The following is Part One of an interview I did about "Buddhist Catnaps & Broken-Down Hymns."
Hope you enjoy!
Q: So, I’ll ask two questions you likely get most often to start off with. First, what is a Buddhist Catnap, and secondly, why short stories?
A: Yep, those would be the two. Well, because I didn’t want to make the title too enigmatic, I did offer the answer to the first question on the opening pages of the book. Kurt Vonnegut is a favorite of mine and he used the phrase in his collection, Bagombo Snuff Box. He said that short stories were more like Buddhist meditation than any other form of art, because they invite you into a very experiential immediacy for this brief window of time. Your breathing slows down, you have this very present experience with a story, then you return to your life, hopefully a bit more enlightened than you were going in. That’s certainly my hope with these stories.
Q: So, is the book inspired by Buddhist thought?
A: Some of it is, just from my own readings and experiences, but it’s not assuming to offer any answers courtesy of a particular dogma or belief system. It’s just a whole bunch of characters in search of redemption. Some find it, some don’t. Sorta like life.
Q: And the other burning question...
A: Right. As for “why short stories,” I know they aren’t the popular medium they once were. The days of O’Connor and Carver are long gone, but there are still terrific short story writers out there. Alice Munro just won the Pulitzer for her work, and guys like T.C. Boyle continue to carry the flame. I concur with Raymond Carver when he said he didn’t have the attention span to write a novel. That’s me in a nutshell. Plus, I like the minimalism of short stories. Maybe there’s a fear there of committing to something as sweeping as a novel, having to evolve characters for 300 pages rather than 30, but I keep going back to my favorite short story writers, which are songwriters. While operas are majestic and epic, I love that I can walk away from a song on “The Ghost of Tom Joad” or “Excitable Boy” and have a pretty full sense of story and character. And what’s not there, the composer trusted me enough to fill in with my own experiences and point of view. I don’t know, maybe I don’t have one grand statement I want to make, but a whole bunch of smaller ones. Short stories give me that outlet.
Q: Have you ever thought about writing something longer?
A: Yeah, in fact, Buddhist Catnaps started as a novel called The Puzzle of Autumn. I got about 120 pages in and abandoned it.
Q: What was it about?
A: It followed a trio of post-Katrina characters, based on the improv format called a “Harold,” where three seemingly disparate stories begin to weave together. I had two stories about people getting out of New Orleans and one about someone trying to get in to capture the destruction. She was a photographer - and she made it over into the current book in a story called “Jigsaw Falling.” And I’m reusing the title The Puzzle of Autumn for another story I’m working on. So, I got a protagonist and a story title out of the deal. We’ll see where that goes.
Q: Why did you abandon the novel?
A: I didn’t think I had anything worthy to add to the Katrina story, and it took me that many pages to figure it out. By the time I was that deep into it, other books were out there, like Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun. I just felt it was too terrible a tragedy for me to write about it and somehow get it wrong. I kind of feel like - for me personally - I need a certain stake and perspective on something to write about it, and if I put something out there that doesn’t feel genuine, I’ve made a huge misstep.
Q: Why didn’t you feel qualified?
A: I love New Orleans, but I don’t know the city well enough to speak to what happened there as anything except an outsider. And I knew that I wasn’t going to go on some journalistic expedition to become a second-hand expert. The idea of a comfy middle-class white guy writing about the tragedy that befell a largely poor, black community - fictionalizing aspects of it, specifically, for dramatic literary effect - just didn’t set well with me. And the stories themselves were floundering. Too many loose ends. If I wrote 120 pages as nothing more than a writing exercise, it was worthwhile. Plus, it gave me a chance to develop a strong female protagonist for a 30 page short story that emerged a couple of years later, so I’m not complaining.
Q: And that’s the story that is set in San Francisco, right?
A: Yes. Based on the Golden Gate Bridge suicides, a real story too, but one that isn’t as much in the collective public consciousness.
Q: People jumping from the bridge?
A: Yes, it’s apparently the most popular location to commit suicide in the world. So much so that there’s a documentary about it. A guy set up a camera for something like a year to capture footage of people contemplating leaping, and others actually falling. He did it in an effort to urge the local principalities to put up some kind of safety netting or higher railings that would deter jumpers.
Q: So that story has some historical elements to it.
A: Yes, but we - my wife and kids and I - spent a month in San Francisco on vacation the year I wrote that story. I became intimate enough with it as a jumping off point. God, that was unintentional. What I mean is, the jump from the bridge by a character we never meet is just a place to start unwinding the photographer’s story, as she accidentally - and at first unknowingly - captures footage of his jump. It’s much more her story than his. She and he both are, in a way, jigsaw pieces falling into place. But San Francisco was impetus for a lot of this book.
Q: How so?
