I sent them a story with a bunch of graphic sex, and it was nowhere near as good, and of course they bought that one.
Ken Baumann (right), founder of Sator Press and author of Solip, guest-interviews Nick Antosca (left), author of upcoming story collection, The Girlfriend Game.
We’re getting a little bored, so I ask my girlfriend if she wants to play the game tonight. She says she does. I was hoping she’d say that.
Every time we play the game, it brings us a little closer together.
The game works best in dark, noisy lounges. It’s pretty simple, just a fun thing we do at the end of the night. How it works is, I hang back, lurking in the crowd, while Dani goes up to the bar, alone and looking hot. A guy approaches her, strikes up a conversation. Dani tilts her auburn head, laughs, lets him buy her a drink. Dani’s an actress, a talented one. They flirt a while before I walk up, pretending I’m a stranger. Then Dani and I “spontaneously” hit it off while the dumbfounded guy hovers with terrible sense of humiliation and defeat. He watches, helpless, as Dani and I leave together in a glow of carnal enthusiasm, apparently having just met. And that’s the game.
Tonight, we’re at Delancey Lounge. Earlier, at the birthday dinner for my ex-girlfriend Clementine (we’re still good friends, which Dani is okay with), Dani and I had a minor fight when she took offense at something I said. But her agreeing to play the game reassures me we’re okay now.
I watch her walk the gaze-gauntlet to the bar, wearing a little black dress that justifies the enduring prestige of Little Black Dresses. She is provocatively petite, narrow-waisted, with a heart-shaped face and full, red lips that make me want to eat a strawberry.
At the bar, a guy wearing a fashionably faded black t-shirt, jeans, and a sleek Movado watch approaches Dani. Sandy-haired, maybe 5’9”—shorter than me—and about our age, late twenties. He’s good-looking, which will make the game’s payoff more pleasing.
I'll start with The Girlfriend Game. When did the idea to put out a collection of short stories come about?
I've always wanted to do a collection. About two years ago, I thought I had enough stories that were good… well, I can't be an objective judge of my own stuff, but I had enough stories that I liked. And they all felt like they belonged to the same universe. So then I got in touch with Jackie Corley of Word Riot Press, who stepped in to publish Midnight Picnic years ago after the press that was going to publish it went bankrupt. There was a span of about two years between proposing the collection and it coming out, though, so some of the stories were written then.
Which stories were written recently?
The title story. I was originally going to call the collection Mammals, because I like that title and because it's an all encompassing thing—“They're all stories about mammals. That's definitely true.”—and because I like the idea that humans are just animals, and whatever. But I asked Jackie what title was better marketing wise, and she chose The Girlfriend Game. Which I totally agreed with. I'd pick that book up because I'd be like, “Oh, is there sex in this?” And for the record, there is.
A lot of it.
Quite a bit of it.
Your life's changed a lot in the last three years. What was it like piecing together this collection while you started working as a screenwriter?
I've never seen fiction writing as a career in a financial sense… I mean, how many people are alive that make their living writing novels? I feel like it's in the hundreds, if not in the double digits. But at some point a few years ago, I realized there was a way you could make a career as a writer, and that's as a TV writer or screenwriter. I realized that after sitting down and writing a screenplay for fun with my writing partner Ned Vizzini. I wasn't super confident I could make a living writing TV and movies—it took about a year and a half to make any money at all—but then that happened, and now I'm doing two things at once. For four or five years in New York I was doing two things at once—one of them was writing fiction and the other thing was working in an office. Making spreadsheets, and cost reports, and taking people to lunch. And now my two things are both writing. From a life planning perspective, those were years well spent though, because I never had the couple years of “All I'm doing is art… how do I eat?” I was able to chip away at my student loans. So I could move to LA and scramble for a year without the crushing debt I had from college. Writing screenplays is one muscle, and writing fiction is another muscle, but they're in the same limb.
