New Fiction, With Bonus Transit Surrealism


Late last year, I was asked to read at a holiday-themed edition of The Difficult to Name Reading Series. And so I did, and wrote a story around a strange image that had been living in my brain for a while. “Why I Was Not in New Jersey For Christmas in 1997” is the result. It’s a kind of conjoining of two different experiences, one half-dreamt, and one drawn more or less from life. The original draft went a lot more into the latter, but it seemed out of balance, making the transition into the surreal a little more abrupt. So:

I got to my friend’s apartment, handed off the book, got some more stares, and found my way to the subway. Hello, Broadway-Nassau. Hello, stairways up and down and unclear signage. I spent ten minutes on one platform before I realized it was the wrong one; I found my way down some more stairs, and stepped on board that train when it came. In the initial announcement, it sounded like the conductor was saying it was the E.

You can read the whole thing here. Thanks to Ryan Sartor for the invitation.

An Older Story, Revisited


Five years ago, the fine people at featherproof asked me to contribute to TripleQuick, a literary app that they were creating featuring flash fiction designed to appear over the course of three screens. The story that resulted, “Cyclist & Avenue,” was my first go at writing flash fiction that I was happy with. Writing something that minute got me thinking differently about the shape and construction of what I was writing. It was a massively educational experience, and I remain grateful to Jonathan Messinger and Zach Dodson for the opportunity.

(I should also mention that I’m very eager to see what Tim Kinsella’s just-started tenure as featherproof’s publisher will bring, as the guy’s commitment to challenging yet beatific art is a long-standing and impressive one.)

I’ve put the story up on Medium, and you can read the whole thing here. I remain fond of it: both the story as a whole, and what I learned from it.

Brief Notes on “You in Reverse”

Earlier this week, The Collapsar’s third issue included one of my stories. It’s called “You in Reverse” — yes, the title is the second time I’ve referenced the Doug Martsch discography* — and it can be found alongside excellent work by the likes of Wendy C. Ortiz and Robert Kloss.

The basic premise of it is an idea that’s been in my brain for a long time now. Somewhere in a notebook or a text file are notes on a short film I’d been thinking about trying to make along similar lines. Though given that that idea would have leaned heavily on narration, I think this piece — essentially, a long monologue — has found the format best-suited to it.

It’s best to start on the late-night lines, when crowds are sparse and there are few bodies with which to collide. It’s hard to find the empty space that fits you, that you find yourself in, that you were always in.

It’s also another instance of me heading back into the world of weird fiction. (See also “The Wenceslas Men” and “A Waterside” and — to a lesser extent — “Last Screening of A Hoax Cantata.” ) It’s been a nice stay so far, and while some of what I have in the works heads back into the world of realism, other projects have definitely picked up traces of something more surreal.

If you’d like, you can read the whole thing here.

*-there’s a short novel I’m presently seeking a home for that’s titled Reel; said title is a bit of a nod to the first song on here.

New Fiction: “The Wenceslas Men”

Greenpoint | late

I have a new story up at Joyland called “The Wenceslas Men.” It was originally written for a horror-themed reading at WORD; the loose guidelines I was given were to come up with something on the cosmic horror/Lovecraftian side of things.

The central image of the story came from a particular apartment that I was visiting; looking out one of the windows, I imagined something passing by, and from there, the idea kept rattling around in my head. Reading at this event gave me a reason to write it, and thus…

I also wanted to get at the peculiar condition of certain blocks in cities in winter, when — despite the neighborhood itself being vibrant — the stillness brought on by the season makes them feel deeply empty. I’ve encountered this in Brooklyn a lot; I also noted it when wandering around Capitol Hill in Seattle last November.

It was winter. Mid-January, to be specific; a time when dried pines still piled curbside. A few stragglers had left electric Santas and snowmen in their windows; down the block, lights remained hanging above one door that played a weather-warped medley of tunes that had once rung out through speakers in the living rooms of my youth. The apartment was on a quiet street that ran parallel to one of the borough’s more trafficked avenues. Life outside was quiet, but it was present; I never felt like I wasn’t in a city, but neither did I feel drowned out.

Part of my editing of the story involved making the location less specific — originally, I’d referenced a couple of streets to give more of a context, but I ultimately wanted the location to come off differently. Alternately: while I wanted someone reading the story to get a sense of the building and the block, I didn’t necessarily want them to be able to cross-reference it with Google Maps.

If you’re curious, you can read the whole thing here.

At The Collagist: “Nearsighted in Northern Cities”

coneyislandhighSometimes, you feel compelled to write a story riffing on postpunk, the Hartford Whalers, losing one’s glasses, and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. And thus: my story “Nearsighted in Northern Cities.”

