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Duff Man, Oh yeah.

8612461Cyrus Duffleman is an adjunct university professor fighting to reach the end of what seems like the single longest day of his life. From dawn till midnight, he sprints amongst four different educational institutions where students test his patience levels–particularly the ones with a raging sense of entitlement and blind patriotism–and where tragedies such as suicide and murder go down. In the rare moments when Duffleman does catch a breather, he can’t help but stress about his financial limitations, school administrative bureaucracies, and on a more personal level, crippling loneliness, which emerges in his daydreams of what-if scenarios.

Occasionally, Duffy doesn’t always make the most rational decisions, but we sympathize with him since he just can’t seem to catch a break. On top of dealing with an aching knee, empty wallet, the chronic fear of not having his classes renewed, he falls victim to internet phishing scams, temptations gone awry, and losing control of classroom discussions. He also strains to come to terms with his failed pipe dream of writing a novel:

[Duffleman’s] terminal degree states that he has a “Masters” in theso-called “Fine Art” of creative writing, and he applied years ago, long before the seven deadly sins of literary blockage—daily drudgery, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, lack of talent and ambition, and above all, laziness—stole away any chance he had of concentrating for long enough to produce anything even loosely resembling a work of art, or tight and tidy enough to be considered that marketable commodity, “the contemporary novel.”

Despite the stressors and personal doubt, Duffleman never ceases to put his full effort into his work and his heart into the community. He tutors students for minimum wage, often gives away his last few dollars to those he feels need it more, and at the very end of his long day, he helps end a domestic terrorist attack.

An author with a phenomenal writing ability, Alex Kudera has written a powerful debut novel about perseverance, and seeing through not only work but life commitments with dignity, respect, and most of all, unyielding passion.

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Dave K recently released a collection of steampunk stories drafted and fine-tuned throughout his creative writing degree program at the University of Baltimore. He’s generously taken the time to allow me to interview him about his collection How To Stone A Pig, his writing process, among other interesting tidbits.

 

L^2: You have a unique writing style in How to Stone a Pig; it’s almost Victorian intellectual but modernized with interjections of blatant Gen-X vocabulary. In your own words, what was your literary angle?

DK: There are two angles at play with that, actually. I felt like a combination of semi-formal narrative voice and modern casual dialogue would be both a fun anachronism to play with and a way to build up the surrealistic tone that I wanted for this collection. Speculative fiction (or genre fiction, whatever you want to call it) is uniquely equipped to do stuff like that, so I wish more writers in that ouevre would take advantage of it.

The other angle is that I didn’t want readers to think I was trying to sound British. Most people associate anything Victorian with England, after all, and I wanted a more American sound to my work because that’s where I’m from and where I live. The best way to achieve that, I thought, was through informal, American vernacular dialogue.

L^2: Throughout your writing career, who have been your greatest influences and inspirations?

DK: The writers who’ve impacted my voice the most are John Bellairs, Robert Louis Stevenson, Philip K. Dick, Douglas Adams, Hunter S. Thompson, and Dave Barry. I’ve made it a point in recent years to build up a more diverse reading list, but those six guys grabbed me early.

My inspirations aren’t writers at all, for the most part. A lot of them are musicians: Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins, and Lemmy being the dominant three. I like people who are stubborn and unorthodox and get away with it without sacrificing their curiosity along the way (which is why G.G. Allin is not on this list). There are some visual artists who stir something up in me, too; Edward Gorey is a big one, as is Ralph Steadman, and I really like J.M.W. Turner’s work, even the more Impressionistic stuff he did late in his career.

L^2: Who are you reading now and name the last 3 great works you’ve read, and why.

DK: Right now I’m working on my friend Justin Sirois’ book, Falcons On the Floor, and also reading Ekaterina Sedia’s The Secret History of Moscow. They’re both fantastic.

As far as great works go, I’ve been singing the praises of Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun to everyone everywhere – the prose is both gorgeous and graceful. Ander Monson’s Other Electricities is also a phenomenal book; the structure is as poetic as the content. And while it’s not a novel or even a piece of fiction, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life is a thumping good reminder that you don’t need traditional channels of patronage and distribution to be a working artist. Hell, you can even be riddled with insecurities and behavioral disorders and still make a go of it.

