Resurrect Your Darlings: Anne Valente

Anne ValenteLike most writers, I try to make everything I write work for me in some way, even if it doesn’t end up on the final page. I rarely save separate drafts of the same project, so much of my revisions – the large sections that get cut, the scenes that are moved around, the lost images that are abandoned or placed elsewhere – are absorbed into the finalized version of a story or essay. I finish every project I start, but I do have one small, hidden folder on my desktop called Retired Stories. There are seven of them. All of them are as finished as they can be. But they’re retired because, even though they’re complete, I realized quickly after writing them that they were failures.

It’s hard to say how I knew they had failed other than that once I’d finished them, within a week I didn’t like them anymore. Long after the fact, I know now why some of them were failures. Take the following story, which opens in this way:

Because the sun stained its path in shades, Loka did not see the cows until she crested the hill. The haloed sky above Wisconsin blanketed the fields in pallid, predawn light, a blue so indistinct that Loka imagined it the color of crossing over, the only moments in a day when living and not-living became one. There were hundreds of them, backs humped. So irregular in shape that for a moment, Loka mistook them for hay bales. They lay immobile, a quiet so profound that Loka thought they were sleeping, but their contours never moved, never rose or fell with breath. She had heard of blackbirds, and geese, and a mass of toads that all burst open, every one, simultaneous and unexplained. But nothing like this.

There are things here that interest me still, and which I’ve developed further in other stories – a Midwestern landscape, liminal spaces, strange occurrences, animal behavior. But while the image of hundreds of unexplained dead cows is both intriguing and unsettling, and was a news story that preoccupied my attention for several weeks, it didn’t necessarily make a story. This is evident as the story progresses:

She came to the fields some nights, late, when the earth turned away from the moon, when the sky pooled open in darkness. It was then that stars illuminated themselves, splashed their light across the earth in a messy wash of ether and pockmarks and stardust, a display clarified by silence, by only her breath and the earth, the bleats of the cows a solemn foghorn, distant beyond the hill. Loka slid against the fence on these nights, looked up and imagined the world encased in a blackened dome, and these stars, pinpoint cracks in the shell, spreading fissures to let her know light was out there somewhere, to make her small again in the gravity of their wake.

Here too, there are concerns that are still central to my sensibility – stillness, solitude, nature, stars – but this is an attempt at characterization when I was clearly more interested in the cows. I can see now that this story failed because the image itself was far more fascinating to me than the story around it. Who is this person who came upon the cows? Do we even care? I don’t think I did as a writer. There wasn’t much of a story there for me, which is why the story remains retired.

This isn’t to say that it was wasted writing, however. I suppose I could delete the Retired Stories folder since I know I’ll never submit any of them, but I also know writing isn’t always about publication. I keep the Retired Stories folder as a personal archive of showing myself my own fascinations and how my curiosity develops over time, even if the story never sees the light of day.

BY LIGHT WE KNEW OUR NAMES by Anne Valente is available now from Dzanc. Check out our special sale to celebrate this Fortnight of Valente: buy BY LIGHT WE KNEW OUR NAMES and get Valente’s Origami Zoo chapbook for only $4!

Fortnight of Valente: By Light We Knew Our Names sale

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteWith October comes the fantastic, exciting release of Anne Valente’s debut collection, By Light We Knew Our Names from Dzanc. We hope you’re as excited as us to get your hands on this book, and just in case you needed a little extra push, we’re offering Valente’s fantastic OZP chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics, for only $4 when you purchase By Light We Knew Our Names.

Simply email us a receipt showing you’re purchased By Light We Knew Our Names, then use the PayPal button below to get your discounted copy!

Please note: any orders received without a receipt indicating a purchase of BLWKON will be ignored and refunded. If you want to buy An Elegy for Mathematics at regular price, go here. We also still have a few UnArchived Special Editions left, which includes audio from the book, an ebook version of the text, digital copies of all the artwork for your social media fix and bonus story-inspired artwork, notes and packaging. Get ‘em before they’re gone!

Writer Crush #32: Ben Marcus

1328667769524.cachedOf all the contemporary writers I read, the one that feels 100% guaranteed to still be read and written about centuries from now is Ben Marcus. I’m about three-quarters through The Flame Alphabet right now, and it’s just such a masterful book—it feels so meticulously crafted, from the endless lists of dubious pseudoscience experiments the narrator reads about in brochures to the gut-wrenchingly real dialogue to the bizarre world of language afflictions and listening holes Marcus has created. If the plot synopsis isn’t enough to entice you—there’s an epidemic due to children’s speech becoming toxic—I’m not sure what will. And the fascinating thing about reading this book, about the toxicity of language and comprehension, is that you’re reading the whole time, and so much of the pleasure of Marcus’s writing is the fine detail, the precise language.

