The Mystery Tugs: Talking with Joel Mowdy

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Joel Mowdy’s debut short story collection, Floyd Harbor, is a challenging book. It deep dives into 1990s era poverty, drug use, and the fight against entropy in Mastic Beach, New York. Mowdy peoples these stories with characters that are fighting for their lives, shouting above the political dissonance, demanding their chance at the good life. Who can blame them for falling back into old habits, learned helplessness, and the allure of drugs? These stories are raw and vivacious, chest thumping, wild calls against the invisible walls that prevent the characters from breaking out of the metaphorical prisons that surround them. Mowdy’s structures have a subverting the normal sense of narrative arc; his stories contain hope buried among the grime.

Joel Mowdy completed the MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where he was awarded the Prize in Creative Writing and the Moveen Residency. He grew up with twelve siblings in Mastic Beach, New York, and has worked in progressive education on three continents. He now splits his time between homesteading with his wife and son in the forest in Lithuania and teaching at Green School in Bali, Indonesia. Floyd Harbor is his first book.

Joel Mowdy and I recently corresponded via email about his path to publication, his writing process, finding hope in a ramshackle setting, and how our flaws can define us.

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The Rumpus: Most of the stories in Floyd Harbor use a structure of multiple vignettes to create a complete story, almost like a conversation between drinking buddies. Did you adopt this style because it’s an integral part of the characters or is this a reflection of your own way of talking and interacting? Does this match with the way you were told stories as a kid?

Joel Mowdy: The answer to all three questions is, to some degree, yes. Mostly it’s the characters and their stories that dictate the shape of their story. In one story, the structure works because the character is withdrawn from the world he’s left in after he’s made a bold decision to direct his future, only to have his reasons for action crumble behind and leave him standing alone. In another instance, the vignettes are more a character’s reflections on his actions and attitude in reaction to a devastating break-up. This probably describes the first three stories in the collection to varying degrees. In other stories, the fractured style has to do with the characters’ attempts to reconstruct events to figure out where things went wrong, or it’s fractured because the character is high and time is kind of skipping like a stone across water. In all instances, this kind of structure invites readers to be participants in stringing things together, filling in the blanks. That’s an intentional choice on my part in the revision process. I try to cut as much as I can get away with. Not even transitions are safe.

Rumpus: Tell me about your drafting process.

Mowdy: The mystery tugs, and I follow. Usually, it begins with an image or a line of dialogue, sometimes an event. Two of the stories in Floyd Harbor come from the same simple premise: a man living alone wakes up to someone sitting next to him, watching television.

As for my habits of writing, that always changes with the story. I’ve sometimes spent weeks tinkering with an opening paragraph, then I’d file it away, come back to it in a year, tinker, forget it for five years, add a line and get stuck, and then one day I’m ready for it and finish a draft over the course of a day. Another time I started and finished a draft in the course of seven hours.

The vignette style that requires a leap of imagination on the part of the reader sometimes comes through in the drafting stage, sometimes as a result of cutting in revision. My tendency to juxtapose vignettes and scenes, sometimes without transitions, probably has something to do with wanting to make the stories as tight as possible. If something doesn’t feel necessary I cut it. I’ve whittled perfectly fine three-page passages down to seventy-five words.

Rumpus: How important is the setting of Mastic Beach to the formation of these stories? Could these characters exist anywhere else? If not, I wonder why we don’t learn about the political backstory of the naming of the community until the last story?

Mowdy: The setting is vital. Mastic Beach is one of the characters, a reflection of the characters, and being from there is a defining trait for many them. As for the political backstory, that isn’t really interesting to most of them, outside of the fact that their harbor town doesn’t actually have a harbor. That’s saying enough. They are too absorbed in their own dramas to care, so it doesn’t make sense to dreg that information up where it doesn’t belong. It would amount to planting exposition.

In “Stacked Mattresses,” it makes sense because Michael is the kind of character who would think to tell you that particular story, and all without realizing the parallels that story has to his own predicament. And he never tells how he lost the use of his legs because that’s not relevant to the story he’s telling. It’s just all in the background. I have this friend who survived a bombing in Egypt. That trauma is part of who he is, but he rarely goes around introducing himself that way.

