This was originally published on May 28, 2013. The Drunken Odyssey is still going as strong as ever and John’s first novel, Guy Psycho and the Ziggurat of Shame has recently been published.
The Drunken Odyssey came to me at the perfect time. I had just had a baby and had started to write again after realizing that my chances for Wordsworthian recollection in tranquility were slim to none. I wanted to talk about books and writing, particularly with other writers, but with teaching, taking care of a newborn, and lacking the web of support (or commiseration) of an MFA program, I was having a hard time finding a time, place, and even people for these discussions.
Then I heard The Drunken Odyssey. I instantly became a fan and, full disclosure, a sometime contributor. For almost a year the show has been a part of my weekly schedule. I look forward to the discussions on craft, reading, and artists as diverse as David Sedaris to Miles Davis to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Thankfully, host John King was able to take some time out of his schedule for Eunoia Solstice.
What was the impetus behind The Drunken Odyssey?
I describe my time at NYU as literary fantasy camp, because while earning my MFA I had three areas of shocking stimulation: one, the world’s best writers in English in the same room as me when they gave readings, two, amazing teachers who managed to wow me with their knowledge even though I already had a PhD and was considered a Very Bright Pony myself, and three, a boatload of insightful peers.
Two years after the MFA, I was teaching at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida, and those three areas seemed unavailable.
I mean, I was teaching my ass off, and commuting from outer space, so I wasn’t as curious as I could have been about the local writing scene, but I was missing having the same kinds of writerly conversations, except for occasional chats with Jaroslav Kalfař, who at the time was an office assistant. (Apparently our bosses liked to eavesdrop on our conversations, so literary talk was slowing down up to four people at once in the world of rhetoric and composition.)
And then, in UCF’s Faculty Multimedia Center, I was introduced to The Whisper Room. This is a soundproofed recording studio, and this satanic person named Ryan Retherford convinced me that doing a podcast would be easy. I thought about how many friends and acquaintances I have through the MFA program, and the local writers I had befriended, and thought, what the hell? Let’s have some conversations.
As a writer, have you taken anything away from this experience–positive or negative?
The thing that consistently impresses me is the humility of all the writers I’ve interviewed so far. I mean, if you are going to keep at this ludicrously impractical activity, you have to be willing to heave your ego under the bus all the time. No one finds this easy, and so whatever separates the critically and/or economically successful writers from those of us who are still trying to get noticed isn’t that.
Of course I feel this humility all the time, perhaps more so because of the podcast. I’m not usually enamored with the sound of my own voice, and the chronic deadlines, somehow trying to seem like a human being at least at the start and finish of every show, sometimes really wears me down.
But the show also forces me to write when I am really too tired to write. Because I try to let listeners in on what my progress has been as a writer each week, I feel shame when I haven’t written anything—when normally I would feel simply exhausted.
The Drunken Odyssey has forced me to do more writing and reading than I am really capable of, teaching four writing-intensive classes every semester.
As a listener, I find it extremely valuable and refreshing that you talk to writers at various stages in their careers. Your guest list moves back and forth between grad students and authors like Martin Amis. Was this diversity planned or has it just been a matter of practicality?
Variety was key. I knew I could get some experienced writers on the air, because I knew them personally—some of them were my teachers—but I knew I also wanted to talk to people whose writing careers were just getting going. I am thinking mostly about the conversations I want to have, and the conversations I think my listeners will want to hear. I am hoping to keep branching out to the wider writing community, including comedians, screen writers, scientists, musicians, philosophers, and others. I want to celebrate all writing that’s alive.
In the latest episode, you mentioned exhaustion and being fed up with writing after AWP. You mentioned you still worked on a short story after this feeling. Given your family and work schedule, what’s your writing life looking like these days?
I’ve been writing more poetry than I’ve expected. It’s not just the brevity of most poems that is the attraction, but the psychological compression involved in my existence these days lends itself to poetic observation—which is to say, my mind is a panicky state of triage most of the time, so that when I slow down and become more mentally alive to the moment, the result is often a poem, like when the stars stop streaking as lines, and become the constellations of shiny dots in the sky. There. That’s what it should look like.
The short story I began in March I am still working on, not that it’s the sort of longer short story you might see in The New Yorker or anything. I got stuck between scenes in the grading crunch before the approach of finals. The story itself is from the point-of-view of someone experiencing black outs during a tragedy in his life, so the perspective seems appropriate for the frazzled person I am these days—and hopefully I convey the immediacy of that—but the craft portion of my work as a writer is worried about quality. My concentration apparatus is, um, not good right now. But I am devoting an hour a day to it now, in the morning, before I spend a few hours applying for summer jobs.
I am also, glacially mind you, working on being more active and systematic about querying agents about my novel, Guy Psycho and the Ziggurat of Shame. The documents you need to gain an agent are different from what is normally needed in creative writing, and I want to make sure I am not doing a disservice to my book by having my query stuff be boring. With this book, I only have one shot with each agent, sometimes only one shot with each agency, so I want to make sure the query materials are as good as the book. If I can’t sell the book because the book isn’t sellable, I can live with that, perhaps—but if I can’t sell the book because my querying is wretched, that will send me shrieking off into the horizon. The paralysis I have experienced working on fiction also relates to working on these materials. I generally don’t have five clear-headed hours a week I can devote to my writing.
I did convene a workshop of peers to look over my query materials. A very loud shout out is in order for Madison Bernath, Dianne Turgeon Richardson, and Jeffrey Shuster.
Now that I am in the summer, I am pouring my energies into finding work to pay my bills. I teach in the second part of the summer. But I will have to use this little gap to binge-write, to get my query materials right, so that the novel can move forward in the literary marketplace, if it can. Maybe I can finish the short story, too, before the exhaustion of my labors, if I can find any, overtakes my ability to conjure up stories.
I’ve been privileged to have some poet-friends, like Terry Ann Thaxton and Monica Wendel, give me feedback on my poems, and I am getting more systematic about submitting my stories and my poems and my essays to journals. So really it’s a tornado of little things these days, and hopefully I can get the novel out there, and maybe I’ll be able to afford more time to write.
Any more shows with Jaroslav Kalfař? You two had great chemistry.
Jaroslav was local when the show began, and now he’s at NYU’s creative writing program, which seems symbiotic in a way, since I met him at UCF after I came from NYU’s program. I can’t wait to see what he has been writing this past year—he hasn’t shown me yet. He’s still a good friend, and who knows what the future holds? These days, though, our interactions mostly assume the form of phone sex.
What do we have to look forward to on future episodes?
I am teaming up with another writer friend, David James Poissant; the two of us will respond to listener mail. That should be fun. He has a wicked sense of humor and strong opinions, which means I’ll have the pleasure of telling him how wrong he is.
I also plan to increase the original video content on the website. Right now I just have the Amis reading from Miami Book Fair International.
As for future guests, I don’t want to jinx any plans that are in the works! You’ll just have to wait.
Do you have more live readings planned?
My goal is to have one reading every season. Summer means Bloomsday (June 16th), with readings from James Joyce’s Ulysses. I am hoping Godrick the Giant will return this year.
Any upcoming publications?
Eventually, “The Confessions of Guy Psycho, #1” is supposed to appear in a future issue of Bachelor Pad Magazine, when Jason Croft finds room for it. My interview with Bunny Yeager just appeared in issue #23 of that fine publication.
Reprobate Rag is supposed to publish a poem of mine, except the journal is taking an exceedingly long time starting to exist.
Other than that, I am waiting to hear from many journals…