Teeth’s Story by Ron Austin, published in Juked Magazine

I had the privilege of hearing Ron Austin read his work at the Luther College Writers Festival earlier this fall. His work is edgy, fun, playful, serious, mysterious, lyrical, entertaining, and moving. Steve Almond said something to the effect that good fiction will awaken the heart of a reader. In Austin’s fiction, he moves both the heart and the mind. His stories are smart, funny, at times absurd (in the best possible way), but always with a clear-eye toward social awareness and the plight of those characters who inhabit his stories. I can’t wait for his forthcoming collection: Avery Colt is a Snake, A Thief, A Liar.

Below is an interview about his story “Teeth’s Story,” which will be published in his forthcoming collection. Also, before the interview, below, Ron offers a brief preface to his answers.

Ron Austin: Keith, thanks for these excellent questions. I’m going to frame my responses by attempting to describe the nature and dimensions of hustle. Hustle is a mutagenic substance that rapidly transforms organic and conceptual matter, allowing organisms, both organic and inorganic, to increase adaptability and survivability in worrisome conditions. In language, narrative sense, and characterization, I pursue the judicious application of hustle to all techniques.

Interview: Ron Austin and Keith Lesmeister

KL: The thing that jumps out at me almost immediately in Teeth’s Story is the rhythm and cadence of the language — the musicality. It’s fantastic and addictive. There’s poetry throughout the entire story, but these lines stood out to me right away:

“Hot pipes split lips, chemical clouds suffocated kin, rocks avalanched, crushed sons and daughters.”

And, “I feared his death wasn’t enough to clear the karmic debt he had charged to our bloodline. “I imagined elders chewing iron nails, banging hammers, erecting crosses of shame to crucify me and my folks.”

And: “Old dude was a defunct dope dealer and prison mystic who rocked gold fangs.”

Could you share a little about writing in such a poetic way? Are these lines the result of a lot of revision? Or is this your natural rhythm and flow while writing through a first draft?

RA: In one dimension, I rely on lyricism to generate momentum from line to line. Poetic methods, theories, and principles act as filament that conduct the intensity, direction, and duration of contact with pure thought and emotion. The stronger the filament, the higher the fidelity. In another dimension, both literally and figuratively, the text itself is an organism, something conceived somewhere between synapses and brainstems, the fruit of an experiment conducted in a laboratory. One commits sacrilege in engineering a homunculus. In this sense, crafting strong individual lines is the work of synthesizing fiber and blood vessels, building muscles that power an arm, an arm that gives language the ability to reach out and grip readers. Hustle allows the larynx to produce hypnotic melodies, birdsong. Hustle turns tongues dexterous, prehensile. Hustle turns teeth to metal that can crack thick hides. While these techniques can be learned, Teeth understands this innately.

*But also, to come off the fun for a bit, my initial drafts take forever. I’ll usually spend a week or so polishing a page or a few before finding that they don’t fit into a full narrative frame and throwing them into my scraps file. And then a few months later, I’ll land on the narrative frame and push hard from there.

KL: The beautiful, gripping language up against the stark contrast of dim reality in which the narrator is growing up creates a kind of tension in the narrative. How do you balance the beauty of the language against some of the grittier locales and hardscrabble lives that make up the characters in the story? Or even many of your stories?

RA: In the story, Teeth knows no one is going to spend time or attention on common items, bruised goods. He uses hustle to transform hair clippers and bus passes into supernatural relics. But hustle, in its strange properties, does more than that. Hustle can reveal the true nature of objects, settings, people. Hustle reveals the satisfaction in struggle, the profit in pain. By using heightened language, I aim to give the place and characters I describe the presence and power they deserve.

KL: The story is aptly titled “Teeth’s Story” because this is in essence about his life and the kind of legacy he hopes to leave behind for the youngsters growing up in his neighborhood, namely the narrator of the story who brings Teeth contraband left behind by his deceased uncle. In the middle of the story there’s a kind of historic, mythic, fable, that Teeth shares with the narrator. It’s a fantastic interlude. Could you talk about blending the story within a story? And perhaps a little of what the fable means to you (not sure if fable is the right word here….)?

