Interview: Arthur Bradford


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

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

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

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

     —from “The Carrot” (Unstuck #1)

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

Interview by Janalyn Guo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

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

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.

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

Interview: Sharona Muir


To appreciate Air Liners you want to be in a bedroom at an intimate moment, and if you have the gift of spotting invisible creatures, you’ll see an amazing display.

You’ll see something like a greenish-blue, translucent, spherical sculpture, composed of tangled legs, elbows, knees, ris­ing and falling trunks, hands shuttling everywhere on long arms, fanning hair, arched necks, curled feet, and glinting rows of teeth. Although made by only one couple, the sphere is crowded with lots of faces—sprouting from a shoulder, lined up in rows down a flank, or staring out of a buttock, blurring from one intense expression into another, eyes popping open, sparkling, melting, or fiercely shut. The limbs and members of the sphere look hol­low, and the blue-green light seems to shape them out of the air, glowing and fading. Erotic acts in which the bodies join happen in visual overlaps, so that the fingers of one body are visible be­tween the hips of the other, locked mouths surround a forked-looking tongue, and the female belly sits atop a telescope. These varied, blue-green, hollow forms of the act of love surround the solid human bodies that produce them, which are scarcely dis­cernible except as a dark core around which the sphere shines and coruscates, like tubes of blown glass continually emerging around a hidden mouth.

     —from “Air Liners” (Unstuck #1)

Sharona Muir is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Book of Telling: Tracing the Secrets of My Father’s Lives. Her poetry and prose have been published in numerous journals, including The Paris Review, Stand, The Yale Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Prairie Schooner. She is currently Professor of Creative Writing and English at Bowling Green State University.

Interview by Janalyn Guo

UNSTUCK:  I loved your story “Air Liners” in the first issue of Unstuck and really enjoyed your recent pieces published with the Kenyon Review and Michigan Quarterly Review—all of which are part of a larger collection, yes?

SHARONA MUIR: The story in Unstuck is part of a larger bestiary called Naked Men, Naked Women, Invisible Beasts: Tales of the Animals that Go Unseen Among Us. Most of what I do involves posthumanist thinking: people, animals, and nature.

UNSTUCK:  The tales from your bestiary are rooted in the life sciences; they use scientific language and seemingly factual details. I would love to hear more about how you conceived your particular bestiary project.

SHARONA MUIR:  So here’s a Medieval bestiary. [Holds up a book.*] There’s a family of lions: a mama lion, a dad lion, and a lion cub. What the bestiary tells us is that lion cubs are born dead, and the mother guards them for three days, and then the father comes and breathes into their nostrils, at which point they revive. And then this author writes, “And thus the Lord revived his son Jesus Christ after three days.” There are a couple of things we learn from the antique bestiary.  1) You didn't learn biology from medieval bestiaries, but 2) I think to a medieval person this would have been very meaningful, because it would have said that out there—in the vast forests of the earth where there were terrifying beasts—those beasts were somehow connected to you, spiritually and poetically, and they were part of the way you understood the world; they were part of the Christ story and that meant that animals had a kind of wisdom that helped you live your life.

And I think that this is what bestiaries are for. Personally, I think that everybody, now and going all the way back to the cave paintings, wants to feel that animals have a kind of wisdom, and that there are messages in that wisdom for us. That's why I really wanted to write a contemporary bestiary. I think that every age needs one.

The important thing is that medieval bestiaries were all about human beings; they were anthropocentric. You can tell from this story that it's not about lions. It's about human faith and belief. On the other hand, it's charming; it's a lovely story and there are very charming imaginary animals in medieval bestiaries. In my bestiary I wanted to keep that aspect: our poetic and spiritual connection to animals as if they have wisdom for us. But I also wanted to introduce the reality of the animals, the animal as the other. I wanted to be able to speak for the other. I wanted the animal to really be there and not just be some reflection of me. So that's why there are a lot of biological facts involved.

UNSTUCK: The people are integrated with these imaginary creatures; there’s this lovely coexistence.

SHARONA MUIR:  So here’s something: It began as a game. I decided that I was going to make imaginary animals. I’ve always loved animal stories and stories about animals in biology. I thought: I’ll make them invisible; that way, everyone knows they’re imaginary. But I wanted to base them in scientific facts. That was for posthumanist reasons (I’ll go into this later). So I began inventing imaginary animals with a little bit of real science in them and I went to my scientist friends and asked, “Is this fact true?” and “What about this creature that I’ve invented around this fact?” And they would always say, “There is something like this!” I would go back and sweat my neurons trying to come up with something really good—and then they’d say again, “Yes yes, there’s something like this.” Finally I came up with the creature of the Golden Egg, which lives on cold nuclear fusion—and I’m thinking: come on, nuclear fusion! So I went to my biologist friends and said, “Here’s the creature,” and they said, “Well, in principle, it is not impossible for there to be such a creature.”

