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In Memoriam: The Things They Buried in the Yard

hartnett-author-photoThere was a story my grandfather liked to tell, and it was my favorite one for bedtime. When my grandfather was a kid, a skunk got into the basement of The Women’s Club in town, nobody knew how. He had volunteered to help, had tried to get the skunk to walk up a ramp and out the tiny basement window. My grandfather didn’t want the skunk to be killed. He wanted to safely lead him outside. That was one reason I loved the story, because of how gentle and big-hearted it proved my grandfather to be.

But the ramp plan didn’t work, as best-laid plans never do; the skunk sprayed my grandfather straight on. He came home defeated, and his mother wouldn’t let him in the house until he buried his clothes in the yard.

Our yard?” I always asked, because it amazed me that my grandfather had grown up in the same house I was growing up in; my parents bought the house from the great aunts. It’s still in the family now. My father says he’ll die there.

Your yard,” my grandfather said. “You should dig those smelly clothes up,” he’d laugh.

I did look for his clothes, dug hole after hole after hole. Of course they’d disintegrated over the decades, but I didn’t understand that then. My mother still finds things our family buried when she gardens, glass shards mostly. “They buried everything in the yard,” she says, in a disapproving tone. We didn’t bury much when I was growing up. We buried tulip and daffodil bulbs and one deceased family pet, a rabbit. The fish we flushed, the dogs we had cremated. I wonder if my grandfather buried his dogs in the yard. Our family always had dogs.

One dog, a golden retriever named Frisky-Frisbee, got sprayed by a skunk once, and our neighbor told my dad to wash the dog with douche wash from the pharmacy. “Yes, that’s what I said,” she nodded, when he asked her to repeat herself. So that’s what my dad did, mixed douche wash with tomato juice and washed Frisky-Frisbee in the garage. My grandfather came over to help.

My grandfather was always over to help, and I wonder which house felt more like home to him: his house where he’d raised three children, or the house where he’d grown up. Of course, the house wasn’t exactly the same. My parents had the kitchen redone, a back porch added on, a new bathroom. But some of the furniture was still there, and the horsehair plaster walls still felt a little bumpy to the touch. Plus, there’s so much family history in the house. My great-grandmother died in my bedroom, I was told, and I wondered which corner she kept her bed in. I wanted my bed in the same corner, because I wanted to feel a deep connection to my family past. I believed in ghosts, but wasn’t afraid of the ones I was related to. I heard them all the time in the attic, or I did until my parents found out we had bats.

Irabbit-cake-cover’m thirty years old now, but that house still feels like home for me, in a deeply rooted way, a way that can probably never be fully replanted elsewhere.

For the past few years, my husband and I lived in an apartment a mile from my parents, a mile from the yard where my family once buried things they no longer wanted, not knowing the yard and what was buried there would stay in the family for a long time coming, an accidental inheritance. My grandfather died thirteen years ago, but first he made me a dog-lover, and a storyteller too, and I learned from him that it’s better to tell a good story than it is to tell the truth. He once told a bar full of people that he was Terry Bradshaw’s quarterback coach; really, he was a mechanic.

I don’t smell skunks as often as I did when I was a kid; I think the population is down. When I do catch the scent, I hold my dog’s leash a little tighter, and I breathe in.

Annie Hartnett is the author of Rabbit Cake, released this March from Tin House Books. She was the 2013-2014 Writer in Residence for the Associates of the Boston Public Library, and currently teaches at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband and border collie. Read more at anniehartnett.com.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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In Memoriam: Fuck Whale

Memorious is excited to introduce our new column, “In Memoriam,” in which a writer pays tribute to the memory of something or someone now gone.  For our first post, fiction writer and poet David Ebenbach tackles the complexities of (that’s right) Fuck Whale.

220px-david_ebenbach_005Do you know the story of Brigadoon? It’s a movie, actually, and the way it goes is that two Americans wandering through Scotland happen across a town called Brigadoon, a magical town that appears once every hundred years and only for a single day, after which it disappears again.

Fuck Whale was sort of like that.

When I was a junior in college I spent a semester abroad in Strasbourg, France. My reasons for choosing Strasbourg were vague and, in retrospect, not extremely compelling. Number one: I felt that, as a college student, I was expected to study abroad. Number two: I had some knowledge of French. (Specifically, I had studied it in high school but not at all since, which meant that I couldn’t speak the language, and my recognition skills were such that I could usually recognize whether a person was speaking French or not, but didn’t know what they were saying.) Number three: my Ohio college ran a study abroad program in Strasbourg.

