In the movie Amelie, Hipolito is a failed author writing a book about “a guy who keeps a journal. Not about his past but about disasters in his future. So he gets depressed and does nothing.” Later, Amelie writes a sentence from his book on a wall. Think about the transition of private to public writing. Think about writing about doing nothing. Write a story that Hipolito might have written. Make it less than 1,000 words. Submit it here.
Pachydermini will be returning shortly, hopefully this month with another pack of mini books. In the mean time, we are taking submissions again. We’re looking for short stories 300-700 words long. We’re looking for strange, normal, broken bones, tears, well-made soup, collage of birds, shackles, nostalgia, something utterly new, surprises, boredom, hoops, mirages, etc. Please dazzle us.
1. “The Dual” is a homonym for “duel.” Was that intended? What connotations do you hope people will read into your title?
The homonym was intentional, yes. It’s both representative of Claire’s struggle with her anti-identity (that is, her denial over being a number-cruncher and her resistance to being a person who can live amicably with numbers) and the role many readers take on when reading. This goes beyond reading, but most people gravitate toward binary distinctions—good or bad, hero or villain, left-brained or right-brained. I hope that readers will intuit that those kinds of divisions create a sort of literary confrontation pitting the reader against the story. It places them mentally in one camp or another and nuance is subsequently lost.
2. There are a lot of numbers in your story. Is there a hidden code?
No hidden code, I’m afraid. I can say that I had a very good time writing the first half of that story with regard to the number of numbers. I put at least one reference to numbers or math in every sentence until the story became more “emotional” (read: before it referenced love). I did so to exploit that either/or dichotomy I mentioned above.
3. Would you concede that this is a horror story?
I concede that there’s a moment of horrific violence in it, but I’m not sure I’d call it a horror story. I don’t find it scary. I find it sad. I suppose it could be called magical realism or surrealism.
4. Are you good at math?
I’m quite good at arithmetic. I’m an adequate predicate logician. I haven’t thought (and I mean really thought) about algebra in some time, but it didn’t keep me up at night in high school. Per IQ tests, I’m a spatial reasoner. That has a bit to do with math, I think.
5. How are math and art related?
In literature, math can represent restrictions. Look at Oulipo. Queneau wrote a single scene 99 different ways for Exercises in Style. Calvino structured Mr. Palomar in nine cycles, with three chapters per cycle—there’s actually a fascinating little explanation at the back of the book about what exactly he was doing structurally. So math can make for some really self aware literature. However, it can also prove as a foil to character (as it does in “The Dual”) or as a method of proving/disproving epistemological issues. That is, if you can disprove a mathematical “truth,” how can anything really be “true?” In fiction, that’s an idea which could take an entire novel to tease out.
In visual art, it gets even more interesting because math allows artists to create patterns and then use them to exploit/skew reality. When three-dimensional perspective was first being rendered in two-dimensional art, the first thing that painters messed with was what they knew was visually factual. So you’d get a painting of The Last Supper (of which there are many) wherein the tiles on the floor don’t align with the patterns on the wall and there’s no mathematical way the room they’re in could exist. This led to more skewing and we wound up with fascinating pieces that blur the lines between viewer and subject, like ceiling paintings that bleed out over their ornate borders (e.g., Andrea Pozzo’s trompe l’oeil ceiling in the Church of Saint Ignazio, c. 1680s).
Combining literature and visual art, you have William Blake’s prints that show distorted limb placement and impossible scenes that were basically meant to be satirical when placed alongside these pastorals. Speaking of binary, just look at the plate for Blake’s “The Argument.” So math can influence art, but art in turn makes math more interesting. Read Edwin Abbott’s Flatland. Watch Chuck Jones’s animated short based on Norton Juster’s “The Dot and the Line.”
That’s the long answer to your question. The short answer is that fiction and art can make math more accessible.
1. I hadn’t noticed it before I read “White Girls,” but now in other pieces of yours I see it as well, the love of lengthy layered sentences. What do you think a long sentence conveys that a bunch of short sentences don’t?
I see the long sentence as a linguistic riddle, a way to both expand—and yet, counter-intuitively, condense—an idea through the use of semi-colons, commas, or em dashes—as if such tools had an almost earnestness of not wanting the sentence to end, like a date whose datée had eyes elsewhere. It also makes room for ambivalences, as the narrator is given breadth/breath to spin around in vagueness and near contradiction. Henry James does this especially well, and D.F. Wallace. Short sentences (i.e. “Mother died today,” “Call me Ishmael”) have a kind of authorial presumptiveness of inherent meaning which I’m weary of.
