Monday, January 20, 2014

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Author Joseph Grammer

Joseph Grammer, Author
Author Joseph Grammer brings us COCOON KIDS, “an intriguing collection of short stories that are exceptionally creative and some are even quite odd/quirky in a really new and entertaining way,” according to a reviewer. Grammer explains that his short stories are diverse but connected in their actions to “find love and understanding.”

Grammer originally studied to be a psychologist, but gave it up when he realized what he really wanted to do was to write. He uses what he learned in his mental health experience to create his characters. He values humor, research, and character development and is currently working on a book set in Okinawa.

For a taste of Grammer’s uniqueness, don’t miss the excerpt following the interview.

Q: A reviewer said of COCOON KIDS that it is an “incredible re-imagining of what short stories can be!” What’s different about the short stories in your book?

Joseph Grammer: They’re diverse. I wrote about samurai, circus performers, the first female POTUS, New York poets, and thoracic surgeons. I tried to bind these disparate people together with their similar efforts to find love and understanding.

This search for connection takes many forms. In “A Squid for Mr. Calaway”, the narrator claims he loves nothing but squid. He hangs out with an ex-convict, looking for connection, but he’s blocked inside, emotionally. In “Comfort”, two dying samurai try to make sense of their last moments on Earth by insulting the hell out of each other.

From a visual perspective, Anna Tulchinskaya created illustrations for each story, which added a unifying life and depth to the collection. Her videogame-style designs complemented Cocoon Kids’ themes of growing and pushing beyond one’s boundaries.

Q:  You studied to be a psychologist. Why did you decide to focus on writing and become an author?

Joseph Grammer: I realized I prefer writing. It took me years to accept this because I assumed I needed a stable career to be happy. Psychology isn’t a well-paid field, and it has loads of its own stressors, but for most of my life the concept of being a writer seemed frivolous in comparison. I thought, “Who am I to think I can sit down and make a story and sell it?” Then I realized that was an unhelpful way to think. I’m still open to getting a Masters or Ph.D. in psychology—just not yet.

I use what I learned in my mental health experience to develop my characters. For example, in “Grandpa Farron”, a kid struggles to see the good in his dying alcoholic grandfather. The topic sounds rough, but it was a lot of fun to build a comical, dysfunctional family and stick them in a hospital room together.

Q:  “There is so much life in each character” – How do you instill “life” into your characters? What do you do to engage readers?

Joseph Grammer: Values and details. I write down what makes a character cry and laugh and refuse to budge; I figure out her weak points and strengths, then see how she reacts in a crisis. I point out what’s different about her and focus on that stubbornness, or that helpless generosity, and pivot the story around it. It’s difficult to find the right details (I don’t want to bog the reader down with every color of every piece of clothing a person is wearing), but choosing one or two unique ones helps to flesh out the character. One test is to see if a reader can tell who’s speaking without providing any names.

Q:  Do you write your stories to entertain? Or do you write to reach or teach your readers in some way?

Joseph Grammer: To me, directly attempting to teach the reader is heavy-handed. It’s too close to moralizing, and I think one of my criticisms about myself is that I unconsciously do this from time to time. At best, I hope to show readers a glimmer of what is possible through the lens of another person—often someone who appears different from them.

Entertainment is a huge reason I write. People don’t want uninteresting fiction. It’s a huge privilege to occupy someone’s time with my stories, so I do my best to write engagingly. I’d rather someone hated my words than found them dull.  I also expect a moderate amount of work from the reader. Convincing her to participate in the story and use her own imagination to fill in details is the best response I can hope for.

Q: How important is humor to telling your stories?

Joseph Grammer: I love being funny; unfortunately, it’s hard to make people laugh. The inherent gamble of humor is exciting, so it’s one of my favorite ways to communicate. It’s also one of the most difficult, so if you can somehow pull off making a serious topic seem humorous, you earn major points in my (proverbial) book.

In “The Perfect Surgeon”, I satirize fundamentalist Christianity by having a surgeon perform outrageous tasks for God. To me, this is funny, but I’ve met some readers who were horrified by it. This teaches me a useful lesson in humor: different people have different thresholds of acceptance.

Q: How much of your stories is fiction? Do you base your characters on real people?

Joseph Grammer: I don’t like including people from my life in my stories. I’ve read about literary fiction authors (e.g., Saul Bellow) including obvious traits or personalities from their friends, and the consequences that can follow. Having said that, I have no doubt that elements from my life creep into my stories, including aspects of people I know. I just try to minimize this effect in my writing.

Q: What’s different about writing short stories over a full novel?

Joseph Grammer: They’re easier. I’m sure Raymond Carver would have a different take on the question, but for me a short story is much more manageable in terms of cognitive and emotional effort. I might agonize over every word in a story for weeks or months, but it’s still easier. I read that it took Ezra Pound a year to write a fourteen-line poem, which must have involved levels of internal anxiety I don’t even want to imagine.

Q: How relevant is the concept around heroes and villains to your writing? How would you define a villain? Do you need a villain to produce a hero?

Joseph Grammer: I just finished reading Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat, which is a collection of essays about villainy. He defines a villain as “someone who knows the most, but cares the least” (even though later he pokes a hole in his own definition). I’d define a villain as “someone who injures others out of desire or neglect, without repentance.” This way, Eichmann is still a villain.

I explore villainy in “High-Wire”, in which a sexist magician harasses the narrator, Leah, and all of her female friends. At first glance he is a villain, because he torments other people, but he is kind of pathetic as well. He doesn’t know how to be happy. Normally people aren’t totally villainous or totally heroic, which is great because their shifting point on the spectrum gives them the capacity to change and learn.

