A Patch of Ice in the Woods and a Car Full of Corn Husks

David James Keaton Leads Indy WordLab on October 6
David James Keaton will lead Indy WordLab on Monday, October 6, at Indy Reads Books. His fiction has appeared in over 50 publications, including Grift, Pank, and Noir at the Bar II. His first collection, Fish Bites Cop! Stories to Bash Authorities, was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror and was a finalist for the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award. His first novel, The Last Projector, will be released Halloween of 2014.
1. When did you first start writing? What kinds of stories did you write?
The first story I remember finishing was sometime in junior high, this thing called “Spiderbites.” It was about a kid who steps on a spider, which is a “new” kind of spider, and it lays eggs in the kid’s foot. So then the kids’ feet erupt with spiders weeks later. The next story I wrote involved mutated beach crabs (in the shadow of the ominous Davis-Besse nuclear power plant) that lay eggs under the skin of sleeping sunbathers. And they erupt with crab monsters weeks later. It’s probably pretty obvious that I was obsessed with the film Alien back in the early ’80s (the first R-rated film I’d ever seen), and also my dad worked for Toledo Edison, which occasionally serviced ominous Davis-Besse, so everything I wrote was either irradiated or a blatant Alien rip-off.
2. You attended grad school for creative writing, and there’s been an ongoing discussion for some time now about whether or not an MFA is “worth it.” Have any thoughts on that?
I go back and forth on that. I think George Saunders said it best with his whole “patch of ice in the woods” analogy. Didn’t he say that getting an MFA was like trying to fuck a patch of ice in the woods and only a fool would try it? Kidding! No, he said something about getting an MFA was like coming across a patch of ice on your walk through the woods, so you skate a little faster for a moment, even though you are still going in the same direction? Is that right? Why does the analogy have to be in the woods at all though? I don’t remember exactly what he said. He may have said none of this, and Googling it right now feels like cheating.
3. A lot of your stories are filled with improbable situations, buffoons (typically authority figures), and some amount of venom. Plus, they’re pretty funny. Do you consciously set out to balance some of your spite with humor?
I’m not sure if it’s a conscious effort to balance anything, maybe subconsciously. Or the parts that are perceived as vicious simply aren’t as funny as I thought? That would be great if it was a natural equilibrium that occurs.
4. You once showed me a photo you keep in your wallet of the first roadkill you ever produced. Your stories are filled with similarly macabre things. What’s up with all that?
That photo has always been a bad idea. And it sounds like something an idiot would carry around, and it sounds like I run over animals on purpose. But the reason it’s in there is kind of a funny story, so let me set the record straight. Years ago, I was attending a coworker’s wedding, and I’d convinced him that I knew something about photography and would take some pictures on his nicer-than-mine camera for a couple extra bucks. So I did this, and then when I was driving home from this wedding, I accidentally hit a possum. I got out of my car and saw that it had been a pregnant possum and now there were a string of baby possums on the road. I felt really horrible, and to sort of punish myself for this, and because the scene was so fascinating and dramatic, I decided to memorialize it. On this guy’s camera, on the last couple pictures on his roll of wedding film (this was the days before digital). And then another defense mechanism kicked in and I thought, “What if I didn’t tell him those pictures were on there?” What if I just gave him his bundle of wedding film to go get developed like, “Here you go! You’re welcome!” and let him discover that for himself? So I did this, even though it was one of my worse ideas of all time, and he put the roadkill pictures in my locker at work with a “What the hell???” and never really talked to me after that. And I put one of the pictures in my wallet. I don’t know why it’s still in there, to be honest, probably because I take really good care of my wallets and they last forever.
5. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, writing-related or otherwise? Worst piece of advice? What advice do you have for anyone who wants to write?
Best piece of advice was on a poster I saw at Spencer’s Gifts, the ’80s equivalent of Hot Topic. It read, “Eat a spider first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.” That was really stupid advice actually, but I thought it was profound twenty years ago. I don’t know if I have any practical writing advice. I kinda don’t believe in it. Saying this kind of thing was mistaken recently for suggesting that writing can’t be taught or something equally idiotic, which is not what I meant. But I didn’t mean there were rules to it either. I don’t know, I guess I’m agnostic when it comes to writing advice.
