You Only Get Letters from Jail

Jodi Angel’s second story collection, You Only Get Letters from Jail, chronicles the lives of young men trapped in the liminal space between adolescence and adulthood. From picking up women at a bar hours after mom’s overdose to coveting a drowned girl to catching rattlesnakes with gasoline, Angel's characters are motivated by muscle cars, manipulative women, and the hope of escape from circumstances that force them either to grow up or give up. Haunted by unfulfilled dreams and disappointments, and often acting out of mixed intentions and questionable motives, these boys turned young men are nevertheless portrayed with depth, tenderness, and humanity. Angel’s gritty and heartbreaking prose leaves readers empathizing with people they wouldn't ordinarily trust or believe in.
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  • Page Count: 288
  • Direct Price: 12.00
  • List Price: $14.95
  • 5 x 7 3/4
  • July 2013
  • 978-1-935639-57-2
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Price as Configured $0.00

Jodi Angel’s first collection of short stories, The History of Vegas, was published in 2005 and was named as a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2005 as well as an LA Times Book Review Discovery. Her work has appeared in Tin HouseZoetrope: All-Story, One Story, Byliner and the Sycamore Review, among other publications and anthologies. Her stories have received several Pushcart Prize nominations and she was selected for Special Mention in 2007. Most recently her story “A Good Deuce” was noted as a Distinguished Story in The Best American Stories 2012. She grew up in a small town in Northern California—in a family of girls.

 

www.jodiangel.com

 "In this accomplished, moving collection of stories about boys, she proves the uselessness of the old dictum that you should write what you know."
New York Times

". . .fall in love with Jodi Angel and her new story collection, You Only Get Letters from Jail. . ."
Esquire Magazine

"Best Book of Summer. . .Prose stripped down to the primer. Dialogue that burns like cheap whiskey. Teenaged guys with dirt under their fingernails and Doritos stains on their shirts trying to keep it together as they lose their mothers to death and drugs, as they lose themselves in a culture that doesn't give much of a damn about men without manicures. Jodi Angel does give a damn: She has these stories to prove it."
Esquire Magazine

". . .Jodi Angel writes with a voice dripping with sweat and Schlitz. You Only Get Letters from Jail is about young men and women teetering on a razor’s bloody edge, living lives in which cheap thrills are the only kind."
Esquire Four

"Angel is an indie-press star."
Marie Claire

". . .Angel bravely does what many writers are afraid to do. In tough, sometimes brutally lyrical language, she gives young, desperate voices—including their slang—full rein of the stage."
San Francisco Chronicle

"[T]hese stories describe the moments of adrenaline and gut instinct that can mark an imperiled adolescent’s first break for something better or set a course for a lifetime on the skids. . .Every time [Angel] dives into this all too familiar world, she surfaces with insights both beautiful and strange."
—Lambda Literary

"A must-read for short story lovers and anyone who was ever a screwed-up teenager.”
—CLMP

"You Only Get Letters from Jail contains first rate fiction, crackling with conflict, high stakes, and drama; it’s a joy to read and definitely one of the year’s best."
—Necessary Fiction

"Angel collects 11 visceral stories focused on the lives of young men who feel and seem trapped by their circumstances."
Cleveland Plain Dealer

"That voice is active and highly descriptive, yet never anxious nor panicked. In Letters From Jail, things look grim. But they rarely look hopeless. . .The burn comes from Angel's profound powers of description, which allow a reader to taste a beer that's gone warm during a lakeside outing, smell the burned rubber after a hot rod brakes too quickly or feel the enveloping flesh of an overweight barfly who provides unexpected comfort to the boy who lost his mother."
The Sacramento Bee

"Like a master phlebotomist, Angel manages to hit vein again and again, allowing her hardscrabble narrators grace and particularity rarely aligned with male characters from harsh backgrounds."
The Oregonian

"The prose in Angel’s story collection, all about young men who can’t seem to grow up, has a distinct, dreamy sentimentalism to it; somehow, it seems to hold your hand as you turn each page. But it has teeth, too. She depicts vivid scenes of places you’d never choose to go, and yet, you’d never dare turn away. Nor would you dare forget them. It’s a feat."
—Bustle.com

