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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Writer Spotlight: Alan Stewart Carl

Alan Stewart Carl wants to break your heart. With storylines that include adultery, death, selling off family farms, etc, there isn't a lot in his work to brighten your day, at least not on the surface. Yet under the tawdry details there exists a vibrancy and beauty that is not easy to come by in a world mired in postmodernist posturing and artifice. Mr. Carl belongs to a new breed of short story writers (like Roxane Gay, Ethel Rohan, and David Erlewine) who are refocusing on the wide and extraordinary interior lives of their characters, opening small doors to massive worlds in only a few short words. It's wondeful, gorgeous stuff, rooted in the everyday conflicts and bitterness that make life both unbearable and worth living.

I spoke with Mr. Carl about his work, his writing past, and what it means to be a man in the following interview. There are links to his blog and work throughout the interview, so be sure to check it all out.

Tres Crow: Alan, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions. Let's begin at the beginning. Give us the rundown: When did you decide that you were a writer? Did you study Creative Writing, or is it something you discovered on your own? You live in Texas currently, were you born and raised there?

Alan Stewart Carl: Thanks for the opportunity to participate in your spotlight. And thanks for so many great questions.

I did indeed grow up in Texas. In Dallas, although I live in San Antonio now. I began writing/storytelling when I was old enough to color pictures. I had my mother write in the story below my scribbles. I don’t think that’s all that uncommon among writers. You either enjoy telling stories or you don’t. I used to spend hours alone in my room making up epics with my Star Wars and GI Joe figures. Now I do the same thing, just without the props.

While I guess you could say I discovered writing on my own, that’s just a bit of the story. First of all, my mother is a novelist, so I grew up around writers. I’ve also studied writing in school. I received a minor in writing in college and am a few months away from getting an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of great teachers from high school through graduate school.

TC: New York City looms large in your work, either as a place where people go to escape where they're originally from or as a place dreams go to die. Is New York a metaphor for the coldness of modernity, or do you have a personal connection to the city that you're fleshing out? Implicit in the first question, the characters' connection to the City seems to be one of an outsider's perspective, or one who doesn't quite fit in but deeply wishes they could. Is there something unique to New York City which engenders these sorts of alienated feelings, or is the City a canvas upon which any emotion can be painted?

ASC: Ahh, New York. I moved to Brooklyn right after college and stayed two years. I don’t want to say I “came of age” in NYC, but I sure as hell had some life-changing experiences.

Characters in my stories are outsiders in NYC because I was an outsider. So were almost all of my friends. People migrate to that city from all over and, because of that, New York has a mercurial energy. Every time I go back, it seems to have become a different city. Even when you live there, the city seems to shift and shimmer from one moment to the next. I remember restaurants that would go from a casual lunch spot to hip nightspot in a matter of hours. Such things gave the whole place a disorienting feel, although I wouldn’t call it alienating. I think New York is an eager lover. But living there required sea legs of sorts. Right when you thought you knew where you fit in, people moved away or your favorite bar closed or someone showed up from your former life and reminded you that you were just a kid from Texas and the all-black hipster uniform looks stupid on you.

It’s a place where you always feel alone and yet never alone. It’s so in-the-moment. So present. I love that city. In another life, I never left.

TC: Continuing on the subject of place, Texas also looms large. Particularly in "Shark Teeth" and "Someplace Warm". In "Shark Teeth" Texas, and the narrator's Grandpa's ranch in particular, is a place that was supposed to be forever, was supposed to last, but is instead crumbling. Is the state in that sort disrepair, or is the way of life implied in the story fading? Is there a difference?

In "Someplace Warm" Texas is mentioned only briefly, but seems to live in the character of Quinn, whose visit should bring relief but instead chafes against the persona Christopher has carved for himself in NYC. Quinn's character, if she is a metaphor for Texas, is an unwelcome tonic to the rigid lies Christopher has built around his life and Christopher's rejection of her suggests that buying into self-delusion is a necessary way of dealing with the difficulties and complexities of city life. Is Quinn at all reflective of Texan culture or is she representative more of the dynamic of truth versus self-deception? If I am way off base then set me straight because I have a tendency to extrapolate vast conspiracies in great literature.

