Hey, Why’d You Do That, David James Keaton?
Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.
…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS-character-to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…
These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things. In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.
David James Keaton is a very interesting fellow. The gentleman is very prolific and seems very cool. He loves music and crime fiction…but I’m not sure he’s such a big fan of authority figures. His aversion to them is fine by me, as it resulted in the stories presented in Fish Bites Cop! Stories to Bash Authories, a book you should certainly get into your hands and heart. Here is the entertaining manner in which Mr. Keaton explains how you can order the collection:
If you’re looking to buy it (did I already post these retailers somewhere? oh, well), here’s a link to the Comet Press website, as well as links to Barnes & Noble (for locals), Carmichael’s Bookstore (for locals), Powell’s, Indiebound, and Amazon. I listed those in order of preference. Buy it from the publisher or the real stores first, unless you need it on Kindle. Who knows where that Amazon money goes.
Ordering Mr. Keaton’s first novel is a little easier; Broken River Books has made signed hardcover copies of The Last Projector available through their web site. The book will be worth a look; one of the things I wondered while reading Fish Bites Cop! was what Mr. Keaton would do when he had a vast canvas at his disposal instead of many small ones.
Sure, you might want to know about how Mr. Keaton articulates his overall philosophy regarding fiction. You may want to read a 10,000-word essay in which he writes in great detail what makes a story interesting to him. Well, look elsewhere for those things. I’m really curious about some of the small choices that shaped the stories of Fish Bites Cop!
1) Okay, so I made a chart of Fish Bites Cop!’s table of contents as a public service. (You can never find a simple table of contents for story collections!) I also did it so I could look at stuff a little analytically.
|Title||POV||Number of Pages|
|Bad Hand Acting||3rd||8|
|Schrödinger’s Rat||1st (we)||13|
|Life Expectancy In A Trunk (Depends on Traffic)||1st||8|
|Third Bridesmaid From The Right (or Don’t Feed The Shadow Animals)||1st||11|
|Burning Down DJs||1st||6|
|Three Ways Without Water (or The Day Roadkill, Drunk Driving, And The Electric Chair Were Invented)||3rd||11|
|Do The Münster Mash||3rd||4|
|Either Way It Ends With A Shovel||3rd||14|
|Castrating Firemen||1st (directed at silent interlocutor)||5|
|Friction Ridge (or Beguiling The Bard In Three Acts)||Play||14|
|Don’t Waste It Whistling (or Could Shoulda Woulda)||1st (directed at silent interlocutor)||3|
|Bait Car Bruise||1st||3|
|Three Abortions And A Miscarriage (A Fun “What If?”)||3rd||14|
|Doing Everything But Actually Doing It||3rd||9|
|The Living Shit (or Mosquito Bites)||1st||6|
|The Ball Pit (or Children Under 5 Eat Free!)||3rd||6|
|Nine Cops Killed For A Goldfish Cracker||3rd||22|
There are 30 stories in the book.
The longest story is 22 pages.
9 of 30 are longer than ten pages.
10 of 30 are between six and ten pages.
11 are under five pages.
How come the stories are so short? Are you influenced by the Internet-inspired growth of the popularity of short-shorts? The stories are very “idea-oriented”…are you consciously trying to get the idea out of there as quickly as possible? Your prose is fun and punchy; do you feel you need to accentuate that part of your writer’s toolbox?
DJK: Interesting! These statistics are new to me. Did you like the scary fish picture on the contents page? I like that fish. That’s what I imagine goldfish crackers look like in our bellies. Well, as far as length, a couple venues that I was submitting to did dictate length. For example, “Warning Signs” went to Shotgun Honey, which had a 700-word limit, an odd but challenging (and kinda arbitrary) number. Also, many of these shorter pieces were written when I had zero publications to my name and I thought I could somehow crack that elusive code by writing tiny flash pieces and “get my name out there.” Translation: Give fiction away for free! Instead, this mostly meant getting Word Riot rejections five or six times a day (fastest rejections ever!). And this might be kind of a boring answer, but most of the stories are as long as they wanted to be. Well, a more boring answer would actually be “as long as they need to be.” But, truthfully, some of them probably needed to be shorter. But it’s not about what they need. It’s what we need, right?
