Stabbing the Dark: An Interview with Charles Holdefer

Charles Holdefer, author of the novels The Contractor and Back In The Game, is an American writer currently based in Brussels, Belgium. His story collection Dick Cheney in Shorts has just been released as a pocket book by Sagging Meniscus. His fiction has appeared in many magazines, including The New England Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, North American Review, Los Angeles Review and Slice. His story “The Raptor” also appears the 2017 Pushcart Prize Anthology. More information is available at www.charlesholdefer.com.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Dick Cheney in Shorts. This is your first story collection after putting out four novels. Let’s talk about the genres first. Were you a novel writer first or did you start with stories? What’s the difference between them for you in terms of process, engagement, and reward?

Charles Holdefer: I’ve always written both long and short forms, and I would hate to give up on one or the other. They answer different needs. A novel requires so much stamina but that doesn’t mean a story is easier. I can draft a story more quickly, which is gratifying, but sometimes it takes a very long time to get the story to final form, to make things click and hum. I’m afraid I have a lot of unfinished stories lying around, like unwieldy gizmos in a crackpot’s workshop.

CS: I have some stories—well, usually situations or images—I’ve been trying to find the right vehicle for for nearly thirty years. Do you keep track of old ideas that still haunt you? What’s it like to finally nail one of those down?

CH: Yes, I know the feeling! I try to keep track of ideas but my notes can be chaotic. Stuff gets lost. But when a spark finally catches, it’s fun. Like hearing an old song you’d liked as a kid but forgotten about, and then suddenly you remember the words and sing it back.

CS: These stories are collected from over a wide range of years, correct? Was it difficult to put them together? Did you have to retool any of them to fit the Dick Cheney concept?

CH:  It wasn’t by design, but as the stories accumulated, eventually I realized I had three collections in progress. Different ways to shape a book. The stories in this collection are on the weirder end of the spectrum and it was simply the first of the three books to get finished. The Cheney concept came to me a few years ago. At first, I thought the book was going to center on “The Leo Interview,” where I interview Leo the MGM lion. Leo has dated plenty of starlets and dabbled in politics and history—this cat has seen it all. He’s a mythic figure. But then Cheney started popping up more, and he became my main mythic figure. Some stories were retooled, yes. In a few it’s just an allusion, or Dick might appear unannounced in a passing cameo, like Hitchcock in one of his movies. His presence is there, even if the main characters aren’t aware of it. They are living in a dickish world. It’s a feel, not a biographical or plot-driven concept, which would too constraining. And Leo the lion has the last word, the parting shot.

CS: When you look back at your earlier work, what do you see? How have you changed/stayed the same as a writer?

CH: It’s like seeing an old photograph. Yes, that’s me all right, but I’m not sure I’m that person anymore. Maybe now I’m more skeptical. And more patient? Mistakes have been made. And will continue to be made. I accept that.

CS: I really enjoyed the collection—and one of the things I continue to enjoy about your work is your control of tone. We’re taken from humor to horror and never too far from the surreal. We meet a man who grows horns and hear an interview with the MGM lion. How important is the addressing of tone when you sit down for a first draft? Or does is appear later in your process?

CH: The first draft is often a stab in the dark. The process is more important. But I knew, early on, that I wanted to experiment with different kinds of English. There are pieces that respect the conventions of literary realism; others use journalistic style or hyped-up bureaucratic jargon, the New Testament or gothic overtones. There’s a bit of Wikipedia-speak, even agitprop poetry. I wanted to get all that in there, as part of the texture.

CS: I’m always interested in a book’s journey—and this is such a handsome book—its size and design. How did the whole project come together?

CH: I had the good fortune to contact Jacob Smullyan at Sagging Meniscus. I saw his listing as a publishing house that was open to experimental work. So I queried him with an early version of Dick. He was receptive to the premise, offered astute observations, and was very helpful. He made it part of a series called Sagging Shorts. These are smallish books that fit in your pocket, like the Penguin Blacks or the old City Lights issues of Ginsberg and O’Hara. I’m very happy with the design. At the beginning I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into and it’s turned out very nicely.

CS: Any new appreciation for Dick Cheney after finishing this? We used to think nothing could be worse than him and W, and look where we are now.

CH: Well, Mr. Cheney is impressively resilient, I’ll grant him that much! And maybe the point of the book concerns the Dick Cheney in us all, if that doesn’t sound too grandiose. It’s not just about the guy from Wyoming. As for where we are now, I think it’s a bit different. I’m not happy about it, but to be truthful lots of people are pleased. That has to be said. Who’s “we” anymore? I support the notion, but there’s a lot of work ahead to make it viable. If you’ll indulge a quote from Dick Cheney in Shorts: “We the people died / Mission accomplished failed / Freedom of speech lied / Jesus came unnailed.” What’s changed more recently, the way I see it, comes down to the distinction between a dick and a prick. There might be a nuance? I mean, there’s a sort of obtuseness to being a dick. You run over people to get what you want. You treat it as their bad luck if they’re in the way. Whereas, if you’re a prick, part of what you want is to run over people. You take a certain pleasure in it. It’s part of the design. For the moment, we’ve transitioned from dickness to prickness.  But I look forward to something else.

CS: Let’s go back and talk about humor. There’s a lot of funny in this book, which I admire especially because I find humor so difficult. Does humor come as easily for you as other modes? What are the challenges you see in writing something that makes your readers smile?

CH: At one level, humor is probably just me trying to keep myself entertained as I work through the process of multiple drafts. As for the readers—that’s a challenge. It’s not exactly stand-up comedy but there’s the fact that some people won’t “get” you, or will be offended, or they will “get” you but think you’re not funny at all. Those risks go with the territory. Some of the very short pieces are squibs with punchlines, but I also hope there’s more to them, inasmuch as you can re-read them and still get something interesting from the language, even if you already know the ending.

 CS: I often talk to my students about the ways a story can take root. For some, the process starts with an image; for others, it starts with a character or situation. What comes first for you and where do you go from that starting point?

CH: Usually it’s a situation, and sometimes an opening line is enough. That’s what happened with “The Plans.” A line popped in my head: “Like many people, Herb had his demons, but what set him apart was that he kept them in a pen in his back yard.” In the beginning I couldn’t account for that peculiar situation, but it triggered the process, trying to imagine how it might play out. Or a title can be a trigger. Probably Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” was at the back of my mind when I wrote “Why I Wear a Hat.” These stories don’t resemble each other but that kind of title provides propulsion: “It’s my horns. Let me explain.” It’ll take a few pages to explain that predicament. A story takes root on its own terms. Sometimes it feels like discovering what’s already there, but you have to go to the trouble to look for it.

CS: What’s next?

CH: Various projects. A novel about a woman basketball player and Emily Dickinson. A nonfiction book on George Saunders’ Pastoralia will come out in the fall with Ig Publishers. It’s part of their Bookmarked series. I’m also finishing my next collection of stories, which will be called Rapt. Chipping away.

Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chapbooks, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing published Kurt Vonnegut: Bookmarked, a collection of his essays about Slaughterhouse Five.

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