Anything, any object, can be taken from you. It can be lost, stolen, broken, sold, or simply left behind, once you’ve lost interest in it. Those things you care about that aren’t things, aren’t objects? Those can never be taken from you. When Five is shown the smallest kindness, he’s been given something that can never be taken away.
How old are you when you realize the best things in life aren’t things? As a macabre celebration of his birthday, every year, Five’s father forces him to give up something important to him. Not only is he starting to run out of things to give up, but he’s old enough to realize that the most important things in life aren’t things. How do you give up something that isn’t a physical thing?
Neglected and abused, Five does what he’s told because he doesn’t know any better. When he meets the woman with the rotten teeth, his life changes. When Five’s father realizes there is something his son loves, something his son can’t physically give up, the man loses all rational control. And Five is about to learn that caring about a person can be just as painful as caring about a toy. To be insensitive, Five is growing up to be the ultimate anti-consumer.
Andrew F. Kooy’s “Clap Your Hands” is a disturbingly dark story that touches on control as a coping mechanism for loss and grief, tests of faith in a compassionless world, horrible people adding goodness to the world, and realizing when enough is enough. By the end of the story, even the act of clapping your hands becomes a non-verbal signal of loss and anguish. Kooy deftly gives this story a timeless feel, eschewing mention of cell phones, computers, and other modern technology. This story could take place in 1985, 1945, anytime and anywhere.
Although Five is the obvious main character of the story, I found myself fascinated by his father, Ted Gunderson. Ted is a truly horrible human being, absolute scum. He physically and emotionally abuses his son, blaming the boy for his mother’s death in childbirth. Who was Ted before his wife died? Was he always a horrible person? Or did the death of his wife, and having to see her features on his son’s face every day, and forcing himself to relive the trauma of her death every year, turn him into this truly awful person? If he was always a disgusting excuse for a human being, then he deserves everything he gets. And how much of that personality did Five inherit? It’s an interesting thought experiment to see how much pity I can dig up for Ted.
Andrew F. Kooy was kind enough to let me pick his brain about how this story came to be, how he got the tone and pace of Ted Gunderson’s tent-revival preachings just right, the challenge of writing a story where even a truly awful human being has the power to bring some good into the world, and where the most unnoticed person can do miracles. In the category of less serious matters, we also chatted a bit about his favorite authors and the therapeutic power of dance.
When Andrew F. Kooy isn’t at his part-time teaching job at Dillard University or dancing on an all-male dance Krewe, he spends his time full-time dadding and writing. His work has previously appeared in literary magazines such as Barely South Review and The Stockholm Review of Literature. He’s a fan of Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Pratchett and wearer of gold tennis shoes, Apex Magazine is thrilled to welcome Andrew F. Kooy to our ranks of quirky, brilliant authors.
APEX MAGAZINE: As soon as I met Five, I wanted to rescue him. Rescue him from being blamed for his mother’s death, rescue him from his filthy life, rescue him from Ted Gunderson, who is a sorry excuse for a human being. How did you develop Five as a character?
ANDREW F. KOOY: I really enjoy giving characters power they are unable to fully utilize. Sometimes they are so boring that what they choose to do seems asinine, and others are so petty that they choose silly revenge when they could have made the world a paradise. Five can do miracles, but only when he experiences compassion, and he lives in a world with very little compassion. I wanted to see how faith and goodness survived in a world that is almost completely brutal. Five’s faith survives and he chooses to see kindness in others, even though he has moments of his own brutality along the way.
Most people have emotional or physical scars they can attribute to their parents, but those same parents also made them who they are. I wanted to put that damage and blessing in stark relief. Brother Ted Gunderson didn’t do much to bless Five, but Mary was kind when they first met, and that hug they shared shaped my understanding of Five a lot as I tried to write him as a gentle child, even though his first experience of direct kindness happens near the end of his childhood.
AM: What inspired this story? Which scene was the hardest to write? Which scene was the most satisfying to write?
