The Destination Is Just An Excuse To Get Your Mind Moving: An Interview With Bryan Hurt
“Spooky Action At A Distance” by Bryan Hurt is featured in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading with an introduction from Cheryl Quimba of Starcherone Books. Hurts’s new collection, Everyone Wants To Be Ambassador To France is available from Starcherone Books.
Julia Johanne Tolo: In “Honeymoon,” one of the first stories in Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, there is this idea that something lasts from the bad honeymoon, if not for the couple, then in the memories and minds of the people that they met. This feels like an elaboration on “Spooky Action at a Distance” to me: how the characters’ actions and experiences change not just their future, but the future of the people they meet. Is this a conscious theme in the collection?
Bryan Hurt: This is a good connection! To be perfectly honest I didn’t think all that much about theme when I was writing either of these stories, but I really like the idea that they’re both about the unintended effects that people have on other people.
One thing that I think is mostly true about writers is that we’re all — even the best and most social among us — sort of outcasts and exiles. We’re not good at fitting in, we hang at the edges of our groups, and we spend a lot of time observing other people. Something that I notice a lot as an introvert/exile/outcast myself is how clumsy people are with other people. We’re unaware that our actions have a kind of splash radius. It’s like when you spill a cup of coffee and all you’re concerned about is the stain on your pants or the fact that your crotch is burning. But you’re not noticing that you also soaked some guy’s brand new limited edition sneakers or the coffee puddle is slowing creeping towards someone else’s laptop. We do this all the time and not just with coffee; there are all sorts of things that splash, bad honeymoons, ambitions — emotions!
JJT: Your tone in “Spooky…” is so light and funny, yet you touch on big questions about guilt and consequence towards the end. Is switching gears between humor and anguish in the story something that came naturally to you?
BH: Thanks for noticing. Funny/sad is a tone that I go for a lot because I’m always pretty moved whenever I encounter it in other works of art. I think a lot of people who are smarter than me have spoken very eloquently about the connection between comedy and tragedy, and I’m not sure that I have a lot to add to it. One thing that comedy does is that it allows us to confront that which is tragic, cruel, or unjust; we can take on all of this morally heavy stuff without having to moralize about it. I think it works in this story because our narrator is confessing his own past crimes and transgressions. When we laugh at him for killing baby Hitlers, we’re forgiving him in an abstract sense and we’re also saying, “How strange it is that we can forgive you for (hypothetically) murdering a baby. What a morally confusing world this is that we live in!” But I think a lot of us have stopped laughing by the time he’s gotten to Margaret. His failure here seems more basic and devastating. This is a listy story and I’m not quite sure if we’ve stopped laughing because of the accumulated weight of the list or if this failure of kindness is actually something that’s beyond laughter and forgiveness.
JJT: I read that you majored in German and English at Ohio State, is speaking two languages something that influences your writing? And did your own experience with speaking German inspire your story from Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, “The Bilingual School”?
BH: I guess I would say that in general I’ve been both incredibly lucky and a pretty bad steward of my own life. A lot of the things I’ve done I did because they offered the path of least resistance. In high school I only applied to one college — the only college that didn’t require me to write an admissions essay — and my freshman year I enrolled in a German class because I’d taken German in high school (which I’d switched into because Latin was too hard). In the college class I had the opportunity to spend a semester in Austria, which seemed like a good idea because the school I was at turned out to be this very fraternity- and party-heavy school and I wasn’t having a good time there. When I came back I transferred to Ohio State and I met with a counselor to discuss what I might major in. At the time I had no idea and I remember the counselor looking at my transcripts and saying, “I see you have all of these German credits… Why not major in German?” It turned out to be a pretty good education. I wasn’t very good at the vocabulary, my grammar was always pretty spotty, and I wrote most of my papers using an online translator, but I also had a chance to read all of these great writers — Zweig, Mann, Brecht — in their original language. It took tremendous effort just to read them. I was cracking my teeth on every single sentence, chasing meaning. But I also got to really understand the drama of well-constructed sentence, and some of the pleasures. And if you’re not fluent but reading in a foreign language every book takes on a kind of surreal aura, meaning flickering at the edge of your consciousness. I think this shaped my taste for surreal stories.
The story in question actually comes from when I was living in Venice Beach. There was a French-English school I used to walk past all the time. It was surrounded by this very tall, blue fence with all of these cheery paintings on it. The fence was actually so tall you couldn’t see the school inside of it, which added a sort of mystery. I’d walk by and try to glance in the knotholes to see what was going on in there. But I also didn’t want to be the weirdo who was trying to peek in on school children, so I’d sort of move my eyes in the direction of the fence and walk by very quickly. At the same time I was working as an SAT tutor to these very rich Los Angeles people. I think the tutoring agency I worked for charged something like $250 an hour (they paid me about $30). The kids were all really nice and I got along with most of them fine, but the parents were all obviously super-controlling. They had a lot of fear, because the tests were out of their control and they were finally bumping up against the limits of their privilege (but of course not really; they could afford to pay thousands of dollars for me to come and sit with their kids for two hours a week). When I wrote the story I was thinking about the mystery of the French-English school and also these super-controlling, fearful parents. I thought how scary it would be for them to give their kids the expensive privilege of a French education only to have their children return to them as these unrecognizable, uncontrollable, French-speaking doppelgangers.
