David Erlewine talks with Outsider Writer Caleb Ross about his new chapbook, “Charactered Pieces” (Outsider Writers Collective, 2009), about fatherhood, the mighty man George Brett, and how to get into super-awesome Pear Noir, among other things.
David Erlewine: Caleb, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I see you got Daniel Casebeer to give you an INSANE blurb for Charactered Pieces. The guy won’t take anything of mine for Pear Noir. You’ve gotten into Pear Noir. You’ve now gotten an insanely cool blurb. Talk to me. How do I get into Pear Noir? Please don’t say with good writing. Ain’t gonna happen. Please don’t say practice, practice, practice. I take an Iversonian approach with practice. I’m kidding, you know that. I wouldn’t want anyone reading this interview to think I’m trying to parlay this into a story of mine getting published in Pear Noir.
Caleb Ross: Honestly, and this is the truth: I think I got to Daniel early, before he received better submissions. I submitted as soon as I heard about the market. The word “noir” piqued my interest. The simple elegance of the website and cover image worked for me, too. I’ve been on the receiving end of submissions for premier issues of lit mags, so I know it can be stressful when hoping for great things to come in. In Daniel’s case, I think he settled for me. I’m lucky though, that so many other great stories made their way into the issue; I’m comfortably padded there. And, kidding aside, Pear Noir! #1 is one of
the best first issues of any lit mag that I’ve ever read. It’s a shame it’s out of print (I’ll sell my copy to the highest bidder…or the first person to send me a bottle of Boulevard 6th Glass).
DE: Indeed, it’s a killer issue. Let’s back up a sec. You went to high school and college in Kansas, and were born in Alaska. Have you read Into The Wild? Are there lots of plains in Kansas? I grew up near Overland Park, Kansas, and was a huge Royals fan. This was during the early 80s when George Brett was TEARING it up. You like Brett or the Royals? I know you’re younger than me. What do you think of when I write the word “Kansas.” “Alaska”?
CR: Never read Into the Wild. There was a movie about it, too, right? Recently, I think. I don’t remember anything of Alaska, unfortunately. I would feel much cooler if I did. My father was stationed at a naval base when I was born, and three months later we moved to Maryland. My mother tells stories of us having to eat moldy bread because we were stationed so far off the mainland. Adak, where I was born, is on a small island, something like 30 miles from Russian. Take that Sarah Palin!
DE: Read Into the Wild, for sure. But the movie was just okay. Not a big thumbs up or anything, from me at least.
CR: I lived for most of my life in a town in Kansas called Osage City. That is about the geographic start of what people would consider the plains. Now, I’m in Overland Park actually, no plains in sight, but an hour drive will get me there. I lived in Kansas City proper for a couple years when I first moved to the area. I loved it there. Every weekend was spent on 39th street, browsing Prospero’s bookstore and drinking coffee at The Crave (now called Javanaut). I was never a huge baseball fan, despite how hard my dad tried. He and my mother divorced when I was five, so the few times I saw him afterward, he would offer baseball trinkets in hopes that I might develop a love. I remember a complete set of Topps 1987 cards, which I promptly split up through terrible trades with “friends.” Also, he gave me an autographed photo of George Brett. I cherished that photo. It was a connection to my father. Later, I learned that the signature was a fake. That’s my father, for you.
When you write Kansas, I think “own the place you live, even if others think poorly of it.” Alaska, now, unfortunately I think “Sarah Palin.” And more unfortunately, I think most other people do, too. She’s out of the limelight now, so the sting isn’t so bad as it once was.
DE: Tell me about how you got involved in Outsider Writers Collective.
CR: I did an interview with author Jeremy C. Shipp a while back for my personal website. One of the OWC editors noticed it and asked if I’d like to contribute interviews for the site. That invitation correlated with some internal personnel changes at OWC, which had me, somewhat reluctantly at the time, pushed into a web admin role. Now, though, I love doing the behind-the-scenes stuff there. I still contribute reviews and the occasional post, but mostly I just try to keep things functioning. And for someone with no real admin experience before this, I hope I’m doing alright.
DE: I live near Baltimore. Some of your colleagues with Outsider Writers Collective are in Baltimore, right?
CR: Pat [King]’s in Baltimore, yeah. So is Nik Korpon, a recent addition to the Outsider Writers Collective team. I’m near Kansas City, which has its own literary circles, but nowhere near a bigger city like Baltimore. I’d love to see KC take a more universal approach to literature. Right now, it seems the circles are cliquish. But just knowing people in KC actually read does a lot to keep me going.
DE: I LOVE the dad character in “the family rule.” He reminds me of me as a father, looking forward a few years. This part especially broke my heart and made me laugh a lot: “I wish she could birth at St. Thomas,” he says, and joins the radio sorrow, loud and imposing, before I can respond.” To fully appreciate this line you have to read the story, since you build up so well to this line. Do you have a dad like this guy? Do you know someone like the father? The guy feels so real and good to me. I don’t want to give away the story but the line where he says “Welcome to fatherhood.” is pitch perfect, and I say that as a father of two young kids.
