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Not a Word Wasted: Q&A with Brian Phillip Whalen

Brian Phillip Whalen is a writer from Vestal, New York. His work has previously appeared in The Southern Review, Creative Nonfiction, Copper Nickel, North American Review, the Flash Nonfiction Food anthology, The Southern Poetry Anthology Vol. IX: Virginia, and more. 

Whalen’s first book, Semiotic Love, is a collection of hybrid microfiction fresh off the presses at Awst Press, an independent publisher based in Austin Texas. Screen Shot 2021-07-12 at 10.45.05 AM

The collection creeps up on you—lobbing curveballs of humor and heartbreak with a practiced arm. The titular bloc of stories in part two traces the progression of one relationship with the help of semiotic squares, or analytical models defining “him” and “her” in terms of each other…until they no longer coincide as we on the diagram of their shared life. 

Most memorably, these stories carry the passing of parents, siblings, and friends whose memory creates, as the collection unfolds, a rich ecosystem of love and loss.  

Whalen currently teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama. He lives in Tuscaloosa with his family. 

Maddie King: I’m intrigued by the quote that opens this book: “A story must be about what it is about and continue to be about what it is about.” What is the significance of this phrase in terms of your vision for the collection? 

Brian Phillip Whalen: That’s a quote attributed to Gordon Lish by one of his former students. I found it online, a compendium of Lish’s statements as a teacher. To me it cuts to the heart of what micro/flash, or minimalism in general, is about: Be quick to the draw, leave things out. George Saunders says a similar thing about stories, all stories, how every detail needs to be a) entertaining in its own right and b) in service to the story. Nothing should be extraneous, because (unlike life) fiction is composed, and every detail matters. 

Semiotic SquareI think it’s fun to play with, or resist, what a story is about, and to experiment with what doesn’t seem to matter, or what shouldn’t matter. Like in “Saudade” or “Men” or “Deep Water”—you’d be hard pressed to define what those stories are “about” on the surface, but—I hope—a reader intuits a sense of meaning, thematically or emotionally, and derives some pleasure from them.

I also like that quote because I hate wasted words. I’m a chatty guy, but as a reader I don’t want to read more words than are absolutely necessary. This is partly due to my having bad eyes, a complex set of issues that make seeing—vision itself—a chore. Reading is difficult for me at even short intervals. That doesn’t mean I only like micro fiction. If I read a 500-page novel, I just want each and every word to matter. There’s a Paul Auster quote, how art is about limitation—if you try to put the entire world into a story or novel, it’s going to fail. For me, it’s ultimately playing with the iceberg principle: letting what’s submerged—what’s implied—be the star of the show. Keep things tight on the page, be suggestive. I trust my reader to make connections.

M.K: Bilingualism is a recurrent theme throughout Semiotic Love, particularly in “Missing,” the story of a young boy wrestling with, among a host of growing pains, the death of his mother. “Uno heard the lyrics, but imagined them wrongly, dreaming not of a tree de vida but its opposite, a tree of muerte-murder-fuego.Tell us a bit about your background and how duality of any kind has shaped it, if at all. 

BPW: It wasn’t until I was working with my editor at Awst that I realized there was so much use of Spanish language in the book. There’s no duality in me (unless you count bipolar disorder). If the recurrent use of Spanish shows anything, it’s simply how limited I am in my capacity to learn new languages. I studied Spanish in high school, and again for my MA language exam, which I “passed…barely” (to quote my evaluator). If I had a greater facility with languages, there might be a wider variety in the book. 

“No Tengo” has Spanish for comedic effect. It’s based on something that happened to me in Paris. There’s very little invention in that story. In “Missing,” the nickname “Uno”—and being bullied—is true. The death of the mother and other parts of the story are entirely invented, but the kernel of the use of Spanish in there comes from a real place. Once my nickname worked its way into the story, it felt logical to me that a child who lost his mother, who is bullied at school by being called “Uno” (for missing one of his testicles), might search his limited grasp of Spanish to make sense of his grief. 

A lot of my work hinges on this idea that some losses can’t be articulated, not directly. The need to say, or feel, aslant what can’t be said or felt straight. The sister character in “Una Vida Mejor” learns Spanish from her boyfriend. Like “Missing,” the story leaves the reader with dissonance, with a sense that language—not foreign language, but all language—fails us when it comes to expressing, reconciling with, or atoning for tragic events. (In the title story, this is underscored by the use of literary/language theory itself.) This is why I chose the word “Saudade” for the title of one of my stories, about (“about”) my sister’s death. There’s no English equivalent, a Portuguese word I learned in my twenties when I first read Mário de Andrade (Hallucinated City). 

