Last week’s Fifty Word Friday was Ostrich staff member Todd Gray’s review of Brian Allen Carr’s Vampire Conditions. Sticking with that theme, inside this week’s Tuesday Grab Bag you’ll find Todd’s interview with Carr. In it, they discuss “the word-play bandits from the post modern carnival;” how to say words like “obfuscate” without feeling like a douche; dark, spicy soup; and other writerly concerns.
After having read Vampire Conditions, I think there’s something reminiscent of the Southern tradition in these stories, but still it seems to defy definition—bordering some nether region between the West and South. What I’m trying to get at is—please, tell me more about this place you’re writing from and the influence it has over your work.
Good question, but I don’t really know. The physical place I write from (mostly) is South Texas, a place referred to as the Rio Grande Valley. I like what Burroughs has to say about it:
There are no cities in the Valley, and no country. The area is a vast suburb of flimsy houses. . .The whole Valley has the impermanent look of a camp, or carnival. . . Death hangs over the Valley like an invisible smog. The place exerts a curious magnetism on the moribund. The dying cell gravitates to the Valley. . .
That’s probably an unfair description of the place now, but I’m sure when WSB was down here in the forties it rang mostly true.
My goal as a writer is to invent something a bit new. A lot of what I draw upon in regards to plot is conventional. When hammering on short stories, I think heavily about Maupassant and Poe and O. Henry and O’Connor. I think, in the US, there is something perceivably Southern about “telling a tale.” I read my stories aloud. In that regard they’re influenced by some notion of oral tradition. My grandfather used to sit me on his knee and tell me ghost stories. My father was a preacher and he’d tell me Bible stories. Those two things stain everything I do. So does, however, James Joyce. So does Barthelme. So does Naked Lunch. So does The Voyeur.
But the word-play bandits from the post modern carnival don’t impress me as much as the tales of Brothers Grimm. Aesop’s fables ride on the folds of my mind always. Narrative is the nuclear weapon and word play is the faces of the victims melting, but it all needs to be there for the story to be truly horrific, don’t you think?
Let’s get to the point, you take risks. In fact, you delicately balance the absurdities of reality within your fiction, oftentimes with humor dipped in violence or a brashness (or a potent mixing). That’s something in particular I enjoyed about the stories in Vampire Conditions, that your characters unashamedly frame the world as they see it. I think this is something much contemporary fiction is sorely missing nowadays, this ballsiness. If I might ask, what draws you to characters like these, and have there been any resistance or trouble you’ve experienced in providing them with a voice?
I grew up thinking that writers had to be arrested a few times if they were to have anything to say, and so I did that a bit, and when you do that you look at these other folks as. . .I don’t know. I’ve been in bar fights. I’ve sold drugs. I’ve had guns pointed in my face. I’ve done some dangerous and dumb things, because I thought that was the path. Now that I’m older, and I see what’s truly rewarded, my time would have been better spent learning to tie ties and say things like “obfuscate” without it making me feel like a douche.
I gravitated toward something of the dark early. In middle school, my friends and I would steal things out of people’s garages. We knew this girl whose older brother bought auction cars that he resold at his used car lot. They often times were missing things like antennae. This was back when you could unscrew an antennae from a car. We’d walk around unscrewing them. He’d give us a quarter an antennae. I bought a hand gun from a girl in the eighth grade. At school. She was supposed to sell it to this other kid who stayed home sick. It cost me twenty bucks and didn’t work.
Now I’m sweetness and sunshine and I wouldn’t do any of that, and I think it’s despicable that I did. But folks like Hunter S. Thompson and Jim Thompson and Elliott Smith were always appealing to me. I loved the myth behind Jesus’ Son.
No, I don’t take risks. I’m just being me. It’d be riskier for me to wear a tie and say “penn ultimate.” Risks seem to me to be conscious decisions. I’m just dancing in my underwear.
If it offends people, that’s fine. You don’t have to dance with me. I’ll enjoy myself either way.
What’s really absurd is that people think their imagination should bear them physical reward. We’re all just make believers. Shit, when we sit down to type, we’re only half a step away from playing with dolls.
This a little less related to your latest collection, but I’m really interested in knowing how writing worked its way into your life, like when did you realize that it was going to be a permanent condition?
Wait, this condition is permanent?
When I was thirteen my brother told me I took it too seriously when I sang along with the songs on the radio.
The next year I started skipping class to read books about bands. I originally wanted to be a music journalist. If you want to be a music journalist, you read Rolling Stone. If you read Rolling Stone, you know Hunter S. Thompson. I got a job at a little magazine in Austin called Salt for Slugs.
I was 19. It didn’t pan out. I’ve been writing ever since.
I think I switched to fiction when my brother died. When you’re a writer and bad things happen, you instinctually think about how to make it a story. That happened when Pat died. It made me feel gross that I spent a week thinking about how to tell my brother’s story. So arrogant. There’s no truth in telling the sad stories we know too well. Not unless you change something about it. ’Cause when you know something that well, you forget a massive point of it.
Think about the words you’ve used since childhood. You usually can’t define them. Jump. Run. Smile. What do these things mean? You know what they are, but how do you explain them?
Think about the words you learned for the GRE or SAT. Abscond. Erudite. Amorphous. You know those definitions. You can explain those words with other words. Why? Because in some integral way they don’t belong to you.
Once something belongs to you, it’s a damned mystery.
My reality belongs to me, therefore I’m the least likely to understand it. So. . . fiction. But maybe someday I’ll write something else. The only thing better than almost falling is changing your mind.
Everyone seems to have an opinion, but what’s the best writing advice you ever got? Worst?
Don’t let ’em catch you masturbating.
Really, that’s just the overall best advice for everything.
If you could have any food delivered to you – right now, from anywhere, at this moment – what would you be dining on?
Soup. Something spicy. Dark. That takes days to make. Something that starts with bones, and when it’s done it sticks to the back of your teeth.
(Interview conducted by Ostrich staff member Todd Gray)Tags: brian allen carr, interview, todd, vampire conditions