurmountable, but we cannot lay down our arms — or our pens — just yet. To those striving every day for a better future, I say to you — and to my father especially — you’re my heroes. However, at the risk of making everyone reading this throw up, I’ll state for the first time that writers can be heroes too. No, not just journalists, although journalism is also a great passion of mine, and journalists undeniably do critical work. Instead, I mean to say that novelists, and imagineers, and fiction writers can make a genuine difference as well. There’s a reason that the Catholic Church has a long history of banning books, and it lies in the fact that, as many a writer has noted before me, ideas are incredibly dangerous, and books are nothing but ideas.

Ideas, beyond just being threatening, are really all that we have. And fittingly, I believe they’re all that we need to fix this shitty mess in which we now find ourselves. If everyone on this planet sincerely believed the notion that their god wanted them to murder their neighbors, and that the universe depended on them doing so, we’d all be dead in short order. Conversely, if everyone subscribed to a couple more rational principles — we’re all in this together, we should respect our fellow creatures, we should feed the hungry, we shouldn’t kill anyone — the Earth would soon be transformed into a virtual utopia. It is eminently clear to me that what’s missing today is empathy and understanding and tolerance, and how better to perfect these traits than by reading about places and people very different from oneself?

Ultimately, the root of my guilt about being a writer is captured by a proverb we’ve all heard more or less since birth: actions speak louder than words. But maybe it’s not sheer volume and brute force that’s required today. Maybe the key ingredient that’s been lacking all along is not swift action but quiet contemplation, not speaking loudly but listening patiently. And maybe we need a world wherein we escape from our outside influences and pour ourselves onto the page, and then show those pages to anyone willing to give them a chance. In short, we need a world that writes. We need a world that reads. And we need fiction.

— Logan Goldberg, BFR Staff

Categories
Culture

Rant: On McSweeney’s Publishing, The Genius of Miriam Toews and Jonathan Plombon, and The Use of Humor as a Gateway into Difficult Subject Matter

If you’re fortunate enough to have been one of my victims over the past few months, you’ll already be aware that I’ve been occupying my time with an incessant rampage of recommending All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews to anything with eyeballs and a pulse.

Every now and then, I’ll read a book so magnificently heartbreaking that it seems like the only logical response is to—with tears of hope in my eyes—vehemently campaign for its author’s ascendance to the presidency. And given the current political climate in the US, electing Toews president seems like just the kind of radical intervention we need. (Toews—pronounced “Taves”—is, to the detriment of my cause, Canadian, but I’m sure we can work something out.)

My infatuation with All My Puny Sorrows began (apropos to BFR Managing Editor Clare Suffern’s recent blog post) with the cover. Upon completing an internship with McSweeney’s Publishing in San Francisco last spring, I was given free rein to choose a stack of their titles from the bookshelves—titles I had eyed covetously each time I walked through the office. If I were to take the liberty of claiming the existence of a core tenet for some sort of underlying philosophy universal to the team at McSweeney’s, it would be that books, with all their potential to be beautiful, should invariably be just that: beautiful, in everything from content to cover design, typography to spine width, and even the type of paper used in printing. And to me, the paperback edition of All My Puny Sorrows represents the pinnacle of McSweeney’s adherence to beautiful design, so last spring, I knew exactly which book to pull off the shelf first.

The cover—designed by the brilliant Sunra Thompson—depicts a bird’s-eye view of a landscape composed of pastel oranges, purples, and metallic gold accents. Scattered throughout this landscape are tiny, stylized humans going about their various enterprises. Closer inspection reveals that this landscape transcends temporal boundaries, for each orange-skinned figure represents a character from the novel; those two boys carrying a golden kayak, those imposing men in suits and ties standing outside their cars, the two old women arm-in-arm looking out over the river—all of these human miniatures receive hands and facial features over the course of the novel.

