For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Jim Gavin: The Short Form Interview

Who gives a shit about the winners?

Author of Middle Men: Stories, out Feb. 19. 

The Interview

To be careless and succint: You go from plumbing salesman to Stegner Fellow. Can you detail what got you to write?

The big thing for me was taking an adult education class at UCLA.  At the time I was twenty-nine.  I hadn’t tried writing anything in years.  I wish I could say that my decision to take the class was based solely on a renewed commitment to the craft of fiction, but more than anything I was lonely. I had a sales job and spent seven hours a day on the road, then I’d come home and fall asleep watching basketball.  There are worse fates, but I felt my life slipping away a little. I wanted to go some place where I could talk about something besides toilets and valves.  So I signed up for a fiction class and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I met lots of great people and it allowed me to see the world again, because I was writing. I can still remember the feeling of pure relief I had on Tuesday nights, getting off work and heading up the 405 to sit in a dimly lit classroom with a bunch of people from all walks of life who cared about books. It was the best part of my week. The instructor, Lou Mathews, was really encouraging.  He’s the one who told me about the Stegner fellowship. When I got it I felt like I had pulled a fast one.  The campus up there is amazing and I spent a lot of time playing basketball in the beautiful intramural gymnasium. I was the creepy old guy who yelled at the eighteen year olds to pass the ball more.

Let's talk about the stories in your upcoming collection Middle Men. Even when you near the L.A. L.A., as in “Elephant Doors”, you aren't focusing on the glossy side of things. It's a lot of guys on the outside, and some not even aware there's an inside. They're just trying to get to the next day, but L.A. doesn't go unrepresented. What attracts you to the non-Hollywood L.A.?

I’m as shallow and deluded as anyone so I love all the Hollywood stuff. I grew up in SoCal, but Hollywood, as a physical place and concept, is as alien and fascinating to me as it would be to someone who grew up in Kansas.  I worked in show business for a while. By “show business” I mean that at age thirty-one I got a temp job stuffing envelopes for a game show.  I did that for six months, and from there I worked my way up to the bottom.  I loved working on a movie lot.  I’d get pathetically excited whenever I saw a movie star.  Years and years ago I went to a comedy show – I think it was at the old Largo – and a couple comedians were complaining about all the typical Hollywood bullshit they had do deal with it. Then the mighty Paul F. Tompkins got up and told them all to shut the fuck up. This is a gross paraphrase, but he talked about how that very afternoon he was on a set somewhere, shooting some crappy bit for a show, but it was great because he got to spend the day with friends, smoking and bullshitting and making people laugh, and he felt like the luckiest bastard ever because he was getting paid to do this, instead of all the other shit jobs he had in his life, and that anyone who complained about it was a fool.  That’s how I felt walking around the lot, even though I saw everything from the bottom, which is probably the best place to see things.  Most books about Hollywood are grim and depressing, and rightly so, but there are other aspects of it that are just plain goofy and fun and that stuff is worth documenting too.  Party Down, one of my favorite shows of the last few years, does that really well.
But I defintiely feel more at home in the outer reaches of Southern California.  It can be a hellish place in many ways, but overall I feel lucky that I got to grow up there and I can’t imagine living anyplace else.  That’s partly because my family is here and lots of friends, but then there’s all those little things that have a mysterious pull, whether it’s the feeling I get after a day in the water at Bolsa Chica, or driving through Long Beach at four o’clock on a Sunday, with the haze and the empty sidewalks.  I worked at a gas station for five years, and something about those days, watching the cars go by, talking with customers, resetting pumps, hanging out with all the knuckleheads on staff – we had surfer knuckleheads, gearhead knuckleheads, jock knuckleheads – something about those long pointless afternoons will always haunt me, in a good way.  I want everything I write to be a love letter to the people and places I’ve known.

I think if you can establish a sense of anticipation in your characters, if you can give full expression to their obsessions, then it will hopefully transfer to the reader.

