Author Q&A: Barrett Warner

Barrett Warner is the author of Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? (Somondoco Press, 2016) and My Friend Ken Harvey (Publishing Genius Press, 2014). A multi-genre writer, he has won the Salamander fiction prize, the Liam Rector and Cloudbank poetry prizes, and the Tucson Book Festival essay prize. He has been a horseman for many years, specializing in mare care, foaling, and breeding. He currently lives in South Carolina in a small town called Two Hours Away from Everything where he edits Free State Review and engages in various gentlemanly pursuits.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Barrett Warner

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

Tell us about yourself, how would you say you began your writing career?

I began writing stories in high school. The stories were mostly portraits of interesting characters without any plot or motivation. Then it was a process of keeping at it, trying to write a better one, and a more interesting, moving one after that. While a poem might be a walk in the woods, a story involves building a road. Early on, I loved playing around with how to make that happen: subtleties and bends, big assertions that took care of business, the reader’s seeing distance. Dialogue was a weakness for me, probably since I was no good at it in-person either. And, of course, Mr. and Mrs. Clarity didn’t come often to my party.

I still haven’t begun my writing career. I don’t teach, and my poems and stories aren’t made into movies. Writing and language are my passions, and I’ve tried not to professionalize them. The word amateur comes from Latin, meaning to be a lover, and I think it’s possible to be an amateur without being “amateurish” about it.

What can you tell us about “Dimension”? What was your main source of inspiration for this piece?

I have an associative mind which tends to glamorize the mistakes I’ve made in life. “Dimension” grappled with a stunt we routinely played with our lush Geometry teacher, asking him to diagram the fourth dimension, Time, on the black board. Later, the protagonist adopts the teacher’s dog, Quadratic, and brings that sketch of the fourth dimension into the rest of his thin life—a relationship with an older woman, the surrender that happens with living on a farm, the crescendo of busy-ness that overtakes the joyous empty spaces. The story was a way to root my abiding spiritual restlessness—I’m one of those who is constantly on a migration—so it’s really a space and time story.

“Dimension” was an important story for me in other ways. I’d had increasing successes with short stories in the mid-Eighties. While I never made it into The New Yorker, I had a stack of detailed rejection letters from fiction editor Roger Angell who’d given me a sort of mini-MFA via correspondence. After my relationship with the older woman on whom “Dimensions” is based ended, I stopped writing fiction and only wrote poetry. It was a way to re-make myself since the old me was suffering so much over the heart stabs. I began writing stories again in 2011, and have published two to three a year since then.

In “Dimension” you give a nod to Japan. Your chief Japanese influence is Kobo Abe. Could you expand on the topic of your interaction with his work and ideas?

A lot of writers inspired me to read, but the first who inspired me to write was Alain Robbe-Grillet. I liked him so much I even liked his bad writing, those novels in which he seemed to caricature his own voice. Kobo Abe influenced me because he seemed to take the smartness and style out of Robbe-Grillet and make it feel more organic. Although I adore Robbe-Grillet, I often feel like I’m in a classroom when I read him. Abe wasn’t pushing back against the death of the novel or Post-Modernism. He was just trying to tell beautiful simple stories over terrific distances. In terms of craft, one thing Abe is good at is creating believable images yet without using objectifying language.

What are your other literary influences?

I like a lot of comfort fiction. Books that you want to curl-up with under a quilt your great grandmother had sewn. What influences me, though, are those books which pick up a conversation started long ago and kind of bring it forward and let me feel part of the moment. Edward Mullaney’s The Three Sunrises, Stanley Plumly’s The Immortal Evening, and Lucy K. Shaw’s The Motion are books that taunt the balance between the self as character and the self as “other” and I’m fascinated by this discussion.