"Jodi Angel writes like an angel—in the full sense of the designation--which is to say someone fallen out of the armpit of a restless deity—sharp-eyed, ruthless, and tender at the same time. I'd walk a long way to hear her read these stories, and plan to buy a half dozen copies just so I can give them away saying, 'Look at this. You have never before read anything like this.'"
—Dorothy Allison

"Jodi Angel embodies this pack of low-rent, no-count, hard-luck, heart-tugging teenage boys so thoroughly that one can only conclude she was one, in this or some former lifetime. Plus, she really knows her way around a paragraph. In these stories, child support never gets paid and guns go off too often and deciding to love something almost guarantees its immediate departure or death. These are hard, wonderful, compassion-inducing stories, laced with surprising and surprisingly powerful grace notes, flashes of heat lightning in the dark."
—Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted

"You Only Get Letters From Jail is one of the finest and truest collections of 'American' short stories I have ever read. Set in small towns among muscle cars and grange halls and rock and roll and damaged vets and divorced parents, Jodi Angel's stories explore in sharp and often funny prose the lives of teenagers trying their best to make sense of things in this world that, more often than not, remain inexplicable."
—Donald Ray Pollock, author of The Devil All the Time

“In these charged stories, the young narrators do not understand that they cannot afford their innocence, their tenderness, in these worlds. I was captured by the power of Jodi Angel's fresh, uninsulated prose and I read toward the secret harm in each story like a man who has heard a noise in the other room. You Only Get Letters from Jail is a gripping collection.”
—Ron Carlson, author of The Signal

“Jodi Angel’s tough and elegant stories remind me of the work of Ray Carver, Melanie Rae Thon, and Richard Ford. These are big-hearted renderings of folks struggling to find beauty in a harsh world, the pain of Angel’s characters driven into their potent desire to escape, to find mercy, to be healed. The eleven stories in You Only Get Letters from Jail are radiant with wise and powerful drama, serious, earnest, and true.”
—Alan Heathcock, author of Volt 


A Good Deuce
Cash or Trade
Catch the Grey Dog
Field Dressing
Game-Bred
Gap
The Diving Reflex
The Last Mile
Firm and Good
Snuff
You Only Get Letters from Jail

You Only Get Letters from Jail


The Eberhardts’ daughter disappeared the same week they started going to the movies every night to watch the 7:15 showing of The Exorcist, and it didn’t take long for word to get around that instead of sitting by the phone and waiting for her to call, they were sitting in the dark, watching that possessed girl slam some priests around her room. Suzy Eberhardt disappearing was sort of Page 3 news for everybody—she was the kind of girl who didn’t put much stock in curfews and rules, and most of our parents defined “bad crowd” based on who Suzy Eberhardt was with. Everybody knew that she had probably taken off with some guy and would roll home when the money ran out and act like it was no big deal. I hadn’t thought much about it until Ricky Riley asked my brother to give him a ride out past the dam, him and this girl I knew from school, and I found myself down a dirt road, drinking warm Lucky Lager on a Saturday. 


Ricky Riley had been to Vietnam and was fucked in the head, or at least that’s what my brother said, but my brother worked the graveyard janitor shift with him at Mercy and they hung out and were friends. Some people said Ricky hadn’t gone to Vietnam, he had just disappeared and run off up north when the draft came around, and some people said he had been drafted but couldn’t pass the competency test, and some said his draft number had never come up in the lottery anyways. All I knew was that it was ninety degrees outside and Ricky had on a jungle jacket that had somebody else’s name on it, and sometimes he walked with a limp, and he had enough money to buy beer but not fix his van, and he was older than my brother and with a girl I went to school with who told us in the car that she was with Ricky because she didn’t have anything better to do. 


