Interview: Aimee Bender


Barry is wearing the coat he bought at the store in the West Village, the store where the girl at the register smiled at him in a way he had not been smiled at in a long time. So he bought the coat. When he took it up to the register, he noticed she had a scratch on her cheek.

Your cat? he said, pointing.

She blushed. No, she said. He wasn’t supposed to ask, is what her face said.

Oh, I’m sorry, he said.

He bought the coat with cash. He wanted to leave her a tip. Is there a tip jar? he asked.

She shook her head, fast. Her blush deepened. This isn’t a coffee shop? she said. He bought a sparkly green bead bracelet at the counter, because it was there to be bought, in a jar, an apology. Do you get commission? he said.

No, she said. This is a used clothing store.

With the blush, the scratch on her cheek stood out like a small crackle of lightning.

     —from “The Coat” (Unstuck #1)

Aimee Bender is the author of four books. The most recent, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, won a SCIBA award and was a New York Times bestseller. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, The Paris Re­view, Electric Literature, HOBART, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and heard on NPR’s “This American Life.” She lives in Los Angeles.

Interview by Molly Laich

UNSTUCK:  I was at the MacDowell colony and the writer Kevin Moffett and I were talking about novel writing versus short stories. I was complaining that writing my first novel was difficult, but that all my teachers said I had to write a novel in order to get ahead. Kevin told me that you had once said that you never worried about what medium you were working in—that you just started writing and whatever it turned into was fine. Can you elaborate on that a little? Do you have a preference for short stories or novel writing?

AIMEE BENDER:  I like that Kevin Moffett.  Yes—I have, many times, started something thinking "Aha! This is a novel!" only to find I had finished it in three pages.  That has really happened multiple times. So I just don't think I can know for a while—I'll just write and see what unfolds and if it seems to be opening up to more scenes versus happening upon an ending that I like, then it seems to have a novel feel to it.

Mainly I think that all your teachers saying you had to write a novel to get ahead is tricky. Yes, they are more publishable, but if you are not inclined to write a novel then it seems like a forced thing, which usually doesn't help.  There are poets in the world, after all.  They're not writing novels.  If you like writing stories, write stories! The audience will be smaller, but who cares? As long as you know you have to work another job, something I have always pretty much counted on, (and novel-writing in no way assures otherwise), the pressure dwindles a lot, I think.

UNSTUCK:  What are some non-writing things that inspire your writing? Plays, movies, TV, life, etc.

AIMEE BENDER:  Everything! I'm about to use part of Caryl Churchill's amazing play Cloud 9 in a talk on fiction.  Just saw 2001 again and I can't get enough of that one.  Really love the Louie show on FX—I think it's like reading a really good short story over and over.  Louis C.K. is so smart and open and strange and moving.  And life, yes.

UNSTUCK:  What have you been you reading lately?

AIMEE BENDER:  I just read Sheila Heti's new book, which I liked a lot, and now am onto Teju Cole's Open City which makes me, once again, want to listen to more classical music.  I like reading about classical music.  Also reading Wonderland, which is about a pianist.  Also reading about plants.

UNSTUCK:  You sometimes write about sexy women behaving badly. Here's a meta question for you. Do you get a lot of questions about writing about women? Do people say you are a feminist writer, or not feminist enough? Is it annoying to have your gender brought up in the first place?

AIMEE BENDER:  Not a lot of gender questions but some—my favorite moment was at Reed College, which is super liberal and very academic and a little pressured because of that.  Great place, but a little pressured.  I read a story called "Debbieland" about junior high school girls beating up a girl and after, someone asked why I wrote about such broken women and girls. And as a woman, didn't I feel a responsibility to write strong women? I loved it as a question because it sets me up so beautifully to contradict that assumption.  A perfect pitch to an eager bat.  Because who wants to write strong all the time? Or read strong?  Who is strong all the time?

Feminism has opened up in such a way that happily we now no longer need just strong women figures and characters but just women of all kinds.  It's like how we know we'll have reached some better, more varied place with Native American portrayals in the media when there's a film with a non-wise Native American person.  That's happening with writers like David Treuer but it's just at the start.  Some people do call me a feminist writer and others no—it's such an interesting subject to me so I'm happy to discuss it.  I'm also interested in generations and where women's rights hits all of us at different ages—me versus my mom versus my 19-year-old students and all that.  My older sister could only wear pants once a week when she was in elementary school.  That seems unthinkable that that was only six years before me.

UNSTUCK: How does teaching affect your own writing? Do you learn things from your students?

AIMEE BENDER:  I really love the social aspect and talking about fiction, which is one of my favorite topics.  Teaching also constantly reminds the teacher what she values and that is good. Keeps me honest.  I do learn things from my students—they read different things, they get younger each year, literally, so they are good lines into culture too.

UNSTUCK:  Regarding your process for story writing, I've read that you often start with an image or single sentence and that everything you write necessarily has a tinge of autobiography, even if it doesn't literally come from your experience. What was the magic spark that set off "The Coat," which appears in the first issue of Unstuck? How did the story come about?

AIMEE BENDER:  I can't really track the autobio—it's there, it has to be there, but it is camouflaged by the story even to me.  Years later I can sometimes figure out the spark but usually there are multiple sparks.

"The Coat" originally came from an assignment to write a story off of an MFA art student's photograph of a man hanging up a frame on a wall. A man with a beard, in a coat. And so I was wondering why he did that. And maybe the spark of me in there is I am interested in the idea of an empty frame, of framing something that is not there.  In marking absence in that way.  That's abstract, but I am repeatedly interested in that.

UNSTUCK:  You've said you're interested in fairy tales because they use plot as metaphor.  I am very interested in that idea. I can see that at work pretty explicitly in your story “Appleless” in Fairy Tale Review, where it appears to me that the apples represent female sexuality, and that a certain woman's failure to freely partake in the apple eating makes everybody nutso. My teacher at the University of Montana Kevin Canty told us in workshop that in a short story, we learn who the characters are by what they do. Is this something you're consciously aware of when you're writing short stories? Does it have a place in novel writing?

AIMEE BENDER: No, not consciously aware—most of the better writing I'm able to do happens when I'm paying less attention to what I'm doing.  Characters do things, yes, and
it's good to get them out there and very fun to write about characters who are “do-ers” (as many writers, including myself, may find initially startling—writers are often both watchers and doers, so there's an impulse to have the character watch a lot and that can get static.  It can work at times but is trickier).  In a fairy tale, things happen, pianos fall from the sky, holes open in the earth, foxes turn into nymphs, so it doesn't have to be explicitly character-motivated to affect and impact and even be generated by character.  That has felt so freeing to me. And yes—all true for novels too.

UNSTUCK: How much are technique and process and theme consciously present in your initial writing process? What order does it come in? Do you write first, and then think about technique in the rewrite? How would you explain this to your writing students?

AIMEE BENDER:  Theme is usually not very present.  Ray Bradbury has a great quote about how the first draft is burning down the house, and the second draft is picking through the ashes.  I always liked that.  That the beginning can be fast and messy and all over the place and as you go through it you learn.  But speed allows certain choices to happen and it's helpful to try to sidestep the more judgmental analytical mind and get to the more visceral stewy stuff.

UNSTUCK:  Do you feel famous? I think you are pretty famous, as far as writers go. What is it like? Does it ever hinder or get in the way of your writing or your life to be attached to a name that pretty much everybody in this community is familiar with? Does it lead to having haters? Do you ever have the experience of meeting someone who thinks they know all about you because they've read your work? Are they right? Are they wrong?

AIMEE BENDER:  Fun question—an unusual one.  I mean, fiction writers are not the most visible of groups, so within that group, there's a smaller group that can recognize my name, and maybe an even smaller group that has read my stuff.  My daily life is not interrupted in any way.  But—it's largely really nice.  I love going to readings and having people come up
and tell me what their experience is of my writing—that is great!  I also still have readings where two people show up and I know them both and have dinner plans with them after.

When my first book came out, there were a few haters—I think I was younger and had a first book and so it was a little more loaded publicly.  And still there are a lot of Amazon reviewers who really, really hate my stuff.

As far as people thinking they know me: once I dated a guy who was making all sorts of assumptions about me based on a character and wondering if it would work out due to that.  That was so annoying and frustrating! I'd never felt that before in so personal a way. But generally people don't seem to assume too much or at least they're not telling me.  Usually people think I'm really “normal” compared to the strangeness in my writing but I think that skips over the weirdnesses in all of us.

UNSTUCK:  What are you working on now?

AIMEE BENDER:  Working on stories which are coming along.  And starting to put out bait lines for a new novel fish.

*   *   * 

Molly Laich is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She reads and writes in Missoula, Montana. Tweet her (@MollyL) or visit her blog at

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.

*   *   *

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.

Interview: Matthew Derby


I trudged through a shallow tidepool caked over with coppery surf that popped and sputtered as I moved through it. I saw a gutted aluminum trailer home erupting from a pinkish slurry, vomiting glow-in-the-dark windshield dice from its open front door. On a hill beyond there was a jagged pyramid of a hundred or so white Chinese hardhats piled up like the skulls of monks, topped by a Tekken 9 arcade game cabinet, the composite frame of which was swollen and separated, rimed with a sick yellow crust. I passed a vinyl lawn ornament in the shape of a snowglobe that was partially inflated from the heat. The team of reindeer trapped inside were furry with black fungus. Hundreds of Nerf darts littered my path like grapeshot cast on the battlefields at Gettysburg, and in the distance a fiberglass restaurant chain mascot lay with its braincase smashed. I marveled at how the things had gotten to Dokken, and how it had come to be an inhabitable surface at all. When my father ran United Polymer the garbage patch was little more than a speculation. It couldn’t be seen by satellite or by the naked eye, and the threat it posed was so remote that nobody paid much attention. Suddenly, though, there was a small, rainbow-colored island spinning at the center of the gyre. I remember the photograph that my father tried to hide from me of a group of scientists balanced on its surface in T-shirts and running shorts, staring ruefully into the distance. He was ashamed of the picture but I found it fascinating. The objects collected in the gyre told a story that no single human hand could author.