Q: What’s next?

Joseph Grammer: I’m writing a book set in Okinawa, Japan. A typhoon throws together a ninety-one-year old peace activist, a hitman, a US Army private, and a psychologist to make sense of their personal crimes while fighting to survive.

I traveled to Okinawa for two weeks in 2012 as part of a research project. Both my grandfather and father were stationed there, so I felt a strange familial element floating around as I walked, even though I’d never been there before. I dug into Okinawa’s history and was fascinated by its great turbulence and suffering, but also by its tight-knit culture. Despite having been a vassal to China, a prefecture of Japan, and a (secret) nuclear storage facility for America, Okinawa retains a life that is wholly unique. I read Miyume Tanji’s Myth, Protest and Struggle in Okinawa and combed dozens of articles concerning the U.S. bases that occupy a fifth of Okinawa’s landmass. To say the least, a thorny political situation reigns in that area of the world, and this provides a tense backdrop to my story.

Q: Tell us about Joseph Grammer. What do you like to do when you are not writing?

Joseph Grammer: I read obsessively, although I’ve learned I’m a slow reader. I like to savor passages, reread chapters, and take notes on books. Outside of book-related activities, I play guitar and mess around with Fruity Loops, which is a digital music production software. My ear for music isn’t professional by any standard, but I enjoy it a lot. I like to cook, walk around for hours at a clip, and travel. Languages also fascinate me; I studied Russian in college and am currently trying to learn Japanese (although I am very slow with this, too).

About Joseph Grammer

Joseph Grammer is a writer who lives in Alexandria, VA. He attended the University of Maryland, College Park and studied to be a psychologist until he realized he’d rather stick stories on paper. He enjoys music from every decade, strangely paced movies, and journeys around Washington, D.C. with his girlfriend Anna. COCOON KIDS is his first book of short stories.

Your rowdy, boozy Grandpa. Two samurai hurling insults at each other on a battlefield. A guy who commits a crime because of pancakes. The stories inside COCOON KIDS explore the strange ways that love and peace make themselves known in our lives. From the streets of New York to the traveling circus, struggles for a good life are waged with the usual human tricks: humor, anger, work, and chronic delusion. Like all earthly occupants, some win, some fail, and some hang in the goopy middle. One or two go to jail.

COCOON KIDS may help you along if you want to sing and kick your inner shell; if you like poems or beer or basketball; or if you’re wondering what a thoracic surgeon, a squid, and a truck-stop bathroom can teach you about companionship. 


From “A Squid for Mr. Calaway,” a short story in COCOON KIDS:

My therapist says love goes beyond mere sensual pleasure, but she doesn’t eat baby squid from Vogliano’s with butter and garlic every Wednesday. If she did she’d drop her doctorate in the trash.
“So this food is the only thing you feel you love?”
“Is that weird? I mean, it makes me happy.”
“It’s natural to love what, or who, makes you happy.”
“No who for me, please.”
She nods without moving any part of her face.
“You prefer to be alone.”
“Prefer? I don’t know what I prefer. A fried cephalopod with crunchy tentacles.”
She leans back in her chair, steeples her fingers. Her eyes are a tenth the size of a giant squid’s.
“Other people—family, friends. How do you feel about them?”
I test Dr. Lane’s comfort with silence. When I’ve run out the clock she says, “Enjoy your dinner, Mr. Calaway.”
I want to explain that it’s more than a meal—it’s a marine bonanza. But instead I hustle my way to 2nd Ave, avoiding the blight of Bellevue Hospital, and choose my companions for the evening.
“Prego, un chilo di calamari.”
Nailed the accent. The old woman wraps two-point-two comforting pounds in a plastic sack.
“Grazie a Dio!”
“Non, non importa.”
Into the dusk with my mollusks.
I’m not ashamed in the slightest to say squid completes me. I’d marry one if I could. Get a satin dress, walk it down the aisle. So what if it taps some Freudian desire—what the hell doesn’t?
Freud took cocaine with his patients and sexualized everything with a pulse. He also smoked cigars until his jaw rotted away, which highlights a distinct advantage of the squid: its beak is immune to disease.
I walk down 23rd street by that Shake Shack in Gramercy. Slush coats the tedious Midtown grandeur.
Barry Donoghey is standing on the corner of Broadway smoking a Sweet Afton and clapping his pink, slashed-up hands together. He has killed a man and served twenty-three years for it in Sing Sing. Cradling my bag, I stiff-arm the man like Tiki Barber plowing through a defender.
“You damn caffler—Christ, and to think I’m a pacifist now—” he says.
“If I didn’t have a pressing engagement with my friends, I’d steal your credit card and ruin your FICO scores. All three of them.”
“I don’t own a credit card, and I believe a ficus is a plant, but I’ve known blind amputee whores who balance more gracefully than you.”
“There’s human feces on your shirt, Barry.”
Barry peeks down at his gray flannel pullover, which is indeed marred by something strange, brown, and wet. He wipes a hand along the silver scruff under his chin and pulls on his cigarette and makes no effort to remove the incriminating stain.
“Oh well–where there’s a will, there’s a relative.”
I stand in the wind that howls down Broadway, scratching my head. “I don’t…I don’t get it Barry.”
 “What’s to get? It might be shite, it might not.”

Author and Purchase Links

Twitter address: @joe_grammer
Amazon link for Cocoon Kids

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