An Interview With Author Mel Bosworth
Editor Staff, Interview, March 3rd, 2011
Matty Byloos conducted this interview over a few days via email, with writer Mel Bosworth, who lives and writes in western Massachusetts. This interview is published in advance of his forthcoming book, Freight.
I think a lot of my fellow writers share a similar story. We operate principally in the small press universe, most of which exists online (excluding touring, conferences, local readings, etc.), so consequently, none of us meet outside of emails. AWP provides a context for many important things, not the least of which is the act of “putting a face with a name.” That means, creating real face to face relationships with friends and colleagues, whom you may only have previously had a digital awareness of. This is a hugely good thing.
Now of course, writers find a lot of courage in the Internet — we tend to have a mastery over words, and often that doesn’t extend outside of that space off the “page” and into social interaction. So the social process that occurs at things like AWP is sometimes tenuous, but that’s not always the the case. This past year at AWP (it was my first), I met many fine people whom I now call friends and colleagues (for real). One of the true standouts, and I am sure I’m not alone in saying this, was Mel Bosworth. I was lucky enough to meet him within the first ten minutes of being in Washington DC this year. Fellow “MB,” Mel also showed up in DC, sharing my intentions for what we wanted to achieve from the experience — it was a chance to connect names and faces, and to really dig a bit deeper into creating relationships with good people.
Mel, to be reductive, is an awesome dude. He’s hard not to like. He’s a great writer and a solid performer, proving those facts to many people while sharing a crowded stage with many talents this year in DC. This interview turned dialogue turned back into interview was a chance for us to talk more as colleagues, post-conference. The full transcript is published below.
Matty Byloos: Talk to me about your writing process. I always find that it takes something absurd, monumental, curious, or otherwise completely off-putting for me to feel like using the writing process as a kind of pseudo-journalism, a way of unpacking the human experience and speaking to things that we all share. Is this something that sounds familiar? Or is writing a totally different experience for you, in practice?
Mel Bosworth: Yeah, no, that totally sounds familiar to me. Sometimes I’m inspired to write when I have one of those — and I hate to say it — “a-ha” moments, and I’m curious if I can translate that moment well in written form. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be some earth-shattering revelation, although it can be that, too. It could be something as simple as an overheard conversation, or a simple line, even, like a mother saying to her kid in the grocery store, “Put that back on the shelf.” Maybe the kid can’t have “that” because he’s obese, or maybe because there’s some ingredient in “that” that his body can’t tolerate, or maybe they can’t afford “that,” or maybe “that” reminds the mother of her dead child’s favorite cereal.
But yes, it definitely takes something, something external, something I’ve experienced, personally, to lure me to the desk. It’s when I actually have an idea that the writing comes easily. When I don’t have an idea, and I come to the desk, let the pointless, loathsome, time-wasting Internet laps begin. And it’s at these empty times that I have to remind myself to walk away, to read a book, to go outside, to go to a grocery store, to… live.
I have to remind myself to get out and live. Sure, much can be learned (and experienced) from a life of solitude and deep contemplation, but it’s damn fun sometimes to bounce myself off of other people, like, people I can poke and annoy, maybe even love. That’s where the good writing juice is, I think.
Byloos: Do you have favorite writers? I type this and read it and it sounds stupid, because on the one hand, I love William T. Vollman and don’t necessarily have any desire to write like him, and on the other, I love Thomas Pynchon and am pretty straight about never being able to write like him, though I suppose it’s a lofty enough goal. So I guess a follow-up to the question would be, what do you do with your favorite writers? How do they factor into your writing, your desire to publish in places or alongside other people, career goals, etc.?
Bosworth: I do have favorite writers. Well, maybe they’re not my favorite writers now but they were at one time in my life, so I guess their job is done in that I carry them around in my head, I carry their influence around in my head. Henry Miller was a big influence on me when I was in my early twenties. His prose ran like a waterfall, and, at the time, I’d never read anything like that before. He was an asshole, and he wasn’t afraid to write about it. There’s something very admirable in that kind of honesty. Same with Bukowski. I also went through a pretty heavy Robert Anton Wilson phase. And I keep meaning to go through a Philip K. Dick phase.