L^2: How has your formal education at University of Baltimore in Creative Writing and Publishing changed your approach to writing? The publishing industry?

DK: Well, it broke any lingering desire I had to work in the publishing industry, that’s for sure. But my MFA program introduced me to a lot of people who believed in my work and helped it grow. I don’t absolutely have to write from anger or cynicism anymore, as I once did, and it’s much easier for me to draw inspiration from other things (music, visual arts, etc.) now. To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, I have a lot more keys on my piano these days.

Most importantly, my MFA program helped me really enjoy writing. I went through a phase where I was pretty bitter toward it, because I felt like I wasn’t good at much else and had therefore been shanghaied by fate into writing. I feel much differently now. There’s more joy in my process now than ever before, and that makes it a lot easier to tell stories.

L^2: As a writer, describe your writing process.

DK: A lot of things change depending on what I’m working on, but I tend to be a night owl who doesn’t start writing until well after dark. I need to listen to music while I write, and lately I’ve been exploring experimental/ambient music; lots of soundscapes and long, droning instrumentals. What I’m listening to has a direct effect on my narrative voice, so it’s fun to listen to different things and pick out the changes they make in my writing.

I also have trouble concentrating in my apartment, so I often go elsewhere to write. Coffee shops and libraries are my go-to places right now.

L^2: There are some creepy and somber photographs woven in between each piece of How to Stone a Pig. Did you create them? What were you trying to highlight by placing them where you did in the collection?

DK: I did create those images, yes. They’re a mix of public domain photography, stock photos, hand-drawn stuff, and clip art, all fed through Photoshop sketch filters and layered with grunge textures to give them a worn-out, used look. I really like combining text and image – it brings me back to being a kid and tearing through John Bellairs books so I could look at Edward Gorey’s weird, wonderful illustrations.

Creating those images helped my writing, too. It’s easier to find the right words for things when you’re seeing what your characters see, and I’d like to think the images contributed to the overall mood of the collection.

L^2: Some of us are familiar with the genre of “steampunk,” for those who aren’t, would you mind explaining the genre?

DK: Steampunk has a lot of definitions, but I like to think of it as science fiction set in the Victorian/Edwardian era. Victorian interpretations of fashion, technology, art, politics, and culture are centerpieces of the genre, to the point where it can veer into alternate history at times. There’s also a pervasive man-against-the-world element to steampunk protagonists, which is where that “punk” part comes in, as well as a sense of optimism about human potential.

That said, a lot of steampunk literature is overly focused on the technology and aesthetics, and so there’s a lot of empty, rich-guys-in-airships fanservice as a result, but it’s such a clever and provocative setting when it’s done well.

L^2: I recall you mentioning that this collection was part of your thesis. Can you tell us about the journey to getting it from concept to print?

DK: All the stories in the collection were written at various points during my time in the program, and the first semester of my final year was an advanced fiction workshop where my classmates and I wrote some new stories and revised old ones and put together the manuscripts that would become our self-published books. The following spring was the thesis semester, where we all revised our manuscripts, thinking of them as whole collections rather than just clumps of stories.

Once my manuscript reached the point where my advisor signed off on it, I got to work designing the thing. Page size and layout, margins, typeface, all that stuff. I also designed the cover. That whole process was grueling, but I imagine it would be a festival for someone more OCD than me – there are so many mental doorknobs to touch, and the Adobe suite just enables that tendency in people.

My book design had to be approved as well, and I contacted a printer once it was. That was the most stressful part, honestly. Not because of the printer, but because that was the first time the book was actually out of my control, and they were far enough away that I couldn’t watch them physically assemble the books to make sure they didn’t do anything wrong. It was like sending my manuscript to summer camp for the first time and hoping the counselors would keep it from drowning or being eaten by bears or something.

When the books arrived, it took me a minute to accept that they were real, that all the stress and fatigue and countless hours of resetting paragraph indents and making Photoshop collages finally had a real, physical presence. I’ve never been prouder of anything in my life.

