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"Dragging the Body of the Thing": An Interview with duncan b. barlow

duncan b. barlow is the author of The City, Awake (Stalking Horse 2017), Of Flesh and Fur (The Cupboard 2016), and Super Cell Anemia (2008). His novel A Dog Between Us is forthcoming on Stalking Horse Press in March of 2019. His work has appeared in The Denver Quarterly, The Collagist, Banango Street, The Fanzine, Sleeping Fish, Word Riot, The Apeiron Review, Meat for Tea, Matter Pressand Masque and Spectacle. He teaches creative writing and publishing at the University of South Dakota, where he is publisher at Astrophil Press and the managing editor at South Dakota Review. For more information about his writing or music, visit: http://www.duncanbbarlow.com

His story, "Unintended Consequences of Utterances," appeared in Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about family videos, form, and sharing your life with a cat. 

Where did this story, “Unintended Consequences of Utterances,” begin for you?

My sister had received a DVD of old family 8mm films from the 70s that we didn’t know existed. In one of the clips, I was a baby (a toddler) and I wandered to a mirror. Perhaps it wasn’t the first mirror I’d encountered, but as someone who teaches critical theory, I was captured by the idea (or fiction) that I was seeing my entry into symbolic order. The earliest footage I’d ever seen of myself before this was shot after I was sixteen so the entire experience was quite captivating and heartbreaking; on the one hand I was a happy baby, smiling and spitting, on the other hand everyone in the films beside myself and my siblings is now dead. It filled me with such strange and conflicting emotions that I turned the video off and sat down to write. At the time, I’d just started trying my hand at flash fiction, so it was one of my earlier experiments.

This story is remarkable for its brevity, for its punch. Do you start a story with a form in mind, or does the form come later?

Thank you very much, that’s very kind of you to say. I never know where my stories are going until they reach a certain mass and the shape of the thing becomes undeniable. There’s a kind of momentum that occurs from that point, where I know I’m closing in on something. Its only in revision where I go through and tidy things up. This particular story came quickly and required very little revision. I think this is one of the liberating things about brief fictions versus the longer things I write (30 pages stories and novels)—there’s a lightness to them where I’m not dragging the body of the thing thorough the dirt as I march forward to some unknown horizon.

Does your work as an editor and teacher influence your writing? How so?

It does. I’m close reading far more than the average person and constantly learning about writing. One essay that I teach and revisit regularly myself, is Lutz’s The Sentence is a Lonely Place. I’ve read it a hundred times and every time I feel it shift something inside of me. I think editing has taught me to pay far more attention to the balance, shape, and sound of language in my fiction now than did I when I published my first novel in 2008.

What projects have you been working on since the time of this story’s publication? What are you working on now?

I had three books come out and I’ve been focusing quite a bit more on short fiction and short stories. I’ve enjoyed the kind of liberation they offer me as a writer. Yesterday I finished the first draft of a story I dreamed up while having a lovely trip in Europe. Of course, things in the story will be a little grimmer than what we experience on our trip. I did recently finish up the first round of edits on my forthcoming novel, A Dog Between Us, with my editor at Stalking Horse Press, so I’ll be babysitting that for the next few months as we move toward publication. There are two texts I’ve been pecking away at as well, an autobiography of my time as a musician and an historical novel set in Kentucky Coal Country.

What is your current favorite thing? Something you’d like to recommend to readers. A book, a song, a movie, anything that you think we should all know about.

There’s so much to love which is such a luxury, isn’t it? I’ve just received an ARC of Laird Hunt’s new book In the House in the Dark of the Woods and it’s fantastic. Laird is a true wonder. And as always, my cat gives me new favorite things every day. So maybe I recommend sharing your life with a cat above all else.

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