Daniel Perry is the author of the short story collections Hamburger (Thistledown, 2016) and Nobody Looks That Young Here (Guernica, 2018). His fiction has been short-listed for the Carter V. Cooper Prize, and has appeared in more than 30 publications in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. the Czech Republic. Dan lives in Toronto, and on Twitter @danielperrysays, and you might also know him as BWS’s co-host and blog co-ordinator.
He recently sat down and answered some interview questions instead of asking them!
Farzana: I was interested in how you structured the collection into the three parts of Coarse, Medium and Fine. What was your inspiration behind that?
Dan: Hamburger wasn’t written with a structure in mind: the oldest story in the book was drafted in 2006, published in 2010, and when in late 2013, I sent Thistledown Press this one and 11 more published stories that didn’t fit in my other collection (Nobody Looks That Young Here), I intended them for New Leaf Editions, Thistledown’s imprint that publishes first-time authors in 64-page books. To my surprise and elation, Thistledown asked if I had enough material for a full-length collection, so I finally fixed some abandoned drafts and wrote some new ones, too, after which I found myself with 23 stories—one a single sentence, one nearly 40 pages long, and the rest landing somewhere between—and no idea how make more than nine years of wildly different material “flow”. In the end, I settled on length: I knew “Hamburger” had to be the first story, so my thinking was that stacking the shortest pieces up front might build some momentum for the reader. “Hamburger” ends on the image of a grinder, so I came to think of these flashes as the coarse grind, a kind of “first pass” over the material. “Medium” came to represent the medium-length pieces once I realized that the only place I could possibly put the very long, detailed, historical “Three Deaths of James Arthur Doole” was at the end of the book; it seemed to make sense to call this fullest story the finest grind.
Farzana: I savoured the microfiction, reading these really short stories the way I would poetry. I needed to pause after each, and process the feelings and thoughts that arose. One question that recurred was about the alchemy of the ending. How do you decide when and how to end stories that are so short?
Dan: Microfiction (or “flash”) is, to me, a form that deals with a moment. At the risk of over-simplifying, in a lot of these pieces the stimulus simply stops: in “Eclipse”, the cathedral bells stop ringing; or in “The Locked Out”, the main character’s done all he can think to do for the moment and he has to just sit down and wait.
Farzana: Just for fun, show us a photo of your writing space.
Dan: I contemplated cleaning up first, but that would misrepresent how it actually looks most of the time… Surly cat included…
Farzana: I noticed that writers appear in a number of the short stories. Can you tell me about this choice and what it’s like to be a writer writing about writers?
Dan: In other interviews etc. around Hamburger, one discussion topic has been characters’ relationships to their work. For writers, “inspiration” plays such a small role compared to actually doing the writing: the crafting, the shaping, the whittling; the attempt to say exactly what you mean, to make some little thing perfect so that someone else might find it beautiful. It’s a lot less romantic than a lot of people who don’t write think it is. If I can mix metaphors, it reminds me of the proverbial sausage factory: the cliché is, “You won’t like sausage once you’ve seen how it’s made,” but who says that sausage-making isn’t interesting? I’ve always liked writers as characters and the porous fourth walls in Henry Miller’s novels or the last line of Charles Bukowski’s Post Office (“Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought. And then I did.”). Maybe part of it is some kind of self-affirmation, some acceptance of the idea that people (yes, people like me, too!) actually try to make a living writing fiction. Myself, I’ve been lucky, in the sense that I have university degrees and a job and haven’t found myself starving in Paris or Brooklyn scrounging for any buck I could get (nor down-and-out drunk in L.A., for that matter…), but I think the writer’s labour is as interesting and valid to depict in fiction as any work that people do.
Farzana: How did you research the stories that take place outside of Canada? Do you have a favourite research/travel experience that came from writing this collection?
Dan: I have visited a lot of the places that appear in the stories, though not all of them, and certainly not in the day-to-day, neighbourhood detail of the Cleveland of “Chaser” or the Philadelphia of “Rocky Steps”. A completely factual scene I could point to would be the glimpse in “Vaporetto” at the perplexed tourist family of four in the square in Venice. I don’t claim that I could read the parents’ mind, but they just looked so lost. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to arrive at a dream destination, a can’t-miss stop on an Italian vacation, only to realize there was nothing there for your young children… so, later, I sat down and imagined it.
Farzana: Work, and the drudgery connected to it, is prominent in a number of the stories. In an interview for Pages Unbound, you shared some of your early and strange jobs which included chicken loader, gas station guard for your father, and knitting store cashier with your mother. Which past jobs most influenced this collection?
Dan: Oddly, the industry that I think appears most in the book is one I never worked in, food service. (Though I was hired to deliver pizzas once: it was minus 30 on my first day, my shitbox car wouldn’t start, and I got fired.) The service industry comes up a lot in the book, too, with museum and tour guides, nannies and landscapers as well. My interest in these kinds of jobs might come from the fact that a lot of the time, a lot us don’t consider these workers as the people they are, but merely as the conduit to the service, food, etc. that we want. I think it’s the feeling of invisibility or interchangeability that comes with so much entry-level work that influences the stories more than any specific job(s) I’ve worked. It says a lot to me that one can feel these same feelings across many jobs in many sectors.
Farzana: Just for fun, write a haiku about your current job.
Dan: Fun for whom? The last thing I’d call myself is a poet…
“Beer makes you sexy”
No. “Sexy people drink this.”
Farzana: In the acknowledgements, you mention a personal connection that inspired the final story in your collection, “Three Deaths of James Arthur Doole”. This got me curious about whether there are any other personal connections that were inspirations to the other stories. Care to share one?
Dan: “Be Your Own Master” was born of a terrifying dream I had about trying to get rid of a loaded gun. It went through a lot of changes before it became a proper story, but hopefully some of that base fear is still in it.
Farzana: You have another book coming out in 2018 with Guernica Editions. Tell us about that project.
Dan: Nobody Looks That Young Here is a second short story collection, though with the exception of a new story I added to it this spring, it was the first one I finished. The collection revolves around one family in small-town Southwestern Ontario and a male child’s upbringing and coming-of-age, and taken together the stories form a larger narrative kind of like a novel might.
Farzana: What are you working on now?
Dan: I’m about 20,000 words into a novella (or if it goes well: a novel) about a pretty regular guy who moves into a new apartment then starts getting nightly visits from a paranormal entity of some kind. I’ve also started mapping out a Canadian Writer Contractual Obligation Tragicomic Hockey Novel™ that I’m quite looking forward to starting.
Farzana Doctor lives in Toronto and is the author of the novels All Inclusive, Six Metres of Pavement, which won the 2012 Lambda Literary Award and was short-listed for the Toronto Book Award, and Stealing Nasreen. She was named one of CBC Books’ “Ten Canadian Women Writers You Need to Read Now” and received the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Grant. You probably also know Farzana as co-founder and curator of the Brockton Writers Series.