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Reynald’s Rap: Lance chats with Anthony Tognazzini

by Susan Henderson on May 7, 2008

Some of you may remember that several months ago I took off chasing some dreams. I packed two suitcases and left everything behind. I was determined to get out into a world of my choosing and finally make it as a writer no matter what the costs. It’s been one hell of a trip.

Ask a handful of friends and I’m certain they’ll tell you, I’m pretty handy with postcards. Perhaps it’s the gene deep in there that makes me a writer. A desire to share even the tiniest piece of the world and adventures in it with a few quick words. It’s funny that I’m such a fan of these snippets or word trinkets yet I’ve never really taken much a look at short stories.

I have to admit, I’ve been so deep in edits for the past few months that I could barely pick up anything to read for fun. Then I came across I Carry a Hammer in My Pocket for Occasions Such As These.

THE DIFFERENCE

Although I was never an early riser, my father always counseled me to rise with the sun.

“Early bird gets the worm!” he told me.

“Sure,” I said, “but the worm who sleeps late, lives.”

I actually sat and enjoyed reading each and every bit of it. Pure pleasure and fun in reading. Much like postcards from a friend they made me smirk and imagine the wild ride Anthony Tognazzini is on. With his first book he lets you ride shotgun on the best journey through what it is to be fully awake in this crazy modern world of ours.

Let’s chat him up and you’ll see what I mean.

Welcome to Litpark, Anthony Tognazzini!

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LR: Your work gave me the impression of a mix of postcards from far flung destinations, eavesdropped conversations, modern proverbs along with some downright spiritual observations. Where do you draw inspiration for such a diverse range of characters?

AT: I’m a note-taking kind of guy. I always have a pen and paper on hand, or a notebook. In addition to writing down lines or ideas that occur to me, conversation – participated in or eavesdropped on – is one of the best sources of inspiration. Recently a friend told me about visiting the set of Sesame Street and meeting all the muppets. I wrote that down. In a bar I overheard someone say, “I love you, but I’m not calling an ambulance.” I wrote that down. I also jot down lines from travel brochures, nature documentaries, whatever. I have stacks of these notes around my apartment, notebooks filled with them. I sort through these, and see what I can build. I might start with “My dog ate my tabla,” or something about the crunch of watermelon or “You were the road I was supposed to keep my eyes on,” or “I went to the store and bought a totally bitchin’ potato masher.” Sometimes one of these will spark a story on its own, other times I’ll assemble a few with wire and string to see if I can make something unusual. Oftentimes they amount to nothing, but occasionally magic happens. It doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to work, but it’s what comes naturally to me – working with these fragments. Barthelme said “Fragments are the only forms I trust,” and I think he had something there.

LR: Ok, I can’t resist asking. But my favorite piece is the last one “Abandoned Belongings”, something in it resonated with me. How did that one come to be?

AT: I love allegories and parables, especially ones that read like riddles, or read clearly, as though designed to impart a lesson, but what’s finally revealed is ambiguous. “Abandoned Belongings” isn’t that ambiguous, because the moral is stated at the end, but the interaction with the monk is puzzling. Sometimes we look for answers and get nothing but a backpack full of tissue. I’m also interested in Zen, and Zen koans. I think I was inspired by that sort of knowing, and those sorts of forms, when I wrote that one.

LR: I’m a bit awestruck by how much story you tell with such word economy. Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of short fiction. Yet it seems that more of it is seeing the light of day now. How do you see the publishing landscape changing for writers of short works?

AT: This is probably a self-serving opinion, but I feel like it’s inevitable that we’re moving culturally toward shorter literary forms. We’re in an ADD world of quick-jump internet links, sound bites, fragments and the like, everything’s faster and more compressed – it seems only a matter of time until literature adapts to this shift in consciousness. People will always tell stories, but the telling shifts shapes. There does seem to be a growing interest in the short form, and more and more avenues for publishing this sort of work, either online, where there are scores of excellent journals, or in print with houses like BOA. Of course, there’s not much in big league publishing to indicate that this trend is catching on in a mainstream way. Novels sell bigger than ever, and it’s hard to get a book of short work published, so maybe I’m just whistling Dixie.

