Tag Archives: Chris Bachelder

Chris Bachelder on FUN CAMP: “I celebrate this book for its formal inventiveness, its rich humor, its exuberant language, its genuine spirituality, and most of all for its tender and abiding regard for the oversized feelings of adolescence.”

My first book, FUN CAMP, arrives this spring from Mud Luscious Press with advance praise from one of my favorite fiction writers, Chris Bachelder.

“A less adept writer would flatten summer camp into mere nostalgic idyll or slapstick farce, but Gabe Durham is alive to the tonal complexity of his subject. I celebrate this book for its formal inventiveness, its rich humor, its exuberant language, its genuine spirituality, and most of all for its tender and abiding regard for the oversized feelings of adolescence. Durham knows his pranks, but he is not a prankster. He’s the real thing.” – Chris Bachelder, author of U.S.! and Abbott Awaits

Chris was one of my early readers for this book, and his advice and enthusiasm really pushed the book along to completion.

Here is an interview I did with him about his novel, Abbott Awaits.

You can pre-order FUN CAMP now as part of the 2013 MLP subscription. Subscriptions close at the end of this month.

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Chris Bachelder Interview (Part 2)

Last week, The Rumpus published an interview I did with Chris Bachelder about his new book, Abbott Awaits. However, the original interview was much longer and contained several more great responses from Bachelder, and I thought it’d be a shame not to share them.

Also, my introduction to The Rumpus interview promised that we’d talk about dogs. All week, I’ve pictured readers scanning the interview again and again, wondering, “WHERE ARE THE DOGS? I WAS PROMISED DOGS!!” Here. Here are the dogs.

This second interview picks up right where the first left off.

GABE DURHAM: There are a couple of conversations about Abbott (“The Heating and Cooling Specialist’s Tale,” for one) that seem to break form and leave Abbott’s head. But I don’t know. Abbott is so self-aware and imaginative that I imagine the scene taking place in Abbott’s self-aware imagination instead of in real life. I’m curious–Are those conversations real or imagined? Or is this an ambiguity not to be tread on?

CHRIS BACHELDER: This is a good question. (You must have had fantastic teachers.) The truth is, this is not a settled issue in my mind. It’s not as if I know the real answer and I’m hoping that readers will get it. I think that when I began these chapters (there are two and there used to be one more called the Rooter’s Tale), I intended them to be a kind of radical shift – a jarring way to break out of Abbott’s head and achieve some kind of outside view.

But it’s not as if these outside views really give you a radically different perspective. Abbott is so exasperatingly self-conscious that he kind of constantly achieves an outside view. His imagination creeps and colonizes. So these tales in the book now seem to me more aligned with the chapters that feature imaginary people and events, the explicitly invented material. I think it’s completely consistent with Abbott’s character (and vaguely interesting) to argue that Abbott is imagining these stories. That is, he is so self-conscious that he creates the stories that others will later tell about him. And I think this makes the reader perform an interesting activity while reading – re-situating the tale and the teller back into Abbott’s mind. Locating Abbott, locating the world. It’s like there are nested narrators, nested consciousnesses. Or another way to look at it is that Abbott regards himself as a character in his own mind, which is probably not the healthiest way to live. It certainly makes it difficult to experience anything with immediacy and emotion.

DURHAM: Throughout the book is the conspicuous absence of any clues as to what Abbott teaches. The university is what, a mile away?, and it may as well be on the other end of the world. For me as a reader, it underscored the sense that the world of Abbott’s household–him, his pregnant wife, and his daughter–is to him the only reality. Could you talk about the decision to leave out his discipline?

BACHELDER: Like so many writerly decisions, this was initially an instinctual decision that later held up to editorial scrutiny. I didn’t want Abbott to be a specialist. I didn’t want to evoke a raft of easy associations. If he’s explicitly an English Professor (a Romanticist, say), that brings with it certain assumptions, and those assumptions are not entirely relevant or resonant. What’s most important about Abbott is that he is an academic, an intellectual. What’s most important is that he lives primarily in his mind, and that he processes the world in a uniformly analytical and academic manner. He sees missing hubcaps and he thinks of Hawthorne. He goes to a pet store and thinks of evolutionary history. So what happens when the university is distant and the house becomes the world? Then you get a kind of relentless academic or critical thought about domestic matters, and this is a condition for comedy.

More broadly, it’s a condition for tonal angularity, tonal complexity. The style or manner of thought does not match the object of thought, and this mismatch is good for the fiction writer. It creates energy, friction at the very level of thought or utterance. There is a drama inherent in the how, not simply the what. I’m back to the idea of problem-solving. The problem is this: How do you write about baking banana bread? One way to do it is to adopt a cognitive or stylistic approach that is entirely inappropriate for the baking of banana bread. You write against your subject matter to create angle, tension, humor. And Abbott’s specific discipline is not important in generating this effect, and in fact may have been a distraction.

