“It’s a cold inhospitable place, but you should go”: in conversation with Chris Tarry
At the Sunday Salon, we’ve had the immense pleasure of hosting Chris Tarry twice – as musical guest and as featured author. His debut collection, How to Carry Bigfoot Home, came out this March from Red Hen Press with glowing blurbs from Jim Shepard, Pamela Erens, Roy Kesey, and Matt Bell. The Masters Review’s Kim Winterheimer writes, “Each of his stories is laced with humor and heart.” And Stefan Merrill Block says, “What would happen if some mad scientist were able to fuse the otherworldly exuberance of H.P. Lovecraft with the nuanced pathos of John Cheever? The result would be a dazzling, explosive, and inexhaustible new kind of illumination: a writer named Chris Tarry.” It was a treat to have him back, where he generously shared some thoughts on his fine work, on fatherhood, and what it’s like to be staring down the threshold.
– Sara Lippmann
Congrats on How to Carry Bigfoot Home! How did this book come to fruition?
Thanks so much, and thanks for having me. How To Carry Bigfoot Home came together over about six years, adding stories, cutting many. I was publishing in journals and wanted to release a collection so I started pulling it together around the time I was nearing completion of my MFA at the University of British Columbia. After many years studying privately with a handful of amazing writing mentors, I had decided to go back to school. With kids and a family and my other job as a professional musician (along with being Canadian), UBC was the perfect fit. There is no residency required, and I could do the entire degree from behind my computer screen. While there, I wrote a good portion of the stories in the book, and revised many more that had already been published. How To Carry Bigfoot Home became my thesis. While I was nearing completion of the collection (and the MFA), a friend recommended I send an early version of it to Red Hen Press in Pasadena. Thankfully, they liked it and bought the MS the day I graduated.
A fairy tale story! Speaking of which, your own stories often contain elements of the mythological: dragons, sea monsters, Bigfoot. How does this signature blend of fantasy and everyday allow you greater access that, perhaps, might be limited by straightforward realism?
Even the guy on Moonbase 10 is probably in love with his thirty-fingered secretary, so in that way, the goal is tapping into the commonality we all share. The fantastical (place wise) can take the reader slightly off center, get them to pay attention maybe a little closer because at first they’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on. For me, it’s all about playing with those expectations we all have when reading a story. Sneaking in the horrible (see: real) stuff without the reader noticing until it’s too late and they’re invested.
I went through a long period recently where I wondered why it felt like my nonfiction was working (or at least getting published) more than my fiction. Why I couldn’t get my fiction to read like nonfiction. It seems simple enough, write a story like it really happened, and maybe it did actually kind of happen, but in the fictive version my wife didn’t actually leave me for an Italian racecar driver (though honey, if you meet an Italian race car driver, I’d understand). Anyway, it seems simple but Jesus, I could never seem to get my fiction to that place. It’s not how I hear it. Then one day my kids wanted to watch the 70s Disney classic Pete’s Dragon. Have you seen it? Man oh man, it’s just fucking terrible, Mickey Rooney is an acting mess throughout the entire thing, but I loved that movie as a kid, and after watching it as an adult, I realized that the dragons are just as much a part of me as the real stuff. That what I’m writing *is* real to me, and comes from a type of realist history. So in the end I just hope that I’m not the only person who has a Pete’s Dragon kicking around in their past somewhere.
Your collection features characters on the precipice, facing down the threshold – literally and metaphorically. What is it about this juncture that is so urgent, so worthy of exploration?
I think like any collection of stories, as the author, or at least this author, I wasn’t really aware of my concerns and preoccupations thematically until I started looking at the stories together in a book. It was a strange experience to see the topics my mind chooses to explore. That said, my only real goal when working on a story is to drop a rock into the story pond and see how many rings I can get out of it. Precipice, facing down a threshold is a particular rock in a particular pond, and I think whenever you have a character looking at real change, it’s something we can all relate to. For some reason I’m really fascinated with change, how one holds on to it, is it really possible for long sustained periods? Are we who we are or can we force our trajectory? I’ve had times in my life where I felt totally in control of every aspect. Then I had kids and that loss of control seems to bring you back to yourself. The real you. I’ve always been fascinated with that. With guys bullied in high school. What became of those boys when they became men? Did they change or stay bullies? Do the bullies stay man-children while the bullied, if they can make it through, come out the other side fundamentally different? That seems to be, as best I can figure, what’s at the heart of a lot of my stories. When a character is on the threshold of change, things are about to get real, and not always in a good way.
