Consider the Zombie: 10 Years of “House of 1000 Corpses”

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Consider Rob Zombie. Of the six feature films he’s directed since 2003, only one, “The Devil’s Rejects,” received over 50rsz_tumblr_m4gh8eqj4t1rwgbgfo1_500 percent critics’ approval rating on the aggregate review site, Rotten Tomatoes. His lowest, “House of 1000 Corpses,” topped out at 18 percent. Another, “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto,” failed to garner any major reviews at all. In total, Zombie’s films average at a disheartening 32.8 percent critic approval rating.

 I can’t remember where I first heard or saw Rob Zombie. Maybe it was the music video for “Demonoid Phenomenon” off his 1998 album, “Hellbilly Deluxe.” In it, Zombie gallops around a festival stage in front of thousands of sweaty metalheads, and sports ass-length dreadlocks that seem to hover unnaturally mid-thrash. His backdrop consists of a giant, flaming X, his gyrating leather-clad wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, and a large Confederate flag.

Or maybe it was the sizzle reel trailer for the aforementioned “House of 1000 Corpses.” The clip is almost impossible to find now. In it, a biohazard team is shown disinterring graves during a thunderstorm. The mud they shovel out has the consistency of soup. I don’t remember what film the trailer preceded, but I remember that damn trailer.

Then I didn’t hear about “House of 1000 Corpses” for two years. I tried in vain to find the VHS that included Zombie’s trailer. I started to believe that I imagined the thing. Then, one day as I flipped through a grocery store magazine rack, I spotted a “Fangoria” magazine with a blurb for the movie I thought I hallucinated. The front page banner read “First News! House of 1000 Corpses!” First news?

It turned out that the movie I waited two years to hear about was almost scrapped entirely. Twice. Universal Pictures originally planned to release Rob Zombie’s first film, but shelved the picture when they feared Zombie wouldn’t edit it down from an NC-17 rating. Eventually, MGM Studios briefly picked it up. Then someone asked Rob Zombie what he thought about Universal dropping his picture for “having no moral value.” Zombie joked, “Well, MGM picked it up. I guess they have no morals.” MGM didn’t take kindly to it, and canned the movie.

So, once again, “House of 1000 Corpses” was condemned to development hell. Finally, Lionsgate Films, then slowly transitioning to the horror distributor it is today, took a chance with the movie and released it in 2003 to abysmal critical reception and modest returns. My parents, being morally sound and protective, refused to take a thirteen-year-old me to see it. I had to wait another three years to get my hands on it. And then, after six years of an unexplainable fascination with the film few people gave a shit about, I saw it.

Well.

 “House of 1000 Corpses” isn’t exactly scary. Sure, it’s cartoonishly disgusting, like a Luciferian “Itchy and Scratchy” episode, but it’s not scary. Rainn Wilson gets hacked to pieces and reassembled as a taxidermy sculpture lovingly referred to as Fishboy by an inbred cannibal named Otis. Baby, played a very shrill Sheri Moon Zombie, licks the blood off a butcher knife she used to kill a girl in some random field. Sid Haig, painted up as a clown, blows the head off someone with a revolver and eats a lot of fried chicken. A doughy Chris Hardwick gets lobotomized by a subterranean sanitarium surgeon named Dr. Satan. Or something. Rob Zombie switches to negative image film a lot, so it gets sort of confusing.

I don’t get why people hate this movie so much.

Around its release, the majority of critics sided with Universal Studios claim of no moral value. One reviewer describedtumblr_m4inlb8Aes1rwgbgfo1_500 the film as “sickening.”

Another wrote, “Possibly the greatest waste of celluloid since Jerry Lewis was first allowed to stand before a camera,” which is more than anything else just plain rude to Jerry.

Another reviewer said “House of 1000 Corpses” was “too highbrow to be a good cheap horror movie, too lowbrow to be satire.”

It was that last one that made me rethink Rob Zombie’s work. Critics treat “House of 1000 Corpses,” and to a larger extent Zombie’s filmography and discography, as weird, gray-area objects which are unclassifiable. Neither ingenious nor idiotic, they are therefore wastes of time. They don’t allow them to be exactly what they are—love letters to a genre he adores.

You know who also writes love letters like that? Quentin Tarantino. And that foot-faced motherfucker has won Oscars. Plural. “Django Unchained” came out last year to largely unanimous fanfare. For months, everyone told me how much I would love that movie. Sure, I thought “Inglorious Basterds” watched like a fourth-grader who first learns about the Holocaust and tells his parents, “Why didn’t they just shoot Hitler with a bunch of guns?!” But Django was different. I would like Django.

I’ve never thought a movie was almost over, looked at my watch, and felt a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized there was another hour-and-a-half left. “Django Unchained” did that to me.

Tarantino takes three hours to spin exploitation-era references into ivory tower Oscar gold. Rob Zombie doesn’t hinge his films on nods and winks, he just makes the movies he wasn’t supposed to watch as a kid for kids like me. Then he’s panned for it. Why? At least his movies are half as damn long as Django.

Every time Quentin Tarantino or some similar blowhard gets in front of a camera, they wax philosophical about their process and the motives behind their latest opus. They don’t let the films just speak for themselves. It’s almost as if they don’t trust you enough to enjoy their movies without baby-walking you through them. I sometimes think they only make movies for the respect they earn and the statuettes they are awarded.

Rob Zombie could have edited down “House of 1000 Corpses” for Universal Studios. Any sane person would have told him to—it was his first movie, he shouldn’t blow the opportunity, he’d have more say in his films down the road. He could have kept his mouth shut and not joked about the second studio that picked up the movie. But maybe he thought they could take a joke, that they could not take it all so seriously. He stuck with his film because he loved it, and he hoped that other weirdoes out there would love it, too.

“House of 1000 Corpses” has more heart than the last four Tarantino films. It’s just as poorly shot as Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left,” confusing as Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” and uncomfortable as Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” None of those films were respected when they were released. Rob Zombie’s films aren’t horror classics like those, but at least he’s making the films he trusts us to enjoy. And we can enjoy them if we just accept them for what they are—movies that the next generation of filmmakers will reference in three-hour think pieces about the bygone days of exploitation cinema, the days when no one realized the genius of Rob Zombie but them.

Wait a minute.

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Bikini Lines

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Painting by Claire Whitehurst

I am frantically shaving my bikini line with a dull razor. Coarse black pubic hairs and blood everywhere, but I keep going. Have to hurry. He will be here soon to pick me up.

I am changing my clothes (need to remind myself: try not to try too hard) but can’t look like a slob. There are bits of tissue stuck all over the nicks where I shaved. I am so itchy down there, I did not do this properly but it’s too late. I am throwing something lacy over the bloody, stubbly rash I’ve created. College is hard when your parents are Asian immigrants and frat boys in the south think you’re a foreign exchange student. This guy was wasted when we met; he thinks I was a white girl that dyed my hair black, but I have to ignore that and seize the moment cause this is what youth is supposed to be like, right? Carpe Diem, like they said in Clueless.

Girls in the sorority house living room are giving me advice. They are telling me to not tell any of my long-winded stories or talk too much. Also, laugh so he knows I know he’s funny. Don’t get offended and bitchy if he tells a racist joke. Use a condom. Open up my throat. Take a Claritin for my allergies so I won’t snore. Steal one of his t-shirts. I tell them, don’t worry, I shaved my bikini line.

tumblr_m5l2etyVvi1rwgbgfo1_1280I don’t tell them that I don’t understand how to “open up my throat” and that my orthodontist says I have a small mouth and low-producing salivary glands. I silently wonder if that will really be an impediment. The one time in high school with my ex-boyfriend, I didn’t know about opening up my throat and I was drunk so I think my teeth hurt him but I couldn’t feel anything and all I could think about was this Cosmo article about imagining eating a popsicle when you’re going down on your man, but he just kept saying, Ouch, and then my jaw got tired because it’s really nothing like eating a popsicle, so I stopped and went to sleep. But I was seventeen then, I was young, dumb, and you know the rest.

I am chugging a solo cup full of boxed wine and popping a Claritin for my allergies. Sarah Beth said it would be more fun if I am buzzed. Now I am racing up the stairs to brush my teeth. Crest’s spearmint and Franzia’s Chillable Red taste so terrible together. I gag while brushing my tongue.

We drive to his apartment in a giant black F150 truck. At his place, he tells me a joke on his couch about cows, or at least I think that’s what he said.

Painting by Zoe Carnes-Douglas

Painting by Zoe Carnes-Douglas

I ask, What? twice and then say, I don’t get it. I can’t understand his southern drawl. He calls me a city gal. There is a moment of uncomfortable silence, and then I kiss him to distract from my terrible misstep of not laughing at his joke about maybe-cows. His saliva is on my chin, I mean, I know its not mine because I don’t produce that much saliva, and I want to stop to wipe it but I think that might derail the make out and he’ll start telling jokes again that I’ll forget to laugh at.

We move to the bedroom. His sheets are green and brown camouflage. Before I can stop myself I say, Where’s your bed? I don’t see it. He doesn’t laugh but says good one. He says he’s surprised I can see anything with those chinky eyes of mine. I guess this means he knows my hair isn’t dyed. He says ching chong ching and asks if I know what he’s saying. I tell him no. I wish I could say something more cutting, but it is all so cliché that I can only say no.

I ask him where the bathroom is because I suddenly feel disgusting and need to look at myself in the mirror, and he says last door on the right at theend of the hallway. I walk to the end of the hallway but don’t stop and walk down the stairs. I am walking in the dark along Nicholson Avenue. I am walking, my legs are mechanical. I am walking away and I feel embarrassed but think, maybe I shouldn’t feel embarrassed, but that doesn’t help the embarrassment. I am disappointed I did not steal a shirt, I am disappointed I wasted a Claritin, I am embarrassed, I am disappointed, disappointed.

I stop at the pharmacy to buy Neosporin for my bloody bikini line and walk home.

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“Magic Against Death”: Mississippi's Water Liars

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In the spring of 2012, my life very much in transition, I found myself eagerly anticipating the debut release of Water Liars, a band I knew very little about. I knew of drummer Andrew Bryant—that’s probably what made me take notice. I’d met him briefly at Damien Jurado and Magnolia Electric Co. shows in Memphis, and I’d seen him open for David Bazan at Proud Larry’s in Oxford. A waterliarsbandphotofriend of mine had been Andrew’s freshman comp teacher at Ole Miss, where I was also an instructor, and another friend, the poet Gary Short, had been his creative writing professor—Gary had told me a story about Andrew reading Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, a book I love and struggle with, in one sitting.

From what little of I’d seen of them on YouTube, I knew that Justin (Pete) Kinkel-Schuster played guitar and wrote and sang the songs, while Bryant played drums and sang harmony (he also produced and played other instruments on the record). In the earliest videos I tracked down, Kinkel-Schuster was alone, going under the name Phantom Limb, playing by railroad tracks under a bridge somewhere in St. Louis.

I was drawn to Kinkel-Schuster’s lonesome voice immediately. It was drenched in real tenderness and sadness. It reminded me, in some ways, of other voices I loved, namely Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co.) and Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine). Kinkel-Schuster’s voice was different, even more Hank-mournful, but it was that same sound that echoed in my head: a real voice saying something real. And I was drawn to the way Bryant’s voice worked together with his: the deep resonance behind the high lonesomeness. In the first footage featuring both of them, Bryant’s not banging on drums; he’s just sitting beside Kinkel-Schuster, eyes closed, head tilted back under a broad-brimmed Ole Miss cap, smoothing into the sound of the song. What they were doing felt spare and fresh and haunted. I was sold.

*           *          *          *

I was at The End of All Music, Oxford’s record store, to pick up the duo’s first album, Phantom Limb, the day it was released (well, actually about a week after it was released because the first batch that got shipped to the store was damaged in transit). The name Water Liars, of course, is the title of a Barry Hannah story and there was a quote from poet Frank Stanford on the back of the LP sleeve: “Look in my face my name is might have been; / I am also called no more too late farewell.” Their label was Misra, who’d put out early records by bands I loved: Centro-Matic, Destroyer, The Mendoza Line, Shearwater. It kept getting better. Nothing, save for a sticker on the cellophane, said Water Liars—the band seemed to have been renamed after the record was already pressed (a wise choice). At twenty-nine minutes, Phantom Limb should’ve seemed more like an EP, but instead it felt like a punk-swift burst of tightness and economy. Like Hannah’s Ray, it was a slim work where nothing felt rushed or out of place.

