“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” – Kurt Vonnegut
I met Arthur Bradford in May at an elementary school baseball park. In typical Portland, everybody-knows-each-other fashion, his daughter and my niece play on the same little league team. While 8-year-old girls hit line drive singles off a wind-up pitching machine, we chatted about Richard Brautigan, Denis Johnson, and the ever-changing literary scene. In a text message, my brother had referred to Arthur as “the nicest guy in the world,” and sure enough, he was warm and unpretentious, giddy with paternal excitement every time his daughter went up to bat.
But as friendly as Bradford is in real life, he’s an uncompromising sadist on the page. Broken faces, mutilated limbs, snakebites, infected dog scratches… Bradford’s writing is brimming with malevolent forces that strike his characters down like Old Testament plagues. If the formula for drama is to introduce a protagonist, chase him up a tree, and throw rocks at him, then Bradford is sitting at the base of that tree, shooting at his protagonist with an assault rifle.
I first read Bradford this spring on the recommendation of Hobart editor Aaron Burch. I found a used copy of Dogwalker (Knopf, 2001) at Powell’s for $5. The blurbs were impressive as hell, a who’s who of early 21st century giants: David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, David Sedaris, Dave Eggers. But what was inside was even more impressive. From the first line, Bradford plunges the reader into a world of endearing freaks. There’s the plant-hating roommate Thurber who throws houseplants out the window, the mutant Catface who “had some sort of medical problem which made his face very shiny,” and a preponderance of three-legged dogs. Bradford’s world is a comedic fever dream, like Fuckhead from Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son took a wrong turn and ended up in Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.
I devoured Dogwalker, and immediately picked up Bradford’s new collection Turtleface and Beyond (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). Despite a 14-year hiatus between books, Bradford picks up right where he left off, painting a world of magicians, insomniacs, and amputees, pushing his protagonist into one uncomfortable situation after another. I reached out to Arthur by e-mail and asked him about his new collection.
One of the things I love about Turtleface is that your protagonist, Georgie, has so little willpower. Life just seems to happen to him, and it’s generally bad. In “Orderly,” he becomes sexually involved with a patient in a mental hospital, but he’s almost powerless to stop himself. Do you think Georgie is a good person?
Yes I do. Although now that you mention it I’m trying to think of what the definition of “good person” really is. Georgie makes a lot of mistakes, but he usually doesn’t act out in a malicious way. Even when he sleeps with the mental patient in “Orderly” he’s not acting out of a desire to see someone hurt, or, for that matter, being selfish. In many instances his downfall is that he tries too hard to please others, or is simply unable to assert himself enough to say, “No, this is a bad idea.” I was greatly affected by a memoir called “Travels With Lizbeth” by Lars Eighner. I really recommend this book. What I took from it was the appeal of a narrator who withholds judgment. Narrators who will get into the strange car with the strange driver without overthinking the consequences often have good stories to tell.
The prototypical Arthur Bradford story involves a physical deformity and an animal: usually a dog, sometimes a cat, occasionally a reptile. Do you approach your themes consciously, or are they the product of some Jungian shadow Arthur?
I sometimes get upset with myself for including similar elements in my stories. It’s part of the reason I took 14 years to put out a second book. I tried pretty hard to get away from my usual themes for a while, but I just wasn’t as interested in the results. It’s like that dream you keep having over and over with different variations. These are the elements that occupy my head when I try to think of interesting stories. After a while I embraced it. I thought about how most Led Zeppelin songs worked with the same ingredients over and over yet only a fool would deny the enjoyability of their musical output. I’m not saying my writing is near the caliber of their music, but I am saying it’s okay to focus on your obsessions and stick with what you think works. Oh wait, I just re-read your question and realized that I’m answering a different question than what you asked, getting a little defensive even! The answer to your question is yes, I do approach my themes consciously, but it comes from trying to be in touch with my unconscious desires.
When Aaron Burch first turned me onto your work, he said that you and I were the only writers he knew of who blatantly admit to ripping off Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. What exactly did you steal from Denis?
I’ve copied so much shit from Denis Johnson it’s shameful. Here’s an example of a complete rip off: In Denis Johnson story, “Emergency,” Georgie and Fuckhead are driving down a road and then there’s this funny sentence: “A jackrabbit scurried out in front of us, and we hit it.” Even reading that sentence now cracks me up. In my story “Lost Limbs” I wrote, “A cat jumped out in front of the car, and I hit it.” It’s not as good as his line, of course, but I tried. There’s other rip-off/homages to that book in my work such as the fact that my first book, Dogwalker, was printed in the same font as Jesus’ Son. I requested that specifically. The name of the narrator in Turtleface and Beyond is Georgie, like the Georgie character in the story “Emergency.” On a more basic level I often try to emulate Denis Johnson’s simple and beautiful sentence constructions. I just love his matter-of-fact descriptions of violence. I also like how he start off his stories with what I think is referred to as a “past perfect continuous” verb construction. For example, “Emergency” starts off, “I had been working in the emergency room for about three weeks, I guess.” Many of my stories start off similarly. I won’t even bother to cite examples, and this is getting a little embarrassing. I will say that I greatly enjoyed your book, Cult of Loretta and I did see the Jesus’ Son influence, in a good way. Ripping off good writing is a fine thing to do, so long as you don’t get all fake and forced with it. Jesus’ Son is certainly a good choice of books to rip off. For a long time, whenever I’d get stuck writing or feel lost, I’d pick up Jesus’ Son to remind me how good it could be. I find that book so inspiring.