Beyond the mascot, which was a muscular cheeseburger dressed as a ninja, there was an oblong depression lined with a patchwork underlayment of parched tarps and wrappers, lengths of tattered plastic woven together and shot through with tangled bits of safety orange fencing and drag nets. The dyes and colorants used to brand the various materials had faded and bled to create a variegated tapestry. Little fronds of torn poly whipped in the breeze. There was a slick pool at the bottom of the depression and I could see even from far away the dorsal fin of something that still lived.

     —from “Dokken” (Unstuck #1)

Matthew Derby is the author of Super Flat Times: Stories. His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, Fence, The Believer, The Anchor Book of New American Sto­ries, and The Apocalypse Reader.

Interview by Molly Laich

UNSTUCK:  A story always has to take place at some time. This is just one of those decisions a writer has to make. If not now, then when? I've noticed that your stories tend to happen either in a hypothetical future—as in "Dokken" and Super Flat Times—or in the 1980s—as in "Full Metal Jhacket" and "January and December." Can you say a little about how the time period works in your stories? What is it about the future? What specifically about the 1980s appeals to you? And finally, what may or may not be unappealing to you about setting your stories in the present day? 

MATTHEW DERBY:  Well, some of the stories in Super Flat Times started out as stories set in modern times, which meant, at that point, the late 90s. Then I wrote “The Sound Gun,” which was based on some very real nonlethal weapons technology that was being developed at the time. But as I wrote the story, I realized that I could get away with more if I cut it loose from the present. That's really when Super Flat Times started to take shape. By setting things in the future, I could prop up these outrageous predicaments for my characters and watch how they struggled to overcome them. And I never really knew, at the outset, how they would deal with these challenges. That sounds precious, I know. But I really don't have any idea how a story will end when I start it. Or I should say that I can only finish a story if I don't know how it's supposed to end. I'm just not interested enough, otherwise, to make it through.

Those stories about the 80s were mainly nostalgia pieces. John Lennon's murder had a big impact on me (even though I was seven at the time), and I felt like it was something I just had to write about. “Full Metal Jhacket” was a sort of tribute to my friends from Junior High—we were always making super 8 movies: super-pretentious stuff, really ham-fisted ripoffs of Kubrick films.  And we had this feeling that somehow Kubrick would actually see the films and collaborate with us or fund a feature or something. We actually thought this. I ache for that kind of naiveté, and that story was my attempt to reach back through time and sort of caress it one last time. By the time those came out, though, I was already typecast as the “meat future guy,” so people would read the stories and struggle to figure out how they were futuristic. Like, they thought maybe the main character in “January in December” came from the future or something. So I may be stuck writing future stories whether I like it or not.

The only thing that's lame to me about writing something set in contemporary America is that I'd almost certainly have to write things like, “Starbucks,” “Applebee's,” and “Spotify.” I can't really articulate why I don't want to write about those brands. But it bums me out. But I don't have a rule about it. Someday, if I'm still writing, I'm sure I'll end up setting a story in “modern times.” But there are so many people already doing it way better than me. So I may just stick to the future, actually. There are only a couple people writing about how boring the future will be. So I feel like it's easier for me to stand out in a crowd if I become a subject matter expert in that arena.

UNSTUCK:  I was particularly touched by the narrator's relationship with the dolphin in "Dokken.” Says your narrator: "I felt comfortable talking to the dolphin, who seemed to really get me." For me, the dolphin is a much needed source of warmth and "humanity" in an otherwise bleak scenario.

MATTHEW DERBY: You're right—I wanted to give the guy in “Dokken” a task that would briefly ennoble him.  He sees this creature suffering the worst kind of humiliation—floundering out of the water with a surgically implanted human voice box that can only make menu recommendations—and he acts.  And for a moment the reader thinks, “Hey, that guy's great. That's exactly what I would do.” At least I hope that's what they think.

UNSTUCK:  On the flipside, you've invented this terrible "Meat Tower," where in a post-apocalyptic world devoid of plants, the people are resigned to eating an all-animal diet.

MATTHEW DERBY:  The funny thing about “The Meat Tower” is that—I swear this is true—I had no idea it would be perceived as a screed against meat eating. When the book came out all of my friends were like, "Oh, I see you tried to push your vegetarian agenda once again." And I looked at the story and saw what they were talking about, but it was a true shocker to me.

I wrote that story for some literary journal—something that doesn't even exist anymore. One of the editors solicited a piece from me and I told her, on the spot, that I was going to write a story about a kid in a snowmobile suit sliding down a massive column of frozen meat. And I went and wrote the story, and it had the kid sliding down the tower of meat. But not once did I think about the perceived symbolism, you know, of the horror of a world made of meat. I just thought it would be a funny image.

The editor then rejected the story. I'm not bitter about it.

UNSTUCK:  We were talking, before the interview, about the TV show Animal Hoarders. I don't know about you, but personally, while I love and am fascinated by them, I'm a little annoyed at all of these in-depth documentary-style shows for mining all the very meaty human tragedies, such as hoarding, weird addictions to eating tape or plastic surgery, salmon fishing, duck entrepreneurs and on and on, leaving less and less for us writers. How does media influence your writing? How does IRL influence your writing?

MATTHEW DERBY:  I don't know. I feel like those shows—even the best of them—can only go so far in revealing the depths of the human condition. But Gary Lutz could write a story about a woman who compulsively licks dustings of Comet and it would just barely resemble the source material (My Strange Addiction, Season One, Episode Three). In other words, the material is all out there already. It's the lens through which the artist translates the raw material that matters.

UNSTUCK:  What are some themes and ideas you're particularly interested in these days?

MATTHEW DERBY:  I've been working on this project for the past year that explores the notion that language is a hardwired faculty. We, as humans, didn't sit around a campfire in a cave and invent language. It's part of our physiological makeup. We have areas in our brain that are specifically designed for producing and comprehending language. So in a very real sense, humans didn't make language; language made humans. That's totally fascinating to me.

UNSTUCK:  About your writing. I find it to be clear and precise, but not particularly "minimalist." What I mean is that at times, you allow yourself to pack a lot of details and insight into your sentences. The prose is allowed to meander on the characters' reflections and ideas in a way that is sometimes absent from a lot of current writing—particularly stories published on the web. And finally, your stories are not particularly short. Have you ever felt pressure to produce shorter work? Do you find it difficult to find venues willing to publish work that takes time and care to unpack?

MATTHEW DERBY:  So, you're saying my stories are too long?


I started out writing really short, “prose poem-y” stuff. “Micro fiction.” But I could never really find my footing. I don't really send my stuff out that much so I'm not getting the sense that it's being rejected based on length.

But this project I'm working on will be published exclusively online, and my collaborators and I sort of arbitrarily agreed that none of the pieces we wrote for it would be longer than 1,500 words. Our goal is to give readers the sense that they can read an entire piece on a single subway ride. We've sort of designed the project so that it can be read “out in the world.” So that's certainly forced me to compress and condense, and I think for the better.

UNSTUCK:  Finally, could you share some writers or books that you currently find particularly exciting?

MATTHEW DERBY: I've just read two related graphic novels by Alison Bechdel--Fun Home, about her father, who inherited his father's funeral home, struggled with his sexual identity, and eventually committed suicide, and Are You My Mother?, which is, spoiler alert, about her relationship with her mother.  To say that they're “about” her parents really underserves their incredible scope. The way she uses the comic form to tell these stories is really astounding.  I don't read a ton of graphic novels, so maybe my saying that is equivalent to a guy who's never heard a rock song thinking that Papa Roach is the greatest band ever.  But I don't see how Bechdel could have told these stories in any other medium. Her transitions are super deft and exhilarating and she manages to convey raw emotional content with precision and an utter lack of sentimentality that blows me away. They're definitely the best books I've read in a while. 

*   *   * 

Molly Laich is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She reads and writes in Missoula, Montana. Tweet her (@MollyL) or visit her blog at

Interview: Amelia Gray


Work around the tree was going well. The tree’s roots disrupted the ground and the area needed to be smoothed and resodded. The men with the shovels exerted themselves under the shade of the tree. One man, an usher at the local church, swung a shovel full of peat back farther than he had intended. The shovel glanced off a gravestone and chipped off its corner, sending the stone flying into the high grass.

The sound rang out across the field, a light metal ping, and stopped the crowd. People craned their heads to see which grave had been damaged. A few dropped their rags and tools where they stood and walked closer. Wiping their foreheads on their shirt collars, they squinted at the stone.

It was the grave of an upstanding member of the community, a woman who had been well-loved when she died twenty years prior. Most of her children were in attendance, and her young grandchildren played hide-and-seek behind the graves. The man whose shovel had caused the damage put his hand over his mouth and looked away.

The woman’s oldest son, who had been on tree duty as well, stepped forward to inspect the damage. He ran his finger along the stone at its sheared point. The granite wasn’t very old, but the surface had dulled after years of rain and sun. His mother’s name was still clearly marked, but the carved grooves had begun to fill with grime. A line of earth clung where the shovel had struck, and the stone above had given way to the bright, fresh material that had been hidden inside. It sparkled with quartz and mica, gleaming like the stream behind the family home did after a long rain.

     —from “Monument" (Unstuck #1)

Amelia Gray is the author of the story collections AM/PM and Museum of the Weird, and a novel, THREATS.

Interview by Janalyn Guo

UNSTUCK:  “Monument” starts with work and ends with cathartic destruction. There is the way in which we are supposed to display grief, an acceptable form, and the takeover of a new, rawer form. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the social cues present in our culture around grief.

AMELIA GRAY:  There's no wrong way to grieve. Wailing in the grocery aisle is a correct way. The absence of grieving accompanied by an internal guilt is one. Attending a ceremony, going home and burying all your paper clips is one. Social cues are okay; I think they help other people deal with us when we're grieving, but you've got to forgive yourself for the internal process as well, the thoughts your brain can't help but think. Self-forgiveness isn't a huge part of American culture.

