Thursday, September 25, 2003


As I become an old man, succumbing to sudden bouts of Halfheimer's, unable to distinguish day from night, as liable to leave my false teeth in the garden as in a cup in the sink, the misty veils of memory serve to deceive me. I held an odd job before Y Publications (as set forth in Odd Jobs #2), and managed to forget about it between taking the geritol and looking for my cane.

How could I forget Book Warehouse, in Gainesville, Florida? Thou fetid breath of stale air, thou cement strip-mall fixture, glassy face fixed on the dull gray lifeless strip that is Interstate 75, yearning for customers. Or something like that. I shall stop waxing poetic before I wax myself right into purpling prose. Too late.

Book Warehouse: a remaindered books bookstore. Or as I like to think of it, a remaindered bookstore. I worked there for six months, under certain constraints. Like, we had to accost the customer before they'd taken ten steps into the store, asking "How" or "What" questions so they could not simply answer "No" and continue about their business. Like, if someone asked for a book that we did not have--and the truth was: we did not have any books that anybody wanted; chastened, embarrassed authors of non-sellers clustered on the shelves, trying to hide--we should not tell them we didn't have the book; instead, we should immediately suggest an alternative book that was like the book they had asked for, in hopes they would buy it instead. Invariably, this failed with miserable frequency. "Do you have the novelization of Terminator?" "No, but we have a novelization of Monkey Boy Wonder Bus. Would that do?"

By day, our district manager worked in the prison system testing urine samples from potential guards. At night, he came by with his brilliant ideas. Under his guidance, we would desperately find new ways to sell the books. For example, we once changed the alphabetical order of the entire wall of fiction from A - Z to Z - A. Another time, we had to reorganize the Wall of Fiction so that it formed a pretty pattern of dark covers and light covers. Perhaps, in time, we would have played chess with the Wall of Fiction. It certainly wasn't going anywhere, and had nothing else to do.

Once, our district manager took it upon himself to show us the proper way to display the books. When he was done, he turned, started to speak, and a coffee table book he'd shelved improperly fell on his head.

Another time, he took me aside and asked, with a twinned tone of urgency and puzzlement in his voice, "That woman was just in here last week. Why is she here again?" I didn't really know how to answer the question. "What do you mean? She wants to buy more books." Him: "But she just bought one last week." And so the conversation continued, until it became quite clear that our district manager viewed books like the rest of us thought of toasters, microwaves, televisions, drill sets, end tables, couches, spatulas, egg whisks, tractors, cheese graters, porch swings, and other things one does not buy each and every week.

Customers added to the fun. Once, we discovered that someone had taped condoms inside each and every copy of a popular teen romance series. Another time, we caught a self-published author trying to sneak his book onto the shelves. In a remaindered bookstore.

Of course, I was not blameless. Sometimes, I did not make what one might call the "right decisions." For example, I once led a man to a book on airplanes when what he wanted was The Great Plains.

But my most horrible miscalculation concerned the young adult mystery section.

A girl came in asking for mysteries. I led her to the young adult mystery section. It was in the awkward silence that followed that I realized she was not a girl. She was a midget. I quickly led her to the right section and then went into the back room so I could bang my head against a wall for awhile. A blunder of legendary proportions. I couldn't bear to come out until after she was gone.

But it would get worse. The next day things were slow, so I was telling a co-worker in a self-deprecating way, about the whole midget-young-adult debacle. Suddenly, I hear a sharp cough from somewhere near my elbow. I look down--and there's a man, a dwarf, glaring up at me. Stunned, I asked him a "How" or "What" question and then tried to stumble through an explanation, before just shutting up.

Rather shaken by the confluence, I decided I'd stick to pricing the new books that were due to come in that day, and let my co-worker take the register. By that time, I had been made an Assistant Manager, which meant I got a five cent per hour raise and could tell the only other person who worked my shift to man the register.

So I go out back to the truck when it pulls up, to show the driver where to put the boxes...and it's not the normal driver. It's another dwarf. A midget and two dwarfs in a day and half. Someone somewhere was trying to tell me something--and I have to say, I was sincerely sorry for my lack of attention to detail re the young adult mystery section. I really was. It wasn't like I had a prejudice against little people--my tutor in math in college had been a dwarf, and if not for him I would have gotten an F rather than a D.

