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The Weight of Him Book Cover 2017Billy Brennan overdid it again with the fast food. After, he hurried as best he could along the street, fighting the need to stop and recover—he didn’t want to draw any more attention to himself. Strangers looked twice at his massive bulk. He pretended not to notice. Those he knew seemed inclined to stop and chat, but he issued only passing hellos and pressed on. He was in no mood to suffer further condolences and awkward exchanges, all of which set his heart racing.

A woman overtook him on the footpath, walking fast and with force. She must have just come off a foreign holiday or a session of sun beds. Maybe she had slathered herself in that fake lotion. More noticeable than skin the color of mahogany, though, she was sickly thin. Billy had never seen a woman so skinny; her arms and calves could snap like sugar sticks. It seemed impossible she could move that fast, could have the strength to even stand up.

0SAM FINSTER

 “Hey hey, guys,” Mr. Whitlock crowed, and motioned Sam and Trina inside the house with the spatula he held in one fist. Toad’s uncle was a big man with a handlebar mustache and any number of blurred and explicit green tattoos lacing his arms. They looked like they’d been drawn there by a child, quite possibly a drunken one, and Toad had long ago informed him it meant his uncle had done various stretches of county time. “Back before I came into the picture,” Toad said. Mr. Whitlock had, over the years, insisted that Sam call him by his first name, Stacy, but somehow Sam just couldn’t do it. He looked fearsome, even more so than Sam’s dad, and like a man who brooked absolutely no shit. But a Stacy? No.

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This is an incredibly depressing book. The Mercy of the Tide, huh? Should be called The Mercilessness of the… Pages. Or something. Jesus! It’s unrelenting, the bummers.

Great. Thanks. Great way to start an interview. And let the record show that I don’t entirely agree. It’s a downer at times, sure, but I think there are bright spots. And I don’t think it was an arbitrary decision the writer made. Like, “Ah, I’m just gonna make an unrelenting crapshow of four people’s lives for three hundred pages. Just for the hell of it.” It’s about story, you know?

 

Right, but you know what I mean. You seem pretty upbeat in real life, you know? Jolly enough dude.

But you and I know the torpor that lurks beneath, don’t we?

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This month we’re reading Pachinko, by bestselling author Min Jin Lee. Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz calls it

“Luminous…a powerful meditation on what immigrants sacrifice to achieve a home in the world. This story confirms Lee’s place among our finest novelists.”

And stay tuned for Min’s appearance on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast. Coming soon!

Motherhood CoverI am a terrible mother. I love my daughter, love her so much I’m amazed I actually have to hold her in my arms, that she doesn’t just stick to my side, my heart heavy as a black hole, dense with love, trying to suck her into it. I love her like this, then, minutes later, can’t wait to get out of the house, leaving her behind. I’m told all mothers are like this, more or less, and are all wracked with guilt because of it.

The week I found out about Mary Rose, my beloved Stella Marie was six months old. She had black stick-straight-up hair, blueberry eyes that would find their way eventually to a less exotic shade of hazel, an abiding affection for the decorative moldings of our seventy-year-old house.

She liked to gaze at the corners of windows and doors, reach out as if to grab them, then wag her hands excitedly, like a palsied lady trying to open a wide-mouth jar. Her basic look was one of consternation. She was not a silly baby, even though I’d been known to make her wear a bonnet. She is perfect. The world’s cutest human. Really the world’s cutest human.

Philip DiGiacomo“Can I ask you a question?”

A small woman had appeared from behind the gas pump as I was putting twenty dollars worth into my Volvo wagon’s tank.

“No, you can’t,” I replied.

Jesus Christ, how many wackos had hit me up for spare change in the past week? I jammed the nozzle back onto the cradle and ripped the receipt as it curled from the pump. She had pissed me off.

“Can you help me buy myself a wedding ring?”

d11112b022aIs Everyone Loves You Back really your first novel, or do you have five more hidden in your desk?

