Issue 8, January 2011
A Conversation with Bob Thurber
LI Online Featured Author (Part 1 of 2)
Interview by Brandon Rucker
Fellow author Susan Henderson calls him "a masterful wordsmith" and "a trailblazer". I personally call him the Maestro of Microfiction. I also call him friend.
In the late 1990s I was introduced to Bob Thurber and his exceptional writing. We met where many writers had for the past dozen or so years: at the American Zoetrope Virtual Studio, the brainchild of filmmaker, fiction enthusiast and artist advocate, Francis Ford Coppola. Although I became a member in late 1998, I didn't read and thereafter converse with Thurber until sometime in 1999. I'd like to think we hit it off smashingly. Heck, we even found ourselves on the same side in many of those early, heated literary debates that writing communities are known to have. In many ways Thurber became a willing mentor to those of us who were wise enough to listen, and many members still consider him a literary hero to this day as I do.
I know I personally became a kind of raving fanboy, always referencing his talent and citing his works as glowing examples of how flash fiction was supposed to be done. While reviewing one of his classic stories, I had said "You're just too good at what you do. Great fortune awaits you, my friend." Indeed.
I recently uncovered several quotes from some of the other AZVS members about Thurber and his writing from over the years. The praise included such phrases as "scary talent that inspires," "helpful, gracious and generous," "Thurber can't be beat" and "there's some consolation to losing [a contest] to Thurber".
Then there was a time when the favorite, though somewhat reclusive, scribe decided to vanish altogether from the ranks that so revered him. First was the complete deletion of his membership. Following this was a series of cryptic messages on his personal website. Various inquiries went unanswered. Thurber, either by design or by accident, had become a bit of a legend in the underground writing community that populated the Zoetrope Virtual Studio. Some even questioned whether Thurber had prematurely passed away—perish the thought! It got so serious that a few members actually checked into his possible demise. .
I am happy to report that the truth was much more positive. Thurber was simply on a mission. He saw no need to talk about writing anymore because he was busy actually writing stories, submitting them, getting them published and winning several contests and awards (if you consider over forty to be merely 'several'). He has also spent a great deal of his 'away' time working on his debut novel, Paperboy: a Dysfunctional Novel (which will be published in May 2011 by Casperian Books).
Thurber and I kept in touch irregularly over the years. Recently I was able to corner him for this interview, an invitation he graciously accepted despite his disdain for talking about himself and despite his recent unspeakable loss of his daughter. And so follows my conversation with the illustrious yet ever-so-humble Bob Thurber.
RUCKER: Bob, what I like most about your fiction is the strong undeniable voice that speaks through it, especially in your first-person narrative works. I remember that I used to read your works and forget that I was reading a work of fiction because the voice that came through was always so real, the stories seemed like non-fictive confessionals. assume that was intentional, and that your 25 years of writing before we met helped you achieve this.
THURBER: First, thank you, Brandon, for your enthusiastic support of my work all these years.
In answer to your question I guess some of my pieces read like "non-fictive confessionals" because many of them start out that way: as true confessions. I've never actually sat down with the intention of composing a fictionalized story, short or long. All my work originates from snips of prose recorded in my daily notebook, which is something I've maintained for about 35 years. The notebook is part diary, part journal, part sketch pad, part exercise workbook. It's where I start each day and where I probably spend too much time playing with words when I should be focused on other work.
I'm never trying to create anything publishable in the notebook so I have the freedom to be frank and open, to be snide or silly or tell harsh truths. Any distortion or fictionalization comes only after I've identified something genuine, something authentic. At that point I'll examine the emotional energy in that chunk of prose and try to build upon it, flush out and intensify whatever emotional component caught my eye. But in the beginning I'm never writing fiction; I'm simply making a record of scatterbrained observations, with no goal except to put words on the page, all the while attempting complete sincerity. So maybe some of that sincerity ends up clinging to the fictionalized pieces. That's my best guess, anyway.
Rucker: For as long as I have known you, it seems you have always written and published micro and flash fiction more than traditional length short stories. Why is that particular love affair the strongest?
THURBER: It's not a strong attachment, really, though I can understand why it might appear that way. I've published a lot very short pieces in venues that imposed a small word limit. And a few of those smaller pieces won an award that brought some attention. But I've published a good amount of long stories as well, a few pieces pushing ten thousand words. There's a moderately long story (about 6000 words) in the next issue of The Indiana Review that I drafted about ten years ago. And I've got a trunk load of traditional length pieces never submitted, and long drafts that I haven't touched in a decade or more. When I started to regularly submit my work I found it easier to pull smaller pieces from my files and edit those. So I guess all it comes down to is that the shorter pieces were easier to rework, shape up, revise. Easier to style.
