Writing working-class voices rife with rhythm, muscle and wanderlust
A Q&A with Christopher Chambers, author of the new short story collection, 'Kind of Blue'
You won’t find Madison writer Christopher Chambers on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or heaven forbid, BookTok. (“I’m terrible about marketing and all that,” he says.) But you will find him in the voices of his steely, razor-sharp short stories, the latest of which are bound in a new collection out this month from Cornerstone Press, a publishing imprint of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. “Kind of Blue” packs 27 richly concise stories into 203 pages, delivering wisdom and gristled heart through mostly Midwestern working class characters. Chambers himself is a Wisconsin native who’s lived in North Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota, Florida, Alabama, Texas and Louisiana (but Madison since 2015), and his current roles include interim editor of Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine, bartender at Working Draft Beer Company and instructor with the Wisconsin Prison Humanities program. His short stories have been published widely in esteemed outlets such as Best American Mystery Stories and The Southern Review — and, our personal favorite, Madison Magazine, where “Fair Oaks Diner” first appeared in December 2021. His two previous books are “Delta 88” (short fiction) and “Inter/views” (poetry). “Kind of Blue” is available through Cornerstone Press, special order through your local independent bookseller, and online.
Most of these stories are previously published in anthologies, journals and magazines. When and why did you decide to publish a book? How did this collection come about?
Most of them have been previously published but not all of them. The collection began as an MFA thesis when I was in Alabama. Over the years the title changed, stories were added, other stories taken out, and all of them revised extensively. An earlier version was a finalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize and shortlisted for a couple other contests, which encouraged me to keep working on it. I tried to order them in a way that would make the collection work as a whole, juxtaposing pieces that seemed to work together.
These stories are set in rural Wisconsin, Minneapolis, Duluth, Milwaukee, Detroit, New Orleans, Houston and South Florida — mostly places you’ve lived and worked. What are you looking for, what gives a place its essence and flavor, that attracts your writer’s eye?
They say you should write what you know, and for me that starts with place, which is I think as important to fiction as character. In some ways, the setting of a story is like another character. I find that I can see places more clearly after I leave, though of course it’s crucial to pay attention while you’re there, being one upon whom nothing is lost. I like stories with weather in them, sensory details, things I can smell and taste and hear. I like diners and dive bars. I like architecture, so I pay attention to buildings. I dream a lot about buildings. I’ve always liked cars too, tools and machines, so I pay attention to those things and the way people interact with them and what those things have to say about the world.
What do you identify so closely with in that working class voice and experience?
I come from working class people, and until I was almost 40, I supported myself doing what is generally considered blue-collar work: farmhand, slaughterhouse worker, Teamster, bartender, construction worker. I continued doing carpentry when I went back to school in my mid-30s. When I landed an academic job after grad school, it was like winning the lottery. I taught undergraduates for 16 years. It was a great experience in many ways, but I always felt like an accidental professor. I enjoy working with my hands and I renovated three houses in New Orleans during those years, which I guess might have been three novels. I have no regrets about that, though I think I’m done with houses and ready to take another run at the novel. I see writing as a kind of construction project, the process, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams, of making “a machine made of words.”
You work as a magazine editor, a bartender and a teacher in a state prison. What has each of these roles added to your writing?
I’m convinced that editing, which I’ve done for thirty years at four different magazines, has improved my writing considerably. Spending time reading, assessing and helping revise other writers’ work inevitably hones one’s own writing skills. Of course, it also takes time and energy away that could be spent on your own writing. Bartending, you meet people and hear stories. It’s a nice change of pace from looking at a computer screen or reading manuscripts, which is how I spend a lot of my waking hours. Teaching at Oakhill Prison has been one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences of my career. These are the best students I’ve ever had, guys who are hungry to learn, who have powerful stories to tell, and who read more than most people on the outside.
Some of your stories are very short — even just a paragraph — a form known as flash fiction. What attracts you to the short form and how does it differ for you from, say, poetry?
The brevity of the form appeals to me as a reader and a writer. I used to teach flash fiction, finding it easier to break down a one- or two-page story than a 20 or 30-page story. You can read it and re-read it in one sitting, and see it as a whole. I write short prose and poetry when I don’t have time to get into something longer, which seems to be much of the time. How does it differ? I don’t worry much about what to label a piece of writing, but the way I look at it, prose is generally written in sentences and paragraphs, poetry in lines and stanzas. Flash fiction will also tend to have some kind of narrative arc, distinguishing it from prose poetry.
Music is such a pervasive theme in your stories, and your voice is lyrical and rhythmic. What is that relationship between music and writing for you?
I like to say that I became a writer because I couldn’t play the guitar, and I’m a little jealous of writers who are also musicians, forming bands and making records. I’ve always loved music and I listen to a wide range of it. And I’m drawn to writing that privileges the voice. The sound and rhythm of the language is as important to me as the old contrivances of plot, and I revise with my ear. I’ll forgive a beautiful voice in a story where not much happens more than I can a dull voice telling a gripping tale. I’ve heard it said that music is the art form to which all other arts aspire, and I wouldn’t argue with that. My writing is probably as influenced by the work of musicians as it is by other writers. Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Vic Chesnutt. Of course they are writers too, working with words as much as with music.
Do you have a favorite story in the collection? And can you say why?
I like some of them better than others. “Best Western” I’m fond of. It’s one that never got published in a magazine, and it was the title of the book for a long time. “On Montegut Street” is one of the short ones that I feel pretty good about, and “Fair Oaks Diner.” I like to think there’s some humor in them, however dark, and hopefully they’re hitting on most cylinders, generating some honest emotion.
I of course was tickled to see Fair Oaks Diner round out the collection. Remind me, did you have that one ready when I reached out, or did you write it just for us?
I wish I could say I wrote it just for you, but I believe I had already written it, inspired by a re-reading of Richard Brautigan’s collection “Revenge of the Lawn.” As luck would have it, it was the right length and set in Madison and seemed a good fit for your call for short essays. I was thrilled to have it appear in Madison Magazine.
Is there a story that changed quite a bit from its original incarnation, or gave you fits?
All of these have changed quite a bit from the first drafts, and given me fits. I have a hard time assessing my own work. “Sunshine, Park Bench” was unfinished for a long time, a promising start that I wasn’t sure where to go with it. “O Happy Living Things” is a post-Katrina story, which was difficult to write for a number of reasons. Even under the best of circumstances, New Orleans is a difficult place to write about in a way that’s fresh and true. It’s one of these stories that seem now like they were written by someone else.
Many of your stories are told in the first person, but they are clearly not you — right? And yet the themes, places and circumstances often mirror your life. What can you say about the distinction between the personal and fiction in your work, or your POV decision-making when it comes time to write?
Right, there’s always a distinction between author and narrator, which is a persona constructed to tell a story. That said, I like a lot of what’s sometimes called “autofiction,” work that blurs the line between memoir and fiction, author and character. See Robert Bolaño, Lucia Berlin, Eduardo Halfon. As a reader, I’m not that interested in whether a story is “true” (by which we really mean “factual”), only whether it engages me and moves me. I suspect all fiction writing is some combination of experience and imagination, and that all memoir is as well. Fragments of experience are a place to begin, but immediately the imagination comes into play. The only question for me is whether a character or an event, a sentence or a word, is serving the story, whether it sounds right.
There’s a sort of existential longing that runs through every story, one I’m not sure I can put my finger on. Can you?
Ah, I wish I could. I guess I’d be worried if there weren’t any existential longing in there, if these stories weren’t grappling somehow with what it means to be alive in the world at this place and time.
Find “Kind of Blue” at Cornerstone Press.
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