So, I went, and, although I found good friends among my fellow students, I was still mopey and homesick pretty much the entire time. For most of my life, I had lived in one place—the inner-city neighborhood of West Philadelphia—and so even Ohio had been foreign to me; Strasbourg was another planet. Plus I was very, very, broke. In order to save money that semester I skipped so many meals (and the student meals were only like two dollars each, somehow) that I lost ten pounds. Plus I was actively pining, because I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman who did not, I think, realize that we were in a relationship at all.

Well, I tried to keep myself busy. I did a lot of journal-writing that semester, and I also took a lot of pictures. In particular, I took pictures of graffiti. I think the graffiti reassured this West Philly kid in the same way that a beautiful mountain range would have reassured a person from, what, Colorado? Maybe. It was familiar, is my point.

There was great graffiti in Strasbourg. Some of it was stenciled and layered and actively beautiful, but the bare-bones freehand stuff was pretty charming, too. Most of the graffiti was in French, of course, like “Quand on est mort, on peut difficilement se beurrer une tartine” (i.e., “When one is dead, it is difficult to butter toast”) and “FAITES CACA PARTOUT” (“Make caca everywhere”). So, that was good motivation for me to learn French. But there was also a little graffiti in English, such as in one half of this mini-debate about public transportation that I found on a wall:

NON AU TRAMWAY!” (“No to the Tramway!”)

“Tramway it is a better machine.”

So, public discourse across linguistic barriers. Even better, at one point that semester, when I was in an underground tunnel in Berlin, I came across “WEST PHILLY 89” written on one wall.

But nothing beat Fuck Whale. Or, I should say: “FUCK WHALE,” spray-painted freehand in black letters on a wall somewhere in the center of Strasbourg. But I mean it when I say “somewhere”—I didn’t seem to be able to find that wall on purpose. I would search and search through all the weird zigzag streets and not find it, especially when I wanted to show one of my friends in the study abroad program. But then, when I particularly needed it (say, on an especially homesick night), I would stumble across Fuck Whale. Out of nowhere, there it would be, like Brigadoon.

It was always a reassuring sight, even though (or maybe because) I didn’t know what the thing meant. Was it an expletive? (e.g., after hitting thumb with hammer: “Fuck whale!”) Or was it advice? Was it a smackdown of a particular whale? Was it actually a species that I’d never heard of? Who knew? Fuck Whale was a beautiful graffiti mystery.

fw1

A very young David Ebenbach

One thing I felt sure of: Whoever had spray-painted those words had what is commonly called joie de vivre (i.e., “not homesick”). I wanted joie de vivre, too. And if I couldn’t have it (I couldn’t), I wanted to be near it, spray-painted on a wall.

And so the semester went like that. I wrote in my journal; I traveled a little bit, as cheaply as possible; I skipped meals; I checked my mailbox constantly for letters from the woman I probably wasn’t dating; I took pictures; the city of Strasbourg moved from winter to spring; I learned some French. And eventually I did figure out where Fuck Whale was. I could get to it reliably when I wanted to. By then—the end of the semester—it was like visiting a former teacher for new wisdom. Though actually the wisdom was always the same:

FUCK WHALE, it would say.

TOTALLY, I would say in return.

In the end, I survived that semester, of course. I returned to the United States with enthusiasm (joie?) that was only slightly dampened by two initial encounters: one with an angry customs official, who was incredulous that I’d spent a semester in France because, if I’d wanted to learn French, I should have done it in America since “we’ve got better schools,” and then my first sighting of a t-shirt with the English language on it, which read Hangin’ and Bangin’. But anyway I made it, and I got on with my life. I was still pretty mopey (i.e., “mild depression that would ultimately respond nicely to therapy and some helpful pills”), but I was mopey at home, and that was nice.

screen-shot-2016-12-29-at-9-29-51-pmI have thought of Fuck Whale from time to time over the ensuing years. I still don’t know what it means. I still love it. And when, recently, a student of mine told me she was about
to spend a semester abroad in Strasbourg, of course I told her to look for Fuck Whale. But then she got back and told me she had never been able to find it.

More than twenty years has gone by since my own semester abroad, so the most likely thing is that someone has blasted the words off that wall. But I like to think that Fuck Whale has only temporarily vanished. That it will reappear one day, if ever there is someone wandering through that city, lost and glum, someone who’s missing something undefinable but crucial, someone who really needs it.

David Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches at Georgetown University. His fiction collections include Between Camelots (winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) and Into the Wilderness. He has also published poetry collections, We Were the People Who Moved and Autogeography, and a collection of essays, The Artist’s Torah. He’s the Fiction Vice President at Washington Writers’ Publishing House and the blog editor at AGNI. His new fiction collection, The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy, winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, is out now from the University of Massachusetts Press. 

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Memorious New Assistant Editors

Memorious searched high and low to find the best people to join our team. Thanks to everyone who applied. Competition was fierce and our decisions were difficult. We lost sleep. Our stomachs had issues. But it was worth the trouble: We are now overjoyed to introduce our new assistant editors…

Fiction

natalie-profile-pictureNatalie Mesnard comes to us from Ninth Letter, where she was the Web Edition editor for the Summer 2015 and Summer 2016 issues of Ninth Letter Online. She earned her MFA from the University of Illinois and is now based in Ossining, New York. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews have appeared online and in print with journals such as Copper Nickel, The Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, The Journal, Kenyon Review Online, and Tampa Review. She can be found online at nataliemesnard.com.

 

wendy-oleson-photoWendy Oleson comes to us from Prairie Schooner, where she was a Senior Fiction Reader. She is also a former Memorious contributor (check out her stunning story “The Glass Girl” in Memorious 24). She is a fiction writer, poet, and essayist whose work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Copper Nickel, Baltimore Review, PANK, The Normal School, and The Journal. Oleson was a Van Sickle Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she earned her PhD. She is a recipient of a Washington Square Review Fiction Award, the Elizabeth Bruss Prize, and the storySouth Million Writers Award.

Poetry

Derricaustink Austin is the author of Trouble the Water (BOA Editions 2016), selected by Mary Szybist for the 2015 A. Poulin Jr Prize. A Cave Canem fellow, Pushcart Prize and four-time Best New Poets nominee, he earned his MFA at the University of Michigan where he also earned Hopwood Awards in poetry. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2015, New England Review, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, Memorious, Callaloo, Nimrod, Crab Orchard Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the 2016-2017 Ron Wallace Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing.

 

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Memorious Seeks Assistant Fiction Editor

keep-calm-i-m-your-assistant-editorMemorious magazine seeks an assistant fiction editor who will work closely with the fiction editor to shape magazine content. The assistant fiction editor will be responsible for helping the fiction editor select submissions for the magazine; soliciting works of fiction; assisting in editing the fiction selections; recruiting skilled fiction readers; and weighing in on nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthologies. The assistant fiction editor will also be involved in creating and soliciting blog content to support the fiction section.

We are seeking a responsible, committed person to join our staff and to work with us in continuing to produce and develop the magazine. Applicants should have editorial experience, in print or online, and be comfortable using Submittable and social networking tools. We are particularly interested in individuals who will build relationships in the community through soliciting work and creating and/ or participating in events at AWP and elsewhere, both in the real world and online.

Like many small independent literary magazines, Memorious is a labor of love. We are an all-volunteer staff, so no stipend or salary is offered. We are looking for someone who finds reward in being an active part of the literary community, gaining valuable editorial experience, and supporting work they find exciting and necessary.

Memorious has been around for more than a decade and is one of the most highly-regarded online literary magazines. We’ve had work reprinted in the New York Times Magazine and Best American Poetry, and we’ve been featured in the print anthologies Best New PoetsBest of the Web, and Best of the Net. Previous prose contributors include Steve AlmondBlake Butler, Kim Chinquee, Joanna LuloffMargaret LuongoAmit Majmudar, Nina McConigley, Peter Orner, Caitlin Horrocks, Becky Hagenston, Benjamin PercySandra ScofieldJames ScottRicco Villanueva SiasocoAnne Valente, Holly M. WendtXu XiPaul Yoon, and many more! You can search our prose archives here. We have also published interviews with writers such as Laura Van den Berg, Sigrid Nunez, Don Lee, Jim Shepard, and Brock Clarke.

Please send a cover letter and C.V. to Brian Trapp at trapp(at)uoregon.edu by October 1st. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Big Loves: Paula Whyman on T.C. Boyle’s “Greasy Lake”

 

WhymanToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Paula Whyman. Whyman’s debut collection of linked short stories, You May See a Stranger, is out this month from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. In the book, she follows Miranda Weber from her teens through her late 40s as she struggles with sexuality, marriage, politics, and the fate of her disabled sister. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly writes that these “smart, artful stories capture a woman’s life and the moments that define her.” Her fiction has appeared in many journals including McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Paula is a Fellow of The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. A native of Washington, DC, she now lives in Maryland.