The coda to that is that we don’t know what’s out there. There could be creatures that live off cold nuclear fusion; we just haven’t found them. No matter what, I would always be at Mother Nature’s feet sweeping around her big toe. I could never imagine anything that is as good as what she’s done.

UNSTUCK: Ah, this leads me to my next question. One of my biggest curiosities while reading your work was all of your scientific knowledge. I’d love to hear about your engagement with the life sciences. Where did this interest originate for you? And who were your influences?

SHARONA MUIR:  It began with my father who was a freelance inventor. He created the first remote-controlled cardiac catheter in 1969; he actually made it in his basement. He was quite an extraordinary man. But the reason that he was an influence to me for the life sciences was that he was in love with animals and nature, a biomimic before we had the term “biomimicry,” and was always looking toward nature and animals for solutions. He designed some hypodermic needles for minimal clotting, and the way that he did this was by looking at snakes, the way that their fangs are constructed. He was always telling me stories about anything from molecules to snakes to turtles, and it was very magical for me as a little girl growing up with that. That was the first thing.

Right now I live on a nature preserve. We’re surrounded by a quarter mile of trees all around and live on a patch of rock that none of the farmers can farm. There’s a forest here; some of it is old growth—some of the trees are 400 or 500 years old—and then there’s some younger growth. And a lot of animals and birds come through here. I am surrounded by critters, and I get to know some of them over the course of a season. For instance, I got to know the screech owl who is very intense about defending her babies. I could go on and on.

In terms of literary influences, mainly Italo Calvino. I take his books everywhere with me. He was also a child of biologists. Also, John McPhee and his book Annals of the Former World. His editors were leery of him writing a 600-page book about the mantle of the earth but he did it anyway, and it was a great inspiration to me. In fact, my story “The Golden Egg” that was in the Kenyon Review is dedicated to him because it’s almost a miniaturized version of the technique that he used in Annals of the Former World. At Princeton, he actually has his office in the Geology building.

I have to mention Pliny the Elder. I love his bestiary. It shows you all the antique stuff that people thought about the world because it was before science. You feel a kind of personal connection to him when you’re reading it. You feel his personality through that book, and it’s a very engaging wide-eyed personality.

UNSTUCK:  Something that I’ve really admired about people who pay really close attention to nature is how they know (or are invested in knowing) all the names for things, trees and birds. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to be able to do. How do you go about learning all the names for the plant and animal life around you?

SHARONA MUIR:  I live in Ohio in the farmlands, and a lot of that is thanks to living here for a long time. I’ve been in this house for 12 years. Part of it is that I don’t have the distraction of the city. I also have a husband who grew up in the woods and can tell me, “That’s a hickory, that’s a phoebe,” etc. I was very proud of myself when I saw something orange and black go by and realized it was a Blackburnian Warbler, a male—that’s when I realized I’d come of age. So it’s really a matter of keeping your eyes open, and having field guides and people around you that do a lot of observation. One of the interesting things about the community I live in is that people are focused on the wildlife around them. Down the road from us is a big marsh, and every year Tundra Swans come there from the Arctic, thousands and thousands of them. Everybody knows about the swans. There are some Snowy Owls that come by every so often. Everybody knows about the Snowy Owls. There’s a lot of gossip about the birds. It’s a very different culture from an urban culture.

UNSTUCK:  Could you talk a little bit about posthumanism? What’s at the center of this kind of thinking?

SHARONA MUIR:  Basically, long story short, for the last 2,500 years, western philosophy and religion established a premise that human beings were superior to animals and were above and separate from the natural world altogether. Posthumanism basically takes that keystone in the arch of our philosophical tradition and says it’s wrong. We’re not superior to or distinct from the other animals. We’re one of the other animals and we’re connected to the whole natural system. We’re not apart or special in any way, and our distinctive gifts, cognitive abilities and so forth, are species abilities, just the way bats have echolocation and bees have their particular talents for dancing and the mathematics that they do.

This is a huge development because it takes out this keystone and puts something else in there. What posthumanism puts back in the arch comes out of many many disciplines. It comes out of philosophy. It comes out of sciences like ethology and animal behavior and neuroscience. It comes out of the humanities. It says we are animals among animals, so we need to rethink our thinking in terms of these parameters. It’s a fundamentally different approach. The best way to explain posthumanism in my book is to tell you the epigraph. It goes like this: Animal life is mindful. The mind’s life is animal. That’s a posthumanist epigraph.