Is your screenwriting work changing your ideas about fiction? Or what the fiction you want to write in the future will look like?
Maybe… or, yes. Before I was doing screenwriting, I was scared of/disdainful of Story with a capital S. I didn't really think I was that good at it. And I think that I'm still not a natural story structure guy, although I no longer fear that I can't do it. A lot of novelists feel like story is just an obligation to get to the beautiful language and flourishes, but that cuts your audience down to a very small sliver. Now I'm much more comfortable working with story in fiction writing, and recognizing that you just don't give as much of a shit about the fiction you're reading when there's not a built in character choice, and momentum, and reasons to see this person as a human who wants things. And it's nice to do screenwriting and fiction writing at the same time because TV writing is so collaborative. You're in a room all day with a bunch of people building this thing together that serves someone else's vision. And you learn to see every idea through the filter of “Is this the show? Does this serve its vision?” It's nice to be able to go home and be a fucking auteur with your short stories, or your novels.
Will that push you further away from narrative?
I think it makes me more comfortable breaking rules because I'm more fluent with them. It's freed me as a fiction writer. Not that I'm truly fluent, but I'm more comfortable.
Has it changed your reading habits?
No. I'm such a fickle reader… I read Gone Girl and I was just like “I only want to write page turners! They're all going to be page turners!” Mystery, character based, riveting, what kind of secret is this person harboring… I just get in that zone when I read something I love. And then two months later I read Taipei by Tao Lin, which I think is a masterpiece, and it has no traditionally structured plot. It's all about presentation and language and incredibly specific observations of mental processes and memory, and just endless brilliant and unique metaphors and similes. So then I was like, “I want to write something observational that does great stuff with metaphors and similes, etcetera.” But some of the stories in The Girlfriend Game are ten years old, so you can see how much the stories veer and change over the years. So in some ways I think if I would've just focused on writing one thing my fiction writing career might be better or more easily definable, but I want to write a bunch of different stuff. Fortunately that's more accepted in the TV and screenwriting world… I wrote on a werewolf show, and a show about a nuclear submarine, and now a show that's totally different. There doesn't seem to be any barrier, within limitation. I don't think I'd get a job on a comedy show.
It wouldn't be unheard of.
Didn't Matthew Weiner write on Becker?
Or Charlie Kaufmann's 90s sitcoms. Going back a bit… I was trying to do my Michael Silverblatt best by reading and rereading all your writing. I want to know more about the recurring stuff in your writing. Specifically the themes of retribution, animal grotesqueries, and—
Yeah. And sexual trauma.
Okay. About retribution? I don't know… I find it compelling. I think I look at the past closely. I second guess the past a lot, and it's not healthy. I think “It could've been so much better if not for X or Y.” And I'm interested in characters that have that pathology… that can't stop their brains from following those neural pathways that are like “That guy. That guy's responsible for my unhappiness. And I have to fix that by—”
Yes. I mean, my favorite movie of the past 10 or 15 years is Oldboy. I just find those stories gripping.
Do you have a single act of revenge that you'd execute with legal carte blanche? Who'd you go kill?
No, probably not. I'd like to think I'm morally aligned enough that I wouldn't. But I'd be tempted!
Yeah, you'd be tempted, alright.
I could think of some petty vengeance. It's a good question, though. What about you?
I don't have targets, but I brag about my hypothetical moral flexibility in an apocalypse situation. I say this now, of course. Maybe because I wasn't raised religious, so my sense of human sacredness is couched in quotation marks.
I don't think humans are sacred. There are too many humans. It's crazy. Seems unsustainable. But I also think that there's nobody alive who would under no circumstances kill somebody. People make statements of absolutes all the time… People in relationships, particularly. “I would never cheat.” What are you talking about? An ex girlfriend of mine told me she'd never cheat, and I pointed out that she had just told me she cheated on her boyfriend in college. She was like “Yeah, but that relationship was ending anyway, and…” There's a degree of difference between that and “I'd never kill somebody.” First of all, there are a lot of morally defensible situations for killing somebody. I don't think that's a controversial assertion.