We were nineteen. We were bad. We read Andre Gidé and struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything.

When I was in high school, I remember short stories being examined as if they were curios or warm-ups for the authors’ longer works. These were classic stories—“A Rose for Emily,” “The Bear,” “Barn Burning”—great stories, don’t get me wrong, but the message was that the novel was the real game: Faulkner and Hawthorne again, plus Dostoevsky and Melville. In college, there were more and more and more novels, in my case, 19th century English novels; novels by Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford; novels of the existential and the absurd; and, in a survey of American lit, novels by Didion, Bellow, Morrison, Vonnegut, Heller, and Roth. I had not yet read the short stories I could relate to, by Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, and others; all of those would come later.

Then, sometime in my early twenties, I was working on the production of a free 600-page apartment shoppers guide, a job that still involved a linotype machine, paste-up, and bluelines, in an office like the one that later became a hit TV show. I was living in a government-subsidized apartment that was not advertised in the magazine I produced, and my main entertainment was seeking out the happy hours that served the best free Buffalo wings, which would become my dinner, while hanging out with other disillusioned and financially strapped co-workers. In other words, just when I thought my life could not be more absurd, I discovered the early stories of T.C. Boyle, and I nearly drowned in “Greasy Lake.”

Greasy

“Greasy Lake” is a story of teenage boys who want to be seen as bad, set out to prove it, and almost succeed. The narrator is a likable screw-up whom you root for even as he gets too close to the edge of “true” bad. After they run out of bars to go to and mischief to make, the boys park at a local lake where they unwittingly anger a dangerous character who’s making out with his girlfriend in a car. This happens:

 The first lusty Rockette kick of his steel-toed boot caught me under the chin, chipped my favorite tooth, and left me sprawled in the dirt….The three or four succeeding blows were mainly absorbed by my right buttock and the tough piece of bone at the base of my spine.

This is not “A Rose for Emily.” Boyle’s stories are about regular people doing regular stupid stuff. To some readers the Technicolor language and lurid scenes seem over the top—the lusty Rockette kick? the favorite tooth?—but to me, this is the way a certain kind of clever boy that age will describe and embellish his experience.

Even when imminent danger leads the narrator to reach under the driver’s seat for his crowbar, he admits he’s never used it for anything but changing a tire. The boys skirt the edge of serious transgression when they nearly gang-rape a girl they call only “the fox”—the girlfriend of the mean character they’ve accidentally riled. That they are stopped just in time doesn’t make them less bad. But it does save them.

cover1-683x1024One of the features of T.C. Boyle’s stories that I’ve always admired: the inevitable downward spiral. As a writer, it can be hard to allow your characters to hit bottom. Boyle’s characters often don’t stop, they can’t stop, until the worst has occurred. But in “Greasy Lake,” they stop just short of it.

While hiding in the lake to escape from angry steel-toed boot guy, the narrator stumbles into the drowned body of a drug-dealing biker. Everything seems alive, even the lake, even the dead body:

[I] was pitching face forward into the buoyant black mass, throwing out my hands in desperation while simultaneously conjuring the image of reeking frogs and muskrats revolving in slicks of their own deliquescing juices.

 A 19-year-old boy who summons up the word “deliquescing”? This feature of Boyle’s stories always gets me. His narrators may have poor judgment, but many of them have big vocabularies. They’re underachievers with a ready store of SAT words at their disposal. Sure, you could accuse the author of putting words in his characters’ mouths, but here, at least, the words fit.

The sheer exuberance and surprising sensitivity of this narrator strike me as distinctly contemporary and American. Will these boys become as bad as that dead biker floating in the lake? In the end, they pass on the chance. For how long? One can only guess.

Why love this story? For god’s sake, why not?

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Fiction Spotlight: Becky Hagenston

Hagenston_Becky_M3B1627Becky Hagenston’s third short story collection, Scavengers: Stories (University of Alaska Press) Scavengers was published mid-March, 2016. The collection won the Permafrost 2015 Book Prize in fiction, with Memorious favorite Benjamin Percy serving as final judge. Hagenston is no stranger to prestigious prizes. The associate professor of English at Mississippi State University has two previous prize-winning collections, A Gram of Mars (Sarabande Books; winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize) and Strange Weather (Press 53; winner of the Spokane Prize), and has twice taken the O. Henry Prize. Her work has also received nods from Best American Short Stories, Best American Mysteries, and the Pushcart anthologies.

