About the Author:
Joseph Grammer is a writer who lives in Alexandria, VA. He attended the University of Maryland, College Park and studied to be a psychologist until he realized he’d rather stick stories on paper. He enjoys music from every decade, strangely paced movies, and journeys around Washington, D.C. with his girlfriend Anna. Cocoon Kids is his first book of short stories.
MF: In your short story collection, Cocoon Kids, you “explore the strange ways that love and peace make themselves known in our lives.” Give us glimpse of how you achieve this.
JG: I tried to take characters who were similar to me and characters who were very different from me and force them to interact. My opinion is that diversity breeds peace and love, but there is almost always an initial friction or awkwardness when individuals of different mindsets, worldviews, or backgrounds come into contact with one another.
In my story “Wake Up,” (http://josephgrammer.com/wake-up/) I pair a recent college grad with LeBron James in a Colorado Air Force Base. They have seemingly different lives, but because the vast majority of their genetic material is the same, there are bound to be things for them to connect over. Bowling is one of them. Coping with stress is another. The recent college grad is (surprise) more similar to me than LeBron James is, but I developed a relationship with both characters.
MF: You’re working on a novel. Will you share what it’s about with us?
JG: A US Army private, a Japanese yakuza hitman, an American psychologist, and a ninety-one-year-old Okinawan activist are thrown together in a typhoon that wallops the island of Okinawa. All of them have committed crimes, and all of them are forced to reconcile those errors while trying to survive.
MF: Writing is a solitary pursuit and yet you say you write to push yourself to connect. Would you like to expand on what that means to you?
JG: The chance to have another human read what I write and form some opinion of it is beautiful to me. This is a very long-range form of connecting, but it’s something that has real value and I want to replicate it as much as possible. I’ve also been working to communicate to my friends and family what writing means to me. It’s an essential part of who I am, and I really can’t imagine viewing myself through a lens in which I am not writing. In this way my stories are an attempt to be true to myself and maintain honesty in my relationships with other people.
When I’m writing I’m usually hunched over an Ikea table in my apartment, drinking coffee and resisting the urge to distract myself with Facebook. It’s something I do by myself. But I have to collaborate with other people to make the writing mean something—my girlfriend is a great example of that. Anna Tulchinskaya (www.2lch.com) illustrated the Cocoon Kids cover and all the pictures inside. It was strange that I didn’t consider collaborating with her earlier, since she’s a graphic designer who loves books. I was very private about my writing, even with my closest friends, but at some point I realized I had to break out of that shell if I wanted to do anything meaningful with my stories.
MF: On your website you say, “I dislike bland optimism, and I enjoy a full portrait of the human crapshoot.” Is it safe to say you don’t like books with endings that wrap things up neatly and everyone is happy?
JG: I’d say I am skeptical of those books. I’ve read or heard through various grapevines that American stories in particular tend to focus on neat and tidy endings, but I’ve seen evidence of this almost everywhere. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster mentions Henry James as a writer who sacrifices everything for symmetry and structure in his books. In this way (according to Forster), James makes all his plot elements and characters fit together nicely for an aesthetic effect. This can be done well, of course, but I doubt I could pull it off. My instinct is to leave a lot open to interpretation.
MF: You say it’s fun to imagine and follow a plot. Does that mean you work from an outline?
JG: I’ve struggled with outlining for years. For most of my life I’ve written on impulse, with little or no preparation. This is a very fun way to compose, but it’s unfocused and requires lots of editing. When I attended the 2013 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., I heard Khaled Hosseini speak about this unstructured style. He said he writes from an image and just lets the plot sort of flow out. He also admitted such a strategy requires heavy editing, and that he ends up creating enough material for two or three books to finish a single novel. I’ve found the same is true for me—I have a 70,000-word draft of my novel that I am rewriting with a completely different plot. For the first draft I had no outline and wrote whatever was in my head at the time. The second time around I drafted an outline of every scene, which comes in handy when I feel the temptation to veer off from the book’s stated goal.
