Aaron Burch embraces viscera. His first collection, How to Predict the Weather, was full of moments where a general sense of surrealism delved into nightmarish places; reading his new collection, Backswing, one might get a certain sense of reassurance. Some of the settings are more familiar; some of the interactions aren’t charged with strange violence. Except that those disorienting underpinnings remain: characters surrender to religious compulsion, or are overtaken by dream logic, or fall victim to sudden violence, whether from external or internal sources.
I reached out to Burch via email to talk about his collection, the themes and images that seemed most prominent there, and 90s hardcore.
You’ve delved into body horror in the past, and some of the stories in Backswing continue in that tradition. I’m curious where some of these concepts came from–in particular, the the magic trick in “Prestidigitation,” which made me flinch in a way few other things I’ve read have.
To some degree, with all of these questions, the answer is some degree of “I don’t know”/”I’m not sure” and “I don’t remember.” Also, this is probably narcissistic and you’re not supposed to admit this, but I’m kind of loving reading both reviews of the book and interview questions. In part because of self-involvement, in part because, cliche as it is, I feel like you really are often unsure of some of your own tendencies and fascinations until they’re pointed out. I’m definitely aware that I come back to the body a lot, but I don’t think I was as aware of it before having it pointed out. In part, I think its just a fascination that I’m unsure of the genesis of. In part it probably grows more explicitly than you’re maybe supposed to cop to out of Brian Evenson’s influence. In part, and I didn’t notice this at all, I don’t think, until I started teaching and talking about process, to try to help my own students with theirs, but when I’m writing, sitting at a computer and stuck, I don’t get up and move around but I’ll find myself holding out my hands and arms, just looking at them as a way to not look at the computer screen or my notepad, and it seems like that must be connected to my characters ending up cutting off their fingers, their hands, opening up their arms to grab their own veins, all of that.
Do you see a connection between that sort of methodical reworking of a body and some of the other types of exploration that come up here–the consumption of the van in “Church Van,” or even Ben becoming aware of his sexuality in “Flesh & Blood”?
I think so. Again, I have in my mind a number of connections between all these stories, even those that seem less explicitly similar, but the body might actually be the most common thread, and I don’t think I realized that until literally typing this sentence. There’s the three stories already mentioned, and something like “Unzipped,” which is pretty explicitly “body,” but then even something like “Train Time,” the narrator seems pretty aware of his own body, sitting in one place on a train for over two days.
In putting Backswing together, how did you settle on the balance of realistic and more surreal stories?
To some degree, these are just the stories I had.
That said, I definitely went back and forth, during the writing of the stories, wondering if I had a book, or two halves of two different books, or what. My problem with the former, was that at a number of stages along the way, it was definitely imbalanced; my problem with the latter (other than having to write another whole book, via two half-books) was that I wasn’t sure what to do with these stories that blur the line between between realism and surreal, with some being one but feeling like the other, and vice versa, etc. And, really, both half collections on their own felt kind of boring. Part of what I like about the stories was the pairing, that balance — in one way, “After the Leaving” is a kind of suburban story, even while being this bigger, more surreal, Bible story. So, then, it became, “how do I segue out of one and into the next one most effectively?” And also asking what each story added to the whole, with a few stories that felt very at home in one of the half-collections getting cut because, here, it felt too similar to something else and didn’t add anything interesting to the mix.
“The Apartment” has the feeling of a really good anxiety dream, and dreams play a significant role in “Night Terrors.” Do you draw on your own dreams in your fiction, whether for these stories or any others?
I don’t really think so, actually, but… you know. You end up drawing on everything, really. I think what ends up grabbing my attention more are the moments in real life that feel more dream-like.
I actually just read something a couple weeks or so ago, maybe on Grantland (?), about characters on two different FX shows (Louie’s daughter on Louie, Key in Fargo) recently having moments where they said some version of “I’m dreaming”/”This is a dream” or the like, when they weren’t and, to be super cheesy and short story-y and interview-y and circle back to earlier, I do think there’s something interesting about that in-between or either/or, similar to that realism/surreal dichotomy.
Part of the way through “Church Van,” there’s a pretty dramatic shift in perspective. Was that shift in voice something that you had in mind from the outset?
I don’t think so, but I could be misremembering. As I remember, I started with the first half, with the character and the consumption of the van. I think, really, I just got it to a point where I wasn’t sure what to do or how to end it. The point of the story was the eating of the van, not whether or not he finished, or was “successful” or whatever, but what I found myself wondering was more, “How would those around him react? What would they think?” And so I just took that hard shift and went with it, and then it became “How can I take that hard shift and make it “work”?” Again, if I remember correctly, I remember someone in my workshop suggesting I thread the two halves together, that it would make it less jarring and seem more fluid or natural or all like one story or whatever. And I remember, too, something about that comment making me think that hard shift was “right.”
Backswing opens with two epigraphs: one from the Bible, one from Radiohead. What attracted you to these?
Throughout the process of writing the book, I was calling the manuscript PERFECT. In part because it seemed funny, like I was being Kanye or something and describing the book, not titling it, but then also because that word is something of a crutch that I find myself using often in stories, and instead of fighting it I steered into the slide, and so nearly every story had some explicit sentence where the narrator was striving for something to feel perfect, or a small, perfect moment. Turns out, I was the only one that found that funny, and also it was maybe over-highlighting the crutch/repeated theme. So, the title changed, but both of those epigraphs highlight that idea of perfection, possibly/probably in a more interesting way than the stories themselves. But then also, there’s that either/or again — the stories are surreal andrealism, they’re “body horror” and “suburban unrest,” they’re inspired by pop songs and the Bible.
Your previous book, How to Predict the Weather, had a blurb from Botch/Narrows vocalist Dave Verellen. Has there been any hardcore that’s been impressing you lately?
Not really, but that’s been more on me than hardcore. There’s probably some great shit going on, but I haven’t really been on the lookout for it. Feel like I’ve been mostly listening to hip hop. Or music scores, to write to. Or Veruca Salt. Actually, just a month or two ago, I found myself being curious to find some new songs to rock out and scream along to. But then, pretty quickly, I put on We Are the Romans and it turns out maybe I was wanting less for something new as it had just maybe been a little too long since my last all-Botch-everything phase.
Many of the stories in Backswing deal with feelings of suburban disquiet. Were you drawing from memories of coming of age here, or more contemporary emotions?
Both, probably? Although… trying to think of a more detailed answer than just those two words, I guess it’s probably more contemporary. I don’t think the coming of age stuff is connected to a suburban unrest or disquiet. Any “unrest” happening in the coming-of-age is just because, you know… “coming of age” is awkward. The suburban part of that equation seems more negligible. At least for me/these stories. I mean, growing up in the city, or the country, is a surely different upbringing than my own, but most of what I think about the awkwardness of growing up, puberty, etc., is I think a pretty universal awkwardness.
Do you consider yourself a short story writer, or are plans afoot for something longer?
I don’t really think about the distinction, I don’t think. I probably used to, in the same way that I used to have more rigid ideas of genre, and now all these ideas seem a little more fluid and just all-encompassing. The stronger distinction for me, rather than short story or novel writer, was prose or poetry, placing myself firmly in the former. But even that meant, for a while, putting the stress on the first half of “prose poems” re my chapbook, and now I’ve even been going all in, with line breaks and everything, writing a bunch of poems this last year or so, and even having a poetry chapbook coming out later this year. But, kinda back to your question, yeah, I’m working on something longer/a novel.