Brock Clarke, a native of upstate New York, received his Ph.D. in English at the University of Rochester. He is currently an assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in New England Review, Mississippi Review, American Fiction, The Journal, Brooklyn Review, South Carolina Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, Twentieth Century Literature, and Southwestern American Literature. He has received awards from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the New York State Writers’ Institute. Clark is the author of the novel Ordinary White Boy, the short story collection What We Won’t Do, and his most recent collection of stories Carrying the Torch. The Q&A was conducted via email. Questions in Bold.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? What sparked your interest or desire to become a writer? What were/are your influences?
I don’t think I always wanted to be a writer; it’s just that there were so many other things I didn’t want to be. Or more accurately, so many things I was so profoundly terrible at that I wouldn’t be allowed to be them, or at least make a living at them. So, I wasn’t much good at anything else; that’s one reason I became a writer. The other is, like most writers, I loved some books, and hated others, and both equally fed my desire to become a writer–to write books like the books I loved and not write books like the books I hated.
My influences: Becket, Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain, John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, William Kennedy, Muriel Spark, Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Walker Percy.
Do see yourself as primarily a teacher or a writer? How do you balance the two?
This is a lame answer, but: I see myself as both. I can’t imagine one without the other. Like most teacher/writers, I gripe occasionally that, when I teach, I don’t have much time to write. But when I’m away from teaching for too long, I miss it.
Do you have any particular sort of writing routine or process? A place, time, structure, materials, etc.
I’m getting more spastic as I get older. I mean this generally–my dancing, for instance–but particularly in my writing. I try to write at home, five out of seven days, but it can be any five days out of the seven. Or sometimes four. Maybe seven. This week so far, one. As for materials, I have a computer, a desk. There are usually books scattered about, my son’s baseball cards–nothing too talismanic. I don’t have to have my dearest writerly possessions gathered around me. I do, however, have a famous writer who I won’t name’s jockstrap on draped over my desk lamp. I just cannot write without that jockstrap.
If stranger asked you “What is your book about?” How would you respond?
People do ask this question, and they should, they have every right to if they’re going to read, or not read, the book. The odd thing is that, as the person who wrote the book, I almost never ask myself that question.
But anyway, my latest book–a collection of stories called Carrying the Torch–is about a group of people in South Carolina and Georgia. Many of them have moved south from the northeast hoping to flee their failures, their crimes, and sins. Besides fleeing, the characters do a number of things to forget their pasts: they buy midsized Southern cities; they wear offensive costumes; they make wooden facsimiles of their husbands’ private parts; they fall in love with mopeds. Someone’s father dies in an inner tube accident. Normal stuff. Mostly, though, their failures follow them, resulting–hopefully–hilarity and heartbreak.
Is there a connection between the “Rust Belt” – arguably the setting of your first collection of stories – and the “New South” – the setting of Carrying the Torch? How does geography and culture impact people and their relationships?
There is. Part of the connection I just mentioned: my characters associate their failures with the place where they occurred (the industrial east coast), so they move south. This migration is true in real life, too, at least in my experience (I can’t tell you how many people from my town in upstate NY moved to Charlotte, for instance–I can’t tell you, but it’s a lot). So, that’s part of it. The other part was my own decision as a writer not to base my work in upstate New York anymore–I felt I’d said most of what I’d had to say about the place, at least for the time being. My characters moved because I wanted my fiction to move. The last part is the least interesting, and reveals how venturesome I am not. I moved from Rochester, NY, to Clemson, SC. So I started writing these stories set in the South.
You seem interested in relationships that are teetering on the edge of dissolution. Is that fair? What is it about that frame of reference – or the events that lead up to it – that is interesting or important?
That’s a fair assessment. I have no problem with that, at all. All my work, to some degree, is about people who make choices that they wish they could take back, and can’t, but that doesn’t stop them from trying, and that doesn’t stop the writer (and hopefully the reader) in taking some pleasure in their pain, feeling some empathy for them, maybe learning something in the bargain. Donald Barthelme once said that I’d rather have a wreck than a ship that sails. Things attach themselves to wrecks. I couldn’t say it better myself; in fact, so far, I haven’t said it better myself, so I’ll stop.
What role does the surreal or fantastic play in your fiction?
Often a great deal. I tend to use the fantastic–when I use it–to shed light on an old story, to help me (us?) see it in a way we might not otherwise. For instance, my story “For Those of Us Who Need Such Things” is about a man who cheats on his wife. We’ve read that story before, sure; but this man, in order to win back his wife, decides to buy Savannah, Georgia and impress her in the bargain. My hope is that the fantastic elevates the story, or drags it down, but in either case changes it, makes us see something in it that we wouldn’t if it were told realistically.
