Most of us small press junkies know Jackie Corley as the editor of Word Riot Magazine but there is more to Corley than you might have thought. Jackie has written a remarkable book; a small but intrepid collection of short stories entitled The Suburban Swindle.
Published by So New Media, Corley’s book is an astounding and prophetic read. The Swindle’s eight stories range from the monologue like Blood In Jersey to the meticulous etchings of At The Slaughter; both which are certain to take you on a excursion through Corley's imagination.
Whether it is capturing each human nuance or delivering long sections of narrative Corley never fails to transport the reader from one experience to the next. For this reason, The Suburban Swindle is bound to be one of the small presses’ paramount achievements of 2008.
CL: Can you tell me a little about your new book Suburban Swindle?
When my agent started pitching one of my novels, I kind of realized I needed to get some name recognition and buzz going around my work. I'm known more for creating Word Riot than anything else. I wanted to start to put a bit more focus on my work.
I'd known James Stegall of So New Publishing for years. I'd always had a great deal of respect for the books he put out and the writers he published (Neal Pollack, Jami Attenberg, Claire Zulkey, David Barringer, etc.). I pitched him the idea of a short story collection. He read the manuscript, liked it and agreed to publish it.
The collection is getting printed this month. The official publication date will be October 2008.
CL: How long did it take you to finalize your manuscript before it was ready for publication?
Corley: The oldest story in the collection was written in 2003. Most of the stories in the collection were written between 2003 and 2007, so it was about four years. I didn't write the stories with the intention that they would be thematic linked or form a coherent collection. But when I started to review the stories and tighten them I realized that this particular group worked together pretty well.
CL: My favorite story from The Suburban Swindle is called Catfish Boys. If you had to highlight one story from your book what would it be?
Corley: That's pretty neat. Catfish Boys is actually the first story I ever wrote.
I'm probably proudest of the story the collection is titled after. It's basically about this girl trying to connect with her younger brother while there's this family crisis brewing. When I go back over older stories or novel passages, I usually wind up hating something about them. But I've presented The Suburban Swindle at a ton of readings and there's no part of it I've ever hated or wished I could change. I'm always trying to create some sense of emotional vulnerability or raw, ragged frailty when I write. I'd like to think The Suburban Swindle is my best result out of so many failed attempts.
CL: Do you write short stories exclusively or have you branched out into other genres?
Corley: I actually started out writing novels. I had these little fragments of stories saved on my computer that I would play with from time to time, but I never really managed to finish one of them.
When I was hosting a bar reading in the Philly 215 Festival in 2003, a couple of authors dropped out last minute and I had to fill in their slots. I rushed to finish up a couple stories. We had Zoe Trope, Ian Spiegelman and Daniel Nester on the top of the bill that night, so there was this packed crowd at the bar and I had to throw down several PBRs in a row just to keep my knees from buckling. I wasn't really sure of the pieces and I'd never done a reading before, but I wound up getting a really positive response from the audience. I made more of an effort to work on short stories after that.
CL: Where do you draw inspiration from? How much of your work is autobiographical?
Corley: I think any writer is influenced by their local landscape. New Jersey is as much a character in my stories as any breathing, bull-shitting person I create. There are a lot of New Jerseyans who are wonderfully eccentric in a completely non-ironic way. There's none of that postured weirdness of hipsterdom. There's no artifice. We've got genuine freaks and oddballs in our midst. And that frothing energy feeds the pulse of the state. I try to tap into that. I hope I tap into that.
I always approach the work as fiction, even if there are a couple grains of autobiography sprinkled in there. My writing is kind of dark and dirty and intimate. I have to allow myself to be completely vulnerable when I'm writing, otherwise the work just comes out emotionally dishonest. But at the same time, I'm a pretty private person so I'm kind of reluctant to say what's fiction and what's in that gray realm of sort-of fact.
CL: How ambitious are you in regards to your writing pursuits? Do you think you’ll ever be able to thrive on writing alone?
Corley: In my fantasy world I imagine being a full time writer. I don't think that's realistic, though. There just isn't any money in literary fiction.
My practical compromise for that dream would be to one day complete a low-residency MFA so I can still work full time and pay my mortgage. If I'm able to successfully do that, I'd then like to get a job teaching creative writing at the college level. In that real-world scenario I could integrate my own writing into a career.
CL: Have you always wanted to be a writer or did you just stumble into it?
Corley: I was always a big reader but I never tried writing fiction until the last couple years of high school. Writing always seemed like this superhuman task that my idols took upon their broad shoulders. Then, freshman year, a close friend started showing her writing to our circle and to our teachers. I figured if she could do it, I sure as hell could too.
I started this novel with this bloody, melodramatic plot and put all my friends in as characters. I used to print out copies, staple on a construction paper cover and hand it over to them. The thing wound up at about 100,000 words. Then my friends started writing sequels. It was this fun communal project we kept up through out high school.