Memorious is thrilled to be publishing Hagenston’s “The Celebrity,” a story that does a million things in 1,000 words, in the upcoming Memorious 26. We’re also thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to Becky Hagenston about Scavengers, a collection so jammed with great stories, it’s impossible to decide on a favorite without breaking it down further. “Let Yourself Go,” for example, takes the prize for most brilliant ending; “Ivy Green” wins most virtuosic point of view. “Secrets of Old Time Science Experiments” is a marvel of compression and a playground for the reader questioning whether supernatural forces are at work. And Hagenston makes it all look easy! Memorious fiction reader and contributor, Wendy Oleson, had a chance to email with Becky about her recent collection.

Thank you for agreeing to talk with us about Scavengers: Stories. Which story in the collection gave you the most trouble and which came the smoothest? What did the experiences of difficulty and ease teach you about your work and process?

Of course, it’s far, far from easy. I can tell you that the story that took the longest to get right is “Secrets of Old-Time Science Experiments,” which I workshopped in my first fiction class ever, in (I think) 1993. The draft was drastically different, with Aunt Julep being a trouble-maker who had recently died. But there was something I liked about the story—the narrator’s voice and her family—and so I put the story away for years but never gave up on it. I’d take it out every few years and give it another go, but it just wasn’t working. Maybe it was when I started reading George Saunders’ and Aimee Bender’s stories that I realized I could take fanciful leaps into weirdness.

“Cool” was probably the smoothest process. I wrote that in a couple of months—which is very, very fast for me. I did end up cutting a lot of backstory to make it more cohesive, and the ending gave me some trouble, but overall it came together pretty easily once I figured out how the flashbacks and current action connected.

In this collection, being seen, heard, and understood by another person can be a double-edged sword, as it often precipitates moments of painful self-reflection; the same might be true of putting oneself in the position of really seeing another person. In this light,“Good Listener” feels like the keystone of the collection: the precise unspooling of the narrative even participates in the protagonist’s struggle to communicate after a tragedy. It dares readers to pay close attention to Laura’s thoughts and fears, to believe we understand her pain. Could you talk a bit about this story—how it fits in the collection and how you found the perfect timing and balance in revealing and concealing the circumstances of Laura’s life?

This was the first Mississippi story I ever wrote, and I’d been living in Mississippi for about three years already. I think of it as a story of displacement, of trying to find your place in the world, and also for Laura it’s about the moment when she realizes what she is and isn’t ready to accept for her life. It’s sometimes really difficult for me to know what line of work my characters should be in, but making Laura a high school guidance counselor opened up a lot of possibilities. The story took off for me when I added Kayla, the high school student, and Patty, the hard-drinking engineering post-doc. I think those characters are the key to the revealing/concealing that goes on, the things Laura reveals and doesn’t reveal to them. Those characters helped me begin to understand Laura’s thoughts and fears and pain.

Your endings are, to borrow Brad Watson’s term,“heart punches” as much as gut punches. They’re both startling and satisfying, an effects coupling so difficult to achieve. How do you write endings? Do they ever come first?

I do a lot of rewriting when it comes to endings. Sometimes I’ll think I have it, and I’m completely wrong. On more than one occasion, I’ll have what I think is a brilliant—evocative but not overstated—ending, and I’ll give the story to a trusted reader who will say, “Huh? This makes no sense.” And then as I’m trying to explain why it does make sense, I’ll realize: Hey, I shouldn’t have to explain the damn ending! Back to the drawing board.

Sometimes the ending will shimmer in the distance when I’m about halfway through the story. Sometimes it’s a mirage. The endings that I love the most are the ones that surprise me as I’m writing them, and this did happen with “Let Yourself Go.” I think endings should make a story feel complete without tying anything up or solving anything. And that, as I’ve discovered, is really hard to do.

I love what Flannery O’Connor says in Mystery and Manners about the ending of “Good Country People”: “I didn’t know [the Bible salesman] was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is that it produced a shock for the writer.”

The story “Cool” first appeared in One Teen Story (One Story’s magazine for the many, many passionate readers of Young Adult fiction). How, if at all, did you revise the story for Scavengers?

Patrick Ryan, the editor of OTS, is such a great editor that there wasn’t really anything left to change! He was great at pointing out some confusing moments in the story, and he suggested perfect ways of rewording clunky lines. He suggested changing the title from “Cool Mom” to “Cool,” which I thought was an excellent idea. The only real change I made for the story collection was the name of the mother. Her name was originally Patty, but there was already a Patty in “Let Yourself Go.” So now she’s Jenny. That’s one of the unexpected challenges of putting together a story collection: realizing how often I reuse names!