UNSTUCK:  As an observer and lover of animals, are there animals that you are particularly attached to or drawn towards?

SHARONA MUIR:  That’s a lovely question. I love dogs and I wish it could be something more exotic, but I really am a dog person. I worked with the Humane Society for a year going out with their animal cruelty officers. Most of the complaints were about dogs, so I learned a lot about them. All of my dogs are rescue dogs.

But to think more seriously on your question, Doris Lessing has a phrase in one of her novels: “The flame of the personality.” It’s somewhere in the Children of Violence series. And what she means is: you can analyze people forever and write down all of their qualities and their little ways but their personality is something that is more than the sum of its parts. And you know that instantly. What fascinates me about it is that I think that all animals have it too.

Now, pet owners will tell you that all dogs are different, all cats are different, all fish are different; what really fascinates me, though, is the idea that it applies even to creatures that we don’t think of as having personalities. For instance, every time I breathe out, there’s this big surf of breath and in it there are all these itty bitty bacteria. You and I are looking right at them but we can’t see them. They’re invisible beasts, right? Each one of them has got to have a personality. Why? Because each has a unique genetic makeup (if you have DNA and you’re alive you have unique genetic makeup) and a unique itty bitty history of how it’s dealt with life and its unique circumstances, because we know those circumstances aren’t replicated exactly by any other bacteria. I don’t know how such a personality would be manifested. Maybe in its organic chemistry, in the rate in which it produces some...  cellular...  substance? But, it’s got to be true because structurally it’s simply true. So, I’m breathing onto millions of personalities. There’s Stu, and there’s Barbara, and there’s Michael. When you think of that and you think of birds in the air and worms in the earth—even if you’re in the city—you’re surrounded by life. And every last one of them has its little ways, its little preferences, its little things that it does differently from everything else on earth. That strikes me with a kind of astonishment of heart. To me, that’s the most remarkable thing.

UNSTUCK:  That’s a wonderful response! It seems that empathy is a big part of posthumanist thinking. How do you envision the arts, literature, etc., helping out in this practice?

SHARONA MUIR:  A lot of posthumanists mention the arts being involved in this kind of reevaluation of species. The sciences find out how animals flourish. To create posthumanist senses of the human self, we can look to artists. For instance: Valerie Laws and her Haik-ewes. She writes words on the backs of sheep, and the sheep move around in their pasture and create poems. And there are other examples: art being done with bioluminescent mice, genetically altered so that they glow in the dark. You can go between what we call art and nature.

UNSTUCK:  Speaking of art, I have this belief that animals have a sense of aesthetics as well, of enjoying beautiful things like a well-cultivated garden. I really think this is true when I observe them moving around in the yard.

SHARONA MUIR:  Yes, there’s a catbird in my yard that sings like no other catbird that I’ve ever heard. It was like a jam session, one melody after another and they are all different. There’s such a sense of joy. And speaking a little more scientifically: there are the bowerbirds. The males build bowers and put shiny blue objects in them. And the females will come survey the bowers and the male that has the shiniest blue objects arranged in the way that the female likes best is the one who gets the female.

UNSTUCK:  You mentioned that you read quite a bit of nonfiction, and I’m wondering if you might share the names of some illuminating books with our Unstuck readership.

SHARONA MUIR:  I’m reading a lot of scientific stuff. Right now I’m reading a book called Sex and Death in Protozoa. What else? Well, apart from E.O. Wilson’s book Consilience, which I think everyone should read, I recommend this book called Shapes, by Phillip Ball. It’s beautifully written. It’s about how patterns in nature can emerge not because anybody is striving toward them or out of natural selection, but actually because of a variety of physical and chemical contexts. For example, why do bees use hexagons in honeycombs? It’s a really inspiring and lovely book, full of wonderful pictures of shapes that occur in a galaxy in space and then again on a tiny little creature on earth.

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NOTE: The book that Sharona Muir was reading from during this interview was Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M.S. Bodley, translated and introduced by Richard Barber (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 1999).

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

Interview: Karin Tidbeck


I made you in a tin can. The can used to have sausages in it or something; I can’t remember. There wasn’t a label. It was one of the mystery cans that the charity in Åre village handed out. Most of the time it would be sausages or split pea soup.

This is how I did it: I waited until it was my time of the month. I took the tin can from the shelf under the sink. I filled it halfway with fresh water and put half a teaspoon of salt in it. Next I put in a small, gnarled carrot from last year’s garden. I had saved it because it had two prongs, like little legs, and arm-like stumps. Then I held the can between my legs and let some blood trickle into it. Finally, some of my spit. I put some clingfilm over the opening. The rest of the night, I sat with the can in my lap, and sang to you. That’s how you were made, in October, as the first snows fell.

