Gregory Lawless and Robb Todd on happiness, Cormac McCarthy, and Todd’s new collection, Steal Me for Your Stories.
Robb Todd’s debut collection of short fiction, Steal Me for Your Stories (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2012) offers an alternately gritty and lyrical exploration of contemporary urban adventure and malaise. Each of the fine pieces in the book is driven by voice as much as event. Todd’s narrators never give you the whole story; they don’t tell you their names; and they don’t smother you with exposition. Instead, they offer glimpses of larger traumas, erotic encounters, and romantic collapse. Their fragmentary narratives and crackling, minimalist disclosures might seem, at first, like down-and-out confessionals, but they’re really records of spiritual growth and defeat, scouring for beauty in street litter, and the aftermath of love. Steal Me for Your Stories is a tremendous book.
Gregory Lawless Your debut collection of short stories, Steal Me for Your Stories, features a lot of microfiction. Many of these great pieces seem stolen in that they appear to be ripped from some larger narrative that the reader will never get to see. In one piece I really admire, “Wanted,” the narrator recalls being confronted by a female cop because he looks like a sexual assault suspect. He doesn’t say much about himself aside from briefly comparing and contrasting his appearance with the man captured in the cop’s suspect sketch. Part of what’s fascinating about the story is how little he gives the reader (in terms of back story), how listless his defense is in the face of troubling facts and/or coincidences, and how the touching but tragic confession that closes the piece, “I do not see myself as others do,” reveals that his own place in the narrative is unclear to him as well. He is the victim of facts and details that were too narrowly selected, but his drama intrigues me, in part, because he restricts what he tells us about his circumstances.
Could you tell me about how the short short stories allow you to steal/present different moments than longer pieces? And do you feel more comfortable telling, in the best way, only a fraction of the story instead of the whole story?
Robb Todd With very short pieces, the emotional force heightens from the absence of distraction (information) surrounding the incident. You can zoom in on one idea without the brain clutter that only serves to reduce the moment. The shorter stories gain simply by pushing the rest of the story out of the frame. The effect can be achieved with longer pieces, too, but it is much more difficult to pull off because the demands on the reader become greater.
My favorite stories—long or short—are the ones that leave me feeling like something important just happened, but I’m not totally sure what it was. “Big Two-Hearted River” comes to mind. Beckett. And everything and anything in [Denis Johnson’s] Jesus’ Son.
GL One of the things I love about your stories is how your narrators—alternately charmingly and unsettlingly sex-obsessed, foul-mouthed guys—can emerge from fits of anger and frustration to hit an entirely different register of emotion. Take this passage from the book’s first story, “Our Costume Is a Kiss,” in which the narrator struggles in the bathroom with his Halloween costume (he is the sailor of the famous VJ-day kiss; his partner is dressed as a nurse) while party-goers line up outside the door:
I had no idea authentic sailor uniforms had so many fucking buttons. I have never seen pants like this. Four buttons run up each thigh to my waist and eight run across the top creating a flap that I have to undo to take a piss. I consider pissing in my pants rather than unfastening this ridiculous shit. How did we ever win a war?
This shift from costume to history here in the last line really kills me, and it hints at what you’re doing all along: moving from the self-involved pleasure-seeking bacchanals of the narrator to jarring moments of suffering, as when the narrator remembers, at different moments, that his mother is dying though he doesn’t know where. Could you tell me how and why you blend these radically different experiences together, moving from things like bathroom scenes/bathroom humor to love and then to grieving all in a single piece?
RT I didn’t really know how or why when I was doing it with this story other than it felt right. It made a sound. I’m a fan of contrasts and loose associations, too. Costumes, wars—these things appear in less literal, yet powerful, forms than Halloween and WWII. Internal versus external via the person and other persons. You never know what some people are dealing with inside, even when they are having a good time—or seem to be. And I don’t think minds are as linear as most narratives. It’s rarely a clean, straight rise. It zags and twists. Maybe a zig here and there.
GL In the book’s concluding story, “Every Moment Is Lovely, Yes,” the narrator catalogs how the main character, a writer, called simply “a man,” feels divided about the most elemental experiences: winter, the beach, even happiness itself, which he doesn’t feel he deserves. Could you tell me about how and why this feeling of ambivalence, division, happiness-regret, whatever it is, animates your stories? Is this the core emotional experience that undergirds your fiction?
RT I don’t know if I can tell you about that, but there’s a podcast I love that I can tell you about: Radiolab. A dear friend introduced me to it. All the podcasts blur together in my brain, and I am terrible at pointing people to specific ones or where I heard different bits, and this maybe-answer to your question is going to be too long but here I go.
A couple of the podcasts dealt with the power of words. Your brain can’t fully function without words. We think in words. Things must have names. Our brain’s ability to make sense of the world—even just to perceive it—hinges on definitions. The quality of our thoughts can only be as good as the quality our words.
This is not sourced, but I have heard many times that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow and Americans have a hundred words for money. Is that true? I don’t know. But the conclusion we take from it makes sense even if it is a lie.
