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Tuesday
Jul152014

"Toys and the Boys Who Loved Them": An Interview with Marcus Pactor

Marcus Pactor is the author of the short story collection Vs. Death Noises (Subito Press, 2012). His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Prick of the Spindle, and EAT.

His short story, "Do the Fish," appeared in Issue Fifty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Marcus Pactor talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about comedy, fragments, and Go-Bots.

Tell us about the origin of this story (how/why/when you began to write the first draft or to conceive the initial idea) and about how it changed throughout the revision process.

My dad had this pick-up for maybe nine months last year, and he used it to haul scrap for gas and cigarette money. My mom forced him to sell it after too many nights of scrap sitting in the cab, in the driveway, in full view of neighbors. I never saw this truck, but I knew it well from their phone calls. Even before he sold it, I knew I would use it in a story.

The initial plan was to focus on this father and son. It had shoplifting—though the kid back then was lifting candy, not toys. These two were getting drunk together, etc. It was plodding and hokey, and the dad wasn’t half as interesting as Terri and Olivia. Then Go-Bots appeared, and I felt I was touching the real weird core of the piece. I got obsessed with them in the best way. I’d be awake at 3AM, feeding my infant son and explaining to him the difference between Cy-Kill and Megatron.

 “Do the Fish” is made up of two voices: the narrator and an italicized, plural entity giving him commands (which to me felt inhuman, perhaps computerized). What inspired this unusual format of storytelling?

I was greatly (sadly) inspired by the mess I was making. I was writing fragments everywhere—on Word documents on my home and office computers, on memo pads, and on the inside flaps of books. Some people can only write in one place and in one way. I’d like to maintain that sort of disciplined routine, but what am I supposed to do when the words are coming out of my brain and I’m not in my favorite chair? Anyway, at some point I had to organize all this material into a real draft.

I began with questions, but they sounded too ripped off from Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood. I love that book too much to copy it so baldly. So I thought about this guy in his Cy-Kill suit, and I realized just how deeply he doubted and hated himself. No one was asking him anything, and he wasn’t asking anything of himself. He wanted and needed commands, and he needed them in something like primitive MS-DOS lingo.

I have to ask you about the Go-Bots, which play a prominent role in this story. Did you have to do any research to complete this aspect, or were you totally writing out of your own experience with the toys? How much have popular culture and/or nostalgia influenced your other writing, and why?

I rehashed a lot of memories in this piece, not episodes of personal trauma, but plain knowledge of the toys and the boys who loved them. Google helped fill out hazy pictures of the Last Engineer and minor characters like Breez. My research typically is that shallow. I’m not the guy who checks out six books on Go-Bots to learn five things before I proceed.  

Culture, pop and otherwise, is strong gas for the engine. I always start on my own but, over time, bits of whatever I’m reading or whatever gets in my head at a given moment are likely to get converted into fictional material. So, sure, Go-Bots went into this story, and so did my dad’s truck. Last year, I put Eric B & Rakim into a story. I’ve also used Aristotle and William Blake. If I like it, I’ll try to work it in.

In a previous interview, you stated, “Tell a couple of jokes, but be serious. Seriously tell a joke. A purely sad story is not my kind of beer.” “Do the Fish” begins with a description of a dog gruesomely killed by a vehicle—but the story that follows contains some laugh lines (e.g., “That works. It’s the best part of the room,” about the crown molding). I wonder if you could expand on your advice about telling jokes, specifically in the midst of morbidity. How do you know when to tell a joke in an otherwise mostly serious story? In how close a proximity can the comedy and the drama coexist?

It’s like fishing—you’ve got to be patient. That’s because a joke is much more in the set-up than in the punchline. You’ve got to see the characters and see the room. You’ve got to see how earlier details have put an opportunity in place to engage readers from a different angle. If you’ve done that, the joke will come naturally. Of course, some fish, like some jokes, come right out the water on the first cast. There’s no accounting for luck.

As for proximity, I think comedy and drama can appear hip to hip. A well-placed, well-told joke can reorient a dramatic scene. The scene you mentioned, with the joke about crown molding, could have ended with a sappy and premature epiphany, but Olivia forces us away from that. As a writer, you get a bigger view of the situation and a wider sense of the possibilities. As a reader, if the joke works on you, you’re also smiling and ready for more.

What writing projects are you working on now?

“Do the Fish” is part of a series of stories involving spawn trouble, robots and androids, and history. I’m hoping to have enough material for a collection later this year. I’ve also been working intermittently on two other books that may be novels. One involves imaginary statistics, burning women, and squirrels. Another involves a detailed recent history of General Hospital and interviews with a sleeping wife.

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

Jason Schwartz’s The Posthumous John, Melissa Broder’s Scarecrone, Megan Martin’s Nevers, and Jacob White’s Being Dead in South Carolina. I cannot describe these books in a small space without destroying them. Instead I will say that they are all very good beer.

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