2. What’s the relationship of beauty to vulgarity?
I find many things beautiful that are not conventionally so; in part with irony, but mostly just because I’m deeply sad and have noticed that the world seen through such disposition tends, as some spiritually directionless or desperate reprieve, to look beautiful often.
3. To what degree do you think there is truth in stereotypes?
Stereotypes are the stigma of unflinching truth.
4. What do you imagine or hope that someone who doesn’t know you or your writing will conclude after reading this story?
That I am a romantic and kind man who has been hurt by this unromantic and unkind world; that I am available for casual unprotected sex within ~10-15 miles of zip code 94107 (I am the first Google yield of “Jimmy Chen,” wherein my email may be located; I get off work at 5pm, and am available most weekends).
5. Should white people/ girls be offended?
No, they should be subdued. They should realize how lame and subconsciously imperialist they have been acting, but should continue doing so, because they are so beautiful being exactly them. Being white, dramatically, is the verge of literature.
1. Your poem, “Perhaps the Earth Has Only Dreamt of New York City” reminds me of the documentary The Cruise which is about a New York City tour guide who waxes philosophically about NYC as a metaphor for life. In what ways is this poem about you?
Ha! It’s interesting that you bring that up. The Cruise is one of my favorite films, and I was just re-watching it two days ago. Twice in the film Speed begins his tour by quoting H.G. Wells; “But to tell the story of New York would be to write a social history of the world.” I think that’s true, and I’m fascinated by that idea. New York City is so romanticized and so mythologized—because humanity mythologizes and romanticizes itself. In another poem, called “Thaw Comes to New York City,” I wrote “I was becoming nostalgic/for other people’s memories”; I seem to always get caught up in the ideas of things even while the things themselves are happening around me. So, yes, New York City is a metaphor for life, and the conflicts and territories and greed and love that come with that. In The Cruise, Speed talks about the sheer unprecedented-ness of Manhattan, and closes his thought with “this cannot last.” As for how this poem is specifically about me, it’s about consumption and life. I was in the city, visiting my brother, and both my parents were there. This was early October, and for my parents it was a vacation, a time to let loose and buy things and eat things. We took a short break from a whirlwind tour of pizza joints to wander through Central Park for a few minutes, and I looked at the plants a long time. Even in Frederick Law Olmstead’s artificial topography they were living wild. And I thought about how plants consume to survive, but they consume very little and out of it they create oxygen and beauty. And I was very uncomfortable with how I was getting caught up in the consumption of New York City. What oxygen are we making through all of it?
2. When was the last time you were in Manhattan and what did you do there?
I was just there two weekends ago, and I’m going again tomorrow. My brother lives in Brooklyn, so I go visit him from time to time. The last time I was there (President’s Day) my brother had to work, so I spent some time wandering around. That’s one of my favorite ways to experience cities. I’ve traveled a lot but I never get over the energizing feeling of getting to know a city by stamping my footprints all over its streets. I walked uptown through Hell’s Kitchen, then accidentally found myself in Midtown and tried to escape. So I ended up sitting in a park near the Hudson up in the 50s somewhere talking to my friends on the phone.
3. I’ve heard you quote James Wright. Who are some of your other poetic influences?
Yes, James Wright is one of my personal heroes. Everything he writes is touched with a huge sympathy. His son, Franz Wright, is heartbreakingly beautiful as well. But I have many heroes. Bashō once wrote, “don’t follow in the footsteps of old poets, seek what they sought.” In any case, Bashō and Kobayashi Issa, Po Chü-i, Sappho, and Li Po are all old poets I find myself reading frequently. In more modern times, Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, Jane Hirschfield, Frank O’Hara, Robert Bly, William Stafford, and many others. I find myself increasingly inspired by artists in other mediums. Erik Satie’s piano suites, for example. Edward Hopper—he did such amazing things with light. There was a man who knew what color loneliness is. I listen to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians very frequently, especially when writing. And, especially, Arvo Pärt. Charles Bukowski (not a very reverent man) once wrote that “Bach is the hardest to play badly because he makes so few spiritual mistakes,” and I think the same could be said of Pärt. I find myself drawn to his simplicity, his plainspokenness, and his lyricism. The Berliner Mass is one of my favorite pieces of music.
4. If New York is earth’s dream state, where might be some examples of earth’s more lucid moments?
Ha! What a great question. One that occurs to me is Manhattan—not the city built on top of it, but the island itself. I read recently that before the Europeans showed up, it had the most diversity of any place in North America. It was a garden, and we know how that turned out… I’m not interested in setting up false dichotomies between nature and humanity, but I sure think we can do better than what we’ve done. We are a part of nature, after all.
