What do the protagonists in your book do for work?
One of them is a county clerk, one is a drug addict, another is a drug dealer, another is an office worker, another is a porn star, yet another is a history professor, and the last leads survey groups for a multinational food conglomerate. But he quits.
Where are the stories set?
San Francisco, Oakland, LA, the Midwest, and Lubbock, Texas.
Certainly there are small ponies in Lubbock?
Why the title Settlers of Unassigned Lands?
Each story follows a character that finds him or herself far from the familiar. In most cases, this is the result of moving to a new place. In some instances, though, it’s due to someone else leaving, or a once-familiar environment changing/eroding. In fifteen years, I’ve held fifteen addresses; having characters leaving one place and arriving another is at least in part a result of my own wanderlust/perpetual motion.
The last story in the collection, “Rancho Brava,” is a 50-page letter that has charts in it. Can you explain why you’re interested in playing with form in narrative?
Woolf says, “Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that you can’t use the wrong words.” Alternative forms of narrative (and in this book that includes the epistolary, the 2nd Person, and stories with very long [one- or two-page] sentences) are for me a way of locating and illuminating the work’s innate cadence. In my first collection, about half the stories utilize the very long sentence, and the title story, “National Treasures,” is constructed as a series of EBay listings. Form, of course, is only part of style, but I find it an effective way of unlocking the story’s voice while reinforcing thematic content visually, or physically, in the narrative. As culture leans more and more toward the visual, it makes sense to me to seek ways to transform how a story “looks,” and working in this mode of narrative has the potential to aid in keeping the act of writing surprising for the writer, which is important.
Something sort of funny happened with the title story here, right?
The very wonderful lit mag that originally published the title story listed it on their TOC page as an essay, not a story, so, for anyone who read that issue of that publication, I was a suicidally-depressed heroin dealer following a ghost into an Oakland cemetery. But we are what we are write, I suppose. The “essay” went on to get Notable status in that year’s Best American Essays anthology.
And it’s some of your brother’s artwork on the book cover, yes?
That’s right. It looks like a painting, but it’s not: it’s actually photographs that have been silkscreened onto glass. My brother teaches at Mass Art (Massachusetts College of Art and Design) and every other summer he takes a group of students to Istanbul, to blow glass there. The photos are from one of those trips.
What books/parts of books won’t get out of your brain, as of late?
The last paragraph of Banville’s The Sea, the silkworms in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, the sumptuous and amazing neurosis that is Megan Martin’s Nevers (Caketrain), the Plant Wizard section in Dos Passos’s The 42nd Parallel, and a friend’s story that includes an amazing scene about a narrator and her brother building a snow tunnel past their bedroom window, after a blizzard. That story’s really darn good.
CHARLES MCLEOD is the author of a novel, American Weather, and two collections of stories: National Treasures, and the forthcoming Settlers of Unassigned Lands. He’s the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the University of Virginia, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and San Jose State University, where he was a Steinbeck Fellow. His website is www.charles-mcleod.com