In today’s jmww blog, Dave Erlewine talks with Crispin Best, author of the blog project “For Every Year”, about constructive criticism, Don DeLillo, and his blog “We Will All Go Simultaneous.” The fun begins now:
David Erlewine: Under your employment on Fictionaut it says masseuse. Is that for real? So many people have interesting occupations listed that I tend to not believe them. I mean who’d believe that I’m a lawyer. Oh, wait. So, if you are a masseuse, do you massage people’s calves while editing stories in your head?
Crispin Best: Haha. Again: no. I didn’t imagine anyone would ever look at that. Man. I am not a masseuse. I think the last time I gave a massage the receiver was “wildly underwhelmed.” I might never give a massage again, my confidence is that shattered.
I definitely think of you as a lawyer, even though it’s incongruous. Everything is attaché cases and manilla folders, you walking into court totally unprepared, finishing a story you got carried away writing on a napkin.
DE: When do you get most of your writing done? Do you have a schedule? A daily or weekly word count?
CB: I don’t have anything like that, actually. I probably should. Sometimes I put on an 18- to 25-min long piece of music (recently often Steve Reich), put some headphones on and just type without thinking or correcting a word. Total garbage. But from that I usually have the notion of something to work with, or at least I feel calm or exhausted or fragile enough to just forget about it, which is 9 times out of 10. That’s the closest I have to a schedule, I guess. Any tips would be appreciated…
DE: My friend, I am the worst person to talk about scheduling. I’m either on completely (not sleeping, writing on the train to/from work, on the pot, etc.) or I’m doing nothing. For example, I had the hardest time writing for the year 1524 for your “For Every Year” project. How did you come up with the idea for it? By yourself? How long after you thought of it did you begin taking subs? What did you think when you read your first sub? I remember reading Cami Park’s 1493 “Queen Isabella Eats A Pineapple and Misses The Jews.” I cracked up, such a great story.
CB: Sounds weird maybe but I think “For Every Year” wasn’t an idea so much as a decision. I can’t remember ever considering or pondering over it at all. The creation story is something like “The Olympics had just finished. I was unemployed and unhealthy. I had been watching Usain Bolt being Usain Bolt. For whatever reason I felt sort of weirdly capable. I felt a need for a big new project and this was the first thing I thought of, like: Absolutely. I could collect 600+ themed stories on a website. Why not?”
1400 was a sparkly round number, but it was also the year Chaucer died. Absolutely you have to hand it to Chaucer: he was a cool kid. Reading more about him it just kept occurring to me that there’s so much of history that isn’t battlefields and castles. Chaucer got paid a gallon of wine daily for his writing. I felt more and more certain that there had to be ways to honor the vagaries, morsels, and flakes of nonsense, and I decided this project could be one.
As for subs, at first I solicited from writers I knew and admired (or else wrote them myself) to get things started. 1410 was the first sub I got unsolicited sent, without even opening submissions. It was a weird feeling, that people were starting to pay attention to this little thing I was doing, this thing that had occurred to me sitting mostly-naked on the carpet a few weeks before. I love receiving subs. The way people deal with the prompt is telling and kind of excellent.
Yes. Cami is a champ. She has written a few years for the project and she never disappoints. I hope she writes more.
DE: Your blog is called “We will all go simultaneous.” I love the title in the abstract but I’m not sure I’ve got its meaning figured out. Are you saying we will all die at the same time in some sort of cataclysmic event? Maybe I’m not sure I want to know it’s meaning…I kind of like it as is but yeah maybe since I asked you could answer?
CB: *Spoiler* The name of the blog is taken from one of my favorite songs of all time, “We Will All Go Together When We Go” by Tom Lehrer. *Spoiler*
I had just started to get pieces accepted and I decided I needed a blog and the phrase felt encapsulating or philosophical or whatever. I don’t know. The song is about nuclear annihilation, yes, but I felt like that phrase in particular has a lot of wiggle to it: I like simultaneity as a notion, death is naturally all-everything, and I like the word “we.”