“Me and Suzy Eberhardt go way back,” Ricky said. We had the doors opened on my brother’s Duster and he had the hood up so he could show off his 360 and the rebuilt six-pack carb setup to Ricky, who my brother felt should have been sorry for driving a Ford. Debbie from school was sitting in the front seat, playing with the radio, trying to tune in something besides static or country, and I was on my third beer and thinking about wandering down to the lake. I thought maybe I could smell its shoreline like wet thick green, heavy and bug-filled, but guaranteed to be cooler than sitting on the vinyl seats or under the scrub oaks, which were too thin to give more than a weak circle of shade. The trunk was full of gas cans and beer and I was bored and a little drunk and tired of waiting for the sun to set so I could see what Ricky had in mind.


“Do you know where she’s at?” my brother asked Ricky. I could tell that he was only half listening because he was focused on the verbal tour of his Plymouth and I had heard his speech enough to know it by heart—he was waiting to get to the good parts: TorqueFlite 727 three-speed reverse valve-body automatic, 8 ¾ posi axles with Mickey Thompsons front and rear. 
Ricky took a long swallow from his bottle and ran the back of his hand over his mouth. He had let his dark hair grow long and when he leaned forward, he had a habit of tucking the front behind his ear so that he could see and it had become sort of a rhythmic habit—the farther he leaned, the more he tucked, like a one, two count.


“She’s dead in her house,” he said. 


My brother stepped back from the open hood and I could hear his tennis shoes bend and break the bunchgrass beneath them. Everything around us was a faded yellow, miles of it drifting in soft rises broken only by the occasional grouping of trees, piled rocks, and the purple needlegrass that would give way to sheep sorrel down where the ground got soft by the water. Everything smelled like star thistle and baked red dirt. 


“You’re full of shit,” my brother said. 


To the west the yellow hillside fell away in a gentle decline and in the distance we could see the lake, a flat blue expanse with the sunlight rippling and breaking in hard angles off the surface. We were too far away to see if there were people, and on the wrong side of the shoreline to see boats. All of the action was somewhere out of sight. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been out to the lake, even though it wasn’t more than a forty-five-minute drive from town. There was no reason to go. We didn’t have a boat, I didn’t know anybody who did, and there were closer places to swim and fish. 


“You ever met her parents?” Ricky asked.


My brother had stepped away from the front of the car and was headed to the back, where a case of beer was split open in the shade under the overhang of the trunk. Ricky had pointed the route out, directing my brother through rights and lefts and then finally down a dirt road that thinned out and became nothing more than tire tracks cutting a single-lane path until it emptied out on a crushed circle of grass by rock piles that were growing weeds in the sun. The tire tracks continued in front of the parked car for another twenty feet or so and then disappeared. There were beer bottles and faded cans and wrappers, evidence that we weren’t the first ones to hang out there and probably wouldn’t be the last, and I wondered if maybe people parked there to fish, but it seemed like an awful long ways to hike down to get to the water. 


“I’ve seen the Eberhardts in town,” Kenny said. “I know who they are.”


“Total religious freaks,” Ricky said. He leaned against the front of the car and started rubbing at his right thigh, the one he favored on the times when it seemed convenient to limp. 


“My girlfriend says they’re going to the movies every night now, ever since about the time Suzy disappeared. Summer Horror Fest.”


“They killed her,” Ricky said. “Went crazy with their religion bullshit and took it upon themselves to get the devil out of Suzy.”


The radio jumped to life through the four speakers and the sudden noise made me slop beer onto the front of my shorts. Debbie had found some distant rock station to flood the hillsides with, the Eagles doing “Lyin’ Eyes,” and she swung her legs out of the passenger seat of the car and walked to the back to pull a beer out of the case.


“Do you make this shit up all by yourself, or does somebody help you?” she asked Ricky.


“Why don’t you go sit back in the car,” Ricky said. “I like you better when you don’t talk.”


A breeze climbed up over the hillside and pulled itself across our circle and in it I thought I could smell something burning, like smoldering grass or barbecues across the lake, but I knew we were too far away to smell anything but weeds and the faint hope of water.
“Go fuck yourself,” Debbie said.


Kenny laughed and Ricky looked up from the open engine compartment and tucked his hair. “Baby, I’m trying to avoid that. That’s why I have you.”


