For Whom We Speak: An Interview with Joseph Young by Briana Wingate

Joseph Young lives in Baltimore, MD, where he writes, makes art, and looks at things. His book of microfiction, Easter Rabbit, was released by Publishing Genius in 2009. He self-published the novel NAME, dubbed vampire realism, in 2010. In 2018, he created MicroFiction RowHouse, a project for which he installed text throughout his home—on walls, windows, ceilings, and many other surfaces—to tell the story of a fictional family who might have once lived in the home. Details on these projects and others can be found at josephyoung.net. Joseph Young is/is not real.

Briana Wingate: Your newest collection of flash fiction is titled Always Never Speaking and is scheduled for release next month. I had the pleasure of reading the collection ahead of time for our interview and felt it touched on the human condition in some way on every page. What was the motivation behind the book? How did you choose the stories you chose to include?

Joseph Young: The human experience is so widely, wonderfully varied, and each story is a thought experiment into the experience of another person. At the same time, all the experiences in the book are mine, since I wrote and invented them. The paradox is fascinating. How many people do each of us contain? Only ourselves or everyone we’ve contemplated? What are the powers, and limitations, of imagination? Can we speak for anyone else? Are writers only ever speaking for themselves? Always never speaking? Always always speaking?

Since I haven’t had a book out in some time, I’ve missed having the conversation with other writers that a book can engender, my stories speaking to the work of other writers I’ve read and been influenced by, and, hopefully, my stories starting dialogues for other writers too. That artistic conversation is one of the best things about making art, how your love of someone else’s art calls to you, and then you make something in response. That response doesn’t have to be direct of course—since seeing the documentary Pina, about the amazing choreographer Pina Bausch, for example, I’m pretty sure some of my work has been made in response, though my stuff is nothing like hers (and certainly isn’t dance).

In choosing the stories, the first thing I had to do was find the best ones. I’m pretty prolific so I had to sort through a couple hundred pieces on my hard drive that I’ve written over the past 10 years and mark them as either “that’s pretty good” or “nah, don’t think so.” Once I had a set of 75 or so of the best ones, I started sorting through them in relation to the others: Does this one fit with the others? Does it contrast with them in some interesting way? Does this one “talk” to one or more of the other stories? Am I getting a sense of a set of themes running through the collection? Sorting was as much by feel as making “rational” choices. If in 3 or 5 years I read through Always Never Speaking, I suspect I’ll see connections I didn’t know were there when I put the manuscript together.

BW: A few of the pieces in your collection feature a bit of magical realism, which can be difficult to establish in longer pieces, let alone flash fiction. Can you talk a little about how you go about fitting large concepts in general into such a small space when writing?

JY: That’s a great question that I don’t know I’ll be able to answer very well. Before I sit down to write I don’t know what I’m going to do. A line of dialogue comes to me, or I think of an image that feels provocative, or some kernel of a situation bumps into my head…and I write it down. The next sentence takes off from the first but oftentimes I don’t know how or why. Why did seagulls suddenly, magically, appear at the back of a 7/11 at that point in the story “The Beach”? I don’t know! It just seemed combustible to me!

All of which is to say that I let the process guide me. Or, I don’t go about fitting concepts into the story in any particular way—rather they develop as I go along. I really love it when my stories echo larger concepts or ideas, meanings or feelings or apprehensions (both psychologically and in the contemporary idiom) about the world—and I try to get them to do that. The best ones do, or so I hope.

BW: In your collection, each piece is followed by a commentary on flash fiction, making the collection as a whole read almost like a love letter to the genre. Can you tell me what it is about flash fiction that draws you in? What sets it apart?

JY: I think that flash fiction chose me. For quite a while I wanted to be a novelist. When I was 18 or so I started reading vast quantities of novels—like 3 a week—and I was just giddy with the form. So, that’s what I wanted to do as a writer too, be immersed in that giddiness while writing and then give other people that headrush of love and wonder when they read what I wrote. The thing is, I spent a number of fairly awful writing years trying to write longer forms (e.g., conventionally lengthed short stories) that just wouldn’t come out. I mean, it wasn’t that they were bad—that would have been expected in a new writer—it’s that I couldn’t get them onto the page at all. I’d start out full of steam but by page three the momentum was gone, I’d exhausted where the story could go. It was depressing.