Now the farewells outside of the arena. The perennial invitation to Falk and Patten that, should they ever be in or around western Jersey, they should visit. Will knew that it was implausible: Falk’s professorial duties and Patten’s field research occupied their time to an almost comedic extent. And yet the offer must be made, and must be made annually. A frost-laced wind coasted across Will’s face as he watched his friends walk down the sidewalk. He breathed warm air into his fists and rubbed his palms over exposed ears and mapped the way to Barrett’s chosen coffee spot.


Will made a careful adjustment of his glasses. Åsa’s of an age to watch over herself now, he told himself. Well-behaved, not likely to run riot over the place or open the doors to some afternoon’s revelry.


How different she is than the punks he knew, thought Will.

“Nearsighted in Northern Cities” is also part of a novel in progress — at least it is right now. Will Morgan will make a handful of other appearances in the larger work; Åsa Morgan, briefly seen here, is one of the novel’s central characters. This story takes its inspiration from a number of things — from having my glasses removed from my face at the Narrator’s last show to the fact that, growing up, Pat Verbeek was my favorite hockey player. Essentially? I worked a lot of weird elements into it. Hopefully it all coheres for those of you who read it.

Considerable thanks are due to Matt Bell at The Collagist for publishing this. I’m glad to be a part of a publication I’ve admired for so long.


In the end, it wasn’t being mistaken for a Sasquatch that got me to quit drinking. Most people get that part wrong. Admittedly, if I’d known everything would go to shit that soon afterwards, I never would have taken off my shirt. But moshing on the rooftop had seemed like a genius idea, and it was a July in New York; I’m not particularly small, and anything I can do to minimize my own sweat is the best possible idea at that moment. And so I took off, a one-man circle pit, tracing my own circumference and never fearing dizziness or a stumble that might drop me to the sidewalk five stories below.

That’s from a new story of mine, titled “New Evidence of the Kings County Sasquatch,” that the fine people at The Fanzine have just published. I originally read it at at Storychord event at Housing Works. I’m hoping to do a bit more with this narrator — I have a couple of other stories in mind that will involve him.

I also like the idea of writing a character who, from this point on, won’t be drinking — an editor who turned an earlier story of mine down commented that my characters spent a lot of time in bars. I took that as a challenge, in the best way possible — or maybe not a challenge as much as someone pointing out a device I was using a little too frequently. We’ll see where this ends up, but if you notice future stories featuring an unnamed narrator with an aversion to booze and references to cryptids…

(This post’s title, for what it’s worth, is borrowed from Malcolm Ingram’s Drawing Flies, a film in which Jason Lee leads a group of unemployed Vancouver residents into the woods in search of Bigfoot.)

New Fiction at Joyland: “An Old Songwriter’s Trick”

At Joyland, I have a new short story up, titled “An Old Songwriter’s Trick.” This is how it begins:

The week Owen left New York was one of sweltering humidity reaching down to enrapture us, swaddle us, leave us all reaching for insufficient comfort. We assumed Owen was alone in the task of loading a truck, of carting boxes and disassembled furniture down flights of stairs and into a double-parked van. It was a week of sweat-stained shirts, of dodging brownouts, of foregone conclusions about the city and about what constituted comfort demolished. Owen was leaving us, and few among us were sad to see him go.

Keen-eyed readers may notice that it shares a character with another story of mine, “Dulcimers Played, Strings Played.” That is not coincidence; essentially, this story originally began its life as a sort of prelude to something much longer I’d like to write. As part of it, I needed to explain how one particular character ended up in a particular place; from there, this story arose. The longer work is as yet unwritten (as a couple of my favorite novels from this year may have rendered the concept moot); we’ll see, I suppose.

(Also: immense thanks to Brian at Joyland for running the story.)

The Weird.

Thinking out loud a bit here. A couple of weeks ago, a story of mine called “The Clutch” turned up on Vol.1. It’s a weird story, and the story of how it came to exist is (possibly) relevant: I wrote it for a reading that was part of a genre-themed series. My night’s theme was horror, and thus a horror story is what came up.

Except…it’s not really a proper horror story. It nurtures a particular image and setting that, by story’s end, eventually become horrific, but — this is more in the realm of things that unsettle me than things that will necessarily terrify audiences worldwide. It’s an image that I’ve had in my head for years now: seven or eight years ago, there was a particularly hot summer, and I’d walk to the subway after long nights at work and pass these clumps of trash bags that were just left there to fester, and I’d wonder; I’d start to see things emerging from them, and then I’d creep myself out and get onto the subway and try really hard to avoid thinking of the things now lurking around my subconscious.

