I’m guessing that, probably like many people, I knew of Aaron Burch for some time before I met him, as he was the editor of the then-fledgling literary magazine Hobart. It wasn’t long before we were corresponding for a variety of reasons, perhaps the most important of which for me was Featherproof Books’ Dollar Store Tour, which took place over two weeks in the summer of 2009. Burch (along with a hodgepodge of contemporary lit stars) traveled the country in a rental van, making stops at bars and bookstores to give readings inspired by Dollar Store-purchased doohickies. These guys came to my apartment for dinner before our reading and before a rather boozy night that culminated in a visit to Atlanta’s famed Clermont Lounge. While Burch is pretty well-known for the annual bourbon shots he offers from his AWP table in the bookfair—as long as you get them before security shuts him down—along with his friendly demeanor and party fortitude, he is also a fantastic fiction writer and poet. Put that atop his editing prowess (writers featured in Hobart now regularly grace the pages of the Best American series of anthologies), and the work that his wife, Elizabeth Ellen, does with Hobart’s book arm, Short Flight/Long Drive Books, you’ve pretty much got a full package literary powerhouse out of Anne Arbor, Michigan (where Burch and Ellen regularly host readings for out-of-town writers) that stretches its influence from Pacific to Atlantic. Now, a few years after he published his debut chapbook with PANK (2009’s How To Take Yourself Apart, How To Make Yourself Anew: notes and instructions from/for a father) Burch is releasing his first full-length story collection, Backswing. This book is full of hilarity and darkness, as Burch can swing from creepy as hell to bro-funny within a couple sentences. A guy cuts off his own finger, another guy blows off his hand with fireworks, another guy beats the hell out of a driving range ball retriever with a bent driver, and here, in the edited version of “Train Time,” you’re treated to a drunk dude who pulls a train’s emergency stop cord. Truth be told, a lot more than that happens, so read the story for yourself.
JI: You’re the editor of an outstanding literary magazine (Hobart). How does being an editor influence the writing of your own short fiction, if at all? And, when you began thinking about collecting stories for Backswing, did you work on any revisions of these stories so that they might fit into the book more smoothly? If so, how?
AB: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as I get asked, this idea of “how does editing Hobart relate to my own writing?” It’s easy to say working on Hobart (reading submissions, accepting stories, editing them) has definitely affected and influenced my own stories, but harder to notice or say specifically how.
I was recently talking to Matt Bell about some of this and this phrase came up, “twinge of weirdness” which I followed up with “twinge of…awesomeness or fun.” I think one of the biggest ways doing Hobart for so long has influenced my own writing is by reinforcing what my interests are as a reader. When Hobart started, it wasn’t with any kind of mission statement or desired aesthetic or anything; it kinda started as a lark and grew into what it is. And what it’s grown into, I think, is a journal that doesn’t always but often leans a little more toward the fun. The weird, the irreverent, not taking ourselves too seriously… all of which kinda boils down to fun. So I think realizing that has made me not only try to push toward that in my own writing but has also reinforced that that’s an allowed thing to strive for.
As to the second part of the question… I definitely thought a lot about what would make this a book and not just a collection. At some point, a couple, few years ago, I feared what I had was really two different half collections — one more realist, and one that was “weirder.” And at the time, that was probably true. But there were these stories at various places on the spectrum between those two poles that I wasn’t sure what to do with. And there were other instances of examples of the two different “kinds” of stories speaking to each other, or echoing themes, or whatever, that I think were heightened in interesting ways when put together, and that was lost when they were pulled apart. Different versions of the manuscript definitely leaned in one direction or another, and I think for a while it all felt noticeably unbalanced, like “a more straightforward narrative collection with a couple weird stories thrown in,” or vice versa. I think some of the best work I did putting the book together (and I’m sure some will disagree, some will still like half of it more than the other, or will think a story or three feel weirdly out of place) was to a) find that right balance, by adding a couple new stories and cutting the ones that I’d been holding onto that ultimately felt too similar or repetitive; and b) do a round or two of editing to pull some of those repeated and echoed themes forward a little.