CL: How does the writing experience differ when you’re writing fiction as opposed to non-fiction?
Corley: I have a hard time writing creative non-fiction. I always feel too self-conscious and awkward. Some of my worst short stories are thinly-veiled creative non-fiction attempts gone bad. I have a tendency to get too sentimental and nostalgic and creative non-fiction brings out the worst elements of that for me.
When I'm writing fiction, I've got a safe distance from myself. Autobiographical elements might slip in, but I'm not focused on those experiences in their relation to me. I'm focused on how a certain experience is affecting a character.
CL: Some writers talk philosophically about writing and some never do. Do you fall into one of those categories?
Corley: I avoid talking about writing philosophically because it's a dangerous pitfall. Or maybe it's just because I used to be a reporter. To a reporter, words aren't art. They're how you feed yourself and pay your mortgage. They're also powerful weapons you have to figure out how to wield judiciously.
I don't like writers who get too precious about their words, too touched about the idea of themselves as artists. Writing is about the work, it's about communication and compassion. If you turn writing into religion, you start to think of yourself as a priest and that's dangerous. You place yourself above the reader.
CL: Is anticipating the reader’s outlook a major part of your creative process?
Corley: I don't consciously consider how a reader will react to my work. A big part of my creative process is zoning out from the world around me and mentally immersing myself in the fictional people and scenarios I've created.
What I meant by voicing concern about writers placing themselves above the reader has more to do with my way of looking at the world than anything else. I'm very anti-elitism and anti- social hierarchy. I guess I've kind of internalized that. Just as an example, when I was reporter, it always seemed like most of the lousy things crooked politicians did to their constituents arose out of an inflated sense of their place in the community—both by the politician and by members of the community who put hat in hand and would stand in awe of the politician. (And you can basically substitute "crooked politician" for any number of leech-like personalities.)
I just generally think it's dangerous to feed into any mentality that puts one person's inherent worth above another's.
CL: What do you think about the state of contemporary literature?
Corley: Small presses are producing some interesting work, but most of mainstream contemporary lit is a disappointment.
There's this vein of post-modern lit that is all about being coy and ironic and abstract. So much of the writing is about being a clever wordsmith at the expense of actually telling a story.
I get bored reading a lot of the little language games contemporary writers try to play. Give me a plot. Give me characters I care about. Make me interested. Make me feel something. Rejoice in being a beautiful, flawed human. Don't try to hide from that in the words.
CL: As much as I hate to, let’s talk about old Bukowski here. What do you think of his short stories? In your opinion, is there danger in writing too simply?
Corley: I haven't read a ton of Bukowski but what I have read, I liked. Yeah he's writing simply, but he's talking about sex, drinking, fighting, the drone of a work week and the kind of everyday things that regular folks just saddle up and slog through. He's looking at the world in this stripped, direct way, but at the same time what he's writing about at the core is universal frustrations.
I think there is a danger in writing too simply, though. I've noticed this, like, exponential increase in hipster kids stringing random, ironic, monosyllabic abstractions together and throwing them on blogspot sites or submitting them to online mags. When Tao Lin or Noah Cicero write simply, there's some emotional undercurrent of loneliness, boredom, anger, etc. in their work that usually makes the words pretty interesting and innovative. With most of the imitators, though, there's no grounding--there's no hint of a world view. I don't get a sense that they've put any care or consideration into the words they send out for public consumption beyond whether or not it can start a blog fight and get them attention on Gawker or something.
CL: As the Editor-In-Chief of Word Riot Magazine what kinds of work do you look for? Is there something particular that catches your eye about the writing you chose to publish?
Corley: I like work that is bold and visual. I like work that challenges a conventional approach to looking at society. I like experimental writing. At the end of the day, though, there has to be some element in the piece that I connect with as a reader—a character, a vivid description, whatever.
CL: Has it been tough to balance your writing with the responsibilities of running a well-known lit zine?
Corley: I definitely put more time into Word Riot than I do into my writing. It's a necessity thing. There are deadlines I need to meet to get the issue up every month and I always wind up saying to myself, "Oh, you can write later but you need to read submissions and code html now." I'd like to even things out. Writing levels me out, let's me sit back and gain some perspective.
CL: Thanks for taking the time to talk with CommonLine. Do you have anything else on the horizon that we should be on the look out for?
Corley: Word Riot Press is publishing two short story collections in the next few months: Mind Games by David Gianatasio and World Takes by Timmy Waldron. Both promise to knock you on your ass.
Jackie Corley is the author of The Suburban Swindle and the Editor of Word Riot Magazine.
Pre-order The Suburban Swindle, visit Word Riot Magazine, or check out Jackie's personal website. Jackie can be contacted at: email@example.com.