AFK: The original draft of this story has almost no similarities to the story you’ve read. The band, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, has a song on their self-titled album called “Clap Your Hands!” and every time I hear it, a ridiculous music video plays through my head, so I wrote it out as a story. The song is about a shipwreck, but I grew up in the desert so whenever I try to picture shipwrecks I end up visualizing it as being lost in the desert because the potable-water situation is pretty much the same in the desert as it is on the sea. In the original version, Five is a nasty old cuss of a gunslinger who wanders into a mining town, discovers that the miners appear to all be clowns, and then is eaten alive because they are also cannibals. It was a terrible story, but I liked the idea of Five and the song title eventually led me to the flavor of revival I decided to go with.
The scene where Five finally achieves vengeance was both satisfying and difficult to write. The violence was gratuitous, but I hope it was earned. Also, Brother Ted Gunderson gets preachy as he’s dying and I feel like it can be a difficult line to walk between letting your characters get justifiably preachy and the reader walking away from a scene thinking “Ugh, that writer was preachy.”
AM: Brother Ted Gunderson is a traveling preacher who knows more than he lets on about running a con. What research did you do to get his voice and his healing revivals just right? Any connection to Ted Gunderson, the FBI Agent who became a conspiracy theorist?
AFK: Brother Ted Gunderson’s name came about as I shuffled sounds together until I came up with a combination I liked, so no connection to the FBI. I lived in a town in Northern California for a while that had a Pentecostal Megachurch, which had a “supernatural school of ministry.” I never attended a service but I knew plenty of members and I was often prayed or prophesied over during late-night grocery trips by roving groups of ministry students. The church had plenty of speaking in tongues, but they also had laughing in the spirit, flag dancing in the spirit, and clapping hands in the spirit as part of their services. I’m pretty sure clapping hands in the spirit had its heyday in the ’70s but these things come in cycles. They also have many “documented” cases of cavities being filled with gold and gold dust from heaven, after particularly invigorating worship sessions. It was just one of those things that is too good not to use in a story. Before one of my final edits, I read through several books of the old testament to nail down my pacing, as I was covering a significant portion of Five’s life in only a few pages. I also worked to capture a call-and-response-revival feeling at times, which you can see in the section where she “married Brother Ted Gunderson and the whole town said hallelujah. She took the name Mary Gunderson and the town said amen.”
AM: Of the few Psalms that I’ve read, you’re right, the words are very pretty. They are often calming and pleasing to the ear. This story of a child who escapes an abusive father could have been placed anywhere, at any time, in any environment. Why place this particular story in a religious environment?
AFK: I wanted Five’s faith to be the through-line of this story, and I think that, sometimes, a religious environment is the most difficult place for faith to survive. I grew up in the church, and while I have plenty of damage and blessings from my parents, I also have both from the church. I feel that most stories that delve into religion go to the extremes of showing it to be completely hollow or evangelizing. I took a sort of ridiculous middle road by thinking about the probability that even the most cheeseball, corrupt televangelist has almost definitely helped people in their ministry. I guess it’s like if someone saved me from a burning building but also stole my wallet. I would want to thank that person and punch them in the face. That is a more interesting realm for a story than a world that is all good or all evil.
AM: Much of your fiction has appeared in literary magazines, such as the Barely South Review and The Stockholm Review of Literature. Apex Magazine is dark fantasy, horror, and weird science fiction. Everyone here at Apex? We’re nerdy and proud! What made you interested in making the jump from literary mags to speculative fiction mags?