Debbie shot him the finger and twisted the cap from her beer. She flipped it over and looked at what was underneath. “I hate these puzzles,” she said. She threw the cap into the grass and it settled against a Laura Scudder’s potato chip bag that was bright yellow and tangled in the weeds.


“It’s called a rebus,” Ricky said. Everybody looked at him. 


“What is called a rebus?” I asked.

“The puzzle. It’s got a name. It’s like code. We used it in the war, out on field patrols.”


Debbie rolled her eyes and bit at the back of her thumb. “Stop with the war bullshit already,” she said. “Tell a different story.” She shielded her eyes with her hand and looked off to the west. “You want to go swim?” she asked me.


I looked at the lake in the distance and thought I could see a white line moving across it, the wake from a boat cutting across the surface. I imagined how cool the water was, how deep it might be. I was terrible at gauging distance, but the lake didn’t look that far away. It was a hard blue stain on the other side of thick trees, high grass, a steep walk down. It could take us ten minutes to get there. It could take us two hours. There would be a lot to step over and through in the process—a lot of things that would like to poke in and scratch.


“Are you sure you want to go?” I asked. 


Debbie ran her tongue across her lips. “I’m going,” she said. “Right now.”


“Don’t be gone a long time,” Kenny said. “Ricky wants to do this just before sunset.”

 
I looked at the sky and the sun was still far from making the slide toward the horizon line. “We’ll be back,” I said.


We each grabbed an extra beer and started walking toward the oak trees that marked the slope down to the shoreline. I could hear our shoes trampling the grass and it was dry and brittle and sharp and pieces of it bit into the bare skin on my legs and I had to keep resisting the urge to reach down and scratch. We walked in silence; the only sound was the car radio spilling out the open doors behind us. The music was good and part of me wanted to stay and listen, sitting in the driver’s seat with my legs propped up on the open gap between the frame and the door, and just wait for the sun to start setting. I thought that maybe if I stayed by the car, I could keep bugging Kenny enough that he would make Ricky get down to it sooner rather than later and I could find out what he was up to and then we could make the drive back and I could get something to eat, since nobody had thought about the fact that we had all kinds of beer and no food at all.


“You know Ricky is crazy, right?” Debbie said. I had been thinking about a cheeseburger, the kind with shredded lettuce and Thousand Island dressing, and a vanilla milk shake and fries with lots of salt, crispy fries that are too hot to bite into but you do it anyways because you can’t wait or hold back. 


“What?” I asked.


“He’s crazy. He shouldn’t even talk about Suzy Eberhardt.”


I took a long swallow from my open bottle and slowed down my pace so that I could step over some rocks that were piled in the grass. They had yellow flowers growing through the spaces between them, yellow flowers in the yellow grass, and the rocks themselves were a faded yellow, a flat sea, the yellow of sick skin.


“He seems okay,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything more to say. When I got right down to it, I really didn’t care if he was crazy or if he wasn’t—he wasn’t my friend, he was my brother’s—and maybe he knew something about what happened to Suzy Eberhardt, even though that didn’t bother me much either, since she was a girl I had heard of but hadn’t known and her disappearing didn’t affect me. 


The breeze came up again and it was warm and uneven and very slight, but it was enough to dry the sweat. I wished that it would rain, that clouds would just muscle up and unleash, but the sky was as empty, hard blue, and unbroken as the lake in the distance and it was August and rain was nothing more than a dull ache like thoughts of the impending threat of school.


“All that talk about the war? He never went.” Debbie finished her beer and tossed the bottle toward a dry skinny pile of broken tree branches. She had been in my English class last year, but she had been gone more than she had been present, and her hair had been different then, darker, and now it was an easy blond and she had let her bangs grow long and straight.

 
“What about the jacket and the limp and all that stuff? He seems to know what he’s talking about,” I said. 


“He’s crazy, not stupid. That’s how crazy people are, right? They sound like they’re sane but they’re really so crazy that when you stop and think about it, nothing that they say really makes any sense.”


The ground had begun a gentle descent and I was aware that we were moving downhill and the trees had thickened. I could no longer see the lake and had no idea how much farther it would be until we hit the rock-and-marsh shoreline. 