The beauty and terror of language is clearly an ongoing concern of Marcus’s: My first exposure to him was The Age of Wire and String, which calls itself a collection but feels more like an almanac, an atlas, a guidebook to this age of wire and string—and honestly, even after having read it a couple times, I have no idea what’s going on in those stories. The diction and syntax are mostly very simple, the words familiar, but the things the words do make them wholly unfamiliar. Here’s an example: “The brother is built from food, in the manner of minute particles slowly settling or suspended by slight currents, that exist in varying amounts in all air.”

And yet, when I get to the end of these stories, I often get that kicked-in-the-stomach feeling that mostly comes at the end of early Simpsons episodes, or when I see a sentimental greeting card commercial. There’s some kind of powerful, poisonous, emotional core to these stories, so even though I don’t understand, on a literal sense, I’m still very moved.

Resurrect Your Darlings: BJ Hollars

(Check out our first entry in this new series for more information!)

The Last, Last Line You Never Read

BJ Hollars

BJ Hollars

Of the many edits I’ve made, there’s one I’ll always regret. It was the last line from a short story entitled “Sightings,” the title story of my collection.

For the uninitiated (read: 99.999% of the reading population) the story involves a basketball-loving Sasquatch who joins a high school team. (Think of it as a literary version of Teen Wolf, only with more fur and less Michael J. Fox.)

In brief, at the end of the season Sasquatch falls for the prom queen and is later abandoned by her, a heartbreak that spirals him into a booze-drenched existence forcing him back into the trees.

Originally, the last line read: “It was all he knew to save himself from extinction.”

(The “It” referring to the booze).

But when the story was initially accepted the editor felt strongly that the last line had to go.
If memory serves, the editor felt the last line was a bit too “on the nose,” the word “extinction” a little heavy-handed for a story about Sasquatch.

I got it, I heard her loud and clear. And yet…try as I might, it was the one line I couldn’t let go.

There were plenty other edits as well, and I made them all with gusto. But there was something about that last line that wouldn’t seem to budge.

Long story short, eventually that line began to budge. I simply made it.

All I had to do was remind myself that if I found the line to be clever and good and right on the money, chances are it was derivative and bad and way off the mark. Simply put, I knew I was too close to the story—too emotionally invested (if one can be emotionally invested in a Sasquatch yarn)—and I had to go with the editor’s gut over my own.

In situations like this, I often return to some key advice my wife once gave me:

“B.J., you’re usually wrong.”

These days I live by it!

I’ve found time and again that when it comes to writing, stubbornness rarely pays off. On occasion I have found myself fighting for a dash when that time could better be spent…well, probably doing anything but fight for a dash. It’s not that I’m a pushover when it comes to my artistic integrity; it’s simply that I’d rather invest that time making more art.

When I was writing Opening the Doors, my civil rights book, the editor asked me to cut 20,000 words. This meant cutting well over 20% of the total manuscript. Nevertheless, when given my marching orders I publicly smiled, privately pulled out my hair, and then began hacking deep into every chapter. It wasn’t easy, but the book was a much better book because of it.

These days, when I think back to the line I lost— “It was all he knew to save himself from extinction”—I realize that maybe I don’t actually regret the edit.

After all, nobody ever complained about the line they never read.

Perhaps—much like Sasquatch himself—it’s the stuff we don’t see that keeps the mystery alive, the lines we lose that keep us hungry for the hunt.

Writer Crush #31: Ramona Ausubel

16158505A few months ago, I saw Ramona Ausubel read “Atria,” a story about a teenage girl named Hazel who becomes pregnant from one of two men—a dopey 7-11 cashier she has underwhelming sex with or an adult man who rapes her. She doesn’t know which the father is, and doesn’t care to know, but that’s not what the story is about. The story is about her keeping the baby and what she imagines is growing inside of her. What you might not guess from this description is that hearing Ausubel read this story was gut-bustingly hilarious. The crowd was roaring.

The rule of thumb we’ve all heard, and perhaps repeated to our peers and students, is that specificity makes good writing. Specificity also makes good comedy. Maybe it’s simply that specificity is affecting because it’s surprising, or because it feels true, and maybe the key to eliciting any emotion from your audience is specificity no matter what. And, another rule of thumb, that I’ve learned from a writer or two is (not to mention by lifelong love of The Simpsons) if you want to make ‘em cry, you gotta make ‘em laugh.