I gave a lot of thought to “Una Vida Mejor” in terms of representing the undocumented homeless man, the Mexican character the sister befriends. I wouldn’t presume to inhabit the experience or mind of someone with a different cultural background than me. I approached his role in the story with empathy, and caution, to avoid accidental cultural appropriation, or stereotype. He’s my favorite character in the book, the best of all the men in the collection (and there are a lot of men!) His gracefulness, his compassion, his integrity. I really like ending the book there, leaving the sister in his hands, even though we know, from earlier stories, that he can’t save her.

M.K: Is it safe to say you had a good, collaborative relationship with Awst Press? 

BPW: Oh yes, very much so. The book really came together in the editing process. It was a joy to work with Tatiana Ryckman, Awst’s editor, and her influence on the book is palpable. I owe so much of its design—the structure—to her insights and suggestions. Her editorial eye was essential to shaping the book. She encouraged me to follow my natural, minimalist instincts, to publish a sparse collection. We cut several whole stories. Where I was focused on shaping the individual stories, she helped me see the stories collectively, as a sort of constellation. And I wouldn’t have made such bold decisions about the length of the collection without her support and our shared artistic vision. I’m proud of the work we did together. And I’m also impressed with the energetic, ambitious publicity efforts Phoebe Waldron, Awst’s publicist, has made to promote the book. It’s hard to get noticed, especially if you’re a small press and a first-time author. Awst is a small press, with a big heart. Which is funny, because that’s how I think about Semiotic Love [Stories]. Small book, big heart. So, it was a perfect match.

M.K: Whether it be the hammock in “The Father Bell,” the penguin cookie jar in “The Mother Cup” or the picture of the tree in “Palimpsest,” you frequently employ mementos to anchor your characters in their relationships. Is there a connection between the act of gift-giving/receiving and writing for you?

BPW: One of my favorite literary moments comes near the end of Adam Johnson’s first novel, Parasites Like Us. It’s a passage about loss, about loved ones dying, how before a parent or loved one dies, you need to ask them what book or song or object to read or listen to or hold against your chest to conjure them again, to feel close to their memory. It’s a beautiful passage—and if I could find my copy of the book I’d do more than paraphrase. 

Objects or mementos are a high-value way to access emotion or thematic depth in fiction writing. I’m always telling students to tether the abstract stuff, like desire, grief, or anger, to something concrete. Artifacts work. A lot of the stories in my collection are based on real experiences. The broken cookie jar in “The Mother Cup” is inspired by a cookie jar I bought for my mother—that I subsequently broke. I was young, and my sorrow over breaking that gift was intense. I still vividly recall how ashamed I was at the time, even though my mom was like, “dude, no biggie.” I think at a young age I was learning that you only get one of everything that matters most. And I was too attached to the jar. I associated the jar with my mother, so when I—and the boy in the story—broke the jar, it was like losing her. Or maybe it’s more the loss of the connection with her. A fear of eternal loss. Like in the Adam Johnson quote.

Objects have the added benefit of a backstory, an origin: how, when, where, and why a character received, bought, or found the thing. That can be illuminating in fiction, to add character depth—and an elegant vehicle to dip into backstory, rather than randomly fill the reader in on something important from the past when the author sees fit. The object allows the narrator or character to transport themselves back in time. It’s an organic backstory-/memory-generating technique. The other added benefit is thematic, like the hammock in “The Father Bell” or the coffee mug in “The Mother Cup.” The suspension and swinging of the hammock serve the story symbolically; the cup/mug, and the idea of what’s “contained” inside or shattered, adds thematically to that story. Like the photo in “Exposure.” It’s a real photograph, but in the story, it takes on more meaning—the process/act of photography, of light exposure, speaks to loss in that story in a more evocative, emotional way than exposition alone would have.

“Palimpsest” is also a true story, though I changed the colors of the painting in the story. I’m not sure why. I keep that painting over my desk to remind me of the importance of patience. With revision, and also with people.

M.K: The book closes on a poignant note with “Una Vida Mejor,” a tribute to a sister who dies of an overdose. This isn’t the first time you have explored this topic. Is writing an intrinsic part of the grieving process for you?

