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“The Underground Laundromat”: An Interview with Paul Albano

Paul Albano is from Milwaukee, WI. His work can be found in cream city review, Paper Darts, and Whiskey Island Magazine. He teaches English at the University of Alabama.

His story, “Nation of Cavaliers,” appeared in Issue Ninety-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Andrew Farkas about vampiric dental mutilation, the ice floe approach to short fiction writing, and unobtrusiveness.

Please tell us about the origins of “Nation of Cavaliers.” What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

It was initially written as a companion piece to another story featuring most of the same characters on another leg of their journey. I’m not sure what the catalyst for that story was, but I remember composing the initial shell of it during the many, many hours I spent waiting for, and riding on, trains and buses around the city—so my guess would be all of that stuff and boredom. 

The version of Chicago you present in your story is a combination of the real one and of a ruinous, seemingly diseased nightmare city. And yet none of the characters are bothered by the terrors that surround them. Why did you decide to portray Chicago this way? And what do you think this portrayal does for your story?

I’ve long been fascinated with depicting things as heightened versions of themselves, particularly with Chicago—which always seems to be teetering on the edge of nightmarish self-parody. For “Cavs,” the ambition is to use the setting to propel the primary emotional arc of the story—one character’s belated realization that he lives inside a nightmare—through the accumulation of madness and despair forever floating around the periphery.

In spite of the Gothic horrors in “Nation of Cavaliers,” this story is hilarious. I would even say, it’s so funny we forget, at times, that almost every living thing in the piece has mutated into some sort of monster (Mugs throughout is even consciously, although only superficially transforming himself into a vampire, no matter how insanely painful that transformation may be). What role do you think humor plays in this story, then?

Well, I suppose the intent at least is for the humor to undercut the potential dramatic moments of the story—which can build an odd tension for the characters (and hopefully even the reader)—as well as magnify the Vampiric dental mutilation and other horrors by presenting them as normal, quotidian occurrences all motivated by an internal logic.  

Unlike the lavish speech Mugs quotes from multiple times (and which supplies you with the title), the prose style here is very straightforward, economical. Even the dialogue is summarized, meaning we get almost the entire story from a first person narrator who does nothing in the piece but tell us what’s happening. Why did you choose this style for “Nation of Cavaliers,” and why did you choose to have the story narrated by a character so innocuous he’s praised at one point for his “unobtrusive presence?”

It’s a style of writing I really like and try to use frequently—and I imagine it started as a clumsy parody of Hemingway’s (in)famous “iceberg” approach (though with far fewer moments of poignancy or depth, so really more of an “ice floe”). In terms of the character, I think of the protagonist as a kind of embodied third person cinematic narrator—he reports on the surrounding people and events that enthrall him, but does so with limited editorializing and virtually no sense of interiority (born from both his intense fascination with the universe and his inability to understand much of it). The aim (and connected to the previous question) is to create humor by juxtaposing the flatness of the narrative voice with the calamitous world it describes. 

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

I just finished a Nero Wolfe book (Bitter End—by Rex Stout), which is my favorite of the Golden Age Detective series. There are many things I like about the books—the abundance of important newspaper headlines and drugstores that also serve corned beef sandwiches, and of course all scenes where someone takes off a hat and hands it to another character who seemingly always fails to give it back—but I’m drawn to them primarily because of the language. Stout is the best sentence-level writer I’ve encountered in the mystery genre and while his work never reaches (or reaches for) the hardboiled mythology of Chandler or Hammett (both of whom I’m also huge fans of and would highly recommend), the central conceit of the series—that Nero Wolfe refuses leaves his brownstone on business, and thereby never investigates the actual crime scene, which forces him to solve the mysteries almost purely with rhetoric—is something that I, as someone fond of both words and not going places, find grandly inspiring.

What are you writing these days?

I have a short story coming out in Entropy later this month—it’s a home invasion story about the Ghost of Christmas Present—but beyond that I’ve mostly been working on a novel that refuses to end no matter how many words I throw into it.

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