In Dave Housley’s fictional universe, the one that builds up in the stories comprising his first collection, Ryan Seacrest Is Famous, Jack Kerouac and Jimi Hendrix never died; one’s abandoned his artistic ambitions to become an informercial guru, while the other struggles against an indifferent industry to make a comeback after years of recovery. A young Nepali woman fakes a royal background to bluff her way onto a reality show; the veteran announcer of a pro wrestling program gets roped into one last ridiculous story arc before his retirement, with unintended consequences; clowns and victims of identity theft dwell on their failed relationships with equal frustration. Then, of course, there’s that title story, where one of the American Idol host’s former college classmates wonders how the hell this is what fate dealt out for them. So, when I read the essay he sent in about one of his favorite short stories, his selection made perfect sense to me (as it has to other writers before, and probably many more to come).
George Saunders’ “Civilwarland in Bad Decline” is the story, and the book, really, that had the most personal and literary influence on me. I remember finding the book in some used bookstore and thinking, bad decline, that’s a really interesting phrase. I think I bought it on the title alone. At the time, I had finished a novel, a Daniel Woodrell-inspired/ripped-off rural noir thing called Fresh Fruit and Ammo, which is still sitting in my closet somewhere, and I had just started writing stories. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of the way most people do it, which is to write stories and then, once you kind of know what you’re doing, start working on a novel. The stories I was writing were all these very straightforward, realistic takes on folks I’d grown up with and around in Central Pennsylvania. They were no good, these stories, and I kind of knew it, but I also really didn’t know what else to write.
And then I read “Civilwarland” and it was like this whole thing, the idea of the short story and what it could be, just opened up. Wow, these things can be surreal and funny and they can exist in these alternate universes, and all the while they can still say way more about the actual world that we live in, and specifically that world of real, working, striving, good hearted but not necessarily brilliant people who I was trying to write about in the first place.
There are a few stories in Ryan Seacrest is Famous that are more or less Saunders-esque, only in that they occur in a parallel universe (of course, the title story takes place in the all-too-real world, since Ryan Seacrest is actually getting more famous every single day, and will inevitably be president of the United States some day). But more than anything, “Civilwarland” just opened up the idea of what story could be, how it could work, and what it could be made of, and there’s no doubt that if I hadn’t found that book in that used bookstore a long time ago, I never would have written most of the stories in Ryan Seacrest is Famous. Or maybe I would have written them, but they would have been overly earnest and humorless and just really, really bad.
The other reason “Civilwarland” was such an inspiration is that, after I read the book a few times, then sought out anything else I could find on Saunders (at the time, not that much), I learned that he wrote most of those stories while working full time as, I think, a geothermal engineer. The key is “working full time.” I remember reading an interview where he talked about setting some kind of smart key on his computer, so he could work on stories and then, when somebody approached his office, he could hit the key and have his real work—or, the work they were paying him for—pop up on the screen. That, to me—somebody who was working full time and trying to write stories and also balance all the other normal life stuff that we all deal with, all the time—was just incredibly inspiring.
I actually remember where I was when I read the interview: at my job as webmaster at the World Wildlife Fund, sitting in my office, with a few stories open on my machine, ready to pop my HTML editor if anybody stopped by. I remember thinking, holy shit, this guy actually did it. He wrote these amazing stories while he was schlepping away at a real job. He wasn’t in some special writing fraternity that I’m not cool enough to even know about. He was a normal dude, nine-to-five. For me, at that time, when I hadn’t published anything and didn’t know anybody, and I just felt like I was so far outside this whole game, it was like being a short, skinny eighth grade basketball junkie and reading that Michael Jordan had gotten cut from his high school team.
16 December 2007 | selling shorts |