Jason Guriel talks to Daniel Perry about his new book
WELCOME TO THE Pitch, a series on Partisan in which writers come clean about their works-in-progress—and share an exclusive excerpt. This week, Jason Guriel talks to Daniel Perry about his collection of short stories, Hamburger, forthcoming from Thistledown Press in the spring.
Tell me about Hamburger.
Hamburger is a group of 23 fictions. Some are conventional stories, and some are flashes you might call vignettes or sketches or even, as one flash fiction magazine said, "more of a prose poem." There's a story about going to a wedding reception alone that crankily plays for laughs, but there's another about a crabby writing teacher's three-year old falling over the edge of a waterbus in Venice; one flash is a satire about princess culture that was anthologized in a collection of fables, while the book's closer is a nearly 10,000-word three-acter about the legacy of a Second World War bomber pilot. The stories vary widely in style, character, and setting, but to me, what the pieces share is a focus on ordinary people in ordinary situations and the hard-won epiphanies of ordinary life.
What interests you about flash fiction?
One aspect I really enjoy is choosing how much to leave out. In fiction so short, you can try to cover a lot of ground in broad strokes; or, you can focus very closely on the present action and let the reader infer or intuit the rest, about which you can choose whether or not to leave hints, and how subtle those should be. You're also equally free to write something in which there isn't a "rest," just a short but complete moment all its own.
That's an interesting idea, taking pleasure from leaving things out. I recently listened to a podcast with a writer who has done a number of "Talk of the Town" stories for The New Yorker. If I recall correctly, he described them almost as a sideways glance at something—you're out
almost before you start. Is that how writing flash fiction feels?
I think I would agree with him. I could definitely call "Camaleon" and another flash in the book, "99 Per Cent", observational pieces that invite the reader to share with the narrator a kind of fleeting, "Did you see that, too...?" moment. And thinking of them in light of this question, now, I might even suggest that their movement from a moment observed to subsequent inquiry has a bit of the esprit de l'escalier to it—"Camaleon", unwittingly, quite literally.
You mentioned prose poetry. Are there poets you particularly admire?
I don't read nearly enough poetry, so I should probably stick to the classics I was assigned in university. What Baudelaire I've read, I've very much liked; I think it's his purity of expression. "Prufrock" is a hit with me, too. More recently, I thought Kayla Czaga's For Your Safety Please Hold On was an excellent collection, especially impressive when you consider that it's her first book.
Excerpt from Hamburger
"Camaleón de Santiago"
YOU STOP ASCENDING the stairs of Cerro Santa Lucia when you see a small lizard on the banister. It doesn’t dare move and neither do you. Its head and forelegs are green as the tree it descended from, its middle is blue like the sky, and slowly its tail is greying from the tip to match the stone beneath it. You’re just above the three-arched, goldenrod-coloured fountain that rises from the palms and sends five jets shooting down twice your height from a bronze Neptune into a pool on the marble-floored landing. You stare as the lizard keeps changing colour; it stares back, more afraid of you than you of it. You ask yourself, Is it poisonous? What’s it going to do next? You hear the fountain and farther down on the big street you came from, the Alameda, buses shudder and hiss, motorcycles roar, construction machines boom in the excavation where Universidad Católica is expanding. Between you and the lizard, though, silence. Almost completely grey now, it still hasn’t moved and might still believe you haven’t seen it, that you’ll keep climbing undistracted to Darwin’s Garden—1827, he was here—and the narrow deck of Mirabel Tower, where you’ll photograph the view: endless apartment buildings in all directions, the Andes in the distance still under huge snow-caps though it’s summer here. You’ll get home and see on Google Images that there are literally millions of photos just like yours. You’ll learn that chameleons don’t even live in South America, and that your lizard is likely an anolis, which isn’t native either—thousands are exported every year to pet stores all over the world, including those on the Alameda, whose proper name is Avenida General Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, after the chief changeling hero in a city full of them—Juan Mackenna, Enrique Mac Iver—and what you are staring down is almost certainly a child’s escaped pet: 27,000 Chilean pesos wasted, adapting before your eyes.
JASON GURIEL is the co-editor of Partisan. His recent writing appears in The New Republic.
DANIEL PERRY is the author of the forthcoming short story collections Hamburger (2016) and Nobody Looks That Young Here (2018). His fiction has been short-listed for the Carter V. Cooper Prize.