Question: What did landing that story in the New Yorker mean to you, how did that come about, what did you do when it was accepted?
Answer: I remember in high school the bank made a $200 dollar error in my favor. Because I have no moral center I immediately spent the money on a new tape deck for my 1985 Ford Tempo, but for a long time I lived in abject fear that the bank would figure out that it had made a terrible mistake and eventually I would be arrested for fraud. That's pretty much how I felt after the New Yorker accepted “Costello.” I thought, “Soon they'll realize what a horrible mistake they've made, and I will be exposed, finally, as a fraud.” I feel like that could still happen at any second. In any case, they took it unsolicited so it was all just an incredible piece of luck. The good thing was that by this time I had actually finished the collection, and in the end that's the only thing you can control. Doing the work, finishing a book. Anything that happens after that is purely a matter of luck. All you can do is hope that the world makes an error in your favor.
Q: When did you start writing these stories, which ones were first? Are there others you haven't published or held out from this collection?
A: “The Luau” was the first story I wrote that ended up in the collection. That was 2007, and by 2010 I had written five more, the last of which turned out to be “Costello.” I hadn't really thought of the stories as a coherent book until I finished “Costello.” Each story stands on its own, but through all of them I saw a movement from apprentice to journeyman to master. I suddenly had a clear sense that in all these stories the knuckleheaded protagonists were learning something. There's an education taking place, a movement upwards, like the souls on the winding slopes of Purgatory. The last story I wrote is actually the first in the collection. “Play the Man” stands on its own, like the rest, but I also wrote it with some sense that it would set the tone for the rest of the book. I had three other stories that I wrote during this time, but they just didn't fit in the overall vision of the book. I learned that you're not done with a collection until you start taking stories out.
Q: Can you talk a bit about your development as a writer?
A: If there is such a thing as The Failed Jock School of American Letters, I think I would probably belong to it. I wasn't precocious at all in terms of reading and writing. Up until the age of seventeen, all I cared about was basketball. When I -stopped playing, I had to find something else, and throughout college the thing I loved most was comedy. My dream was to write for The Simpsons or Saturday Night Live, but I didn't think I was smart enough or connected enough to make that happen. At some point in college I started reading more seriously. I randomly picked up The Crying of Lot 49 and that sent me down a rabbit hole for a long time. I feel like I got an entire education reading Pynchon. I think I eventually gravitated towards fiction because I could do it on my own. It was cheap to produce. Through my twenties and early thirties I had several careers. I worked as a sportswriter, plumbing salesman, and production assistant on a game show, and a bunch of other things in between. At some point in my mid twenties I stopped writing. I was working on a historical novel that required a lot of research and I just didn't think I was smart enough to pull it off. I didn't write anything for a few years, but when I was about thirty the urge came back again and I took an adult education class at UCLA. That changed everything for me. I started writing about my own life, and I got a lot of encouragement from my instructor, Lou Mathews. I applied for a fellowship at Stanford and was shocked to get it. Again, the feeling of being a fraud! But that's where I wrote most of the collection.
Q: I read somewhere you are now working on a novel. Do you think you will continue to write short stories, are you a big fan of stories? Any favorites?
A: A couple weeks ago I was standing in my kitchen and something came over me. I went straight to my bookshelf and took down The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek. Then I sat down and read “Chopin in Winter” for the millionth time. Nothing else in my life mattered. I had to re-enter that story, I had to feel the music of those final pages, and when I was done I was in tears, like always, and I felt like I could see the world again. I think something about that feeling, that knock-out punch, is unique to a short story. In a small space you get a complete world, a complete movement. You sit down for a half hour and afteward the world feels different. Almost everything I do in life is an effort to numb myself, but a great short story won't let you do that. Some of my favorite short story writers are John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, Jean Stafford, James Baldwin, Bruce Jay Friedman, J.F. Powers, Barry Hannah, George Saunders, Alice Munro, and Sam Lipsyte. There's so much good stuff going on right now. I recently read two great collections - The Agriculture Hall of Fame by Andrew Milward and Fires of Our Choosing by Eugene Cross. Both do a beautiful job capturing the lives of people whose futures have slipped away from them; people on the edge, who, like most of us, are one step away from falling through the cracks.
Q: Can you talk about your influences? I read that you were a fan of writers ranging from Ross MacDonald to Evan Connell to James Joyce. What draws you to a piece of fiction, as a reader what are you looking for?
A: I was very sad to hear about the recent passing of Evan S. Connell. I think he's a giant, one of the most elegant and subversive writers of the last fifty years. It's astonishing to think that the same man wrote Mrs. Bridge and Diary of a Rapist. There's simply no one like him. James Joyce is my favorite writer. For me, Ulysses is the funniest book ever written. It's difficult in many places, but you have to remember that Joyce is speaking to us from a bar stool, not a podium. The story is pretty simple. There is a young man who has lost his mother, and there is an older man who has lost his son. They both wander around Dublin for a few hundred pages until they finally meet and go to a whorehouse. Now that's literature! Generally, I'm drawn to fiction that has a comic edge. Pain, death, loneliness sorrow – these are the best subjects for comedy.
Q: What's with Del Taco? As a Midwesterner, am I missing out on something here?
A: Maybe think of it as the SoCal version of White Castle – a fast food place that is wonderfully bad for you. Please know that Del Taco is infinitely better than Taco Bell, which relies on cheap soulless gimmicks. Del Taco has a simple but refined menu that appeals to a sophisticated man of culture like myself. Plus you can get a burrito AND french fries. As a kid, my family got Del Taco a couple times a week. As a semi-functioning adult, I still go there way too much. My feedings often take place after midnight, after consuming a plurality of ales. At some point people started pointing out that Del Taco shows up in all my stories. It wasn't a conscience thing when I was writing the stories, but if it comes off like some kind of Wagnerian leitmotif, that's cool. I'll admit that when I wrote the last one, “Play the Man,” I felt an obligation to get in a reference. One sentence on page 25 - “After mass we got Del Taco and watched The Simpsons” – is a fairly complete summation of my life.