“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 Maradik & Rachel 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!
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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.