These days I read a lot of stuff that comes from the indie community, and I have to remind myself that it’s okay to read outside of that, too. Cormac McCarthy is never hard to take. Or even Frank McCourt. I suppose what I do with my favorite writers is that I absorb them. And I probably don’t even realize I’m doing it at the time, especially if the writing truly speaks to me. It’s like swimming in the ocean for a good stretch, and then coming out waterlogged and salty. When you experience writing that affects you on a personal level, you wear it on your shoulders for a long time, it seeps into your bloodstream, and, eventually, it finds its way into your own voice.
My favorite writers, past and present, make me want to strive for my own personal honesty in my work, whether I’m writing fiction or anything else. I think when we, as writers, tap into that honesty, good things happen, and, more often than not, those good things happening also happen to be good things to read. And the rest, in terms of writing success, will, hopefully, take care of itself.
Byloos: That kind of leads me to another question. I feel like it’s an imperative to take chances with my own writing, and while I won’t hold that against another writer or their book if they choose another path, I do often find that I come away from a new read feeling a tiny bit deflated, let down. And it’s strange — it’s like I’m thinking to myself, Why didn’t he or she do more? They’re obviously talented and capable. Why not take bigger chances with subject matter or whatever? So maybe you can dialogue with me about that, and then here’s where Carrie [Seitzinger, Ass. Ed. of SDmag] and I got in that talk: I started to feel like maybe this is how things like “Writer’s Writer” come about.
That maybe if a writer’s work is too far skewed in any one direction, then it starts to evolve in a place where it really takes another writer to appreciate what they are doing, or at least it might take other writers to be the early adopters, to borrow a phrase from technology. Like the quirky lit or transgressive stuff or ultrastrange won’t necessarily appeal to the mainstream (not that this ought to be the goal, but realistically, in terms of one’s career, I suppose it would be stupid not to consider a wider appeal beyond your eight other friends), but instead might be loved and understood by your writerly peers. Thoughts? Also — how do you define “Writer’s Writer” if you even use the term at all.
Bosworth: Yeah yeah, Matty. I feel you, I do. Taking chances in writing is a great thing, an essential thing. It’s the nature of evolution. If we didn’t take chances, we’d be crawling around on all fours our entire lives, or maybe howling at the moon (not that either is a bad thing, and I sometimes think devolution has its place, in the sense of stripping things away, of finding meaning in places we may have forgotten existed). And I don’t think I’ve ever used the term “Writer’s Writer,” but I know exactly what you mean by it, and I think I’d define it as “A writer who creates without regard for mass appeal.” Or something like that. They’re not worried about being judged, or critiqued, or, if the text demands it, about being coherent even. It’s the same thing as experimental musicians, or filmmakers.
I think a lot of that shit is bunk, but every now and then something cracks through and I’ll find myself saying, “Damn. Well okay.” David Lynch comes to mind when I think of experimental filmmakers who’ve earned a broad audience while also staying true to work that keeps itself far from the mainstream. And I know Lynch is the easy example, but he’s the best one I could think of off the top of my head. As far as experimental writers go, shit, man, if you jump back even a few decades you could safely label the bulk of the literary canon as experimental. What we consider “traditional” now was at one time experimental work, in one way or another.
And the extremes dictate what the center will be. So we need everything. It’s all essential. Whether or not it’s regarded as “readable” or “enjoyable” or “whatever” to a mainstream audience doesn’t really matter. Well, it does. But it’s more important that these “Writer’s Writers” are being read by other writers, and it’s also important that they’re influencing these other writers, too. And they doubtless are. At least I would hope that. And that’s what’s so great about the online lit scene. It’s relatively “underground,” for the most part, and it’s thriving with experimentation. And that experimentation succeeds like a motherfucker sometimes, and the mainstream spotlight flashes across its face.