Phantom Limb was recorded in a house that Bryant was renting in Pittsboro, about thirty minutes south of Oxford. Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant, who’d met in St. Louis in 2004, hadn’t planned on making an album, but they’d come together to hang out and make photo-10-e1355935738768-610x813music and fell into a rhythm. Bryant, using just a condenser microphone and a computer with Pro Tools, kept things simple, which suited the songs. Kinkel-Schuster talked to me about how Water Liars happened. “We got started mostly by accident,” he said. “Although the more I think about it, it feels in a lot of ways as though it was a thing that was supposed to happen. We were both burnt out and exhausted by the creative and musical stuff we were involved with and the first time we recorded together, which was the first time we’d worked on anything together, we instantly felt this magic electric thing, like it was just easy.”

My first times listening to the record I was struck by how full the sound was and how seamlessly they could move between loud and quiet, fast and slow. Opener “$100” starts with a sludgy kick of guitar and drums, then settles into the kind of melody that seems to be galloping at you across a great distance.

But “Dog Eaten,” the album’s second track, was the one that dug deep into me. Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant cite A.A. Bondy’s When the Devil’s Loose as a big influence on their sound, and I can hear Bondy’s calming presence on this slow-burner. Kinkel-Schuster 21341_largesounds like he’s singing his way out of something, like death is on the line. The heartbreaking edge he has to his voice strikes with an even heavier hammer here. “My father was quietly taking / the money I was making / from the dog-eaten wallet he gave me that year,” he sings. When Bryant joins him on the chorus, it’s bone-melting: “Our blood is our own but it does what it pleases / and there ain’t much more to say / I’m alive on the highway / dead on arrival / and that’s no way to live this life.”

I’ve seen them play this song live at least seven or eight times in the last year and it never fails to drag tears out of me.

On the track “Fresh Hell—It Is Well,” Kinkel-Schuster laments: “Everyone I miss is gone / and everyone I love is leaving, too.” I’m thirty-five now, but I’m still a kid who misses the father who abandoned him, who feels like things are lost before he loses them, who has to keep the emptiness at bay with books and booze and dusty LPs, and this kills me. In less than four minutes, “Fresh Hell—It Is Well” goes through three movements. After the opening minute, a clip of occultist Aleister Crowley reading his poem “The Pentagram” is backed by a whip of noise (Bryant is bowing a violin). Then, near the end, there’s a transition to the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.” When Kinkel-Schuster told No Depression that he really wanted to “exploit dynamics and opposing sounds and ideas as much as possible while keeping them in a relatively cohesive and familiar framework,” he was talking about moments like this. It’s about being made and unmade at the same time. It’s about balancing between being scared shitless and feeling like everything is holy. It’s an incantation, a spell, a ghost breathing in the room with you.

*          *          *          *

Only a few people had gathered to see Water Liars play an in-store show at The End of All Music a few weeks after the release of Phantom Limb, and it felt good, as it usually does, to be there at the beginning of something. I flipped through records as Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant finished cigarettes outside.

Their equipment was set up in the back of the store, and I was surprised by how little they required. When they came in, Kinkel-Schuster picked up his guitar and Bryant settled in behind the drums and they tore into “$100.” The store held the songs but barely.WLOB You could hear Kinkel-Schuster’s voice spinning through the walls and then out into the sounds of the road and then up, up, up, hovering above it all like light or weather. They covered Hasil Adkins’s “Moon Over Madison” during their set, and made a lonesome song sound even lonesomer.

On a Saturday night in early August 2012, I saw them again at the Blind Pig, a basement bar on the Square in Oxford, with my friend Jimmy Cajoleas. Jimmy introduced me to Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant, who were out front smoking when we got there, and we stood around talking about Barry Hannah and Frank Stanford. When we went in, the bar was dark—“extra divey,” Jimmy recalls—and Kinkel-Schuster gave us High Lifes from their cooler. Jimmy and I sat at a table close to the stage, away from the five or six guys at the bar watching baseball. About ten other people were scattered around. The show hadn’t been publicized and Oxford was summer quiet. Strands of soft red Christmas lights hung on the wall behind the stage; Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant seemed to glow hot in the darkness. They were loud. Kinkel-Schuster’s voice blew through the room like a tree-wrecking storm. Bryant pounded the drums. When they slowed down and played “It Is Well with My Soul,” an old man at the bar took off his hat and bowed his head.

Jimmy and I piled our empties in a pyramid. I took three blurry pictures of Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant because I wanted a record of the show. Remembering that night recently, Jimmy told me: “I kept thinking that it was like Wings of Desire and there had to be angels on stage too, but they were kind of broke-toothed whiskey angels with girlfriends who didn’t wear bras. The place felt holy and dangerous.” We hung around outside with Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant for an hour after they were done playing, until the bartender came upstairs and told them they needed to clear their equipment out.

After another show at Proud Larry’s at the end of that summer, we talked about Willy Vlautin. Jimmy had just read Vlautin’s The Motel Life and Northline, and he was buzzing from it. When we found out Kinkel-Schuster was a big Vlautin fan, we stood out on the patio and rattled off everything we loved about Vlautin, from his novels to his albums with Richmond Fontaine. Kinkel-Schuster told us about opening for Richmond Fontaine back when he was starting out, about Vlautin coming up to him after a show and complimenting him on one of his songs, saying he wished he’d written it. Kinkel-Schuster said, “That’s been enough to keep me going the last ten years.” We talked about The Fitzgerald and Post to Wire being reissued on vinyl and about how we were in love with Allison Johnson from Northline. I was drunk, but this wasn’t the kind of talk that came with getting loose. It was the kind of talk I live for, connecting over books and music.

*          *          *          *

Early in Willy Vlautin’s The Motel Life, the narrator, Frank Flannigan, is looking out his window. He says: “I saw a small black bird trying to fly in the wind all alone.” Cheryl Strayed, in her review of Vlautin’s third novel, Lean on Pete, writes that this was a 3767221492_ae73a6922fsentence that stopped her when she first encountered it because she felt that it was “telling [her] something about what Vlautin has to say as a writer.” She says: “Willy Vlautin writes novels about people all alone in the wind.” Wyoming, the latest Water Liars release, is about people all alone in the wind, too. It’s an honest record, unsentimental and heartbreaking, an intense immersion in experience.

Occasionally I listen to an album for the first time and I think: this matters to me; this changes things. It happened in 1998 with Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It happened in 1999 with Tom Waits’s Mule Variations and Dirty Three’s Whatever You Love You Are. It happened in 2001 with Bonnie Prince Billy’s Ease Down the Road. It happened in 2003 with Song’s Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co. It happened in 2009 with Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches. And it happened this year with Wyoming. I felt like I knew the songs before I heard them. I listened to it on long walks around Oxford. I listened at dinner, while I washed dishes, while I ran, while I read, while I tossed back beers in the yard. I knew instantly it was one of those albums that I’d never be able to separate memories from. I’d always remember my son jumping on the couch while “Backbone” played. I’d always remember kissing my wife in our dark little kitchen while “How Will I Call You” rattled the speakers on my suitcase record player. I’d always remember putting “Linens” on a mix I made her.

Wyoming was recorded at Bruce Watson’s studio, Dial Back Sound, in Water Valley, twenty minutes southwest of Oxford. Bryant and his family had recently moved to Water Valley, and he and Kinkel-Schuster decided to book studio time with Watson instead of recording at home again. Watson, who’s also the GM of Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess Records, asked to hear the demos so he could getartworks-000035654824-qph1kj-original an idea of what they’d be doing. He liked the demos so much that he signed them. The sound on Wyoming is cleaner (which takes nothing away from Bryant’s production on Phantom Limb); Kinkel-Schuster’s vocals are closer. The fear is that production like this will make the songs too slick, but Watson and engineer Bronson Tew have a great sense of how to record without slicing the heart out of the songs.

“I thank you for taking all you ever could from me,” Kinkel-Schuster sings on “Wyoming.” “Because you showed me the world is just the things you keep to lose.” His songs are mainly concerned with characters—like the Flannigan Brothers in The Motel Life—who’ve got bad luck strapped to their feet like concrete. He’s also preoccupied with dreams and distance. The narrator of album closer “Fire” recounts a series of dreams. He says: “I had a dream that we were in love / and in your hair you wore one sweet magnolia / but I could not kiss you long enough / and I did not kiss you long enough.” In the end, what feels like a song solely about longing winds up being a meditation on the awfulness of freedom: “The other night the moon was low / and it seemed to tell me which way to go / but I could not follow the way it led / I had to go my own instead.” “Linens” treads similar ground: “Then I woke up on the road / my head was killing / remembering some shit I read in Milton / how the mind is a place unto itself / and then it makes a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.” Kinkel-Schuster’s characters, it seems, are always servants to their fears.

*          *          *          *

Not long after Wyoming was released, I went to Water Valley to talk to Bryant and Kinkel-Schuster. I got lost in the dark near a Dollar General before finding Bryant’s house on a barely lit side street. Water Valley is a quiet town, one you wouldn’t think much of if you were just passing through, but there’s a renaissance of sorts going on there: the main strip has two art galleries and an old-fashioned grocery store, and Watson’s studio attracts bands from all over. Kinkel-Schuster greeted me at the door with Bryant’s dog fast on his heels. I put the warm twelve-pack of PBR I’d brought in the freezer, and Bryant introduced me to his son, Levi, five yearsmolina_large old, his hair slicked up in a rockabilly swirl.

I noticed a stack of Magnolia Electric Co. records propped up next to the nearby turntable. Jason Molina had died two days before. He’d struggled with booze for years, had been in and out of rehab since disappearing from the music scene in 2009, and his liver had finally quit on him. He died alone in Indianapolis with just a cell phone in his pocket—the only number in the phone belonged to his grandmother. I was hit hard by it. Molina had meant more to me than any other artist over the past decade. His songs were in my blood. His voice filled my head even when I went months without listening to him. Wyoming rescued me. It pulled me out of grieving into the now.

We played a hand of blackjack with Levi and then we talked about Molina for two straight hours. Kinkel-Schuster said: “I can’t think of anyone who has influenced me more. Molina wrote about writing and playing music as real choices with consequences. A lot of people don’t necessarily get to the point where they think about it that way. But it is a real choice and a struggle and he wrote about it in a way that I don’t think anybody else ever did or has. [ . . .]  Because I know that trying to balance making music or art you believe in with trying to live a normal life is not something that’s easy to do. It’s hard to see that if you’re honest about it maybe it doesn’t even matter.”

Kinkel-Schuster snapped open a can of Coke. “The thing to me about his writing and about those records,” he said, “is that he always cares so much about building. He’s building all of these songs and he cares about building them and building them right. That’s all I’m trying to do. I’m trying to build shit right. And that song, ‘Just Be Simple,’ those are words to try to live by and to try to make music by. Just try to always remember to build shit right. Do it as simply and as well as you can.”

The dog jumped up on my lap and then skittered around under the table after Bryant shooed him away. “I named my dog Moon,” Bryant said. “Molina says ‘moon’ probably about two hundred times in his songs. [. . .] He’s obsessed with the moon. It’s such a beautiful word.” He also talked about his plans to get William Schaff’s iconic cover art from the Magnolia Electric Co. LP—a cloud throwing lightning, a crying owl with human hands, and a magnolia—tattooed on his chest.

The conversation shifted to other influences. Frank Stanford came up, as he always seemed to. Kinkel-Schuster had recommended Terry McDonell’s Wyoming: The Lost Poems to me, and I had read it the weekend before and really liked it. Aside from the title, Kinkel-Schuster explained, the McDonell book didn’t factor into the making of the record; instead, it was “just pretty prominent in the galaxy of shit that was spinning around at the time.” He continued: “All of the books that are important to me probably squeeze themselves in to greater or lesser degrees.”stanford

I brought up Vlautin, who features Wyoming prominently in his work. Vlautin’s characters always seem to be heading there. I also brought up Sidney Lumet’s great film Dog Day Afternoon, in which Al Pacino’s Sonny asks John Cazale’s Sal—in the midst of a bank robbery—what country he wants to escape to and Sal says, “Wyoming.” In Barry Gifford’s great novel-in-dialogue Wyoming, there’s not a scene set in Wyoming—it’s just a mother and son talking as they drive around the South and the Midwest. The son talks about wanting to move to Wyoming (a big open somewhere, as he sees it) and have a dog and his mother says, “Everybody needs Wyoming.” Even in Terry McDonell’s poems, it’s more about the promise of Wyoming. I felt like there was mythological Wyoming out there that Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant had keyed into for the record, that it wasn’t just a place name to them. After all, in the title track, Kinkel-Schuster’s narrator isn’t in Wyoming either. It’s a brutal song, one where the narrator concludes that: “I will die in Wyoming / in a drugstore parking lot / so high, I’ll believe that I am parked outside your house two thousand miles away.”

