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Congratulations on having your first story, “The Whispered Thing”, published with Apex. Were you familiar with Apex before submitting work? Do you have any other works in progress or slated for publication?
I knew Apex was a high quality Indie that could stand toe to toe with the majors, and that it earned its strong reputation with great taste and tenacious perseverance. For me Apex embodies that underground spirit that amps much of the work I love, so I’m very happy and grateful that The Whispered Thing found a home here.
Of course, it’s also a whole lot more than that; because it’s the first market to publish my work I liken it to pushing off from the ocean floor and surfacing decades later in a strange sea full of potent possibilities. Between those two moments—the first stroke up and that sudden rush of air—are hard years of treading water, often in darkness where form rejections strike like rogue waves, spinning you around so that you’re not sure if you’re still heading up or back down again. With time though a light begins to emerge. Slush editors say they like your story even though the head editor passed; head editors say they like your story even though it doesn’t fit this anthology’s theme. The sun gets brighter and closer, until one day you break the surface. Then the sound is unlike anything you heard below, like music flowing from an instrument yet unnamed. The air is sweet; the horizon endless: you can go anywhere now. That’s how Apex feels to me. Just don’t ask me how I held my breath that long—I’m still trying to figure that out!
As for other work, I’ve got plenty of short stories out there, floating beneath the surface with editors who like it and say they want to give it a second look, or like it and want to see how it fits with the other submissions, etc. Maybe this will shake a few things loose, you never know. In the meantime I’m writing a novel, and I have the major themes, story structure, character arcs, the whole deal, all mapped out. I’m excited with where it’s heading: now that I’m here I’m ready to hustle twice as hard.
“The Whispered Thing”, is set in Japan. Your descriptions are detailed and engrossing. Have you ever visited Japan? What inspired you to set the story there?
I was an ESL teacher in Nagoya, Aichi for four years; first for Nova, one of the giant factory schools that hold turf wars at every subway stop with fast serve English, and then—okay now, don’t laugh—The La La Pony English Club, a small private school. It’s Pony that lead to the Buddhist kindergarten, because they wanted ESL lessons for their kids. So that’s the obvious inspiration. As for why I wanted to live in Japan, I grew up in the 1980s, where every other piece of pop culture seemed to spring from this little nation in the Pacific. These tales had this cool, post-modern sheen that appealed to a little guy who had no conscious perception of what the fuck a cool, postmodern sheen was. He just knew that it was strange and different and new, but not so much how it got to be that way. Steve Erickson once said—I think it was in The Sea Came in at Midnight— that being on the brunt end of progress via Hiroshima and Nagasaki made Japan the first true postmodern society. They saw through every trend or innovation that promised a better tomorrow to something harder and weirder. In that kind of place being removed from your own culture makes you aware of how people communicate. Language gains a heavier weight: every word matters, every gesture has meaning. So when you’re on this atoll that evolved along its own path then when you encounter these hard, weird things everything—especially the words—really registers.
And my wife is Japanese, which helps a lot!
One sentence that stood out for me was at the very beginning of “The Whispered Thing”, “She’ll place a word on a page, and then agonize over the resulting ripples as though the word were a stone thrown into a deep lake.” Many authors struggle with getting the words on paper for a myriad of reasons, whether lack of confidence or the need for perfection. Have you ever found yourself in that situation?
I agonize about every little thing, but its different now than when I started out. It’s not that I ever suffer from writer’s block, but there are days where everything I crank out is golden, and others where my wife comes in and finds me gnawing on the carpet, trying desperately to rhyme something with “orange.” No matter how it goes the need to capture things perfectly drives my work. I’m always coming away from work, parties, and everyday encounters thinking, “ah, if only I timed the punchline better,” or “shit, how could I forget her name.” Not that a perfect story would have those details necessarily—in fact a perfect story might take the discomfort up to 11—but it would get to the heart of the disconnect, the blue note feeling that bends life around you and leaves you questioning how you even got here. Don DeLillo once said that if you understand everything you wrote then you haven’t dug deep enough. I love that quote. Writing for me allows the exploration of deeper themes that don’t have patience for the minute ebb and flow of easy conversation. Things that require serious concentration and commitment. Things that disappear if even one little detail’s absent. At the same time I want to compress all that in a concise way, so that what I’m relating flows from me to you in a quick conduit that belies a leviathan’s passage.
Not that I’m a morose guy who constantly demands great meaning from every encounter; for instance, I also make guacamole.
The character Mizuki, a six year old girl, inspires both sympathy and fear. Do you think her power is innate and that her “angry friend” gains power through her or could it be Mizuki has changed because the “angry friend” sought her out?
