The Spot You’re Standing In: A Conversation with Chris Dennis
There is something of the divine in Chris Dennis. He is such a magical combination of humor and brilliance; he quotes cultural theorists, seems to have read everything, and yet maintains that quality—which I associate so strongly with small towns—of making you feel in a conversation that he has all the time in the world.
The stories in his debut collection, Here Is What You Do, are dark, rural, often about people longing for a better self just out of reach. Yet they, too, have a sense of otherworldliness. There is a meatpacking plant undone by spirituality. An addicted friend seeing ghosts. In one of my favorite stories, Coretta Scott King (yes, that Coretta Scott King) sits in her bedroom listening to a tape of her husband, knowing that through a bug in the house, the FBI is at that very moment listening to her, too.
Chris is a small town boy. He grew up in rural Illinois, a place that, like Faulkner or Carson McCullers, seeps into his work. Ten years ago, he published his first story (the title story from the collection), about a young man who loves to read history and goes to jail for drug possession. In a strange and prophetic turn of events, two years ago Chris himself went to jail on drug charges. He edited his collection from a shared cell and got out shortly before the book was released.
Chris Dennis holds an MFA in Fiction from Washington University in St. Louis, where he also received a postgraduate fellowship. His work has appeared in Granta, McSweeney’s, the Paris Review, Literary Hub, and West Branch.
I recently spoke with Chris about writing and violence, where he gets his inspiration, and what it’s like when a fictional story you wrote comes to resemble the facts of your life.
The Rumpus: I didn’t know this when I signed on to interview you, but the events in your life leading up to the publication of Here Is What You Do are almost as incredible as the book itself. You wrote a stunning piece for the Paris Review about it. Could you say a little here?
Chris Dennis: I’ve heard other writers talk about that quiet, amorphous period after it’s been decided a book is finished, and it’s only looking back now that I realize what an enormous part of my life, of the actual days and hours, was purely devoted to thinking about the people in my stories. It’s like a selfish, obsessive-compulsive vortex. I was working on a novel then, too, and still am, but when the collection was finished, I realize now, I died a little. It was about this time that I began abusing prescription pain pills. I’d spent years staring out of windows, puzzling endlessly over the right words to describe a tiny donkey that appears for a moment in one of my stories. How best to describe the donkey’s beautiful hair? The wind went out of me and I was at the mercy of a depression that was already lurking behind the work.
I go into uncomfortable detail about this in the essay I published in the Paris Review. But I honestly didn’t know what to do. I was back in the town where I grew up and too many old versions of myself came rising to the surface. The whole series of events that followed are incredibly strange. My drug use escalated. The first time I was arrested for possession I spent a couple months in jail, and at this point I’d almost given up on the book getting published, but within days of bonding out I’d gotten an email from my agent saying that Mark Doten, the editor at Soho Press, who had passed on the book a couple months earlier, had contacted him again to say, “I can’t stop thinking about Chris’s book.” Of course, I was sincerely leveled for a day or two, because isn’t that the thing we most want to hear? Your stories are on my mind. They are still with me, even after I’ve finished reading them.
It was a tiny moment of something that looked like hope. Mark and I spoke on the phone, and his understanding of the book, his vision for what it might be, resonated in the most personal, unforeseen way. During this second revision process with him I was still using, and unreachable for weeks and months. I missed several deadlines and the book almost didn’t happen, but I was arrested again a week before the final edits were due and my friend, the poet Melissa Borries, who is truly a careful, buoyant creature of kind fortitude, offered to help me finish it over the phone. We spent several expensive, monitored phone calls discussing revisions. One has never truly known awkwardness until you’ve line-edited your own literary fiction aloud from a shared cell in county jail.
Rumpus: What was your cell mates’ response? (I’m thinking of this book’s many sex scenes…)
Dennis: Exactly. The telephone was in the common area of a small shared cell, so we really had no choice but to hear one another’s calls. I was on the phone discussing the details of a story about a sexual relationship between two prison inmates while my ACTUAL cellmates were sitting a few feet away, shooting me really confounded side-glances. I tried to explain afterwards, but it also made them uncomfortable so I didn’t have to elaborate. I knew several of the people who moved in and out of my cell, because it’s a small county, and I’d used drugs with them. Mostly they were genuinely excited for me when I explained that I was working on a book. It was evidence of another life outside of buying and selling and using drugs, of the possibilities of a life after incarceration. It prompted a lot of conversations about their own creative interests. There are a lot of aspiring tattoo artists in jail.
Rumpus: The Paris Review piece: you named it “Eldorado, IL,” though it was not necessarily about the town so much as about you. What role does place—and particularly that place—play in your work?