LR: You work has appeared extensively outside of this collection. Do you have any secrets or great tips for other writers struggling to get their work out there?

AT: Perseverance. Thick skin. Now that a lot of journals accept online submissions, it’s less of a laborious secretarial imbroglio printing copies and licking envelopes, which is nice.

LR: Who are some of your influences? (living or dead, contemporaries in the field, other forms of art altogether?)

AT: Franz Kafka, Thelonious Monk, Buster Keaton, Kenneth Koch, Lydia Davis, Tom Friedman, Donald Barthelme, David Byrne, Sarah Sze, Richard Brautigan, haiku poets, Julio Cortazar, Robert Walser, Aimee Bender, Daniil Kharms, John Ashbery, Brian Eno, Yasunari Kawabata, George Saunders, Samuel Beckett, Frank O’Hara, Leonard Michaels, Tomaz Salamun, James Tate, James Brown, Gertrude Stein, the Marx Brothers, Miranda July, Vincent Van Gough, Dean Young, Bob Dylan, Dr. Seuss.

LR: Some of the pieces have a quality like poetry or song writing. Have you tried your hand at music at all?

AT: Everything I do is guided by a love of music. I’m a music head. I listen to most everything, and make part of my living as a music journalist. Rhythm and melody is paramount for me in writing, and the way my writing sounds when read aloud is the ultimate test of its quality and durability (I’m constantly interrupting my typing to read sentences aloud). I also play guitar, sing, and write songs. I’m currently in the process of putting my band back together (the last incarnation split up last summer). When I got my Mac I started tinkering around on Garageband and recorded some rough demos of my songs (without an interface or mics or anything), which are up at www.myspace.com/skyeatsman. I also sing and play in a band that covers the music of the Louvin Brothers, a bluegrass harmony duo from the 1950s.

LR: What would you like readers to leave with as the theme of this collection? Is there a unifying thread that guided the work?

AT: Because the pieces are short, and formally varied, and were written over a long period of time in a variety of places and contexts, there’s not really a unifying thread in terms of formal composition. It’s more that the work is unified by sensibility. Because my approach is more like a poet’s than a novelist’s, my paramount concerns aren’t plot, character, and narrative trajectory, but energy, surprise, compression, and the creation of an experience that’s immediate, honest, and, I hope, emotionally true. Most of the stories are written in the 1st person, and it’s possible, even very likely, that this character can be read as the same anxious, giddy, alert but slightly dense person who is full of yearning and pain and a great capacity for love. I’m not much for autobiographical writing, but there certainly a lot of me in that character, even though it’s refracted through a fictional lens. But the difference between fiction and memoir is that memoir represents the author’s personal experience while fiction (hopefully) creates a direct, personal experience for the reader. So, ultimately, I hope this is what readers will take away from the collection – a personal experience that connects them to the themselves, the world, and the sense of possibility flowering in each.

*

Bios:

Anthony Tognazzini’s first book, I Carry a Hammer in My Pocket for Occasions Such as These, is a collection of 57 short fictions. It was published by BOA Editions in 2007. His work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Sentence, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Hat, Quarterly West, Ducky, Mississippi Review, and Quick Fiction, among other journals. He’s received three Pushcart Prize nominations, awards from AWP and the Academy of American Poets, and fellowships to the Prague Summer Writer’s Workshop and Ledig House Writer’s Colony. He lives and works in New York City.

Lance Reynald is the author of Pop Salvation (Harper Perennial, release date forthcoming), the sexy, heartbreaking tale of outcasts in search of love and acceptance. In addition to The Reynald’s Rap you can read him over at TheNervousBreakdown.com. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon where he is developing a serious Bacon Maple Bar addiction and can usually be found lost in the stacks at Powell’s still in awe of it all or passing the hours in one comic book shop or another. You can friend him at Myspace. You can also friend Pop Salvation at Myspace.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Juliet May 7, 2008 at 8:56 am

“…an experience that’s immediate, honest, and, I hope, emotionally true.”

You took my comment right out of my mouth, Anthony. I appreciate the balance you have in regard to the realities of the publishing world and its relationship with cultural shifts (ADD etc.). Looking forward to reading more of your works. J

LR: Brilliant, as always.