Nonetheless, the writing was clearly on the wall, as they say. These signs and symbols meant I could not be long for Book Warehouse, and so it turned out to be.

Having complained about the raise in responsibilities without a commensurate raise in salary--besides the five cents per hour, which, coincidentally, put me five cents above the minimum wage at that time--Book Warehouse fired me.

I'd soon regroup with Y Publications, and in the intervening two months of unemployment, I wrote "Learning to Leave the Flesh," about a dwarf, and "Bone Carver's Tale," two of my best pieces. (I wrote a story about a bookstore, but it sucked.) But I'd never forget my stint at Book Warehouse, workin' for the man.

Looking back, there are three things I learned from working at Book Warehouse: (1) pay attention to who you are leading to the young adult mystery section, (2) spreading a rumor that the owner of Book Warehouse has "changed her name to Mrs. Book Warehouse out of loyalty to the company" may not endear you to management, and (3) lighter fluid is the best way to remove price labels without leaving sticky glue on a book cover.

Now, I have to swallow down some more geritol and go take a nap. Please excuse me.


Next time on Odd Jobs: A fist through a bathroom wall, making firearms in your basement, and a flying frog tile almost decapitates me. Or, "the joy of working on city ordinances."

Wednesday, September 24, 2003


Editing anthologies is a very instinctual skill for me, not something bloodlessly objective. It may not be that way for others.

For me, it has its analogies to the way I write. Just as I feel my way into a short story I'm writing through the texture and tone of the language, so too I feel my way into a story I'm reading for an anthology--if the story allows that to happen; if it doesn't, I know the story's not for me. If the language is blunt where it should be subtle, or subtle where it should be blunt; if the choice of words does not in some way reveal care with language, then I cannot sneak my way beneath the story's surface, and I know it's not a story traveling anywhere I want to go.

Just like with my writing, I take certain things on faith. Sometimes I do not fully understand why I made a choice I made in a work of fiction. Eventually, it becomes clear, but not always right away. The same thing often occurs when reading for an anthology, in that sometimes I will not immediately understand a story but still feel that it is right. That the story has integrity and makes internal sense, even if that sense cannot immediately be extracted from the story. In extreme cases, where the story's structure and language are so perfect, if oblique, that it feels as if the fault is mine not the story's, I may take a story I still do not fully understand. Ursula Pflug's "Python" in Album Zutique #1 is a good example of a story of this type. Not until after I read it in the published form did the story finally make sense to me.

Am I crazy to take a story I don't understand? On some level, perhaps the answer is yes. But I have a great faith in the subconscious workings of the mind, and when you feel something is right in your reptile brain, eventually you will know why with your conscious mind. The other factor is that I feel impoverished, starving, if I read too many stories where I understand everything right away. Either it is a failing in the story or in me, in such cases. To only come to the full meaning of a story late, and after several re-readings can indicate a story that fully deserved one's repeated attention. (Of course, it can also mean the story failed.) When we predominantly think of the story as "entertainment," we deny the ability of a story to get deep into our souls and burrow there, to take hold of us in unexpected and stunning ways.

Another way in which editing anthologies is like writing fiction, for me, is that I always want my reach to exceed my grasp--only in that way can I continue to grow and improve. It leads sometimes to failed experiments, it leads to utter catastrophe at times, but it also means you travel farther than you would have if you'd tried for less.

For this reason, anthologies I edit are almost always going to be baggy, thick, confrontational, multi-faceted creations. I'm always going to take stories I think push boundaries, for better or worse, whether readers or reviewers ultimately think that the results are not always successful. I don't suggest this is a better or worse way of editing than other approaches. I'm not advocating any kind of semi-mystical approach, either. I'm just saying that this is one of the only ways to really push yourself.

There are thousands of replicas out there that don't realize they are replicas. Why knowingly be one of them?


Thursday, September 18, 2003


Another odd job I held was as a glorified secretary and editor for Y Publications in Gainesville, Florida. Dr. X ran the business, which produced sample tests in book form for accountants and airplane pilots who wanted to get certain certifications. Why accountants and airplane pilots? Because Dr. X just happened to be both. My first duty at Y was to transcribe the seemingly endless tapes Dr. X made day and night--whether in his office or at home or on the road. He had a little mini tape recorder he took with him everywhere.