DE: Of all your pieces, I think your Eyeshot (“On Ways of Dealing With Tripping in Public”) is my favorite. As someone who does a great deal of that (including last night in the rain walking out of Safeway with four gallons of milk), I was hooked by the title. But the story just gets it done. The last line of the first paragraph–“It has become apparent that my family are prone to burning”–wow. The way you sprinkle in stories about the father’s death with memories like “My father taught me how to eat a croissant delicately. He taught me to leave pineapples alone….” Wait, I am guessing the narrator is not you? Because you wouldn’t have taken Cami’s piece, right?
CB: Ha. The narrator is not me, no. My father is still alive and my country is not afflicted by forest fires. Some guy online mistook it for non-fiction and wrote me that I was a whiny kid who needed to get over it. I thought that was pretty good. I’m glad you like it though. It was the first piece of mine that ever got accepted anywhere, online or print. Lee Klein accepted it within about 40 minutes of me sending it, and then we emailed back and forth for a while when we realized we were both watching the same baseball game. I feel strong positive feelings for Lee Klein.
DE: Ha, I went back into my old email account and found Lee’s rejections from 2002 and 2003. He’s rejected me about 30 times now. Once he asked me for my address so he could come slap some sense into me. I’ve been guilty sometimes of sending him unready pieces just b/c I know he will reject it in 20 minutes and give me some ideas how to fix it. Bush league on my part. His rejections have often been damn funny, and if I can’t remember some of them offhand I can look them up in his “best of rejections”–I’ve made that list quite a few times.
CB: I’ve never experienced the wrath of Klein. I think I might feel a bit left out… I definitely like people criticizing my work. For obvious reasons, there’s often a dearth of creative/productive negativity in online writing communities, but that’s the kind of thing that I really feel the benefit of. Some Lish-alike just telling me ‘crap… no… crap… lose it… terrible… this is maybe ok… terrible… terrible, horrible crap’ etcetera.
DE: Yeah, my college professor beat the hell out of my stories and it was fantastically helpful. Sometimes I’m a total bitch when someone rips on my story. I try to distance myself from the piece completely, but I do a bad job sometimes. Speaking of John Madera (I spent about 10 minutes thinking of a segue here), last year for his blog, you picked out your 10 favorite novellas, including “Pafko at the Wall.” You said it was better than “Underworld” as a whole. YES! I have to say, the novella is one of the finest things I’ve read. I loved all of it but the relationship between the older white guy and the young black guy he sits by…wow. How that relationship turns throughout the novella, and how it ends, still messes me up a bit 20 years after reading it in college. Could you expound a bit on what in that novella you liked so much?
CB: I guess I have a strange relationship with “sprawling” novels, or novels that seem to have been orchestrated. I love the experience of reading them, for architectural reasons, but it feels like stage hypnosis. It’s kind of bullshit. We know we are being goosed and shuttled around and made to feel something, but we go along with it because we feel assured there will be a pay off, or pay offs, and I guess we’re confident that these will happen somewhere near the end. It’s like a safety net, I guess. Shorter pieces are much riskier for the reader, because I think there’s no received wisdom there, because of that there is more capacity in certain directions.
With Pafko…, the first time I read it, I was just getting into “serious literature” probably. I really didn’t know the section had been published separately, I didn’t even pay attention that it was a “Prologue,” so I was just reading it like an opening chapter. There was so much in there, DeLillo was being himself, it felt totally brave and new, Sinatra was in there and I somehow felt hilarious and starstruck reading. I tore my way through the whole first section… and got to “Chapter 1.” I just felt so demoralized or exhilarated that I put the book away for a couple of years. You can’t unread things. My experience of the rest of the book was a few years later, filtered through that first experience, and it didn’t really work out between us, me and Underworld, I’m sad to say.
DE: You recently read “Pastoralia.” I know in that list for John Madera you listed the “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” as one of your favorite novellas. What did you think of Saunders’ “Pastoralia” ss collection? Have you read “In Persuasion Nation”?
CB: I really, really like Saunders because I feel that he’s generous and rarely if ever gets things wrong. He is gentle in writing about things that often aren’t, which I think is important and valuable. Yes I’ve read In Persuasion Nation. Hold on. I’ll get Pastoralia and IPN and hold them and see what I think. OK. I really enjoy the title story of Pastoralia, but overall I prefer IPN. I think he covers more ground, in style and humour, in IPN, though perhaps actually I like the collection mainly because of “93990,” which is probably the finest Saunders piece I’ve read yet. Anyone who hasn’t given Saunders a shot should try that one out for sure. I recommended that story to a friend of mine as an introduction to Saunders. After reading it, he asked me quite seriously if I was trying to make him kill himself. It’s that good. It’s so good.
