By Dave Housley, BL Pawelek, Ben Tanzer and Tom Williams
Andrew Keating, Editor
Cobalt press, June 2014
An Interview with Dave Housley and Ben Tanzer by Linda Michel-Cassidy
Four Fathers is a collection of poetry and fiction on fatherhood and the experience of being parented. In Tom Williams’s “Where You Should Be,” we see an angry and lost adult son holding his father accountable for his own inability to stay sober or keep a job. In the final piece, “What it Means to Be,” Williams again shows us this son, grown and with his own child and coming to some sort of realization of why his father had pushed him so hard.
Williams’s bifurcated story makes a fitting bookend for the three middle pieces. The gap gives the reader time to consider other versions of parenthood. While the son in “Where You Should Be” does not show any immediate signs of getting his life together, the hope offered by “Puzzles,” “The Princess,” and “Everything Is Getting Worse” allows the reader to consider the possibility that the man we see in the lead story will survive, and perhaps accept his past.
“Everything is Getting Worse” by Dave Housley is packed with all kinds of irritants for the lead character, Burns: his son’s adoration for Justin Bieber, Real Housewives on the television set, hallucinations featuring a preachy Ryan Seacrest. “Everything is different now. Worse,” he thinks. Housley throws trouble after trouble at poor Burns: an about-to-deliver wife, the possible loss of a job he neither likes nor is good at, a nasty addiction to Adderall. “He could have gotten himself addicted to a grown up drug. Heroin, cocaine, booze.” A citation for public urination—during a business meeting—comes as no surprise. While father and son experience Bieber Fever, their neighbor, who faces an inevitable foreclosure, plans a majestic and horrible exit.
“Puzzles” by Ben Tanzer is a series of vignettes about finding out what having children does to one’s life. “You do not understand how different that kind of love is, how all-consuming and overwhelming it can feel. How hard it is to not want to merge with them in every possible way, because to not merge is to not live.” (“Consumption”) In “Loud,” the narrator wants to share his love of punk music with his son, which isn’t going to happen—at all. “His rejection of X may feel like a rejection of what makes you, but it’s not, not exactly.” AC/DC might be the solution, thinks the father. But it is not. “His taste in music may suck, but he’s trying to find his way.” As hilarious and touching and strange as they are, these stories in “Puzzles” are about discovering who the child is—that they are not simply a shorter version of the father, but their own person.
Dave Housley and Ben Tanzer were kind enough to entertain my questions about the collection, which is compelling both in the manner in which it is assembled, and in the content itself.
Linda Michel-Cassidy: I’m curious to hear how the project for the book came to be. Were the pieces already in existence, or did you come up with the idea of a collection based on fatherhood and gather and/or write the pieces towards that end?
Dave Housley: I had what was either a long story or a short novella—the piece “Everything is Getting Worse”—and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Complicated origin story: I had been asked by a publisher to write a longer piece to anchor a collection I was shopping around, and then another publisher accepted it (without the “anchor” piece, my collection If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home, which was published by Dzanc in January). After I had the longer piece half-written, and I abandoned it for a year or so. When I picked it up again, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I liked it, and then moved forward and finished it, but with the book already in the process of being edited, the long story/short novella was kind of orphaned. At the same time, I was realizing I had put a lot of work in this thing, and I really kind of liked it, so I didn’t want for it to just die on the vine, and it was a really tricky length—not quite a novella and too long to publish as a story.
I had read a book called “Shut Up Look Pretty” on Tiny Hardcore Press, which is composed of separate sections, and thought there might be a chance to put something similar together, with other writers who were working with the idea of fatherhood.
I talked to Tom about the idea at AWP and then we recruited Ben. I think Ben had just published “You Can Make Him Like You,” and I had read it and was just blown away with what a fun, interesting, raw, honest exploration it was of the idea of fatherhood. We kicked the idea around over Guinness at the AWP hotel bar. I think this was Chicago. The idea was four people writing about fatherhood from a kind of no-holds-barred perspective, each of us working in different forms. Ben suggested BL (Pawelek) as the poet, and I think by the end of two pints we had the idea ironed out. Over the next several months, we all polished or finished our pieces, and the next year at AWP we were signing a contract with Cobalt. The moral of this story, obviously, is to spend as much time as possible at the bar at AWP.