I think the characters in your universe come to that realization sooner or more fixedly than most people.
For all the violence or weirdness in my writing, not many people get killed.
So you don't have anybody… I'm safe, then.
The second theme, then: animal grotesqueries and animal cruelty.
I love animals. I grew up with animals. The animal violence in the books mostly happens to dogs, but when I was a kid, bad things happened to our dogs! The dog we had when I was five bit me on the face and I still have a scar, and my parents had it put down. And then we had a dog who, after ten years, and after being the most pleasant family dog, saw our neighbor's little dogs—I think they were Bichon Frises—running after my little brother and she ran over and just mauled them. Killed one of them. And that was a scene of ugly Disney channel—I mean Discovery channel—
Good Freudian slip. Disney channel brutality.
I think that imprinted on my psyche. We had cats growing up, as well. Our neighbors came over one day—I think I was 17—and they had this tiny cat they found at the campgrounds near the Potomac River, clinging to a log near the edge of the river. And we took the kitten in and raised it. Then a week later we heard this story of these kids who were taking kittens from the SPCA, taking them to that campground and feeding them to vicious dogs. And then recently we had an older cat that died. She was great, and it was very sad. My mom called me and said “I'll send you a picture to remember her by.” And my mom sent me a picture of the dead cat! It was actually a video of the dead cat lying on a towel with my mom talking to it…
It was funny, actually. I laughed.
Six months ago, my wife watched a crow kill a sparrow in front of a group of protesting sparrows in the magnolia tree over our hot tub. The crow took it and shook it like a dog, breaking its neck, then flaunted its body to the panicking ring of sparrows. Aviva was traumatized. I think that's the first time she's seen intense animal-on-animal cruelty.
From my deck I can see crows and hawks fight and dive bomb each other. It's like an action movie. It's weird… We live in Los Angeles, but there's fucking wildlife around. I got out of my car the other day and a big coyote ran right past me. And I have a skunk that haunts my bedroom. I'll open the door sometimes, and it's just looking at me.
Your fiction's not that violent compared to the animal world. And then there's the theme of sex and sexual trauma.
Really early on I learned that sex sells. After I graduated college, I heard nerve.com was looking for short stories. I sent them a story that I thought was really good—it was about a young guy and his various relationships—and I thought it was nuanced and character driven. They rejected it. And then I sent them a story with a bunch of graphic sex, and it was nowhere near as good, and of course they bought that one. So I wondered how to write stuff with sex in it that was still good. And some of the stories in The Girlfriend Game try to do that. Carnal Quartet, which was originally published in New York Tyrant, was an experiment in building good stories around sex scenes, and I think it works.
I also really like how you saturate space with horrible events… In your fiction, at least. Like the house in Fires, and the lake in Midnight Picnic. Are there any spaces in your life that are really alluring, for some reason?
Mood and setting stuff is something I've always felt comfortable with, more so than story. Sometimes I use it as a crutch. “It'll be a European film instead of a Hollywood film.” But in my own life, New Orleans is that place. I lived in New Orleans until I was five. That's a strange, Gothic place. When I was there it was the murder capital of the country. My memories from New Orleans—apart from good ice cream and beignets—are stuff like deformed ducks in Audubon Park, and bathtubs full of crawfish. I remember our car being stolen and thrown in the Bayou St. John by our criminal neighbors who were threatening my dad for testifying against them in a deposition about some minor thing… It was just a weird, dark, violent place. And then I moved to the suburbs. Actually, there was a one year interlude where we lived in a cabin in the woods that was owned by Wernher von Braun's family or something, and we were in the town that served as Maryland's HQ for the KKK. But then we moved to the suburbs. But I think New Orleans was a little overlay on my mind. I had a totally normal upbringing—middle class, little league games, public school, mom was a teacher—but I never quite had a true suburban upbringing because of the weird stuff. I go back and I don't even recognize the house and neighborhood where I grew up. It feels pedestrian. But my memories of the trees in our backyard are super haunted and vivid. A lot of landscapes in The Girlfriend Game take place around there, and the woods in Midnight Picnic, and the neighborhood in Fires.
