I met Chris Tarry on the Thursday of AWP, on the mobbed second floor of a popular blues bar in Adams Morgan, after a friend and I had been gonged out of a literary talent show by Pam Houston.
It was one of those chance encounters with a kindred spirit that makes AWP so great. It was also noisy and dark, and I was slightly buzzed on sweet tea vodka. Chris explained that he is a professional jazz musician just breaking into writing, and was about to release his newest album as a book of stories.
“You’re doing what?” I asked.
“Give me your e-mail,” he said. “I’ll send you a copy.”
Several weeks later I found Rest of the Story in my mailbox. It is a jazz CD packaged as a story collection. There is a drawing of a falling man on the cover, four beautifully illustrated short stories inside, and a hole drilled though the center of the book to accommodate the CD. In the acknowledgments, Tarry thanks his writing mentors Roy Kesey and Jim Shepard, and their inflfuence is evident in his work.
The Rumpus: Let’s start with the thing. What is it? A book? An album? It contains stories and drawings but it comes with a compact disc.
Chris Tarry: It’s an album first and foremost. The record label, Nineteen Eight Records, sees it as such, and I see it that way too. It doesn’t have an ISBN number. It’s a CD and is printed as such. I look at it like an album with super crazy liner notes. That said, it looks like a book, though slightly an odd shape and size. So, yeah, who knows. Maybe we have to come up with a new name for what this is. A Rook (record book)? Wow, that’s terrible.
Rumpus: There’s something about the size of it. It’s like an art object.
Tarry: Jeff Harrison, the designer, spent a long time messing with it. They were worried the hole in the middle of the book would make the paper left behind a little too brittle, so the whole thing kept getting widened (or so they tell me). Once I finally held the book in my hand, I was amazed at how well Jeff and everyone involved had nailed the size. I’m not sure if you’d agree, Sean, but for me, it feels like a CD and a book. It’s wide like a CD case, but a little taller. It doesn’t feel like a normal book in your hand. Plus, with the center of the thing missing and a CD in place of the paper that would normally be there, it’s very light. Kind of the weight of a standard CD case. So all this together made me very happy. It’s exactly what it was intended to be, a true “Rook” through and through.
Rumpus: I think we should also mention that there is a drawing of Inuit people. A more conventional approach might have been to try to land these stories in magazines. Why did you decide to make them part of this book? And how did the book come together?
Tarry: I love the Inuit! Well, actually, all of the stories have been published in various places. I knew I only had room for about four stories (the concept of having the hole drilled through the last 70 pages of the book to accommodate the CD was decided on very early in the design process) so I knew I had about 40 pages to work with. I actually have a real life-sized collection that I’m shopping around to various publishers, and a few of these stories are part of that, so I wanted this to be something clearly different than a collection.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the falling man. He looks like he could be in his early 30’s, he appears to have jumped out of a Piper Cub, and he’s falling toward a hillside town with gabled rooftops and a church steeple. His shoe has come off. Who is he, and how did he make the cover?
Tarry: The designer and illustrator for this project (Jeff Harrison and Kim Ridgewell from Rethink Canada) came up with Falling Man. He’s a loose take on the character Gary Needleman from my story “Jump” that is part of this small collection.
I think Kim showed Jeff and me one early version of Falling Man, we made a couple of comments, and then she finished him off from there. All the illustrations are basically what Kim came up with after reading the stories and listening to the music. I’m not entirely sure how Falling Man made the cover.
He actually appears in a number of places in and around the book. Almost in a “Where’s Waldo” kind of way. My favorite spot being on the back cover under the dust jacket, where he’s printed in beautiful blue-foil ink. This image on the back cover was something Jeff added at the last minute, and man, it was one of those wonderful eleventh-hour decisions.
Rumpus: He’s well hidden there because the back jacket flap folds so tightly under the CD inside the back cover. How did you end up working with Rethink Canada?
Tarry: I like the hidden quality of a lot of the artwork. I keep discovering new things every time I look at it. As far as Rethink, my brother works there, in Vancouver, and he introduced me to Jeff and Kim and everyone involved in the eventual production of this book/CD. It ended up being a team of about eight people in the end. Jeff blew my mind with the design concept and Kim did the same with the fantastic illustrations. I basically told them I wanted to marry my new jazz album (which has no words) with my short stories, and then sat back and waited to see what they came up with. I believe strongly in this hands-off approach. It’s important to let people do what they do, and I’ve found that this has yielded the most surprising and consistent artistic results, musically and otherwise, over the years.
Rumpus: How long have you been a musician? How did you get interested in writing stories?
Tarry: I started playing music (bass) professionally when I was seventeen. So, I’ve been making my living as a bass player for 23 years now. It’s a wonderful thing, to do what you love for a living. I really do consider it a gift.
I’ve been writing all my life, but never gave it much thought (doing it for real that is) until about 2008. Around that time, I wrote a little short story and it got published, success straight out of the gate, and I was blown away. I couldn’t believe it! So I thought, Wow, maybe I should pursue this.
A few years later, and after much less success at getting things published, I found a good teacher, one of my favorite writers and our mutual friend, Roy Kesey. From there I just started trying to learn all that I could about improving as a fiction writer. I wrote a novel and it almost sold, there was a lot of learning that went into that whole experience.