I’m going to be cagey on this, because you’re driving right where I want you to go. Personally I love stories with the right balance of ambiguity; it imbibes the work with a mystery and presence that doesn’t exist in neat, tied-together tales. For me those kinds of stories have no legs. They’re things of ink and paper, and when you shut the book there they stay, like flowers compressed to ash. I like stories that grab you behind the eyes and elbow aside the current tenants; stories that plant roots and grow large with possible meanings. That to me is the greatest value any writer can give a reader; a tale that grows with the audience, which continues to live long after the final period’s been committed to the page. So I promise that this isn’t a puzzle culminating into one picture, or a single path leading to the top of the mountain. You won’t arrive and find me playing a wooden flute while the wind whips my robes, and when I stop playing we just look at each other and no words are said because we both already know the answer. This story invites multiple interpretations, and anyway if you heard my flute playing you’d be happy you didn’t make the trip. As the end of The Whispered Thing says (spoiler alert for those who haven’t read it yet; do not pass GO), “I will hold these pages to the light and read them as different facets of a total whole in the hope that the right surface, held at the right time and the right angle, might spark a pure ray which will deliver understanding.”
This sentence struck a chord with me, “Sometimes the weight of our hearts holds back the stories that need telling.” The sentiment is beautiful in its simplicity, striking in its gravity. Do you think the stories that are most gripping come from a place of emotion?
Nine times out of ten yes. I believe in big game hunting. I like works that wrestle with major themes and come back bloodied, bruised, and triumphant, and the best do this in a way that registers on both an emotional as well as an intellectual level. Stories are wondrous meals cooked from numerous ingredients, but for me the best begin and end with the characters. You have to care about them, and more importantly you have to understand how whatever idea you’re exploring is being refracted through the inner prisms of their lives. They are real people encountering a mystery, and they bring their own baggage into the unknown. No matter how alien the threat those histories come first, and connect to forces just as powerful, if not more ancient. Sometimes that baggage makes them sink, but other times there’s something inside that’ll see them through.
In the story you mention Stephen King’s book On Writing. His advice is to write what you know and to write every day. Do you follow that advice?
Well, it would be hard to say no in this case! But it’s important to note that writing what you know alone isn’t enough. I like how he also says—and I’m paraphrasing here—that the rule is good if you want to write about, say, teaching English in Japan, but you’re going to need more if you’re talking about a space freighter that encounters an alien life form on a barren moon. In that case you need to pick up the phone and call Weird Uncle Bob. He always has a skewed take on things, whether it’s that freighter, or a little girl with abilities outside the rules of reality. In both cases you’re stepping away from the neighborhood sidewalk and into the deep woods behind the house, so I think where “write what you know” comes into play is when you ask “yeah, but how would I react to this situation, how do I ground it in what I know.” In the case of The Whispered Thing I based Gregarious Sensei’s responses to my own when I encountered a child being bullied. I hate those scenes in movies where the teacher is oblivious to how kids react—for some reason I always think of that part in Pretty in Pink where the teacher tries to stand up for Molly Ringwald and only makes it worse—so I really tried to write something truer. Or not truer, because I think that scene is accurate in capturing a certain kind of teacher—but I wanted to go another route and write about someone who was actually conscious during their school years, all while avoiding any false notes.
So there you have it: The Whispered Thing is a searing indictment of Pretty in Pink—set in Japan.
When did you first become interested in writing? Are there any authors that influence you?
My first book was entitled Dog Star, and related the riveting saga of how dogs came to Earth after their sun exploded. They did it in a battleship, and they all wore yachting caps. It was the cream of Juchem Elementary’s first grade writing class, and my favorite passage in the whole thing goes, “They went to Earth. They went there.” I’m still trying to top that one. Rumor has it Keanu Reeves ripped it off when he named his band, and when I prove it I’m going to take him for everything he’s worth.
Honestly though it always felt like writing was the one thing I was good at. Of course everyday I’m encountering things that could be better, but it fulfills me like nothing else. As for influences, I already named a couple overhead, but Infinite Jest is probably my favorite book. When David Foster Wallace died he left a God-sized hole in my heart. But shooting for that kind of quality right out of the gate is a good way to chew a hole through the carpet, and anyway there are other authors who I gravitate towards in terms of voice. Land of Laughs by Jonathon Carroll was a huge inspiration early on, and I discovered Paul Auster while I was in Japan, and that was a continuation of Carroll’s circumventing of genre conventions, the kind of pushback more authors need to do against the rules. Haruki Murakami is a big influence, especially on The Whispered Thing, and so is David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Steve Erickson, Brett Easton Ellis, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson—okay I’ll stop. Well okay, one more; you might have guessed I like King, so there you go, the tip of the iceberg; I could keep going, so we’ll really just have stop there.
For first time readers of your work, sum up what to expect in one sentence.
The Whispered Thing is a searing indictment of Pretty in Pink—set in Japan.
Thanks for being such a great guest!
Hey, thanks for letting me up for air!