Dennis: Moving around, being in new places, lights me up. Sadly, I’ve only been to maybe half the states in the US, and never abroad, but getting too familiar with a place destroys me creatively. I turn to dust. That being said, no matter where I am, I seem to gravitate toward a consistent genre in my work, one I sometimes call Midwestern Gothic. Eldorado is haunted in the way any place is haunted when you know (and are a part) of its history. And history is easy in a small town. You can drive from one end to the other in a matter of minutes. So the time accrues differently. Time is concentrated onto the same locations, because there are only so many places to be. In this way a small town seems more haunted to me. There are less lives and less deaths, but they cover much less ground. Your experiences are layered on top of one another. The mood and psychology of Eldorado presides over me, even if I’d sometimes rather it not. But it’s a place I care about incredibly. It’s raised me, and the people here have nurtured me. Its story and strange spirit matter to me. Something I used to tell my students, when they felt like they didn’t have an original story, is that literally no one can occupy the spot you’re standing in. It’s impossible. And that makes it special.
Rumpus: Which makes me wonder where you get your ideas for stories from?
Dennis: Almost always a story starts with a question, one with an answer that’s far off in the distance, out of reach but visible enough that I want to write my way toward it. I talk about this a little in my essay, “The Burden of the Unknown.” The lyrics from the Tom Waits song, “What’s He Building?” also come to mind a lot. “What the hell is he building in there? I bet it’s not a playground for the children.” Some questions just elicit a vast kind of wonderment that can only be addressed with a thought experiment—a story.
Rumpus: You write from such a wide range of voices. I admire this. What’s your process for finding your way into a new voice?
Dennis: Voice is one of my favorite things to explore, and there have been occasions where it takes me years to find the right voice for something I may already know the plot of. I’ll chart it out, make dozens of pages of notes, but still feel I haven’t at all begun the actual work of telling it. I talk aloud to myself a lot. I feel a little crazy saying that I spend months choosing the right vocabulary, the right language for a particular character’s voice. It’s a little bit like acting maybe, from what I can tell, knowing nothing at all about acting, in that I sometimes perform the character while I’m writing, to get in the right frame of mind. I don’t think I’ve ever said this to anyone. But I will literally sit alone in a room and attempt to speak or behave like the character. I always feel like if I can get the attitude correct, I’ll be able to create something interesting. Don’t judge me.
Rumpus: Not judging! Is there a certain detail that’s a breakthrough detail for a character, though?
Dennis: I had an incredibly hard time figuring out Adelaide’s character in “The Book Eating Ceremony.” I began writing it after AWP in 2010. I left the conference that year with a peculiar rage toward academia, particularly academic language. I was also reading a lot of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler and Susan Sontag, all of whom I love and am riveted by, but there seems to be a fair amount of intellectual performance in their work, the kind you also encounter at a writing conference. So I did the only natural thing; I pretended to be that sort of writer. I guess if something troubles me, my impulse is to crawl up in it and look around? A version of hate-watching? But a fussy academic is still not a full voice. I was reading through all of this queer theory, and it made me feel lonely. I didn’t exactly feel represented there, and I realized it was partly because there wasn’t a real sense of rural gayness, of the pastoral poor and working-class queer. So that was probably the breakthrough. I wanted a smart country lesbian, and when I settled on it, I could finally hear how she would talk.
Rumpus: There happens to be a lot of violent sex in this book.
Dennis: I realize there’s a whole culture of people for whom some version of violent sex is their preferred orientation. See: E.L. James, and her hoards. Is that okay to say? I know she delivers what many might refer to as a bastard version of BDSM. But I mostly write about violence in sex because there seems to be violence everywhere. I write about people who subjugate themselves to meanness, who are in a tragic psychological position, who are willing to relinquish their own power because they long to be consumed by something or someone more powerful than themselves. Arguably kingdoms have fallen under this impulse. And some small businesses.
People are cruel when they’re in pain or afraid. That doesn’t excuse the enormous amount of cruelty and destruction people enact upon other vulnerable people. I thought a lot about deviant sex while writing this book, and in turn, deviant kinds of love. Part of the project was to look closely at the kinds of sex and relationships that made me uncomfortable. Which is most of them. Plenty of self-aware people have consensual, unconventional sex, or the kind of sex where there’s a dramatic exchange of power. But I wanted to better understand the circumstances where people are less aware of the emotional forces that drive their sexual desires, ones where there is sometimes a dangerous level of ignorance behind one’s need to control or be controlled. I suppose sex often seems to me the most animal version of that terrible longing people have to dominate or submit.
Rumpus: And yet, I couldn’t help but think of many of these as love stories.
Dennis: Now that you mention it, I like to think of them as love stories. But what is love? A collection of longings that center around our need to connect with another person? A blueberry pie all to oneself? In most of the stories a character is reaching out for a love object that cannot love them back, at least not in the way they need or will allow themselves to be loved. Is that a love story? I’m fascinated by a particular kind of grace: One where good love sneaks in through an upstairs window, even as you’re pining out the front door like a maniac.