“Wyoming is less of a specific place and more of a strange American place that you want to get to but don’t really ever,” Kinkel-NEA2203Schuster said.

“It’s another one of those beautiful words, too,” Bryant added.

“And it is a beautiful word,” Kinkel-Schuster said. “If I ever have a child, I’ll name her Wyoming.”

Bryant sat up. “Wyoming Moon. That’s a good combination of words.”

Thinking of Jason Molina’s place/moon songs (“Nashville Moon,” “Memphis Moon,” “Blue Chicago Moon”), I said: “Molina should’ve gotten around to writing that one.”

“I’ll do it for him,” Kinkel-Schuster said.

After shutting off the recorder, we listened to Magnolia Electric Co.’s Josephine, just three fans in mourning. Then we drank ice-flecked PBRs from the freezer and talked about Southern pine bark beetles and trees—Bryant works for his father’s small sawmill operation when’s he not touring and recording. But our conversation kept steering back to Molina. We didn’t know how else to wrap our heads around the loss. It meant that maybe nothing would work out, maybe nothing ever worked out.

*          *          *          *

Kinkel-Schuster grew up in Arkansas. He got a guitar for Christmas at thirteen and immediately started trying to write songs. “I superpetehad no idea how to play,” he told me recently. “But it was always my instinct to try to make something of my own by emulating what I had already heard and loved and what spoke to me.” As soon as he was old enough, he started “wearing out cassette tapes.”

Place and placelessness inform Kinkel-Schuster’s work. On Wyoming‘s “Fire,” he sings: “Gone is where I’ll be / in the place that is in-between.” He’s torn between the real world and the mythical world. Places hold promise. Places promise defeat. There’s wisdom to his perception that you can escape a place but can never escape yourself. “I hope that Wyoming gets at some other space, some sort of ultimate or final place,” Kinkel-Schuster said. That seems to be where his head is at now: he’s less concerned with the local and more concerned with the universal (even in its localness).

Further exploring his debt to Jason Molina, Kinkel-Schuster told me: “Molina writes in those big terms in such a way that’s also incredibly specific. That’s the thing that I’m always trying to do. To get at the bigger things by being specific.” And that’s exactly what Kinkel-Schuster is achieving these days. Even the songs that reference specific places are doing it in the service of something bigger, something mythic.

“On the Day,” Phantom Limb‘s closer, shows up as a thirty second sketch on Blood Signs, the final effort from Kinkel-Schuster’s previous band, Theodore, and you can feel him leaning towards the gritty swirl that would soon envelop him. “On the day that I die / I will see everything coming on slow / and the lies that I’ve told will come creeping in,” Kinkel-Schuster sings on the short version. The Phantom Limb version is three minutes of deathbed gospel followed by three minutes of noise, which sounds like the wind being taken out of the world. “I’ll have no more excuses for the way that I’ve treated you,” the narrator says. “On the day that I die / I will sing every song that I know / with the words all the same / but the melodies changed somehow.” “On the Day” is the bridge between Theodore and Water Liars. Kinkel-Schuster’s narrator looks into the future and sees only one truth: We’ll all be filled with regret when we die. And that’s one of the main concerns that possesses him as a songwriter.

*          *          *          *

Bryant was born in Oxford and raised nearby, in Calhoun County, where he lived his whole life until moving with his wife and kidswonderandrew to Water Valley last year. “The first place I lived was called the Shiloh Community, on the Grenada County line, way back off in the woods,” Bryant told me. “There wasn’t even a post office down there, and the closest store was the one where old men stopped to pick up beer and bait on their way to the lake in Grenada. [. . .] My family was very religious, like most in these parts. And I was raised going to church three times a week, regular as clock work. We started in the Shiloh Baptist Church, but then we began attending a Full Gospel Holiness Church in Chickasaw County and we continued there until I was out of school.”

Bryant grew up working. The main industry in Calhoun County is timber. There have been sawmills operating there since the towns began in the late 1800s. “When I was a kid, my father worked for the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company in Bruce, doing maintenance,” Bryant said.

“We lived about thirty miles from there, and he worked the graveyard shift five days a week. He drove a Honda Goldwing motorcycle back and forth to work—rain, hail, and snow—because it was cheap on gas and we couldn’t afford two cars. I can still remember the smell of grease on his clothes and hands when he came home in the morning. My dad did that for over fifteen years, and I guess he couldn’t take it anymore, so he bought his own sawmill. Not a business, just a one man machine that was portable. He wanted to be his own boss and didn’t know what else to do but sawmill work. I was about thirteen when this happened. So my typical day was waking up early, doing chores, studying until noon, then working with my father at the sawmill in the afternoons. I’d be so goddamn worn out I didn’t feel like doing much at night but going to sleep. But I didn’t. I sat up and listened to a lot of music on the radio or some cassette tapes I had—mostly gospel stuff because that’s all I was allowed to have.”

His first time performing music was at church. “We had a full band and I played drums for years, three times a week,” Bryant said. “We practiced before every service, too. I had to be there an hour before for that and my parents drove me every time.” The congregation would start dancing and calling out to the Holy Ghost when he played. In 2012, Bryant told No Depression: “[Even] though my mother would weep if she heard me say this, I fell in love with the power I had to make people feel something playing music.     [. . .] People would start repenting on the spot and lay face down. All the old ladies told me I had the Holy Ghost and wanted me to come by and pet their dogs and eat their chicken. But I knew it wasn’t nothing supernatural about what I was doing. I had them all fooled. And I still do. Because it’s the music that is holy. Nothing else.”

*          *          *          *

At the record release party for Wyoming at Oxford’s Lamar Lounge in March of this year, Water Liars were backed by Jimmy Cajoleas on guitar and Cole Furlow (of Dead Gaze) on bass. Lamar Lounge has a great fireplace and there was a fire going, throwing shadows across the massive bar (once owned by Eddie Fisher) and over the picture of RL Burnside that hangs above the cigarette machine. I settled in with a Guinness and stared at the framed vintage Winchester ad on the wall. It shows a pig-tailed woman looking down surprised at a horse-and-rider brand on her ass.

It was a blistering set. They played all of Wyoming and much of Phantom Limb and did a knockout cover of Chris Bell’s “Better Save Yourself.” Kinkel-Schuster’s lonesome wail morphed into a guttural rasp whenever he needed it to. My friend Gary Sheppard leaned over to me at some point and said, “I love not knowing if I’m at a metal show or a country show.” In the corner, I noticed the sound guy was deep into it.

After the show, I bought a T-shirt from Bryant’s wife, Natalie, at a table in the back—a wolf howling at the moon over the band’s name, white print on black cotton. It reminded me of one of only two other band shirts I own: a simple white-on-black Magnolia Electric Co. shirt that I bought at a show in Philadelphia almost ten years ago, with the band’s name underlined in lightning. T-shirt in hand, I ran into a student from my creative writing class, who had blown off a meeting with me earlier in the day. She was sitting hunched over by the fire. She apologized for skipping the meeting. I said, “What’s important is that you’re here.” I’m pretty sure she thought I was being a dick, but I was dead serious.

Water Liars went on tour after that. They played Chicago with Angel Olsen. They played in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and I called home to press old friends into going. Videos kept popping up on YouTube—they did a VDub Session in Oklahoma City (playing “Linens” as they drove around the streets in the backseat of a VW van); they did a Show-Me Show in St. Louis; they played a Lawrence High School Session in Kansas, in front of a chalkboard and rows of students; Out of Town Films in Philadelphia also shot them playing “Linens” while driving around town; they played at a bathhouse in Hot Springs, Arkansas; and, of course, there were clips from various radio shows and bars and coffee shops. When they got back, they played The World’s Largest Crappie Festival in Water Valley. My wife, son, and I went out and watched them under the railroad pavilion. They played their songs and then covered Hank Williams’s “Lost Highway” and Songs: Ohia’s “Just Be Simple” while dogs and kids ran around in front of the stage. Bryant’s son sat up against a tree to the right of the stage, picking apart a leaf in his lap, singing along.

*          *          *          *

Today, Water Liars are making new songs. I’ve never been in a studio—I’d imagined something like the batshit crazy scenes in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story—but here at Dial Back Sound it is quiet; no one’s demanding an army of didgeridoos. Bryant, jar of Jim Beam in hand, is sitting on the couch next to GR Robinson, who has been playing bass with the band for the last few months. Kinkel-Schuster paces around, slugging from a can of Coke. Tew and Watson are working on the soundboard, adjusting levels, playing back snippets of the track they’re working on.

Dial Back Sound is in Water Valley, an unassuming fenced-in house with blacked-out windows. I notice a folding chair that’s 380961_10151577171304199_2027544488_nchalked with T-Model Ford’s name. Two of Jack White’s old guitars hang on the wall—Bryant points them out to me. An Iggy Pop action figure hovers over a dresser full of recording equipment (Fat Possum has recently released Ready to Die by Iggy & the Stooges). Kinkel-Schuster is taking pictures of the copy of Larry Clark’s Tulsa that’s out on the table.

The track they’re finishing up is called “War Paint.” Kinkel-Schuster sings back from the speakers: “Take my hand / make a fist / knuckles white but the blood drips / because I want to see just how it is / when you play the red but the black wins.” A blast of Wurlitzer, played by Bryant, follows. Kinkel-Schuster used one of White’s guitars on the track, Robinson tells me. The last line of “War Paint”—“While the knives, they will sing / and cut the dead heart out of me”—nods to Frank Stanford’s “The Singing Knives.” It’s a muscular and visceral song. By the end I’m seeing a chest opened up, blood on someone’s hands.

We go for dinner in downtown Water Valley and then come back to the studio. The goal is to finish “Swannanoa,” a song they started earlier in the day. They’ve already recorded the basic track, but after listening to a minute of the earlier version (which I’m floored 367.mu.WaterLiars5by), Kinkel-Schuster says, “I can beat that.”

“Sing it until we all cry,” Tew says.

Kinkel-Schuster goes back into the booth and starts singing.

Two minutes in, Bryant aims a finger at me. “Listen to this,” he says.

Kinkel-Schuster sings: “I looked death in the face / It was only my father / If I’d known all along / I wouldn’t have bothered / with being afraid, with being a coward.”

Bryant shakes his head. “Goddamn. Where does he come up with this shit?”

It’s the kind of thing that Kinkel-Schuster is so good at: the listener feels spoken for. I see myself in a hospital bed. I see death as waterliarssun the father I haven’t known in twenty years.

“I think he’s one of the two or three best songwriters out there,” Watson says. “People will be listening to this after we’re dead.”

“This is Kristofferson,” Bryant says. “Except better.”

Kinkel-Schuster comes back out. He’s beaten his earlier take. He stands back in the corner, swigging Coke, ready for a cigarette.

“This song doesn’t need much,” Watson says. “It’s so personal.”

“Cool,” Kinkel-Schuster says.

“We don’t want it to sound shiny,” Tew says.

“Keep it simple,” Bryant says. “But maybe some piano would work.”

They agree that piano might be nice. They do a little more work on levels and then Bryant goes in and puts down a sweet trickle of piano. Watson tosses around the idea of bringing someone in to play strings, but they decide against it. Too grandiose.water-liars-off-broadway-2

In the end, I hear mixes of three new songs: “Cannibal,” “War Paint,” and “Swannanoa.” The next day they’re working on their cover of Songs: Ohia’s “Just Be Simple” for a Jason Molina tribute, and I’m sorry I have to miss it. It’s a perfect song for them, and their cover is better than any of the other versions I’ve heard since Molina’s death. I drive back to Oxford from Water Valley after midnight and listen to what I’ve picked up of “Swannanoa” on my digital recorder. I go to sleep with the song in my head.

*          *          *          *

Early in Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars,” the unnamed narrator’s year is lit up by the news that his wife was not a virgin when they water liarsmarried over a decade ago. He goes down to Farte Cove with the old liars to make himself feel better. Their lies run the gamut from cheap gossip to ghost stories. Whatever they tell, it’s designed to get them far away from reality. When a man who is new to the group tells a story about hearing ghost noises over the river, “big unhuman sounds” that wind up coming from his daughter and a strange man with a mustache having sex, the old liars reject him for telling the truth. “This ain’t the place!” one of them says. “Tell your kind of story somewhere else.” But the narrator befriends the truth-teller, who “had never recovered from the thing he told about,” and invites him back to his cabin, where they get drunk. The next morning they go out fishing and the narrator determines that he and the man “were kindred.” He says: “We were both crucified by the truth.”

