“All of the time we spend is worth examining.” A conversation with Casey Gray
Dolly buys two cases of Bud Light because the tall man is staring at her, and she wants him to think that there is a group of people waiting for her back at the RV. For the first time in years, Dolly is worried about being raped. She’s seen him in three different aisles now, watching her. He’s wearing a blue track suit and sunglasses that look like a blade. The man is very very tall, seven foot a least, thinks Dolly. She is taking mental notes in case she has to describe him to the police. White. Early thirties. A big man, but not a powerful build. Soft. Short brown hair. Wrap-around sunglasses with reflective orange lenses. No distinguishing scars. No visible tattoos. Big head, even for a giant. Real serious look on his face. His head is so far above her own that it feels like she’s being tailed by a police chopper.
Dolly’s cart wheel stops squeaking and the tall man’s polyurethane pants stop swooshing. There he is, half a row down, picking up top-shelf items like a giraffe. He has an obscene dog chew toy and a bottle of moisturizer in his cart. In Dolly’s cart, there are phosphorescent green and orange beach towels, a power strip, beer, rain-scented candles, and heavy-duty trash bags. She can’t look at him. She stands with her back to the tall man and waits to hear the swooshing pants fade into another aisle.
On monitor six, section four, Glen watches Quentin watching the old lady. As inconspicuous as a hurricane, he thinks. The old lady reminds him of his dead grandma, the one that loved midget wrestling and drank Dimetapp by the bottle. Glen smells his fingers again. Goddamn Doritos. He’s washed his hands twice since breakfast but they still smell like cool ranch.
–Excerpted from DISCOUNT by Casey Gray (Overlook Press, April 2015)
CORINNE GOULD: The new employee orientation at the beginning of the novel illuminates the hypocrisy inherent in the systems of a megacorporation. I love when the trainer, Betty, admits, “this entire orientation, is about what we’re obligated to say.” This kind of hollow compulsion is also seen in the hazing initiation of Conejito into the family gang. Can you speak to what inspired you to write about epidemic insincerity found in so many facets of American life?
CASEY GRAY: The Superstore is an organization that is ostensibly a family, and the Límons are a family that is ostensibly an organization. The orientations into each are insincere in their own ways. I’ve been through a big-box megastore employee orientation, and the “family/team” rhetoric always struck me as funny. Nobody actually believes it, but everyone expects it now. We expect to be patronized, so much so that we are offended when we aren’t. Betty breaks in a moment of frustration and admits the truth: that the orientation is basically just a bunch of shit they have to say to cover their asses in court. It has very little to do with the way the Superstore actually operates. They can create explicit rules regarding employee discourse, for example, but the actual discourse is blatantly homophobic and almost impossible to regulate. It’s nice to say that all the doors in the Superstore organization are open to all employees, but in reality a cart pusher is going to have a tough time getting the CEO on the phone. One can see this sort of insincerity and faux egalitarianism in politics too, of course. People in power like to speak in aspirational terms about the way things should be; it allows them to disavow responsibility for the way things are.
Conejito’s initiation is similarly insincere, but it is rooted in something else. Where the Superstore orientation is full of sterile professional rhetoric, Conejito’s initiation is appealing to pathos, to the kinds of emotions––relating to loyalty, and religion, and camaraderie––that compel people to fight and die for a cause. It’s just as dumb as the Superstore orientation, and just as false. The idea was to create this sort of hammy gang initiation scene that you might see in a 90’s action flick, and to have Ernesto undercut it by telling Conejito that there was no real danger, no narco-folk-saint intervening in his fate. I tried hard to suck all of the easy drama out of that scene and show it for what it was and what it wasn’t.
GOULD: Near the end of the book, Bicho leaves a message describing an idea he has had while high. He suggests that a TV show should be made that gives each member of the cast and crew, even the extras and the interns, their own spinoff shows. In this show, “everything that happens, good and bad and funny and sad” is endlessly captured for each character’s life. This reminds me of the ambitious storytelling taken on in Discount; the characters are taken out of the invisible peripheries of society and their lives are told in raw and tragic fullness. How did you begin a project of this magnitude?
GRAY: That’s interesting to think about. I guess one could say that we’re already living inside this stoned hallucination of Bicho’s. Nine years ago, when I started writing the novel, social media was still new. In the years since it has given people the means to create their own narratives, their own shows, to be seen. The difference, I guess, is that most people are reluctant to tell their own stories in raw and tragic fullness. Mostly, we want people to think that our lives are better than they are, to post pictures from angles that make us look thinner than we are. But we also use it to reach out for support in a crisis and to fish for compliments when we’re feeling insecure.
It always seemed sort of crazy to write a novel with this many points of view, and I received lots of advice from people I respect immensely who suggested that I narrow the field. But I think that the Internet has changed the way we consume narrative in good and bad ways. Our attention spans are shorter but our focus is broader. We are used to regarding the world from many points of view. The news account of Michael Brown’s death, for example, gave us some insight into economic disparity and pervasive racism, but the cacophony of reactions on twitter and Facebook forced us to look at each other. And it seemed like the only way to make any sense of this capitalistic juggernaut, “The Superstore,” was to look at it from a lot of different perspectives.
