This week we welcome American author, Trevor Dodge, to The Book Diner. I first became aware of him after reading his blog entry on teaching writing classes which a mutual friend shared on Facebook – it was probably the gutsiest, most emotive and outright smart piece I’d read for a long time on what matters in writing and how to communicate that to students, so I got in touch with Trevor and since then we’ve been sharing pet pictures and snaps of our lunch with the best of them! Trevor is currently working on a memoir and has fascinating things to say here about memory and storytelling, but he’s also had a collection of flash fiction, The Laws of Average, published, along with many other pieces, after being taught by greats such as Kathy Acker and David Foster Wallace, so his insights on literature, the power of handwriting stories and the role of academic courses in authors’ careers are also incredibly shrewd. Oh, but don’t be too shocked at how cool he is – he has a kickass writer mom who apparently taught him it all! (I am now a big fan of Mama Dodge who is Bonnie Dodge, a great writer herself!) Breathe in the eloquence and braininess here.
Q: Can we take your order – coffee, tea or soda? Eggs sunny side up or over easy? Home fries, French toast or biscuit?
A: All of the above, please. And don’t chintz on the Tabasco sauce.
Q: When did you realise you were a writer?
A: Not very long ago. Seriously, like not even like two or three years years ago. I’d been writing a memoir for a while and had an early breakthrough in that project, where I discovered why I’m drawn towards storytelling and listening to others tell their own stories. My memory up until probably around age 10 works like a skipping record. I can’t construct solid timelines for some of the most basic things, and the gaps between points on that timeline can be crazy wide. Crazy wide enough that I had to invent stories a long time ago to bridge them, stories that I’ve always known aren’t memories. But you know, then again, is there really that big a difference between a story and a memory? Once I had that question lodged in my head, it wouldn’t come out. And it still hasn’t.
Q: Can you tell us about your latest project?
A: One is the memoir I was just talking about, and it feels like I’m about 60% of the way on a first draft of that. It’s primarily about how I broke the cycle in my family’s ugly, generational history of neglecting and sexually abusing children, and how videogames played a crucial role in that. But it’s probably more about how memory works for me, how if it’s not like a skipping record, it’s sort of like magnetic tape we use to record audio. How particles arrange themselves and then rearrange themselves and then try erasing themselves and then leave behind this smear of something you can definitely hear but can’t discern in high enough fidelity to be certain that you’re hearing what you think you hear.
The other is my third short story collection that Subito Press is bringing it out in May 2017. It’s called He Always Still Tastes Like Dynamite. It’s comprised mostly of very short pieces that first perform various expressions of toxic masculinity, and then, in their juxtapositions, call out those expressions in a way that attempts to eviscerate them. In other words, it’s an intentionally difficult collection that has a large cast of cruel, violent, self-absorbed, and emotionally-stunted men who are mostly going through the motions of being the kinds of monsters patriarchal culture is constantly rewarding them for being. [Sounds amazing – my doctorate was on masculinity!]
Q: Do you write longhand or on a computer or both? Do you believe that writing method makes a difference to style?
A: My second collection, The Laws of Average, was a breakthrough for me in terms of reinvigorating/recalibrating my writing process. For nearly 20 years prior to writing the stories that would eventually comprise that collection, I composed exclusively on a typewriter or word processor. I’d never written very much longhand outside of the notes or blue book exams I took in high school or college. The first story I wrote that became part of Laws was composed at 30,000 feet on an airplane in a Moleskine notebook, because I didn’t have the elbow room to crack open my laptop and it was a long flight from Portland to upstate New York. I had the middle seat in my row, and I was going stir crazy; whole sentences of something new were ringing in my head, but I had no way to capture them with a keyboard. I’d started carrying small notebooks to keep track of dates and to-dos for the courses I was teaching, but it had never occurred to me to use them to, you know, do actual writing. I’m slow like that. By the time the plane landed, I had most of the guts of that story. But more than that, I felt a physical attachment to what I’d written in the notebook because I had scrawled every letter of it onto paper in ink. When you handwrite something, you don’t just have words. You also have radiative energy. You don’t just have the words you wrote. You have, more importantly, traces of the fever you had when you wrote them. You can see how quickly or slowly they came. You can see all that scribbling you did through entire sentences and paragraphs, and having that stuff when you go into even preliminary modes of revision can be some of the most priceless stuff in the world. And all that physicality seems to have stayed with all the stories I’ve written that way. Laws feels much more visceral than conceptual to me, and much of the new collection feels that way too.
Q: How do you approach research?
A: I’ll defer to the Beastie Boys (as well as show my age) here: You can’t you won’t and you don’t stop. Always be reading. Always be open. It’s a total cliche to say all of this, but I’ll say it anyway: the best ideas for stories usually come when you aren’t trying to find the best idea for a story. And the flipside to that is this: when you’ve found the best idea for a story, you’re aren’t done with your research. There is always another detail, another description, another anecdote. I don’t believe a single human being has ever told the complete story of anything; for me, it’s all in medias res, and where stories live is inside the framing of some big fat middle. So there’s always going to be extra stuff oozing out of the frame. And always means always.
Q: Name one book you wish you had written and explain why it’s fabulous.
A: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. I’m a total sucker for epistolary storytelling, because the reading experience is so intimate and voyeuristic. There’s that swoon of danger, of picking the lock on a lover’s diary or rummaging through their dresser when you shouldn’t even be anywhere near the neighborhood, let alone in their bedroom. And in that novel in particular, Goethe so completely captures the haunt and prison of loving someone who cannot or will not love you back. Using an epistolary structure, Goethe is able to deliver Werther’s quest for authenticity in ways that more conventional narration and structure just can’t. That story isn’t about heartbreak; it is heartbreak itself. Every time I re-read or teach that novel, I’m totally destroyed by it. And that’s what makes it fabulous. The poet Li-Young Lee once told me that being in the presence of a true work of art should bring you to your knees. The Sorrows of Young Werther is a work of art that doesn’t stop with your knees. It doesn’t rest until you have fingers, toes, forehead and chest all down there in the gravel as well.
