Q&A: Arthur Bradford

Article by ben

Have the animals always been there, hiding at the center of short fiction, or am I just starting to notice them? One of my favorite short story collections of last year, David James Poissant’s THE HEAVEN OF ANIMALS, placed all manner of creatures at the center of stories that examined families--and just a few weeks ago, Thomas Pierce’s HALL OF SMALL MAMMALS used animals in a similar way. But in both of those books, the interaction between humans and animals--no matter what was happening--was treated with gravity and dignity, lending symbolic heft to each story.

Arthur Bradford’s new collection, TURTLEFACE AND BEYOND, opens with a young man attempting a risky stunt to impress his friends: he dives into a river and promptly smashes his face on a turtle hiding just below the surface. What follows is a dark, funny, anarchic story in which the young man recovers in a hospital, while his friend, the narrator, nurses the turtle back to health. But what happens when the injured man, released from the hospital, has to move in with the narrator and the turtle?

Bradford’s stories unfold strangely, finding new layers, seeming to develop almost in real time. Through absurd, these stories are as “realistic” as any short fiction I’ve read, showing the surprising ways that life can unfold, and the complicated relationships--sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic--we have not only with animals, but also with each other.

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I feel so bad for the animals that show up in your stories. What do you have against them?

I love animals! So of course I have nothing against them. It’s funny because at readings for this book I usually get asked about all the animal injuries and I hadn’t really realized how many of the stories contain some sort of animal mishap until I saw them all presented together. I would say I’m more concerned with the clumsiness of humans and what poor residents we are on this planet. Animals, especially our pets, stick by us no matter what jackasses we are. In that first story, “Turtleface,” I write about this guy who dives into the water and hits a turtle with his face. Originally I was just concerned with what happened to the guy, but then as I was writing it out I realized I wanted to know what happened to the turtle as well. Georgie, the narrator, decides to take care of the turtle and nurses her back to health. So it’s a happy animal story in the end!

These stories are so fast and anarchic—sometimes they seem to unfold almost randomly. Of course, this is by design, and it seems very carefully constructed, but how difficult is it to maintain such energy and “informality?” How hard do you have to work to make the stories feel so, for lack of a better word, casual?

I do work hard on my stories, but I also don’t outline ahead of time. I start with a basic idea, some interesting incident like a turtle accident or a guy getting bitten by a snake, and then try to keep things moving along. I dislike when a story becomes predictable and lacks action. I’m not into interior monologues or lengthy discussions of emotions. That’s not to say I don’t think interior thoughts and emotions are important, I just don’t dwell on them much in my stories. When I write I’m seeking to entertain myself as much as entertain others. As far as the casual tone, I think that might come from my interest in oral storytelling. I participate in The Moth and other live storytelling events and am a big fan of the genre. There’s something very engaging about hearing a person telling a personal story, and there’s also something kind of casual about it. A lot of my stories feel a bit like tales you might hear someone recounting at a bar, except I would hope they are a little better thought out than most bar stories. I have a lot of respect for story structure, and even though my stories might seem to ramble and go off in weird directions, I try to maintain the tenants of a basic three act structure. I think that’s an important part of creating a satisfying story. I could go on and on on this general subject, so I’ll just leave it at that.

What are your models for this kind of book—linked stories all narrated by the same character? What makes this not a novel—just the fact that it says “stories” on the cover?

JESUS’ SON by Denis Johnson has been a huge influence on me. I find that book very satisfying, and anyone who has read both my work and that book will likely notice my attempts at hitting some of the same notes. I enjoy short stories a lot, but it’s true also that there is something fleeting about them when presented in a collection. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories manage to avoid that somehow, and I’ve always admired them. Having recurring characters and a constant narrator solves some of the problem for me. Another book of linked stories that I enjoyed is Melissa Bank’s THE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING. That book is a knockout. I also like memoirs like William Burrough’s JUNKY or Lars Eighner’s TRAVELS WITH LIZBETH. Memoirs can sometimes read more like a book of linked stories since they don’t necessarily have to hold up to the structural scrutiny of a novel. I would not call TURTLEFACE AND BEYOND a novel because it lacks the overall arc. I could have tried to force one onto it, but that would have been an obvious attempt at shoehorning something into a place it wasn’t meant to be, I think. I am working on a novel now, and it’s going to be good.

What draws you to the first person point of view?

I used to only want to read books presented in first person. It just seemed more believable to me. When I read something, I want to believe that it actually happened. I don’t really care if the narrator plays a big role in the action, I just want to know where the story is coming from. Books like THE GREAT GATSBY or many of Roald Dahl’s stories have a narrator that is essentially just telling you about the things he has observed. I like that kind of presentation. I just find it more engaging than an omnipresent third person narrator. I only recently started appreciating the third person narrative voice. Part of this comes from the fact that I have young children and I see how effective it is in presenting stories to them. I wrote a children’s book, BENNY’S BRIGADE, and used the third person voice then. It made sense to me, at last.

