Author Josh Denslow talks to Kevin Catalano about story inspiration and his debut collection, Not Everyone Is Special.
Josh Denslow’s debut collection, Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books), actually exists! His recent stories have appeared in Catapult, Pithead Chapel, Wigleaf, Okay Donkey, and a bunch of other awesome places. In addition to wearing matching sweaters with his three boys, he plays the drums in the band Borrisokane and edits at SmokeLong Quarterly. I sit down with him today to talk about Legos, carving out time for writing, and the road to completing his story collection.
Kevin Catalano: Welcome, Mr. Denslow. You must have been so excited when you came up with the brilliant premise for the story “Punch.” Could you briefly summarize that premise and then talk about how it developed into a story? Was it something that came to you fully formed, or did it begin with an idea or image that you had to work on to discover the details?
Josh Denslow: Thanks! I’ve always been very proud of “Punch,” and it has been my wife’s favorite story for about 10 years now. It’s been through the most drafts and has had the most rejections (over 200). Until Cleaver Magazine agreed to run it in conjunction with the release of Not Everyone Is Special, “Punch” remained the only unpublished story in the collection. I’m so happy people can finally read it!
Like a lot of my stories, it started with a “What If” question: What if everyone in the world had two punch vouchers that allowed each person to punch anyone he wanted twice a year with no repercussions? And then I started writing, and I let a character emerge and a voice, and then that really shaped the story from there. I tried to explore this new world that I was creating and the reasoning behind the punch vouchers and how someone might be able to game the system. But like a lot of my stories, the main character is plagued with insecurity and self-doubt, and I was able to mine that for a lot of humor. The stuff with the couch (I won’t ruin it) was a nice surprise and remains one of my favorite moments in the collection.
In your interview with the great flash-fiction author Kathy Fish, you ask her this question:
“I’m always happy to hear that other writers don’t know where their stories are going as they write. I’m in the same boat. I never plan anything! So I think a good place to end would be this: How do you know when a story has gotten to where it’s going?”
All of your stories end in unexpected places. So how do you know when a story “has gotten to where it’s going?”
Man, I love that you turned my question back on me! I’ll never be able to answer as succinctly and perfectly as Kathy. But this is what I’ll say: I know the end when I arrive. I rarely plan too far ahead when I’m writing. I don’t outline at all or do character sketches or anything. I prefer to get the party started and see what happens.
Once I’m in, though, I will sometimes think two or three scenes ahead, so I don’t come to a complete stop while drafting. Or I might see the faint glimmer of the end, and I will steer myself in that direction. But I rarely, if ever, reach that proposed ending. Instead, I arrive at a moment, sometimes long before I figured it would happen, and I just know the story is over. It’s like the story sighed with relief.
When I was writing scripts, I got the advice that a script starts after the story has begun and ends before the story is over. Or something like that. I might be mangling it. But it always stuck with me. This idea that the story I’m writing isn’t the whole story. And I brought that into my fiction, as well. There might be more of the story to tell, but my gut tells me when this particular sliver of the story is over.
Let’s talk comedy. It’s no secret that you are funny — this collection employs humor in surprising and complex ways. Who were the comedians, shows, writers, etc., that shaped your comedic sensibilities?
This is great! Thanks for asking me this, so I can say how much I love Futurama, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Arrested Development, and The Venture Brothers. As far as funny books go, I love Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller and Douglas Adams and Katherine Dunn and George Saunders and more recently Paul Beatty and Adam Johnson and Debbie Graber. I’m not sure how they all shaped my comedic sensibilities, but I do challenge myself to find humor in nearly any situation. I think comedy is really, really hard, so when I write, I try not to think about it. If I’m doing it correctly, the comedy just comes out when I set the characters loose. Any other way feels forced.
I didn’t realize before reading Not Everyone Is Special that you have a background in film, but now that I know this, it makes perfect sense. Your stories are very visual and cinematic, and a bunch of them I can visualize as films. Did any of these stories begin as script ideas? Do you ever come up with a narrative premise that forces you to decide whether it’s going to be told in prose or in film?
