Interview: Dave Housley, Author of If I Knew The Way, I Would Take You Home

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shelf unbound What’s a typical starting point for you in writing a story, for example the guy who hooks up with a celebrity at a party and then finds out she later overdosed in “Pop Star Dead at 22”?

davehousley For me, it’s usually a person in a situation. “Pop Star Dead at 22” is a pretty good example. There was a time when Britney Spears really seemed like she was on a downward spiral that was going to end badly. Heath Ledger had just died. I like to think about the people who are around the people in the spotlight, the kids of the rock star on the reality show, the people in the KISS cover band, or the dude who might have hooked up with a celebrity at a party. I thought about those celebrity deaths and the affect it might have on somebody who is kind of celebrity adjacent, somebody who might be invested in the celebrity for maybe stupid reasons, or reasons that might seem stupid but are real to him. He’s the person, that’s the situation. The thing that has to come really quickly after the person in the situation, or the idea of the person in the situation, is the voice. A person in an interesting situation can get me started, and then the voice is the thing that moves the story.

shelf unbound How do you develop your characters, such as the guy in the lettuce aisle contemplating the woman who left him and the Taylor Swift CD in his truck?

davehousley Really over time and lots of revision. I almost never have a full sense of who the characters are and I never outline anything, so it’s really on the fly. This story is another one that started with a person in a situation—a guy who hasn’t been in a grocery store for a while who notices how many different kinds of lettuce there are now (there really are a lot!). Then as he moves through the store you kind of get a sense for who he is and what’s going on. There’s a whole thing happening with this Taylor Swift album that his girlfriend, who just left him, also left in his truck. I wrote a version of this one without the Taylor Swift thing and I really think the Taylor Swift stuff—the relationship he has with this album he kind of hates but also kind of loves, is really the key to who the guy is. I think it turns him from somebody who is just kind of griping, albeit in an honest way, to a more lovable character. He can’t help himself from liking Taylor Swift and learning her songs and he even knows how he would play them on the guitar. He probably won’t actually play those songs, but he knows how he would. In this case, the Taylor Swift thing was just a throwaway line that then became a bigger and bigger part of the story and I hope it’s something that really helps get at who the character is and what he’s going through. That’s how it works a lot of the time for me—a detail or something that I just added and I’m not sure why, like the guy with the cut-off finger in “The Jerry Garcia Finger,” winds up becoming a really important part of the story.

shelfunbound Do you have a favorite story in this book, and if so which one and why?

davehousley I have a few, but for different reasons. I think “Death and the Wiggles” has the best version of a lot of the stuff I’m working with—parenting, relationships between men, aging, fathers and sons. I feel like it’s a pretty honest depiction of how parenting can be sometimes for some people, the weird combination of frustration and limitations and expectations and this really immediate love. The feeling like you should be doing better, you should be better, but you’re not. I like the ending because it’s pretty sad and realistic and as close as I’ll probably ever get to writing something that tries to actually say what it’s meaning. I like to say that I can take anything and make it sad, and this is my crack at making a Wiggles concert really super sad.

The other one is “Rockabye” and the story of that one really sums up what it’s like to be a writer at my level, because it was rejected forty times and then wound up at exactly the right place (Hobart).  I kept on revising and re-reading and considering whether to abandon it, and then kept on sending it out, so the fact that it’s now in a book is rewarding and I think testament to the blind, unfounded confidence you need to stick with writing when mostly what it’s giving you is rejection.

shelfunbound How do you find the entry point for your short stories, such as the first line of “Rock Out, Mate”: “I’m the fat one, the normal-looking one, the one who gives the girls some hope that if they ever got backstage or if DaWestSidaz actually went to their high school, they might have a chance.”

davehousley This is another “person in a situation” story: kid in a boy band academy. First lines are really important for me, and almost every story in this collection still has the original first line. That’s where the voice starts and I really think of voice as the engine that moves the reader through the story. Or my stories, at least. Usually the way it works for me is I’ll think of a person in a situation, and then I’ll try to find a first line that will set the thing in motion. Voice comes through a little bit in that first line and builds. Then as I go through and write and revise, I’ll kind of figure out who these people are and write in the character stuff as I go through it again and again.

shelfunbound A short story is like 

davehousley A machine. More details below, in two questions.

shelfunbound
What is the appeal for you of writing short stories?

davehousley First of all, they are manageable. I’m trying to finish a novel right now—it’s maybe seven-eighths complete—and it’s a terrifying prospect that I may have spent a few years on this thing that’s actually going to wind up sucking and never make the transition from word document to thing that’s actually published. One of the wonderful things about stories is you can write one in a few days, a week, a month, spend some time and make it as good as you think you can make it, and then just start another one. That’s on a practical level. I have a full time job and a wife and a son and my work at Barrelhouse, where I’m an editor, so writing stories works for my life and my writing habits a little better than writing a novel. I think writing is kind of like exercise, and I’m used to writing at a short story length right now. I know how it works, or how it works for me. I can feel the gears of a story and I have a sense for how I can make one successfully. That’s kind of selfish answer, I think: I like stories because I know how to make them.

I also just love stories and how flexible the genre is – I love that you can do just about anything with a short story. You can take almost any format and make a story out of it: Yelp reviews, Craigslist posts, fundraising letters, just about anything.

shelfunbound If you were teaching a course on short story writing, what is the primary piece of advice you would offer?

davehousley I think a story should be a perfect little machine. Every single thing should have a purpose. I do lead workshops sometimes for Barrelhouse and that is something I always say: you should be able to tell me what every single thing in your story is doing. What’s the purpose of that joke, that section, that affectation of the narrator or that thing her best friend did when they were out at that bar? If it’s just because it cracked you up or you thought it was interesting or cool, that’s not really good enough for that thing to stay in the story. I revise my stuff a lot like that, as well, because I do throw in a lot of stuff that is just me cracking myself up, so I’ll try to delete anything that isn’t carrying any weight as I go through and revise, and that’s also when I might build on something that does seem like it’s doing something useful, like the Taylor Swift album in “Where We’re Going.” I certainly hope I’ve just set some kind of record for how many times the phrase “Taylor Swift” is mentioned in author interviews.

shelfunbound What’s a favorite book you read in 2014?

davehousley Tom Williams’ Don’t Start Me Talkin’. Tom is a good friend and it’s so great to be able to say with complete honesty that his book was the best thing I read in 2014. It’s a really smart, nuanced look at identity and authenticity and the blues, which sounds like a kind of boring academic slog, but it’s also just a really fun, great, entertaining read. 

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