(There’s an old story of mine somewhere with a similar payoff; a sinister buildup to an impossible image. Maybe I’ll post it somewhere; might make for interesting reading…)

I have a weird relationship with realism. A lot of the fiction I’ve done lately has been pretty straightforward. And yet: a lot of the writing that I first did when I was ushering myself into the process of writing fiction was much more surreal. Weird fiction or “slipstream” or something similar. Some of that’s just due to my reading habits: my bookshelves have a fair amount of realist fiction on them, but there’s a fair share of science fiction and horror and magic realism in there as well. But I also find it interesting that, after detouring around the weird for a while, I seem to find myself drawn back to it — the last story I finished opens in a fairly realistic vein and then takes a detour into the…if not the impossible, at least the unlikely.

Or maybe it’s just that I’m reminded that one can tweak things like realism on the page; that a story that opens in one mode doesn’t necessarily have to stay in that same mode for the duration. (Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm, which I just finished, is something of a master class in this — just when you think you know where it’s going, the narrator pulls things to a stop and resets the terms under which you hear his story.)

If nothing else, that renewed attraction to all things weird might help explain where parts of my head were when I wrote some of the dialogue in this story….

New fiction: “An Apolitical Song”

A while ago, I took part in a day-long at-home writing session to benefit Dzanc Books. The story that began its life then — a riff on Brooklyn winters, isolation, and the notion of “fake jazz” — ended up becoming something called “An Apolitical Song.” And now the fine people at Metazen have chosen to publish it. Here’s an excerpt:

My current state: false starts and lyrics sitting half-written in notebooks. Seated at a table looking at fresh-made coffee. Watching steam ascend into late-morning light and thinking it looks like nothing more than smoke rising from a newly kindled fire. All I want to do is collapse around the phrase fake jazz, half-obsessed after a late-night remembrance of a long-ago late-night ramble about John Lurie. Thinking: I’m going to call this my fake fake jazz band, thinking that might blow minds, thinking that’ll leave holes in the world and realign things, wanting to see how people react, wanting to hear them run the combinations through their heads, wanting to see what their eyes do when they think. My fake fake jazz band.

You can read the rest here.

So hey, new fiction.

As I periodically mention here, I’ve been deeply involved as of late with Vol.1’s Sunday Story Series. As the name suggests, it’s a weekly piece, either fiction or nonfiction, that runs on Sunday mornings. And on January 30th, the story in question came from, well, me.

It’s called “Revolution Come and Gone.” (The title is a hat-tip to an early-90s compilation that I listened to more or less endlessly in my formative years.) It’s the opening of my novel-in-progress Reel, and it starts out something like this:

Timon met Marianne at a Black Halos show in Seattle. It wasn’t the colder season yet, but its arrival was obvious. Jackets and a few bold scarves could be seen on bodies on the streets surrounding the club. These were melancholy hours, a time to have impractical thoughts and ponder ways in and out on walks through the city.

You can read the whole thing here.

Word Counts & Early November

Unintended radio silence. Holed up; working on a short novel and something that might end up being a novella: essentially, the most functional parts of the novel you may remember me rambling about a bit around these parts a year or two ago.

It’s something of an object lesson, really: word counts of the short novel and the novella are not dissimilar, but one feels like a novel; the other feels like something else, something abbreviated and much more focused. Not necessarily truncated, though — though it may also take the addition of a more bitter aftertaste for that to function correctly. And it may not function at all. Evidently, the novel-length version did not. Unsure now whether the belief that this section can function on its own is borne of realism or of a hesitation to let go. But hey, worth a shot.

….say it three times, and quickly.

Featherproof has launched their TripleQuick application for the iPhone. Four sample stories — from Shane Jones, Lindsay Hunter, Paul Fattaruso, and Amelia Gray — can be read on Featherproof’s site.

Among the other contributors is, well, me. Writing at that length (the stories had a maximum length of 333 words) was one of the hardest things I’ve done; while the writing group of which I’m a member does a fair amount of flash-fiction work, it’s never been a style that I’ve been comfortable with. So getting a chance to take part in this was a challenge, and one I was glad to attempt — the result has a sort of density to it that surprised me.

Also, it was inspired by a fairly insane bit of industrial design that I see on occasion outside my preferred stop for coffee in Greenpoint. So, you know, there’s that.

Reading: Friday

For the second time this year, I’ll be taking part in the generally kickass Vol. 1 reading series at Matchless in Greenpoint. Details follow:

June 19th, 2009

Chris Leo
(writer/musician in The Van Pelt)
Tom Shillue (comedian)
Tobias Carroll (writer)
Maggie Serota (freelance writer/A.V Club)
Justin Maurer (writer)
Isaac Ramon (Comedian)

Each give their best shot at telling a story about a vacation at Vol. 1 Brooklyn. There is a five dollar suggested donation to go to our friends at 826NYC, but you can donate more if you’d like.

@ Bar Matchless
557 Manhattan Ave.
Brooklyn, NY