INTERESTING MONSTERS by Aldo Alvarez
(Graywolf Press, $14) Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600 7:30 p.m. Sat., Sept. 8
WRITING AN EPIPHANY-LESS short story is a sure way to commit literary blasphemy. You're setting yourself up for failure, or at least a visitation from James Joyce's indignant ghost. In most of his charmingly experimental short story collection, Interesting Monsters, Aldo Alvarez slips into this supposed sin by writing largely anticlimactic stories occurring after that dramatic moment when a character realizes he's forever changed. Yet despite his stories' structures and wildly ranging subject matter—from the tough reality of one gay relationship to the surrealism of a son haunting his parents in Heaven— Alvarez escapes the negative consequences of literary sacrilege.
This risk-taking meshes with the theme of Alvarez's collection: Once you free it from the closet, you'll see that the skeleton's made of flowers, not bone. The monsters are interesting, like the character Rog ("Rog & Venus Become an Item"), whose attached placenta brings him first shame, then fame. When the parties Rog attends became dull, "he would open the briefcase, pull out and open the Ziploc bag where he kept the mass most of the time, spread it on his lap or on a table, secrete amniotic fluids, and wiggle it for his audience."
Alvarez, who's also a creative writing instructor and editor of the queer online lit rag Blithe House Quarterly (blithe.com), recently wiggled his own placenta for us over the phone:
Seattle Weekly: Did you have a goal in mind when writing Interesting Monsters?
Aldo Alvarez: One of the things I wanted to do with this book is explore a range with the short story form. They don't have to be laced with epiphany. It can become corny or tired if you let [epiphany] determine your choices. I do it in a couple of short stories, but it's earned. [Writers should] try to pursue the consequences of the revelation, rather than stop at the revelation. I also wanted to use these stories in a short story cycle, which answers through each story questions raised by the first and answered by the last one.
Many believe writing short stories is less lucrative than writing a novel. What's your take?
If you're a short story writer, you're like a poet and you should adjust your expectations. Literature would be a better place if some people stopped writing novels.
Literary journals often quickly fold. Do you think online publishing will increase their longevity?
I would say with the post-dot-com-crash Internet (which won't make any money for you, and at best will give you personal satisfaction), people have to commit to publishing because they love it. Or because it serves some social or cultural purpose. The means needed to produce an e-zine are much more affordable than a paper one. But people get bored, people get tired, people have babies. You can't expect everything to go on.
What kind of gay fiction is Blithe House looking for?
We like stuff that has a really fresh voice, unexpected ways of talking about being GLBT. Our editorial standard is to expand the boundaries of gay fiction and not publish it as a genre. The number one thing we don't want to do is have a predictable format, because that's what kills literature. Every time you create a distinction that's a category, you create a ghetto. A Latino anthology turned down [my story] "Quintessence" because the [Latino] characters were too assimilated. They don't live in the barrio, etc. When it's all about the "props" of Latino lit, it stops being about Latino.
What are some "props" of gay fiction?
The gay mecca story. A night in the life of a gay man in "X" place. The coming-out-as-a-child story. The aging and loss narrative. What I tell my writing students: Think of comics and superheroes. They've been going on so long, it takes a lot of creative energy to make them fresh. You need to figure out some way to bring it back to life rather than use clich鳮
Any contemporary queer authors you particularly admire?
I really like C. Bard Cole. I enjoyed his short story collection Briefly Told Lives. He takes unexpected lives and writes profiles about these people. They're very diverse and very new—like a gay Asian jock. I really like how he's expanding the boundaries.
Do you have a favorite short story of all time?
"A Little Cloud" in [Joyce's] Dubliners. Second place is a toss-up between Gabriel GᲣia MᲱuez's two short stories "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" and "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World."
What are you working on now?
A second cycle of short stories. I want to do three books that explore the three identity issues that bug me the most: sexual orientation, the question of being an American, and gender.
Are you going to continue writing about queer characters?
I think so. The way I feel about minority themes is that people can relate to them if you relate the themes to other things. The mistake of gay fiction is not relating it to other things at large. When you're writing about themes that aren't safe or popular, you've got to give people a key to the house so they can walk inside.
Any advice for striving short story writers out there?
Unreasonable expectations create bitterness. Publishing a short story collection is a long haul. You have to be persistent. Patience pays off in unexpected ways.