UNSTUCK:  I’d love to hear more about that last thought—about self-forgiveness not being a big part of our culture, and how you see that playing out.

AMELIA GRAY:  I mean, we’re more of a personal accountability kind of culture. People see that that Octomom woman is getting her hair done while she’s on welfare, they want to see her strung up. And then I guess we’re alone in our rooms later, presumably thinking about all the awful shit we do on a regular basis. Meanness towards other people is generally all about guilt or meanness towards oneself, don’t you think? Most of the meanness I’ve experienced from other people has been pretty transparent in that way.

UNSTUCK:  I like that “Monument” suggests a resistance to traditional forms, a new playing field of sorts, and it just feels like the perfect opening piece for a journal like Unstuck. Could you talk a little bit about what it means to you to chip away at the old and start anew?

AMELIA GRAY:  All literary journals should be started the way Unstuck was, with the idea that there needed to be a new voice out there. And whenever something new comes along, the old guard shouldn't be vaporized. There's probably some satisfaction in bulldozing a graveyard but you're still left with the same bodies, the same space. It's the chipping away that provides that nice contrast.

UNSTUCK:  Who are some of your favorite innovators in fiction?

AMELIA GRAY:  What’s interesting about the term “innovation” is that it’s not just about uniqueness—it’s about uniqueness being accepted in the culture at large. So, I’m in love with these unique Thierry Lasry sunglasses I saw this past weekend, but I wouldn’t say they’re a mass-market kind of product. Talking about true innovation in fiction means bandying about some familiar names, because you’re talking about the people who have managed to slip something better into the standard practice. So, I don’t know, Joyce Carol Oates?

UNSTUCK:  You mention innovation is uniqueness accepted in the culture at large, and I’m curious about your thoughts on work that is not quite accepted because it’s "ahead of its time"—like, say, Twin Peaks.

It seems that there's this trend in the publishing world where the big publishing houses are seeing their most dismal numbers during the recession but the small presses are seeing their best numbers yet. I like this phenomenon. I suppose more people are searching for the kind of work that they like and not necessarily what appeals on a broad level.

AMELIA GRAY:  I think that access will define the next generation of fiction, and I think that the big publishing houses are becoming more agile and accessible, themselves following the small-press model. Look at big box stores like Target, which is doing its best to feature smaller brands. I was just at Target to buy a board game and a pack of gum and it was all "The Shops We Fell in Love With, Collected and Curated For You." That's exactly what the big presses are doing right now, and it's because these houses employ people who love reading at the fringes. My editor at FSG found me because she read my first book, AM/PM, put out by featherproof books in Chicago. So I think that innovation has always been a part of the culture, but I hope to see it even more easily accessed with all of our e-readers and baby presses and imprints.

UNSTUCK:  Are you captivated by graveyards? Do you visit them?

AMELIA GRAY:   I'm most interested in the forgotten graveyards. If you fly a certain route into the airport in Austin, you can see a little graveyard right next to one of the airstrips, called the Waters Cemetery. And there's the state hospital cemetery up on North Loop where about 500 anonymous individuals are buried in addition to the named plots. Or Edward Abbey, who is buried somewhere out in the Cabeza Prieta Desert rolled up in a blue sleeping bag.

I have visited graveyards and enjoyed my visits, particularly to the kind of backwoods Texas cemetery at the end of a long road where an errant cow keeps the stones company, but I generally don't hang around too long. Time enough for that!

UNSTUCK:  I like that you’re interested in the forgotten graveyards. A poet once told me that in the old graveyards, where the stones are falling over, you could find at their base etchings of letters; I suppose this was how stone chiselers practiced their alphabet before setting letters to the stone. I like that there’s all this evidence of the human hand in the graves of old; their fastidiousness moves me. I suppose this has all been replaced by laser technology and photorealistic images of our deceased: somehow not as captivating to me.

AMELIA GRAY:  I can’t imagine they’re as captivating to anyone. Maybe their purpose is that they’re less captivating, less romantic, than the hand-worked stone. It makes death a little more distant when it’s professionally etched. Me, I want a stoneworker in a cage over my plot creating artifacts until his own death, at which point a second cage is placed above his and a new stoneworker interred.

UNSTUCK:  Our relationship to graveyards has changed since the Victorian era, when there were picnics and leisurely Sunday strolls on the grounds amidst the tombstones and crypts. I wonder why.

AMELIA GRAY:  Why, I can't say. Surely we'll move back to graveyard strolls when the parks get bought up and bulldozed. The real shame is that a lot of modern graveyards are boring, sanitized places with flat stones that can be easily mowed over. I'm from Tucson, which has a pretty big Dia de los Muertos crew, and so everyone decorates the tombstones of their loved ones and hangs out and has a meal.

UNSTUCK:  I was thinking that perhaps architecture has something to do with how we treat a space. Perhaps a few picnic benches and a walking path would do a lot for a cemetery.

AMELIA GRAY:  I think you’ve got a future in cemetery design if this whole interview thing doesn’t work out.

UNSTUCK:  Speaking of architecture, the architect Adolph Loos has this saying that I guess is quite famous in the architecture community: “Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.” I’m curious about the idea of tombs and monuments not necessarily fulfilling a function but doing something else, something more so in the realm of art. What are your thoughts?

AMELIA GRAY:  That’s a cool quote. I wonder why a functional building can’t serve as a monument as well, though. I’m thinking of the New York Stock Exchange building, or the White House. I do like the idea that perhaps there are different purposes and levels to art, that a “pure” art moves away from practical function. I once had a graffiti artist make the argument to me that graffiti is the only pure form of art because it can’t be bought or sold; once the piece is covered by a protective sheet or pulled off the wall and put in a gallery, it is no longer a piece of art. 

*   *   *

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.

Interview: Lindsay Hunter


You got the cat you came to know as Milton the day that Indonesian man phoned up to say he wouldn’t be meeting you at the Sizzle Steak because your new hairdo reminded him of a hive of blood beetles, which was a bad omen, and while he was at it your perfume reminded him of his momma’s deathbed breath, and finally he spluttered how you make him sad, and that was really the thing of it, this put you off so much you didn’t deign to ask him what a blood beetle was, even though that was the best part of the Indonesian man, the exotic facts he could drop into a conversation, like that time he mentioned in passing that he boiled his shoes every week, and was a blood beetle an annoyance similar to the house roach or was it a horror similar to a flying ant, you don’t know and now you never will, you daubed some hand soap on your pulse points so you wouldn’t smell like breath no more and you went to the Pets 'n Friends and walked straight to the kitten bucket and pointed, a little boy said Uhl, that thing got a noface, and you told the boy Better than too much face, biglips, and you named that cat Milton and you tried not to look directly into its face, cause you remembered the Indonesian man saying how cats can hypnotize you into digging out your own internal organs and offering them up as an afternoon snack.

     —from “You and Your Cats” (Unstuck #1)

Lindsay Hunter is a writer living in Chicago, where she hosts the Quickies! reading series. Her collection of slim fictions, Daddy’s, was released in 2010.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK: How did this story originate? What made you want to write about a cat lady?

LINDSAY HUNTER: Well, originally I wanted to write a story about a middle-aged woman who took a roommate. I wrote that story and it didn't do what I wanted it to do. It was flat. Then, I was asked to read at a local reading series, P. Fanatics, with a theme of "cats." So I kind of molded the two ideas into a Voltron story. And I wanted, also, to explore the impulses behind collecting.

UNSTUCK: Now I have the image of a literary Voltron in my head. Which element of this story would be the arms?

LINDSAY HUNTER: One arm would be a centipede of cats. The other would be the Indonesian man.

UNSTUCK: Do you have any collections of your own?

LINDSAY HUNTER: Yes! Okay, look, I believe inanimate objects have feelings. I am constantly filled with anxiety that I'm hurting everything's feelings. (My husband has the same illness.) Exhibit A: Last weekend when putting the ladder away, we both agreed the ladder shouldn't be shut in a room alone in the basement, but should be amongst other basement flotsam, amongst "friends." So, anyway, that has led to a lot of hand-wringing about throwing anything out. I collect books, folk art, and every every every item I can find from my childhood. You're shrieking into your hands, aren't you?

UNSTUCK: I feel like anthropomorphization of objects is a pretty common instinct, actually.


UNSTUCK: I mean, I think everyone does it during childhood. We all have a security object of some sort.

LINDSAY HUNTER: I used to, before getting into bed with my first lover (I did just use that word, oh God), put my stuffed animals "to bed" by laying them down on a pillow and covering them with a blanket.

UNSTUCK: I used to worry about certain toys getting jealous of other toys if I played with them more.
LINDSAY HUNTER: Yes. Precisely!

UNSTUCK: Today, I try to keep my stuff pared down to a minimum because I move around a lot, but I can't get rid of books or small plastic toys. Like, the random French fry transformers from 90s Happy Meals.

LINDSAY HUNTER: Oh, you have to keep those.

UNSTUCK: And speaking of anthropomorphism, one of the things I really liked about "You and Your Cats" was that the cats weren't actually anthropomorphized that much. They felt very animal and indifferent.

LINDSAY HUNTER: Right! I wanted the woman to be cat-thropomorphized. Folded into the pack. Is that what a group of cats is called? Pack? Harem? The cats and the woman, they live together out of necessity.

UNSTUCK: A pride? Like lions?

LINDSAY HUNTER: There we go!

UNSTUCK: So she becomes kind of the inverse of dogs dressed in fashionable sweaters.

LINDSAY HUNTER: Right. She is slowly becoming cooled to society. Retreating into her own world.

UNSTUCK: I went down a weird Internet rabbit hole after reading your story, because I decided to Google what cat food tastes like. And I found a very detailed Yahoo Answers thread about it. Apparently it has some human fans. What do you imagine cat food tastes like?