Rumpus: I wonder if we could talk about your story endings. I found them challenging in that the characters often haven’t changed much from their experiences, so what do they gain from their journeys? Maybe this is an old-fashioned way of thinking about narratives.

Mowdy: I bet a lot of people ask themselves that question on their deathbeds. What have they gained from their journeys? I’m glad you found them challenging. I think some of the endings suggest the characters have changed—sometimes in their way of thinking about the world, sometimes in what they think of themselves. One story ends with a character yearning to return to the status quo of his existence. I don’t really want to spell it out too much, because for me those kinds of endings demand a closer reading, and I hope readers would be compelled to figure them out for themselves and find something there.

Rumpus: I’m curious about your feeling on character agency and whether it’s necessary for creating stories. If so, how do you think this functions in the stories in this book? I don’t see these characters acting necessarily in a traditional Freytag’s Triangle, which isn’t necessarily a criticism. Is it possible that this is a way to make the characters more realistic, truer to people in real life?

Mowdy: A lot of people living in places like where my characters are from don’t have agency, or they have little of it, or it’s been beaten out of them by the systems imposed on them. If they’ve found a level of comfort within the limits of their agency, they’d like to maintain it, thank you very much. So yes, I want my characters to be truer to people in real life. They make decisions and they act on them, but no one is rebelling against an oppressive system. They just try to survive within it.

Rumpus: I have this idea about the set-up of conflict and stakes in your stories, and I wonder if you think I’m off-base. I feel like most of your stories have this interesting paradigm where the protagonist also functions as their own antagonist. So often the protagonists can’t get past their own flaws. Does this type of narrative paradigm contribute to a sense of these characters coming from what we might consider a slacker mentality? Are they unmotivated, or just unmotivated to the concerns of a capitalist society? I know these stories focus on the 1990s, but I could see Boomers reading this and pointing to these characters as having the flaws of the millennial generation.

Mowdy: If the flaws of the millennials include an increasing lack of agency, then yes, my characters have something in common with that generation. The protagonists also have their inherent flaws, like everyone else, and they do get in their own way, but the consequences of that when you have a lack of agency are manifold. For one, when you’re poor your flaws define you. It’s easy to point at a disadvantaged person’s shortcomings and tell them that their shortcomings are the reason why they’re failing. When you’re privileged, your flaw is more like a character trait, or a mistake you made once, and you’re deserving of a second chance. This is a lot more apparent once we bring race into it.

Rumpus: Several of the authors providing blurbs have used the word “hope” in their praise for these characters, and the concept of hope is referred to directly in at least one of the stories as well. A lot of your characters come across worldly, almost street-smart, but there’s naiveté in their strident belief in the simple gesture fixing everything they’ve fucked up along the way. Is hope a dangerous weapon we constantly use against ourselves?

Mowdy: Hope is necessary for survival, but there is such a thing as false hope. Call it wishful thinking. It’s the reason why people buy Powerball tickets and get high on imagining their numbers being drawn. So yes, we do fool ourselves on a regular basis, and hope is used against us, too. Right now, we’re being promised a technological fix to the climate emergency—that the development of renewable energy is going to save us when the energy from subsidized renewables we currently have is being used by oil companies to extract more fossil fuels. And our energy consumption has gone up. We can go on living the way we do, but that’s not going to last very long. In the words of Greta Thunberg, it’s time to panic.

Rumpus: Your bio mentions that you live in Lithuania and also teach in Indonesia. I wonder how living abroad has affected your writing of this book. Was it hard to visualize the setting for these stories while living outside of your old hometown? Was it a relief to base the book on somewhere you’ve lived for a large amount of your life? And were there any issues with feeling being too handcuffed to reality, since Mastic Beach is a real place?

Mowdy: I used to feel handcuffed to the reality of the place when I started out in my early twenties, but after my first successful (in my mind) attempts to write stories, and which were based in Mastic Beach, I started on what I thought would be a more grown-up story about the place. I was obsessed with getting it right. There was a scene where a family, based on my own, is driving to a memorial parade, and I wanted to get the details right regarding the kind of car my father drove in the early 1980s—the make and model, manual or automatic, what kind of shifter. My father told me, “Don’t be so goddamn serious all the time.” I found that advice unhelpful in the moment, but it stuck with me, and I don’t get hung up on reality anymore. It helps to not be in the place, and to see it through time and distance. What I remember of the place in that time is enough.

