Tell us about So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds.
The stories are told from the perspective of narrators learning to cope with absurd pain. Maybe a girlfriend floats away, maybe wolves steal a son, maybe the narrator mail-orders a new family to replace the one he’s lost. It’s a collection of short stories where most of the characters deal with loss and the what happens next. The same characters reappear throughout the collection in different versions—and I suppose they all suffer; they all heal. Or cope. Maybe that’s more it than anything else. The collection is weird. There’s no way around it. The prose reflects that, so there’s lots of variety. And the title story is actually based on something I used to tell one of my sons when we’d walk through the woods, and I guess that kind of sums the collection up, offbeat stories told casually.
Who is your favorite character from the book?
That’s a tough one. I mentioned that certain characters reappear through the collection, but not in a chronological sense, more like a reality sense. There’s Simon—sometimes he’s young and suffering—sometimes he’s older and coping, a touch off from being completely sad. He might be my favorite. I feel for him. But I suppose the real favorite, just because in a way she’s still a mystery to me, is the character Sara. She’s something else. Sometimes she might be more like a girl on the edge of the story, in that, she’s part of them, for sure, but only as a missing piece. She is the something the story needs but she keeps leaving it one way or another.
What inspired you to write the book?
I know this is a terrible answer to start with, but a lot of people. A lot of books. Honestly, family and friends, beautiful phrases and stories, all those things inspired me to write. But, more specifically, in many ways my family. Past and present. There are a lot of family dynamics running through the collection. I guess growing older, starting my own family, and wanting to be able to tell them stories that weaved in the issues I knew to be real—that really inspired me a good deal.
What were your biggest challenges when writing the book?
One of the biggest challenges was walking away from a story. I’m always tweaking stories, tightening up lines, rephrasing things, telling the story from a different perspective. That can take a lot of time, consume your life—and I love my family and enjoy my work as a teacher—so letting the writing consume me was a struggle. I truly identify with writing and feel it’s something I have to do in some form everyday. Maybe that didn’t always look like secluding myself away to knock out a story, but it was always something. Where do you fit that in is the question. What I found is having a very supportive family (especially my casino wife Anna) and being willing to squeeze my writing in while standing in the middle of the family room helped. Maybe a better way to look at it would be to say, the biggest challenge was learning not to squeeze writing in and instead learn to make it a functioning part of my life.
Who are you reading now? Which authors have been an inspiration to you, and why?
Actually, right now I’ve been on a poetry kick. I’ve been reading through the McSweeney’s Poetry Series, and I’m quite pleased with it. Some really beautiful, wonderful stuff there. I suppose some of my biggest inspirations are Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and Etgar Keret. And Amy Hempel. The first three taught me I could write however I felt like, as casual as telling a friend over coffee that the world was coming to an end. Amy Hempel taught me there are a lot of ways to tell a story. She has that subtle beauty to her writing where you realize the pain the character is experiencing is its own character within the story. I want to write stories like that.
What advice can you provide to aspiring authors?
Feel free to experiment. If someone asks of your writing the age-old question, “Why?” respond with, “Why not?” There will be a lot who do. They’ll be people you respect. They’ll be writers you admire. And, in the end, it won’t matter. Some writing advice hurts because it’s true and you feel shameful of not writing as well as you should have. Other writing advice will hurt because it will be wrong specifically to who you are as a writer—and if you apply it, even if it’s sound advice for a thousand other writers, you’ll know you were wrong to, and it’ll stick with you. People will want different things from your characters, more from certain lines of plot, and they’ll be right to want it at times. It’ll help you tremendously to get that feedback. And then, there will be other times where you’ll need to learn to say no, this phrase stays, this character dies here—and it will make your story exactly that—your story.