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant chose Water Liars as the name of their band only because it sounds nice. Instead, wonder what the story can tell us about them. Here are two young performers who are crucified by the truth. On the Water Liars’ Facebook page, in the “About” section, there’s a quote from Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You: “All of this is magic against death.” This is as good a definition of the band’s mission as any. Watch them weave a protection spell against the strongest darkness. Watch them gather rivers and knives and fires to fight with them. Watch them build a wall against the world at the edge of the world. Watch them.

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A comfortable slam-dunk: An interview with Cole Furlow (Dead Gaze)

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The first time I saw Cole Furlow play as Dead Gaze, I hadn’t planned on going out. I’d been awake for thirty hours and was feeling like a real melancholy turd, sitting on a bar’s porch alone, smoking cigarettes and drinking PBR and Jim Beam. Not a swell time, bad head space. But then familiar faces swarmed the bar, all there for some live music. I remember someone saying the music would be “primo.”

Inside, Furlow started playing with his band, but I stayed on the porch. I was talking to some girl I hadn’t met before about her 1010660_10100760989926946_1421116066_naccounting degree. Not real interesting stuff, but in my sleepless delirium I somehow kept the conversation going. As we were talking, hopeful music, escapist music, floated through the open door. I crushed my beer, told the accountant I was going to get another one, and went inside. Don’t you doubt that I didn’t get another beer, but I also stayed to see Dead Gaze play. I listened to them and my eyes stopped burning and my teeth stopped grinding. I felt normal – comfortable even.

I’ve gone to as many Dead Gaze shows as I could since then. Furlow turned me into a fucking fanboy. There’s a reason for that: Dead Gaze rules. The dude’s pulled together a sick lo-fi poppy grunge sound. The lyrics are gold, too. You walk through your day, listening to Furlow’s songs, and it’s like he’s narrating your outside world. The music, the lyrics, they all match up with reality and stick with you. It’s hummable as shit.

On October 22, Dead Gaze released its next album, Brain Holiday. They’re songs that Furlow has been putting on his setlists lately, and they’ve added a whole new energy to his shows. I’ve listened to the whole album, and it’s killer. But you don’t have to trust me. Go to your local record store and pick up a copy.

I also interviewed Furlow on the porch of a different bar. We talked about his music, his new album, and his compulsions. So pop on his album, read the interview, and get to know the fella and his music.

Phil McCausland: How long have you been doing this semi-professionally to professionally?

Cole Furlow: I mean I’ve been getting paid making music since I was twelve years old. Now, by no means was that some IMG_0259professional band, but we rehearsed three times a week, we had a guy that kind of guided us in ways – he was our coach almost.

But I’ve been playing for a paycheck since I was twelve. Now with this outfit, Dead Gaze, I’ve been doing it since 2008-2009. When that time came around for me to start making Dead Gaze, it was past due, like I’ve been needing to do something like this. I was late to the game in some ways.

PM: When did Dead Gaze come into its own for you?

CF: That’s a general thing because for me “coming into its own” means the live performance was there as well as the recordings. It’s an all encompassing type thing. So for me it probably wasn’t until about two years ago really, when the band was really on top of it with Jimmy (Cajoleas) and Alex Warren was playing drums, Jim Henegan was playing bass. We went into Sweet Tea, we made the next record and at that point it felt like, “Well this is a reality, I can actually do this and make some money and we’ll see how far it can take me because it could take me somewhere at this point.”

Before then it was like, “Oh, I’ve got these recordings, I’ve got these songs: let’s throw them out there and see what happens.” But then it started to snowball into something a little bit more. By no means am I saying it’s this big well-oiled machine or anything. But it’s definitely a thing.

PM: So the Dead Gaze album was your first full length album?

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CF: Yeah, as far as full lengths go, LPs, yes it was. Before that I had done a bunch of cassettes, CD-Rs, 7 inches, 10 inches, those kinds of things. And every one of them had an EP kind of feel to it really.

The longest thing I’d produced before the LP was this tape called End of Days Why Not You, and it had 10 tracks on it or something like that, maybe less than that. It was a full kind of thing. But as far as full on LP release with everything all encompassing, that was my first one. And it was a compilation at that.

PM: But it’s kind of all the best of all those songs, right?

CF: It’s the best of them in the label’s eyes. It wasn’t the best of in my eyes. I would’ve put some other songs on there, but you got to remember I’m at the mercy of my label in some ways. So they were the ones that picked out those songs. I would have probably put “It’s Not Real,” bigger tracks like that. But it was cool, they added a lot of songs I wouldn’t have thought of.

For instance, that song “Fishing with Robert” I wouldn’t have put that on the record, but they were like, “This is good.” That makes me feel good in some ways, you know. Because when you don’t recognize how good something is and then you come back to it and someone else is like, “Oh that’s a good jam” you rethink it and you’re like, “Okay well that kind of boosts my confidence in some kind of weird way.” It makes you feel a little bit better.

PM: Yeah, at some point you have to release it to somebody else, so they can be like, “Hey this is good.”

CF: I call that process “kicking it out the door.” You work on it so hard, it’s your baby, its your thing, you spend all of your waking hours devoted to it and at a certain point you hit the wall and you’re like, “I can’t go any further with this,” so you have to just kick it out the door.

PM: So this new album, Brain Holiday, comes out October 22. That’s all new stuff, right?dead-gaze-brain-holiday-500x500-400x400

CF: Well it’s two older songs that I’ve had that we didn’t really release. The song “Carry on Real Nice” got released on a compilation record of an older recording. That was one of my first recordings I ever made. That’s why it sounds so insanely boisterous and youthful in some ways. But I rerecorded that song, I rerecorded a song called “Stay Don’t Say,” and those are the only two that were kind of older songs that we hadn’t really introduced in that light. “Stay Don’t Say” was on a cassette that was released a while back, but it’s a different version of the song.

So yeah, this is 100 percent new to me. It’s a clean record. It’s really not fuzz in the sense that it’s some sort of compression, some sort of digital peaking or anything like that. It’s very direct. Every sound that we made was deliberate. When there’s a lot of sounds on my other recordings, that just sort of happened, due to a mixture of things and me generally not knowing every single avenue that I’m making my music in. Some surprises just kind of happen.

But on this record there weren’t very many surprises – very direct. And every kind of sound we put on the record, we did a lot of a deliberation to make sure that we all thought that was the most diplomatic decision for that song or that sound. So in a sense that was the first time it’s been like that. Very much a band record. I was the one that was in control of it, but I definitely had a band.

PM: So you weren’t doing all of it by yourself?imgres

CF: Hell no. I wish. But I did the majority of it. I didn’t do the drums, I didn’t do very much percussion, I did most of the guitars, with the exception of the guitar work that Henegan and Cajoleas did. And the stuff that they brought to the table was invaluable. Stuff I would never have thought of, things I would never have dreamed of putting on there, but then when they put it on there it’s like, “Oh well, this song can’t be without this now.” Very integral things that were put there that I never even thought of.

PM: It keeps building on it.

CF: Exactly. Right. And so with a sense of knowing that you can get a better grasp of how the record was made. Everyone that knows Jim Henegan knows he’s kind of soft-spoken, he leads by his actions, he’s a very modest man, and I’m kind of the opposite in some ways. Like I’m more in your face, a little bit more aggressive in some ways. So the joke around the studio that whole time was he was Spock and I’m Captain Kirk. You know, he’s the one who’s like, “Alright Cole, do you really want to do this?” And I’m like, “Fuck it, we’re doing this.” It was like shooting from the hip always, but he was kind of like, “Let’s reign it in a little bit.” And that little bit of action that he put on that was invaluable.

PM: You’ve named the album Brain Holiday, what’s the meaning behind that?

CF: Well it’s really funny. Hennigan and I after a huge Dude Ranch party still had gear setup from the night before. We end up waking that morning a little hungover, we smoked a little grass and we were like lets go hang out in the big room and jam a little bit. I got on the drums and he was on this Juno keyboard. He hit this weird arpeggiating, weird thing and it sounded a lot like Willy Wonka. Like that theme:Creepiest-Willy-Wonka

Cole hums the Willy Wonka theme

You know this weird, very psychedelic thing. I said, “Oh, that’s genius, let’s add on that.” Immediately I went to the drums and added these super minimalist drums. Just:

Boom kah, Boom kah

Nothing else, just very minimal, just let that arpeggiator ride out. So we had that song and I remember a couple weeks later we went into Sweet Tea and Jim was like, “Yo, do you remember that time we were at the dude ranch and we did that weird Willy Wonka jam thing.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, the Wonka Jam.” We called it the Wonka Jam for so long. And I was like, “Yeah, that’s a great jam. Let’s see what happens.” We had a little bit of time, I got the right arpeggiator going, it was a little bit different than what we made, but it was still very much the same vibe. I told Alex the drums I wanted to do, and of course Alex being the better drummer than I am completely elaborated. Still very minimal, but when it kicked in, it was this massive, huge, very deliberate thing.

I just thought about the whole time, when I made that song, when Jim and I were actually writing that song, we were still in this weird state of mind. We were just kind of waking up, we were kind of still in a dream state, were kind of high, just a mixture of all Photo (3)these things. It ended up with us spending a lot of time getting that song right and then we figured out that while we were in Sweet Tea it was this Brain Holiday. It was this amazing, amazing holiday you’re on. We didn’t really know what to do with it really. We just made it this thing to elaborate on. I just thought, what a great idea: take your brain on a holiday. Your body can go on a holiday. The idea of a holiday is you remove yourself from what you’re normally into, and then you go to this place and you drop everything and feel better. I was just thinking what if you could do that to your brain? Just take your brain [grasps his own noggin] and send it on a holiday.

That’s what we were on when we were at Sweet Tea. We’re in this million-dollar studio, we’re recording a record on this console that there are three of them in existence. This amazing shit, and we’re sitting here spending all this time working on a record. It was the first time I’ve ever really had that opportunity to be in a studio like that. It just seemed like the right idea to call it that.

We’re on a brain holiday, we might as well call it that and see what happens.

PM: Is that the idea of the record? Is that what you pulled from?

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CF: In some ways, yeah. It’s a concept record in the sense that, I keep saying in the press release, I want people to feel good about why they’re going to the music in the first place. People go to the music to feel better. I want to exploit the reason they feel better. I want people to go to that record and say, “Oh shit! I am on a brain holiday when I hear this. I can completely turn off all my senses and lay here and listen to how spacey and how heavy and how poppy and all these different elements of these songs.”

I just kind of wanted it to kind of slam-dunk you in a comfortable way. I didn’t want it to hurt anyone or be aggressive in the sense that like it’s not for every general public person. I just wanted it to be this escape.

PM: What do you get out of it when you’re making music? When you’re writing songs? 

CF: Oh, I don’t get very much out of it. Not anymore. The only thing I get out of it is that’s song done, lets go to the next one.

PM: But there’s a compulsion there then.

CF: Oh, yeah. I have to make songs because that’s what I’m here on earth to do. I figured that out a couple years ago. I’m not good at anything else. I’m not saying I’m great at this either, but I do know that I can do it. So it’s kind of this attitude thing with me. I don’t get anything out of you liking my music, man. It makes me happy, I guess in some ways, it makes me comfortable feeling. But the reward is the fact that it’s done.

PM: So you’re getting something out of doing it, though.

CF: Yeah, absolutely. What I get out of it is a feeling of accomplishment. I don’t go to sleep at night until the idea of that song or Photo (4)whatever I’m working on is done. I’m an obsessive compulsive. When I’m making a record, my girlfriend can’t communicate with me and I’m kind of a tough dude to be around. And that’s because it completely consumes me in everyway: the way I eat, the way I dream at night, the way I sleep, the way I see things, the way I drink, the way I smoke cigarettes. If I’m in the moment making something, working, the only thing I get out of it in that sense is the satisfaction of how hard I’m working and once it’s done the accomplishment is everything because that means I get to go to the next thing.

It’s always about making the next thing. It’s not about sitting here and slamming the one you’re on right now. Obviously you want that to be as good as you want it to be and how hard you worked on it, that will show, but the truth is it’s all about getting it done and making the next one. Sustainability, keeping on going. Until I get to the point where I can slam out songs, be happy with them, and then get out to the next one, I’m not really a normal human.