(Image plucked from The Believer.)

DURHAM: The book itself maintains grammatical precision, Abbott finds himself pondering “quirky lexical item[s],” he envisions himself “a father who, in the most gentle and loving and supportive way, corrects his children’s grammar,” and several chapters are named for the grammatical oddities found therein. How does grammatical precision fit into Abbott’s worldview?

BACHELDER: On one hand, it’s true that we think in language, so that precise thinking requires precise language use. Abbott values clear, careful, logical thinking. He’s a child of the Enlightenment. I’m sure he would say that our rationality is what makes us human. And yet he consistently demonstrates that this reliance on rationality can be pushed to ridiculous and self-defeating extremes. He clearly thinks too much. There’s a running gag in the book about Keats’s notion of negative capability, which he defined in a letter to his brothers: “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Abbott has no negative capability – he is, above all else, an irritable reacher. That’s precisely what he is. Grammar and syntax, like logic, are systems. Abbott is uncomfortable with uncertainty; he is comfortable with systems, with notions of correctness and incorrectness. It is something he can control, manipulate. It is a refuge from the undeniable disorder and chaos of human existence. It’s his armor.

DURHAM: And yet his daughter is teaching him, right? Or at least, in tiny moments, he’s able to harvest her negative capability? I’m thinking of the scene in which Abbott’s daughter is dazzled by a man in a gorilla suit at the Barnes and Noble: “Abbott’s daughter stands with her fingers in her mouth, immobilized by ecstasy. She is a conductor. She conducts wonder. Wonder passes from the world to Abbott through his daughter.”

BACHELDER: Yes, wonder being, I suppose, a kind of suspended state, or a thoughtless state. It’s difficult to think your way to wonder. You feel wonder, you don’t think it. But Abbott can occasionally plug his imagination into his daughter and achieve a fleeting breakthrough. The book is full of paradoxes, and perhaps this is one of them, that Abbott can reason his way to the limits of reason. This is all very capital-R Romantic. “The child is the father of the man,” etc. When Wordsworth sees a rainbow, his heart leaps up; when Abbott sees one, his frontal lobe leaps up. But the very last thing I set out to do was write a book that is anti-reason, anti-logic–if you look around, you can see that what we need is a whole lot more reason and logic–or a book that is sentimental in its celebration of children’s purity or innocence or whatever.

DURHAM: As a reader who was really pulling for Abbott, pulling for those moments of Abbott outside himself, I was comforted each time I was informed that Abbott’s heady meditation on an event did not occur right then in the moment. It kinda made me suspect that the life best worth living is the one that is unexamined in the moment (while the gorilla is dancing) but then is examined later (in the office with coffee). Too bad that’s so tricky in practice.

BACHELDER: Right, there’s that refrain in the book about Abbott thinking his thoughts later, not now. That gives poor Abbott a break once in a while, and also helped me navigate issues of verisimilitude. Sometimes it’s just not very credible that a character, mid-episode, has deep thoughts. But I also like this formulation, this “later, now now.” Abbott is thinking / Abbott is not thinking. I like the way it fights itself, cancels itself, and I like the way it creates, as you suggest, two times, two Abbotts–the Abbott of the immediate moment, fortunate enough to have a quiet head, and the contemplative, anxious Abbott of later, irritably reaching for meaning and significance.

DURHAM: I was employed by you as a dogsitter for a week in the summer of 2009, and was pleased to suspect that Abbott’s dog was closely based on your own—especially your dog Jacob’s weird habit of hiding and shaking at the slightest thunder. Or rain. Or clouds. What’s his deal? Did you ever figure out what puppyhood trauma brought on such cowering?

BACHELDER: Dogs, like people, are all wired differently. My wife got Jacob when he was a puppy, and he never experienced cruelty or privation. He’s just a nervous dude. True story: his littermates were all born and everyone thought the mother dog was finished with the birth. But then Jacob came out an hour later. He wanted to stay in there. The world is terrifying, as Abbott knows well.

DURHAM: I’m tutoring kids in reading this year, so I’ve developed all these opinions about certain kids books and YA novels. For instance, I recommend Tru Confessions by Janet Tashijian, a clever novel-in-diary-entries, and Shoebag by Mary James, a reverse-“Metamorphosis” in which a cockroach turns into a kid. Which of your daughters’ books have you found to be surprisingly good? Or terrible? Or, as with Abbott’s reading of the original Curious George, surprisingly morally troubling?