     —from “Cloudberry Jam” (Unstuck #1)

Karin Tidbeck is a writer and creative writing instructor based in Malmö, Sweden. She writes in Swedish and Eng­lish. Her fiction has been featured recently in Weird Tales and on the Drabblecast. Her debut collection in English, Jagannath, is forthcoming this fall.

Ursula K. Le Guin says: “I have never read anything like Jagannath. Karin Tidbeck’s imagination is recognizably Nordic, but otherwise unclassifiable—quietly, intelligently, unutterably strange. And various. And ominous. And funny. And mysteriously tender. These are wonderful stories."

Interview by Janalyn Guo

UNSTUCK:  I'm curious to hear about the sci fi/fantasy heritage and community in Sweden.

KARIN TIDBECK:  Ah. The SF/F community in Sweden is very old. In fact the first science fiction magazine, Hugin, was Swedish. So there's a long tradition, and there’s also a fairly stable community. Science fiction and fantasy has had a bad reputation among mainstream readers and in media, although this has gotten much better lately. As for the writers, there are about sixty active writers of fantastic fiction in the country.

UNSTUCK:  I’d love to know a little bit more about Hugin. Also, how has fantastic fiction’s reputation gotten better as of late?

KARIN TIDBECK:  Hugin was published between 1916-1920 and there were also a few very early SF writers: Claës Lundin, whose novel Oxygen och Aromasia was published in 1878, and later writers like Otto Witt (who went on to publish Hugin) and Vladimir Semitjov. Historically, a lot of fantastic fiction has come from authors who only occasionally ventured into the field, like Harry Martinson, Karin Boye, Selma Lagerlöf and P. C. Jersild. “Pure” writers of fantastic fiction like Sam J. Lundwall and Bertil Mårtensson started showing up in the fifties and sixties. Female writers were rare except in the YA fantasy field until fairly recently, but those who were active, like Astrid Lindgren and Inger Edelfeldt, towered above everybody else. Historically, the two most common themes have been dystopias and folkloric fantasy.

For the longest time, fantastic fiction wasn’t really “proper literature,” except when respected authors wrote the odd dystopia. (I’m not sure why Swedish authors write so many dystopias, but there you are. I just wrote one myself. It must be something in the water.) Fantastic fiction has hit the mainstream again, and gained some respect, partly through a bunch of very dedicated SF/F-friendly pop culture journalists but also through horror. John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote Let the Right One In, kind of paved the way for a new wave of horror and fantastic fiction. There’s so much exciting stuff happening at the moment, and things are really looking up.

UNSTUCK:  What’s your experience of writing both in Swedish and in English? Do your stories play out differently?

KARIN TIDBECK:  Huge subject. The two languages lend themselves to different moods and ways of presenting a story. I began to figure this out while attending the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 2010; that's where I started really realizing what the differences are and how this works. It's hard to say what part of translating between the two languages is me and what's my cultural heritage, but my Swedish stories (if written in Swedish originally) tend to be more terse, and my English stories longer and with a more, hmm, florid prose. This doesn't apply to "Cloudberry Jam," but it seems to be a general trend. You do take on slightly different personalities depending on what language you're using.

UNSTUCK:  I really enjoyed “Cloudberry Jam” and recently read the story “Jagannath”—or rather heard it read to me, through the Drabblecast. Something that I really enjoy about your work is that the shapes of things are so mysterious. In “Jagannath”: Rak and Mother, and in “Cloudberry Jam”: the baby. There's something really lovely about not being able to pin down their physicality.

KARIN TIDBECK:  Well, I try to give enough information so that the reader doesn't have to pause and try to figure out what they're seeing; at the same time I don't want to give the reader too much. The story needs to take place in the reader's mind more than on the page, and in order for that to happen, readers need to find images that they can inhabit. I do try to give characteristic details, like the cloudberry baby's skin and eyes, but not too much. With “Jagannath,” this led to some interesting discussions—apparently some readers were exploring the idea that it was really a drama about stomach bacteria. That was awesome. The text doesn't belong to me anymore, anyway; it belongs to the readers and it's theirs to find out what it means to them.

UNSTUCK:  I’m just now thinking of the Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist. Someone once pointed out to me that depending on the camera angle, his face has that quality of looking very different (like he is actually several different people). Perhaps Michael Nyqvist is an appropriate metaphor for what you just mentioned.

