Interview with Damian Dressick

Tommy Dean interviews Damian Dressick about his work in the forthcoming in forthcoming Norton Anthology NEW MICRO (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018)

(This interview is part of New Flash Fiction Review’s ongoing New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) interview series, created by New Flash Fiction Review’s Founding Editor, Meg Pokrass.)

Did your story “Four Hard Facts about Water” initially start with this numbered structure?

Ever since reading Julio Cortàar’s Hopscotch in undergrad, I’ve been deeply interested in how stories are and are not impacted by structure, particularly structures that call attention to themselves. The way I see it, numeric structures create empty envelopes that readers are waiting to have filled. This means there’s a “baked-in-the-cake” sense of anticipation but also a limit to that anticipation—as there is an established number of folders. We know almost to a certainty when a piece of information will come that likely functions as part of the puzzle or demands we reassess all of what came before. The mystery is what’s in that box. It’s almost like a persuasive speaking strategy in reserve. Instead of engaging the heart to reach the mind, the narrative structure engages the mind and then is (hopefully) overwhelmed by the appeal to the heart.

Could you tell me what inspired this story or what you were feeling while drafting it?

I was working as night watchman in an office building writing fiction six hours a day, and I had an idea for a story I couldn’t pull off (in retrospect, it was a truly terrible idea, and I imagine it would have taken a much better writer than myself to make it anything less than an unmitigated disaster; a writer with better judgment would have recognized it as bad at first blush) but I would dutifully spend the first hour of my writing time each night fooling with it until I was at a loss. I would then move on to trying to write another story, *any* other story. I wrote most of an entire story collection in this way. I recently saw the writer David Ryan give a lecture at Colgate in which he discussed Roberto Bolaño’s idea that writers should be working on a lot of different pieces at once. I find this to be good advice. It lowers the stakes for the success of any particular piece. Furthermore, one has different kinds of energy, and while some days may be good for 1st drafting, others lend themselves to sentence-level revision. Of course, there seems to be no shortage of days where the best one can do is key in cover letters and a credit card number before hitting the “Submittable” button.

Did it take a lot of revision?

In terms of the actual writing of this particular piece, the drafting was practically automatic writing. I just started with the Dewar’s White Label image in my mind and stopped shortly after the name of the bar. I think the only editing I did was looked up some swim strokes and maybe cleaned up a word here and there. This is very unusual for me. I tend to revise stories rather obsessively. I think sometimes good writing is about getting to a place that one has (at least temporarily) instincts worth trusting.

I love how this story makes the reader start over again, especially if they read it too quickly the first time. Even the title is a bit misleading, as it’s certainly more gentle than the end of the story. It’s almost as if the narrator, though it’s told in 2nd person point of view, is punishing himself? Is there a bit of dissociation of the narrator from his mistake and/or grief?

It’s always nice to hear one has created work someone feels is worth re-reading. My intention with the list stories was to write one using a different one of the four classical elements as a kind of center for each. I first wrote a piece that appeared in the journal Flashquake called “Ten Important Facts About Fire.” (It seems I got pretty well stuck at two.) That story also starts off rather innocuously—a mundane detail about someone’s long forgotten doctoral dissertation dealing with a Nabokov book. It ends with the protagonist escaping death—barely—during a housefire (my own house had burned down a few years before; let’s say it made an impression). I think one of the ways we can pull an audience into flash stories is by relating the seemingly innocuous detail. We may want readers to ask: “Why am I being told this particular thing?” The lure of the innocuous also seems to me the way we get into most of the bigger messes in our real lives.  

The story’s ending to my mind is the perfect example or maybe the true example of the definition of irony. Irony being the last thing you expect to happen. Sections 1-3 do not prepare you for the tragedy that section 4 holds like a bomb. I was deeply affected by this ending and this story as a whole, so I wonder how important is irony to storytelling? Have readers become jaded to its effects?

Well, we certainly seem to be living in (or perhaps just now coming out of) an age in which irony is a rather dominant key. But I don’t think this particular story plays with the kind of narrative distance people often think about as capital I Irony in fiction. I mean the style that, say, Ford Maddox Ford pioneered and so many contemporary writersBrock Clarke comes to mindhandle so deftly and to such effect.