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SusanHenderson May 7, 2008 at 2:10 pm

Anthony, thanks so much for being here. We share a lot of literary (and other) heroes, and great to see James Tate get a mention because he never ever does. I’m looking forward to reading these stories and absolutely love the cover of your book.

Seems like, more and more, I’m seeing flash fiction creep toward mainstream. When I was still editing a literary magazine, I definitely saw a huge shift in submissions – almost a quarter of them were flash, and the rest traditional short stories. And definitely webzines and indie presses are publishing more. But still, the only book of flash that seemed to be commercially successful was Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever?

Would love to hear from those of you deeply involved in flash fiction writing and publishing (Rusty Barnes, Kim Chinquee, Dave Clapper – are you guys around?), what’s your sense of how much flash is or isn’t penetrating the mainstream publishing world. And why or why not? The topic fascinates me. Also, if you just can’t get into flash fiction or short stories, what is it about those genres that turn you off? Would love to have some conversation about this.

Thank you, Lance! xo

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kaytie May 7, 2008 at 3:47 pm

I recently found a spiral notebook I kept in high school (this was the early 90s) and it was full of my own flash fiction–though I didn’t know that’s what it was back then. (Was there a genre called flash fiction then? I don’t even know.) They’re pretty terrible in that earnest adolescent way.

But my point is that I agree with Mr. Tognazzini’s “self-serving opinion” that short works and flash are finding readers in this diced up world. And I look forward to reading his book.

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SusanHenderson May 7, 2008 at 8:05 pm

I think “emotionally true” sums up what I always seek out in writing. I like to see a complicated heart in action.

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SusanHenderson May 7, 2008 at 8:11 pm

Very interesting observation. Maybe flash fiction was there all along, but because there was no word for it and no market, it either stayed in a drawer or had to be grown into a longer work in order for it to count.

I do think there are inherent issues with flash the way there are with poetry. For example, is description of a scene or a moment enough? Must there be a plot, and what exactly constitutes a plot. One of the best flash writers I know is Bob Thurber. He started to lay down some interesting standards for flash fiction and opened up some interesting talk on this subject several years ago. Here’s a link:

http://www.bobthurber.net/

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SusanHenderson May 7, 2008 at 9:50 pm

Hey, just wanted to call attention to a mistake that’s now been fixed. There was a mistake in loading one of the interview answers and it was truncated. So go back and see the section about music and check out the link, and apologies to Anthony.

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RustyB May 7, 2008 at 11:57 pm

I don’t think it’s penetrating the mainstream as much as any of us would like it to.. It does seem to be growing in its literary stature, though. Certainly Smokelong’s doing great work in making people aware of what’s going on in the field, and Vestal Review, and Kim Chinquee’s Oh Baby is great, as well as many others–a Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness–the four-pack Rose Metal Press just published, for certain Some other collections I admire, off the top of my head, are Ed Falco’s In the Park of Culture, Lydia Davis and Diane Williams various collections ( I recommend Almost No Memory, by Lydia Davis, and Excitability and other stories, by Diane Williams), Richard Currey’s Crossing Over, Jessica Treat’s books. I think as web-publishing becomes more and more common/prevalent in academia, other collections of shorter or mixed-genre books will follow. Judging by the response Night Train’s Firebox Fiction gets, a lot of people are interested in the form.

If I can talk about my own work, I’m not well-known, really, but sold through several hundred copies of my flash collection in less than a year, and trust me, I don’t have that many friends. 😉 Someone’s reading them.

I think as well, places like Emerson College teach classes in the short-short, and there are community-oriented classes at Boston’s Grub Street called Ten Weeks, Ten Stories, which concentrate exclusively on flash. Jennifer and Adam Pieroni, from Quick Fiction, are also heading up a new non-profit writing center, The Parlor, on Boston’s North Shore (I’m privileged to be on the board). I know they’ll be concentrating a large portion of their effort on the short-short form. I think it’s only going to get better, and there’s only going to be more of it.