GOULD: I wonder if you could speak more to where you see the role of the novel shifting as our consumption of news and media shifts with advents of technological distillation and pervasive violations of social justice force us to acknowledge our own accountability as consumers and perpetuators.
GRAY: I feel like the central role of the literary novel remains fairly consistent. We still hope it will give us something true. We still hope it transcends that truth, somehow. I think the novel changes because the truth changes. It’s easy to see the apocalyptic shadow that World War I cast on literature and philosophy, for example. And technology has certainly changed the way we experience reality today. I didn’t make any conscious efforts to reflect modern Internet culture in the structure of the novel, but I can’t say that it had no effect either. Who knows? My previous answer might just be my way of retroactively justifying what some consider an out of control narrative.
The new technology makes it easier for us to show the world our asses (literally and figuratively). It is a good venue for the pervasive insincerity you asked about in your first question. People are able to be racist while simultaneously disavowing racism. This “all lives matter” bullshit during the Michael Brown tragedy/protest was a perfect example. Because of course all lives matter. But in this singular moment, when it was extraordinarily important to state explicitly and specifically that black lives matter, white people lost their shit. They felt that a statement that black lives matter somehow meant that theirs did not. And they were able to start this racist, virtual movement that they could claim was the exact opposite of racism.
GOULD: In the story, racism is rampant in the form of constant microaggressions. How do you conscientiously implement race as a theme in your work?
GRAY: I decided to write about a superstore in Southern New Mexico; it stands to reason that most of the employees would be brown. I hope the readers do ask why. The disparities are vast, and so deeply ingrained in the way things are that it is hard to even see them sometimes.
White writers writing about brown people can go horribly wrong. I strive to create characters that transcend stereotype, even if they occasionally do stereotypical things. For some writers and some readers, avoiding stereotypes means making sure that all of their characters act “white,” that they adhere to the cultural default of “whiteness.” I don’t understand this. Still, for other writers and readers, culture and sexual orientation can stand as singular character traits. I don’t believe in singular character traits. I’m constantly asking myself, ‘What is (insert character name) besides X? What is Bicho besides a gangster? What is Ron besides pathetic? What is Norm besides an addict?
My wife is a profoundly talented writer and an American Indian who grew up on a reservation. We talk about this issue a lot. I have two biracial children. These questions run deep, and they get to the heart of how we can acknowledge and respect our differences as people––how my children will be perceived and regarded in the world. As a writer, I play a small role in creating that perception. It is a responsibility that I take very seriously. It is not my job to portray every character of color in a positive light, but it is my job to make them rich and full and impossible to reduce or dismiss. I take great care to do this. I hope the readers feel like I have succeeded.
GOULD: The terrorist attacks of 9/11 are referenced in the memories of your characters. What other considerations did you account for when writing a work of fiction that is set in the singular moment of the present?
GRAY: A lot changed in the nine years it took to write the book, but I never felt daunted by it, or like the world was leaving the book behind. This might be because I don’t really work or think in a linear way. It wasn’t like I had to keep going back to account for some new thing. I always felt like I was working on the entire book at once, somehow, like a painter seeing and regarding the entire canvas.
GOULD: The novel is laid out in small vignettes, each marked with a timestamp. This style reminds me of Ian McEwan’s Saturday, and both texts seem to adopt a kind of unstoppable speed as we approach the culminating climax of the story. Was this a technique you used in your early drafts, or did it come later?
GRAY: I was interested in the idea of a big-box store that doesn’t close. I started scoping out the local big-box store at different times of day. I’d go at four in the morning and just walk around for hours, watch it yawn and wake up again at seven. The time signatures and the platooning points of view seemed important to generating this kind of perpetual momentum.
Each of the vignettes started out as a separate file on my computer, and I arranged them sort of like a Christmas tree with a master file at the top where I would cobble them together. All these little pieces started to affect and inform each other in interesting ways, and several of them migrated into that master file. What didn’t fit fell by the wayside and eventually off the tree altogether. I was writing these vignettes separately, but several of them seemed to be working in concert towards a cohesive end. It happened without much conscious designing on my part. I had a sort of blind faith that it would come together. If I had stopped to think about it too much, it would have given me a seizure. Luckily, not thinking too much is one of my strong suits.
GOULD: Your undergraduate study was in journalism, and I can see that in your writing. The detail and vivid imagery reported is practiced and confident. I also know that you have worked in a Wal-Mart at one point. What singular elements from this narrative were specifically inspired by your own experiences?
GRAY: Thanks. That’s nice of you to say. How to talk about this without getting sued….It’s probably important to say here that, while I did work at Wal-Mart for a while, and that experience informed the novel greatly, very few singular elements in the novel came directly from that experience. I stole a few lines here and there. The woman who ran the orientation I attended did refer to her stock options as, “a nice little chunk of RV money.” I worked with a burn victim and a young man with a profound mental disability, but they were in different departments and I had very little truck with them. It is true that, based on my experience, bad health is the number one topic of conversation in the break room. The influence that my experience as a Wal-Mart employee had on the book is more general. I learned what it’s like to wake up for a job at five in the morning, and to be too tired to read or think or talk, or doing anything but eat in front of the TV until it was time for bed. I learned that many of the employees there (I’d say the majority) take great pride in doing their jobs well. I learned that customers can be just fucking unbearable, and that it’s not even what they say most of the time. The way a customer looks at you, the tone in his voice—it can make you feel subhuman and momentarily homicidal.