RA: Teeth is the closest thing to a villain that appears in “Avery Colt Is A Snake, A Thief, A Liar.” Because of that, I wanted him to have a chance at redemption. The role of a neighborhood drug dealer is more complex than good and evil, right and wrong. If your grandmother sells illicit goods out of her basement, and that gets you through college, where you work to become a counselor, what could be said? What judgements can be made. Teeth never had designs on ruin. He only wanted money and status. Drug dealing ultimately does him no favors, and he falls back on hustle. He can’t let “defunct drug dealer” be his legacy. He can’t let people know his neighborhood as only abandoned buildings, the specter of danger. The narrative interlude acts as a consequence of the hustle he spits. The transformation of Avery’s story and the mode in which Teeth asserts his own transforms the meta-narrative into a collaborative effort, bridging the gap between them and the reader with story-telling.

KL: Objects play an important role in many of your stories, including this one. Without giving too much away, I’m thinking of the jar left behind be the deceased uncle, which goes through its own kind of process and change as the story progresses. Could you share a little bit of how objects work in your stories? Do you have any special fascination with any objects in particular?

RA: The objects I introduce into stories generally are the concrete residue of a concept. In “Avery Colt Is A Snake, A Thief, A Liar,” Granddad’s WWII service revolver is an item that represents power, toxic masculinity, protection, fear, obedience, and heart break. The jar and its contents represent decay, greed, and choice. At the end of Teeth’s story, Avery is being unfair and foolish by shoving the jar back in Teeth’s face. But he’s also giving Teeth a chance at moving on from what he was and committing to a new path.

KL: As mentioned, the title of the story fits quiet well as this is a story about Teeth, more or less. But the narrator goes through a kind of change of his own, which mirrors, in a sense, the change that Teeth comes to realize — or express publicly — to his own self, along with the narrator. Still, the narrator seems to take a back seat to the goat-bearded women, the elders who shame the dealers and crackheads, and to Teeth himself. Was there ever a version of the story when the narrator had a larger role? And what effect might this have in your view — the narrator taking a kind of back seat to the other figures in the story?

RA: In the arc of the stories, Avery is the reader’s point of entry into the community, but I never wanted him to be the only focal point. His story and whether or not he survives is not as important as the community’s story. The first half of the collection, Avery has less agency and takes up more space in the narratives as he deliberates on what’s around him. As he gains more agency in later stories, I intended for the community and other characters to take the forefront.

KL: I’m looking forward to the release of your debut collection of stories. Is Teeth’s Story part of the collection? And could you maybe share a little about the collection here?

RA: Yes! “Teeth’s Story” is in the collection. It’s the eighth story and works in tandem with the seventh story, “Cauldron,” which originally appeared in Story Quarterly. “Cauldron” is where Teeth is first introduced. After finishing a major project, it takes some time to really nail what it’s all about. In a concrete sense, “Avery Colt Is A Snake, A Thief, A Liar” is about whether or not Avery and his family can survive the economic downturn in his neighborhood as opportunities decrease and violence escalates. In another sense, it’s about adapting to the barbs of grief and whether the way forward is amassing methods of brutality or negotiating surrender to vulnerability.

KL: Last series of questions.

KL: Do you prefer…

KL: Pumpkin or Squash?

RA: Squash

KL: Almonds or Cashews?

RA: Almonds

KL: Neat or On the Rocks?

RA: Neat

KL: Bikes or Scooters?

RA: Bikes

KL: Boy Bands or Hair Bands?

RA: Boy Bands (Brock Hampton)

KL: Leaves on trees or leaves on the ground?

