NS. How old are you, what is your shoe size and did you battle acne in high school or younger? Just kidding.
JOSH: You said “just kidding” about this question, but I’ll happily answer it. I’m 32. My shoe size is 12. And no, I didn’t battle acne, but I did have a late growth spurt, so my freshman year of high school, I was 5’1″ with a size 12 shoe. I looked like I had massive clown feet for my height, something beyond ridiculous, another classification entirely in which teenage boys and girls are sent to occupy planet earth from a distant orb of awkwardness. Plus, I usually had Twix bar stuck in my braces. Rough look, rough times. Thank Christ I finally grew.
NS. The title of your book, and a bit about what moved you to write it, and when it will be out.
JOSH: The title of my novel is “Some Things that Meant the World to Me.” It’s due out June 1st of this year (that’s 2009 depending on how many bong hits you’ve had). The book’s ideas started from several tendrils that I assumed would be independent short stories. Over the course of a few months, maybe six or seven, I noticed a similar personality driving all of the narratives, which meant
a) I was inadvertently using the same voice in every piece I was completing
b) These seemingly sovereign pieces were connected, even if only on a germ level in my brain or
c) I’m a complete hack who was writing the same story over and over, incapable of producing work that had any uniqueness whatsoever.
A and C both seemed like terrible options to choose, simply due to their inherent indictments, so I ran with the idea of stitching these different threads into a larger fabric. I knew I wanted to have the protagonist’s inner-child show up in his life and tell him to burn down their childhood home. And I wanted the novel’s flashbacks to render a broken home in a compelling way so I decided to literally break the house: its rooms drifting away from one another like the separating continents. Once I put these two components together, once I understood how odd and surreal and contorted the novel’s “rules” and space-time would be, that was when I really found my point of entry.
NS. In ‘Our Skies’ you bump up against the outlines of repression and cultural crunching and conditioning in a fascinating way. The character is literally imploding into song. Is this type of tension something that recurs in your characters in other works? Or mostly in your flash fiction?
JOSH: Repression interests me a lot. I like to play with characterization through innuendo and inference. This may be apocryphal, but someone told me that Paul Bowles said that all good stories are detective stories. I really believe that to be true. Bowles isn’t saying that all books should have main characters with two-day stubble and drinking problems who chain-smoke as they unravel mysteries. He’s advocating, at least in my interpretation, for turning the reader into the detective, for immersing the reader into a world in which she/he will have to decode the clues, unearth the secrets and preoccupations of the characters–reader not only as detective but also archaeologist.
This leaves a lot of space for repression to be an integral part of that process. What a character doesn’t say, or doesn’t let her/himself think about, these become humongous indicators into their nature: these can heavily influence a reader’s understanding of who the character is. It certainly isn’t a paradigm of psychological realism, but there is space for an affinity to develop between reader and character, a space that is vital not only in flash fiction, but all genres. I don’t like it when writers dauntingly explicate why characters are doing the things they are doing. I, as a reader, like to put the pieces together on my own; I like writers who follow Bowles’ advice and trust their readers enough that they’ll succeed in configuring the “bread crumbs” in a thoughtful way.
As for cultural crunching and conditioning, office ecosystems both mesmerize and terrify me. I’ve had weird corporate jobs over the years. Of course, I either quit or get fired after a couple of months, but there would always be people who’d been there for years, tolerating or anesthetized to the oppression, the ennui, the anonymity that can rear itself in office-culture. “Our Skies” was an exploration of what might happen if someone who wasn’t in a particularly satiating point in his life lost this job and felt the need to retaliate. I never had the sense, as I was drafting the piece, that the character knew exactly what he was trying to get back at. It was more a vacillating, delusional angst, which made his revenge scenario really fun to write.
I do think this kind of tension recurs in my work: the disillusionment and malaise of 21st century tedium. In this case, it was a corporate scenario. In the novel, it’s the collision of past and present, the way dormant emotion can still be volatile, unconsciously squealing directions and steering our lives. I enjoy examining people struggling with emptiness, nakedness; it’s people lacking purpose or feeling fettered by a certain status quo they never aspired toward but rather occupy out of habit or stagnancy or obligation.
