Joshua Chaplinsky on the Dizzying and Surreal Fiction In “Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape”

Joshua Chaplinsky

Joshua Chaplinsky‘s new collection, Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape, boasts one of the best titles I’ve seen in ages and a cover that suggests some lost cosmic horror classic. The stories contained within range in tone from surreal to horrific to satirical; it’s a terrific statement of purpose, and one that never lets the reader rest. I talked with Chaplinsky about the genesis of the book, the ways in which it came together, and what’s next for him.

Can I start with the title? Whispers in the Ear of a Dreaming Ape has such a striking title that it suffuses everything that comes next. At what point did you know that this would be the title—and how closely did you work with the designer (Matthew Revert, no?) on the look and feel of the book?

Whispers… was actually the third or fourth suggested title, but once we’d settled on it, it became obvious it was the perfect choice. Because to me it’s kind of a metaphor for what stories are. These hints of truth captured by our animal brains.

I gave Matthew one reference photo, which—he’s such a talented dude, even that felt a bit hubristic on my part—and he just crushed it. I’m such a fanboy of his, and I couldn’t be happier.

In your interview with Rob Hart for LitReactor, you mentioned that the editors at CLASH had suggested a table of contents to you based on the stories you sent them. Did the stories (or their order) go through any permutations from there?

A few. Initially I sent them a whopping ToC of like 25 stories, and Christoph was like, “Uh, you need to cut this in half, dude.” So he sent me back a shorter ToC he liked, and I think I lobbied for one or two favorites he had left off. Then it was all about the opener. Honestly, I wasn’t sold on “Letters to the Purple Satin Killer” as a lead off, if only because it’s not written in standard story format, but it is an attention grabber. The collection has quite a few “non-traditional” stories, so it lets the reader know what they are in for, for better or worse. Ultimately I’m happy with the way it turned out.

Your fiction encompasses a number of styles and tones. Was it a challenge to find the right balance and pace for this book?

My main concern was spacing out said “non-traditional” stories. I didn’t want them to bunch up and tire the reader out. Same thing with some of the longer stories. To me, those are more logistical decisions than creative ones.

As someone who writes a lot of surreal and unsettling fiction, I’m curious: have you ever written something that creeped yourself out?

Not really. I think—and this is a disgusting analogy—it’s like smelling your own farts. You know they are gross, but it doesn’t cause a visceral, physical reaction the way someone else’s would. It’s all about perspective. I can come up with the most horrific thing and not bat an eye, because I know I’m a normal human being and not a psycho, but I can read something that doesn’t necessarily come close by someone else and be totally unnerved or put off. Because, who the hell knows what goes on in that person’s head, right?

You have a novel due out next year. Did any of the stories in this collection have a bearing on the way you approached the writing of your novel?

Not directly. Although the novel does have elements of experimentation that are reflected in the collection. It’s the kind of thing I get excited about when other authors do it, so naturally I want to write stuff that excites me in the same way.

The novel actually started as a screenplay, and I thought—all the hard work of plotting and dialog are already done, why waste it? It should be easy to port them over into a novel. (Note to other writers: It was not.)

I don’t think I’ll be doing that again.

In interviews, you’ve talked about yourself as something of a late bloomer, relatively speaking. Do you think that that’s given you a different perspective on writing than some of your peers?

Yes, mostly because I’m not currently trying to make writing my career. I’m not trying to subsist off of it. To me, even though I work hard at it, it is still a hobby. Because my livelihood doesn’t depend on it, I’m still enjoying it. For me, writing to make a living sounds fucking horrible. I don’t know why anyone would want to do it.

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