MF: What do you read? What do you re-read?
JG: I tend to stick to literary fiction, but I’m always looking for well-written books of any genre. Recently I’ve read Jennifer Egan, Somerset Maugham, Mu Xin, Richard Ford, Yukio Mishima, and Denis Johnson. I have reread Nabokov, Rushdie, Baldwin, Pynchon, Pasternak, Murakami, Carver, O’Connor, and Faulkner because they compel me to learn from them.
MF: Who are some of your favorite authors? What impact have they had on your writing?
JG: Thomas Pynchon influenced me a great deal in college. I read Gravity’s Rainbow at a point in my life in which I felt very chaotic, and the chaotic nature of the book somehow comforted me. That wild type of postmodern literature showed me the limits of writing, as well as many of its pitfalls (I have no desire to experiment extensively with form or meta-fiction). Pynchon also loves humor, and I took this love to heart. I would say the same goes for Ishmael Reed. Mumbo Jumbo excoriated racial politics while maintaining a brisk, upbeat tone.
My story “Ríastrad” from Cocoon Kids (http://josephgrammer.com/riastrad/) has a chaotic narrative style that attempts to reflect the thoughts of an alcoholic. I wouldn’t have used such a potentially frustrating format if it weren’t for Reed and Pynchon.
David Foster Wallace helped define my emotional limits with Infinite Jest. His message of honesty and anti-irony was refreshing in my early twenties, when being cool and screwed-up seems more important than being happy. It weirdly provided me with a lot of healthy coping strategies for stress.
“Kettle Hours” (http://josephgrammer.com/kettle-hours/), despite its lack of 10-page sentences, draws from Wallace because of its thematic focus on healing and understanding one’s responsibility in a tragedy.
Most recently, E.M. Forster taught me about pacing with Howards End. I honestly did not expect a book about two British families fighting over a house to be thrilling, but it was. There were parts when I literally set down the book and yelled, “What?” His knack for moving the plot along at different speeds created a welcome sense of mystery and participation. That was an amazing feeling, and Forster impressed upon me the idea that you can make anything engaging if you have the skill for it.
I tried to emulate Forster’s pacing in “High-Wire” (http://josephgrammer.com/high-wire/), a story that follows a sexually harassed acrobat in Washington, D.C. Revealing plot information little by little is a challenge for me, but it was rewarding to practice.
MF: What has been the toughest criticism given to you as a writer? What has been the best compliment?
JG: The toughest criticism I’ve received is that I sound like a dumb college kid attempting to write in a smart person’s voice. The nicest compliment someone has given me is either outright laughter at a part intended to be humorous, or actual tears at a part that was meant to be sad. Those genuine emotions meant more to me than any number of praises, because I felt like I had transferred my emotions to the other person in a wonderfully fundamental way.
MF: Aside from polished and engaging writing, what three things do you think every new writer must do in order to succeed in this highly competitive and ever-changing industry?
JG: I recommend that new writers brush up on their marketing knowledge, learn about running a business (sole proprietorship), and research the topics of interest for their books. I’m fighting to learn the various ways of getting my book out into the world, and social media presents seemingly endless ways to do so. Knowing how to track your finances, understand contracts, and grow yourself as a business is also necessary. I realized I would be a very vulnerable writer otherwise. Researching is a tool I’ve grown to love while writing my novel, because it keeps me from being clichéd, offensive, or repetitive. This is especially important for me, an American, writing a book about Okinawa and Okinawan people.
MF: If you could jump into a book, and live in that world … which would it be?
JG: I’d have to say Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It might be a strange choice, but the idle dreaminess of the novel is appealing to me. Also my life wouldn’t be in that much danger, which is nice. Plus lots of spaghetti.
Cocoon Kids may help you along if you want to sing and kick your inner shell; if you like poems or beer or basketball; or if you’re wondering what a thoracic surgeon, a squid, and a truck-stop bathroom can teach you about companionship.