So, the podcasts: according to some research, people might not have been able to fully perceive the color blue until there was a word for blue. That’s power. That explains everything.
People can have fun and smile and laugh, but that might not be happiness. The words happiness and love fall into the same linguistic basket for me. Can we please have clearer definitions of these things, please? Maybe more words for them. Better words with more precision. We lean on “like” and “love” and “hate” to express far too much of our emotional spectrum. Better words would help us understand and act in the world in better ways. Without better words, I fall back on stories and poems and pictures that make me feel unexpressed ways. It’s everything all at once at its best.
Here’s one more attempt to maybe not answer your question properly: I’m all about happiness. But it’s elusive. I don’t mean pleasure—happiness. For me, the definitions are wildly different and the difference vital. I think when I realized that there was even a difference, it changed my brain. I wish I had learned that sooner, and I find myself saying that a lot. I wish I had learned that sooner.
GL The title of the collection comes from the last line of one of your longer pieces “Quiet the Remedies.” This story is (among other things) a wonderful and complex meditation on honesty and Eros and how they don’t always line up. The narrator’s love interest, after being told by him that she is only the second most beautiful thing he has seen (you’ll have to read the book to find out the most beautiful thing), complains, “I know you are just going to steal me for your stories.” So, do you steal people for their stories? And what is the difference, if any, between stealing and using someone in this sense?
RT I make a lot of stuff up but don’t ever tell me anything you don’t want me to write about. And never do anything with me that you don’t want me to write about. Humans only understand life and each other because of stories, so it’s a noble sacrifice.
Actually, nobody understands those things anyway, but it’s still a noble sacrifice.
GL What authors and stories kept you company while you were writing Steal Me for Your Stories? Who were you emulating (if anyone), and who were you writing against (if anyone)?
RT I read a lot during that time I was working on these stories, but I was kept company more deliberately by music: Miles Davis, dubstep, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Diplo, Run-DMC, Lead Belly, Wu Lyf, flamenco, Ray LaMontagne, DJ Shadow, Biggie, Buddy Guy, The Black Keys, Al Green, Jack White (in all his incarnations), and a bunch of others, too.
Also, this song by Shakira: “Sombra de Ti.” And this: “’93Til Infinity” by Souls of Mischief. And this: “Cosmic Shame” by Tenacious D. Okay, fine, I’ll admit it. This song by Justin Timberlake was in the rotation: “What Goes Around Comes Around.”
I also got lost in a lot of paintings by Edward Hopper. Hopper and Miles kill me. If I ever write a story that is part Nighthawks and part Flamenco Sketches, then I will have accomplished something. Actually, let me change Nighthawks to Summer in the City or Automat or Room in New York or Excursion into Philosophy or Morning in a City. Any of those will do. Nighthawks has been corrupted by popular culture.
GL Now that your book is in the world, what’s happened to your writing? Does Steal Me for Your Stories portend the Robb Todd story of tomorrow? Or are you trying new forms, new subjects, and/or new voices now? What’s going on in the writing life of Robb Todd?
RT I was unprepared for the feeling of having the book in the world—and I thought I was prepared. It forced me to look at the work I had been doing, and the themes I repeated, and the way I repeated them, as a whole. Seeing it all in one place was startling. I’m glad it happened. I want to keep some of what I did, the core, and do it differently all over again. That’s what everyone does, isn’t it? It’s hard to keep it fresh but not lose the thing that got you wherever you are.
People such as Denis Johnson are bold enough to try to switch it up, and I’m glad he wrote a detective novel, but I really just want him to write Jesus’ Son twice. (It’s unfair, yes.) And then I read Train Dreams, and I said thanks.
Cormac McCarthy, too. I started with The Road, then Blood Meridian, which destroyed me, followed by some okay play about religion, then No Country for Old Men. Order is important. It shapes your view of the artist’s work in fair and unfair ways. The last McCarthy I read was Suttree, and when I closed the book shut on my Kindle I said, “Well . . . I get it, Cormac. You have a chip on your shoulder about God! Or God’s absence! Or whatever! The world is cruel! I FUCKING GET IT, OKAY!”
But weeks passed, and months, and Suttree sunk into me. Deep. Deep inside my molecules. It’s my favorite book of his. I hope he never stops doing the same thing. I mean, Nicholas Sparks hasn’t changed at all, and people still love him. Sparks and McCarthy are buds, I’m sure.
I’m working on a novel(la). (I always feel like a jerk saying that.) New forms are swirling, but I also like the old forms still. I have another collection percolating. I hope I can make it all the same but different but better.
Gregory Lawless is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the author of I Thought I Was New Here (BlazeVOX, 2009). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pleiades, The Journal, The National Poetry Review, Third Coast, Sonora Review, The Cincinnati Review, H_NGM_N, Sixth Finch, InDigest, and many others. He was a recent finalist for the National Poetry Series Open Competition. He lives in Waltham, Massachusetts.