Awful Interview: Blake Butler

25 Oct

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This is Blake Butler. He’s quite a guy! Most people know him for his writing (you know, Sky Saw, Nothing, Scorch Atlas, etc.), or his work up at Vice or HTMLGiant and whatnot. Which is pretty cool. But Blake is also just rad as hell as a person, which is why Atlanta is celebrating him and the release of his latest book, 300,000,000, tonight at the Highland Ballroom. Come and see?

Vouched: So, Blake. Your new book is called 300,000,000. Is that your favorite number? Why?

It’s the number of people in America, rounded down. So it’s my least favorite number. I think my favorite number is five. I’ve really claimed five as my favorite number before but for some reason it’s what came out when I typed my favorite without thinking, which is how I usually try to write everything. Wait, I hate five. I like zero, and I like eight.

Vouched: I’m worried that a lot of people are going to wrongly assume your least favorite number is your favorite number. Let’s clarify a couple other favorites, just so we can have all this stuff on the record. Color? Superhero? Gum?

Is it too whatever to say my favorite color is black? It’s black. But I hate the Cure, especially their music. When I was a kid my favorite superhero was Gambit, though I can’t remember why at all now. He actually looks kind of ridiculous and the guys they get to play him in the movies make him seem like a foof. I guess if I have a fav superhero still now it would be something like the planet in the original cartoon Transformers movie voiced by Orson Welles. It’s like huge and quiet and in the middle of nowhere and godlike without anything to god over. I like gum that tastes like fake fruit: cherries, apples, pears, the fruitiest fruits. I usually only like to chew gum for the 30 seconds it takes to make the flavor disappear.

Vouched: Rate these four gums: Super Bubble, Bazooka, Juicy Fruit, and a Nerds Gumball

How big is the Nerds gumball? Can you customize the ball? I like those gum things you can get that are so big they don’t fit in your mouth, but then you force it to fit anyway and then you have a new mouth size. Actually, the Nerds one struck me weird the way they cram all the Nerds in the center, which felt like chomping through a tiny melon to burst into a den of ants. No. Nerds Rope is tight, though. That’s not gum. Shit. I’mma go with Bazooka for its timelessness, and how it reminds me of the color of a brain. So, rank, okay: Bazooka, Juicy, Super, Nerds.

 

Vouched: Wow, you’ve kind of ruined Nerds gumballs for me with that imagery. Say, remember Warheads?

RIP Nerd Gumball. Say, for sure! I sold Warheads out of my backpack in seventh grade during a period when our class developed a minor economy based on who sold what candy for how much to whom. Like a little shit entrepreneur I bought a vat of Warheads from Sam’s Club with my mom  and sold them for a quarter each, mostly to this Mexican kid named Hugo who the only thing I ever remember him talking about was the show Martin. He would give me a dollar for the Warheads and go “You so crazy, Gina” and laugh to himself and walk away. On and on like that through the annals of time. I think I ended up eating most of the Warheads by myself instead of selling them, which is how I ended up here I guess. Did you eat Warheads? What color was your color?

 

Vouched: I liked the black cherry one I think. Oh, and blue raspberry. I mean damn, those things are good. Do they still make them? Also, when did you toss in your entrepreneurial hat for a writerly one? Or are they actually the same hat? Are you wearing two hats at once?

It’s a good question, because from the creative perspective, the kind of writing I spend most of my time on, it’s pretty much the inverse of entrepreneurial pursuit; I would be terrified to calculate the amount I’ve made per hour spread out over all the text I’ve banged out and how much I’ve been paid for it; but to be paid for that isn’t the point, and in another way it helps fuel the other half, which is writing for money, which I’ve basically been doing since I was seventeen; my first job besides mowing lawns and as a cashier at Media Play was writing reviews of independent albums for allmusic.com.

