Bryan Hurt’s Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France was the winner of the 2015 Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and published last fall. If you’ve read any of the stories in The Kenyon Review, The American Reader, Guernica, Tin House, or the New England Review (to name a few places), then you know it. His voice and the stories themselves are equally fresh, strange, and imaginatively researched—Aimee Bender meets George Saunders on the pages of a National Geogrpahic magazine or World Book Encylopedia. Says TC Boyle of the collection: “Bryan Hurt’s stories are like no one else’s. They are by turns hilarious, whimsical, arresting and heartbreaking, but what makes them such a delight is the sly simplicity and off-handed charm of their telling.” And it’s true—the stories are charming. They are whip-smart and challenging, yet absolutely pleasureable and fun to read. Bryan thereby strikes a balance between writing innovative fiction and upholding a promise to entertain his readers that is worth celebrating or—if you haven’t read them—definitely worth checking out.
In one of my favorites, The Beast of Marriage, the wealthy but famously ugly 18th Century Thomas Day (who can’t dance) adopts two girls in the hopes of raising one of them to be his wife. In another, we meet Alan Bean, the actual fourth man to walk on the moon, thrust into a sad but beautiful world of under-appreciated artists. I’m lucky enough to know Bryan from graduate school at the University of Southern California, and recall a trip to the MOMA where we were encouraged to take a good look at Rauschenberg’s Monogram (Angora goat meets used tire, for the uninitiated). So many of Bryan’s stories remind me of what is so unusual, sponteaneous and oddly emotionally resonant about the unexpected juxtaposition, or marriage, of that goat and tire. Bryan is also the editor of the successful Watchlist, an anthology of stories on surveillance, to be re-released from Catapult Books this spring. To read some of Bryan’s newest fiction, and latest nonfiction and critcism, check out his website at www.bryanhurt.com.
Bryan took a little time out of his very busy writing, family-rearing and teaching schedule to tell us a little about the life of a short-story writer, what motivates and inspires him, and the source of some of these truly wonderful stories.
Bonnie Nadzam: Percival Everett, one of our teachers in Los Angeles, once told me it was the easiest thing in the world to tell a student they shouldn’t pursue writing as a career, and much harder to tell someone with the ability that they should brace themselves for the life of being an artist. Have you ever wanted to quit trying? Or hear from someone that you probably should? We have so many colleagues and friends with first-rate fiction struggling so hard to get their pages into book form, and even after publishing a first book, you face again the blank page. Is publication the reason to keep going, or would you have kept going without the official publishing industry acknowledgement that you are, as it were, “a writer”?
Bryan Hurt: I guess that’s one way that Percival and I are different—that and Percival is a confirmed genius and I, on my best days, struggle to tie my own shoelaces. I would never tell anyone not to pursue this (although I’d caution them against going into debt in order to pursue an advanced degree in writing). Making art is hard and being an artist is even harder. By my estimation there are about a million things in the world that will try to dissuade you from being a writer, not the least of which is the lack of material well-being and financial compensation. When someone asks me whether or not I think they should give it a shot, I always tell them to go for it. I don’t want to be one of those million things, and really there’s no way of telling who’s going to make it and who isn’t. I think talent plays some role in it, but only a very small one. Discipline matters an awful lot and so does luck and perseverance.
I count myself as very lucky. So far I’ve been able to meet my material needs met while also being a writer. Of course I worry that my fortune will change and I’ll have to figure something else out, although I have no idea what that would be because there’s not a lot else that I’m very good at. But I’ve never thought about quitting, at least not seriously. Some days I’ll struggle with the page or suffer a minor setback or some kind of rejection and wish that I could go back in time and become an investment banker. But that’s not realistic and I don’t think investment banking would make me any happier. I like writing and I like being read and I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to doing it. If nothing else I’m very stubborn.
BZ: You’re young enough to get an MBA or go to law school—but you won’t, right?
BH: That’s the same as the investment banker fantasy, and they’re all variations of “the grass is always greener.” My dad’s a lawyer and my wife is a very talented business person. I only have to watch what they do for about half-a-minute to realize that I don’t have the head or the heart or the stomach for it.
BZ: You spent some years writing “Everybody Wants to Be Ambassador to France,” and over these years, submitted it many places, to several contests. It finally wins the prestigious Starcherone Prize for Innovation Fiction, which comes with publication. But–after 15 years, the independent press for innovative fiction is closing its doors, struggling financially, and yours is its final title. How has this affected the experience of your first book publication?