I like how your characters are haunted by drink. It doesn't feel gratuitous. I'm thinking of the story “Migrations.”
I've never been an alcoholic, but I have an addictive personality for behavioral stuff. Writing, first and foremost. I'm not a disciplined writer. I fucking wish I could be. It's so erratic.
What are your behavioral neuroses and how do you fight them?
For awhile it was swimming. And food. I can eat the same thing for every possible meal for months. Probably 75 out of the last 100 days, I've eaten a whole avocado with olive oil and feta cheese, with some salmon if I have it, for dinner. And now here we are eating basically the same thing. I'm a super ascetic eater.
Maybe this isn't true, but I feel like you're ascetic in general. I don't see you blowing your money on a big house and expensive car.
I'm frugal. I live in a $700 a month sublet. I live in Humphrey Bogart's servants quarters in the Hollywood Hills. The house was Humphrey Bogart's, and then the band leader Woody Herman lived there. My roommates have the luxurious master suite. My little bedroom is attached to the main house but it's beneath it… It has to have been the servant's quarters. It's a prison cell full of books. And my TV of course, because that's work now. That frugality makes sense for me because TV is feast or famine… You work one year, you're dry the next. I don't want to be stuck with a mortgage if I can't work for two years straight. I hope the show I'm on now—Believe, coming out next year on NBC—I hope it runs for awhile. J. J. Abrams and Alfonso Cuaron are behind it, and it's a fun show.
Who are the screenwriters and TV writers you admire?
I think the best finished TV show is The Shield. I had the privilege of working for Shawn Ryan on Last Resort, and he's amazing. He's my TV hero. The greatest show that isn't finished yet is Mad Men, I think. And obviously there was The Wire. Charles H. Eglee is a great unsung writer who's written on everything from NYPD Blue to The Shield to Dexter's fourth season, which is one of the best seasons of TV ever. William Goldman, of course—his book on screenwriting is great, too. I admire William Monahan's career. And Jeff Davis, who's on Teen Wolf. He was our first boss, but he's a fucking fantastic writer. I learned more about story from him than I can ever hope to from any class. He's a really rigorous writer who's dedicated to writing in the service of the characters. And he's constantly reminding you to ask “What would be awesome?” That you should write to make yourself happy both as a writer and as a fan of the show. And he taught me to ask “What is the tension of the scene?” And “What is the worst thing that can happen to this character?”
Well, the only thing that circumvents that rule is… death.
Well sure… The sun could explode.
That'd be a great season finale for some show.
Didn't they do that in the last season of Felicity?
I wish. Okay. This next question requires you to be an Honest Abe. Because you're now in screenwriting and fiction writing, would you rather create a TV show, movie or book that lasts 100 years? If you could only get one thing on the epitaph, what would it be?
Honestly, I don't know. Here's the thing… I grew up reading books, that was my first love. I'll always write prose fiction in some form or another. But the novel had its heyday. There are still great novels being written, like Taipei or James Salter's last book, but all the great books that need to be written have been written.
You think the form is dead?
No, don't get me wrong. I don't think there isn't room for more great books, but the body of worth in the form of the novel is not… There aren't huge empty spaces that need to be filled. I feel like the form has been mostly explored. Any great novel published from now on is icing on the cake. Again, I look forward to all the great books yet to be written, but the novel is not the healthiest art form nowadays. Movies are kind of the same. Movies had three golden ages. But I feel like TV's potential hasn't been fully explored. There are great TV shows to be made because there are gaps in the corpus. It's a healthy artistic medium. I never felt, as a fiction writer, that I was in the time of the medium's momentum. But in TV, things are changing and vibrant and alive in a different way. I'm in the bottom rung in that ladder, though. I'm an executive story editor. Staff writer's the lowest, then story editor, then executive story editor, then a few more steps until executive producer. But you can feel that TV's an exciting place to be. Are the next ten years going to be as exciting as the last ten years, though? Probably not. But maybe! I'd love to be a part of it. So I'd rather have a TV show. That's the answer.
