Colin Fleming is the author of three books of short stories as well as countless articles for magazines like The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and Sports Illustrated. His newest book, The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, was published by Dzanc in August. In Anglerfish, Fleming grapples with relationships and the voids left when they end. Gripping, whimsical, and dark, these eighteen stories live in realms that are at once magical and real, strange and devastatingly familiar. I got the chance to ask Colin some questions about his writing process, truth versus fact, and the role of humor in the abyss. Here’s the second installment of our interview, which focuses on the stories and inspirations for The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe. (Read part one here.)
SABRINA WISE: One thing that struck me about the stories in The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe is the way they are powered by place, its ability to store or conceal memories. One place you incorporate into all eighteen stories is the ocean. How did the ocean find its way into your writing? Did you know from the start you would include it in each story?
COLIN FLEMING: I did. I knew the ocean would be there, because, in some ways, it’s not really the ocean. Sure, it’s briney and does some ocean-type things, and some extra-ocean type things, and it takes away, and it metes out, and it rends, and it never stops coming, and it’s the greatest symbol of what I think of as mobile constancy that we have. It’s not mountains. Mountains don’t move, they don’t come at you, they don’t have the fiendish regularity, and also the heroic regularity, of the sea. To me, it’s the thing in nature most like hope, most like pain, most like life. It can also be the thing least like us, because the ocean never fucking stops.
And in The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe, pain never stops. But so, too, does the struggle against pain. For that struggle to be non-stop is indicative of a certain oceanness, requires a certain oceanness. There’s this quote that goes, “Heroism is endurance for one moment more.” Now, if you were sitting in some supernal bar having a drink with the ocean, provided he could be reduced to some little figure of standing blue water, he’d be like, “Oh yeah, totally get that, yep,” before knocking back a Samuel Adams. I don’t know why I think the ocean would drink Samuel Adams, but that seems more likely than some Bud Lite piss. And what happens when pain is constant and the fight against that pain, the active fight, the fight to comprehend what the hell happened to you, or a series of you’s—and we all know how utterly incapacitating pain can be, and that’s what pain really wants to do to you, render you motionless in your daily life, powerless, inert—is just as vigorous, just as regular, just as unceasing, is that there’s growth unlike any other growth of which we are capable, I believe, as human beings. Oceans of life, and foamy ones, with big breaking waves of their own.
So there’s that rousing aspect, and a sort of triumphant, punch the air one, even if that punching of the air is sometimes happening in some dark back corridor of the soul where, at last, a single light bulb has flickered to life again, the sound of the waves crashing outside. And I also just love the ocean. So there’s that. On the subway I’ll get sick, in the backseat of a car, on a bus, on a plane, but were we to go whale watching or some such, I’d be up on the top of the boat uncorking one “arrrr” after another and pretending I was Horatio Hornblower. I’m a little embarrassing on whale watching ventures.
SABRINA WISE: Let’s talk about the anglerfish, a creature that lures in its prey with a light and then chomps it to bits. When you sit down to write “stories from the abyss,” you are necessarily casting or seeking some light in the darkness. Does doing so feel risky, dangerous? What was it like, mentally or emotionally, to write eighteen stories about the abyss?
COLIN FLEMING: It wasn’t fun! Even though the book cracks me up and several people kept telling me it was like Monty Python. An anglerfish is about the most intense looking creature in nature. Crazy nightmare dream intense, except real. But I think they’re small. Or they’re not huge. I think of them as about the size of fat trout. You see a photo of one, and you think it’s some massive monster of the deep. So I liked the idea that here was this fish who might have had an amped up sense of self with all of his fishy badassery, but he was also the size of a chubby brook fish. Bit of a Napoleon complex. And the idea of such a fellow leading a comedy troupe as this overly officious auteur, well, that’s a funny conceit, a whimsical concept, like maybe all of this is some underwater abyssal pageant. Some deep sea Fantasia, or some piscean Renaissance talent show/fair, you know, the kind where you’d watch various acts on the stage, drink some mead, enjoy some mutton, take part in the archery contest. Sort of Disney in a way, but Disney gone really wrong, but retaining a heart. And, what’s more, looking for a heart, reclaiming a heart.
