Duncan Birmingham writes fiction about people at their wit’s end. Some of them have seen relationships implode; others have begun to glean the true shape of the world around them. Birmingham’s characters make terrible decisions and are prone to excess; the stories in which they appear blend humor and dread in unexpected proportions. Birmingham’s collection The Cult In My Garage is an excellent distillation of his skills as a writer, offering a window into a simultaneously beguiling and terrifying vision of California. I spoke with him about the book’s origins, the role of the pandemic in its genesis, and its celebrity cameo.
What was the process of assembling this collection like? And how long into that process was it before you realized that “The Cult in My Garage” was the title story?
Most of these stories were written in the past three or four years. A few are older with the outlier being a very different draft of “Everybody’s Famous” in Storychord 10 years ago. The title story became the title story because it felt representative of the collection in the way it fused the everyday with the fantastical and the title reflected that. Plus, I’ll pick up and peruse any book with “cult” in the title so I cynically hoped other people felt the same.
The story “Non-Essential Workers” is set during the early days of the pandemic. Was that a later addition to the book? Did the pandemic affect other aspects of the book as well?
Yes, “Non-Essential Workers” was the last addition to the book. I was doing a first draft of it while I was in the final draft stages of all the other stories. I really wanted to have a story that contained all the surreal little details of daily life during the first summer of the pandemic in Los Angeles. It seems like everyone was having very intense dreams during that stage of the pandemic and I loved the idea of someone’s dream life mingling with their increasingly unreal waking life. It was definitely the hardest story in the collection to write because I had so little perspective but I pressed ahead and hoped it would be worth it for the immediacy of the details. It was a hard story to end for obvious reasons but I think it adheres to a certain dream logic.
To what extent does your approach to writing prose differ from your approach to writing for the screen?
There’s an immediacy to writing short stories that makes it rewarding. I can run with an idea in a story and see how far that idea takes me before I sputter out of gas or change course or feel like I’ve come to a satisfying ending. There’s no page count I’m obligated to hit. Obviously that’s very different from writing a TV pilot or a screenplay. There’s something very satisfying about writing a short story which is its own self-contained thing; all it needs is one other person reading it for it to be “alive” and be a success on some tiny level. A script is really a blueprint for a larger project involving other people so the satisfaction from writing one is often very delayed, if it comes at all.
There’s a reference to Patrick Stewart early on in the book. Does that predate your having worked on Blunt Talk?
No, I wrote that story after working with Patrick. Patrick Stewart is everything you want Patrick Stewart to be and more. I loved working with him. He’s in a class of his own. Anyway I wanted the prescription love drug to feel not only legitimate but like a smart option for a hyper-intelligent woman who sees herself as unlucky with love. So I thought Patrick Stewart was perfect casting as the drug’s sophisticated Shakespeare-quoting spokesman. In fiction, you don’t even need to use an agent. Hopefully he doesn’t sue me.
A few of the stories in here feature characters who move very quickly between excess and abnegation, whether with drugs, food, or something else. Is it challenging to write characters whose lives swerve so dramatically?
I find it very cathartic to write characters who have these dramatic feast or famine-type relationships with food, drugs, love, what have you. As someone who is always wringing their hands and second-guessing themselves. I love writing characters who are obsessive and gluttonous or severe and monastic. Story-wise, it usually provides you with conflict as well as a ticking bomb in terms of how and when the character will have to reckon with their choices. I respect characters who make bold choices even if they’re also bad choices.
How important is place for you when writing a story?
Setting is key. Even if the story is very character-driven and interior and the place is barely mentioned, I need to personally know and feel like I have a handle on the setting or the story usually won’t click into place for me. Most of these stories take place in and around Los Angeles but even the stories that don’t take place here have an LA connection. The actress in Quebec flies to Los Angeles, many of the party guests in Everybody’s Famous have a tenuous link with Hollywood or, at least, want to, etc.
Did putting this collection together change your approach to writing fiction in any way?
Getting feedback from readers has certainly started an internal discussion for me. It’s interesting to hear what landed and what didn’t, what people liked and didn’t, etc. Almost no one seems to agree on what story they liked best. I’m not bold enough to ask which one they liked least. I’m influenced by feedback even though that may not be the most fashionable thing to say as a writer. I even take seriously what dumb assholes say because I’m a glutton for punishment.