RA: Leaves on the ground

Ron A. Austin holds an MFA from the University of Missouri–St. Louis and is a 2016 Regional Arts Commission Fellow. Avery Colt Is a Snake, a Thief, a Liar, his first collection of linked stories, won the 2017 Nilsen Prize. The book will be released in fall of 2019. Austin’s short stories have been placed or are forthcoming in PleiadesStory QuarterlyNinth LetterBlack Warrior ReviewMidwestern GothicJuked and other journals. He, his partner Jennie, and son Elijah live in St. Louis with a whippet named Carmen.

The True Death of Abel Paisley by Maisy Card, published in Agni (online).

I was going to write an intro to The True Death of Abel Paisley, but then I came across this, written on Agni’s website, and it was probably written by someone much smarter than me, so I decided to use this intro instead of my own. Here it is, as published by Agni:

“A Jamaican has the opportunity to take on a dead man’s identity and live a free new life with a full-body alias. But things are never so simple. Never mind the long arm of the law—preordained retribution has a longer arm still. Stay tuned. The true death of Abel Paisley doesn’t get revealed until the very end.”

I suspect after reading the blurb you’re going to want to read the actual story. And you should. It’s fantastic. Here’s a link. Enjoy. And here’s an interview with Maisy.

Keith Lesmeister: Let’s start with the name of the first character we’re introduced to, Abel, which, for me, conjures memories from Sunday school where I learned that Abel suffered the wrath of his jealous brother Cain. After the horrible deed, Cain is cast out into his own no-man’s land, east of Eden. I was never convinced Cain had it as rough as people thought. After all, no one would bother him out there, but then there’s the whole notion of human connection blah blah blah. Okay, only the first question, and I’m already digressing. So, tell us about the name, Abel.

Maisy Card: I was looking at birth certificates from the town in Jamaica where one of my grandfathers was born and still lives. Abel is supposed to be roughly the same age. I noticed that names tended to be biblical or men were named after Roman emperors (my grandfather’s name is Augustus). I’ve always liked the name Abel.

KL:  The POV jumps out at me. An alternating kind of omniscient second person. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever read a story with this kind of POV. How did this POV emerge?

MC: This is one of the later stories I wrote, but I had been planning it out in my head for a long time. I had planned to tell it from Abel’s POV,  to try to understand how a man who abandons his family justifies his actions to himself, but I think by the time I got around to writing it, I knew so much about the other characters, I had a hard time letting Abel get the last word. This story, and the rest of the stories in the collection, is about intergenerational trauma. Even though some characters, like Estelle, grow up in a seemingly normal family, they manage to absorb and sense some of the negativity and trauma. I wanted everyone to be heard, for the reader to get a sense of everyone’s pain and anger, and this was the best POV to make it happen.

KL: Each character carries his/her own intrigue, which is a credit to the way you’ve developed each of these characters in nuanced and sophisticated ways, but within the parameters of a short story (length). I noticed in your bio that you’ve written a novel based on these characters. In which POV/POVs is the book written? Is there any one character who you enjoy writing more than the others?

MC: This story is part of a linked short story collection or a novel-in-stories–I’m not quite sure how I should describe it yet. Each story focuses on one or several members of the Paisley family. POVs change throughout. Some stories are told in 1st person, some are 3rd person, this is the only one told in 2nd person. I try to switch up POVs to keep things interesting for myself and hopefully the reader.

KL: Was there research involved in this story? If so, how much and what kind?

MC: No, I didn’t do any research for this particular story, but did a lot of research for other stories in the book.

KL:  Have you ever read the short story “The Disappearance” by Jeanne Schinto? Really fascinating account of an immigrant who essentially gets paid off to go back to his home country of Italy during the time of intense labor talks and negotiations and strikes and other issues, but his family doesn’t know, and they think he’s “disappeared.”

MC: I haven’t read it and couldn’t find a copy. Can you send it to me?

KL: Most likely. I will try to find it.

KL: A few random questions, preferences:

KL: Sprite or Sierra Mist?

MC: Neither. I prefer Coke or Pepsi

KL: Vacation or Staycation?

