Josh Denslow’s Not Everyone Is Special has been been out since the end of March. It’s great. You should read it. I think we started this conversation in February. Today is the 21st of July. I’m not sure what day it is that you’re reading this on the internet, your internet. We started this back and forth, over email, in the year 2019. I’m not sure what year it is for you where you are, on the internet, seeing this in its final form. I’m not even sure if me and Josh are still alive. I’m not sure if the earth is still around. For your records, we started sending questions to each other over email. We did that for a while. People got sick. People traveled. Bones were broken. I lost my job, I found my job. Winter changed to spring and then summer showed up. Then at some point our conversation moved to google docs. A game changer. Copy paste. Copy paste. We had a pretty involved conversation about fiction, short stories in particular, life, love, etc. but then just when we were close to sending the conversation to the editors of wherever you are reading this I deleted most of my end of the conversation so what you see now is more of an interview than a conversation. Maybe this piece will be posted sometime in August 2019? September, the latest. January 2020? Alright, thanks a lot for reading this introduction, please share it widely on your social media (if that still exists) or just tell people about it, it could be that eventually storytelling will revert back to the way it used to be long ago, when Homer, if there was a Homer, sat blind around the fire, if he was blind, and told travelers about the adventures of Odysseus, if he’d even had Odysseus in his version of the Odyssey, who knows. Point being, if we aren’t sure how a story goes, it’s fine that way too.
Bud: Congratulations on your collection. Where were these stories written. How were they written?
Josh: I don’t have a special place where all my writing has to take place. I do have a standing desk I made out of IKEA bookshelves and an IKEA tabletop. It’s a great place to write. If I get there once a week I consider myself lucky. The desk is big enough that I can write at one end and my three boys (all under 5-years-old) build LEGOs at the other end. It’s perfect. The rest of the time I write in stolen minutes throughout the day. On breaks at work. At the kitchen table while I’m waiting to eat. Propped on a dresser in my room after everyone goes to bed. I still have my youngest in a crib in our room so that’s like stealth writing. I don’t get to say all the dialogue out loud or crack myself up. I prefer to have my laptop because I have the worst handwriting and I hate coming up with a great idea I can’t read later. But I do write while I’m driving and I have a Moleskin journal I use for those purposes. Traffic lights are my best friend. I don’t have a specific time day or any special rules. If I get to write anything, I win!
Bud: The title of your book, and its cover illustration reminds me of a talking point I hear from older white Americans, that the millennial generation is weaker than theirs (boomers) because every kid who plays on the team gets a participation trophy. Is your title is a play off that?
Josh: That’s a really interesting question. I didn’t mean it as any kind of statement like that, but I know exactly what you’re talking about. This idea that because everyone got a trophy, that means you didn’t work as hard. I think that complaint is really based in perceived work ethic and how the older generation was formed in the 40-hour work week and giving your life to a company and discarding everything that made you young. They think being acknowledged for showing up makes you weak. You have to be proving your worth all the time! They are harder on the young generation because ultimately, they are unhappy with themselves, and deep down they just want a trophy too! But nope. Not what I was thinking when we did the cover. I was pretty happy with the title of the book because it really tied together all the characters. I’ve been told I write about slackers and I think that’s fair. So when I went to Jessica Fontenot, the cover artist, we sat down a few times and really brainstormed what the cover should be. I very much wanted it to tap into the vibe of the book. I loved a lot of those simple New Yorker covers they had at the time. Like that one with Trump on the sailboat with the hole in the sail. So Jessica read the stories and we just let it percolate. Any idea I had didn’t read as “funny” to me. And though the stories are ultimately kind of sad, there’s a lot of humor in there. Then it just hit me. Wouldn’t it be funny if we created a big blue ribbon that said simply Not Everyone is Special? Jessica got to work on it and I think it really gives the collection an identity. I couldn’t be happier with it. Sure, it’s a ribbon that says Not Everyone is Special, but it’s still about getting a ribbon. And how much that might mean to someone. But what was most important to me, was that the cover image get tied in with the book. That they couldn’t exist without each other. I noticed with a lot of your books, the covers have big bold fonts and the title might take up the whole cover. I especially love the cover for WORK. Are you cultivating an aesthetic? How much thought do you give to cover art?
Bud: Thanks about WORK. That was one of my welding jackets. The blue font is the jacket colored in with yellow grease stick. One of the least talked about aspects of a creative project such as a short story collection is organizing the order of the short stories. How did you figure out the order for your collection?
Josh: It really is all fun, isn’t it? I’m currently planning a release show in Austin for my book. Since I’ve been playing in the local band Borrisokane here for years, I thought I’d set up the show more like an album release than a typical book release. I booked the best club in town on a Friday night and we’re running two stages of bands and DJ sets and for the reading portion of the night, I’ll have a string quartet. Basically I just want everyone to feel how fun my book is to me! And I also mention this because it kind of factors into how I organized the stories in the collection. I’ve heard this analogy before, but I really did attack it like an album. I read the end of a story and then the beginning of the next to see if they flowed together. I also thought about length and tone. I tried to mix up the longer and short stories and I tried to separate stories that I felt were tonally similar. I spent an inordinate amount of time swapping stories, but I love the way it flows now. I thought your Double Bird had a really nice flow and structure. What was your thinking behind the different numbered sections?