PM: So it’s not really a question of discipline.

CF: Yeah, it’s a compulsion. Well, it is discipline in the sense that when I’m working everything I’m thinking about is that. I put all of my effort into it. It’s not discipline I put onto myself. It’s this nice thing that’s just there that I’m like, “I can do this. Oh God, I’m good at this.” It’s this weird feeling.

When I’m not making anything, I’m a mess. If I’m not making something at that time, I’m a pretty big wreck. But when I’m making a big, big project as much as I seem like I’m not happy, deep inside I’m like the happiest you’ve ever, ever seen.

PM: I was hoping you could talk a little bit about your thoughts on passion. We’ve talked a little about it before.1001900_10151580848996270_490790063_n

CF: When it comes to my stuff, I care about my stuff – obviously. But when it’s somebody else’s stuff then I have no desire for it unless you’re putting 100 percent into it. And if you putting 100 percent into it means you’re putting 50 percent into it and it’s still genius, that’s your 100 percent, and to me that’s kind of badass.

I guess what I’m saying is I really appreciate how hard people work on records, and if you’re not really working hard on anything, then I want nothing to do with it. Because when you’re working your hardest, the nuance of what you do comes out.

PM: So at the end of it though, what do you want? You just want the next project? Bigger and bigger? But you have some other goals too, like you were telling me about wanting to play for Liverpool.

CF: [laughs] Yeah, that’s a good goal.

PM: Are there goals like that that you want?

CF: I want to make a really big record. I want to make one of those records that’s like four LPs. I want to make a White Album type record. I want to make a concept record, like a really big concept record. I want to make a synthesizer record. I want to make an ambient record. I want to make a semi-country record. And in that way those are kind of the goals: to get those projects going, so I can get onto the next one.

I can’t stress to you how much I pine for the next project. When I’m working on something, and it’s done – it feels good because it’s done. And then I can be like, “I’m going to take a little break here, maybe a week or two, and then go to the next one.”

PM: Is that train of thought ever distracting? So while you’re working on a record, you’re like, “Man, I really want to get to this next thing.”

CF: Yeah, in some ways. But that’s the drive to get through it: to get on to the next one. I can’t tell you how much I want to spend all my time on making sure I can keep going to the next one.

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“It’s very hard to get lost in America these days”

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The Blair Witch Project was the first horror movie that fucking destroyed me. I was ten years old and living in a Bible-thumping suburb of Jackson, Mississippi, a place where Halloween is ignored almost completely. My friends “weren’t allowed” to celebrate the holiday, something they always explained to me while sighing. They attended a “Fall Harvest” party instead – some lukewarm, cornucopia-stenciled Jesusfest the local mega-church always conveniently hosted the night of October 31st, leaving kids like me in the lurch.

My mother and I went to Blockbuster to find a horror movie instead of trick-or-treating, knowing that the majority of our neighbors’ blair4windows would be dark by sundown. There was one copy left of The Blair Witch Project out of dozen or so spaces on the shelf. I remember the dreaded and sexy “Parental Advisory” sticker pasted on either side of the VHS box, and having to convince my mother to rent it for me. I guilted her, telling her how much I just wanted to have fun on Halloween, how isolating it was being the only Jewish, left-leaning family in Clinton. It worked.

It’s difficult for any horror story to convince us it’s real. But I was ten, and I was gullible. I thought I disappeared with Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard, and Michael Williams into the Maryland woods. I thought I lost my way with them, succumbed to cold and fear and distrust and hunger. I thought I discovered the abandoned, lean-to house with them at the end of the film, and I was terrified. Later I was embarrassed to find out otherwise, that it was all a genius marketing gimmick, but I know I wasn’t the only one, and I loved being a part of that.

It was also the last movie to get away with what it did. You can’t have a found-footage horror film interact with an audience that way The-Blair-Witch-Project-1anymore. Technology won’t allow it. We’re too stubborn and skeptical of the medium.

I rewatched the movie this year as part of my annual horror movie run-up to Halloween, this time in a giant, largely empty, ranch house in the country. The Blair Witch Project scared the hell out me when I was ten. And guess what? It scared the hell out of me at twenty-three. I didn’t fall asleep until four in the goddamn morning, and then I spent the next few days sheepishly trying to figure out why I let myself get carried away again by those shrill college kids shooting a documentary about an urban legend.

Heather, the director and de facto leader of the trio, begins the film naively assertive and gung ho about the documentary she is making. This isn’t anything new to horror, but the way the film goes about stripping Heather, and by default the crew, of their control is particularly upsetting. As they lose themselves further and further in the woods, their dialogue erodes while their volume amplifies. Heather repeatedly insists they’re right on track, when it’s clear to everyone they aren’t. Josh disappears, and the last thing we ever see of him is a bundle filled with what looks to be his teeth and parts of his tongue – he is literally silenced. The last shot shows Mike standing quietly in a basement corner while Heather is reduced to incoherent screams and babbling behind the camera. Then she abruptly stops, and the camera falls to the ground, broken.

That ending, man. Fuck.

When I was ten I was scared of the off-camera, never-seen Blair Witch. My imagination got the better of me. Now, as a young guy recently out of college, part of the horror of The Blair Witch Project is its focus on the loss of control. It’s the realization and acceptance that there are forces out there who don’t care about you, who will harm you as a means to an end. They may not be supernatural, but they do sometimes seem all-powerful.

I stand by my argument that you can’t make a movie like The Blair Witch Project again, that our technology and our social networking won’t allow for it. Not that kind of visceral, analog, found footage horror. But that’s the exact argument that The Blair Witch Project sets out to tear apart: That our modernity makes us safe in the wilderness, that there’s no way we can get lost for good in America. “It’s very hard to get lost in America these days,” Heather unconvincingly reassures herself, and her audience, midway through the film. Believing we’re still on the map, right on track to a definite and discernible conclusion doesn’t mean we’re not heading straight for the witch’s house.

As I write this, a fringe conservative movement in Washington is forcing a partial government shutdown. At the public library where I work, I’ve started showing patrons to the website for nationally subsidized health care, but I don’t talk about how influential people off-camera are trying to deny them access to it. As the days go on and the politicking amplifies, I get the sense that I’m being led to a place I can’t find my way out of, and that I’ll eventually find myself stuck with little to no options.  All because a small group of politicians are blazing ahead into a forest they don’t know anything about, still babbling about how they’re doing this for the right and noble reasons. This standoff is temporary, but it won’t be the last. The Blair Witch Project is terrifying now because it somehow manages to mimic what I see every day in real life. Being dragged into the woods is scary, because I’ve seen the movie, and I know how this ends.

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Telling the story of you: An interview with Manuel Gonzales

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One of the few perks of being an intern at a literary magazine is that you can request books from publishers. This past summer I happened to be an intern at such a magazine. So once I became privy to this information, I started scouring the Internet for books that might be cool. I found a bunch that were amazing. Some short story collections, a few biographies, poetry, even a couple books of photos. But the crown jewel, the one that popped open my brain cave, was Manuel Gonzales’s The Miniature Wife: and Other Stories. Gonzales writes stories that I wish I were smart enough or brave enough to write. These narratives are fun and interesting and fantastical. They’re stories filled with unicorns and zombies and werewolves and shrink rays.

But they aren’t just fantastic because Gonzales puts real heart into them. He tweaks reality to see how normal people deal with Unknownextraordinary situations. Never once while I was reading did I think, well this is just preposterous. Gonzales carries you through them and forces you to believe the unbelievable. My disbelief has never been so suspended! He brings you into his world and offers you the La-Z-Boy nearest the television.

I was super pumped to get to talk to Gonzales. We chatted on the phone. The guy saved my summer in a lot of ways. His book was a way for me to chill out after some highbrow literary dick-measuring sword fights. So for that, I owe him a whole bunch of high-fives.

Gonzales is also the Director of the Austin Bat Cave, where he works with youths in the community and shows them an amazing world of words and literature. Talking to him really brightened a rainy Wednesday. He was never as lively or passionate as when he was talking about the Bat Cave and working with kids. It made me real hopeful to see that the writing world isn’t always as cutthroat and gloomy as people make it out to be. That there’re folks in it trying to help others.

I don’t know where I’m going with this, so I’m going to quit rambling and just tell you to read his book and this interview. He’s one of the good ones. Now hasten to a bookstore ya beefbot!

Phil McCausland: How did you start writing?

Manuel Gonzales: I didn’t like writing in school, in high school or middle school, until my senior year. Then I had an English teacher who made us write interesting things and was really good at highlighting the good things that I did and downplaying the bad things that I did in writing – the bad things being grammar and clear expression of my thoughts. Her focusing on my ideas, even though I didn’t express them very clearly, made me want to express them more clearly. After that I kind of caught the bug.

So I went to the University of Texas, majoring in English, with the idea of becoming a lawyer. But one day over the summer, between my sophomore and junior years, I woke up with this idea in my head for a story, and I just started writing it without having any idea of what I was doing or where I would go, which ended up being nowhere. But that became my focus, I became obsessed with writing these stories that weren’t very good and then making my friends read them with me standing behind them. I’m sure it was horrible and annoying.

After that I decided I wanted to be a writer and not a lawyer, and I made that decision without knowing what that really meant. For a few years it meant just floundering in Austin, acting like I was a writer without actually being very much of a good one. Finally, I decided I should take it more seriously, and I applied for graduate schools.

First I was going to apply for PhD programs in English and realized that I didn’t really like writing the critical papers I was writing for those applications, that I would rather work on the fiction stuff I had in my head. And so at the last minute, I changed track and applied to a couple of MFA programs, ended up going to Columbia.

PM: Is it then that you figured that writing was a viable option?

MG: I never really thought about it as a viable option or not a viable option. My parents both spent a good portion of their lives working jobs that they didn’t necessarily like and putting on hold the things they maybe would have done, my father especially.  He wanted to be a writer and he ended up working for the IRS for thirty or thirty-five years. So they always impressed on my sister and I that we should do what we want and do what we love.

I think they were really happy that what I wanted to do and what I loved to do was law [laughs], and then that changed. But they still said, “Manuel, you should totally do what you want.” So I never really thought of it as a way to survive on writing alone. Even in grad school I had a job, and I’ve had a job consistently and sometimes multiple.

PM: But at what point did you think, writing is really working out for me?

MG: I think it was before I started grad school but after I got into grad school that I felt pretty happy with what I was writing. The happiness with what I was writing changed very quickly, but I get a lot of pleasure out of sitting down and making stuff up and creating stories. There have been times I really doubted, before the collection came out especially there was a lot of doubt in my own mind about whether I would be a successful writer based on just having publications outside of the few journals I’d published in, but I never doubted that writing was the right thing for me.

But they’re weirdly separated for me, or until just recently they’ve been very separate: that I would not stop writing. Even if it was not writing as part of a career versus “what other things am I going to have to do to support me and my family?” Since I’ve started, writing has always been something that has worked out for me and that I’ve just enjoyed so much that I can’t go very long without doing it. Only recently, once the collection was sold, and that same summer the collection was sold I started progress on a novel that I became very happy with – whereas the first novel I tried to write took me six years and seven or eight drafts and none of them ever working – have I felt as though I’m making a career out of being a writer. That happened summer of 2011, when the collection was sold, and I started that novel.

PM: I’ve found that the first lines of all your stories are killer. I was wondering is that the starting point or are do you header swamp monstersconstantly tinker with them?

MG: Thanks. I do tinker with some of them. Some of them become starting points. The “Pilot, Co-Pilot, Writer” was a starting point. In “Life on Capra II,” that whole first paragraph came to me one night while I was grading high school English papers and was frustrated and needed a break. I was like, “I’m going to write the dumbest first few sentences I can think of.” And I thought that robots and swamp monsters attacking seemed pretty dumb because I didn’t have anything to go with it. I enjoyed writing that paragraph, and I was like, “I feel better.”

But I shelved it, I put it away. Two years later, I came back to it and wrote the rest of the story, once I knew what it was going to be about. But those first lines came to me as a test to write the dumbest thing I could think of [laughs]. And the challenge became well how do I make it into an actual story even though I’m talking about swamp monsters and robots.

PM: Your stories are really fantastical, but you’re amazing at suspending the reader’s disbelief. You create whole new realities. How did you get to these fantastical stories? Who did you look to?

