Interview with Dan Gutstein

Bridging Chasms, Forceful Blows, and Football: A Conversation With Dan Gutstein About All Things non/fiction

by Jenn Alandy

gutstein 33Dan Gutstein is the author of non/fiction (stories, Edge Books, 2010) and Bloodcoal & Honey (poems, Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2011). His writing has appeared in more than 80 publications, including Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, American Scholar, The Iowa Review, Colorado Review, The Literary Review, TriQuarterly, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, and Best American Poetry.

Jenn Alandy: I saw you read “The Date” at Bridge Street Books in Georgetown in the fall of 2011. I still remember our narrator’s killer line about Dentyne. He tells Pattiann that “it’ll make dinner taste like fire.” Later, the audience chuckled when our narrator talked about the “dogshit park,” where he recounted how Benny the dog “humped anew.” Yet underneath all of these humorous moments is a real conflict, a small sadness growing between our narrator and Pattiann. Why is this juxtaposition important?

DG: “The Date” describes three love relationships: two among people and one among canines, the latter, nonFictionCover1outlinesas you noted, involving some awkward doggy-style affection. Of the human relationships, the central one begins to falter. There is something notable, I believe, in the humor “deepening” the sadness and vice versa, although the opposing quality need not be sadness. Take a great story like Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” where Hulga is left by Manley Pointer without her wooden leg, helpless, in the upper reaches of a barn. It’s not “sadness” exactly that’s opposing the piece’s wittiness but Hulga finds herself in a near-impossible situation, which is a theme of O’Connor’s—disfigured or disabled women abandoned by men who seem to promise them grander views, at first.

JA: This juxtaposition of heart and humor is also evident in your other stories, especially in “Numbers,” which is my favorite piece in non/fiction. The ending is beautiful and feels organic: “Then I walked among thousands of workers, numbered, I hoped, on the proper ledger, by the proper hand.” Did you write your way to this ending, or did you have it in mind before you set out to write this piece?

DG: I found the ending once I got there. I took the title, “Numbers” from the fourth book of the Old Testament. In it, the Israelites count themselves, assess their strength “to go forth to war,” and in the story, the narrator is challenged by his grandfather, for starters, to belong among the Jews, as Jewish, but also by a tailor, who was numbered by the Nazis, in the form of a tattoo on his forearm. The tailor, a Holocaust survivor, ends up mending the narrator’s business suits, so the narrator can wear, in effect, a wounded but viable identity into the world of American business. At the end, the speaker is beginning a job with the accounting firm Arthur Andersen (whom I worked for, in real life) but his humble plea, at the end, recalls a quiet “belongingness” to his roots. Funny how the behemoth, i.e., “bean counters,” “numberers,” Arthur Andersen, whom the tailor refers to as “the crooks,” number no longer.

JA: In “King of the Gods,” our narrator says “I could be a ghost or a condom.” There is tremendous weight in this brevity, and this easily characterizes each story in non/fiction. Each one packs a punch. Why do you think there is power in brevity?

DG: Since this question, by its very nature, requires a brief answer, I’ll propose a boxing metaphor and say that jabs, i.e., quick forceful blows, win a lot of fights.

JA: I imagine that readers could (and would) push for compelling stories like “Casino” and “Alcohol” to be novels. What is achieved with this form (besides the obvious) that a novel couldn’t pull off?

DG: Many novels, frankly, waste words, and I’m not prepared to accept that fate, as a reader. Although not exclusively, I tend to revere slimmer novels, such as Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust or less conventional efforts, like Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, which operates in smallish installments. (To be fair, the book I’ve read most recently, to which I’d ascribe “great, classic” status, is Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, a medium length novel.) The short-short form allows you a surgical, precise, flash story with immediate rendering of problem or conflict, and the writer ought not to be wasting words. Actual words, I should add, are a dwindling commodity and we can’t afford to waste them.

JA: I agree that literary writers cannot be word-wasters. How does a writer use words responsibly? What is your personal method of choosing what Flaubert called le mot juste?

DG: Above all else, I don’t write “cheese” and cliché, or if I have written them, there are, like, no greater than five pieces of cheese among my writings. In fiction, some convention is necessary. You must say stuff like “Joe said hello” or “she came into the room” to establish basic spatial relationships, and though they sound familiar, those guideposts are necessary. That said, I try more and more to avoid that kind of convention, if at all possible. So, I guess my motto is—if it sounds familiar, work around it, if at all possible. Whenever I near convention, I try to “remove” the writing, through diversion, pitch-mixing, new scene, non sequitur, et cetera. My personal method, I suppose, is to “remove” the writing from entering that chasm.