Once I realized I could use writing for the internet to make money and not have to get a real job that ate my time, which I could then use to force the majority of my time into the writing that I loved most and for a long time paid absolutely nothing, I made it my goal to do that as long and hard as I could. Somehow I’ve been able to cobble together enough work running my mouth on websites to make a decent living, and the time to salary rate is pretty great, since at this point I’m so used to busting out content that I end up with most of the day to my whole self. Which is the only way I want to live. And so yes, two hats at once, probably ten hats, or two dozen, though no fedoras please. My skull is too large for most real hats unfortunately.

 

Vouched: Really? What’s the circumference of your head? I have a good haberdashery – in case you want a hat.

I am afraid to measure it but I once received the gift of a one-size-fits-all hat that did not fit me.  I would like to be buried naked, holding only that hat. In the meantime, I will fashion trash bags into headbands and wear them in the sun.

 

Vouched: That sounds really rad. How would you describe your sense of fashion?

My sister says I dress like a bruise. My main rule is: try to dress like you don’t feel bloated. At home I wear what has been deemed “R. Kelly shorts.” If I had it my way I would always be wearing R. Kelly shorts. What is life.

 

Vouched: What do you think R. Kelly’s favorite number is? Do you think he’d like your book?

Some people would probably guess his favorite number is 69. I know it is actually 90210. I hope he would like my book, because he dies in it. For some reason I’m now imagining R. Kelly sitting on the shitter reading The Bible. I think it’s time I let myself get a tattoo.

“The Hat” by Sam Wilson

16 Oct

Posted by Theresa J. Beckhusen

Written by Zachary Lee

“The Hat” by Sam Wilson is a quirky travel story with that turns the ordinary to the unordinary. Wilson snags the reader and gently pulls them through. “The Hat” is the tale of an unnamed male protagonist on his flight back home, and ends up following his wife into a Pendleton wool shop, and he ends up finding his perfect hat.

As soon as the story started, I fell for the characters. I felt pity that they got too hungover to enjoy their vacations, I felt a bit of excitement when the flight was delayed, I felt a bit of adventure wandering into the Pendleton shop. Wilson writes characters that seem to be real actual people that he just watched and copied:

“I knew I couldn’t buy the shirts I’d envied because wool makes me itch, but I kept trying them on anyway, soaking up the saleswoman’s compliments and not looking too closely in the mirrors.”

Wilson also subtly threads in the idea of getting old, and how that affects how we see ourselves. He demonstrates this by having his protagonist constantly question how he compares to his counterparts, and struggle with the look of the sweaters. Combined with his attention to the microscopic details, this really adds another layer to the story. They emphasize the human element that the protagonist brings to the story, and explain a driving force behind the protagonist. In this passage we see the protagonist wrestling with age:

“There is nothing good about being prematurely bald. My head gets cold and wet in the winter, and sunburned in the summer. Plus, it makes me look older and more staid than I actually am.”

And with the passage below we see where the microscopic details come into play:

“She was a young flight attendant wearing a navy blue skirt and white blazer. Her hair was pulled into a wet ponytail, and her lipstick was brighter than I imagined could look good on a person.”

With that being said, I felt the protagonist’s wife, Sherri-Anne, was a flat, 2D character. At times I forgot she was in the story. Her character just seemed to be a way to get the protagonist in the shop, and not something to help drive character development, or add anything to the story. It was a bit disappointing to see that, but Wilson’s writing made up for it ten-fold.

Overall, “The Hat” is an interesting read helped by Wilson’s amazing characters, and his ability to play with details. I believe that Wilson’s career as a writer is on the up and up. This story is something that readers will be talking about for some time.

Zachary Lee is a Vouched Books Indy intern and senior Creative Writing student at the University of Indianapolis. He hopes to attend an MFA program after graduation. He can be reached on Twitter @_Zach_Lee.

“Horrible Things Happen” by Adam Lefton

15 Oct

Posted by Theresa J. Beckhusen

Written by Zachary Lee

Adam Lefton’s short story “Horrible Things Happen” is a wonderfully dark but difficult read. There is no issue with plot or character, not even an issue with the word choice. What makes this a difficult read is Lefton’s head-on approach to what it means to suffer, and the effects that come from suffering. The first thing that strikes the reader is the size of the story. The story itself barely fills two paragraphs, but sends shivers down the readers’ spine by breaking down walls. Once those walls are down, Lefton turns what we know about suffering upside down with the precision of a surgeon. Lefton’s writing style is quick and to the point, and refuses to let go of readers until the very end.

