“I do love a well-orchestrated prank.” In conversation with Arthur Bradford
ARTHUR BRADFORD is one of the most enigmatic figures on the American literary landscape today. Living in Portland, working at a juvenile detention center, he relentlessly seeks pick-up basketball games against younger and more skilled athletes. He wears a “compression sock” on one leg, to combat a circulation problem, so many of these competitors believe he has a prosthetic limb. Given Bradford’s stories in his new book Turtleface and Beyond, such confusion is apt. He keeps us off-balance and delighted (these stories are actually fun to read!). Is he naïve and simple, or does he have some more devious purpose in mind? In this interview, Peter Rock attempts to gain insight into Arthur and his follow-up to 2001’s Dogwalker (a book that counted among its devotees David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith and David Sedaris).
“It was an irresponsible thing to do. I even knew it at the time, but still I went ahead.”
–first lines of “Orderly,” in Turtleface and Beyond: Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
PETER ROCK: Arthur, hello. Congratulations. What about this new book of stories, Turtleface and Beyond, makes you proudest?
ARTHUR BRADFORD: Hi Pete! And thank you for the congratulations. I’m really just proud to have another book in print at this point. I like these stories and stand by them, and I will go into further detail about that below, but my most proud feeling comes from the satisfaction that this book exists and I’m no longer a “one trick pony,” as it were.
PR: Does simply having a new book make you a many-tricked pony? What do you think is significantly different, here? How has your storytelling evolved? I have my suspicions, but I’m curious what you believe to be your new tricks (or whether you think simply having a second book makes you a different pony).
AB: I just said that I’m no longer a one trick pony, not that I have many tricks. I’m happy to be a two trick pony, really. Anything but the one trick variety, or the no trick, for that matter. I think do think my storytelling is better though. I’m less likely to veer off into the realm of absurdity, talking animals and metamorphoses. Sometimes that works but sometimes I think it becomes an escape valve for a problematic story. These stories here in this new book may be weird, but they are not unrealistic, for the most part.
PR: I have been following your career for quite some time, and am a real fan of your first book, Dogwalker, which came out in 2001. I just want to get this question out of the way—insensitive to ask, disingenuous to avoid: What took so long? What have you been doing for the past 14 years?
AB: I’ve been expecting this question, anticipating it since about 2008, when the traditional threshold between books had been passed yet I still hoped to have another come out. So it would be fair to say that some of that time has been spent trying to formulate a good answer to this very question. What have I been doing? What have any of us been doing, really? It’s all a blur! But to be more helpful here I will say that I spent much of my time focused on making documentary films. I directed a short-lived series for MTV and also helped run a residential summer camp for people with disabilities. Throughout this long gap between books I continued to write and publish short stories, some of which appear in this book, but many which don’t. Writing is something I always kept up even during the times when I wasn’t sure if this next book would ever come to be.
PR: I understand that in this long pause you have produced two daughters. Word is that they require time and attention. And you published a children’s book (Benny’s Brigade) with McSweeney’s, which you very humbly don’t mention. With regard to fatherhood—do you think this has had any effect on your storytelling? I’m thinking of a story like “The Baby and the LSD,” for instance. And do you wonder and worry about your daughters one day reading some of the more NC-17 material here (I had no idea you were so acrobatic!) and what they might think?
AB: Fatherhood has been good exercise for my story-creating muscles. Those girls are very demanding. They want stories all the time and don’t suffer half-assed attempts well. I’d someday like to write a book like “Watership Down”, which as I understand it, originated as a story that Richard Adams made up to tell to his daughters on long drives. Hearing that inspires me to put a little more effort in to my bedtime tales. As for the baby and LSD story, yes, as new father I was thinking about how strange babies are, and I was thinking that a newborn baby is perhaps the biggest bummer one could inject into a hippie nature LSD afternoon. Anything that demands attention and responsibility can really harsh your buzz if you are taking psychedelics. And as far as the NC-17 stuff goes I doubt my daughters will try to read this book until they are well past being shocked by my imagination. Your daughters, Pete, are another matter. Keep this book away from them!
PR: In Dogwalker, you had “Catface,” and here there’s “Turtleface”; is this a theme, or laziness, or what?