I feel like these characters keep trying to tell people things, but can’t get anyone to listen. Are they bad at communicating, or do they just need to surround themselves with different people?

I find it funny when people a talk past each other, two people with different agendas having two different conversations in one. So perhaps my attempts at humor create this impression of no one listening. I’m just generally a fan of awkward situations and poor communication as vehicles for humor. Georgie, the narrator, tends to make poor decisions, especially when it comes to the people he spends time with. But poor decisions, I think, make for interesting story fodder. Who wants to read about someone who does everything right and surrounds himself with all the right people?

Sedaris calls you “the most outlandish and energetic writer I can think of.” Given that high praise, do you feel more of an obligation to continue being “outlandish” and “energetic” in your writing? Are you those things in your personal life?

I do sometimes feel like I’m supposed to come up with outrageous storylines, like that has become my thing. But I like outrageous storylines. This book doesn’t have any talking animals or similarly magical situations, the kinds of things that often came up in my first book, DOGWALKER. I wanted these stories to take place in the real world. That was the rule I set out for myself. But within that world I wanted to create weird and unusual situations. “Energetic” is a good thing for a writer, right? I would suppose the opposite of that would be boring to read. I do have some good personal stories from my own life, but I would say they aren’t quite at the same level at Georgie’s here. I enjoy a good awkward wedding toast or an evening spent driving around stoned in an old vehicle, but I’d prefer not to end up in jail or severely injured.

You’re a filmmaker, a fiction writer, a children’s book author, and co-director of a summer camp for people with disabilities. How do these different things feed into each other? Or are you just good at compartmentalizing?

Well, as you’ve probably noticed, I’m not a very prolific writer. I’m writing more consistently these days, but when I’m working on a film, or back when I was running the camp for people with disabilities, I didn’t do much else. I tend to work on one thing at a time, so I’d say I’m not actually very good at compartmentalizing. I do think all of my projects and careers feed into each other in one way or another, though. I’m interested in storytelling, whether it be through film or writing or even live storytelling like The Moth. I also think it’s helpful for a writer to get out and mingle. My work at the summer camp helped me do that, likewise at my current job, where I work part-time at a juvenile detention center here in Portland. Most writers only get a few productive hours of writing done a day, if that, so there’s plenty of time for other pursuits. I do like to think my other pursuits feed into my writing, though.

What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you in a bookstore?

When I was doing a book tour for my first book, DOGWALKER, I would bring a guitar and during certain stories, I would strum chords along with the reading. It was something I’d developed from doing readings in bars where people were distracted and often socializing. I wanted to hold their attention. Later on I worked out parts of certain stories where I would smash the guitar. It would make sense with the plot, like the narrator was smashing something in the story. I would do this with cheap acoustic guitars which I’d buy at pawn shops. I enjoyed doing it a lot, the smashing part. It was cathartic. It was always a bit unnecessary and awkward, though, and usually left half the room gasping and confused while the other half cheered. I had been cautioned that this guitar stunt wasn’t appropriate for bookstores, but every once and a while I’d come across a cheap guitar and a big enough crowd and try it out. The ratio of confused gaspers to cheering clappers got worse in bookstores, meaning more confused gasping. I believe I learned my lesson once and for all at a proper little bookstore in Manchester, England, where I was trying to impress Zadie Smith, who was in attendance. I tried to smash this stout little guitar I was playing but it only broke in two and I was left swinging it around by the strings. I knocked over a bookshelf and put a set of small holes in the floor. The store owner was flabbergasted. She felt sorry for me, I believe, and thought I was disturbed and in need of psychiatric help. My book didn’t sell that well in England, and this new book isn’t even set to be published there. Perhaps all the bookstores over there have been warned. But I won’t do it again! Unless you invite me to Houston.

Tell me something interesting that has nothing to do with writing.

Everything has to do with writing! I’ll tell you my memories of Houston: there’s two giant highways encircling the city, one inner and one outer. I drove around those circles, lost, for a hours, looking for my girlfriend, who was training to become a teacher somewhere in that city. When I finally found her, we went to a park with our two dogs, and one of them leapt out of the car and chased a set of ducks, eventually biting a large white one on the ass. The duck kept flapping its wings and trying to fly, but our little hound dog held fast to its tail feathers. Finally the duck got airborne and left the dog with a mouthful of fluffy down. There was a police car nearby, and it drove up to us as we caught the dog and chastised it. The policemen chastised us in return, but didn’t write out a ticket, which I considered charitable. Later this girl and I got some barbeque, and I felt sick because I was leaving her behind to go up north. Normally I would have enjoyed the food, but I did not like it then. I left Houston feeling terrible and haven’t been back since. But now I am married to that girlfriend, and we have two kids. And that hound dog lived to be seventeen years old.

Turtleface and Beyond: Stories Cover Image
$25.00
ISBN: 9780374278069
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - February 3rd, 2015

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