“Titles Come to Me First”: Curtis Smith Interviews Randall Brown

50894920_882449192134963_9070531687141605376_nRandall Brown is the author of Mad to Live, a collection that sold out in a month and was reprinted by PS Books as a Deluxe Edition. His work appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash FictionThe Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, Grey House’s Critical Insights: American Short Story & Critical Insights: Flash Fiction and The Norton Anthology of Microfiction. Recent publications include I Might Never Learn (Finishing Line Press, 2018) and “How Long is Forever” (Running Wild Press, 2018). He has been published and anthologized widely, both online and in print, in places such as American Short Fiction, Mississippi Review, Cream City Review, Harpur Palate, and Chicago Quarterly Review. He is the founder and managing editor of FlashFiction.Net, Matter Press, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA from Vermont College and recently retired from Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, a tenure that included a three-year stint as the program’s director.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on I Might Never Learn. I’m always interested in a book’s journey, especially in the indie press world. How did you end up with Finishing Line Press? How was the experience?

Randall Brown: A submission to their yearly chapbook contest led to an invitation to publish with them. They’ve been easy and wonderful to work with. Shout out to Leah Maines, Mimi David, Jacqueline Steelman, and Christen Kincaid.

CS: You’ve published hundreds of flash fiction pieces, but now you have a book of poems and you’ve recently published a novella. Were these other forms always in the back of your mind—or have you surprised yourself with this exploration into other genres? Were these shifts difficult?

RB: I started writing the novella thirty-five years ago (give or take a few years). At the ripe old age of twenty-three, having decided and been told that I was not born to be a writer, I gave up and turned to other things. At the age of forty, with a brand spanking new MFA, the idea returned. Anxiety-wise, I could last about 1000 words before the uncertainty of finding the right word after right word overwhelmed me. Eventually, I started a novel in my therapist’s office, stopping to write down and discuss each thought that stopped my fingers in mid-type. After a long winter break, I returned to his office, dropped a folder on his desk, and said, “It’s done.” He cried. That novella soon followed. As to the poems, I always dreamed of being a poet like Robert Frost or Anne Sexton. Instead, I became a different one, one who write poems in prose.

CS: As you ventured into these new areas, what have you learned—about the forms you’re working with and about yourself? Has your style changed at all due to the things you’ve discovered along the way?

RB: Well, in novels and novellas, things have to happen. Sadly. In poetry, the opposite (for me) was true: I stripped them of narrative. Somewhere in the middle is flash fiction.

CS: You have a gift for capturing big pictures with little gestures—and for saying things with words unsaid. Can you explain how these structures come to you? Do you cast a wider net with your initial drafts then boil things down to their essence—or do the little things come to you first and do you then later realize what they’re trying to say to you?

RB: Thanks so much. Titles come to me first. I keep a list based on fragments from songs, overheard conversations, poems, British baking shows. Here’s a sample:

  • Must Be the Cocktail Sauce
  • On the Wrong Side of Firm
  • It Tastes Like Mystery
  • In My Defense
  • Don’t Tell Her It Isn’t So
  • It Isn’t So
  • Quiet Company
  • Without a Little Help
  • The Past Leaks Out
  • You Look Removed
  • She’s Lonely, Man
  • You’re Dead, Cold Button
  • Lap of the Gods
  • Once It’s in the Oven
  • The Shame of This Body

CS: In looking at the size and form of the pieces in I Might Never Learn, they appear little different than your flash fiction pieces. Having read a lot of your flash, I can feel a different vibe here, but I’m wondering if you can pinpoint what makes these, in your mind, fall into the realm of poetry more so than fiction?