Your characters behave idiosyncratically—even eccentrically—without it feeling forced. They drink too much at a dinner party and end up under the hosts’ kitchen table kissing the Labrador. They say things like,“‘Oh ho! That’s cranberry sauce!’” They tweet and take great pleasure when a stranger tweets back. Their vulnerability and disillusionment forge humor and pathos. Even when the stories skew fantastic, there’s an emotional honesty present. Your work evokes a dazzling range of contemporary authors, from Lorrie Moore to Aimee Bender, Ken Liu, and Carmen Maria Machado. Who and what inspired you as you wrote these stories?

I am absolutely a fan of Aimee Bender and Lorrie Moore, and I haven’t read Ken Liu or Carmen Maria Machado but now I’m definitely going to. I teach great stories like “Sonny’s Blues” (speaking of brilliant endings!) and “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and every year or so I read “The Dead” out loud to myself. The ending of that story actually had a huge influence on the ending of “The Afterlife.” I was inspired by Kevin Brockmeier’s fables to write “Puppet Town.” And maybe it was when I started reading Haruki Murakami’s, George Saunders’ and Aimee Bender’s stories that I realized I could take fanciful leaps into weirdness.

I wrote and revised these stories over a span of many, many years. I wrote them in grad school in Tucson and New Mexico, and I wrote them as a newbie and then a not-so-newbie to Mississippi. I wrote them in between travels to Russia, France, and England. Travel always inspires me, as does talking to people. I’m very, very nosy!scavengers

And I’m always reading: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, occasionally graphic novels. I love biographies of doomed royalty. I’m addicted to gruesome true stories of adventures gone awry. For me, it’s about just filling my brain with stories all the time. I just finished reading Kelly Link’s new collection, Get in Trouble, and that inspired me to go down a much weirder route in a story than I’d planned to.

Would you be willing to share a bit about what you’re working on now?

I think I’m finished with collection #4, which mostly takes place in France and Mississippi. So now I’m just working on more stories, and I like to have stuff in every possible stage of the process. There’s one I feel pretty good about, and I’m revising two that I think have potential, and I’m also taking notes for stories that may or may not turn into anything—or may turn into something years from now. And even though I’ve written five novels that don’t have enough plot to be publishable, I’m still always trying to get that right!

 

Wendy Oleson’s recent stories appear in Cherry Tree, Quarterly West, and Carve Magazine (as the winner of the 2015 storySouth Million Writers Award). A 2015 Vermont Studio Center fiction fellow, Wendy teaches creative writing for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and writes about people who do very bad things for Bellum Entertainment. Visit her (@weoleson) on Twitter or her handsome dog (gr8winstoni) on Instagram.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

 

 

 

 

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Fiction Spotlight: Ranbir Singh Sidhu

rsnewheadshot-smallWe were lucky enough to snatch up Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s hilarious short story “‘Cross-eyes’ Thorpe Hits The Mark” for Memorious 25. Though he has spent the better part of the last two decades in Brooklyn and Crete, Sidhu is a writer with California in his blood. This is a component of his backstory—Sidhu was born in London and raised in the Bay Area—but also a central focus of his remarkable debut novel, Deep Singh Blue.

Sidhu, the author of the short story collection Good Indian Girls (Soft Skull Press) and a recipient of both a Pushcart Prize and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, presents us with a version of Northern California in the mid-80s as experienced by Deep Singh, a complex and highly-charged narrator. At the start of the book, he has transferred out of high school to enroll in a community college, hoping to put some distance between himself and his suffocating home, where his parents, first-generation Indian immigrants, subject him to their own ideas of the good life. Indeed, the California of Deep Singh Blue, with its cheap motels, liquor stores, and rent-by-the-hour hot tubs, seems a place where ideas of the good life have festered and soured, a place that contains within itself many of the forces that would come to characterize the country in the decades that followed. Kirkus calls the novel a “heart-wrenching coming-of-age tale in which survival depends more on compassion than rebellion.” Sidhu was kind enough to talk with Memorious fiction reader and contributor Chris Arp about his writing process, the state of the novel, and his weird home state of California.

 From the very first pages, the Northern California of Deep Singh Blue is an awfully claustrophobic place, both in Deep’s home and the wider environs. I’m thinking also of his driving trips, which seem to promise freedom but also an aimless kind of wandering.

