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"Cracks Where Faith Drips Through": An Interview with Patrick Crerand


Patrick Crerand lives in Florida with his wife and three kids.  His work has appeared in numerous literary journals and is forthcoming in North American Review and Midway.

His essay, "Still Life With Chainsaw," appeared in Issue Sixty-Six of
The Collagist.

Here, Patrick Crerand talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about interesting jobs, religion, and submitting to magazines.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “Still Life with Chainsaw.” What made this experience worth writing about?

When I moved to Florida, the newspaper here, The St. Pete (now Tampa Bay) Times, used to do this column called Sunday Journal where local people could write about their lives in short essay form. It was great. A colleague of mine connected with the enterprise editor of the paper, and we organized a contest for the column on the subject of work. So I was doing preliminary judging, reading all these submissions about people working, and sometime later I started writing one myself. But really, I have always loved reading about people working. Whenever I read biographical notes of authors, it seems to be a point of pride—how many bad jobs or just interesting jobs they have had. I never think of myself as someone who has had interesting jobs, but this one stuck out to me, even though it was just for a night.

I always struggle with knowing what’s worth writing about, and sometimes I just don’t know if what I’m writing has value or not. I have the proverbial Irish memory by which I mean I have a vault in my head that files away all the times I have been slighted, shamed, and/or humiliated by others or myself. Not being able to start the chainsaw was one such moment. But sometimes when I dig through those memories, I feel like Geraldo opening up Al Capone’s vault, except I can’t grow a good moustache.

Your essay begins and ends in the “horror house” where you are a seventeen-year-old volunteer. We also learn about your father and your childhood, in a middle section that begins and ends at a “haunted school bus” ten years earlier. What made you decide that this bookend-ing technique (or, if you prefer, framing-within-framing device, or even hourglass-shaped narrative structure) was the best way to tell this story?

I didn’t have a plan for the essay. When it started, it was just going to be about the job at the haunted house. I think Carver has a line like, “Get in, get out, and don’t linger.” So I thought that would be the shape, something fast. But then I skipped a few lines and started writing about that other haunted school bus. At some point, I realized this was the only other haunted house I had ever been to, and that the essay might go in a different direction that allowed me to talk a bit about fear and faith and the unknown and eventually my father. I kept rearranging scenes and weaving them back and forth, and it just wasn’t working. In the meantime, I was teaching narrative writing to an intro composition class. One day we were reading framed essays, and I was going on and on about how it’s a useful strategy sometimes. So after about a year, I finally took my own advice.

In the midst of describing your father’s morbid sense of humor and his “sixth sense,” you write, “What complicated it even more is that he was a devout Catholic and an ordained deacon.  Every Sunday he stood on the altar and professed faith in a communion of dead saints and a mysterious Holy Ghost who controlled all that was seen and unseen.” How did Catholicism find its way into this essay that begins with brains in a jar and how to start a chainsaw? Can you speak about the potential for religion to enrich and complicate our narratives?

Like I said above, the shape was influenced by the memories of these two haunted houses, and once I started thinking about those connections, I felt like should say something about my father’s role in taking me to the first haunted school bus and that led me to why my father would do that in the first place.

I’m a rational person, as are my parents. Of course, religion is irrational. And yet, my parents are religious. They’re not fanatical at all but, like I said, devout. Me, I’m somewhere on the line, trying to make sense of it all when I know that’s not going (or even supposed) to happen. Maybe if I grew up in a Calvinist-based church, I’d have started that chainsaw. I don’t know. But for me, I can sum up a typical Catholic outlook toward divine intervention as, “Don’t get your hopes up, but you never know, so keep trying, but don’t get your hopes up because you’re not that special, but you never know.” The amount of contradictions is staggering to me sometimes. I guess in my own life, I’m very skeptical, yet there are cracks where faith drips through, and that internal conflict can create good tension in a narrative. The religious tension is the same as the tension in the haunted house. Intellectually, there’s no reason you should be afraid. There are all sorts of paratextual signs outside letting you know this house is all a ruse and no harm will come to you. And yet, there you are afraid.

That bit about “seen and unseen” is a partial quote from the Nicene Creed which gets recited every time at mass. They just changed the words though a few years back, so it’s no longer “seen and unseen” but “visible and invisible.” At first I didn’t like the change because it sounds fussier, but I think it’s more precise and strangely more inclusive. Unseen is someone who tries to see but overlooks some detail and misses it. Invisible includes the former plus someone who is looking for it (maybe even someone who’s really good at looking for it) but still can’t see because it’s just not able to be seen. It kind of levels the field, which is nice.

You are also the editor of your own literary magazine, Lightning Key Review. As someone who must read a lot of submissions and cover letters, what have you learned about what to do (and what not to do) when submitting your own work?

Before I submit, I read the magazine (which is much easier now that there are great magazines on-line and print magazines with on-line content) and try to get a sense of the aesthetic. I write a short, simple cover letter that doesn’t get in the way of what I’ve written. (As a younger writer, I think there’s a need or a desire to reveal one’s personality in that cover letter instead of letting the work stand for itself.) Then I keep good records on a spreadsheet. I know Submittable and some other services will do it for you now, but I still keep a file updated so I know what’s out and where. I always tell my students not to take rejection personally, but I always feel bad since it makes me seem like some sort of Zen master who feels no pain. I guess better advice would be to refuse to allow rejection to stop your momentum, which sounds fascist, but better.

In terms of the work itself, I’m always on the lookout for engaging narrative and strong images regardless of the genre.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel about Jesus. It’s a good way to scare people into not asking any follow up questions. But I’ll pretend like you did. It’s a series of gnostic gospels in which Jesus gets clonked on the head during a stoning, subsequently forgets to die, and slips through time into our current era with the help of a video game designing prophet named Woz the Resistor. Once here, he soon finds himself incorporated and mass-marketed by a fast food company. Broke and somewhat limited in skills, he must earn money to buy enough shares in his company to own himself again before the IPO launches in December. However, his journey from rags to riches gets derailed when another religious leader tracks him down to kill him to bring about the apocalypse and the second coming.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I’m working my way through Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering and it’s great. Eduardo Galleano’s Soccer in Shadow and Sun is a fun one as well. It’s a history of soccer, which sounds boring, but it’s told in these short poetic sections that are wild and surprising. I also finally finished James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, which I’ve started three or four times but could never get into until this past spring. It’s a good one for Mother’s Day if you want to break your mom’s heart.

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