It may be a small flash, though, but it’s a flash nonetheless, and sometimes just a bit of light is all it takes for seeds to germinate. And evolution ticks forward, in all things creative. What do you think, Matty? Will the experimental writing of today be the “traditional” writing of tomorrow? And is the online lit scene helping to accelerate that evolution of writing?
Byloos: Part of me, and this is a significant part, is well convinced that one of the principal missions of “art” in general is to go to the ugly and forgotten places, and to somehow do the work to make them beautiful. Now, of course I am aware that these are terribly loaded, relative terms that can easily get one into trouble, discursively speaking. I’m not exactly sure I’d like to get into a conversation anymore about what is beauty, or whether the beautiful is also somehow irresponsible, but I do definitely notice when I see a writer take a tough subject matter, something that might make others cringe, and somehow they manage to render that subject beautiful, investing it with something magical — like a knowledge tonic, maybe. Not sure if you have read Dennis Cooper, but his work is among my favorites, and I think he pretty well crystalizes exactly what I am trying to talk about. Vollman’s Butterfly Stories does the same thing but in a different way — if I told you I was writing about a character trying to get Aids by sleeping with prostitutes in southeast Asia, you’d be like — Ok, good luck with that. But Vollman’s prose is levels beyond profound, and infused with so much compassion and revelation.
Your talk around Lynch is poignant, and the idea about how what was once experimental may inevitably become the norm (or even the revered) has many cases-in-point within the canon. I guess for me, with writers like Cooper, part of the mystique or the power of the work is its transgressive quality. It’s exactly not for everybody. It’s like the secret room at the lit party. I don’t exactly know what would happen if he was somehow being emulated by every MFA candidate across the country. Or maybe he is, I don’t know. Vollman wins every major award under the sun, but one doesn’t exactly see his books for sale at the airport either, and he didn’t write The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest to later be turned into a movie.
Ultimately, we have to be who we are, as ridiculous or simple as that may sound, and I don’t think the rule changes for writers. You have to accept the kind of writer you are, and write that thing. I’m interested in dark places. I worship at the alter of research. I want to merge a kind of gonzo existence with formal experimentation in fiction, and maybe make some readers a tad uncomfortable. Or maybe that’s not the goal, but if it’s a byproduct, then I’m fine with it. The work is wholly mine at the end of the day, from the idea phase through whatever feedback is there to be received.
Do you remember ever having a thought that you determined to be “out of bounds” for your writing — like a subject that you censored yourself out of, or something that you thought would be going too far?
And not to pass over your question, but my feelings are mixed about the online lit scene. I am super glad that the Internet fosters multiple dialogues and brings new colleagues into collaboration and conversation. But there are myriad problems that we still have yet to identify, and that troubles me. For instance, flash fiction is wonderful in so many ways, but I’m not sure enough thought has been put into its purpose, its function, its role, etc. It seems like it’s all being fleshed out still. So I love that there is a broad forum for flash to be published, read, sorted through — but it’s not quite poetry and definitely not long-form fiction. Do we talk about what it is and what it’s doing? Or are we just happy to have another credit on our list of places we’ve published? And I ask these questions at the exact same time that I am personally loving writing flash fiction, so maybe I’m just talking out loud through some of my own analysis and concerns.
Bosworth: To begin, yes, I agree that one of the principal reasons of art is to go to the ugly and forgotten places and do the work to make them beautiful. And I also agree that I’m not sure whether I want to engage in a conversation about what “beauty” is anymore either, although it is tempting to play devil’s advocate and ask, “Isn’t there an implicit beauty in all things, even the things widely considered ugly or cringe-worthy?” I would, however, like to hear you expand a bit on the idea that “beauty is irresponsible” when you get a second, either here or elsewhere. I’m trying to wrap my head around that but I can’t fasten the snap. And no, I haven’t read either Cooper or Vollman (I know, I suck, but they’re on my radar now thanks to you) but I think I understand what you’re getting at. Writing that shocks the system—but not “shocking” in a lame, contrived way, although I would argue that any form of expression is tainted by contrivance, and that there is no such thing as a “pure art form,” save our simple existence, though only at the basest, most animalistic of levels, the place where cogent thought ceases to be—makes us vulnerable to new ideas, new ways of thinking. And I mean “vulnerable” in a good way, because writing like that almost forces us to drop our guard, to open ourselves to a new experience, an experience that YES may be uncomfortable and that YES may be revelatory and that most certainly YES will be essential in some way. And you’re right, we’re probably never going to see writing like this available at the airport because YES (again) transgressive literature can be a scary thing to some people, like midget porn, and it’ll probably always be a thing that needs to be sought out. Which is unfortunate, but understandable. The fact that challenging work exists and is available can sometimes be victory enough.
