Tyler Barton is the author of the story collection Eternal Night at the Nature Museum (Sarabande, 2021) and the flash chapbook The Quiet Part Loud (Split/Lip Press 2019). Find him at @goftyler, tsbarton.com, or in Saranac Lake, NY, where he works as the Communications Manager for the Adirondack Center for Writing.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Eternal Night at the Nature Museum. It’s a beautiful book. Can you tell us about the journey that led you to working with Sarabande?
Tyler Barton: I’ve always been a reader, supporter, admirer, and fan of indie lit and small presses. I knew I was working on a collection as early as 2015, and I just started paying close attention to which indie presses were publishing great collections and making beautiful books. Though I did send earlier versions of this manuscript to agents (receiving the expected “These stories are great, but I don’t know how we’d sell this book…unless you also have a novel?”), I found myself very happy with the book and Sarabande takes yearly submissions for their story collection prize, so I gave it a shot. The collection was a finalist the first year I submitted (2019) and they encouraged me to submit again. I sent it in 2020 (with a new arrangement, title, and a few new stories), and though it placed second, they said they wanted to publish the book anyway. It was a dream come true.
CS: This is your second collection. How did the process—and your experience—differ from the first time?
TB: My first book, The Quiet Part Loud, was a chapbook of 11 flash fiction stories (50 pages total) put out by Split Lip Press in 2019. Eternal Night at the Nature Museum is my first full-length book (200 pages). The process with both presses was lovely, and I had a lot of input on everything from line edits, proofing, and cover selection. The process with Sarabande was a much deeper dive, with a closer and more active back and forth with my editor, Kristen Miller, as we polished the book and labored over even little decisions. It was a dream to have the time and resources to go that deep with an editor. Then there was an exhaustive copy edit with a hired copy editor, and another round of proofing. It did so much to assuage imposter syndrome. By the time the book was off to the presses, I finally, actually felt like I was doing it. I was a writer.
CS: Let me ask about the title—you used to work in a nature museum, correct? Did you pick this title because it was from one of the pieces—or is there some greater thematic current going on that the title addresses?
TB: I did work at the North Museum in Lancaster, PA, for two years after grad school. It was an incredible and interesting job, and the setting heavily inspired the title story (which is really more of a prose poem). Previously, the collection had other titles, but Kristen had the idea to change it to Eternal Night at the Nature Museum, as this was more catchy, unique, and musical. I like it because I’ve worked in museums and cultural institutions most of my life, and though only a few of the stories are set in places like this, I feel that all the stories have the element of watching “human nature” play out in dark ways. The title fits more poetically than materially.
CS: Ordering stories in a collection is its own little thing—and this collection is divided into three parts. First—how did you go about ordering the pieces—and second, what led you to divide the book into distinct sections?
TB: Ordering, arranging, and the decisions about which stories to cut and which to leave were the hardest part of the process. Sometimes I think that part was harder than writing some of the stories. This is because for a long time I did not know what the collection was about. But each draft I made of the book (new stories, new arrangement, new structure) brought me closer to the realization I eventually had at a residency, which was: this is simply a book about home. Every character is yearning for a lost home, trying to create a new one, or trying to flee a home that’s turned out not to be what it was believed to be. I broke the book up into three categories that mirror this in a way. Section 1 is stories about losing home. Section 2 is about leaving home voluntarily. Section 3 is about discovering home where you are, a kind of “Growing where one is planted” mentality. I think that’s especially evident in the book’s last few stories: “Of a Whole Body,” “Ms. Badislav’s Vomit,” and “Spiritual Introduction to the Neighborhood.”
CS: There’s a lot of south-central Pennsylvania in these stories. It’s your home turf—and my adopted home—and a number of the stories feature unique landmarks of the area. Place can offer so much—not just a physical backdrop, but also deeper, unspoken tides. What is it about this setting that provided such rich soil for these pieces?
TB: I’m very much drawn to liminal spaces, and I feel that south-central PA is a space like that. It has something to do with the Mason-Dixon line, I think. Some people view Maryland as the start of the American South. Though I’d argue it’s Virginia, a lot of rural Maryland (I lived a stones throw from the border most of my life) leans into southern heritage. In south-central PA, I think that there’s this “not a yankee, not a southerner” space that is hard to navigate. I don’t know if that tension really comes through in my stories, but I think it’s what draws me to the place. I think back on childhood in Dover, PA, and there were plenty of people driving tractors to school flying Confederate flags, and there was plenty of liberal east coast elite culture seeping in from nearby cities, but where I grew up it seemed like I was in the middle. I didn’t lean into being a “redneck” (though I did drive go-karts and spend a lot of time outdoors), but I also loved books, films, music, art, and I went to a liberal arts college. I think it’s the in-betweenness that’s interesting.
CS: I’ve read and enjoyed your flash fiction before—but this was my first introduction to your longer work. As you write, do you know from the beginning if a piece will be short of long? Or does that sneak up on you when a piece insists it has more story to tell? Can you describe the process that sets you on the path of these longer stories?
TB: I like to know little about what is going to happen in a story. I honestly don’t understand plot very well and I don’t think in terms of plot. I think in terms of moments, details, and sentences. As I write, I follow the voice of the narrator through these moments and specifics, always paying close attention to the energy of sentences and where they lead. If they lead to wonderful image that seems to pay-off, and that image is on page 3, sometimes I just stop right there. Other times I have to go much further to find the place where the energy ends.