RB: I adapted an exercise from Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town. I began by choosing a text and borrowing some of its nouns, verbs, and adjectives—ten of each. And so I ended up with a list like this one:

Nouns

  1. set-up
  2. session
  3. experience
  4. disorder
  5. device
  6. results
  7. machine
  8. appointment
  9. technology
  10. company

Verbs

  1. guide
  2. welcome
  3. hope
  4. review
  5. needed
  6. arrange
  7. order
  8. set
  9. recommend
  10. attach

Adjectives

  1. quick
  2. positive
  3. testing
  4. additional
  5. breathing
  6. follow-up
  7. tracking
  8. better
  9. unusual
  10. routine

I kind-of followed his advice.

Use five nouns, verbs, and adjectives from the above lists and write a poem as follows:

  • Four beats to the line (can vary)
  • Six lines to the stanza
  • Three stanzas
  • At least two internal and one external slant rhyme per stanza (full rhymes acceptable but not encouraged)
  • Maximum of two end stops per stanza
  • Clear English grammatical sentences (no tricks).
  • All sentences must make sense.
  • The poem must be meaningless.

I ended up with something like this. (It makes more sense than Hugo suggests. I had just been diagnosed with sleep apnea, so it was on my mind.)

The machines arranged better

breathing, welcomed the unusual

company. They attached themselves

to your disorder.

 

Your results recommended

follow-up. You were set-up for

additional experiences, unusual

technology.

 

A session player for this routine,

the set ordered for quick review:

A thousand times, sleep after sleep

your brain lost track

 

of the muscles, your breath

forgotten its appointment.

All those gasps, waking me up,

All that drowning

And then I turned it into prose and edited. In its final version, it became “Apnea” from the chapbook:

The daylong fatigue can be explained—not a lack of spinach, an ear drop, an allergy to mold, a fear of clown cones, a willful refusal. The tiny machines arrange better breathing, complete with temperature control. Lungs welcome the unusual company, attaching themselves to this engineering. The results recommend further sessions. Your brain fires itself. This autonomy complicates sleep like incandescence. Sleep after sleep your brain lost its grounding. Your breath forgot its monotony. All those thousand secret gasps, all that drowning.

In making that turn to prose, I added a bit more information about the “character” (daylong fatigue and the explanations he’s come up for it). What makes it poetry? In John Dufresne’s FLASH!: Writing the Very Short Story, he has a prompt that throughout spurs the reader toward a deeper narrative; for example, Where are we? And when, what year? What season? What time of day? This central character must want something. What is that? Why does she want it? The motivation should be intense. There must be something at stake. Who or what is in conflict with the central character? In other words, what are the obstacles in the central character’s way? What will prevent her from getting what she wants? How will she struggle? Will she get what she wants? What are the moments of complication? Climax?

I didn’t ask those questions. Instead, I let sound and word association lead me from sentence to sentence: clown cones, control, complete, company. Words lean toward each other, slanted, like willful & refusal, results & sessions, itself & incandescence, monotony and drowning. Lines such as “Your brain fires itself” were chosen for their varied meanings. The brain fires itself both like a synapse and like a boss (quitting the job of controlling breathing). Daylong, sleep after sleep, thousand borrow something learned from Anne Sexton’s “Young” to create this hyperbolic sense of time.

And one cannot underestimate (only at one’s peril does one do so) the effects of Russian formalism upon this collection; namely, what Charles Baxter describes as follows: “a given sentence, far from following its predecessor or preparing the way for the sentence that follows, remains relatively autonomous, continuity being provided by word and sound repetition as well as by semantic transfer, in what the Russian Formalists called the ‘orientation toward the neighboring word.” For example, here’s a section from a piece in the collection:

The creek-side ranch tilts on its sunken stilts. Mom’s dyed voice, yellow like alarm clocks, cannot compel her Ford Falcon, clutched with desire, to turn over. No one is going out anymore.

There is “surprise” (I hope) created by having sentence after sentence so far removed from whatever any reader might’ve guessed the next sentence might be. The “tilts” and “stilts” of the 1st sentence returns again in the “t” sound of “clutched” and “to turn” in the 2nd sentence. I read the “formalism” idea as how meaning might change based on its neighboring word; for example, the “dyed” when matched with voice might take on an unexpected and unfamiliar meaning for the reader.