Other times, some of it was so intense, so shattering, and then there’d be laughter at the end of that shattering, and I’d think, Good God, what have you done? Melville called Moby-Dick an evil book, and had huge misgivings near the end of doing it, worrying if this kind of thing was even allowable. There wasn’t really anything like it. And I think he started freaking out because there weren’t reference points for him. Meanwhile, his buddy Hawthorne, saw all of this and said, essentially, fuck yes, do more of that Herman! And then more!
The writing of something I know is right is an inviolable thing for me. You could say, “If you write this thing you know is right, that you know is the best you can do, that you know would matter to people, but then you’ll always be alone, you’ll always live in a rat’s nest of a studio, you’d never get your house by the sea back, you’ll always feel like you’re dead and you’re in hell”… I’m still going to write it. I can’t not write it anymore than I can magically become someone else before I drink my next cup of day old coffee. Back in my life, I’d regret and bemoan how it was all going, but I couldn’t not write that thing no matter what.
SABRINA WISE: The story I’ve reread the most is “The Char Paper Blues Band.” What inspired you to write from this angle—that of tiny musicians who play the soundtrack for a couple’s relationship?
COLIN FLEMING: When the Beatles were making Sgt. Pepper, Paul McCartney would go around to his bandmates and say, “this is our Freak Out,” that being an album by Frank Zappa. Meaning, we’re going with this, we’re going far, let’s look in every direction, consider it all, an endless case of it’s all fair game. I sometimes have my own version of that mantra, which is, who’s to say it’s not like this? You can do it with a lot of things.
Like, presumably you’ve not died, and I’ve not died, right? But who’s to say? We don’t know. Maybe you cross into something else and you’re not officially told. That’s as likely as what we all presume, more or less, happens. You figure, if you think about it, it has to be something that would never occur to us. Or that’s as likely as anything. There’s no manual for what goes down, or what doesn’t. I don’t really think microscopic blues bands go around soundtracking the demise of a given love, but heartbreak breeds ranging thought, and ranging thought can touch on whimsical elements.
They don’t feel whimsical to you, because you’re gutted. And then there’s the mystery of heartbreak. How can it be so boundless? Sometimes it’s boundless and it’s not like it comes from a thirty year association, a thirty year relationship, but you know it’s legitimately as boundless as if it did. It stands outside of the normal rules of time. And that’s one reason why we can struggle with it so much. Because we deal with those rules all the time, and we associate them with normality, and we associate normality with wellness.
So if you’re in the weirder, but legit, space-time continuum of loss, of pain, you get more and more down on yourself because your clock there doesn’t synch up with the regular clock of the regular world, and, crucially, with what you imagine is the clock everyone else is keyed in on. But you know what? They’re not. People just hide their other clock better, they’re less forthcoming, they think that in admitting struggle, emotional struggle, they’re making themselves look weak, lower than someone else. And the reality is, the people who admit such things are the strong people. A story like “Char Band,” and a book like The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe as a whole, is for people who’ve known that loss, who’ve been aware of the other clock, who’ve felt themselves pressed up against it.
SABRINA WISE: Between The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe and one of your other books of short stories, Dark March, your fiction adds up to an intensive meditation on relationships and the voids left when they end. Whether we admit it or not, most of us find ourselves in the void at some point, so I—and I’m sure our readers—would love to know this: Have you gleaned any insights into how relationships end or ways to rebuild in the aftermath?
COLIN FLEMING: I do know that if you think you’ve had something awful happen to you, and it’s something you’ve not heard of, that your friends haven’t been through, that you’ve never heard tell of, or seen in a movie or a book or, hell, some fucked up opera, stuff just as bad can happen to you again. Worse. It can go that way.
Actually, I do have one thing that I think is salient, even imperative: and that’s that you have to do right by you, by not losing the person you are, by not selling out your values, by sometimes talking the long road and walking it, because it’s the right thing to do, albeit the far harder one. And I would say that if you do that, you put yourself in a position that, if you’re lucky enough that someone who does the same comes along, you can have something that other people just don’t get to have very often in this world. And together, in that togetherness, you can have truths, rather than facts. An exponential curve of them. Which is handy, because truths tend to run along the very same axes as that kind of love.