Interview: Arthur Bradford


There was a small bell next to the pumpkin and a card under it said “Ring For Service.” So I did that. An older man emerged from a trailer which was set up behind the stand. He was kind of plump and wore a baseball hat which said “Go Possums.” I asked him what was going on.

“I live upon very powerful soil,” he explained. “And my farm is up north. In the summertime we get twenty hours of sunshine per day.”

“You came all the way down here to sell your vegetables?” asked Maria. She tapped on the skin of a zucchini the size of a baseball bat. She seemed skeptical, as if she thought it was all fake.

“Where I come from these vegetables are not unusual,” said the farmer.

     —from “The Carrot” (Unstuck #1)

Arthur Bradford is the author of Dogwalker, a collection of short stories, and Benny's Brigade, a children's book about two girls who find a small walrus inside a walnut.  His fiction has appeared in Esquire, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Zoetrope: All-Story, Tin House, and BOMB, among other publications.

Interview by Janalyn Guo

UNSTUCK:  I’m a big fan of roadside attractions (I even have the Roadside America iPhone app). The farmer’s joint in “The Carrot” evokes (for me) house museums and all that idiosyncratic stuff.  Are you an avid roadside adventurer?

ARTHUR BRADFORD:  I do like that impulsive stop on a road trip where you see something unusual and pull over to investigate.  I think that was a big motivation for this particular story.  I’m not too familiar with the iPhone application you mentioned, but I like the idea behind it.  Or, I should say, I sort of like the idea behind it.  For me, a big part of the roadside adventure experience is making the discovery yourself, keeping your eyes open and aware of what’s outside in front of you.  I would hazard a guess that the most unusual and amazing roadside attractions wouldn’t be found on an iPhone app.  The fictional farmer’s stand in this story, for instance, wouldn’t have made it.

I own an iPhone myself and enjoy using it, but I guess when I think of a world I want to write about I get rid of certain technology like smartphones and computers.  It increases the human interaction.

UNSTUCK:  The app is one of those things that’ll tell you how close the nearest roadside attraction/house museum is, in any given location, but of course it’s not quite like discovering something yourself. I’d love to hear about your impulsive stops, your favorite discoveries in the past. Was there anything you came across on your travels that specifically motivated the story?

ARTHUR BRADFORD:  I like the experience of driving in very remote rural areas.  I grew up in Maine and the northern part of that state is very sparsely populated.  I’ve taken some wonderful road trips up there and when I first began writing stories I placed a lot of them in that location.  I think because it was one of the more unusual places I’ve been, but it was also a little familiar.  Roadside farm stands are very common in Maine, especially in the summertime.  I always enjoy that “what the fuck?” moment in any story, like in that movie Eraserhead when he opens up a drawer and it’s full of baked beans.  That film affected me a lot, the random images.  I saw it when I was a teenager and have never forgotten it.

Anyway, I also enjoy The Guinness Book of World Records and used to pore over it as a child.  This was where I got the idea of a farm stand with incredibly large vegetables.  Apparently it’s true that in places like Alaska, where the sun shines for 24 hours in the summer, you can grow extremely large vegetables.  I prefer my stories to be rooted in reality—I want the world described to be unusual, but entirely possible.

But you asked about my favorite roadside discoveries. In Maine I remember a giant hill of sawdust that my father discovered beside a dirt logging road.  It was on the way to our fishing camp in the north and we made a point of stopping there after we discovered it.  Us kids would run down and roll in the dust and it was quite satisfying.  After a few years plants and other vegetation took hold and that was the end of it.  In Austin, Texas, where I once lived, my favorite places are the swimming holes—places on the Pedernales River and even Barton Creek.  Bar-b-que joints as well, of course.  Always stop at the mom-and-pop places.  Far more interesting.  The Mutter Museum in Philly is pretty much a classic too. 

UNSTUCK:  Yes—Austin’s full of places like the Cathedral of Junk and Pinballz—stuff of dreams. I’ve heard great things about the Mutter Museum; I first read about it in a course I took on nature and knowledge in Early Modern Europe, which touched upon cabinets of curiosity among other things. I love all things that evoke the wunderkammer: Joseph Cornell, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the artwork of Mark Ryden, etc. I have to ask, have you ever pondered putting something together of your own, as in, curating your own house museum or roadside attraction? Are you a collector of things?

ARTHUR BRADFORD:  Well, I’m not an organized enough person to ever put together such an attraction.  I could maybe come up with some good concepts but the execution would be poor, if I’m being honest. I’ve moved around a lot in my adult life so collecting things has not been practical.  I end up jettisoning my material goods each time I move.

