ALIEN TO EVERY SITUATION: Steve Gergley interviewed by Rebecca Gransden

Steve Gergley’s reality is slanted. His stories visit the marginal, the restless, lost and dazed. Strange interventions infect the mundane, and an absurd magic settles on wasted lives. For the collection A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair: Stories (LEFTOVER Books, 2022) Gergley invites a weary curiosity, and evokes sad times lit by the starkest sun rays. What follows is a tour of the table of contents.

*

A track by Lana Del Rey plays a prominent part in “Lizzy from Lake Placid”. If she were to join you for a weekend trip to the coast, what music would be on the car’s stereo?

Well, one of my favorite things in life is introducing someone to music I think they would love but they don’t know about yet, so on this trip, when it would be my turn to pick the next album, first I’d put on Laura Stevenson’s The Big Freeze, which was one of my favorite albums of 2019, and something I feel that Lana would like. For my next turn, I’d put on Shadow Work by Mammal Hands. They’re an instrumental jazz band, and that album in particular makes for great highway cruising music. After that, I’d probably go with the album, Hard to Care by Heavy Sigh. They’re an amazing dreampop/shoegaze band from New Jersey that have a really nice, sweet/sad vibe I think Lana would enjoy. I could keep going haha, but I’ll stop there.   

“Red Means Go” features a distinctive and breathless language style. How did you settle on this stylistic choice?

This style comes out of the idea that a third-person story can be written in the distinct voice of the main character in the same way a first-person story can be. I learned about that years ago from reading some of my favorite authors like Jonathan Franzen and Thomas Pynchon, and I tried to use that method in this story. I wanted the style of the writing to match the frantic, scattershot thoughts of the two main characters, so the reader would become fully immersed in their desperate minds.  

Your story “A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair” includes three #QuickTips for dealing with despondency and sorrow. Can you give three #QuickTips for writers who are feeling discouraged about their work.

This is a great question. These insights might not help everyone, but they’ve been helpful for me. So if you’re discouraged about your work,

Quick Tip #1. Consistency is the most important thing. Write for at least an hour every single day whether you have any ideas or not. Don’t wait for divine inspiration to strike (it only strikes me about two to three times per year, the rest is pure grinding and habit). Even if you don’t make any progress at first, disconnect the internet and force yourself to sit in front of a blank word document for an hour. After a few days, you’ll be so bored of staring at a white screen that you’ll start coming up with new ideas just to distract yourself from the boredom.

Quick Tip #2. If you’re stuck on a story, put it aside for at least a month and work on something completely new. You’ll be surprised how fast you forget about the anxiety you had about the first story once you get some momentum on a new work. And while you’re working on the second story, your mind will continue processing the first one subconsciously, and when you finally return to the first story, your mind might’ve figured out the answer you need to move forward.

Quick Tip #3. Maybe try reaching out to someone you know in the online writing community and see if they’d be willing to critique your work in exchange for you doing the same for them. This can be very valuable because someone who doesn’t have access to the pictures and thoughts in your head usually sees a scene much differently than you do, and they can point out where some of those mental images have not translated to the page. That being said, you do have to practice caution and understanding when contacting other writers for this. It’s probably not a good idea to ask a random person if they can read a 100,000 word novel, so start with writers you already know, and ask if they have any flash pieces they want a second opinion on. Starting small is a good idea in this department.

If you can’t find another writer to take a look at your work, there are a number of journals that offer feedback services, but they do cost money. Fractured Lit is a great option. Their service costs sixty dollars, but in my experience, the fee is well worth it. And if you do choose a professional critique, be sure to send what you think is your best story, not the one you’re indifferent about. The feeling of a stranger clinically tearing apart your best work might be scary, but it’s from this experience that the most improvement emerges.

Bonus Tip: Try not to get too caught up in social media and comparing yourself to other writers and their achievements. Remember, writing is about self-expression and emotional communication, so just focus on yourself and don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. 

Heavy metal is a theme in “Brain Debris vs. The Squid Aliens”. If you had a heavy metal band what would be your part, and what would be your band name?

I actually studied music and audio production in college, and I played guitar and bass for over ten years before I stopped with music to focus on writing, so I’d play guitar or bass. The name is tougher to think of, though. In another story that follows Dawn, the main character from this story, her band is named Severe Tire Damage, after the joke from Mrs. Doubtfire. So that’s a good option haha. I also really like geology, and a lot of geological vocabulary terms make good, over the top metal band names: Caldera (the leftover cone of a volcano that has erupted), Lahar (a volcanic mudslide), Phreatic Explosion (an explosion caused by superheated steam), Subduction Zone (the area where a tectonic plate gets pushed underneath another plate and forced into the mantle of the earth), and my favorite, Mud Cracks (a fracture caused by the drying out and shrinking of silt or clay). I also really like when bands put two seemingly random nouns together to create a new, cool image no one had thought of before (Drug Church, Chat Pile, Funeral Diner, Hope Drone). So my band name that consists of two nouns would be: Marrow Scratch. haha, I guess that sounds pretty cool. I mean, it’s got to be something dark and disturbing and slightly silly if it’s for a metal band, right? Oh yeah, and I love Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and when bands name themselves after a fictional character, so “John Matrix” (Arnold’s name in Commando) would be a great name for a metal band.

