Gabe Durham is the author of Fun Camp, a novel forthcoming from Mud Luscious Press. He lives in Northampton, MA, where he edits Dark Sky Magazine.
His story "The Different Thing" appears in Issue Thirty-Three of The Collagist.
Here, Gabe Durham talks to interviewer Joseph Scapellato about asking questions with fiction, a strange church experience, and what happens when you aren't asked to explain why you picked one poster over others.
1. Where did “The Different Thing” begin for you, and how did it get to here?
I was writing another story—what I’m tempted to call a real story with character, event, etc.—that began, “It was that perennial time of year when clouds shifted restlessly and comedians passed out flyer coupons just off Times Square.” I liked the game of that sentence, the way it pointed to the perpetuity of comedians handing out coupons, and imagined writing a short story in which I might gorge myself on sentences like this.
At the same time, I was in a rut. I’d moved to a city I didn’t much like with a degree that didn’t much help me, and my agent was forwarding me these lovely glowing rejections by career-maker editors on a manuscript, and though I’d prided myself on being a persistent and goal-driven guy always in pursuit of the next thing, I was very unsure what the next thing was. I began to fear my own decision-making. This story seems to me now (over a year later) to have been born of that fear: I wrote a story in which I made no decisions about who anyone was or what they were doing.
2. I’m struck by this piece’s compelling narration—right off the bat, the reader encounters unspecific specificity (or specific unspecificity?): “The young couple was informed: Something today would be different. It was a time of day again and the sky was active, casting rays onto things, making the things look different in this light than in other light.” The characters’ actions are at times interchangeable: “They resisted making contact until one risked it. The other was glad.” These are only two examples of this voice’s playful energy. Can you tell us more about this voice—what your goals were with it, how you found or followed it?
As I wrote and revised, I pushed the story as far as I could into what you’re nicely dubbing this specific unspecificity: About the young couple, I asked: Could this be said about any couple? About the different thing, I asked: Could this be said of any event?
What excited me about asking those questions was that it turned out I was asking myself: What do I think couples are like? And many of the answers were so basic, the kinds of things it’s rarely worth mentioning: Well, okay, when they meet, they like to look at each other. And I’d scan it and make sure I agreed with it. It’s nice to get to say something true like that, even if that true thing is obvious.
But then of course in this story, as in all stories, there had to be the turn. The story had to get away from me somehow. And I tried out a number of things, and the one that stuck was the idea of meeting avoidance head-on: “You could paint their shirts red or their trees oak or fashion their coveted different thing into a sexy Panamanian burglar from Amnesty International and spend the rest of your life paying for it.” And of course, near the end, we do all of that stuff and more—but tentatively, hypothetically—and then run away from it.
3. This piece includes many moments of insightful and comic defamiliarization: “The clothes the young couple wore reflected their beliefs on temperature, mobility, modesty, comfort, and style.” To what extent do you think that all fiction makes (or should make) the familiar strange?
I’ve heard other writers talk about the mental game that goes, “How would I explain this to a space alien?” Which isn’t so different than asking, “How would I explain this to a very precocious child I’m babysitting?” To me, the object of the game is the attempt to clear away our received ideas and start from somewhere closer to scratch.
Around the time of the writing of this story, also in the new city, my wife and I attended a church service recommended to her by an acquaintance. They met in a very appealing space and catered to twentysomethings, especially musicians, lots of tattoos and artificially darkened hair, and the band there performed loud midtempo praise medleys very proficiently—kind of that “drone of worship” mentality where the words don’t especially matter. And it wasn’t until their minister got up to speak that we realized we were in the most radically conservative church either of us had ever been to. The minister was a large and kinda sloppy man, but he had a real aggression in him. His rambling message was all about prosthelatizing, peppered with bits about Hell and the domination of men over women, and whenever he felt like he’d made a killer point that hadn’t gotten its due from the crowd, he would say, “I think that deserves an amen, don’t you?” And while he was speaking, before he brought up a trembling ex-gay with a testimony about how Abba Father had cured his affliction of homosexuality, the minister said this of his own sermon: “I’m blowing your mind right now. And the reason I’m blowing your mind is because you’re not used to people telling you the truth.”
