Quite So: David S. Atkinson talks writing, reading, and his new story collection

IFLast year at AWP, I bunked up with David S. Atkinson. We guzzled coffee by the gallon and talked books for three days. Of course, I was already a fan: I loved David’s first book, Bones Buried in Dirt, and he and I were both guests on an online reading series at the (now sadly closed) Lit Demon website — David read from his second book, The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes.

So when I heard he has a new book coming out this year, Not Quite So Stories, I was eager to chat with him about his new work.

David is the author of three books now: Bones Buried in the Dirt (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel), The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (2015 national indie excellence awards finalist in humor), and now Not Quite so Stories (out this March from Literary Wanderlust). He also publishes short fiction widely in print and online. A native of Nebraska, he now lives in Denver where, when he isn’t writing fiction or reading hundreds of books a year, he works as a patent attorney.

Which is where I began our conversation:

Writing is not your day job, but it is a hell of a lot of work — the writing part, for sure, but also sharing it, promoting it. Especially for those of us who work with indie presses and have to do most of the promotion ourselves. What kinds of things do you do to get the word out there about your publications?

Actually, writing is kind of my day job. Working as a patent attorney on the prosecution side of things is a lot like being a high-priced tech writer. It’s definitely not the same as my writing-writing, but it’s still primarily writing.

To get to the actual question though, I do everything I can. I’ve been getting involved with more local readings to get more people familiar with my writing, querying various places that do reviews and interviews, doing book reviews of other books myself, participating in as many social media based writing group interactions as I can, putting out a book trailer, posting updates regularly on various social media pages, and anything else I manage to think of. I think the more one can be involved in any aspect of the writing community, the more people out there are going to hear about you and get curious about your writing.

I also don’t forget to publicly thank people who help in various ways too. Not only do they deserve it, but they tend to want to spread the word when they’ve had a hand in it — like John Domini, Karolyn Sherwood, and Joseph Michael Owens, who helped me work on stories like “G-Men” at a Dzanc workshop day a few years back.

Where do you do your writing?

Anywhere I can. I write sitting in bed a lot, but also plenty of other places. The desk in my office, the bathtub (my story “An Endless Series of Meaningless Miracles” was certainly thought of there), the living room in front of the TV, the bus, the train, riding in cars, my office at work if I get a minute, hotel rooms, Village Inn and other restaurants, anywhere. As busy as life gets, you’ve got to snatch available writing time any place you can.

Bones-Buried-copy

Your first book, Bones Buried in Dirt, is a beautiful testament to early adolescence, a nostalgic journey through a particular kind of American boyhood —

Thank you! I’m not sure there’s a question here, but I’ll take compliments anywhere I can get them.

And your second book, The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes, “explores the fictions we tell ourselves, and the fictions we tell ourselves about the fictions we tell ourselves.” But this new book seems to address the meaninglessness of mythologies, as though the stories we tell ourselves don’t actually make any difference. Is this new book sort of a progression from the second one? What’s the relationship there?

coverActually, I began Not Quite so Stories before The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes. I just didn’t finish it until after that book was out. This one was a much longer process. I don’t see this one as necessarily a progression, though I can see a certain unintended relationship. But, I don’t think Not Quite so Stories posits mythologies as meaningless. The core idea was definitely that life is inherently inexplicable, absurd, and that myth as a metaphoric way to explain life is a pointless exercise. We just have to figure out how we’re going to go on in the face of the absurdity of life, and mythologies are one way to deal with that. It’s as valid as most other approaches — whatever helps a person. A private mythology certainly helps Christien in my story “Changes for the Château.” Just the idea that we can ultimately make sense of things is what this book scoffs at. I think The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes actually takes a pretty similar position, though in a very different way.

NotQuiteSo-72In the write up for Not Quite So Stories, you point out that the title is a play on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, arguably a children’s book. And I noticed that the book’s trailer opens with storytelling to children. I can’t help but feel like in some ways this is a return to some of the childhood themes you were addressing in your first book. Anything to that?

Definitely. The book’s refutation of the idea that we’re going to be able to explain and make sense of life is advocacy of a return to viewing life with the sense of wonder most of us had in childhood before we got conned by routine into thinking that life was not magical. I don’t think that’s something we should give up in life, and we should struggle to reclaim it when we can, like the character Nan, in my story “The Onion She Carried,” who tries to make life magical again by making her day “an onion day.”

The titles of your last two books are plays on titles of other works. And if I remember right, I think you said that The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes actually started with that title and the book developed from there. Is that how you tend to work? How do you feel your titles relate to your work?

I like to say that I have no tendencies, no process, but that isn’t really accurate. Each project I begin seems to have a certain set of inherent rules and procedures for how it needs to be pursued. I feel my way around until I get how a project needs to be worked and then go with it.

That being said, I don’t tend to start with a title. It can come at various points along the way and help shape things, certainly in development stages and revision stages. My story “The Boys of Volunteer Fire Two-Twenty-Two-Point-Five (and a Half),” for example, started as a humorous concept. Then I needed a title that reflected that humor. Once that was in place, then I just needed to actually write it, was well into the flow.

