I first met Dave Housley around a campfire in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania. I had been reading as an assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse for about six months when I took a MegaBus to hang out with the editors and a bunch of writers at a campsite. I knew no one, not really. But the thing about Dave is, once you start talking to him, you feel like he’s been in your life forever. Yes, he’s the kind of guy it’s nice to have a beer with, but more than that he’s the most calming, supportive friend you’ll ever know. The one who will offer a hug when you need it most. The one who says “keep going” when you’re feeling stuck.
I mention the above, because I think it takes a truly kind soul to do what Housley does best in fiction. He sees his characters for who they are, including all the nasty bits, all their mundane rages. The smug, self-important colleagues are as full and realized as the quiet ones with big dreams.
The Other Ones, author Dave Housley’s latest novel from Alan Squire Publishing, follows several characters left behind, so to speak, when their coworkers who contributed to the office lottery pool win big. Imbued with Housley’s classic wit, heart, and characters who are so painfully familiar, it’s a novel that asks us to consider if the life we’re living is the one we truly want, and what might it look like to begin again.
Housley is the author of seven books. His writing can be found in Booth, Hobart, Quarterly West, Redivider, and other journals. He is the Director of Web Strategy at Penn State Outreach and Online Education as well as a co-Founding Editor and Papa Bear of Barrelhouse magazine.
It was my honor to chat with Dave over Slack about balancing a full-time job with fiction writing, the office environment, how to push forward during the rougher stages of drafting, and keeping things weird.
The Rumpus: You’re a big proponent of “shitty first drafts.” Can you talk a little about what that looks like in practice? At what point in the shitty first draft do you know you have something?
Dave Housley: I really am! I should preface this by saying I don’t know if this is a good idea. It’s what I’ve done and I’ve been able to finish three and a half novels this way (the half being the book The Grays, which I co-wrote with our fellow editor and friend Becky Barnard, which is coming out in 2022). For me the shitty first draft translates into “always forward progress.” I just keep on writing forward with the goal of just getting that first draft completed. The key there is being okay with the idea that it really is going to be shitty and messy and that Second-Draft Dave is going to be pretty annoyed, backed into corners, dealing with things that have changed or been added in mid-stream. It’s just the idea that you’re going to give yourself something to make better.
In practice that means sitting down every day and picking up where I left off and just pushing the thing forward a little. I try to keep the pressure off myself a bit, so I’ll focus on getting through a scene, a description, or a piece of a larger thing. I just kind of shove it ahead each time I sit down to write.
I’m doing this now, and I’m planning to add on a component from Matt Bell, which I think might really save me a lot of time and frustration: Once I have the shitty first draft, I’m going to outline it and then see what I can see in terms of breakdowns in the narrative and the structure. I think this would have saved me literally a year in editing my first novel, This Darkness Got to Give.
In terms of knowing if you have something, I never know at all. That’s one of the hard parts of writing a novel, for me at least. You’re making this time commitment and you’re really not sure—at all—if anything is going to come from it. I was happy with the writing on The Other Ones as I was working on it, but the entire time I had no idea if it would ever be a book. I’m about halfway through a shitty first draft of a new book right now, and I have no idea if this one is anything or not. I’m having fun writing it and I’m bringing what I can to it, but the question of whether I have something for other people is just not one I can answer right now at all.
Rumpus: Something I admire about you is that you never hide the fact that you have a day job. It’s integral to your writing life, and I think it’s fair to say this novel would not exist without working an office job. Can you talk about balancing the two, or if that’s ever really possible?
Housley: This is something I’ve been trying to be more purposeful about mentioning over the past several years. It didn’t used to be part of my regular bio but now it is because I think it’s good for people to see that you can do this while you’re also working full time. I came to writing late—I didn’t really start until my late twenties—so I’ve never tried to be a writer and not had a full-time job. Now I honestly don’t know that I would even want to try to just be a writer and not have my other job, even if I could (narrator voice: He can’t).
