You Can Call Him Shakespeare: Meet Patrick Wensink
Patrick Wensink began his writing career as a rock critic and his work appears in several newspapers, magazines and web sites. Gradually shifting his attention to fiction, he published his first book, a collection of short stories, Sex Dungeon for Sale!, in 2009. Currently, he is putting the finishing touches on his first novel: Broken Piano for President—a comedy about a man who is more productive when he is drunk than when he’s sober, a hamburger more addictive than crystal meth and an angry pack of cosmonauts. We had a fine conversation about his work, his barbecue sauce and so much more.
Your work has been characterized as “darkly absurdist.” Is that accurate? What does it mean for writing to be absurdist or bizarro? Can those terms be used interchangeably?
I’ve been called much worse, that’s for sure. I use a lot of sarcasm and satire and dark humor in my writing and people draw their own conclusions. I’ll take whatever you want to call me, especially “Shakespearian”. I think if people started calling my work Shakespearian, my parents wouldn’t be so embarrassed about the book’s title.
How do you negotiate the fine line between absurdism and nonsense? Do you ever feel that you push the absurd too far?
There are definitely times my writing goes out too far. It’s important to keep one foot in reality and not go hog wild with weirdness. Plus, its a lot more fun to have stories about sex dungeons and killer washing machines and James Brown’s belt buckle that people believe could actually happen.
Who are your favorite writers in the absurdist or bizarro tradition?
I don’t know what the parameters are for those traditions, but I know Mark Leyner and Donald Barthelme and especially Will Self’s “Cock and Bull” showed me that you could write stuff that is artistic and thoughtful, while being as weird as you want. Those guys all have a foot loosely in reality,so I probably cribbed that idea from them.
What’s the most bizarre thing you’ve seen at a bizarro convention?
I’ve only been to one. My publisher puts on a yearly gathering called Bizarro-Con. All I’ll say is that one of the readings involved throwing raw meat at the audience. Not for everyone, but I don’t think that will be topped in the bizarre category.
I have to admit to feeling a little cheated by the title story in your collection Sex Dungeon For Sale. Though the story ends up being fairly true to the title, I expected to see some real sex dungeon action. Were you trying to set the reader up for that sort of expectation? What is the approximate value of a sex dungeon for sale?
That’s strange, nobody’s ever felt cheated when it comes to real estate! Actually, I just felt like it would be boring to describe the contents of this sexual playground in detail. I would, personally, rather read about this woman trying to sell a house with this weird basement and fill in the blanks myself. I figure everyone’s image will be different. We’ve all got a sex dungeon in our mind. Damn, that could have been the title!
I don’t know the value of a sex dungeon, but someone told me at a recent reading that they were watching one of those HGTV home renovation shows and one place featured a sex dungeon. They might have included an estimate, I’ll have to find it.
I must admit that a lot of absurdist fiction seems, well, absurd, and more than once, while reading your collection, I felt like there was a bubble cloud above my head filled with the letters W, T and F. Still, the more I read of this collection, there more I felt like there was a method to the madness–that beneath the absurdity, you had some really interesting things to say. My favorite story, hands down, was Pandemic Jones. Even with the absurdist elements, I felt like the story, as Bernie Mac might say, made sense like a motherfucker. I even found the ending quite poignant. How did you come up with this story? Did you intend to bring out that emotional quality amidst the absurdity?
I don’t remember where I came up with this story. Swine flu, Bird Flu, Dutch Elm Disease, it honestly doesn’t feel that far fetched to think that a pharmaceutical company could also be creating the diseases it cures. Just think about the stock potential. And its something that could work in a lot of different industries.
If it’s good enough for Bernie Mac, it’s good enough for me! That’s fantastic that you felt an emotional quality about Pandemic Jones. I personally feel cheated when I read a story with a great premise, but little substance. My goal was to write each story in Sex Dungeon for Sale! with a premise that would grab my attention if I was the reader, but to back each up with an emotional core and to, ideally, say something meaningful. And also to make people laugh (mostly, Pandemic Jones isn’t a comedy). That combination is tough, but I’m pretty happy with the results.
Donor 322 would make for a great episode of Law & Order: SVU. I’m just saying…
They do pull their story lines from the headlines. I actually was inspired by a newspaper article about online groups being set up for children who’s father was a sperm donor. It was a touching story about kids who don’t know their father, finding each other and forming an ad hoc family. Who knows why, but I also thought about how people who leave themselves vulnerable like that often get taken advantage of. That’s a sad thing to think about and I wrote a sad story about it.
Have you ever had any strange visions in unremarkable objects like the narrator in Jesus Toast? What’s a girl to do when her voodoo goes sour?
I can’t even see the pictures in a magic eye poster, so I’ve definitely never spotted the Virgin Mary in an oil stain or Jesus in a piece of burnt toast like the narrator. That was another story that was inspired by real events, by these flocks of people you see on the news debating whether a knot in a tree looks like someone significant. I don’t know what she does when she loses that magic touch, I like leaving those decisions up to the reader. Kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but with fewer ninjas.
In My Son Thinks He’s French, your narrator frets his wife may have cheated on him with a strange man named Pierre, ten years earlier, and he says:
“Don’t worry, I didn’t flip out. Though I was real close to shaking Leah awake, screaming about infidelity like a movie on one of those crummy women’s channels our new cable package gets. Then I realized her senior year of college was almost a decade ago. The math doesn’t work. Leah loves me. She hates goose liver pate. Case closed.”
My question: what did Lifetime, Oxygen and WeTV ever do to you?
I have no problem with those channels. But the narrator of the story does. He’s the kind of guy who blames Eurovision and Lifetime for ruining his family, when he’s actually just a crummy dad/husband and doesn’t realize it.
