I came across Wilson Koewing a few years back when we published an essay of his about his schizophrenic uncle. It was maybe a page, page and a half, and somehow it felt like he’d covered his uncle’s whole life and boiled it down the only the most essential lines.
Hello, my name is the Drevlow and I am a word addict.
By which I mean, I need a lot of words. Like a shitload of words. Like the last book I wrote was at one time 13000 pages long. I can take a five-page story and turn it into a novel easy. Just watch me go. This last summer I took a 25-page story and tried to condense it down to 10 to 15 pages.
It turned into 250.
All of this is to say: I’d like to think of Wilson Koewing as my word-addiction sponsor.
Though a lot of people would consider his stories “flash fiction,” to me they feel much more like fully realized short stories that just happen to be 2, 3, 5 pages long.
In essence, Koewing is the antidote to all my worst predilections and the world is the better for it.
I’d probably be a lot more petty in my jealousy if it weren’t for the fact that he’s such a great guy and that he lets me publish some of these stories at Bull.
His book Jaded needs to be on the top of your pile. (If you need more convincing check out these two beautiful babies from it). Made up mostly of these short short stories covering landscapes from Louisiana to Colorado to Down South, Jaded is a book about wanderers. People who never feel at home anywhere. People who can’t hold a job that would keep them home anywhere.
In many ways, it’s a series of connected stories—though often connected by landscapes and similar problems finding their way in the world.
I don’t say this lightly, but it reminds me in the best ways of Jesus’ Son and all those characters and all those short stories that do everything and do everything while under the influence of something unhealthy. With everything seeming pointless and existential at the same time.
The following interview is my attempt to project all my shortcomings onto Koewing and Koewing politely obliging my worst tendencies as an interviewer.
BKD: So let’s get the important stuff out of the way first: How the does one actually pronounce Koewing? (In my head, I keep thinking the sound kids make when they shoot finger guns: p’ew p’ew?… but now I’m just realizing that in my head I had been spelling it Keowing like meowing this whole time, so fuck me).
WK: My last name is actually pronounced Kay-wing. The origin is German, and somewhere along the line there was one of those umlaut things over the o, which signals the oe to make an a sound, I think. For my entire life everyone has pronounced it Ko-wing. Correcting people about how to pronounce it was a big deal to my father, something he seemed to take a strange pride in, so for a long time I followed suit. It became like second nature to have to correct people, and while it was annoying and tedious, I suppose it did afford me a sort of individualism or feeling of being unique that affected the type of person I became. Hard to say at this point if that effect was positive or negative. Lately, the last 10 years or so, I only correct people if it seems relevant. Which isn’t often. Mostly only when it pertains to my writing. I do sometimes wonder why the correcting mattered so much to my father. He has no other connection or interest in his German heritage outside of a typical boomer obsession with WWII. My assumption is it meant a lot to his father, and since he’d been forced to endure the endless annoyance of correcting everyone then his son would have to do the same.
BKD: Continuing with our trend of award-winning investigative journalism here, how did this book come together?
WK: I started writing some of the earliest stories in Jaded while at The Creative Writing Workshop at The University of New Orleans. I was there for screenwriting, but fell in love with all of the workshops, so I would take as many fiction and CNF workshops as they would let me, along with my screenwriting workshops. This was around the time Trump was first running for office, and I was starting to notice the shift in social media, most notably facebook (which I’d found to be quite a positive thing up until then) where it was being weaponized, and people were fighting all the time in the comments sections, and really the beginning of the apparentness of the polarization we are now fully engulfed in. It was the first time in my life when I really started to realize that the best times, not just for me, but for American society, seemed firmly in the rear view.
The first story I wrote that would make it into the book was “The Fox Trap” which is interesting to look back on because at the time I wasn’t fully in control of why I was writing that story. It was almost a subconscious reaction to everything that was going on around me in the world. And I don’t think anyone else got it either because it was universally panned in my workshop cohort. I mean people hated it. And it wasn’t without good reason. The story was a structural mess, but I also think what it had was this mirroring effect that was already capable of subconsciously angering the reader, even though at that time none of us were aware of what it was saying about us and we had no idea how bad things were going to get from a socio-political standpoint in America. The story isn’t even political, really. It just has this darkness to it, and this narrator who is dealing with this almost comically bleak existential crisis punctuated by the memories of the golden past he left behind, and a future that feels so hopeless that it’s almost like a sickness you have to endure instead of something filled with hope. And on the surface, none of it makes any sense because his life seems pretty perfect.