The main plot of the story is rather straightforward. There’s a fascination with turning suffering into fame and teaching suffering to teenagers. The theme of the story is dissected to the most basic building blocks, and then built into a beautiful nightmare. Throughout the story Lefton talks about issues with funding with collegiate studies, the religious idea that we are born suffering, and what happens to those who see and understand their suffering. I particularly love the way he plays with the idea that the Midwest is a vacuum of suffering, and then juxtaposes that with the irony that most of the graduates move to the heavily influential coastal areas.

One of the major things I enjoyed about reading “Horrible Things Happen” is Lefton’s ability to bypass any defense the reader has and attacks their emotional core directly at the source. As seen with:

“For these students, the horrible things that happened to them were too obvious to miss, too visceral. They’d cried or wanted to cry or taught themselves not to cry at some point in their lives.”

Near the end of the piece, Lefton challenges the idea that through suffering we grow, by writing: “Only the rare and talented pupil arrives on campus cognizant of his or her suffering.” By the end of the story Lefton has the reader on the edge of their seat and throws in the most powerful sentence in the entire story: “The feeling has been described as close to a nightmare.”

Overall, this story left me numb and left me questioning what it means to suffer. This story was a wonderful rollercoaster ride that every reader should struggle with.

Zachary Lee is a Vouched Books Indy intern and senior Creative Writing student at the University of Indianapolis. He hopes to attend an MFA program after graduation. He can be reached on Twitter @_Zach_Lee.

“In the House of Flying Words” by Juan Carlos Reyes

13 Oct

Posted by Theresa J. Beckhusen

Written by Mirna Palacio Ornelas

When I finish reading something, I usually talk about the piece for days. The thing is, though, Juan Carlos Reyes’ “In the House of Flying Words” in Used Furniture Review has left me at a loss of, well, words. He’s taken them all and carefully sculpted a dizzying image that leeches the air from your lungs. I was only left with “holy shit.”

It starts out with a pretty gruesome description of what words can and will do to your infant daughter, attacking her in her cradle until there’s only a little skeleton with a bib left. That’s the entire first paragraph. Reyes makes words out to be these living things, while still referring to them in a metaphorical sense. These words are very much a real threat to the sleeping baby, something that will physically harm her when given the chance. They lie in the shadows, waiting for their chance to pounce. They plan their attacks, and throw themselves at the house to get to the sleeping child. That being said, the flying words in this piece are still only words. How much can words possibly hurt, right?

Reyes continues to use words in this sense for the rest of the piece, coming back time and again to demonstrate how much they will mutilate your daughter throughout her life.

“They’re coming as the always do, they arrive, and you will do everything to protect her but they will leave a mark.”

Aside from the vast vocabulary Reyes uses, his sentences also have the effect that is often seen in poetry. It’s essentially a poem, but it’s not a poem. He blends his phrases together, stretching the sentences to just below their breaking points in order to make them house raw emotions. The words meld into each other, and you don’t realize how the words weigh against your sternum until you see that period at the end.

“You watch her sleep, the night passing quickly and measuring evening and words still unborn, those moons carrying slurs suggestions and ridicules, all those jabbing words looming huddled down street, primed by the garden, crowding parking spaces like impending tanks on the night of shattered glass.”

All fancy words and form aside, Reyes uses this piece to reach the bone-biting truth. Words do hurt. And they’re not something you can control, not like physical violence. We have no defense against words, no matter how hard we try. We have to stand by as words hurt our loved ones, or worse yet, while they distance themselves.

Reyes’ grammatically incorrect sentences work for the humanity of the piece, but they also make it hard for the reader keep up. It might be a minor issue, but it is also the only one. Even then, it can be easily solved by reading the piece out loud. Reyes’ words anchor themselves in your gut, leaving your head light from panic, and making it more than worth the trouble.