I wish I had five novels stashed in my desk. But no, this is really my first novel. I did start one back in the late 80s. I got about 50 pages in and showed it to a writing class. Big mistake. One of the other writers, an experienced editor, or so I thought at the time, told me I had no idea what I was doing, that my pacing was all wrong, more like a short story than a novel, and that I would run out of steam unless I made an outline and slowed things down. Now that I am recounting this, I wonder why I didn’t just make the outline and keep on going? But I didn’t. I put the book away and never finished it.

elyb_7Bob Boland is surrounded. Yuppies everywhere. Goddamned professional women with their blunt cuts and power suits, their wimpy men, pale faced and narrow shouldered, their PhDs, MDs and JDs on proud display in their book-lined studies.

The neighborhood has always been full of snobs — half of it belongs to Harvard, the other half to Harvard professors, grads, and wannabes, the type who donate buildings and gymnasiums, who endow symphony chairs in perpetuity — but there used to be room for the little people, who deliver the mail, plow the driveways, clean the teeth, fix the burners. Now the new rich are crowding them out, throwing around so much money that the neighborhood is barely recognizable. Slate roofs, copper drains, specimen trees, heated driveways — nothing is too good for them. If there’s a beautiful front yard, they put up a fence. If there’s a fence, they tear it down and put in a hedge. Blacktop becomes lawn; lawn becomes groundcover; groundcover becomes brick. And God forbid the house should peel. Bingo! An army of painters descends, airlifted from the latest Third World country in collapse, sanding, scraping, hanging like bats under the eaves, risking their lives to try out matching trim colors.

unnamedWhy did you write Wedding Bush Road?

Because I needed to, and no one else could have.

 

Isn’t that kind of self-involved.

Perhaps, but it’s true.

 

Don’t you write for an audience.

If I start engineering a story to appease some notion of readership, the story risks losing its propulsion and integrity. I want to tell the story that I need to tell, not what I think someone needs to hear. I trust that the novel will find its own readership.

dscn1184She was nudged from slumber by a hollow thump—followed by another.

Poor Rosie.

The half-blind shepherd had the unfortunate habit of thwacking her tail in her sleep until she woke herself—sniffing the air, whimpering at imaginary predators, seeking out a comforting scratch behind the ears.

She dropped a drowsy arm over the edge of her bed.

Murmured, “Hush, girl.”

Wondered, what did the dog dream about? Meadows? Squirrels?

Burying her head into the crease of her damp pillow, she thought perhaps Rosie dreamt of Ben.

A tiny thought. A seed. She pushed it away, submerging herself in rumpled sheets. But the synapse of connections spread into an invasive tangle of memory—like a cancer.

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Not to have this be an all-out puff piece, but let me try and describe two types of virtuosity I like. Maybe it’s because I spent all summer watching basketball. Dunks and jumpers. Crossovers. If you hate sports, bear with me. But for instance, a jump shot. A technique to it, there’s a purity you can appreciate. That buzzer-beater, last second of the game, or even just pulling up in traffic, as they say, soaking wet; smartly, coolly executed, or from the couch, surrounded by snacks, even watching the pros do it, the effect is weirdly triumphant, gratifying.

Here’s the other type. Because, to get that jumper to go, to have that moment, there’s hours and hours you’ve got to spend, hundreds of thousand of hours, more than shooting, also dreaming, thinking about jumpshots. Let me go ahead and say Jane Liddle’s debut is about murder, not basketball. In that sense, Murder is about nuance. In that we’re all going to die. Right? Sooner or later. And we’re all capable of killing, probably. Consider it that way, and a story, any story is actually, truly, only the details. Fifty-eight murders. Some tragic, some frightening. A funny one or two. Each only a couple of pages. Some like poems. Some, tightly plotted, 3-act short stories. The murder in there about “the Saint,” that was disturbing in a way I can’t exactly explain.

