Seth Fried: Perturbations of the Human Spirit!

Seth Fried

Strange things happen in Seth Fried’s stories. A young man is drafted into a harem full of women. A monkey is loaded into a space capsule and sent into a volcano. Supposedly cool-headed scientists become unhinged over an ancient mystery. But for all their ingenuity of concept, the stories also have these big, throbbing hearts – real emotional power. It’s a great trick, and it’s not hyperbolic to invoke writers like George Saunders and Aimee Bender when talking about Fried. He described one of this stories, “Those of Us In Plaid,” this way in a promotional video for the story: “Thrills! Moral Imperatives! Perturbations of the Human Spirit! And a Monkey!” Sweet. Fried’s new collection, The Great Frustration, is being published in May by Soft Skull Press. He answered these questions by e-mail.

One of the most most-flogged clichés in the world of writing advice is “write what you know.” You’ve written movingly, hilariously and vividly about a harem, a ritualized annual picnic massacre, a self-loathing hitman – just to mention a few. How do you go about inhabiting fantastic – or at least unknown – worlds and making them real?

I think that cliché tends to get misinterpreted. Like: If you’re an ambulance driver, you should write a novel about being an ambulance driver. If you’re a herpetologist, you should write a book of poetry about being a herpetologist. Both those books could end up being perfectly great, but that seems like a very narrow interpretation of what it is a person knows. Even though most of my stories are far removed from everyday experience, all of my ideas grow out of some anxiety or hope that I have about the world or myself. So they’re still dealing with things that are very close to me.

Your stories often have ingenious and unusual scenarios but build beyond the potential pitfall of shallowness or gimmickry. I wonder how you move from an idea or a concept toward a fully realized story, and how you know whether you’ve managed it while you’re writing.

If a story is all concept and no urgency, I think that’s when you run the risk of shallowness and/or gimmickry. Conversely, if a story is all urgency with no concept to make it compelling, you can start to run the risk of sentimentality and/or preachiness. What works for me is to decide first what urgent thing I’m hoping to express, and then to come up with a concept/scenario that suits that urgent thing. Of course, both the urgent thing and the concept can change radically throughout the writing of a given story. What’s important is that there be a strong relationship between the two.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

You mentioned a story of mine called “Life in the Harem,” which is about a man who is inexplicably placed in a King’s harem alongside a bunch of beautiful women. Summarizing it like that, it definitely sounds overtly concept-y. But the idea grew out of real anxieties I had about the way heterosexual men seem to perceive desire in our culture.

David Foster Wallace once wrote in a criticism of one of John Updike’s protagonists, “[…] he persists in the bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for human despair.” That’s an attitude that seems not only prevalent among heterosexual men in our culture, but encouraged among heterosexual men by our culture. Obviously, that’s just a gut feeling I have (probably a result of sitting through one too many Axe body spray commercials) and not something I can really substantiate here. All I’m saying is that, as a heterosexual, it was an anxiety I had about our culture. The concept of the harem provided the perfect opportunity for me to explore that anxiety. Without the idea of the harem that story would have just been me complaining about Axe body spray commercials. And, as you can tell from reading this paragraph, that would have been kind of awkward.
How do you see the art of the short story in the context of changing technology, the woes of the publishing industry, etc.? Should we hope or despair for the form?

Probably the biggest obstacle for the form is that most publishers have no confidence in short stories from a sales standpoint.

I think a big reason the novel has been the dominant form of literary fiction (as opposed to the short story) is because it’s so much easier to deal with a novel in terms of marketing. No matter how complex a novel is, it can still be boiled down to a single sentence. You can say: It’s about Word War II. Or: It’s about Mexico. When you’re trying to sell a book to a massive amount of people, I bet that helps. Whereas summarizing even the most reader-friendly short story collection requires a relatively involved description that will link the stories thematically or (gulp) aesthetically. From a marketing point of view, that’s a nightmare.

But I am hopeful that new technology might shake things up a bit. With the growing popularity of e-readers, phone apps, online magazines, etc., I think there’s going to be an increased demand for fiction that can be parceled out as content. Obviously, short stories would be much more suited for that than novels.

There’s a lot of interest, among publishers at least, in making story collections cohere in some fashion – to have some kind of thematic or structural unity if not actual links among the stories. What do you think of that tendency? Did you try to achieve that in The Great Frustration in any way?

The oldest story in the collection (“Lie Down and Die”) was written when I was 20, while the most recent story in the collection (“The Frenchman”) was written when I was 26. So the stories in The Great Frustration were written over a pretty long period of time. They were all written discretely without my knowing what I would end up putting in a collection one day. I like the way the stories in the book hang together, but referring to the collection as themed might be pushing it.

In general, I have mixed feelings about the desire to make collections themed/linked. There are certainly instances of themed/linked collections that are amazing. Though, I worry that tendency might encourage some publishers to continue looking at collections as stepping-stones toward novels.

You’ve made video trailers for some of your short stories. Is that something you do just to help promote the stories, or is video a more serious creative pursuit in its own right?

The running joke on my blog is that I promote myself shamelessly, so the videos just started out as an extension of that joke. Initially, the idea that anyone would take the time to make a short story trailer seemed inherently funny to me. But I ended up enjoying myself so much that, before long, the idea that anyone wouldn’t take the time to make a short story trailer started to seem downright shameful.

Also, my rule about self-promotion is that it’s okay as long as you’re having fun and being creative. So the videos help me do that.

Speaking of which, I’m pleased to report that I am now making full-on book trailers:

Why do you write fiction?

I made the decision to be a fiction writer when I was about fifteen. Back then, I think it was just because I loved it. I’ve spent surprisingly little mental energy re-evaluating that decision.

Which writers do you find yourself returning to repeatedly? Who are your touchstones and why?

Italo Calvino, Steven Millhauser, Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme, Rainer Rilke, and Woody Allen. I’ve made a point of reading everything that’s been written by those six writers. It’d be difficult for me to discuss at length what I like about all six, so I’ve broken it down anatomically:

Brains: Calvino, Millhauser

Heart: Rilke

Guts: Barthelme, Elkin

Funny bone: Allen

Do you remember the first story you wrote? When was that, what was it about, and was there anything in it — some germ of an idea or theme or approach — that remains in your work still?

As I mentioned, I made the decision to be a fiction writer when I was fifteen. But my first fiction project actually took place five years earlier. After watching the movie Glory, starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington, I made the perfectly reasonable decision to write an epic Civil War novel at the age of ten. The plot was a little fuzzy, but it involved a young man going off to war only to realize in the end that war was bad. My mom was very supportive, and suggested that I read The Red Badge of Courage. I thanked her for her input, and just proceeded to watch Glory a few more times. All told, I managed to produce about twenty handwritten pages of gibberish that prominently featured muskets.

Strangely, there still seems to be echoes of my abandoned, pre-pubescent Civil War novel in the fiction I’m writing today. I love writing about the past without actually writing about the past. There are a handful of stories in my collection (“The Misery of the Conquistador,” “The Siege,” “Life in the Harem,” “The Scribes’ Lament”) that are all either set in a fake past or an absurd version of a real past. So beneath the surface, I think there’s a little Civil War gibberish in all my stories.


Note: Readers may check out Fried’s blog, Seth Fried’s Bare-Minimum-Blog Blog; one of his stories, Loeka Discovered, at the Missouri Review’s awesome new online anthology; or go to a retail giant and pre-order his book.


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