Tuesday May 21

PercesepeGary Gary Percesepe is Associate Editor at New World Writing (formerly Mississippi Review) and a Contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. Author of seven books, Percesepe’s work has been published in a number of journals and anthologies, including Story Quarterly, N + 1, Salon, Mississippi Review, Antioch Review, The Millions, Brevity, PANK, Structo, The Brooklyner, and other places. He is the author of a short story collection, Itch, and a poetry collection, Falling, both published by Pure Slush Press in 2013. His collection of short stories, Why I Did the Grocery Girl, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books. He lives in Buffalo, New York.

Gary Percesepe Interview with Meg Tuite

What I notice in the three flash stories that we are publishing, “Comings and Goings,” “Solstice,” and “Dialectics,” is that unanswered dilemma of the writer, wanting to have people around, and yet not. These stories seem to acknowledge love of moments in retrospect when one is alone and can sift through them, rather than the act of experiencing them in the moment. Here are a few quotes:

 “What I like in others is watching them go.”

 “I want the theory of things more than the thing of things.”

 “He treats everyone like one of his patients. I have to let him save me once a day or he’s impossible.”

 “The great trees sighed. Empty now, the beach was endless. White caps flashed in the distance. The gray Atlantic swelled.”

 Can you speak more about this, Gary?

Wordsworth said, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” The narrators in the three stories you cite would probably agree.

I do love your picturesque details: the food, the sea, the dress. It all seems to be there, except there is a deep longing and sadness through these pieces that is breathing up through the grates of these beauties. Did that come to mind when you wrote these?

I grew up as a philosopher, and have always been intrigued by things, as well as Kant’s notion of “the thing in itself” (Ding an sich), which is unknowable. The unknowable, the unattainable, the impossible, the unavailable, in love as in life, are the only things that really interest me. It’s desire, not love, and longing not having. To possess is to destroy, and I’m always alert to the ways that things give us the slip. It’s what I take Derrida to mean when he speaks of trace, the absence of a presence, an always-already absent present which haunts our dreams of total possession, or of final transcendental signifier. Language half reveals, half conceals, and things hide even as they come into (and out of) view. I’ve always been drawn to Rilke’s Dinggedichte (thing) poems, and recall his insistence that,

“Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us to believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.”

Against Shakespeare, who thought of the non-human as reducible to the human, Rilke wants the human always already transcribed into the non-human without remainder. Which is why things startle us when we see them as we should, which is almost never, full of ourselves as we are.

One of the poems in my new collection has an epigraph from Frank O’Hara, who understood all this in a distinctive New York way when he said, “The eagerness of objects to be what we are afraid to do cannot help but move us.”

Are these stories part of the same collection?

One of them is, yes. “Solstice” appears in my poetry collection, Falling. The other two, “Comings and Goings,” and “Dialectics,” are published here for the first time. Last year I published two collections with Pure Slush Books, a poetry collection called Falling, and a flash fiction collection called Itch. Interested readers can purchase them here.

When did you first start publishing your work?

I published a book on the philosophy of Jacques Derrida in 1988, and followed that up with three more philosophy books, published by Macmillan and Prentice Hall. Somewhere in the early 1990s I began writing fiction and poetry. It coincided with my having the good fortune to be an assistant fiction editor at Antioch Review, where I worked with the great Nolan Miller, who mentored so many outstanding writers through decades of teaching at Antioch College, including Mark Strand, who later became Poet Laureate of the U.S, and Rod Serling, creator and writer of the TV show, The Twilight Zone. Nolan taught me how to write. He also taught me how to read, and how to be a fiction editor, a skill that was further refined when I began serving as an associate editor under Frederick Barthelme, at Mississippi Review.

As a well-established writer and editor, how has this literary world moved for you? What changes feel positive and which negative?

Oh, what a question. It moves like a drunken sailor carrying carnations in a tornado walking to a whore house? I don’t think writing has changed all that much (most of it is dreck, shall remain dreck, and lo has ever been dreck), but the publishing world sure has changed. Boy howdy! The prevailing notion that “everyone is a literary artist, yo!” is a desperate response (an egalitarian response, some would claim) to the lunacy at the few remaining major New York publishing houses who have not been bought out or transformed into Gap stores, where editors seem to have become 26 year old functionaries of suits wearing frowns on the finance side of the building, elevating agents to editors and writers to pathetic, doomed supplicants to the bitch goddess of success, who left the building long ago for TV. (I think Breaking Bad is better than most of the writing I read. I’m waiting for someone to figure the alchemy of meth to books, subverting the timidity and mendacity of publishers and making writers gazillionaires. Death to the New York cartels, yo!) Meanwhile, forget about MFA vs. NYC, a canard if ever I saw one. What nonsense. The real issue is the continental divide between writers who get paid for their writing and the rest of the poor bastards who give their work away on Submittable every livelong day. I love that flash fiction is thriving, as a kind of middle finger to the publishing powers-that-be, a kind of quiet desperation that would please the slumbering Thoreau in Walden, the most un-marketable thing imaginable, and a harbinger (the dreamer in me wants to say) to the writerly/readerly democracy which is yet to come. You can read my ode to flash here.

