Jamie Iredell: Among the things I love about your writing is this wry humor that comes out through it, even when some of your stories aren’t very funny, or are not meant to be funny (or at least I’m thinking of them that way). Take “The Bike” or “Canada,” for example: the narrators in both of these stories are either frustrated or experiencing pain, or maybe it’s a defamiliarization they’re experiencing, which is uncomfortable. Their discomfort isn’t particularly funny, but somehow you make it so. A good example of what I mean might be the narrator of “Canada” standing on the roof of his house, thinking about Vikings living with polar bears, and saying out loud, “Who the hell are we?” How do you create this effect?

Kevin Spaide: When I’m not exhausted or out of my mind for some other reason, which we won’t go into now, I often feel like the guy in “Canada” standing on the roof having a sudden moment of “what the hell is going on here?” A little confused or taken aback by—everything. As if you’ve just slipped out of your life and it all looks kind of weird and upside down from two feet away. But I guess everybody feels that way now and again. (Yes?) Not a great feeling, but there are, of course, worse feelings. Much worse. Like freezing or starving to death in Greenland. Or loneliness. Which is probably what the last Greenland Viking was feeling toward the end.

So I have these ridiculous feelings.  And what do you do with ridiculous feelings? You go inside and lie down on your bed and dwell on them. Or wash the dishes while staring out the window at your neighbor. Or write a story! But I honestly don’t know where the humor comes from. The Hell within me? (Cliché, I know, but what can you do?) When I sit down to write a new story, I always—and I’m dead serious—I always want to write a steady, measured, serious story with more than two characters in it—characters who even have names (crazy, I know)—but it comes out like it comes out because I’m not that kind of writer, I guess. I get bored trying to make all that shit up. Before I know it I’ve got two people on my hands squabbling about Vikings or Romanian orphans. And for some reason I find that interesting. I let them do the dirty work. Maybe the simplest answer to “how do you create that effect?” is that I’ve always been drawn to funny writers, even silly writers, and yet I’m a miserable person obsessed with death. Put those two things together and you get humorous stories about suffering people. Not that there’s anything funny about suffering. Unless you’re laughing at your own suffering because you know you’re not really suffering. Not yet, anyway. Which is what I’m probably doing when I write. Laughing at myself, that is. Not suffering. Though some of that goes on too. Anyway, I hope I don’t come off as sadistic. Or like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

I’m glad you like the humor, though. People who know me will find it a nightmarish revelation that I’m in any way “funny”. Because I’m not funny at all. Even smiling embarrasses me.

JI: I’m also a fan of your sentence style, which I guess I would call minimalist. Is this a style you developed from reading particular writers? If so, who? How has your prose style changed, or have you experimented with more “long-winded” structures?

KS: A fan? Wow. Thank you. The first thing that comes to mind is that there are writers I love so much (or used to love) that I almost can’t read them anymore because I start to write like them—but—like them on an ultra shitty day. (I’m also one of those people whose accent changes according to who I’m talking to. I’ve even caught myself using words like “whilst” and “arse.” One day I was “cross.” After so many years living in Ireland I can barely talk to an Irish person without sounding like a total lunatic, or like I’m making fun of them. Which is inconvenient considering that my boss is from Ireland. But it’s out of my hands.) If I read Flann O’Brien, for example—very funny Irish writer—I start to write Flann O’Brien sentences. OK, maybe the kind of sentences Flann O’Brien might have written with a monumental hangover and a cat getting neutered in his lap, but—well, you get the idea. There are other writers I can’t read. James Purdy. You really don’t want to sound like a wretched version of James Purdy. Others. Right now I’m in the midst of a full-blown Nicola Barker obsession. She’s fantastic—all that puking and masturbating is really something—but I have to be careful I don’t love her so much I try to become her. She’s often described as “inimitable” for some reason. I just reread Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book again. I love it and hope it rubs off on me, but it probably won’t. I’m not sure why I say that. So—to get back to what you asked—I have this idea that I’ve developed whatever “style” I have in an attempt to purge these sort of grotesque other-voice undertones from my writing. It’s like when I go back to the States and I try to imitate my own accent because I can’t remember how to do it anymore. Or maybe I’m just trigger happy with the delete button. This is actually the first time I’ve ever really thought about this with the words “how” and “why” hanging in my head. Not to mention “who.”

For a while I was reading a lot of children’s stories to my son. Must’ve read Frog and Toad are Friends about 300 times over two years. Those stories are the ultimate in minimalism. Maybe they had more of an effect on me than I realized.

I used to write longer sentences. They’re getting shorter as I get older, maybe because I just want to get them over with. Brain damage, perhaps. Sometimes I write a long sentence and then break it in two and it has sharp ends like a pointed stick.

JI: Most of your stories–those that I know, anyway–involve couples, usually a husband and wife or boyfriend/girlfriend? This excerpt from “Danny” is very different in that sense.

