LOSS, GRIEF, SADNESS, MAGIC: An Interview with Bradley Sides

LOSS, GRIEF, SADNESS, MAGIC: An Interview with Bradley Sides

In Crocodile Tears Don’t Cause the Flood (Montag Press, 2024), Bradley Sides folds heavy themes like grief and loss into lighter elements like magic, resulting in an experimental short-story collection that feels relatable even at its most uncanny. Set very firmly in the South, each of Sides’ stories hums with an inventive playfulness that always complements, never overwhelms, the narrative. Sides was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about his craft, his collection, and more.

 

Elizabeth Crowder: What was your inspiration for Crocodile Tears Didn’t Cause the Flood?

Bradley Sides: The book had kind of a weird, unplanned beginning. My first collection, Those Fantastic Lives, released in October 2021, and right when it dropped, a new story I’d been working on titled “Do You Remember?” came out at Ghost Parachute. I liked what the story did, with a shark boy trying to process loss, loneliness, and grief. It was a cathartic kind of work. The world was falling apart, and it seemed like there was a kind of collective experience of these particular experiences and feelings that I could explore further. With the publication of “Do You Remember?,” I knew I’d started my new full cycle, without a break at all. And that cycle had a focus. So I wrote and wrote and wrote. The collection was ready in less than two years.

EC: Grief, loss, and longing seem to be major themes at play here. And yet, there’s almost a playfulness to the way you imbue these stories with magic realism; a playfulness that extends to the experimental forms you use to tell said stories. For example, “Claire & Hank” tackles subjects like paternal neglect and orphanhood but also there’s a Pteranodon named Claire who sleeps indoors and goes for walks on a leash. Or “Nancy R. Melson’s State ELA Exam, Section 1: The Dead-Dead Monster” which is essentially a horror story in the form of a completed and graded test. This juxtaposition of heavier topics mixed with lighter elements creates a welcome dissonance that is as comforting as it is discomfiting. Was this an intentional dichotomy? 

BS: I’m so glad you picked up on the playfulness! It was intentional. I feel like it had to be there. I mean, these themes you mentioned are heavy, and reading without some fun honestly probably wouldn’t be all that enjoyable. I found that the experimental form and odd situational happenings were a way to include some playfulness—some lightness. Both had to be there for me, as the creator, and also for future readers. We’ve all got to escape darkness somehow…

EC: How did you choose which stories to include? 

BS: I treat my collections the same way I imagine a musician puts together a record. It’s a long, meticulous process. Lots of let me try this one. No, now let me switch to this story instead. Most are from a two-year period because I was writing about the same connectors so closely. Outside of this new set, I have lots of stories, and I went through my favorites. 

If a story feels out of place, even if I love it, I cut it from the manuscript. One example is that I had “Remembrance Day” in my first book for the longest time, but I wound up removing it near the last editing cycle because it just didn’t fit thematically as tightly as I wanted it to. It was a hard decision because I love this story. I actually read it at my first public reading when Crocodile Tears Didn’t Cause the Flood launched. But I’m so glad I cut it from Those Fantastic Lives because it’s absolutely perfectly placed in this new book. I also trust my gut. Hopefully that pays off. 

EC: If the tone of most of the other stories in this collection is Helvetica, “Dying at Allium Farm” is Comic Sans. There is a shift from sober to slapstick in this piece featuring a narrator who is a typical angsty teenager if that typical angsty teenager were also a vampire forced to work on their family’s garlic farm. Why do you think “Dying at Allium Farm” is such a good fit for the collection? 

BS: Haha! Perfect comparison there. So, I always had this story as a must in the book, and I never doubted the inclusion. It’s different, yeah, but it’s also fully engaged in the central themes of the book. 

I like to have one WILD story in my books—one that has been previously unpublished. It has to fit thematically, like I said of course, but I just love to hide a story inside that takes the expectation of what’s about to unfold and totally flips it. “Dying at Allium Farm,” while very much about grief and loss, makes me laugh, and I hope other readers find it to be a good, fun surprise, too. 

EC: I’m curious about your process for deciding how to structure this collection. How do you decide which pieces go in what order? 

BS: When I was getting my MFA, one of my writing mentors pointed out the space in which I end my stories. Many were either in the sky or at the edge of water. He suggested I give space between these stories with similar landings. I’d never thought about this kind of thing before, but I do now. I also think about tone and length. My ordering takes a long time, and it’s an exercise in balance. 

EC: “Nancy R. Melson’s State ELA Exam, Section 1: The Dead-Dead Monster” seems like it would be technically hard to create. You had to design a believable ELA exam and still stick the horror-story landing. I’ve never had a pie chart make me uneasy until now, so I’d say you did an excellent job. What was your thought process writing this story? Did you find it challenging?

BS: Thank you! You know, Nancy’s story was one of the easiest ones to write. The draft came together without much trouble at all, and I just kind of went with my instincts. I wish I could’ve made it longer due to the amount of time I spent on the technical detailing, but it feels right with its length. 

I used to teach high school. For almost a decade, I dealt with constant state tests. Like many teachers, I struggled with the importance placed on them. I think I essentially personified my feelings of state test by creating the Dead-Dead Monster and the surrounding story. The grief! The grief!

EC: Did you believe in monsters as a kid? How about now?

BS: 100 percent to both! As a young person, I experienced sleep paralysis. That’s some scary stuff. For a while, there was a monster just out of my view, and I could hear it breathing. Or so I thought… I was also a kid with a big imagination. The dark offered possibilities for all kinds of creatures, and when you grow up on a farm like I did, there’s even more space in which to get carried away. To imagine possibilities. 

Now, well, I’m certain monsters exist. They might not be what I thought monsters were as a kid, but they are just as scary. Scarier even. Human monsters can be so much scarier than anything I could probably ever imagine. 

EC: What’s your favorite piece in the collection and why?

BS: Gosh, it’s tough to say. If I’m honest, it depends on my mood, but right now I’m really into “The Guide to King George.” I like to read it aloud because I just love the voice of it. Ritchie is someone I still think about, and I rarely do that with characters in my work. Usually, once the stories are done, they are done. I also feel really proud of the story when I look at it from a technical perspective. The form is so cool. It had to be in a manual, I think, to work like it does. It’s also a very Bradley Sides kind of story. Loss, grief, sadness, magic, and a dash of hope, all put together in the South. For writers, it’s easy for us to be critical of our work. I’m trying to celebrate with this story—and this collection. I did something difficult, and I’m proud of the final product.


Elizabeth Crowder is a writer and law librarian based in Philadelphia, PA. She’s currently working on her first fantasy novel. She is also co-editor of The Sartorial Geek magazine. You can find her on Instagram @thelizcrowder.

Read Next: SHORT, SMART, FUN, BAFFLING: An Interview with Brian Allen Carr