Debbie Graber – Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday
The Office has nothing on Debbie Graber’s inventive, piercing collection Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday (Unnamed Press). The title character, Kevin Kramer, is the new Senior Vice President of the Products Profit center at Production Solutions. He has worked hard for all his success, perfected the non-clammy handshake, and speaks “corporate” like a second language. But as surveys show, his Brooks Brothers shirts and navy blue BMW alone can’t save flagging sales. As the company begins to crumble, employees resort to mutiny.
Many of the characters in Graber’s stories are forced by circumstance into foolhardy actions: An HR manager trying desperately to maintain order, even as the entire software department vanishes under mysterious circumstances. An estranged, possibly deranged, sister devises a reunion with her sibling by throwing together a DIY wedding shower, and a man who wears a Chewbacca costume feels he is uniquely qualified to divide the world into winners and losers.
VALERIE FIORAVANTI: Congratulations on the recent publication of your linked collection, Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday. As the title suggests, the book focuses on workplace culture, specifically the employees of a call center. What drew you to this subject matter?
DEBBIE GRABER: Valerie, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I’ve worked for a company for several years that happens to have a Customer Support center, so definitely, the exposure to that specific environment played a role in the creation of the book. But I think it’s the hierarchical nature of workplaces generally that brought these stories out. It strikes me as so absurd that the collective “we” is supposed to have trust in “management,” even when time and again, many leaders can’t manage at all. And some of them have been promoted for reasons that don’t have anything to do with being good at managing, or anything else for that matter. And it’s also just crazy how some people revert to completely immature behavior when they’re being managed. Welcome to corporate culture!
I think that labels like manager and employee give people permission, perhaps unconsciously, to behave badly on both sides. It’s an interesting psychological and sociological study.
VF: This collection has so many laugh-out-loud moments. Have you always been drawn to humor/satire?
DG: Well, thank you for that. My father is a very funny person, and I think that’s the way he felt most comfortable relating to us in the family growing up. Humor became the way I approached getting along in the world. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, subversive humor was kind of the rage, even in children’s entertainment. If you ever watch old Sesame Street episodes, you’ll see what I mean—they are hilarious! As an adult, I tried to pursue a career in comedy and took a load of improv classes. Then I ended up working for several years at The Second City in Chicago, which in many ways was a dream job, except that I wasn’t on stage—I was upstairs selling dinner-theatre packages and group tickets. As it turns out, I’m not the best improviser. Even though these examples aren’t funny (quite the opposite, actually!), I always liked Roald Dahl’s short stories and TV shows like The Twilight Zone because of the ironic twist at the end. I also remember Animal Farm making a huge impression on me as a kid. It is so clever and yet it packs such an emotional wallop while it really makes you think. I’m constantly in pursuit of that kind of writing. And I’m in awe of those who pull it off successfully.
VF: Do you have any advice for writers who’d like their writing to be funnier?
DG: There’s a line from “Back to Me” in Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday where an improv teacher says to a student, “I know you think you’re funny, but we’re going to teach you how to actually be funny.” Humor is so subjective. If I have any advice to give, it is, if you think something is funny, put it in a story. See what happens. Worst-case scenario, no one finds it funny but they do find it weird. Or cringe-worthy. Or incendiary. And then you can use it for your own purposes. Nothing is ever wasted. I think that humor, like anything else, is most effective when it comes from an honest place. When it’s less about my readers might find this funny and more about I find this funny.
VF: This resonates with me, because I’m generally only unintentionally funny. There’s gallows humor in my collection Garbage Night at the Opera, more so than I originally recognized. I was surprised, when I first started reading to an audience, how often people would laugh. This influenced my second collection, where I thought more intentionally about the absurdity of poverty. Is this something you believe evolves over time? You learn to read the comic potential of your work and/or recognize your personal humor style?
DG: Definitely. Nothing ever happens in a vacuum, and it’s so important to get feedback from other writers and readers too. I think it’s really cool that with feedback, you were able to identify the humor in your stories that you hadn’t seen before, and then use that humor to go deeper. It’s so interesting to see how audiences and readers react to material—it’s often shocking what you think people would react to and what they actually react to.
VF: Can you provide an example from one of your stories of a moment you thought would be funny vs. what readers or an audience actually found funny?
DG: There’s a line in “New Directions” that reads “the executive team realizes that, since we are primarily a software company, we cannot function without a software department.” I guess that’s kind of funny, but when reading this piece aloud, I found over time that pausing for an extra second after “primarily a software company” and then delivering the blow gets a big laugh.
VF: On the page, I call that letting the moment breathe. Do you feel your improv training influenced your writing in any way beyond its obvious connection to humor/satire?
DG: Great question. One of the tenets of improv is “Yes, And”—to take whatever your scenemates throw at you and go with it to the nth degree, regardless of how you may feel about it. It forces you to suspend judgment, even if it’s just for that scene. That’s helpful to apply to the writing process, absolutely.
VF: I can see that. The narrator in your story “Northanger Abbey” has written book club discussion questions for his theoretical masterwork. What three questions would you compose for readers of Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday?
DG: Ha! Okay, here goes:
The majority of the characters in Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday seem to sabotage themselves unknowingly. Is this something that you do on a regular basis, despite years of therapy?
Did you read Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday and then decide that your part-time job as an Uber driver no longer seems that bad?
Would you think less of the author of Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday if you knew she continues to work for the same company that inspired the book? What if she told you that they offered decent benefits, including dental? Would that make her seem like less of a sellout? If not, what would?
VF: I definitely think you should compose a book club discussion series for the whole book, probably in serial form, one story at a time.
DG: Note to self: Write novel based on Valerie’s idea of a book club discussion series. Take a novel writing workshop to learn how to write a novel.
VF: What are you currently working on? Will you remain faithful to the short story form or stray toward the novel?
DG: I’ve been working on a few stories and essays, but the idea of writing a novel intrigues me. Ah, the novel. So elusive. I’ve read enough novels that are really linked story collections to believe that I could, in theory, write one, but I think it would have to be a specific kind of novel. And by specific, I mean short. And maybe non-linear. And not super plot driven. And pretty much non-novel-y. Your book club suggestion is perfect for my non-novel!
VF: I look forward to the release of your non-novel. In your post for the Story Prize blog, about the whale story you never finished [linked below], you wrote, “We must demand the freedom to be foolish. We must give ourselves the room to write stories about whales who do crossword puzzles.” This speaks to something I discuss with my writing students about aspiring to be the bravest version of yourself on the page. How did you come to give yourself that permission as a writer, and how has that willingness to appear foolish shaped your growth as a writer and/or the overall vision of your work?
DG: I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but I’ve had the experience of writing a story and not knowing if it was terrible or great or somewhere in between. I mean, aren’t they all somewhere in between, but I think that’s the sweet spot to aim for. It’s about allowing for risk in one’s writing: risking going against what you’ve been taught about or read about the “literary” way to write; or the “right” way to write, or the “smart” way to write. Now all that being said, great fiction is great for a reason, so I’m not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bathwater. I personally just spent too many years writing stories that I believed people wanted to read, in a style I believed they wanted to read, and the results were pretty bad. Sorry, this is sounding more and more like a personal problem.
Things only started to shift when I started to write stories that felt true to my perceptions of the world. We’re all constantly evolving, and we have to let ourselves change, even if we don’t always know or are comfortable with what we’re turning into.
VF: What was your breakout story? The one that created some sense that you were moving in a direction that was the most right for you?
DG: The story “Sofia Coppola is my Favorite” was the first where the voice of the character felt more organic. The narrator is a woman who sees herself as the expert on Sofia Coppola, albeit through the filter of her movies and interviews and mass media. For example, the narrator believes that Sofia Coppola has a fancy refrigerator filled with organic produce stocked by an assistant. That Sofia employs a yogi from Southeast Asia who lives in her guest house. Then the narrator starts applying “Sofia Coppola” logic to her own life—how Sofia would dump friends who are too high on cold medicine to return texts. The story becomes about the incongruence of the narrator’s real life vs. her fantasy Sofia Coppola life. I think pretty much all the stories in the book are about the desire to be more than we are and the often misguided ways in which we try to achieve our dreams.
VF: What are you reading?
DG: I just finished Neon Green, by Margaret Wappler. It is wonderful—sad but funny and tinged with just the right amount of weirdness. I recently read After the Parade by Lori Ostlund, which is amazing. I read it on a plane, and it was all I could do to stop myself from bursting into tears in front of the other passengers. I keep hearing great things about Paul Beatty’s The Sellout—that’s next on my list. I also loved Making Nice by Matt Sumell—hilarious and heartbreaking voice-driven fiction.
VF: I’m also a fan of After the Parade, and Lori Ostlund’s first book, the collection The Bigness of the World, has a lot of humor that packs an emotional wallop, just the way you like it. The rest are new to me, so I’ll have to check them out. It was a pleasure to discuss your work in general and Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday in particular.
DG: Thank you! It’s been a blast–and I can’t wait to read your new collection! You are super talented!
Check out Debbie’s The Story Prize blog entry referenced above.
Buy a copy of Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday on IndieBound and a portion of the purchase price will benefit Late Night Library.
Valerie Fioravanti won the Chandra Prize for Short Fiction for her linked collection of Brooklyn stories Garbage Night at the Opera. Her story “Loud Love” recently won the Tillie Olsen Short Story Award. She thinks her work might be funnier than Tillie’s, but only unintentionally so. For more information, visit valeriefioravanti.com.
Debbie Graber’s debut short story collection, Kevin Kramer Starts on Monday, was published in May 2016 by the Unnamed Press. Her fiction has appeared in Harper’s, Zyzzyva, Electric Literature, The Nervous Breakdown and other journals. She would love to win an award of any kind and would be really grateful if someone could put in a good word for her.