LINDSAY HUNTER: That does not surprise me! I imagine it tastes like chewed Spam. Which itself already tastes chewed. The oil of it coats your tongue, and there are sudden chewy pieces. With every chew you think the word, "doody." Delicious, in other words!

UNSTUCK: I imagined it as a mix of Spam and creamed tuna. With some peas.

LINDSAY HUNTER: Ooh, good call.

UNSTUCK: Why did you decide to go with a second person narration in this story? Did it just naturally go that way during your first draft, or did you shift to it later?

LINDSAY HUNTER: Oh, yeah, it started that way. I rarely go back and make huge changes once I've got a story totally down. As for why I went with second person, I love the simultaneous closeness and distance you can get with it. And for this story, that felt like the right choice for the character. You know her pain, but she is still withdrawn.

UNSTUCK: When I was first reading the story, I also felt like the "you" emphasized the fact that she had no one to talk to. I, as a reader, felt almost complicit in her loneliness.

LINDSAY HUNTER: Wow! I love that.

UNSTUCK: You have a book of "slim fictions" out called Daddy's.

LINDSAY HUNTER: This is true!

UNSTUCK: What attracts you to slim fiction as a form?

LINDSAY HUNTER: Man, so much. I love the immediacy of it. I love how an entire world can be shown in just a matter of moments. Which any great fiction does. Longer stories, novels, etc. There is a world in every sentence. I love the stakes of short fiction. I love how it seems, to me anyway, that word choice is just as essential as plot.

It's like poetry in that way. I had an argument with a professor once about whether or not a story I had written was a poem or a story, and I feel like that is the tension I want in everything I write or read.

UNSTUCK: What are you reading right now?

LINDSAY HUNTER: I just finished The Sisters Brothers and I loved it. Every sentence was so careful and essential. It was funny and violent. Now I'm reading The Vanishers and the language in it feels bright, fresh, new. I am only about 50 pages in but I am enjoying it a lot.

UNSTUCK: Is there anything else you wanted to talk about before we wrap up?

LINDSAY HUNTER: Anyone reading this, be kind to your stuffed animals. Don't write crap. Don't read crap either.

*   *   * 

Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.

Interview: J. Robert Lennon


When at last they reached the top, it was nearly dark, and Richard wondered if they had made some kind of mistake. The cottage was not as he recalled. The tree was still there, but the structure itself was lower, broader. The second floor seemed to be missing entirely, and the clapboards were wider, and painted a peeling white. Furthermore, the former gas company grounds could no longer be seen from the hilltop, and the view on the far side was drastically different. The lake he remembered was gone—only a weedy marsh seemed to lie in the valley below, and the hills did not appear as tall as they once had. Indeed, if they were there at all, they were obscured by fog. The terrain was very rocky and unforgiving, and he began to feel a terrible sense of dread.

     —from “The Cottage on the Hill” (Unstuck #1)

J. Robert Lennon is the author of seven novels, including Mailman, Castle, and the forthcoming Familiar, and a collection of short stories, Pieces for the Left Hand. He teaches writing at Cornell University.

Interview by Molly Laich

[Note: This interview was conducted over Google Chat.]

J. ROBERT LENNON:  You in there?

UNSTUCK:  Ha. Yes, I am in there. I am in the computer.


UNSTUCK:  Hello! How are you?

J. ROBERT LENNON:  I'm great! Just sent in the page proofs for Familiar, the new book, so I am relieved and happy.

UNSTUCK:  Oh, what a feeling. When does it come out?

J. ROBERT LENNON:  First week of October. Will be touring a bit then, including to Missoula.

UNSTUCK:  Speaking of which: I wanted to ask about your time at the University of Montana. When were you there? What were the circumstances that led you to an MFA? What sort of writer were you before the MFA, and how did it change you?

J. ROBERT LENNON:  I was a student there from 1993 to 1995, met my wife, the novelist Rhian Ellis, and we stayed there a couple years more. I got an MFA for the usual reasons—my favorite college class was a fiction workshop and my teacher suggested I apply to MFA programs. Montana was the only place I got in—I was not a terribly skilled or mature writer at the time. The main thing I learned there, though, was discipline—to write every day, and, most importantly, to revise. I'm no longer in a position to be able to write daily but I am a total pig for revision. My first drafts are crap.

UNSTUCK:  In workshop, did you work on short stories or novels?

J. ROBERT LENNON:  Both. My first attempt at a novel was about a rock band that that has to deliver a baby from Seattle to Philadelphia. It was really bad, and people told me so. I also ended up workshopping the first few chapters of what would become my first novel, and that went rather better.

UNSTUCK:  Since we brought Familiar up, let's talk about the new book! The novel is about a woman who stumbles into a parallel reality in which she's estranged from her children. To me, this is the saddest thing I can imagine. The ultimate life failure: to have a ruined relationship with your kids. (I don't have any kids; I'm guessing.) And you confirmed my suspicion that you were writing about your worst fears. To me, it's almost a horror story. But not in any conventional way.

J. ROBERT LENNON:  A friend of mine just read it, and mentioned how sad it was. And my reaction was, "Is it? Damn, I guess it really is." Of course it is.

I do like your characterization of it as a horror story, though, and that is precisely how I've been describing it to people—a horror novel about parenthood. Not as horrifying as, say, Pet Sematary, but maybe less easy to dismiss as fantasy.

The book started as a way of exploring the weird feeling of driving on the highway after September 11th—I was supposed to be on a book tour, and it was all cancelled, and I had to drive a rental car home to Ithaca, because the airports were closed. When we were living in Missoula in 2002, I wrote about 40 pages, then gave up. Finally I went back to it in 2009, printed it out, deleted the file, and started over, retyping it all into the word processor. And this time I didn't stop. Over many drafts, it became more about parenting and less about the sci-fi conceit. I think my recent work is more about metaphor, and works more by evocation rather than description, if that makes any sense. I think I'll be returning to the social realism for the next book—a comedy, I hope. But I always think everything's going to be funny, and then it turns depressing.

By the way: I'm reading your movie review of Damsels in Distress—my wife liked it pretty well. I like Greta Gerwig. But I've never really been able to wrap my mind around Whit Stillman. I always find myself wishing that Hal Hartley were directing his movies instead.

UNSTUCK:  That's sort of like how every time I listen to Elvis Costello I wish I were listening to Tom Petty.


UNSTUCK:  Thanks for reading. I wish I'd reviewed Battleship instead. Rihanna as a naval officer, LOL. But anyway. It's interesting that the sadness wasn't at the forefront for you while you were writing the book. It did sort of sneak up on me as well. I was overcome with grief when she sees Sam and—   but I shouldn't give things away.

Have you written from a woman's point of view before?

J. ROBERT LENNON:  I have written from a woman's POV before, and I'm always a little surprised when people are surprised by it. It seems to me that writing from the other gender is a Writing 101 skill. I mean, if you can't imagine what it's like to not be yourself, you're in the wrong line of work. That said, I do usually write male characters, and I've never devoted an entire novel to a woman character before. Most of one, but never the whole thing. I felt at home in this one, though—do you think it's a persuasive feminine perspective?

UNSTUCK:  I do. I found her to be unsentimental and I enjoyed the idea that she had suddenly given up the impulse to wear makeup. I agree that writers should be able to write from other perspectives, but I don't agree that it's an entirely symmetrical switch. I mean— I think it's slightly more challenging for a man to write as a woman than for a woman to write as a man. It's a complicated theory supported by my cursory studies of psycholinguistics, briefly summarized by saying that man is sort of the default stance, and as such all humans are better at slipping into a man's world.

J. ROBERT LENNON:  I suspect you're right about that. And I suspect it's also easier for a male reader to accept a male character written by a woman, in part for the same reasons. Because hell, why wouldn't she be writing about a man? It could be that the bar, then, is set higher for a man trying to write from a woman's perspective—but, on the other hand, we get congratulated for doing it a hell of a lot more often, and more effusively, than women writers do for writing about men.

UNSTUCK:  One more question about Familiar, maybe. You mentioned abandoning the more sci-fi-ish elements in an earlier draft, but it's not all gone. It engages with elements of sci-fi in the way Elisa becomes involved in parallel worlds discussion boards and whatnot. But it seems to me the novel is just itself and doesn't concern itself very much with genre considerations. Do you agree? Is this a luxury of someone who has written multiple novels?

J. ROBERT LENNON:  I think it's a luxury of somebody who grew up reading tons of genre fiction, and is writing in an era where genre-blurring fiction is not only acceptable but à la mode. I can't get Stephen King, sci-fi, and crime fiction out of my head. Sometimes I don't bother to try. I think this is even more common among writers younger than me—all my undergrads at Cornell are members of the Harry Potter generation, and I have been getting lots and lots of literary fiction with insidious genre-borrowing in it. I like this a lot.

Yeah, there is lots of the parallel worlds stuff in here, but in earlier drafts it was there more for its own sake, and now it is there as something for Elisa to ponder. It's a vehicle for exploring character now—and for exploring the vicissitudes of family life. I am glad you regard the novel as merely being itself—that's my intent, and I think I needed to let it find itself before I could start trying to make it any good.

UNSTUCK:  Let's "shift gears" a second. There's your Unstuck story, "The Cottage on the Hill," about a cottage that seems to morph via mysterious circumstances, and your novel Castle, that is about a lot of things, but much of the action has to do with home repairs. Do these stories have anything to do with one another? I get the feeling that they were maybe written around the same time or are born of similar experiences or ideas.

J. ROBERT LENNON:  Well, the Unstuck story came after Castle, but I will tell you what, I am obsessed with houses. They are so powerful. I dream about them constantly—I think most people do. That story came from a dream, in fact—I was out of town with my son, at of all things a Rubik's Cube solving competition, and in the hotel we were staying in I dreamed about returning over and over to this cottage that is different every time, but still the same, in that dreaming you-just-know-stuff sort of way. I spent the drive back to Ithaca trying to remember it all, and then wrote the story with only a small amount of narrative structure inserted to hold it all together. I ought to teach a course on books about houses. There are so many good ones.

