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Tod Goldberg writes short stories (Simplify) and novels (Living Dead Girl), in addition to just being a hilarious guy (see: blog). He's also the Director of the MFA program at UC Riverside Palm Desert.
BookFox had the opportunity to interview him by email for the release of his latest collection, "Other Resort Cities."
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BookFox: So many characters in "Other Resort Cities" are living in or haunted by the past in some way. Why is nostalgia such a powerful theme in these stories?
Tod Goldberg: I think we are all possessed by the past, whether we are aware of it or not. Every thing I do on daily basis — be it ordering the same damn thing at Starbucks every day, even after spending several seconds examining the menu as if I might make a different choice, or something more profound, like, say, finding myself feeling regret for some stupid decision I made ten years ago — is colored by my previous experiences, be they emotional or physical. And that troubles me just as a human being, that it's impossible for me to exist outside of my past, and so that's a bit of an obsession for me.
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But as it relates to this book specifically, I think the stories tend to be about the aftermath of cataclysm, so the characters are naturally bound to be scarred by that and trying to reckon with the results of their choices (or their pointed lack of choices — which is to say their passivity — which I think is a choice in itself). Where I found myself really struggling with this idea was in the story "Walls" which is told from the "we" perspective and which is about the past but also about the effect other people's bad choices — in this case a parent's — have on another group of people (namely, children). This can be a kind of inert way of telling a story, so I really wanted to find a way to tell a story where the drama really belongs to one person but trickles down into several people's lives.
BF: There's a few stories that take place in deserts. What attracts you to desert locales?
TG: The smell of tanning lotion is very inspiring to me. As is the sight of octogenarians driving enormous American cars dangerously slow. Plus, I've lived in the desert for a long time: My family moved to Palm Springs when I was in 8th grade — my mother was a society columnist in town for many years – but prior to that I'd visited Palm Springs on a yearly basis since birth, as both sets of my grandparents had winter homes in the area. Later, I lived in Las Vegas as well, and have lived for the last ten years back in the Palm Springs area, so in a tangible way, I simply know these locales well and so it's easy for me to imagine my stories in places that are familiar to me.
But I also find the deserts of the West to be odd and mysterious places. There's no good reason anyone should live in a place where the temperature is routinely above 110 for weeks at a time, and yet people have inhabited these parts for hundreds of years by choice and before the advent of central air conditioning. Why would anyone choose that way of life? And yet here I am and here so many other have been. And then there's the way people tend to disappear into these landscapes and how people in resort cities like Palm Springs and Las Vegas come to these searing places to recreate themselves. These can be anonymous places, places where you go to escape or to lose yourself and find that very compelling indeed.
BF: Some of these stories are hilarious — darkly so. But do you find that literary journals are prejudiced against humor?
TG: I think generally there is a prejudice against funny things — when was the last time a comedy won the Academy Award? — in terms of taking them…well…seriously. And so if a short story is funny, it also has to do other things well to be taken as literature with a capital L, which is typically what literary journals are aiming to publish.
But I can't say that I've faced this personally. I've been publishing short stories in magazines and journals since 1996 and a great many of them have had elements of black comedy in them and I've managed to publish them. Though I don't think anything I've written is straight madcap comedy and maybe that's why as the stories are still fairly, you know, depressing. The stories in Other Resort Cities that I think are probably more humorous than the others — "Mitzvah" and "Rainmaker" — are still about people staring down a pretty uncertain future brought on by fairly awful, violent consequences of their own bad decisions.
BF: How did you decide to order the collection this way?
TG: I think a story collection has to be ordered in such a way that two things can be achieved: A reader can read the book straight through and, by the end, feel like they've experienced an actual arc, as if the book itself is a character. And, secondly, they need to be able to pick it up and read it out of order and still enjoy it.
The second goal can be achieved simply by selecting the right stories for the book — I wrote 16 stories over the course of about 3 years to get to the 10 stories we (and by 'we" I mean me and my two excellent editors at OV Books, Gina Frangello and Stacy Bierlein) ended up selecting for the book. So it was a process of making sure we weren't putting stories into the book that were overly similar or which were weaker than others or even which were similar to the stories in my last collection, Simplify. And then when we did all that we eventually ended up putting in a story — "Granite City" — that I wrote more than 10 years ago because it fit in particularly well with the other stories.
In terms of the idea of arc, however, it was important for me that the book ebbed and flowed and that it started in one emotional place and ended in another, so we really toyed with the order so that the surprises in the collection — there are a few characters who reappear in the book and I think readers will be intrigued by the stories these people have to tell — came at the right emotional moments of the read. So I try to imagine what the reader is experiencing from the stories, the emotions they are having, and, particularly, whether or not the reader is getting ready to kill themselves from depression since I tend to write about people who aren’t exactly living the glamorous life, as Sheila E. once so adroitly sang. And so we matched stories up so that the book builds to certain revelations, pauses, lets you laugh a little bit, and then starts climbing towards a new revelation. A lot of this is just about feel — like when we were kids and made mix tapes. You just knew that you didn't put "Somebody" by Depeche Mode next to "Fuck Tha Police" by NWA. You had to keep one of those on side A and the other on side B.
BF: What about the UC Riverside's Palm Desert MFA program gives you joy?
TG: Pretty much all of it. Directing an MFA program is certainly a lot of work and I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that most writers are writers because they aren't very good businessmen, so learning the business side of education has been a unique and ever expanding challenge, but I am surrounded by great people who know much more than me on these topics and they humor my general ignorance quite well and then let me make decisions based on what I feel are the artistic aims of the program combined with the business end and, fortunately, things have worked out very well.
The opportunity to work with a great faculty — writers I admire like Mary Yukari Waters and Mark Haskell Smith and David Ulin, to name three — and to recruit excellent students is a real dream. Plus, the ability to direct the movements of two programs — we have a low residency and a regular program — allows me to really investigate new and innovative teaching methods and to give these students a tremendous opportunity to get published and produced. Writing is one of the few arts that truly isn't proprietary and the ability to give back what little I know is exceptionally gratifying.
BF: How difficult is it to switch between writing novels and short stories? What different writerly faculties does each require?
TG: It's all writing, so it boils down to what kind of writing it is and for me a short story is a place where I can really stretch myself. If I fail miserably or get irrevocably stuck, I've lost a month of my life. If I do the same in a novel, I've lost a year. Maybe more. I have a novel in a drawer that, while I was writing it, I sort of knew wasn't quite working but I just kept going because I already had a year invested in it and I was going to see it through for better or worse. This was probably a mistake but I just felt like I could write my way out of the intrinsic problems in the novel, which were several.
With a story, I'd be more inclined to just say, Oh, fuck it, and try something new. I think the best short stories have all the weight and depth of a great novel — and when I think of my favorite stories I think of them in the same emotional way as my favorite novels, too — and so I think the difference in actual writing is pretty negligible usually. Now, when I write Burn Notice books I tend to use a style that is completely different than what I use in my other novels or stories because the stories in those books are really plot driven whereas my other novels and my stories tend to be really character based, so in that regard, yeah, I do make a conscious choice to write in a more accessible and, really, commercial way which requires me to stop being so interior and really focus on what the reader wants from those novels, which is action, quips and maybe a bit of romance, but not ruminations on the human soul.