In Ryan Seacrest is Famous, his debut collection of pop-culture enthused short stories, Dave Housley makes you think, makes you laugh, and, if you're a writer, inspires you to run to your computer and get started on that premise you've been putting off. Whether it comes in the form of an alcoholic clown, people obsessed with Fight Club, or a DJ hiring a prostitute in an attempt to win back his old flame, Housley's stories are consistently engrossing, entertaining, and exciting. And you'll be able to experience Housley's three E's when he reads from his collection at McNally Robinson on November 15th.
In your piece Bare, the whole story is about leaving it all behind and starting over. Have you ever contemplated finding a new life somewhere?
That’s one where the first paragraph came first and the rest of the story kind of filled itself in. I’m actually quite comfortable in my domestic life -- most of that feeling, for me, has come in my professional life, in my various “real” jobs. So a new life for me mainly consists of some kind of writing environment where I can be like Larry McMurtry, sit down from ten until two and then take it easy knowing I've put a good four hours of writing time in. That, to me, would be amazing. And, of course, the one that everybody has, where I live in Hawaii and have a cool name like Thomas Magnum and solve mysteries with a bunch of my old Vietnam buddies, while sporty a sexy mustache and tiny OP shorts.
What would be your fake name?
I actually have one: Lars Finley. That’s the name of the villain from a book my friend John Gallagher and I read when we were in about fifth grade (Mystery on Ski Mountain). You could tell he was the villain because (a) he was named Lars Finley, and (b) he wore turtlenecks. I always pictured him as looking exactly like the blond, feathered-hair guy who was the villain in most of those 80s movies – Better Off Dead, Karate Kid, etc. Anyway, I registered a few LarsFinley@ emails a few years back for the express purpose of sending John threatening email from Lars Finley, and then I just kind of held on to them. So yes, Lars Finley is my alter ego.
The protagonist of Bare is constantly writing opening lines to novels he will never complete. How many opening lines to novels have you written?
I’ve written a few. And I have about ten files on my computer right now that are about two sentences long, with the first and maybe second sentence to a novel or story. Some of them are just titles. First lines are easy, it’s the rest of the lines that are harder to come by.
What does it take to get you motivated?
Sometimes it’s a good beginning, or a good idea for a story. I’ll get started and then think, you know, that I kind of owe it to the story to keep going and figure out what happens. Other times, since I’m a moron, it’s actually a sense of competition. I’ll read a story for Barrelhouse or somewhere else and it will kick start this latent competitive thing that's either a terrible, stereotypically male trait or something left over from when I used to play competitive sports. It's very stupid, but in lieu of a strong work ethic, it does come in handy.
Competitiveness can be a good thing when it spurs creativity, but it can also be bad when we start comparing ourselves to others, which is very common these days, especially when the media overwhelms us with seemingly perfect people who stand on pedestals that we can never really reach. Do you see the affects of this practice on your students, close relations, or perhaps even yourself?
For me, with the writing, at least, it's more that I'll read a great story and think, "Man, I should be writing more. I really need to be working harder." Kind of like when you see somebody who's in great shape, and you don't think so much, "I could kick that guy's ass," but more like, "I need to get to the gym." Writing is funny like that, because writers are funny -- it's really a stubborn, solitary kind of thing to do, sit down and try to make a story out of nothing, so if you're competing with anybody it's really with yourself.
I know what you're saying, though, about these seemingly perfect people and how flooded we are with these images. You see the people on Survivor shrinking every week and you're not thinking so much about how they're malnourished and engaged in something that's really pretty stupid, but how great their abs look after a few weeks of eating nothing but rice and bugs or whatever. I think that's why we're so fascinated with Brittany and Lindsey and their downward spirals -- it's not a good thing, but on some level I think you see that and think, "See, I knew it couldn't be that easy."
When have you felt betrayed by a relic from the past, say an actor or author, hawking wares in the present, like in Jack Kerouac and the Amazing MegaFlex?
The idea for that story came to me when I watched the documentary “When We Were Kings,” which is about the Ali/Foreman Rumble in the Jungle. There was a time when George Foreman was the baddest motherfucker on the planet. People were legitimately worried that he was going kill Muhammed Ali. Kill him! That’s hard to rectify with the current incarnation, the friendly, harmless huckster with his famous grill and his ten children all named George. I thought, "Man, there are second acts in American lives, and they are getting increasingly bizarre." I don’t feel betrayed by George Foreman, but I bet that glowering bad ass from 1974 sure would.
I wish like hell that Tom Wolfe would go back to writing nonfiction, at least for a book or two. His nonfiction was brilliant, even the stuff that you’d think would be more dated, like the Pump House Gang or Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. I’m sure there comes a time when you’d rather not take your white suit out on the road with whatever interesting freaks are out there, but he was the best at it, and I'd love to read his take on some of what's going on out there. I guess I don't really feel betrayed, but I do wish he'd get back to what he does, or used to do, better than anybody else.
