Scott Snyder’s VOODOO HEART (Dial Press, May 2006) is something to gush about. Scott’s a writer’s writer – the kind who makes every sentence gorgeous and buzzing with multiple meaning. In his debut collection, his stories are universal tales of love, self-doubt and fear of commitment, but told in such outrageously original ways that I was thrilled on every page.
It’s difficult to write about the stories in this collection without giving away the surprises, so I’ve decided to give just a taste. Here is what Scott can do with character. In “About Face,” the narrator is a trumpet player hired by a boot camp for delinquent teens to wake the campers with Reveille. Listen to him discuss his nickname:
“Nunce” is short for enunciate, which is what people used to say I did best on horn: stepping hard and clear on each note in a commanding, declarative way. But this is a style no one wants to play alongside. It’s the style of someone who learned to play alone, not in a band like most people. I’m no good at call-and-response. How I play is like someone talking loudly to himself, yelling at himself (p. 81).
And here is his description of the freak accident that changed him forever:
It’s funny how a hit like that can be all it takes to knock you off course. Hardly more than a tap or nudge, and suddenly you find that you’ve become someone entirely new, some dark version of yourself you never thought possible. One minute you’re a boy with promise, you’re an honors student, you have friends, a future; and the next you’re twenty-nine and living in the basement of your cousin’s house. Where has your chance at happiness gone? You don’t know. Whenever people talk about how the neighborhood has gone downhill, it feels like they’re talking about you (p. 75-6).
In the story, “Blue Yodel,” a doomed love story set in the Niagra Falls, where the narrator is hired to look out for “jumpers” (those who attempt suicide over the falls), see how Scott can get the most out of a setting:
A blue yodel was what people called it when a number of fish swam too close to the falls and were swept against the ice piled up at the cusp. The current held the fish there until they froze, and then slowly, as the ice pushed forward, they were rolled over the edge of the falls and worked down through the glassy stalactites in spiraling columns. All sorts of fish hung in the giant icicle closest to Pipe Island: perch and rainbow trout, sturgeon. None of them looked old or sick. They were large fish with wide red gills. It seemed to Pres that they could have easily escaped the current had they wanted to, but there they were (p. 25).
The title story “Voodoo Heart,” tells of a man afraid of his own nature, believing he will purposely hurt and abandon the woman he loves. What I want to show you are the brilliant, unexpected turns that don’t, at first, appear to be central to the plot. Here, for example, is a description of some fish in the aquarium where the narrator’s fiancee works:
I noticed a crop of little tube-like shapes protruding from the angler’s belly.
“Those aren’t actually fins. They’re male anglers. The males, they attach themselves to a female and fuse to her body. And then after a while their insides dissolve and they become these pouches of sperm she can use when she feels like reproducing (p. 120).”
Here is the wrecking yard where the narrator works, and where a car owner will sometimes bring an expensive car that is still in good condition, demanding it be flattened:
Marco and Jesus call cars like that Voodoos. They like to try to guess what happened between the cars and the people who brought them in (p. 129).
Oh, I’m trying my best not to give away too much of the book. Just one last thing from the story “Voodoo Heart,” concerning the women’s prison not far from where the narrator and his fiancee live. This is the inmate who fascinates the narrator to the point of obsession:
When she was finally caught, she didn’t seem to understand what she’d done wrong. She’d only killed the bad babies, she said. She claimed she could tell which ones were going to grow up to be good people, and which ones were bad seeds (p. 127).
In the 1940s Rose Deach was a scary story that parents and nannies around Florida told misbehaving children, a fairy-tale villain. Kids used her name to frighten each other (p. 127).
This is the kind of book you can gush about. You can buy the hardcover and not feel like you paid too much for it. And when you meet the author (he’ll be here tomorrow!), you will be charmed. And you’ll say, “Write more. Please write more.”
How to get blurbed by Stephen King, and other advice.
Let’s start with this killer blurb from Stephen King:
Scott Snyder’s Voodoo Heart just blew me away. These dispatches from disaffected but strangely likeable American oddities have much the same effect as good American roots music: their simplicity is deceptive, their emotional power considerable. And at some point between the mystery-blimp of “Blue Yodel” and the World War I-era Curtis Jenny of “The Star Attraction of 1919,” you may discover that Snyder’s plain folks have stolen your heart. I think what impressed me most about these stories – even the ones in which terrible things happen – was their warmth and humanity. Even when his characters are at their worst, Scott Snyder never abandons them. These are stories that welcome the reader in, and fully reward his interest. Sometimes horrifying, often absurd, full of characters afraid to commit (and who sometimes commit anyway), this is a debut worthy of T. Coraghessan Boyle’s If The River Was Whiskey. I couldn’t put it down. – Stephen King
Talk to me about getting Stephen King to blurb your book.