And you’re also right about writers having to be who they are. That’s not to say that writers can’t try on different hats, though. Possessing the ability to re-invent oneself (Bowie) can be tremendously beneficial to both the individual and to those lucky enough to have access to their expression. If nothing else, it offers a sense of refreshment to the artist, and it also creates the opportunity to touch a different audience. But the core of the individual will always remain the same, yes? The particular bell tone within will always be a constant, yes, regardless of experimentation and re-invention? That’s the whole idea of “being what we are,” yes? Can I ask “yes” again, yes? Yes I can.
And as far as ever having a thought that something was too “out of bounds” for my writing, I’m pretty sure I can say I’ve never really worried about that, not yet, anyway. I’m still relatively new to the game, or at least new enough. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but I’ve only gotten “serious” about it the past…I don’t know, eight years or so, and I’ve only begun to have any kind of “success” within the past three. And I’ve always written what I wanted to write, though I wouldn’t necessarily classify much (but maybe some) of my work as “transgressive.” And I guess this is a good segue to the online lit scene.
And you’re right (again and again) it can be a mess, it can be troubling. Depends on how you approach things. For me, it’s a testing ground for new ideas, or at least it can be. It’s a place to try on different hats, different styles, see what fits, see what doesn’t. It’s a playground. And it’s also a battleground. You’ve got hundreds of voices fighting to be heard. And because of this, new zines sprout by the day. Shit, I bet five new online mags have started since we began this interview. At least five.
And, to me, I think one of the most troubling things about the online lit scene is the instant gratification addiction to which many writers fall victim. And the flash fiction market encourages this. Is that a bad thing? Yes and no. On the one hand, from an editorial and also a writing standpoint, you’re dealing with a potential market of readers who don’t want to read long pieces online. I’d bet only a handful of folks even read this interview because it’s now nearly 3K words. People want short and fast. Short and tight. Short and funny. Short and thoughtful. Maybe it’s our attention spans. Maybe it’s technology ruining our brains. Maybe it’s not. I’m not sure. And on the other hand, you’re dealing with swarms of junky writers who are addicted to that shot of instant gratification, that coveted “less-than-a-week-acceptance,” and it doesn’t matter where. And I’ve been a junky to it, too. Flash fiction has made me its bitch on plenty of occasions. I will say, though, that flash fiction has its purpose. And it can be moving. And it can be executed extremely well.
For me, writing a piece 500 words or less can be a good way to kick myself in the ass, to clean out the pipes. It forces you to condense thoughts, to focus. And from a scumbag self-promoting marketing standpoint, it’s also great to keep yourself active and visible, especially if you’re trying to promote a larger work like a book. So yes, flash fiction is a way to rack up the writing credits, to get a smidge more exposure for yourself. But that shouldn’t devalue the form. Because it does have value, and it often, I think, encourages the merger of short form fiction and poetry. Some call it verse fiction. Some call it something else. Whatever. It’s here, and I don’t think it’s going away. All writing is part of the larger evolution of writing.
Byloos: Do you think the online lit scene rushes writers through the process?
Bosworth: I do worry that the online lit scene does encourage you to “rush” work. But only if you let it. Lots of writers churn out material and blast it out into e-land without too much thought about revision, about how good the piece is, whether it’s the best it could possibly be. It’s that nagging desire for instant gratification, that worry that someone is getting a step ahead of you, that somehow you’ll be forgotten and fall to the bottom of the feed if you don’t submit at least three new pieces a week.