The point of “Play the Man” isn't so much who wins the Trinity Prep match, but the anticipation still pushes the reader. Did you have it in mind for St. Polycarp to get waxed from the get go?

Most of the characters in the book are waiting for some moment that they think will define them – and it does, just not in the way they expected.   Life is one “Araby” after another. And that kind of waiting is probably the closest I can get to plot. I think if you can establish a sense of anticipation in your characters, if you can give full expression to their obsessions, then it will hopefully transfer to the reader.  One my favorite stories is “Prince of Darkness” by J.F. Powers.  It’s a 46-page tour de force, with a simple set up: Father Burner is having trouble in his parish and the Archbishop wants to see him.  Father Burner dreads the meeting, knowing that some kind of reprimand or demotion awaits him, and that dread is the through line, as the story bounces all over the place, but we always come back to this terrible moment that is waiting for him.

I gave “Play the Man” to a friend and he described it as a kind of “anti-Hoosiers.”  I hadn’t thought at all about Hoosiers when I was writing it, but I think that’s a good description. I love that movie and can quote it verbatim.  Growing up playing ball I think there was always a part of me that expected to have that kind of perfect ending, a moment of grace where everything comes together.  It didn’t, of course, which at the time was heartbreaking, since I devoted every waking hour of my youth to the sport.  But it’s no tragedy, and the vast majority of us fall into this category.  There’s only so many Jimmy Chitwoods.  If the narrator of “Play the Man” had played the game of his life against Trinity, instead of getting his ass kicked, then he wouldn’t be the narrator.  He would be a different person, his whole attitude towards life would be different, and there would be no story to tell.  At least not a story I’d be interested in writing.  Who gives a shit about the winners?

My senior year in high school I went to go see Hoop Dreams.  It was the first time I had ever gone to the movies by myself.  At this point, I had quit the basketball team and I was earning my stripes as a gas station dirtbag.  So the movie starts and I’m immediately choked up and barely holding on.  And then there’s that part where it flashes back to Arthur Agee, as a kid, meeting Isiah Thomas, and I lost it.  That remains the most crushing and beautiful movie going experience of my life.   I feel like Hoosiers represents the dream, and Hoop Dreams the reality.  And I think we need both.

Bill Murray is a sainted figure in our house, and we all quote Ghostbusters like scripture.

Aside from “Illuminati,” which is hilarious, most of the comedy is given a very real, if not sad context. Where do you look for comedic inspiration?

In their own way my parents were comedy geeks and they passed that down to me and my sisters.  They always let us stay up late to watch the Tonight Show and SNL. Bill Murray is a sainted figure in our house, and we all quote Ghostbusters like scripture.  In third grade I remember being suddenly bored by the eight o’clock comedies. I had become too sophisticated and could only be satisfied by the decadence of Cheers.  And then came The Simpsons, which has probably shaped my vision of life more than anything.  In college my dream was to write comedy for film or TV, but I had no idea how to make that happen, so to compensate I developed literary pretensions.  For a long time I separated those two worlds, literature and comedy, but at some point I let go of that.  Seeing The Office for the first time in 2004 was a big deal. Having these hilarious moments side by side with such desperation and melancholy – it just felt true.  And in the end, that’s all your aiming for, to get to the truth.  Eventually, I started writing about my life, getting down on paper the stories I would tell friends in the pub to make them laugh. 

The title story is a two-parter, with Pt. 2 - “Costello” having appeared in the New Yorker. Was Pt. 1 - “The Luau” always a part of the this story, or if not what was your impetuous for revisiting the Costello lore?