RUCKER: Some people have described some of your stories as 'downers'. How do you respond to that description of some of your work?
THURBER: I'm not sure if that's a complaint or a compliment? Either way it's a fairly accurate observation. There's no question some of my pieces are dark, and a few are downright disturbing. But they deal with everyday matters. My monsters are always human. Nothing supernatural occurs. I think that if there's a common theme or message it's along the lines of "Count your blessings, because things could be far worse."
I'm glad when they cause the reader to pause and maybe reflect.
Some years ago I went to a small dinner party and another writer, a talented young woman, who had read a number of my stories, confessed she was surprised to discover that I wasn't the seriously dark and gloomy person she had expected me to be. Off the page I'm a pretty funny guy. I sometimes write humor, though I haven't tried to publish many of those pieces.
I'm more intrigued by the darker parts of human nature, the daily traumas that leave scars, the horrific little things people do and the hurtful things they say to one another. I've developed a pretty good sense for recognizing cruelty in its various disguises, behind its various masks. I try to present those findings, expose some of the nuance. I recognize that hurt often breeds hurt, that people who are suffering deep emotional pain frequently pass that suffering on in ways big and small, not necessarily intentionally, but by social accident, social collision. Sometimes it is only a minor mishap, a caustic remark. A small action. But that's an aspect of behavior that I like to examine. I'm no admirer of the dark side but I'm not afraid to study its mechanisms, its power to direct a person's life by his or her daily actions, how that undermines and destroys relationships. It's pretty naïve and somewhat of a cliché, but I'll admit I'm a child of the sixties, a member of that post-hippie generation who believed, as Kurt Vonnegut did, that people who are supposed to love each other should try "a little less love, and a little more common decency." We're all going to fade. The least we can do is try to be kind to one another while we're alive.
RUCKER: You have won your fair share of awards for fiction. Upwards of forty awards, including the Barry Hannah Fiction Prize. What do those awards mean to you? Is there one that means more than the others, or is it like picking a favorite limb?
THURBER: For a long time I was resistant to publishing. I never submitted anything anywhere. Even now I'm sluggish about sharing my work. But for a few years I got in the regular habit of entering contests. So that's how the awards came about. I liked the discipline of meeting deadlines, though most of my entries were last minute. And I looked at entry fees as a way of supporting the publication while gambling on my work. I like to gamble. I'm a pretty good blackjack player, well ahead of the house, though I seldom get to the casino anymore.
Funny story: about five years ago my wife and I were having lunch at Foxwoods Casino when my cell phone rang, and it was the editor of Meridan Magazine. A very nice woman informed me that my story had won their Editor's Prize. I was shocked and a bit disorientated. I couldn't even remember what I had sent to them. I said, That's great. What did I win? She said, A thousand dollars and publication in the next issue. I said, Cool. I'm in a casino. Should I go back to the tables and gamble some more?
She probably thought she had the wrong number.
Anyway, I enjoyed the irony of getting the news while in a casino, mainly because I think any literary contest is a gamble, a calculated risk, and pretty much of a long shot. I rarely enter them anymore.
RUCKER: Does outside recognition like that validate what you've done, or do you feel that positive confirmation has to come from within?
THURBER: I imagine every writer wants recognition for the work they do. Validation can be a morale booster, an incentive to do more work, better work. But I also think that a lot of young writers rush to be published before their work is ready. For myself, yeah, sure, I chased after validation for a short while. And the awards certainly brought a sense of that. But in my case I had a trunk full of work accumulated from over two decades. Lots of work to draw from. Prior to that my validation came from letting my wife read my work. She was my entire audience. So I had her reaction, her opinions, and her support on a number of levels. Beyond that was my own conviction, the fact that I knew I was doing the work every day without excuses, without any need for outside reward. Back then I believed that when I eventually did publish I would do so with a pseudonym. A lot of my early drafts still have that pseudonym on them, and I sometimes wonder why I didn't stick with that plan. A nom de plume has some advantages. Don't misunderstand. I like when my work gets recognition, but I'm uncomfortable when too much attention is directed toward me. Over the years I've turned down numerous interviews and invitations to "guest edit" or to judge contests, so many that I suspect others draw the impression I'm difficult or unfriendly, but it's really just timidity, my personal awkwardness. I'll be honest and admit I'm feeling some of that right now.
RUCKER: Who are the writers that have had the most influence on you as a writer? Who are your literary idols, if you have any?