BACHELDER: I recently read Pippi Longstocking to my daughters, and it was wonderful. I don’t know the history of the spunky, mischievous, independent girl protagonist in children’s books, but perhaps Pippi was among the first. Later there is Eloise and Ramona and Clementine and Lola – those are all pretty good. Those books have some wit, some attention to language and speech. I love Frog and Toad, and consider those books nearly magical in the way they can create feeling with such simple language. Stuart Little is weird and fantastic. All the Pooh books are terrific and so fun to read because Milne was so masterful with rhythm. We’ve begun the Narnia books, and I can’t wait for L’Engle, Dahl.

Most books, particularly the ones that are cranked out in huge series, are awful. I have developed a profound dislike of the Berenstain Bears, for instance. “‘That’s not fair!’ sister protested.” Those bears are always protesting. I can’t stand it. It’s all I can do to keep from critiquing the work as I’m reading it out loud. Especially atrocious are all these rhyming books in which the meter and rhythm are inconsistent and careless. It really does bother me – I want the cadences to be precise and elegant. The skill and the wit exist in the manipulation of form. It’s not just about rhyming cat and bat. But my kids are absolutely indiscriminate in their love of books–they adore wretched writing and dubious themes fully as much as they like fine, nuanced books–and I suppose that I shouldn’t complain. Shut up and read, Dad.

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Chris Bachelder Interview at The Rumpus

I interviewed Chris Bachelder about his terrific new novel, Abbott Awaits, for The Rumpus.

There are a handful of great Bachelder interviews on the web, but I think this is the only one where he discusses this new book at length. Bachelder is the opposite of the cagey “I have nothing to say about my art” writer–he’s always game to talk craft and strategy.

If you haven’t picked up the new book yet, here are a couple of great reviews: in Paste (by Sean Gandert) and in Necessary Fiction (by Steve Himmer).

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Variety Show, Now with Hyperlinks

This is tonight:

The Gather Round Children Variety Show.
A Lively Night of Lit and Music For Kids 18 and Up

Featuring Chris Bachelder (author of U.S.!, Bear v. Shark), Jeannie Hoag, Ari Feld (of the Handsome Truants), Sara Blaylock, Ben Stein, Hanuman Goleman and Tina Antolini (of NPR).

Amerst Books, 8 pm, Thursday, August 21
Hosted by Gabe Durham

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Gimmickey/Premisey

I like to read and write premisey things. (Haters call them gimmicky things, but so does Chris Bachelder, who is not a hater but, in fact, a lover and writer of premisey things.) Donald Barthelme spent most of his career coming up with wacky premises and then redeeming them.

Here’s a story by Chelsea Martin that redeems a premise through hilarious logical jumps: McDonald’s Is Impossible. I was going to email her about it because I am trying to get better about emailing people I don’t know when they do something I like, but I think it’s probably even better to go public

This year, I’ve written a bunch of stories in a similar pattern:

1. I have an idea for a story and think, “That would be funny” or “That would be a fun way to get at what I think about x issue.”

2. I write the story and it is kind of funny. But then there’s also something in the draft that interests me more than original thing.

3. I chase the new thing. I write a lot more. I delete some funny parts. I delete some topical parts.

4. I end up with something that baffles me a little bit but is much closer to the kind of story I’d like to read than whatever my original plan was.

5. I hand the finished product over to a man in with expensive shoes and he gives me a check for $10,000.

6. Liz and I gorge ourselves at Osaka.

7. Our sushi lust creates greater demand and more fish are killed.

8. We worry about the mercury content and order only rolls with sweet potato, avocado, cucumber and fake crab (aka krab).

9. I publicly disclose the time (7pm every Sunday) and location (corner of Bright and King) of my meetings with the expensive shoes man. I publicly disclose that he pays me in cash and that in the bag there isn’t GPS tracking or an 80’s No Country For Old Men-style tracking device.

10. A bad person reads it and beats the pulp out of my benefactor before I arrive. The bad person takes my money. I do not give chase.

11. I find a new benefactor.

12. Repeat.

I like to write gimmicky/premisey stuff because its easy to get started. It’s fun to watch good stories come out of terrible first drafts. The flip side is that I abandon stories all the time, like that one, “The Process and the Benefactor.”

Unrelated: I’ve been reading Tao Lin‘s blog for a few months. It’s always interesting and sometimes he writes his way to something really cool, but I wasn’t sure what to think until I sought out some of his stories. Now I’m convinced he’s legit. This one’s great, from his book, Bed: Love Is A Thing On Sale For More Money Than There Exists. Something about these sweeping national paragraphs rubbing up against the personal and embarrassing, the terrorists and the late girlfriend.

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