The one thing I have tried to collect over the years has been manual typewriters.  I use them to write first drafts and love their look and feel.  The problem with such a collection is people start giving you old broken ones and typewriters are bulky and difficult to transport.  So I’ve also reduced that collection.  I still have four or five good typewriters.  My mainstay is an old Woodstock from 1929, a big heavy creature that has followed me everywhere for the past 17 years. 

UNSTUCK:  I like what you said about wanting your stories to be rooted in reality, in that wonderful space of strange but possible. “The Carrot” plays with incredulity, in its nonchalant, deadpan delivery. Is this something you admire in other work? You mentioned Eraserhead--any other memorable gems (film, literature, or otherwise)?

ARTHUR BRADFORD:  I think my typewriter obsession began with seeing the 1991 film adaptation of Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg.  He toes the line between reality and surreality very well.  I was also very affected by Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.  Crazy as that world was that she described, I believed it was somehow possible.  And with Cronenberg’s film, he was portraying the very real imagery of Burroughs’s drug visions.  So while I don’t believe typewriters can morph into living creatures, I do believe they can take on that persona to a drug-addled writer.  So there’s a reality to that.  I also greatly admire One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which seems slightly fantastical, but because it’s told through the eyes of an asylum inmate it also feels like a reality.  I’m a big fan of Harmony Korine’s films and writing as well.  His version of reality is always interesting to me.

UNSTUCK:  I’d love to visit a museum of typewriters. I usually use them to compose letters. I guess it allows my mind to run and leaves no room for my inner editor to creep out. What’s kept you from switching over to the computer?

ARTHUR BRADFORD:  Typewriters work well for first drafts because, like you say, they keep you from over-editing.  The danger with writing on a computer is that it’s entirely too easy to fidget with your sentences.  There’s no perfect way to write something, so the temptation is to tamper with it over and over again to see how it might look.  This is paralyzing.  Just move forward, get it down.  I believe that once you become practiced in writing with a typewriter you become more careful about your phrasing and word choices because you know you can’t go back and correct things as easily.  It’s kind of ridiculous that we even think computers are superior writing instruments when we consider that the greatest works of literature were written well before they ever existed.  And I’ve seen no evidence of writing getting any better in the computer age.

UNSTUCK:  I adore Geek Love, and I guess in conversation with that book and going back to “The Carrot,” I’m wondering about the relationship (amidst the whimsy) at the center of your story—the girl’s exasperation and go-with-it-ness against the narrator’s steely resolve. I like that “The Carrot” touches upon love relationships at a certain stage. Am I on target?

ARTHUR BRADFORD:  Yes, I’d say you are on target.  I think most writers are probably reticent to speak much about the meaning of their stories because the fact is once the writer starts thinking about what a story means, it loses its purpose, if that makes sense.  By this I mean that if I set out to write a story which explores a certain kind of relationship and then craft characters around that plan, it’ll probably feel kind of dry.  A more mysterious and lucrative way to approach it would be to just imagine a situation and characters you find interesting and wonder what might happen.  That said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a writer trying to dissect a story after he or she has written it.  I’m just trying to explain why I’m a little reluctant to do so.  Also, I think writers sometimes sound pretentious when they try to explain their stories.

But anyway, I wrote this story a while ago, on my manual typewriter, and then put it in a drawer.  When I pulled it out years later I liked the idea of buying a giant carrot, but the tense relationship between the narrator and his lady friend was only hinted at.  I believe I expanded that when I re-typed the second draft, and I added the ending about the tiny carrots.  If I were to try to be really psychoanalytical about this I’d guess this story is about the dissonance between men and women when they are thinking about having children.

UNSTUCK:  I’m thinking about that farmer’s powerful soil. If you had the ability to generate something in abundance for the rest of your days but couldn’t sell it—something that was just for your own enjoyment—what do you think that something would be?

ARTHUR BRADFORD:  That’s an interesting question.  If it’s purely for myself and no one else, then I would say good Italian Water Ice, made from natural ingredients.  You can only find proper Water Ice around Philadelphia these days, and in pockets where the craft has been transported.  For a while in Austin, there was a Philly Water Ice maker and their product was pure heaven on a hot Texas day.  But if this abundant something is a product I can share, just not sell, then I’d be very happy creating quality children’s books.

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Janalyn Guo is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She received her MFA in fiction from Brown University and lives in Austin, where she is at work on a novel. Her fiction can be found at Tarpaulin Sky, the New Yinzer, and Digital Hamper.