Q: How do you deal with autobiographical elements in your work? Do you worry about offending people or baring your soul too much?
A: I don’t think a writer can bare her soul too much. It goes with the territory. There will, of course, be people who don’t understand this. If a writer is worrying about offending those people, she will never write a single word. And that to me is the way larger offense. Remaining silent, pulling punches, these are not things writers do. We live. And we tell the tale.
Q: How do you handle the rejections and bad reviews all writers experience?
A: Every time a piece of mine gets rejected, I send out three more. Not because I’m impervious to those feelings of rejections, either. Because of them. I’m particularly sensitive to rejection, and doing nothing makes those feelings far far worse. So when I feel them, I force myself to do something to repurpose the energy. Most times that something is constructive, but there have been times when it was not, and those mis-steps are things I try to learn from going forward. Learning how to navigate rejection is particularly tricky for writers because there’s just so much of it inherent in the process of sending work out into the world.
Q: What are your feelings about the growth in self-publishing? Would you advise emerging writers to self-publish or pursue a traditional book deal?
A: In my own creative writing courses we end up talking about this a lot, how some of the stigmas we used to have about writers self-publishing their work have softened so considerably. I personally feel this has far more to do with issues of commerce and efficiency than it does anything about aesthetics or politics. On the one hand, it really might feel like we’re in a new era of publishing when New York agents and houses are trolling the best-seller lists of the Kindle store and throwing money at self-published writers to lock them in with traditional book contracts. But on the other hand, the sort of validation the traditional publishing model offers writers is largely the same golden ring that it’s always been, and when a best-selling Kindle author signs one of those New York contracts, we can look at self-publishing as merely one means to achieving the same end.
Then again, I’m probably one of the worst writers to ask a question like this because of those pesky aesthetic and political issues that keep potential readers of my work almost completely ignorant of its or my existence. I’m sure this will smack of a desperate and tired kind of hipsterism, but writing and publishing for me isn’t about making money, and boy do I have a track record to back that up. I’m among the last wave of writers who swam through academia being coached to regard self-publishing as a boogeyman because the instructors I had also weren’t terribly concerned about making money from their writing and publishing because the process in producing the work was almost always the singular focus of what we talked about, and discussing selling the work was an afterthought at best. There has been a lot of talk over the years about how the traditional MFA programs don’t prepare their graduates for very much more than careers in teaching, and I think the potential that self-publishing platforms offer writers is contributing to that larger discussion in interesting and important ways. And as anyone who has graduated with an MFA within at least the past decade can attest, teaching jobs worth having and keeping are largely non-existent. So how writers might feel one way or another about self-publishing is, in a way, kinda irrelevant to some extent because there is money to be made if they are able to find and deliver to an audience. How much money, of course, is the big unknown. And all of this presupposes how important money is in the first place to why a writer writes what she writes.
Q: Who has offered you the most encouragement and support in terms of your writing career?
A: Anyone who’s known me long enough will tell you I’m the biggest momma’s boy on the planet, so the answer here is pretty obvious. I’ve
Trevor’s writer mom, Bonnie Dodge.
had some of the most inspiring and generous writing teachers anyone in my generation and scene could have asked for—Kathy Acker, David Foster Wallace, Lance Olsen, Curtis White, Tom Spanbauer—but it’s my mother who has been not only the most encouraging and supportive, but taught me the single most important thing I know about storytelling. That thing is listening. Before you utter a single word of any story you want or need to tell, you first have to have the patience and grace to listen to others tell their stories. That doesn’t mean remaining quiet, by the way. But it does mean remaining still, remaining present. This is how stories reveal themselves. Mom taught me this by reading to me when I was little, taking me to movies, plays, musicals and literary readings when I was bigger, and engaging me in conversations about what I’d experienced, inspiring me to see these works of art as invitations to dialogue not only with her but with the larger world outside the small, dusty town we lived in. This hasn’t stopped now that I’m older, by the way. These are conversations that have widened, deepened, and ended up bringing us together when probably nothing else could or would because we were at odds. My mother [Bonnie Dodge] is also a prose writer, and has embraced the 21st century publishing world in ways that are pretty awesome. She is a constant source of support and inspiration to me. Just a couple of weeks ago she shared a sales report from her publisher showing that one of her latest novels, Waiting, had cracked into the top 100 titles sold across every category in the Amazon Kindle Store, and had moved over a thousand copies in a single day. That’s super badass for a grandmother of 7, for reals.
Someone else who’s been incredibly important to me is Ben Slotky, who is far and away my favorite fiction writer. He is also one of my closest friends. He has a collection of short stories out in the world already called Red Hot Dogs, White Gravy, and he’s currently shopping two novels that are truly incredible reading experiences. Ben’s work is at turns hysterically funny and heartbreakingly serious; the emotional range and complexity of his work can be both maddening and euphoric, and I have great respect for what he does. More than that, though, Ben is an astute and sensitive reader; never in the 20+ years I’ve known him has he ever bullshitted me about drafts both large and small. I know something is working if Ben says so, and I know I have more work to do when he says it isn’t.
Q: Where can people find out more about you and your work?
A: I’ve been online since 1994, so there are a lot of my ghosts in those machines. There might even be versions of me there worth keeping. Right now, though, I’m probably most active on Facebook and Instagram, and I also keep a blog at trevordodge.com. That blog also has links to all of my in-print and electronic work.