DE: Oh and I do love 93990, where all the monkeys are “necropsied.” I have thought about the word “necropsied” about a million times since. Your friend’s response is hysterical and so damn right. I had a queasy feeling after i finished that story. I also loved “The Red Bow”–how the city turns on all of the animals after some dogs kill the narrator’s daughter. Oh man that story, and the way he uses a disinterested voice at the end to describe the changes in the town, so so good. I also loved how the uncle, the narrator’s brother, who’d never been particularly close to his niece, steps up in the wake of her death. Some people need a tragedy to really step up, otherwise they just sort of go through life. The part about that story that really got me was how the narrator had slunk off to check e-mail when his daughter was mauled, and how that drove him crazy. He knew he wouldn’t have been outside saving her, but the fact he was doing something so ridiculous as checking e-mail…it just killed him. I’m not sure it’s good at all that I relate so much to many of Saunders’ narrators.
CB: My opinion is it’s just that Saunders is so humane. Every character is someone. Especially those monkeys.
DE: God, those monkeys. On that note, thanks so much Crispin. Good luck with the “For Every Year” project. Hopefully folks reading this will submit something. I know I’ll submit something else and this time a hell of a lot faster than I did for 1524.
I was totally unaware of Best’s 600+ project, although I’d read Cami’s story and loved it. Cool to hear about its beginnings and it will certainly encourage me to submit.
And Dave, I’ve read the Eyeshot rejections. Man, I’ve only collected one rejection from Lee, but it was fairly mild, and, yeah, I felt a little left out too. I almost wish he would have placed a curse or something on me for such horrible writing. I’d have a helluva story to tell.
thanks a lot, shel. ha ha, lee has ripped my stories apart so many times. yeah, i learned a lot from it, for sure. take care and thanks man, d
Crispin is fun. Thanks for doing this interview, Dave! More people should interview Crispin. He’s the Best. And, for the record, he will represent the whole of the UK, as the only non-American in TELL. Cheers, mates.
Much thanks, Molly! I have admired Crispin’s work for awhile and loved his For Every Year project too. So glad you checked it out and agree about him.
thanks for the interview. any idea where i can get one of those crispin hats?
great interview, david – you’re really a wonderful host. i enjoyed reading this, too, apart from the remark “Shorter pieces are much riskier for the reader, because I think there’s no received wisdom there, because of that there is more capacity in certain directions.” and the dig against longer pieces with more architecture. short pieces might be riskier, agreed, but their capacity is also not fulfilled – hence they always leave me wanting. this is a risk taken by author and reader alike, but to pitch the (great) short piece against the (great) novel is like comparing biological cells with bodies. the cell contains all the possibilities, but the body lives them, for better or for worse. cells do not pose existential issues or threats for us, but bodies do.
Dave is a king. Sheldon is a king. Molly is a king. Six is a king. Finnegan is a king, though I should clarify I wasn’t criticising novels in general, and I do enjoy the novels of Don DeLillo, I was just describing a sensation of artifice, expectation and tradition that I feel when reading certain styles of longer work, which I think is still being explored in contemporary short and longer fiction. I think I didn’t phrase myself very well, above or just now.
crispin, thanks for clarifying – i saw a red flag and i charged, only to realise it was my own red flag 😉 i’m so happy to be a king now that i think i’ll also appoint myself court jester to the king! you phrased very well there, i believe i understand and i agree with you regarding the explorative aspect of contemporary short fiction. you the man. or the king, whatever you prefer (in a land of many kings, the best may win).
hey crispin, thanks again man, it was a lot of fun.
and thanks finnegan for commenting (and crispin for replying, and finnegan for offering a surreply…ah, pulling out a little legalese from my kitchen that is weak). very interesting discourse for sure.
we’re all kings i say or at least we’re all on the king’s highway (joe henry’s version, not tom petty’s)