What I’m trying to say is—it’s all tricky ground. All of it. And I have to constantly remind myself to simplify, to relax, to write what I want to write, to give it the proper care and consideration, and then move forward. Some days, though, I don’t do any of these things. Insecurity is a whore.
Byloos: Looks like we got caught up in more of a conversation for the public, rather than an interview. How ’bout a lightning round? I’ll drop the rest of the typical writer-interviews-writer topics, and you give me a sentence or two on each until we wrap this thing up.
- Schooling (MFA versus no MFA, etc.)
Bosworth: If you don’t mind the debt saddle—it’s fantastic for the exposure to different kinds of writers and writing, for the opportunities—present and future—that arise, and for countless other positive things. On the other hand, you can get just as good an education in writing by living your life, working a job, reading, and, of course, by doing—by doing the work, by making your hands move. In either case, great things can happen. You just have to want it, and by wanting it, I also mean you have to go get it.
Bosworth: Workshopping is great in any setting, college campus or coffee shop, online or off. Being able to bounce words off of one another and to talk about those words is extremely beneficial to all parties involved. Workshopping can accelerate progress. That’s not to say that writers can’t progress by non-workshopping, but chances are they’ll better see the light at the end of the tunnel if that tunnel is someone else’s mouth. Just make sure your workshop buddies are fans of breath mints.
Bosworth: Sometimes it’s difficult for creative types to actually open up in their real life outside of their work, but meeting new folks (be they creative types or not, it doesn’t really matter) is also extremely beneficial, and necessary, in moving forward. The world is a big place but we’re never alone, and seeking out folks who share common, positive goals is a great thing. That’s why it’s important to never underestimate anyone, and never ever ever burn bridges. Unless you absolutely have to.
Bosworth: DC was my first AWP, and I had a blast. For me, it was an opportunity to meet all of the folks I’ve been working with online for the past couple of years. It was great to poke them, hug them, talk to them. Even though they’re far uglier in person, I still consider them attractive people, and I’m proud to call them my friends.
- Book Marketing
Bosworth: The trick, I think, to marketing, whether promoting a book or yourself, is to make it fun, so it doesn’t necessarily feel like marketing. I do think marketing is important, because at the end of the day we’re not just creative types, we’re also scumbag salesmen. And some folks might say things like, “I don’t care if people see my work or not,” but, in most cases, I think that’s bullshit. We all want our work to be read, viewed, commented on. So it’s okay to market yourself. It’s all part of it. Just do it creatively, and cool, if possible, and try not to annoy the shit out of people.
- Book Touring
Bosworth: I want to tour. Touring looks like fun and I want to tour. I need to figure out how to put something like that together. Touring with awesome folks would be awesome. If I’m ever in Portland, Matty, let’s tour around town. And if you’re ever in western Mass, we’ll figure out how to tour around here. We can read on top of mountains or something.
- Small Press Versus Big Press
Bosworth: I’ve never dealt with a “big press,” so I’m not sure I could compare the two very well. But I will say this about the small presses: They are fearless and badass, and I bet it’s fair to say that some small presses make moves that make big presses shudder with envy.
Byloos/Smalldoggies: Thanks for all of your thoughts here, Mel. Everyone’s time is valuable, and you put a ton of consideration into these answers.
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Mel Bosworth is the author of When the Cats Razzed the Chickens (Folded Word Press, 2009) Grease Stains, Kismet, and Maternal Wisdom (Brown Paper Publishing, 2010) and Freight (coming 2011 from Folded Word Press). His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in elimae, PANK, Per Contra, Wigleaf, BLIP Magazine, Annalemma, decomP, Dark Sky Magazine, >kill author, and Emprise Review, among others.
Mel lives, breathes, writes, and works in western Massachusetts. Visit him at the Mel Bosworth Official Site.