KARIN TIDBECK:  Oh! That guy. Yeah, he has a rubber face. We use the term to describe someone whose face looks different all the time—from every angle, from photo to photo, etc. That's a very nice parallel, to thinking of a story that works on several levels.

UNSTUCK:  Your subjects often are very alien in their characteristics. I'm curious about your thoughts on humanness. Can humans have mechanical forms, natural forms, etc?

KARIN TIDBECK:  Ooooh. Good question. I suppose strictly speaking we're biological, self-replicating machines with hardware and software. But beyond that, it's a question of definition and interpretation. What someone sees as electrical impulses, the firing of neurons, is to someone else a soul. Personally, I don't know. Everything is a metaphor for everything else in the end. Depending on what story I'm telling, humanity takes on a different shape (as in, I'll believe different things about the human or creature depending on what I'm writing).

UNSTUCK:  I want to ask about unusual births. They're prominent in both of the stories we’ve been discussing, and I'm wondering if you could talk a little about your ideas about (perhaps fascination with) conception in these extraordinary forms.

KARIN TIDBECK:  Oddly those two stories are the only times I've written about birth. Maybe it's because going to Clarion is a bit like getting tossed into purgatory and emerging on the other side. Both were written at Clarion. To elaborate, though, I'm interested in the alien, and I'm interested in getting under the skin of the alien. So, birth would be part of it. There are a lot of aspects that come into it. But I’m also interested in birth as related to the body and identity. I've studied comparative religion and social anthropology, and I've been fascinated by various cultures' views of women and their bodies. At one point I studied what's known as "holy anorexia": nuns and other holy women starving themselves to attain purity and become closer to God. I also studied mother archetypes in ancient religions of the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

What I discovered through those studies is pretty much that humanity hasn't changed a lot. I think that both "Cloudberry Jam" and "Jagannath" arose from an interest in exploring that mother archetype from an alien perspective, to take things a step further. Of course, these stories are not just about motherhood, they're also told from the other perspective: coming-of-age stories with female characters who aren't ascribed traditional human female stereotypes. I should probably add that I don't really think about why I'm writing a story when I'm writing it. These are all theories after the fact.

UNSTUCK: When you mention “getting under the skin of the alien”—how do you do that?

KARIN TIDBECK:  "The alien" is a huge concept. It ranges from "the other," which is anything outside the norm (gender, sex, skin color, class, geographical location, physical appearance, etc.), to what is alien in the sense that we can't grasp what it is we're seeing. We have an impulse to put everything in neat little boxes because that's how our minds work. Things that fall in between or outside the boxes freak people out. It’s even more upsetting when something that should be familiar isn't, like the "uncanny valley" concept, what I think of as the “not quite.” I write about it frequently, because it's fascinating. But alien? Taken to the far end of the scale, not just other but alien, is to me what we can't even describe because we don't have words or senses to fathom it.

It's difficult to go all the way out there, for obvious reasons. I want to experience other mindsets, frames of reference, morals, ethics. I want to put myself in states of mind that don't come naturally. My way to experience those, then, is to write about them. But this is flawed because I can think about them, and that means they're not alien to me: just unusual, or seldom thought of. But as a human being, it’s as far as I can go.

UNSTUCK: I like that one cannot “grasp what one sees” if one looks at an alien. That seems like a difficult and exciting place for a writer to occupy. To both create a story for a human audience, perhaps whose innate response is to make sense of the work, but to preserve a sense of incomprehensibility. How did you channel this space when writing the piece for Unstuck?

KARIN TIDBECK:  The way I think about it is that no matter how strange a being is, their own actions are perfectly natural and logical from their own perspective. In “Cloudberry Jam,” the main character is aware that she has created something very strange, but to her the action of doing so is natural. Her child, however, is incomprehensible to her and acts in a way she doesn’t understand until the very end. But if you see it from the child’s point of view, everything it does and wants stems directly from its origin. It’s just the starting point that might make it seem incomprehensible to an outsider.

UNSTUCK:  Well, you’re doing some phenomenal channeling. I really admire the weird environments and logic systems in your stories; they’re rich with foreignness, in a way that I really respond to. Before you depart, may I ask what projects are you working on or have recently completed?

KARIN TIDBECK:  I'll have two books out this fall: one novel in Swedish, Amatka, and a short story collection in English, Jagannath. I’ll be at the World Fantasy Con in Toronto with Jagannath, so anyone who’s there and curious about my work is very welcome to drop by and say hello.