JA: Speaking of chasms, non/fiction is broken into two parts: what comes before the forward slash and what comes after it. Gail Godwin writes “Art is having the mastery to take your experience, whether it’s visual or mental, and make meaningful shapes that convey a reality to others.” Will you talk to us about the shape of this book?

DG: I placed the forward slash in the title to break the word into two pieces, allowing for reader to expect both nonfiction and fiction, and perhaps to contemplate, literally, the fine line between them. The idea comes from how friends rib me after I tell a barroom story. They egg me on to tell one I’ve told before, and afterwards (after they’re laughing pretty hard) they accuse me of altering details. “That didn’t really happen,” they say. To which, I reply, “Well, 80 percent of that really happened.” In reality, my barroom stories are non/fiction; hence, the title of the book. The slash in the pages of the book simply separates the “grown up” stories from the “17 and under” pieces.

JA: We first learn that Warren gets murdered in “Alcohol,” then our narrator imagines how it happened in “When I Say Fright,” then we see and hear Warren as our narrator recounts a memory with him in “To Friendship.” Without a doubt, emotional power exists in this deliberate arrangement. In my workshops with you, you’ve told us “don’t hold on to the keys to the story for too long” and that there is a “fine line between what information you will reveal and what you won’t.” The emotional weight of Warren’s death hits us harder when we end on him, alive. Did this arrangement come intuitively for you?

DG: I would say so, yes. I have a recurring dream about my brother, David, who passed away many years ago, and in the dream he’s still alive; I’m always left with a sad image that disrupts my sense of order. I’d prefer not to have that dream, but when it happens, I sort of respect its power. Similarly, I felt that it might be more powerful if the first section (before the forward slash) ended with Warren alive. This may sound hackneyed, but in the movie, To Live and Die in L.A., I think the face of the dead Secret Service agent appears right toward the end, alive, a potent reminder.

JA: In Anthony Doerr’s New York Times review of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, he writes that Johnson’s “prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence.” The prose in non/fiction does this beautifully as well. Why do you believe in these “twin strains”?

DG: Funny you mention one of the greatest living American writers in Denis Johnson. I picked up a used copy of Nobody Move, and it’s currently my train-commute reading, a crime-thriller kind of thing with some notable zingers. I always champion his collection of linked stories, Jesus’ Son, which does the very thing you mention. There’s a naïve sweetness about “Fuckhead,” the book’s narrator, and yet, in a story such as “Dundun,” violence boils up in a disastrous way. The violence in a story often represents “what’s wrong” or “what’s inevitable” in a situation, but the sweetness or tenderness offers an anchor to the reader, something to care about, and hope for.

JA: I can’t help but think of Charles Bukowski’s Henry Chinaski. Is “Denny,” who appears in some of these stories, Dan Gutstein? Who is the inspiration for “David”?

DG: Warren, whom you mentioned earlier, was a real friend of mine, a roommate in college who got murdered. A terrible, brutal story that troubles me, more than 20 years later. David is really David, my brother who passed away from cancer at 27. Years before he died, David, who must’ve been 17 or 18, was driving me somewhere, while a friend of his rode up front. I was 12 or 13 at the time, and must’ve mumbled my name to the friend. “Danny”, I had offered, but he heard Denny, and addressed me the same. I remembered that as I began to write the pieces in non/fiction, and so, yes, “Denny” is my fictional stand-in, and in tribute to my brother, his surname is Davidson, Denny Davidson.

JA: It takes a lot of heart to share this with us. Thank you for that. I feel awkward at the mention of death, mainly because the canned words “I’m sorry for your loss” don’t even begin to communicate that one can understand what it must be like to lose people to things that we cannot explain. I’ll admit I’m reminded of this quote by the late Andre Dubus: “The writer is the product of some disorder and pain. You know Hemingway said that a writer is forged in injustice the way a sword is forged in fire.” Have Warren and David “forged” you as a writer?