UNSTUCK:  Tell us about a few! What books were helpful to you in writing Castle? (But then I have another question about Castle, so contain yourself.)

J. ROBERT LENNON:  Well, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is wonderful. But I mostly think of Castle as a Stephen King novel. Whereas the biggest influence on Familiar is probably Tom McCarthy's Remainder—another book about the mysteries of cognition.

UNSTUCK:  Not to be illiterate, but it reminded me a little of the film Cast Away.

J. ROBERT LENNON:  Sure, I'll buy Cast Away! The first two thirds, anyway. I used to characterize my earlier book On The Night Plain as "A Coen Brothers western." This was before there actually were Coen Brothers westerns.

UNSTUCK:  What I admired most about Castle was how close we were to the protagonist’s changing moods, perspectives. I think the book is psychologically deft. (I have an undergraduate degree in psychology, so, you're welcome.) It's clear we're dealing with an "unreliable narrator," but precisely how he is unreliable remains a mystery for much of the book. It's a source of much tension and intrigue! And I liked very much the white deer.

J. ROBERT LENNON:  White deer: yes! They’re a staple of central New York writers. They live behind the fence at the old Seneca Army Depot. They are strange and beautiful.

My editor and I worked very hard to keep the nature of Loesch's unreliability consistent. He is not lying—but he is telling a highly self-serving narrative. There are things he needs to say, but he can't bring himself to do it, not for a long time. At first he will only allow his past to enter the story via other characters—e.g., the hardware store clerk who calls him "Soldier." But as the narrative wears on, he talks more openly about what he did, and what happened to him. The turning point is when he falls into the pit trap in the woods.

A colleague of mine at Cornell, a medievalist, told me, after hearing me read that bit, that this is a very, very old trope—you fall in a hole and remember things. Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle does this too.

UNSTUCK:  I was telling somebody about Familiar and they said it sounded like Murakami's latest book.

J. ROBERT LENNON:  Well, I was a little dismayed when I learned that Murakami's book was about parallel universes...  but it turns out to be utterly different. I must say I wasn't wild about 1Q84—it should have been shorter, among other things. I ordinarily like Murakami a great deal, though.

UNSTUCK:  I used to have these insane fears as an undergrad the night before workshop that I would show up and someone would have written the same story as I had, exactly—the way normal girls might worry about someone at the wedding wearing the same dress as them.

J. ROBERT LENNON:  A former teacher who shall remain nameless once told our workshop, "If you get a good idea, write it immediately, because somebody could steal it." NO! No, that is dumb.

It is one of the most popular questions I get from would-be writers, too. "Should I copyright my idea?" No, because your idea is worthless! Ideas are nothing. A book is something—it's real—and it won't be like anyone else's. In very much the way that two women are never going to inhabit the same dress in the same way. Hell, it might not even look like the same dress.

I'll tell you what: dudes don't worry about wearing suits that ALL LOOK ALIKE. Because dudes are taught to think that their own personal special penis power will radiate out from them like glorious rays of man sun.

UNSTUCK:  Would you like to tell me a little about your writing process? What you're working on next? Life plans and dreams?


1) Usually in three- or four-hour shifts, when I am not teaching. I try to produce maybe a page an hour. It's all rather craftsmanlike—I get "inspired" sometimes but inspiration is kinda bullshit most of the time. When I have time, I write—that's about the size of it. Sometimes it's goodish, sometimes it sucks.

2) A short story about a graduate student in anthropology, then a talk about stylistic and plot extremes in fiction for the Colgate Writers' Conference, which is in a few weeks. Then a literary crime novella that I have extracted from a failed 2009 novel. Then I start taking notes on this big social comedy I want to write.

3) Get old. Read and eat and drink and hang out with my wife. Record music. I like my life; I just want to keep it going.

UNSTUCK:  Your work can be dark sometimes. It deals with broken relationships and families, domestic life gone wrong, but with hints of the supernatural. I think there's a natural impulse, maybe particularly among readers who are also writers, to try to find the real-life connections between the author and the horrors he expresses. But you seem fine. I mean, not psychologically tortured or crazy or a bad parent or whatever. What can you say about the relationship between the author and his work?

J. ROBERT LENNON:   Yes, it's true that I am a functional person with a happy family, and I count myself lucky. And it is luck—I don't pretend otherwise. But the collective consciousness of my household is very dark. I think that all of us have tried different ways of channeling this energy—into personal projects, rather than towards our regard for one another. I am deeply proud to already see the family illness finding its way into my older son's Twitter feed, for instance.

Let's face it—the more love there is in your life, the more you have to lose. And the more ways there are to lose what you have. I love extravagantly—the people around me, the work I do, the things I enjoy. And it opens me up to all manner of hurt. But what's the alternative, you know? Hiding from it? Writers don't have to go out in the world and do exciting things, but we can't shy away from strong emotion in our minds. Perhaps this is why so many of us become alcoholics, or suicides. There's no room for denial or aversion.

It hasn't escaped my attention that the stuff of mine that people seem to like the most is the stuff that seemed at the time of writing to be the most personal, the most trifling, the least obviously marketable. I try to tell students this—don't try to write something acceptable, try to write something that expresses your obsessions. This is hard for some writers, who are embarrassed by, or dubious about, their obsessions. But it's important to break through that wall. Your self is the only thing you have that nobody else can give to the world. That pure, unrefined ore—that's the stuff.

I believe in earnestness and honesty and in expressing strong emotion, both on and off the page. Never try to be classy. There, that's your pull quote: Writers, don't be classy!

*   *   * 

Molly Laich is an Assistant Editor at Unstuck. She reads and writes in Missoula, Montana. Tweet her (@MollyL) or visit her blog at

Interview: John Maradik and Rachel B. Glaser


“I want a boyfriend,” Norene says.

“Are you alone? No,” says Priest Paul. “God can be your friend. Jesus is when your vision narrows and you can’t stop feeling warm,” he says. A beam of light blinds him. He slumps as if shot. Someone yawns and his eyes snap open. Priest Paul reminds me of an undernourished horse. He seems to be carrying a load that is endangering his life. I decide I like him a lot.

I’ve seen pictures of him at Priest School having the time of his life. Days he would study scripture; nights him and a priest-friend would hit the streets, helping. “You’d be surprised how many lost souls there are, every night, drunk and wandering. We would help them find their cars. Women would be all dressed up, stood up by their dates, and we would take them dancing, politely refusing drink.”

During Elementary Service, Priest Paul would rock side-to-side pretending we were at sea. Running back and forth, yelling for the sails. “To the canoe-pews!” he’d shriek, wiping ocean spray from his face. “Yes, good, now the bow, run to the bow! The bow! Remember which is the bow?” “Yes, yes, now, all hands on deck!” Out of breath, we’d slide to the floor and put our hands around the podium. At Teen Service, Priest Paul was more subdued. He tried to match our nonchalance, but it came more naturally to us.

     —from “Peer Confession” (Unstuck #1)

John MaradikRachel B. Glaser met at UMass-Amherst’s MFA Program. Maradik’s work has been published by 14 Hills and American Short Fiction. He is the winner of the 2010 Bamby Holmes Award. Glaser is the author of the short story collection Pee On Water.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK:  Writing has a reputation as a solitary activity. One of the things that first interested me about "Peer Confession" was the fact that it's a collaborative work. What prompted you to collaborate with another writer?

JOHN MARADIK:  This story was our first collaboration. Rachel and I were in a workshop together at U. Mass and our professor was looking for volunteers to turn in a story first round. Nobody had work ready so Rachel and I said if we could collaborate, it was likely we could crank something out in time. As soon as we opened up a Google Doc together, things got pretty weird. I think our story started off with both Rachel and I trying to impress each other with funny or out of control sentences. We were in love and living together in a loft apartment with no walls. Out of the swamp of sentences we were creating, a story began to emerge. Something about a church. Something about a crazy priest. It’s almost like the story wrote itself.  As the deadline neared things got a little desperate and we sat by a lake frantically brainstorming in a notebook and then we wolfed down food at a breakfast buffet. It took a year of casual editing to get the story to where it is. 

UNSTUCK:  Did you feel like writing a story together provided a different set of challenges from writing alone?

RACHEL B. GLASER:  Yes, it definitely has a different set of challenges, but also a different set of rewards.  Occasionally, one of us will write a line we really like, and the other will want to cut it. The plus of this is that there is constant editing occurring with two sets of eyes, so there's never is a really messy draft, or a lot of material to cut. The main reward is having someone to relate to during the writing process. Often, when you're writing a story alone, the story is like a one-person cave. Writing a story with John is always fun, because it's fun to read the story aloud to each other and to talk about the story when not writing it.  Also, writing collaboratively makes the story feel alive. The story gains lines that I didn’t write. Though they come from John, it almost feels like they come from the story, like the story is helping us write it.

UNSTUCK:  "Peer Confession" is a story about adolescence. What do you think is the most awkward part of being a teenager?

RACHEL B. GLASER:  I think the main awkwardness is also what’s so exciting about it: trying to figure out who you are, and who you want to be. At a certain age, teens’ looks and personalities combine to become a reputation. Do I wear make-up? Would I ever smoke a cigarette? I feel that someone in their early teens is trying to choose who they want to be, but that it is colored by who they guess they will be.  Having a close friend is this real merge—by association and influence. There is a real freedom in the separation between adults and classmates. I remember feeling this “kid feeling” really early on in life, watching Nickelodeon and MTV. It felt like they were channels for my brother and I and not for my parents or other adults. This apartness is a sort of wilderness. In “Peer Confession,” Doris is trying to understand if her braces and her church are holding her back, and also if she minds being held back. Is she ready for what would come next?