The distanced tone in this piece is often found in his other pieces. Reyes keeps readers on edge with this creepy little trick. The gruesome details that he embeds in them help achieve that ambiance as well. There’s always an off-putting event amidst a seemingly normal setting; this is almost a branch of magical realism. Almost.

 

Mirna Palacio Ornelas is a Vouched Indy intern and is currently a junior at the University of Indianapolis. She’s a poetry writer that dabbles in the publishing world. Mirna spends most of her time in the dark with Captain America looping in the background on the lowest volume and light settings while collecting boxes of steakhouse dinner rolls on her desk.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: A Bad Penny Review

13 Oct

This past weekend I had the joy of reading in Athens with some folks at one of my top-five all-time favorite bookstores: Avid Bookshop. Janet Geddis and her team do a really wonderful job of carrying a varied and wallet-emptying selection of tomes. Mainstream stuff, graphic novels and oodles of small press and poetry titles. It’s here that I finally came across a copy of A Bad Penny Review, which also hails from Athens and is a total beauty to behold. The anthology is printed by Double Dutch Press, who does a really wonderful job on all-things-aesthetic: the type layout, print quality, paper choice and ink are all gorgeous. And since the collection itself is unbound, I have every intention of framing every page and displaying them proudly about my home – because these works aren’t just good literature, they’re art. I snapped this picture when I was reading and drinking my morning coffee on the front porch of our AirBNB – the makings of a completely dreamy morning. A Bad Penny Review

This piece was done by Claire Stephens and really made me swoon. The pacing of the whole thing is brilliant too – this specific piece was quickly followed by some pretty lustful counterpoints by Terri Witek, and the stark contrast in tone between them was provocative and jarring. Also of note? A diagram sentence poem by Amanda Dorsett titled, Sex Dream With Five Words, that tugged at my grammar-loving heart just as much as it did my love-loving heart. The whole thing is mesmerizing, I don’t want to rob you of the thrill of actually reading it yourself by giving you a blow-by-blow account. Just know that if you see a copy of A Bad Penny Review on a bookstore, you should go ahead and do yourself a favor and buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Range of Motion by Meagan Cass

10 Oct

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Meagan Cass’ chapbook, Range of Motion, is filled with quiet moments of indecision, small pains, and good but misguided intentions. The characters peopling her stories are trying, really trying to do right by the other people in their families—indeed, Lindsey Hauck’s review on The Collagist says as much—but there remains an undercurrent of fate. The world is working against these people.

Rooted in realism with a touch of the fantastic, Cass invites you into a small world but one full of high stakes: one where kids advancing into an upper-level soccer league can lead their parents astray, one where a family dog only pushes a mother deeper into depression, one where a new hot tub drives a wedge further between a husband and wife. Cass’ attention to detail throughout magnifies the depth of these everyday sadnesses. A father works away at his exercise machine, eschewing almost everything else: “My running shoes are un-scuffed by the craggy world outside the portholes.” He’s developed such tunnel vision, such devotion, that nothing else matters but mindlessly working out in the basement.

Many of Cass’ stories happen in basements, making me think of the many origin stories of the world, where humans emerge either from the sea or from the earth. It also reminds you of Hell, or Purgatory. Characters stuck in cycles of motions until someone from above calls them up, breaks the pattern: “It was summer…when our mother stood at the top of the stairs and told us to come on up, it was time to quit playing [ping-pong], time to pack our things, I was going to college and she was selling the house, buying a smaller one without a basement, without room for a ping-pong table.” Leaving the basement means facing the world and taking on responsibility, things many of Cass’ characters actively avoid. In “Greyhound,” the husband buys a greyhound under the mistaken assumption that the dog will pull his wife out of her depression. Rather than face facts and help her treat her illness head-on, he prefers to live in a fantasy world: “He imagined woman and dog coursing the trails of FDR Park in the blue-black mornings, her coming home flushed, downing a glass of orange juice, making them bacon and eggs. She’d laugh at his jokes. They’d make love. She’d finally get better.”

