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Gabe Durham: The Short Form Interview

In 2013 saying ‘I don't read my reviews’ is like saying ‘I don't turn when my name is called.’

Author of FUN CAMP, with fiction appearing in Barrelhouse, Mid-American Review, the Collagist, and more.

The Interview

To get started, can you talk about the basic formation of the book? You're writing lots of short summer camp scenes–were you jumping between narrators from the outset, how quickly did you arrive at some of the plot lines (thinking of Grogg, Tad, or the nurse)?

Lots of little scenes, exactly, though I had no idea where they took place or who was speaking. I was following my interest and trusting that if I kept writing in these several weird little voices, they would point the way toward a greater understanding of the project. And if they didn't, I'd just go write some more short stories.

First came the title, FUN CAMP, then came the camp itself, then some characters began to emerge–Grogg first among them. Though at the time I thought of him as “the shack-man,” a grizzled groundskeeper who lived in a shack on the outskirts of camp. But I eventually conceived of the kitchen staff: Grogg, Puddy, and Marimba. And once a Chef Grogg is in play, you have to use him.

And then in one of Grogg's pieces, he quotes Tad Gunnick as saying, “If the parking lot's spacious, folks are gonna neck and do donuts.” And I liked that aphorism enough that I wondered, “Who's Tad Gunnick?” Why, the most popular kid at camp, that's who! So I was enjoying my freedom, slowly populating this enclosed campground, until eventually the decisions I made about setting/tone/characters informed future decisions. I imagine it's like that with the writing of most books: At a certain point, you reach a greater understanding of what the book is and it starts to write itself.

The letters from Billy are hilarious. Did you initially introduce those for structural purposes–to act as an intermission, if you will–or were you writing the letters from the beginning of the project?

I wrote them all at once, though I had to rewrite the last one a few times before it felt right. “A camper's letters home to Mom” was one of the camp tropes I'd been wanting to try, especially when I gave up on my too-strict insistence that every piece in the book be spoken.

Around this time, I wrote most of the comment cards that appear in the book as Question, Suggestion, and Complaint, as well as a number of Warm Fuzzies, most of which didn't make the cut. But of all the “written” pieces in the book, Billy is somehow most essential. My dad and stepmom got the book yesterday, and they said on the phone, “We just read all the Billy letters out loud–what fun!,” so maybe that indicates that the Billy letters are something to grab onto early on to make the book feel less weird. And even though the letters are scattered throughout the book, I doubt my dad's the only one to have skipped ahead and read them before going back and reading the rest.

The reader is selfish (or maybe that's just me) and wants to put him or herself into the book, and we can read Billy as the “everycamper.” We arrive at this book (camp) with certain attitudes, and allow them to be broken down in a way that parallels Billy.

I like that. And it's true that the book invites those parallels between counselor/camper and writer/reader. You can be Billy and eventually give yourself over to it OR you can resist the whole time and kind of mourn Billy's succumbing to the other side.

Writing about this just now, I got curious and went looking through my notebooks to see if I could find the early versions of these, and weirdly all I found was what I can only assume was my first attempt at a Billy letter. The version in my notebook reads:

Not a word of this made it into the book.

One of the conflicts writers have to navigate is how much to give their reader. I think we most recently talked with Mike Young about this. And many of the stories in FUN CAMP don't outright say who the narrator is nor give explicit context. You're asking the reader to do some work, to infer what's going on exactly (is this a counselor, is this a kid, etc). Was this a concern at all during writing, and was there a specific motivation for not being so specific about who's narrating when?

Just re-read that part of Mike's interview, was again wowed by his color chart, and liked what he had to say about how readership relates to friendship. Mike's very sharp about signaling in his writing–certain breakfast items are his most reliably recurring characters, and even if he and I were not close, I might read his stuff and think I'd like to meet him and talk about iced coffee.

But yeah, “how much to give” is always a concern. As a reader, I'm impatient with deliberate opacity and often find its deployment more clumsy than mysterious. As you say, though, many of the pieces in FUN CAMP don't adequately answer the question of “who is speaking?” and “to whom?” and “where exactly are they?”

