A Conversation with Mel Bosworth
Mel Bosworth is the author of Freight (coming 2011 from Folded Word), and When the Cats Razzed the Chickens (Folded Word, 2009). His most recently published book is Grease Stains, Kismet and Maternal Wisdom (Aqueous Books/Brown Paper Press). He lives, breathes, writes, and works in western Massachusetts. Visit him at http://eddiesocko.blogspot.com/ and in the meantime, join us as we talk about his book, switching publishers and whether or not he is a dirty boy.
The novella is a curious form. How would you define a novella?
A novella is a concentrated novel. A short story is a concentrated novella. Flash fiction is a concentrated short story, etc. I think we’re more or less hapless to the whim of what things are, and our job as writers is to pull those things through our chests, from one world to the next, without fucking them up too badly.
I’d also say a novella is a glimpse of something greater. All writing is a glimpse of something greater. Every aspect of art, of our lives, is a glimpse of something greater. And it also is the something greater, completely.
Fragments? Microcosms? Sums of the whole? We’re all juiced in. It’s all juiced in. Paradox?
“Everything is everything,” said Lauren Hill. Or maybe Basho. I don’t think it matters at this point.
And I’d also define a novella as being between 15K and 40K words. I’m a slave to the word count sometimes.
Talk about the title. When I first saw it, I thought, WTF? How did you decide that Grease Stains, Kismet, and Maternal Wisdom was the right title for your novella?
Heyyyy, you picking on my title? Ha. Well, hm. I suppose I chose “Grease Stains” because grease stains are the kind of things that happen on accident. Like bacon grease on your shirt. Or pizza grease on your shirt. Grease stains don’t come out easily. They offer personality to otherwise sleepy garments. Maybe because they don’t belong but they fit right in.
And “Kismet” I chose because I love the word. I love what it means. I’m a free-will person but fate is always something fun to consider.
Lastly, “Maternal Wisdom” is, in my mind, something old, something deserving of great reverence. Mothers know things that fathers don’t. That’s not to say paternal wisdom isn’t important, but the wisdom of a mother has, by its nature, greater depth. The soil knows its vegetables. And when you get right down to it, we’re all just a bunch of vegetables with arms and legs and private parts. Silly, silly carrots. So when you put those three things together you get the title and, I think, an immediate sense of the book’s core.
Several reviews have noted that there’s a real charm to your novella and that the charm in your writing is refreshing. Would you agree that your book is charming? Why do so many people who read your book seem surprised that good writing can be charming? Are we that jaded as a literary culture?
I’d agree that the book is charming, although it’s sometimes difficult for me to take a compliment, and I consider people calling my book charming a great compliment. And I’m not sure why people are surprised that good writing—another nice compliment—can be charming. Maybe we are jaded. Maybe we’re so used to reading bleak, depressing, dystopian, austere literary writing that when charm comes into play it’s shocking or, at the very least, pleasantly unexpected.
But there’s room for everything. And it’s all out there. Everything is out there. And I believe the things we need often come to us. So if people need to be refreshed, then hopefully my novella will find its way to them.
I must admit I’m not crazy about fiction with a lot of dialogue. I often feel like if I want to listen in on a conversation, I’ll watch TV. There’s a lot of dialogue in your novella and I like your novella. Why did you decide to tell the story through so much dialogue?
Dialogue is fast and keeps the eyes moving. Dialogue is what was in my head so dialogue is what came out.
There’s an interesting break in the narrative where you narrate the goings on between David and Samantha and you write what is, perhaps, the longest sentence in the world. It feels like the narrator is so excited about being in Boston with Samantha and in love with the whole world that he cannot help but explode in this tightly written, seven page section where you advance the story a bit. Why did you make that narrative choice? What did you want the reader to take from it?
Speed. I wanted to take the reader on a fast ride there, faster than the already brisk pace. Then I wanted to slam on the brakes. I wanted that segment to act as a kind of fast-forward button. Press it and the screen gets a little warped and fuzzy but you can still see what’s going on. I didn’t want the reader to miss anything. I didn’t want to miss anything.
Samantha’s mother is a bit eccentric. She hits on all her daughter’s boyfriend and David is no exception. Are you a dirty boy, Mel? Show your math.
I can be. Tee hee hee.
Here’s my math: p + m/v + m X p + v = 0 (faces)
David and Samantha have a pretty riotous second date where they get terribly drunk and then behave inappropriately in a number of different ways. I thought there was a real truth to what you wrote about Samantha so drunk she was crying and David has to help her hold it together and then they have an animalistic encounter out in the open. What’s interesting to me is that you write so clearly about the love this couple shares but you sort of gloss over the sexual details. They fuck but we don’t know much more beyond that. Was that sexual distance deliberate?