Basically, what I’m getting at is Ausubel’s details are so specific and surprising that it’s impossible for them not to accumulate into something both hilarious and moving. I mean, just look at these moments from “Atria”: When she has sex with the 7-11 cashier, he “sat up, straddling her, and put one big hand on each B-up. Squeezed, pumped like udders.” Or when Hazel imagines the baby growing in her stomach as a three-headed giraffe whose heads emerge and “rolled out their three long purple tongues… Cleaned her arms and her face.” Or simply that Hazel thinks of being in high school as “a soggy thing.” It’s that kind of simple but powerful specificity that defines much of Ausubel’s stories and makes them such a pleasure to read.

There’s that book list meme going around facebook lately, where people name ten books that have stuck with them, and of course a lot of writers are taking part. The biggest criticism of those lists, though, is that there aren’t enough women writers on them. Given the predominance of canonized men and the longtime marginalization of women writers, this isn’t really surprising—but I take comfort in the fact that, in my mind, women are easily writing the best and most celebrated fiction right now (Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Marie-Helene Bertino, not to mention the writers on OZP’s roster). Add Ramona Ausubel to that list, for here is not only an excellent book by a writer who happens to be a woman, but a book that is unabashedly about women and women’s bodies and women’s stories. The collection “Atria” is in is called A Guide to Being Born, and is split into four sections: Birth, Gestation, Conception and Love, and even when the character at the forefront of a story is male, that story is still framed around women (as in the story “Chest of Drawers,” where a man wakes up to find his chest now has a set of drawers in it, coinciding with his wife’s pregnancy). There aren’t enough stories like this immortalized in our culture’s literary repertoire, but with writers like Ausubel, soon there will be.

Review: LEAVE LUCK TO HEAVE by Brian Oliu

bookcover_final_2AAgainst what is probably my better judgment, I recently purchased the Wii U, Nintendo’s latest home console, and every few days, when I can, I’ve been sneaking in an hour or two of Pikmin 3. Pikmin is an oddball game in an oddball franchise where you, a space explorer, crash land on a mysterious planet where little creatures called Pikmin follow you around, break down walls, dig holes, and fight enemies on your behalf. What I love about this game is that Nintendo, more so than its competitors, has retained the strange tone of video games from the 8-bit era, when many designers were still figuring out what the technology could do and decisions were often made due to graphical or other technologic limitations.

Leave Luck to Heaven by Brian Oliu takes its name from the English translation of Nintendo, and with good reason: Oliu adopts the confusing and sometimes unsettling logic and language of old school video games and uses them to in turn explore the confusing and often unsettling landscape of childhood and adolescence.

There are two things that are always very exciting to me about Oliu’s work: 1) It defies classification. Though Oliu says he writes nonfiction, he’s published his work as fiction and poetry as well as nonfiction (and in interviews he’s even said his video game essays are “collaborations” with the games themselves). 2) It is willing to take seriously aspects of pop culture that artists rarely do. Whether it’s pro-wrestling or Top 40 club hits, Oliu takes what some perceive as trite and delves into what makes them compelling to so many people in order to produce powerfully affecting lyric essays.

Leave Luck to Heaven is no exception. Almost all the essays in this collection are named after old NES games (Super Mario Bros., Ninja Gaiden, Donkey Kong), and each draws material from its namesake while also using the games as lenses to view Oliu’s own life. For example, the piece on Rampage, a game where you are a giant monster rampaging through cities around the world, becomes about 9/11.  An uncertain “you” needs help tying a necktie before his grandfather’s funeral in “Donkey Kong,” and “RBI Baseball” finds the speaker being beaten up by other children.

When they’re not named after games, they tackle other aspects of video games, such as “1up” or “Plants, Flowers, Vines,” the latter of which is like an items glossary. The boss battles and save points, which first appeared as a set in Level End, provide the most coherent through line and help to give the book a sense of escalation. And there may even be some Easter Eggs, cheat codes, or unlockable characters for you to find in the book, too.

But the essays are far more about their sound and images than the narratives you can piece together. They are best read in small little bundles, preferably even out loud. They are best when you can immerse yourself in the atmosphere they create, when you get lost in the startling sentences like “we have separated rock from rock, evaporated water with a song—here, a pond with no heart—we can play only one song—we can play that song again if we are allowed,” the same way one would do in the glow of a TV screen with a controller in hand.

For me, personally, the essays are most exciting when the language starts to imitate the title game. All the boss battle pieces begin with “When I arrived, the music changed,” and in my head I can hear the fight theme start playing. In “Dragon Warrior,” the speaker gets caught up in a back and forth that reflects the turn-based mechanics of its namesake (“I go and then you go then I go then you run”), and in “Ghosts n’ Goblins,” the speaker repeats the same section in a slightly different way over and over, as if falling into that digital abyss below the screen and having to start over with another life, having to try again to beat the level.