Since a troll at the gates of Los Angeles makes you write an original pilot to reenter the city, I wrote a FUN CAMP pilot this year and had to write all the stage directiony stuff I'd been avoiding for so long. And there could have been a version of this book in which each scene contains stage directions: “In Girls Cabin 2, Sandra stands addressing her campers.” It wouldn't have been so hard to do and a part of me likes the cleanliness of this approach.

But several problems would have arisen: (1) The spell of “an overheard summer camp” is constantly broken by the presence of a narrator. (2) It would feel more staged/orderly in general. Lookit the little Wes Anderson characters givin their precious thoughts. Or something. (3) The mention of Sandra standing before her campers implies that these details are somehow important and that the reader would do well to track them across the course of the book. And often the answer to the who/where questions is: It doesn't especially matter who is speaking. A camper. A counselor. What matters is the speech itself. And you fi ll in the gaps with your own imagination and memory.

So my HOPE is that the absence of these details is the opposite of confounding, that it's instead an invitation for the reader to not feel like they need to keep up with who was where with whom and to enjoy the ride.

The understanding you noted about the danger of things becoming too precious is important. You see it often in early books and stories. A writer will have a great idea, but is so caught up in it that she wants her world to come across so perfectly that there is nothing for the reader to do. Everything is scripted past exhaustion.

Sabina Murray taught a screenwriting class where one of her biggest pieces of advice was: The first thing you should do is write 50 scenes. The way you connect the scenes (or the ones that worked) naturally becomes the plot of the movie. But that seems like such a natural way to start a project. Write 50 scenes and see what you got.

One of my favorite novels is The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, which was first spoken into a digital recorder, transcribed into discrete bits, and then assembled from the bits into a cohesive novel. It's a better book than mine, in part because he was able to be as fractured and scene/idea-driven as I was while still spinning these very different threads (girlfriend just left, day-to-day Bakerian observation, lyric poetry) into something seamless, propelled by real heartache and revelatory ideas about art.

Can you talk about your revision process for the scenes? There are just some perfect phrases (“ your pocket is your brain” “...more rules to come as you invent need for them”). Are you doing lots of overwriting for each scene and then the distilling or did you begin to find your groove the more scenes you wrote?

Thanks! Overwriting, definitely, though like I said, I do think that I had a better sense of what the book was when I was writing the last third or so of it. The challenge toward the end was more about saying something fresh that wasn't aping the hard-earned tricks of other pieces of the book. Which is probably why the 3 Tad Parables (The Two Comedians, The Woman at the Tree, and The Missing Lines), written just about last, are so different in tone from the rest of the book.

I'd often start in a notebook and just generate for awhile, riffing in a particular voice or mode, and then come back to it the next day and type it all out, adding more as more came to me. Then I'd take a step back and ask myself what the most exciting thing about the piece was, and kind of chase that concept. Many of these scenes got revised and refined over the course of years. Something about reading them (on the page and out loud) again and again felt right for this book.

A book of monologues has an opportunity to be filler-free in a way that a traditional novel does not, since it's able to stand without the “She took a big bite at the crisp red apple” kind of sentences. My new nonfiction manuscript is much longer and filled with actual scenes, and I miss the form of FUN CAMP sometimes.

What's it like switching to more traditional writing with this nonfiction manuscript? You worked on Fun Camp for a couple years, and it's a very particular way to tell a story. And now, you know, one of your characters might have to walk through a doorway or something else really boring but unavoidable. Though maybe it's a similar process to FUN CAMP. Just a matter of giving yourself up to the project and writing everything–“she took a big bite at the crisp red apple”–and eventually you'll hit your stride and figure out how to get around the filler.

Switching up the method for each new project feels somehow essential. I'm always looking for the right vessel that might grapple with whatever I feel bubbling up in me.

Prior to beginning the nonfiction book, I found myself thinking a lot about how much information was zooming past me at all times without making me smarter, and about how weird it was to be a happy man in a dying world. Like: “It's understood that in 300 years New York City will be submerged in water and my coffee this morning tastes great.”

