Every Single Bone: An Interview with Aaron Tillman (by Ryan Tackett)

Aaron Tillman is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at Newbury College. He was a First-Place Winner in Glimmer Train Stories’ Short-Story Award for New Writers and won First Prize in the Nancy Potter Short Story Contest at University of Rhode Island. His stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, The Madison Review, Arcadia Magazine, The Carolina Quarterly, great weather for MEDIA, Sou’wester, The Tishman Review, upstreet, Burrow Press Review, and elsewhere. He has recorded two stories for broadcast on the Words & Music program at Tufts University and another for Functionally Literate Radio. His essays have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Studies in American Humor, Symbolism, The CEA Critic, and The Intersection of Fantasy and Native America (Mythopoeic 2009) His story collection, Every Single Bone in My Brain, was published in 2017 by Braddock Avenue Books.

Ryan Tackett: The title Every Single Bone in My Brain comes from a line in the Jack White song “Lazaretto,” which I found appropriate. White originally wanted to be a priest. His songs have a kind of spiritual intensity to them like some of your stories do. In a Rolling Stone interview, I remember White mentioning that his album Lazaretto was created from old short stories of his that he found in a drawer and made into songs. What about the lyric inspired this collection?

Aaron Tillman: Thanks for sharing that—I’d love to see what else is in that drawer! Although the Jack White lyric didn’t inspire the entire collection, it did help pull the title story together and enabled the collection to jell in way that made sense to me. As you know, the central character in the story has an elevated level of electricity flowing through his body, so he is literally, and at times lethally, shocking to people. His condition forces him to live and work in relative isolation, yet he still has very normal, natural desires, and a highly charged imagination. When writing the story, I was drawn in by the metaphorical potential of someone who has an undeniable difference that is not necessarily evident to the eye, yet has a powerful influence over self-perception and behavior. I find myself working with a version of this theme a lot, and in this particular story, I wanted to make that difference as magically real as possible. So when I first heard Jack White’s “Lazaretto,” specifically the line “every single bone in my brain is electric,” it stood out. It fit so well with what I was working on and helped other elements in the story come together. I also like the sound of the line, which is partly why I made it the title of the collection. That and I hoped it might compel people to read the story, which is one of the longer and more magical pieces in the collection. Clearly, I have no shame.

RT: Do you listen to music while you write? Kay in your story “Vacancy” writes music reviews. Do share her affinity for music?

AT: I relate to Kay on many levels, and her love of music is certainly one of them. I have never written music reviews, as Kay has, but I seek out live music and almost always walk away inspired. A few years ago, I saw Roy Hargrove and his band play at a jazz club in Boston. Throughout the show, I was scribbling feverishly on a folded piece of paper, and between songs, I was whistling and whooping and all the rest (yes, I was that guy). After the show, someone approached me and asked how I could possibly write an unbiased review when I was so clearly a fan. I didn’t understand what she was saying at first. When I told her that I wasn’t reviewing the show, she said “Oh,” and walked away. I wish I had shown her the sweaty paper in my pocket with all my random scribblings about holy sock fires and humans with excessive electricity in their bodies. We might have had a different conversation.

Although I am often inspired by music, I rarely listen to music when I’m writing. I find that relative quiet or random background noise enables me to focus and create most effectively. It also takes too much concentration to translate my random scratches across crumbled pages of notes to add another element to the equation.

RT: Most of the stories in your collection have the typical length one expects a short story to have, with the exception of “Every Single Bone in My Brain,” which is a bit longer, but some of the stories in your collection, such as “One Rib Short” and “Momma Had a Baby” are very short and resemble flash fiction and the poetics of the lyrical essay.  What does the shorter form enable you to do that the longer (shorter) form doesn’t?

AT: I do find that there can be something more immediate and impactful with a work of flash fiction, but I don’t always set out to write a short or a long piece. If I can generalize about my own stories, I think the works of flash fiction tend to start out with a voice, and if I’m lucky, an interesting opening line that compels me forward, but often requires a quicker resolution before the energy of the voice peters out.

I appreciate the way opening lines can set a mood. For a first person narrative, the opening line is the first taste of the central character. The first taste of the voice who most directly influences the reading experience. The voice can be even more important than the circumstances of plot. But there are limitations to this type of story, and maybe length, for me, is one of them.

I am also inspired by writers such as Donald Barthelme who wrote many short, quirky stories that thrust his readers into unique and exact worlds. (“The first thing the baby did wrong” and “So I bought a little city” are two examples of Barthelme openings.) I also think that Barthelme’s stories have a way of working on a metaphorical level, and that’s what I was trying to accomplish with “One Rib Short.” Many of my stories feature characters who are trying to fill some internal emptiness. In “One Rib Short,” I tried to represent that void with a character who is literally one rib short of being whole. I’d like to say that we’ve all felt that way at times, but I should probably just speak for myself.

RT: The protagonist in “Heeding Doctor Eisner” and the protagonist in “The Great Salt Lake Desert” seem to encounter the same problem: their religious ecstasy is actually symptomatic of their frail mental health. Were these stories supposed to function in a cautionary way? Were they meant to reveal the results of a certain kind of faith? They’re actually quite disturbing, these two stories. What’s going on with those two protagonists?

AT: In many ways, you’ve flagged stories that most personally and directly relate to my experiences. In both of these stories, the central characters are searching, and religion, or selective aspects of religion, can offer both concrete and cryptic answers to personal and existential questions.

The narrator in “Heeding Doctor Eisner” feels that he hasn’t quite found where he fits; he feels exposed and judged. I see this story as a slightly more literal version of my story “Smiling,” which appears later in the collection. In both cases, a character is forced to confront some ambiguous aspect of himself; he’s being judged and asked to concretize the ethereal essence of who he is, the very element that makes others uncomfortable.