But seriously, this was another one of those stories where I felt like maybe there was more going on than meets the eye with this guy who is so clueless and unobservant about his own life. Is my reading at all accurate?
Absolutely. Like I said, I wanted to write something funny and unique, but use that as a smokescreen to get the reader thinking. The core of My Son Thinks He’s French is about having a good work/life balance and the narrator has about the worst one I could imagine.
I love the cover–there’s something so creepy and sad and awesome about that girl who looks like she’s standing there, forced into a home piano recital and an awkward dress by her parents. Who’s responsible for that image? Why did you choose this picture as the cover for your first book?
It was made by an artist name Troy Chambers. He lives in Portland, OR, where I lived when I wrote most of these stories, but we’ve only met once. I have not talent for the visual arts and my editor recommended Troy. He put that image together very quickly. He’s awesome.
You held a coloring contest to promote your book which I thought was pretty awesome. I feel like you’ve gotten the word out there pretty well for a book from a very small press? What else have you done to promote Sex Dungeon For Sale? Is there anything you won’t do to sell a book? Is it a writer’s responsibility to promote themselves?
I actually have a public relations degree from college that had been collecting dust for about eight years before Sex Dungeon for Sale! came out. Once I left college, I was never all that interested in using it. But being on a small press, I found it really helps to promote yourself. So, I think the PR man inside me came out of retirement. I really enjoy thinking of new ways to connect to readers , but yes, there are probably things I wouldn’t do. I only create promotions that I would personally like to do if I were a fan. So, holding an online coloring contest for some excellent autographed books was one way. I also did a custom bookplate giveaway recently, where I challenged people to think of any bookplate they’d like to receive. My favorite was a pirate and a penguin playing hopscotch. But the thing I’m most excited about is Sex Dungeon for Sale!: The Movie. Two filmmakers recently took the title story and made a short film, complete with sex dungeon weirdness and an awesomely optimistic real estate agent. They’re still editing it, from what I understand, and it should be online in the next month or two.
How is your novel, Broken Piano For President coming along? What’s it about?
Broken Piano is complete. Its a novel about a guy who is more productive drunk than when he’s sober, a hamburger more addictive than meth and the worst rock band on Earth. But, like the stories in Sex Dungeon, I think it has a lot more going on and says something about consumerism and marketing. And is hopefully funny. I don’t know if Eraserhead is going to publish it or not. I’m learning the publishing industry is incredibly slow and patience is important.
I’ve never met a writer who has bottled his own barbecue sauce. Tell us about your sauce. Any interesting secret ingredients?
It’s called Wentastic BBQ sauce. I sold it at this anything-goes street fair in Portland, OR a few years back. The slogan on the bottle was: “Wentastic BBQ: It Tastes Good on Stuff”. I actually wrote an essay about the experience and it’s going to be published in a great literary magazine called The2ndHand. It’s also on my website (http://patrickwensink.com/nonfiction/). Sadly, like Aerosmith, Wentastic BBQ is currently on hiatus.
Gerardo is one of the finest musicians to emerge from the 1990s. Other than Rico Suave, what is your favorite Gerardo song? Do you have any idea what happened to that guy?
Damn, you caught me red handed! I have no knowledge of Gerardo beyond Rico Suave. I was simply riding my bike home from work one day, singing the Paul Simon song “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard” and somehow Gerardo popped into my head. I thought “Me and Gerardo Down by the Schoolyard” sounded like a great title for a story, but about what? I ended up having a lot of fun hypothesizing what happened to all these awesome 90s acts like Biz Markie and Jesus Jones, some of them are stay at home dads, some play racquetball, some DJ at a strip club, one sells hotdogs at the zoo. I hope Gerardo never sold a kidney to buy more doo-rags.
When you get married in a donut shop, does your wedding cake also involve donuts?
This happened, again, in Portland, at this great place called Voodoo Doughnuts that will legally marry you. It was a really fun ceremony where the minister/donut shop owner compared love’s ups and downs to a cruller. If I remember correctly, we did have a big pile of donuts at the reception. We will be celebrating our fourth anniversary this May.
You live in Louisville, KY which most people know as the home of the Kentucky Derby. What’s the best thing to do in Louisville that most people don’t know about? What’s the writing community like in Louisville?
Louisville is a lot more fun than people usually suspect. My wife and I moved here from Portland and have loved it. People know how to make their own fun and that usually involves bourbon. Kentucky is the only place in the world that can make bourbon, everything else is just whiskey. So, I enjoy discovering all these tiny distilleries making really good bourbon. It’s kind of like the microbrewery meets the moonshine still. Other than that, I’m in an Improv Comedy group, which is a lot harder than I ever imagined.
You started out as a rock critic so I imagine you love music. What are you digging these days, musically speaking?
I picked up the new Liars album recently and, as usual, it was very strong. I also really love this band called Nurses, who kind of rip off Animal Collective, but they do such a good job that it’s worth it. Also, I just discovered Nina Simone, who was a very popular jazz singer/political activist in the 60s. She has an incredibly powerful, smoky voice that demands your attention.
What’s the best greeting card sentiment you never wrote?
I’m kind of cheating here. I wrote this card, but nobody published it. The outside says: “Look at the bright side, now that you’re unemployed you can focus on your true love:” And the inside says: “Sleeping in.”
What are some of the things you’ve done that you’re not proud of?
A gentleman never tells.
What do you love most about your writing?
The element of surprise. I’m not big on outlines or planning before I write a short story or a novel, I like to just start and see where it goes. Along the way there are exciting characters or phrases or themes or scenes that I never anticipated. Even if I cut them out later, those moments still make me happy.