We start our trip in South City, which is where Ron A. Austin and I both live, but his house is even further south than mine, a neat brick bungalow close to the county border, so our drive will take us from one side of the city to the other, far south to far north along Grand Avenue. The north side is where Ron grew up, and his debut linked story collection, Avery Colt Is a Thief, A Snake, A Liar (winner of the Nilson Prize For a First Novel; recently long-listed for the PEN / Robert Bingham Prize For a Debut Story Collection) is set in the neighborhoods there.
Avery Colt Is a Thief, A Snake, A Liar is a beautiful meditation on loss—of legacy, family, place, youth, and language—which also manages to be as rich a celebration of all of the above as I’ve ever read. Driving through the city where I’ve lived for close to twenty years with Ron is to experience all of that, to see the place anew. We pass the Lutheran school where Ron spent his primary years, a version of which appears in the novel. Moving through the shiny arts district, we slide past the Fabulous Fox Theater and the Symphony, beacons of arts and culture, as Ron explains some of the strategies he employs on a daily basis for survival in a town that is both his and not his, a place where welcome is a complicated concept no matter where in St. Louis he finds himself.
We wind up at the venerable Crown Candy Kitchen in the city’s Old North for lunch—BLTs the size of a dictionary, malted milkshakes like something poured straight from heaven. It makes a brief appearance in Avery Colt Is a Thief, A Snake, A Liar as well. The few blocks surrounding the restaurant are an anomaly on the Northside, Crown Candy’s fame having purchased a kind of “safe space” for the city’s white citizenry. On our way into the place, a middle-aged white woman and her companions approach to ask where the parking kiosks can be found, and it’s not lost on Ron that they direct their questions to me.
During the tour, and over several weeks of correspondence, Ron and I talked about taking risks, Kendrick Lamar, the language we inherit, and how a little nihilism can be healthy.
The Rumpus: Can you tell me a little bit about how comic books, fantasy novels, and sci-fi have inspired the work you do?
Ron Austin: Comic books were one of my first and most vivid introductions to hyperbole and mythology in formal storytelling. The hyperbole and mythology here paired with the hyperbole and mythologies I heard in kitchens, corner stores, and barbershops. These examples gave a framework for how taking big risks could be fun, rewarding, and effective. Refining my influences now, I draw a lot from post-apocalyptic science fiction and body horror, with these elements being central in 80s and 90s anime. The quality of dread, philosophical examinations, startling transformations, and pure narrative audacity in Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Neon Genesis Evangelion continue to be satisfying and informative. Also, beyond the big, sweeping spectacles of giant robots and mutants, there’s a sense of finding balances between wrongness, rightness, and change.
Rumpus: Speaking of “big risks,” I was taken with the boldness here, the risks you take with form by including collage and playing with typography, not to mention the linked story structure. We might associate these sorts of moves with a writer a few books into their career, but here you come out of the gate just going for it, and I wonder how you felt about that as you put the book together, whether you were conscious of the risks you were taking, and, well… are you just a courageous person?
Austin: I love reading work that takes unconventional turns and manages feats in the flesh that would appear technically unsensible on paper. I use conventional structures and rhythms as setups or entryways into exploring unconventional riffs, unconventional riffs being more organic and natural. Like in “Teeth’s Story,” I knew I wanted to have a story where another character takes on the dominant storytelling role, and Teeth opening up to me came as a surprise. By this late chapter in the collection, the reader should be tuned to Avery’s voice and interior and also the reaches and limits of the narrative world as well. Teeth’s interjection in “Teeth’s Story” mirrors his interjection into the reader’s psychic space. Here, synthesis occurs, creating momentum and compulsion. The reader is skeptical of Teeth as Avery is skeptical of Teeth, yet they’re stuck in the story as Avery is stuck in the story. But more important than any skepticisms is the connection, sincerity, and care exchanged between Avery and Teeth.
Rumpus: Okay, since we’re exploring the city together, I wanted to ask you about how St. Louis gets written into the book. Right off the bat, the Kendrick Lamar epigraph got me thinking about the neighborhoods you’re writing about, which are, especially for someone familiar with the “divides” in St. Louis, often ignored and sometimes unloved and often deemed (unjustly and due to systemic / historic issues) not worth it. Was that something that was on your mind as you wrote this book, and now that it’s out there in the world, bringing attention to itself but also to the places it depicts, how do you feel about that?