Thompson depicts the novel’s two main characters, sisters Yolandi (striped shirt, light hair) and Elfrieda (white shirt, dark hair), multiple times on the cover. Elf is depicted in various positions with slouched posture, hiding, it seems, underneath her cascade of dark hair, and she never has anything in her hands. Yoli, by contrast, is drawn in motion, holding a grocery bag or riding a bicycle. The one instance of Yoli standing still with nothing in her hands features her in the lower left corner, arms slung straight at her sides, looking back on the title of the book and the surrounding landscape. Something about the squiggly font of the title, the scraggly branches of the purple trees dotting the landscape, these handless orange humans all enmeshed in their own toils and ruminations—it all betrays an undercurrent of melancholy and existential dread, yet simultaneously communicates an air of bewilderment. So as viewers, before even acquiring an inkling of what the novel is about, we are inclined to empathize with Yoli in the lower left corner as she looks back and tries to make sense of this beautiful, forlorn landscape and her slouched, despondent sister sitting in the center of the title. By nailing this balance between absurdity and despair, the cover serves as a visual taste-test of the most striking aspect of Toews’ fiction: her use of humor as a gateway into difficult material.

At this point, it would be useful for readers to acquire the aforementioned inkling of what this book is about, so I’ll steal from the back cover: “When Elf, a world-renowned concert pianist, attempts suicide just before an international tour, her sister Yoli must keep their family from falling apart while facing a profound question: what do you do for a loved one who truly wants to die?”

With what wisp of a plot there is revolving around a hospital bed and a family member’s sincere wish to die, it’s easy to wonder how this book could be anything but depressing. But thanks to Toews’ keen imagination and knack for self-deprecation, the novel’s frequent bouts of humor serve as a kind of old-fashioned scuba suit for readers to slip on before diving into subject matter perhaps otherwise too suffocatingly tragic.

One instance of such humor (taken from a long list in my phone of page numbers on which this book made me laugh or cry) comes at a point in the novel when Yoli is visiting Elf in the hospital, away from her kids in Toronto, and grappling with the question of whether or not to help her sister access legally assisted suicide in Switzerland. She receives a call from a man with whom she is loosely romantically involved back in Toronto. He asks if there is anything he can do for her. Yoli replies: “I asked him to drive past my apartment in Toronto and see if there were signs of life from Nora and Will and maybe he could knock on the door and ask them if they were okay and why Nora wasn’t answering her phone. Although I already knew why. It was because she had poisoned Will and dragged his body into a closet and was having unprotected sex all over the house with her fifteen-year-old Swedish dancer boyfriend and she didn’t have the time or inclination to talk to her sad old disapproving mother in the midst of it all. Consider it done, he said.”

In an interview for The Guardian, Toews said of her choice to bring so much humor into the equation: “I wanted people to not be afraid of the subject matter, to get the tone right, right off the top, and get the readers’ trust, so we could come out together in some other, less dark place.”

A natural concern with such a strategy is that the comedic moments might, in some way, diminish the legitimacy or forcefulness of a story’s sorrow. In my own writing, I know that a particular sadness can feel so precious that to juxtapose it with humor would be to fail in giving it a faithful representation. However, when done well (and it is hard to do well—thank god we have writers like Miriam Toews), moments of comic relief can, curiously, have the opposite effect. Rather than diminish it, these moments can actually amplify the reader’s experience of a story’s sadness. In reading All My Puny Sorrows, we get the sense that the characters—particularly Yoli—are utilizing humor as a defense against tragedy; by surrendering themselves to the bafflement of navigating human sorrow, they refuse to let it break them. The characters then feel more human and relatable, which makes us feel the weight of their grief all the more.

Another writer (featured in our most recent issue of BFR) who toes this line between tragedy and comedy well is Jonathan Plombon in his gloriously titled short story “Dismantling Modern Residential Architecture Inside the Patriarchal Family Structure: A Proper, Expedited Disposal Technique of a Broken Home and Its Contents, for Fathers Who Have Somewhere Better to Be and Couldn’t Give a Damn, Anyway.” Across twenty-six short (and equally gloriously) individually-titled segments, Plombon’s narrator details a childhood spent in a broken home and a subsequent encounter with a mysterious plant-woman. Unlike Toews, however, Plombon’s humor relies largely on surrealist exaggerations and clever twists on familiar phrases. In section seventeen— “Babies and Ladders Don’t Come with Instruction Manuals”—the narrator exclaims: “I wanted my mother to use me as a crutch… She never clung to my arm, but I detached mine anyway, tying it together with crutches, bars, stools, and a strange man’s shoulders.” The tone of the story is removed from the narrator’s internal strife—emotionless, almost—so somehow this image of him taking off his arm and tying it up in an absurd contraption to prop up his mother impacts the reader even more (and by “the reader,” I mean me).