Bud: I numbered it like that because it felt right to do. Usually I try not to think too far past that. Where are you headed in your next project?
Josh: I guess the thing about stories is that if you do happen to go back and think about them, you’ll think about them in a different way. I’m kind of obsessed with this idea that what you’re writing depends on the moment you’re writing it. When working on longer stuff that you can’t crank out in one sitting, you might have whole days of lived life before you get back to it. That’s going to change everything. If I wrote a scene on Tuesday and then the same scene on Thursday, it would be completely different. So for me, a lot of writing depends on when you decide to show up. The story grows like a child, but it also becomes a chronicle of you. So once you say it’s done, it has to be done. Because any looking back will be colored by your time away. It’s like seeing a picture of yourself when you were younger. It’s not just about thinking you looked weird or dressed funny, it’s also about being so far away from that mindset that you don’t recognize yourself at all.
So with all that being said, my collection is done and I have already strolled away from it. Instead of existing as individual stories with past lives, it’s now an artifact that will be rooted to this time right now. I think that’s why I was so excited to work on the cover with the artist and give it a visual identity. The image of the book as an artifact will be what stays in my mind as I continue working on new projects. But having a collection out gives the stories a chance to be read that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. The stories go back nearly ten years and most of them will be new to anyone who picks it up. I’m starting to see reviews and hear from people who have read it, and much like your dad, I’m confident NOT EVERYONE IS SPECIAL will go off into the world and find readers, and I can’t worry about it as much. I have to trust it’s on the right path.
The interesting thing about my two new projects is that they perhaps would not have come about without this collection. Since Leland at 7.13 Books told me almost two years ago that my book would be coming out in March 2019, he challenged me to write some new stories during the time I was waiting. One of the stories I started began to feel much bigger than a short story and it is currently 100,000 words with no end in sight. The other stories I was writing were clearly unified by theme and didn’t actually fit this collection. So I’m almost done with a new collection called MAGIC CAN’T SAVE US where every story involves a couple breaking up and a magical creature. I’m working with an artist on that one too, but this time actually creating an illustrated book, and I’m excited to see what happens with it.
I love that your stories can seem so strange and yet so personal at the same time. Like I’ve gotten to know you through your stories. And WORK is autobiographical. I tend to shy away from anything that resembles me in my stories. I don’t know if I have a question here, but I’d love to talk about that.
Bud: Anybody can do whatever they want in fiction. Whatever they want, to themselves and the reader. The last story in Double Bird, I die from hiccups. When I’m buried in my coffin, I hiccup on and on. That’s what art is to me,the artist hiccuping across the River Styx, the reader standing at the shore.
Josh: I loved that hiccup story. Hearing you talk about this stuff makes me want to jump in and get more personal but I know I won’t do it. I’d like to think that my DNA is still in my stories. It might not be about me, but it’s about the way I see the world. Actually, a lot of what I write is more like alternate reality me. Like how I easily could have ended up. It’s a close examination of parallel universes.
Bud: How did your release party for your book go?
Josh: It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Trying to avoid hyperbole here, but for real. It was amazing. Rebecca and I play in a band in Austin called Borrisokane. We’ve been at it for a bunch of years and have a lot of great friends. When my book was coming out, the only way I could make sense of it was like an album release. I teamed up with a friend of ours named Trish Connelly who is the best booker in town for the best club in town. I wanted to have readings and performances and art and just an overall celebratory vibe and she wasn’t scared of putting something like that together with me. We had my favorite local bands on two stages as well as an amazing set by Thor Harris and upbeat DJ sets by The Octopus Project who just make me happy. They are wonderful. Multi-media artist Matt Steinke created a piece for his robotic instruments and he performed with me during my reading. I somehow talked Rachel Heng and Owen Egerton into reading with me at the start of the night. It was surreal. I put the thing together for months and promoted and then if I think back on the night, it’s hard for me to picture every aspect of it. It happened around me but I don’t know if it fully happened to me. There were a lot of moving pieces and I don’t know if I’d set up another release where I’m reading and organizing bands and also setting up my drums to perform with Borrisokane. It was overwhelming. But it was the exact party I was picturing, and I’m grateful to everyone for indulging me. The outpouring of love from the community stunned me. Laurie Gallardo gave the show a shoutout on her Austin Music Minute show on KUTX and then I started getting texts from people I hadn’t talked to in years saying they’d heard about the show on the radio and sending me congratulations. The club was packed with people and my cover artist Jessica Fontenot set up a booth to sell her prints. Then the very next day, I went back to real life. And real life is pretty great too.
Speaking of real life, I saw you’re leading workshops out of your home. Tell me about how that came about. If I lived near you, I’d be there for sure.
Bud: I got just a little too sick of the internet thought it’d be nice if I had the internet come over to my place, so we could talk it all out.
Bud Smith is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books), and the short story collection, Double Bird (Maudlin House), among others.
Josh Denslow is the author of the collection Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books). He lives in Austin, Texas.