I suppose it was. Writing about sex can be tricky sometimes, at least for me. Sometimes it’s easy. I don’t know. I guess leaving things to the reader’s imagination was the way for me to go at the time. Maybe I worried that explicit sex details would overshadow their love. Besides, I can’t always write the words “shaft” or “pussy” with a straight face. I give mad props to those who can.
Does new love demand drunkenness?
A lot of the time yes. Yes it does. But new love can indeed bloom without it. It happens every day. It’s just not as entertaining to read. Unless there’s crazy, explicit sex.
What is your drink of choice?
Jameson and ginger.
David calls his friend Mark for directions and it provides these almost comic and strange interludes. Who is Mark and why is he David’s navigator? It feels like there’s an interesting backstory there.
Mark is the Virgil to David’s Dante. I felt like Mark was a great, outside, steadying influence to the often shaky David. Mark is also an accessible, kind god. Whenever David needs him, he’s there. Even if he’s blunt, he’s there, an inner voice capable of candor. We could all use one of those.
Mark is also comprised of the best qualities in people I know. Quick, identify your Mark! Now relax.
How autobiographical is this novella? I recognized parts of you in David.
Ha. It’s all fiction, although, arguably, we’re every character we write. Right?
Are Samantha and David going to make it?
I’m not going to answer that question, but I think we all know the answer.
Why do we love writing love stories?
Because we love love. We require it, be it self-love or the exchange of love with another. When you strike that balance everything is okay, even if the world around you is crumbling.
Your novella was first on one press (Aqueous Books) and now it’s being published by another press (Brown Paper Publishing). What happened there?
Yes. The switch mid-race. Luckily, it happened so quickly I think most people didn’t even realize it had happened. Which is good for everyone, and very good for the book.
Three weeks to the day. The book was dropped September 22nd and was back October 13th. The magic of print-on-demand, folks. And the good fortune of having worked with one of the kindest, most generous indie publishers in this messy little business, Pablo D’Stair.
My partnership with Aqueous Books was strained on several levels for some time, and things finally came to a head. The truth is I notified the powers at Aqueous that I’d be terminating our contract at the end of the year. I figured three months was enough time to let the reviews fall, the interviews run, and whatever books were going to sell sell. In the meantime I could look for a new publisher, and when the clock struck 2011 we could go our separate ways, quietly and as professionally as possible.
The following morning I woke up to an overflowing inbox and a discontinued book, the same morning the gents over at Dark Sky Magazine ran a great review and book giveaway. Twelve hours after that happened I had a new publisher who began working on things immediately. Three weeks later the book was back and ready to ship.
I’m more disappointed than anything. Things didn’t have to go down like that. And again, I was extremely fortunate to have things work out like they did. Lots of hands rushed out to steady me after taking the blow.
Brown Paper sent me a proof copy. I mean, how awesome is that? And they sent me 25 copies to utilize/dispense however I choose. That’s what publishers are supposed to do, right? If I nervously ask my current publisher a question, he gives me an answer, tells me not to worry, and then calls me a twat. Feels like home to me.
But anyway. Just to make things perfectly clear, my issues with Aqueous Books were mine alone. And those issues are over now, for good and all. And I’m fairly certain Aqueous won’t have the same issues with the other authors like they did with me. They can’t afford to. Nor should it even be an option, not if they plan on sticking around for any extended period of time. And I plan on supporting the other authors there. I will buy their books. They’re great people who deserve great things.
And what would Aqueous Books say about all this? Ask them. I can only tell you what the notarized copy of my Termination of Contract stated, that my “communication was poor and unprofessional.” I’m sure it was, but I try to keep my frustration behind closed doors.
And a final note to all the writers out there: If you’re engaged in a partnership with a publisher, you do have a say in what goes on. How they handle (or don’t handle) their business reflects on you, and vice versa. If you see something you don’t like, speak up. And if by speaking up you risk losing your book deal? Well, maybe it’s time to move on. Some things are truly blessings in disguise.
I’m gonna shut up now. Support the Aqueous authors. Seriously.
The two versions of your book have very different covers. Why the change?
New publisher meant completely new look. Pablo D’Stair tossed out a cover idea and I liked it and that was it. The interior layout is also different. Better, I think. The first version was 160 pages or so and the new version checks in at 114. It’s tighter, faster, easier to read. Not that the first version wasn’t easy to read, but the new version is even easier. And this book is meant to be read quickly. In fact, it demands it.
And the cover change marks a new life for this book. It was truly resurrected. Dead one moment and alive the next. Like a zombie. A charming zombie.
What’s next for you?
Next is “Freight.” It’s a novella that’ll be published by Folded Word Press sometime next year. This autumn and winter brings final revisions. It’s a much different beast than “Grease Stains.” But it’s got some quirks. Some laughs. Some heart-tugging. Some of that surprising charm. Be on the lookout.