When I was about nine years old, my folks sent me to this really competitive sports camp. The atmosphere was pretty Lord of the Flies. I was a fat kid at the time and generally inept at sports. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a good time. I remember writing letters home, begging my folks to rescue me they still have one with a tearstain that I circled on the page and marked: actual tear. Anyhow, there was this one cool counselor in our bunk, and on the first night of camp he started reading to us from Stephen King’s Eyes of the Dragon. Every night that summer he read a few more pages, and those readings constituted the only thing that I looked forward to each day. I couldn’t wait for taps, when I could forget about the basket I flubbed or the dodge-ball mark on my face and head to the bunk and escape to Delain. Prince Peter, King Roland. Flagg my favorite. I still remember them well. The experience of listening to that book really jump-started my love of story-telling. So getting the blurb basically made my whole year. I’m a huge, huge fan. Already pre-ordered Lisey’s Story.
Oh God, but you’re adorable. Okay, and what has been your experience of gathering blurbs? Can you share a sense of what has worked for you?
It was a great experience overall. No one was harsh or even unresponsive. Some people I sent to for blurbs I didn’t know at all, like Rick Bass. Others, like Elizabeth McKracken, I knew fairly well; Elizabeth was a teacher of mine in a summer writing program back I was just 19 years old. Even the people that couldn’t do a blurb were nice. For example, George Saunders, whom I’ve only met at readings, was extremely kind and wrote an apology as to why he couldn’t get to the book in time I practically framed the apology!
As for the people I didn’t know well, my tack was just to be honest in the letters and tell them what I liked about their writing, how their work had influenced the stories . . . I didn’t send to anyone whose writing hadn’t affected my own in a big way.
When you read compliments on your writing from literary icons, what’s it like?
It’s honestly one of the best feelings in the world. Nothing means more than praise from your idols.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
The sort of north stars for me are: Dennis Johnson, Ray Carver, Rick Bass, Stephen King, Joy Williams, George Saunders, Tobias Wolff, Elizabeth McKracken, Frank Miller, Alan Moore . . .
Some of my favorite new writers are: Owen King, Kelly Braffet, Will Clarke, Aaron Hamburger, Hannah Tinti, Patrick Ryan, Craig Teicher, Brenda Shaughnessey, Kelly Link, Lauren Grodstein . . . The list goes on.
Do you know Roy Kesey? I ask because you two have a similar sensibility in your writing and I think you’d both love each other’s work.
I read a story by him that I really liked in Land Grant College Review (great magazine, by the way). But that’s about it.
Time to fix that.
**Brief Roy Kesey Introduction**
Roy Kesey is a tremendous writer with publications in McSweeneys, Other Voices, Quarterly West, Ninth Letter, The Iowa Review, The New England Review, The Mississippi Review, The Georgia Review, in addition to his regular column at McSweeney’s.net, and his extraordinary new book.
More importantly, he’s a very close friend. The kind of friend where we’ve both heard each other sing, we’ve babysat each other’s kids, and once, one of us caught a good peek at the other one’s butt crack and someone (I won’t say who) gets rankled whenever I mention it.
He’s the kind of friend who lets you crash at his place in Beijing for a couple of weeks, and you go through two full liters of scotch together over poker and talks about Christopher Guest. And maybe he eats a bird head down to the skull on your dare for which you still owe him an enormous favor. In other words, he’s a good egg.
There. Now I’ll just send a note to both of you so you can say hi. And this interview is on pause while you do that.
Tomorrow, Scott will be back, sharing his road to publication and advice to other short story writers!
A short story writer discusses the road to publication.
How did you know your book was finished? Describe to me how you moved from the stage of having a couple of strong stories, to deciding to put them together into a collection, to knowing you had something worth sending out.
When I sent it out, I had seven completed stories and two more outlined. I’d been published in a few magazines at that point, which made it easier to sell it really does help to get into the journals. I honestly just sent it out when I thought it was representative of what I could do, what the project was.