I didn’t realize it then, but cracking that story, figuring out a way, through whatever means I did, to manifest how I was feeling into that character and that piece laid the groundwork for the tonal and thematic elements that I was eventually going to explore in the book.
When did you feel like you had a collection brewing? Did it change the way you wrote the stories as you started to think about how all these things might live together under one house?
It wasn’t until late 2019/early 2020 that I started to realize I had a collection on my hands. I left New Orleans (where I’d lived for 8 years) in the summer of 2018 and moved to Denver, Colorado. Then, in early 2019, I went through a significant breakup from a woman I was involved with for 6 years. In retrospect, it was inevitable, but it was devastating because I’d uprooted my life to another state. I didn’t know anyone there, then one day I was out on the street alone, staying in Airbnbs trying to find a place to live.
For a while, my writing suffered, honestly everything did, it was a dark time, but then I started writing about the breakup and my suddenly nomadic existence in Denver and that’s when the character of Jade was born (as well as pretty much the entire Denver section of the book.) The story “Jaded” came about during this time, which was the first appearance of Jade, and once I wrote that story, I knew there was going to be a throughline involving the Jade character.
So, I started writing stories about and cultivating the Jade character (which it’s worth noting is an amalgamation of several women I knew in New Orleans, not just the one) along with stories set around Denver that were, in a sense, about my life and experiences, but more so imagined realities for people I would run into or observe. And since the stories were unfolding under the shrouded mist of the backstory/backdrop of the breakup, there developed an innate motivation for the action and behavior of the narrator, as well as a natural propulsion to the stories.
From there, the concept only grew larger. For a while I considered only writing a book about the narrator and Jade, but something clicked, and the world opened up to me, and I realized the concept was bigger than just these two characters. And that’s kind of when the whole thing came full circle back to “The Fox Trap,” and that ineffable way in which it came to exist, and the stories just started coming to me. It was kind of fascinating really. I can’t explain it. I think it was just one of those things that you hear people talking about where if you put in enough time and effort then you reach a point in your craft where you’re no longer thinking about how you’re producing what you’re producing, you’re just doing it.
BKD: Captain Obvious wants to know what’s your deal with place? Like: you separated your book into sections based on places or regions of the country, so, yeah, what’s the deal?
But seriously, it’s an interesting device in the book because it makes it feel almost like a road novel (a road novel in stories?) and then lends itself to a larger arc to the stories. Captain Obvious is assuming that you’ve traveled around a bit and probably spent some time in these different regions (because you obviously in fiction aren’t allowed to write about places you’ve never been).
WK: The regions (and all of the places) in the book are places I have visited or lived in, and practically all of the characters are based on people I knew or observed in those places. Place has always played a big role in my work. I suppose it comes from my upbringing. I grew up in a small town in rural South Carolina, and while I love that place, I couldn’t wait to leave when I turned 18. Which I did, and despite a hiccup in my early 20s, I haven’t been back since. I’ve lived in a lot of different places, and I’ve traveled a lot both in the US and abroad. Experiencing new places and meeting new people is vital to my creative process. I couldn’t imagine living in the same place my entire life and always writing about the same people in the same place. I probably wouldn’t still be a writer if that had been the unfortunate case. But yeah, place. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s the most important element of my work, but I would say it’s generally the craft element that initially informs any story I sit down to write. I love to create the feeling of a place, then place characters in that place (I’m trying to see how many times I can fit the word place into this answer, lol) then deal with the story at hand. I’ll often start a story with a place and characters in mind and no idea (or a vague idea) of what is going to happen to them, and I’ll either just write until something happens or other times I’ll have to wait for something to come to me. Weeks, months sometimes. Place ends up informing so many things, though. How the characters act, look, dress, what their socioeconomic status is, their background, their dialogue, what they say, how they say it, their worldviews, what sort of aspirations or lack thereof they might have. I could go on and on. I feel like I’m babbling here, but yes, place is very important to me.
