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 first installment of our interview, loosely focused around the topic of writing. Stay tuned for part two, coming up soon!
SABRINA WISE: You write nonfiction for magazines like The Atlantic and Rolling Stone. For The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, you chose magical realism. What draws you to magical realism as the genre for exploring relationships and loss? Previously you have stated, “There’s a difference between fact and truth. The latter is more real, more inviolable.” How does magical realism help you access or express the truth?
COLIN FLEMING: To be honest, I don’t really draw a distinction between anything I write as fiction or nonfiction. I mean, for me, it’s always the same in my mind: I tell a story. So the process is exactly the same, whether I’m writing putatively about Bram Stoker’s journals for the VQR, or the Beatles for Rolling Stone, or some film for The Atlantic, or a short story.
The proper nouns change, but what you’re really writing about is human truths, things specific to people, those ideas that we’re all bound to, in some ways, and which mark us as separate from each other in other ways. I have to publish about eighty works a year at this point to keep the lights on, and when you’re doing two or three things in a day, sometimes, you really can feel that, basically, hey, it’s story time. Here’s one, now let’s tell another. That kind of deal.
With the stories in The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe, I never viewed them as magical realism. Sure, there was weird stuff, in some senses—a snake befriends a headstone in the middle of the forest, there’s a hecate in another, a red-colored ocean besieges a town and one person in particular—but they’re always very human stories. They traffic in emotions that, to some degree, I think we all feel every day. They just have this kind of weirdy raiment. But that’s just the clothes of the story.
To me a story has to have a person. Which doesn’t always mean an actual person. But it means that human point that you, as the reader, go to. And sometimes you think, “Fuck me, I so know that” or maybe, “Fuck me, I didn’t know that previously, but yeah. Yeah. That’s in me, too.” And then what matters is what one does with the revelation that can come along with a book. They run from it or they grow from it. But I think, really, some books can hold sway such that they’re going to do what they do no matter what, once you’ve experienced them.
I think that’s how truth works. Fact is smaller. Fact is what we determined based on rules we invented. It’s like, link your hands together and push down. That’s where the facts are. Turn them over and push up. That’s where the truths are. They’re about us, but they’re beyond us, and, ultimately, we answer to them, rather than the other way around. And the best art knows this better than anything, because the best art is an additional residence for those truths. That’s the art that lasts, and it does so because of those truths.
SABRINA WISE: Again and again, your characters find themselves in literal or metaphorical darkness, desperately seeking some vision or understanding. They use anglerfish lights to see in the fog, psychic rock crabs to learn more about their past. Where do you think writing fits into this process? Is writing a story a way to mine for understanding of the inexplicable?
COLIN FLEMING: The rock crab is such a cad. And a wiseass. But, he is, ultimately, a crab of faith with his deep devotion to the world outside of the noise machine he lives in.
But it’s telling that his companion puts so much stock in him. He’s desperate for information. When there’s loss and you’re desperate for information—and this is made worse if you’re a communicator, and made worse, still, if you’re a person who thinks about how people feel, if you’re an empathetic person—what you’re really desperate for is closure. And from closure comes some footing, some traction, and from traction comes forward movement. Which you don’t have without that starting info. Often.
One thing you’re dealing with is that while, yes, some things are inexplicable, nothing is indescribable. Which sounds like its own magical realism construct, as in, no, that can’t really be. But life is made up of a lot of that-can’t-really-be-o-yes-but-it-is realities.
You come in as the artist, and you do the alchemy on all of that, you make it knowable, you make it feelable. I like what you say about the kinds of darkness. The color gradients of the abyss, in a way. Metaphor can personalize things. It provides a specificity. If we just say, this guy Jack left that girl Jill, well, that could be anyone, yeah? But if we extend it out, if we personalize with metaphor, not only does Jill see herself more exactly in that situation, not only does her situation get the legitimacy as its own unique thing, which is what it deserves, a narrative begins to come clear from that process, a story. When others can connect with that story, that deeply personal thing has grown outward.
Something that felt so private, that it needed some help to take focus, now has both its privacy and its openness, its shareability. Boom. That’s it. Literal and metaphorical doesn’t matter anymore. They’ve been moved beyond. They were just points in a process, of sorts, that gave us something we can now all work with in our various ways, and get what we need from it.
SABRINA WISE: So many of these stories shift from pathos to hilarity in a single sentence. What role does humor play in your writing process, particularly when you are writing about difficult or even traumatic topics?