KS: Before I got married I wrote horror stories. Maybe I still do in some shape or form. You know, marriage and all. It’s pretty shocking. I went through this phase a couple of years ago of writing about this couple. I sat down one day in March and wrote a story called “Unemployed” about a guy following his wife around some big city because he didn’t have anything better to do. No job, nothing. They go to the movies and watch some movie about Jesus. Then they go home and argue with their neighbor. It all came out of nowhere. When I finished it, I was like, What the hell is this? It was exciting. The next day, there they were again. Waiting in my head. So I wrote a story a day, sometimes two, for about a month. I thought things like, If I keep this up I’ll have 365 stories about these people by this time next year. I’ll be famous! Then something happened—I was forced to get a job—and I lost them. Now and again they still show up and I get another story out of the deal. In fact, I could probably start writing one now, as part of this. But I won’t. The funny thing is that all those “wife” stories have nothing to do with my wife—who hasn’t read anything I’ve written because English is an ordeal for her. Probably for the best, really.

“Danny” is what I started working on right after all of that. I must’ve wanted to do something different. Something not in the first person. I don’t remember thinking anything like that, but it seems like I would’ve thought something like that after writing all those stories about couples. I’m still working on it, but it keeps getting shorter. I write a page and get rid of two. It may turn out someday that the only part of it I haven’t got around to getting rid of is what I’ve sent to you. I hope not, though. I like it. There are some good bar scenes in it. Danny, by the way, is the name of a minor character who bumps into just about everybody else in the story. He’s temperamental. Had his own children’s television program at one time—before the accident.

JI: Are you still living in Spain? What’s up with that? How’d you end up there, and what’s keeping you there? Can I stay with you if I visit? What’s it like being an expat?

KS: Yes, I live in Spain, and I’m not sure what’s up with that. My wife is from here, but I met her in Ireland. I had no business being in Ireland, really, but I was in Wales one day (and why the hell I was ever in Wales is a question) and some guy said, You should get on that boat over there, it’s going to Ireland. And I said, But I don’t want to go to Ireland. He said, You’ll love it over there. I said, But I don’t have any interest at all in going to fucking Ireland. He said, Give it two weeks. And, hey. Well. At the time that sounded pretty logical to me, like a piece of good advice—I mean, what was two weeks of my life?—so I got on the boat and ended up living in Ireland for six years. Things got completely out of hand. I left with a Spanish wife and a tiny Irish son. That guy in Wales was probably Satan. Or some kind of local Welsh demon. So then, they are what’s keeping me in Spain. I started getting this itch to investigate Albania not long ago, but my wife is really not into it.

If you visit, of course you can stay with us. I’ll take you down to the corner and introduce you to whoever talks to me.

JI: So, where are you from, in the States, that is? Do you still have family in the U.S.? Your short stories feel very “American,” but they don’t have specifically American settings. They just somehow “feel” American. Maybe it has to do with the conversations that husband and wife couple always end up in?

My family lives in Auburn, New York. Small town near Syracuse. Growing up, I was crazy to get out of there (slobbering over atlases, reading books like Tropic of Cancer and The Sheltering Sky) but it doesn’t seem so bad now—from four thousand miles away. I have good memories of places that have since been fucked up or liquidated. A nice spot, I guess. My wife likes it. She goes to the Salvation Army and buys all kinds of weird clothes for a dollar. You can’t do that in Madrid. Then again, you can furnish a wardrobe here by wandering around the neighborhood, gathering up stray bits of clothing. I don’t know if it’s a Spanish thing, some unfathomable custom of theirs, or just a big city thing—or maybe something peculiar to our own strange little neighborhood—but people seem to leave an awful lot of their clothing lying around in the street. It doesn’t get any cheaper than that! We have tons of other people’s hats. Anyway, Auburn. There’s a lake. I went there two summers ago and people kept getting busted by this twelve-year-old-looking lifeguard for swimming in the wrong area. The swimming area was the size of a tile on my kitchen floor. We were all in there, trying not to poke each other in the eye. My son took his clothes off and some guy with a full sleeve of tattoos on each arm whispered to a woman he was with, “They let their kid run around naked!” My son was really freaking people out by speaking Spanish with blonde hair. I told my wife she had to keep her top half covered—though she already knew that. There were a lot of rules in play I didn’t understand, and they seem to be multiplying. Or maybe I just didn’t notice them before. I don’t know. We don’t get over very often, so you see how the place is changing. I’d like to visit more, but I hate planes and feel guilty about climate change. We don’t have any money anyway. And the last time I was there I gained ten pounds. Which is almost impossible for me. When I transferred those ten pounds to the other side of the Atlantic they seemed to melt into the ground in a matter of minutes.

