When Willy Vlautin’s first book, Motel Life, came out, I brought it with me to the beach house where my family (parents, siblings, spouses, kids, etc.) meet up for a week every summer. I read it in an afternoon, loved it, and passed it on. By the end of the week no less than six people across three generations were diehard Willy fans. We have all read (and loved) every Willy book since. So, when an advance copy of Willy’s new book recently landed in my hands, I felt I owed it to my family to get this guy on the phone.

Our conversation took place over two hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Willy has a great voice with a lot of gravel and a little bit of twang—he sounds like a really smart country boy who’s read a lot of books. We skipped the usual small talk and went straight into the heart of things: writing, love, life, family, childhood, happiness, drinking, and his latest book The Freewhich happens to be the official March selection of The TNB Book Club.

Willy said way more than is fit to print in a single interview, so here are some highlights from one of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had with a stranger:

The cover of Bushnell's most recent poetry collectionMike Bushnell has been making Internet literature for years, and in 2007 he appeared as the force behind publishers Jaguar Uprising and Bore Parade. He also created an alter ego in the form of a professional wrestler called “The Industry,” with which he made promo videos wherein he wore his now-signature face paint and business suit as he screamed threats into the camera. Jaguar Uprising was a chapbook press as well as a sort of shock squad that challenged literary and Internet conventions, while Bore Parade specialized in parodies and tributes to the aesthetics of the publisher Bear Parade.

Unemployed and looking for an inexpensive way to not feel miserable and lonely? Richard Ford has edited a new anthology of short stories about work and class: Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar. It features an array of established authors—Ann Beattie, Donald Barthelme, Junot Díaz, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates, Tobias Wolff, and more—but collecting a bunch of stories about work and slapping a light blue cover on it is nothing new. In 1999 Signet Classics published a similar compilation, The Haves and Have-Nots edited by Barbara Solomon, and in 2004 Random House published Labor Days—I think you can guess what those stories are about—edited by David Gates.

And what our collective unwillingness to insist these bands legally change their

names before we’ll listen to another note says about us as a nation of enablers

When I was in sixth grade this new restaurant opened up a few towns over and everyone was excited because there was almost nothing else in the area except Friendly’s, a well-known purveyor of inedible slop. So my parents slicked back our hair and loaded up the Impala wagon for the grand opening of The Mis Steak. It was covered with balloons. Laughing families shook hands in the lobby, coming and going. Our waitress was poured into her uniform like a perky butter pat. Dad ordered a second beer. There were free cupcakes. Mom left a big tip and said we’d be back soon.

Of course, the place went out of business in about six weeks. The Mis Steak had been doomed even before the workmen finished lowering the sign into place. Friendly’s is still there. Moral: names matter.

In his debut Collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, Justin Taylor channels a few old chestnuts, (I’ve only just gotten started with this book) but it immediately impressed this reader with a nicely chiseled style that’s refreshingly “no bullshit”.  There’s a hurricane lashing the coast, and Taylor’s narrator tells us about Amber, and some other girls, kissing, screwing, maybe hopeful screwing, and invents a deserted suburban landscape that is immediately recognizable. Amber stares out the window, so do we, of course this story is titled; Amber at the Window in Hurricane Season.

By the time you see what’s going on in the second story, In My Heart I Am Already Gone, and you witness it by noticing the cat hair floating through the air, Taylor informs us that Kyle has been hired to kill his cousin’s cat.  There is a kind of arrested development here, that permeates the first three stories, and carries right over into the fourth.  There aren’t many instances where comic books, or Star Wars enters into the picture, but I get the feeling that these men can’t get out of their late teens, or early twenties because they haven’t been giving good examples of how to do it, or chances to forge ahead, they all seem afraid to make mistakes. Kyle looks like he’s breaking out of his youth and doing whatever comes to mind, which is why killing a cat is the only thing that happens to him in this story, and he wants to fuck his cousin. Not an unusual emotion, to be sure, cousins have been going at it for years, but Kyle wants to be cool, and subversive, when it comes to breaking his cousin in. I’m probably shading this a little on the sick side, but Kyle knows he’s never leaving town, so why not let his emotion out. Again, these men don’t know what to do with each other, so they act naturally, which is natural to them, and odd to us.  The chestnuts I spoke of earlier are Carver and Barthelme, who have influenced Taylor with a sparse style, and little bit of quirky taste, but nothing that’s strange. I’ve never had an appetite for Barthelme, but David Gates gives a great quote, and if you’ve read Jernigan, than you’ll love this book.  I’m probably holding back most of my compliments on this collection because the NYT gave away everything except free copies of the book.  As far as affordability goes, you can’t go wrong with this, and oh yeah, I wish I could write like this when I was Mr. Taylor’s age. -JR