I don’t think the familiar can be made strange, I think the familiar can be limitlessly mined for the strange that was there all along. It’s the recognition that makes it satisfying. And for that quality, I think “Louie” might just be the best show on TV right now.
4. Some literary magazine editors say that their position as editor affects their own writing/writing process; others say, “Not really.” How has being the editor of Dark Sky Magazine affected (or not affected) your relationship with your writing?
You can’t edit a magazine without quickly discovering that all editors for any magazine are just people like you. And with that knowledge ever in place, you can never again fault one of them for rejecting your writing. Taste is mysterious.
I am not going to fact-check this—They did a study: They put the subjects in front of a box of posters. To half of the subjects, they said, “Take whatever poster you want.” And the most popular poster was an image, no text, with this cool ineffable quality. And to the other half of the subjects, they said, “Take whatever poster you want, but first tell us why you picked it.” And the most popular poster was some stupid motivational poster with a caption about following your dreams or something. They picked the motivational poster because they could think of something to say about it, an easy justification for their decision.
Because I never have to explain my decisions, I think editing pushes me further toward the “know it when I see it” and away from “here’s why I like it,” and that’s got to help my writing.
5. What writing projects are you working on right now?
Before too long, J.A. Tyler and I will embark on the edits for my first book, FUN CAMP, due from Mud Luscious Press about a year from now. And I’ve got a story collection in the drawer.
At the moment, though, I’m working exclusively on a nonfiction account of September 22, 2011, and have slowly been becoming the expert on that date. And there are no other experts on that particular date, so I’m breaking ground on an entirely new field of study. It involves looking up a lot of stuff on the internet.
How I know it’s a good project for me is that before I was writing it, I would try to work on my writing and then accidentally find myself on the internet. Now whenever I try to go for a relaxing stroll on the internet, I accidentally find myself doing research for the book.
6. What knockout writing have you been reading recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
Recently I blew through a number of the short books that had been happily accumulating: Victory by Ben Kopel (wildly openhearted teen punk poems edited with a brain—most ecstatic voice since Bailey’s Drunk Sonnets), For Out the Heart Proceed by Jensen Beach (calm and sly short stories of fathers discovering ugliness and glory inside themselves—even when they’re not fathers, they’re fathers), Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell (my favorite is easily “Justine,” in which three daughters put their philandering father on trial and enact swift justice, taking first a thumb and then more), Baby Leg by Brian Evenson (one of those cool recursive loop books—you can tell early on the end is headed straight for the beginning), Life Is with Other People by Atticus Lish (book of evil sketches in which the artist makes great use of the opportunity for surprise in the distance between drawing and caption, and even greater use of the dramatic effect of the hair on a hairy man), and A Cloth House by Joe Riipi (a short and emotionally raw story of loss).
I just taught my reading class Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a short novel I really admire about a guy using journalistic tricks to try and figure out how it was possible that his friend got murdered when nearly everyone in town knew it was going to happen. The book juggles an enormous cast of characters, dips from past to present whenever it wants, and maintains a complicated register that is both darkly funny and not at all. There’s no fluff—I like it much more than Hundred Years of Solitude.
Also, Mel Bosworth has loaned me the autobiography of Felicia “Snoop” Pearson. She had it tough. Michael K. Williams recruited her for The Wire just by watching her in the club one night, convinced her to go audition. She continued selling all throughout the shooting of Season 3 before giving it up.
On deck: Wise Blood and some Alice Munro stories. And I just found out today that the new Leni Zumas novel is out, which I got to publish a bit of last year when I was editing Keyhole Magazine last year. Her fiction is consistently terrific—I’m eager to read it.