CS: You teach in the MFA program at Rosemont College outside Philadelphia, and your run a literary website and small press. Writer, teacher, editor, publisher—that pretty much covers it all. Can you take a moment and examine these roles and address their rewards (and challenges)?

RB: The overall reward is connecting to writing from various point-of-views both to assist other writers and to keep on learning. The challenge is not being stopped in one’s tracks by the tremendous talent I’ve found in the Rosemont College students and the thousands of submissions coming in to The Journal of Compresseed Creative Arts.

CS: What’s next?

RB: Finish three more novellas, revise the completed novel, go to The Dead and Company at Wrigley Field with my son in June, keep on keeping on. 

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Curtis Smith interviews Michael Cocchiarale!

author photo summer 17Michael Cocchiarale is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Widener University. He is the author of two short story collections—Still Time (Fomite, 2012) and Here Is Ware (Fomite, 2018). He occasionally blogs about writing and other matters at: https://michaelcocchiarale.wordpress.com/

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Here is Ware. I’m always interested in a book’s journey, especially in the indie-press world. Can you tell us how you and Ware ended up with Fomite?

Michael Cocchiarale: Thanks! When I finished Still Time (my first collection), I started looking around for small presses, having little idea of how to proceed. I happened upon Fomite, a fairly new press at the time, and queried Marc Estrin, the publisher. He read the manuscript, liked it, and—to my great joy—published it. When it came time to submit Ware, Fomite was at the top of my list. Happily, Marc liked this one as well. Fomite is a small operation, but Marc and Donna Bister (the press’s production manager) have amazing energy and have brought a great number of excellent books into the world. I’m forever grateful to them for their support and thrilled to be in such fabulous company.

CS: In your day-to-day life, you’re a writing professor at Widener University. How does this impact your creative work? Do you have days where you’ve spent so much time considering print that you can’t return to the manuscript waiting on your desk? Do you find yourself motivated by what you see your students achieving?

MC: It’s difficult to get writing done during the semester, but during breaks, I find it pretty easy to slip back into a routine. I do wish I had a little more balance in my life, but I wouldn’t want that if it meant shortchanging students in any way. Throughout the school year, I really enjoy focusing on teaching, advising, and mentoring. I love getting to know students and helping them develop as writers and editors. In the classroom, I’m continually impressed by their talent, work ethic, risk-taking, humor, and generosity with each other. Outside of the classroom, it’s inspiring to see them shine as editors of our literary journals or as presenters on the national stage at the Forum for Undergraduate Student Editors Conference and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. Still buzzing from the positive energy generated in a given semester, I find I’m ready to jump back in to my own work when break begins.

CS: I enjoyed the sense of place in these pieces. We share some common roots—I lived for a bit in Erie, PA, and I recognized that eastern Great Lakes landscape. How important is place in your work? And in particular, what is unique about this area in terms of what it brings to your writing?

MC: Sometimes, students will set their stories in New York or LA—places they’re used to seeing on TV—and I’ll say, “Why not Philly?” “Why not where you’re at or from?” When I read Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio in high school, I saw place names I recognized—Cleveland, Sandusky, Cedar Point—and that gave me a real charge. Years later, I read Mark Winegardner’s fabulous novel Crooked River Burning, and that reinforced for me the fact that Cleveland was a place one could use to explore important themes and obsessions. For several years now, I’ve been writing quite consciously about my hometown. The city has much to be proud about—the world-renowned clinic, the (free!) museum of art, the orchestra, the Christmas Story house (ha, ha)—yet Clevelanders suffer from a real inferiority complex. Violent crime, racial tensions, political corruption, and population loss haven’t helped matters. Add to these things other less troubling but still important factors, like the weather. Long and heartless winters give way to humid summers, which are spent sweating over winter’s impending return. Then there are the professional sports teams, whose collective track record of futility (with the exception of the Cavaliers a few years back) serves as a seasonal blow to the city’s self-esteem. Of course, no discussion of Cleveland’s psyche would be complete without mentioning forty-some years’ worth of jokes about the river that caught fire. With some of the stories in Ware, I wanted to both represent and push back against some of these things. In “A Night at The Orr House,” an old high school acquaintance takes the protagonist home to her shrine for Cleveland native Benjamin Orr, bass player and singer of the rock band The Cars. In “A Series of Your So Nices,” a young couple drives around the city’s West Side after dinner one night, trying to delay their return to the protagonist’s parents, where they’re staying for a few uncomfortable days. I do something similar in “Red Right 88,” in which the character listens to local sports talk and drives past old haunts while his toddler snoozes in the backseat. In these and other stories, I took great joy in the simple naming of people, streets, neighborhoods, and establishments. Making Northeast Ohio come alive a bit on the page.

CS: There’s a lot of coming home here—reconciliation with one’s past, making peace or perhaps just coming to terms. What about this theme calls to you? Do you think it’s the kind of current we ever truly escape?

MC: For much of my adult life, I’ve lived away from Cleveland. Because the Pennsylvania turnpike is interminable (and expensive), “home” is a place I return to only a few times a year. It’s great to go back, but at the same time, I also feel that however long I stay it’s always not enough. I think everyone who moves away feels this to some extent. Over the years, you miss important events. You’re not present to help when emergencies arise. You’re sometimes not able to return in time to say goodbye. The likely reason many of my characters in this collection are driving to or from home is because that’s been the overarching pattern of my life for the last twenty-five years: fall semester, home for the holidays, spring semester, home for a week in summer, repeat. I have no great desire to escape that current. As much as anything else, it’s who I am. However, I could do with a couple hundred fewer miles between here and there. And I could definitely do without those turnpike tolls.

CS: The book is anchored by the title novella. I’m a big fan of the novella, but I fear it’s often misunderstood or underappreciated. What about the form attracts you? Did you start out with a novella in mind—or did it kind of grow on its own?

MC: “Here Is Ware” started out as a single flash fiction. However, it wasn’t long before I wanted to find out more about Samantha Wayne and her dysfunctional family. I wanted to see her grow up—to see how, through both luck and savvy, she was able to avoid the pitfalls that claimed other family members. Then I became keen on exploring the tensions that arose when she moved away from her hometown. Not just the price she paid for rising out of bad circumstances and trying to forge a life of her own but also the struggle to appreciate or at least understand family members who had been for her such a source of conflict and pain.

CS: I also appreciated the novella’s structure. How did this come to you? What do you think it brings to the piece?

MC: As I mentioned above, the structure emerged bit by bit, as I added pieces of Samantha’s life. I think the structure also reflects her fragmented upbringing too, as well as her fragmented sense of self as someone with a new life elsewhere and an old life at home that is not simply going to go away. Novellas-in-flash have been enjoying a well-deserved moment in the last few years, and I think “Here Is Ware” sort of fits in with that genre.

CS: What’s next?

MC: I’m doing final proofing for my novel None of the Above, which Unsolicited Press will be publishing in early 2019. Set in Ohio (where else?), it’s a coming of age story that begins in 1980 and ends in 2007. Catholic school, toxic masculinity, xenophobia, academia, America’s foreign policy misstomps—I try to cover a lot of ground. It might not be surprising to learn that there’s also a bit of leaving and returning home involved.

I’ve also been working on a couple of longish stories that incorporate elements of the fantastical. One of those—a novella—is done, and I’ve begun shopping it around. It’s a very different kind of thing for me—a dark comedy about the end of the world. Not the real dark comedy we’re all howling through right now, but I did my best to give our absurd reality a run for its money.

