Above is a collage inspired by my short story, ‘Warmth’, which first appeared (where else?) in The Collagist. Here’s another one:
‘Warmth’ is tonally indebted to Depeche Mode's song, ‘Pipeline’, something I talk about more over at Coldfront.
The story appears in my fiction collection forthcoming from Brooklyn Arts Press. ‘Warmth’ is a Christmas-themed, fabulist, homosexual tragedy with a villain loosely based on Sarah Palin—which means it will make a great holiday gift. The collection is titled The Story of How All Animals Are Equal & Other Tales, and is due out December 1. Meanwhile, pre-order it HERE!
And below are some excerpts from an interview I did with Melissa Goodrich for The Collagist’s blog:
The characters and atmosphere you have created are phenomenally vivid—the wheezing in and out of the snow lizard, the queen and her twelve-deer dress, the mime clawing at the ground for his life, Bear plunging his hands into ermine, Grinn’s heart caving in in the cold, the cider-stain of piss in the snow, the rumbling of heat just under the surface of the pipe. Where does a story like this come from? How on earth did you re-conceive so totally the story of Christmas?
It was around Christmas 2010 that I started working on ‘Warmth’, and there are these chimes in ‘Pipeline’ that reminded me of a more sinister take on Christmas carols. It’s become something of a joke now, but ‘Carol of the Bells’, when stripped from the products it’s been used to advertise, is actually a scary, intense song. And Christmas has this richly occult underbelly—it was, after all, a pagan celebration of the darkest time of year before it was co-opted by Christianity. There is the Krampus in Bavaria, this hideous monster who is associated with Christmas, and a whole host of Scandinavian demons who come out around winter solstice. And then there’s Dickens. I like that his tale of a cynical old man being visited by three ghosts mirrors the original story of Christmas: a sinless infant who is visited by three kings. So I didn’t really re-conceive Christmas so much as tap into some of these other interpretations.
A lot of the story’s content also comes from Depeche Mode’s lyrics. ‘Pipeline’ is in the tradition of the work song, so I knew the characters must be laboring. I misunderstood the lines, ‘Get out the crane / construction time again,’ as ‘Tell the queen / construction time again,’ so that’s where the queen came from. ‘Let the beads of sweat flow / until the ends have met’ inspired the image of the pipeline’s construction starting at either coast and meeting at the palace in the middle.
What is your favorite fable, fairy tale, myth?
Near the end of the tale, our narrator breaks that fourth wall of fiction and dives into the meta, arguing ‘the moral being that love is more cogent in the cold. This moral we’ve piled on our sled with the others: the reactionary thud of mockery, the need for moderation, the stealth, selfish motives behind mandatory gifts.’ Do you believe that stories have morals, or do we dress them in lessons, and does this story have one? More than one?
I wanted to engage frankly with the reader from the outset. I hoped that the story’s fantastic setting would bump up right next to the mundane room in which the reader sits. Thus, the asides about ramekins of butter and baseboard heaters. I wanted these familiar reminders to create a tiny shock, and build a kind of reverse lull that parallels the story’s tension between warmth and cold.
But I also wanted to be bossy. As a reader, sometimes I like to be told what to do, as long as it’s done with a sense of humor. I don’t have to agree with everything a writer is saying, but sometimes it’s just nice to know where somebody stands. And even though I’m pretty passive in person, when I’m writing I, too, enjoy taking on an authoritative voice. I have all these deeply felt morals I’m reluctant to assert in conversation, but that come bubbling up when I’m writing. That being said, I don’t set out writing a story with the intention of conveying morals. Rather, I often see them coalesce along the way, and in this case, that authoritative voice demanded I point them out. I like writing critically about literature and I couldn’t resist the urge here to do so with my own.
Also, the song that inspired ‘Warmth’ contains references to class war, so I knew from the beginning I’d be approaching propaganda territory. Rather than use that authoritative voice to engage with those class issues, though, I hoped to complicate the allegory a bit and point out some of the more subtle morals I came across. These morals, I hope, even though I explicitly list them, are stated a bit ambiguously, and still require some interpretation on the part of the reader. I wanted them to be more like discussion questions, like seeds.
One of your blog posts, Blue Santa, speaks closely to this story: you prefer to spend your Christmases alone, and when you don’t, you find it’s about presents. It snowballs ‘until Christmas becomes about seeing how many shiny things we can hold in our hands. And once we have too many to keep track of, we panic.’ I can’t help reading this as a side-conversation to “Warmth,” a fleshing out of what that Christmas moral might be. What do you consider the relationship between blogging and writing fiction, and is it cooperative?
It’s funny, I didn’t intend that post to be a side conversation, although it’s astute of you to point it out. ‘Blue Santa’ was written during Christmas 2011, about one year after I wrote ‘Warmth’. Maybe it was an unconscious attempt at returning to some of those questions that first emerged in ‘Warmth’, exploring them nonfictionally after a year’s worth of reflection.
For the record, I don’t really have anything against presents. I think it’s important to let our loved ones know they’re loved, and that often takes the form of material objects, and that’s fine. I guess the panic I’m talking about is something that comes from burying ourselves beneath material attachments. It’s a panic I feel tangibly, but it doesn’t seem to consciously register with a lot of people. Maybe we’re kind of in denial about it, and maybe it’s self-perpetuating. Maybe that underlying panic is what spurs this sort of packrat mentality (I also, incidentally, was watching a lot of Hoarders this last Christmas), where we’re never quite satisfied, always wanting more.
Is it something that comes from a primal need to stock up for winter? Is it the same urge that makes the rich hoard their wealth? This, of course, is one of the things that ‘Warmth’ explores: the idea of too much of a good thing. Although, warmth, in our world, as a commodity, is much lower on Maslow’s pyramid than much of what we give each other for Christmas. Or than what money represents once you have the luxury of stockpiling it. That’s why the monetary system is so overwhelmingly absurd to me. Money has a completely different value to someone who’s living paycheck to paycheck than it does to someone who’s mulling over which private jet to buy. In the world of this story, at least, where warmth represents a kind of a currency, it’s of more immediate use to everyone, hence less abstract than money—a paradox, as it isn’t something you can put in your wallet.