MC: staycation

KL: Sandals or shoes?

MC: shoes

KL: Candles or flashlights?

MC: candles

Maisy Card is a writer and a public librarian living in Newark, New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Lenny LetterSycamore ReviewLiars’ League NYC, and Ampersand Review. She recently completed a novel about the fictional Paisley family.

Sentence by Sentence: an interview with John Jodzio

John Jodzio’s work is humorous and dark, precise and eccentric, and compulsively readable. Look no further than these latest two stories to appreciate his talent, range, and ability. THERE’S NO CHICKEN FIGHTING IN THE INFINITY POOL was published in the latest issue of Adroit and THE NARROWS was published in The Sun. I had the privilege of chatting with John about writing, rivers, soda pop, and hot dishes.

Keith Lesmeister: Congrats on these back-to-back publications. I’m a long-time subscriber to The Sun and your story “The Narrows” is unlike anything I’ve read lately. And I say that in the best possible way. On the surface, here are two women, sisters, who rescue jumpers from a river in a selfish attempt to satisfy their own need for physical connection. What were the origins of this story? How did the idea surface (pardon the pun)?

John Jodzio: The origins of this story are sort of all over the place and kind of hard to pin down. I grew up on a river and now I live in Minneapolis by the Mississippi so there’s always been a bunch of moving water around me. I’ve always been interested in how random things end up in the water and wonder who dumped these things there and why. I also remember one day I started thinking about how Niagara Falls is this bizarre dichotomy — a very popular place to go on your honeymoon but an even more popular place to commit suicide. Like most of my stories my brain started to pull some of my experience and some of these weird facts into a strange alignment and I ended up with these two lonely sisters fishing suicidal men out of the river with their man hooks.

KL: The sisters in “The Narrows” are not always “successful” in the sense that many of the jumpers achieve their desired goal, which is suicide. You’ve managed to touch on a very sensitive and critically important topic which has, for so long, been taboo. Or maybe not taboo, but just very difficult to talk about. What is your approach to writing about important societal topics and issues in your fiction?

JJ: There’s been a definite shift in the tone of some of my stories lately. I think I’ve gotten more interested in attempting to explore these kinds of societal issues in a more overt way (instead of letting them organically occur in a story) while also trying to figure out how to channel and express more of the world-weariness, loneliness, and anger that myself and a lot of the people around me are battling in their lives.

KL: In “Chicken Fight” you’re able to capture perfectly the manic throes of a failing marriage. Despite the glorious ending, this moment in the couple’s life together—the hotel, drugs, booze, and playful reverie—feels more like a pit-stop on their way to ultimate demise. Either way, when writing a short-short fiction piece, what are you focusing on initially? Character? Language? Some combination?

JJ: Usually any short-short piece I write it usually starts with the language and voice. There’s always an opening line or first paragraph that is always a little shocking or funny or weirdly phrased and has some propulsion to it. This story just started with me revising that first paragraph over and over until I got the voice how I wanted it and then there was some taffy pulling and taffy mushing with characters and plot, trying to concoct how the narrator and his wife had arrived at this critical point in their marriage and how they might move forward.

KL: There’s a theme and mood of desperation throughout both stories. A kind of addictive melancholic alchemy—the stories feel sad and desperate to me but they’re offset by humor, intrigue, and perfect pacing. Could you discuss how you strike this perfect balance between desperation and all those things that help offset the desperation without compromising it completely?

JJ: All of these things you mention are just gut feelings I get while I am writing a story. I don’t really do any planning when I start writing something and so I am just blindly making my way through sentence by sentence, figuring out what would make sense next. Whatever alchemy exists in my stories probably always ends boiling down to a simple equation: if things start getting too desperate I leaven, if a character gets too happy I weigh them down, if the pacing gets bogged I cut some darlings to speed it up. How those things exactly happen in the context of the story is always the hard part and what takes a bunch of drafts and a bunch of time to get right.