fredmugford_2016As I was putting my underwear on, the right foot got caught. The big toe of the right foot was stretching the fabric. I continued pushing my foot down harder as I was pulling the underwear up by the dark blue waist band. I was stubborn and I wasn’t going to let the underwear win. I was standing balanced on my left foot, in the bathroom, after taking my shower, and my feet, my skin, was still damp, I think that is why the big toe got caught and wouldn’t let go no matter how much I pulled up or pushed the foot down. All this became infuriating, even for the underwear too, because the cotton fabric began to stretch, I could feel the stress it was going under, but I demanded to be right this time, to be the winner, to push my foot through the hole, the second hole, or third, in the underwear, but it just wouldn’t go through. I don’t know if I was willing to tear the underwear, it was a relatively new pair, it was a comfortable pair, still clean and thick and it hugged my contours nice and tight, holding everything in place just right, snug in a word. If the underwear was old, if it had a tear in it, I probably would have sacrificed it with pleasure. The band of the right leg hole had in fact dug itself deep between the big toe and the toe next to it. And by this time I was starting to lose my balance, and on top of the frustration of not being able to push my foot through, I now had the compounded fear of falling and dying from hitting my head on one of the porcelain fixtures inside the bathroom, the bathtub or the sink or the toilet or even the floor or the tiled walls or maybe even the handlebars I installed in the bathroom for my father. And now I lost my balance and was ready to fall over to my right because my right foot was the one that was up trying to go through the hole in the underwear made for the right leg to go through, and I felt myself leaning over to my right, and I had to make an instant decision, should I continue pushing my foot down to get the right foot through the hole before I hit the floor, or should I just let go of the underwear and let the right foot touch the blue tiled floor and let the underwear dangle half on between my legs, or a third choice, which is what I didn’t want, was to just fall. So I chose to let go, with a click of the tongue and a sigh, in frustration, like I was telling myself, no, I didn’t get to win this time, I had to let go, and now I have to try putting my right foot through the right leg hole all over again. My right foot hit the tiled floor with a slap, a sound of naked flesh hitting a hard cool, smooth surface, it was kind of a satisfying sound, even if it sounded hard, nothing like the sound of skin slapping skin, which always leads to some kind of pain, I was thinking of my mother slapping my face real hard, I don’t think she ever did that, and I was trying to think of times I slapped myself on purpose, and I couldn’t, except if it involved pleasure, possibly, which I can’t think of right now.

bernard-grant3637_for-web-useKem drives us through town. Shopkeepers raise blinds, flip open-closed signs. Street workers drop cones, drill, hammer. Then she hops on I-5 and all that’s replaced by morning traffic until we climb Cooper Point and the Worksource logo appears, stamped onto an office building wall towering over a 7-Eleven. In the parking lot her baby bump squeezes past the steering wheel when she leans over to kiss my forehead and drop a sack lunch in my lap. I half expect her to add “at school” to her “Have a nice day.”

I say good morning to Mindy at the reference desk. She smirks and says, “In for another shift, Gene?” I wink and walk past several banks of computers to take a seat between Jeremy and Sam. Nothing behind us but motivational posters on a small-windowed wall. Above us, huge black letters pasted onto white say, SUPPORT BUSINESS, PROMOTE EMPLOYMENT. Up front are classrooms where people learn to write resumes and ace interviews. We never go.

author-photoI’d like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to speak with me.

You’re very welcome. I suppose it must seem odd though, to be addressing questions to yourself.

 

Indeed. Yet at the same time, I seem to recall your remarking that when you reread this book, by which I mean your recently published story collection This is a Dance Movie!, it almost felt to you as though the work had been written by another person.

That’s very true. The majority of these stories were written and published between 2008 and 2011.

dance-movie-full-cover-1-1170x1747This is a dance movie! Teenagers are dancing. They are popping, locking, tutting. The teenagers must stay loose, stay low to catch each step. To roll from beat to beat. The teenagers must be careful not to overemphasize the downbeat.

One teenager, a boy named Robert, is dancing down the street. Robert is practicing. He is snaking his arm. He makes it fluid: shoulder, elbow, wrist. Or tries. Several times. The audience feels his pain. The audience knows Robert must master this move. Robert and the other teenagers must win a competition. Robert, in particular, must win this competition in order to get a scholarship the girl laid. Robert must get laid. This is a dance movie!

Robert must get laid by a deadline. To win a bet? Possibly. In this way, this dance movie is also a teen sex comedy. Except this comedy isn’t so funny. Or maybe it’s funny. It’s sort of funny. Its funniness depends upon the audience’s appreciation for schadenfreude. The problem is Robert is likeable, making it harder to laugh at his expense. Or rather, likeable to certain viewers. Robert is likeable because he’s pretty, making him likeable to girls and gay boys, this movie’s target demographic. Most teen sex comedies are about ugly straight boys. Critics rave about these movies because, being ugly straight boys themselves, they identify with their protagonists.