DG: That’s a good question. A lot of my early writings—poems, mostly—were elegiac, and at the time, I felt as if exploring loss was the most important thing I could do, as a writer. In the earliest moments of those first attempts, I was fortunate enough to be studying with the writer Faye Moskowitz, who encouraged me despite the amateurish quality of my drafts. I learned that mentoring “forges” a writer, too, and so, in a certain way of looking at things, had Faye not been there to challenge some of my mistaken efforts, the deep, bruising pain of these losses may have not led to successful pieces of poetry or fiction. Faye continues to be a close friend and important mentor; a family member in many ways.

JA: You know, I consider you a mentor, too. Some of the best writing advice I’ve received has come from you. Kurt Vonnegut has his infamous 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story. What would Dan Gutstein’s 8 Tips be?

DG: Well, if Kurt Vonnegut’s tips are “major league,” then mine would probably be “single A,” although our names do share (Vonnegut, Gutstein) a visceral syllable. How about, instead, here are 8 Things to Avoid in a Story:

(1) Don’t describe sex. At the very very most, close the door and talk about the thumping against the headboard or something, but don’t even do that.

(2) Don’t say Budweiser ever in a story, especially if the “hero” is drinking it. As if any other beer isn’t cool. For that matter, don’t say Coors or Miller. If you want to say Tuborg Gold—okay, okay, okay.

(3) If you have to have a weeping character, don’t say “the tears rolled down his cheek.” For god’s sakes, man, quantum physics dictates that, in one out of every 100 crying jags, the tears will roll up the cheek.

(4) There’s something in mainstream American fiction about “quiet” stories with vases of flowers on a dinner table. Really? Don’t do that.

(5) In fiction (and poetry) avoid overuse of the verb “to be.” Was this, were that, be this, is that, been who, are what? The sentences start to wilt.

(6) If you’re going to write-in Irish characters, please don’t have them say “fook” or “feck” half the time. I doubt Irish people in general say “fook” or “feck” half the time, but even if they do, it doesn’t automatically make for good fiction.

(7) If you don’t have a first sentence that establishes a situation, conflict, or problem, then you don’t have a good first sentence.

(8) Okay, so if your story describes two characters having sex in a room filled with Budweiser empties while one character is crying with his tears going up his cheek while a vase of flowers marinates on a table-top—was it? were it?—and the other character said “fook me!”, all of this in the very first sentence, then yes, okay, that might make for a good story.

JA: You are a diehard Swansea City A.F.C. fan. I am a diehard New Orleans Saints fan. Fahad Hassan recently blogged “22 Lessons from NFL Coach Jason Garrett on How to Lead a Successful Life” on The Huffington Post. Though I’ll keep my opinions about the Dallas Cowboys to myself, I’ll point out two great lessons: “Your attitude is the only thing you can control” and “It’s going to take a relentless spirit.” Arguably, you are the “real football” fan. Are there lessons that writers can learn from being a diehard Swansea football fan or “real football” in general?

DG: I like American football just fine—it’s a brutal, punishing sport, that has transformed, historically, from a running-oriented contest into a “spread 5” kind of deal with passing offense (and defense) as the central feature. Even in a hurry-up version of an American football offense, however, there is a lot of stoppage, which I dislike. Even if the ball carries out of bounds in world football, even on a set piece, there is important motion, and in any event, there is a lot of continuous action.

The Brasilians play “the beautiful game” involving rhythmic angles, the Spanish play a triangular passing version of Johan Cruyff’s “total football,” and whichever side (Argentina, Barcelona) trots out Lionel Messi will ride the improvisations (and quickness) of a uniquely talented player. The greatest football league in the world, arguably, continues to be the English Premier League, into which climbed the Welsh side, Swansea City, two seasons ago, for the 2011-2012 Prem.

My friend Doug Lang, the greatest Welsh writer ever, has cheered for Swansea all his life. He was born there, during World War II, when the town suffered mightily from the Nazi air-raids on the UK. When the Swans qualified for the Prem, Doug somehow hooked a few of us, Casey, Sausages, Rod, and me, on rooting for them. Now, it’s half of what we talk about, and when they lose, we all suffer badly. Why cheer for Swansea? Because the Swans are a little team in a sport dominated by wealthy clubs. They are the “mom ‘n’ pop” amid big corporate money, who have survived by confidently playing attractive football, and sourcing talent (managers and players) who fit the team’s philosophy.

