First, as I mentioned when I originally wrote about the collection, I'm sure
story length and placement is one of the lesser exciting aspects for a
writer to talk about, and I certainly don't want to give the impression that
this was all I liked about Spit Baths, but I just really did admire and
appreciate the variety in the collection, not only in subject matter but
just in basic story length. And maybe this is more common than I am
remembering, but it seems like collections are often either solely "shorter"
or "longer" stores, rarely mixing the flash with the more traditional
length. Of course, as I write this I keep thinking of exceptions, but I'm
going to plow forward anyway. I guess my first question is just if you ever
felt any hesitation including a couple of such short stories or if you knew
that they were a part of the whole all along or what?
Second, I wonder if you can't talk at all about the ordering of the stories.
Again, it seems more "writerly" to talk about overarching themes and
inspirations and whatnot, but I rarely hear or read much about laying out a
collection and I know it is something everyone thinks about. Was starting
with "Adam's Curse" a conscious decision to start with the shortest story in
the book, to start with a quick bang as it were, or did it just set the tone
well for the book regardless of length, or both, or neither? Also, you can
feel free to turn this into a High Fidelity-like riff about mix tapes and
laboring over getting everything just right, or the best first songs on an
album list, if it seems appropriate.
I wish I could claim some brilliant insight, but, surprisingly for me, the answer to this is simply that a long time ago I listened to somebody who had thought more about this than I have. When I was just figuring out that I wanted to be a writer, I took a poetry class from a great poet named Bruce Smith. Bruce taught us a lot of things, including how to live with your classic two monosyllabic, unpoetic names. Greg Downs. Bruce Smith. At one point, he said, "When you publish your first book of poems, don't just put them in there in any kind of order. Think about it. And try this. But your best, sharpest, meanest, slap-someone-in-the-face poem first, just sting the reader on the nose and get them blinking. Then follow it with a long, slow poem that forces them to stop blinking and start engaging." I never wrote a book of poems, though it took a while for that particular dream to die, but I never forgot his advice. Someone who picks up a book is first asking, "Is there anything in here worth reading?" and then asking, "Is this the same thing repeated one time after another?" I liked the idea of leading with two very different stories just to send the message that I am interested in writing, and that, at least on the level of form, this was not going to be the same experiment repeated eleven times. This also helped discipline me into cutting out stories from the collection. It made me think through the way that the collection had to be a collection. Not the complete Greg Downs but a thing in and of itself. At about the same time, I cut out three stories that I loved, that had been published in journals I admired, that had kept me writing through bleak periods, but that I had to kill. They were repetitive, or they represented a stage in my learning, but once I internalized the notion that the book would have to belong to the reader, not to me, it seemed obvious. So I reordered everything, put "Adam's Curse" first and "Black Pork" second, and then the book began to take shape, to fall into place.
After that, I was less formulaic. I wanted to vary story types and lengths, and I knew I wanted to end with "Between States" because it was the most open-ended, because it would leave the reader room to ruminate, and in between I tried to vary short and long, childhood stories and adult stories, straight stories and more fanciful stories.
For a while, my wife and I followed a band called Marah, a wonderful Philadelphia-based band led by Dave and Serge Bielanko. It was a great period of our life. The people who followed the band in Philly were really a special group, and it was like a voluntary family (which is to say it was not like a family.) They saw Diane get pregnant with our daughter (not literally, but they saw her pregnancy grow), saw us through happy and sad times. Anyway, Marah played loud, energetic, old-fashioned rock and roll, in some ways, but they were very savvy about varying their sets. A fast, blaring guitar song, then a slower folk-y one, and Dave and Serge talked frequently about the necessity of doing that, of lifting the audience up, then settling them down. Thinking about how to pace a show also made me think a little bit about how to pace a collection. On the other hand, I recently saw a Dead Milkmen reunion show, where the band did not vary at all, but played nonstop 100 miles an hour for close to two hours and then collapsed. That's also fun, but that's fun in a way that overwhelms the audience. I wanted to move the audience. I wanted to shift the audience from one place to another.
As far as why I write some short stories and some long ones, the answer lies somewhere between my own restlessness and my own imperfect sense of the needs of each story. "Adam's Curse" was once a novel, now compressed to two pages, so I started out thinking of it in a very different way, but the more I asked myself what was at the core of it, the more I began wildly chopping. It was thrilling; it was heart-breaking. "Black Pork" is much longer but it was a story that I knew from the beginning would only be a story; it would never be a novel. For me, the tension of the story was what I loved but also what I knew I could not sustain over the course of a longer work.
I also liked that the first story is almost exclusively about a boy's relationship with women, and the second is about a boy's relationship with men, with his grandfather. Collections of stories about childhood make me nervous; I'm not that interested in other people's childhoods per se, nor in my own. I no longer believe the idea that our personality is shaped in childhood; I no longer think that childhood is a key that unlocks the mystery of our existence. I wanted to rub against the reader's understandable urge to see my stories as autobiographical and as existing for what they can tell the reader about Greg Downs. I liked the idea that a reader would move from "Adam's Curse" asking when the mother would appear in "Black Pork" and find that she never does.