You note that it is difficult for you to take a compliment. I think this holds true for many writers and Justin Taylor recently wrote about this idea of self deprecation or false modesty among writers. Why are so few writers willing (or is it able?) to acknowledge their own greatness? Do you believe in your writing? If you don’t, why should the people who read you believe in your writing?
I think most, if not all, writers are insecure. It comes with the territory. And to acknowledge their own greatness, to be outspoken about it, is detrimental to themselves, to the game, and to the craft.
There’s a certain amount of humility that’s needed, an absence of ego. Because egos get inflated. Egos can then pop. Sure, there needs to be a personal acknowledgment of “Yes, I wrote that book,” or, “Yes, I made that chair,” but actual ownership is transferred once our hands move from the keyboard or set down the hammer.
We made the book or the chair but they belong to the world now. And if the book or the chair is great then is it fair to say that the creator is also great? A lot of creative types are total dicks. But maybe they made a damn fine book or a damn fine chair. So I’ll sit in that chair and read the book, and I won’t have to worry about the writer or the carpenter running in and jerking the chair from my ass or slapping the book from my hands because that shit is mine now, not theirs.
As writers we’re just channels. Tools. We filter that which already exists through our warped little lives. We try to do it well and that’s all we can do. I think that’s enough.
Do I personally believe in my own writing? Of course. But not to a point of boiling pride. I believe in my ability to create. If I didn’t I wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t write. But there will never come a day when I acknowledge my own greatness, even if cats are running around saying how great I am. It’s not about me. It’s about the work. I’m just a fumbling, stumbling asshole trying to make my way through the world with as much patience, generosity, and love as I can muster.
You like to read the writing of others on YouTube. Where did you get the idea for your various reading endeavors? What do you like about performing the work of others?
My YouTube project began a little over a year ago. I was a bit restless one night and realized my camera could record video. So I filmed myself reading my Zen calendar. A few people liked it and asked for more. So I started asking people for snippets of their work because I didn’t want to clog the channel with just my stuff. It’s better to be inclusive. And it was fun. I got a little thrill reading the work of others and they got a little thrill watching me do it.
For a time the videos were hosted over at Big Other. I took a break for a while and then came back with a small series over at Dark Sky Magazine. This autumn I’m getting things together for another run. I like to think of the project as a one man literary cover band, performing great songs by all kinds of different artists. I may never belt out a version of Dolly Parton’s Jolene, but I can sing the words of rock stars like Erin Fitzgerald and xTx. And as long as people enjoy watching and participating I’ll continue to do it.
Almost every writer these days is also an editor. You’re one of the few writers I know who is not an editor. Have you ever edited? Do you want to edit? Do you like just, well, writing?
I edited for a stretch at a little blog-zine I made a while back. It’s called Flash Fire 500 and it still stands, home of some great writing. And editing can be fun but it can also be difficult and time consuming. You know that better than anyone, Roxane.
And try and be damned, I’m still not the efficient powerhouse that many writers/editors/publishers are. I have trouble juggling three things, never mind four or five. But someday I would like to give it another run. In the meantime I’m happy helping out friends behind closed doors. They help me too. I’ve got a great support system. Very lucky.
What’s the writing community like in Western Mass? Do you participate in any way?
The writing community is insane in western Mass and I’m slowing working my way around the edges. If you shake a tree around here, twenty authors will drop. Seriously. The MFA program at UMass brings in tons of great folk, and those great folk fill the bookstores and performance spaces nearly every night of the week. There’s probably a reading going on right now at Flying Object in Hadley or at Amherst Books or in someone’s backyard.
My participation has been limited to being a spectator for the time being, but I’m looking to change that soon. I’ve got a crazy new publisher and a crazy new book. I’ve got plenty of crazy. Just need a place to put it.
I know you’re a big Lakers fan (and why wouldn’t you be) but because you live in Massachusetts, but how are the Celtics looking for the forthcoming basketball season? How badly do you think they’ll be crushed by the Lakers?
Oh, Roxane. Silly, silly Roxane. The Celts are going to be great. I haven’t seen any of the pre-season games yet but they’ll be fine. The old blood has some new blood to help, and they also have some great additions of more old blood. They now have Shaq, and Shaq is old as dirt, but he’s huge and he hates Kobe. And Rondo is a machine and Perkins will have some better support this year and Pierce and Allen and Garnett may just have enough life left in those tired legs to kick the shit out of the Lakers for another championship. It’s going to be a great season. And I’m going to take your money.
What do you like most about your writing?
I like that it reminds me of what the most important things in my life are, and when that happens I leave my desk and go outside.
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