A: I’d been treading water with committing to writing. I’d abandoned the novel and was just noodling around with a few shorter pieces. Then, we went to San Francisco and I said, “Well, if I can’t get inspired to write here, I’m doomed as a storyteller.” The city is so rich with literary culture - all of the The Beats, Kerouac and Henry Miller in Big Sur, Mark Twain lived there. Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers. We stayed right down the street from City Lights Bookstore and Cafe Trieste, which is where Coppola wrote a good bit of The Godfather screenplay. It’s sort of a city that defies you NOT to write.
Q: So, did you?
A: I did. Ideas started flowing. Then I came home and - through the urging of a friend - did the National Write a Novel in a Month project. It’s called Camp NaNoWriMo.
Q: You’re gonna have to spell that for me.
A: I know Catchy, huh? You commit to a handful of other writers that you share a “cyber camp” with online that you’ll write 1200 or so words a day, every day, for a month. The idea being that by the end of the month, you’ve got about 40,000 words, which is either the makings of the first draft of a short novel, or a hell of a lot of momentum for a longer novel.
Q: Or a bunch or short stories?
A: Yep. Some only a page long, some twenty or thirty pages. But I wrote. Every day for a month. I was really egged on by seeing how one lady, in particular, was outpacing me, and two or three other writers were slogging behind with their commitment. I tried to keep up with the lady who was just on a tear, and tried to encourage the others to just write, no matter how crappy they think the writing may be. Just put on the page. It was a safe environment to find encouragement.
Q: You mention the really short stories. This book does have a few - I wouldn’t even call them stories. They’re more like monologues or prose poems.
A: Yes, and my first copyeditor discouraged me from using those. Said I should fill a second book with that style of writing because it’s too jarring to the reader to go from a 200 word piece to a 10,000 word piece. But, naive though I may be, I still like to think of a story collection in the same way I think of a record album. Look at how short some of the songs on The Beatles’ White Album are, but they don’t need to be longer. They establish a mood but don’t linger.
Q: Would you call your shorter pieces poetry?
A: I don’t begin to believe I know the first thing about poetry, except how to appreciate it as a reader. And even then, I fall far short of where I would like to be. I try to employ poetic language, to be sure, but poetry is...it’s beyond my reach, at least for now. That’s Mozart, and I’m just playing free jazz...or three-chord Velvet Underground rock.
Q: Speaking of music, not only is music a thread in a lot of your stories, but you also repurpose song titles as your own story titles. Are you using pieces of the songs for inspiration as well?
A: In some cases. In the case of “Dry Lightning,” which is a Springsteen song, it comes from an album (The Ghost of Tom Joad) that is filled with border stories, immigrant stories. That whole album served to inform my story titled Dry Lightning.
In the case of “Rough God Goes Riding,” that’s a Van Morrison song title that I acknowledge borrowing in the story itself. Van’s not the kind of guy who would take kindly to such a hijacking based on how he feels about having been ripped off by everyone in the business the past four decades. But I just liked the title. My storyline is far different from the basis of his song. Another jumping off point.
“Jigsaw Falling” is part of a Radiohead title, and “The Art of Almost” is Wilco.
Q: And “I’m Your Man” is Leonard Cohen.
A: Yes, but Leonard is a character in that story, so it’s very much an homage. While I’d never deign to send the story to his manager or anything, it’s a story that I would hope he would appreciate. I tried to present him the way Tom Robbins described him. As Zorba the Buddha, a man as fully in touch with sensual pleasures as he is with spiritual seeking.
Q: Would you say the central theme of the book is music?
A: Music is probably the most thematic thread through all of my stories, more than redemption, more than any Buddhist or spiritual elements. I listen to music while I write, I listen to music when I’m brainstorming about what to write about, and most of my best ideas are set to some sort of soundtrack. In the case of the Radiohead and Wilco songs, I can’t even tell you what the lyrics are. Thom Yorke and Jeff Tweedy are both masters at abstractionism. The songs just evoked a mood that I began writing to, and the titles sorta stuck. I moved away from using song titles where I felt it was dicey, so as it is, three or four titles got changed at the last minute.
Q: Such as?
A: Chasing Cassiopeia was originally called “Hang On St. Christopher,” which is a Tom Waits song. Traveling Light was called “A Train to Cry,” based on a Dylan title. But I found other ways to capture the essence of those and went with it. I make no bones about wearing my influences on my sleeve. When Billy Joel was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he admitted that he was “as derivative as hell,” citing all the influences - R&B, Motown, Brill Building, and so on - that influenced him and that he wove into his music. I confess to the same. You don’t have to be a detective to see where Raymond Carver or Kerouac, or Springsteen or Zevon for that matter, got his fingerprints on my manuscript. They did it better, certainly, but they give me something to strive for.
Q: So, you’re saying you’re the Billy Joel of short stories?
A: (Laughs) Sure. But the “Allentown” Billy Joel, not the “Just the Way You Are” Billy Joel. There’s a difference.