 

 

L^2: Big thanks to Dave for taking the time to chat. I’ve also highlighted a few of my favorite stories below of How To Stone A Pig in a flash review.

One of my favorite stories was How to Adopt a Cat, a story written in a somber, almost sedated tone, fitting of the protagonist’s state of mind post-psyche ward release. He touches on what it’s like to feel like an outsider in the “outside world,” and how the hustle of passersby created a deep-rooted anxiety for the protagonist. One of my favorite passages is: “When the conductor passes by and tells me my stop is next, I can only nod. My speech has slurred during the years, and I’m hesitant to converse above my station. When he leaves, I pat myself down to make sure I still have my papers, that none of them have fallen out of my pocket, that I am real and solid and free of that wretched place.”

My other favorite was a disturbing piece titled The Experiment, a story that draws on the haunting and eerily creepy images of a man strapped down and electrocuted by a sadistic doctor without concern for safety or well-being of his subject: “Few words native to English or any other language are fit to describe how Mr. Crisp felt. Suffice it to say that the second-to-last thing coursing through his mind was a brief, white-hot, explosive realization of complete and total independence from everything. He flushed numb from fingertips to brain as electricity folded him into thin, sharp creases. The last thing to go through his mind, of course, was the fatal shard of current that popped his eyes like paper bags.”

There is inherent melancholia woven into Dave’s mature writing and bizzaro story lines. Reading this collection induced occult sensations, and though I was not always 100% certain about a story’s intent or direction at times, the literary ride was a psychedelic journey, and one worth taking a few times over. Check out his collection in limited availability here: www.beeohdee.blogspot.com

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Cross the sounds of The Killers with a dash of Journey, and garnish it with Thursday’s Geoff Rickly (if Geoff Rickly had a British accent that came and went), and you have the independent sensation PK. Every one of their songs is amazing, but three on their full-length album in particular are ones worth checking out first.

What defines a good song? To me, it’s one that retains a bit of musicality in the vocals, lyrics I can personally relate to, and how well the moving parts (bass, drum, and riffs) fit together. PK’s song 1920 is filled with nostalgic and heavy lyrics such as “My brother’s home in the darkness/Oh I remember how she was still/It haunts me in my evenings/Where will this set me in the stars?” This particular song is a great example of a piece that’s melodic but not to the point of being generic or predictable.

My favorite song off their album Into the Roaring is called Roam, which I interpret as this guy pining over his female friend who, like many stereotypical masochistic women, chase after the same asshole time and time again and no matter how many “lessons” they say they “learn,” they still end up in the arms of the next asshole. How could I decipher all of this you ask? In bits and pieces of the lyrics, “Roam/But it’s never going to change your ways/No, it just won’t change a thing/I know I’m never going to break your heart/Roam/Till it leaves you feeling old/But he’s never going to take you home.”

London is upbeat, a story perhaps of an overseas affair, told through lyrics that are terribly romantic without being cliché or tacky: “It takes me back to my hometown/My first kiss/Down under oak trees/Does it take you back to your chateau/Or Marseilles down on the seaside/It takes me back to my hometown/When you kiss me/I feel the whole train shake.” The music is a bit on the poppy side, the chorus sounds like popcorn might if it was exploding out of a drum set, but it works, and the bass line grants the quieter parts justice without overkill, and it’s all this that makes me believe this is PK at its finest. “’Cause it ain’t never felt like this/I swear I’m not fooling/Yeah, you floored me/Why I’ve never had a kiss like yours/I’m drunk still.”

They have multiple acoustic videos online, one of Roam

and another of 1920 brilliantly shot in the middle of a moving elevator 

and their music video of London, a one-shot production of Hawley migrating through the caverns of a train

To top it off, they are giving away their full-length album Into the Roaring for free at their website: http://www.pkband.com/ Keep a look out for their EP soon to be released. It’s one that I look forward to most in 2011.

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Prize Winners is a take on human behavior and what we spend a good portion of our lives doing, everything from inexplicably idolizing celebrities to nursing an addiction to obsessing over intimacy issues to having and/or thinking about sex, sex, and more sex.