5. I found your poem to be very contemplative. Was this the mood you were going for?
This is a tricky question. I think so. It seems to be that all my work is born out of contemplation in one way or another. But I wonder, too, if all art must come from contemplation. The act of creation seems to want to take over a person’s entire attention.
We’re giving physical copies of the first 3 packs of Pachydermini to anyone willing to write about the stories contained therein. While supplies last. Contact us at: turtleneckpress [at] live [dot] com.
I don’t consider the story to be non-fiction, even though I was twenty-two when I went into a similar museum in Belgium. It was just an awful museum, but very strange, and it did leave as great an impression on me as some of the Rembrandts I saw in Amsterdam. This story began as a section of a longer piece I wrote about ten years ago and continually returned to and attempted to revise. When I finally decided it wasn’t working, I pilfered it for flashes. This was one of my favorite moments and so I cut it out, changed it to first person, and revised it.
2. This story focuses in on a very specific place in a city in a country, but the title is pulled out and generic. How is the microcosm related to the macro?
I like to think the story is about travel and displacement and how many Americans go to Europe at a young age hoping to experience that displacement. It is also about how we collect memories, and how media helps us do so. Europe here symbolizes something, and that is the macro “Europe,” but when you’re there, it’s always something that’s always brought out in the micro—a moment in a strange museum, for example: a place that’s supposed to be comfortable and safe, yet there’s also something really off about it, something displacing and not quite right, something the narrator does and does not want to touch at the end. I think we seek this kind of conflict when we travel, but we also seek to avoid it at the same time.
3. Why do you think people are fascinated by torture?
Good question, and I’m not sure I can begin to answer it. But I think there’s two things about torture that interest me in particular. The first is the way we look back on it, the way we remember. We always hope the memory will enlighten us, that it will ensure it never happens again, but it continues to happen all the time. The second is that torture has to do with a fascination with pain—what people can endure and what people can endure doing to one another. As a kid I couldn’t even punch my brother in the mouth because I was afraid I’d hurt him. In a sick way, I (and others, I think) am enamored by people who can separate themselves from that kind of empathy—people who are able to torture others. Are they even people anymore? Are the people being tortured people? I imagine these strange displacements happen in torture. That’s one of the reasons I picked the setting of the torture museum.
4. Do you want people to draw any parallels to America or their own lives?
Maybe. When I was working on the story, I wasn’t thinking about recent political debates or what constitutes torture and what doesn’t. The torture devices in the story are all pretty brutal (and real), and, in a sick way, show a great amount of imagination. Human ingenuity works in many ways, of course. When I wrote the story I was thinking more about historical torture, but I think readers can’t help but make comparisons between something like the Spanish Inquisition and what’s still happening around the world today. The story title, “Europe,” hopefully indicates that the story is really about Americans in Europe—what Europe symbolizes to Americans, and how they attempt to understand it, especially in light of these awful things America still takes part in.
5. What European language would you most want this story translated into?
I just bought a book of translated Russian poetry, mostly so I could just stare at the alphabet on the Russian side of the page. I think Russian and Greek are beautiful in a kind of hieroglyphic way. I would say that I’d love to see it in a language that uses an alphabet I’m not that familiar with. I like the double displacement of that.
1. Your story, “Resplendent,” seems very precise: hermetic, and tightly-wound. What was the seed for it? A dream? A word? Wordplay? A meditation on a theme? A calculated experiment? An unbidden image? I’m interested in body identity integrity disorder which is when someone feels the need to cut off a body part in order to feel whole, usually an arm or a hand. I would like to write a story where this phenomenon plays a more central and literal role, but I haven’t been able to do that. Instead I keep finding severed body parts crop up in my stories.
2. Did you take shop class in high school? If so, did you witness (or have) any horrific injuries during it? Please describe. I was never in shop class. I wasn’t consciously thinking about this when I wrote the story, but my grandfather cut off the tip of his index finger at the knuckle with a circular saw. And my grandmother’s name is Betty. Not that this story is about my grandparents.