It does make me wonder, though, as a reviewer who grew up playing all kinds of video games, how these essays work for non-gamers. My guess would be that they are still lovely, often moving pieces of writing, but it’s hard to say when I’m caught up in all the other moves they’re making, too. I would wager that, at the very least, the magic and wonder and sadness stirred up by all of Brian Oliu’s words might make even the biggest video game skeptic go to a quiet room somewhere, flip the switch on, and press Start.

SUPER BRIAN OLIU 64: The Interview (World 1-2)

[This is the second part of a two-part interview. Check out the first part here, and take advantage of our fortnight-and-a-half of Oliu book sale here.]

bookcover_final_2AOZP: The pieces in Leave Luck to Heaven often read like video games themselves, and there are pieces (like “1up” and “Plants, Flowers, Vines”) that examine different elements of video games as opposed to specific games themselves. How much like a video game do you want Leave Luck to Heaven to Be and how much like a collection of essays do you want it to be? Given infinite time and resources, would you want to make a book that’s even more like a video game?

BO: I’m all about artifice: I love the idea of writing being “more” than writing. If there was someway to make the entire thing playable, I’d be super into that—especially to add to the interactivity of the whole thing. I think the biggest critique so far is that it is a good that uses videogames instead of being “about” videogames, which is true: it was never my intent to write a book “about videogames” but to try to make sense of the space between the player and these games. I’m in the process of working on trying to make the cover playable—there still might be a chance for some sort of strange interactivity; at the very least bridging that gap a little bit.

OZP: Can you tell us a bit about the cover art and artist? It’s pretty incredible. How many of the games did he manage to fit in there? I’m not sure if this was intentional on the part of Uncanny Valley Press, but LLTH is the exact same height as Level End, making them lovely companion pieces, too.

BO: Mike mentioned that when he got the first copy of the book, he was so excited to create a book that “felt like the right size,” so I’m pretty sure this means that OZP were trailblazers in regards to “book ergonomics.” The artist is David Wells, who is a friend of Mike’s, who also did the screenshots for The Navigators—he did an absolutely insanely awesome job. Mike & I talked about how we wanted the cover to ideally look; a kind of Divine Comedy through videogames. He did an early sketch of the cover & David just absolutely crushed it. It is the greatest book cover of all time. I’m not speaking in hyperbole. There’s so many gaming nods in there; I’m pretty sure all of the images were crafted by him, so it’s more pastiche rather than collage. But the game feels simultaneously Mario, Ninja Gaiden, Life Force, Metroid, and Mega Man. It’s the best.

OZP: What are your influences outside of video games? What writers were driving forces behind your work in LLTH? Any recommendations?

BO: I read more poetry than I do prose—although nothing is more exciting to me than a well written essay. As far as writers that were driving forces, I’d have to go with Lia Purpura and Albert Goldbarth: with their ability to take something super small and blow it up to gigantic proportions; I’m always fascinated by that. I really fell in love with how Beth Ann Fennelly poems can so easily turn on a dime & get downright vicious: they do a beautiful job of scene setting before hitting as hard as possible. So great.

Level EndOZP: What else have you got in the works? I’ve seen pro-wrestler pieces by you and pop song pieces by you. How are those projects coming? And can you tell us more about i/o, your forthcoming memoir from Civil Coping Mechanisms?

BO: The pop song pieces are fun things that I’ve been writing when I’m feeling like “hey! I should write something today!” I’ve really enjoyed writing them & they’re kind of endless. They might make it into a book or a larger project someday. The pro-wrestling pieces are my main project as of right now; I’m taking a long time to craft those essays, which I think is a good thing. I’m working at a similar pace I had with Leave Luck to Heaven: we’ll see how they all come together. I’m also working on a more straight-forward memoir about long distance running; my grandfather founded the Barcelona Marathon & wrote a book in Catalan. I’m in the process of translating everything—it’s a very long and large undertaking, & something I’ve been thinking about for years now. It’s nice to finally get it off and running. And finally, I’m writing a book about NBA JAM in a month, because, why not? It’ll be fun to have this type of challenge, as I’m not one who writes every single day. I’m pretty excited about it.

I’m really happy i/o is seeing the light of day: it’s a very strange book. It’s a re-telling of the beginning of The Odyssey through memoir and also through computer viruses. I wanted to create something extremely experimental & I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of flarf/the language of computers. It was originally my graduate school thesis & has grown from there. It was an important book for me to write, as it had a lot of room for error (as it is a book primarily about error) & it allowed me to understand the workings of language, especially at a sentence-level. It’s a book I’m tremendously proud of, & easily the thing that I wrote where looking back I’m like “whoa. I can’t believe I actually did that.”

OZP: Finally, what’re your top 5 favorite games of all time? And what’s a contemporary game that you think more writers should play?

