For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

David Peak: The Short Form Interview

What's the point of writing something just to make someone identify with you?

Author of the short story collection, Glowing in the Dark, and the novel, Surface Tension.

The Interview

While you are hitting all of our senses – there's no lack of description – each sentence is pushing the narrative forward. It's all about action. You're not sitting around in your character's head. Has that always been a tendency in your writing, or has it been something you've tried to develop?

It's always been a tendency in my writing, yeah. I'm very attracted to image and movement and using language not just for language's sake but for sculpting space, angling light and amplifying sound. Once I have space established–and some kind of movement within that space–I can really tweak the language to heighten the senses of the reader. This, in my mind, is the strongest possible use of language. If successful, it can create a kind of synesthesia for the reader, a more powerful and memorable reading experience. As a writer, this method forces me to think about what I'm telling and why I'm telling it. I think it's very tempting for a lot of inexperienced writers to just explore a character's thoughts and feelings, when what they're actually doing is just writing about themselves, trying to connect to like–minded readers. It's not a bad way to generate material or explore. But there's already so much of that out there, so many stories about people locked in their thoughts. That kind of thing usually winds up feeling contrived. I'm more interested in letting the reader figure things out for themselves–not dumbing it down for them because I've got some stupid point to make.

I think most people are hypocrites and self–righteous and totally full of shit.

Throughout Glowing in the Dark, one gathers a sense of guilt, or a wrestling with privilege. In “Museum of Fucked” our narrator catalogs all the depravity of his area. And in “Helping Hands,” we get an exploration in a sort of white savior complex, and the narration which takes place in the Sudan makes any of the niceties back at Betsy's home feel tainted. Can you talk about your motivations for exploring these themes - gentrification, white savior complex, etc?

There is a problem with privilege everywhere in the world–there's a struggle on some level of society in every environment. No matter who you are or what your perspective is or what you're trying to do about it, you're usually aware of these struggles in one way or another. I think that's what led me to write stories like “Helping Hands” or “Museum of Fucked.” Stories about privilege and guilt are going to have some resonance with almost anyone who reads them because they're going to force people to question their comfort, or lack thereof. These themes are important to me because ultimately I believe that people have very base instincts. I think most people are hypocrites and self–righteous and totally full of shit. Anyone who has a strong ideology is someone I don't want to know. It's like I said before, what's the point of writing something just to make someone identify with you? Feeling good about yourself? It's a cop–out. I like writing that makes me feel uncomfortable in my skin.

How do your processes differ when writing a novel vs short stories? And do you know early on in a piece whether it's going to be a novel or a short story?

I'd be lying if I said I didn't know at the outset what it was going to be. That being said, I try to keep my ideas organic to the form. The way I approach novel writing is very slow and meticulous. I work on individual scenes or write back stories for characters, then rewrite those things and try to connect them together. Eventually I'll get some sense of a larger story and then I'll repeat the process, trying to explore new directions. It takes me dozens of drafts. I write drafts of paragraphs, drafts of chapters. I usually delete a good portion of what I write and start over again and again. I revise sentences endlessly. Same goes for writing short stories. It's always about revision. If I change a sentence on the fourth page of a twelve-page story, I'll have to start over at the beginning, re-reading the first sentence on first page to see how it fits into the larger movement.

I don't know how else to approach existence without horror and awe.

I know you're a fan of horror movies and the blood, the looming danger found in those movies is everywhere in your work. Even when specifically gore isn't present, there is almost always that uncomfortable feeling. Can you talk about your aesthetic and from where your inspiration is born?

I guess it boils down to tension. If you strip everything away from my stories–all the detail, the atmosphere, the context–and reduce it to the core of what's being told, what generally remains is some sort of tension. The way I try to use it, tension can be electric; it should have impact. A really good writer can take a tightly wound story and infuse it with a personal philosophy or with their own original ideas and make all of that stick because they're delivering it in a powerful way.

My aesthetic, I think, comes from two places: 1) The spectacle of violence traced so effortlessly through the tradition of literature, and 2) the power of “horror” images that are delivered uniquely through the language of film. For a long time I've been trying to find a way to marry those two interests into a kind of “horror” writing that I haven't read before. This goes back to what I said in my first response, about how I'm attempting to use language in a meaningful way, how I try to root my stories in images and movement.

Finally, the concept of horror has meaning, to me, because of the nature of my own existence. I don't know how else to approach existence without horror and awe.

I'm always sickened by how narrowly a lot of “writers” read.

Previously you've edited a journal and now you currently co-run Blue Square Press. How has assuming the editor role affected you as a writer?

I've always wanted to edit and publish writing that's different from my own–and sometimes even different from the kind of stuff I usually seek out and read. I think it's important for writers to enter a dialogue with literature in all its various permutations. Editing and publishing has forced me to become a more adventurous and careful reader and therefore a stronger, more resourceful writer. I'm always sickened by how narrowly a lot of “writers” read. I see it a lot on the internet, the way writers cultivate a “brand” for themselves based on what they read. So many people get caught up in trying to read the “right” books or the books that other people tell them they should be reading. It's pathetic. No one way to read is more valuable than another, I think, as long as you stay aware of what you're taking in and how you can learn from it.