 It’s set in the middle of the 1980s, in the heart of what was Reagan’s America, and even in California I think you felt the chill of that world. Certainly to me, as a recent immigrant at the time, I remember finding that world still closed in on itself and that surprised me. I knew kids in school who had never left the city limits, let alone hopped on the BART train and taken it to San Francisco or Berkeley, which was only a half hour away. And in such an enclosed world, which I think is what so much of American suburbia was back then, an aimless kind of wandering was the only real recreation, beyond drinking or making out, the latter if you were very lucky.

As far as how I approached it in the novel, I wanted Deep’s wider world to reflect his inner, and not so much as a literary device but to reinforce that this is how he sees the world because this very much is the kind of world he’s grown up in, if that distinction makes sense. He isn’t yet able to imagine a wider, more generous reading of what the world could be, even in the admittedly claustrophobic universe of the Northern California I paint here.

screen-shot-2016-01-21-at-3-09-44-pmOne of the triumphs of the book, to my mind, is the way the environment can be read as both subjective and real. Deep’s world is symbolically resonant, while at the same time drab, under-stimulating, and altogether uninterested in our protagonist. And isn’t that exactly what it feels like to be a teenager?

I wouldn’t think of Deep’s world as “symbolically resonant”—I’d just think of it as Deep’s world, and painted as clearly as I can with a mind to how he interacts with it. This is his world—whether the world he sees is different from some idea of a so-called “real” world I couldn’t answer. But that particular agony of teenagehood interested me, and in particular, Deep’s teenage years as a child of immigrants and growing up in a world that had absolutely no room for that experience.

It’s an interesting tension. He is at times explicitly interested in his parents’ lives, and at times not. On the first page, he says of his parents, “They weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education, they were the other Indians, the ones that don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written…” Now, this is told from a position of the somewhat older Deep, and when I read it I was prepared to learn their stories. Yet Deep spends most of the novel regarding his parents through the haze of his own frustration and rebellion. Sympathy only comes at the bitter end. Why portray his parents’ experience through such a narrator?

 I wanted to anchor Deep’s voice in that moment of his teenage years, and paint the world through that lens, which seems to me very interesting. And Deep’s older voice, which only comes in a few brief times, does give a larger sense of the world, or of a person who’s come to see the world as larger, but he doesn’t yet. I don’t want to undermine how horribly enclosed his world is and how intensely he finds himself shut out from larger conversations. That’s a very real experience of the world, and I didn’t want to devalue it by suggesting it was a false experience—it’s not, it’s as real and valid as any other, just more painful than many.

Yeah, the outside world trickles in, and is somehow twisted in the process. References are made, throughout the book, to the Sikh and anti-Sikh violence in the Punjab in the 1980s. Yet Deep hears about all this through Uncle Gur, whose reactions seem as outsized and impulsive as his comical business dealings. Who is Uncle Gur? How did his character come about and why was he chosen as the conduit for so many of the larger conversations?

 He grew out of a lot of people I know personally I suppose—and his reactions don’t seem particularly outsized to me frankly. As far as this question of why he was “chosen”—I really have to say he wasn’t chosen at all. I mean he’s just one of the characters in the extended family, and he certainly has a presence and a far greater interest in what’s going on in Punjab than Deep’s father does, say, but he wasn’t written in for that reason, rather all of that grew out of his character. I never write with an idea that I have something to say about a particular subject, and any larger meanings or connections come late in the process, and are usually a surprise to me.

You must have access to more passionate uncles. The only one I’ve ever known rarely spoke above a murmur. That’s interesting about your process. Who were the first characters in the genesis of the novel? Did it grow out of the central storyline between Deep and his initial love interest, Lily, or was the family there from the start? Or both, or neither?

 It very much grew out of Deep and wanting to look at his life, and actually the relationship with Lily came in quite late in the process of rewriting. It was their relationship that catalyzed so much of the novel for me, and made it considerably stronger, and she also gave him so much to play against and allowed him to look at some really quite dark parts of himself.

She’s a dark character. In one of the novel’s most electrifying sequences, she nearly runs a car off the road. She is half Chinese—“a fucking half-Chink, half-cracker,” is how she introduces herself—and so is the family in the car. Afterwards, she says, “At least the Chink had balls…Usually they shit their pants.” Deep’s reaction is really interesting. She insists that he refer to himself as a Paki. “‘Paki,’ I agreed, thinking there it was, the cages we both lived in, for her Chink, for me Paki, like she was shining a light on the bars.” You say the relationship with Lily came in later, but she reads as essential to Deep’s development, as well as a central and uncompromising character in her own right.

