Brian SmithI imagine you are very used to seeing your words in print after nearly two decades as a journalist and columnist. In fact, I saw you contributed music essays to two books published earlier this year. But does it feel different to have your very own work of fiction published? How?

It’s terrifying. I’ve written things in the past that had real consequences. Twice I had my life threatened from stories I wrote. One time in Detroit I was punched so hard in the face my eye was swollen shut for days. The guy hated what I wrote, but I’m pretty sure I was just telling the truth.

With fiction, it’s a different truth, a bigger one (we hope) in that the stories can ultimately define whatever moment we’re suffering through, or bouncing through with joy in our steps. That’s what my favorite writers, like Dorothy Allison, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Willy Vlautin, Denis Johnson, Jim Harrison, Harry Crews, and Charles Bukowski always did or do, somehow. I hope I can do a little of that for someone, somewhere. It’s about self-definition, and empathy for the world around us. I’m always terrified I fail at that. So that’s what’s scary.

Spent Saints_Book Cover_Full Spread_Final_1.30.17Eye for Sin

I climbed into the passenger seat and Tinkles lifted the pint of Southern Comfort from between his legs and offered me a shot. Took a good chug, handed it back and twisted an air conditioning vent in my direction. Pretty much all we needed to say to each other.

Tinkles wheeled the old Corolla back out onto my street, and turned west on Van Buren. We took it easy through downtown, headed north on Seventh Ave. and rolled toward Sunnyslope, a dark burb that rises up a sun-crested hill. There were few cars out and butter-colored streetlights fanned across the windshield. Tinkles flipped the car stereo on to Cher’s “Believe,” and turned it up. I reached out and turned it down. Blown distorted speaker, horrible song. Ears didn’t want it.

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.

Raeff_JungleAroundUs.inddThe Doctors’ Daughter

“Don’t forget to feed the chickens,” Pepa’s parents told her when they left for the jungle to take care of the yellow fever victims. As if she could forget such a thing. Wasn’t she the one who took care of them, who collected the eggs, swept up the droppings, slit their throats with the scalpel her father had given her for this very purpose? If she had forgotten to feed the chickens, they would have come pecking at the back door, would have jumped onto the kitchen windowsill and poked their beaks between the louvers. How could she possibly forget to feed the chickens?

The chickens had been Pepa’s idea, after all. Her parents had not approved at first. “What do we know about keeping chickens?” they said. But they seemed to forget that in the beginning they had not known any of it. They had not known how to cook beans, had not known the taste of fried bananas or the Spanish word for rice, had not known how to hang mosquito netting or the sound of monkeys screaming in the night or that you had to bribe the health inspectors as well as hide the water cistern when they came around every so often looking for what they called “standing water.”

amina_gautier5.creditjennibryantI notice that every time someone asks you when you’re going to write a novel, you get pretty snippy about it. Sometimes even—dare I say?—downright snarky. Do you hate novels so much?

I don’t hate novels at all. There are many novels I absolutely adore! A Lesson Before Dying, The Age of Innocence, Beloved, The Color Purple, Erasure, Fight Club, The Known World, Montana 1948, Not Without Laughter, Passing, Quicksand, The Remains of the Day, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Their Eyes Were Watching God –just to name a few.

 

Don’t you want your books to sell? Don’t novels sell better? Why don’t you just shut everybody up and write one?

I am a writer who is a literature scholar and professor and that is the lens through which I look to see the world of writing. So I know that there is no correlation between a book’s advance or publisher and the book getting invited into the academy.

AminaGautierLostThingsCoverFalling into step with the boy, Thisman draws close and whispers in a voice only for him. Says, “I wish I had a little boy just like you. I wish you were my own,” and the boy believes it, every single word.

He is lost, but not in the way he has been taught to be. Not in a supermarket; not in a shopping mall. There are no police officers or security guards to whom he can give his name and address. There is no one to page his parents over a loudspeaker to come and get him. None of the clocks where they go give the correct time and there are no calendars to mark the days. He never knows where or when he is.

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I’m going to go ahead and ask this because we’re all thinking it: are you drinking right now?

I have some double chocolate hot cocoa, if that’s what you mean.

 

Is that a shot? What’s in it?

It has water…and hot cocoa mix. Land O’ Lakes, if you must know.

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Answers to Interview Questions about The Unfinished World,

Taken from Yelp Reviews of Famous Museums around the World

 

Why should people read your book?

“It’s pretty interesting and is not a long-winded affair…Many people enjoy lunch here and it’s open to the public. Truly amazing and massive collection of mammals, historic artifacts, dinosaurs, etc… Dedicated to both ecclesiastical and secular topics.”

 

How long did it take you to write the book?

“After I got my ticket, I didn’t waste much time, started to explore. I could have spent weeks here. But I got it done in a day, though we rushed through a lot of it.”

authorphoto2So you’ve published your second collection of stories, Big Venerable (CCLaP Publishing, 2015), after publishing one a while ago called Why God Why. The people who read Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013) seemed to like it. Why not finish on a high note? Why write another book and risk failure again?

Because I’m greedy. I want to write all the books. Unfortunately there isn’t enough time. Maybe one day…

 

That’s nonsense, that’s a nonsense answer and you know it. Give me a real answer.