THURBER: Tough question. Difficult to answer in so short a space. I've had scores of influences, direct and indirect, good and bad. Thirty years ago Henry Miller changed my life. So did William Saroyan. There's a sincerity that flows through their work that is raw, often brutal, but very much alive on the page. Salinger and Hemingway were huge influences for a time; they're so smooth it's unnerving. Then there's Kafka, Hamsun, Donald Barthelme. Dozens more. I used to read like a fiend. I preferred short story's more than novels. I'd read the same story over and over, trying to break it down. But at the same time I was always studying a lot of psychology, sociology, religion, mysticism, so I was greatly influenced and redirected by nonfiction writers such as Rollo May, Eric Fromm, Krishnamurti, Annie Dillard. Julian Jaynes' book on "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" woke me up. So did Dudley Young's "Origins of the Sacred." I mention those titles because they happen to be sitting on my desk. I often go back to works that impressed me. I've got a pretty good sized library in my home. But I'm not being fair, or giving a very good answer. I'm sorry. There are just too many authors that influenced how and what I write. It's a pretty mixed bag.
RUCKER: Do you remember in the late 90s when flash fiction truly became en vogue, the writing community debating the merits of ultra-short fiction and its parameters? On one side of the argument were those who demanded that flash be fully realized stories and contain all the usual story elements—a beginning, middle, and resolution—only in a more condensed form, an abbreviated presentation. Others insisted that the larger story could simply be more implied than oddly forced into such a truncated form. Looking back now, how do you view those debates and did you agree or disagree with either side?
THURBER: I've never been a fan of the term "flash fiction" or any of the labels applied to very short fictions. I'm drawn to compressed work, stories that pack a punch in a rather short space. But there are compressed novels I like just as well. So it's never been about length with me. Good writing utilizes compression. I like density, the weight beyond the actual words on the page. I'm in awe when I find it.
As to the debate about what components make up a capable "small fiction," or what can or should be left out, I think it's an impracticable argument, rather subjective from a reader's view, equally so from a writer's scrutiny. Every work dictates its own requirements, its own necessary parts. Certainly some impression must be made, some fixed, unified emotional effect upon the reader. The more solid the better, but even a vague impression, a sense of underlying emotion will get the job done. So allusion and implication are important no matter what the length. I guess my view is that if you understand fiction's basic principles and ideals (which are often misconstrued as strict, rigid rules ) then you're no longer restricted by them. Better to recognize the rules as guidelines, study them, practice them, understand them, but never let them deter you from creating something fresh, something new, exciting and unique.
RUCKER: Susan Henderson said in an interview a few years back that she believed you were instrumental in getting the Flash Fiction wing opened up at the Zoetrope Virtual Studio. I was certainly around then, but somewhere in between then and now I took a nap. So tell me, my friend: is that myth or truth?
THURBER: That was a long time ago. I was a strong advocate for the creation of a separate wing for Flash Fiction but many members were onboard that campaign. So I can't make any claim to being instrumental in the process. It's flattering to be considered some part of it though. Susan Henderson, by the way, is a hell of a writer and one of the nicest people I've come in contact with. She's got a debut novel people should pay attention to. I wish her continued success.
RUCKER: We are featuring three of your microfiction works in our current issue, the two classics in "My New Place" and "Grave Invitation", and the previously unpublished "Rooms for Rent, Men Only". What can you tell us about the origin of those works?
THURBER: Not very much. All of those pieces originated in my daily notebook and were based on actual experiences before they became distorted, shaped into the things that they are now. I'm glad that you found some merit in them. And I think you and Sue did a terrific job enhancing "Grave Invitation," turning it into a multi-media piece. Very nice. Thank you for that.
RUCKER: It's been a long time coming. Just how anxious are you to finally have your first novel released to an unsuspecting public this year? I know I am anxious for you!
THURBER: I feel really fortunate to have found a publisher willing to take a chance on Paperboy, though I sometimes think I'm not as happy or as thrilled as I should be. It's certainly no easy chore to get a book published, particularly a highly dysfunctional novel such as this one, which deals with themes and issues not often talked about. So I consider that part of it an honor. A true gift. It was really such an odd, eerie feeling the first time I held the actual book in my hands. It's got weight, more than I imagined. I'm confident that some readers will find merit in it. There's already been a bit of buzz about the release, a lot of emails congratulating me, some requests for signed copies, so my mailing list has increased substantially. Oddly, I'm not anxious about the release. At least I haven't been. Maybe that will change as the date gets closer. Right now I'm focused on other projects. I'm close to handing off another completed novel to my agent. So that's really where my focus is, on the work still in front of me. Paperboy, anything I've published, all of that has to fend for itself.
This concludes the first part of my conversation with Thurber. Be sure to return on May 31st for Part 2 in the upcoming ninth issue of Liquid Imagination as we turn the focus to writing craft and Thurber's debut novel, Paperboy: a Dysfunctional Novel
Read the first seven pages of Paperboy at Casperian Books
Pre-order PAPERBOY from Barnes and Noble
Learn more about Bob Thurber.
And be sure to read Bob Thurber's microflashes featured in Issue 8 of LI Online: