December 2008

Blake Butler


An Interview with Dave Housley

How many authors could write a book titled RYAN SEACREST IS FAMOUS and have it not only be skin-aching funny, but also built on lean, smart sentences, with ideas just as witty as they are funny? Probably not more than a handful, really, and of them all Dave Housely has brought the pain: his collection, under the aforementioned title (which, if it hasn’t won some kind of Best Title for a Collection already, may I be the first to knight it brilliant), came out late '07 from the very powerful and recently deceased indie Impetus Press.

Housely’s book contains one of the ultimate pop culture smashups in recent literary history, combining figures such as the titular Ryan Seacrest, Jack Kerouac, Elvis, a frog princess, and a battalion of other pop freaks into a range of literary short stories that are as surprising in execution as they are in pure random energy. In addition to this, Dave is one of five sex-fueled editors at the always entertaining Barrelhouse magazine, which somehow manages to pack each issue full of more often pop culture related yet quite wise and flexing storytelling.

But let me sell you RYAN SEACREST IS FAMOUS in one line: the first sentence reads, “I shaved my balls a day after Claire left.”

Okay, go.

You seem to have an innate ability to roll cultural references into your writing in a way that absorbs them, rather than simply exploits them, which I think is a close line in fiction. Too often cultural images can seem stuck in, or placed, without really managing to put the "aura" of an entity to work. I was wondering if you would talk about the process of the tendency in your writing to includes these kind of images, such as Ryan Seacrest as a tool of jealousy and Jack Kerouac alive in infomercials, and how you feel about the use of cultural aura in your work, or in fiction overall.

I like the way you put that -- the cultural aura -- it's a nice phrase. I think that when this kind of pop culture stuff works is when it's really a part of the character and the situation, rather than the point of the thing itself (which is maybe the definition of the difference between McSweeneys and, right?). I'm positive there are people out there doing that way better than me, but to the extent that it works in my stuff, I think it's because, for instance, the fact that a character is obsessed with Ryan Seacrest says more about that character than it does about Seacrest. The fact that it's Seacrest, and not Bono or Tom Brady, is significant, too, of course, but I hope the story is more about the obsessive guy than it is about American Idol.

I thought about this a little when the book first came out, because a few people asked me, and my answer at the time kind of sucked, something like, "I'm a moron and this is the stuff that interests me," which actually might be an okay answer. Still, I feel like this pop stuff is real -- it's stupid and fluffy, but there are people out there that are way more involved in Fight Club or Oprah or Penn State Football than they are in their work or family or, really, the day to day stuff of their own lives. I can't say whether that's okay or not, but I think it's interesting.

The range of stories in RYAN SEACREST IS FAMOUS have such a wide scope, it's almost like you have multiple personalities. Over what span of time did you write the words collected here? What is your writing process like, and how has it changed since becoming a father?

The stories in the book were written over the course of about three years or so. You're right that they're kind of schizophrenic, too -- they kind of all into two broad categories: stories about where I grew up (the middle of Pennsylvania) and the kind of pop culture-y stories. Generally, the PA stories came first, and then the more poppy, odder stories came later, once I more or less figured out what I was doing. I guess "Notes for the Guy Who Stole My Identity" is the swing story, since that one is short and a little offbeat, but basically takes place in the same space as the other rural stories.
I don't think fatherhood has affected my writing just yet, other than limiting the amount of time I have in general. I find that I process things about five years later, so I'm more likely to be writing about what happened to me years ago than I am to be writing a story the fact that I no longer have any time, or poopy diapers, or feeling like a terrible parent, etc. I'm slow.

What is it about Patrick Swayze anyway?

Ah Swayze. Well, for folks who don't know, I'm one of the editors of Barrelhouse magazine, and we do have a bit of a preoccupation with Swayze -- we published a Patrick Swayze Section in our section issue, and we end every interview with the question "What's your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?" The Swayze thing is one of those things that started off as a bar conversation -- the theory being that the Swayze Question acts as a kind of personality test (for instance, my answer, Road House, would tell you immediately, and this is 85% accurate, that I'm a straight male over thirty; it's not a very deep personality test, but it does work in a certain way, most of the time). We also like to celebrate the low end of the pop culture spectrum, so embracing Swayze in that way seemed like a nice way to do that. Plus, you know, he's played a famous bouncer and a zen surfer bank robber, so I think that kind of speaks for itself.

You are a very funny writer, and I've always been impressed with the way you can make things both culturally aware, funny, yet still with an edge outside the slapstick. It's such a hard line, to marry 'literary' and the humorous. What other authors have made you laugh? Who do you most look forward to reading?

I love Aimee Bender, Stacey Richter, George Saunders, and Joe Meno. I thought Ron Currie, Jr's God is Dead was actually really funny in a very dark way (also one of the best books I've read in the past few years). I really like these old Charles Portis novels -- Dog of the South and Norwood are my favorites -- he was doing something with voice that's really hard to pinpoint and really memorable and deeply funny. Jack Pendarvis actually reminds me an awful lot of Portis, for some reason. He's great -- very, very funny.

Is there a book or author that most made you want to write?

Flannery O'Connor to begin with. I read her in college. I don't think there's ever been a better short story writer. It's all so incredibly strange and funny and moving. I starting writing later in life, though, around when I turned 30, and George Saunders was a real inspiration for a few reasons -- one is that he was writing these amazing, surreal, funny stories that take place in some kind of alternate universe. The other is that he wrote the first book, or most of it at least, while he was working full time at a "real" job, with a wife and children and responsibilities. For somebody like me, who was very much on the outside looking in, or not really even knowing where to look, no MFA or contacts or anything, that one piece of information -- Saunders writing on a work computer, hitting shift-something when some boss walked into his office -- was really inspiring.

How does editing for Barrelhouse affect your writing? Does working with four other dudes seem to make it harder on the assembly process, or easier, or both at once?

The best part of editing Barrelhouse is that I see how subjective the editorial process is, and that makes me feel much better about rejection. I tell people this on the odd occasion when I'm spouting off on some panel, but we've rejected stories that have wound up in some really great places. Sometimes it's timing, sometimes a piece just rubs somebody wrong for whatever reason, but the process is profoundly subjective. We're not elected officials, you know, so we choose what strikes us, and we reject stuff that maybe is technically "better," whatever that means, so I feel like getting my own stuff published is more a matter of connecting with the right place/editor, rather than the fact that it and I may just plain suck. Most of the time, that is.

Working with four other dudes is interesting. I think it's probably harder from the standpoint of making decisions. We're getting better, trying to get faster all the time, but it's tough, since we all pretty much have to like something in order to publish it. As I said above, sometimes one person will just hate something, for whatever reason, and we have to pass on something that the rest of us really like. We each kick in to publish the thing out of our own pockets, so we kind of have to give each other that latitude. All in all, it's been great, though. When somebody drops the ball on one of the many little tasks that need to be done every day/week/month, there's almost always somebody there to catch it. I think the pure joy of putting the thing out, and being really proud of each issue, is the main thing that keeps us going, but the other thing is that we're all good friends, and we kind of have our own gang, which is fun. Next step: matching jackets, and a rumble with n + 1.

What are you working on now?

Still working on weird stories. I tried to write a novel, but it was more because people were telling me that I should try to write a novel, and everybody else seemed to be doing it. But when I would sit down and work on it, the energy just wasn't there, and I had these bones of stories that were kind of laying around, pulling me back, and it seemed like that's where the juice was for me.

You are in a little room with Ryan Seacrest, 40 copies of your book, and an oversized toothbrush. Ryan Seacrest has a cellphone with your mother's number in it. He also has a squirt tube of skin bronzer in his tight jean pockets. There are no windows or doors in the room, but there is a TV, and Ryan Seacrest is trying to watch TV. What's going to happen?

Now, the most interesting part of this is that squirt tube of skin bronzer. I really feel like he might have that in his tight jean pockets. Do you think when he leaves the house he actually might have a squirt tube of skin bronzer? He probably would carry it in a little man-purse, or he'd have an assistant carry it for him and he'd shout "TAN" every now and then, and the assistant would have to come rub bronzer on Ryan Seacrest, and then by the end of the day, the assistant's $500 jeans would be the exact color of Ryan Seacrest's hair, because he's been given nothing to wipe his hands on, other than Ryan Seacrest.

I think Ryan Seacrest would probably go crazy in this situation, actually, since there are no cameras on us, and nobody is paying him to jibber jabber, which seems like an unnatural situation for him. I would probably try to agitate him into suing me, since that seems like the best bet to get my book into a second and third printing. Or... he would call my mother and try to convince her that even though she's never heard of him, other than as the title of her jackass son's book, he really is famous.