Monday, June 16, 2014

When the Subconscious Calls the Shots: An Interview with Dale Bridges

It was with great pleasure that I read Justice, Inc. by Dale Bridges late last winter. I first met Dale when Umbrella Factory Magazine ran a short story of his back in 2010. I think he is a remarkable writer. I loved reading his book, which is available through Monkey Puzzle Press.  Please pick up your copy today.

When the Subconscious Calling the Shots: An Interview with Dale Bridges

AFI: First, congratulations on the publication of Justice, Inc. Second, thank you for participating in this interview.

DB: Thank you and thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about myself.

AFI: As we get started, I have to ask: how do you feel about Justice, Inc. now that it's a finished product? This is a short story collection, but in many ways it reads like one single narrative. Did you write the short stories with the overall product in mind? Do you have favorites among these short stories?

DB: Fear. Anxiety. Excitement. And maybe a little nausea. That’s how I feel.

I definitely did not write these stories with any kind of over-arching narrative in mind. In fact, it did not occur to me until the collection was complete that the stories were connected in any way whatsoever. Perhaps that makes me appear sort of dense, but I was too focused of writing each story to notice any larger themes, which was probably for the best. It wasn’t until I was editing the entire collection that I noticed the stories were interconnected. And then all I did was add a few details here and there to make it seem as though that was my plan all along. Sometimes your subconscious can make you seem more intelligent than you actually are.

Picking a favorite story is a bit like picking a favorite child. Of course, I have one, but I’m not going to admit it. Their feelings would get hurt. There are things a like about all of them. I think “Welcome to Omni-Mart” is the most complete, “Justice, Inc.” is my favorite idea, “Life After Men” was the most fun to write, and “The Girlfriend™” is the most original, whatever the hell that means.

AFI: I love the piece “Life After Men.” To avoid sending a spoiler to those who haven't read the story yet—I love the notion that only men become zombies and it's all due to a sexually transmitted disease. It's a very funny premise, but it's not really what the story is about, right? The story, it seems, is about failed relationships and the patterns of failed relationships which is something we can all relate to. How did you come up with the idea of a zombie virus as an STD? Incidentally, the short-short story “Texting the Apocalypse” is perfectly placed before “Life After Men.” Was that intentional? And as long as we're on the subject, “The Girlfriend™” is a stunning if not disquieting short story and the main character plays a video game called Life After Men, a video game involving zombies in Newport. Did one story influence the other? Did you just find it fitting to connect these references? Or were you consumed with these themes during the writing of these short stories?

DB: You got it. The zombies in “Life After Men” are sort of incidental to the plot, despite the fact that the central conflict appears to revolve around them. I thought it would be interesting and challenging to create a world where men exist only as monsters. The story is definitely about dysfunctional relationships, but it’s also about biology. Much is made in our culture about the positive qualities of romantic love, but we’ve all known people who are abused in the name of love, as well. Love isn’t always a many splendored thing. Love doesn’t always lift us up where we belong. Sometimes love is a tyrannical bastard that has its hand wrapped around your throat.

I have no idea where the zombie-STD idea came from. Another example of my subconscious calling the shots, I guess. The idea tickled me, so I just went with it.

I definitely put thought into the order of the stories, but they did not influence each other. Some of the stories took me years to finish, others were completed in a few weeks. The process was all over the place. However, I do think I obsess over certain themes, and that becomes apparent in this collection.

AFI: You and I became acquainted a few years ago when Umbrella Factory Magazine (Issue 2, June 2010) ran your short story “Denim Virgins.” I doubt I told you at the time, but the entire editorial staff loved that story. I think in the literary magazine world, especially on the editors' side of things, we love love a story that makes us laugh. How do you think you've grown as a writer since “Denim Virgins”? Your list of publications since mid-2010 is impressive. How do you think working with magazines and editors has influenced your writing? What was the best experience you had with a magazine? Which magazine was the worst?

DB: That’s so nice to hear. “Denim Virgins” is actually part of a memoir that I’m currently shopping around to publishers. I started writing about fifteen years ago, and at that time I was not a good writer. I’m not being humble; I was bad. I wrote minimalist, testosterone-fueled rip-offs of Hemingway and Bukowski. But I’m a stubborn SOB, so I stuck with it. After about ten years, my writing started to improve. Finally. I began dabbling in nonfiction, mostly humorous essays about growing up the son of a small-town fundamentalist preacher. That’s when I wrote “Denim Virgins.”

Somehow in 2007 I managed to land a job as the A&E editor at an alternative newspaper in Boulder. I didn’t really want to be a journalist, but the experience definitely improved my writing. It forced me to give up my “fancy” sentences (I was going through a Capote stage by that time) and get straight to the point. And deadlines can be a great motivator. The story is due at four o’clock, whether you think it’s ready or not.

Eventually, I decided to return to fiction but the years I spent as a journalist were important. That’s when I started publishing more.

