We had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Denslow an emerging voice on the short story scene regarding his breakout hit and debut collection ‘Not Everyone Is Special‘ – here’s what he had to say to STORGY Magazine…
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your first engagement with literature?
I’m a dude who likes to read. When I was a kid, a fun Saturday was seeing if I could read The Hobbit in its entirety. My mom had a ton of books in the house, and I was reading her Stephen King and Dean Koontz books by the time I was eleven. I read everything I could get my hands on and I wasn’t picky at all. I read my sister’s Sweet Valley High books and the Hardy Boys and then I blazed through dozens of Agatha Christie books and Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. I sometimes wish I had the time to read like that now, but I also have a pretty fun life with an awesome wife and three hilarious boys all under five-years-old. Plus I need to get out into the world to find stuff to write about!
What made you want to become a writer?
When I played with toys, I spent most of my time making the figures talk and creating conflict, that would lead to some sort of battle. That what was the fun part for me. The character interactions and the dialogue. One of the things that drew me to books was the idea that people were out there just making up stories. So the stories I made up with toys became stories I made up on paper. It was about as simple as that.
Your debut collection ‘Not Everyone Is Special’ is stunning, could you tell us a little bit more about the process of getting this collection together, how long it took, what was the driving force behind it that kept you going, and also could you let people know what they can expect from it?
Thanks so much for your kind words about the collection. The short answer is that as I was writing the stories contained in ‘Not Everyone is Special‘ I didn’t know I was writing a collection. I was just experimenting and having fun. So, to answer part of your question, the stories go back ten years. But I knew at a certain point it was time to have a collection, and I went through all my stories and looked for patterns. I wanted there to be a unifying theme. My publisher Leland (7.13 Books) calls the stories slacker fabulist and I think he nailed. I definitely have a soft spot for slackers, especially the ones trying to figure themselves out. And over the years, I had begun adding in some fabulist elements. Maybe giving a slacker a superpower and seeing what would happen. Or creating worlds with different rules than ours, but keeping the human drama grounded in reality. Hence slacker fabulist. But the final litmus test for this collection was only including stories that could feasibly be titled ‘Not Everyone is Special‘ on their own.
What’s your writing process like? I understand that you have a large family. I know that some of our readership struggle finding the hours in the day with other commitments to write – do you have any pearls of wisdom you could share?
The only thing I can say is,
that if you have stories you want to tell, you can find the time.
I don’t have a writing routine at all. I do what I can each day. Best case scenario is that I write at one end of my desk, and at the other end of my desk, my three boys are building LEGOS. I also write on breaks from my day job, on my lunch hour, at night after everyone goes to sleep. Basically, I have cultivated the superpower of being able to “turn it on” at a moment’s notice. I’ll look up and realize, oh man, I’m in the middle of a free minute. Time to open up that document and go go go. But as hard as it is, I have to sometimes be okay with the fact that I didn’t get to write at all that day. Because that happens a lot too.
Your collection brings to mind some fabulous authors such as Palahniuk, Fante, Bukowski and Ellis – which writers would you credit in being an inspiration to your writing and why?
It’s hard for me to say who I’d credit with being my greatest inspirations. There are writers I love a lot. Like Margaret Atwood. David Mitchell. Kazuo Ishiguro. David Foster Wallace. Magnus Mills. I love satire too. Paul Beatty and Joseph Heller spring to mind. The writer I can’t get enough of right now is Marlon James. I’ve read a little bit of each of the writers you listed, and while all wonderful, I actually don’t think of myself in that world. I think of those writers as a little harder-edged than I am. But I don’t shy away from the rough stuff, as you know.
Photo credit – The Independent
Which authors would you say influenced you, and your writing regarding the short story form? Do you have any recommendations of authors or specific short stories?
The short stories I love are the ones that can find humour in the oddest of places. George Saunders and Adam Johnson are masters of this. This also seems like a good time to recommend some recent short stories by new writers I love: “The Daddy Thing” by K.C. Mead-Brewer (read here), “Animal House” by Kara Vernor (read here), “Love Triptych” by Sarah Rose Etter (read here), “We All Know About Margo” by Megan Pillow Davis (read here), and for $1.25 you can get “Against the Dust” by Nur Nasreen Ibrahim (book available here).