WARE Cover

Check Out FP Dorchak

I’ve published several reviews of books by FP Dorchak over the years, and they all strike an exquisite balance between exploring paranormal realms and probing the emotional depths of the human spirit. All of his books are worth checking out, but this week, I’m calling particular attention to his 2014 novel, Psychic, which is now available as an e-book. Psychic follows a hotline psychic who receives a visit from a mysterious man claiming to be an FBI agent in search of a child predator. From here, her life is indelibly changed as she enters the world of psychic espionage. Check it out!

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Believe It or Not…

Marc Schuster, etc.

A number of years ago — four? five? — I submitted a review of The Year of No Mistakes by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz to the venerable Believer magazine. Much to my delight, they accepted the review and planned to run it in a forthcoming issue. Then, much to my dismay, the magazine folded, and my review never saw the light of day. In the intervening years, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz went on to write a bestselling work of nonfiction titled Dr. Mutter’s Marvels while my review languished on a hard drive somewhere. But then I learned that the Believer was coming back, and now, years after I wrote the review, it’s finally up on the magazine’s web page: A Review of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s The Year of No Mistakes by Marc Schuster

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Aetherchrist

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 2.05.21 PMAs he waits for the gunshot that will kill him to sound in the final paragraph of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, protagonist Eric Packer catches a glimpse of his own death in the crystal screen of his smartwatch. It’s a haunting way to end a novel, but also a frustrating one. How, after all, did Eric’s watch both predict and display his untimely demise?

Fortunately for anyone still wondering about that passage fifteen years later, Aetherchrist, the latest novel from Kirk Jones, starts at least nominally and more than likely coincidentally where Cosmopolis left off. This time around, though, the protagonist who catches a glimpse of his own death on a tiny screen is not a billionaire asset manager but a down-on-his luck knife salesman named Rey.

Unlike Eric Packer, however, Rey sees his impending doom on an old analog television set rather than a digital screen. More to the point, he has time to change his fate. Yet every move Rey makes further entangles him in a bizarre plot to rewire the collective consciousness of a nation and thus to usher into being what could either be a golden age of harmony or complete and utter chaos. Spoiler alert: This being a Kirk Jones novel, the smart money is on the latter.

In many ways, Aetherchrist serves as a meditation on the personal isolation inherent in the digital age. Lamenting the cold nature of online relationships in the early goings of the novel, Rey notes that he has to pretend that all he wants is sex when what he really wants is for someone to validate his existence. Curiously, the bulwark against this sense of isolation is the unfolding plot to plunge the world into chaos.

Indeed, as the forces he’s battling gain the upper hand, Rey experiences a curious sense of communion: “It’s actually happening. I can feel it, a faint transmission like the one you get when you watch a late-night movie that you know hardly anyone is up for. You don’t watch the movie for the content. You watch it because you can feel a small population out there like you, riding the airwaves for a sense of connection.” Arguably, the hopeless search for this sense of connection is what Aetherchrist is all about.

Hot on the heels of last year’s bizarre dance with death, Die Empty, Aetherchrist positions Jones as an author who’s clearly and solidly hitting his storytelling stride. Though dark and twisted, his imaginary universes allow for sharp plot twists and solid character development even as the characters in question face certain doom. Indeed, perhaps it’s their proximity to death that makes Jones’s characters so compelling. In their struggle for survival, they cling to hope in the unlikeliest of places and situations.

Lovepain

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 10.12.18 AMAlthough Lovepain is by no means a suspense novel, Curtis Smith proves throughout to be a master of the suspended moment and a connoisseur of unresolved tension. The novel centers on a cuckold named Eli whose precocious young son, Mark, is as obsessed with birds as he is the disappearance of his mother. Eli, meanwhile, struggles to right the wrongs of the world by day in his capacity as a social worker and by night as the assistant director of the parish Christmas pageant, a role, like so many others in his life, he appears to have stumbled into by default. Complicating matters, a lynx has escaped from the local zoo, and one of Eli’s clients has found herself pregnant with the child of a small-time drug dealer.