World football players belong to sides who play on the pitch clad in kits. I myself possess and regularly wear the Swansea City Michu Centenary Home Kit. I say “Up The Swans!” a lot, in the hopes that they’ll climb upward in the table. I drink stout and single malt Welsh whiskey, distilled by Penderyn. And when the Swans beat Arsenal, which they seem to do once a year, life is very sweet. And as a writer who has published two books with small presses, and who believes that small presses are publishing the more interesting works of prose and poetry, cheering for Swansea City reinforces my value system.

JA: On your Blood and Gutstein blog, we learn that your “Blood and” nickname came from a dude named Clifford, “a law enforcement professional who regularly whupped” teenaged Dan at a karate studio for six years. How does the discipline it takes for karate apply to writing?

DG: Writing requires more discipline, as there’s nobody there forcing you through your paces. But the regularity of training, the repetition of processes, and the constant sense of improving through revision have all informed my habits as a writer.

JA: One of my favorite blog entries from the past month was “Did You ‘Make the Love’ in Making Love? Or Were You Made Love To? A Guide to Understanding Your Intimate Assignations.” Hilarious. What was the inspiration for your Blood and Gutstein blog?

DG: I began the blog so I could post the types of writings—mostly wacky, but some serious—that might not be appropriate for literary magazines. Too, the regular schedule (one post per week) keeps me in “production mode” as a writer, which is good for me. Surprisingly, the blog has become quite popular in the last year, with tens of thousands of pageviews. Some of that is probably “bots” but a good share of it comes from Google searches. Also, a lot of people have visited the blog by searching for someone who is the hottest professor. Go figure. As for “Did You Make the Love…” I was playing on the phrase “make love” which I find humorous, especially if people say it very seriously. I began to think—who really makes the love? Because “the love” could be the final act that precipitated the moment of highest achievement or “the love” could be made despite a positional disadvantage or “the love” could be made, as you point out, by both people, in a variety of uneven efforts. (Assuming “the love” only involves two people, which, of course, could be a faulty assumption.)

JA: What do Dan Gutstein fans have to look forward to? What kind of landscape will you be sharing in your future books?

DG: First of all, Jenn, thank you for your kind words about my writing and teaching. I have learned quite a bit from you, too, and I am grateful for this generous and thorough interview. I would also like to thank Rod Smith for publishing non/fiction and Justin Sirois for the book design.

If I’m fortunate in the coming year or so, I will find a publisher for one or more manuscripts that are ready for publication. By “ready,” I mean different things. In the case of one manuscript, a book of poems, the vast majority of the individual pieces have appeared in literary journals, and the book, itself, has been a finalist or runner-up for a few national publishing contests. The working title is Cent / R.I.P. / et al., which are the concepts you can find inside the word “centripetal,” and the book is broken into three corresponding parts: Cent (money); R.I.P. (death); and et al. (everything else). My first collection of poetry, Bloodcoal & Honey, veered into experimental language a bit, and this next book does that, too, although there are a range of textures, subjects, images.

Over the past several years, I’ve been trying to master longer-form fiction, not only some lengthier short stories, but also a novella, and along with a couple pieces of flash fiction, I believe I have completed another viable book project. Many of the pieces there, too, have been taken by magazines (The Good Men Project Magazine, The Iowa Review, storySouth, and Shenandoah, for example) and I’ve been grateful for that, as some of the pieces tend to be “off the clock”—that is, favoring situation, language, episode, and interpersonal conflict over plot. As soon as I say that, however, I remind myself that some of the pieces have a good bit of standard action. More than one story concerns itself with the Holocaust; the novella in particular explores the relationship between mother and son, having being cut off from their family, a situation that corresponds to recently-discovered details about the plight of my own family members in Poland, circa 1940.

Up the alley of “guilty pleasures,” a third book project will be entitled The Interview Sonnets. I posted several of these pieces to my blog in April, but I have a much larger collection now, suitable for book publication. To give you a sense, some of the titles are “Interview with the Official in Charge of Estimating Delay,” “Interview with a Child in Time Out,” “Interview with the Animal Control Officer Who Must Respond to the Presence of an Unwanted Lupus,” “Interview with Gazongo the Exotic Clown,” and “Interview with the Sous Chef Who Prepares the Beef Pattie.” I look at it as a kind of Spoon River Anthology update, in sonnets, totally wacky.

Read the Blood And Gutstein blogpost, “Did You Make the Love in Making Love?”:

Read Dan’s story “Numbers” here, on our site.

Check in at Edge Books for a copy of non/fiction

Drop in at Washington Writers’ Publishing House for Bloodcoal & Honey:




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