Each of Cass’ stories echo the title of the collection in that her characters have exhausted their abilities and have atrophied, are impeded, or fail to recognize their capabilities and take responsibility accordingly. They’re trying, Cass shows us, but is it enough? Nowhere else is this better illustrated than in the collection’s final story, “Portrait of My Father as a Foosball Man, 1972-2012.” Cass focuses on one figure on a foosball table, gets inside his imagined brain and his past, ultimately coming to rest when the foosball table is left abandoned in a basement: “It’s just that it’s been so long since anyone turned his metal spoke heart with purpose, so long since he’s shone his twitchy, hummingbird grace, so long since he’s listened to human players laugh and talk smack and howl in victory and defeat…” Life is passing this foosball figure by, a fear shared by many of the other characters in the collection, a fear we all share.

If there’s any drawback to Cass’ collection, it’s only a similarity of tone among the stories, but her economical and deft prose keeps the reader hooked, turning pages, wishing to delve deeper and deeper into this family, despite their problems and doubts. Cass’ chapbook is a funhouse mirror maze, flashes of yourself and other wanderers blurring together as you debate which way to turn. You try your best, but you’ll always get lost along the way.

Best Thing I Read This Week: Date and Time of Loss by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

3 Oct

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s essay “Date and Time of Loss” in Sundog Lit’s Road Issue combines the best of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” with upfront introspection cuts to the chase. Lee doesn’t mess around. She tells her story, unflinchingly, full knowing she’s picking at old scabs, tracing her fingers over old scars—literally and figuratively, we discover. From a car accident in Seattle to a few years later when her husband tells her, over the phone, that he wants a divorce, Lee’s essay knocks the wind out of you.

Opening with a police report that gives us just the facts, Lee then enters to explain and flesh things out, describing what exactly flashed before her eyes when she turned and saw a Mitsubishi hurtling toward her. Even though she lists everything she didn’t remember in a sequence recalling “Bullet in the Brain”—and if you’re gonna imitate, good choice—we still learn about Lee, her travels, her past, her husband, her family, her values, the things she holds dear. Her language in this section, while loaded with imagery, never tips into effusion or begs for pity. She simply states her case: “I remember vertigo and disorientation. I remember wind as I flew. If I were in Murakami novel, that would have been the moment cats began talking.” Clearly, this experience is for her like something out of magical realism, something she never imagined would happen to her, could happen.

In the wake of the accident, Lee searches the asphalt for her scattered lipstick tubes, clutching onto small things to avoid or to deal with the very big thing that just happened. The driver cries and apologizes over and over. Lee calls her husband, who’s in the middle of a business meeting, and, while in conversation, is astonished to see her shoe feet away from her, near the curb. She grapples with this, feels the rough asphalt beneath her, tells her husband she doesn’t know if she’s ok. An ambulance wails. Throughout the ordeal, Lee references movies (the EMT does not care for Love Actually), Space Mountain, her Chanel lipstick, as if it is these things that will pull her through, these things that will allow her to make sense of what’s happened, of her being struck by a car.

Lee is blindsided again, a few years after the car hit her in the Seattle crosswalk, and this figurative accident at first felt too pat, fit too neatly into the arc of the essay. But when you remove your hardened outer layer and compare the vulnerability Lee felt in crosswalks for years after her accident to the pain she feels after her husband says he wants a divorce, the piece balances like a Calder mobile, something that looks improbable but remains upright and works. On her blog, Lee writes about this piece: “Another event in my life intersected with this trauma; the end of my marriage. That the two feel the same…I didn’t begin writing Date and Time of Loss with the intention of intertwining the two events. But that is what the work wanted me to do.”