JR: I first discovered Eric Puchner when his debut collection hit the big time, Music Through The Floor. It reminded me of a young Tobias Wolff, especially poignant and heartfelt, but cold with realism, maybe like Carver and Ford.  I know that’s heavy praise, and his new novel, Model Home is about to hit the stores, so check out this essay, as a kind of preview…

The Stories of…

It’s hard for me to name a single book that made me want to be a writer, since every good book I finish makes me want to sit down and write, but I do remember the first one I fell in love with as a physical object.  This was The Stories of Ray Bradbury.  My older brother got it for Christmas one year, when I was ten, and like all my brother’s things—his Zig-Zags and roach clips and guitar straps—it held a totemic power over me.  I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  The book was huge, over 900 pages, and the cover looked like a T-shirt from the seventies: bubble letters shooting toward you on psychedelic beams of light, as if being projected from some nether region of space.  And that’s what the stories inside felt like to me: alien dispatches that were just now reaching Earth.  They were dark and freaky and often had savage little twists at the end.  There were a hundred stories in there, and I read every one of them at least once.  Some of my favorites—like “The Aqueduct,” about an aqueduct that ends up transporting human blood—I read many times over.

Up till then I think I imagined books just wrote themselves, products of immaculate conception, but something about the prominence of Ray Bradbury’s name on the jacket, its psychedelic marquee, made me think about authorship for the first time . Someone had sat down somewhere and written these things, all one hundred of them.  It seemed like a superhuman feat.  I haven’t dared to pick up the book since—I’m too worried about those twists, how I’d feel about them as an adult reader—but I sometimes think of those hundred stories when I’m procrastinating at home, checking my email instead of finishing a paragraph.  Somebody wrote them.

It was many years later, my first year out of college, when I read another collection of comparable heft and minimalist design.  This was The Stories of John Cheever.  By this point I’d decided I wanted to write stories of my own, and the book was a revelation, a real so-this-is-how-you-do-it experience.  I was working as a baggage handler in Salt Lake City and couldn’t have been further from Cheever country if I’d landed on the moon.  But from the first story—the gorgeous “Goodbye, My Brother”—I was slain.  I read the book in four or five sittings, in what seems to me now like an altered state.  Sixty-two stories, filled with passages of outlandish beauty.  Many of the stories are masterpieces.  I keep my original copy of the book—bound with duct tape and faded to a salmon pink—on my desk.

Writers usually have one or two major gifts, but Cheever seems to have had it all: emotional depth, dazzling language, expert storytelling, a sense of high-wire daring, a mastery of tone that treats the comic and tragic as cosmic bedfellows.  His milieu of doormen and high balls and pool parties seems a bit dated now, as quaint as the name Shady Hills, but his great theme— desire subjugated by dailiness—feels timeless.  I can’t think of any story that more eloquently captures the trajectory of life, from the invincibility of youth to the exhausted befuddlement of old age, than “The Swimmer.”  From Cheever, I learned that the best way to describe something honestly is to acknowledge that it won’t be around forever.  It’s the whiff of death in his stories that can make the description of an old church or a beautiful babysitter or a train station at dusk stop your heart.

And his endings!  It’s become a cliché to say that story endings should feel like “inevitable surprises,” but Cheever’s endings are so perfectly surprising they leave you speechless.  There’s the famous “kings in golden suits” at the end of “The Country Husband,” or the naked women walking out of the sea in “Goodbye, My Brother.”  There’s the ingenious way that the first and last sentences of “Reunion” repeat the same phrase yet contain a complete reversal of meaning.  There’s the baptism at the end of “The World of Apples,” when the famous poet who’s inexplicably begun to write obscene limericks leaps into a swimming hole as he once saw his father do, emerging cleansed and inspired.  It’s the way I felt at ten, and the way I feel now after reading Cheever’s remarkable stories: restored and suddenly alive, my eyes open again to the strangeness of the world.