I chose to write about “The Superstore” and not Wal-Mart because I didn’t want to be beholden to the actual truths about working at Wal-Mart: actual store policies, terminologies, etc. It was more important to represent my perceived truth about what it’s like to work at a place like Wal-Mart. And I never set out to write a book that trashed Wal-Mart, the people who shop there or the people who work there. When my family only has sixty dollars left to hold us over until payday, we spend it at Wal-Mart. Every poor person I know shops at Wal-Mart, and only a sanctimonious asshole would chastise them for it. Every consumer in America, myself included, is benefitting from the same disparities and injustices. If you have the money, and you want to subvert the system by buying local produce or turning your car into a biodiesel, I applaud you. Sincerely. But too often people seem to think this absolves them. Unless you live in a yurt and grow your own food and walk everywhere in sandals you made out of old tires, you’re still part of the problem. I’m not arguing to give up, to do nothing. I’m arguing that the problem is systemic, and that big-box stores are a logical and predictable result of our system.
GOULD: In your acknowledgments, you thank Robert Boswell, Antonya Nelson, Kevin McIlvoy, and others. What teachers and writers have influenced your work, and this novel specifically, the most? What advice did you receive that is most memorable?
GRAY: I saw David Foster Wallace read from The Pale King shortly before he died. He came to New Mexico State as a favor to Robert Boswell and Antonya Nelson, both of whom he went to school with at the University of Arizona. I was too nervous to approach him at the party after, and I always regret that. I wish I had thanked him for coming. It meant a lot to all of us, and he certainly didn’t have to come. I was already fairly deep into writing Discount, but the way he narrated drudgery really affected the book. The drudgery in The Pale King was so––consequential. It seemed to make the argument that all of the time we spend is worth examining. It was the only subject matter I could think of that might actually be less hip than the one I was working on. There was something really appealing about that I can’t put my finger on. I love the way Dagoberto Gilb writes about work, and I read a few of his stories over and over as I was writing this book. His story, Shout, speaks to the stress of poverty, on an individual and a family brilliantly. Books like Warlock, by Oakley Hall, and Winesburg Ohio, taught me a lot about place as a central theme that characters weave in and out of.
I took Robert Boswell’s fiction workshop in 2000, I think. I was attending New Mexico State on a football scholarship. I had grown to hate football (I still can’t bear to watch a game start to finish), and he gave me a new obsession and a new identity. I am forever in his debt. Kevin McIlvoy is the most talented, generous reader I have ever encountered. He gives workshops and freelance book advice now, and I’d like to take the opportunity to endorse them fully. Antonya Nelson is brilliant, and the best piece of writing advice I ever received came from her. She told me that the writing itself––the actual act of creating something––is the only reward any writer has a right to expect. That makes so much sense. I’ve spent thousands and thousands of hours writing and revising Discount, and there is almost no chance that it will make me more money than I would have made working in the Wal-Mart deli for the same number of hours. Maybe the dream scenario will play out: this book will get caught in some cultural slipstream and make a real mark. It probably won’t. All I know is that if the act of writing itself isn’t enough, you are engaged in an insane endeavor and a catastrophic waste of time.
GOULD: You currently teach composition, literature, creative writing, and professional writing courses at NMSU. What is one piece of important advice that you give your students of creative writing that you struggle with yourself?
GRAY: Antonya Nelson’s advice is much easier to preach than it is to follow. I agree with it completely, but I still can’t help entertaining the occasional truly embarrassing professional fantasy. Most of them involve making a lot of money and winning a lot of awards and smearing them into the dirty faces of all the people who have ever rejected or doubted me. That little imp is hard to ignore sometimes. But you’ve got to, really. Ultimately, I am proud that I finished a novel; a lot of people give up. And I believe that I am richer and better for the experience, even if nobody reads it.
GOULD: One more question: the book copes with heavy topics including failing marriages, rape, bulimia, consumerism, gang violence, crises of faith, and inequality of all kinds. My favorite character, Dolly tells her daughter, “Everything is bad if you look at it hard enough.” Despite this message, do you consider your book to be hopeful?
No, not really. I guess I don’t feel it’s the job of a novel to take on a hopeful or hopeless of point of view. I think those different perspectives have more to do with the internal life of the reader than with the intent of the writer. They are all valid. We talk about authorial intent too much. This book is yours now. Do you see hope, Corinne?
Find a copy of Discount (Forthcoming on April 14, 2015 from The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.) or on IndieBound.
Casey Gray teaches English at New Mexico State University. His work has appeared in Ploughshares. Discount is his first novel.
Corinne Gould is a student in the Book Publishing M.A. program at Portland State University. An enthusiastic reader and reluctant writer, Corinne is a publicity intern with Hawthorne Books and volunteers in the Bonny Slope Elementary’s Library.