AB: I know that’s not a real question.
PR: Seriously, not “blowing smoke,” you are a ferociously entertaining writer. I can recognize your stories immediately. Your style (more in a moment) is your own. Your first sentences are often quite astounding, and serve as an immediate promise. (e.g. “It wasn’t until my second date with Lenore that I discovered one of her arms was missing.”) They’re almost hokey, at times, how “storytelling-like” they are. What do you make of that statement, and how much do you work on these first lines? What is your strategy?
AB: I am a believer in that old saw about hooking a reader in with the first few lines. I myself have a low tolerance for meandering openings and I’ve seen in person the huge piles of “slush” which gather beneath the desks of most fiction magazine editors. How do you break through that? I think there has to be something within the first three or four sentences of a short story which assures the reader that there is something interesting going on and that the writer is not going to bungle it by trying to be coy or impressive with his or her prose. I should probably work harder on those first lines to make them more hokey and storytelling-like. The world is a tough place for new short stories and we need to send them out there with a strong, memorable handshake.
PR: Do you give a lot of thought to your style?
AB: Yes I do! Or perhaps I give a lot of thought to my lack of style. In addition to subscribing to the old saw about first lines I also subscribe to the saw about getting out of the way of the story. You, Pete, are a writing teacher, so you know very well the dangers of trying too hard to impress with words. When one sees a movie one doesn’t really care much about the pretty cinematography is if the story is limp. Sure, make certain that the shots are good and framed correctly, but also make sure each shot has a point and serves to move things along. It’s the same with “style” in writing.
PR: Your wife has been heard to say, “No one works harder when writing a story to make it seem like he didn’t work hard at all.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
AB: If my wife did say that, and I doubt she did, because no writer’s wife has less to say about her husband’s writing than mine, then I would respond it’s a fair assessment, though not that accurate. It’s not that I don’t seek out a carefree, unpolished style. It’s that I know many writers work harder than me.
PR: Your wife most assuredly did say that. And many other things, besides. However, allow me to shift gears: Where do stories come from? What makes a good story, or a great one, for you?
AB: I believe they come from a desire to communicate feelings and teach others how to avoid mistakes. Those of us that have children know the importance of a good edifying tale. I’ve been thinking a bit about that question, “where do stories come from” because I recently returned from Egypt where there are some very interesting examples of early storytelling. Imagine how much harder you’d have to think about your word choice if it took you and your group of slaves several months just to carve out a paragraph!
A great story to me is one that stays in your head and informs your choices down the road. I’m not sure the name for it, but all great stories contain certain turns of plot that are completely unexpected, yet once you read/hear them seem to be the only obvious choice. That seeming contradiction is the golden nugget.
PR: Are you an autobiographical writer, in some ways? Many have drawn comparisons between your narrators (often hapless fellows, gentle and naïve, yet occasionally devious, conniving, awkward and over-sexed in a failed fashion) and you. Is this fair?
AB: Yes. I have a lot in common with my narrators. And often the events in my stories are drawn from events in my life.
PR: What about the connections between the stories, and your work to make this book greater than the sum of its parts? With Dogwalker, the narrator always seemed similar, but I don’t think it was explicitly the same bro. Here there are transitions between stories that make linkages, that help us see that this is one relentless fellow, moving from adventure to adventure. In this way, it feels a little like Jesus’ Son, and I know that’s a book you admire. But to me the arc of Jesus’ Son always felt a little forced, and the later stories don’t work well for me. In your book, there’s not this sense of “progress”; I mean, it’s a little hard to know if our man has learned or grown much amid all these ordeals. He doesn’t seem to have taken the lessons of “Turtleface” to heart, even by the end of the book. Do you think that’s more honest, or problematic, or what?
AB: It think is both honest and problematic. For a long time I resisted the idea that stories needed to have a structure, that the hero needed to change somehow for things to be satisfying. But now that I am older and more mature I can see that this 3 act structure is the very definition of a story. That’s what a story is. Something happens and things change because of it and forces react to these changes etc. I wanted the stories in this book to all come from the same narrator because I find that sort of continuity satisfying and engaging. What I enjoy so much about Jesus’ Son is the return of the characters and the chance to hear that same narrator tell me more stories. It wasn’t that important to me that he somehow change over the arc of the whole book so much as there be an arc to each individual story. If you link a series of stories by the same set of characters I don’t think you need to have a overall arc. That’s a novel. Perhaps my book would be more satisfying if it did have some kind of greater than the sum of its parts goal, but I do agree that this kind of progress, if forced, is kind of a bummer. So I was happy to let it be a series of stories. I did give a lot of thought to the order in which they were presented though, so it’s not totally random.