ASC: Texas is a huge state, as we Texans have made sure the whole world knows. Parts are in disrepair, for sure, while other parts are booming. I drive through Dallas and there are all these new, cool-looking buildings that I don’t remember being there a few years ago. Even here in San Antonio, the arrow is pointed up.

But there is a kind of Texas that is fading into myth – or maybe it was always myth. I’m talking about the life-loving, hard-land taming Texan whom you might call a cowboy but was more-or-less a pioneer figure. “Shark Teeth” is inspired by an old family ranch in West Texas. I’ve only been to the ranch once, but I’m fascinated by the idea of my great grandfather and grandmother working that ranch and what they endured. It seems they were a hardier stock of people than we are today. I know in reality they were just as flawed as we are, but through the viewfinder of myth-making, they seem noble in a way we can’t be. And that makes me wonder what we’ve lost.

That was at least the feeling behind “Shark Teeth.” In other stories, Texas is the setting simply because it’s where I’m from. Or because it represents home to me. I think that’s where Quinn comes from in “Someplace Warm.” She’s an earthy character and her earthiness chafes against Christopher’s urban desires. I probably could have made her from Iowa and gotten pretty much the same effect if Christopher was also Iowan. She is the thing that he is trying to flee.

I certainly went through a period where I wanted to shed my roots, to plant myself anew. Of course, it’s not that easy. Texas is a part of me no matter what. But that self-delusion you reference is a powerful thing. I don’t know if the delusion is necessary to live the city life per se, but it’s definitely tied to the whole want to find a new life. When I was in my early twenties and wanted to be someone I hadn’t been before, it was really hard to admit my heritage was an inseparable part of me. I wanted to believe I could BE a New Yorker and nothing else. But it didn’t work that way. Particularly when even mentioning you’re from Texas brings out so many prejudices in people not from here. I had to learn to embrace my roots. Roll with it. Nowadays, I wear my cowboy boots everywhere. Even when I visit New York. But I can’t imagine Christopher in boots. He’s not exactly autobiographical, but we’d have been friends back then.

TC: You are a man of many talents. You don't just write fiction; you are also a contributor to the political blog Donklephont and (according to one of the bios I read) you also are an independent advertising and marketing copy writer. Do either of these "hats" inform your fiction, or are they merely ways to pay the bills? I would think that writing for a blog tied to the 24-hour news cycle and also writing ad copy would at least help you write more efficiently. Is that the case?

Additionally you have your own writing blog called
It Ain't Whatcha Write... which highlights writers you like and also your own travels in the forest of publishing. It actually looks like you and I started our blogs at approx. the same time. What has blogging about writing taught you about the craft and about yourself?

ASC: I’m a man of diminishing talents, I’m afraid. I quit political blogging eight or so months ago out of a want to focus more on my fiction. Blogging of any kind is time consuming, but particularly political blogging where every time a story breaks there’s a race to post an opinion before the next story breaks. Nevertheless, it did inform my fiction by giving me the opportunity to learn about a lot of subjects. And I think it also helped teach me to write without a set schedule. I wrote when I had to write. I was a servant to the news cycle.

I still do a lot of advertising and marketing writing. That’s my money-making profession and I’ve done it in one capacity or another for over a decade. Like blogging, copywriting teaches you to write anytime, anywhere. Deadlines are deadlines and they are tied to your livelihood. So, yeah, I think I’ve learned a certain kind of efficiency by copywriting. I’ve probably learned some brevity, too, but I hesitate to say outright that copywriting is in any way good for one’s fiction writing. Writing for commerce is quite different than writing stories.