So the vessel I settled on was: I'd pick a single day and write about whatever happened. The day, chosen more or less at random ahead of time, was September 22, 2011, and I've been researching/writing about it ever since:

{The BP Oil Spill of Fashion  All Our Pretty Songs  Courtesy Is Not a Word on the Road   Tough Love Couples}   

The style is really different from FUN CAMP, but it too is an assemblage in many ways, developing topical and thematic threads as the book goes along.

One thing that surprised me about the book as I wrote it is how much of it is about the death penalty, but now that I've got a working draft it makes a certain sense: Humans consistently overshoot how well we can know the truth about what happened in a given situation, the death penalty is one of the ugliest expressions of our hubris.

You put up a post on your website about your desire for people to be honest about your book. You urged them to be critical publicly even if you guys are friends. What prompted that post?

I'm two ways about that post: I felt like I needed to write it, and have had those thoughts for years, but the flip side of saying, “You can say whatever you want about my book” is that someone might read that and go, “I KNOW I can say what I want about your book, Durham. I don't need your permission.” Which is true.

But it's also true authors can be big babies. When my friend H wrote a thoughtful/critical review of someone's book, the author sent all her writer friends to accuse H of being an MFA elitist and maybe even pro-censorship. (Because whenever someone criticizes you, they're pro-censorship.) And just last week, I saw a dude link to a new review of his book with the note, “I love how reviewers continue to be confounded by my book.” The message was, “Tell me that these dummies don't get how brilliant I am.” It's gross to have to witness.

So to instead send the message “I'll behave” seems important, though there are subtler ways to do it than the one I chose. One is to wait for someone to write something critical about your writing, and then to link over to it, saying something like, “It's cool to see someone take the time to engage with my work!” And, considering no one owes my book their attention, it is cool.

A case study: I've been running the Boss Fight Books Kickstarter for a few weeks now, and it's been covered in so many cool corners of the internet. We've had two articles appear on Kotaku (the Gawker of video games), first a general post about the press and then an excerpt of Ken Baumann's book, EarthBound. And on one hand, Kotaku commenters will eat you alive. A lot of negative comments were made about the press, it's aesthetic, Ken's book, our title selection, etc. On the other hand, more backers have come from those two Kotaku posts than from any other website. More than Facebook, more than Twitter. If you can handle the gauntlet of negativity, there's often a lot of support waiting for you on the other side.

I was thinking about your post within the world of indie-lit. On one hand, the nature of this scene allows for a lot of great things and cooperation to happen (most recently Adam at Publishing Genius taking on your book after Mud Luscious closed up). But also, the often repeated criticism of nepotism and books and writers falling into an echo chamber. Then of course Christian Lorentzen and Kyle Minor had a fun discourse on Alice Munro and we got to see that the indie-lit criticisms are obviously thriving at every level.

You're right! I am the recipient of the best side of indie lit kindness. Maybe 6 different guys called or emailed me in the wake of the MLP fallout to help me figure out a way for FUN CAMP to get published. And publishing a book takes serious time. Adam's now got one more author among many bugging him about when SPD is gonna get their book in stock. Not to mention the wonderful and speedy job he did designing my cover so that the book could go to the printer on time.

The difference between me and Alice Munro (ha–the ONLY difference) is that she's now a big enough fish that if some guy wants to write a takedown about her fiction, he's probably not going to pull punches to spare her feelings. Which isn't to say that the big fish don't sometimes step out and embarrass themselves. Remember the time Rob Schneider took out a full-page attack ad against a reviewer?

I've read a lot a lot of Minor's criticism (and his first book of stories), and a thing he seems naturally attuned to is the need not to let a writer's bigness or smallness loom over his estimation of their work. He's game to champion or challenge anybody, and generally reads/evaluates from a place of fandom, a desire to enjoy. All art forms need a fleet of Ebert-like fan-critics.