Your characters seem to have a self-destructive aspect to their personalities. Do you see that as a unique trait or a common frailty?
I think self-destruction is a common frailty; but not everyone is self-destructive in the same way. I want my characters to be entertaining in their self-destruction, edifying, heartbreaking. In my experience, self-destruction is the real world isn’t usually any of these things: it’s usually dull, entirely predictable. So, I want my characters to be self-destructive in a way in which people in the real world are not.
Are you familiar with the work of John Prine? It seems like your stories and his music share some common ground: quirky, slightly depressing, stories about everyday people. Is that true? fair?
I don’t know much of John Prine’s music, but sure, that sounds right. I do wonder about the term “everyday people,” though. I get nervous when I hear that, maybe because politicians use the term so often. I don’t think I write about everyday people–maybe because I consider myself one of them, and I’m not much worth writing about. I do think I write about people who have a difficult time living ordinary lives–for better or for worse.
What role or place do you see the short story having on our culture and in literature in general?
On our culture, I don’t know. Every other week we hear someone pontificating about the death of the short story, the lack of marketability of the short story, etc., and so I suppose there must be some truth to it. I know that people have come up to me and said that my stories have made a great deal to them, have changed their lives, and there is no reason for them to have lied to me, except, of course, they’re related to me.
As for literature, the short story is as important as the poem, the novel–depending, of course, on the short story. I’d hate to make too good a case for the short story as a genre, there being enough bad ones to disprove my case. But at its best, the short story can drop us in the middle of terrifically compelling situation, a character, a life, a premise, and then get us out before we begin to get tired of the situation, the character, the life, the premise. If only we had this opportunity in the larger culture itself.
Relatedly, what are the commercial possibilities of short stories? What are your expectations toward a collection of short stories versus a novel?
Again, we keep hearing that short stories aren’t as commercially viable as novels. We keep hearing that readers want to get lost in a world (literature, in this theory, being much like the Amazon except without the bugs and the snakes) and that a novel gives them a world to get lost in while short stories do not. Or that’s the theory. Why a reader couldn’t get lost in a short story is beyond me.
That said, I write both novels and short story collections; I wouldn’t publish one of either if I weren’t proud of it, if I didn’t think it accomplished something that one of my other books hadn’t. That’s my only expectation. That and that the book will make me rich, rich, rich.
Both of your short story collections have been award winners. Do awards help sell books? Incentivize quality short fiction?
I don’t know if they help sell books–I suppose the awards don’t hurt in that regard. and I don’t know that the awards incentivize quality short fiction, but I do think they reward and help give recognition to quality short fiction. All I can say for sure is that I’ve been pleased and honored to get them. The awards, that is.
Do you read “Literary Blogs” or online journals? If so, what are your impressions of their value and/or impact?
I do read them–ones people direct me to, ones I run across on my own. And I think their impact is positive, their value clear: how can a writer complain about people being interested in talking about literature?
Is marketing or publicity important to you? Do you have a role in this when your books are released?
Well, the books are important to me, and if that’s the case, then marketing and publicity are ways to help people become aware of that which is important to me. In that same spirit, when my son was born, I placed an announcement in Variety; I sent my wedding photos to People magazine.
What do you think of book tours and readings? Do they help?
I’ll be giving a dozen plus readings this fall and then a dozen more in the winter and spring behind the book–at universities, bookstores, arts centers, libraries. I like doing them, I love meeting the people–the booksellers, librarians, teachers, students–who are my kind hosts, my audience. I get excited that people are interested enough to invite me in the first place. Of course, I do think they help get the book out there and known and purchased and read; but basically, you spend a lot of time by yourself at your desk, writing; it’s so much fun, such a relief to get out of your study and actually get to talk to someone.
What is next for you? Is your next project a novel or more short stories or both?
I just finished a novel–An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England–and am at the very beginning of another one, called Exley. I’m halfway through another story collection, and three quarters of my way through an essay collection called, What Literature Can Do. So, lots to do. But mostly, I play this game native and specific to Cincinnati called Cornhole. I play it mostly in hopes of finding out why it’s called Cornhole.
Optional Cincinnati Sports Question: Are the Bengals for real? Could the worst team of the past decade really make the playoffs?
They could. I think they will. If they let me play middle linebacker, I think it’s an absolute lock.