I have to thank my friend Courtney Maum for helping with this story. When she read the manuscript she noticed that a lot of my French was wrong and fixed all of the errors.
JJT: May I ask how you came up with the title for the collection, Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France?
BH: The title is a throwaway line of dialogue from another one of the stories in this collection, “Vicissitudes, CA.” In it three characters are sitting around a dinner table discussing their favorite U.S. presidents and, by dint, their favorite presidential assassins. One of the characters says that his favorite assassin was Charles Guiteau. He says that Guiteau killed Garfield because Guiteau was sexually frustrated. “If there ever was a reason to kill someone — ” the character sort of insinuates. Guiteau probably was sexually frustrated. Before he killed the president he’d recently been kicked out of the famous sex and silverware manufacturing cult in Oneida, NY for being too creepy (“Charles Gitout” was his nickname there) and was living in Washington D.C. trying to figure out what to do with himself. He had been a supporter of Garfield and so figured that president owed him something and that ambassador to France was within his wheelhouse. He petitioned Garfield and his cabinet in person and was eventually banned completely from the White House. After that he bought a pistol and shot the president.
In my story, one of the characters points this out and says that technically Guiteau killed Garfield because he wanted to be ambassador to France. But the other two characters dismiss this out of hand as being too stupid and petty and pedestrian a reason to murder a president. “Please,” they say. “Everyone wants to be…” etc. etc. When I wrote that line I knew pretty much immediately that it would be the title of the collection. A lot of my characters cause pain and suffering because of their unchecked ambition, and at the same time, even though Guiteau was a complete sociopath, I’m also kind of moved by what I perceive to be his sadness and loneliness. He’s tragic and absurd, a complete outcast, and I think a pretty good mascot for the collection.
You might be saying, “Wow! That’s a lot of information for a throwaway line of dialogue.” It sure is. For a long time I thought I was going to write the Great American Oneida Colony novel and I did a lot of research. I’m sad to say that the novel never really took off (a danger, I think, of writing historical fiction is engaging in a project without understanding why you’re emotionally drawn to it; for me the “cool” or “wow” factor is never sufficient), but I did those get seven words and a few lines of dialogue. So not a complete wash. And who knows maybe the great flatware-manufacturing sex cult novel is still somewhere in me.
JJT: I really enjoyed your other story from Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, “My Other Car Drives Itself,” and I realized that cars are important to your characters in the collection. What’s your relationship to cars, and why did you choose the Delorean for the time machine in “Spooky Action At A Distance”? Are you a big Back to the Future fan?
BH: I wrote ninety percent of these stories while I was living in L.A. and so I guess I’m not super surprised that so many cars worked themselves into the collection. In L.A. cars are a big part your identity. Not just as status symbols, but if you ever want to leave your neighborhood you spend a lot of time in them. They’re part of who you are in the same way that your house is an extension. It took me a long time to accept this part of L.A. reality because I always considered myself more of a walker. Now I live in a very small town and I can walk everywhere. I’ve only had to fill up my car twice in the past two months. But I have to admit that I find myself missing my car time, the zoning out and solitude.
Really I’m not a huge Back to the Future fan. I like it but probably no more than anyone else. I had the sentence, “We were surprised, of course, that when we built our time machine it turned out to be a Delorean,” and I don’t know exactly where it came from. I liked the idea of two scientists accidently building a Delorean, but more than that I thought the rhythm of the sentence could support a story. I liked hiccup of “of course” and the shrug of “it turned out to be.” Already the sentence had its own strange internal logic and was generating mysteries. At that point my job was to get out of the way, not overthink it, and follow it wherever it was going.
I think that writing short stories is more like walking than driving. When you’re driving you’re usually trying to get somewhere. You type an address into your GPS and follow the directions. It’s all very mechanical and productive. But when you go for a walk — or rather when I go for a walk — I feel free to explore, make wrong turns, double back, linger. I think that’s how stories work. You might have a destination in mind, but really the destination is just an excuse to get your mind moving.
Bryan Hurt is the author of Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France, winner of the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction, and editor of Watchlist: Short Stories by Persons of Interest, a new edition of which will be published by Catapult in May 2016. His fiction and essays have appeared in The American Reader, Full Stop, Guernica, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He lives way, way upstate in Canton, New York and teaches creative writing at St. Lawrence University.