NS. I notice you play in the realm of imagination and language quite comfortably. I want to know more. When a piece comes to you are aware of the impulses leading it or you?
JOSH: Imagination… isn’t that what it’s all about? If writers are trying to elicit emotional responses in total strangers… if I’m trying to make a man in Tuscaloosa or a woman from Seattle feel something–whether it’s pathos or joy–there are only so many emotions to choose from. Writers are recycling these emotions, which puts an exponential pressure on individual authors to find new images, new metaphors to say things other writers have already commented upon. This can be precarious, almost atrophying if you dwell on it too long. It’s been my experience that it’s best to force a few pages out, even bad pages, usually bad pages at first, and then hone and sculpt from there: sift for the image that can render anger or ambivalence in an exciting, totally original way. We have to select the image to modify the story’s emotional stakes.
I have the attention span of a weimaraner on crystal meth, so for me, one of the struggles is to keep my stories or novels in scenes with unusual, often unpredictable scenarios unfurling. I like to put my readers in visceral and macabre scenes, never for shock value, always leading toward a thoughtful conclusion, what Margaret Atwood called the “unexpected inevitable.” And hopefully I’ll tell a wild story along the way.
NS. You teach a lot of classes. What are you teaching and where? Do you have a favorite?
JOSH: I teach at the Writing Salon in San Francisco. I run a Sunday night fiction workshop, which is really fun. Always a great group of people. Most of the time we focus on student work, but if I see similar issues creeping through multiple submissions, I’ll do mini-lectures. But more often than not, the emphasis stays on students’ stories and peer feedback. We laugh a lot in those classes. I always teach from the vantage point of revision, the idea, as William Gass astutely said, that a rough draft is just the words that will lead you to the right words. Once you accept that rough drafts are by definition crappy, I think there’s a liberty in that. You give yourself the space to renovate stories that have problems.
Also, through the Salon, I teach classes geared more toward honing specific aspects of story telling. For example, starting in February, I’m teaching a 5-week course just on dialogue, which I employ congenitally in my own work. I’m really excited to see the synergy that develops in there.
I teach an Intro to Fiction class through UC Berkeley’s ASUC studios. These are 6-week courses, and we tackle a different element of story telling each session. It’s a nice way to “get your feet wet” if this odd, fiction thingie interests you.
NS. On language… how you pack it in, its mesmerizing and affects my sense of time in the piece. You speed up time and you slow it down in ‘Our Skies’. It reminds me of Tobias Wolff, ‘Bullet in the Brain’ — which you brought to my attention in the writing class I took with you. Is Tobias in the top five favorite writers of yours? And has his work been an influence?
JOSH: I think anyone who loves American short fiction has a place in her/his heart for Tobias Wolff. He’s a master story teller, one of the original dirty realists. I go back to his stories and study them when I feel my plots are convoluted or I’m trying to describe something in too complicated a way. I admire his pared down prose, his humor, the way he carries his imagery through from a story’s beginning to its conclusion; really, though, it’s his mustache that I most admire. If I stopped shaving today, it would take me 30 years to grow something that facially hegemonic. It’s really wonderful.
Specifically in terms of “Our Skies”, yes, I enjoy rushing through certain situations and then suddenly making things more syrupy, delaying gratification over paragraphs, maybe pages. Plot drives flash fiction, but so does character, and it’s the intangible balance between these two elements that makes exciting micro-fiction. All fiction, really. It’s putting the right character in the correct sequence of events and vice versa; if either is off the piece won’t work. But in flash, a writer doesn’t have the necessary space to delve into psyche and history.
These details must be compressed, which is where innuendo can be so powerful. It’s where imagery has to address the emotional stakes of the character. In a sense, the imagery facilitates the reader’s experience, as it chips away the paint and reveals what’s underneath.
And who knows? Maybe someday, I’ll have a kick ass mustache of my own.