Ben Tanzer: Lounging around bars at AWP, and lounging around bars in general are key, for many things, though having friends who are great writers that you really admire and like to initiate cool projects is also quite helpful. The invitation came at an interesting time for me. A lit journal had just asked me to write a piece of flash fiction for them and I had never written anything of that length. As I was thinking about what I might write I had this misunderstanding happen with my younger son, and it was super tense, for me, and teary, for him, and it was rainy, so John Cusack would have been happy to star in the short film version of the moment, and the whole thing had all this great feeling and imagery packed into this very brief scene, and I thought that’s it, that’s perfect, what’s the flash fiction version of that? It was really invigorating and new and shortly thereafter, Dave asked me if I wanted to contribute a section to what became Four Fathers and so for the next six months, whenever there was a moment, or memory, that seemed especially fraught, emotional, or electric with my kids or wife or mom or dead dad, I tried to unearth a story that captured the feeling. Sometimes this even happened in bars.
Linda: I’ll say that not being a dude had no effect on my appreciation for the book, as it speaks to all parenthood, but also to having parents. Can you talk a bit about the decision to open with a story that was from the adult child’s standpoint?
Dave: I believe all of the pieces in the book are really from that “adult child’s standpoint,” in that in general the narrators are men who are parents who are thinking about the idea of fatherhood and whether they’re doing a good job, or as good a job as their fathers. They can’t turn off their internal editors. I think the default setting would be “actively questioning” whether they’re doing an okay job and how they got here.
Ben: I’m glad to hear it had no effect on your appreciation, because that’s important if people are actually going to read it. That aside, I think there are a number of reasons that make this piece the right one to open the collection with. The most boring reason is also the aesthetic one: Tom wrote two companion pieces and so they naturally provide bookends to the collection. They are also a sort of beginning and an end in and of themselves in terms of content, so there’s that. But then to Dave’s points, and yours, Tom’s story sets a tone for the collection by saying we are all writers caught in trying to make sense of our present roles and lives by trying to understand our past experiences and identity struggles. Which again to Dave’s point, few writers working today do as well as Tom Williams does.
Linda: I love the bookend structure that you use. In the opening story, “Where You Should Be,” by Tom Williams, the narrator is the adult child of a seemingly difficult father. In the last piece, time has passed and that narrator is now a father himself, visiting his own father with his son. It was a wonderful way to allow the reader to experience that gap in time, rather than merely using a flashback within one story. What about this structure choice? The ordering of the collection as a whole?
Dave: I love all the pieces in the book, but of everything in there, Tom’s two pieces are probably my favorites. Tom had the first piece written and an idea about the second one. I believe it was Andrew’s idea to break them up and have them literally bookend the entire book. Initially the idea was to have sections, so each of us would have a section. I think that decision to bookend the entire thing was brilliant, and that was all Andrew.
Ben: It seemed to me, that it would be really cool beyond having four different writers explore being fathers, to have four different authors do so in different mediums or genres – novella, short story, poetry, and flash fiction, with each section then not only in the voice of a different writer, but with different rhythms and beats. And in that way, the bookend approach also allows the writing and the rhythms to go in any number of directions, but still end where it started, full circle, packaged, and wrapped-up.
Linda (For Ben): Your stories, collected as “Puzzles,” show the process of figuring out each child. “Lies” epitomizes it, how you have to be a cultural translator for the whole beginning of their lives. And “Loud”—I so get that, where the parent’s version of cool is so very different than the child’s. Talk if you will, a bit about using these very specific vignettes to get at the larger idea, and managing to avoid sentimentality.
