Cameron Pierce is the editor of Lazy Fascist Press, one of the most exciting presses in indie lit, and an accomplished author with eleven books to his name. His work, some of which has gone viral time and again, helped established the canon for bizarre fiction. Now, both with his own prose and the outstanding and unclassifiable narratives he publishes through Lazy Fascist, Pierce is helping redefine genre fiction and weird literature in general. With Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon, his first book with weird crime indie lit powerhouse Broken River Books, the author achieves a new echelon in his career while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of outré short fiction. Wanting to learn more about the process behind the book, I asked Pierce a few questions. Here’s what he had to say.
Some stories in Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon have been previously published, but the collection is really cohesive. How did it come about?
Stories have cycled in and out of the collection. The title story was written in October or early November 2012, when I turned it in to a workshop on the choreography of action scenes led by John Skipp, who’s one of the best anthology editors around and a great writer as well. I’d been trying for a couple years at that point to convey in fiction the action and intensity of fighting a fish, but it had never come out right. In 2008, I started writing this novella about a world of talking catfish that lived in a city at the bottom of a lake. They were abducting humans to perform in what was essentially their version of American Idol. The story went nowhere for a couple reasons, but one of the primary reasons was because I was still learning how to write about angling and fish, even though I’d grown up fishing. My first book, which came out seven years ago, was about a very bizarre shark fishing trip gone wrong. This collection is my attempt to say a lot of things I’ve been trying to say — in life and in fiction — for a long time. It’s just over the past couple years that I’ve really figured out how to say them. I continued working on Salmon until it took on the shape and form I had in mind for it when I began writing it in late 2012.
You started out as a bizarro writer and slowly transitioned to literary fiction, but you never abandoned the bizarro aesthetic and your work now is a marriage of the best of many genres. Was this an organic morphosis or did you actively pursue that change?
From my first book to Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon, which is my eleventh, I’ve come to a better understanding of what’s meaningful about storytelling to me, and also what types of stories I’m most capable of writing. When I first started writing, and was influenced equally by William Burroughs and Lovecraft, my ideal novel was some sort of character-free cut-up infused with nihilist philosophy and eldritch monstrosities. I sought out stories that resembled the stop-motion animations of the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer. The more bizarre and unnatural, the better. Over time, as I’ve shifted into different roles — husband, soon to be father — my inclinations have changed. I still seek out stories like that, and I think writers like Sean Kilpatrick and Aase Berg are perfecting the sort of psychotic freakouts I’ve always been after in fiction. When I sit down to write, though, I find myself empathizing with the characters more and more. I want to know about them. Their private pains and how they reconcile them, or fail to reconcile them, with the rest of the world. If a bunch of weird shit happens along their path, I’m down for the ride, but it isn’t necessary. I’m mostly concerned with knowing a little piece of them, spending some time with them. If I had to sit down today and start rewriting my first half dozen or so books, I couldn’t do it. Not because I wouldn’t want to or take issue with any of it. My brain simply doesn’t work that way anymore. I can’t write those stories. Not now, at least. The funny thing is, I sort of view Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon as being how the world is. To me, the stories seem normal and mostly true, like the way things happen, and then a lot of people respond as if it’s the weirdest shit they’ve read. So I don’t know what to think, but I’m happy in not knowing.
Solitude and quiet tend to bring forth ideas, and few activities can be as quiet as fishing when the fish aren’t biting. Did many ideas for these stories come to you while fishing?
Many times I’ll patch together fragments of current fishing trips with past fishing trips, then throw in family history, things I’ve overheard, fragments of places I’ve lived, things I’ve experienced, fish I’ve caught only in dreams, general information about angling that I find interesting, and of course, monsters. Somewhere in that mix, stories begin to emerge. Some of the stories in this book came out all at once, almost spontaneously, while others were written and rewritten over the course of six, seven, eight months. Sometimes I’d go fishing because a story was missing something, maybe the look of certain water, or a certain feeling was missing, and it seemed the only way I could capture it was to go out on the water. So yeah, I guess fishing trips served as catalysts for most of these stories, maybe all of them, or at least parts of all of them.
There are fish and fishing in almost every story, but the elements that bring the collection together are loss, family, and memories. There’s an emotional depth that surpasses that of any body of water talked about in the narratives. Did you strive to make those elements permeate the text? If not, did you realize they were there when putting the stories together for publishing?
Most fishing stories are about more than just fish. Angling has a long history in literature. The first English-language book on angling was written by a nun at the end of the 15th century, a full 150 years before the publication of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, which remains at the center of the fishing literature canon. With the exception of myths and folk tales, the 19th century is when fishing stories really began being about more than the fish. Maupassant, Chekhov, Washington Irving, and Rudyard Kipling were all writing fishing stories then, and there’s been a consistent stream of great fishing stories ever since. How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel and Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan were two primary influences on Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon, along with short stories like “The Wer-Trout” by Annie Proulx, which is a masterpiece of weird fiction and can be found in Fishing Stories edited by Henry Hughes, alongside many of the other best fishing stories ever written.
Like “The Wer-Trout,” when writing some of my more surreal books, I hoped the weirdness reflected the emotional and psychological states of the characters. Fishing stories are quite similar because the types of fish a person chooses to pursue can say a lot about them, and every person who fishes carries with them a private history of triumphs and disappointments, victory and loss, weird encounters and moments of tenderness and deep connection with fish and other people. The world of fish is mysterious, but when you spend a certain number of hours trying to think like a smallmouth bass or a rainbow trout, you can find yourself transformed.