As for It Ain’t Watcha Write…, that’s really a doodle pad for me and a way to connect with other readers and writers. I like being able to give shout-outs to stories I’ve loved and I like to have a place to post random musings. Compared to political blogging, it’s relaxing. But it has definitely taught me some things about craft. By putting into words WHY I like a particular story, I get a better sense of what kinds of things I like about literature and what kinds of things I want to attempt myself.

TC: Also gleaned from your bios, you consistently mention that you have two "wild and beautiful children". As a new father myself, I have found that children can be a perpetual fountain of inspiration. Has having kids enriched your writing, and in what ways have you found inspiration from your homelife? Does having children make it more difficult to write, and it what ways?

ASC: Congrats on becoming a father! It’s a ride.

I probably write less about children than a lot of parents do. But, yeah, they’ve changed my life and thus my writing. They make you very aware of what is and isn’t important. You learn a lot about yourself at three a.m. when the baby is screaming and you’ve barely slept for days. Just like you learn a lot during those temper tantrums in the crowded Target. Parenting constantly requires you to be an adult. To control yourself. And I think that’s been good for my writing. It’s made me constantly aware of my own flawed humanity. And constantly aware of my capacity to love (not to mention my capacity to clean up all sorts of bodily emissions).

I’d say children make it harder to write – but probably no more so than any other distraction. I work from home so I’m with the kiddos a lot and we’re still working out the whole “when Daddy says he needs a moment to finish, he NEEDS a moment to finish.” They have no sense of when I’m in the zone or when a story is failing to the point that I’m pretty sure I’m the worst writer in the world and all I want to do is fix one $%$$%$^& sentence and get it right before I have to get someone more juice or another snack.

And yet, those constant interruptions have taught me that my “zone” is not something that’s constrained to a period of time. It’s something that comes from the story itself. I can stop and start. That’s a good thing to discover. Even if I still dislike getting bumped out of a groove.

TC: Your writing breaks the heart. I spent most of this morning reading your work and, after working my way through most everything, I found that the cumulative effect was a distressing. It was a little like watching a home movie of a small child having their favorite toy taken away from them over and over again. But the cause and intensity of this emotion was because of your uncanny ability to force the reader to connect with your characters, even as you're telegraphing impending doom through the very structure of the story, or through your language. The best example of this is "Below The Surface" in which the lead character August is buried under rubble and proceeds to travel back through his life. I must admit that by the end I cared very much for August and Hannah and almost dreaded finishing the story because I knew where you were going and I thought if I simply didn't keep reading then I would be able to invent a world in which Hannah offers August a cigarette, kisses him, and they dance away into the night. It is a testament to your authority that I didn't stop reading, and though I was sad, I loved the story all the more for it's emotional honesty.

This sort of heartbreak, or delayed or denied gratification, is legion throughout your work and it begs the question: are you personally this fatalistic, or is it a literary device? The fatalism is extraordinarily effective and gut-wrenching, and though the outcomes are similar the characters are thoroughly fleshed out and unique so that each story stands alone despite thematic similarities to your body of work. Have you always written stories with this sort of bent to them, or is it a recent thing, or part of your flowering as an author?

Another aspect of your work's heartbreak is that the characters seem to be giving away days of their lives under the assumption that there will be more to come, and much of the emotional momentum comes from the dissonance between what they thought their lives would be like and what they actually are like. I found the most poignant example of this to be in "Shark Teeth" as Sam signs away his grandfather's ranch. Sam always thought the ranch would be there and derived a measure of comfort from that even though he made no effort to maintain the ranch's viability. What are the ways people get trapped in futures they don't remember making? Was there a period in your own life when you could relate to this sort of desperation? Are you currently in one of those periods of desperation?

ASC: First of all, thanks for all the kind words here. I’m so glad my writing affected you.

I’m not a fatalistic person. I’m actually quite hopeful. I think many of my characters share that hope. And although you’re right that I most often deny them their wants, I tend to think the wanting in itself is a kind of victory. Belief is hard. Belief in the unlikely or the impossible is even harder. I’m fascinated by people who keep up a Sisyphusian endeavor. Who long for realities that cannot exist.