BO: I get asked this question a lot, & I’m pretty sure it changes every time I answer! I think the SNES is where videogames really hit their stride; it was a perfect marriage of storytelling and simplicity. My favorite game of all time is Earthbound, which is a popular choice for “favorite videogame of all time,” but rightfully so. I also love Super Metroid, as well as Link to the Past. As for NES, I have to go with River City Ransom, as well as Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. I’ve died so many times in Ninja Gaiden. As far as contemporary games, everyone should play any of the modern Grand Theft AutosGTA IV might be “The Great American Videogame.” They are achievements in storytelling as well as scope. It’s astonishing to me how much work that game must’ve been to create.

SUPER BRIAN OLIU 64: The Interview (World 1-1)

To celebrate the release of Leave Luck to Heaven, we sat down with Brian Oliu to discuss the happy occasion of his first full-length book. We conducted our interview at the origami turtle sanctuary, where Brian and I glued paper spikes on the paper turtles to make them look like origami Koopalings, and Brian gave me the scoop on book sequencing, Missed Connection crossover commercial, and, of course, Nintendo. And stay tuned for part 2 of the interview later this week!

And if you aren’t already sold on Oliu’s work, read this interview and then check out our fortnight-and-a-half sale (goes ‘til Monday!), where you can get Level End free with purchase of either Leave Luck to Heaven or another Origami Zoo title.

Brian Oliu Approaches!Origami Zoo Press: Reading Leave Luck to Heaven, especially after having read a bunch of these pieces individually as well as inLevel End, I was really interested in the sequencing. I often think of collections the same way I think of albums, so it was fun to pick up on threads that carried throughout or little connections between the pieces. It was also interesting to note where the sequencing differed from Level End. What was your thought process when ordering the pieces in this book? Some are obvious, like “The Final Boss” at the end, but I’m curious to hear how you went about putting the whole thing together.

Brian Oliu: I always had a strange idea of how it went together: I knew that I wanted to put “Super Mario Bros” as the first one, because of it being the most recognizable game. The rest of it was kind of scattershot, though I knew I wanted certain ones to be towards the end, as they had a bit more ‘finality’ to them, at least in how I created them. Some of the pieces that I wrote later on were towards the end, solely because I think I had a better idea of what the project was at that point. Whenever I set out to work on a larger project, I never really know what it is until I get there (as Didion says, I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking), so I think the project was more concrete when I wrote, say, ‘Blaster Master’. Mike also helped with some of the sequencing as well: he was able to see connections between pieces that I couldn’t necessarily see, so that was extremely helpful.

OZP: Your work is very non-narrative (much like a lot of early video games), so how do you see all these pieces fitting together beyond the initial conceit? Should this be read as a cohesive unit? Or could someone pick and choose pieces to read individually? Should we assume the speaker is always the same? I don’t want to assume it’s you simply because you write nonfiction—often it seems as if you are speaking as the games personified.

BO: There are certainly moments where it seems a bit more cohesive beyond “hey! This is a book about videogames!” Obviously there is a theme of death here, of growing up, of trying to make sense of the world through this other world that is inhabited while we play games. The way I see everything is that all of these things that I’ve written about are true: whether they are in my own life or in the “game life” they do exist. The artifice exists in the blurring between the two: all writing is nonfiction in the same way that all writing is fiction—I remember things differently than other people, which makes it true, but I am still crafting something out of it that isn’t exact, which makes it false. The speaker embodies all of these things: there’s me as a child, there’s me playing games as a child, there’s me looking back at those two people, there’s me trying to embody those two people. It’s pretty wild—I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of avatar lately, as I’ve been working on this book about NBA JAM; that in games we are always trying to take the form of someone much larger in life than we are, but what happens when the game is over? What effect does that have when we disconnect?

OZP: What’s the ideal way to read Leave Luck to Heaven? All at once? Little by little? Read aloud? Given infinite time and resources, I’d love to actually play all of the games as I read along…

BO: My work is pretty exhausting to read! I don’t know if someone can necessarily sit down and read it in one sitting: it’s a giant chunk of text that bounces around a whole lot. I think someone can sit down and read the pieces individually and still get the whole concept & idea. Ideally, you should do what I did when I was writing, & play the game for a bit, try to beat it, & then read the essay. I had a lot of fun when the individual pieces were being published where I recorded myself talking over a speed-run. I felt like that was a pretty interesting way to “take in” the piece. If anyone wants to play the game that I’m writing about, feel free to call me & I’ll read it to you over the phone.

bookcover_final_2AOZP: The fact that you write nonfiction, and very explicitly say it’s nonfiction even though you’ve published pieces under other genres (just about every genre at this point, I think), also made me kind of see connections between this and your other work, particularly the Missed Connections chapbook, So You Know It’s Me. I’m thinking specifically of “Donkey Kong,” where a girl with a scarred wrist is mentioned alongside the number twenty-two, and “Gradius,” where everything is falling into the river. Do you see these works as connected? Do you see all your works as kind of existing in the same universe? Obviously, they are essays, so aspects from your life might always repeat, but it was really exciting to imagine all the crossover potential and all the ways your different works might interact.