KL: In any versions of “Chicken Fight” did the featured couple not win the last match? If so, what was that like?

JJ: Figuring how to end that story was difficult for me. There were a number of different endings, one with them losing the match, but it felt too hopeless. In the end the ending that felt right for me was for them to win and stay together (at least for now) and continue on with their hedonistic weekend.

KL: What are you currently reading?

JJ: Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin, The Strange Bird by Jeff VanderMeer, and My Own Devices by Dessa.

KL: What was the last concert you attended?

JJ: Spoon/Grizzly Bear

KL: And… last series of questions.

KL: Is it soda or pop?

JJ: Always and forever pop.

KL: Casserole or hot dish?

JJ: Hot Dish

KL: Do you prefer…

KL: Downhill or cross country skiing?

JJ: Definitely cross-country

KL: Lakes or rivers?

JJ: Obvs rivers

KL: Dylan or Young?

JJ: Young

KL: REM or Depeche Mode?

JJ: Depeche

KL: Solitude or small groups?

JJ: Solitude

JOHN JODZIO is the author of the story collections Knockout and If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is horribly addicted to burritos.

Forty-Four Thousand Pounds by Emma Copley Eisenberg, published in The Common.

I had a wonderful conversation with Emma Copley Eisenberg. She’s the kind of skilled and careful writer who understands that a character not having “the right word for what [he/she] want[s] to say” is a condition of experience as much as it is education or something else. That “something else” might be ambivalence or memory or even a condition of effort. Eisenberg’s structurally deft story, Forty-Four Thousand Pounds, is about a young woman attempting to understand three important relationships, but in so doing she’s also trying to better understand herself, and how a person might deal with growing ambivalence regarding these relationships, among other things, while not giving up hope entirely. Here’s our interview below. And please, do check out her story over at the The Common.

Keith Lesmeister: I’m thinking of all the trucker-like jargon used in this piece, not least the exact amount of weight for the coil in back of the semi, which becomes the title of the story. Tell me about the research – if any – you had to do for this story.

Emma Copley Eisenberg: I did a lot of research for this story, but most of it came in the form of interviewing and reporting. I asked a friend’s father who is a trucker if I could ride around with him for a day. He taught me much of what I didn’t know.

KL: Structurally, the story moves in a bold, non-chronological way. At first, I thought we’d return to the bike riding scene at the end of the piece, but that’s simply not the case. We bounce back and forth in ways surprising – and satisfying – to me as a reader. Could you speak to how the structure of this story evolved throughout the process?

ECE: I was originally inspired by “All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona” by Richard Bausch. I love the way that story starts in a present moment that is full of misery and loss and boomerangs back and forth from the present to the past to show the reader how and why things turned out so badly. I wanted to riff on that way of thinking about a story, except in this case things haven’t turned out so badly in the present for Kendra, or so we think. In many ways she has moved forward in her life—she has left town, and moved to the big city. Yet she still feels sadness, loss, and ambivalence. I wanted the structure of the story to highlight that ambivalence.

KL: That makes sense, and I think it works quite well, as the bouncing back and forth highlights all the emotions you just mentioned. In addition, objects play a huge role in this story: books, instruments, the semi itself along with the coil, and even the bike, among other things. Could you speak to the importance of objects in your story? How do you determine which objects have more significance than others, or does that importance emerge naturally as the narrative takes shape?

ECE: I’ve always loved the physical world, simply put. Watching people and their clothes on the New York City subway system as a kid is, I believe, what made me want to write. Stuart Dybek writes like this, I think, and Grace Paley too. Sometimes objects teach you what the story is. Ron Carlson taught me that. The minute I had the steel coil, I knew what the story was. The steel coil taught me that the banjo had to be there, and then the banjo the horse, and so forth.

KL: There’s a lot going on this story, but the most significant part – at least in my mind – is this coming-of-age love negotiation between Kendra and Carla (Kendra’s friend/lover), Kendra and her parents, and Kendra and herself. I don’t want to give away the exquisitely rendered conversation toward the end of the story between Kendra and her father, but I have to ask: did his placating to Kendra’s mother surprise you?

