Corey Mesler’s publishing credits comprise a long, long list. Actually, several lists, since he writes fiction and poetry. He has published four novels, Talk: A Novel in Dialogue (2002), We Are Billion-Year-Old Carbon (2006), The Ballad of the Two Tom Mores (2010) and Following Richard Brautigan (2010), the full-length poetry collection, Some Identity Problems (2008), and a book of short stories, Listen: 29 Short Conversations (2009). He has also published a dozen chapbooks of both poetry and prose. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize numerous times, and two of his poems have been chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife, he runs Burke’s Book Store, one of the country’s oldest (1875) and best independent bookstores.
Notes toward the Story and Other Stories is a book of disparate parts, a sort of Frankenstein monster of a collection. And indeed there is a monster story, as well as a ghost story, an angel story, a mystical religious story, and a mystical secular story. Some of the work is experimental, some of it is outlandish, and some of it is as simple and comforting as a home-baked pie. It is the full range of the author’s short fiction gifts on display. They are made of gypsum, bituminous coal, red bricks and whimsy. They are equal parts crassitude and chimera. The final story, “Publisher,” the book’s longest, concerns a man working for a vanity press who discovers “the real thing,” a novel he is convinced will blast a hole in the complacency of modern literature. About “Publisher,” John Grisham said, “It’s not only funny and clever, it reminded me of the first 80 pages of Sophie’s Choice. Great work.” The stories have previously appeared in The Pinch, Orchid, Ghoti, Gargoyle and other fine periodicals.
Miles Gibson, author of The Sandman and Hotel Plenti wrote of Notes toward the Story, “Here is a collection of mischief and delight. Corey Mesler’s short fictions afford a peek into a parallel universe in which we find ourselves reflected in new and surprising disguises. At times his writing evokes the subversive surrealism of Flann O’Brien and at others the lyrical dreamscapes of Richard Brautigan, but Mesler is always his own man, with a sharp ear for dialogue and a steady eye on the wobbling orbit of modern life. Notes Towards the Story may easily become one of your favourite bedside companions.”
I sit down (virtually) with Corey to pick his brains on writing in general and his work in particular.
CR: What is the most challenging part of being a writer?
CM: For me, it is staying healthy enough to do the work. Since I am semi-retired from my bookstore, I have the time to devote to new projects but because of my erratic health, physical and mental, I have days where I accomplish little. A couple of years ago, I had, what we have been calling, a “summer of darkness” and I didn’t think I would pull out of it with my wits intact. (Some might say I didn’t.) I was especially bummed because I thought I had permanently lost the concentration necessary for the long haul—the novel—which is my favorite thingamajig to write. But that focus has slowly returned to me and I am feeling better in many ways. As anyone who knows me knows, I have had a wee bit of trouble with agoraphobia and panic attacks and overall anxiety over the past, oh, 55 years or so. But, I feel better now, due to the loving attentions of my ever-patient and sapient wife, and the abler therapist I have now, who is a vast improvement over the harpy who tried to kill me during the summer of darkness.
CR: What is the most rewarding part of being a writer?
CM: Listen, I never thought I would have this much stuff published. I used to say that if I could have one ISBN attached to my name I would die happy and go to the great bookstore in the sky a contented scrivener. I didn’t publish my first novel until I was in my 40s. So I am very happy with what I have accomplished in the last ten years and feel very fortunate to have landed with some wonderful small presses and to have my work out there, tottering along the taut tightrope of modernity for me. Out there in the walking-around world, as opposed to inside the virtual reality Skinner box of the internet, or inside the cloistered walls of my agoraphobicave, there exist these little enchanted paper and glue objects which bear my name and which carry within them my cast-off shreds of ingenuity. Imagine that.
CR: Your short story collection, Notes Toward the Story and Other Stories, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books at the end of June 2011. How does this book differ from your other fiction publications?
CM: It’s really my first book of stories. The other one I published, Listen: 29 Short Conversations, were all tales constructed around a single conceit (like my first novel), and that is that they are all made of dialogue. This new book is a little bit more of a challenge for my writerly skills, a stretching of my so-called wings, or at least that is what I have attempted to do. As such, I am very anxious about its success. It is both more experimental (because of the diversity of styles) and less (because I am not relying on the conversational trope, but, instead, for the most part, attempting to lay out plots, characters, settings—utilizing the more orthodox building blocks of fiction.)
CR: You’ve had the honor of having your poetry selected for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. Did you ever have the opportunity to talk with Mr. Keillor or communicate with him? I can’t imagine the feeling of having my poetry read by Mr. Keillor on his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. What was that feeling like for you?
CM: I’ve never spoken to Mr. Keillor personally, except many years ago, long before he read my poems, at a bookseller’s convention. He stands out in a crowd because he is 8 feet tall, and I simply went up to him and said, “Hi.” I think it was the highlight of the convention for him. Regarding the appearance of my poems on his show, it went like this: One of his staff members contacted me each time so I can’t say I have a personal relationship with him. I am, however, thinking about having my vasectomy reversed so I can name a child after him. This lucky happenstance came out of the blue. For the initial poem I received a phone call at the bookstore. It felt like falling in love for the first time. It also felt like being in front of an auditorium in my skivvies. I had no idea how he found that poem and only learned later that publishers routinely send him their poetry books. And they sent a check and a CD of Mr. Keillor reading my work. Then a few years ago, it happened again with a second poem, from a different book of mine. That was in 2009; the poem was “God Bless the Experimental Writers,” from my first poetry collection, Some Identity Problems. I felt like Sally Field. I wanted to tell anyone who would listen (meaning only my wife) that he likes me, he really likes me. So that was very exciting, twice. And, in addition to the great national exposure, damned if they didn’t send me a check each time. The inclusion of the poem in the new anthology, Good Poems American Places, seems like lagniappe. The anthology had a first printing of 50,000 copies. This is an audience increase of about 49,990 over any other of my poetry appearances. And, again, they sent me money!
CR: What are you currently working on?
CM: I am very happy to say that I am about 14,000 words into a new novel. It’s a story I’ve been meaning to write for some time but, for the reasons already iterated, I couldn’t get the damn thing started. It will be another short novel, about 45,000 words, I think, and will be much more conventional in design than my other half-baked experimental works. I am also, as always, pecking away at new poems. Lotsa poems, like manna from Heaven. Or maybe like acid rain. And I have a cockamamie idea for a chapbook that I hope I am clever enough to pull off.
CR: Where do you see yourself as a writer in the next decade?
CM: Deceased. Or living in a mansion with a cement pond, bought with the money I have made selling my books to Hollywood. I don’t see any happy middle-ground available to me. Seriously, I just want to keep writing. The feeling of writing, the actual process, is so much more fulfilling than any attention you may get from publication. If I can put another novel out, another book of stories, another collection of poems, that would be deluxe. But, mostly, I just want to confront that vacant space, the page, which in my new version of Microsoft Word is called “New—Create,” (a challenge and a benison,) and say to its blank stare, I have something I wish to aver. I have something I’ve thought of that you might want to hear, my cater-cousin, my last reader.