The whole experience has been incredibly creative. Leland wants us writers to have the books we want. I was able to work with an artist I liked to create the cover I wanted. I had input on the layout and the overall feel of the book. Leland is also incredibly supportive and I can turn to him with any question I have, no matter how trivial or obvious. He also has wonderful taste and if you haven’t checked out the other books out on 7.13 you’re doing yourself a disservice. The last release was THE PLACE YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO LAUGH by Jenn Stroud Rossman. And the next two that are coming out along with my book are BESOTTED by Melissa Duclos and PORTRAIT OF SEBASTIAN KHAN by Aatif Rashid.
What specifically enraptures you about the short story?
The absolute best thing about short stories is that you can explore a life in one sitting.
Are there any influences outside of literature that you draw upon for inspiration?
Music. Everything in my life is sound-tracked. I hardly do anything without picking the right album first. I also play the drums in the band Borrisokane, and I like to think I bring a little extra rhythm to my stories.
You have a particular skill with dialogue (like Quentin Tarantino) and it’s something that I loved about the collection and the characters you created, are there any tips you could give writers on how to create believable dialogue within their stories?
I appreciate you saying that because I love dialogue. It’s the best part of writing for me. I spent a few years only writing scripts and I think as an exercise, everyone should try writing at least one. You’re basically telling a whole story in only dialogue. But if I had any tips, I’d say to really pay attention to the conversations you have in life. We hardly get to talk as long as we’d like before we’re cut off. We hardly ever reveal backstory to each other because we already know our backstories. When you go through your dialogue in your story, look at how much weight the dialogue is carrying. If it’s starting to bulge at the seams, it’s doing too much work. I personally like to deconstruct my dialogue until it feels like song lyrics or poetry. It’s not telling the reader everything he or she need to know. It’s just giving clues. And then there is more room for humour.
I remember recently hearing in an interview with Chuck Palahniuk (The Joe Rogan Experience) that he draws a lot of inspiration from tales that are told to him by friends, when he’s collected them he’ll then sit and picks which ones work to tell the story. Your collection feels a little bit like that, that we are getting a glimpse into stories of other people, such is the variety on show in the collection, with each story being completely different from the next – where do your ideas come from?
Oh yeah, I steal dialogue and anecdotes from friends and family all the time. I fill notebooks with those things. And sometimes they spark a story idea. I’m also a daydreamer. A lot of my ideas come to me when I’m just spaced out. That’s why it’s important that I find some time every day where I’m not being bombarded by the world. Most days, that time for me is when I’m in the shower. Tons of my best ideas came to me while standing under scalding hot water.
Photo Credit – Chuck Palahniuk Twitter
What are your hopes and dreams for ‘Not Everyone is Special’?
My biggest hope is that people will read it, of course. I’m pretty sure I can get my sphere of friends and family to take a look, but I love thinking that there are strangers out there who might enjoy my collection. My dream is that this book leads to the next book and the next and the next. I have a lot of ideas!
Which story within the collection are you most happy with, which one for you is your Magnum Opus?
I think the one that makes me happiest is the title story. It has a lovable slacker, but this one has kids and an ex-wife. And he lives in a world full of people with superpowers but he doesn’t have one. I think I really captured what it’s like to feel inadequate. Plus it perhaps has the most hopeful ending of all the stories. That’s why I put it last in the collection!
How are you dealing with the early reaction to your collection? Does it make all those long hours and years of pulling the collection together worth it?
I’m still getting used to the idea that people I didn’t know previously are reading my work and responding to it. It’s a lovely feeling to tell the truth. I write stories for people to read, and I want that to happen as much as possible. And this collection is making it a little easier to reach them. And if they enjoy the stories as well, it’s even sweeter.
What’s next for Josh Denslow? Are you currently working on anything new?
I’m about 100,000 words into a beast of a novel with no end in sight at the moment. I’m also working on a series of thematically-linked short stories called MAGIC CAN’T SAVE US. There are a few online now, and here’s a link to one with a unicorn.
If people wanted to follow your progress do you have any social media links, website?
Goodreads: Josh Denslow
We reviewed ‘Not Everyone Is Special‘ and you can read our review here.
You can read the opening story of Not Everyone Is Special – Too Late for a Lot of Things here.
Josh Denslow’s stories have appeared in Barrelhouse, Third Coast, Cutbank, Wigleaf, and Black Clock, among others. In addition to constructing elaborate Lego sets with his three boys, he plays the drums in the band Borrisokane and edits at SmokeLong Quarterly. You can follow him on Twitter (@joshdenslow) and at www.joshdenslow.com.
Interview by Ross Jeffery
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