BKD: When did you know you were going to break up the collection based on regions?
WK: This is a great question because it wasn’t until I made this decision that I feel like I had a book. I had the stories, I knew that, but I didn’t like the order of them. There wasn’t a designing principle that was making the stories feel like a cohesive whole. And then exactly what you’re asking about hit me. It was so easy to separate the stories by place because it was right there on the page. Nothing changed other than I went from having all these stories just sort of floating around with each other like an asteroid field, together, but separate, to having four concrete sections, which instantly made the task simpler because now I just had to arrange the stories in each section, and once I figured that out I had to arrange the sections. It was that little bit of kismet that made the book a book, and not just a bunch of stories with similar style and tone and themes tossed together haphazardly.
BKD: Do you feel like the mood of each place shapes the arc of that section?
WK: I’m not sure if I would say it shapes the arc, exactly, but what I love about the four sections of Jaded is that they’re all connected in various ways, but also have their own unique vibe, too. There’s the New Orleans section which, I think, does a great job of encapsulating the singular nature of that great city, but also has this dreamlike quality to it, like memories. The New Orleans section is like the memories the narrator in the Denver section has. And the Denver section is very much in the present. If there’s a present to this book, it’s the Denver section. And then the “Out West” section is observations of the journey from the New Orleans memories to the Denver present. And the final section, “Down South” is stuff that happened long before everything else. At least that’s how I imagine it.
BKD: Do you tend to write about places while you’re there or once you’ve left? Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Does it give you more perspective? So many questions about place.
WK: It’s a combination really. If I observe something interesting in a place then I’ll try to jot something down that will help me remember what I was feeling in the moment, so I can try to go back to the memory when I sit down to write. Occasionally an idea will strike that seems so vital and alive that I’ll have to stop what I’m doing and write until I get down everything that I can, but that happens less often, though it is exhilarating when it does. It’s really a dangerous game to play because I forget a lot of things that I want to write about because I’ll wait too long to revisit the spark of inspiration and it will be gone. I’ve tried journaling or recording my thoughts, but I kind of abandoned it because (and this is going to sound really pretentious) I just feel like if it’s a story I’m supposed to write then I’m going to write it and the seed is going to stay in my mind, and if not then it wasn’t meant to be. This could also probably be called laziness. I like to act as if it’s part of my unique creative process.
Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder, man. At least in my experience. I have such nostalgia for places and time periods in my life that sometimes I’ll be reminded of them by a smell or deja vu or who even knows what and I’ll almost be unable to breathe. I guess some of it has to do with my relationship to the human condition. I feel like I’m always floating on a breeze through the present. I don’t know why, or what that is. I never feel grounded and have trouble living in the moment. Or maybe it’s the opposite and I live too much in the moment and don’t take time to look at the bigger picture. Whatever the case, I always find myself reconstructing the past and realizing how it was so much better than I thought it was and it’s this endless source of pain and beauty and sadness and regret, but there’s also a lot of joy and thankfulness and humbling and learning. I’m not even sure what I’m babbling about anymore. Okay, that’s all I have to say about place.
BKD: So I like to think of myself as a real masochistic writer of dark depressing shit and also a connoisseur of dark and depressing shit. I wouldn’t necessarily say your book as a whole is dark and depressing, but Jesus, you start with that epigraph from Stoner (which for me should’ve gotten a Pulitzer Prize for being the single most unrepentedly unrelentingly depressingly soul-crushing books I’ve ever read) and then we start with the suicide of an ex-lover that then hangs over the book with a number of linked stories, and then (without giving away the ending ending), let’s just say it ends on a pretty dark note.
Oh and then the title is Jaded, which also for some reason took on a darker meaning upon re-reading?
Which, believe me, I’m fucking here for it–all of it, load it on.
But for the moments of violence and trauma, there a lot of other stories kind of about floating through the world–from place to place–without clear direction. A number of stories had all-night drinking binges in them and all-night conversations.
It felt to me like the feel of one of those all-night benders followed by morning conversations, where things will be funny then deep and sentimental, but also sometimes take a dark turn, sometimes jarring turn.