2) A lot of us have real trouble figuring out character names. Many of your protagonists are named “Jack” or “Rick.” Why do you do that for? Are you making a point about how everyone is kinda the same, regardless of names? Or do you just like that the names are short and easy to type?
DJK: You mentioned to me in an earlier conversation how Woody Allen claimed he used names like “Jack” because they are so much more efficient, and I’m totally on board with this reasoning. It’s like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly and his closet is full of the same shirts and pants and jackets – because this means he doesn’t have to expend any brainpower on unimportant things. Although, to be fair, Goldblum’s character does all his best thinking once his girlfriend buys him his first very ‘80s bomber jacket. But for me, naming a character “Jack” is also like a shortcut to not having to name someone at all. “Jack” feels like a not-name to me, not as obviously anonymous as “John,” and it sort of sounds like a verb, too, so that’s a bonus. I’m just not that interested in names. I also don’t enjoy describing characters. Not sure where the aversion comes from, but I’d number little stick figures if I could!
Also, whenever there’s a “Jack” who is a paramedic, that’s actually a tiny snippet of my upcoming novel The Last Projector. In that book, there’s just the one Jack. Well, he’s kind of a couple people, too, but that’s another story. But in Fish Bites Cop!, the Jacks are different people, unless they’re paramedics. If that makes any sense. This answer has gotten so long and thought-consuming that I’ve now reconsidered and may start using normal names again.
3) “Nine Cops Killed For A Goldfish Cracker” is a really cool story. And you do a cool thing in it. There are three big countdowns that control the progression of the story.
- Jack starts killing law enforcement officers…the title lets us know he’s going to reach nine by the end of the story.
- One of the goldfish in Jack’s bowl ate a thousand dollar bill. The fish are executed one by one in search of the prize.
- The narrator compares Jack’s journey to that of a football player making his way down the field to the end zone.
How did you make use of these countdowns in your story? How did you make sure that the “mileposts” passed quickly, but not too quickly? How did you make the countdowns seem organic instead of all contrived and stuff?
DJK: Thanks! The countdown that shaped the story the most was the deaths of the titular “nine” cops (ten, actually). By thinking of creative ways to murder them, it gave me a very convenient way to map it all out. The countdown of the dying fish was a heavy-handed parallel to the dying cops, so that countdown was supposed to be like a Star Trek mirror-universe version of what the drying fish and dying cops were going through. The yard-line countdown was added in the 11th-hour of writing, to smooth it out and to accelerate things a bit more. Once I added yard lines, the rest of the football imagery started popping up organically and things really got fun. But the deaths of the police officers were definitely the story’s engine, and not just because I knew that a reader would expect exactly nine police officer deaths as promised, and I knew I had to deliver. But it drove the story because, when I wrote it, I’d been working late hours at my former closed-captioning job, and we had short, unhealthy lunches built into our demanding captioning duties, so that countdown was also a way to get a little bit of the story done each night on my 15-minute lunch break. One little murder a day, I’d tell myself, and I’d be home free in a week! How many times have we said that to ourselves?
4) Several of the stories have alternate titles. (For example, “The Living Shit (or Mosquito Bites)”). Coming up with titles is hard for a lot of us. Why did you include some alternate titles?
Some of the titles are really descriptive and reflect what happens in the story (“Killing Coaches”) and some are a little more “fun.” What do you think is the relationship between the title and the story?
DJK: Most of the alternate titles in the collection are their original titles. “The Living Shit,” for example, was renamed “Mosquito Bites” to make it more palatable and get it published. But I always preferred the uglier title, so I switched it back. In fact, the original title of “Nine Cops Killed for a Goldfish Cracker” was “Fish Bites Cop.” But instead of adding an alternate to that already very long title, I just called the collection Fish Bites Cop instead. Problem solved! That meant the newspaper headline at the end of the story is also swapped around. Now the newspaper reads, “Fish Bites Cop!” too. Which I kind of prefer, actually. And hijacking that story title to make it the title of the book suited the collection in many unexpected ways.
But, yeah, some of the “fun” titles were titles I had kicking around that I really wanted to write a story around. Like “Either Way It Ends With A Shovel” was actually an email subject line that my friend Amanda and I passed back and forth at that captioning job whenever we were disgruntled. So that title was her idea actually. To write a story around it, I just had to think of the two “ways” that would go with it. And the question of burying someone or digging them up seemed to be the only option.