Some of Lee’s balanced imagery comes off as a little trite—the bruises and the lavender aura of invisibility—but it’s mostly forgivable. By combining these two events, comparing her bruises and the damage done, Lee hopes to use one event as a lens to deal with the other and vice versa, as a means to cope and move on. Lee’s honesty and attention to telling detail and imagery elevate her essay, inviting you in just enough, like a long-time friend finally sharing the secret of her scar.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: States of Grace by Steven Graham Jones

26 Sep

Stephen Graham Jones’s collection, States of Grace (Springgun Press) is spilling over with unique short-shorts that are compact, forceful and sharp, kind of like a razor blade you’d keep under your tongue. Similar to Dylan Nice’s Other Kinds, the stories are melancholy, bizarre, tender, and familial. As with any other collection of fierce short-shorts, the first sentences are barbed and laced with a noxious tonic that grab the reader by the scruff of the neck. Here are a few:

From “Modern Love”

My son’s first-grade teacher doesn’t shoot heroin any more.

From “Neither Heads Nor Tails”

My father lost his left nipple in a hunting-related accident.

From “Hatchery”

Martin once tried to shoot a fish he put in a barrel.

From “Seafood”

After examining the facts for eight-odd years, in which both his wife and his job fell away like a second, unnecessary skin he’d never even known he had, Rick finally decided that it had been obvious, really, and, being not just rational but bound by the smallest indicators, he had no choice but to admit that that day he’d taken his four-year old son to the beach it had, yes, been almost solely to have him dragged out by a shark.

From “Bulletproof”

When Ton and Ricky and the rest of them came to shoot my brother in the street in front of our house, I was eleven years old.

From “Easy Money”

All we had to do was record the sound of a wooden bat on a human skull.

Jones takes on a variety of techniques throughout the book, but he’s never guilty of displaying simple literary stunts. Instead, the pieces have been skillfully and precisely crafted, and flow at a feverish pace with rhythm and fluidity:

From “Faberge”

and then there was the day the week the year my mother found the magazine I had hidden in such a perfect place, shuffled in with the rest of my magazines, and I don’t think she even told me at first but thought about it for a week, maybe two, looked at herself in the mirror a little too long some mornings, was too polite to me about staring into the refrigerator for minutes on end, and she never told my dad, either, but that was just because he was dead already so maybe he knew anyway, in the way dead people know things, which makes our skulls into glass . . .

From “Seafood”

If there had been a painting of that day, he knew, then he and Danny would have been at the center of it, every brushstroke radiating out from them. But there had been no painting and he hadn’t even known then to be looking for the brushstrokes.

From “Matinee: A Love Affair”

In the darkness of the theatre we did it too, stretching our fingertips up just to be part of it, a brief shadow. Even walking home we would find ourselves silhouetted against a building by approaching headlights and smile, then cast our eyes down over it, trying to affect a forlorn posture before the car swept past.

From “Backsplash”

You can’t bleach everything, after all. At a certain point, the harsh smell starts to be the thing that gets you caught, not whatever it is you’re trying to erase.

What I’m Reading

25 Sep

Huzzah! A new category of posts. I took up this fun little project of taking photos of what I’m reading wherever I happen to be reading them when the “Oh wow, I love this.” feeling strikes. Keep an eye out for them in our Instagram and also right here. Here’s around up of some of my summer reads, many of which have since been vouched for.:

 

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Best Thing I’ve Heard This Week – Trains, Brains & Auto-Erotica: An Oral History of the Dingbats

23 Sep

The Dingbats may not be a real band, but Myke Johns really brings their history to full life – with  and with these readings from Nicholas Teckosy, Bobbin Wages, Adam Lowe, Myke Johns himself and Jeremy Maxwell they really come to life. The whole thing can be read in the latest issue of Deer Bear Wolf, but this performance is completely charming to the ear.

And if that tickles your fancy: in addition to his own written achievements and efforts with Write Club Atlanta, Myke Johns puts a lot of effort showcasing and championing the efforts of Atlanta’s literary scene through his podcast, LitCast, at WABE 90.1. There’s a bevy of goodness to be heard. (We Atlantans really owe Myke a lot – so much heartfelt effort goes into these recordings.)

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