I was wondering if you could tell me how your childhood trauma informs your dark soul of the night?
And who is this “Jade” character? And how is she a representation of your daddy issues?
Wouldn’t that be a dick move.
Anyway, back on topic: I’m always wondering about walking that balance with tone. How do we get dark without it feeling forced (a la all us Hot Topic Goths)? How do we let some light in without feeling like our mother’s our editor telling us, “Why’s it always gotta be so depressing all the time, Ben?”
Maybe start with choosing that epigraph from Stoner: “He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.”
And then branch out to the mood of the larger collection and how that works with the mindset of the protagonists in here–especially the recurring ones. Is there such a thing for you as a story earning its bleakness? Or earning its violence (without it feeling like shock value)?
I guess what I’m saying is that when I first read the book, I was like, Oh hey, these are my people. My people drink, fuck, get dumped, fired, and kill themselves–quickly or slowly. That’s why we write. That’s why we laugh.
But then when I went I read the last story and went back and looked at the epigraph and the first story and the way that then lingers over the rest of the collection, I was like, oh shit, maybe this was darker than I thought it was and maybe I have a low bar for what being a functional adult is.
Care to comment?
WK: You know, the thing is, yes, the book is quite dark, but I didn’t sit down with the intention of writing a dark book. I didn’t sit down to write like one of these manically depressed indie books that are so dark that they make you want to kill yourself. My goal with this book was pretty simple, stark realism. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with my writing is create the most realistic experience of these characters, stories and places that I can for my reader. And the reality is that these are the people that I know and that I meet, and these are the problems that I see or that I hear about or that I’ve had or that I’ve witnessed. And while yeah, it’s fucking dark, I feel like life is pretty dark. That doesn’t mean there isn’t hope or that you can’t make it through terrible stuff, but that’s not what this book focuses on. What this book focuses on is the stuff that people want to get past. Because I think there’s an odd beauty in that stuff, and that’s why stylistically I wanted it to be a beautifully written book about ugly things. That’s my absolute favorite thing about the book, the parts where the reader can’t help but find something terrible, beautiful, because of the way it is presented. It’s why the Stoner epigraph felt so appropriate. Stoner is a lot of things, but at its core it is a matter of fact, beautifully written, (transcendently written even) account of a very average man’s life. It’s not that the story is especially great, or the character, it’s the form. Which is what I was trying to do with Jaded.
BKD: So I think most people would consider these stories “flash fiction,” and of course there are brilliant “flashes” of moments throughout, but for some reason, they always felt more like “short” short stories to me. For me when I think of flash, I think of these kind of disconnected moments full of meaning, but fragmented. With yours, I often felt like there were full arcs there within two or three pages. (Which, as someone, who can’t seem to write a story shorter than twenty pages, I am quite in awe of). I don’t think I’d ever tell someone that this was a collection of flash fiction. I’d say short stories–in a completely, subtly unique way that less pedantic people like me might not think about
Could you talk about your approach to “short” short fiction? What’s your approach to editing and cutting? What’s not enough versus too much? And were there any authors that were writing these types of short short stories that you were inspired by?