For me, “Four Hard Facts” is a story that wears its tragedy pretty openly.

Reading some of your other stories, especially “Life Lesson,” I found the theme of menace lurking or our inability to stop tragedy. The father in “Life Lesson” says, “I can do this any time, Alice.” Are we all under the illusion of being in control? Are there things we’re missing in the real world that only stories can reveal?

I think part of what drives me is a deep terror of the results of an everyday sort of carelessness. I think most days we’re a few lucky feet from catastrophe.

I saw in an interview that you did with Smokelong Quarterly that you were influenced by Richard Yates. I’ve long been a fan of his work, and wondered if you think his style was a product of his time.

I suspect that most writers are to some degree or another influenced by the times in which they live—consciously going with or against trends in either style and/or subject matter in their work. For me, it was Yates’s deep ability to convey disconnect in a way that just takes up residence. I have never stopped being impressed with him.

Flash has a long history, but is its current popularity a product of the internet age?

I recently taught a course at the University of Pittsburgh dealing with the impact of technology on narrative. The students and I looked pretty carefully at both narratology and the ways in which technological shifts over time have impacted the kinds of narratives folks are interested in relating and are interested in having related to them. It would be hard to argue that technology has not had a large-scale impact on the literary arts. I mean how many 400-page novels would there be if they had to be published on papyrus or vellum.

This kind of thing seems no less true in driving the rise of flash and microfiction. I mean this both in the nuts-and-bolts sense of web publishing and reading on the web/phone, but also in the larger sense of how technology has changed the way we perceive our interactions with the world. Compressed narratives are highly portable and easily sharable in a culture that (largely due to the impact of technology) privileges these qualities.

How important is it to establish setting, mood, tone, and character in the first sentence of a micro?

It seems key to bring people on board from the get-go in micro. One also has to be very aware of the kind of emotional vectors youre endeavoring to summon in terms of your audience. Because the time one spends with the reader is so limited, it’s of even greater import than usual to be aware of what you might be making people feel.  Something that I seem to be interested in—as far as opening stories is concerned— is walking a line that draws from both the familiar and the strange. One foot on the platform and one foot on the train, if you will.

What are your writerly obsessions? What theme, idea, or image can you not let go of?

When I was trying to order stories for a collection, I read them far away (temporally) from when I was actively engaged in producing them. I was struck by how many of the stories seemed to deal with mental illness, alcoholism, and suicide. It seems people trying and rather catastrophically failing to find their place in the world is apparently my home turf.

How do you know if a story idea is working?

That’s a great question. I wrote dozens of stories during my stint of night watchman-ing. To be honest, I often made the mistake of measuring a story’s quality by how much time I had spent working on it. Later, I asked some friends to help me think about the batch of stories for journal submission. As I hadn’t sweated any blood over the crafting of “Four Hard Facts,” I had it pretty near the bottom of the stack. Other stories I sometimes revised dozens if not occasionally hundreds of times. It was only after a poet friend mentioned that she was really impacted by the piece that I was able to see that it was working.

How important is mystery to micro length stories? How much can you rely on the reader to put together the pieces?

I had the good fortune to study flash initially with Lewis Nordan. This was when I was just learning to write at all—so it’s probably not too far from the truth to say a lot of the way I think about how literature works in general comes out of learning to write flash. We talked a good deal about ways in which flash works to impact the reader.

When flash is working, what’s often underneath the actual words is that no matter how “settled” the facts of the story feel, they are only ever a few additional sentences away from perhaps possessing some entirely other kind of relevance to the story. 

What are you working on now?

Thanks for asking. I’ve recently finished a few flash pieces that deal with different ways of making head or tail of loss. I’m also actively working on several essays and a flash chapbook that deals with the rise and fall of American boxer Leon Spinks.

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Damian Dressick’s stories and essays have appeared in more than fifty literary journals and anthologies, including W.W. Norton’s New Micro (fall 2018), failbetter.com, New Delta Review, Hippocampus, Smokelong Quarterly, and New World Writing. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Damian teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.