Q: Did you ever want to write “just like” someone else?
A: In style, I don’t think so, but there are writers whose technical ability I aspire to match: T. C. Boyle, Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link. And there are bodies of work I would love to equal, like Eric Kraft’s Peter Leroy stories and Steve Aylett’s Accomplice novels.
Q: Do you have favorite characters?
A: Sure, a few current favorites are Ruth Puttermesser: “She played chess against herself, and was always victor over the color she had decided to identify with,” and Timofey Pnin: “His life was a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered the sphere of his existence.”
Q: Have you ever been disillusioned by a character or a book?
A: A book yes, a character no, because maybe part of disillusionment with a book is being reminded that the characters are just words being manipulated by an author I no longer admire/trust/believe in, and then they dissolve.
Q: How do you explain what writing is like? Is it something that you think about? Do you ever find yourself debating it with strangers?
A: Sometimes writing is a lot like sitting motionless at a desk or walking around the block listening to earphones. Sometimes it’s just like typing, sometimes more like collating, pruning a tree, or spackling. In general I think house-building similes are useful. Sometimes medical. The artistic part of writing is harder for me to think about, I guess like trying to wrap my head around a 100,000-word metaphor. I don’t usually discuss it with strangers, though I did once have a stranger laugh at me when I told him the amount of money that’s usually to be made by the sale of short fiction these days. He wrote non-fiction freelance.
Q: If you could choose any five literary people — real or imagined, living or not, friends or otherwise — for a tea party… who would they be? A night on the town, karaoke, whatever suits.
A: Thomas Pynchon would be the guest of honor, but then the other guests would ideally be blind in order to preserve his anonymity. Say, Homer and Borges. Though maybe Pynchon would send a surrogate, which would keep me from having to invite Milton and the later James Joyce, and in their place I could ask Edith Sitwell.
Q: How did writing a theme story work out? Is it more complicated than not having to adhere to a theme — or less?
A: It was a bit chilling to write a story so specifically tailored that it had no chance of publication outside a particular theme anthology, and in fact would probably make no sense read out of that context. But in this case, fables usually being short and a snowstorm that happened to keep me in Oklahoma for an extra day inspired me to write it anyway.
Q: What was the absolute worst piece of advice someone gave you about writing?
A: I dislike the advice “Show, don’t tell.” for being too simplistic. Maybe if people phrased it “Be aware of the difference between showing and telling, and be sure you’re doing whichever is best right then,” which I guess isn’t quite as pithy… and by the way, isn’t all prose technically telling? But if a prose description of a scene or action counts as showing, the great thing about prose (unlike a movie, unless it stoops to employing voiceover) is that it can mix showing and telling, scene and summary, in all kinds of interesting proportions.
Q: Have you ever wanted to let your character[s] run your interview?
A: I don’t think I’ve ever written a character I would trust to speak for me.
Q: Is there something you do that no one ever asks you about? This can be anything — something unusual you eat, playing poker as a day job, a hobby, whatever you like.
A: I play the saxophone poorly, I paint poorly, I play chess with mediocrity, I program the beginnings of computer games, though not so often these days.