AFK: I tend to have a difficult time figuring out where to place my stories. Some people read them and say, “that’s not literary enough,” while others wonder why I’m not immersing them fully in the speculative realm. I haven’t been writing for long, but I figured out early on that if I’m not entertaining myself, it’s not worth it, and right now I love blurring that line. Plus, the speculative/literary dichotomy is pretty subjective. The Stockholm Review of Literature may be very literary, but the story of mine they printed ends with the main character basically meeting a god/hallucinating over a dog-vomit picnic. Also, look at Vonnegut. He was fully speculative, but he’s considered literary. Heck, he drew a butthole multiple times, in one of his books, and it was still a best-seller. I’m not saying I will ever be as good as Vonnegut, but I might as well shoot for the moon and hope to hit Tralfamadore.
I found Apex specifically combing through Duotrope. Both the description of content and tone of that description had me thinking of several stories I wanted to send you, which was a relief because “Clap Your Hands” had gotten quite a few personalized rejections from literary journals, saying they enjoyed the story but it wasn’t a good fit. I survive a multitude of rejections (over 150 last year) by realizing that I often send my story to the wrong place, and I am very glad “Clap Your Hands” found a home in Apex.
AM: What is your favorite thing about being a writer? Who are some of your favorite writers, and why is their work important to you?
AFK: Part of writing makes me feel like a wizard. I can make you hallucinate and feel, all because of a few marks on a page that come from pictures in my brain. Writing also makes me feel like Sisyphus. Great stories get rejected. Good ideas turn to trash on the page. Some days I have to delve into memories I’d rather not visit, and other days I get to imagine a beautiful future. Writing isn’t easy, but I have found it to be rewarding. I love writing. It has been a coping mechanism and a playground, but it will also always be work.
Heinlein and Vonnegut are both fantastic writers, whose work I love, but they are also completely in the speculative and literary worlds, which I feel is a pretty amazing feat. Lately I’ve been re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and I am becoming convinced that he may be one of the greatest writers who ever lived. He is entertaining and clever, and he speaks to important issues, and one of the biggest things for me is that he seemed like he was having a blast every moment he was writing.
AM: What is your typical writing process? Do stories tend to fall out of your head nearly completed, or do you slowly carve their shapes from disparate ideas? For you, how does an idea become a completed story?
AFK: I’ve had a few stories burst from my head fully-formed, but waiting on divine inspiration is not a sustainable writing plan. I have loads of nascent stories floating around my head at any given time, but I don’t usually start writing them until I come up with a scene, scenario, or even phrase that feels like a fitting end. That ending survives editing less than fifty percent of the time, but I need to be aiming for something to really get going with a story. This is a problem I am currently struggling with in trying to write a much longer story because I’ve got a lot of awesome parts but no end target, so I am having trouble getting started.
The stories I love the most usually start with a terribly stupid idea. I’ll go around for weeks telling people about my really stupid idea, and I will mostly get confirmation that the idea is truly stupid and should never be turned into a story. Eventually, the stupid idea gets a little flesh on it and my brain will turn my previous insistence that the story should never exist into a challenge, and I’ll get to work. The stories that come out of that process of shame and defiance often are the stories I love the most.
AM: What and who are the 610 Stompers? How did you get involved with them?
AFK: The 610 Stompers are “ordinary men with extraordinary moves.” They’ve been around for about ten years, but their spirit has existed since alcohol first inspired pre-historic man to dance with reckless abandon. We dance in Mardi Gras parades and do a lot of fundraisers for charities around town. I am not a good dancer, but I am enthusiastic. I tried out for a few years before I finally got in, and my joking response when asked why I kept trying out was either about free beer or my need for some cardio, but the truth is that not only am I a writer but I also suffer from depression and anxiety, so I spend way more time than is healthy inside my own head. Dancing is ridiculous and wonderful and leaves no space for my internal critic. If only for a moment. Plus, as a writer, I am completely separated from my audience. I send a story out and get rejections for months and months until an editor says they like it enough to publish it, and when it comes out, I can’t do much more than hope that readers like it, too. When I dance, I get the immediate gratification of seeing someone laugh or cheer in response. It’s pretty fantastic. Plus, they gave me cool blue shorts and I get to paint my tennis shoes gold.
AM: Thanks Andrew!