UNSTUCK:  The story contains two competing churches, one that encourages peer confession and orthodontia, and one (Church Hello) that throws surreally wild parties.  If you two founded your own individual religions, what would their main tenets be?

RACHEL B. GLASER:  Music and dancing are such a powerful and natural way to make humans happy, so I think my religion might be more of a disco or house party. Not unlike Church Hello, actually!

JOHN MARADIK:  My church would also involve lots of dancing, but gardening too. I don’t think I like gardening, but planting things in the earth is probably important and sacred even though it is too much work to be fun. So I guess you could only eat unprocessed foods in my religion. Bob Marley and Louis Armstrong would be the gospel music. One love, one heart, etc. Meditation and yoga would be part of my religion too. But no yoga classes. Just a free-form stretching sort of thing in a room full of mats with vaporized weed streaming through the ventilation system. Astronomical observation would also be mandatory. Acupuncture would be mandatory. But not ritualistic. There would be no rituals. As soon as something started feeling like a ritual I would change the religion completely. I would also abolish cell phones and computers and jobs.

UNSTUCK:  I would probably join both of those sects. So, what are you two reading right now?

JOHN MARADIK:  Right now I am reading The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon and the New and Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. This Pillow Book is the non-fiction diary of an 11th century Japanese court lady.  Here is a quote: “A preacher ought to be good-looking. For, if we are properly to understand his worthy sentiments, we must keep our eyes on him while he speaks; should we look away, we may forget to listen. Accordingly an ugly preacher may well be the source of sin.” Very relevant to our story, huh? Anyways, the book is filled with these quirky and beautiful observations. I think Rachel was intending to read this book first . . .  but I am stealing it! As for the Mary Oliver, just about every poem is a stunner.

RACHEL B. GLASER:  Though the books of James Purdy sit gloriously unread on my shelf like the six books of the Mishnah and the five books of the Torah, I’ve been reading other places. Some of what I’ve read recently has been the poems of Christopher Deweese and Heather Christle. These two poets are friends of mine and John’s, and are married.  Their work is not collaborative, but it is interesting to think of these two personalities and sensibilities existing side by side, influencing and entertaining each other.

UNSTUCK: Where can we find more of your work?

JOHN MARADIK: Check out Rachel’s book Pee On Water— one of the best collections of short stories ever written by a person on their own!

RACHEL B. GLASER:  We are currently trying to place a story of ours called “First Semester,” and hope to start another story this summer.  It was an honor to have our first story in Unstuck alongside such wild and varied stories!

*   *   * 

Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.

Interview: Marisa Matarazzo


She wears a pack strapped to her back containing a bladder containing drinking water that has been filtered through a sieve that has some properties that make electrolytes stick to the water molecules as they pass through. She drinks gallons of it. Sucks it from a rubber mouthpiece at the end of a rubber tube that extends from the bladder in the backpack. She is also taking whole handfuls of detoxifying herbal supplements from the natural foods store. Their job is to attach to the bad crap that has gone into a body over the course of a life, and expel it. I am not cleansing along with her. I haven’t decided if I want to. I think I don’t want to.

Black dye is sweating from her pores. As a teenager she dyed her hair black and apparently it went into her body and now, finally, with all these carrots and special water and supplements, is coming out. Her forehead looks sooty. Like she’s gone jogging through a mineshaft. She is wearing a white cotton long sleeved shirt and she swipes her sleeve across her face like an athlete and a charcoal smear appears in the folds around her elbow.

“Look at this shit,” she says. She is still chewing. I can see carrots bits in her mouth. She plucks the rubber tube from its hook on the shoulder strap of the backpack, takes a pull, swallows, rehooks it, and points at the schmutz on her shirt. “That’s my insides.”

     —from “Fontanel” (Unstuck #1)

Marisa Matarazzo is author of Drenched: Stories of Love and Other Deliriums. Her fiction has appeared online and in literary journals such as FiveChapters, The Nervous Breakdown, Faultline, and HOBART.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK:  After I read this story for the first time, I went back and looked up the title and found that a fontanel is the soft spot on a baby's head. Did the title come before the story, or vice versa?

MARISA MATARAZZO:  The title came after. The narrator in the story is questioning or examining his or her brain, is worried something's gone wrong with it. Feels that it's not been protected from the world, or life, or feelings/experiences. Much like I imagine the soft spot on a baby's head—it leaves the brain vulnerable.

UNSTUCK:  I find that "his or her" in your response illuminating. On a first read, I assumed that the narrator was male, but later realized that the story never revealed the narrator's gender.

MARISA MATARAZZO:  Yes, the narrator's gender is never specified.

UNSTUCK: Did choosing to keep the narrator's gender ambiguous affect how you conceptualized him or her as a character?

MARISA MATARAZZO:  I think the gender-ambiguous narrator can be an exciting choice because it leaves room in the reader's mind to project his or her understanding of the situation, or to identify with the narrator. My experience as a reader is to cast the characters I read, as I read, assembling a play in my mind. And I guess who I cast is representative of my familiarity with and interpretation of the world. First-person narrators can lend themselves to gender ambiguity because that narrator is "I" and not "she" or "he.” English is tricky, because we don't have any gender-neutral pronouns for people. Except, of course, in the first person. And there's fun to be had with that.

UNSTUCK:  How did this story originate?

MARISA MATARAZZO:  I don't really remember. Which is probably how it originated.

I was noticing I was not remembering moments/events/stories, and as a writer, I thought, that's what I've got—a memory. And if that becomes so unreliable, that's a problem. Slap the panic button. But then it became an interest. A narrator who couldn't remember important things. That seems like a decent problem to examine, or try to solve. And doing that in a story engaged me.

UNSTUCK:  What's the most important thing you've ever forgotten?  And then, of course, remembered that you forgot it. Otherwise it'd be very difficult to answer this question.

MARISA MATARAZZO:  I feel like there are some important things I've forgotten then realized I've forgotten them, then re-remembered them, and hopefully handled them...  I'm sure they were traumatizing. And the result is I've blocked them out. I'll probably remember one of them tonight or tomorrow.

Sometimes I'll think about something, something I want to tell someone. I'll think about it enough that at some point, I'm not sure if I've told the person or maybe dreamt it. Then I'll tell the person and have to ask if I'm repeating myself.

UNSTUCK: I actually almost forgot we were having this interview today. Then I miscalculated the time zone difference and was convinced for about five minutes that I was two hours late.

MARISA MATARAZZO:  I love that you thought you were late for our interview. I rather like that experience. The rollercoaster drop that happens in the stomach. And immediate sweatiness. And then realizing everything's okay. And it's like the nicest breeze blowing by.

UNSTUCK:  Memory is notoriously unreliable. I noticed that in “Fontanel," the narrator relies heavily on the people around him or her to confirm what did and didn't happen.

MARISA MATARAZZO: Yeah, detective work. Eyewitness accounts that are equally unreliable.

UNSTUCK:  Have you ever embarked on a cleanse, or known anybody who did so? I was fascinated by the narrator's girlfriend walking around with her bowl of carrots and backpack full of specially distilled water. There's something very new age and ritualistic about cleansing trends.

MARISA MATARAZZO:  I've never done a cleanse, but I have friends who have. I live in L.A. Cleansing seems really popular here. And that bit about sweating out black hair dye came from high school—I remember talking to a woman years and years ago about a cleanse she did and she claimed it was so deep that her high school hair dye resurfaced through her pores. That image stuck with me.

UNSTUCK:  I found that scene to be one of the story's more surreal moments, so it's unsettling to imagine that actually happening to someone. It reminds me a little of those notoriously quackish foot cleansing detox pads that supposedly turn black by drawing toxins out of your body while you sleep. (It's actually  just oxidation of certain substances in the pads.)

MARISA MATARAZZO:  Yes! I've seen those commercials. And after the commercial I always want to purchase and use those pads! But not now, though. Not that you've told me what all that gunk is—that it's not actually internal life and body gunk at all. I'm disappointed.

UNSTUCK:  I think those products always have a strange kind of appeal, though, even when you know they don't really work. It's the idea of reversing one's past, almost.

MARISA MATARAZZO:  Yes, exactly. Or even taking account of one's past. Looking at the debris.

UNSTUCK:  What are you reading right now?

MARISA MATARAZZO:  I've been reading the collected stories of Lydia Davis. She floors me. I like to read her during moments of mind-quiet. When my brain is calm, her stories wander around in it so nicely. I've just started THREATS by Amelia Gray (who is also in Unstuck!) and am enjoying it. A story called "Toast" by Matt Sumell is in a recent issue of The Paris Review and it is delicious. I'm reading Ramona Ausubel's debut novel No One Is Here Except All of Us and Ismet Prcic's debut novel Shards. They are wonderful. I went to UCI for grad school with Matt and Mona and Izzy, and while these recommendations might come across as pluggish, the truth is, they're what I'm reading right now. And I'm finding it's really fun to read work by writers I know because I like to hear the actual sound of their voices in the prose. It feels so intimate.

UNSTUCK: Where can we find more of your work?

MARISA MATARAZZO:  You can read my book Drenched: Stories of Love and Other Deliriums. It's a collection of interconnected off-beat love stories. And hopefully soon I will have another book—I'm working on a piece now that has got my interest in its fist.

*   *   * 

Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.

Interview: Meghan McCarron


They spoke to the ghost hunter about their need to eliminate their “problem,” as if their children were an embarrassing infestation. When the ghost hunter asked them to describe their children, the husband broke down crying.

“We tried to make them happy,” the wife said, stroking her husband’s back.

Before the plague, most of the ghost hunter’s business had been expelling long-forgotten ghosts from valuable residential and commercial property. A few times, he had coaxed grandma or grandpa out of their old place, but he’d never met grief this fresh and raw. The husband’s quiet shuddering made him feel queasy and awkward. Queasy because on one hand, he was taking this man’s children away, which clearly the man did not want. Awkward because the ghost hunter felt he had to console the couple, and people had never been his strong suit. He took the wife’s hand in his cold grip and assured her, in his best TV voice, that their children would be happy in heaven.