JI: One of my favorite things about the collection is how it straddles the imaginary line that stands between narrative realism and surrealism or speculative fiction. I say “imaginary” here because–at least in my opinion–such divisions seem entirely superficial, or maybe only stylistic. You seemed to pull this off seamlessly (probably because the themes you allude to in your response above, in some of the more realism-directed stories, are echoed and stand in close proximity to the surreal or “strange” stories in the collection. One of the things you do best is create a creepy feeling, or a true feeling of horror. What drives a story to be one “type” or “style” versus another?
AB: Thanks! It’s funny… I’ve noticed myself, already, being quick to fall into talk of the stories working together and all that. In part because these interviews seem to always be opportunities for us to finally talk about the ways we’ve thought about work while it was in progress, right?, and I did think about that a lot, but I wonder too if I’m not already subconsciously arguing against, or making excuses for, or whatever, claims of it being uneven or too disparate. I don’t know.
Anyway. I’m not exactly sure what pushes a story into one “type” or “style” or another. It usually happens really early and then that’s just kind of what the story is. It feels so entwined with the story itself, I don’t think I ever really think about it. That said, I think I used to think about it. “Unzipped” stands out in my mind as the oldest in this collection, because I guess it just chronologically is, but it also feels, to me, the most like I was trying to write a “magical realist” story. It’s probably the most traditionally whatever you think of when you think of that genre. Since then, I think I’ve figured myself out as a writer a bit more, and I’m much more comfortable with a more fluid idea of genre. I think I probably needed to write toward my perceptions of them, and push against them, to ultimately take them all in and, as you say, treat that line as more imaginary. That said, I like “Unzipped,” so it’s included, but I also like that it opens the readers’ expectations up to something more “magical realist,” and so it makes the other stories feel maybe even a bit more like anything might happen. But, again, that’s probably me rationalizing and intellectualizing its inclusion in hindsight.
JI: Some of your stories don’t have anything necessarily “magical realist” or really anything impossible happening in them at all—say “The Apartment,” for example. They just seem odd. And that story in particular brings out the horrific feelings, a chill up the spine kind of thing. I think of horror as more an emotion than a genre. Would you agree with that? Were you consciously trying to generate such emotions in readers in that story or in, say, “Night Terrors”?
AB: I don’t want to be too self-deprecating, or overplay the “I don’t really know what I’m doing card,” but I’m already feeling like one of the most interesting aspects of putting a book out into the world is having other people kinda tell you, through reviews and interviews and the like, what your fascinations are. Which is to say, I don’t think I ever really thought of myself as writing “horror” (and I really like your distinction of “horror as more emotion than a genre”), not at all, but I do see that. I’d agree with that, yeah.
I think I thought of myself as a more humorous writer, but I’ve been looking through the book, getting ready to do some readings for it, and I like to read funny stuff at readings, but the book isn’t as funny as I’d thought. There’s some funny parts, but maybe less than I’d thought? But rereading, and having you point it out, and the couple reviews I’ve seen have already said things like “gruesome” and “discomfiting strangeness”… I think that’s there a lot more than I’d ever realized. Circling back to the last answer a bit, “Night Terrors” was the one story that I think I was trying to explicitly write something darker—I think I’d been reading a lot of Poe for a class, and I think I set out to try to write my own version of a horror story, or at least something creepier than my natural tendencies. Then, later, I was reading a lot of Cheever, and after all the Poe, was surprised how similar the two authors sometimes seemed; I really noticed a lot of the “emotion of horror” in Cheever, which is probably obvious, but seemed almost like a revelation to me. And now, looking at the collection, probably a good ⅔ of the stories, at least, have some kind of lingering feeling of creepiness or dread. It’s definitely there in “The Apartment,” and even something like “The Neighbor,” and those are the stories that maybe feel the most like me “finding my voice” a bit.
JI: That’s great that you mention Cheever, because I was definitely feeling him in this collection (especially in a story like “Unzipped,” which has a similar magical feel to a Cheever story like “The Enormous Radio”). But it’s also interesting that you mention “The Neighbor” in collusion here, because when I finished that story I was totally feeling Carver (e.g., “Neighbors”). You mentioned Poe. Who else are some of the short story writers who have had an impact on you working in the form?
