How did this story start for you—what was the inspiration and how did it develop?
Just a story idea I’d jotted down on my phone. Just searched it up: Your brother has a bullet hole. You stuff it with everything. The piano your mom used to play, etc.
But then having to stage a gunshot was all complicated, and I had no desire to write a gun story, as that drags a lot in that would, in the way I do things, detract from the beating heart I wanted the reader to see. All I really needed was something to punch through a body in that same way as a bullet but be pretty much agentless. So: the moon, of course. Micrometeorite, just boogeying in out of nowhere at blurry velocity. Were I on the moon, I’d be terrified of catching one of those. But maybe I’d turn into the Human Torch, too, so it’d all work out.
You are a novelist as well as a short fiction writer. Some people feel like flash fiction (vignettes for the literary folk) is an entirely different kind of beast. How does your approach change when you’re writing at this length, as opposed to short stories?
Flash pieces are ending as soon as they begin. I mean, all stories, all novels should be doing that anyway, I think, but if you’ve got six hundred pages, you can kind of cast around, give this character a big intro, slow down to stage a long view of the landscape, all that. Not so in flash. Which, flash, it’s far and away my favorite mode to write in. Got a book of them, even, States of Grace, and a lot more besides. I really like the economy, the punch, and how you know right away if you nailed it or not. With novels, there’s all this waiting, weeks of “Is this going to work, is this going to work, I don’t think I can do it, I’m pretty sure I’m just typing here, not writing.” With a flash piece, man, you’re in that waiting room for maybe ten minutes, right? If that, even.
For me, one of the things that makes this piece not only powerful but interesting is the realization of a shared childhood dream, and the sense of this dream/realization as both an emotional height and the destruction of their lives. Irony is a tricky thing, often heavy handed, but here it’s smooth and almost goes unnoticed, while still subversively playing its emotional role. How do you pull that off?
I guess unintentionally. Didn’t even realize that was going on, I mean. I just wanted for a big brother to try to save his little brother not with the stuff at hand—they’re on the moon, there’s nothing—but by reaching back into their shared past for the most solid memories they have together. It’s what you do when you’re desperate.
And, hadn’t even thought of it, but this story, it’s pretty much my brother and me. I’m thirteen or so, he’s ten, we’re playing around out in a junky pasture, and he digs up an old sheetrock knife—I guess they’re “utility knives” now. You put the razor in, thumb up however much you need. Anyway, I clearly remember looking over when he said, “Hey, hey! I’m gonna kill myself!” just playing around, and he held that knife up, slashed it down across his left wrist. Except, surprise, there was about a quarter inch of that blade still sticking out. So his wrist opened and just kept opening more, I was trying to keep all his blood in, and we made it through—somehow we got an ambulance out there, I don’t remember how—but it was a close one, for sure. That little blade went deep, and was straight across in a bad place, and he was ten. I guess that’s why my initial note for this had the big brother/little brother thing going on. Hunh. Who knew.
I feel like the thing that immediately elevates this piece is the shift, right off, from the focus on death to the focus on character and relationships. Where some might just sketch out a “cool death scene” or a “cool SFnal idea” and call it a story, this piece lends the moment and the ideas gravitas by making the scene relevant, personal, and real—in a very short space. How do you go about creating this sense of the personal, the real?
Way I always look at it is that whatever good or bad scene or image I can dream up, no way is it going to be the best, the best-written, any of that. Anybody off the street can do just the same and probably better. What I maybe can bring to the page, though, it’s having a real person in that scene or image. Before everything else in a story, you have to engage the person in that story. So you have to make that person real and particular, engageable. Good, bad, chaotic neutral, that doesn’t matter. What matters is what’s it like in their head, which you can get at in a thousand ways—often just with the syntax of the sentence you use to relay what they’re seeing, or the length of the sentence, this word not that word. Readers don’t like to slow down for big meet and greets with characters, so you’ve got to never stage those scenes. Contemporary fiction doesn’t tolerate that so much anymore. Yet, that meet and greet still has to happen. Meaning you’ve got to first get the story going right off the bat, then make the character real in a way that doesn’t feel like an introduction, all while not letting the story slow down—or, you keep it interesting enough that, if there is a slight slowdown, it doesn’t feel slow.
Among other things, you are known for horror fiction. People might think of this primarily as a science fiction (or near future) piece, but I think there is also an element of terror here, in the sense of a random, unstoppable danger, the thing that can strike you down. You won’t see it coming, you can’t stop it, and you can’t avoid it. Do you feel like there is a horror element to this piece? Or do you feel like, perhaps, for it to be a true horror element, there needs to be more sense of the dangerous as an encroaching threat?
I wasn’t meaning to write horror with this one, but every time I try to go fantasy or science fiction or western or literary or crime, the blood always seems to bubble up into something . . . maybe horrific? Horror-adjacent? The beats and techniques of horror are what I know best, I guess, so they’re the scaffolding for most everything I do. You tell the story that feels true to you, and for me that’s horror.
I really like the relationship between the brothers, the different sorts of isolation, the bittersweet feeling, and more. What is the best thing about this story for you? What is important to you about this piece?
Best thing for me’s that impulse to go back to when things were pure and just freeze that frame, hold that moment, make it last and last. That’s no way to actually be, of course, but man, some days that’s the only thing you want, the main thing you need.
You have a lot of work out, and readers can find you at demontheory.net. But! You also do a lot of different kinds of stuff. For people who have discovered you with this story and really enjoyed it, what should they read next? And what are you working on now that people can look forward to seeing soon?
Next . . . Mongrels or Mapping the Interior? Or Growing Up Dead in Texas? As for what’s next: Just wrote a couple of slashers back to back. One’s in the same world as Mapping the Interior, and the other’s set in Wyoming, and feels like a series. I was saying how horror’s the story that feels true to me? Really, within that, it’s the slasher. To me the slasher is storytelling at its best. It’s got laughs, gore, reversals, reveals, action, heart, regret, hope, masks, jump scares, more gore, and, we could all do a lot worse than to model ourselves after the final girl. She finds in herself a will to live, and she stands against evil, and she makes it through till dawn, whatever the cost. If I could be anybody, I’d be Ripley, I’d be Sidney, I’d be Laurie. They’ve got heart enough for us all.
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