Of course, Kafka did this to greater effect in The Trial and other works, and I see this type of idea as relating to Jewish identity in certain ways. For some Jewish Americans, there can be this sense of difference that can be unrecognizable yet undeniable at the same time, and the feeling of internalized difference can influence behavior and self-perception.

In “The Great Salt Lake Desert,” Ian has lost those closest to him and feels lost as a result. He’s also in a transitional point in his life, and he is compelled to take some sort of action. What he ends up doing, fleeing across the country with a lapsed Mormon woman searching for redemption, set up a dynamic that was ripe for some on-edge soul searching.

The seed for this story was planted when I was moving across the country from New York to San Francisco, as Ian longs to do. There was a stretch in Nebraska when the winds were shoving the moving truck I was driving all over the road, and I felt a sort of paranoid split in my own brain. It wasn’t until the following day, when I made it to the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah, that I regained my composure, and the story just flowered from there. Given the vast stretch of salt, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah came to mind fairly quickly.

RT: Characters in your stories text, blog, and e-mail, as people in real life do all the time. The characters in “Every Single Bone in My Brain” meet each other online. Did you think about how you would present their online interaction before you started writing the story?

AT: I knew that the protagonist would be isolated but yearning for interaction, and I’m interested in the way that social media allows you to connect with so many people, yet so few in meaningful, personal ways. The unique affliction that this character is grappling with requires a certain isolation, but stimulates his highly charged imagination. I don’t know that I planned the online exchanges from the beginning, but I knew that he was desperate for a connection and some distance had to exist for that to happen. I wanted him to be able to imagine some semblance of normalcy. To feel useful and personable, without ever jeopardizing anyone’s safety by interacting with them personally and directly. Until, of course, he can’t help himself.

RT: You make some interesting moves in “By Virtue of What Is Imagined.” For instance, the narrator invents a story about his brother, Pat Tillman, giving the story an autobiographical layer, and each section within the story is introduced with an epigraph. Could you tell us what effect you hoped these narrative devices would achieve?

AT: As with many writers, Tim O’Brien’s collection The Things They Carried had a profound effect on me. In this particular book, Tim O’Brien is both the author and a character; there are many personalized details about this character’s daughter and his friends, but they’re entirely and importantly fiction. There is so much truth in his work, yet it’s the fiction that allows that truth to come out. The title “By Virtue of What Is Imagined” comes from Tim O’Brien’s essay “The Magic Show,” and in many ways, this story was my attempt at tapping into some of what he has been able to do to brilliant effect in many of his stories and novels.

In “By Virtue,” I wanted to experiment with the illusion of autobiography in a work of fiction, while also toying with notions of truth. Each epigraph is a lie that the narrator tells, and the story features his search for truth as he closes himself into a cage of lies. I also hoped that the final “lie” might not be a lie at all. The possibility of hope still exists; it’s still possible that his son will grow into a healthy boy, but his eagerness for connection and positivity in this particular moment compels him to get ahead of himself, not unlike the baby shower thrown before the baby is born, something that the narrator’s wife blames for the affliction of their child, and something that is generally not done in the Jewish tradition. Although the narrator and his wife know that superstitions are largely silly, or at the very least benign, once they start to imagine them as malignant, they take on dangerous life.

RT: A major theme strung throughout the collection is the ways in which our lives deviate from their intended path, from societal norms, and how they deviate from monotony or complacency. For better or worse. I’m thinking of when the protagonist in “By Virtue of What Is Imagined” is “warmed with deviant excitement” and in “High Holy Days,” when the protagonist becomes “anxious to start accumulating things to atone for.” What drew you to this theme?

AT: The “morality of deviance” is also mentioned in “Heeding Doctor Eisner,” so I think you’ve latched onto something here! We live in an uncertain and mysterious world, yet we face so many pressures to act with incredible certainty. That tension, and the tension between urges and expectations, societal norms and personal passions, are where many stories are born, for me.

Ultimately, I appreciate and sympathize with individuals who want desperately to do well, to have a clearer and firmer grasp on themselves and their places in the world, but who make bad choices as a result. I am reminded of an image at the end of Charles Baxter’s story “Flood Show,” when the central character, a man named Conor, decides to wade across an icy river, desperate to reconnect with his son and his ex-wife. There’s a moment when this choice seems like the right one, perhaps the only one, but it doesn’t take long before he realizes just how wrong it is, and how his desperation can be potentially fatal. I find it hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. Hard to get better than that! I won’t reveal how it ends up, but I would urge everyone to read it.

RT: What’s next for Aaron Tillman?

AT: Thanks for asking and for all the thoughtful questions—this has been a valuable and enjoyable experience, and I am grateful for the opportunity to exchange ideas and to reflect on the process of writing!

I have some exciting things on the horizon. Later this year, I will have a scholarly book coming out. It’s called Magical American Jew: the Enigma of Difference in Contemporary Jewish American Short Fiction and Film, and it focuses on certain writers and filmmakers who have deployed magical realist techniques to illustrate aspects of Jewish American difference. Although it’s a critical study, it grapples with many of the same themes I touch on in my fiction. I also have some new short stories, a few that were published fairly recently, and others that I have just started to send out. I have a recently completed, comical and magical realist novel called The Voice of Artland Rising—I am hoping to find a home for that at some point—and I am working on a new novel, which is turning out to be a magical realist mystery, of sorts, but also a work of literary fiction. I’m doing my best to enjoy it all!

Ryan Tackett studies creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

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