“And the limp, that’s a good one. He fell out of a tree. It was the middle of the night and he was across the street from my house, and I saw it happen, I was upstairs in my bedroom, standing at the window . . . Part of it was probably my fault,” she said. 


“He told my brother that he hurt his leg in the war. A guy in front of him stepped on a booby trap or something and Ricky ended up getting hit.”


Debbie laughed and opened the other beer she had brought with her. I was still working on the one I had been drinking in the car and it had gone warm and flat and it was all I could do to keep swallowing it. Even the unopened one in my hand didn’t feel that much cooler and I was sorry that I had carried it. 


“He was never in the war. He was in jail.”


“Why was he in jail?” I asked. 


I could see her smile. “He liked to watch girls.” She looked at me from the corner of her eye, but she didn’t slow her walking.


“Watch?” Debbie’s left arm was close to me and I could feel her skin sharing the same space as mine. I could hear her shoes pushing through the grass and without turning my head I could see each stride, knew the way that her thighs didn’t touch at the top of her legs when she moved. She had a habit of tugging on the hem of her shorts after every third or fourth step and she didn’t change her pace when she did it, like a small nervous tic that she wasn’t even conscious she was making.

“Ricky liked to sneak around our house at night, hide in the bushes. That sort of thing.” 


Debbie started walking faster and I fell in behind her. We had to turn sideways to walk through the trees and the piles of brush, and the dry branches were naked and sharp and pulled at our clothes. I could see bursts of manzanita, its red branches twisted and topped with thin rigid leaves. I hadn’t given much thought to poison oak and I figured I probably should, since this was the perfect kind of place for it, but I wasn’t sure if I would recognize it even if I waded through a field. I knew it had something to do with the leaves—leaves of three, let it be—or some rhyme like that, but just about anything can look like it has three leaves and I wasn’t sure if it was the absence or the presence of the three that made the difference.


“And they arrested him for that?” 


Debbie paused for a second, and I could feel her searching for the next thing to say. “He liked to watch my sister, get her attention, and then--you know. Touch himself.”


I tried to picture Ricky Riley outside Debbie’s house, ducking down in the bushes in the dark, staring into an open window, watching her sister read or watch TV or eat dinner at the kitchen table, and I tried to imagine what would make him take the next step, what would make him want her that badly. 


“He was in love with her,” Debbie said. It was as if she had been reading my thoughts and it made me feel weird, as if she had looked inside of me. “That’s what he said in all the letters he wrote to her. He wrote to her from jail. According to the police, he was in love with quite a few girls. My sister. Suzy Eberhardt, maybe. I wouldn’t doubt it.”

 An Interview with Jodi Angel by Alan Heathcock


Alan Heathcock: First, I just want to congratulate you on You Only Get Letters from Jail. It’s an amazing and impressive work of art, one that really hit me where I live. That said, it’s almost odd to congratulate you on the book, in the sense that you seem to be rooting through some intense stuff. It’s like saying, “Congratulations that you’re still standing after that fistfight.” In the very first question of the very first interview I gave for my book, the interviewer asked me why I write such “dark” stories. It threw me for a loop. I didn’t realize I was writing “dark” stories. I guess I understood that I was looking at some tough stuff--some of my most intense preoccupations as a human--but the word “dark” seemed wrong somehow. It took me a while to figure out how to talk about my work in terms that folks who hadn’t lived my life could understand. I feel a kinship with your stories, and yet I hesitate to label them with any particular temperament, so instead I’m going to ask how you see them. Which is another way of asking, in a general sense, why you chose to write these stories as opposed to writing romance stories or thrillers or quirky stories about talking toasters or any other type of story?