BPW: I think writing can aid in the healing process. But it can also hinder it. I’ve been writing about my sister so long now, it’s hard to escape her. I do think my sister’s ghost has quieted since Semiotic Love [Stories] was published, but I was moved to write a second manuscript, a memoir, all about her addiction and death. I was finishing that book while working on revisions for Semiotic Love. Even the novel I’m revising is based loosely on our lives, very much inspired by her overdose—and everything that led up to it. Frankly, I’m tired of writing about her, and I long for the day that I sit back and think, “I’ve made my peace with this. I can move on to other things.” 

I’ve discovered a lot about myself in the process. As a person I’ve made peace with the loss. But as a writer I’ve been haunted by my sister’s ghost, by her stories, by the potential to turn her life, and our loss, into something artful, something that will speak to or help others. I don’t choose to write about her. I’m at the whim of the material, tied to experience. Something keeps stirring in me, and I have to follow it to its end. Otherwise, it hounds me. Lydia Davis said something about that, or she was quoting someone else (I’m misremembering a passage in her Essays One): how sometimes writing is about getting rid of something, like an exorcism. It’s in you, and you need to get it out. So, it goes on the page. That’s the writer’s way of purging our demons. (Not that it always works. Think Hemingway, Plath, Foster Wallace…the list goes on.)

M.K: Bloom celebrates authors who publish when some might consider “late” in life. With that in mind, I love that your website has a tab dedicated to the “stuff I didn’t win”—a nod to the many stepping stones preceding the publication of your first book. How else have you framed success for yourself and others when it comes to writing? 

BPW: I’m happy you enjoyed that tab. It was born out of many failed academic job searches, where you compile every little thing in an effort to make your CV look stronger than it really is. 

The truth is, my writing took time to develop—my style, I mean, the union of my particular talents with my particular imagination. My first writing teacher, Paul Cody, told me back when I was 18 years old that I was like a pitcher with a “110 MPH fastball but no control.” In my late twenties, I still wasn’t able to execute the kinds of stories I was inspired to tell. I struggled in my MFA because I was too ambitious for my limited talents. And I was too wild, I had no control. I had to learn control, and how to temper my ambitions. Your talent and imagination—your ambition—have to harmonize. The marrying of the two is essential. I’m paraphrasing this from a wonderful book that I return to often, called Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

I think near-successes are important. You need to know, from time to time, that you’re in the ballpark. I’m driven by oh-so-close failure. To get near to your goal—whatever that is—to see it up close: it can make you want it even more, can spur you to take more risks. Art needs risk. You need to be willing to follow your vision, to write the stories that only you can write, in ways that only you can write them. Regardless of the outcome.

Now that I’m older, when I think about success I think a lot about mentoring. To be a role model as a teacher and a father. I think I always had that idea of myself, a vision, but my obsessions, my mental health, and my poor decisions got in the way. (One of my MFA mentors said I had “good intentions.” But it stopped there.) I first read Stephen Millhauser in high school, and I heard an anecdote about when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Martin Dressler. I don’t know if the story is true, but supposedly he was teaching a class at Skidmore at the time, and a department secretary knocked on his classroom door and handed him a note, which said, “You’ve just won the Pulitzer Prize.” Story goes, Millhauser read the note, slipped it in his pocket, said nothing about it, went right back to teaching his class. That’s heroic to me! If I got any kind of good news during a class when I was younger, I’d have leapt out a window. “Class canceled, yee-haw!”

Whether or not that story about the note is true, it’s still true. It speaks to what matters. For me, it’s about family and students, and staying true to myself as a writer. Don’t get me wrong. I want to win things, to get reviewed, to be recognized. But that’s not what I’ll take to the grave, it’s not what people will remember me by. I mentioned Paul Cody, my first writing teacher. He’s a great novelist, but he isn’t well known. I think of him often, and the support and care he gave me over 20 years ago matters more than any award. If 20 years from now my students look back and think of me that lovingly… well, that’s success. I did a lot of foolish, selfish things in my teens, and twenties. My thirties were about changing that narrative. Not that I was perfect then, or am now. I can still fuck up with the best of them. But I like myself. I think I’m worth knowing, and my work is worth reading. I wasn’t able to say that, and to really mean it, until now.


Maddie King is a judge for NYC Midnight’s Fiction Competition. Her work has appeared in HOOT Review, Fleas on the Dog, Minute Magazine and Brilliant Flash Fiction’s second print anthology,”Branching Out.”


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