I actually wrote “The Luau” first.  Plumbing is the backdrop, but the story is about a son losing his mother.  I thought I was done with that particular subject, or I wanted to be done with it, but you’re never done with it.  For a long time I had this image in my head of an older guy floating in a pool.  I could tell it was the weekend.  I could feel the languor of a Saturday afternoon, and something about him drifting alone in that pool stayed with me.  At some point I realized that the man I was thinking of was Matt Costello’s father, and I felt access to a differen kind of loss, well beyond my own experience.  I work really slow, but “Costello” I wrote in a mad rush. That one felt like a gift, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get that again. Later, when I was putting the collection together, I tried integrating the stories more, but I decided it worked better with the father and son each having their separate experience.

Recommended by Jim Gavin

The Healthiest Girl in Town
Excerpt

My contemporaries took for granted all the sickness and dying that surrounded us—most of them had had a first-hand acquaintance with it—but I did not get used to these people who carried the badge of their doom in their pink cheeks as a blind mind carries his white stick in his hand. I continued to be fearful and fascinated each time I met a walker in the streets or on the mountain trails and each time some friend’s father, half gone in the lungs, watched me from where he sat in enforced ease on the veranda as other girls and I played pom-pom-pullaway in his front yard. Once Dotty MacKensie’s father, who was soon to die, laughed when I, showing off, turned a cartwheel, and he cried, “Well done, Jess!” and was taken thereupon with the last awful cough that finally was to undo and kill him. I did not trust their specious look of health and their look of immoderate cleanliness. At the same time, I was unduly drawn to them in the knowledge that a mystery encased them delicately; their death was an interior integument that seemed to lie just under their sun-tanned skin.

Look, Ma, I'm Breathing
Excerpt

“Catholic?” Isabel blurted out. Then inwardly she swore at herself: What compelled her to ask this question every time someone mentioned having a big family, as if she herself hadn’t been rasied Catholic—traditionalist, Vatican II—rejecting Catholic, at that? As if her own parents, an almost-priest and an almost-nun who believed their union had been divinely engineered by Saint Brigid, hadn’t practiced birth control. She remembered putting away the laundry one day and finding condoms in her dad’s sock drawer. Had she put that in the book? She hadn’t.

The Redfish
Excerpt

Quinn waved a hand in the direction of his warehouse. “All due respect,” he said. “I ain’t going nowhere.”

The cop frowned and glanced over at Luther. He was sizing him up, studying the prison tattos that ran the lengths of his broad forearms. He spoke to Quinn but his eyes lingered on Luther. “Then I’m supposed to tell you something,” he said. “I’m supposed to tell you to write your Social Security number on your chest with a permanent marker.”

“That right?” said Quinn.

“That’s meant to scare you when I say that. Make you go on and leave.”

Quinn grinned. “Shit, Carl. How many sixty-year-old men they got running around this city with a thirteen-inch johnson?”

Luther snorted and the cop shook his head, smiled himself.

“Just the two of us, I suppose.”

“Well, there you go,” said Quinn. “A black one and a white one. That oughtta be easy enough for them to sort out.”

We read it in The Southern Cross.

The Partridge Festival
Excerpt

Ten days before the festival began, a man named Singleton had been tried by a mock court on the courthouse lawn for not buying an Azalea Festival Badge. During the trial he had been imprisoned in a pair of stocks and when convicted, he had been locked in the “jail” together with a goat that had been tried and convicted previously for the same offense. The “jail” was an outdoor privy borrowed for the occasion by the Jaycees. Ten days later, Singleton had appeared in a side door on the courthouse porch and with a silent automatic pistol, had shot five of the dignitaries seated there and by mistake one person in the crowd. The innocent man received the bullet intended for the mayor who at that moment had reached down to pull up the tongue of his shoe.

“An unforutnate incident,” his Aunt Mattie said. “It mars the festive spirit.”

We read it in The Complete Stories.

The Worm in Philly
Excerpt

“The book,” I said. “The book. It is for children, as you know, for all children, but with an emphasis on boys. Because there are no stories for boys.  Stories for girls are too sweet and sticky.  Everything's a colossal lie about bunnies and rainbows and butterflies. But the boy needs the truth of us as meat, to bathe in the blood of meat war.”