PR: And is this degree of linkage a kind of step toward writing a novel? Aren’t you writing a novel? I have often heard you, over the last fourteen years saying something like “Well, I really want my second book to be a novel, not another book of stories.” Thoughts? Reactions?
AB: I’ve always thought I could write a novel and for a long time felt that my second book had to be a novel. But I changed my mind about that. This book here could, I guess, be considered a step towards writing a novel. I hope that’s true. It’s closer to a novel than Dogwalker was. And I am indeed working on a novel. I signed a contract with my publisher FSG saying I would complete it, so that should hold my feet to the fire. It’s about herd of capybaras.
PR: I hope it’s all right that I’ve been tidying up your grammar and spelling, in this interview?
AB: Clearly, you’re going to do whatever you want.
PR: Okay, no reason to get all like that—back to Turtleface. Why so much physical injury and deformity, in these stories? I’m thinking not only of Turtleface’s sad transformation, but the Lenore’s missing arm, various amputations and damage. Do you mean to convey a sense of inner damage (which isn’t really much discussed in your work), or do you not think that way?
AB: It’s true I don’t discuss inner damage so much, though I think it’s present in many of the characters. I’m just not that into long internal discussions. I want action! As for outward damage, I find it interesting when people soldier on through physical injury. I think injuries are often good catalysts for stories, either the way they happened or how one copes with them, or both. Whenever I meet someone with a scar or some kind of physical abnormality I want to know all about it. Doesn’t everyone?
PR: So that second question about what you’ve been doing was a little disingenuous and passive-aggressive, because I know you’ve been doing plenty of things, some of them constructive. For one, you’re an award-winning storyteller on stage for “The Moth” and the like; you make films about disabled adults becoming traveling news teams, and also documentaries about “South Park.” You make up “Sally Shoeshine” stories for your daughters. You work at the juvenile detention center, often being outwitted by your charges. How does this all feed into your literary work. What is the relationship, for you, between oral storytelling and what is written? Fiction and non-fiction? Is it all a performance? Have you learned anything about telling a story from “South Park?”
AB: Well there’s a lot of questions wrapped up in this group here! I like oral storytelling because of the way it interacts with the audience. It’s so much more engaging to have a story told to you than to have it read off of a page. But, that said, if a storyteller isn’t organized about how it’s done then it can be a bad experience all around. I’ve learned a lot from participating in the Moth events. Many of the same rules apply, story-wise. I’m getting better at understanding story structure and knowing what makes a narrator sympathetic. For a while it was my job to drive our four daughters home from pre-school and during that time I got pretty good at making up hero/villain stories which would come to a satisfying conclusion just at the end of the 7 minute drive home. These are the “Sally Shoeshine” stories you allude to and I will tell you that for many weeks I tried to have the stories end with some kind of moral or lesson about how we should all be nicer to poor Sally Shoeshine so that she won’t feel the need to steal our belongings or ruin our art projects during nap time. But far more popular were the ending where Sally got stuffed in a trunk or socked so hard in the stomach that she barfed. Your daughters would be cheering on her demise every time!
It’s true also that I work at a juvenile detention center and also occasionally for the creators of South Park. All of these experiences have informed my fiction. From South Park I learned not to be too precious with ones ideas. And one day I hope to write convincingly about the world of juvenile incarceration. Right now I’m just a rookie in the field.
PR: One time in 1995 you and I were atop this water tower above La Honda, taking a break from some righteous mountain biking to have that famous distance-pissing contest. I remember back then you said something like “I’m really into the underground”; and what you meant was not like burrowing beneath the earth, but something else that I’ve never really quite understood. Do you still feel that way, and what/where is this “underground”?