5) “Greenhorns” and “Clam Digger” are two of my favorite stories in the book. They’re also a little different from the other stories, as they feature fantasy/supernatural elements.
How come there are only a few horror-y stories in the book? The rest seem extremely hard-boiled and realistic. (Even though the stories feature “extreme” events, of course.)
DJK: When I wrote most of these stories, I was in grad school at the University of Pittsburgh, and many were sort of an affectionate raspberry to the typical MFA-style “lit” story. So I was purposefully playing with every genre I could. The fact that the vast majority also incorporated authority bashing of some kind is a mystery for a psychologist to unravel. Hopefully, a psychologist who is just starting out so that he or she is real hungry and really, really wants to get to the bottom of these things. Or maybe a recently martyred movie psychologist who will absolve me with four magic words, “It’s not your fault.”
6) You’re real good at using unexpected verbs.
In “Bad Hand Acting,” the janitor doesn’t “walk around” the mob of police. He “orbits” them.
In “Either Way It Ends With A Shovel,” the character doesn’t just “look at” or “see” a bunch of bodies in his car trunk. He “studies” the bodies and “counts” the “elbows and knees as tangled as his guts.”
In “Shades,” the narrator “drops” a dollar in a peddler’s hand, which is a lot less secure than “handing” a bill to a person.
How do you know when to use a regular old boring verb and when to use a cool, unexpected one?
DJK: Back in school, I was told verbs are very important to bringing a scene to life and their power shouldn’t be squandered through use of lazy words like, “are” and “to be,” like I just did in this sentence.
7) One of the things I really like about the stories is that you include a lot of fun “extra” stuff in your work. “Clam Diggers” is very much a story about a man relating how his brother disappeared. Still, you manage to sprinkle in a cool image/story about how the father taught the sons to turn bathroom graffiti swastikas into “neutered” sets of boxes. Unfortunately, writers like me have led sheltered, boring lives, depriving us of the opportunity to come across these kinds of interesting anecdotes and ideas. How many of these cool things in the stories come from your real life? Should sheltered writers like me just allow myself to make up stuff? I’ve obviously never planned an inside job scam on a casino…should I just stop restricting myself and assuming I couldn’t write such a story?
DJK: Neutering swastikas into tiny four-paned windows is a favorite pastime of mine, as I found that moving to Kentucky means more than the usual quota of bathroom-stall neo-Nazi graffiti. See this is where the revolution will begin… on the toilet! And many of the digressions, er, details do come from my day-to-day or past adventures. I did win and lose and win back about three grand at roulette, and I committed all those ridiculous infractions at the roulette wheel at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas. I’d like to say that was research, but it was my friend’s crazy wedding. I didn’t try to scam them, of course. All the flavor that my personal experience can bring to the stories stops just short of the actual crimes. Except for one. Maybe. Sort of. Next question!
8) You REALLY like to start stories with the inciting incident or with a sentence that represents the overarching feeling of the piece or its narrative thrust. See?
Shades: “She was sure one of them was watching her.”
Burning Down DJs: “Before the night ends with me crashing through the woods in a stolen police car, I’ll drive around stuck on one thought.”
Queen Excluder: “There were sitting down to dinner when the phone rang.”
Castrating Firemen: “I will leave work to get you a cigarette because you’re crying.”
Either Way It Ends With A Shovel: (in italics) “Are you going to bury someone? Or dig someone up?”
How much of this is planning and how much comes in the second draft? Are you only doing it because most of these are crime-related stories and plot is really important?
DJK: Those examples were part of the original drafts. I’ve always been a fan of getting things going in the first sentence, to engage both the reader and the writer. And because I can’t wait to get the main idea out, front and center (like the “Are you going to bury someone or dig them up?” question in “Either Way It Ends With A Shovel”) and because I trust myself a little more with the plot rather than the prose. At least until the story gets cooking.
9) So I think I understand why you have thirty stories about authority figures (police officers, firemen, paramedics). It’s probably the same reason I have 150 stories about ugly dudes whose flawed natures has resulted in the fact that none of them have ever had a healthy relationship with a woman. These are topics of particular and personal interest to us, so we’re going to write about them.