So, I would transcribe his thoughts, ideas, and letters every day. After I finished, I'd work on copy editing of the various manuals.

Dr. X was a curious creature, who liked to wear striped shirts and these thick, 1950s dark-framed glasses. He needed little sleep. He had no social graces--or, rather, could turn them on when needed, but for the most part was sharply direct, sometimes to the point of rudeness. I can remember more than one time that I would come into the office and he would be at his desk in his boxers, having spent the night in the building so as to work on some new idea.

Ideas were always sparking off of Dr. X. One time, I remember, I was merrily transcribing away when I heard him say, "Jeff, I want to see about promoting the use of small aircraft. Some kind of campaign. Get someone like Michael Jackson. We'll do ads." So, for a short time, it was my job to try to get hold of Michael Jackson so he could possibly endorse the use of small aircraft.

But it is the complaints I enjoyed the most. If Taco Bell shorted him a taco shell on a to-go order, he'd have me draft a letter to the president of Taco Bell asking for the extra shell. If his frozen fish sticks had a couple of black charred bits in the box, he'd write to the head of the company that made them, enclosing the charred bits and asking for a refund. I *think* the letters actually got sent, but there's always the possibility he was pulling my leg.

Over time, I got to transcribe some of the most amazingly bizarre letters anyone has ever sent anywhere.

Not to mention, Dr. X had a father who had been an inventor of some sort, and who now, looking a bit like Baron Munchausen, would dotter into the office holding a rough diagram and some scribbled words on a legal sheet or a napkin or god knows what, whereupon it would be my job to render it all accurately (and with some semblance of sense) into a WordPerfect document.

Those were the days. I actually took to using a mini-tape recorder myself and dictating my own story ideas into it, then transcribing them on my lunch break. But it was too much of a pain in the ass, so I went back to scribbling notes.

Working at Y for Dr. X was interesting, to say the least. It certainly wasn't the strangest job I've ever had, though, because Dr. X was just eccentric, living in his own world. He wasn't psychotic, he wasn't mean, just brusque. And from him I learned to have a great work ethic, because he himself had a monstrous work ethic that seemed to just about devour his life.

But I will never forget having to try to get hold of Michael Jackson to have him promote the use of small aircraft.


Wednesday, September 03, 2003


Interstitial Arts: art made in the interstices between genres and categories. Art that flourishes in the borderlands between disciplines, mediums, and cultures. Art that blurs the divide between fine art and craft, high art and low. Art that crosses boundaries. Artists without borders.

For a long time now, a sea change has been occurring in the world of fiction. Cross-pollination has, more and more, become an element of the best fiction. These cross-genre approaches were around in the 1990s (and before), but it is only lately that a real renaissance has come about—not just in the number of excellent writers unafraid of crossing borders and boundaries, but also in the number of readers attracted to this kind of work. Fantasy has bled into the mainstream, and vice versa. Among other approaches, experimental techniques from the 1960s (both from the New Wave and the Post Moderns) have been redeployed for either true innovation or for strategic “renovations” that have become new in their own right.

Writers are mixing and matching genres with bewildering, wonderful frequency. For this reason, I personally have been against any single attempt to put a name to these often disparate proto-movements. It has seemed to me that such a naming puts a limit, a boundary, on writers and on individual works.

However, I believe that a new term—“interstitial” (interstial art/literature/music)—has captured not just the moment but the nature of this sea change in fiction. The word “interstitial,” or the term “interstitial arts,” may not slide off the tongue with ease. It may, at first glance, seem too generic, as amorphous in definition as “slipstream.” But a closer look at the term reveals that it strikes just the right balance between too specific and too vague. Any more specific and the term would become as much of a straitjacket as those terms used to describe movements. Any less specific and the term would not be meaningful for classification purposes, or for the more important purposes of dialogue about the arts.

The initial proponents of interstitial art include Heinz Insu Fenkl, Terri Windling, and Delia Sherman. As “founders” of the idea, they can express better than I can what it means in its purest form—and luckily their intelligent, well-thought-out, and fascinating takes on the subject can now be read on the Interstitial Web Site.

