Friday, March 21, 2008

Rusty Barnes Talks about Writing, Sex and Food

Earlier this year, I reviewed Rusty Barnes’ flash fiction collection Breaking It Down, which I likened to an exquisite Japanese Buddhist meal with its a tray of tiny dishes, each serving up a tidbit of austere, perfectly-crafted, and ultimately enlightening fare. Today, I’ve asked Rusty to stop by to answer a few questions about writing, sex and food—in that order--with a special Japanese treat waiting for you at the end. Please note that Rusty is sporting a ‘Redneck Express Trucking’ cap in his author photo which is very much in keeping with the themes of his book.

How is writing flash for you different from writing a longer story?

It's honestly no different, for me. I begin all my stories by writing a flash, pretty much. I get some characters, I develop a scene, I see how they react, and if the story plays out after 500 or 1000 or 1500 words, I call it a flash, polish it and send it out. If I sense the story needs more development—or if I want to develop it—I do so, usually in short sessions of an hour or two at a time (that's all the time I get in a day to write). Even my longer stories tend to be short. I don't think I've written a story of more than 5000 words in ten years. The long ones are just too difficult to publish. I have nine or ten older long ones that have been through the rejection mill. I assume, since much of my material from that time was eventually published, that it's more a factor of their considerable, um, girth, that they're not published.

How has your experience as editor (and founder) of Night Train changed what you do as a writer?

It's changed me tremendously. I no longer dick around in stories setting a scene or trying a more lyrical approach, for example. While that's fine for many writers—I like a lyrical, slower approach sometimes, too—I find that I have little patience for stories that don't get started quickly. As well, I have read so many stories by now that I think—think being the key word here—less and less about whether I'm good enough as a writer, as I used to, and more about what I'm trying to do in a particular story or poem. It's given me a sense of place. There's nothing like a litmag for judging your own work. If you see what's out there being submitted, some of it truly excellent and breathtaking, but equally as much vomitous and awful, you can judge for yourself where your work falls in that range, and can sense much more accurately what you have to work on.

How much of Breaking It Down is “autobiographical” in spirit, if not fact?

It's all autobiographical in spirit. Completely, unequivocally. I have felt all these emotions.

As for the actual facts of the stories, yes, of course, all true. I have been a child who lost his sister, a Harley-riding punk expecting his first child, a woman trying to heal her husband with sex, a woman sleeping with her young brother-in-law, and perhaps especially, considering your blog, a veteran cocksman of many a ménage a trois and swinger's event.

Shape-shifting does come in handy for a writer! Many of the stories in your collection deal with sexuality and its consequences. Was it easy or hard to write the sex scenes? What role does sex play in your stories in contrast to the classic agenda of erotica? (Which I’ll define here as to arouse as well as reveal character—the role of porn is simply to arouse).

The sex comes, pardon the expression, pretty easily for me. I mean, there's the point-A into slot-B notion of sex in stories (nearly a must for contemporary stories with any grit), and there's what I try to do, which is to say what happens, how it happens, and to reveal what details seem most germane to the characters. In 'No One Left to Care About the Fat Man,' from SmokeLong Quarterly, the narrator's wife shaves her pubes. Nothing remarkable about that, and in the moment of writing, I had no intent of anything symbolic, I was simply trying to show the wife's desperation and the husband's complete inability to relate, but I realized later there's probably something deeper going on. She's laid herself bare, her most intimate parts, brain excluded, and he's rejected her. But to actually answer your question, I don't see much difference between erotica and litfic, except that one arouses while revealing character, and one doesn't, generally, but each can do the same thing for the other, given the right circumstances, if that makes sense.

It makes a lot of sense, we’re definitely on the same page there. Now, tell me about the process of arranging the stories in Breaking It Down. Were you trying to achieve a particular effect or experience for the reader?

I meant to keep my favorite stories at the beginning and end, selfishly, and to achieve something like a wave theory: a big wave comes in, maybe a couple smaller ones, another big one, maybe three smaller, then a big one, all having different impact, but all of them getting you wet, too.

“Wet”? You know, Rusty, we really do have a lot in common, but on to the signature questions here at Sex, Food, and Writing. Describe your dream writing project (marketability doesn’t matter here)—and what is next for you as a writer?

In a perfect world, I'd take the first three months of the year to write a novel draft, a month or so for poems exclusively, and whatever I felt like the remainder of the time, editing and writing as I saw fit, which is pretty much the life I have now, minus the novel. ;-)

To wrap things up, I’d like to pose two questions that I’ll ask all authors I interview on my blog. The first asks for a little background on the inspiration for an image or scene in your work. One of the most memorable images in Breaking It Down for me—one that will change my view of erections forever—is from your wonderful opening story “What Needs to Be Done.” A woman is having a literal roll in the hay with her nineteen-year-old brother-in-law:
“Purl had laid the blanket out already, wisps of hay stuck to his hairless chest. As I loosened his jeans, it wagged at me like a finger, an accusation I could never answer to anyone’s satisfaction but my own.”

So, how did you come up with this remarkable image?

I have no idea. I put my fingers to the keys, it came out. I wish I had a mystical explanation. I will say that's one of the few images I used that I knew instinctively was exactly right.

Finally, describe a perfect meal that would be guaranteed to seduce you—at least into an intimate discussion of the writing life by candlelight, if you have other commitments that don’t allow for more!

The perfect meal, if I'm feeling remotely cultured: sushi, sashimi, a full bottle of Bombay Sapphire, a plentiful supply of limes and tonic. There's something so erotic about the proximity of fingers and mouths and slippery fishies, the hot towels, an inattentive wait staff—many things become possible, given those circumstances. On the other hand, a good band and some cheap beer, liberally applied, with a plate of cheese and bacon fries with ranch dressing would work just as well. Fuck the calories.

The inattentive wait staff is definitely key—especially if you’re in one of those private tatami rooms. Thanks so much for stopping by, Rusty. It was a pleasure chatting with you and best of luck with your new novel.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very nice interview. Rusty's writing is second only to food and sex.

Sue Miller said...

"As for the actual facts of the stories, yes, of course, all true. I have been a child who lost his sister, a Harley-riding punk expecting his first child, a woman trying to heal her husband with sex, a woman sleeping with her young brother-in-law, and perhaps especially, considering your blog, a veteran cocksman of many a ménage a trois and swinger's event."

That's right, Rusty... deny, deny, deny!

What a great interview. For those of you reading who haven't picked up "Breaking It Down" yet--what are you waiting for? It's amazing.

Ken Clark said...

This interview was a wonderful meal: the ending commentary about sushi finished off a great read.

I enjoyed Breaking It Down and look forward to Rusty's next book.

Leslie Evans said...

Rusty Barnes is THE MAN!

kaolinfire said...

I'm too full for the food, but the sex sounds great. Rusty does know how to lay it on.

Perhaps I've said too much. ;)

Maryanne Stahl said...

excellent interview. hits all the right notes.

Mikael Covey said...

Interesting stuff about the writing. I agree - there're a million things to read at the various lit zines - so if you give me a slow beginning...I'm gone to sumpin else.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Excellent interview, Donna and Rusty. 'Breaking it down' is one of my favorites.

Don Capone said...

Great interview, guys. Breaking It Down is a fantastic book. But please, for your next collection, use this picture as your author photo! Classic.