I think that’s the desperation you note. That intense longing that makes a person reach for things he or she cannot have – or imagine worlds that cannot exist. I tend to shift between realism and fantasticalism and I think that’s because I don’t view our minds as existing in any sort of stable reality. We exist in myth and fantasy. We believe in the existence of worlds that never were and we hope for the arrival of worlds that never can be. Maybe seeing the world in that way is indeed a kind of fatalism. But I’d plead it’s an optimistic fatalism. It’s rooted in hope. The fact that those hopes will not come true does not, I think, invalidate the wonders or power of hope itself.

I think I’ve always written with that bent. The difference now is maybe I’ve learned some better ways to tell stories. Or I’ve lived longer and have more from which to draw. I think most of the fiction I wrote in my twenties was overwrought in parts and na├»ve in others. Not that I’ve got it all figured out now. I don’t think I’m anywhere close to getting it right. In fact, these fantastic questions of yours are making me look at my own work in the kinds of critical I often avoid – and although I understand why I do some of the things I do in my stories, I’m not sure how that happens. I don’t start stories with themes in mind. I start with a fascinating character. Or, most often, a first line that compels me to write a second line.

TC: Another theme, or recurring scenario, is cheating. "Just The Truth", "Beneath The Surface", "Choosing Id", and "Someplace Warm" (I would argue the dynamic between Christopher and Zara makes Christopher's relationship with Quinn cheating-ish) all involve cuckoldery in some fashion or another and the effects of the cheating are never good. In all four cases the cheaters are punished either as a direct consequence of their cheating or through indirect measures. At yet several characters are given pretty darn good justifications for their roving eyes. Are you making a generalized statement about the futility of lasting love in these stories? The only character who receives any sort catharsis in their relationship has to die for it, that is a pretty strong statement. Can lasting happiness be found through sexual relationships? Does lasting happiness translate badly to the page? Most authors don't write about good relationships (myself included), is this because authors are bad at relationships or is writing about good relationship too hard?

Good relationships are boring. I mean, we all want one and some of us are even lucky enough to have one, but who wants to read about a happy couple? There’s no drama there. That’s why I never write about my own marriage. Or my own childhood, even. I’ve had a damn fortunate life. If it weren’t for my own neuroses and such, I’d have absolutely no fuel for storytelling

But I get what you’re asking in regards to my stories. And I guess my best answer is to relate it back to that hope/fatalism we were discussing. Affairs are irrational. They’re based on willful lies – not the cover-up lies told to the cuckold, but the lies the person in the affair tells to him or herself. Affairs provide a direct route to the fantasies we substitute for reality. I don’t think I write much about purely sexual affairs. I’m far more interested in affairs that involve love. Probably because I’m really a sappy romantic (that hope thing again). I believe in love. Can it last? Can it translate into lasting happiness? Probably not if it’s based in self-delusion. But I’m only 35. And I still have great hope for love. Honest love. No matter how hard that is to hold on to.

TC: In a similar vein both your stories "What Our Fathers Knew" and "Shark Teeth" depict a fading, if not entirely lost, world in which men knew who they were and defended that piece of ground which they'd carved out. In both stories, that ground is ceded by the next guard of men who seem uncertain of their place, or, perhaps too cowardly to take what is rightfully theirs. Are their still men like the Grandfather in "Shark Teeth" or the fathers in "What Our Fathers Knew"? Do you have to necessarily give up masculinity in order to be good at "kissing boo-boos and cuddling on the couch"? Is there still a place for "men" in the world, or fiction at large, or was the old idea of masculinity a myth even at the time? (BTW I thought "What Our Fathers Knew" was absolutely brilliant! I have sat at that poker table countless times. You really hit the nail on the head.)

ASC: “What Our Fathers Knew” began life as me trying to write a story about poker. Then it kind of morphed from there. I give credit to the guys at Bull for the editing they did. They really helped me pull that piece together.

