Q: How long have you lived in Atlanta? And what brought you here?
A: Twelve years. 12 years. ... [I came from] Bayou La Batre, Alabama. I was 30, and I was working in a coffee shop. And I had to wear an apron and my immediate supervisor was 19 years old. And I started to think I had done something wrong. I was [visiting] in Atlanta, shooting pool at Dottie's, and I happened to notice someone there who worked at Turner (Broadcasting), and I just asked casually if they had any writing jobs open. She said yes. ... I started writing promos for Turner. I quit Turner in 1999.
Q: You're associated with the McSweeney's stable, which seems to have ushered in a new era of high irony and absurdism. Where did this come from, and what impact do you see it having on fiction?
A: I don't really think of the book as ironic. I know what you mean about some of the McSweeney's stuff, but they've been very good to me. ... You know the "Cyclops" story? (The story is a collection of fan letters written to People magazine, all praising a celebrity Cyclops.) I had writer's block, and I wrote 70 pages of fake letters to People magazine. And they weren't funny, they weren't exaggerated, there was no payoff. I was just doing an exercise, more or less. And I told someone about it. ... She said, 'You should look at McSweeney's."
In the case of my book, I really don't think of the characters as ironic at all. I sort of have affection for them, and what I like about them is that disconnect between the non-ironic deepness of their feelings and their sort of comic inability to express them at all. And I guess if there's some irony it comes from that disconnect between what the characters want to express and their just complete inarticulateness.
[McSweeney's is] going to bring out a DVD quarterly now. They sent me a Turkish sitcom, which is a Turkish remake of The Jeffersons and got to me to write subtitles for it.
Q: Maybe "irony" is the wrong word, but certainly McSweeney's, and MacAdam/Cage (which published The Mysterious Secret), have brought a new freedom for fiction to step outside the model of the transformative moment.
A: I would agree, though I would say it has roots in Donald Barthelme or Robert Coover ... and he's still writing. I really like the modernists and the postmodernists, even though I suppose that's no longer fashionable. But I like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett and all those people. They have a great deal to do with that.
Q: Let's talk about the title story. Writing a story in the voice of a bad writer is a risky proposition. What inspired that choice?
A: Just a terrible, terrible writer. It worries me when I do the readings. I always try to read something that shows that I know how to write, in addition to something from the novella. The truth is I love to read self-published regional histories and things like that. And once again, in a non-ironic way. There's just something refreshing about the writing ... sometimes amusing and sometimes all of a sudden there will be something kind of touching. I like that sort of tension.
Q: A lot of your characters are individualists under duress, not understood and not even left alone -- put upon.
A: Most of the stories, all of the stories in this book were written before I started getting anything published. And they were a lot about the frustration of not being able to get people to understand what I was trying to do. In a way they're about the frustration. It's a silly way to try to make a living; it feels silly, really. And then they started to get published. And so now that they're in a book, I think they have a different tone than they did when they were in a heap in the manila envelopes with the rejection letters. They were more poignant then. Now ... now they might feel more sarcastic.