BO: I think that when you write memoir/nonfiction these worlds have to exist in the same universe: I live in the same town, I have done the same things, I am still the same writer. It’s funny—we love finding those connections in fiction: I think of how there’s a belief that all Pixar films operate within the same universe, but the same should be true in nonfiction. If I’m not mistaken, I wrote those pieces around the same time—I started So You Know It’s Me as a “break” from writing Leave Luck to Heaven; to try something new & to stop thinking about videogames so much. One of the first things I tell my students is that you don’t just get one chance to write about what happened to you: you can write about that in different forms for the rest of your life. So, it makes sense that a lot of these things go together. This also just gave me a fantastic idea for a “Brian Oliu Remix” project, ala John Barth’s LETTERS, or Daft Punk’s Alive.

OZP: It was also interesting to me to read these because we’re a video game generation or two removed… My first console was a Nintendo 64 (though I played plenty of SNES at friends’ houses), but the NES was before my time really, so a lot of the time reading I was imagining how these essays would be different (and similar) if they were written about N64 games, or even the current generation of games. It seems like a lot of the fun, surprising aspects of your work are really influenced by how early games often had confusing or nonsensical aspects since game designers were still kind of figuring out how to make them (and graphical limitations often meant bizarre choices had to be made). I think I read that Mario only had a moustache in the original Donkey Kong because it was too hard to draw a mouth! And that’s crazy to me, because that moustache is so iconic. But that’s the kind of thing that seems emblematic of the logic of your essays, which often feel like the confusion of being a kid and growing up mashed-up with the confusion of early video games. As games get more realistic, they might be harder to use as artifacts to make sense of real life things that don’t make sense (if that makes sense). How do you think those early games influenced this book?

BO: I think part of the reason this book works is because these games didn’t have much narrative beyond “Save the princess! Save the world! Go right!”—I will share with you my greatest influence in writing this book, which is this YouTube video of a kid creating an absolutely insane narrative while playing Sonic the Hedgehog. The kid was completely dissatisfied with the story that was given to him (which sucks, let’s be real), and so he crafted this absolutely batshit movie trailer (complete with Bon Jovi) to take the place of what is occurring on the screen. In a way, the older videogames were like novels: they asked the reader to create the world on their own. Newer videogames, we hear, are just like feature-length films: not just because of the graphical prowess or the idea of dramatic storytelling, but because they take away that interaction from the player. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do love the idea of modern videogames as entertainment medium, but I still miss the basicness and strangeness of the 8-bit era.

Super Brian Oliu 64: The Interview will return… on Thursday!

Resurrect Your Darlings: Chad Simpson

Today, we’re kicking off a new series for our blog: Resurrect Your Darlings. Ever have to cut a part of a story that didn’t fit but you really loved? Or change a piece for the published version? Ever like some things about an earlier draft better than the final version? Resurrect Your Darlings will be giving writers the opportunity to share the excised parts and alternate endings they just can’t get rid of. First up is the first OZP author, Chad Simpson! Check out his resurrected darling below, then see what he has to say about it after!

three sections from Duplex

When I told my supervisor which apartment complex I lived in, he said, Oh, I know that place.

You used to live there? I asked.

He wrinkled his forehead at me, scoffed. No, he said. But I used to know a woman who lived in one of those, what, little duplexes, right? They still have the same arrangement over there?

I told him they did. Rows of little du- and triplexes.

They still have problems with sound? he asked. You know, they used to hang these thick shag carpets on the walls that separated the units.

Carpets? I asked, pretending idiot. Like for decoration?

He tilted his bald head to the side, wrinkled the skin on it again, and said, No, not for decoration. Jesus. They were hideous. Put ‘em up as a buffer. You could hear a pin drop next door, he said. Not to mention the other things your neighbor might be doing.

When he said this last part, he made a fist and pumped it, knuckles up, forward and then back again three times; each time he extended the fist, he clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth twice.

Today my neighbor’s phone is ringing, and I am reminded of that conversation I had with my supervisor while we both smoked cigarettes and scattered ashes on the sidewalk outside the guard shack we work in. Sometimes I hear the garbage disposal or her three-year-old wrecking-ball son, who screams and then collides with the wall behind my television. Then he screams again, and a few seconds later there is laughter, another thud from the other side of the wall.