Can you tell us about the last time you landed a fish or lost a big one and the experience inspired you to go home and write?
I’ve been shut out on my last two fishing trips, which happens, but Kirsten and I went razor clamming for the first time last week and did well. Our biggest clam was six inches. I went out again the next day and found some more, and I’ll be out there again during the next minus tides in a few weeks. Clamming has me very excited right now. I can’t wait to get out there again, and to write about it in the meantime. Winter steelhead fishing is the only thing really going on around here at the moment. I’ll try for winter steelhead on occasion because I like to get outside in the winter and steelhead tend to occupy beautiful rivers, but winter steelhead fishing doesn’t really captivate me in the same way fishing for a number of other species does. Ironically though, winter steelhead fishing does get me writing. Maybe that’s because it gets me outside, hiking around in the forest, during the coldest part of the year.
Our Love Will Go the Way of the Salmon is your first book with Broken River Books. Why go with Broken River?
For starters, I admire the catalog J. David Osborne has built since he launched Broken River a little over a year ago. Gravesend by William Boyle, The First One You Expect by Adam Cesare, Long Lost Dog Of It by Michael Kazepis, The Least of My Scars by Stephen Graham Jones, XXX Shamus by Red Hammond, among others…these books are all very different, but together they’ve established Broken River as a home for fiction that’s gritty, weird, and dark, but also extremely polished as well as ambitious, in a non-postmodern, non-pretentious way. I can’t think of another press that built such an impressive catalog over its first twelve months.
A publisher’s faith in a book is one of the most essential ingredients to that book’s success, and Osborne has been one of the biggest believers in Salmon from the beginning. With the support, the contract terms, and the creative input I could get with Broken River, I felt the book stood a greater shot at long-term success than if it came out with any other publisher, big or small.
Throughout the text, being a fishing legend and catching the big one are recurring themes. So are the fish themselves. Here’s an example from the story that names the collection: “This was the queen mother of Desolation Lake. An ancient, five foot long, razor-toothed beauty.” How often do you encounter storytelling when out in the water? Is it always centered on loss and exaggeration or is there more to it?
Fishing the Willamette around downtown Portland, the fishing stories I was told often did center on loss. A relatively small number of people fish Portland Harbor from the various docks and beaches around there. I don’t know why, maybe because it stood out, but carrying a fishing pole around there was always a magnet for the homeless to talk to you. Sometimes they’d come up to me while I was fishing and spend a half hour telling me about the fish they used to catch in better times, catching salmon and barbecuing them right there by the river, with a cold six pack. That’s the sort of stories I’d hear.
There was this other guy from the south, Missouri if I recall. One day he just started walking beside me and telling me about the big catfish he used to catch back home. In the stories I was told, the fish were always enormous, and they were caught in great quantities. But then there was the guy who told me the story of how he lost his house, his boat, everything. I don’t remember him telling me what he used to fish for, but me carrying a fishing pole on the bus was what prompted him to talk to me in the first place.
Fishing in downtown Portland is a unique experience. My favorite sturgeon hole is right under Burnside Bridge, on the Eastbank Esplanade. Sometimes I’d get up there before sunrise, when the taggers and dealers and bike thieves were just going home. I’d stand out on this floating walkway and stare across the river at the White Stag sign. I’d be the first to see the fresh graffiti. One time a guy hanging out in some bushes said hello to me. I still don’t know what he was doing standing in the bushes at five in the morning, but he was friendly enough. Then as the sun came up and the White Stag sign switched off, and the camp fires under the bridge died out, the nighttime crowd would dissipate and the Esplanade would be filled with bike commuters, joggers, and families, along with a roaming gang of transients who all rode small bicycles. One of the boat docks was sort of a meet-up spot for them, and some of them lived under the bridge, or at least hung out with the people who lived under there.
And if you cross the river to the Hawthorne Marina, you might find yourself sandwiched between a pirate boat illegally moored and a million dollar yacht. The river pirates and the millionaires both used the dock, and a couple of us fished in between their boats. There’s an old Russian guy who fishes there for carp. During certain parts of the spring and summer, he bags probably fifty to a hundred pounds of carp a day. I mostly catch-and-release out there, but sometimes I’d give him my fish because he shared his bait and if he was in the hot spot that day (in that area, a difference of ten feet could determine whether you caught fish or not), he’d invite you to sit next to him and fish. He caught a lot of peamouth too, which in my opinion are one of the most underrated fish. They’re native to Oregon, but nobody here cares about them. They can be impressive fighters for their size and they’re a decent whitefish to eat. They look like slender, chrome-white trout. Their pea-shaped mouth can make it difficult to get a good hook-set.
In Astoria now, I’m still adjusting to having so many bodies of water all around me. I mean, I can catch a glimpse of Youngs Bay from our front lawn, and the Columbia River is just a mile down the hill. I’ve been getting my bearings on some nearby rivers and lakes while also getting into razor clamming. The difference out here is that there’s so much water, I can always go someplace where I’m alone. That’ll change during the trout opener in March and the fall salmon season, but for now I’m enjoying the peace and solitude. I heard enough stories about loss fishing the Willamette. It’s time for new stories.