Yes, to an embarrassing degree. Embarrassing mainly because, when I was younger, I had a very strong sense of what being a writer meant: it meant I would grow a beard and wear sweaters and drink coffee (or at the time, water from a mug) and hold my head in my hands a lot. I would sit in front of my mother’s typewriter and “be a writer,” or perform “being a writer.” I was sort of writing stories too then, but I distinctly remember that feeling less important than the overall project of “being a writer.”
Who are some writers you have always admired? Have they influenced your writing in any way?
Ben Marcus was an author who really cracked me open when I first read him. His book Notable American Women came into my hands at a very significant time. I was in undergrad, obsessed with Kafka and Chekhov and Carver, who were really my only models for good story writing at the time, and someone handed me this odd book by a living American writer, (which didn’t bode well to my undergraduate self). But the book was one of the strangest, most brutal and affecting things I’d ever read. He made me rethink a lot of my assumptions about stories and what they can do and what I might want to do with them. That book rerouted my trajectory and my taste got a lot weirder and my writing got a lot better.
You previously wrote Animal Collection and Revelation. What was different this time around? Is a third book easier to write or more difficult?
I was still working on Animal Collection when I started writing Fondly. I actually finished Fondly before AC, though the release dates don’t reflect that. I like to work on multiple projects at once because it allows me to use a lot of different kinds of energy. When I’m getting nowhere with one thing, I can switch modes and give something else a try. That said, both of the pieces in Fondly came very naturally to me. I worked on In One Story, The Two Sisters for much longer, probably because it covers so much ground and takes so many different forms. I wound up cutting a lot from that piece, and rewriting it all several times. Still, the overall process was easy. I had a clear idea of what I was going for, and I had enough confidence when writing this book to say, all I have to do is keep myself interested and something good will come. I used that as the guiding principle; keeping myself interested and curious and energized.
Your new book is titled Fondly and consists of two novellas, “In One Story, The Two Sisters” and “Gainesville.” What about the novella form appeals to you?
When I set out to work on both of these, I had no idea how long they would be. I imagined Gainesville would be fairly long, but didn’t want to force it in anyway, so I just wrote and wrote until I’d reached the end. Whether or not it’s a novel or a novella or a collection of short stories, as one reviewer had it, seems based on some hard to determine combination of word count and personal opinion, as well as how the book is printed and marketed. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize these works as novellas, but I suppose it’s the most useful way of describing them. Nothing in particular appeals to me about the novella form, but I love a book that feels like it’s the precise length it needs to be. I suppose one thing I admire about novellas is that, reading a novella by someone else, I’m happy they were brave enough to write a short book. Many authors seem driven by length, because “novels” (60,000 words or more, I’m told) sell better and people take them more seriously. If a book is 1,000+ pages, it becomes the most commonly discussed aspect of the book. Why it’s 1,000+ pages, less so. To me, personally, finding the right length for a story is as important as sentence-level work. The length should be doing just as much work. A short book gives you the room to develop a story but still keep it fairly lean and swift, which seemed important for these two particular works.
How would you describe Fondly? And how did you come up with the title?
For me, describing Fondly is difficult. Partly because it is two very different projects in one, but mainly because the scope of the work feels larger to me than a synopsis provides for. That’s not to say someone else couldn’t do it. I just don’t have the bird’s eye view other might be able to access. The work is primarily concerned with questions of family, mortality, the how and why of stories, the defects of language, as well as human deficiency, love, mutation, and some kind of messy unity. But that’s sort of like saying this pasta dinner is primarily a matter of flour and water and oil. If that makes sense.
The title came from the cover image. I had a different title, that I wasn’t very happy with. It was very long and wasn’t exactly the right tone. Then Scott Teplin did these incredible spot drawings for the book, as well as its wonderful cover, and I knew I had to change the title to something that would sit on the jacket, next to that image, and interact with it in some profitable way. I thought about it and thought about it and at some point the idea of pulling something from an email occurred to me. I don’t know why or when. It just occurred to me and I started poring through old emails for a word that felt right. It was right there from something my boss/friend Camden Avery wrote to me in one of our early emails. It seemed like the perfect combination of humor and affection and playfulness and, with the cover image, morbidity. It also turns the book into a kind of twisted offering, which I liked.
Please tell us a little about how you came up with each novella? What was your inspiration for the stories and for the characters?
It’s hard to say because there’s so much going on in either work, in the book as a whole, and all of it came from different sources, different parts of myself. It was ongoing too, everything I thought or felt or encountered while I was writing these got thrown in somehow, even if I ultimately removed it. The book is really massive, as far as characters and stories go. On some level, I suppose I was excited about exhausting myself, or seeing if that was possible.
In your opinion, Colin, what is good fiction?
Today, this morning, right now, I feel like good fiction leads you from something you know, to something you couldn’t have known otherwise.
Do you have several story ideas in your head at one time? How do you decide what to pursue, what to shelf it for later, and what to discard?
Yes. Always. I’m a mess.
It’s all about what feels right and where my energy is. If it doesn’t feel right or interesting to me, I drop it or change it and move on.
What is the best writing advice you ever received?
I’ve received a lot of incredible advice over the years, but what comes to mind right now is something I read in undergrad. There’s a passage in In Search of Lost Time, in which Proust describes a writer who isn’t particularly bright or gifted or good, but who is wildly successful and respected and widely read. I couldn’t quote it, and I’m probably remembering it wrong, but the gist of what he says seemed to come down to something like, she was just the one who kept writing and, after years of it, she was one of the few people who had stuck with it long enough to produce a body of work, and she thereby became an authority on whatever it was she was writing about. She had just put in the hours and finished what she set out to do, which is actually far more than what many people are capable of. What that passage did for me was allow me to dig a little mental tunnel around my insecurities—the voices in my head insisting that I wasn’t talented, had nothing of any interest to say, and was wasting my time—so that I could get on with the writing part of writing. And, after years of basically purging onto the page, I started getting a sense of what I liked and what I wanted to do. And I started getting better. Or, at least, I started to enjoy what I was making more and more often.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I run a lot. I watch movies and movie trailers with my wife. I worry about not writing. I used to hike a lot but now we live in a city, so I go to the store a lot and get coffee a lot and move the car a lot.
I’ve been working on an interview with Zach Schomburg about Daniel Clowes’s books David Boring, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, and others. They’re amazing. So funny and dark and moving and strange. They’re really starting to sink in and affect the way I’m writing. I would recommend them to anyone and everyone. Plus, the art in them is great and they’re a quick read.
Which upcoming novels are you excited to read this fall?
I just finished an advanced copy of Jesse Ball’s new book Silence Once Begun. It’s phenomenal. It’s so heartbreaking and powerful, and it’s formally bold. It might be my favorite thing he’s done so far.
What do you hope readers take with them after reading Fondly?
I hope they know I never meant no harm, and that I still love them.
What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
I just finished a draft of a new novel, and I’ve got a few poetry manuscripts I’m kicking around. I had a book set to come out with Mud Luscious Press, but they closed up shop and now that book is out in the wind. I just got back from vacation, and I was working pretty steadily on a few new projects while I was gone. It’s hard to say, at this point, what they’ll turn into, but I’m enjoying working on them so far.
Good luck, Colin, and thanks so much for a wonderful interview!