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troutbum70 May 8, 2008 at 10:48 am

Flash is new to me. I would have just considered it a short story or vignette. I think that some stories are mere scenes that have nothing to do with a narrative, they are random and should be told that way. As readers we don’t always need to know why the drug addict uses or why the man sets on the park bench watching the clouds roll by. We just need to know that the addict set next to the man on the park bench and wept. Do I think this will be mainstream? No, most people need more information. They may like what they read but I can’t see people searching it out. Then again marketing being what it is it could be the most important thing to happen for three or four years and then fall from favor. Anyway, I feel like I’m talking in a circle.

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SusanHenderson May 8, 2008 at 1:38 pm

Rusty, Thank you so much for this. I knew you’d bring a really informed perspective. I agree with you that flash fiction has yet to penetrate mainstream publishing, but indie press is where all the risks usually begin – slipstream, magical realism, and so on – and the fact that you can name so many indie-published collections of flash says maybe we’re only one breakout collection away.

Also, and this is not just to you, Rusty, but all of you, stop being so humble. If you have a book out, link it. Here’s Rusty’s: http://www.amazon.com/Breaking-Down-Rusty-Barnes/dp/1934513032

P.S. A question for you. Is Diane W. maybe the most heavy-handed editor since Lydia Davis? 😉

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SusanHenderson May 8, 2008 at 1:42 pm

Michael, I’m so glad to hear your opinion here. I happen to love short fiction, but often it feels underdeveloped and collections, whether flash, short stories, or poetry, have a real tendency to be uneven. I used to read more short fiction than novel-length fiction, but lately, I prefer the novels because I like to stay with a character for longer. Exceptions are collections featuring recurring characters, including my favorite, Ellen Gilchrist.

Oh, was anyone else psyched to read this today? http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,,2278421,00.html

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BfSb May 8, 2008 at 3:30 pm

I’ve read Anthony’s book over more times than I can count now. Individually, the stories live in their own universe but what is overlooked about his work is that as a whole, the book represents a larger plot. Read from front to back, “I carry a hammer in my pocket for occasions such as these” reads more to me like a novel. Sure the stories and shorts all have completely different characters and context, but what ties them all together is the constant sense of involvement in each. It’s like Mr. Tognazzini is trying to tell you something, keeping you constantly engaged for a reason. Letting you know that if you pay attention, any paragraph or any sentence can turn a light on in your head. Flash fiction? Maybe. But the kicker here is that there’s nothing flashy about it. It’s real and visceral, undeniably poignient and beautiful. This, in my opinion is the new read. If you have a limited attention span, this book might be your cure.

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Juliet May 8, 2008 at 10:38 pm

Thanks for the link, Susan… am curled up in bed checking this out.
xoxj

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Nathalie May 9, 2008 at 1:48 am

Flash, drabbles (horrible name, that), micro or even nano fiction. They are all hot things right now. It seems that the attention span of the readers is dwindling – too much stress, too much to do – and these are the perfect niche entertainment (in fact the first five stories I sold were ranging from 60 to 150 words). I found that writing to a limited (and sometimes precise) word count a great exercise. It keeps me on track of what is essential and the importance of the world beyond the words.

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Aurelio May 9, 2008 at 11:27 am

There is a rich tradition of small stories, allegories, parables, and bon mots. Benjamin Franklin made a habit of it. These things are very much like pockets full of useful things to pull out as needed. I look forward to reading yours, Anthony.

Thanks for sharing on the Park this week, and thank you too, Lance, for another fine interview!

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Betsy May 9, 2008 at 3:14 pm

This is so up my alley. More book-shopping for me!

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SusanHenderson May 9, 2008 at 8:49 pm

Now that’s quite the endorsement for this book. Thanks for stopping by, Timothy!

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SusanHenderson May 9, 2008 at 8:52 pm

I’ve never heard the term “drabbles” until now.

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SusanHenderson May 9, 2008 at 8:56 pm

Yeah, this is an interesting idea that there have probably been flash fiction writers for a long while, but now we just have a label for it.

(Thanks for the shoulder to cry on today.)

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SusanHenderson May 9, 2008 at 8:56 pm

I’m sure you just made Anthony smile!

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Nathalie May 10, 2008 at 3:24 am

100 words stories.

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jodyreale May 15, 2008 at 8:50 am

You had me at bacon maple bar.

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Bob Thurber June 6, 2008 at 2:16 pm

A nice, healthy discussion and I missed it.

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