For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, what’s the most accurate thing someone else has said about it?
I once took a writing workshop with a semi-famous novelist. He was this guy who was writing these grizzly historical novels (sort of ersatz Cormac McCarthy). I was excited to work with him though, because I had always really admired his short stories. For one of my first workshops with him, I turned in this goofy, fake academic essay describing a pretend microscopic organism. In this guy’s defense, I should have known that such a ridiculous piece wasn’t going to be his thing at all. He was writing these realist novels about people getting their faces shot off by muskets and whatnot, and to him my work must have seemed pretty silly. At one point in the workshop he made a dismissive gesture with his hand and said (about the story), “I bet you have a closet full of these.” I’m sure he meant it as an insult, but the fact is that I did have a closet filled with stories like that. Also, I really liked the idea that with this really small story I had managed to put forward a way of looking at the world that apparently seemed capable of filling a whole closet. The idea that you can use something small to express something much bigger really excites me. It’s one of the reasons I started writing short stories in the first place. So whatever his intentions, that comment felt like a huge victory for me as a writer. I think it was the truest, most encouraging thing anyone has ever said about my work.
What have you read/watched/listened to/looked at/ate recently that will permanently change our readers' lives for the better?
I love the art of Brandi Strickland. She’s this incredible, mixed-media artist based in Richmond, Virginia. She just had a show open in San Francisco debuting a series called The Other is Looking in on You. The pieces are all surreal and beautiful and intense. I’d encourage anyone to check out her work, and that series in particular.
Whose ghostwritten celebrity tell-all (or novel) would you sprint to the store to buy (along with a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius so that the checkout clerk doesn’t look at you screwy)?
If Norm Macdonald were to write a celebrity tell-all, I’m pretty sure it would be the single most amazing document that Western culture has ever produced.
Have you ever been a Starving Artist, and did it make you brilliant, or just hungry?
Both (A) and (B) are true regarding my finances: (A) I am now and always have been very poor compared to my friends and acquaintances (B) I am like an effete, wastrel prince compared to people in the world experiencing actual poverty. (A) produces some embarrassment, while (B) produces lots of guilt. Embarrassment and guilt are both artistic paydirt, because each forces you to look inward. So however you want to look at my socioeconomic status, I think it has informed my work in a significant, positive way.
What would you characterize as an ideal interaction with a reader?
One time in college I was talking to this really beautiful girl. We started to walk down these stone steps outside this building on campus, and out of nowhere our conversation was interrupted by me just falling down all of the steps. There was like fifteen of them, and it took what felt like a really long time for me to reach the bottom. Whenever someone tells me a story that comes anywhere close to being as embarrassing as me falling down those steps, I tend to feel this tremendous sense of relief. Not because I’m glad that something bad happened to someone else, but because hearing about someone else’s humiliation helps me to believe for a few moments that I’m not the most ridiculous person on the planet. When people tell me awful stories about themselves, I’m able to imagine myself in their place and them in mine. I can picture myself doing whatever stupid thing they did, and I can picture them lying at the bottom of those steps while a beautiful girl looks down at them and says, “Jesus Christ … are you ok?” It feels freeing and cathartic. In a nutshell, that’s the kind of interaction and connection I’m hoping for both as a reader and as a writer.
Have you ever written anything that you'd like to take back?
Not really. As a writer, I think you have to be comfortable with the idea that you’re occasionally going to produce something that sucks (whether it’s in bad taste or isn’t completely true to who you are or is just plain not great). If you don’t accept that as a possibility and let it go when it happens, you run the risk of letting fear control your art. Fear can inform your work in a lot of important, interesting ways, but you should never let it be in charge of deciding whether or not something is worth writing down.t