BH: Publishing anything is really hard—a story, a poem, an essay, a book, it’s all hard—and so I think any time you’re lucky enough to do it it’s cause for some celebration. You’re right that I did send the book out a little before it was picked up by Starcherone, but each time it was rejected I was more relieved than disappointed. The book wasn’t ready and I knew it, but I was trying to fool myself otherwise. Luckily the editors weren’t fooled so easily. When I saw that Alissa Nutting was going to be the judge for the Starcherone Prize I sent the latest draft of the book and was cautiously optimistic. Alissa had rejected some of my earlier work when she was editor of the Fairy Tale Review, but she’d been really nice about it. Even after the book won the prize I did substantial edits. That’s the first thing I asked my editor at Starcherone when she called me about the prize. “I’m so embarrassed,” I said. “Can I change it?” I think that the published version of the book is almost 100% different.
It’s sad about Starcherone, and it was obviously something I knew about and that was hanging over the book the entire time it was in production. I wish that there had been more money for things like publicity and distribution, but I also know that Carra Stratton and Cheryl Quimba were working at and running the press as essentially volunteers and am grateful for their enormous efforts. I think that even without marketing or publicity the book has been getting some pretty good attention. My agent is looking for a new publisher to take over for a second printing, and I have every reason to be optimistic. I think what happened at Starcherone was an anomaly and doesn’t really signify any larger trends in the industry. As far as I can tell independent presses and short stories are thriving. I mean look at all of the really great independent presses: Catapult, OR Books, Graywolf, McSweeney’s, Coffee House, Melville House, Tin House (so many houses!), Two Dollar Radio. Adam Johnson recently won the National Book Award for his story collection; Phil Klay won last year. I think it’s a great time to working with independent presses and writing short stories.
BZ: It was not the first-book experience of multiple radio interviews, publisher-paid book tour, etc. Nevertheless, your book is getting great press. How did you do it?
BH: With a lot of help from my friends! Before the book came out I made a long list of names and emails. I called in favors, I asked for help. More often than not people were very generous. One of the authors who blurbed the book wrote an email along the lines of: “Phew! I really liked it!” This was particularly gratifying because I’m a big fan and so it was nice to know that there’s some kind of real and mutual admiration. But it was also good to hear because I want the book to be liked. I hope that it stimulates some kind of pleasure center. I think the people who’ve read it out in the wild are picking up on that and that’s one reason for the good reception. Recently, I was talking to a woman who read my story “Moonless” and she said, “It made me laugh!” Like this was some kind of surprise to her. I think it’s easy to forget that art runs the full spectrum. When we encounter “serious Literature” we tend to focus more on the tears than the laughter. But there’s room for both. They might even come from the same impulse.
BZ: The stories in this collection are beautifully written–fresh, engaging, surprising. They are–as its reviews and blurbs support–really good. I happen to know you write very slowly and deliberately–that just one of these terrific short stories, from start to finish, can take several months, or longer. How, given all the demands of our modern life and of raising a family, and the fairly insubstantial money and recognition most fictions readers get, have you come to the decision (no doubt repeatedly) to spend so much time and heartsblood writing stories? Why does it matter to you?
BH:When you put it that way: why write short stories! You’re right that they take a long time to make, very few people read them, and there’s almost no money. The conventional wisdom used to be that if you wanted to make some money you should write nonfiction, but I think this was poor fiction writers who were telling me this. Someone recently told me there was money in video games, but again: poor fiction writer. Money and recognition are bad reasons to do anything creative, although both are nice. Artists should be paid for their work, even short story writers, because the work has value. When we give it away for free we send the wrong message. At the same time you can’t be unrealistic. I never expect anything more than a token amount or some kind of trade. The new startup Literary Hub pays in ad space, which I think is really generous. I support myself day-to-day by teaching college creative writing classes, which is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I was in college taking creative writing classes. I always figured teaching would be part of the equation since I’m not making the most commercial art in the world (a teacher who really hated me once called me “perversely uncommercial,” which I used to think was kind of funny but now think is actually pretty cruel; I want my work to reach and be enjoyed by as many people as possible, nothing perverse about that). I’m really lucky that I’m not an adjunct anymore, so at least they’re not paying me poverty wages.
As for why stories, once you put the whole impossibility of the thing aside? I don’t mean to sound flip, but the most honest answer is because I like them. It makes me feel good to put more of the stuff that I love out into the world. Stories make me happy. Longer things make me happy too, and right now I’m trying to figure out how to channel my joy into that form of expression.
BZ: The voice and the aesthetic of the stories in “Everybody Wants to Be Ambassador to France” are very distinctive. Was this always your natural writing voice and style, or did they develop over time? If the latter, what was the process? And how/when did you know you’d found something that “worked”? Is your current work coming out in the same voice?