“Drilling” unfolds like an unnerving bad dream. Do you know where this came from? Have you had any regretful dentist experiences?

A lot of my writing is influenced by what I’m reading at the moment, and I believe I was reading Kafka’s The Trial or The Castle while writing this story, so that was a big part of where the absurd, dreamlike atmosphere of this story came from. Also, I don’t really have any bad dentist experiences myself, but when I think about it, the whole process does lend itself to paranoia, what with the big chair, the sharp steel instruments, the suction tube in your mouth, the bright light in your face, and the feelings of helplessness you can sometimes have in that situation. It has a strong “alien abduction” vibe. And that is something that used to terrify me as a kid haha. 

“TooAfraidToAsk” Why is the world so scary?

I think it might have to do with the world being so big and each of us knowing we are very small. 

“You’ll Never Leave” What parts of you have vanished, and you’ll never get them back?

This is a great question. I’m writing it down right now so I can talk about it with my therapist later this week.

A recurring theme for the collection is anxiety, a strong example of which occurs in “There’s a Crashing Plane Behind the Store”. Could you elaborate on how you approach this issue, and why it features so prominently?

Anxiety has been an issue for me my entire life, so that’s something that has colored my experiences since childhood. I also have epilepsy, which adds to the anxiety I naturally feel each day. Because when there’s the possibility you might lose consciousness at any moment of any day without warning and there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself from getting hurt (I once got a concussion when I had a seizure, fell out of my computer chair, and hit the side of my head on a desk), basically everything in the world becomes pretty scary. Or at least it did for me. And the writing of these stories was my way of immersing myself in those feelings of anxiety and powerlessness, and then trying to get over them. And it worked pretty well, actually. 

“To You, in Another 31 Years” uses the phenomena of darkness and light. You make lyrical use of their distinct qualities, and the contrast one lends to the other. What does darkness mean to you? What does light mean to you?

To me, darkness symbolizes safety. When you’re hiding in the dark, that’s a safe place because no one can find you. But that safety also comes with loneliness and isolation, so there’s a trade-off. Light is similar in that it brings warmth, illumination, and increased interaction with others, but it also carries dangers of its own. The more you interact with others, the more chances you have to get hurt physically and emotionally.   

“At Action Park” is a beautiful gut punch. Are there any writers that do this for you?

Thanks a lot! Yeah, almost all of my favorites do this. Richard Yates, Tobias Wolff, Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, William Gaddis, Johnathan Franzen, Adam Johnson, Tim O’Brien, Kazuo Ishiguro, Franz Kafka, Dan Chaon, John Cheever, and a bunch of others. 

“Work-Life Balance” Do you have a good writing-life balance? 

Haha this question is funny because in my mind, I have a very healthy writing-life balance. Writing is one of the great passions of my life, and I don’t have much of a desire for any kind of social life. But if you were to ask other people around me, I’m sure they’d say that me having no social life and instead spending the majority of my free time writing weird stories about a metal band fighting aliens and an alcoholic boxer getting into a fistfight with the devil, they’d say my writing-life balance isn’t very healthy. 

“Monday Morning at the Office” Have you ever had an office job? If not, would you like one?

I’ve never had an office job before, and despite the common consensus about office jobs being terrible, I actually would like one haha. I think almost anything would be better than the ten years of horrendous retail jobs I worked after college. And yes, I mean anything, including being a janitor. Which I have also done. And that was way better than retail. 

In “Cryonics” the character of Larry asks a question. So, If you died right now and had the chance to be reincarnated as anything in the entire world, what would it be?

Oh, I like this question. I’d probably want to come back as a Maine Coon cat with caring owners and a big house to prowl.

“Last Day of Fatassery” features the journal of someone who finds life very tough. Have you ever kept a journal? If you have, do you know why? If not, would you be open to the idea?

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of the Nickelodeon cartoon, Doug, so I’ve always been a journal enthusiast. I haven’t kept a journal in a few years, but I have had a good number of them in the past. Journals are really nice because they are very cathartic in the moment, and very entertaining to read in the future. And since I always knew I would eventually read each journal sometime in the future, I’d always write jokes for my future self in each entry. And sometimes, when reading the journal years later, I forgot I had written those jokes, so I actually managed to surprise myself a few times that way. It was pretty amusing.       