But do you pit Mad Men or The Shield up against something like The Brothers Karamazov?
Definitely. I also think it's harder to make a great TV show than to write a great novel. And I know that seems a little blasphemous, and it's totally apples to oranges, but the confluence of factors that you need to make a great TV show makes it just unbelievable that it's ever happened. Ever. For Infinite Jest, you need one guy to be a genius and to have a lot of time to work on it. I can conceive of that. Knowing what I know about TV, and how long it takes to even get a TV show made, and how many gauntlets you have to run creatively, and how many people have to be involved… Shawn Ryan's a great writer, and he wrote the pilot for The Shield, but he had to rely on the director to get the visual aesthetic on their budget, and he had to rely on the actors not going nuts for seven years… There are way more ways for that to go wrong than Infinite Jest. And that's not at all to disparage David Foster Wallace, but if they want to do something different in season 5 of The Wire and they couldn't do it because of something that happened in the pilot, they couldn't go back and revise. It's the most crazy tightrope. And that's why some showrunners are really eccentric.
In literary culture, it seems that writers are more apt to talk shit about fiction and writers they don't like, but in Hollywood people are careful not to potentially insult their next employer.
People do talk shit in Hollywood, though.
But you know what I mean. Do you have any negative examples to guide you? Projects you don't want to write, or writers you don't want to end up like?
Sure. Our agents and managers send us rewrite jobs and options to pitch projects that we turn down all the time. I don't want to write comedies. Nothing against comedies, they're just not our thing. Here's our litmus test: I don't want to write a movie that I'd be embarrassed to go to the premier. A producer recently sent us a concept and asked us to pitch a take on it. But I told my girlfriend about it, and she said “That sounds like it'd make a lot of money.” And it did. But the best possible version of that movie, even if it made a shit ton of money… I'd still be kind of embarrassed.
Tell us about your story recommendations.
“The Hortlak” by Kelly Link: This story feels vaster and more universal than almost any novel. It also comes as close as any fiction to capturing the spirit of a dream.
"Platinum" by James Salter: An epic yet specific dissection of infidelity. I don't know how he conjures lust so powerfully with so few words.
"Gas Station Carnivals" and "The Clown Puppet" by Thomas Ligotti: Ligotti writes nightmares and makes them feel true. Sometimes, before I catch myself, I start to remember the gas stations carnivals as if they were something I saw in my childhood. Ligotti is one of the greatest horror short story writers that has ever lived, and he deserves to be recognized. There is no one else like him, and there never will be.
"What the Matter Is" by Todd Grimson: Jean Harlow wanders incognito and gets into strange adventures. Beautiful, real-feeling, and strange.
Recommended by Nick Antosca
It has always seemed to me that my existence consisted purely and exclusively of nothing but the most outrageous nonsense. As long as I can remember, every incident and every impulse of my existence has served only to perpetrate one episode after another of conspicuous nonsense, each completely outrageous in its nonsensicality. Considered from whatever point of view — intimately close, infinitely remote, or any position in between — the whole thing has always seemed to be nothing more than some freak accident occurrent at a painfully slow rate of speed. At times I have been rendered breathless by the impeccable chaoticism, the absolutely perfect nonsense of some spectacle taking place outside myself, or, on the other hand, some spectacle of equally senseless outrageousness taking place within me. Images of densely twisted shapes and lines arise in my brain. Scribbles of a mentally deranged epileptic, I have often said to myself. If I may allow any exception to the outrageously nonsensical condition I have described — and I will allow none — this single exception would involve those visits which I experienced at scattered intervals throughout my existence, and especially one particular visit that took place in Mr Vizniak’s medicine shop.