BH: Nothing comes “naturally” to me when I write. It’s all hard work, especially making sentences that sound like “me” or like anything else. When I started out writing—probably like when anyone starts out doing anything—I developed a sense of what was “good” or of what I liked pretty quickly. The next thing I developed was a super keen awareness of how far away my own work was from anything that I admired. I’d read something good, write something of my own, and hold the two things side by side. I couldn’t even squint and pretend that my work looked okay by comparison. I stunk and wanted to figure out how to stop stinking. One thing I noticed is that all of my favorite writers sounded precisely like themselves. I decided that if I wanted to stop sucking at writing then I’d need to figure out what I sounded like. While I was doing this voice searching I think I tried on everyone else’s voice to see what fit. I wrote lots and lots of bad and maybe-not-so-bad imitations. But even if the work wasn’t bad per se, I always felt bad about it because I knew I was trying to trick myself into thinking that I had something—a voice—when in fact all I’d done was steal someone else’s. Somehow through all of this trial and (mostly) error, a voice emerged although not as quickly as I would have wanted. Even in stories that were completely derivative and garbage there’d be sentences that didn’t suck and that weren’t like other sentences that had already been written by someone a million times better. Eventually more and more of these types of non-sucky sentences found their way into my stories. What’s cool is that during this long process (undergraduate and the beginning of grad. school) I had friends and teachers who helped me find my way. I think it would have been very easy to shut me down, to point out what I was doing badly or how baldly I was copying. But I was really lucky to find myself in a place where mostly no one did this. Instead I was gently and consistently nudged in the direction of what was mine and good, and even then I was given lots of room to stray and fool myself and fail. I’m thinking of readers like you, of course, and teachers like Aimee Bender. I think you both have the tremendous wells of generosity and unique talents for seeing what is true in the story. Like shrinking the story down to that one microscopic atom of truthfulness.
All that said, nowadays I don’t worry about voice as much. I write dull sentences all of the time but when I do I usually delete them and try again until I find something that feels better. First sentences are still important to me. First sentences communicate a lot—maybe more to writers than readers. They present a rhythm and logic that I try to follow across the rest of the story. Lately, I also find that I try to be much more attuned to the emotional effects of my writing. How might this make readers feel? And more importantly: what are my imaginary people feeling?
BZ: Sometimes when I read fiction, I think: Why didn’t I think of that? But when I read the stories in this collection, I think: My God, I would never think of that. Even so, I find your voice and style infecting whatever I try to write next. I know you to be a spirited creative writing teacher. How do you avoid teaching students to write toward your own aesthetic, process and ideas, and to instead come to find their own?
BH: Once I had a student write about me in her post-class review: “I have no idea what he’s like as a writer.” I read this and I thought two things: 1.) Google? 2.) What a tremendous compliment!
I make a pretty big effort to not teach my aesthetic or anyone else’s. The literary world is huge and diverse and what I do represents only the tiniest fraction of it. When I teach writing my job is to introduce students to possibilities. We read lots from lots of different writers and my approach is: “You can do it like this or you can do it like this or you can do it like this or you can do it however you want to do it (by standing on the shoulders of giants).” Ultimately you’re giving them lots of models so they can move in their own best direction. If any of my aesthetic seeps into this it’s that I think that we should feel something about what we’re writing. You teach writing as a craft, and you talk about it as a craft, because it is a craft, but that approach can also be somewhat antiseptic. When we write we’re communicating and conveying emotion. People care about what they feel when they read, not about how well made the story is.
The one thing I would never do is assign my own work to my students. I think it speaks to a limited understanding of how writing works (“this is how it worked for me so I will teach it because it must work that way for everyone”) or a misplaced egotism. Teaching is often very performative because you’re working hard to hold lots of peoples’ attention. I think some teachers confuse being the performer with being the star of the classroom. In a lot of ways the teacher is the least important person in the room. You’re a leader but you’re leading in a support role. The job is to serve everyone else and hopefully help them arrive at some greater understanding.
BZ: “This is how it worked for me so I will teach it because it must work that way for everyone” is unfortunately a destructive pedagogy I came across at least once as a student of writing. “Creativity” instruction in any form that comes with directions strikes me as laughable if not insidious. One teacher we both shared—Aimee Bender—is so good at teaching without teaching, isn’t she? And TC Boyle once told me that creative writing teachers “don’t really teach at all” (or shouldn’t). I sense from the response to my last question that you agree. So what is it we’re passing along when we talk about art, and how to make it? How would you do it if you weren’t part of academia?
BH: Aimee is so good. Her instruction is so strong but also so incredibly subtle. I’d sit in the classroom and try to figure out her teaching style as much as I was listening to anything that anyone was saying. The same goes for Tom. He’s selling himself short. He gave each story a very thorough, close reading and then we’d talk about it in that context. What was most instructive in those classes were the moments when I’d find myself disagreeing with him. Here I was, a 23-year-old-know-nothing, disagreeing with T.C. Boyle, an undisputed master. It didn’t happen often but when it did I’d have to think very hard about what I thought I knew about storytelling. I’d have to question assumptions about how I thought fiction worked or I’d have to double down on my old commitments. Almost none of this happened in class because I didn’t have the distance or self-awareness. It was only after, when all of us grad students were drinking beers at the 2-9 and going through the play-by-play of the workshop that I’d begin interrogating my own opinions and assumptions.