Most of my experiences with editors have been positive. I published “Life After Men” in The Masters Review, and that was a nice experience. The editors I worked with there made a few changes to the story that definitely improved it, and they listened when I took issue with some of the other alterations they wanted to make. The only truly bad experience I’ve had was with a long article I wrote for a magazine that no longer exists. I worked on the story for almost a year, and when it came out, I discovered that they completely butchered the introduction without consulting me first. I was pissed off. I called up the editor and ranted at her for twenty minutes, but it was too late by then. Ironically, that was the most I’ve been paid for any single piece of writing. It wasn’t worth it. Assholes.

AFI: When did you first decide to become a writer? Was there one moment when you knew you were going to be a writer? Do you recall the title of your first short story?

DB: I was raised in a small-town, lower-class household, so the idea of being a professional artist was completely foreign to me. I was an avid reader from a young age, but it didn’t even occur to me that a person could choose to be a writer until I was twenty-two. I remember exactly when it happened. I was finishing up my undergrad degree in history, completely confused about what I was going to do with my life after graduation. One day I was walking home from class and I saw my good friend, Chris, taking photographs of a tree. I asked what the hell he was doing and he said that he was putting together a portfolio to apply to film school. I was completely blown away. Of course, I knew that film schools existed, but it never occurred to me that real people went to them. I was shocked—and a little bit angry. I’m not sure why. Something about his artistic ambitions upset my Protestant sensibilities, I guess. How dare he follow his dreams while the rest of us pursued boring, practical goals?

Shortly after that, I started writing. First it was bad poetry, then bad prose. I don’t recall the title of my first short story, but I know the narrative took place in a grocery store and it had too many religious metaphors and not enough plot. Terrible, terrible stuff.

AFI: Who are your influences? Who were you reading in the formative years as a writer? Who are you reading now? How do you think other writers influence you?

DB: In my formative years, it was Hemingway, Carver, Bukowski, etc. Tough manly writers. The problem is that I’m not all that tough or manly. Then I discovered Vonnegut, and I tried to copy him for a long time. Sherman Alexie was influential, too, and later George Saunders, Jincy Willett, Stacey Richter, and Philip K. Dick. It’s natural to imitate other writers when you start out, but it’s necessary to move beyond that phase in order to find your own voice. Currently, I’m reading a lot of Austin writers because that’s where I live now: Owen Egerton, Mary Miller. I read for enjoyment now, not research, and that’s nice.

AFI: Going back to Justice Inc. for a moment, I notice a few recurring themes in these stories. For instance, it seems that you challenge the idea of procreation in both “Welcome to Omni-Mart” and the title story, “Justice, Inc.” In the first story we meet a simulation baby and in the latter we meet clones. Although, each story has a slightly science fiction or dystopian feel to them, the child-adult relationship is very real. What are your impressions of the vulnerable (the baby) and adults pushed unwillingly into parenthood? Am I seeing more to this than you intended? Or is the presentation of the child-adult relationship simply there to progress the plot or perhaps leave us somewhat unsettled as readers?

DB: I think you’re right, that theme does exist, but once again I didn’t consciously choose it. I definitely like to unsettle the reader, so that’s probably part of it, but I also enjoy the juxtaposition of putting an innocent child in a dystopian environment. As you probably noticed, there aren’t a lot of traditional heroes in my stories. No one swoops in to save the day at the end. They can’t because they’re powerless, hopeless, broken. The children in these stories demonstrate what these adults were like before they were chewed up by the cultural machinery.

AFI: I enjoyed Justice, Inc. very much. When can I expect the next installment? Do you have another project in the works? Another collection or a novel?

DB: Thank you! I’m currently working on my first novel. I read somewhere that Ray Bradbury wrote the first draft of Fahrenheit 451 in nine days at the library. Well, that kind of pissed me off. What a dick, right? So I decided to take a crack at it. I plugged out a rough draft in seven days (take that, Bradbury!) and I’m currently revising it. The revision process is slow, and I expect it’ll be about a year before it’s ready. It’s an extremely weird story. I have no idea if it’s any good, but at least it won’t be formulaic.

AFI: Thank you very much for your time Dale. It was a pleasure reading your book. Where can someone find a copy of Justice, Inc. for his library?

DB: Yeah, this was fun. Thank you. The book will be available in both physical and ethereal form at Amazon and on the Monkey Puzzle Press website, It will also be available at Book People in Austin and hopefully Tattered Cover in Denver.

Dale Bridges is writer and journalist living in Austin, Texas. His work has been featured in more than thirty publications, including The Rumpus, The Masters Review, and Barrelhouse Magazine. He has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his feature writing, narrative nonfiction, and cultural criticism. His essays and short stories have been anthologized. When he's not writing, he works at a used bookstore. He is currently working on his first novel.
Anthony ILacqua holds a Master of Fine Arts of writing at Goddard College. His third novel Warehouses and Rusted Angels is forthcoming from Ring of Fire Publishing in late 2014. His former novels, Dysphoric Notions (2012) and Undertakers of Rain (2013) are both published through Ring of Fire Publishing. His screenplays have been made into widely praised films at Rocket House Pictures where he directs as well as writes. He currently functions as editor in chief for Umbrella Factory Magazine that he co-founded in 2009. Meet Anthony at his blog:

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