Are you reading reviews of your work? And if so, what is the take away for you? Maybe there's the immediate reaction–yes I'm awesome! or clearly this reviewer doesn't understand English composition–but depending on the review are you actively thinking about the criticism as you continue evolving as a writer?

You bet. As the Director of Marketing for Fun Camp Ltd., I sort of have to read my reviews. I appreciate the statement “I don't read my reviews” as a sort of Old World gesture of humility/badassery, but in 2013 saying “I don't read my reviews” is like saying “I don't turn when my name is called.”  I woke up this morning with an email from Facebook telling me a new issue of an online lit mag featured a (mostly negative) review of my book. So I read it on my phone, and minutes later got out of bed.

So far none of the reviews have been poorly written or have said insulting things about my mother, and I've found that what each reviewer brings to the table is very different. So I hope people keep talking/writing about it. I'd love for female reviewers to weigh in too, eventually. Books and especially indies can have a weirdly short shelf life while others (like Mary Miller's Big World) continue to get passed around. You never know which kind yours will be.

But I'm not answering your question, and I think it's because I don't know how the reviews will affect me. It's probably good that I finished FUN CAMP two years ago–I can now observe its response with some detachment. “Hey, if y'all don't like this one,” goes the optimist inside me, “just wait for the next book!”

Tell us about your story recommendations.

“Winter Haven, Florida, 1984” by Elizabeth Ellen: At a girls' boarding school, a girl endures endless psychological abuse at the hands of her popular & sadistic roommate, Chelsea, but gives herself over to her tormentor so completely that her telling of the experience, years later, is still

“My Chivalric Fiasco” by George Saunders: In a parallel universe, there's a devil-may-care George Saunders who puts out a book of stories a year and doesn't put so much pressure on himself to hit it out of the park every single time. I think that guy would write a lot more stories like this one.

“Head Meld” by Sarah Rose Etter: When we were reading for Dark Sky Magazine, Christy Crutchfield used to send me a lot of stories with the comment “Hmm” as if to say “I think I like it but I'm not sure.” The only time I remember her going, “We're publishing this story” was with this one. And she was right.

Recommended by Gabe Durham

Winter Haven, Florida, 1984

No one in my family has done anything for three generations. My great-grandfather started a pump company in the middle of the depression. Every time we go to the mall my grandmother points up at the celing and says, “Thank you, J.C.!”

But that is on my father’s side. I have never lived with my father. I visit him and my grandmother once a year in the summer.

In Ohio my mother worked two jobs and I qualified for free lunches at school. No one I know in Ohio comes from money, new or old. Most of my friends’ fathers work in factories or are gone like mine. We find our Halloween costumes by climbing in the Volunteers of America box by the library. I was a hobo three years in a row.

We read it in Fast Machine.

My Chivalric Fiasco

Perfect, he said. Story of my life.

Jeez, Martha said, and plucked it off.

Don't you go south on me too, Nate said. You're all I got, babe.

No I am not, Martha said. You got the kids.

One more thing goes wrong, I'm shooting myself, Nate said.

I kind of doubted he had the get–up–and–go for that. Although you never know.

So what's going on at your guys' work? Nate said. This one here's been super–moody. Even though she just get herself promoted.

I could feel Martha looking at me, like: Ted, I'm in your hands here.

I figured it was her call. Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, If it's not broke, don't fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you'll probably make it worse.

We read it in Tenth of December.

Originally published in Harper's, September 2011.

Head Meld

Afraid you would smell my wakening breath, I pulled back only to find there was no way to pull and we were stuck and that’s when your eyes opened and then cursing.

“What —-” you started and then some tender “fucks” and “holy shit” and here’s the short of it, our heads had melded and I was not upset or cursing, just staring at us because now something had been done about all our messy hearts and sex and here was an answer, closure, finality, a thing bigger than my breasts or your mouth or your pills or our mothers.

Your anger gave way to logic and it was “We’re going to the doctor” and me nodding us both and then us learning how to move again, together, as a beast or a team.

“Slow” you said and I opened myself up to tender learn, mirror matching your motions trying not to strain our head bridge.

We read it in Dark Sky Magazine.