Luke Rolfes: Chris, I recently read and enjoyed your debut collection of stories out from Amistad / HarperCollins called Give My Love to the Savages. This is an intense book at times, funny at other times, and always fearless and sharp in its observations on race and culture. Can you talk a little bit about where you got the idea for this book, and maybe give us a sense of how long it took to construct?
Chris Stuck: The idea for the book came from other books about race and culture that I’ve always liked. Books like Hue and Cry and Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson, Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin. But I’ve read so many other books, story collections. I’m a short story kind of person. From Thomas McGuane to John Edgar Wideman to Ralph Lombreglia to ZZ Packer to newer writers like Danielle Evans. Really, I just wanted to write a book as good as their books and put my own spin on the story form. I get bored pretty easily with fiction. I want new stories all the time, things I’ve never seen before, new narrative strategies and ways to tell stories. It’s so hard to find a steady stream of that. So, I had to do it myself.
LR: The title story “Give my Love to the Savages'' centers around the 1992 LA Riots. The main characters are a rich, white dad and his bi-racial son who have a tenuous relationship. They basically hate each other. I’m fascinated by this story. Can you tell us about how you came upon this idea? Why did you decide these two characters were the ones through which you would access the LA Riots?
CS: A friend of mine, a white friend said this basic set-up happened to her cousin. He flew into LA just as the riots started and was tasked with checking his estranged father’s car dealerships. My friend told me this while we were both fellows at the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown. I begged her not to tell anyone else that story because as soon as she told it I knew I’d write it. I knew immediately that I would make the son Black bi-racial and the father white. The narrative, however, was hard as hell to get right. I tried to write it exactly as she told it to me, but it just didn’t work narratively. It wasn’t interesting. It didn’t have depth. It wasn’t until I delved into, or made up, Junie’s, the son’s, background and what he’d done in his past that the story blossomed. Making him bi-racial and his father white complicated the story in a good way. I like complications. They’re good for fiction. I was dealing with a “racial” backdrop so the frontdrop, if that’s a word, had to be racial, too. Otherwise, why set the story during the riots.
LR: Some of these stories have a surreal / absurd slant to them. I’m thinking of pieces such as “How to be a Dick in the Twenty-First Century” and “The Life and Loves of Melvin J. Plump, Esq.” Others, like “This isn’t Music,” are harrowingly realistic. Is it easier for you to write about things like the Black experience through absurdity or realism? Can you talk a little bit about when you feel it’s right, stylistically, to use each one?
CS: I write mostly by feel. If it feels right, I do it. At one point, I really had to train my analytical skills and learn to engineer, re-engineer and reverse-engineer my stories, learn how to get the story somewhere and have it all make sense. I used to go by feel too much and end up nowhere. So, it’s a balance of feel and intellect, emotion and thought. This is a roundabout way of saying I use absurdity when it presents itself to me, the same for realism. Sometimes, a story can walk a line between the two. I hate when writers act like writing is all magically or divinely decided, but I let the story tell me what makes sense and what doesn’t. With “How to be a Dick,” I just thought it would be a good satirical, absurdist story to have a chauvinistic guy, a dick in his personal life, wake up one morning as a life-size penis, and see what happened, see if I could make a story work from there. With “Melvin Plump,” I really wanted to play with expectations and write a different character, a Black Republican who turns white, who wears makeup to still look Black. I saw a story about a Black newscaster named Lee Thomas who has vitiligo, the depigmentation condition that Melvin has in my story. He had to wear makeup so he could go on television and do his job. It’s absurd, but it has a unique American racial problem to it that intrigued me. If the idea is absurd or satirical, I let it be, instead of trying to muscle it in the direction I want it to go. I just let it go and see where it lands. If it goes somewhere too weird, I reign it in.
LR: Almost all the characters in this collection are flawed and unmistakably human. The world they live in is messy and complicated, and choices don’t always present themselves as right or wrong. As well, most of the characters in these stories are men. Can you describe your process of creating these characters? Is there a particular reason you wanted to focus on men and masculinity in this book?
CS: I’m a writer who writes from my own point of view, I guess. I have three older brothers. I’ve always had brotherly relationships with my male friends. I suppose if I’d had sisters, maybe I would write more from a women’s point of view. Maybe not. Writing about dudes is just what happens for me. At the same time, I want to critique masculinity and lampoon it, the toxicity, the male mind. Men are stupid. Men are ruining the world to a great extent. In “This Isn’t Music,” I use the word “asshole” as something to riff on because the character is self-aware enough to know what he is. Yet, he continues to be that, fights against it, but is drawn to it. To me, that’s a very American male way of being. It’s complicated and simple, too. That’s what I like in fiction. And it leads to a lot of humor and me making fun of men, too. I want to laugh. I want the stories to have power and characters who really reckon with themselves, not ones that just have things happen to them and then that’s it.
LR: The most perplexing piece in here, for me, is “Cowboys.” I felt unsettled and unraveled when it was over, but I loved the piece. Could you talk about “Cowboys” and what you want it to accomplish?