I think that’s what we’re doing in workshops, maybe all we can do. No matter what your teaching style is, the goal is to plant seeds and show possibilities, shake people out of their comfort zones and try to give them the tools to see the work in a different way. If we were capable of doing anything more, then writing would be easy. We’d all know the right way to do it, and everyone who wanted to would know the formula and be a successful writer. But that also sounds very boring.
I guess if academia offers any real advantages it’s that it exposes you to teachers and writers who take seriously their jobs to help you expand and enlarge your understanding. And it gives you all of this exposure and room to practice in a rigorous and somewhat disciplined setting. But that’s not to say that you can’t get it on your own. Read widely. Challenge assumptions, both your own and what the gatekeepers have to tell you about “great” literature. Stay away from people who say “no” about your dreams, even if they’re being kind of realistic. Surround yourself with other people who make things.
BZ: Fiction/non-fiction—one of the most distinctive and interesting aspects of the stories in your collection is that you seem to write in a liminal space between these two genres. Your beautiful story “The Fourth Man,” is in fact based on the fourth man to walk on the moon, and I know you interviewed him “in real life.” Tycho Brahe (the subject of “Tycho Brahe’s Moose”) never had a moose. Mr. Brahe can’t object to his story, but Alan Bean (the fourth man) might object to his. Has he read it? And can I give you a short list of “real” people from my life that I’d like you to write “fictional” stories about? Is there any danger in writing from this liminal space?
BH: I don’t have a grand theory. I think the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are very slippery, especially when you look at that particular subset of nonfiction called “creative nonfiction” (as opposed to journalism). Both genres are concerned with the truth, they just approach it from different angles. Fictional truths and nonfictional truths seem to me to ultimately be about emotion, experience, empathy.
I sometimes like to use my own experiences as the seed to grow a story. My story “Honeymoon,” for example, resembles the honeymoon my wife and I took pretty closely. We went to Paris and Île de Ré and were sick pretty much the entire time. But I don’t think the emotional experience that the couple in the story has is the same as our emotional experience. I took what happened to us as a starting point and then tried to let the story develop its own logic. The same is also pretty much true of the story “Submission Attack,” which I published here in Tin House. I really got the rejection letter that begins the story, although I changed and edited it a little to make it look worse than it actually was. They wanted me to write a “real” story so I thought beginning with their letter was a good starting point. The character in that story resembles me in a lot of ways (the upstairs neighbors with the big dog, the financial crunch, the fear of getting older and not having accomplished much). It’s a true story in the sense that the emotions are true. I think a lot of legitimate nonfiction writers would disagree with me about my casual attitude about the facts. But I tend to think of stories more as “stories” and not necessarily as binaries like “fiction” or “nonfiction.”
As for Alan Bean and “The Fourth Man,” I don’t know if he’s read the story, although I suspect that if he has he wouldn’t like it. I did interview him and the interview didn’t go well. I’d encountered him through his own art first, and through some other works of art made about him, and had made some wrong assumptions about him, essentially confusing the art and the artist. For a long while I was ashamed of the interview and didn’t do anything with it. I’d initially intended to write an essay about him and his paintings, but after I talked to him I didn’t know how to write it. Still the feelings that his work evoked—longing, sadness, a desire to recapture past glories—still remained and so I set out to write the story. There are factual “truths” in the story that correspond with Bean’s autobiography and the history of the Apollo program. But the “truths” that brought me to the story were always more subtle: truth of experience, truth of feeling. I don’t know if I got these “right” or not, although for me they seem to resonate.
That’s what drew me to those “historical people stories”—Bean and Brahe and Thomas Day. A sense that the emotions underneath the biographies resonated in some way with my emotions. I’ve tried writing about other real people too, but those stories haven’t worked because I couldn’t quite empathize with the people I was writing about. That’s a danger. Over intellectualizing the subject. Thinking your way in instead of feeling.
All of which is to say, sure! Who do you want me to write about? I’ll give it a shot.
BZ: What are you working on now? With kids and teaching and moving every year or so, and all the bills and daily bread etc., do you have a routine? Or is it steal time when you can?
BH: There are a couple of new stories in the works and a longer, novel-y thing about airports that needs more attention. I’m interested in seeing if I can turn something out pretty quickly and have been trying to talk myself into a big dumb action-and-popcorn screenplay just to see what it’s like to do one. But as you said it’s been a tumultuous couple of years—I’ve been moving around a lot, taking one year teaching jobs here and there all across the country. I’ve lived lots of places and made lots of friends, and I’m grateful for that. But more than anything I want to get into a groove because it has been lacking.