Jeff Parker became one of my favorite authors with his previous release, Ovenman. It was about punk rock, pizza and Florida, which are about my three most favorite things in the world.
Parker has followed that up with some eccentric short stories, entitled Taste of Penny. Just to give you a taste, I'll elaborate on the title story, which involves a mini-conflict between movers/haulers, bowel movements and accidentally eating a penny.
There's also some stories where Parker invokes his Russian experiences, guard rails and an exotic pet store.
01 When I first heard you were doing short stories, I was like, “Dang, Ovenman was so good, do another novel, Jeff.” I've now read Taste of Penny and still say, “Dang do another novel jeff, because these stories were awesome.”
All of this to say–why follow up Ovenman with short stories now?
Parker: I reckon if one has any sense, one gets one’s short story collection out of one’s system first and then writes the novel. The fact of the matter is those stories took me about ten years to write. So I was writing a lot of them while writing Ovenman and revising and adding a few after the novel was published. There’s one story in there called “Our Cause” which is basically the prototype, it gave me the characters and the thrust, for the new novel I’m working on, so far called “Our Cause.” It is a bruised and ragged story which is expanding into into a bruised and ragged novel.
02 Ok, I just lied. I didn't read all of Taste of Penny, but skipped around a lot–the only way I can read a collection of short stories. Loved the James stories, those were awesome. Didn't really get the Jenga one. Really like the title story. Any condemnations on my reading style? Did I miss some grand narrative in reading all the stories straight through?
Your strategy is perfect. There are some albums which are perfect albums—and when they’re perfect albums, like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, man, they can be perfect. But most albums are best scavenged piecemeal, I think. Jesus’ Son is kind of like the literary version of ITAOTS in this sorry analogy. But nowadays every fucking story collection is a novel in stories. That’s fine, but let’s face it, if a few tracks on any given release speak to you it’s pretty all right too. You can always read a novel if you want to read a novel.
So here’s a couple possible reading strategies that will save any potential readers some time: If you liked Ovenman, then you may like the James stories, “The Taste of Penny,” “Owned,” and “Our Cause.” You should not read the others because if you do you will decide that I suck, and I would rather you not decide that. If you’re into Russia, then read “The Briefcase of the Pregnant Spylady” and “False Cognate.” If stories about clueless Americans are your thing, then “False Cognate,” “The Boy and the Colgante,” and “An Evening of Jenga.” (The Jenga story is my attempt at a 9/11 story. Basically, a foreigner comes over to play a game of Jenga with a drunk American who thinks the foreigner is knocking the Jenga tower over on purpose. It’s also, I’m afraid, an imitation of Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”) Abortions and Abortionists are the subject of the last two stories, and the last story, written in emails, is also a series of love letters which may speak to anyone with HTML coding experience circa 1994.
03 Here's a two part-er. What are some of your fave short stories? And in your opinion, what makes a good short story?
On the second part, there’s this line you hear a lot when someone’s talking about the difference between a story and a novel. It goes like this a la Jay McInerney: “The novel is very forgiving. It can have digressions, it can have false starts, it can even have patches of, god forbid, undistinguished prose. And the short story has to burn with that hard gem-like flame, it has to have great economy of means.” Steven Milhauser puts it like this: “Large things tend to be unwieldy, clumsy, crude; smallness is the realm of elegance and grace. It’s also the realm of perfection. The novel is exhaustive by nature; but the world is inexhaustible; therefore the novel, that Faustian striver, can never attain its desire.
The short story by contrast is inherently selective. By excluding almost everything, it can give perfect shape to what remains. And the short story can even lay claim to a kind of completeness that eludes the novel — after the initial act of radical exclusion, it can include all of the little that’s left.” In a sense I agree with both of them, but I think they’re talking about a particular kind of story, probably that Chekhovian one with its economy of means and its elegance and grace and perfection. This line doesn’t account for more ragged short pieces. Like the stories of Isaac Babel (“My First Goose”) or Zoschenko (“Bathouse”) and Beckett (“First Love”) if we want to talk about the dead, and the stories of Barry Hannah (“Ride, Fly, Penetrate, Loiter) and Padgett Powell (“Scarlioti and the Sinkhole”). Someone said a short story is like a one-night stand and a novel is like a relationship, and that’s a surprisingly dead-on way of putting it. I’d go with that and cannibalize aspects of McInerney and Milhauser: a good story is like a one night stand that burns with that hard gem-like flame and radically excludes. That said, one of my favorites is an elegant and perfect one: O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
04 I know the first story “False Cognate” is set in Russia and you edited some Russian short stories last year. What's your history with Russia? Do you have a Russian background? Do you generally like Russian literature?
I’m not Russian, but I’ve traveled there a lot. There’s good, respectable trouble to get into there. And no one does comedy and suffering like the Russians.
05 What're you working on now? Any plans to turn that James guy loose in his own novel? Thought he was a really fascinating character and I like the point of view that you took on him; being explained by his friends in multiple settings.
The artist William Powhida and I collaborated on a chapbook called The Back of the Line that collects all the James stories. Bill’s art makes the stories much better, and he also teases out more of the character of James, who is something of an epic fuck-up, revered and repulsive. I feel like those four stories probably cover all the James terrain, but you never know. I’m finishing up a nonfiction book about traveling around Russia with my crazy friend Igor and then working on that novel mentioned above, which should be enough to keep me sedate and confused for the foreseeable future.