 

Jodi Angel: I think I realized at about the same time that my mother did that I was never going to write stories about kittens and rainbows. I mean, maybe I would, but the kittens would be abandoned in a woodpile and found too late, and the rainbows would be the hallucinatory visuals experienced by teenage boys chugging cough syrup that they ripped off from Elmore Pharmacy in some small mill-working town in California. I don’t really intend to write those kinds of stories, if that makes sense, but when I start to think about a story, and I get a line or two forming in my head, I step immediately into a character and I hear that character’s voice, and that character oftentimes sees the world in a way that I don’t tend to notice. That character isn’t afraid to speak a certain kind of truth, and some people might define that certain kind of truth as dark, but one person’s darkness is another person’s light, and for many of my characters, they don’t know the difference. I like characters who exist somewhere out on the fringe of things, and I set my stories in small Northern California towns, and when you exist on the fringe of a small town, you make your own kind of entertainment. These are characters who don’t flinch over the sight of blood, and the worst thing that I could ever do to them is force them to conform to something tidy and mundane and commonplace. To make these characters do nice things with nice people and have nice thoughts would mean that they would die on the page, and I like them too much to sentence them to that kind of gentle and acceptable death. I like my characters to know that they can take on the plot like a knife fight and I am simply going to report the mess--not clean it up for them.

 

AH: I totally love that you say, “That character isn’t afraid to speak a certain kind of truth.” In a way, maybe our characters allow us to be brave through them. In other words, I work very hard to remove Alan Heathcock from the mix. It’s not easy, either. But I agree that what I’m pursuing is to have a character so free from me that they can speak that truth. I certainly recognize that in your work, too. So let’s talk about character a bit, because yours are so compelling. Despite the varied circumstances of the characters in this collection, all of the stories could be read from the perspective of just one boy. There is an urgency, a desperation, they all share that seems to be part and parcel for their age group. What about this period in a boy’s life interests you?

 

JA: I have to say that it’s a little bit complicated for me to understand not just that age group, but a teenage boy’s life is almost impossible because it’s twice as removed for me. I didn’t grow up around men or boys. My stepfather died when I was nine, my biological father moved away, I was raised by a single mother, and I have two younger sisters. Boys were strange and fascinating things to us girls. I think I like writing from the point of view of boys because I have to stretch my imagination--I have to completely inhabit a gender that I am unfamiliar with, and it creates this duality that is freeing and limiting at the same time--I have to be conscious of gender, so there’s a limitation, but I can allow my teenage boy narrators to do anything, and that is freedom. I think that a seventeen-year-old boy is at a golden point in life--hell, any seventeen-year-old is--it’s the threshold between adulthood and adolescence; it’s a place where the proverbial rubber meets the road. You can’t go backwards and stay a kid, and you don’t know shit about being an adult except from all of these distorted messages of expectations. When you’re seventeen, you can do anything because you’re young enough to get away with it and old enough to know the best kind of trouble. I think that’s what I like most about that age in a teenage boy’s life. There’s all kinds of trouble.

 

AH: Speaking of trouble, does place also act as a kind of “trouble” in your work? Many of the stories take place in a rural setting where the characters are isolated. How does this place influence the young men in your stories? Is this place a part of you and your upbringing?

 

JA: I think a sense of place is fundamental in short stories, and I have always admired the great writers who make setting as essential as character. Your stories are very much bound by place, and Donald Ray Pollock keeps his stories anchored to place, and Bonnie Jo Campbell, and . . . I could go on and on. I think that where stories take place sort of governs the participants and influences the direction of the plot. Stories are populated by people, and these people are a product of their environments. When I first wanted to become a short story writer, I was knee-deep in reading Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, and they were all about place in their stories--small town, rural, blue collar. I think I identified with those stories so much because I grew up in exactly that kind of town--Northern California, small, isolated, rural, blue collar. When I was a kid, everybody’s dad worked at one of the sawmills. We went to company picnics where there were horseshoe tournaments--tournaments--I mean, if your dad carries his own set of competition horseshoes, you might be a redneck---that’s pretty much how I see it. I think that kids who grow up in those kinds of towns, where you are raised on back roads and farmland and one main street passes through the center, are inspired by an entirely different form of entertainment. There’s a lot of drinking and guns and fast driving and violence. You grow up differently than kids who are raised in urban environments--your parents are different, you are raised differently. These are people who won’t keep a dog unless it serves a purpose. There are no “pets.” You might name a lamb you raise, but it’s still getting butchered later in the year. You learn very quickly not to get attached to anything at all. And I grew up in a time when kids were forced to grow up quickly--you didn’t have a choice. My parents worked, we kids were alone a lot, and we got bored. If we wanted something to do, then we had to come up with the idea ourselves and figure out how to make it happen and handle the details on our own--my mom wasn’t going to leave work and drop us off at the mall to hang out for the afternoon. We didn’t have a mall. We did things like ride motorcycles and make traps to catch bats on summer evenings. We set things on fire and cut things with knives. We had very little parental supervision, and I think that’s what bubbles to the surface in my stories--that whole life that is based on kids who make their own kinds of fun without the benefit of parental supervision or the constraints of urban society---and in my stories it is often summer and blistering hot and there is no scheduled demand of school, and no structure, and there’s a lot of boredom, and kids in those situations are going to do the first bad ideas that come to them. I think I try to create characters who exist in those kinds of settings because they live in a world full of possibility and when you get two or three teenagers together under those circumstances, it always leads to the best kinds of trouble--and even when it doesn’t, they can always make something up.