We read it in Teatro Grottesco.
Outside the walls of the Crimson Cabaret was a world of rain and darkness. At intervals, whenever someone entered or exited through the front door of the club, one could actually see the steady rain and was allowed a brief glimpse of the darkness. Inside it was all amber light, tobacco smoke, and the sound of the raindrops hitting the windows, which were all painted black. On such nights, as I sat at one of the tables in that drab little place, I was always filled with an infernal merriment, as if I were waiting out the apocalypse and could not care less about it. I also liked to imagine that I was in the cabin of an old ship during a really vicious storm at sea or in the club car of a luxury passenger train that was being rocked on its rails by ferocious winds and hammered by a demonic rain.
We read it in Teatro Grottesco.
— What are they, silver?
— They’re platinum. Better than silver.
— They’re your wife’s.
— They were being repaired. I had to pick them up.
It was hard not to admire her, her bare neck, her aplomb.
— Can I borrow them? she asked.
— I can’t. She knows I was supposed to pick them up.
— Just say they weren’t ready.
— I’ll give them back. Is that what you’re afraid of? I’d just like to wear them once, smoething that’s hers but at the moment mine.
— That’s very Bette Davis.
— Just be careful and don’t lose them, he managed to say.
That was a Tuesday. Two nights later a terrible event occured.
We read it in Last Night.
Harlow got dressed, quickly packed her bag, went downstairs to pay her bill and checked out, leaving the Biltmore Hotel in Seattle as her forwarding address. She’d heard of it sometime. She took a cab to the train station, then walked a few blocks and took the trolley-car someplace else.
By now she was calming down some, gathering her wits. She checked into the Hampstead Arms on Geary Street under the name of Rosemary Carpenter. For dinner she had chops and a baked potato, sliced tomatoes, and two cups of pretty good coffee with cream and two spoonfuls of sugar. She didn’t feel like having dessert. She didn’t want to get fat like Mama Jean.
Wearing a robin’s egg blue print dress and beige high heels, blue hat with a pink carnation, seamed stockings, fur coat, pearls, a new application of makeup, she went out for the evening, asking the taxi driver to take her someplace where she could play blackjack and get something to drink.
“Honey, nothing comes easy in this world, you must know that by now.”
“Here you go,” she said, holding out a five dollar bill folded lengthwise, much more than she needed to pay.
The narrow streets were lined with parked cars and signs that said NO PARKING AT ANY TIME. The taxi driver passed a street-car out on the left, giving Jean an exhilarating but not exactly pleasant feeling that gravity itself might be defied—and then the cab bounced, ending the illusion, continuing its way down the hill at top speed.
“I seem to remember a place where you can lose all the money you want,” he said, unlit cigar clenched between yellow teeth. “But a woman like you going in by yourself, you know what they might think. They don’t like stray cats pawing their guests.”
The way the All-Night worked at the moment was Batu’s idea. They sized up the customers before they got to the counter—that had always been part of retail. If the customer was the right sort, then Batu or Eric gave the customer what they said they needed, and the customer paid with money sometimes, and sometimes with other things: pot, books on tape, souvenir maple syrup tins. They were near the border. They got a lot of Canadians. Eric suspected someone, maybe a traveling Canadian pajama salesman, was supplying Batu with novelty pajamas.
Siz de mi bekliyorsunuz?
Are you waiting too?
What Batu thought Eric should say to Charley, if he really liked her: “Come live with me. Come live at the All-Night.”
What Eric thought about saying to Charley: “If you’re going away, take me with you. I’m about to be twenty years old, and I’ve never been to college. I sleep days in a storage closet, wearing someone else’s pajamas. I’ve worked retail jobs since I was sixteen. I know people are hateful. If you need to bite someone, you can bite me.”
We read it in Magic for Beginners.