So what to do with all this? Pick up a copy of All My Puny Sorrows. Pick up a copy of BFR. Let Toews and Plombon slice you open then stitch you back together. Write your own magical-realist tragicomic story about a country-bumpkin-turned-city-slicker old man who wants only to look upon his childhood farm once more but can’t, for the life of him, remember where he misplaced the cord to his rechargeable eyeballs. The world is your miserable, hysterically laughing oyster.

Evan Bauer, BFR Editor

Design and Illustration by Sunra Thompson, Courtesy of McSweeny’s Publishing

Categories
Culture

The Importance of Art in Literature, in Review

Months before I opened Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001), I admired Lynn Buckley’s cover design. On the lower third of the cover – beneath the author’s name in bold, white caps and the title’s textured, orange lettering – a Rockwell inspired scene depicts two boys and the lower half of a woman, whose red nailed fingers grip a serving plate on which squats a fat-glossed turkey. Clad in a windowpane plaid jacket, the younger boy in the lower left purses his lips and furrows his brow to suggest (I imagine) defiance, hunger, sleepiness, or any number of discomforts we have all felt at one dinner party or another while sitting ignored at the end of the table, waiting for the gnashing to commence.

In his discussion about the cover art of Freedom (2010) in Talking Covers, a website that explores the production and importance of book covers through interviews with the authors, artists, and designers, Franzen describes a successful cover as “visually arresting and true to the feel and content of the book; it should also, ideally, look like nothing else.”[1] Franzen’s conclusions speak to the complex aesthetic, thematic, and commercial functions of art in literature, related to but different from the concerns of art in galleries or museums. Just as it is to the novel (albums, textbooks, sheet music, etc.), visual art is integral to the sale and production of literary magazines, e.g. Berkeley Fiction Review.

Quite simply, good cover art and design help our journal stand out in bookstores and attract buyers. (Note to fellow small-time editors and publishers: In Talking Covers, Franzen quotes friend and novelist Donald Antrim as saying, “It’s well known in publishing that green covers never sell.”)[2] In addition to attracting buyers, art serves as a contemplative counterpoint to the stories in Berkeley Fiction Review. It allows for pause between short stories, bridges thematic elements, cultivates deeper catharsis, evokes new associations, and inspires more thoughtful analysis.

A former English major, I converted to art history after a semester of waking up in the black, leather chairs of Gardner Main Stacks, novel-of-the-midweek resting on my thighs and dry mouth pointing skylightward in a perpetual “‘O’, shit”. The anxiety of neglecting material, assigned or not, mounted until I quit reading altogether for a few months. With a countenance much like the little boy’s on the cover – uneasy, tired, obstinate – I approached The Corrections many times before I opened the alluring cover: I surfed the Internet, raided the pantry, or took a nap rather than take my place at the intellectual table and eat up Franzen’s delicious offer.

The decision to check out or buy a book and subsequently read it hinges on more than reviews and recommendations. Many, and not only picky buyers (say, people who shop around for majors until senior year), rely in part on cover art to make a selection. Good design and thought-provoking art, like Buckley’s cover for The Corrections, often inspire reading’s first step: picking up a book. I look forward to helping choose the artwork for Issue 37 of Berkeley Fiction Review so that we may inspire readers to notice our journal among shelves full of enticing works, showcase visual artists in addition to writers, and publish a journal that provides a richer and more diverse reflection of society.

Clare Suffern, BFR Managing Editor 

Illustration by Charles Ellik, Berkeley Fiction Review, Issue 16

Please visit the art tab for information about submitting.

  1. Sean Manning, “Freedom,” Talking Covers, July 17, 2012, https://talkingcovers.com/2012/07/17/freedom/.
  2. Ibid.