Ben: The larger idea for me, though I didn’t consciously think about this when I was working on these pieces, is that as a parent, and especially when your children are younger, you’re always in a scramble, work, writing, wiping noses, picking-up socks and dishes, overseeing baths and brushing teeth, getting your children to sleep, and on and on. And while so much of it is automatic, or done on autopilot, you’re not an automaton either, you’re tired, and confused, and frustrated, and some times, even much of the time you feel real anger. You don’t quite understand how you got into this, and why there are moments that you feel so much rage. But then there are these amazing jolts of happiness and awe. They’re like slivers or little diamonds, and that’s what I was interested in, the jolts and the slivers, and all stories for me start with that. Not unwrapping a story, but wrapping the layers around an idea. The thing with flash fiction is that you need to nail the one idea, kill it, wrap it more tightly, and blow it up. So, not a conscious effort to tell any larger idea per se, but capture the endless small ones. Which are not small in the moment, they’re everything, and all you can see and feel, yet, ultimately, and inevitably, also reflect something larger, even if you don’t know what it is when you start.
Linda (for Dave): I don’t even know where to start. Self-medicating father, Bieber Fever, neighbor in a downward spiral, rage, a baby on the way. In “Everything is Getting Worse,” everything is getting worse, but one presses on. You’ve thrown all of it on this character Burns, who doesn’t quite seem like he’s up to the load. I’m wondering whether we (or I guess I mean, I) feel for this guy, who in some respect made his own chaos, because he is a father? Or are we really rooting for the son?
I hope you do feel for him! He’s my only recurring character, actually—he was the protagonist of a story called “Ryan Seacrest is Famous,” which was the title story in my first collection, and a story called “Toyota” from my next one, Commercial Fiction. I believe at one point I tweeted “my only recurring character is a terrible asshole.” So yeah, he’s kind of a terrible asshole who mostly obsesses over what other people have and how easy it all looks, about the choices he’s made and the fact that he can’t unmake them and they didn’t lead to him being a lead guitar player, or a news reader, or a shortstop. They didn’t lead anywhere his eighteen-year-old self would have thought was cool. They led to the normal places and he has all this resentment and self-loathing about that. He’s terrible but in my mind, at least, it’s mostly self-loathing.
I really tried to put pressure on him in this story. A lot happens in terms of plot, especially for “literary fiction.” I pictured the progression of the story as this magnifying glass that was shining light on him, getting hotter and hotter, backing him into a corner, until he either has to figure out what’s important to him or just lose it altogether and in the process lose everything he still does have. I hope readers feel for him because you can tell that beneath his stupid, pill-popping, wine-drinking, selfish facade, he really does want to do the right thing. Or, he wants to want to do the right thing.
There’s a thing that happens at a Justin Bieber concert, and I don’t tend to love moments of my own writing, but I’m still pretty happy about how the turn happens there, and after that I hope you can see him acting in a way that’s more worthy of our sympathy or feeling.
I think the son is going to be okay. Or at least, I hope at the end of the story you feel like there’s been a movement toward a place where Burns is actually going to change and by the time the son is old enough to wonder what all of that was about, Burns will have it together for good. .
Linda: Why do we have so much sympathy for parents, but fathers in particular, who are such hot messes?
Dave Oh, I think we have sympathy for mothers, too! I think Immediately of Paula Bomer’s work recently. I think she’s really amazing at that kind of “warts and all” writing about motherhood. I hope in this book readers have sympathy because the characters are complicated and conflicted and real. It’s not a Ward Cleaver version of fatherhood, but it’s not an Al Bundy version either. It’s messy and rewarding and terrifying and frustrating and wonderful. I can’t speak for everybody but that’s what I was hoping people would see when they opened the book.
Ben Let me start by giving Paula a shout-out as well, for both the blurb and her amazing work, and not even just the “warts and all” elements of her work, though that’s true, but also her ability to craft the stories she writes, they’re just electric. Similarly, Greg Olear who wrote the introduction, also a compliment to us for sure, and he too, just a terrific writer, with such insight into what make parents tick. All of which is to say, that most of us have sympathy for most parents because it seems hard and overwhelming, and culturally speaking, men are given less of chance to be perceived as competent at the job of parenting, which is not a complaint by the way, so when dads seem like a hot mess, they are living down, or up, to our below level expectations, and that may be sadder to the greater public than the person who actually surprises us with their fucked-upedness.