As for men of yore – their ability to “defend that piece of ground which they’d carved out” was wholly dependent on a society that gave them an unfair amount of power. The men remembered in the stories you reference were part of a world that no longer exists – or at least no longer exists for many of us. Or exists in a diminished state. And rightfully so. Masculinity based on societal constructs is just that – a societal construct and not something earned. I sure as hell hope you can still be a man and be good at kissing boo-boos. I’d like to think you can be a better man when less is given out for free. But that doesn’t mean all of us so-called modern guys aren’t bathed in the masculine myths of the past. Sure, those men were just as insecure as any young father today, but, again, it’s the fantasy that matters. It’s the hope for a reality can’t exist. That never existed.

TC: How do you write? Are you a quick writer? Do you agonize over ever sentence? Multiple revisions? Do you write with the door closed or in coffee shops with tons of noise around you? Listen to music?

ASC: Once you've finished a story how do you find markets to place them? Could you shed a little light on your publication process for my readers who may be just getting into the meatgrinder?

I write where I can. Usually that’s on the dining-room table although I do have a home office I also use. In a pinch I’ll write in a coffee shop or on a plane or wherever I have a few minutes. I write every day. In fact, as much as I enjoy the story about my mother filling in the words beneath my toddler scribbles, I don’t think I really became a writer until I stopped treating it like a hobby and started treating it like the most important non-family task I have. That’s a very recent development. But it’s been great for my writing.

I write fast. But I revise a ton. The time period between blank page and first draft is often as short as a few hours for a flash story or a few days for a full-blown short story. But first draft to final is sometimes a torturously extended process. I do agonize over every sentence. I want more than just clarity. I want rhythm. Flow. I fall short of that very often. At least half the stories I write end up in the “dead” folder.

I choose journals by reading journals. Online journals make that easy. If I like what a journal is publishing and I think I have a story that fits their aesthetic, I’ll submit. Because of this, I really target where my stories go. I used to simultaneously submit everything to 5-10 journals. Now the stories go to one or two at a time. This is mostly true when I’m submitting to online journals. Most online journals that I like respond within a few weeks, if not a few days. Print journals often have much longer response times so I tend to hit more of them at once with a story. A lot of the print journals also have a less clear aesthetic for a variety of reasons (no on-line content, revolving editors, undergraduate readers whose tastes are difficult to predict). I find it harder to pick and choose among them, although the more I read, the more I get a sense of whose tastes are more likely to groove with my work. For instance, if I like the stories the main editor’s are writing, there’s a better chance he/she will like mine. Or if they’re publishing writers I like, they might be more responsive to what I’m writing.

TC: Where is Alan Stewart Carl heading next? Any plans for a novel? Will you be continuing with your short stories? When will the movie version of "Beneath The Surface" be coming out?

ASC: In the last few days I finished the first draft of a long novel. It’s a story about lovers separated after a disaster cuts off Baltimore from the rest of the world. I’m pretty sure it touches on every theme of mine you’ve identified. The novel has a fantastical premise dealing with the idea of multiple worlds and realities. And it’s very much about isolation and what is and isn’t important to a person once our comforts and our sense of truth are stripped away. I’m only now beginning to take the novel from its rough blob state into a formed substance. But I have high hopes for it.

And, hell, I’m all for a move version of “Below The Surface.” Any production company that wants to option it is more than welcome to do so. I’m standing by the phone.

As for my short story writing, I always have a number of them in the works. I’ve even been toying around with a collection of altered history stories – or weird history stories. Maybe a chapbook in that. Maybe something more substantial. We’ll see. But I’ll definitely keep writing shorter fiction. I think the short story is far from dead. In fact, based on what I read online, it’s experiencing a renaissance. Matt Bell and Sean Lovelace and Ethel Rohan and Roxane Gay and David Erlewine and Amber Sparks and Jason Jordan and so many other great writers who I read and love are really doing things with the short form that’s going to change fiction. I feel lucky to be reading them. They inspire me to keep at it.