AB: I think Brian Evenson is probably the most obvious. So obvious that I didn’t ask him to blurb it, as much as I love him and his writing, because it felt like maybe too explicit of a highlighting of an influence/who I was ripping off. But those who were kind enough to lend the book some words—Sam Lipsyte, Jess Walter, Lindsay Hunter, Adam Levin—they’re all definite favorites and writers I’ve gone to for inspiration, and names I’d be more than honored to have mine near. It’s funny that Poe and Cheever got mentioned first—I’m generally a super contemporary reader, and I didn’t read that much in school, so I’m pretty underread in most of the “things you should read” genre. The writers I read when I first started really reading, a little after college, when I really discovered this group of short story writers, are probably those who have had the most impact, even if I haven’t thought of some of these too much since before trying to think of this answer—Arthur Bradford, George Saunders, Ann Cummins, Aimee Bender, Matthew Klam, Mark Jude Poirier…
JI: Do you have a favorite story from the collection? If so, why is that story a favorite? If not—and, in addition to the first question, if you answer in the affirmative—what makes the stories in this collection feel “of a kind,” such that they make a book.
AB: This is a totally cheating non-answer, but I honestly think I have a bunch of different favorites, for different reasons. I always think of “Prestidigitation” as the first story where I first/most “found” my voice. I think “After the Leaving” is… if not the, then one of the, most ambitious stories, dealing with some of the mythology-building of other stories like “The Stain” or “Church Van.” “Fire in the Sky” probably most reminds me of my buddies, so obviously has a big place in my heart for that reason/them. I think “Flesh & Blood” is the newest, and longest, and feels kind of like a new level of “finding my voice,” with some of the weirdness of “Prestidigitation” stripped away, and in its place skateboarding, and MTV, and maybe a layer of personal depth or rawness or something that I at times shy away from…
For a long time, I was calling the manuscript PERFECT, which I thought was a humorously ballsy move, like I was saying the book itself, and the stories within, are “perfect,” but also that seemed to be one of my writer tics, calling something “perfect,” or saying a character is striving toward some kind of perfection, so at some point I took that tic and tried to use it to my benefit, like steering into a slide. Pretty much no one but me liked that title, so it got changed, but that theme is still there, all throughout, from the epigraphs to the word itself possibly (?) being in every story. So I think that idea is there throughout, sometimes more explicitly than other times, maybe like being the trunk of a unifying theme, with lots of branches coming off it, like this idea of myth-building, which you could maybe argue is about a “striving for perfection,” if you want to really force the metaphor, and that’s there to a Biblical degree like “After the Leaving” and “Church Van,” but then also more personally, like in “Prestidigitation” or… most of them, probably?
JI: I know how big a baseball fan you are (as you know I am), so it’s no surprise that baseball comes up often in this book. What aspects of the game do you find analogous (or perhaps metaphorically appropriate is the better way to say it) to writing in general, and with this book in particular?
AB: I’ve thought about this a lot, mostly in terms of when I have done an interview with a writer that I know likes baseball, and I’ve got more than a few analogous quotes, about baseball that could be applied to writing, and vice versa, and I often use them in my classes, but really, at the most honest level, I love baseball, grew up playing and watching it, going to games with my dad, collecting baseball cards, and so that love trickles into the writing. I like when my characters go to a baseball game, or compare someone to 1988-Bo Jackson—I like it when things like that crop up in what I’m reading, and so I like dropping those things in when I’m writing too.
JI: So, speaking of that: Postseason, Tigers vs. A’s 2014?
AB: That’d be awesome. Though it’d also pain me a bit… I know it’s anti most rules of fandom, but I kinda have 3 teams: the Tigers, Mariners, and A’s. The three places I’ve lived, with Oakland being where I was the shortest, but also being the team of my childhood. I was 10…11…12, and LOVED the Bash Brothers. And also I grew up in Tacoma, going to a lot of Tacoma Tigers (now Rainiers) AAA games, and at the time they were the A’s farm team. So, I have places in my heart for all 3. We should meet up in Oakland in October and go to a game, yeah?
JI: Haha, should we have a ton of money and all or some of our teams are in it, yes, we definitely should.
Photo By: JD