The weird thing is, I actually ended up revising the manuscript a lot after it sold. I had a rough year personally, around the time of the sale, and I really wanted to add some things to the collection. I developed an idea of it that was slightly different, more expansive than I’d originally thought. I wanted it to get into the murk, the darker, more difficult themes I suddenly recognized in some of the earlier stories. So I took a full year after the sale to work it over. I wrote almost half the book then the title story, the final story, which are both longer pieces. I pretty much re-wrote Dumpster Tuesday, too.
Can you talk to me about the process of finding an agent?
I had sort of a weird experience. I was reading with other students at Columbia and I got approached by a man who works for a German publishing house called DTV. He translates one of my teachers the incredible Binnie Kirshenbaum and after the reading he asked to see some of the stories. I gave him a few and he decided to publish a German language version of the collection with DTV. So I actually had to find an agent then, before I wanted to send a collection out here I still wanted to write a few more stories. But the point is I was really lucky; with the German interest it wasn’t that hard to get agents involved.
(For anyone interested, the German book’s called Happy Fish, and I can’t read a word of it. It has a few of the Voodoo Heart stories in it in earlier forms. To this day, every few months, I still get a review from Germany that I can’t make any sense of.)
And then how long was it before you found a publisher?
After finding an agent, I took another year working the stories out. Once the manuscript was out, it took about three weeks to finalize with Dial. Dial has been incredible from the start, by the way. My editor, Susan Kamil, is amazing. Like I said, she gave me a full extra year after signing to polish the collection, write some new stories, really make it something I’m very proud of. She even let me do illustrations the drawings at the start of each story.
The Mr. And Mrs.
I didn’t know those were your drawings! I’m impressed – and partial to that gramophone.
Describe some of the ups and downs along the way, and who or what helped you get a foothold in this business.
To be honest, there haven’t been many downs so far, knock on wood. I spent a year after getting my masters teaching high school, which was hard. The experience was rewarding on many levels, but I found it very difficult to write regularly. Overall, I’ve just been really lucky. I wanted to be a comic book writer as a kid, then a literary writer by the time I was in high school. So all this is a pretty much a dream come true.
What advice do you have for others who are hoping to publish a collection of short stories?
This might sound dumb, but write from the heart. Make your work matter to you, whatever your interests are. Dig into the stuff that you’re most afraid of, most excited by . . . Make it hard on yourself. Your stories should secretly be your own favorite collection of the year.
The word among many writing communities is that, in order to publish a collection of short stories, they must be linked in some way. What do you think of this? And in what way do you think the stories in VOODOO HEART are linked?
I do think that stories should be linked, but only by a particular sensibility. Meaning like an album that plays along certain themes, certain questions, rather than like a series of singles strung together. If they’re really your own, made from the stuff of you, the whole collection should be coherent.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel about early flight for Dial.
I’m looking forward to it! Last thing: Tell me about your obsession with Elvis Presley. Is it okay for me to call it an obsession?
I’m proud to have you call it an obsession. I once saw a New Yorker cartoon that showed these two ticket windows at Graceland. Both were selling tickets for tours and one was labeled “ironic” and the other “non-ironic.” I’m definitely of the non-ironic ticket line.
I really started to get into Elvis seriously at about 19. I wasn’t a popular kid and I had trouble finding girlfriends. I guess I first got into him because he was someone no one else would like – he seemed uncool at the time, which sounds ludicrous now (sorry, E). Anyhow, the more I listened to his early stuff, and the more I read, the more inspiring I found him. I mean, here’s this kid from the wrong side of the tracks: poor, pimple-faced, scrawny. He has no reason to believe in himself, and yet here he comes, heading to school dressed like a black pimp in bullfighter’s pants and a pink jacket, carrying his guitar, hair pomaded to heaven, eyes rimmed in eye-liner . . . It’s that confidence, that ballsiness that I found so inspiring initially. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Elvis in all his phases for lots of different reasons. I really do look to him pretty often for guidance. But that early image of him still hits a nerve. A kid with nothing going for him, already acting like the king. The day he cut his first record at Sun Studios, he poked his head in the door, and when the secretary asked him who he sounded like, he responded, “I don’t sound like nobody.” I have that quote tacked to my computer. (Beneath my velvet Elvis, beside my Elvis bust . . . .)
Don’t think I’m going to let this Elvis thing drop because we have one more day here with Scott. Tune in tomorrow!
Author dressed as Elvis. Please swallow coffee before clicking.
I love it when I offer a goofy idea to an author and he says YES! Can you guess the name of this author who wrote VOODOO HEART?
Thank you, Scott Snyder for a great week!
Enjoy your weekend, everyone!