Floyd Harbor, by the way, is a real fictional place. Back in the 1980s, there was a push to change the name of the town Shirley, just north of Mastic Beach, to Floyd Harbor to shake its reputation as a welfare haven (a reputation it shared with Mastic/Mastic Beach). The main argument against this change of name was that there is no harbor in Shirley. The fight to change the name was spearheaded by a real estate developer who wanted to build a gated community, and who actually erected a Welcome to Floyd Harbor sign on the corner of William Floyd Parkway and Montauk Highway before a vote took place. The final vote was in favor of Floyd Harbor (2-1), but the Federal Board on Geographic Names in VA declined to honor the vote. So, Shirley remained Shirley, the Welcome to Floyd Harbor sign stayed where it was for more than a decade, and to this day there are bunch of shops named after a harbor town that never was.

My Floyd Harbor imagines that the name change took place, swallowing Mastic and Mastic Beach in its wake, but that nothing else about the area changed. That part is true—nothing substantial has really changed in Mastic/Mastic Beach/Shirley after all these years.

Rumpus: I’m wondering about your literary magazine submission experiences. Are most of the stories published? Could you have written this book without the literary journal submission journey?

Mowdy: What a dismal, unproductive experience magazine submission has been. My book was accepted for publication before I ever published a story—with the exception of the publication of “The Shaft” in an obscure general interest website based out of Rome, Italy. One story, “Far Off Places,” has since been published by East Magazine out of East Hampton, New York, and it’s available to read online.

So the process of submitting to journals has not really had any impact on the stories. The stories have received plenty positive rejections, but that will only take a writer so far.

Rumpus: What writers are you continuously inspired by? What books did you keep close to you while writing these stories?

Mowdy: The books I kept coming back to when writing the stories in Floyd Harbor were Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek, and the novel That Night by Alice McDermott, to name a few. One book I read only once that stuck with me is Cannery Row by John Steinbeck—a novel with a simple premise, a vignette structure, and a cast that includes a gang of derelict characters.

A writer I’m continually inspired by is the writer Zachary Lazar, not just for his sheer imagination and inventiveness (read Vengeance), but he’s also an incredibly generous writing teacher and a selfless human being.

Rumpus: Could you talk about the road to publication for Floyd Harbor, including how or when you knew you were writing a book? And what was it like working with Catapult? Any advice for writers writing their own story collections?

Mowdy: I wrote the first story for Floyd Harbor in 1998, after I transferred from community college to Hofstra University. I’d written maybe two stories before that one, and those were also set in Mastic Beach, but I wasn’t intentionally trying to write a collection. I was just learning how to write stories, writing about the world I knew. And I continued doing that until I had a manuscript for an undergraduate thesis that was the foundation of what would become Floyd Harbor. My graduate thesis was the second iteration.

Then life took over. I started a family, moved abroad, became a teacher, lived on three continents, all the while returning to the stories, revising, submitting, weathering rejection, stepping away for a few years.  I returned to the manuscript in the spring of 2017, took a handful of stories out, rewrote and revised the rest, and wrote two new ones—”The Luz” and “Stacked Mattresses.” Then I sent it to Zach Lazar, who’d recently ask me if I was doing anything with the old stories. Zach passed the newly conceived manuscript to Pat Strachan, Editor-in Chief at Catapult, and Catapult loved it. It’s not the usual road to publication—I don’t know if there is one—but I wouldn’t change it. I feel pretty damn lucky to be working with Catapult.

As for advice to writers working on a collection, I’ll say something I either heard or read somewhere once. I remembered it because I hoped it was true after going through years of rejection: It only takes one yes.

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Photograph of Joel Mowdy by Alfredas Motiejūnas.


Tommy Dean lives in Indiana with his wife and two children. He is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. He is the Flash Fiction Section Editor at Craft Literary. He has been previously published in the BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash Fiction Review. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. It will also be included in Best Small Fictions 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter. More from this author →