There were tender moments that hit hard, moments strategically masked with contemporary voice in pieces like Motherhood. Take this excerpt: “Girls in porn have never been mothers. Molly knows this. They haven’t felt the pain of pushing eight and a half pound miniature humans into the world through their vaginas, or had their nipples bitten and sucked raw by thirsty infants. This is what Molly tells her husband, Bill after she checks the history on their internet browser and finds he’s been looking at sites like milfbang.com or wankstop.com. Sure, the sex has been closer to unusual than infrequent, but shouldn’t Bill be happy he’s getting any?”

And there were stories about damaged relationships intermittently interrupted with a sex scene or two: “It’s been a month since we lost the baby and we’ve been fucking like a tornado ever since. I slam into her like I’m trying to punish her uterus, and she clinches tight around me like she wants to be torn in two. People say there’s a first time for everything. When we got pregnant my father told me marriage was a lifetime of firsts. But sometimes you have to test the mattress a thousand times to make sure it’s right. Sometimes you have to act like every moment is the goddamned last.”

Many stories focused on people with OCD-like compulsions or character flaws fueled by some subconscious desire or internal void. The protagonist in A Culture of Bacteria was driven to madness because he found his girlfriend’s huge dildo. Then there was relationship drama induced by petty arguments like the lack of gifts in funny-because-it’s-true observation, “So I go through the perfumes at Macy’s, Mervyn’s, and every other store in the mall. The bottle is nearly thirty bucks. For two ounces. I think about all the shots of Jack Daniels I could be doing for thirty dollars. The lap dances I could get when my boys and I go out after work. But I want to make Beth happy, so I buy the perfume.”

Sometimes it’s hard to absorb the constant mention of bodily things like periods, semen, boners, and it seemed like someone was always naked, having sex, jerking off, getting sucked off, spanking or fantasizing about being spanked. Occasionally, stories crossed into the bizzaro: “Once, when I fucked Tinkerbell, thirty glowing lights sprang to life in the dark static air of the by-the-hour motel room.”

I’ve read a good portion of Bradley’s published and unpublished material, and Prize Winners may not necessarily represent his finest work, though I do look forward to what he has in the wings with Black Coffee Press, Artistically Declined Press, and his design ventures.

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Review – Talismans by Sybil Baker (C&R Press)

I’ve been a fan of Sybil Baker’s writing for quite a while now. She’s witty, intellectual, and one of the most down to earth liberal female writers I’ve ever read. Her book The Life Plan published in 2009 through Casperian Books was filled with intelligent hilarity. Think Bridget Jones meets Carrie Bradshaw on a goose chase through Bangkok and beyond.

The recent release of Baker’s sophomore novel Talismans actually caught me off guard. Published in 2010 through C&R press, Baker navigates her protagonist Elise through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, intermittently throwing harsh tragedies at the protagonist. At the start of the novel, the reader’s given a glimpse into Elise’s dark family secrets. Since it’s told through the eyes of a little girl, the narration retains innocence and charm, something Baker pulls off incredibly well.

I definitely had to read this knowing that each chapter would harbor a different tone of voice from the next, as Talismans is a series of short stories moving the plot forward. That’s another one of Baker’s talents, she explores numerous voices and styles of writing, and executes them with precision and continuity.

If this book had a soundtrack, it would be A Fine Frenzy’s One Cell in the Sea. There’s a balance between the soft and delicate passages such as the opening chapter and grittiness of a life in San Francisco after the death of Elise’s mother. There are harsher passages filled with Baker’s inner angst, a voice I’ve heard in The Life Plan, but also resolution in the final pages of the final short story.

Sybil Baker exhibits some of her finest writing in Talismans, and I sincerely cannot wait to see what this fellow Casperian Books author is waiting to unleash next.

Review of Sherry & Narcotics by Nina-Marie Gardener (Future Fiction London)

There are many Danielle Steele and Twilight writers out there, but to a much lesser degree, female writers that tackle contemporary fiction like Nina-Marie Gardener. She has crafted a debut novel about a whip-smart editor migrating through a hardcore trip of loss, desire, addiction, and near death in Manchester in her debut novel Sherry & Narcotics. Though the protagonist suffers from an obvious substance abuse problem, she maintains a graceful eloquence in her narration and observations of the external world in a sort of Jane Austin meets Irvine Welsh manner. There’s sex, drugs, booze, drunk texts and email exchanges, and a “life flashing before my eyes” scene toward the end of the novel, moving the protagonist past current demons, but with great certainty, onto new ones. The formatting and pop culture references such as Starbucks or chart music, email and text exchanges reminded me a lot of Sybil Baker’s The Life Plan. Not necessarily chick lit or genre fiction, but true contemporary fiction with an attitude, an edge.