MG: Growing up I liked a lot of fantasy and sci-fi and comic books. As I got older and going through college, I got invested in a lot of Faulkner and Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich and Hemingway and Milton and Shakespeare and all the things you should read when you’re an English major. But when I was casting about my first year of graduate school, I also got introduced to – you know – I’d never read Borges, I’d never read Kafka. I didn’t know anything about George Saunders. There were all these writers that were contemporary and iconic that I had no idea about, and they kind of all, after a while, smashed together in my head.

I mean, Kafka does so many things with the fantastic, and Borges too but in a weird, clinical way. I thought that those were both really interesting counterpoints to Garcia Marquez, who I was reading a lot when I was in college.

What I found was that I enjoyed the storytelling most when I would try and introduce these outlandish concepts into what should be everyday lives and see how those two butt up against each other and see the tension that comes out of them. But I always think back to Kafka and “The Hunger Artist” and the “Metamorphosis.”

But then I love very realistic nonfiction writers like Joseph Mitchell and Ann Frazier. I read their work whenever I’m stuck and have no idea what to do when writing, and they’re maybe the polar opposite of the fantastic, except that they create these rich, interesting stories out of real things. It’s always a nice grounding effect for me.

PM: Who are you looking at now?

MG: I was in Cork in Ireland for the International Short Story Festival, there I was introduced to a couple of short story writers I’d never met. I just finished Marie-Helene Bertino’s collection that won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, Safe as Houses, and that’s an excellent book. And then I met a Londoner, Adam Merrick, who’s published by Carcanet Press. I’m reading his book, Instructions for Swallowing, which is also a really good collection.

But I recently, for personal reasons, I got onto a thriller kick, so I just finished Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. And I was reading, it’s not JPPORTIS1-popupreally a thriller, but I always think of Charles Portis as a driving narrator. I was just reading Norwood by Charles Portis.

PM: He’s one of my favorites.

MG: Yeah, he does really interesting things. Instead of just moving the story along, all of sudden there’ll be a guy that does a thing and then you’re off in another direction [laughs].

PM: Have you read Dog of the South?

MG: I haven’t, no. I’ve read Masters of Atlantis, Norwood, and True Grit.

PM: Oh, you really ought to. I think Dog of the South might be his best.

MG: Cool, I’ll check it out. I’m going to the library this afternoon. I’ll see if they have it.

PM: So are you happy with how the collection came out? Do you feel good about it?

MG: I am, I feel really good about it. I’ve always liked the stories, but I was really happy with the way Riverhead handled it. I think the cover’s awesome and hilarious because I’d imagined, with the title The Miniature Wife, that the illustrator might come up with something weird or precious. And it’s not that at all. Yeah, I’m really happy with the book as an object. They’re keeping it all the same for the paperback, which doesn’t always happen. They like the design as much as I do.

When it was in copy editing, I read through it so many times, but when it came out as a book, I read through it just to feel how it came together as a book of stories. I thought it came together pretty well. It’s been fun working with Riverhead and those people – they’re good.

PM: So when did you start working for the Austin Bat Cave? What kind of work do you do?

MG: We first moved back to Austin in 2010, which is when I first started working for them – August of 2010. They’d been around for about three years already, and they brought me in. Their current director was going out, I finished graduate school, and they brought me in and wanted to find somebody that shared the vision that the founder and board president had. I’d had a lot of experience doing afterschool and summer workshops with kids and knew pretty well the 826 [Valencia] model that Dave Eggers started and had a lot of ideas coming in of how to expand programming and raise more money for the programming. So I persuaded them I was the right guy.

They pretty much handed over the reigns to me to do what I could to expand it and to make people know more about it. I had a vision for theletterhead kind of programs that I wanted us to offer and the kind of volunteers I wanted to work with us, to work with these underserved kids. I just wanted to make things fun in the classroom and afterschool, and they were kind of doing that already with screenwriting workshops and hip-hop poetry, but I also wanted to make sure the focus was – just thinking back to my own high school career and how frustrating that was for me until somebody finally pointing out the good things I was doing instead of focusing on the things I was doing horribly – I wanted our volunteers and everybody who worked with us to focus on: anything the student wrote you just say, “that’s amazing,” “that’s funny,” “that’s heartbreaking,” or “just write more.” Just to get them to write more because it’s such a daunting thing when you’re that age to write, especially since all the crap they make you write in school never feels internal. It doesn’t feel like it comes from you, even though they try to make it that way. But it still never feels like it’s you that you’re trying to get on the page.

So my focus has mostly been to make sure that people really coax out the kid and the kid’s voice and the kid’s story, whether it’s in rap lyrics or a poem or a comic strip. Or even if it’s just a drawing. If a drawing is the first way to get them to put pen to paper, then let them draw and then from that drawing something will come out of it. You just have to be patient and be persistent, and once they get to that point they just don’t want to stop, which is amazing. That’s what my goal has been to make it so they don’t want to stop telling their stories.

PM: That’s awesome.

MG: Yeah, and it’s really important, too. A lot of people are like, “What’s creative writing got to do with success?” And I try to explain to them that being able to tell the story of you will serve you well long after you leave high school, it will serve you well in any interview that you have, any college application that you put together, or any time you’re just trying to meet a new person. Having these stories about you and having a command over your own life and your own history and being able to talk about it yourself in any kind of articulate fashion is going to make your life easier and give you a leg up on every other person who doesn’t know where to begin when somebody asks them, “tell me about yourself” or “tell me about the hardship you’ve had” or “tell me how you’ve handled a situation where this happened.”

And that’s kind of our focus. I mean we play around with it. We make them write about fantasy stuff and horror stuff and make them come up with movie ideas and travel logs to places you can’t go to and stuff like that. But it all boils down to them discovering they have some power with words and then being able to use it for themselves. 

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Bowing to Big Macs: An Interview with Scott McClanahan

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You probably know about Scott McClanahan already, either because you’ve read his books or because you’ve seen his manic and strange readings, which function more as a live show or performance art than your typical bookstore snooze-a-thon. What first drew me to Scott was all the white space in his books. I mean, I thought I could read them really fast. And the stories were these perfect little fragments, each about a shit’s length. I kept Stories  in my bathroom for just that reason. Then came Stories II and Stories V!, and I realized I was a fan.

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I loved the fierce energy of his stories, like the guy next to you in line at the gas station who smells bad and keeps telling you the truth loudly. There was something in there, like in my favorite Replacements songs, that seemed simple and true and impossible. When Crapalachia: A Biography of Place dropped, I had a better idea of where Scott was headed. The title is a nod to Harry Crews’ classic A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, and it follows that tradition of a heartbroke memoir of the stranger side of the world, a place that would seem impossible if it didn’t exist inside you, same as it does in everyone else.

I was really scared to interview Scott. For one, he’s real charismatic and I thought I’d kill the vibe. Plus I’d never interviewed somebody on the phone before. I figured I would mess it up by talking too much, which I did. Also I got real drunk halfway through the interview because I was so nervous. I had my girlfriend’s Amsterdam vodka and I kept mixing drinks because I accidentally bought all these limes from the Kroger. Scott was extremely gracious. We talked and talked until Scott politely excused himself to go to bed and I realized I’d kept him on the phone for almost two hours.

I’m an asshole, right? Yep, and here’s the first part of that two hour interview.

JC: I’m nervous as fuck about this interview. I’ve never done an interview before. I mean, I read a lot of them.

SM: Relax. You’re doing fine. Just go with it.

JC: Cool. Okay. I really like your books, and all. I mean that. Not in the ass-kissy sort of way where I’m buttering you up for the interview. I mean it in a real way. Like, I read all your books. Super pumped about Hill William and all.

SM: Thanks!

JC: So okay, well. How do I start this? Do I just ask a question?

SM: Jimmy, I think we’ve already begun.

JC: Okay. Right. Yeah.  So here’s my first question: in a recent interview with the Oxford American, you said something along the lines of “I’m trying to…just give you a fucking two minute song, in your face. Don’t like that one? Bam! Here’s another one. Don’t like that one? Bam! Here’s another one.” You want to elaborate on that?

SM: Okay, well, what can I say? I was drunk during that interview. I’m no longer a drinking man. I actually fell down a hill a half an hour after that interview was over. I was supposed to take something over to Sarah’s work—she worked across the street from me, my ex-wife—and I thought I could sneak over there. It was like an hour before she got off. And I mean I was DRUNK-drunk, and I put it in between her windshield and her windshield wiper blade. And as soon as I turned, there she was, coming on out. I guess she’d gotten off work early or something. And she goes, “Are you kidding me? Are you fucking kidding me?” because I guess she could tell I was drunk. So I tried to walk up the side of this hill, which is next to the hospital where she works, and as she drove off I fell down the hill because you know it was a Friday evening, and the grass was sort of wet. And the interview happened before that.

I would elaborate on it. Man, how can I say this without sounding like an asshole? I guess that… and I think I’ve said this before. I don’t know, man. How can I?

JC: Just sound like an asshole. Go for it.

SM: Well, I’ll get there in a second. You can count on it. But let me give you a little parable first.

There’s a filmmaker I love, Alejandro Jodorowski. When he made Santa Sangre, he took his kid to this strip club. The kid was like twelve years old and he said, “Mom’s gonna get mad.” And Jodorowski said, “It’s life, it’s life, you love this. It is the stink of life!” So he takes him to the club, and what Jodorowski didn’t understand was, it was a sex club. The woman wasn’t stripping on stage, she was having sex with this guy on stage. And the kid was fascinated by it, and his father was repulsed by it. He leaves the club frightened and horrified that he himself has witnessed these events that he set in motion. And of course at the end he has to give the kid money not to tell his mother that his father took him to a sex club where he watched two people copulating. So I guess anytime you say something like that, or try to do something like that, there’s always the opposite of it that twists back and bites you on the ass.

What I meant was it needs to be stripped back a little bit. I think there’s something bloated right now about American prose. I think with technology, language can compete with the image once again, where it couldn’t compete with the image in the 1960s and 1970s or even beforehand. I mean, you don’t get much better than Charlie Chaplin, even if you’re a real deal writer. And hopefully it has that feel to it, where there’s a quickness to it. I think people are trying too hard. That’s what I’m getting at. People are trying way too hard.

And not to say that there’s not a depth to my writing, because there is a depth to it, but it’s just right on your shoulder. I heard that on an episode of Oprah one time. Somebody, I think it was Sharon Stone, was talking about Death being right there on your shoulder, just constantly there. I guess the things that make you you, the stories that you tell, are always right there, right in front of you. I don’t mean the shit that’s in front of your eyes. Whatever makes you you is right there in your hands and your elbows and the backs of your knees. If you can tap into that, then there really is a depth to it, and that two minutes has as much complexity and contradictions and all the great things that make life life. Sometimes the two minutes thirty pop song gets really boring, too.

JC: Part of what’s appealing about your stories is not just the brevity, but the intense energy going through the whole thing and how it feels like it could fall apart at any moment.

SM: Relationships are that way. You hope there’s an intensity there, that you’re risking something with another person rather than some la de da sort of thing that a lot of people have. Or maybe even it feels crazy.

I don’t know if this is part of the answer. Maybe it is. We’ll see.

You know that surrealist Marcel Duchamp? My girlfriend was reading this to me from a Wikipedia article. I like Duchamp and I didn’t know this story. He brought home a geometry textbook, and he hung it out his third-story apartment window, so that he could teach the elements—like the wind and the sunlight—the fucking facts of life. So I think if you could dangle that geometry textbook out the window and teach something to the rain, then you’re probably okay.

JC: How do you feel about St. Francis preaching to the birds?

SM: Ah, see I think that’s wonderful. Francis is the only Catholic I think I like. Wait, that’s not true. I like tons of Catholics. They’re some of the craziest. Talk about a great faith. Catholicism. If you can kill that many people, and also convert that many people, and also help create western civilization. Wow. That’s something else.

JC: The Catholics will be there for you. I mean, they won’t give you condoms, but they’re on the front lines, taking care of your babies.

SM: The new pope – Francis, right? – is walking through the favelas, a day or two ago,  without the Pope Mobile, among a bunch of poor people, among a bunch of drug addicts. Yet at the same time, you have all these backwards ideas about things. That’s the reason why to be religious: to hate something. Or to think about one thing in a progressive way and be three thousand years backwards in something else.

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JC: I think a lot of it – the hate stuff – is wanting to be a part of team, you know? I understand that. I like a lot of teams.