Yes, it is nonsense. You know me so well! But here’s something that is true, I wrote some of the stories from Big Venerable much earlier than any that appeared in Why God Why. So really, Big Venerable, as a book, is just the culmination of that effort. It’s interesting to see how your work evolves. especially with respect to character development, something that was largely absent in the flash fictions of Why God Why.

DSC_2150You’re a hard guy to track down.

I know, I know. I’m sorry. I just have a lot of obligations and duties—many roles to play.

 

What roles?

Husband, father, son, brother, department chair, mentor, friend, book reviewer, writer, etc.

 

So, mulattos, eh?

Yup.

Wild Mulattos Cover (New Blurb)Not long ago, at the beginning of this new century, I received from my maternal uncle a rather fateful phone call. I hadn’t spoken to Uncle Dalton in years, hadn’t seen him since my high school graduation, when he whispered that if I moved far enough away from my parents’ northeastern home, with my complexion, manner and intellect, I might pass for white. His calling surprised me, as did the frantic tone with which he relayed a curious adventure. He and some friends had been drinking and duck hunting in the Arkansas Delta, and through some sequence of events he could not fully explain, he got lost among the oxbow lakes, sloughs and uninhabited woods along the Mississippi River. For two days he wandered, convinced he’d die, with no map and his ammunition depleted from shooting at canvasbacks and trying to signal his companions. But on the third day, when he was making peace with God—in large part requesting forgiveness for the execrable treatment he’d given my mother for marrying my father—while falling to his knees he saw a slim youth in what looked like a gray sweatsuit, stepping into a gap among trees and thigh-high weeds. Stumbling forward, my uncle called for help, and the boy emerged, told my uncle to break his rifle, toss it to the ground and wait right there. In a few minutes the youth returned with venison jerky, a rough ceramic jug of fresh water, and a hand drawn map on homemade paper that steered Uncle Dalton to a gas station several circuitous miles down a dirt road. “And he looked just like you,” my uncle insisted. “Just like you.”

grow2Your debut collection is titled, My Life as a Mermaid, but there aren’t any mermaids in your book. I’m guessing you haven’t actually lived as a mermaid?

Only in my head. I love to swim, though, so that counts for something. Had I known about Weeki Wachee Springs when I was younger, I may have spent a summer or two getting paid to wear a mermaid costume and performing in an underwater theater. But if that had happened, I’m guessing this book—and my life—would’ve turned out differently.

 

Speaking of “my life,” where did the title come from? If the book is not about mermaids, then what part of it, if any, is about your life?

Before it became the title of a story in this collection, it was a joke I made about a particular way I flip in the water to make myself dizzy, something I’ve been doing since I was eight years old. It doesn’t look like much, and I admit it’s highly ridiculous (or refreshingly uninhibited?) that I still do it as a forty-something woman. Somehow the phrase, ‘my life as a mermaid,’ stuck. I always thought I’d use it as the title of my memoir, but it took on fictional proportions after that.

41bKsL5ED+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_OK, Goodbye

Let’s say the first time she tries to walk out she loses her car keys in the front yard at night. She’s sassy, maybe a little drunk. She tosses her keys in the air but misses them on the way back down. The next thing she knows, she and her husband and the neighbors’ kids are on their hands and knees on the front lawn, feeling around for keys. Wet pieces of mowed grass stick to her legs as she crawls in the dark. She’s cussing to herself and dizzy and hungry. She’d like to stay angry enough to leave once she finds her car keys, but she’s also tired.

Then there’s the scene outside in which the neighbors are loading their truck to move. It’s a hot afternoon, and Vivie says, “You probably won’t be here when I get back, so I want to say goodbye now and tell you how nice it was to have you as neighbors. I mean it—we won’t ever get neighbors as good as you,” and she starts to tear up.

Everyone hugs. They laugh and say, “Keep in touch.”

“You keep in touch, too.”

Vivie gets in her car and pulls away. She drives slowly and waves. They wave, and she honks and waves some more. At the corner she turns to go to the store, and they’re out of sight.

Photo_ Shane Hinton_credit Keir MagoulasThere are a lot of fictional Shane Hintons in your book.

Like you, for one.

 

Exactly. What’s that about?

Well, I think it’s important to blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction. We feel betrayed when we find out something that has been sold to us as “real” is actually some combination of fact and fiction. I want to play with that distrust.

 

You’re saying the stuff in this book didn’t actually happen?

Some of it happened. Some of it didn’t. If the reader ever starts to wonder what’s real and what’s not, I think that’s a pretty special area of possibility.

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Miguelito

When my first wife moved out, she took the pictures of our basset hound and left the pictures of our honeymoon. She took the kitchen appliances we received as wedding presents. She took the bed we bought with our first tax return.

It was the end of summer. There were papers scattered around the front room. Our health insurance statement, our car insurance statement, and our homeowner’s insurance statement were in a loose pile where our desk used to be. I pulled the twin mattress from the guest bedroom into the middle of the living room. The dog sat by the front door, whining.

I slept with the lights on. The ceiling fan spun overhead, casting shadows on the ceiling. I woke up around midnight and let the dog outside. When I woke up again to his scratching at the back door, the sun was coming up.

I rubbed my eyes as he walked in the door, the fur on his paws and long ears wet with dew. He had never stayed outside all night. I figured he must have been waiting for my first wife’s car to pull into the driveway. “Sorry, boy,” I said. “I don’t think she’s coming home.” The dog shook the dew out of his fur and looked up at me, drool collecting in the corner of his mouth.