3. In your collection of linked stories,“Grey Inserts Himself, Like an Oven Mitt in a Top Hat,” the narrator is in a relationship with an non-human object that nonetheless performs human actions. In “Resplendent,” this is also the case. How do you see “Resplendent” in relation to “Grey…”? Are the two friends? By that I mean, are the two stories outlets of a common vein in your work? I noticed that as well after the fact. I hope it doesn’t become a trend because I’d like to think each of my stories has something different to offer. I suppose in each of these stories the anthropomorphizing of inanimate objects can be seen as projections of aspects of the self. The saw being the darker id impulses. I had the unfortunate comparison occur to me of Tyler Dyrden in Fight Club. The saw is able to do the things the narrator isn’t.
4. Choose either A or B, or both. A. If “Resplendent” were a movie, what movie would it be? I’m not going to say Fight Club. So probably something by the Brothers Quay. B. If “Resplendent” were to be made into a movie, who would you want to play the narrator, Betty, and the circular saw respectively? Jason Schwartzman, Emily Blunt and Adam Scott. If “Resplendent” were music, what kind of music would it be? Would it be a specific song? Maybe “Ringfinger” by Nine Inch Nails.
5. I really like the line, “I opened the window and stuck my head out trying to wear my whole house like a body. I wanted to peel my body off and be done with it.” Do you think writing is a way to extend one’s physical body? A way to get beyond it? Do bodies actually exist? They seem to be at once mercurial and very real in “Resplendent.” Bodies exist but humans are not bound by them, although we like to forget that. I’ve often thought of myself as larger than my body or being encumbered by my physical limitations. I think this ties back into body identity integrity disorder because those people who experience it try to redefine their bodies to align with some ulterior conception. I don’t write to transcend my physical nature but I do consider my stories to be a part of my identity that isn’t quantified by my corporeal being. I suppose this is why I don’t depict the natural world the way it is empirically experienced.
1. You’ve said your stories are influenced by philosophies such as nonduality. Does that include “What Girls Really Think”?
Many of my stories are influenced by nonduality, without touching the subject directly. Nonduality shares space with philosophies such as zen and contemplative Taoism, amongst others. All those philosophies concern themselves with what thinking, thought and awareness is.
One of the themes in “What Girls Really Think” is that what we think decides how we react to a situation, and that can make the situation better or worse, independently of how severe or good the situation is. In that sense, the story is influenced by nonduality, but it’s not about nonduality in itself.
2. Is this story based on a real experience?
Many of my stories are a mix of imagined and recalled experiences. Since all recollections are selective replays, they are also fiction. The line between fiction and non-fiction isn’t very strong.
I’m reminded about Odin in Norse mythology. His two ravens were called Hugin, which means thought, and Munin, which means memory. Memories are thoughts, they are not the actual events.
3. What benefits does the genre of short fiction give to this story that a longer piece wouldn’t?
Some people think that a story must have a length that corresponds with its meaningfulness, ie a heavier story can’t be too short or a lighter story can’t be too long. I disagree with that, as flash stories can be very heavy and very short at the same time.
For me, short stories and flash stories have similarities with classical haiku. They are short, but can describe an entire world with just a few words or sentences. I love it when I come across flash stories that are condensed and heavy, like a neutron star.
A flash or a short story goes to the heart of the events that are described. I also think the best flash stories tend to be more accurate and more concentrated than longer stories.
4. I am familiar with and can sense the Asian influence in your writing. How does your Norwegian heritage factor in your writing? What are your Norwegian influences?
It’s great that you can see the Asian influence in my writing. Among the Norwegian influences, there are some that are impossible to avoid for anyone who reads Norwegian, such as Henrik Ibsen, Alexander Kielland, Arne Garborg and Jan Kjærstad. I also notice that I’m influenced by more imaginary work like the Norwegian folk tales collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe, and the worlds of Swedish writer Tove Jansson, Finnish writer Irmelin Sandman Lilius and the Danish fairy tales collected by H.C. Andersen.
The Norwegian and Scandinavian landscape and climate, flora and fauna, are major influences as well. It would impossible for me to write a story where those aspects were not important, but they don’t need to be Scandinavian. I have stories set in North-East Asia, South-East Asia, Africa, and virtual or imaginary worlds.
5. It seems that this story could have easily been a revenge story. A sort of psycho in reverse with the taxidermist/ Norman Bates/ predator male role being inverted. I am glad that you chose a different path. Was that a conscious decision?
I never thought about making the violence in the story overt and wanted to keep it more about violent thoughts than violent actions. Overt violence would have made the story move into crime or horror territory, which didn’t feel right for the story.
Thanks a lot for taking my story in and giving it such a great cover and layout! I’m looking forward to seeing the other stories in the Pachydermini series.
1. I try never to read too much into a story or title, to apply any statement in fiction to the author. However, does the title of your story, “I am the McDonalds of American Writing,” indicate something about you personally?
