Interviews and guest posts from the writers and artists of Versal 11. John Vanderslice teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of journals, including Seattle Review, Southern Humanities Review, Laurel Review, Red Booth, Sou’wester, and Crazyhorse. “The Dealer’s Brother” is a chapter from his forthcoming novel, Days on Fire. You can check out further work on John's website, where he discusses all matters Van Gogh and historical fiction related, or you can follow him on Twitter @JohnvanderJohn
Tell us about your writing process. Make sure to lie about at least two things.
You mean daily process or larger process? I’ve always been a morning person, so I write in the morning, fueled by way too much coffee and the knowledge that before too long the world wakes up and I’ve got parental obligations to tend to. If the coffee doesn’t work, I find that holding my palm over a match “fires” my creativity. I’ve always been a writer who drafts first in longhand and then enters the draft into the computer. That’s how I wrote “The Dealer’s Brother.” It’s how I still write short stories. Basically, I prefer that sequence. I like the no pressure feeling of writing with pen on paper. Sometimes I even use crayon. You feel crayon on paper in a tactile way that you don’t feel pen or paper. Plus, I’m pretty sure research has shown that crayon opens up the right brain. However, I should say that the last three novels I’ve written—including my post-apocolyptic/mixed species quadruped nightmare—have been straight from the imagination to the keyboard.
What's the longest you've ever gone without sleeping? Why (if you can share...)? If you mean voluntarily, my answer would be pretty dull. I’ve never been good at pulling all-nighters. On the other hand, I’ve suffered bouts of insomnia off and on in my life and once, a long time ago, I think I may have been up something like sixty hours straight. The last time I spent a sleepless night I got in a car accident the next day after falling asleep at the wheel. Trying not to let that happen again.
What's one well-known and one little-known lit mag currently doing amazing work? As for well-known mags, I really like One Story. I’ve subscribed to it for years. They make some really interesting, eclectic choices, regularly publishing stories in drastically different genres and almost always of noticeably high quality. I also like that they publish utter newcomers, very established people, and everyone in between.
As for little known mags, I have to give a shout out to Angel on the Freeway, a poetry magazine started just last year by one of our grad students: John Mitchel. This thing is John’s baby. There’s some really startling stuff in there: razor sharp imagery and naked honesty.
What can you tell us about Holland other than tulips, clogs, red lights, and drugs? Funny you should ask! One of the best experiences of my life was spending six weeks in Maastricht in the spring and early summer of 2001. (It was the genesis of my interest in Van Gogh.) I adore the city and felt deeply comfortable there. I really liked how close it was to other countries—if you wanted to, you could take a bike ride to Belgium or German y—and I enjoyed strolling the banks of the river Maas: crossing the bridge; doing some window shopping; buying frites or a postcard or a waffle; coming back across. I remember there was a fantastic, and very cheap, gelato stand at the center of the old part of town. We bought a lot of gelato at that stand. My wife and I were there with our young children and we feel like we got an especially unique view of Maastricht life. We hunted out the parks and the playgrounds; we happened once into a fundraising event for a local school. Places where nary an American could be found.
If your piece in Versal could be paired with any art work, what would it be?
I guess I would have to say something by Toulouse-Lautrec, perhaps At the Moulin Rouge. Not that that painting literally reflects any of the developments in my story, but it suggests a social environment that I am trying to resurrect in my story: the underbelly of late nineteenth century Paris, the center of the art world, a place where too many painters and would-be painters were trying to compete for the attention of too few dealers and forced to find comfort where they could get it, whether that be at the Moulin Rouge or an overcrowded party or the arms of a mistress.
What dirty secret would you like to tell us?
I watched a lot of bad tv as a kid. I’m talking stuff like McHale’s Navy.
Most unbelievable place you've ever been to? Why? I’d have to say that no place has affected me quite as much, at least on first glance, as the Camargue in Provence. It’s not just that it’s beautiful—beautiful in way that you won’t find in the United States—but that it’s so purely rural. This isn’t upscale, movie star Nice; this is farmland dotted by very old houses, and it’s almost magically peaceful.
Do you have a philosophy of writing? Can you condense it into 30 words? You should work as hard as hell, and never make excuses for why you can’t, and never stop trying to make your next book better than your last.
What's your playlist look like these days? Well, I listen to a lot of Pandora, and as a result I have bought a bunch of CDs in the last couple of years: mostly old favorites that I want to reconnect with: Neil Young, John Hartford, Bob Marley. On my iPod I mainly listen to podcasts while I run every day. There’s an awesome language-learning one I love called Coffee Break French. It’s produced in Scotland. (Since I started researching Van Gogh, I’ve been trying to learn French.) I also listen to NPR’s Selected Shorts and This American Life. And a lot of audio books.
What book is so unbelievably mind-blowing that it makes you want to stop writing? A couple come to mind. One writer who regularly blows my mind is John Barth. I think his collection On With the Story might be my favorite collection of all time and his single best book. The story “Stories of Our Lives” might be my favorite ever story. The narrator’s vantage point in that story is both unstoppably broad and fiercely specific. Obviously ironic, but also perfectly sincere, even sentimental. There’s a moment in the story in which a character picks up a wadded piece of paper thrown by another character. I remember gasping when I realized that the piece of paper he just picked up was a page torn from the very short story collection—in fact, the very short story—in which he was presented as a character! Only Barth can get away with stuff like that, but it leaves me speechless when he pulls it off.
Another book I was so impressed by was Michael Chaban’s Kavalier and Clay. His imagination is second to none, and the man is never afraid of words. Some people I know detest him for that reason. My reaction? Get over it. We’re writers. Words is what we are about. If you don’t think so, maybe you need to find another profession. (I actually think they are just jealous.)
On The Newlywed Game, contestants were asked what vegetable they think they are. What's your totem vegetable?
First thing that came to mind is red bell pepper. (Is that a vegetable?) It’s sweet at first taste and when eaten raw, but it’s not overly sweet. Most important, it’s a versatile ingredient—good as an addition to almost anything. It also picks up a supple, surprisingly complex flavor when you cook it. The “real” red bell pepper takes some time to get to know.
Why did you send work to Versal? Be honest.
Because you guys are based in Amsterdam, and the protagonist of my story is one of the most famous Dutchman of all time, it seemed like a natural fit.
Tell us what you're working on right now.
I recently finished the second draft of a novel that I started in January in a class I teach called Novel Writing Workshop. I ask the students to produce the first draft of a novel in one semester, and I agree to do the same thing. To put myself through what I make them do. Anyway, as a result I’ve written a novel about a man who, having lost his own daughter when someone kidnapped, raped, and killed her, decides to get his revenge on the world by kidnapping and killing someone else’s daughter. He kind of chooses a girl at random, and it turns out to be the daughter of a local Episcopal priest, a woman whose life is already complicated enough.