Of all the characters in the book, I think I have the deepest affection for Lily, and the true disaster she’s made of her life, or is making of it. Not that you can blame her, I don’t, and I find a lot of myself that lies buried is expressed rather forcefully on the surface with her. She’s obviously self-destructive, but I think a lot of people who act in outwardly self-destructive modes often understand intuitively that this might be the only viable escape route for them, by that I mean it’s almost a rational choice—whether they can clean themselves up before they do actually destroy themselves is another matter.

And what is she escaping from? We learn a good deal about her home life and her past, both of which are very hard, but is there something more? Early on, Deep wonders if it is a “rootlessness of the soul” that makes him most properly a Californian. He seems to find a kindred spirit in Lily.

 Definitely he does, and yes, to me California felt very much like a place where you wandered rootlessly to, and got stuck because often you couldn’t wander any farther. That’s not the case any longer, as it’s become so expensive, at least in the cities. In some of the desert communities you still have that feel, but it’s also a feeling of crushing economic hardship as there are few jobs. I think of this California, the 1980s version, as a last holdout of a dream California, but it was one that was already dying or dead. Then the 1990s tech boom came along and basically just tossed the body over the cliff and into the ocean. As far as what Lily’s running from, other than how it’s described in the book, I feel that’s very much the reader’s decision to ask themselves if that’s whey want to find out.

And what was the dream California? What was killing it by the mid 80s?

 I doubt there ever was such a California, thus the dream part—but there was a much more working class California, and a working class Bay Area, and a much more multi-layered city (I’m thinking mainly of San Francisco here), which was swallowed up by the tech boom. These things happen, and that city isn’t ever coming back—it’s one of the reasons I don’t live there anymore. But there was a time when money didn’t have to be such a determining factor in where you lived and who you knew and what you did with your life. I think the latter is so much the case now, and not just in large parts of California, but across this country. I miss that other world where money mattered less, even though we had so much less of it in general.

Forgive me widening the lens here, but do you think this shift in America has changed the novel? Do we need different kinds of novels? Has it changed you as a reader, or as a writer?

 No, please do. And I don’t know if it’s changed the novel, or how it would, but I do think that how we imagine America has changed dramatically. In that sense I hope the novel, for all it’s surface bleakness, brings to life a more potential time, a more possible time. I feel these days we find ourselves pushed into ever narrower realms, into ever narrower ways we are described and how we describe ourselves. This happens in fiction in the abundance of genres and sub-genres, which I find troubling, because it posits a world where we read with expectations of a particular experience, and also in the larger sense, live with expectations of how we will experience a certain moment. I’m all for cross-genre writing, multi-genre writing, but I’d much rather break the back of genre altogether and watch it happily die. I like writers who try all types of different books, and different stories, and ways of telling stories—but that’s a tough sell in the bottom line-driven world of corporate publishing.

And do you see these tropes or types cropping up in literary fiction?

 I find much literary fiction these days to be highly genre-defined. For me good writing breaks boundaries, and these days I feel few established writers, especially at the major houses, are interested in that at all—they want to rehash the same book that was written twenty years ago, maybe fifty years, or longer. That’s fine, but let’s say it’s a genre as much as self-styled romance novels are, and in the larger sense of whether it moves the form forward, then let’s agree that it most definitely does not. There’s a lot of really great writing out there—I’m currently totally hooked on Ron Currie’s extraordinary Everything Matters!—but we’ve allowed literary culture to be largely defined by the marketing departments of the big houses and the soporific tastes of pretty much universally white, privileged editors, and much of what they put out is as dull as wallpaper paste.

Amen. And aside from Currie, where else might the desperate reader turn for some originality? What other writers do you see as fighting the good fight?

 Two books I recently read that I think push hard against how we imagine modern literary fiction are Alex Shakar’s Luminarium, and Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav. They’re very different works, and imagine two very different approaches to writing, but both engage with literature from the sentence level upward. Two of the writers I grew up reading are both British experimenters—Alasdair Gray and Brigid Brophy. Again, they produced very different works, and with both authors, each of their books is often very different from previous ones, but they’re enlivened by a spirit of pushing against form and expectation. They struggle with the material at hand.

Chris Arp is a graduate of NYU’s MFA program in Fiction, where he was a finalist for the Axinn Foundation / E.L. Doctorow Fellowship. Since then, his work has been published in Storgy Magazine and the Cumberland River Review, and is forthcoming in Memorious 26. One of his stories was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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