My neighbors are Korean. They don’t speak English well. We are very cordial, though. A month ago, before I threw out a chair, I walked over to their front door and asked if they would like to have it. The woman was confused at first, but I pointed at a chair in her apartment and then to the one on the sidewalk in front of my place, and she accepted the blue rocker graciously. I carried it over, wiped my feet on her rug, and placed it down just inside the front door, where she gestured with her small hand.

The next week, she brought me over a fruit pizza. When I opened the door, she handed me the large glass plate and said, For you.

I smiled and began to say, You didn’t need to do that, when I caught myself, wondered whether this backward graciousness would translate, the way it does in America, to, Thank you. That is very kind of you.

So I said this instead. She smiled back at me and turned away quickly. Her husband stood on their front step, smoking a cigarette, and I kept the screen door open with my back, balanced the plate on one hand, and waved at him with the other. He waved back and exhaled a small cloud of blue smoke.

I’d thought, because it was made by a Korean woman, it would maybe be a more exotic fruit pizza, but it was just the same as an American one. And just as good. The crust was sweet and the top had sugary cream cheese smoothed over it and halved strawberries and slices of banana and kiwi, all arranged just so.

I have only spoken with my neighbors on those two occasions. Maybe it is because they are Korean that I want to speak with them more, hear what they have to say and how they say it. I have heard other Korean men and women at coffee shops, saying, I assume, Oh, this drink is very good. I love the peppermint syrup. Or I have heard a Korean man say to a Korean woman at the movie theatre, You wait in line for the popcorn while I get the tickets. I’ll meet you over there.

I listen occasionally at the wall that is not so thin anymore to hear whether she says to him, Turn the channel already. I hate this show. Or, Move your arm up some so I can rest my head against your chest.

But I hear no talking. Just the garbage disposal, their small son as he slams himself against the walls and his tiny gleeful screams.

So today, when her phone rings, I go again to the wall and listen carefully. I want to know what it sounds like when she picks the phone up off its cradle, holds it to her ear, and says, Hello.

* * *

On my way home the next morning, a new version of my dad comes to me. It’s his sixtieth birthday party. His hair’s gone gray and his neatly trimmed beard is full of salt. He is sitting in the same highchair Teddy sat in the day before, a small cone hat on his head held in place by a rubber band that runs under his chin. His feet dangle in the air, and his mouth is so full of cake he is unable to speak. We take pictures of him smearing frosting all over his face. Then he looks up, shocked that we are all there. He tries to say something, but my mom hushes him with baby talk and fills his mouth with red frosting.

I park my truck on the street and notice some signs tacked to the streetlights. There is a photograph of the dead kitten, alive and pawing at something invisible in the air, above which is written, WHEN YOU SEE ANYTHING ON THIS CAT, CALL PLEASE, followed by a phone number. I grab a flyer and take it inside with me.

* * *

My neighbor takes a cigarette out of her pocket and lights it. She doesn’t inhale. The smoke curls around her mouth in large clouds and she coughs, rolls down the window.

I take it you don’t smoke, I say.

No, she says. Smoke stinks. She drops the cigarette through the opened window and it sparks on the highway behind us.

On the two other occasions I’d seen my neighbor up close, I’d never noticed how young she looks. She couldn’t be older than twenty. Her skin is poreless. She looks so young I feel almost dirty having her alone in my truck.

Your friend said you fish? I ask.

Yeah, yeah, she said. I always fish. Very good. She starts to say something else but stops and stares instead out the window at the crooked rows of corn.

When we approach Kreggers’ place, the sun hovers over the stand of trees that hides his personal pond, and behind us, everything is going dark. This is it right up here, I say.

She squints in the direction of the trees and then at me. Her eyebrows rise, then knot up. She makes small waves with her hand and asks, Where is water?

Behind those trees, I say, pointing. It’s not very big. But he’s got it stocked with some nice bass.

Bass, huh? she says. Confident, almost smug.

We each carry a rod through a small opening in the trees. The light filtered through the branches makes the place glow the shade of orange that children draw sunsets in. Beneath the trees it’s cool and smells like the rich parts of the earth you never get to touch with your hands. I’ve spent a lot of time here since I left Ginny.

It’s beautiful, my neighbor says.

I know, I say. The water is just around the corner. It’s the perfect time to snag a few bass. They get hungry when the sun sets.

My neighbor says, Snag a few bass, and laughs.

We turn the corner, and Kreggers is out in the middle of the pond in his johnboat. He’s got a generator in the boat with him that’s large enough there’s almost no room left for him. He’s standing, waving an arm in the air.

What are you doing? I shout. We wanted to get in some fishing.

He looks down at the generator and fiddles with some knobs. He sticks a little rod into the water.

Electricity rips through the humid air and my neighbor stops walking. So do I.

Everything that was alive in the water begins to float to the surface. It ripples with the upturned bodies of small- and largemouth bass, snakes, catfish.