6. Do you have a favorite bourbon? Wade wants to know.
I can’t even smell bourbon without getting sick, which means I should probably be thrown out of Kentucky, but it’s true. This is due to an incident in high school where my friend Steve bet me 25 cassette tapes – yes, cassettes, it was the ’80s remember. 25 cassette tapes of my choice, which he would steal for me from National Record Mart where he worked, if I could do eight shots of bourbon. This was junior year in high school at a party where someone’s parents were gone, and I was the lightweight drinker I remain now. And like a fool, I did these shots, but Steve was giving me double shots because apparently he was an aspiring murderer. So it was technically 16 shots of bourbon. But I thought I had this wager in the bag because there was a basket of green apples in this kitchen where this was all going down, and I was eating an entire green apple between shots. So it was 16 shots and at least 6 apples I consumed. The apples didn’t do shit, and I snuck off in my brother’s car and made crop circles in a corn field, accidentally poked a girl in the eye while trying to give her directions, tried to climb a barn, then passed out in a bowl of Rice Krispies with no pants on right before the sun came up. My pants were covered in mud and vomit during the barn thing. And there were crackers everywhere, which my brother had been trying to cram in my mouth to “soak up the alcohol.” My brother, the doctor. This was also Thanksgiving morning, too! So I had to go to Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house and sit there all green and miserable while my brother kept trying to corner me about why his car was filled with corn husks. Anyway, long story short, smelling bourbon still makes me want to die. I did get my tapes though! More than 25. I went in to National Record Mart when Steve was working, and he gave me a briefcase cassette holder that held 30 tapes, and I just filled it up. Got lots of The Cars and Phil Collins, I think. BUT AT WHAT COST.
7. Do you do anything to actively annoy authority figures? “Or is he a fake rebel?” Nate asks.
Look at Nate flicking my earlobe, like I’ve got this lucrative fake rebel thing going on but secretly love middle management and high school gym teachers and police officers and post videos of them kicking women in the face while saying things like, “Let’s not rush to judgment until we see this entire video in context!” ‘Cause no one would rebel against anything like that when we’re in such good hands, right, Nate? I’m just messing with ya. But yeah, no, current operations include ongoing harassment of that drunk cop in Pittsburgh who shot that kid in the hand on the South Side, honking when police cars slow down and turn across any double yellow line, since it’s essentially impossible for them to turn around and do anything about it, merciless trolling of law-enforcement online communities where I’ve successfully got one cop to physically attack another (I think, fingers crossed!), and the removal of one of my stories from the archive of our local NPR affiliate for its disrespect to the Louisville Police Department. The rest I can’t tell you about, Nate, but can you trust me? Can you trust me at least as much as you trust your boys in blue?
8. Who are your favorite writers? What are your favorite books/journals/magazines?
Right now I’m really really into this book The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. I really enjoyed Tony Burgess’s Pontypool Changes Everything (a different Tony Burgess than the Clockwork Orange guy by the way), and Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, which both contain variations of apocalyptic “word viruses,” but The Flame Alphabet might be the most ambitious and chilling of the three. I’ve been re-reading Miracleman again, one of only two or three comics that I ever revisit. And I’m revisiting World According to Garp, and do that every couple of years. So those probably qualify as favorites. Favorite writers? That shifts a lot, but early Stephen King and mid-career John Irving are usually constants. And I’ve been reading a lot of Patricia Highsmith lately for a Crime Literature class I’m teaching. I really regret not discovering her earlier in life. Did you know that her mother attempted to abort her by drinking turpentine but it “didn’t take.” Awkward!
9. You have a novel coming out at the end of this month called The Last Projector. Tell me more about it and when people can get their hands on a copy.
The Last Projector is sort of a twisty ’80s fantasy. But it’s not really in the ’80s, time is a little wonky. And it’s sort of set around a drive-in for quite a bit of the story, the 100-page climax takes place there anyway! So that’s where the title comes from, but also because there’s quite a bit of the “projecting” you find in psych books when you’re researching terrible people. The novel also tries to address women’s lack of agency in the crime genre, both novels and film, and also the gross rescue fantasies of young men and all that nonsense. When I wrote it, I’d been rewatching Jane Campion’s films The Piano and In the Cut, and I strived for something similar, dark comedy about the typical American thriller’s sexual hang-ups. Over at Broken River Books, they were very keen on flipping noir and crime tropes, so it fit in well.
If you’d like a copy, right now, the pre-order is up at the publisher’s website here:
And if you order it early, I’ll sign it, and you also get a free e-book version. The regular release date is October 31st, and there will be a release party at NoirCon in Philadelphia that same weekend. After that, it’ll be available at the regular places, Amazon, B & N, Dave’s car, etc.
10. Anything else you’d like to add?
Nah. This was fun. Let’s stop before I pretend like I’m harassing police officers. Because that’s against the law, silly.
Indy Wordlab is a monthly reading series/open writing workshop. A local writer reads their work, takes questions, and offers a writing experiment, Attendees take 30-40 minutes to write on the prompt, and then reconvene in pairs or small groups to share their work. Learn more herehere, and here.