     —from “Six Flags” (Unstuck #1)

Meghan McCarron’s fiction has appeared on and in Strange Horizons, ClarkesworldLady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and several anthologies including Best American Fantasy.

Interview by Janalyn Guo

UNSTUCK:  In "Six Flags," the ghost hunter takes on odd jobs to make do when his ghost hunting services are no longer demanded: as tent repairer, handyman, and medium. What sorts of odd jobs have you had in your lifetime? What uncommon skills have you acquired?

MEGHAN MCCARRON:  The two oddest jobs I’ve had were action movie researcher and typist for an experimental philosopher. Right after I moved to Los Angeles, I was hired for a brief Research Assistant gig by a writer updating his academic book about the action genre. For three weeks, I went to the Academy Library every day and read their files on The Hulk and Die Hard 4 and Hellboy and any other films that had come out since the book first appeared. Basically, this means I have read every print review of these films as well as the trades’ coverage of their production process. Embarrassingly enough, I can no longer remember why I read all of this information or what I did with it, but I am intimately familiar with the plot details of movies I have never seen.

A few years later I moved to New York, and while I searched for actual jobs, I went to the Carroll Gardens sublet of an experimental philosopher who had terrible carpal tunnel and typed for him. I learned a great deal about how one goes about revising a journal paper, as well as the intense world of academic debates on philosophy blogs. He actually is married to Alina Simone. In the opening of her book, she describes how miserable and falling-down their Brooklyn apartment was that summer—it was surreal to read someone’s perspective on a situation I also happened into by chance, and had nearly forgotten about.

UNSTUCK:  Did you switch back and forth between transcription (and research) and being more involved with the shaping of these thinkers’ ideas (giving feedback, etc.)?

MEGHAN MCCARRON:  Ha! No, I was a straight-up transcriber. I asked a bunch of questions about experimental philosophy, because that shit is interesting, but as far as everyone was concerned, I was some random girl typist. It was, in retrospect, a very Girls-like moment. I was well-educated, and intellectual, and working on a novel, but I was making ends meet doing jobs women had been doing traditionally for a long time, because that’s all I could find. It was depressing, but I was grateful for the money paying my rent.

UNSTUCK:  Are you familiar with the author David Ohle? I think, for a time, he worked as Burroughs’s dream transcriber, sort of jotting down Burroughs’s dreams at his moment of waking. If you got to choose any person, living or dead, who would you want to dream-transcribe for?

MEGHAN MCCARRON:  My first thought was “Barack Obama,” because that dude has to be having some seriously weird dreams right now, you know? Lots of drones. But I think my vote would have to be for Virginia Woolf, because her use of dream logic is always so lucid—I bet her dreams would make really interesting connections, instead of the stereotypical mishmash most of us end up with.

UNSTUCK:  I’m curious about the research you did before/while writing this piece, as far as ghost hunting and the ritual around that goes.

MEGHAN MCCARRON:  Actually, a lot of the research I used was from a previous story, also about a haunting, called “Swift, Brutal Retaliation,” which was recently published on For both of these pieces, I poked around online forums and watched videos to get a sense of how our culture conceives of ghost hunting, but I also made a lot up, honestly. Burning sage and scattering salt are perhaps authentic, but the ghost treats and the angel of death were my own insertions. I hope that my inventions didn’t invite a smiting, divine or ghostly.

UNSTUCK:  What do you imagine ghost treats taste like?

MEGHAN MCCARRON:  I never really considered the taste of ghost treats! I imagined that their pleasure would be rooted in the fact that they’re the only things ghosts can eat, period. Who wouldn’t miss the pleasure of chewing and tasting and swallowing? That said, if I think about what that taste might be, I imagine something sweet and vanilla-y.

UNSTUCK:  Mmm—the vanilla sounds comforting. What did you discover about how our culture conceives of ghost hunting?

MEGHAN MCCARRON:  The one interesting, but in a way disappointing, thing is that very little of it is magical. It’s all about having the right kind of technology.

One of my favorite things about the history of photography is how quickly ectoplasm photos showed up—and how crappy they were! A similar logic—we have captured this with technology, which is conflated with it being “scientific”—is a big part of the ghost hunting scene. And just the fact that people now go on ghost hunts says a great deal about the conception of hauntings. That we need to track ghosts down to begin with, and then perhaps exterminate them, is a sad thought on one hand. On the other, who wants to be haunted? Nobody.

UNSTUCK:  I really enjoy “Six Flags” for all the ways in which the child ghosts demolish these adults’ possessions. In the story, the adults find peace when they retreat to the wilderness with no belongings only to grow “soft and pale” again when they return to their houses. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on “stuff” and how our accumulation of it affects our humanness.

MEGHAN MCCARRON:  I think there are two levels to this answer. Story-wise, all this focus on stuff made sense because “stuff” is a great fictional shorthand for stability. I imagined the adult characters taking refuge in their houses and things after the loss of their children, and the child ghosts resenting all the objects insulating their parents from the horror the children had suffered.

I have a way more complicated relationship with stuff. As I mentioned before, I’ve spent my twenties moving around a great deal, which also has meant acquiring and then leaving behind a great deal of stuff. Of everything I’ve acquired and abandoned, I have two regrets: that I lost my awesome tiger sweater in the back of a cab during SXSW, and that my old issues of One Story and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet got lost when I was shipping my books from Brooklyn to Austin. Everything else, I don’t miss at all. Despite the fact that it’s really annoying to buy a bed three times in four years, I am glad for this semi-nomadism.

I do think there’s one worthwhile category of stuff that I think of as “tools.” Unfortunately, since I like to cook, I can justify all sorts of ridiculous shit as “tools.” How can I make a bundt cake if I don’t have a bundt cake pan, hello?

We accumulate stuff at our peril. I’m currently trying to figure out when it makes sense to accumulate things, and how much philosophy I can actually wedge into my sensibilities, which after all were formed in our hyper-consumerist society. Short of running off to found my West Texas eco-commune (McCarronland), I have no hope of escaping that mindset, so I guess I have to resign myself to a certain number of “justified” purchases that turn out to be bundt cake pans.

UNSTUCK:  I liked the line: “Modern ghosts, especially, had to be lured through objects.” Can you elaborate on this idea?

MEGHAN MCCARRON:  Our culture has fairly weak ties to religion and ritual. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—religion and ritual can be imprisoning forces. But that empty space also means that we don’t have as many ways of mediating between ourselves and our surroundings. One of our few remaining rituals, it could be argued, is the accumulation of objects that indicate status, reinforce preferences, provide pleasure, and create safety. I had difficulty imagining how else one might cross the boundary between the living and the dead—few things tie us to our environment like objects.

UNSTUCK:  So what does a place like Six Flags mean in the world of objects (simulated environments)?

MEGHAN MCCARRON:  The freaky thing about being a child in our culture is that you have a very innocent, but also very defenseless, relationship to some of our most commercially focused environments. Six Flags is a world made entirely of commodities. But the kids don’t know that! They don’t dole out the money—their parents do. They just get to indulge in the cheap thrills. I think the child ghosts are, outside of their obvious pain and anger, also very bored, and Six Flags is the most exciting place they can think of, and also a place that always requires an adult gatekeeper/escort, even if he’s also a ghost hunter.

UNSTUCK:  In “Six Flags,” it seems that both the adults and children are sort of frozen in their development. And the one character that does go through an astounding change is the ghost hunter. He begins to enter the world of the living whereas he was so removed before. Could you speak a little bit about his transformation—why is it now, post-plague, that the ghost hunter has his time?

MEGHAN MCCARRON:  I imagine that as a culture we are, if anything, under-haunted. The ghost hunter thought he understood how death and the afterlife worked, but his position between worlds was a sanitized one.  He transforms, in my imagination, because he has to confront “raw” death and his own inability to negotiate that rawness.

I couldn’t imagine that the death of most of the world’s children would lead to much “growth” on the part of their parents. And the children have been robbed of their future, so what’s the point of changing for them? But the ghost hunter, since he occupied a space between the anger of the children and the grief of their parents, had room to move. I’m not sure if he made the right moves, but he did have a journey to make.

UNSTUCK:  I once went to a talk by the poet Cole Swensen (I think she was working on a collection of ekphrasis poems about ghosts—ghosts as ekphrastic objects?) in which she mentioned that during the Victorian era, people usually saw ghosts that they knew; the ghosts that came to them were familiar. But in the modern age, our ghosts, the ones that visit us, tend to be strangers. Might this have something to do with our “under-hauntedness?”

MEGHAN MCCARRON:  Wow, I love that idea both of ghosts as ekphrastic objects and of the evolution of our ideas of ghosts from Victorian times onward. This interview is making me want to do research on Victorian spiritualism. I’ve read stuff that rubs against it or makes glancing reference, but haven’t dug much into the topic proper. (Though for a great novel on the end of that era, check out Jeffrey Ford’s Girl in the Glass.)

I think that evolution definitely touches on the idea of under-haunting. It’s fascinating that we rarely as a culture talk about being haunted by people we know. It’s a conversation that still happens on a private level, often with comforting overtones. “Oh, I felt my grandma watching over me.” But our haunting stories are often about evils from the past that need to be put to rest, or tragic forgotten ghosts from a more romantic era. I suppose you could argue that Beloved breaks that mold, but it’s set in the past, which weirdly encompasses the assumption that back then you could be haunted by your own child.

I can’t imagine that we actually experience less grief than people in the past, but certainly we’ve tried our damnedest to mute and bury death, to the extent that it’s difficult to imagine a close relation coming back from the grave, messy and angry and not happily at rest at all. Though perhaps now ghosts aren’t extreme enough a reaction against our sanitized death industrial complex, and now narratively we need to have rotting, vicious zombies instead. I have to admit: I find ghosts fascinating, but I’m terrified of zombies.

*   *   *

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.

