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Interview: Nathaniel Tower

Nathaniel Tower

Nathaniel Tower

Nathaniel Tower is the founder and editor of Bartleby Snopes, one of the web’s premier literary sites. In addition, he has published dozens of pieces of short fiction in various sources, including several right here at Drunk Monkeys.

In this conversation, conducted via email with Matthew Guerruckey, he discusses his sources of inspiration and his definition of experimental fiction. 

Drunk Monkeys: Where are you from?

Nathaniel Tower: St. Louis, MO. I grew up in the city and eventually ventured out to the suburbs. That’s where I am with my wife and daughter, at least for now.

DM: How do you think growing up there affected your style of writing, or of thinking?

NT: I’m not really sure. Everything feels pretty boring and “normal” around here. Maybe that’s why I venture so far into the surreal, to escape the mundane environment I’ve always felt I’ve been in. St. Louis is supposed to be some really dangerous city, but I’ve never felt that. My novel, A Reason To Kill, does take place in St. Louis, and there are bits and pieces of the city infused in there obviously. But other than that, I think my style of writing is independent of the city, although I think it’s impossible to be completely separate from environment. I guess I just haven’t made the connections yet.

DM: Do you remember when you decided to write as a career? What was it about that moment that propelled you?

NT: I wouldn’t call writing a career for me, at least not now. I hope it will be one day. Right now it’s still just in the secondary gig phase. Maybe not even secondary. Is there a thirdary? But I’ve been pretty serious about it for almost six years now. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I’ve tried my hand at it on and off since a very young age. I think the moment that really inspired me was a conversation with a coworker about great first lines. After we discussed them, I challenged myself to write my own great first line. I’m not sure I ever wrote one, but I’ve written a lot of first lines now. Could a first line really be great without a great work to back it up?

DM: What writers have had the most influence on you?

NT: Donald Barthelme is the big one. Although I don’t enjoy everything he wrote, I think he created a lot of new possibilities for the short story. He wrote things that wouldn’t have been considered stories and made them into stories. His command of language and balance of form is amazing.

DM: When did you start Bartleby Snopes?

NT: We launched in the summer of 2008.

DM: What was the inspiration for the site?

NT: Honestly, I was just tired of waiting so long to get impersonal rejection letters. I wasn’t really familiar with the online publishing world yet, so I thought the idea was some revolutionary thing. We would respond to every submission within a week with some personal feedback. It’s not that revolutionary though. There are quite a few litmags that do it. You just have to know where to look I guess.

The site gets its name from characters from two of my favorite short stories. “Bartleby” from Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, and “Snopes” from Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”.

DM: How do you feel with where the site is now, and where would you like to see it go in the future?

NT: I’m happy with it. The quality of submissions has gradually risen throughout the four years we’ve operated it. I’d like to see it become something bigger, something more unique. We’re trying that with the Post-Experimental project. We’re still working on that one, but I’m not sure it’s going to be quite what I envisioned. Of course, I’m not sure what exactly it is that I envisioned. Really I’m just happy that the magazine seems to have a devoted following. Especially the Dialogue Contest. We opened the contest a few weeks late this year, and I was getting quite a few emails asking if we were going to have it again.

DM: What defines post-experimental to you? Can you point to any examples in your own work, or a work you admire?

NT: I was hoping that post-experimental was something I’d never seen before. A way to write that moved past the experimental, back to traditional story telling without necessarily using traditional methods. It certainly doesn’t focus on form over story or story over form. Everything works in unison. I can’t quite point to any examples that have been published, but maybe that’s because I want so much for this to be something that no one has ever seen before. Like a writing revolution of some kind. But I’m sure there are plenty of examples out there. They just haven’t been labeled as such.

DM: What is your approach to writing?

NT: I write whenever I can and get out as much of a story at once as possible. I don’t have a set writing schedule or a set place I go to write. I do have a tendency to write on scraps of paper while I’m driving. I know that’s dangerous, but it’s better than texting, right? Gotta get those ideas out before they disappear.

I’ve tried to make writing goals like writing so much per day, but it just doesn’t work for me. I tend only to write when I have an idea. I don’t sit down and force myself to do it. If it’s not coming naturally, I abort. I have quite a few aborted stories, not necessarily because they didn’t start out well or because they were crummy stories. The inspiration just wasn’t there anymore.

I like to try and write as much of a story as I can before rereading. Ideally I’ll write the whole thing before I look over any of it. Sometimes I knock out a first draft in one sitting. I’ve done up to 5000 word stories without getting out of the chair. I just get lost in the story and the characters take me with them. Once the draft is finished, I like to take a break from the story for a few days. A lot of times I’ll use that time to look over other stories. Or maybe I’ll start new ones.