Pre-pandemic, my writing practice was intricately tied into my real job—most of this book was written over lunch breaks, at Wegman’s, in about 40-minute sessions. When the pandemic hit and we went remote (I’m still remote), it really screwed up my writing practice and I just basically didn’t write for six or eight months. I finally figured out some ways to write, but that messed me up in a way that it would not have if I hadn’t kind of blended the two things together.
I do think it’s possible to balance writing with a full-time job. For me, I think the balance probably makes me happier in both worlds. I take my desk job seriously and I want to do well at that, especially because I manage people, but also it’s not my only thing, and I kind of worry about people for whom work is their only thing. They’re generally assholes, right? I guess successful assholes? I think having an artistic outlet allows me to have some perspective at my day job. I guess with this book it also gave me a place to put things that annoyed or amused me, as well. And having the day job obviously makes it possible for me to live and feed my family without a lot of pressure to make money from writing, which is really good because I am not making a lot of money from writing.
Rumpus: The lottery pool is such a good caricature of what we either participate in or are forced to endure in an office setting. Are there any little mundane-yet-absurd details of office life you wanted to include in the novel but couldn’t make work? Or do you feel you were able to work in every annoyance?
Housley: After reading it through I’m kind of disappointed that I didn’t have a birthday “party.” There’s plenty of awkwardness in this book, but that awkward terrible forced social fun is something that I do think I left on the table, and writing this book was all about writing every awkward terrible forced work experience, so maybe I missed one there. Also I would probably add a running thing about scolding signs in the kitchen. There’s a bit where one character is considering putting a sign in the kitchen, and he kind of walks through the pros and cons and the possible reactions, but I definitely should have had more scoldy kitchen signs.
Rumpus: For a novel with an ensemble of seven voices, the pacing moves at a clip. I’m curious if there are any POVs you cut in the end. Whose thread was the most difficult to write? Did any individual character’s storyline take you into a direction you hadn’t anticipated, even when approaching it from the eye of Second- or Third-Draft Dave?
Housley: I didn’t cut any, but I did add in the character of Gibbons after I had a full draft. File this under “How Not to Get An Agent”: An agent who read the full manuscript gave me some feedback that there was too much office stuff here, which I didn’t really agree with, this being a book that’s largely set in an office. So I zagged and added in Gibbons, who only exists at his desk and mostly thinks about what he might eat for lunch, and whose primary arc is around a milk frother (hat tip to you, Chris) and the appearance and then disappearance of oat milk in the communal refrigerator.
I think Lawson was the most difficult to write in the end, and I thought that one was going to be the easiest. They all shoot off in different directions. His was the one that I thought was most familiar to me—he’s a person who is legitimately interested and engaged in his job but this lottery thing jumpstarts a bit of a mid-life crisis, and it has to do with artistic interests he’s left behind as he got older and moved up the ladder. So this is me thinking, what if I never started writing and then this thing happened at work? He winds up taking some writing classes and getting involved in what’s basically a version of the writing community we’re a part of. It wound up being a little harder, I think, because he’s like me in some pretty basic ways, and that was much less interesting to write than, say, the angry asshole ghost who haunts the houses of the lottery winners.
I think the biggest surprise was Chastain’s thread. She winds up leaning in to work, finding a new job working for the leader of the office, Sarah, and finding real meaning there. I knew I wanted somebody to lean in and actually start taking work more seriously, but in editing the book I was really surprised at that part of it, that Chastain really becomes the heart of the novel and the moral center in a way that I hadn’t appreciated when I was first writing it. Some of that may have to do with the fact that I was editing the office book from my home and perhaps seeing a little more clearly some of the good things that came out of being in the office environment.
Rumpus: The Other Ones is your seventh published book. How do you feel your own writing has changed between your first collection, Ryan Seacrest is Famous, and your current projects? Style? Scope?
Housley: I hope it’s evolved some. I hope I’m better at it in general. To me it feels pretty much the same. I’m working with the same stuff—my limited writing talents and the things I notice that stick in my craw or frustrate me—and I’m putting that into whatever I’m working on. That’s never changed. I think the scope has changed some, and I’m more confident in taking on a project like this, which is longer and has an actual plot and a lot of different characters. I feel like I’ve taken on a lot of different projects but have approached them in the same way, if that makes sense. Scope and confidence (said the 54-year-old cis white male). Those are the two things that have changed the most.