 

AH: You come from a small town of horseshoes and fast cars and boredom. How did stories come into your life? And, even more importantly, when did the impulse to put pen to paper enter your world? Was writing an impulse to stave off boredom? An escape? To make sense of the world around you? Can you recall the first story you wrote and why you wrote it?

 

JA: I was a voracious reader, and that was probably my first form of escapism that was socially acceptable. I used to read in the car, in the grocery store, during classes, during recess, late at night. I was always into survival stories--those Julie of the Wolves/Island of the Blue Dolphins kind of tales, and dog stories, and I started reading Stephen King when I was in the sixth grade, and a group of us were passing around a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever, so I was probably all kinds of screwed up. I started writing stories when I was in the seventh grade, though it was probably even before that, because I distinctly remember my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Purdy, telling me that I was going to grow up to be a writer. But what happened in seventh grade is that in English we actually studied the elements of a short story--character, plot, setting--and we were given the assignment to write a story. My poor teacher didn’t know what kind of monster he unleashed with that assignment. I wrote a thirty-page epic about a boy who lives with his grandfather in the mountains, first-person POV, and the grandfather dies suddenly (and tragically, I’m sure), and the boy has to survive on what little food is left as the first snowfalls come. I wrote it longhand and handed it in in sections. My teacher loved it and made some poor eighth-grade girl type it up so he could put it in the school magazine, which was nothing more than a xeroxed set of typed-up things stapled together. That was my first real published piece, and from then on, I was hooked to the rush I got when I was writing. I wrote stories because I loved the way they made me feel, and I suppose that when I scrape away all of the other things that try to infringe on the writing process--like pressure, and the end product, and my lack of confidence, and deadlines, and perfectionism, and all those other impediments to producing a good story--when I get past all of those things, it still comes down to the fact that I like the way that writing makes me feel. I like getting lost in a story and falling down into that rabbit hole where time stops and I am living and breathing in that fictional world and nothing else matters. That’s why I started writing as a kid--for that feeling and afterward being able to say, ”Damn, I really wrote that.”

 

AH: Let me ask you a question I was asked the other day. I was talking with this guy who’s a doctor, highly educated, who’s now trying to write a book. He asked a question I thought was pretty simple, but pretty interesting, especially at this point in my career: “How do you know when you’re successful?” He then explained that it must be difficult as an artist to know both when you’ve created art that matters and if/when validation means your art is relevant beyond yourself. He compared it to being a doctor, because as a doctor he knows he’s succeeded if the patient gets better, and if, over time, he’s won the trust of his patients, then he feels he’s succeeded. I gave him an answer on the spot, but I’ve found myself dwelling on the question. How do you know when you’ve succeeded? Can you give any specific examples as to when you knew you’d done something special, when, in a metaphoric sense, the patient got better?

