One of the hardest but also the most rewarding things about having a book out [For out of the Heart Proceed] has been getting asked to talk about it. I don’t mean that to sound coy or falsely modest. I think it’s hard to talk about my writing, but it’s also rewarding, because having to do so sends me back into a story or into my memory of writing that story; invariably I learn something new. Likewise, I think it’s difficult to find the right way to talk about other books and about other writers, which is something that’s absolutely central to being able to discuss, say, how I might place short-short fiction in relation to prose poetry on some kind of map of literary genre. This is also really rewarding because it sends me back to books I love, where I get to relearn all over again just why that is. Sometimes these conversations happen in interviews, or in posts like this one, and sometimes it’s just through talking with a friend or a colleague who’s read the book. I’m asked about my influences or about what I was up to in particular stories, and so on. These are good questions, and it’s my job to try to come up with answers that make me seem, well, not dumb. For a guy whose first instinct is almost always to answer “I don’t know” that’s no small task.
Here’s an example: the title of my book is taken from a verse in the Book of Matthew that, as I read it, is about how we demonstrate who we are by our actions. Alan Heathcock puts it better in his book Volt, which is there in the stack on my desk. “We are what we do,” a character tells his son in the story “Smoke.” I like this idea and I like this sentiment. I think it’s true. Anyway, in an interview recently, I was asked to talk about this in relation to some of the characters in my book, about how thematically the title represents something cohesive about the collection as a whole. And that’s no easy question. Because of course part of the answer really is I don’t know. Or at least I didn’t know when I was writing the stories. So I had to go figure it out. To answer a question in an interview like this is an act of reflection, of revising intent, of analysis.
Oliver de la Paz is a poet of ambition. He operates on a mythic scale, even in the microcosm. But he’s not too busy staring at the world inside his fingernail. He takes his readers into a strange new world and brings them back, whether he’s transmuting all the worst generals into imperial ants in Names Above Houses, or honeymooning with scorpions in Furious Lullaby, or staring into the abyss of a vacant bee hive on the pages of Sou’wester.
Recently, assistant editor David Rawson posed a number of questions to Benjamin Reed about his story, “Surprise Me With Something Familiar” (Spring 2007). Benjamin responded with generosity, insight, and hilarity – way more than we could have hoped for.
How does this story fit into the rest of your work?
I remember it was one of the first couple times I thought I’d written a “polished” piece. But back then I didn’t read a lot of literary journals and I had a really naive perspective of contemporary fiction. I think I judged all my manuscripts in terms of whether or not they might get accepted by Glimmer Train.
How did this story come to be?
I was a bartender for a long time, in a small, dark lounge on Red River, what used to be the very edge of downtown Austin. It was so dark, all the light was from a few dozen red venetian candles and the glowing ends of people’s cigarettes. We poured beers practically by feel, and mixed drinks by sound and texture. We hated making white Russians. Cream–really it’s half-and-half–froths when you shake it. It expands. It gets everywhere, all over your hands, the bar, the bar mats, your shirt, the upside-down glass you use to cap your shaker tin–everywhere. And after you make a white Russian you have to rinse everything extra, which clouds the blue water of the sanitatizing sink. And usually the people ordering them were amateurs, posers, or young men who over-identified with The Big Lebowski.
As such, the manager was constantly “forgetting” to buy half-and-half. So we were always being prompted to suggest a replacement. Usually this would be Bailey’s. One night, we started joking about making white Russians with breast milk. One of our bartenders had just come back to work after having a baby, and was always talking about lactating and pumping. I asked her if she would be up for a donation. Just a few ounces. She said she’d think about it. When I asked again later she replied with a decisive “No.” I assume she’d mentioned it to her husband, and he clearly did not think it was as amusing an idea as I did.
Joseph Levens has a way of messing with your head. What’s in a name, he asks. Where is the line between the literal and the metaphorical? What’s all this about sex and death?
Joseph’s fiction has appeared in Sou’wester numerous times, including the Spring 2012 issue.
My boyfriend’s name is Gunner and there is a reason for this. The sex is good, great even, but when he comes, boy and girl here have a little problem: a bullet is shot out instead of semen, at the same velocity as if fired from a rifle.
John Linwood, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Of this story, appearing in the Fall 2011 issue, writer Anthony Varallo recalls:
I wrote “Think of Me and I’ll Know” during a time when I was writing a lot of short-short fiction, for reasons that still aren’t clear to me now, but likely have something to do with avoiding the novel I was working on at the time. The working title for the story was “All Quiet on the Western Front” (great title, but already taken, alas) and the story ran about five pages or so, a story about a guy who gets into an argument with his wife, goes to the library, recalls reading All Quiet on the Western Front in high school, goes home, and finds his son’s lost cat. The end.
I thought it was an okay story, but, at five pages, it both seemed too long and too short.
I’m told Sou’wester is throwing a Come As You Are Party. Well, here I am, or my hand, anyway, at my mess of a work desk. Reason #1 for the mess: I’m eyeballs-deep in the final revision of my novel-in-progress, which will be titled The Sexual Lives of Missionaries. Reason #2: This is how messy my desk always gets, and the only reason it ever gets less messy is because I keep a to-do list, and on the fourth Thursday of every month, I tend the line item that reads: “Clean your desk.”
The stack of books on the left is part pleasure reading, part research. The Atlas of Anatomy and Gray’s Anatomy are for the novel that will follow the novel I’m writing. Its construction requires me to know more than I now know about bodily organs, their natures and appearances, and how they decay after death. (There’s a stack behind this stack on the subject of “morbid anatomy,” which means that every time I leave the library I get funny looks from the desk clerks, who surely wonder whether I’m a medical student or an axe murderer.)