Austin: Honestly, I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me just this question! That Kendrick Lamar quote, “Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?” is stitched into the muscle of the story collection, from the concept, to the emotion, to the concrete applications. It became a guiding light for me, and integral to my efforts in such a way, became a sublime metaphor in such a way, that unpacking it now will require some alchemy, an abstract centrifuge, splitting spirit from body, song from lungs, rich fat from bone. When I think about this quote, and about writing, and my attempts to carve out a place in the world, for better or for worse, I think about worth first. What are the conversion rates on my voice and my experiences, and the experiences of my kinfolk? How do I make my voice undeniable? How do I make my syntactic strokes shine like gold, bright enough that you can’t turn away from it, that it sears something inside you? And if I can’t make this shit slap or burn, I’m still going to try.
Another way to put it is that half the fun of writing for me is taking on the quest to phonetically engineer something unfuckwittable, a wise, strong, loving being that could outlive me. And if I can’t make something unfuckwittable, I can at least have the joy of working at the height of what I can do with a given form at this moment. Another way to put it, I understand both my value and lack of value as an African American male living within a societal system designed to entrap and end me. Which comes to the catch-22 of working twice as hard to garner artistic merit and the catch-22 of feeling free to take risks—but what will come first in this pursuit? Will you cement success or work yourself to death?
Rumpus: I love that word—unfuckwittability is exactly what prose should strive for! One of the ways the book achieves that is how many of the chapters/stories contain their own internal rhythm, be it through the repetition of a phrase or sound, or various shapes and patterns in the language, so much so that I learned to sort of “listen” to the first paragraphs as a way to establish how you wanted me to hear the rest of the section. I wonder what music means to you as writer, if and how you use it as part of your practice, and who some of your go-to musicians might be?
Austin: The longer I study language, literary applications, and creative practice, the more I fuse music into the basis of these pursuits. Line by line grammar, sentence structure, word choice all contribute to a mood, mindset, thought pattern, body, soul. Written syntax pairs with musical notes and phrasing in this way. But what might be more specific and interesting to what influences my writing is that for the longest time, I’ve taken the concept of timing in storytelling literally, as in the written word moves forward in real-time as it does in a song. I determine the best usage of pacing, flashbacks, summary, scene, and more by this meter. No effective story is purely static. It moves before the reader reads it, and it moves on in the reader’s mind well after the flesh is exhausted, in the same way a snatch of song lives on in your ear, moves the muscle in your tongue. For me, contemporary hip-hop reflects this set of technical concerns and a few more, most importantly compression. Andre 3000’s verse “Da Art of Storytelling” is about forty-seven seconds long, about half a written page. In under a minute, he provides a counterpoint to Big Boi’s bouncy picaresque, spans several settings, crosses swaths of time, and offers us one of the most compelling portraits of longing in lyrical microfiction—I mean, uh, in hip-hop.
Which is all to say, I give equal weight to the lessons I can glean from contemporary writers, poets, rhetorical analysts, producers, and emcees. If I want to brush up on form and cumulative effects, I turn to Lupe Fiasco. If I need atmosphere and surreal juxtaposition, I turn to Travis Scott, Kid Cudi, or Death Grips. If I need playfulness, I turn to Tyler the Creator or Brockhampton. If I need syntactic dexterity, I turn to Danny Brown, Boogie, or Noname. Most hip-hop is rooted in aggression, and this aggression is needed to take risks and destroy old paradigms in an effort to challenge stale cultural hegemonies, the same stale cultural hegemonies designed to kill slowly; this aggression allows reframing and reclamation, the construction of something new.
Rumpus: We first meet Avery Colt at nine years old in the story that opens the novel, and he’s using a broom to swat at a possum, with “bared tiny, arrowhead teeth.” That first paragraph is a wake-up call to the rich, figurative language that is the filter through which Avery sees the world. It got me wondering when your own writerly “awakening” might have happened, which is to say, when did you start seeing the world the way you see the world, and at what age did you recognize language as a filter through which you could reflect and distort it?