ECE: I think Dude is positioned somewhere between Kendra and Kendra’s mother. Kendra is queer, and wants what she wants. Kendra’s mother doesn’t want her to want it. I think families often work this way, where one parent is more in tune with the actual desires of their child than the other. Yet the parents, in some ways, still need to be a team and function as a unit. So in that respect, no, it didn’t surprise me.

KL: One of my favorite scenes is in the honky-tonk. The details, the tension between characters, the insights Kendra has about her family, namely her father and this younger woman – there’s just so much going on. How did you keep this scene so tight? With all the commotion, I could imagine it spiraling into an all-night corn-liquored extravaganza, but you keep the scene under deft writerly control.

ECE: I think that just because there is music and alcohol involved, it doesn’t need to be a scene that gets out of control. That was one thing I learned by observing actual musicians actually, particularly Bluegrass musicians—they have a lot of discipline and take a lot of pride in songs being constructed and played well. I felt that Kendra possesses that discipline, even as Dude doesn’t, totally, so I let the scene follow Kendra’s energy, which is: get in, play, get out.

KL: The story is marked by these poetic, melancholic rhetorical questions which gives a very intimate feel to the story, as if you’re asking the reader to think about these questions alongside the narrator, even if for a brief moment. Some of the rhetorical question are: “What is the word for the feeling when you don’t care where you go as long as it is somewhere that is not home and as long as you are in motion?” Or, “What is the word for when your people give up on fighting for you to stay?” I don’t know how to phrase the question. I guess I’m asking your thoughts on using these rhetorical devices.

ECE: I think this is a story about not knowing, in a lot of ways, or knowing what choice you must make but being deeply ambivalent about that choice. I wanted the style of narration to reflect that mood, one in which there is never quite the right word for what you want to say.

KL: Last few questions………

KL: Do you listen to country music? If so, who?

ECE: I love country music and listen to it a lot. Some favorites are: Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Townes Van Zandt, and Mary Gauthier. Of course, Bluegrass both is and isn’t “country music” in the way most people understand it. In terms of Bluegrass, I was taught by friends in West Virginia that there are really only a handful of “real” Blugrass bands and they are: Earl and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and The Del McCoury Band.

KL: Do you frequent honky-tonk, country bars?

ECE: I’ve only been to one honky-tonk in my life, but I’ve sat around in people’s living rooms while they play Bluegrass many, many times.

KL: Do prefer a waltz or a polka?

ECE: I’m not a big dancer, but I’ll do a waltz if it’s with the right person.

KL: Ham or turkey (for sandwiches)?

ECE: Ham or turkey equally.

KL: Interstates or back roads?

ECE: Definitely back roads.

Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in West Philadelphia. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, The Los Angeles Review of Books, AGNI, Guernica, ZYZZYVA, No Tokens, and other publications. She is the recipient of honors and residencies from Tin House Summer Workshop, the Turkey Land Cove Foundation, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and Lambda Literary. Her first book, The Third Rainbow Girl, is forthcoming from Hachette in 2019.

The Taxidermy Museum by Steven Dunn, published in Granta

A person can read the first page of Steven Dunn’s story The Taxidermy Museum online, but to read the rest you have to purchase a subscription ($16 digital). I think it’s worth it. In the story, Dunn stretches and challenges our belief and understanding of what it means to cherish and honor people and ideals. And what it means to be alive and living and remembered. But it does so through the eyes of people/characters who might not be fully aware of themselves or what is going on around them. “I volunteered to work at the Taxidermy Museum of Military Heroes. It gets me out of work three days a week, plus it looks like I’m taking on extra duties for my brag sheet.” Little does this character know…

Also check out Dunn’s lively, humorous, heartbreaking, and powerful novel POTTED MEAT (Tarpaulin Sky Press 2016). His novel WATER & POWER is forthcoming later this year.