SM: I will tell you a part of Hill William. I once drank a whole container of grape juice when I was twelve. We were Church of Christ, and I seriously thought if I could drink that much grape juice I wouldn’t have to come to church for a year. I could get all my communions taken care of in an hour and a half. But if you drink that much grape juice you’re just going to get horrible bowel problems, you’re not going to get out of anything.

JC: Church of Christ is no music, right? No instruments, just singing?

SM: Yeah, it’s all acapella. It’s not even like sacred harp singing. What’s wonderful is when you get a full building together at a Church of Christ, it’s almost like Schoenberg, or Stravinsky. You feel the movement of the song but there’s this counterbeat that’s also happening, and some voices are catching up to other voices, and then the other voices are already ahead, and then you have the echoes bouncing around the room.

JC: And the tempos are slow as hell, right? Supposed to be slower than a heartbeat?

SM: Yeah, there’s this song we always sang for communion called “He Arose.” And it’s slow as can be. Want me to do it for you?

[sings] “Low in the grave, Jesus my Savoir—now people are falling asleep—he tore the bars away. Jesus my Lord.” Then it stops and it goes all jaunty, [starts sings again] “Up from the grave He rose!” Then it goes lightspeed. It’s like a weird accumulation of songs that don’t even go together.

JC: What do you think about Jesus? You into that guy?

SM: Oh god, I don’t even know. In some ways I am. I have a good joke.

Okay, so Jesus is on the cross and Peter’s down there. Well, Peter’s already taken off by that point, so the joke makes no sense, but for the sake of the joke let’s just say that Peter’s there. So Jesus is on the cross and he looks out and he says, “Peter come here. Come here my son.” So Peter crawls up, and the centurions beat the shit out of Peter and he crawls back into the crowd. And then like ten minutes later Jesus says, “Seriously Peter, I really need to talk to you. I have a few things that we need to discuss.” So Peter comes back up, he wipes the blood from his face, he’s like “Yes, Lord, yes, what is it?” And the centurions chop off Peter’s arms and throw him back to the crowd. Hell, why don’t we chop off his legs too just to make the joke go quicker? Jesus says one last time, “Peter please, please come up here. I have something to tell you.” And Peter crawls up using his chin to push his body up to the cross, and he says, “Yes, Lord, yes what is it?” And Jesus goes, “Peter, I can see your house from up here.”

It’s not even a funny joke. But that feels like religion to me. That feels like Jesus to me. But I guess that’s why he’s so fascinating. Like he’s angry, and he throws fits, and talk about mother issues, whew. We could go on and on.

I think I like Jesus better as a comedian. If you interpret some of those lines, like “I build my church and Peter is the rock.” Even the whole, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Like if that’s a joke, then he’s more like Coyote, the American Indian trickster god, or Zarathustra, or something like that.

I love Jesus though, too. Don’t get me wrong.

JC: Yeah, guess that was a weird question. Always wanted to ask you that, reading your stuff. Sorry. Just figured, if you’re from the South, like me, church put some kind of a permanent dent in your personality.

SM: Yeah, but what people don’t get is this: my dad’s a song leader at our church. Like if I were to go to church tomorrow, I know I would openly be emotional about those traditions and those people I grew up with. People who were fucking old when I was ten years old, and they’re ten years older and look just the same. I think that is what that stuff’s about. That’s the beauty of it. And that’s why you can’t kill religion if you try to chop off its head with a shovel. There’s nothing worse than an atheist, nothing worse than that, militant atheism. That bores the hell out of me. It bores the hell out of me as much as the whole right wing Christian Right bullshit. Or even your basic everyday normal so-called Christianity.

JC: I have noticed a tendency of Christians to pray loudly in coffee shops.

SM: Then they didn’t even read the book. You’re supposed to go to pray in the closet. That’s the act itself. It’s supposed to be very humble. It’s not a show. But with all religion, it is the opiate. What we don’t want to admit about ourselves is that we want to worship stuff, maybe more so than we want to be worshipped ourselves. We want to bow down before whatever sort of idol, whether it’s Wal-Mart or a Big Mac. And I love that stuff. I would bow down before a Big Mac right now.

JC: Big Macs are so fucking good.

SM: You could have a Christian experience with a Big Mac, for sure.

JC: Were you ever in a band or anything like that?

SM: Yeah, me and Chris Oxley are in a band called the Holler Boys. We played the Empty Glass in Charleston. That’s where Hasil Adkins – you ever heard of Hasil Adkins? – always played. He got run over by a four-wheeler. That’s how he died: under mysterious circumstances. I think if you get run over by a four-wheeler it’s already mysterious circumstances. But maybe not in Boone County. And then we played at Square Books in Oxford two years, and made it a part of the reading.

JC: There’s a lot of music in your work, and you use a lot of musical metaphors and examples when you talk about writing, so I wondered about that.

SM: I think it’s the same thing. You ever heard that record label From Dust To Digital? They put out that Goodbye, Babylon compilation a few years ago.

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JC: That’s the one with the cotton in it. Fucking rules.

SM: Yeah, yeah! And they include the sermons alongside the songs themselves, because they’re just as musical. You know there’s nothing more musical than the goddamn human voice, your mommy singing you a lullaby to get you to sleep, or hell, just talking to you.

JC: Remember that one sermon on there, “Black Diamond Express to Hell”? It’s got all that good rhythm.

SM: Yeah, yeah. I know that one.

JC: Shit, I interrupted you. That’s like the one thing I’m not supposed to do.

SM: No, nah, man it’s okay.

JC: Goddammit.

SM: It’s okay.

JC: Next question I guess. You have said before that you work really hard to make your stories sound conversational, and it pisses you off when people act like you just shit them out. I was talking about this recently to a writer who is much older, and better, and smarter than me, and he said you can’t do that in writing, the spontaneous thing. That you’re supposed to revise and revise and revise in writing. How do you keep your energy, the whole reckless rock and roll thing that you have in your stories?

SM: See, I would disagree with the revise, revise, revise thing. Barry Hannah, right? He’s one of your Mississippi greats. He said if you start on a short story and it’s not working and you keep revising it, you’re fucking wasting your time. It’s a stupid ass short story. What are you doing? I think people work way too much from the time they draft a story to the time they publish it. They should probably work a hell of a lot more on their life leading up to when they sit down to draft the story and then maybe the story would have a little bit more energy to it.

I think modernism has kind of sucked the life out of most literature that I’ve come across. A lot of it sounds like it was recorded at MCA or Mercury in 1983 and has that cocaine sound to production, where the life is gone. They don’t accept the echo. They don’t understand that kind of Sam Phillips idea where you have to let the Devil in the room with you. Or you fail. And the mistake is probably going to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the revision that you’ve come up with. A lot of the people now that are doing this alt lit or indie lit or whatever term is given to it, I think that mistake is being accepted more.

I was listening to Lou Reed’s demos from Transformer today. And I like a lot of the demos almost better than the album, even though I love the album. We don’t have that in literature. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard, there’s a YouTube clip of all of John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields” demos. A lot of stuff not even included on the anthology series. So it’s twelve minutes of him just fucking up a song. The excitement is in, oh fuck he found it! He went there and got that chord! He found it! Isn’t that fascinating! We sit around tables and take potshots at one another when we present our demos to each other, without realizing how beautiful and magical they are. Then we decide to bring in the backup singers and the Eddie Van Halen guitar – not that I don’t love Eddie Van Halen like the next redneck– and take all the weirdness out of it.

I mean, you listen to people talk about writing and it’s like they’re talking about their jobs or something.  I have a theory – we can go back to the Catholic Church on this one – you know, it’s the reason why the Reformation happened. You had your first son that you give the property to, you have your second son that you send off to law school, and then what do you do with the third son, who just likes to get drunk and fuck? Well, you make him a priest. And he could care less about Jesus or the Church, right? That’s kind of how I feel when I run across folks that – you know, they’ll even bring up their CV for you. You know, this crap that doesn’t even matter.

There’s this great book that the University of Alabama Press released a couple of years ago about Billy Sherrill and George Jones and the making of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It’s a book written entirely about the making of that song. And in that, one of their major problems is that Jones was in the middle of cocaine psychosis – he was simply taking cocaine in order to continue to drink around the clock – and he had decided that he was a duck. I swear to god, you can look this up. And he called him Doodiddle Duck and he sounded like Donald Duck. Jones wanted to release all of his songs from that point on in the voice of that duck. Supposedly there’s footage of him and Waylon Jennings on a Ralph Emory local Nashville show where Jennings is fucking with him and Jones starts talking like Doodiddle Duck. That sounds amazing. I want to hear “He Stopped Loving Her Today” from the voice of Doodiddle Duck. I mean the voice we have is perfect, but it would be nice to amp up the weirdness.

This is my problem with these—I don’t know, we call them “diploma mills”—and they always hate when you talk about them. I don’t know, they probably do some people a world of good, and god bless them. Some of my favorite writers have done those. I think it would be much better if somebody learned how to be a chemist and started to write, or if someone learned how to be an architect and then decided to write. I could go on and on and on. Because then it’s going to be something that is a little bit more “you.” And I know, the whole postmodern “who is you?” Well fuck I know who I am. You don’t tell me who you is. That’s me. I know what makes me up. It’s about forty different messed up things. I’m in touch with them enough. I don’t even know what the hell I’m talking about there.

JC: You were ripping on MFA programs.

SM: Hell, I love MFA programs. I do think they are an excuse to meet people who have interests like your own and hook up with them. Most of the time in college you’re hooking up with people who don’t have common interest. Also you have the added bonus that you can psychologically attack the person in class.

JC: I hate workshops. Sorry, I interrupted you again.

SM: Don’t worry about it. I agree with you completely. This is my thing, this is the story I wanted to tell to explain this. You hear all these people that say, “I needed to make connections” or “I needed to find other people doing what I did.” There’s this story about John Cassevetes – it’s not about him, it’s about one of his producer friends – and this kid got up and he was real nervous, and he said, “Hello, Mr. So and So, would you tell me what John Cassevetes did to become the person he became and the artist he became?” The producer friend said – and of course, this was years after Cassavetes’ death – “First off, John Cassavetes wouldn’t stand up and ask a fucking question like that. He would just go and be John Cassavetes.” And I think if you go and be who you are and I go be who I am, whatever the hell that means, then we’ll all just be a lot better off. With everything.

JC: When I was growing up and wanting to be a writer and hang out with cool writer guys, they would always tell me, “You need to go out and kill something with your bare hands. You need to go hunt.” Well, I never killed anything in my whole life. My grandfather owned a restaurant and my dad works at a bank, the fuck do I know about hunting? And then I went on and asked somebody else and they said, “You need to learn all your words and be real smart. Read all this theory and get smart, and that’s how you do it.” But then I read all that stuff, and it was cool, but I didn’t get any better. It didn’t help me tell a story.

SM: Exactly. What I’m saying is, you said the man told you to go and kill something with your bare hands?  Your dad was a banker. It was right there in front of you. That man killed shit every day, right? In the life of a banker, whether or not this person gets a loan or that person. They lose their fucking house. He killed stuff on a daily basis. So it’s there, it’s always right there in front of you. You just have to pick it up and go with it.

Come back soon to read the second part of this sweet, sweet interview.

 

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Letters to Dad

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I was stuck in Little Rock with no money, a phone with no batteries, no close friends to notice me missing, and no immediate ride. My clothes were dirty – the smell of booze and pit-sweat was spicy. But I had the Little Rock public library: five floors of glass and wood and books and other people with no homes. It’s an old warehouse.

I had three dollars, and the library had a store. That’s where I found this little black notebook for two of my dollars. It was two bucks because it was used, but I didn’t know that yet. I found myself a corner to write some, but before I could use the pen I’d stolen from the nice librarian, who was distracted by some guy asking her if she had any quarters, I found these letters addressed to a lot of folk’s favorite daddy.

I’ve reprinted them in full because they’re worthwhile. They’re innocent, beautiful, hopeful, and lonely. These letters embody that feeling of uncertainty we’re all filled with. It’s something we’re too scared to talk about or haven’t had anyone who’s been willing to talk. This dude found somebody or made somebody up or whatever you want to believe.

More than thirteen years ago this guy was in crisis. I hope he’s okay.

6-23-2000

Dear Dad,

I do not feel very well today. I am mostly worried about my relationship with Lana. On the night of my 21st birthday, two nights ago, she revealed to me that it was only three days before our first kiss on the first night of June that she had broken off (officially) her relationship with Samson, and this is why he and Jesse are stirring up dissension in the Holy Trinity Church. Actually, she had told me the night before that it was ten days. And that was the first I had heard of any of this business.