Interview: Joe Meno


Once we aped a couple fighting on the bus. Mary pretended to be the girl and I aped the guy. The girl was wiping her wet eyes and saying, “No, I don’t believe you. No,” and so Mary repeated the same thing. They didn’t notice us. The guy said, “What do I have to do? What do I have to do to get you to believe me?” and so I asked the same thing. We made faces at each other like people who were people trying to stay in love. It took a while for the couple to actually figure out what we were doing. When they saw the scene we were making, the guy grabbed me by the front of my shirt. He started yelling. “What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?” I went limp, but Mary kept on going. “What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?” she shouted, grabbing onto my shirt, too. The guy turned to her and pushed her and she fell down but by then the bus driver had stopped the bus and we ran off, stumbling into the night air, laughing.

     —from “Apes” (Unstuck #1)

Joe Meno is a fiction writer and playwright living in Chicago. He is the author of six novels, including The Great Perhaps and the just-released Office Girl, and two short story collections, including Demons in the Spring. His short fiction has been published in journals like McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, One Story, Swink, LIT, Tri­Quarterly, Other Voices and Gulf Coast, and has been broadcast on NPR. He was a contributing editor to Punk Planet, the seminal underground arts and politics magazine.

Interview by Allie Werner

UNSTUCK: Way back in 2005, you gave an interview to Bookslut in which you discussed your belief that independent publishers were going to start majorly outshining and outmaneuvering the big publishing houses.  Now that we're here in the future, do you feel like that's already happening?  What do you find most exciting about independent publishing today?

JOE MENO: I still feel pretty strongly that small, independent publishers are a lot more willing to take risks in both content and form. If you look at the kinds of books Grove Press or McSweeney's or Akashic put out, there's a distinct feeling of daring.

I feel like Office Girl [Meno's latest novel] is daring in how slight and how quiet it is, and how pretty normal the characters are. That, believe it or not, doesn't fit in with what most contemporary literary publishers are putting out. Most contemporary novels are really interested in telling these epic stories, or dealing with contemporary events. Novels have become a lot more about information and how the world works than about people and how they relate to other people.

The fact that Akashic let me work with two great artists is also pretty bold. I've experimented with the relationship between the text and the actual layout in other books like Demons in the Spring and The Boy Detective Fails, which were both books Akashic published. They have a willingness to allow the writer to follow his curiosity. I've had these long conversations with Johnny Temple, the publisher, about what a book can do in the 21st century that other media can't.

UNSTUCK: I'd like to talk a little bit more about the drawings and photography in Office Girl, and your work with Cody Hudson and Todd Baxter. How did the collaboration with these other artists work?

JOE MENO: They're both good pals of mine. I finished a draft of the book and realized how central art was to the story and asked what ideas they might have, Cody immediately suggested certain ideas, then Todd suggested others, and we all began to agree that the artwork should reflect the tone of the book. We decided pretty quickly on small black-and-white drawings, to reference Odile's graffiti, and black-and-white snapshot photos. We wanted to create a sense of intimacy and also to connect to the zine tradition which is referenced in the book. Basically, make a book that was a zine or a kind of Jean-Luc Godard movie in book form. Again, that's pretty risky for a publisher to put out there.

UNSTUCK: Yeah—as I was reading the book, I often felt like I was reading a very long zine. Not just in regard to the multimedia content, but also to the choice of font, typesetting, and the actual physical size of the book.

JOE MENO: Cody and I looked at a lot of different fonts, experimented with different sizes,
colors. We wanted the actual physical shape, the font, to reflect what the book was about. Which was these brief moments that occur and then disappear. And how we spend a lot of
time trying to capture those moments. Which is basically writing. Or any kind of art. So we wanted all the design elements to have this small, temporary quality. Again, other
publishers I've worked with do not want to have these kinds of conversations. They want to hand you a cover and say, "this is your book."

UNSTUCK: I was wondering how much control you had as an author over the design of the book, because the physical design reflects its content so well. And it seems like you had quite a bit of input!

JOE MENO: That's one of the great advantages working with a smaller, independent publisher. For someone like me, who's looking at the relationship between form and content, it's a huge deal. I believe books, if they're to continue in printed form, have to offer an experience you can't get anywhere else. They have to be intimate. They have to be art objects. It was Cody's idea to add the actual zine insert into the book. Which, again, seems something so uniquely connected to the story and what a book can do.

UNSTUCK: I liked how the pages actually changed color to indicate the zine insert. It did make it seem like an external object had been stapled into the middle of this novel.

JOE MENO: Again, we were trying to find ways to make the experience of reading the book unlike other narrative experiences in film, television, or theatre.

UNSTUCK: It was strange for me to read a new book set in the late 90s, because I was born in '88 and the 90s are the first decade I have any memory of. What made you decide to set Office Girl in this particular time period?

JOE MENO: There're a few reasons it's set in 1999. I was in my mid-twenties in 1999, which is roughly the same age as the two main characters. There was something about the particular historical and cultural moment as well, where it felt like the entire planet was waiting for something important to happen—the end of the millennium, the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the end of the world—but that also felt oddly insular or safe. I feel lucky to have become a young adult in the 90s because there was nothing to worry about but art and music. Also, I have no idea how young people fall in love in the twenty-first century. There's all this technology now. I just wanted to focus on the characters.

UNSTUCK: It's interesting that you mention technology, because it really stood out to me that neither Odile nor Jack seemed to have a home computer.

JOE MENO: I didn't in 1999. I had this Radio Shack word processor that had one program on it. Though Jack is pretty contemporary in a lot of the ways he moves about the world. He constantly documents the world around him using his tape player. It's pretty much the same as texting or Facebook. It's digital graffiti.

UNSTUCK: Exactly. The relationship between the characters, their situations, and their mannerisms all felt very contemporary to me, which is why differences in the forms of
technology and documentation are what made me go, "This is a sort of period piece."

JOE MENO: Yeah, like I said, I was twenty-five in ‘99 and it usually takes me ten years or so to write about what was happening to me.

UNSTUCK: I noticed you included a list of theme music in the back pages of Office Girl, and I really liked that little addendum. Do you often listen to music as you write? Do you find that music informs your writing, or does what you're writing reflect your music choices?

JOE MENO: I can't listen to music while I'm actually writing. But I try to capture some of the same tone or mood from a group of artists. I've done this for all the novels I've written. I try to identify the sound, the mood of the book through music and then translate it to words. It's like taking something abstract and trying to give some kind of form. Cody Hudson and I actually sent some songs back and forth as we were figuring out the design elements.

UNSTUCK: So how did Office Girl originate?

JOE MENO: It started as a short story, then it was a play, and then I wrote it as a novel. I've done this for a number of my other novels. Writing it as a short story helps me get it down. Writing it as a play helps me figure out the characters and scenes. And then when I develop it as a novel, I'm looking at the relationship between form and content.

UNSTUCK: "Apes," the story of yours that appears in the debut issue of Unstuck, seems to address some of the same art and performance issues that Office Girl does. Gorilla/guerilla art.

JOE MENO: Ha! Gorilla/guerilla. I never thought of that. Over the last three years, I wrote about five or six stories about young people, people in their twenties. In some way, they all had something to do with art and sex. This is usually when I realize, “Oh, this is all probably going to end up as a novel.” So “Apes” was one of those. It definitely has a darker feel than Office Girl and some of the other young "art school people in love" pieces I wrote. But the idea of two people doing these public exercises, and how that affects their relationship, is pretty consistent with the book. To be honest, I'm really proud of the ending of “Apes.” I have no idea why.

UNSTUCK: It’s a bit of a surreal moment, but in a way it feels natural and plausible.

JOE MENO: I really like that he goes off with the weird, Christian girl. I feel like I know a lot of people like that. People are desperately looking for someone, anyone, a little stronger, a little more ambitious than them. It's how the punk kids I used to know all became Born-Again. They went from one dogma to another.

UNSTUCK: Yes, there's this interesting, almost invisible power struggle going on between Mary and the Christian girl on the bus. Where the girl is being mocked, but she's trying to avoid being hurt.

JOE MENO: Yeah, the Christian girl wins. Because she's nicer. There's no meaning behind that, other than the narrator is kind of weak and knows at some point Mary is going to be through with him.

The soundtrack for that story would be This Bike is a Pipebomb's "Mouseteeth."

UNSTUCK: In "Apes," the two main characters spend most of their free time imitating other people. A good portion of the aping sessions in this story seem to take place on public transit. Why do you think public transit works so well as a setting in short fiction? What's the strangest encounter you've had while riding the bus?

JOE MENO: That's a good question. Short fiction is all about compression. Compression of time, event, dramatic arc. And most important of all, the use of opposites. So public places work well, because there are usually lots of different kinds of people forced up beside
each other. There's Flannery O'Connor's majestic bus story “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

As for the last part of the question, I don't take the bus. I take the subway. For some reason, at least in Chicago, there's a very different atmosphere on the El. The bus—and this is terrible to admit—is way more like a doctor's waiting room. There is a sense of frustration, confusion, disappointment, and rage. Most people who ride the bus are not doing it because they want to, which lends it the place to be particularly dramatic.

UNSTUCK: Office Girl, meanwhile, features a lot of bicycles. So, bikes versus public transit. Which is the superior form of literary transportation?

JOE MENO: For a sad story about ruined people, the bus. For a love story, bicycles.

UNSTUCK: What are you reading right now?

JOE MENO: Stanley Elkin's Criers and Kibbitzers, Kibbitzers and Criers. It's a short story collection. He was this major post-modern, extremely imaginative powerhouse. He won the National Book Critics Circle prize twice and he's all but forgotten now. He's really a progenitor of what you guys are doing in Unstuck.

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Allie Werner is a graduate of Reed College. Before joining Unstuck as an Assistant Editor, she read slush for Tin House and interned with American Short Fiction. Her first published story appeared in Storyglossia last summer. She can be found online at A. is A. In her spare time she enjoys coffee and comic books, preferably simultaneously.