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

Interview: Matthew Vollmer


In the atrium of the Park Vista hotel, a glass elevator rose from a fern-shrouded vestibule. Its glass rattled, and its lights—softball-sized bulbs that bordered its tinted windows—flickered. Ted Barber, who had been standing on the tenth floor, gazing into the lobby, didn’t notice the elevator until it stopped on his floor. Then he raised his head and, like a man adjusting to the material world after disappearing inside a prayer, blinked his eyes rapidly. He recognized the elevator’s sole passenger: it was his wife, Tavey Preston. She didn’t look good. Then again, she was dead. Her bathing suit was tattered; her greenish-blond hair was tangled with seaweed; her skin was peppered with sand and bits of shell. And, Ted noted, as she made her way toward him, the hole in her forehead was oozing.

“You promised,” Ted said.

Tavey’s cracked lips, caked with muck, parted to reveal a perfect set of teeth: white and smooth, they looked like they’d been carved from pearls. “I missed you,” she said.

     —from “The Ones You Want to Keep” (Unstuck #1)

Matthew Vollmer is the author of Future Missionaries of America, a collection of sto­ries. His book of epitaphs, titled Inscriptions for Headstones, will be published by Outpost 19 in October. His fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, Epoch, and Gulf Coast, among other journals.

Interview by Janalyn Guo

UNSTUCK:  I’d like to start off with Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where "The Ones You Want to Keep" takes place. What is your personal experience of Gatlinburg?

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  First, some context: I grew up in the mountains of southwest North Carolina, in a town of 1,600 people. We had three stop lights, a grocery store, a post office, a Happy Flounder seafood restaurant, a Twin Cinema, a couple of convenience marts, and a street that a dozen businesses had abandoned. Needless to say, there wasn’t much happening, except out in the woods. The thing was—and I’m not proud of this—I took little pleasure in the riches of the natural world; my sense of adventure was confined to whatever I could dream up in my bedroom, so I rarely ventured too deep into the wilderness by myself. Basically, to me, the mountains were—for the most part—boring and dull. Therefore, I yearned to escape. Had you asked me to list places in the world I wanted to visit, and to whose attractions I could have full access, Gatlinburg would’ve been at the top.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church (the denomination in which I was raised) holds a biennial medical conference at the Park Vista hotel, the same place where Ted and Allison stay in TOYWTK, and because my father’s a dentist, my family often attended. We’d spend Saturdays hiking trails in the Smokies, and on Saturday nights, we’d descend into the town. The bleating of arcades, the mesmerizing repetition of taffy-pulling machines, the t-shirt emporiums, the magic and souvenir shops—Gatlinburg was a lurid parade of bedazzlements. For as long as I could remember, I’d been obsessed with alternate realities—I’d fantasized about what it’d be like to visit Hon-ah-lee, Candy Land, Dagobah, and Fantasia (from the Neverending Story). I really wanted to see what the inside of Oscar the Grouch’s trashcan was like. Gatlinburg was a place that promised entrances into similar kinds of non-ordinary places—or, at the very least, cheap imitations of non-ordinary places. Which, for me, was good enough. The World of Illusions, The Guinness Book of World Records Museum, The Haunted Mansion, Ripley’s Believe It or Not: add all these things together and you had what, for me, amounted to a garden of earthly delights.

UNSTUCK: How did Gatlinburg become the backdrop for this story?

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  I’d been working on a version of this thing, off and on, for ten years. The first twenty billion drafts were set in Mexico, at an all-inclusive resort, and though that, too, had an absurdist bent of its own, it seemed probably too neat that Ted was returning to the very place he’d lost his wife. Plus, I’d been working on the story for so long, and I needed a way to invigorate the material, so I started thinking about where else Ted and Allison might go to get away from it all, and because Gatlinburg isn’t far from the mountain town where I imagined they lived, and because it is—like any place that swindles people out of money in exchange for flimsy reproductions of human fantasy—a fun place to set a story, I thought: let’s do it.

UNSTUCK:  All right—my next vacation will be Gatlinburg! You brought up something else I’d like to ask about. There are lots of details about dentistry in TOYWTK because Ted’s a dentist; I’d love to know what you were exposed to being the son of a dentist that other people (who only visit dentists once or twice a year) never witness.

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  I spent a lot of time in my dad’s dental office. From the outside, it looks like a small brick house. I could and maybe someday will write a book about this place. I spent a lot of time there. I pretended the dental chairs and the X-ray machine (though I never turned it on) were spaceships. I shot (and often got in trouble for shooting) water out of the little water gun thingy. My dad got cable in his office on a little TV he kept in his lab, so I’d often hang out in there; while he torched clay models of his patients’ teeth, I watched I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. I got first dibs on the toys he ordered for his patients who were kids. I typed on the receptionists’ typewriters. I got called in to meet patients, who, dazed and drooling, shook my hands and relayed garbled descriptions of what I’d looked like the last time they’d seen me.