WK: Yeah, I totally agree with your assessment. I call it a short story collection. But like you said, plenty of people would call most of these stories “flash fiction” and outside of this collection, out in the lit mag world, they’re considered flash fiction, and I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, other than that I kind of do. It’s a funny thing with “flash fiction,” it’s so prevalent in online journals, but to the more mainstream literary community it’s kind of looked down upon. When I first started submitting to literary journals back in 2019, I had no idea that flash fiction was even a thing. Then I started researching the lit mag world, and I couldn’t believe how many places not only specifically wanted flash, but how many places only published flash. So, naturally, I was drawn to the form as a way of getting published. It just so happened that I wrote tightly edited, relatively short stories anyway. Then I found I liked the challenge of editing a story down to get under this arbitrary 1000-word count or whatever it might be, some places are 750 and I’ve seen up to 1200 for flash. So, to me, the flash fiction designation is basically meaningless other than the word count. I’ve always figured that if I could write the story I wanted to in 750 words, 1000 words why would I write it in 2500 words? You know? I’m not Emma Cline or Jamel Brinkley or one of these writers who writes these sprawling Paris Review or New Yorker short stories that generally don’t need all those words, but that’s a total vibe and thing all its own, and I’m not bad-mouthing those writers, they’re obviously great. The short story form in American Literature is a tried and true, time-honored tradition, but that’s just not what I do. And it’s not what I like to read. I mean I can’t read any of those journals or stories. I get The Best American Short Stories every year and while sure I’m impressed by a lot of the writing, I find myself struggling to get through the stories without growing bored. I honestly feel like a 6,500-word short story is the hardest thing in the world to read because it’s asking so much of me, with its overwrought minutiae, and I know pretty much exactly how long it’s going to be and that there’s a good chance it’s going to leave me unsatisfied. Which is brutal. At least with a novel, even a bad one, I’m going on a journey of some length. I’m not exactly sure where I was going with this. But. Okay. Right. Flash. But Flash is a double-edged sword in its own right, and there’s a reason why people look at it in a pejorative way. There are a lot of writers and editors and literary magazines that prop up these (for lack of a better word) sub-genres of flash fiction like hermit crab flash, and list or bullet point flash, microfiction (which can mean so many different things) drabbles, 50-word stories, 100-word stories, 101-word stories, stories that are a paragraph, the one sentence story, the never-ending experimentation with 2nd person POV stories. It just goes on and on and, in my personal opinion, so much of it is nonsense. It’s not literary. It has little chance of resonating with readers. It’s show-offy, it’s gimmicky. Look, it’s fun for writers. It’s like exercises, you know? I mean there’s a whole cavalcade of flash writers on twitter who people actually pay money to attend their workshops where they basically just give you a bunch of writing prompts they’ve come up with. Write a six-paragraph story where the first three lines of each paragraph is the same, or whatever, I mean throw a rock on literary twitter you’ll hit these people, and Ben, throw it hard.
I hate to be so negative about it because the truth is I do enjoy flash fiction. It’s just hard for me to overlook the reality of its many facets that I don’t particularly care for. But speaking to the crafting of stories of this length, my screenwriting background really helps. You’re not allowed to use interiority when you’re writing a screenplay. Everything in a screenplay has to be shown on the screen. And while I don’t shy away from interiority in fiction, I also don’t dwell on it the way writers who write longer short stories gleefully do. You learn a lot of tools while writing screenplays that can convey information to readers very quickly. Gesture is a big one. And dialogue is huge. I’m always searching for a single line of dialogue that can express the same thing that an entire page of explanation or exposition might. These tools often help me slash entire sections of unnecessary stuff from stories. The screenwriting background also definitely helps me create story arcs in such a short amount of space. There’s a real cinematic quality to Jaded. I see every story in the book as a little movie or show. And sometimes it’s as simple as that, wanting to construct the stories in that way and tinkering with them until it proves successful.
As far as writers who inspire me in this form, there aren’t a lot because I don’t see a lot of people really doing what I’m doing. But Bill Soldan is one. He’s got a great book from Cowboy Jamboree called Lost In The Furrows which is full of these wonderful compact stories about characters living in The Rust Belt. Bill is just fantastic. Another is Peter Orner. Orner is probably my biggest influence, really. I met Peter in late 2019 while I was a resident at The Vermont Studio Center, and he and I bonded over Stoner, of course, and I got my hands on his book Maggie Brown And Others, which is many things, longer short stories, the last part of it is a novella, but there are probably a good 30-40 pieces of “flash fiction” in that book that will knock your socks off, marvelous, cerebral pieces. He’s a magician, Orner. It’s almost as if his stories/characters are all part of this hivemind or something. Like there’s some synoptical connection between all of their experiences that are interconnected somehow even though the characters don’t have any other tangible connection to each other. It’s truly remarkable.
And I’ll leave you with this, another “flash fiction” thing: there’s nobody calling Orner’s work “flash fiction.” I don’t know if this is something he actively fights against, or maybe his publisher does, or his management. I have no idea. And this is total speculation. But even for the marketing of Maggie Brown there’s this throughline in the blurbs and this repeated praise about how he is a “master of his form.” The form obviously being flash, but nobody is saying that word. Which I find really telling.
And, end rant. Fin.