I recommend reading through all of the information on the site. For purposes of this blog, however, I would like to excerpt and comment on two of the pieces to be found there: Delia Sherman’s “An Introduction to Interstitial Arts: Life on the Border” and Heinz Insu Fenkl’s “Towards a Theory of the Interstitial.” Both essays represent the beginning of an ongoing dialogue about the term, and about the work the term represents.

Sherman writes:

“Interstitial fiction defies categories and laughs at expectation; Interstitial fiction breaks the rules. Interstitial novels lurk near or on the borders of two, three, or more genres, owing allegiance to no single genre or set of conventions…Take Angela Carter, whose free and easy way with literary conventions surely makes her the Patron Saint of Interstitial writers. Nights at the Circus is part fairy-tale, part historical, part picaresque adventure, part circus story, part meditation on truth and reality. Wise Children draws its background from Hollywood history, its structure from the comedies of Shakespeare and Terence, and its characters from Charles Dickens. These books may have been published as Mainstream, but they swim against the current of that stream with every sentence. Similarly, T. Coraghessan Boyle's exuberant Water Music is equally Historical fiction, Literary Satire, and Magic Realism. Toni Morrison's Beloved owes as much to Fantasy as Historical Fiction or African-American fiction. And Historical fiction is not the only genre that often turns to the conventions of other genres. Many of P.D. James' mysteries are distinctly more concerned with Literary Realism subjects of class, religion, and the state of Detective Dalgliesh's soul than with the progress of his investigation. Tony Hillerman's Navaho detectives often have one foot in the spirit world. Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is a serious historical novel in Western's clothing.”

These examples add a layer of specific detail to the definition of “interstitial arts” as applicable to literature. They confirm that there is at least some “cross-genre” element to interstitial writing. When Sherman describes her own writing, “interstitial” crosses over from mere example to the personal:

“What I ended up writing can best be described as a kind of historical fantastical-Romantic-social realism. That's not what I set out to do, of course. What I set out to do was write something that unpacked the dark places of my heart, that satisfied my need to make beautiful patterns out of words and emotions and images, that allowed me to play with characters I loved, and to explore some of my ideas about class, courage, morality, revenge, purity, pain, and the role of the individual in society. It was more comfortable for me, and a lot more fun, to place these explorations long ago and far away, in times and places where clothing, manners, and language were more decorated and more formal than they are now, when the surface of life was beautiful and expansive even when that which it covered was nasty, brutish, and short. I didn't abandon magic or magical beings or fairytale themes, but I began to use them differently, and I turned to 19th Century novels and Renaissance Drama for my structural models. In writing what I wanted to write, I found myself moving away from the beautiful Fields of Fantasy out into the wilderness that abuts the bustling cities and well-tended plains of Historical Fiction.”

I like this part of the introduction the best because, for me, it articulates dual paths of passion and obsession, which is where much of the best writing comes from. Seeing this passion on the page in connection with the interstitial is another reason why I have come to think of “interstitial” as a supple, useful term—it is flexible enough to serve one well on the level of theory, but also on the level of the relating to the artist or writer, in the actual creation of art.

Fenkl’s essay on the Interstitial provides added detail at the theoretical level. It is at times a down-to-earth approach:

“It took me a long time to figure this out, but in publishing, a thing can be one thing or the other, or one thing and the other. For those with an established name recognition (Stephen King, for example), this logic applies simultaneously, but if you are a small fish, you may be both things, too, but only as long as it's one thing at a time. This is not an absolute rule, of course. But it is a general rule we have little choice but to ‘publish or perish’ by… In the world of publishing this way of thinking presents itself as a series of either/or decisions: Fact or Fiction, Fantasy or Science Fiction, Genre or Mainstream, Mystery or History? I present these categorical problems as dilemmas of a sort, but in many cases the possibilities are not initially limited only to two; and yet, when a particular work is hard to classify, its final label is then often compared to or contrasted with a series of other possibilities, one at a time.”

Therefore, an interstitial approach to literature discards limiting, often meaningless terms such as “fantasy” or “mainstream” in favor of a more holistic approach. It removes the engrained opposition between genre and non-genre to consider the work from a multitude of perspectives. I particularly like the idea of an interstitial approach representing and, not either/or. Certainly, this is more indicative of the mindset of the writer while creating fiction—a time at which most thoughts of category or market are nonexistent.