In a town of 1,600 people, you sort of have to make up your own fun, and part of that involved visiting my dad’s patients or employees. A woman who sold Avon and whose skin was as dark as any I’d ever seen gave me cowboy shaped bottles of cologne; her husband, whose name was Junior, had retired from the railroad and spent his days in a room of sports and celebrity memorabilia watching Cincinnati Reds games via satellite. We traveled deep into the mountains, to the houses and farms of old men in overalls—men who had never married. These men let me crank rusted machines that de-cobbed corn. I was bucked off a horse, chased by a yak, and pulled down a gravel road on a wooden sled by an ox.

UNSTUCK:  I’m a little surprised that dentists went out to visit patients just as doctors did; was this to check up on teeth? To keep relationships going?

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  I don’t remember my dad ever practicing dentistry on any of these people we visited. The point was to go see them. There was probably a bit of cultural tourism going on. Stuff like, wow, look at how these people live. Look at their clapboard floors and their JFG coffee cans into which they spit the juice from the Red Man they’re chewing. Look at their overalls. Their CAT hats. The flies. Etc. But that was only part of it. The real motivation for these visits was probably my father’s curiosity and his love of old mountain people. They had stories. They’d lived hard lives. They knew stuff. My father’s talked a lot about what the locals taught him: how to read the woods, to decipher tracks in the mud, how what’s important isn’t what you own, but how you treat other people. 

UNSTUCK:  I do wonder if there is less “visitation” in this age, this culture—another writer commented in her interview that we as a modern society seem under-haunted (wondering what you think of this)—but I also wonder if this could somehow be related to just a decline in the more earthly kind of visitation (the casual dropping by the house, etc.).

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  I like the idea of relating a culture’s “under-haunted-ness” to a decline in visitations. Even here in Blacksburg—where I know eighty percent of the people on my street, and where I chat every day with at least one neighbor, and where we have a poker game every Thursday, and impromptu cookouts in people’s backyards—people don’t really ever just “pop in.” Everybody’s so busy. Unscheduled visits are rare.

UNSTUCK:  It struck me how the loss of Tavey contrasts so much with the kitschy feel of Gatlinburg. What do you think of this juxtaposition, or rather how did you come to put the two sorts of moods together?

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  What’s funny about this is that to me, there really wasn’t much contrast—at least not from my point of view. It made total sense for a Zombie Bride to appear in Gatlinburg. You walk down the street and see entrances for live shows supposedly involving dead people and haunted houses and ghost walks and then there’s Stumpy, who “hovers” outside Ripley’s Haunted Adventure and appears to be some sort of undead dude in a top hat whose spine and pelvic bone are dangling from his torso. Also, it’s a place of mass consumption, where it seems like three-quarters of the tourists are waddling, stuffing their faces with candy apples and popcorn and elephant ears. In Gatlinburg, there are already real and fake zombies galore. So why not one more?
UNSTUCK:  It’s interesting how humor and dread sort of sit side by side for us. For instance, I’m thinking about the Fall River Ax Murders and the Lizzie Borden museum in Fall River, Mass—the house has now been turned into this sort of kitsch museum where you can get Lizzie Borden paraphernalia (like ax magnets, hats, and t-shirts). The place is also an inn; people can spend the night if they dare. (Randy Schaub’s story “The Dobbs House,” also featured in the first Unstuck, is set in just this sort of macabre tourist trap.) There are countless other examples, I’m sure. I wonder why this happens. 

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  My guess is that it happens for lots of reasons. People are morbid. People are funny. People like to make light of morbid stuff, maybe as a way to feel like they’re exerting control over something they can’t actually control. Also, people are intrigued by history, drawn to places where dramatic events have transpired. Like Gettysburg. Or Salem, Massachusetts.

I like your observation about humor and dread. It’s hard to be funny, but it’s also hard to be funny and establish a sense of dread. Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell comes to mind.
UNSTUCK:  What are your thoughts on vacations: the planning of them, the expectations around them? Have you been on any nightmare vacations?

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  One of the worst vacations I ever took was supposed to be the best: my honeymoon. My wife Kelly and I flew to Cancun, were taxied through impoverished neighborhoods—shacks with sheet metal, gravel roads—and arrived at a resort. We walked on marble slabs bordered by still pools. We were happily greeted by Mexican employees. We weren’t there for a full day before I got sick. I spent the next two days in the hotel room bathroom, while Kelly brought me updates from the beach and poolside bar. We tried to make the best of it—took a trip to a place called Xcaret where we explored ruins and donned damp lifejackets to swim underground rivers that, we were told, the Mayans had used for sewers—but in the end, we packed it in and went home early.