Fucking eels, he shouts.

What is he doing? my neighbor asks.

I tell her he’s shocking the lake.

Shocking, she says, like it’s a question.

Everything comes back to life and sinks beneath the water’s surface, but before they have time to make a swim for it, Kreggers recharges the pond with a stronger current. He spits into the water and it sizzles.

The fish rise up again. The orange light catches on the eels and crappy and bluegill and bass, and we wait for them to come back to life again, to sink back into the water, but they just hang there, slowly rolling into and against one another on the water’s black surface, shining in the near-dark like the tongues of a thousand unseen beasts.

* * * * *

Chad Simspon

Chad Simspon

I only took 1.5 creative writing classes as an undergraduate, but I had my heart set on going to graduate school to study fiction writing. One of my professors—a man whom I respect quite a bit—suggested I take a few years off before going to read and write on my own, so that’s what I did.

My first year out of undergrad, I worked a number of jobs: at a gas station and a pig processing plant; as a security guard. Then I did a year of AmeriCorps. Then I became a juvenile probation officer.

I did a lot of reading, a lot of writing. When I took the job as a juvenile probation officer, one of my bosses from AmeriCorps told me to take care of myself, because the job could take a toll on people. I let her know that I was hoping to do it for only two years. After the first year, I was going to apply to grad school, and if I got in anywhere, I’d be gone.

My first year as a probation officer, I worked second shift and had Tuesdays and Wednesdays off. Every morning, I rolled out of bed around ten and wrote for a few hours. On my days off, I would spend whole days at the library or the coffee shop, trying to get words on the page.

The problem was, for the previous two years, while I was writing a lot, I wasn’t actually writing stories. I wrote about 300 poems, and about three thousand pages of sentences, but no real fiction. So, that year, I tried to figure out how to put a story together, and one of the main pieces I worked on was “Duplex.”

Originally, I’d thought the first section of the story might stand alone as a flash or short-short. I think I even tried to submit it to a few places. As time went on, though, during those morning writing sessions, and at the library or the coffee shop, I started adding more sections to it, to see where things went.

While the story was still flawed—it lacked some needed exposition; there wasn’t much emotional logic to the events—I think I discovered while working on it some aspects of the fiction writer I would later become. I’m thinking of the piece’s voice, and its attention to images, even thematic concerns.

Eventually, I submitted the story as part of my application for grad school, and it helped to get me in somewhere. I even sent it out to a few magazines and received some very nice, if not quite deserved, rejections for it.

It’s hard for me to say that I “love” this story of mine—or these sections of it, even—but I appreciate what writing this story allowed me to discover about the writer I would one day become, and I very much like remembering that period of time in my life when I was always struggling and failing but somehow, for reasons I still can’t explain, remained devoted to putting words together in such a way that they might mean something to someone.

Writer Re-Crush #2: Brian Oliu

Brian OliuThe fortnight of Oliu continues! It’s not secret that we’re big fans of Brian Oliu—I’ve been into his work ever since he visited the afterschool creative writing club I was part of and read an essay where he imagined himself as Pac-Man and all his ex-girlfriends as the Pac-Man ghosts. Since then, Oliu has made a name for himself with lyric essays that take on the form of video game boss battles, computer code, pop songs and Craigslist Missed Connections. As the fortnight goes on, we’ll be talking more about Leave Luck to Heaven, Oliu’s debut collection of video game essays, as well as i/o, his forthcoming memoir. For the purposes of our re-crush, though, we’re going to take a look at the new subject Oliu has turned his eyes on. Or rather, his folding chairs: pro-wrestling.

The thing that’s so striking about Oliu’s pro-wrestler essays, to me, is not simply that Oliu has taken something we think of as ugly and violent and made us see it in a new and (for lack of a better word) prettier light, but that he takes seriously a medium often disparaged—how many times have you heard someone says, “It’s not even real!” as though the fans of pro-wrestling believe it is? As creative writing becomes more and more engrained in academia, it’s harder to find writers who see the high art in the so-called low-brow, who believe that pop culture is a force to be reckoned with. (Then again, maybe that’s how it’s always been—I kind of love to imagine what Hemingway would’ve made of The Rock.)

But of course, in typical Oliu fashion, these essays are not simply about pro-wrestlers. They’re about tornadoes. They’re about childhood. They’re about Oliu himself and how the stories of these wrestlers, these modern-day myths, intertwine with his life. The conceit may seem funny, but the end results are tragic and moving. Haunting, even. Here’s your recommended reading for the day:
Bret Hart & the Finished Dungeons of My Youth
Owen Hart & the Finite Life of Ropes
Hulk Hogan Comes to Tuscaloosa
The Ultimate Warrior Believes in Nothing But Forever