At Jimmy’s 43, you read from your memorable story, “We Be Dragons,” which taps right into the heart of our issue, the threshold here being fatherhood. There is that push/pull. There is also that push/pull in tone. One of the things I admire about your writing is how you play the light off the dark, blend the funny with the heavy, the absurd with the deeply, often painful reality. How do you approach your stories?
Jim Shepard said something to me once that really resonated. I could always write funny, but in the early days I’d have these stories that would keep the reader laughing and then ask them to feel something in the end. I had the pleasure of studying with Jim at Bread Loaf, and we happened to be workshopping one of my early pieces that followed that exact trajectory. He said, “What happens when a character gets run over by a steam roller? No one gives a shit.” And that stuck with me. From there I spent a long time learning how to make the humor mean something, to work inside the reader in a way that wasn’t just about making them laugh. For that I turned to George Saunders, he does that brilliantly. The tough part is not writing a Saunders-like story because when you get into reading him it’s all you want to write. It’s a fun sandbox to play in. But I took a lot of important lessons from him, the greatest being that you can use humor to sneak the serious past the reader, almost like a slow-release pill. It goes down easy, and then slowly starts to work on their insides without them noticing. It’s a powerful device when it works well. When the serious and the funny and the hurt come together perfectly, there’s arguably nothing stronger. You take a chance though, because if it doesn’t work, there’s always the steamroller. I think it’s this fear of not working, or coming off as too cute, or sentimental that pushes a lot of writers away from humor in literary fiction. I believe there’s room for a little sentimentality in literature, not a lot, but a little. Good God, we could all really use a good cry, no?
I’d say so. (Even though my son’s nine already, I still can’t listen to The Only Living Boy in New York without losing it.) How has becoming a father yourself affected your own creative process?
I’ve been working on this analogy of parenthood, let’s see if I can piece it together here: becoming a parent is like moving to the North Pole. It’s a place on the map you’ve seen your whole life but never been. You spend a year preparing, hoping you’re packing the right shit, reading about snow and ice on the Internet until your eyes fall out. When you get there you discover that nothing you packed fits or is really needed, and nobody in your ice village talks to each other because they’re all to busy trying to figure out how to live in this fucking cold and by God wouldn’t it be nice if you could just walk out into the snow, stick your tongue to a pole and end it all. Then, suddenly, you’re back home, BBQing on the porch, when your neighbor Rick asks what it was like at the North Pole. “Not too many people get to go there,” he says. “Should I try it?” And you think about it for a bit, because going to the North Pole has indeed expanded the edges of you, the good and the bad, your ability to tolerate long periods of whatever the fuck that was up there, and you tell Rick, Damn straight, it’s a cold inhospitable place, but you should go. Everyone should go. And then you eat your burger and magically, because of your cold weather training, with the flick of a wrist, without dropping your burger, prevent your two-year-old from poking his sister in the face with a hot stick.
As I raise my two kids (Chloe almost 4, and Lucas 1), what I’m coming to enjoy most is seeing them develop compassion. It’s just a blip on the radar at this point, but it a glorious blip, because for a long time you think they’re going to be psychotic maniacs. My biggest wish is for this blip to grow, and that somehow I can piece together enough work to avoid disaster so they can do, like me, precisely what they wish with their lives. In terms of my creative process, I’m not sure. I don’t feel as productive, but somehow the work still gets done. I’m a whole lot fatter, that’s for sure. The North Pole is a place where the ink freezes rather quickly, and there isn’t a gym for three thousand miles.
You are an artist in multiple disciplines. Which came first, music or writing?
Having played music professionally going on twenty years (I’m a bass player), I would say that music came first, and it’s still how I eek out a living, buy the kids diapers, pay the mortgage, etc. I’ve been very fortunate in my music career to somehow cobble it together. It helps that my wife has a real job, so together we manage to keep pushing the rock up the hill.
I’ve always written, and my brother and aunt are writers. I was a terribly slow reader in elementary school, and remember a specific occasion where my fourth grade class had a reading competition—how many books could you read in a year type thing—and I was dead last. That stuck with me for a long time. I can’t imagine that kind of thing happening nowadays, but it was the late 70s, I’m surprised we weren’t smoking pot in class. Anyway, that turned me off reading for a very long time, simply because I thought I couldn’t do it. I figured everyone was a speed-reader except me, and I carried that belief all the way into high school.
