43.2 Feature: An Interview with Ron A. Austin
Ron A. Austin holds a MFA from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, serves as a senior editor for december, and is a 2016 Regional Arts Commission Fellow. His stories have been placed in Ninth Letter, Story Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, The Masters Review, Midwestern Gothic, and other journals. He has taught creative writing at the Pierre Laclede Honors College, and he is now finishing his collection of stories, Avery Colt Is A Snake, A Thief, A Liar. He, his partner Jennie, and son Elijah live in St. Louis with a whippet named Carmen.
Interview by REEM ABU-BAKER
Black Warrior Review: I love the way your story, “Muscled Clean Out the Dirt,” merges so many different genres and traditions. The story brings folkloric tropes into a developed contemporary setting, and it draws on humor and horror/fantasy as it addresses concerns from a very realist world. How do you balance these different genres and influences? What’s the value, for you, in drawing off folklore and existing archetypes or tropes?
RA: My favorite books, movies, and videogames tend to combine a wide range of genres, tropes, techniques, and aesthetic sensibilities in service of achieving a cohesive mood, interesting story movement, and drawing sincere emotion from surprising places—the focus on technique is key for me.
The horror genre is excellent at creating tension and finding inventive ways to weave together the supernatural, sublime, and grotesque—why can’t those same techniques be used for a literary, domestic drama? With all that being said, I owe a lot to Borges, Marquez, Kennedy and Morrison.
In my opinion, they developed a brand of magical realism that is both visceral and beautiful, that is engaged in both intense internal struggle and obligation to community. This method of stretching beyond reality by focusing on the strangeness of everyday life, and distilling that feeling into breathing metaphor felt natural to me.
BWR: This story is immediately striking for its prose. Your writing is rooted in voice, and the sentences feel acrobatic, muscular, full of such vivid, visceral images. What’s your writing process like on sentence or language level?
RA: If I were to sum up my writing process, I’d say I’m a recursive tinkerer. I jot down germs of ideas, lines, and phrases. Rhyme snatches of lyrics to myself, see how it feels on my tongue. Then I’ll sit down and attack an idea and a few lines, try to smelt and fuse it together under the heat of intention. Maybe I’ll produce a page or two. Then the next day I’ll tear it all apart, throw much of it into my scraps file, and then keep a paragraph or two. Then I’ll start from that paragraph.
Eventually, once I have a pretty stable base, the movement flows smoothly from there. I try to find a balance between keeping a stable base and creating access points for the reader to follow, and playing with language, free styling, cutting open a vein and seeing what bleeds out. It takes me 3-6 months to produce a 20-30 page story draft in this way, but generally, it puts me ahead of the production timeline in terms of line strength, movement, and polish.
Also I’m big on fantasizing, dreaming, and using my subconscious in a focused way to get work down. Once I’m in the middle of a good draft, I’ll make it a point to reread and touch up a few lines right before bed. When I wake up, I make sure to print out the new draft, read, and touch it up first thing in the morning. This keeps the momentum building for me.
BWR: This feels to me like a story where place acts as character in multiple ways. The story is firmly rooted in North St. Louis, and the buildings within this setting that are literally coming alive. How do you view the role of place or setting in fiction?
RA: Setting is about creating possibilities.
BWR: There is a lot of cruelty in this story, but there’s also an underlying care or tenderness. How do you think about cruelty or violence in fiction? What responsibilities come with their rendering? Did you have any anxieties or fears in your creation of this story? What worries you as a writer?
RA: To hit these questions square, I have to describe the impetus for this story and the next phase of my work. I grew up in the neighborhood explored in “Muscled Clean Out the Dirt.” My grandparents owned small businesses in the city which ended up being gutted and eaten up by urban blight despite their best efforts and hard labor.
It’s no secret that large segments of St. Louis city have been neglected and left to decay because of political, social, racist, and classist reasons. I can’t lie—the more I read up on the systems that have worked to destroy communities and compare that research to my own experience, the more hurt, angry, and sad I become. The shit is scary and heartbreaking, but it’s the truth. It’s the reality I come from, and I can’t look away. That’d be a real shame. And when I try to think of solutions, my mind turns to wishing for miracles, and in that way, I write to help process intense emotions and realizations.
Though the one boon I managed to take from growing up in a difficult environment was being able to purify negative emotions and pull the positive energy out of them. It might sound pretty messed up, but physical, emotional, and psychological pain can be great motivators to build something that could ultimately do good. Plus, if you can wrestle with despair and keep your head up, it might make you more compassionate, more hopeful overall, give you strength and presence of mind to share with others.
As far as ethics go, I believe it comes down to a matter of authority. I’m only responsible for my experiences and interpretations as I try to offer my voice and insights to larger conversations. Personally, I could never claim to be the sole authority on issues that affect whole communities. If folks can read my work and find parallels in their lives, and ideas that motivate them to action, that’s great. But if they don’t agree with me and have different insights and interpretations too, that’s great as well. All I want is conversation and discourse that can lead to actions big and small over time. Whether or not someone agrees with my thoughts, methods, and work doesn’t matter to me. As long as we talk and get to thinking, it’s all good with me.
Concerning tenderness in contention with antagonism or just plain meanness, difficult conditions bring out the best and worst in folks. It feels pretty natural to find startling juxtapositions of cruelty and care. I believe in the essential goodness of folks, but the truth is, someone else can only help you so much, and more than that, sometimes folks have to keep it real. You can’t save someone else if you can’t save yourself.
BWR: What’s most exciting you about fiction right now? And what do you find yourself longing to read more of or more about?
RA: Right now I’m reading more poetry than fiction. Just about anything out of YesYes Books and Copper Canyon is mind melting. I’m currently hoping that Final Fantasy 15 is just as good as Final Fantasy 7 somehow, that the last Neon Genesis Evangelion movie comes out soon, that Satoshi Kon left behind a secret opus, and that J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, Beyonce, Frank Ocean, OutKast and Maynard James Keenan somehow form a super group for a double-album.
Some of these wishes are more or less likely to come true.
BWR: What can we expect from you in the future?
RA: I’m polishing up Avery Colt is a Snake, a Thief, a Liar, a collection of short stories. I’m going to write a few more stories in the world of “Muscled Clean Out the Dirt” so I’m immersed in the feel of it, and then I’ll move onto a novel revolving around the characters I’ve introduced. At this moment, I really like the title “The Bright Unending.”
BWR: What, besides writing or reading, brings you joy or energy?
RA: Jennie and Elijah, my wife and son, bring me a lot of joy. To be honest, they represent stability and hope for me. I know there’s conventional wisdom that says a writer should complete their first novel before having a kid, but I don’t know about that.
Everybody’s different, but Elijah gives me a whole other level of conviction and strength. I want to make something for him that is the antithesis of a horcrux, something that vibrates and continues to lend him energy and insight when I’m gone. I think always I wanted to do that for people in general before, to create that connection, yet there’s a new urgency behind it. Once you feel that way, you have no option but to do your best.