Jeff Parker is zany and zippy — at least as represented in his fiction, and his lively answers below encourage the reputation. BookFox caught up with him over email to interrogate him about his latest book, The Taste of Penny, which could best be described as a wild thirteen-story ride through the linguistically innovative world with outlandish characters. You'd probably remember Parker from his novel Ovenman, praised as "creepy, convincing, and hooty," which smashes together characters like Thinfinger with pizza joints and sticky notes.
But enough bio — enjoy the back and forth below.
BookFox: You're so playful with language in "The Taste of Penny." There are misunderstood words, mistranslations, mis-reads and inadvertent puns. Why does all this wordplay interest you, and how does it add to the fiction?
Jeff Parker: The Slavic linguists have described an interesting phenomenon: The majority of Russian teachers in North America are women, Russian women. Thus when their students, male North American students of Russian, visit Russia, they speak—in terms of intonation, cadence, and rhythm—like gay Russian men. I grew up in the South (North Florida to be precise, which is essentially the same as south Georgia and is not the Florida people think of when they think of Florida). I was a transplant from Boston via Germany. People talk funny in the South, but the most dangerous thing you could do as a transplant Yankee schoolboy would be to open your mouth. Harry Crews described in his memoir A Childhood this compulsion he has to imitate people he talks to. He writes that it’s something he’s always been embarrassed about. I have this affliction too, and I have also always been embarrassed about it. After spending time in Russia I come back speaking English with an effeminate Russian accent.
These kind of things can be hard to do in fiction but they’re part of everyone’s experience one way or another. So in answer to your question, I suppose instances of mistranslation are ways to capture this business. Also, I suppose, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that one of my core beliefs is that many of us spend our lives misunderstanding with alarming regularity everyone around us and the world in general.
BookFox: You have a cluster of "James" stories. What was the inspiration to write these?
Parker: I don’t think there was any one inspiration other than that James character, a sort of epic catastrophe of a human being. They’re all told from the perspective of his closest friend, who both worships and reviles him. I’ve had lots of close friendships, and in all of them, I think, some ratio of this worship-revile aspect applies. So I wanted to play with that, the betrayals and (again) misunderstandings and resurrected hallucinatory birds and willful gate-arm destruction on the job site, etc. You can hate someone that close to you at times and then again he wouldn’t be that close to you if you weren’t such good friends and a friend, as Aristotle said, is a version of the self.
There is a chapbook of these stories called The Back of the Line done in collaboration with the artist William Powhida in which he teased out the James character in the art in ways I never anticipated.
BookFox: The stories were originally published in a wide range of literary journals — from Ploughshares to Hobart to Cutbank. How'd you decide where to send stories, and what wisdom can you offer about landing stories in journals?
Parker: I don’t really strategize. Submitting stories for publication is roughly equivalent to buying scratch-off lottery tickets. Most of the time you get nothing. Sometimes you get five bucks. And every now and then you win the big money.
People say send stories to journals that you like, but I don’t really understand the logic behind this. And by the way wouldn’t you, wouldn’t most writers, like any journal that wants to publish them? I would. I guess they are saying send to journals whose aesthetics hew to yours. That leads to weird ideas about writing though. Like, I write experimental so I’ll submit to Conjunctions. None of this business is really healthy. And my favorite journals — Tin House, McSweeneys, N+1, Hobart, American Short Fiction, and others — entertain different aesthetics.
I’d say send any given story simultaneously to five big places and to five smaller/lesser-known places that seem like journals people actually read, and give it up to whoever gets back to you first. It’s always nice to get picked up by a big journal, but Aimee Bender taught me a long time ago that if you publish good work in small places, it sometimes has a better chance of going far. And most of my stories that have done something, been selected for an annual anthology or an award say, have all come from the smaller journals.
BookFox: How was writing these stories different from writing Ovenman?
Parker: I was writing some of them during the writing of Ovenman. As you know, a novel’s a different beast. Who said that a story is a one-night stand and a novel is a relationship? There are perks and burdens attached to each. Those one-night stands, you know. Sometimes you’re too drunk and can’t get it up. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good story though. Just less climactic. Sometimes one-night stands are amazing and you want to go back for more, to try and build a relationship out of it. And that impulse can be the wrong thing. Sometimes a one-night stand should be left at that. I’m actually in the process of taking one of the stories from the new collection and using it as like a prototype for a novel I’m working on. It’s the same characters in a slightly different world but with the same problems. It’s looking like this one may just develop into something. It may also be a huge mistake.
BookFox: Who's your ideal reader?
Parker: Someone who thinks, like Ben Marcus, that contemporary fiction should be a synthesis of the heartfelt and innovative impulses. Someone like Barthelme who thinks that shipwrecks of sentences are more interesting than beautiful and perfect sentences because barnacles and other such grow around shipwrecks. Someone who believes, like Oscar Wilde, that a little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. And someone who doesn’t insist on characters having the likable characteristics of someone he/she would wish to date. And someone who holds the notion of failure and the attribute of self-doubt in high regard.
BookFox: Ending on a slightly broader note, let's have a literary litmus test: What character do you despise the most? Not what book you dislike, and maybe not even a character perceived as a villain, but just a character that you hate.
Parker: I’m a fan of disagreeable characters. So I suppose the characters I dislike the most are those that seem to exude the balance of personality that one would anticipate finding in any given character in the real world. In other words, the character that is the result of the writer placating the workshop comment, “I didn’t find your character sympathetic.” I detest these characters not for their verisimilitude but for the fact the writer milquetoasted out. Give me a good Underground Man or any number of self-loathing Gogol protagonists any day. That’s a pretty milquetoast answer to your question though, isn’t it? Okay, here’s one: Alex in Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, the guide to the Jonathan character who has the impossible name and the even more impossible syntax and grammar. Once you’ve heard the beauty that is the English language from the mouths of real modern Russian thugs, this sexified version of it is just so much razzle-dazzle.