I would guess my being American is what accounts for the American feel of my stories. I don’t live there anymore, but I think about it all the time. How could I not? My stories—and maybe I shouldn’t admit this—are usually set in some place that’s a confusing whirl of all the places I’ve lived, minus Seattle. “Danny” is like that. It’s set smack-dab at the center of my head. I wish it were otherwise. I’d love to be one of those writers who has a place on the map to let all their characters run around in. A place you can read about on Wikipedia. I guess you can get a lot of mileage out of names everybody already knows. Like London. It’s all set up already. You just have to turn your characters loose in it. Put in the street names. I did that with this story of mine “Cobarde” that came out in FRiGG last year. Used real street names and bus line numbers. It worked out all right, I think. Probably nobody gave a shit one way or the other. And now I’m writing a long story or novel or something set in Madrid, and I’m trying to stick to the facts as far as geography goes. Not easy. It’s called “The City is Killing Me.” So far I haven’t made it out of my own neighborhood. And a lot of it takes place under bridges—which is somewhat of a thing with me lately, an alarming tendency I seem to have developed. Setting stories under bridges. Used to be islands, now it’s bridges. But it is Madrid. I don’t have any qualms about lying my head off though. I mean, I’ll invent a new neighborhood or two if I have to. Or a river. Or a UFO landing site or cave full of Neanderthal teeth. Invisible people from the future. Whatever it takes. Which I guess kind of contradicts everything I just said about sticking to the facts.

I’m thinking of this story I wrote called “The Beard.” For some reason I pictured the characters living in a particular house on Third Ave. in Auburn which I haven’t been inside since around 1983. Other scenes from the same story are set in a house where a friend of mine lived. Except there’s only one house in the story. My head has taken a room from one house and grafted it onto a couple of rooms from the other house even though they have nothing to do with each other or with me. So I’m writing the story and picturing the characters walking around in some sort of hybrid of these two houses. And I don’t know why. I don’t think I described any of it. But it’s there, isn’t it? So if all that’s going on in the background, on some barely detectable infrared frequency, I guess it adds to the feel of the story. A little American house on Third Ave. Or maybe not. Later on in the same story the characters are riding a train home from the mountains. There are no passenger trains or mountains near Auburn. But there are in Madrid. It all stews together, grows into its own thing.

JI: I’m intrigued by the structure of “Danny,” as I’m understanding it based on this quick description you’ve given. It makes it sound a little bit like a literary version of the early 90s movie Slacker, or something. Care to tell me more about the book? Also, I’m curious about your revisions. Do you typically pare things down—write large, then cut?

I’ve got a really bad memory for movies. I saw Slacker years ago—at least I think I did—but I can’t remember a thing about it. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been ripping it off relentlessly ever since though. Subconsciously, I mean. I obviously have almost no control over my own mind, so, yes, something like that is entirely possible.

“Danny” is set in that nebulous, not quite bilingual small town at the center of my head. It has three, maybe four “storylines.” There’s the Lon Barney story—or adventure. Then there’s a woman called Baby whose house has been wrecked in some sort of flood. She’s just trying to stay reasonable, even though she realizes how insane it would be not to go crazy. Then there’s Baby’s mother, a pseudo-clairvoyant who lives in a hotel like something out of a Joseph Roth novel. Danny is like a ghost in the background. You see him now and again. It has a lot of stock American stuff in it, too, I’m noticing. I mean, in “Thoreau” there’s all that corn and all those pancakes, not to mention the ghost of Henry David Thoreau. Diners and gas stations. What does it all mean? I don’t know. But it’s coming along. I sit down and go crazy on it for a month or so, then I do something else. “The City is Killing Me” is the other one. Right now, though, all I want to do is write short stories. I mean really short stories. Like 1300 words and you’re done. That’s the perfect length for me. These longer ones can really drag you into the wilderness. And when they get you out there you’re like that guy in that movie, the one with the boulder on his hand. Alone. Isolated. Nobody even knows where the fuck you are. Stuck there in a sort of delirium, carving into yourself with a tiny blade, sucking the blood out of your own arm.

Man, that sounds awful. Why would anybody want to do something like that?

I wish I wrote large, but I don’t. That must be amazing—just to tear loose and thrash out like 1200 pages in six hours and then hack it down to 350 and whittle it down to 233. Then you tell everybody how you had this heaving 2000 page fucking manuscript pressing up against your leg for eight years, salivating all over you. But I could never do that. I write medium, I guess. Or even small. Tiny sometimes. Then I go back and remove the crappy parts (hopefully). I like revising. I get to a point where the thing almost stops getting longer and starts—would gestating be a stupid word? It starts growing from the inside, if that doesn’t sound too disturbing. Sort of swelling up with life. Until one day you find yourself out there in some nameless canyon, pinned down and gibbering at the petroglyphs. Sucking the blood out of your own veins. That’s when you know it’s going good.






Photo by Theo Jones on flickr