Given the relative brevity of the novel (146 pages) in relation to the number of story elements, it isn’t surprising that Smith spikes the narrative with plot twists at fairly short intervals. As a veteran storyteller, however, he has the patience and wisdom to let each twist hang for a while — and often a very long while — before returning to it and eventually resolving it. When Eli spots a car accident on the side of the road in the opening pages of the novel, for example, something terrible is clearly afoot, but it isn’t until some pages later that the true nature of the unfolding tragedy becomes apparent. No spoilers here, but it has little to do with the car-wreck per se.

All told, Lovepain is an emotionally mature novel by a seasoned author with the good sense to let information sink in before letting the reader move on. The result is a haunting novel that explores the all-too-human desire to make the world right even as it crumbles around us.

Bash Bash Revolution

Screen Shot 2018-03-01 at 10.48.56 AMDouglas Lain’s Bash Bash Revolution is an intelligent cyberpunk novel that comments — as cyberpunk novels tend to do — on the increasingly blurred line between reality and virtual reality in all of its forms. The narrative centers on a high-school dropout and semiprofessional gamer named Matthew Munson who watches somewhat helplessly as his world turns into a massive augmented reality arena almost overnight. Complicating matters is that his father is largely responsible for the shift. Further complicating matters is the looming threat of nuclear war. Even further complicating matters is the fact that Matthew has fallen in love for the first time in his life. As the complications pile up, the young gamer struggles not only to save the world from drifting inextricably into an artificial gameworld mediated by a computer program called Buckminster Fuller (“Bucky” to his friends), but also to consider the most foundational of existential questions: Does reality really exist? If so, what is it? And not to put too fine a point on it, but what’s so great about reality anyway?

Reading Bash Bash Revolution, one is reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode titled “The Game” in which a sinister plot sees the crew of the Enterprise turned to zombies after becoming addicted to a video game. Indeed, one of the more moving passages in the novel has the young protagonist bearing witness to his once-upstanding socially-minded mother succumb to the pleasures of game play after only one hit. Upon physically breaking the connection between his mother and the computer that holds her in its thrall, the protagonist-narrator relates the following:

“Wow,” she said. “That was amazing. Really real.”

“You were totally zonked out,” I said. “You fainted.”

“I…” Mom was looking in my direction but not really meeting my eye. What she was looking at was my hand, the hand I was using to hold her phone. “Matthew,” she said. “I’d prefer you not play with my phone. I don’t want you to waste my data or my minutes.”

That’s really what she said. That’s what she was worried about, apparently. Her data plan was suddenly of the utmost importance, and she snapped her fingers at me and made me hand her phone over. She didn’t want to hear about it, she said. She didn’t care what the phone had just been doing to her… She just wanted her phone.

So I did as she asked.

Needless to say, the novel speaks not only to issues that we might face one day with respect to virtual and augmented realities, but also to present-day concerns regarding screen addiction and our tendency to prefer data over lived experience. Fittingly, then, the novel is not set in some not-too-far-off future but in the not-too-distant past — 2017, to be exact. As such, the cultural references are chillingly relevant, and even as Lain paints Donal Trump with a somewhat comical brush, the humor is dark, dry, and of a gallows variety.

Ultimately, Bash Bash Revolution is about programming and the many forms that it can take. Yes, there is computer programming, But, as Matthew at one point reflects, “Human beings have programmed themselves” as well; “they have given themselves goals and set up axioms in order to live. They have done and continue to do this individually… They have done and continue to do this collectively… But all the while, as human beings make themselves, they also hide from themselves, they hide how they make themselves from themselves. They refuse to take responsibility for how their world works.” Or, as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

A page-turner with a strong philosophical bent, Bash Bash Revolution is up there with some of the best VR-influenced sci-fi of the past thirty years and will sit comfortably with works like Snow Crash and Ready Player One on any reader’s bookshelf, virtual or otherwise, for years to come.