Then, a few short stories started to get picked up, and in 2010 I got accepted into the Breadloaf Writers Conference, which was a wonderful surprise. There I met the great Jim Shepard and he changed the way I thought about writing, forever. Breadloaf was a pivotal experience for me. Jim, along with continuing to study with Roy, opened me up to the possibilities of what a great story could do.
Rumpus: I know what every reader of this interview is thinking at this moment: What is the secret knowledge you learned from Jim Shepard that forever changed the way you think about writing? Will you spill any secrets by sharing it?
Tarry: Ha, well if I told you that . . . Actually, most of what Jim talks about can be found online in various places, in YouTube videos of post-reading question-and-answer-period type stuff. I urge everyone to head over there and find what they can find. His ideas on having the fiction provide operating instructions for the reader within the tentacles of a story was particularly eye opening for me.
Remember, I had never been in a high level workshop before. I’m a bass player, for christ sake, what do I know? Not much. I was squarely out of my element, so that could have had something to do with the whole transformative nature of Breadloaf for me. I kind of felt like I won the workshop lottery.
Rumpus: What was the most important thing you learned from him?
Tarry: For me, specifically, he taught me the value of “earning” the emotional weight in my stories. I’ve always been able to write funny. I come from funny. I know funny. And so does Jim, he’s one of the most hilarious guys I’ve ever met. One of the pieces I workshopped at Breadloaf was the story “Jump” that appears in Rest of the Story. I had a tendency in my writing back then to “riff funny” to the point of making my characters cartoonish. Funny, yes, believable, no. And then I’d ask my reader to make some huge emotional leap in the end, hit them upside the head with something heavy they were supposed to learn from the story. Jim said something very simple to me—What happens when we see a cartoon character get run over by a steam roller? We don’t give a shit, that’s what happens.
And it was like a light went on. I realized that funny works best when real life is earned. So now I concentrate on those things. Because in the end, if you can make funny and serious work together, like Jim can so well, you’ll hit it out of the park almost every time.
Rumpus: I know what you mean. Sometimes you have to push in the opposite direction of your gift.
Tarry: But lets not forget Roy Kesey. He is merciless with me as far as critiques go. It usually takes me a good two weeks to recover when I get his notes on a story. And that’s the way it should be. It’s a rare thing to nail a story right out of the gate. Roy gets down into the atoms of the stuff, and makes me look at everything. I’ve learned a lot about POV from him, language details, saying more with less. All such important things. In fact, I just completed a story about a fisherman in Newfoundland. I was all excited to send it to him until I found out he did an actual stint as a professional fisherman at some point in his life. Jesus, I thought, good luck on this one, Chris.
But Roy is like that, he’s studied a bit about everything. I feel like if I sent him a story on the Space Shuttle, he’d say something like: Well, when I flew the Space Shuttle, it wasn’t anything like this. You know it has wings, right?
Rumpus: Yeah, there’s something about having the capacity to be so generous and deeply critical at the same time, critical in the best sense. It’s like what George Saunders says about Zen Buddhism and holding two contradictory thoughts in your imagination simultaneously. (That’s also on YouTube, by the way.)
The Rumpus has been lately featuring the work of a number of musicians who have taken up writing. There’s Wesley Stace, for example, who is the musician John Wesley Harding, and Ted Wilson is apparently some kind of tuba and harpsichord player. Is there a connection between making music and writing stories? Do you find yourself drawing on your musical talents when you are writing?
Tarry: Wow, a tuba playing harpsichord player, now that is something I’d pay serious money to see.
It’s a great thing, I think, when anyone decides to start writing. But maybe musicians, the ones that compose anyway, have a bit of a head start. They’ve thought about structure, rhythm, and pacing. I truly believe that a good melodic line, even one without lyrics, has to tell a story. I think music and literature share that. The idea that some kind of narrative must be present, literally and harmonically, in order to reach the listener/reader. “Tell a story when you take a solo,” one of my teachers once told me, and I’ve never forgotten it.
I’ve talked a lot about how these two disciplines influence each other in my work. And I have to say, the most exciting part for me, and one I never saw coming, was the huge effect writing would have on the way I compose music. I’ve always had a bit of a knack for writing music, could kind of plink out tunes on the piano from a young age. So, in a sense, before writing came along, I’d honestly have to say that I was a lazy composer. I routinely took the easy way out. An okay melody here, a just good enough bridge section there.
I’ve been fortunate enough to play with some of the best musicians in the world, and they can make anything sound great, so my stuff was good enough, wonderful in their hands. But then writing came along. And this thing called revision. And good God I loved it, going back in, over and over something until it was as close to right as I could get it. I took that love for revision into my composing, and it changed everything. I would throw out whole sections, chord progressions, melodies. Things I would have kept in the past. I became relentless and the music became better for it.R
Rumpus: It’s been great talking to you, Chris. If Rumpus readers are not lucky enough to run into you in a bar, where can they get your Compact Book?
Tarry: Ah, Compact Book, I like it! It’s available directly through Nineteen-Eight Records.
Rumpus: Thanks so much, Chris.
Tarry: Thank you, Sean! It was great running into you during AWP in that crazy bar. Man, I just remembered, I had the greatest meatloaf at that place. Watching the Literary Gong Show and eating a huge plate of meatloaf, now that was surreal.
(For the record, Sean and Chris met at Madam’s Organ, a blues and new country bar on 18th Street in Washington, D.C., and it is true that the meatloaf there is very good.)