“The Guy Who Always Felt Like He Was About to Throw Up” Where’s the worst place you’ve thrown up?

I’ve never thrown up in any really bad places, but I am terribly afraid of throwing up in general. It’s such an awful experience. The last time I threw up was on Christmas Eve of 2006, after I caught a stomach virus while visiting some friends who went to a different college. But since it’s been so long, I think I’m more afraid of it than ever, which is what led to the creation of this story haha. So at least some good came from those fears. 

“Who Cares What Psychiatrists Write on Walls?” Have you ever been to Europe? If not, what would you like to do while you are there?

I’m not a fan of traveling, but I did go to London one time with my family. It was a great experience, and endlessly fascinating to learn about all the small cultural differences between England and the US. I think the driving on the opposite side of the road part was the most fun for the sixth grade version of me. That, and the fact that there were directions painted on the sidewalk telling you which direction to look before crossing the street so tourists don’t look the wrong way and step into traffic.

“Hercules in Upstate New York” features the world of sport. Have you ever encountered an asshole bird?

Yeah, I have. The incident from this story with the turkey vulture actually happened, but I wasn’t the one who got attacked. One of my best friends had that honor. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt, and we still joke about the whole thing to this day.

“a few of my favorite words and why i like them” can you list a few of your least favorite words and why you dislike them? it’s okay, most of them have probably been around a long time and can handle criticism.

M*shy is the most disgusting word I can think of, and I categorically refuse to speak or type it in any situation. As for punctuation, the em dash is equally loathsome, but a little less disgusting. I mean, even the interrobang isn’t as bad as the em dash. If you want to interject something into the middle of a sentence, why can’t you just use parentheses or a pair of offsetting commas!?

“What is it?” features the soul sucking nature of some jobs, and a workplace epiphany. Where are you at when it comes to aging?

Well, since I’ve already gone bald, and that doesn’t bother me at all, I feel pretty good about getting older. The one thing that does annoy me about getting older is the injuries that can slow down my daily workouts. I can still exercise at a high level every day, I just have to be more careful.   

“Confession with Father Patrick” Anything to confess?

I hope this confession doesn’t get me permanently banned from submitting to this magazine again in the future, but I don’t like dogs. Cats are vastly superior to dogs in almost every single way. Especially long hair breeds, such as the Maine Coon, which I mentioned before. But I do like the appearance of Husky dogs. I wouldn’t want to own one, but they are really pretty.

“Medium” focuses on mediumship and communication with the departed. If it was possible to speak with the dead, would it be a good idea anyway?

I don’t think so.

Can you mention some things that happened after you wrote “Some things that happened after Derrick woke up his girlfriend at 3 a.m. to watch Too Many Cooks”?

I ate a lot of apples

I ran many miles on my treadmill

I listened to 57,100 minutes of music in the year 2021

I wrote a bunch of silly stories and an even sillier novel

I read JR by William Gaddis twice and understood about 80% of it

I played a lot of video games, including Turok 2, Hades, Dead Cells, and Bloodborne

“Not Really a Horseradish Person” deals with the conjuring up of a badass friend. Have you ever had an imaginary friend, and if not, what would they be like if you had to magic one into life?

I have, and she was just as badass, smart, and witty as Rachel is in this story. Basically she was the kind of friend who supported me and accommodated for all my personal shortcomings, just like Brad Pitt in Fight Club.

“Why Can’t I Fall Asleep?” Have you ever had insomnia or nighttime disturbances? Any recurring dreams or memorable nightmares?

Yeah, getting to sleep each night is the bane of my existence. It’s so incredibly difficult, and like the anxiety, it’s been that way my entire life. A recurring dream I’ve had for many years is about driving, and not being able to control the car. In the dream, each time I turn the wheel a millimeter to the left or the right, the car wildly swerves off the road and out of control. And then, no matter how hard I smash my foot on the brake pedal, nothing happens, and the car never slows down. That’s a fun one.

“I Found My Heel at the Foot of an Oak” Have you ever been truly lost in the woods? Or anywhere?

I have. It took me over two hours to find my way back to the correct trail, and I wasn’t even able to enjoy the beautiful scenery because I was hissing curse words to myself the entire time. That was the last time I went hiking on my own, and that was in September of 2010.

“Sexy Rexy’s Homecoming Feast” Who would you name your mouse after?

I know exactly who I’d name my mouse after, but I’ll keep that one to myself. After all, the mystery is more interesting than the answer, right?

“Tongue Stone” Were there any ghost stories or urban legends associated with the area you grew up in that freaked you out when you were a kid?