Of course I’m selling my revising-side short. These stories are all the twentieth draft. But it’s important to me in revision to try to make things clearer, but I don’t tend to revise to make a story longer for the sake of being longer, or to have a twist in the end simply for the sake of surprise. I try to stay true to the original energy, if I can. I know this will sound cliché, but I do like to think of writing as painting with words. My sister is a painter and she works in the abstract, and I know that she can’t force the painting to do anything other than what it wants to do, which is what makes her work so beautiful. This inspires me. It’s a messy process, but it’s mine.
CS: This past semester, I spoke to my students about how we access our stories. My work usually starts with an imagined situation or scenario—but we also found other writers who start with place or tone. Do you have a normal access point—and if so, can you describe it?
TB: A first sentence. Most of these stories can be traced back to the one sentence that I wrote in my notes and came back to later. I just love beginnings so much. I have hundreds of stories on my computer that have not found their final form because they’re just beautifully amusing openings, haha.
CS: There’s a real tenderness in many of these pieces—and I admired the way you wove narratives for the characters you brought to life. Do you find yourself trying imagine a character’s emotional life—their wants and needs—before putting pen to paper? Or do you come to understand them as you draft and then more during revision?
TB: I start with a character’s voice. The way they deliver language, the way they talk about themselves and others. Lately my work has been mostly scenes, people talking, almost play-like, because I’m just so drawn to the particulars of voice, diction, syntax, subtext, and humor. So, I begin at voice and follow it until the voice reveals more about what’s going on emotionally with the character. If I can’t find it, I often need to bring in another character or perspective to help draw out the depth of the protagonist (who is also often the narrator).
CS: I kept coming back to the theme of wanting to belong in this world that’s both hyper-connected yet which can also be terribly lonely. We have the empty life of a man who’s achieved fame as a meme. We have a crew at a demolition derby that turns into a kind of cult—and another group of men drawn together by their mutual longing for their shared therapist. Do you see connection and loneliness as major forces in our modern life? Do you think this is unique to our times—or perhaps just more pronounced?
TB: I wonder about this a lot, the question of whether or not people were happier in earlier periods of American history, or if this era is particularly fraught with despondency and alienation. Of course past eras were always worse for those the power of American culture and government have oppressed, but I do wonder if the internet has made us more awful. I’m excited to read a new book about this, which I just ordered, called The Disconnect by Rosin Kiberd.
My characters are lonely because I had an incredibly fulfilling and community-oriented experience of high school and college, but since then have found that society makes it very hard to have friends in the same way, to be open and vulnerable with others. I love writing about people finding community in odd, freakish places, because sometimes I think that the place where I have found community (literature) is likewise kind of freakish and marginal and overlooked. It’s an inherent underdog mentality that courses through my protagonists.
CS: There’s a lot of humor here—I wish I could write more humor, but it’s hard these days. How do you hold that kind of lens to a world like the one we’re living in now?
TB: It’s more of a coping mechanism than a determined strategy. I’m also not sure it’s a great coping mechanism. I can’t look at a situation and not see the humor in it. I think it’s my generation. I think it’s why all the best TV shows of the last 5 years are drama-comedies (dramedy?).
CS: Stories like “K” and “Spiritual Introduction to the Neighborhood” utilize unique structures. When in the process does such a structure come to you? Do you sometimes write a straight-up piece then discover a structure like this waiting for you to discover it? Or do you sometimes start with this kind of structure and then realize it’s not working, and when you remove it, the story stands on its own? What do you think such structures can bring to a story?
TB: I’ve long been obsessed with what I call artifact fiction, or stories that take the forms of other written, non-literary artifacts. My partner Erin and I are both interested in those forms and have taught them in workshops for many years, the way a story or poem can be delivered in a list, a resume, an email exchange, or a police report. It comes from that feeling that literature is being overlooked. Like: maybe I can hide fiction in this other form and I can convert some non-readers. Reading Reality Hunger by David Shields also helped a lot with these ideas I have about form. Shields calls for a wholly new genre to be created, and he sort of does with his “collage manifesto”. Right now I’m writing a story that is basically a transcribed podcast episode. I think being experimental with form is at the least a way to keep you limber and remind yourself that writing is play, but at the best, it can be revolutionary.
CS: One story here is filled with Modest Mouse references. Where they an important band for you? Are you still a fan? I bought a few CDs in the early 2000s—what am I missing if I haven’t listened to their new work since then?
TB: “Cowboy Dan, Major Player” was actually a commissioned piece. I had been tweeting about how much I loved Modest Mouse’s early albums (Lonesome Crowded West, Long Drive…, The Moon and Antarctica), and an editor reached out. They invited me to use modest mouse as inspiration for a story about recursion. Cowboy Man is what came out of that assignment. I am so happy that Melissa Mesku asked me to do this, as it became one of the funniest stories I’ve written.
As far as what you’re missing, I don’t know. I don’t follow Modest Mouse anymore. I’m just always in love with those earliest three or four albums. It’s the way Isaac Brock can’t sing that makes him such a compelling singer. Maybe I aspire to do the same thing with my weakness is plotting, haha.
CS: What’s next?
TB: I’m in a strange place right now. I’m writing constantly but finishing nothing. I think I’m working on a novel project, but every time I call a project a novel project, I begin to give up on it. So I’m just saying that I’m writing pages and reading them aloud to Erin and saying “Isn’t that great? Wouldn’t that be a great page in a book one day?” It’s a fun place to be, but also a little nerve-wracking. I wish I had a next thing to keep myself feeling like that real writer who sent off the proofs back in May of 2021. I just have to stay the course and see where the pages lead.
Curtis Smith’s latest book, The Magpie’s Return, was named as one of Kirkus Review’s top Indie releases of 2020.