Austin: One commonality between all practicing artists and artistic-types is the necessity of expression through a chosen art form or form. Pursuing this form of expression is generally never a want or a conscious choice; it just is, like the nervous system, like breathing, like blood circulation. But over time, it becomes more than that. It becomes an extra-sensory organ; without it, you cannot fully engage with the world. I always had an affinity for words, and began formally practicing at fourteen or fifteen, following the examples of an outdated creative writing anthology and a craft book on how to write screenplays. Before that, I used to sing to myself often and build fictional worlds out of notebook doodles, all efforts to understand what I could not, both externally and internally, what I sensed yet couldn’t capture in the corporeal. But let’s get back that ode to craft and body horror I had set up—I’m dead serious; writing feels as important to me now as an arm, lung, lymph node. The flesh changes to suit my needs. Some days I speak with three tongues, feel infinite teeth rattle in each heartbeat, antennae extended from spine, synapses and veins hot-wired, sutured in sequence to spark intimacy.
Rumpus: Maybe it’s the parochial school setting, but “The Gatecrasher of Hyboria” brought A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man to mind, as that novel, especially its earlier chapters, is so much about the awakening to language, the nascent tinglings of Stephen Dedalus’s creative life. In this first story, Avery looks back on the way he spoke as a ten-year-old, describing it as, “Three licks neighborhood slang, two licks swear words… one lick Southern drawl.” A “chop-shop dialect” in his description. The teacher in that story, Mr. Dunn, seeks to correct Avery’s language, in fact to correct the language of any child from a culture he deems “low class,” and for me there’s heroism in the way that Avery’s stories are a reclamation, a rejection of that sort of linguistic colonization. I wonder how you feel about that as an educator yourself, as someone whose job it is to grapple with student language that may be unformed, and how do we do it without colonizing and bludgeoning the texture and music out of it?
Austin: “Gate Crasher of Hyboria” speaks to the larger question of how mainstream culture is defined and how that creates power dynamics and power imbalances based on race, socioeconomic status, and a host of other qualities that make you who you are. Language can either be a bridge or a brick wall, and often folks in power will use it to imprint their values and beliefs while erasing yours. Your intonation, vocabulary, the voice in your head, the voices of your kin are all vital, fused to the stuff of spirit, and unfortunately, depending on where you call home, either geographically or in your heart, folks in power ask you to cleave this language from your breast and present it as an offering for entry into what, I don’t really know. A concern of my work is to always preserve and protect what is dear to me while also seeking truth, and this often starts with language, the truth in my own vowels and what will always sound like home.
Rumpus: One last thing—I’ve heard you speak about wanting to avoid the “overcoming adversity/rags to riches” narrative and one of my favorite things I’ve heard you say is how you deal with life through a combination of “optimism, foolishness, and nihilism.” This reminds me that while Avery Colt Is a Thief, A Snake, A Liar is in many ways a celebration, it also gets pretty freaking dark. Can you expand on that idea of nihilism a bit?
Austin: Living through oppression demands the evolution and combination of several survival strategies. Survival strategies may be consciously or unconsciously employed, handed down through explicit axioms, or gleaned from reading folks closely, but any way they’re packaged, they’re there to keep you safe while also letting you know that, you, for whatever set of reasons, are in danger. For reasons out of your control, because of battles that have been fought before you were born, that will be fought long after you’re gone, you have to be careful in how you manage your outlook on life, your relationships, who you trust, who you back away from—honestly, this shit gets exhausting. Even when it becomes second nature to minimize yourself as much as possible, to always be watching everyone who is watching you, it’s hard to not become drained.
That being said, it’s helpful to have hope for the future and faith in people, but also, conversely, it can be just as useful to not give a fuck. On one hand, if you study, and achieve, and take care of people, and have a nice home, and care for your family, and give, and give, and give, maybe strangers will see you as a fully formed person with purpose and knowledge and value—or maybe they won’t. Maybe no matter how much you shine your shoes, enunciate clearly, value civility, or attempt to make yourself a model citizen, there will still be folks who see you as a—yes—a snake, a thief, a liar, a monster, a villain, something to be feared, something to be destroyed, something that society is right to devalue, to defang, to hinder—and so what? If you respect what is bleak, what is true, what is dark, it will respect you back. You can’t be hurt if you know what to expect.
Time and flesh are great equalizers. When optimism wears out and doing everything right becomes impossible, what’s wrong with recklessness? If you’re cursed, set up to fail, why not embrace it? Why not take the risks that other folks are afraid of? With nothing to lose, you have everything to gain. And if you can’t change your situation, bravery, however foolish, can go a long way in setting an example that endures. At least you swung on ‘em and no one can say you didn’t give it your best.
Photograph of Ron A. Austin by August Jennewein. Book cover courtesy of UMSL Communications.