I’m also involved with a community writing project called Their Days Are Numbered. Entropy Magazine invited some fifty authors to write a chapter a week of this serialized novel. Each writer—some are hard-boiled fiction writers and some are prose poets—resumes the story in her own voice and we’re writing it without any scaffolding. There’s no outline or blue print. Literary projects like this influence me as much as the literature which may result. It feels exciting, breath-taking, and so freeing to write this way.

What is the most important element for crafting a good story?

Begin as if there is a prequel which will not be written, and end as if there’s a sequel which also will not be written. There is something inherently imbalanced in any good story that builds to a crescendo of unresolved conflict. And because of that necessary imbalance, it’s important to instill some balance when and where you may, the balance being inside and outside of a character, and indoors and outdoors as well. Balance lets the reader grasp the yearning which is hidden inside the imbalanced narrative. It might just be a tongue and a mouth and a lip, but kissing is never just kissing. To borrow a line from Amy Gerstler, consider the difference between “He kissed her,” and “He kissed her like he was a little bit thirsty.”

What drove you to submit to Salamander? Has the fiction prize opened new opportunities for your writing?

I’m someone who needs a lot of readers before I send out my work, and although I don’t write many stories—not like I used to write them—I try to show drafts to other writers. Jessica Anya Blau sees everything, including my essays, and there are other people I share with here and there. It’s important to me because in spite of being an editor of others’ work, I’m terrible at editing myself. The ones I showed “Dimension” to felt I should “aim high” with it. I sent it to Salamander since I knew the journal and wanted to support the contest. I was shocked to learn I’d won, and at best had been hoping for an honorable mention. I really didn’t think anyone would be too interested in a relationship story.

I don’t earn a lot of money. The $1,500 prize carried my expenses for two months. I still worked, but it gave me a chance to breathe knowing my three squares were fixed all right for a while. I had tried several times to apply to one of those residencies where you stay a few weeks and they give you coffee or sandwiches and a bed but I never was accepted. Probably my applications weren‘t well thought out. Instead, I sort of gave myself a mini stay-cation residency and did a lot of work on my poetry manuscript at home. The manuscript was called Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? Somondoco Press is publishing it in February, 2016.

The biggest thing was that I have lived a marginal lifestyle for so many years the last thing I ever expected was to be relevant to a main stream publication. Having the story in Salamander opened up new ways for me to think about myself and the experiences I was writing about. Like, maybe they mattered after all. Maybe I mattered.

You were a freelance journalist. Has your journalism career shaped your creative writing?

Journalism focuses on subject matter and deadlines and while that might help get a story underway, ultimately the layers created by using “seductive language” and imagination are what makes fiction memorable. In a news story, no one really cares about the plane you took to Madrid to interview the leader of the Basque Separatist Party. What they mostly want is the interview. Still, journalism taught me some fantastic habits: how to build a story by having a curious mind, how to swim circles around a subject looking for the unusual opening and how to use juxtaposition to confirm or deny the reader’s expectations.

Journalism is always tricky for a confessional writer because it reinforces negative traits. One thing about being a confessional writer is the sense that I have to live the story before I write the story. I don’t know this has always been a gift because things can get too predictable. One problem with first person voice is that you know the speaker lived at the end.

Currently you are the editor of Free State Review. Could you tell us a little about your job as an editor? 

I read submissions, and comment when necessary, and send my choices to my fellow editors and from these we shape each issue. There is some back and forth. I try to be respectful, and clear about what I think will make the work truer. Our meetings tend to be boisterous, but since the other editors are too old to drive anymore one thing I try to bring are my connections with Alt-Lit and the younger writers whose books I’ve reviewed.

What would be your one piece of advice for starting writers?

Two things: the first is to go against your nature. If you write short sentences, try some long ones. If you’re sedentary, move around. If you exercise all the time, take a breath. Sometimes the words that fall into your lap are just the easy ones. Sometimes you have to go across the room or dig around the attic. You don’t always know what you’re looking for but if you go against your nature you’ll find it and when you do, you’ll realize that is what you had been looking for all along. The second thing is to release information slowly.

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