What I wanna know is how you figured out the order for all of the stories. (We’re all hoping to have the same assignment someday!) How come the super-long award-winning story was last instead of first? How come the shortest story was first? What kind of experience were you trying to shape for the reader?
DJK: When it turned out I’d accumulated thirty stories that punished police officers, firemen, paramedics, high school coaches, etc., I was kind of surprised. It really wasn’t a conscious effort. Well, there were probably about twenty stories stockpiled with this similar theme before I realized the connection, and then I wrote ten more because I felt like I was on a roll and wanted to get it all out.
It’s still not all out though. A beta reader is going through my novel, The Last Projector, right now, and for kicks he counted up the total uses of the word “cop,” “officer,” and “police.” You might enjoy this with your statistics fetish earlier!
In 500 pages, there are around 700 uses of these terms. Second most used is the word “fuck” with 600. And most of those “fucks” and “cops” are probably pretty closely intertwined. And this is not a novel about police officers. So I guess it’s out of my hands.
As far as the order of the stories, that was sort of complicated:
“Nine Cops Killed…” wraps up the book because it’s the title story, and I feel like it’s a big party, a fun bash where the reader can be rewarded for making it through the whole thing. And the shortest story starts things because “Trophies” felt like a mission statement to me. It had a lot of the elements that are consistent throughout, regardless of the genre hopping.
But as far as the order of the stories, I spend a loooooooong time on that. I definitely “mix-taped” it High Fidelity style. The first “song” starts off fast, then the next song kicks it up a notch. Then the next song slows things down a notch, etc. etc. And I also wanted stories that were first-person to avoid following each other, lest people think those “Jacks” were the same Jack, of course. And I wanted the genres to be spread out, so that people didn’t expect a third monster movie after a monster double feature. And after all that work of mix-taping, I read an article on HTML Giant that declared very definitively that, “Short Story Collections Are Not A Mix Tape!” and then I was satisfied that I had done the right thing.
10) Look at the last few pages of “Clam Digger.” This cool story is told by a first-person narrator who is relating events that happened a long time ago. He therefore has access to a lot more information than the younger version of himself.
So the narrator lets us know this is THE STORY OF HOW HIS BROTHER DISAPPEARED AND YOU CAN BELIEVE HIM OR NOT; HE KNOWS WHAT HE SAW. (We’re also informed he’s participating in some kind of interview.)
So the bulk of the story finds the narrator telling the story in the past tense, chronologically jumping from one significant event to the next.
But check out the end of the story. We’re getting the “money shot,” so to speak. The mystery of the brother’s disappearance is being revealed…
Then you cut to a new section, leaping from the past to the present to the past again. Why did you break the pattern established by the rest of the sections? What was the effect you were trying to create? Are you willing to apologize for my newfound fear of clams and other mollusks?
DJK: I guess that was an attempt to build suspense, sort of use those Sam Peckinpah directorial editing tips where you cut away right when the shot has peaked. I also maybe stutter-stepped there at the end because I wasn’t sure how I was going to wrap it up. The natural ending of that story felt like it should be in the past, since that’s where the mystery was, but there had to be resolution in the present, too. So I tried to do both, at the risk of the dog in Aesop’s fable who growls at his reflection in the water and loses both bones.
“Clam Digger” was also my first run at a “Lovecraftian” story. So I had some tortured soul spinning some yarn about the horribleness he’d witnessed, some large ocean-dwelling critter that may have driven him insane. But other genres started to cross-fertilize while I was writing it, and the story that resulted is really more psychological horror than anything.
I do apologize for your new clam and mollusk aversion, though. But it’s better than an aversion to naming characters, so you should be thankful! And it’s only fair this happened to you because those things freak me out, too. I mean, look at clams for a second, if you have one handy. You think it’s sticking its tongue out at you, but it’s a foot? You think it’s sticking its eyes out at you, but that’s its nose? That’s insanity on the half shell right there.
David James Keaton’s award-winning fiction has appeared in over 50 publications. His first collection, Fish Bites Cop: Stories to Bash Authorities, was named This Is Horror’s Short Story Collection of the Year and was a finalist for Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award. His debut novel, The Last Projector, is due out this Halloween through Broken River Books.