UNSTUCK:  But the swimming in sewers sounds fun! Did you go through an anxiety similar to what Ted went through on his honeymoon? I’m curious about Ted’s fear of “marrying a woman he barely [knows]”—why is this something marriage does to some when their relationships shift in name (i.e. boyfriend → husband)?

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  I definitely was dealing with some anxiety on my honeymoon, and in the throes of an illness, I worried that the storm brewing inside me was some kind of metaphor for what was to come (everything turned out okay!). It didn’t help that a trip my wife and I had planned and been looking forward to for months, which was supposed to be fun and ecstatic, had basically transformed into a nightmare. Of course, it could’ve been worse. And I suppose that’s where the seed of the story came from. I wondered about the “worse” part. 

UNSTUCK:  It’s interesting that sometimes we turn to our bodies to tell us things that we don’t know yet—or sort of “read” our bodies in many ways—accurately and inaccurately, the way we read text.

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  I like the idea of misreading the body. I’m sure we all do it in one way or another.

UNSTUCK:  In “The Ones You Want to Keep,” I feel sympathy for everyone –Tavey, Ted, Allison. Each has lost something irreplaceable: life, lover, child. I’m wondering if you felt stronger sympathies for a particular character in this love triangle while you were writing the story and if those sympathies have shifted now that you are further removed from its creation.

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  I dunno. I never really thought about who I felt sorriest for. I simply wanted to tell a story about a man who was haunted by—and simply could not let go of—a long-dead lover. And I wanted to see what happened when I tapped into the energy of that horrific seduction.

I was also interested in this idea: that human beings make graves for things all the time and then bury things there—memories, dreams, fears, whatever—only to watch them resurrect themselves again and again. It seems often like the stuff we thought we’d buried deepest is what refuses to stay down.
UNSTUCK:  How do you think the physical manifestation of the zombie bride brings forth this idea so much more powerfully than if—perhaps—all our experiences of Tavey were figments of Ted's imagination?

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  Well, for one thing, it’s the difference between thinking about a ghost or dreaming about a ghost and actually seeing one. I think a lot about this—what it would be like to encounter the supernatural. I never have but I’ve met plenty of people who’ve said they have, and it’s always this sort of transformational experience. The appearance of a ghost would call into question everything I think I believe. It would complicate my notions of existence, but also, if the ghost were somebody I knew and had loved, it would be tempting to engage with them. And, like Hamlet, I probably would.

UNSTUCK:  What projects are you working on currently?

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  I’ve got an idea for a fictional memoir that involves alternate realities—but who knows if it’ll work. I’ve got some more stories I want to finish. And I’ve got a collection of epitaphs I’ve been working on—all one-sentence, all third-person, all autobiographical. They’ve been fun and challenging to write.

UNSTUCK:  Are you on a death-and-ghosts adventure in your writing right now? I imagine there’s so much possibility around writing ghosts—and I wonder what it is that keeps you interested in dealing with the dead as material. 

MATTHEW VOLLMER:  This is actually the only ghost story I’ve written. Though, now that I think about it, my characters often dream about dead people. That’s because I often dream about dead people: friends and relatives who’ve “come back” or “didn’t really die” or whatever. The interesting thing about these dreams for me is that A) they’re never scary and B) I never question, in the dream, whether what’s happening is “really” happening. I think that was part of the effect I wanted to achieve in this story—to write something that unfolded like a nightmare. And what better place to set a nightmare than the very unreal town of Gatlinburg?

As for death: it’s something I think about a lot. Having been raised in a conservative, religious family, and having attended a church that was eschatology-obsessed, I was bombarded by images of the fantastic: Jesus coming in clouds of glory; the resurrected dead flying out of their graves; an armor-and-crown-wearing, sword-wielding Jesus fighting a giant dragon in space; pastoral scenes of paradise and a golden city gleaming in the distance; clouds of angels; etc. Thinking about that stuff could be fun (I remember designing, on paper, what my heavenly mansion would look like and how I’d have a water slide going from my bedroom to my indoor pool) but it could also be somewhat disconcerting (how long is eternity? won’t I get bored? what if I do something I’m not supposed to do and die before I ask forgiveness?). So from an early age, I was thinking about what would happen after I died, which means that meditations about death and what it means and what will happen to my body and what will it be like for consciousness to change or disappear altogether have been sort of hard-wired into my brain. 

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