Rumpus: As a new mother, one of the most heartbreaking stories in this collection was “This Is a Galaxy,” in which a father cannot protect his son, even though he loves him very much. Why did you write this?
Dennis: “This is a Galaxy” is an exception. I often think that if true love actually exists, it is the love we have for our children. A whole new realm of fear emerges when you become a parent, and it’s just as you said, the constant impulse to protect them, and it forms around that fear. Cormac McCarthy dedicated The Road to his son, John Francis, and said in interviews that his son was a sort of co-author, in that he wrote so directly from his experiences as a father that his boy essentially helped to write the book. My experience writing “This Is a Galaxy” was similar. The characters encounter a different, more personal kind of apocalypse. The horrible, possible scenarios the world impresses upon us humans take on a new kind of horror when there’s suddenly a tiny, reckless joy-monster for whom you care and fear for more than anything. As a writer I couldn’t help but examine that. I went beyond my own experiences, too, considering things like immigration, and being a single parent. But I wanted to include those with what I did know about being a gay father in a world that can sometimes feel incredibly threatening.
Rumpus: Actually, I wanted to ask you about this. The first time I saw your book mentioned, you were described as “a new, vital queer voice.” I wondered what this means to you, whether you chose this label or your publisher did, and what it might mean for your fiction?
Dennis: This might be the hardest question of all, though I worry it shouldn’t be. My publisher chose that, about being “a vital queer voice.” So now I guess I have to strive for that, and I was already striving for so much! For me, I think, unfortunately, being a queer writer means I write about discomfort a lot. I wish it only meant that my characters were queer, and that their conflicts weren’t necessarily born out of their queerness, but, you know. I came of age in an atmosphere of great unease around queer identities. So I write about sexuality, and gender, and feminism, and misogyny, and sexism—imbalances of power. Also, I love you. Thanks for asking.
Rumpus: And then there are the grandmothers. You seem to know them so well! In “In Motel Rooms,” Coretta Scott King puts all her clothes in the drawers, even though she’s only staying one night, which my great-grandmother and my son’s grandmother both do. In the title story of this collection, the grandmother is the one who bails her grandson out of jail. (And amazingly, though you had not been to jail when you wrote that story, ten years later it was your grandmother who posted bail for you.) What is yours like?
Dennis: Too many aspects of the title story came to pass. I can’t describe to you the physical feeling I had, after sobering up in jail, as the book was about to see publication, when it truly occurred to me that the predicament I was in was so similar to the thing I’d written ten years before. I guess part of what I imagined through the main character, Ricky, and his “Nanny” was a relationship like the one I have with my grandmother. “Nanny” in Here Is What You Do is a conflation of both my grandmothers. But I spent so much time as a child with my maternal grandmother, who recently bonded me out of jail. She has always been the person who makes it her regular mission to assure me that I am loved, who even when I am trying to destroy myself, sees me and loves me above all else. She has also always been a ferocious reader, and we spent a lot of time together at the library when I was young. While she was checking out Mistress: Hired for the Billionaire’s Pleasure, I was taking home biographies of Harry Houdini, and Flowers in the Attic. She had an immense effect on me, and I observed her with wonder as a child. Everywhere we went she charmed people. She would not appreciate the following description, but I think it’s accurate to say she falls somewhere between Tammy Faye Baker and Yoda on the grandmother spectrum. Also, do you want to co-write a television show with me, titled “The Grandmother Spectrum?”
Rumpus: Yes! Have your family and other people in Eldorado read your stories?
Dennis: When I go to the grocery store, or the pharmacy, or the gas station, people congratulate me. It’s a small town, and they know about what I’ve been through over the past few years. Substance abuse, especially methamphetamine and opiate addiction, has ravaged our town like a fucking plague, and there’s not a person here who hasn’t loved someone who’s been affected by it. In the beginning, maybe twenty years ago, it was primarily seen as a moral or mental failing, a problem for the police to solve, a fringe phenomena isolated to the most uneducated and impoverished among us. But over the past two decades it crept into everyone’s life, and like thousands of small towns across America, it has become a traumatic equalizer. It seems to have reoriented the way people see one another’s pain. Strangers hug me, and ask how I’m doing, and tell me the conversations they’ve had at church about my story, and my book. At church! It’s a response I had never once thought to consider. I was terrified to think of anyone in town reading the book, and honestly expected that not many people would. It’s such a weird collection, with intense moments of ugliness and kooky despair. It’s been nourishing and moving to have my mother’s friends say they’ve read it, and that it mattered to them.
Photograph of Chris Dennis by Trevor Wood.