CR: Thank you! I especially like that story as well. It seems to get some good reactions. Because I never had a father growing up, I think I looked to any male figure in hopes of divining what fatherly lessons I could (I notice myself doing this even today, asking lots of questions about power tools and sports when around “typical” men). So, The “My Family’s Rule” father is an agglomeration of what I tend to think of as a father. Maybe because I don’t have a physical referent for fatherhood, I can approach the ideal with no subjectivity, making the character all the more real. At least, that’s the hope.
DE: Not to sound sycophantic, but I love (and can’t stop thinking about) the image of the leg sticking out of the sister’s stomach in the title story. How did that image come to you…during the writing of the story or did the image create the story?
CR: Thanks again! That image came to me in college, when I wrote the first drafts of this story. At the time, I was really into grotesque imagery, taking something strange and making it work in the real world. I think magical realism, especially Gabriel Garcia Marquez, had a lot to do with that tendency. The foot specifically, I don’t think it has a real-life origin. I know I wanted something that the character could easily hide. Probably, too, I might have just watched some Discovery documentary on fetus-in-fetu twins.
DE: More to come…kids wild here.
CR: I’m with you there. My boy just went down for a nap. Fingers crossed he sleeps for hours.
DE: I lived in Prairie Village/Leawood as a kid. I think that was near Overland Park. Is that near where you live now?
CR: Ha, I live just north of Prairie Village. Small world.
DE: How old is your son? How has having him influenced your writing style/times/etc? I know that since having kids I find myself writing on train to work, in middle of night, while they nap, etc. True for you?
CR: My boy is 10 months. I have exactly the same experience as you, it sounds like. I find myself actually writing more than I did pre-kid. Mainly, because I cannot afford to waste time now. Before the kid, I would have 10 minutes of spare time and use that to watch a few videos online. Now, 10 minutes can be a full paragraph of writing if I come to the page prepared enough.
DE: As a kid I was fascinated/obsessed with the image of the mother in Pompeii ludicrously/bravely covering the baby. I really like the story “An Optimist” for a lot of reasons, but I have to say that as soon as it started and you reference that image I knew I would be digging this one. Then you have this line: “’Time’s up,’” his mother lies. But in the world of custody battles, time is kept by the victor.” That reminded me of the line in “Braveheart” where at the end the narrator says something like, “But history books are written by the victors.” Was this line an intentional play on that line or am I reading too much into thing? I also love how you have fortunes from fortune cookies used starting certain paragraph.
CR: I have heard the “history is written by the victors” line, but I haven’t ever seen Braveheart. I am embarrassingly behind in my movie-watching. When the TV’s on, it’s usually nerd stuff like Mythbusters or hilarious stuff like Family Guy or old episodes of Wondershowzen. But that line, yeah, it’s definitely a play on the history line. I’ve always loved that line. But, perhaps, and this is a side comment, we may be getting to the point where that logic is no longer applicable. With the internet, every situation has an infinite number of voices to describe it. We’ll always have both the winning and the loosing side, now. Maybe that’s why people in general think recent times are so shitty; for the first time we have access to negative perspectives on history. When looking through nostalgia-colored glasses, the past looks great. Victory always looks great.
DE: Ha, I’m sure Braveheart scribes stole that line from a quotes page or wikipedia, etc. I learn way too much from movies. I saw on your homepage that you have been editing/interning for MacAdam/Cage. Was the experience what you expected?
CR: My time there probably seems much more romantic than it really was. I did some manuscript reading for them for a short time. I’ve done reading in the past for lit journals, but never on the level of full novels and non-fiction works with such a known publisher, so the experience was great for the simple reason that it was new to me. For reasons beyond my control, the position didn’t last long. But to know how readers look at potential manuscripts, that’s a lesson I hope can be leveraged when submitting my own novels.
DE: “Camp” is an amazing story. I write a lot about family issues and I have to say I really wish I’d written these lines: She hugs me, says “thanks,” a potent affirmation of family. We watch TV while chewing.” So good. Anything you do when you write lines like that? The poor dead brother angle is brutal and the fact the universtiy charged the family for the hanger…classic! You have a lot of lines like that in the collection…funny as hell but brutal. Maybe that’s why I like the collection so much.
CR: Thank you very much. The line you note, that’s one where contrast plays an important role in its power. It starts with a very solid image of family bonding. Then, it hits with the intrusion of TV, something often considered a hindrance to a strong family. You’ll see this sort of contrast a lot with flash fiction writers and poets. Amy Hempel is one author who comes to mind. Contrast equals instant power. But too much of it just comes across as clever and trite.
I considered going into the brother’s death more, but I maybe the ending works better without it. What do you think? I’ll probably always wonder what could have been had I really extrapolated the mother’s reaction to the news of the true method of death.
DE: I like the ending as is, for sure. Ha, I’ll wonder that too about the mother’s reaction, though. To wrap up, where do you see things going for you in the next few years? You’re a young guy and have many years of writing. Will you be writing
novels in 15 years? 30?
CR: Damn, I’d love to be writing novels in 30 years. I have a few completed manuscripts that I am trying to place with publishers right now. If those can be a kick-start to a legitimate career, I’d be quite a content man. Writers, hobbyist or professionals, have a common dream of solitude, just some paper and a room, and out of these essentials comes a paycheck. I’d like that. But not too big a paycheck; I don’t ever want to be tempted to churn out crap that I’m not willing to put my reputation on.