Yeah, there was a story one of my friends always used to tell when we were kids, involving this thing called the “Ghost Train.” Apparently, if you woke up in the middle of the night and heard the whistle of a train in the distance, you had to instantly close your eyes, stay completely still, and pretend you were asleep. If you didn’t do that fast enough, or if you weren’t able to convincingly pretend you were asleep, then the ghost train would suddenly run straight through your bed, steal your soul, transport it to hell, and leave your dead body behind. That was a pretty good one. It used to scare me a lot when I was younger. 

“Apartment 4 1/2 B” Where have you felt the most alien?

In almost every social situation I’ve ever been in, haha.

“Manga” When was the last time you sold something in order to buy something else?

I used to trade in video games with amazon in order to buy new games, but other than that, I don’t think I’ve made any interesting trades recently.

“Good Shit” Can you recommend some good shit? Any type of good shit is acceptable.

Music:

Death Metal – In Their Darkened Shrines by Nile; Shrines of Paralysis by Ulcerate; The Hidden History of the Human Race by Blood Incantation

Black Metal – Diotima by Krallice; Solar Paroxysm by Mare Cognitum; Cloak of Ash by Hope Drone; …And Again into the Light by Panopticon

Other Metal/Hardcore – Calculating Infinity by The Dillinger Escape Plan; Catch Thirty Three by Meshuggah; Vertikal by Cult of Luna; Jane Doe by Converge; Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child by Norma Jean; Not Dark Yet by Fluids; Foreverglade by Worm

Jazz – Shadow Work by Mammal Hands; v2.0 by GoGo Penguin; Moonbeams by Bill Evans

Rock – Deloused in the Comatorium by The Mars Volta; Fear Inoculum by Tool; To Be Kind by Swans; Red of Tooth and Claw by Murder by Death; Inlet by Hum

Softer albums – Honeymoon by Lana Del Rey; The Big Freeze by Laura Stevenson; Hard to Care by Heavy Sigh; Heaven Inches Away by Soft Blue Shimmer; Old World Romance by Sea Wolf

 

Books:

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson; In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff; JR by William Gaddis; Freedom by Jonathan Franzen; Small Moods by Shane Kowalski; Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy; Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; Underworld by Don DeLillo; Europe Central by William T. Vollmann; Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and many more.

For “In the Garden of Earthly Delights” you send your characters inside the famous triptych panels by Hieronymus Bosch. If you had the power to transport a reader to be fully immersed in one of the stories from A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair, and that be their new reality, which story would you pick for them?

Hmmm. I don’t want to make the reader suffer as much as most of the characters in the stories do, so if I could put a reader into any story, it would probably be “At Action Park.” I’ve been there more than fifty times over the course of its lifespan as both Action Park and Mountain Creek, and that was one of my favorite places to go in the summer when I was younger. I had many, many fun experiences at that place with my friends. It was definitely a bit dangerous back in the mid-nineties when my story takes place, but I feel like its reputation for being a deathtrap is overblown. The wild-west nature of the park was a huge part of its appeal, and everyone who went there more than a couple of times knew which attractions they could trust and which they couldn’t.    

“A Note About the Type” In the typeface of your choosing, could you explain how A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair: Stories came into existence, share what you feel towards it, and give any thoughts on its future as you release it to the world?

I’m always writing stories with the intention of someday gathering them into a collection, so I try to create a web of connections between the various characters and the world they live in. That’s always been really interesting to me. And I feel like that gives the collection more depth, because if someone ever chooses to read the collection a second time, they can discover connections between the stories they didn’t catch the first time.

As a whole, I’m proud of the collection. I’m very grateful to Patrick Trotti at Leftover Books for publishing it, and I’m thankful for all the amazing work he’s done on creating the cover and the interior. I’m also incredibly grateful to Lucy Zhang, who critiqued and offered really helpful feedback on many of these stories. The same goes for Mallory Smart, Kim Magowan, Meagan Lucas, and Kassie Bohannon. I’m really grateful for their amazing support of me and this collection. And thanks a huge amount to you, Rebecca, for reading the collection and coming up with these great questions!

In the end, I just hope people read the collection, and get something out of it. If they like it, that’s great. If not, that’s okay too. In that case, maybe the collection can be a good example of what they don’t want to do in their own writing. Either way, I’m just happy it’ll be out in the world soon.

A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair: Stories is out now on LEFTOVER Books and available here.


Rebecca Gransden lives on an island. She is published at Tangerine Press, Burning House Press, Muskeg, Ligeia, and Silent Auctions, among others. Her books are anemogram., Rusticles, and Sea of Glass.

Steve Gergley is the author of A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair: Stories (LEFTOVER Books '22). His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Cleaver Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. He tweets @GergleySteve. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/.

Art by Crow Jonah Norlander.

Read Next: AUTUMN CHRISTIAN on film with REBECCA GRANSDEN