AB: I’m trying to figure out if I really did say that. It certainly could have been a sentiment of mine back then, though I also think I would have tried to phrase it in a cooler way. Anyway, I suppose “the underground” refers to trends that move below the radar of mainstream culture. Back in 1995 it was a little easier to identify something as “underground” since there was basically no internet and mainstream culture consisted of shiny magazines, radio, and TV. Anything that had an audience without using those mediums was potentially underground. But now, man, I don’t know how you’d define underground. I still like the idea of some kind of artistic movement that is fueled by pure enthusiasm and has nothing to do with hype, but this whole “underground” thing carries it’s own degree of hype so perhaps it’s a meaningless designation after all. Those were good times riding our bikes and peeing off of water towers though.
PR: Well, you did really say that. Most assuredly. It stuck with me because at the time I was thinking, “Who cares?” Perhaps I should have pressed you harder on that, atop the water tower, but fortunately I did not, because at that time I was not aware that your girlfriend had a sister, and had I harshed on you about this “underground” developments may have taken quite a different turn. Another question: why do you persist in sending me bawdy texts from your wife’s phone, trying to convince me that they are from her? And why did you steal my phone and send a text to both your wife and your mother asking that they send me nude photos for a literary project of mine? I think your mother still hasn’t quite forgiven me.
AB: I do love a well-orchestrated prank. Or even a poorly orchestrated prank. Those can be even better. This may be veering into random personal information here, but since you asked I will try to explain why I find stealing phones and sending awkward text messages from other people’s accounts so amusing. Usually my wife’s phone is my primary target as she regularly loses track of it and displays a satisfying level of annoyance and distress upon seeing the responses to the messages “she” sent out. Often I have to act quickly to avoid detection so my message will be something quick and crude, like “hi penisface” sent to an old work colleague. If I have time I’ll follow up with a “jk;)” Now that’s funny! When I choose to email or text you, Pete, from her phone my goal is to write something odd, but also believable, so that you aren’t quite sure who is responsible. I give a lot of thought to this. I’ll ask convoluted questions about bike repair or flatulence and I imagine you struggling on the other end, unsure if calling my bluff might be seen as dismissive to a genuine query from my wife/your feared sister-in-law. Boy, just thinking about the cleverness of some of my ruses makes me chuckle, even now. I have only stolen your phone once, as you are very cautious with your belongings. I sent a cheerful email from your account to my wife and my mother asking for naked pictures for an art project. My wife didn’t fall for it, but my mom was surely confused. She declined and as I understand it, wrote some stern words in response. I was hoping that she would send you some modestly racy nude photos and instigate an awkward series of backpedalling, but that wasn’t the case. I’ve made sure she doesn’t hold this incident against you, though. She knows her son well.
PR: The other day I was carrying your (very attractive) book around, and at piano lessons my seven-year-old daughter, Ida, who is also your niece, says: “Is it any good?” and I say, “Well, yeah; it’s pretty strange, though.” After a moment, she opined, “What do you think Arthur Bradford would write about? A perfect country where everyone was sensible and calm? No. If you thought that, you don’t know Arthur.” Does this make you feel proud or ashamed?
AB: Proud of course! That Ida was the chief proponent of the more gruesome Sally Shoeshine endings back in the day – faces landing in soft piles of dog turds or water balloons filled with cat vomit flying through the air – so she knows well that the world doesn’t need more pansy ass stories.
Find a copy of Turtleface and Beyond on IndieBound.
Arthur Bradford is an O. Henry Award–winning writer and Emmy-nominated filmmaker. He is the author of Turtleface and Beyond: Stories (FSG 2015) Dogwalker (Knopf 2001) and the children’s book Benny’s Brigade (McSweeney’s 2012), and his writing has appeared in Esquire, McSweeny’s, VICE, and Men’s Journal. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and works at a juvenile detention center.
Peter Rock’s most recent book is The Shelter Cycle, which concerns the end of the world in Montana in 1990, among other things. His previous novel, My Abandonment, has won an Alex Award, the Utah Book Award, and been published in Germany, Turkey and France. He is also the author of the novels The Bewildered, The Ambidextrist, This Is the Place, and Carnival Wolves, and a story collection, The Unsettling. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and two fierce young daughters. He is a Professor of Creative Writing in the English Department at Reed College.