As a writer, J. David Osborne can blend deeply human situations and prose with jarring violence; his novel Low Down Death Right Easy brings crime-fiction thrills and evokes quietly lived lives in equal measure. His latest book, the collection Our Blood In its Blind Circuit, encompasses everything from surreal stories of corrupt cops to bittersweet accounts of people falling in and out of love (“Like Most Things Easy,” which first appeared as a Sunday Story) to “Gritty,” which deconstructs and critiques a certain type of noir story. He’s also the publisher of Broken River Books, which began last year and has released work from William Boyle, Stephen Graham Jones, and many more. I checked in with Osborne via email to discuss his writing, Julio Cortazar, the process of running Broken River, and his upcoming move from Oklahoma to Oregon.
Our Blood In its Blind Circuit takes its title from a Julio Cortazar quote. When did you first encounter Cortazar’s work? And when did you know that this would be the ideal title for your story (and, later, the book that contains it)?
I first discovered Cortazar through Michael Kazepis. He and I bonded over our mutual love for Roberto Bolano, and he basically said, “You ain’t shit if you don’t know Cortazar.” He actually picked that quote out of Hopscotch when I told him I couldn’t think of a name for this particular story. The story is about cops in Juarez, who kind of follow their beat, while all of this fucked up shit is going on around them. So I liked the idea of this kind of weird flow. Almost subconscious. As for the collection, it was the coolest story title, so it won. Also, it does kind of speak to the fatalism of a lot of these stories, the kind of Vonnegut “so it goes” and shit.
The story “Our Blood In its Blind Circuit” is one of several stories in this collection that features uncanny elements. When you’re writing a story, do you generally have a sense of what its internal reality will be?
I spend a lot of time thinking about what the rules are for my particular universes. Writing this one story recently, I had this whole diagram mapped out, where there was the story world, and that a device had been invented so that people could come up to ours or go down into smaller ones. Came off the idea that in these universes, like in The Wire, there’s no show called The Wire. It’s an alternate world, but what if they could move to a place where their whole story is a story? I get stuck in these meta-holes a lot recently. Might dial it back a bit. The biggest influence on the internal reality of my stories and novels is based in the fact that I don’t do very much internal monologue. I don’t really get into the characters’ thoughts or feelings. I’m a sucker for minimalism. So a lot of the weird shit, it’s really happening, but mostly it’s there to explain what I could probably just explain with “he’s really sad and grossed out with himself,” but instead spiders come out his feet.
Did any specific story or novel provide you with the impetus to write “Gritty”?
Oh, definitely. I wonder how to be diplomatic about this. I guess I won’t say which book in particular. I will say that there have been a bunch of crime books released recently that seem to be interested in upping the ante when it comes to over-the-top grossness. “Let’s watch poor people wild out.” I think it’s gross and completely counter-productive and frankly, too easy. But people like it. These books sell very well. A lot of people get off on othering people, and what’s ugly is that when folks pick up these novels and read about tweakers punching each other and pregnant women shooting up, there’s this deliciousness to it because that’s not you. It’s a class- and race-based caricature that boring white people can devour and rub their bellies because oh man it feels so good that that’s not me. It’s like the literary equivalent of going to the zoo, except the animals are given guns and they’re all addicted to crank.
How have things been going with Broken River Books so far? Has the experience of being a publisher changed anything about the way that you write?
Man, it’s really stressful. Basically I got those eleven books out last year. So my goal now is to slow down and focus on how best to get these books to the world. I needed them out right away for a few reasons: one, I have to be able to show readers that I mean business. I’m not fucking around. Two, it’s better to be a press that has a back catalog. And three, because I need this press to support me in some meager way if I’m to continue doing what I do. So eleven books, if half of them do well every month, I’m good to continue growing and building. But yeah. Stressful. The Kickstarter was super awesome, but it did become a headache, with packages getting lost in the mail, and me still fucking failing to get the personalized stories out. That’s where I’ve dropped the ball. I’ve had a heck of a time figuring out how to write these stories, and the longer I wait the better I think they have to be, and so I throw things out and then more time has gone by, and now I’m crying on my floor. I’ll get it done though. Gonna take a nice big hit of acid and knock em out all in one fell swoop. They’ll be interesting at least. Have value as an artifact. “This is a relic from when this person tripped balls.” Other than that, the press has been doing phenomenally well. The books so far are almost universally loved. Except for some readers who don’t like bad language. I’m immensely proud of the catalog I’ve been able to curate over the past year. Serial killers, rednecks, shark-people, poop-demons, boxers, horror filmmakers, pornographers, etc. All of it crime fiction. You’ve got the literary seriousness and beauty of GRAVESEND juxtaposed with the Elmore-Leonard-on-peyote madness of REPO SHARK. It’s diverse and it’s exciting. Lots of talented people who for some reason trusted my dumbass to do right by them. Which I am, I think.
You recently posted on Facebook that you were looking to publish more books on Broken River from women and writers of color. How has this process gone so far?
It’s been hit-or-miss. I’ve gotten a few bites from some authors that I really respect. I’ve gotten some out-of-print books that I might put back out into the world. But overall, it’s not going as well as I’d hoped. I’m gonna have to look a bit harder. Listen, my issue is this: crime fiction is, and I really believe this, the absolute best way to study the human condition. You write a crime novel, you are tapping into the human experience. So far, a lot of that human experience is from a white heteronormative perspective. I just think it’d be cool to see some more fresh takes on the genre. I’m all about fresh.
You recently announced the first print volume of your novel GOD$ FARE NO BETTER. What led you to go the serialization route with it?
Well, it started out as a weekly serialized work, a chapter a week. I did that just as more of a writing exercise than anything. What was so great about it, though, is that when I was writing it I felt free to do whatever I like. My writing process is normally very particular, I’m slow and I like to make sure every word is just right. With GOD$, my fingers just flew, I didn’t give thought to whether this was as minimalistic as it could be. And so a lot of cool ideas came out of it. Time worms, fourth-dimensional aliens, aging supercop, hitman that can unhinge his jaw like a snake and swallow victims whole. It was kind of like writing a comic book, where I made each chapter like an issue. I finished the first volume of it, and then I went back and added a lot to it, made it more fleshed out, etc. I have plans for four volumes. Shit’s gonna get weird. New forms of music are invented. There’s a terrorist on the fourth-dimensional alien’s spaceship, fucks with time. I didn’t want to wait years and years and release a 900 page book, though. So I’m doing four 250 pagers over the course of those three years. Hit me up if you want a copy, folks. Print version is limited.
You’ve talked on social media about an upcoming move to Portland. What brought this on? And: do you anticipate it having any effect on the fiction you write?
Portland is just a really beautiful town. I’ve lived in Oklahoma most of my life. It was time for me and my wife to live in a place that we actually like looking at. Also, I have a lot of friends here in Oklahoma, but no one who’s really doing what I’m doing, with the writing and whatehaveyou. In Portland I can go and get beers with folks who are in the same boat as me, and we can “talk shop” if you will. It’ll be a much healthier artistic environment for me, because I’ll have a community. I don’t know if it’ll have any effect on my writing. I’ll always be an Oklahoma writer, I think. That’s just where my voice developed. Honestly I hope not. I like my voice okay.