On the day I wrote this story I was homeless. I slept on the floor of a classroom where a man named Bob taught me the tale of Gilgamesh. My pants ripped while I slept. I ate an overcooked burrito in the morning. My brain did not sleep well because I was worried that an undersized janitor would shoot me with a crossbow or dump lukewarm soda on my face until I woke up. My consciousness had lost hope in America. I was afraid of becoming a broken down yard where automobiles are left to have permanent sex with the gravel. It wasn’t until I cleaned up in a McDonalds bathroom and yelled, “Pork McNugget” at a man resting in the toilet that I regained confidence in my ability to do the only thing that I am capable of doing.
2. Your writing and this story particularly is in a sort of absurd, modern style. Does it come easily?
It took me eleven or twelve years to trust the thread that I have been slowly pulling from the hole at the back of my teeth. I am not sure how long this thread is or how much I have pulled out, but there are many days when it no longer feels like the same thread or that I am even pulling it out of my own teeth hole anymore.
3. What kind of craft techniques are important to you?
I probably use the same craft techniques that my dad used twenty-plus years ago when he tried to make calzones and he ended up breaking the kitchen table. He was embarrassed and angry and about the same age that I am now. I think I remember him putting all the uncooked calzones in his mouth and then trying to apply for a job, but he was still feeling angry and embarrassed so he threw his resume and typewriter off the porch on our front lawn. We didn’t have neighbors so my dad kept pretending to be crazy. Eventually, he picked up my little league bat and tried to chop down a tree.
4. Kurt Vonnegut said that just because something is easy to read doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have deeper meaning. Do you think this applies to your writing?
The best part of my own writing for me is that, if given enough time, I forget I that I ever even wrote what I wrote so when I return to it I’m often surprised and confused and happy.
5. Do you strive to evoke a mood or feeling through your writing/ this story?
Sometimes I guess I just try and make myself laugh. Other times I try to make something that has never been written and would probably not have been written if I wasn’t a human being. If I’m lucky, I will take out a large imaginary trophy and not stop writing until the trophy is full of suitable writing for me drink later.
The painting was certainly the source of the title. But that came after the fact. I wrote the poem first and then reached for the title. It caught the mood of the poem. Titles are important to me. A title orients the reader toward a poem. It’s a map of sorts to what the reader is likely to find in the poem itself.
2. You call your writing prose poetry. How is that different from prose or poetry? How does that form influence your writing?
Prose poetry is a bastard form (some people might prefer the phrase “hybrid form”). It combines the staid appearance of prose with the eccentric behavior of poetry. I have been drawn to it ever since I discovered Rimbaud’s prose poems as a teenager. It has obvious advantages for someone like me who has no formal training in writing poetry, but has a poetic sensibility. I don’t have to worry about line breaks, scanning, and so on when I write a prose poem (though, obviously, I pay careful attention to the sound as well as firmness of my sentences). It’s freeing in that regard. A prose poem is able to accommodate whatever you can pour into it.
3. In this piece, like in many of your pieces, you have numbered sections. I found especially here that the numbers give a sense of order to an otherwise chaotic world. Is that your intent?
To be honest, I’m not often sure when I start a poem whether it’ll be self-contained or become one in a numbered series. I can write three or four pieces that I consider distinct, but then realize in the midst of writing a fifth that there’s a pattern, that they’re all interconnected in some way, and that each will be stronger if placed in a sequence with the others. I suppose what I’m trying to convey is how improvisational my writing process is. Sometimes I’m as surprised as anyone by what turns up.
4. With the word “bleak” in the title and considering some of the content, one would tend to have a melancholic take-away. Do you strive for this mood, or what do you hope people will leave with?
They say poets are depressives. That’s different, though, than saying depressives are poets. Being a manic depressive isn’t going to make you a poet. It may be a place to start, though. It marks you, separates you from the normal, gives you a feeling of difference, maybe even “specialness.” When you ally that with a love and feel for language and a compulsion to create (as refuge from melancholy? a kind of compensation for depression?), poetry is probably in the forecast.
5. You say in this piece that you like stories that start in the middle. How do you start writing a piece?
I play around. I’ll rub together phrases that I’ve been collecting in my notebook and see if I can start a fire. But the remark about “liking stories that start in the middle” is literally true. I find I have less and less patience every day with traditional narrative, no so much fiction, but definitely in poetry. Poems that tell stories in neat little packages seem increasingly ridiculous to me. They’re derived from other poems, and not from life as we experience in all its terrible, jagged glory.