The first time I ran across Josh Denslow’s writing, it was his story “Dorian Vandercleef” in Split Lip Magazine. The opening line pretty much encapsulates Denslow’s particular brand of 90s era slackerdom: “When you’re a failure at everything else, write a novel.” The fabulist element kicks in when it’s revealed that the main character of the protagonist’s novel, Dorian Vandercleef, is himself a real person, who is also writing a novel based on his own life. Welcome to the weird world of Josh Denslow.
Josh’s first book, the short story collection Not Everyone Is Special, comes out on March 27 from 7.13 Books. Over the past ten years, Josh has established himself as the purveyor of a strange mix of the fantastical and the everyday that scrambles the brain. His short stories have appeared in Barrelhouse, Catapult, Pithead Chapel, Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, and wigleaf. He is also an Associate Editor at Smokelong Quarterly and plays drums in the band Borrisokane.
We recently corresponded over email about how he got his start in writing, his other careers in music and filmmaking, and how they bleed into his fiction writing.
Rumpus: Both writing and music entered your creative life early on. How did filmmaking come onto the scene?
Denslow: I decided I’d give writing a go in college. I bumped over to Columbia College Chicago and took a writing class, which I intensely hated, and a screenwriting class that I loved more than I could ever possibly convey. That’s the semester I became a film major. Watching movies was a huge part of my life, but I never thought of making them. I took editing classes, directing classes, photography. I even shot a twenty-minute superhero movie on 16mm in my last semester. At that point in my life, I figured I’d be a filmmaker forever. It incorporated writing, music, and so much more! I had a new band at the point, and coincidentally, they wanted to move to LA after graduation. I figured that’s where all the filmmakers went, so I agreed to go.
I did the normal thing people trying to start out in film do. I worked as an actor’s assistant. Being on set was the best. I met all these actors and crew guys that were willing to give up their time to work on my short films. While in LA, I wrote and directed four more short films and a couple of them played at some festivals, but my career wasn’t taking off. Then my soon-to-be wife Rebecca took a writing workshop at UCLA writers’ extension program and just watching that play out rekindled all these old feelings. I signed up for a course the next semester with Lou Mathews and that was it. It was a relief to be out of the confines of scriptwriting. I was having fun again. And that’s when I started writing some of the stories that appear in Not Everyone Is Special. I hadn’t given up on film, but it was on the side.
Rumpus: What was the first story you published after taking Lou Matthews’s workshop?
Denslow: To be honest, as I was getting back into writing prose in Lou’s workshop, the first thing I realized was that I had no idea what to do with my stories when they were done. There was a whole world of journals out there that I’d never heard of and the ones I did know, I’d never actually read. I went to Barnes & Noble and began buying them. One of the first I picked up was a minimal-looking journal called upstreet. It really caught my eye, so I printed out my story “Sonny Boy” and mailed it to them.
In hindsight, publishing “Sonny Boy” was way too easy and it set me up for some major disappointment in the coming years. As I said, I sent it to upstreet, just the one place, and they took it. Since I had no idea what I was doing, I figured it was always going work that way. Not long after, there was “Sonny Boy” in a print journal I could buy at Barnes & Noble. I felt like the most successful writer ever. But it would be agony to get my next story published. My big takeaway from that first published story came from the flash fiction writer Randall Brown. The editor of upstreet forwarded me an email Randall had sent her in which he wanted to tell her how much he’d enjoyed my story. I had verification that a stranger out in the world had read my story and enjoyed it! As I moved into the publishing world, I always remembered that small act Randall had made and vowed to emulate him as much as I could.
Rumpus: You mentioned “Sonny Boy” was the first story you published. Was it also the first story in the collection you wrote?
Denslow: Let’s back up. To get into Lou’s workshop, I needed a story for my application, which is how I wrote my first short story since high school, titled “Punch.” It imagined a world where everyone was entitled to two punch vouchers a year; two free passes to punch anyone you wanted with no repercussions. It was a comedy. It also dealt with suicide and unrequited love, and established my affection for the underdog. It went through dozens of drafts over the years and remains my wife’s favorite story I’ve ever written. It was rejected by more than two hundred journals, but is the clear winner for most personal rejections. I even got a handwritten note from the editor of Harper’s! It finally gets the life it deserves in Not Everyone Is Special and my wife can finally see it in print. But the best thing “Punch” did was get me into Lou’s workshop.
Rumpus: Once you started getting your stories published, did you get involved in LA’s literary scene? Or were you more focused on film?
Denslow: I wish I could say yes. Especially since I was drumming in a band that struggled to get people out to shows. Support is what every artist craves. Support was just showing your face, or buying a CD. I didn’t realize the same struggle was happening in the LA literary scene. Up until that point, I’d never pursued anything with my fiction writing. I saw myself only as a filmmaker. I wasn’t out hustling for my band, and I wasn’t out hustling for my writing. And I wasn’t out supporting the local bands we played with, or supporting local writers either. The allure of filmmaking was that by working as an assistant and getting scripts into people’s hands, someone might give me a job. I spent my whole twenties waiting for someone to notice me. It wasn’t until my thirties that I realized I had to make people notice me.