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True irony: the other day, I said to my tattoo-ridden, Glee-the-show-loving, screamo-band-singing boyfriend, “Nothing shocks me anymore. Nope, not even you.” And days later, I picked up Graham’s Nothing or Next to Nothing ridden with hard-hitting tell-all sentences, and electrifying writing that kept shocking me from start to finish. Take one of these opening paragraphs: “We spent all summer digging for dinosaur bones at the  bottom  of  a  dried  up  creek  in  the  backwoods  of Dowagiac. Dirt and rock  and  large  picks  and  small picks and trowels and measuring tape and bruised skin and bloody bandages and blisters. There were never any fucking bones.” And he continues to work that opening paragraph with a distinctive contemporary voice that makes me laugh at how blatantly offensive his choice of words is, and yet, I am compelled to feel certain tenderness at the same time: “She  was  such  a  stupid bitch,  Sherry  was,  I  wanted  to  tell  her  that  there  were  no  dinosaur  bones  in  Michigan,  that  people would  dig  and  sift  for  a  hundred  more  years  but nobody would ever find them, that the movement of glaciers back and forth scraped away the layers of  rock  that  contained  all  their  remains.  And erosion you stupid whore, what about erosion? But I  loved  her  then,  or  maybe  I  just  didn’t  know  shit about paleontology, so I kept digging.”

In this novel, the protagonist Derek who, I won’t go as far to describe him as a misogynist but maybe more of a sociopath, and his half-sister (I’m praying I read some of these passages erroneously because if I hadn’t then there was a lot of taboo shenanigans going down), struggle to make it as near adults, migrating through crappy jobs, heartbreaking situations, sex, drugs, a cursed inheritance, junk food.

It’s definitely one of the most over-the-top books I’ve ever read. For some reason, girls seem to always be naked, a major focus is Derek taking shits, and there’s the outlandish nonchalant-ness in the dialogue, take banter between two strangers: “I’m going to Jersey. My sister thinks someone’s trying to kill her” and then “He tried to get me drunk and stick his hands down my pants. I played along then cut his dick off and left it on his lap.”And then there are the random bouts of sex, jerking off, story segues of people digging for fossilized treasure one moment then they’re holding guns in the next, panning for gold in one scene, naked in the next, and then there’s the odd bitterness toward McDonald’s, hatred for ’80s rock, a lewd comment about his mother’s chest mentioned in the same paragraph that describes how he found her dead. And then there were the moments when I thought “what the hell is going on” with all these animalistic descriptions and random flashbacks and nakedness and blood and unfinished sex scenes and then I have to remember that in this scene they’re on acid so it’s kind of believable.

Barry’s stories tend to read like bizzaro Twain or Steinbeck, but they seem believable because of his talent to write in grotesque detail. Some of his scenes made me shiver and crave a scalding hot bath with many bars of soap, maybe, to just wash out my eyes.

But as vulgar as everything was, I think there’s a closet romantic lurking inside Graham’s rough-around-the-edges-tough-guy façade and it definitely bubbles up from the caverns of his subconscious and emerges in his writing. Though the protagonist could be graphically describing intimacy of the most perverse nature, woven in between the obscene are gentle reminders that he really wants to find someone to love, “The river was shallow. We went further and further out until our hearts and our souls were completely submerged and only our eyes and lips were left above water. We held each other for minutes or hours or days until her left leg buckled beneath her and we both lost our balance and went under. The muddy water was thick and tasted like the bottom of a mop bucket and she closed her eyes and I kissed her on both eyelids and asked her to marry me.”

Graham’s definitely mastered the art of eccentricity and personal strife. I am interested to see what he has planned in the coming years.

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