COLIN FLEMING: I think that’s life. The very serious and the very comical, and sacred and the profane, ride together, and their joint presence bolsters the impact and relevancy of each individually. That’s something I hate about so much of the fiction today. Something has to be all one thing. Either some story that’s supposed to be funny but isn’t actually funny, or some fake plastic drama that’s all overwrought and not really about anything of significance at all. Life is a lot of things at once. You shouldn’t be able to see, in my view, what’s coming next in the work of art you’re partaking of, nor, crucially, which direction it’s coming from. Life comes from the back and the underside as much as it does the front and the top. I wanted a hilarious fucking book, too, because it had to be.
You can’t just have that pain out there and wallop people with it. It’s too one note, for one thing, and it’s also not for the reader. That’d be for you, for your confessional. Your wailing wall session. I don’t work for me. I care about the person on the other side of the table. They’re the ones that matter.
I like an artist like Shane MacGowan of the Pogues because he always got the sacred and the profane thing, the serious and the comical, and Mozart really got it, and as I thought more, I could see that every artist who ever meant something to me was that way. And it’s just become who I am.
SABRINA WISE: When you started crafting the stories in Anglerfish, was it clear to you right away that you were writing a collection? Did you write the stories in the order they appear in now?
COLIN FLEMING: I wrote the book as a book, in a month. I had had something happen to me. I had a wife, a life, a house. She left, there was no pre-warning, no statement of anything that she felt was wrong, and I never heard from her again, basically. I wrote letter after letter, but there was nothing. Just lawyers taking me on. I couldn’t afford one. My health began to falter under the strain, I had a medical incident where I passed out, I couldn’t remember my name when I came to, and my face was contorted. And I just wrote.
I did five of the stories in one week, while doing all of my magazine work, which requires, apart from the formal writing, about 20,000 words a week pitching, trying to get paid, and not infrequently begging people to respond for the first time in seven years or whatever. The stories weren’t transposed from my life—it’s not like I know someone like that anglerfish in the title story who thinks he’s this Orson Welles-type figure at the bottom of the sea—but I knew I had this emotional outcrop, I was situated somewhere, in that extra dark night of the soul where no GPS can track you down. I used my environment, in that regard.
But I never viewed The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe parts as stories, in a way. They were part of a book. I don’t like collections. I like books. And when you come to the last word of TACT, I wanted that to be the last word of a book. Not, strictly, the last word of a story.
But I knew the themes, I knew the motifs, I knew the characters, I knew my particular emotional outcrop, and I knew, too, at that point in my life, after having written so much for so long, every day, how fast I could go. How I could unload. I couldn’t have done it two years before. For me, there was a time when it was risky to write the 400 word Rolling Stone thing the day it was due. But by then, I had become someone who could easily do 7000 words in a day, and I don’t mean draft words, I mean done words. Because that’s how I was doing it. I was doing it that way for the magazine with the circulation of a million. My life was a disaster.
But I also knew I could do something that was not common. And I went with that. The order for the book mostly happened in the way that as a kid you see the blocks with the numbers on them and you order them that way. You don’t think about maybe block #5 was made in Santa’s workshop before block #1. To me they were blocks with numbers on them. I printed them all out, went to the café, did some reading for work, and then I just put them in order. Later I changed one aspect of that order on a good suggestion by an editor. And that was it.
SABRINA WISE: Word has it you’re at work on a bunch of different projects. What’s next?
COLIN FLEMING: There are quite a few just now. I slave away at the deadline work to keep the lights on, fighting for time to complete longer projects. There is an novel I’m well into about a piano prodigy/genius who does not wish to be one, called The Freeze Tag Sessions.
There’s the book of Cape Cod fiction, “Here, Googan Googan,” that I need to sell, and also another book I’m working on now called “Same Band You’ve Never Known: An Alternative Musical History of the Beatles.” Then there’s a memoir, “I Am Not Like You: A Broken Man’s Attempt to Write His Way Out of Hell One Story, Book, Deadline, and Note-to-Self at a Time,” and another novel told entirely in conversations between Writer, Bartender, and the guy from the suburbs who dresses up as Ben Franklin—and some other people—called “Musings with Franklin.” And a children’s book called “Silas Beaverton: The Beaver Who Tried to Dam the Ocean.” Beaver with a dream, you might say. Who learns some lessons that are good lessons, I think, for both beavers and children, and everyone else. Maybe not anglerfish. Well, probably anglerfish, too.