A lot of the stories also have protagonists fighting to win back old loves despite it seeming like the relationship isn't worth salvaging in the first place, which makes me think of how today's socio-political-economic climate might make people yearn for the past, but was the past really that much better?
That does happen a lot in these stories. I think in most cases, these guys are trying to turn back the clock because they associate the old loves with better times. They're finding themselves at a certain age, in some pretty crappy circumstances, and realizing that they never did turn out to be a professional football player or a rock star or a crime solving, jet setting millionaire. They're generally not the smartest folks around, and it's easier to focus on something they think they can get back, rather than every small decision that's led them into their current situation. How the hell did I wind up an alcoholic clown in this crappy small town? What to do now?
Of course, as they say, the women are smarter, and they know better.
There's a lot of cultural commentary in this collection. Is there a product, TV show, song, or particular piece of our culture that, to you, represents America in 2007?
Oh, man, that’s a tough one. If I had to narrow it down, I’d probably say the weekly celeb tabloids- InTouch, Star, and Us Weekly. It’s an entire industry that’s sprung up around people who contribute literally nothing to anything, and who are fantastically famous and, in most cases, wealthy because of it. I say that as an Us Weekly subscriber, by the way -- the most entertaining 8 minutes of my week is often spent on the toilet, “reading” Us Weekly. It’s all just so incredibly vapid and entertaining, like mental cotton candy.
And it seems like those mags are now part of that weird celebrity world – where before they were just sitting outside the fence, taking pictures, whispering gossip, now somehow they’ve become the food these celebrities are eating, one of the things that’s sustaining the whole fluffy enterprise. Those two blond kids from The Hills, Spencer and Heidi? And yes, I'm embarrassed and fascinated that I know their names – I've never even seen an episode of The Hills. They only exist to be photographed for Us Weekly. If those magazines all went bankrupt, they would literally be going door to door, asking people to follow them to the beach and watch them frolic, asking if you wouldn't mind taking some pictures while they pretended they were having a wacky blond photogenic time on your kid's swing set.
The thing about those magazines is that smart people read them, too. And I’m not talking about me, but other people I know, who I won’t name. I think they’ve replaced soap operas for a certain demographic. You could Tivo Days of Our Lives, or you could just follow Britney's whole thing through InTouch. Which is more entertaining? It’s not even a contest.
Too often people look for guidance in the wrong places, such as in your story Fight Club Club, where a group of people let the Chuck Palahniuk adaptation run their lives, or Are You Street or Popcorn?, where a young girl hopes she's found the perfect cohort for her anarchistic ambitions in a classmate who passes out of context F. Scott Fitzgerald quotes as social commentary in the form of graffiti when, in reality, she's found a guy willing to play along just so he can have a girlfriend. Have you ever looked somewhere for guidance and then been led astray?
I’m glad you saw that on those stories, especially the graffiti one, “Are You Street or Popcorn?” I think people run for the easy answers, and it’s really easy to say, I’m a Deadhead, that’s the thing I do now. Or, I’m following Fight Club, or I'm really way into my career, or this particular politician, or Battlestar Galactica, or whatever. All the work is done for you, you just have to slide back and let them make all the decisions. Muddling through is hard. Following someone or something, no matter how silly it might seem, is easy.
Oh, so me...I was a kind of half-deadhead for awhile there, but only in the sense that I went to some shows and read all the hippie literature I could find. I guess I'm a muddle-through, rather than a believer, if only due to lack of motivation. I think the believers are fascinating, but I've never really felt that pull.
What's the worst letter of rejection that you've gotten?
I do have a thick skin about it, so the only one that really sticks out is one that came about 18 months after I had sent the story, which said basically that they just didn’t have time to read all their submissions, so they had to pass without actually looking at it. That struck me as especially lame, especially after a year and a half.
You're going to be coming to New York on the 15th to do a reading at McNally Robinson . Do you have a strangest, "Only in New York" moment?
Probably a few weeks ago, following my friend Rich to the basement of this lovely little Italian place, eating the best gnocci I've ever had, and then being whisked out of the restaurant at midnight so they could "close," just as about ten large Russian guys who looked like extras from the Sopranos were sauntering in.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York?
Make it cheaper to get there and be there.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
I think Jonathan Lethem is just completely brilliant. I admire just about everything he’s ever written – the early novels, the ones everybody knows, and the nonfiction. I also think he’s doing some really interesting things with the Promiscuous Materials Project. I also really wish that I was in the Beastie Boys. I have a story I’m still working on about a guy who becomes obsessed with becoming the fourth Beastie and it’s almost purely autobiographical (except, so far, for the part where he goes crazy). We're about the same age, so when I was a dumb college kid, they were making dumb college kid music. Now I'm slightly less dumb, and they're still making great music that's fun but definitely no longer dumb.
What do you consider a perfect day of recreation in the city?
Walking around and eating pizza, all day long. Mmmm, pizza.
Check Dave out at McNally Robinson on November 15th when he'll be joined by authors Christian TeBordo and Jennifer Banash.