Well, Dad, she was very upset and crying because she had not told me before. And I myself was shocked by the revelation. Red flags began immediately to spring to my mind. “Rebound!” they warned. Memories of Shay, Celia, and Harriet sprang to my mind. I’m sorry, Dad; I just couldn’t help it. In Your Word, it is written: “Above all else, guard the heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” Will someone from the next set of missionaries come along and enchant her and sweep her off her feet the way I did? Father, I told her early on that the one thing that made me angry was deception, and as long as she did not deceive me, she would never hurt me.

And then she deceived me.

I am not angry with her, Dad – I know it wasn’t, and isn’t, an easy situation for her. But I would be lying if I said that I was not hurt by this.

But Dad, I forgave her. I talked to her on the phone last night, and she said she was fine, but I’m not sure I believe her. And then, for some reason I still don’t know, I asked her if she wanted to continue our relationship. She asked me, “What do you think?” I told her that I hoped so, and she said that she did too. I told her that it would be difficult, and I had her promise me that if she changed her mind, that she would not try to protect my feelings or tell white lies, but rather, tell me immediately. I don’t know why I said it.

Dad, I just ask you to be with Lana and comfort her. Give strength to her young heart. And let her know that I love her. Thank you so much, Dad, for giving me the opportunity to know Lana. She has changed my life. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

6-24-2000

Dear Dad,

Let it never be said that You are not a God who answers prayers! Later yesterday you answered my prayer in full, O God. You presented the opportunity for Lana to tell her dad about us, and she took it, Dad. What’s more, you softened Juan’s heart and brought joy both to Lana and myself, as well as to Jason and Lulu.

Dad, I would very much like for Lana to come and visit me at Christmas, but above all, I know that it is right to seek after Your will and not my own. And so I ask You to tell me, Dad, what is Your will in this situation? God, I pray for guidance.

I also pray, Father, for the UPOA Foundation. It has gotten off to a slow start, but I lay it in Your hands, Dad, and I pray that Your Spirit be with all those who are laboring to make it work.

Father, I give you thanks and praise. I can feel Your hand in my life and I am so glad for that. Thank you for healing Cole. Help him to come to terms with his sin with Paige. Dad, protect my earthly parents and move their hearts, I pray. Help them to understand Your will and to be molded by it.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

6-26-2000

Dear Dad,

Thank You, Dad, for restoring the friendship between Cole and me, at least to a degree. I wish that we had never been at odds with one another. But I prayed to you, Dad and I was trying to do Your will. Heresy is deadly, especially fundamentalist legalism. And I pray both for Susan and for her heretical past, that you might enter their lives and show them the true light of Christian freedom.

Dad, I want to take this time to pray for my earthly parents. Father, my mom neither knows You nor thinks she needs to. She is content with her material life as it is, Dad. I ask You now to move in her heart and bring her closer to You. My earthly father is more curious about You, I think; I pray that you stimulate his heart to personal study of Your Word.

Dad, I pray for the UPAO mission and I pray that You move in the hearts of these students and bring them to You. I have seen the seeds planted, and I communicate with some of my brothers and sisters in the faith who remain.

Dad, You know of my growing feelings for Lana. She is very dear to my heart. But I ask first of all that Your will be done, Dad. This is what we both want. I am trying very hard to return to Peru as soon as possible – if it be Your will, then please, Dad, help me to do it. But if it be not Your will, then may You forbid that it should ever come to pass.

Father, Lana is young, and her heart is tender and sensitive. She has not felt the pain that the so-called love of this world can bring. Dad, you know that to me Lana is like a precious jewel, a star in the dark night. I pray, Dad, that nothing I do ever hurt her at all. This is my prayer to You. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 Here’s where they cut off. But it’s a good end, it’s an end that stopped my miserable sad-sackedness in the library and made me smile. This guy didn’t have anybody besides dear Lana. His disapproval caused his friendships to suck and his relationship with his parents to suck, but he still wouldn’t stop hoping things would turn out okay. Boy, I do wish I had that sometimes.

The dude’s thirty-four now. I wonder what he’s like. I hope he, Lana, his parents, Samson, Jesse, Susan, Juan and everyone else are planning to sit down to a nice turkey dinner this Thanksgiving. I hope they’ll give each other high-fives and play Twister with their kids. To me, that’s how these letters really end because life shouldn’t be so tough.

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Mostly Scary: An Interview with Mary Miller

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Mary Miller is a writer from Mississippi. She wrote the compact ass-pocket-sized masterpiece Big World, a collection of short stories that manage to be both hard-boiled and domestic, currently in its third pressing. Her novel The Last Days of California is forthcoming on Liveright Publishing, a Norton imprint. In due time Mary will take over the world. But first she let me ask her questions about books and stuff. Here goes.

Jimmy Cajoleas: You’ve said before that your first short story collection, Big World, was based in part on personal experiences. Does your new novel The Last Days of California differ from this?

Mary Miller: The Last Days of California is similar to Big World in a lot of ways, particularly in terms of its female narrator and her inner life. The narrator, Jess, is fifteen. She’s jealous of her prettier sister and doesn’t know how to be herself, or what that would even look like. Her identity has always been tied to her religion, and when that starts to fall apart, she doesn’t have any concept of who she is. In other ways, The Last Days of California is a stretch for me. I didn’t know anything about the rapture when I began writing, or Protestantism, and I’d never been to Arizona or New Mexico. I guess these are more surface issues, though, things I could research. Places I could get in my car and go see.marymiller

JC: Big World has all these gorgeous jabbing sentences, mostly on the shorter side. How has your writing style changed in the last five years since it was published? How has writing a novel affected your style?

MM: Thank you for saying that. When I reread Big World now, I don’t know how I was able to fit so much into a sentence. I was writing a lot of flash fiction at the time, I guess, and with really short stuff, you have to get in and out quickly while still affecting the reader on an emotional level. Writing longer stories changed my prose. And then writing a novel changed it more. Because the stories in Big World are pretty short, and the book is short, I got away with prose that would feel stilted and choppy in a longer work. The stories in Big World are also pretty plotless; they couldn’t carry more than what’s in them. I know this first-hand, after trying to turn both “Leak” and “Pearl” into novels.

JC: What did the experience of trying to expand “Leak” and “Pearl” teach you about plot? How did you learn to write more plot-oriented stories? What sort of sacrifices did you have to make in terms of language and style?

MM: More than anything, I’ve learned how much space a story needs. In “Leak,” the major action (the narrator’s mother’s death) has occurred off-page. It’s an episodic story about a girl’s life with her father that begins and ends with a water-stained ceiling–it’s not a story that needs 70k words in order to be told. The same thing goes for “Pearl.” The narrator is getting a divorce and has had to move back home with her parents. This action takes place before the narrative begins. Now it’s just about this new life she finds herself in, answering telephones at a law office and making mistakes with men and generally being a wreck. All of this is well conveyed in three thousand words.

I don’t know anything about plot except that stuff needs to happen. There has to be change, tension. There has to be something at stake. I sound like a fiction workshop right now, but it’s true. Shit has to happen. People have to want to turn pages, and no matter how beautiful the writing is, they’re not going to turn pages for that alone.

I don’t feel like I’ve made any sacrifices in terms of language and style while writing longer stories and novels. I still care about each sentence. I’ll spend a lot of time on one sentence, making sure it’s exactly like I want it. I guess my paragraphs are longer. That’s about it.

One more thing: the only way I was able to complete The Last Days of California was by having a very structured timeline. The novel takes place over four days so time is very compressed. It’s also a road trip novel so I had to constantly be moving them along, getting them from Point A to Point B. This made it a lot more manageable. I have no idea how people write novels that take place over decades or generations. This just seems insane to me. It makes my head spin right off.

JC: My students always love Big World, particularly the younger women. One student told me that she even made her boyfriend read it, so he could “better understand” her. Why do you think the stories connect so well?

MM: I love this! It makes me so happy. I’m also sure her boyfriend was horrified. I think the best stories in Big World are pretty brave and unflinching, though I didn’t think about this as I was writing them. The characters are isolated and insecure and the people in their lives don’t understand them. They often date certain men in the hopes that these men will be able to change them—make them happier and more fun-loving, make them like themselves more—and they’re disappointed in these men when they’re unable to do that for them, and they’re disappointed in themselves for being unable to be the people they want to be. The stories in Big World were some of the first short stories I wrote, and I had no idea what I was doing. I was just writing things that I wanted to read. I was also trying to impress myself. Trying to impress yourself isn’t something I’d recommend.

JC: How do you write kids so well?

MM: I try to write young characters the same way I write adults. For me, the key to writing children is to not treat them like children. Also, both of these narrators, in “Leak” and “Aunt Jemima,” are old enough to have experienced the shortcomings of their worlds and the people around them. In a lot of ways, they aren’t kids anymore. They’re just smaller and more oppressed.

JC: What was your own experience with religion growing up? How did that influence the religious content of the novel?

MM: I grew up Catholic in a place where there weren’t very many Catholics. I mean, there were some, but central Mississippi is not a Catholic place—it’s Protestant. And many of these Protestants don’t even believe that Catholics are Christians. I remember helping a student with an essay once and his whole argument was based on the premise that Catholics weren’t Christians.

Growing up, my mother taught us that Catholicism was the “one true religion.” There was a lot of fear of the body and sex. We didn’t know any openly gay people. So I know what fundamentalism looks like, but Protestantism was wholly unfamiliar territory. I had never heard of the rapture growing up. We didn’t proselytize. We wore blue jeans to church on Saturday afternoons whereas our Protestant counterpoints wore suits and dresses.

(Note: my parents are awesome and have changed with the times, and thanks to four artistic children.)

JC: You’ve mentioned before that Willy Vlautin is a writer you admire. What is it about his work that resonates with you? Has he influenced you at all?

MM: I remember picking up The Motel Life when I worked at a bookstore in Nashville (a one-year stint post-divorce and pre-graduate school). When the store was empty, I’d browse the fiction shelves to see which covers stood out to me. I picked this one up, opened it at random, and was immediately hooked by Vlautin’s prose. It’s so readable and fun and smart; he makes writing look very easy. I was drawn to his characters, as well—decent people who would get themselves into bad situations that just got worse and worse.

He’s also unafraid to write unlikeable types—racist assholes, for example—which most people don’t write about for fear that these characters will reflect negatively upon themselves. I could go on and on.My favorite of his books is Northline, which was published with its own soundtrack. As for whether he’s influenced me, I’m sure he has, but I couldn’t say exactly how. If he had to give advice, though, I would think it might be this: don’t worry about seeming smart; implicate yourself; love your characters but don’t protect them from their mistakes. This last one is particularly difficult. Writers often want to save their characters, as if by saving them, we might also save/redeem ourselves.

JC: Have you had any mentors in the writing world? Have you learned more from other writers or just from being out on your own, doing the damn thing?

MM: I’ve learned a lot from my professors, particularly Frederick Barthelme, Steven Barthelme, Edward Carey, and Elizabeth McCracken. Edward Carey encouraged me to revise and write about different characters and situations. He made me believe that I wasn’t a one-trick pony. Elizabeth McCracken said such amazing things in workshop that my peers and I would sit with our notebooks ready to jot things down. I remember telling Frederick Barthelme that a story could be about anything and he said, “Is that your aesthetic position?” and I found that it was. The Barthelmes were my first writing teachers—I must have taken three workshops from each of them. They were very generous with their time and I knew that their doors were always open. Frederick Barthelme is also one of my favorite writers. It’s pretty awesome to sit in a classroom with someone you admire so much, to watch him drink Diet Coke and laugh.

JC: You’ve mentioned that you’re working on a book based on Typhoid Mary. Can you tell us a little about it? What was the research like? What are the difficulties of writing from someone else’s real life?

MM: The new novel is inspired by the story of Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary. I became interested in her after listening to a podcast about her life. The idea of a healthy person (but a carrier of a communicable disease) being isolated on an island for years, kept apart from her friends and loved ones, intrigued me. Mary Mallon could see New York from her little cabin, but she couldn’t go there. She spent her time writing letters to an old lover and various members of the government trying to obtain her release.

In my story, there are nine healthy carriers isolated on an island. It focuses on the relationship between two of these women, who live much of their lives in a fantasy world they create based on The Wizard of Oz books (thanks to L. Frank Baum’s poor financial situation, he wrote a lot of them). Or maybe this isn’t what it’s about. I don’t have a draft yet. I have no idea what will happen, which is exciting and scary but mostly scary.

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