Rumpus: You are to me one of the Kings of Keeping It Weird. And with every book of yours I read, I’m always interested to see how that manifests itself, whether it’s the clown car stories of Massive Cleansing Fire, vampire hunting in This Darkness Got to Give, or Yoder’s narration from the afterlife in The Other Ones. Where did these interests start for you? What are your influences and inspirations?
Housley: I started out really trying to write realistic short stories and they were labored and boring. I was trying so hard to be meaningful. I tried to write a fly-fishing story and I’ve literally never been fly-fishing in my entire life. I guess I was trying to write the stories I thought people were writing but I hadn’t really engaged very much in writing at that moment, which would have been the late nineties and early aughts. When I actually did figure out where some of that writing was happening (the weird writing internet, literary magazines), it was so eye opening. Stories could be weird and surreal and funny. I found two books in a used bookstore on my lunch hour: Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders and Mondo Barbie, an anthology edited by Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole. Both were a revelation to me. The A.M. Homes story “A Real Doll” is still one of my favorites. In that story there’s a real escalation, an idea (a boy “dates” his sister’s Barbie doll) taken to what you could call the logical conclusion, which you can see happening, but for me as a not-very-experienced reader of contemporary weird short fiction, I remember thinking, Oh wow, wow wow wow she’s really doing it, she really went there. I’m not the first old white guy to cite George Saunders as an inspiration, but those stories really opened up my mind to what a story could be, too, and I think because they all take place in some kind of work environment, and some of them are speaking this corporate speak, and everybody is doomed and everything is bonkers, it all just really spoke to me and showed me, like the A.M. Homes story, where you could go with this thing that, in my hands, was stodgy and boring and just dead on arrival.
Rumpus: For many writers, myself included, a project idea might stem from a huge premise that becomes almost too intimidating to execute. Aside from “keep writing forward,” do you have any advice for writers who may be intimidated by their own premises? What kinds of questions do you ask of yourself while writing toward an idea so that a premise moves beyond gimmick?
Housley: Just the idea of writing a longer piece is intimidating and hard, especially if you’re used to writing shorter work. The difficult thing for me is not getting that regular call and response of submission and rejection and occasional acceptance. That’s a really hard thing, especially while you’re watching it play out on Twitter a hundred times a day. You’re out of the game to an extent, you’re putting all your eggs in the basket of this weirdo half-formed Word file. That’s hard.
I honestly try not to think too much about what something might be “about.” One thing that doing a lot of different and weird projects has taught me is that no matter what I’m writing, I’m going to bring my regular bullshit to it. It might be stories based on television commercials or stories based on Looney Tunes characters, but I’m going to write in regret, aging past opportunities, jealousy, quiet desperation, the usual stuff.
With this book I knew from the start that I’d probably be writing about work and money, since those are really two of the foundational things about the situation. I didn’t really know where those things or these characters would go with it, or what direction their reaction to those forces might send them. I definitely did not really have a cogent idea of what I might have to say, ultimately, about money and work other than, wouldn’t it be great to have so much of the first that you didn’t have to do the second? I wound up being kind of surprised with some of the things that came through, especially about the value of work. Not always how I feel, but I think it came through fairly strongly in a few places.
Rumpus: What is your contingency plan if you were one of the Other Ones? What would you do if you won the lottery?
Housley: If I was younger I would probably be like the character Craver, who sets out on “the great American road trip” and winds up eating only in Chili’s and Applebee’s and staying in Holiday Inns across the country and at some point tipping into dangerous paranoia.
If I won the lottery, I like to think I’d just chill the fuck out and enjoy it, you know? Maybe give some money to the World Wildlife Fund. I’m actually pretty interested in these terrible rich people who just can’t be happy being rich beyond anybody’s wildest imagination and they just do these terrible things to keep on getting more rich. It just doesn’t seem like a nice way to be.
So probably I would buy a compound and let us get started on making Barrelhouse a full-on cult as soon as possible.
Author photo by Lori Wieder