I actually get this a lot. This idea that my stories are very visual and cinematic. And I’m absolutely positive that it’s my film background coming through, but it’s nothing I’m consciously doing. In fact, when I’m writing fiction, I worry I’m focused too much on dialogue and character stuff and that there’s not enough visual stuff going on. So I’m relieved when readers tell me they can picture it. I think that’s a great compliment, for sure.
To answer your questions, though, not a single story in this collection started as a script. Any new idea I have is immediately assigned a form. Lately, most of my ideas have been stories and novels, but I did write the first draft of a feature script a year ago that is waiting patiently for me to come back to it. I wish I could tell you how it works, but I think it’s in how I picture the final product. An idea springs forth, and it tells me what it wants to be. Some things just feel like scripts and some just feel like fiction. But I will say, scripts are a bummer because if you don’t scrape the money together to make it on your own or sell it to a producer, then nobody ever sees it. And I do tend to like when people have access to my stories.
The only time I ever switched the form of an idea was with my current novel. It started as a short-story idea that I’d hoped to add into Not Everyone Is Special, and then it just kept ballooning, and now it is over 100,000 words long. And I still don’t know how or when it will end. But it’s definitely not a short story anymore.
All of the stories in this collection are first person, which isn’t a criticism — the various first-person voices have tremendous energy and insight. Can you talk about why that’s your go-to point of view?
I’m excited that your impression at the end is that all the stories are first person. Most of them are, but the two longest stories are not. Those are “Mousetrap” and “Blake Bishop Believes in True Love.” But since I tend to write a very close third person, I’m pleased to have it feel like first when you think back on it!
For me, the hardest part of a story is finding the voice, whether in first or third. I want the story to sound like my character. Internal dialogue is just as important as the actual dialogue, and I want to get that right. Usually the first few paragraphs of my stories are the most scrutinized, because I’m waiting for everything to click before I can move all the way to the end.
But since I don’t plan, I typically launch into a story as soon as I have an idea, and then I’ll look down at some point and discover the tense and POV. Because of this approach, I have been known to accidentally switch from first to third in the middle of a story and move fluidly between past and present tense. It’s something I really watch out for in my rewrites.
I actually knew that all the stories weren’t in first person, but wanted to see if YOU knew. *chuckles nervously*
Anyway, I bet your stories are super fun to read to an audience. At least, I would love to be in the audience to hear some of your stories. I know it’s just coming out, but have you read much from this collection? If so, which story/ies do you usually choose?
It’s interesting because the shorter stories, the ones that are more conducive to reading aloud, are usually more somber. The longer ones get the majority of the humor because there is more room for dialogue. But they are just too long for an audience. I tried reading segments of “Mousetrap” once, and I didn’t think it was entirely successful.
The most recent story in the collection, “Dorian Vandercleef,” is the only one in the sweet spot: It’s less than 1,000 words, and it’s pretty funny. That being said, I haven’t performed it at a live reading yet, though I did read it as part of The Other Stories blog which you can listen to here.
I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks over the last few years, and going forward, I’d like to get even more into it. Give voices to all the characters. Just really go for it. I’ll be giving that a shot at my release show in Austin on April 26. I haven’t decided what to read yet, but I hope to get the kind of reaction you’re imagining!
According to your bio, you are married with three children, you have seven pets, you’re in a band, you make films, you’re an editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, and I’m assuming you eat food and occasionally sleep and bathe. The obvious question, then, is when do you write?
The short answer is: Never enough. The long answer is: Whenever I can. I don’t have a set time of day or any special requirements. If I have a minute, I write. One of the special skills I’ve developed over the years is to just “turn it on” at a moment’s notice. Most of these stories were written in 10–20 minute chunks of writing time. But I spend a lot of time thinking. If I’m in the middle of a story, it’s on my mind all day, and that’s just as important as physically writing to me. I’ll come up with snippets of dialogue and possible endings as I go about my day.
The other thing I do is write while I’m hanging with my three sons. I have a long table set up where I can write on one end, and they can build Legos at the other end. It’s such a wonderful set-up. I’ve gotten so good at fitting little bursts of writing into my day that I’m not even sure what I would do given an actual block of time. I’d probably go to the other end of the table and build Legos.