It was by accident, I think, that I wrote my first flash-length story, it happening when I wasn’t paying attention. I was trying to yet again write a 10,000 word story but then, for some reason, it wrapped up at 250 words. And, unlike almost everything I’d written up to that point, I didn’t hate it! In fact, I liked it.

So, when people say to me, It must be hard to write something that short, I answer, Not really! In comparison, that is. It suits my brain. That concentrated burst, those 200 words opening up like a flower, each word a mirror to the sky, I love that. This might sound silly, but the way the best flash fiction holds so much existence in its tiny frame is almost a spiritual experience for me. Like how a haiku written about a radish picker somehow holds the whole universe—the unseen, but felt, enormity between the words.

BW: I came across something pretty amazing while doing my due diligence. In 2017, you brought the Microfiction RowHouse to Hampden, copying your stories onto different surfaces of your own home. Can you talk a little about the inspiration behind it and what it was like bringing people into your home to share your art?

JY: Somewhere around 2008 I started installing my microfictions on the walls of art galleries and such by means of the photocopy transfer process. Within a few years of starting that, I began to dream about filling a whole house with these little stories, putting them on walls, ceilings, table cloths, old dress shirts—any and every surface. I shopped the idea around, off and on, for almost a decade, trying to find a place I could do this, without luck. In 2017, it came to me: Do it in your own house! So, I wrote somewhere around 45 microfictions, installed them in various sizes and shapes throughout my rowhome, telling the story of a fictional family that might have once lived there.

Having people come to my house to see the project was awesome. One of my best pleasures in writing or making art is to hear people’s interpretations of the work—what they think is and isn’t going on with it. The people coming in had such wonderful things to say about what they thought MicroFiction RowHouse meant, and what it meant to them. The fact that the art is mingled among my own living space made that experience even better. One woman who came to one of the events at MFRH spent some time looking over my bookshelf, perusing the titles I’d collected over the years. She came up to me and said, This family had interesting reading habits! I loved that, that in her interpretation there was no line, or a very tenuous one, between the art and my personal artifacts.

BW: You seem to combine visual and written art quite a bit. Can you talk about how the two art forms influence each other? What effect does presenting them both together have on how they’re perceived by your audience?

JY: I like it best when the writing doesn’t describe or directly comment on the art, and the art isn’t any kind of direct illustration of the writing, but rather the two coexist, each an equal voice. In such a case, my hope is that the audience sees the visuals and the text as in dialogue with each other, like two independent, though highly engaged, individuals. I think this juxtaposition intensifies the question, When does text become visual, where is the narrative in images?

BW: That being said, you’ve included both a self-interview and a sound collage of voice recordings for Always Never Speaking. You also designed the book yourself and are self-publishing. While reading, knowing that everything was exactly as you meant it to be made the experience feel intimate like I was getting know you through your work. Can you talk a little about your processes working more independently? What are a few things that you think of when preparing your work to be presented to the public?

JY: I definitely think about the audience a lot when I make stuff—I want them to have the highest quality experience they can while reading/viewing. At the same time, I want/need to make the kind of work that feels right to me. So, I indulge my own predilections and aesthetics when making things, but given that first constraint, I try to give the audience all I can.

The thing about self-publishing my book, and doing all the various things that go into making and distributing the book, is that I really enjoy doing it. Writing the stories in the book was a lot of fun, and so was doing the page design, and so is writing a press release to let people know it’s out in the world (or soon will be). All of these things are enjoyable, and all of them to me are “art.” Given that, the same ideas that I mention in the paragraph above apply: I’m going to stubbornly insist on doing it in the way it makes sense to me, and I’m going to work hard to give the audience my best stuff. The cool thing is that, for some people, those two goals match up and they like my work (yay!), though, inevitably, some don’t (that’s ok).

BW: What inspires you to create?

JY: As I’ve said, I love the conversation that creating something engenders with other creators. I also love the mysterious magic that is art making, the realization of a thing into the world that never existed until the moment it’s made. For me, there’s a lot of meaning in that process. Invention and imagination and wherever stories come from.

Besides the relationships I have with the people around me, there’s nothing that feels as meaningful as making art. I doubt I’d die if I didn’t write or make art, but life would be pretty crappy without it. It’s the best way I know how to talk.

Briana Wingate lives, writes, and designs in Baltimore, MD. She will soon be a graduate of University of Baltimore’s MFA program, and is continuously inspired by the local independent artists around her. In her free time, Briana enjoys reading, listening to podcasts, and creating by all means necessary. You can keep up with her at bawthewriter.com.

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