 

JA: How do I define success for myself, or how do I know when I have succeeded? That’s an extremely difficult concept to articulate. I believe in the wise advice that, when writing, never look for validation beyond yourself, and success implies a sense of validation--that I have done something that is valuable and worthy and true, and the one who ultimately has to provide that validation is me. The idea of success suggests a multitude of things--money, recognition, praise, popularity. Success is synonymous with accomplishment, but how do we measure accomplishment in something built on creativity? Sales numbers? Advances? Reviews? None of those things have ever instilled in me a feeling of success. I write short stories--they are often overlooked, make small money, win sporadic hard-fought praise, but it never changes the way that I feel about writing them. I feel successful when I put that last word down on the page and I know that I nailed the ending, took a journey, embodied a character. Success happens when I feel good about what I wrote, and I know that I couldn’t do it any better than what I just did, and I know that I have reached out and offered to meet the reader halfway. And every time a reader says, ”Damn, I still can’t stop thinking about your story,” I know I have succeeded beyond my expectations. I don’t get the tangible result of saving a person’s life, like a doctor, or winning an important trial, like a lawyer, but I have the intangible possibility of putting someone into another person’s existence and changing how a person sees the world for a little while, and if I accomplish that, that’s truly success.

 

AH: Let’s end this conversation with some speed-round questions. Folks surely do love speed-round questions! Here’s goes:

 

1. Name three books that were influential to you finding your voice as a writer.

Rock Springs by Richard Ford. At the Jim Bridger by Ron Carlson. Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston. One to grow on: She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. BONUS point: Everything Raymond Carver ever wrote.

 

2. If you could own one car, what kind of car would it be?

All my life I wanted a muscle car. I don’t know why, other than even as a kid, I knew cool when I saw it. Earlier this year I finally got a muscle car, so now I own the dream: a 1969 Chevy Nova. I bought a “project car,” from out of state, thinking I could handle the “fine-tuning” it needed. I had the car shipped, drove it less than a day, and it blew up. The end. If I were writing that story, it would pretty much end there, but since this is life, I threw down the money to replace the engine, and my partner in crime and I have systematically replaced the cooling system, carburetor, wheels, tires, etc. And now we have a car with over 400 horsepower and you can hear it coming from blocks away. That’s pretty much the best kind of car to own.

 

3. You’re cruising around in this car, what tunes are playing on the stereo?

It’s summer, and summer says Rush. Play some Rush. And some Ramones, and the White Stripes. Anything fast, that sounds better loud, and preferably was released before 1990. And when it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV.

 

4. If you could practice one art that wasn’t writing, what would it be?

I wish I could play the drums. I always wanted to be in a band, but I can’t sing, and I’m left-handed and not creative enough to teach myself how to play a guitar, so maybe I could just sit at the back of the stage and hit something really hard.

 

5. What advice would you give to someone just getting their feet wet in this crazy world of writing?

Don’t be afraid to tell your own truths. People are going to try to tell you what is “acceptable” material and what is “okay” to talk about, and all around you these disguised rules will be reinforced by people who seem to matter--reviewers, editors, agents--but the moment you change what or how you write in order to please somebody else, be accepted, get popular, you stop being a writer. You become something more like a copy machine, and the world is full of copy machines, and nobody really likes them. Be a writer. Be fearless.

 

Jodi Angel’s first collection of short stories, The History of Vegas, was published in 2005 and was named as a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2005 as well as an LA Times Book Review Discovery. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Zoetrope: All-Story, One Story, Byliner and the Sycamore Review, among other publications and anthologies. Her stories have received several Pushcart Prize nominations and she was selected for Special Mention in 2007. Most recently her story “A Good Deuce” was noted as a Distinguished Story in The Best American Stories 2012. She grew up in a small town in Northern California—in a family of girls.


Alan Heathcock’s fiction has been published in many of America’s top magazines and journals.  VOLT, a collection of stories, was a “Best Book 2011″ selection from numerous newspapers and magazines, including GQ,Publishers Weekly, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, was named as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, selected as a Barnes and Noble Best Book of the Month, as well as a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize.  Heathcock has won a Whiting Award, the GLCA New Writers Award, a National Magazine Award, has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is currently a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho.  A Native of Chicago, he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.