And that’s when you start connecting with all the other hustlers out there. When Rebecca and I moved to Austin, I ditched all the assistant work and the band I’d been playing with for a number of years. She and I decided to start our own band with her brother. We were in a new town and didn’t know anyone, so we set some rules for ourselves. When we played a show, we watched all the other bands. We talked to the promoters and club owners. We found bands we liked and promoted their shows, too, and went out to see them. We made ourselves a part of the community. It was everything I knew I should have been doing in LA.
Rumpus: You’ve been writing and publishing short stories for about ten years now. When did it dawn on you that you might have a story collection on your hands?
Denslow: I like this question and I wish I had a wonderfully insightful answer, but basically when I had about one hundred and fifty pages of stories, I figured I had a collection. I sent it out to a few agents and entered some contests over the years, and every time the collection was a little different. I was constantly swapping stories in and out, and adding new ones. I changed the title a couple of times, too. But once it became Not Everyone Is Special and was picked up by 7.13 Books, I finally figured out the formula.
Rumpus: How did you go about selecting the stories included in the collection? There are a few earlier stories that didn’t make the cut.
Denslow: I went through everything I’d written and if a story could conceivably be called “Not Everyone Is Special,” then it made the first round. I have a bunch of stories, specifically from early on, that couldn’t meet the requirement and I pushed them to the side. Once I did that, a unifying voice began to appear. It was really interesting. Even though I’d try to shoehorn a collection together numerous times, I hadn’t actually written anything to go specifically in a collection. But watching the stories come together like that, in harmony, it was pretty neat. I think it highlights the ways over the last ten years that I began to bring in a little bit of magical realism. Also, how I really began to lean into the dialogue and play to my strengths. I love how Not Everyone Is Special feels like the closing of a period I didn’t even realize I was in. Perhaps it could be called my slacker period. Leland, my publisher, calls the stories “slacker fabulist” and I think that pretty much sums it up.
Rumpus: As we’ve discussed, in addition to writing you also pursue music and filmmaking. Is there anything from these other genres that make it into, or enhance, your fiction writing?
Denslow: I could say with no hesitation that music is my number-one love. Playing the drums is the only activity I do that is even close to transcendent. When I’m drumming, I don’t think about anything going on the world or in my life. When my wife and I finally started Borrisokane after years of threatening to do it, it felt like I’d finally found my home. It remains the project of which I’m the most proud. But that all being said, I don’t write about music much. Or musicians. I do listen to music when I write. I soundtrack my whole life. Even though music has influenced me as a person and made me who I am, I think film has influenced my writing much more. Specifically, the writing of scripts.
I spent close to ten years writing only scripts. Five of them were for short films that I ended up directing and sending around to festivals. But nine of them were feature scripts that never went anywhere. The thing about scripts is that it’s all dialogue. Over the years, I grew to love dialogue, and I began to notice in the novels I was reading they were glossing over it. Whole conversations were summed up in a paragraph or relayed like backstory. When I started writing fiction again, I wanted to make the dialogue the most important part. Just like in my scripts. Of course, in fiction I now got to navigate internal dialogue, as well, and that’s where a lot of the fun is had. Dialogue is also where I find most of my humor. And as I learned from film, a good tragedy is always a comedy, as well.
Rumpus: Let’s end with the beginning. The epigraph you use for the book is a quote from the Tom Waits song, “How’s It Gonna to End,” “I want to know / The same thing / Everyone wants to know / How it’s going to end.” What does this quote mean to you and the book?
Denslow: First of all, I love Tom Waits. I love his songs, but he’s also very much like one of my characters. He’s the ultimate slacker with a superpower. I actually used lyrics from one of his songs to title my unpublished novel. I feel a strong connection to Tom Waits, and I hope that he doesn’t get annoyed that I plan to use a quote from one of his songs in every book I’m lucky enough to publish.
But as for this particular quote, I liked that it talked about people in general way. I want to know what everyone wants to know. This idea that we’re no different than anyone else. We all have the same desires. Plus, I think for a lot of people, if they knew how something was going to turn out, they’d work harder. That’s certainly true for my characters. If they knew they wouldn’t fail, they would go for it. You know: How’s it going to end? But not knowing if you will be successful or not, that can strip you of the will to try. You have to believe in yourself to take a leap. You have to be okay with failure. My characters end up being failures at failing.
Another reason this quote resonated with me, is I’m kind of obsessed with endings right now. Not Everyone Is Special itself is the end of phase. Now, I’m working on a new short story collection called Magic Can’t Save Us, about a bunch of nameless guys at the end of their relationships, and how an encounter with a different magical creature in each story makes no difference at all. I’m also in the middle of a novel that is ballooning in size every day about a group of kids who make rash, impetuous youthful decisions and how those decision mess up life so bad that it might be destroying the universe. That’s right, the end of the universe. And yes, both books have Tom Waits epigraphs.
Photograph of Josh Denslow © Rebecca Asuan O’Brien.