CS: It’s another story of men being dumb and going dangerously close to committing terrible acts, even if it’s by accident. Men can be unwittingly toxic and totally out of control, yet not feel like they are because, hey, they’re men. That’s sort of a baseline setting a lot of the time for the American cishet male. By having Ernie be white and Shelton be Black, I could also delve into racial aspects. Shelton witnesses an older white guy like Ernie realize his time of dominance in the world is up. His time has passed. What he thought was his was really never his, and that ends up being a caution to Shelton, though it takes him doing dumb and ridiculous things to realize it. That’s where the title comes from, cowboys, at one time an example of masculinity. It’s another story that straddles the line between realism and absurdism. Weirdly, it’s inspired by James Alan McPherson’s story “Gold Coast,” a very realistic story, but I always have to take things to the limit. I think of stories as boomerangs that I throw out there, and I see if the narrative comes back to me and still makes sense. Some, the satirical, I throw out farther than others. Some I throw out and they never come back. Those stories end up as unfinished mutants living on my hard drive.
LR: Your new story in Laurel Review called "You Can't Spell Slaughter without Laughter" centers around a protagonist named Adam who is white, bearded, outdoorsy, and works in a gun store. He seems to wear the uniform of a certain type of person, yet you do not make him into a caricature. Though he does bad things, you don't present him as a traditional villain---rather as someone who struggles with complicated internal and external demons and prejudices. Was this a difficult character to write? Could you talk a bit about the choices you made in constructing Adam?
CS: Adam was a difficult character to get right. So much of getting characters and writing right for me is knowing what to withhold and what to emphasize. For me, this gets refined during revision. Traditional villains really aren't that interesting. Adam is self-aware enough to have depth but still be drawn to doing the wrong thing. Sometimes, it's easier to get a character right or give them depth if I can juxtapose them with a really messed up character like his friend Paul. Paul is so messed up that Adam seems "normal" next to him. As far as the details for Adam, I have a friend who is an avid hunter. Just from being around him, I picked up little tidbits here and there, him breaking down an elk in his garage, the sausage making, which I always saw as a symbol of masculinity and the phallic. He, in fact, tried to make prosciutto from an elk leg and a rat got to it and ruined it. Finding the bullet in the sausage is another example. My friend doesn't work in a gun store, but I know someone else who does. So much of my stories are made up of the details that are around me during the time I'm writing it. I'm lucky that I can get stories fleshed out and down on paper pretty quickly. This one was no different. Of course, I have to do extensive revisions, but it's like the "This Isn't Music" story in my book. That and "You Can't Spell Slaughter without Laughter" are written in the second-person and for whatever reason, as soon as I switched them to that point of view, the stories came out in a matter of two or three days. "You Can't Spell Slaughter without Laughter" is different for me, though. In my new book of stories, which this story is in, I found I was writing darker stories, stories with death and murder, and extreme racism. Like in this story, I attack those subjects in a sort of reverse narration. Not cautionary tales exactly. Like I have a satirical story that's coming out in StoryQuarterly written from the point of view of the oldest employee at a company called White Supremacy Incorporated. Weird stuff like that. Stories about racism and prejudice but from the racist prejudiced person's point of view. They're supposed to be frightening, and about what someone like that unwittingly reveals, how deep racism and prejudice goes into them and our American soil. I hope readers get that.
LR: After reading your work, I can confidently say that you are an adept satirist, but I’m curious if you see these pieces as satirical, or if you see them simply as stories. And to follow up: Is there a pecking order with that, as well---are they stories first, satires second, or vice versa?
CS: No one ever puts the question to me like this. I’m so happy you did because that’s exactly it. They’re simply stories to me. I know they’re satires, too, and I know the rules of each story makes them satires, but the story, whatever it ends up being, is what matters most to me. It took me a really long time to get the narrative down. My beginnings were good, but I’d always lose the thread, and the story wouldn’t become anything really. This is where I had to hone my analytical skills and think about what I was setting up and where the story could go. I like satire and realism equally. It’s weird to swing between polar opposites like that, but it gives me a lot of territory to explore between the two, especially with my chosen material: race, Blackness, masculinity, and America. Satire and realism are just the two sides of me. I probably understand duality because I’m black and bi-racial. I understand my mother’s black family and my father’s white family. With satire, I use my brain more and riff on details. With realism, I use intuition and, it’s weird to say, my body more, my feelings, because I’m trying to achieve emotional power.
LR: I’m excited for your work, Chris. Give My Love to the Savages is a stunning debut. What’s next for you and your writing?
CS: I have another collection done. I’m trying to teach myself to write novels now. The publishing industry really only knows and wants novels. Story collections are the redheaded stepchildren. So, I’m trying to figure that out. Who knows? I may never accomplish it. I’ve always been trying to write novels, too, but stories end up happening more for me. At this point, I’m in flux. I’m trying to figure out if I’m just a story writer, a novelist, or someone who can do both. We’ll see. The suspense is killing me.
Bio: Chris Stuck is the author of “Give My Love to the Savages: Stories'', published in July 2021 by Amistad/HarperCollins. He is a Pushcart Prize winner and a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and the Oregon Book Award. Chris earned an MFA from George Mason University. He has twice been a fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a Callaloo Writer’s Workshop fiction fellow, and a 2019 Oregon Literary Arts fiction fellow. “Give My Love to the Savages'' is his first book.