The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes was actually the other way around from what you mentioned above. It started with a misunderstanding of what Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist was going to be about, which I told Joseph Michael Owens about and he told me to go ahead and write that. I decided not to write a title until the very end, and a breakfast play on The Garden of Good and Evil popped into my head, which I hadn’t read at the time (I did later). The title of this new one came fairly early on though. I’d written a few of the stories in various forms by that point, but when the idea of the collection came up, the title Not Quite so Stories pretty much went along with it.

You’ve blogged before about the quantity of books you read, and I remember a recent interview of you with Jen Knox where you said you read literally hundreds of books in the past year. I know a lot of those are shorter works like chapbooks, but that’s still a hell of a lot of reading. I tend to be a slow reader anyway, but I have found that lately, it’s harder and harder to squeeze in quality reading time. How do you manage to read so many books?

Yeah, I read books of a variety of different lengths. Some of them are as short as chapbooks, but most tend to be around two hundred pages or so. Two to three hundred books a year tends to be about 50,000-80,000 pages a year, according to the tracker on Goodreads. Most of how I get so much reading time is that’s most of what I do when I’m not writing or working, and I’m pretty much writing or working when I’m not reading. My wife and I went to a resort in Mexico recently and when we sat on the beach, I read on the beach. I carried a book pretty much everywhere on that vacation. In fact, I probably read to the expense of writing sometimes. I really should write a little more and read a little less.

This reminds me of articles I’ve been seeing around lately about the difference between fast reading and slow reading. Are there books you read faster than others? I know in my case — and these are all books I love — I took forever to get through Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead and Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Austen’s Sense and Sensibility took me three months to finish (it really drags in the middle!). What’s the book that took you the longest to read, respective to its length?

House of Leaves took me about three days to read. The thing that took the longest was turning the book around to be able to keep reading, and occasionally having to go to a mirror and things like that. Sense and Sensibility took me about five days (I agree it drags in the middle). Of course, the only reason I know this is the Goodreads tracker. I wouldn’t remember otherwise, which means I’m not sure what book would have taken me the longest with respect to its length. Some books definitely take more time than their pages suggest (like Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog), and some the reverse (like Adam Levin’s The Instructions). I know War and Peace and In Search of Lost Time both took me years to complete because I kept starting them and then stopped. However, War and Peace only took about a week and In Search of Lost Time about a month and a half (for all seven books) once I got into the run on each where I finally read each straight through.

What’s the relationship, for you, between your reading and your writing?

I think there’s an interactive relationship between almost everything in my life and my writing. My story “Context Driven” was influenced by a laugh my wife had at me when I mistakenly tried to use my key to unlock a Camry that was the same year and color as my Corolla. “Domestic Ties” goes back to a Saturday Night Live sketch from the ‘70s. Reading is certainly no exception. I read because I like reading and enjoy it, but I’m always absorbing. I’d written a few stories in this collection, but wasn’t sure what I was doing or what I’d end up doing with them. Then I happened across books like The Nimrod Flipout, Museum of the Weird, The Elephant Vanishes, and The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. The origins of the book concept started to grow from there.

You’ve read prose at poetry events before. I keep getting invited to do that, too, which is cool — I might be one of the world’s worst poets, but for some reason, I’ve been allowed to slip past the velvet ropes and hang with poets. How does that play for you? What’s your relationship with poetry?

Most of the poetry events I’ve read prose at have been very welcoming. The poets there have tended to be some pretty cool people, so maybe it’s that. I tend to go with my flash pieces there, which are usually received well. Flash seems to have a certain kinship with prose poems though, so maybe it’s just close enough. I’ve written a poem or two before, or tried, but I simply haven’t devoted the kind of study and time that I have to my prose. I’m more of an amateur at poetry than I am at skydiving (which I did once, tandem). Still, I read at least a few books of poetry a year. Maybe ten to twenty on average. I like to listen to poetry as well, I’ve got a few poetry reading CDs in my music library, and I interact with a number of poets on a regular basis. There’s so much prose people can pick up from poets, so it’s a good use of time even beyond simply being enjoyable.

I feel like I ought to ask you some kind of clever wrap-up question, but really, I just want to plug the book! When’s the release date, and where can people grab a copy? Also, any events coming up where folks can catch you live?

Thanks! The release date is March 1, 2016. So far, it’ll be available at Amazon (though a few third party sellers insist it is available now, it isn’t and they’ll just cancel any orders once they realize that) and at Smashwords.

I’m planning on trying to read at the open mic portions of some of the upcoming Fbomb Flash Fiction Reading Series at the Mercury Café in Denver (February 16th, March 15th, April 19th, May 17th, and June 21st) and I’ll be a featured reader at the one on July 19th (The 2nd Annual Flash Fiction Festival). I’ll also be reading at an event Stephen Dunn is putting on at Still Cellars in Longmont, CO (readers include Dana Green, Angela Buck, Steven Dunn, me, Khadijah Queen, and Katie Jean Shinkle).


david

Many thanks to David for the cool conversation! You can find out more about him and his writing at his website, and again, you can buy all his books online from the bookstore of your choice, or you can click the links on his website’s publications page.

Happy reading, gang!

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