[This is the third in our series of interviews with authors featured in our anthology of outstanding stories from the web, The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology. You can find more information about the anthology and download it for free here, or you can read all the interviews and find new ones here.
Andy started writing short fiction seriously about a decade ago and has published north of 100 stories in print and online publications, from Spork to Poor Mojo’s Almanac to the upcoming Beat to a Pulp anthology. His work has been short-listed for a Derringer mystery award and nominated for a Pushcart (by the editors of Lynx Eye) and a Million Writer’s award (by a kind reader). For five intense months, he served as the weekly writer for Thieves Jargon. A journalist by training, Andy lives in flatlands of south central Michigan and roots for the Tigers and the Lions, God help him. You can find “Bad Cheetah” in Word Riot here.
Sean interviewed Andy by email.]
We’re sharing a joint in my basement bedroom. Cheetah and I sit on the bed while Gordon stands ready with the crossbow. Lined up against the wall is a series of mannequins from the department store my mother manages. The first six have photos of former boyfriends taped to their plastic skulls and are in various stages of degradation. One has steel wool for pubic hair and a crude vagina carved into its crotch. Others are covered in happy faces and swastikas. All are pierced with arrows from the crossbow.
We’ve attached a digital image of Cheetah’s face to Mannequin No. 7. On its arms, in brown and yellow marker, I’ve replicated the cheetah tattoos. Cheetah squint-eyes my handiwork and christens me a damn fine artist. Gordon pats him on the back and tells him it will be a damn fine honor to perforate his sternum.
SC: While we were reading and vetting stories for the anthology, the term “joke story” came up more than once. At first it had an almost-negative connotation, and I got to thinking about why that was. In the end we selected a number of stories such as “Bad Cheetah” and “The Naturalists” by BJ Hollars which are definitely humorous, but also successful as dramatic fiction. Obviously you think humor can work in serious fiction, but do you think it gets a bad rap or stigmatized somehow? Is there some distinction between a funny story and a “joke story”?
AH: For me, good fiction strives for the meaningful. It can get there in any number of ways—drama, humor, mystery, horror, etc.—but in the end, no matter the genre, it leaves you with something to think on. The characters evolve, even incrementally. That said, I think humor is underutilized in fiction. Humor as an element in the story, that is, not as the be-all and end-all. Make them laugh, absolutely, but make them think, too.
SC: Off of that, what kind of books/stories do you tend to read? Is this story a departure from or in-line with your tastes as a reader?
AH: In many ways what I write differs pretty drastically from what I read. I read a lot of serious literary fiction, a la Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy. Would I love to write like that? Hell yes. But there’s only one Cormac McCarthy. The older I get, and the more time I spend stringing sentences together, the more I realize it’s about developing my own voice, and being comfortable with it. I figure I should have it figured out in about thirty years.
SC: I’ve never read anything else you’ve written, so I guess I’ll pose the reader tastes question about your writing. Is this story typical of what you write, or a departure?
AH: This is fairly typical for me. I’ve written quite a few stories from the perspective of kids (reflecting a kid at heart, stunted intelligence, perhaps a bit of both), and more often than not I attempt to inject some humor.
SC: Where did this story come from? Is there a real Cheetah out there in some form?
AH: Bits and pieces are borrowed from my past. You could say my childhood was, ah, colorful. I moved around a lot, attended different schools, developed a nasty case of insecurity like the main character. Cheetah is a potpourri of relatives and stoners and stoned relatives. I did have a cousin, a trucker, with flowing black hair and larger-than-life persona. A real-life Cheetah, of sorts, he would play basketball with a nervous kid in a northern Michigan driveway before one day fatally overdosing in his semi truck.
SC: I’ve got a few favorite parts of your story, but to me the ending really stands out. This is where “joke story” first came up in regards to “Bad Cheetah.” The last line definitely reads like a juvenile butt-sex punch line. And while it’s easy to dismiss it as just that, I think it also wraps up the story nicely, serves the whole piece far better than, say, an overblown metaphor like many short stories trying to be literary tend to end with. What was the decision process like with this ending line? Did you just knew it fit, did you vacillate on it? Did readers or work-shoppers try and talk you in or out of it?
AH: This is where a good editor comes in. With the initial version of the story I sent to Word Riot, I did exactly what you describe: Try to finish with a forced example of literary flare. In that version, I ended the story just as the main character was standing in the parking lot thinking (instead of acting)—a misguided attempt to let the reader interpret what would happen next. Kevin O’Cuinn from WR called me on it. So I revised, deciding to play it straight—to have the kids go after Cheetah. The last line just came out, an unintended pun, but when I wrote it I knew I had my ending. Hats off to Kevin for his help.
SC: Thanks, Andy.
[Read "Bad Cheetah" and 24 other excellent stories from around the web in the very free Chamber Four Fiction Anthology]