Thursday, July 8, 2010

Brian Joseph Davis on Family Jewels and Really Saying Something

In the 13th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Brian Joseph Davis, author of Ronald Reagan, My Father (ECW Press), answers a few questions about his work.   

Describe one of the stories in your collection.
In “The Gift of the 12th Congressional District of Michigan” it’s just before the 1980 election and a broke, right-wing campaign manager is trying to keep his job by stealing his late father’s genital jewelry. I know that sounds absolutely insane but the scenario is based on a true story, in the same way Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home” came from a true story.

When I wrote my story, I really wanted to challenge myself not to go for easy satire, and I hope I didn’t, but if a reader wants to dig and find out the kernel of truth that started it, it won’t be too difficult. And if they don’t, I think it’s still a successful story.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
That’s pretty subjective and maybe dependent on the conditions the stories were created under. Some might want a story collection to be a fake novel.  Other people may like genre and form hopping. You can argue for both. The stories in Ronald Reagan, My Father started life in lit journals, commissions, theatre works. Some might say it’s a dog’s breakfast, but dogs seem happy enough. 

Ultimately what a reader wants from either approach is a voice. Patton Oswalt once described the middle-of-road comics that fill up open mike nights as “funny, but not really saying anything.”

Put another way, when I interviewed the British author Toby Litt, he said the most important quality for him was for someone to have a sensibility when writing.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
Having done a fair bit of work as a media artist and collaborating on theatre projects, I always try to hear a story told out loud as I write. Even my two most experimental works in the collection, “Voice Over” and “Johnny,” both of which came out of performance monologues, manage to tell stories, if you let them.

Probably even more than that, my work on the short fiction site Joyland— reading submissions, working with writers—has taught me more about writing in the last year than anything else. Too much, some days.

Who is your favorite living author and why?
It’s sad that I can’t answer Kurt Vonnegut any longer, but he was a writer I came back to in my thirties and discovered completely new things. Who could I try that next with? Pynchon? Roth? I’m going to go track down a copy of The Breast now.