When I finally got to college, I was studying jazz in Boston at the Berklee College of Music, and I started reading again, slowly. Mostly because there was a lot of music related material I wanted to absorb, so I read biographies on Miles Davis and Coltrane, and whatever else I could find. It kind of kick-started something in me. I started keeping a journal around that time, writing little stories, and my reading started to improve. Years later (like ten years later), I moved to New York. I had started reading very deeply. The classics. Anything I could get my hands on, and I started dreaming of writing something, anything. My first few months in New York I wasn’t playing much music, so I started writing stories. I had no idea what I was doing, but friends told me to send one of the stories into a literary magazine, and the GW Review accepted it. It took me another five years to publish anything, but that early success got me hooked. I often wonder if that hadn’t happened, if I would have jumped into writing so full on. From that point on I took it as seriously as music. Tracked down writers I loved, asked them if they’d teach me. I treated it much the same way as I did learning to play an instrument.
How does music inform your writing and vice versa? In what ways do they feed off one another?
Writing has influenced my music more, especially when it comes to composition. I’ve been fortunate to play with some of the best musicians in the world, and before I took writing as seriously as I do, I think I got a little lazy in the musical composition department because the level I was playing at allowed me to write average songs and the players I was playing with would make them sound great. That’s a long way of saying I was terrible at revision. One of the things I love most about writing is revision. I love working with editors. Tell me what to do and I’ll change it, or find a way to make it work. This was all new to me, and I stated to take more care when it came to revising music. It rubbed off on my ability to work on a tune for weeks and then throw it away and start over, or toss a melody that wasn’t working and try a new one. Writing caused me to be relentless with myself. To not stop until it’s right, and then make it even more right. I wish I could give Writing an MTV music award for that simple but important lesson. Writing made me a better artist.
Musician, writer, teacher, father. How do you juggle all your roles?
Well, finding the time is tough, but when it comes to doing music and writing I find I can only do one at a time. Meaning one per day, or week, or whatever. Most of my music has to do with playing bass for artists and having to be on top of learning material for a particular show or tour, so that’s easy to schedule. After AWP in April I’m out for a month with this terrific artist Laila Biali, and having the material together means setting aside the time well in advance because it can all sneak up on you if you’re not organized. So tomorrow, even though I’m mid book tour, I have to take three days and do nothing else but play my bass and learn the music. This can be hard with both things going on, but the same thing happens with the writing. If I have a clear week without music, then I’ll devote it to a few pages of the novel, of working on other aspects of writing. I mentor a lot of writers as well as bass players, so that can sometimes dictate the direction a day or week is going to take. I try and book them together. This week writing students, this week bass students. I find keeping it as separate as possible allows both to operate a little more smoothly.
You are a natural performer. What have you learned from performing that you apply to public readings of your prose? Any secrets from the road, from the stage you can share on how to reach through and connect with your audience?
I have a few things I’ve learned from being on stage. I’ve run my own band for many years, and because of it, I had to learn to talk to an audience. I find the best nights are when I’m really comfortable. Be as honest as possible and talk to everyone there as if you’re all just hanging out in your living room. I’ve never understood people who put on a “reading voice.” Be yourself, and if you can make them laugh, even better. It’s hard to hold an audience’s attention during a reading, so I find it helps if I let them know how long they’re in for. I’ll say, “This will take about six minutes, any more and you can come drag me off stage.” There’s nothing worse than a reading that goes on with no end it sight. We’ve all been there; it’s an ugly ugly moment.
What would you say to new writers (and/or creative artists) approaching that threshold, staring down that first door?
Learn to love revision. It’s the key to great art. Keep going. Keep experimenting. And when someone rejects you (because they will), bounce back quicker than you ever thought possible.
Which brings me to my last question: What’s next?
Oh God, the fucking novel. I’m about a year in. That about says it all.
Chris Tarry is the author of the story collection, How To Carry Bigfoot Home (Red Hen Press, March 2015), and holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Literary Review, On Spec, The GW Review, PANK, Bull Men’s Fiction, and Monkeybicycle. His non-fiction has appeared in the anthology How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting, and Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. In 2012, his story “Here Be Dragons” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Chris is also a four-time Juno Award winner, and one of New York’s most sought-after musicians.
Sara Lippmann is the author of Doll Palace and co-host of the Sunday Salon.