Recommended by David Peak

Tailors' Dummies
Excerpt

Those weeks passed under the sign of a strange drowsiness.

Beds unmade for days on end, piled high with bedding crumpled and disordered from the weight of dreams, stood like deep boats waiting to sail into the dank and confusing labyrinths of some dark starless Venice. In the bleakness of dawn, Adela brought us coffee. Lazily we started dressing in the cold rooms, in the light of a single candle reflected many times in black window panes. The mornings were full of aimless bustle, of prolonged searches in endless drawers and cupboards. The clacking of Adela's slippers could be heard all over the apartment. The shop assistants lit the lanterns, took the large shop keys which Mother handed them, and went out into the thick swirling darkness. Mother could not come to terms with her dressing. The candles burned smaller in the candlesticks. Adela disappeared somewehere into the farthest rooms or into the attic where she hung the washing. She was deaf to our calling. A newly lit, dirty, bleak fire in the stove licked at the cold shiny growth of soot in the throat of the chimney. The candle died out, and the room filled with gloom. With our heads on the tablecloth, among the remains of breakfast, we fell asleep, still half-dressed. Lying face downward on the furry lap of darkness, we sailed in its regular breathing into the the starless nothingness.

Diary of a Madman
Excerpt

October 11h. — To-day is Wednesday, and I was as usual in the office. I came early on purpose, sat down, and mended all the pens.

Our director must be a very clever man. The whole room is full of bookcases. I read the titles of some of the books; they were very learned, beyond the comprehension of people of my class, and all in French and German. I look at his face; see! how much dignity there is in his eyes. I never hear a single superfluous word from his mouth, except that when he hands over the documents, he asks “What sort of weather is it?”

No, he is not a man of our class; he is a real statesman. I have already noticed that I am a special favourite of his. If now his daughter also — ah! what folly — let me say no more about it!

I have read the Northern Bee. What foolish people the French are! By heavens! I should like to tackle them all, and give them a thrashing. I have also read a fine description of a ball given by a landowner of Kursk. The land-owners of Kursk write a fine style.

Then I noticed that it was already half-past twelve, and the director had not yet left his bedroom. But about half-past one something happened which no pen can describe.

We read it in Memoirs of a Madman.

The Town Manager
Excerpt

The following morning the trolley came tooting down Main Street for its first run of the day. However, it made no stops for those waiting along the sidewalk. “Look at this,” Leeman said to me as he stared out the front window of his barbershop. Then he went outside. I set my broom against a wall and joined him. Others were already standing on the street, watching the trolley until it finally came to rest at the other end of town. “There was no one at the switch,” said Leeman, an observation that a number of persons echoed. When it seemed that the trolley was not going to make a return trip, several of us walked down the street to investigate. When we entered the vehicle, we found the naked body of Carnes the trolley driver lying on the floor. He had been severly mutilated and was dead. Burned into his chest were the words: DUSTROY TROLY.

We read it in Weird Tales: 333.

Metropolis
Excerpt

Should I start at the beginning, then, I wonder, when the rage I felt bleeding on and off for weeks made me needle myself to bleed this child out and try again? I wanted someone committed to staying. But my son held on; I thought he had to be a girl. The boy's head lifted to view in his easy birthing, the doctor said, “I think it's a girl,” and that was what we saw, the doctor, the nurses, the father, me. Before the boy part slipped out, we saw this bright girl mouth pouted for kissing. “Ah,” we said.

The astonishing heat between my legs after my son was gone I remember, me on a gurney in a screened-off pen and calling out for ice.

“Do you have any thoughts?” the teacher asks me when I go to see her about my son. Bu the rown-leaf color of the desks, the exhausted chalky air, streaked with the light as if by candles, the tallowed apprentice quality of objects, crude child maps of the explorers, all catch my throat like ash.

We read it in Nightwork.

Views of My Father Weeping
Excerpt

It is someone's father. That much is clear. He is fatherly. The gray in the head. The puff in the face. The droop in the shoulders. The flab on the gut. Tears falling. Tears falling. Tears falling. More tears. It seems that he intends to go father along this salty path. The facts suggest that this is his program, weeping. He has something in mind, more weeping. O lud lud! But why remain? Why watch it? Why tarry? Why not fly? Why subject myself? I could be somewhere else, out in the streets feeling up eleven-year-old girls in their soldier drag, there are thousands, as alike as pennies, and I could be – Why doesn't he stand up, arrange his clothes, dry his face? He's trying to embarrass us. He wants attention. He's trying to make himself interesting. He wants his brow wrapped in cold cloths perhaps, his hands held perahps, his back rubbed, his neck kneaded, his wrists patted, his elbows annointed with rare oils, his toenailes painted with tiny scenes representing God blessing America. I won't do it.

We read it in Sixty Stories.

Originally published in The New Yorker: Dec 6, 1969.