What would you say to a new writer just starting to send work out? What would you have wanted to hear from another writer that might have helped you when you began publishing?

I’d probably say “Please find something else to do, anything else!” Then ask (as Nolan Miller once asked me) “Do you want to write or do you need to write?” If the answer is the former then the conversation is over (for now). If the answer is the latter, we may practice learning rejection until it is as customary as breathing and as little attended to. As to what I would have wanted to hear when I began publishing, I am happy to report that when Nolan Miller praised the first short story I wrote under his tutelage, a story called “The Way You Live Now,” I felt myself levitated off the surface of the earth. Honest praise, no bullshit. That’s what we all want to hear, isn’t it?

I believe it was Rilke that first asked in his "Letters to a Young Poet,” whether one wanted or needed to write to live. Do you workshop your work? Any writers that you send your early drafts to, exchange with?

No, I do not workshop my work.

Sara Lippmann was my first reader for a time. She got everything I wrote—every word, every gesture, every feint, every joke, every hint. She was the ideal reader. I sometimes read her work as well, but not in the same way; the first reader relationship is tricky, sometimes fraught, and in our case asymmetrical, as she was much, much better than me. Later, Pari Chang read my work, and I was lucky enough to have Dani Shapiro and Meg Wolitzer read portions of my memoir—Meg called the writing “crisp but sad.” I asked Meg once about the first reader relationship, and she told me that she herself no longer used one, though as a younger writer she had. And I realized that was happening to me as well. I had internalized Sara’s voice, and Pari’s, and Meg’s. With the Telluride novel, I was greatly helped by Morgan Harlow, who is a wonderful poet, and more recently by Kate Rutter, who listened for hours on the phone. Before and behind all of these friends is the redoubtable Frederick Barthelme, whose honest criticism of the first draft stopped me in my tracks and made me reconsider. Every novel is the work of many hands. When Leaving Telluride is finally published, all these names will appear in the acknowledgments, but the debt of love (which is what first readership is, in the end) cannot be repaid.

Yes, Sara Lippmann is an exceptional writer! She has read some of my collections and I am always thankful! You rock it, Sara!

How long do you sit on a story before you feel it’s ready to send out?

It depends. I write pretty fast, editing as I go, and have been known to submit stories or poems on the same day that I drafted them. On the other hand, I have been revising my novel Leaving Telluride for five years. It’s still not ready.

What projects are you working on right now?

Beside my novel, I am working on a memoir. Lately, I have been writing personal essays.

You write poetry as well as prose. Do you have a preference and why?

I really don’t. I also write essays, sermons, letters, journals, checks, and prayers. Writing to me is just writing. I write as I breathe, involuntarily. It’s all a kind of prayer, in a way. My meager offering.

Sermons? How interesting.

You have written a collaborative novel with Susan Tepper. How was that experience?

It was passing strange, and completely unexpected. I did not know Susan at the time, we’d only met virtually on Fictionaut, and before we knew it were imagining an epistolary novel, letters between the painter Jackson Pollock and a girl I made up named Dori. The product of our collaboration was published as What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock & Dori G. It can be purchased here.

Where did you grow up and does place play a large part in your work?

I was born and reared in Yonkers, New York, a few blocks north of the Bronx. I write frequently of New York City, which is a city of ghost for me—ghosts on nearly every corner of Manhattan, not to mention Brooklyn and the Bronx. The ghosts have carried all the meanings away; everything changes, everything ends. Maybe we all have a portable New York City we carry around with us, the city of desire, of what once was and will never be again. Kafka was right, the ghosts carry everything away. These days I work at avoiding them.

You are definitely a cigar man, am I right? What is your favorite and is it like someone sniffing and swirling wine?

Unsurprisingly, I smoke Romeo y Julieta cigars, Cuban when I can get them.

What are you reading at this time?

I just completed Lorrie Moore’s new collection, Bark. I’m waiting to get my hands on Spectator, the new poetry collection by my friend Kara Candito, a gorgeous Italian-American poet for all seasons. I am an inveterate re-reader; I find myself going back to works that I love. I read The Great Gatsby every year. I just re-read Frederick Barthelme’s Waveland, to remind myself how a novel can be structured. I just finished Anna Karenina, perhaps my favorite novel, and one I return to frequently, and I am reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace now, for only the second time in my life. I only have 700 pages to go! While I was plowing through Tolstoy I re-read Madame Bovary, and I was glad I did. Flaubert is perhaps the finest prose stylist I have ever read, and I adore him, sentence for sentence.

What is a quote that speaks to you?

Ben Hogan was a great golfer but an irascible man. He practiced his swing for hours under the hot Texas sun. When asked by aspiring young champions if he would pass along to them the secret to the golf swing, Hogan snarled, “Dig it out of the dirt.” We learn to write by writing. And by reading, extensively. No heroics. That is all.


"Many fragments come to me, all discovered, reappear. I wander the room picking up or remembering things which are narcotic, which induces me to dream—the details, the relics of love, suffused with an aching beauty." ~ James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime

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