DM: Your stories seem to be inspired by tweaked views on everyday experiences — how often do you get ideas that may be good fodder for stories, and how do you hold onto those ideas?

NT: As soon as I get an idea, I have to get something down on paper. Like I said before, I jot notes while driving sometimes. Sometimes I get out of bed and write down something. At work, my pockets are often filled with little scraps. I can’t let any of those ideas escape. Realistically though, I don’t think they would. Sometimes I start thinking of a story at night and I don’t feel like getting out of bed. So I’ve got this story rolling through my head, and I just try to sleep on it and hope it’s still there in the morning. It always is. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s not quite what I envisioned. But the story never gets lost completely.

My ideas seem to come in waves. I’ll go through dry spells where nothing comes to me and I use that time to work on old stories. Then I’ll just get this glut of ideas all at once. It can be a bit hectic at times to have all these crazy stories going at once, but I manage I suppose. It’s better than those times I have nothing to write about. I guess one idea can just spark another.

How do these crazy ideas pop into my head? I just look at something and think of different scenarios. Take “The Oaten Hands” for example. It’s about a guy whose hands are made of oats. The inspiration came from eating a granola bar on a walk and having a piece get stuck to my hand. Then I just started thinking about what it would be like to have hands made of oats. What would be the craziest scenario to accompany that? Well, being a horse whisperer would be pretty crazy, so the story is born. Of course, the story isn’t really about having hands made out of oats, just like “Conrad’s Bayonet”, which you were kind enough to publish back in January, isn’t about a kid who’s born with a bayonet that grows along with him. We all have those things in life we think are a part of us and we just can’t seem to get rid of them.

I think my stories have gotten crazier since my daughter was born a little over a year ago. Or maybe they started getting crazier in the months before she was born. Not really sure why that is. I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine the possibilities.

DM: What is the most personal story you’ve ever written, and how does it reflect who you are?

NT: Tough question. I’m inclined to say “Stories from the War” (published in The View From Here back in 2009), mostly because it recalls personal memories of my grandfather. It’s not like it’s super biographical though. It just draws on some things that were meaningful to him and consequently meaningful to me. And I think it captures that panicky feeling of losing a loved one and fighting for one last thing to remember him/her. But I think the story with the greatest personal effect on me is“When the Spring Dies” (published in the Short Story Library back in 2008). It’s hard to explain why. I distinctly recall the experience of writing the story. I penned it in a notebook, staying up the whole night to write it. When I was finished I felt both exhausted and energized. The exhaustion wasn’t from not sleeping though. The story just took everything out of me.

My favorite story is probably “Pregnancy and the Wildebeest”, which I haven’t been able to place yet. Why is it that our favorite stories are often the hardest to find a home for?

DM: What is it about that story that means so much to you? And why do you think it’s had trouble connecting?

NT: I think the big thing for me is that I just love the concept of it. A guy is going to do his pregnant wife’s laundry and finds a wildebeest hogging the laundry room. Who can’t relate to that experience? Seriously. Everyone has attempted to do something for some greater good only to be stopped by something unexplainable to anyone else. The only way to understand what you’re going through at that time is to be the one experiencing it. You can’t tell someone you didn’t do the laundry because there was a wildebeest in the laundry room. A wildebeest can’t be doing laundry. But there it was. You saw it. And so you failed. And it’s impossible to explain why you failed.

I don’t know why it’s having a hard time connecting. I think there is still some hesitancy from a lot of publishers to push into that realm of the absurd. But I think it will find its place some day. At least I hope. It’s the kind of story that I hope a lot of people read. I’m really proud of it, and it’s just a lot of fun.

DM: How did you approach writing your novel, as opposed to writing short fiction? How long did the project take?

NT: The novel is definitely a different animal than the short story. From gestation of the idea to the publication date, it took about four years to complete. The writing and editing time, not counting the publisher’s edits, took about a year and a half. One thing I noticed with the novel was I couldn’t work on other stories for long chunks of time. Everything had to focus on the novel or ideas would start spilling into the wrong places. I like to try to approach each chapter as an unfinished story and then build on each. I don’t like to sit down and make outlines, but I do have a general idea of where things are going most of the time. A few times the story surprised me, and it was hard to make it end. I feel I’m much better at short stories than novels. Maybe I don’t have the writing patience to create the entire world for the reader. With the short story, I usually throw the reader into a world that’s either already built or doesn’t really need to be built, but the novel needs to exist more independently, if that makes sense.

Check Bartleby Snopes for frequent updates, and for the dialogue-only contest, coming this October. Nathaniel will also be published in an upcoming issue of the web magazine The Pedestal