Fenkl then discusses the difference between an interstice and an intersection:

“An interstice is not an intersection. (That is why a concept like hybridity, by itself, is not adequate to the idea of the Interstitial.) The word ‘interstice’ comes from the Latin roots inter (between) and sistere (to stand). Literally, it means to ‘stand between’ or ‘stand in the middle.’ It generally refers to a space between things: a chink in a fence, a gap in the clouds, a DMZ between nations at war, the potentially infinite space between two musical notes, a form of writing that defies genre classification.”

Clearly, then, interstitial literature is not simply cross-genre, not simply a hybrid. “Cross-genre,” for the purposes of the interstitial, is a term now probably used to describe both cross-genre and truly interstitial writing. For this reason, interstitial seems like a more natural term than “cross-genre”—a chemical rather than physical reaction. Could it be said that in an interstitial work, the disparate elements combine in such a way that they cannot return to the same state they enjoyed before they were mixed together? (At least, in the reader’s mind?) As opposed to some “cross-genre” approaches, in which a physical reaction takes place, the elements mixed together (the equivalent, perhaps, of hay, rocks, and a pair of earrings) fully able to return to their prior state? This may be stretching both terms a bit, but I find the idea of the interstitial describing disparate elements combined in a chemical reaction somewhat compelling. (Or, perhaps, this simply describes good interstitial writing as opposed to bad interstitial writing. I admit I’m on shaky ground here…)

Do works thought of as interstitial always remain interstitial? Not according to Fenkl:

“Things are complicated in the DMZ of the Interstitial. There is another problem, an unexpected one. Interstitial works are also self-negating. That is, if they become successful to the degree that they engender imitations or tributes to themselves, or, if they spark a movement which results in like-minded works, then they are no longer truly interstitial, having spawned their own genre, subgenre, or even form. The DMZ they initially inhabit becomes its own nation, so to speak.”

In the process of naming or identifying a thing, it eventually becomes part of the old, even if once new. Thus, a rather joyful element of the interstitial—like a river that over the years changes its course, creating a new path and new banks, interstitial arts are forever being redefined. Non-static. No inertia. This approach also mimics the philosophy of the writer who does not wish to repeat him or herself. The interstitial, to a writer, turns out to be the farthest thing from a straitjacket—the writer in a sense sets the course through sheer individuality. Ten years from now, writers who strike out for fresher territory than what is currently considered “new” will find the interstitial still all around them, as relevant as ever. That is a movement I can live with.

In the “Illuminating the Interstitial” section of his essay, Fenkl writes:

“What the Interstitial does, actually, is transform the reader's consciousness. The reason that the formerly invisible historical trajectories become visible to the reader is because the interstitial work, in combination with the reader's particular perception of it, has manifested itself in such a way that the reader's ‘reality’ has changed. We have figures of speech for this kind of transformation at a profound level—‘I have seen the light,’ for example—but the transformation caused by the Interstitial is far more subtle. Perhaps instead of something as extreme as ‘The scales have fallen from my eyes,’ one might characterize this change as ‘A scale has fallen from my eye.’ In any case, the reader has learned to see in a different light, and that change causes a reinterpretation of the reader's experience of the past—in general—though perhaps this begins with a re-examination and reinterpretation of other texts the reader has experienced.”

I believe that in the creation of interstitial work, the writer as well as the reader has the experience of the scales falling from one’s eyes. It is in this way that the writer and the reader benefit from a sense of the world as it truly is—a chaotic, confused, complex place in which juxtapositions of beauty and horror, reality and fantasy (and more subtle variations), occur on a daily basis. (If we experience epiphany only rarely in our daily lives—epiphany as a sudden recognition of the strange and wonderful journey we all are on—perhaps it is because we do not allow ourselves to be open to it. Because the potential for it is all around us in our daily lives. This is one thing interstitial literature gives us--a pathway into that sudden recognition.)

To me, the term Interstitial and the reasoning behind the creation of the term both feel natural and relevant. I’m looking forward to further exploration—both what “interstitial” evolves into for me personally, and what it means in terms of a dialogue with other writers and creative people.