The stories in Turtleface take place all over the world: rural Vermont, Thailand, Brooklyn, the hills of Virginia. How do you approach “place” in your writing? Do you always have a specific city/state/country in mind when you write a story?
Yes, I usually set my stories in places where I’ve lived. I’ve moved around a fair amount. I’m a fan of the small city environment. I like the intersection of rural and urban. Suburban is less interesting to me. Portland, Oregon, where you and I live, suits me just fine. It’s a great setting for stories. A few of the stories in Turtleface were attempts at breaking out of my old habits so I tried writing about New York City, where I lived for several years, and also the South, and Thailand. But I’m a north woods hippie type by nature. Most of my stories will be rooted in that type of environment, I think.
During your hiatus between story collections, you directed a television documentary about the making of South Park. How did that experience affect your approach to writing comedy?
I’ve learned a lot from working with Matt Stone and Trey Parker. The funny thing is, I probably learned more about writing in general from them than anything about writing comedy in particular. They face a lot of the demons that traditional fiction writers face, but usually on a larger scale and shorter time frame. I’ve known those guys for a long time actually and I had been after them to let me shoot some kind of film about the way they make that show. They walk into the office on a Thursday morning with no idea what the show will be about. And it has to be done and ready to air six days later. They have no time for second guessing. That’s on purpose. They pull an all-nighter every Tuesday night so that the show can be broadcast on Wednesday. Trey, who does all of the actual word-on-paper writing, explains that more time would just allow them to tinker with the show a little longer and it wouldn’t necessarily get any better. So I learned about the value of pushing forward, just getting it done. I think it’s very important to follow through on an idea and see it to the end. I don’t always take my own advice here, but I do believe it’s the way to go. Even if the idea sucks you’ll have learned something helpful by seeing it through to completion. Allowing oneself to abandon creative work partway through can be corrosive to one’s spirit.
In “Lost Limbs” Georgie loses his foot in a wood-chipping accident. The settlement from that accident allows him to buy a house in “The Box.” How did you go about creating continuity in Turtleface? Did you know from the beginning that the stories would be interconnected?
Once I settled on the plan of having a group of stories told by this guy Georgie, I began looking for ways to make them interconnected. I wish I’d found more ways to do it as I think it would have been even more satisfying. A bigger issue for me was making sure the stories weren’t repeating themselves. Most of the stories in this collection were previously published in magazines or journals, and when I gathered them all together I realized there were some bad similarities. I didn’t want this to be a book of the same story told over and over in slightly different ways. The lost foot thing was kind of helpful in establishing continuity, though I’d meant for it to play a bigger role in that story “The Box.” Georgie’s lost foot was supposed to be a key component of the story, but then it veered off in a different direction and it became just a detail about him. The reason I’d brought it up in the first place was I wanted an explanation for why a deadbeat like Georgie would be able to afford a house.
There’s a tension between reality and fantasy in your writing. Certain stories in Dogwalker could be categorized as magical realism, but Turtleface—with the possible exception of a reincarnated cat—adheres to the laws of physics. Is this a conscious movement away from the fantastical?
Yes, right. I decided that I wanted this book to take place in the real world. I still write stories with talking animals and all that, but I didn’t want them to be in this book. Every once and a while I’d see a story or book with fantastical elements and think perhaps that was a crutch. I wondered if I was actually being less creative in my storytelling by veering off into the land of the surreal. Also, I wanted this book to be a little more focused than Dogwalker. I didn’t like that many readers felt the stories in Dogwalker were told by a group of different narrators. That was sloppy on my part. I wanted it to be very clear in this book that it was always the same person telling the stories. And I wanted it to be clear that these stories were taking place in the real world. The events within them are often weird and unusual, but they are all within reason. Even that cat you mention. To my mind that was all a misunderstanding. Those misunderstandings are often the basis for our beliefs in paranormal activity. All that said, I should mention that my next book is a novel featuring a heard of talking capybaras.
Tom Waits once said that “every single song has its own individual character and you can’t treat each song the same way, because it wants to be treated differently.” Do you have a typical process for writing a new story or does every story require a unique approach?
I’m not a very disciplined or routine-oriented writer, so I don’t have a typical process. Ideally I get to work on stories late at night when no one else in the house is awake. I like to write my first drafts of a manual typewriter. It’s that thing I learned from Matt and Trey about not overthinking your moves. Just put it down and move forward. Manual typewriters are better for that. Computers allow for too much looking backwards.
What contemporary writers excite you right now?
Wells Tower, Miranda July, Mitchell Jackson, Jon Raymond, Julia Elliot, Lisa Hanawalt, Peter Rock. And seriously, I liked your book a lot. I was excited to read it and find out how good it was. It can be a tricky thing getting a book written by the younger brother of a friend, but your book was funny and sincere. I told you it reminded me of Richard Brautigan, who is one of my favorite of all writers, but also a tricky person to emulate well. You pulled it off, maybe because you’re tall and skinny like he was. I’m not just saying this because you are interviewing me here, by the way.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a longer documentary with Matt and Trey right now. It’s a part-time job of sorts. I film with them ever month or two for a few days and will continue doing that for the next two years. Meanwhile I’ll be writing that capybara novel I mentioned earlier. It should come out before the documentary actually, if I don’t screw it up. I also tell stories for the Moth and other storytelling shows. I’ve got one on the Moth podcast this week (Aug 11th) about when I got put in jail for having my dog off her leash.