Barry Yourgrau is a master of flash fiction—a genre of storytelling that caters to short attention spans or people who just crave a quick literary fix. His early work was touted by the likes of David Byrne and Roy Blount, Jr. and was an influence on my early writings as well. After three humorously surreal collections and “an imaginary memoir” (1999’s The Haunted Traveller), he’s now writing his quirky short tales for a younger audience. His newest book is NASTYbook. In person he has a sweet friendly demeanor and a slight accent from South Africa, where he lived as a young boy.
KS: Besides you and Lemony Snicket, do you think kids stories have gotten too cheery?
BY: Actually I think there’s a lot of dark young stuff out there. Lemony Snicket set off a storm of imitators. As for quality, ah that’s a different matter, always is. But look at the popularity of Roald Dahl, and Sendak, and Hans Christian Anderson, who’s hardly cheery. What I see less of, besides quality, is comedy–kids’ fiction with laughs. I’m after laughs. “Hans Christian Andersen meets Woody Allen?” In the Twilight Zone?
KS: Why did you decide to start writing for kids?
BY: Children’s lit, and the p.o.v. of a child, have always been part of my adult writing. After all, I wrote a book called Wearing Dad’s Head. My agent of a while ago suggested I try writing “for kids” explicitly, what with Harry & Lemony, etc. First I wrote a kids’ novel, My Curious Uncle Dudley, which was more whimsically traditional and old-fashioned; that was my goal. Then I hit on NASTYbook, which is much much closer to my subversive heart.
KS: Wearing Dad’s Head and A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane indeed had a sweetness and innocence to them. But there is a lingering sense of the perverse, which you explored more in The Sadness of Sex. It was really unlike anything else that I remember at that time. What was people’s reaction to your writing when you started?
BY: Who you callin’ perverse? Well, my early work sort of resembled a dream journal doing stand-up comedy. Some people thought it more suited for my shrink than for readers. A Man Jumps Out of An Airplane, which was my first book, got early pre-pub reviews that were positively brutal. Like being sprayed with pesticide. But then the NY Times Book Review gave a big fat juicy thumbs up. So there you are. All a bit of a shock to me, as I naively figured what I wrote was laughably loveable to all.
KS: Will you still do “adult” fiction sometimes?
BY: NASTYbook is also meant for adults. I’ve just “opened up” its stories so a ten-year old will get them too. HC Anderson, you know, didn’t write his fairy tales just for kids, he very much meant them for everybody. A great kids’ book stays with you all your life: because kids’ books are existential, are primal.
NASTYbook is the first of a series, united by spirit; the next book (next year) is a novel, Another NASTYbook: The Curse of the Tweeties. Kind of Adam Sandler meets Alice in Wonderland. It’s a wild one; and I’m delighted I wrote it in short bursts, using present tense, like NASTYbook. So it’s the long-form version of my stories, as it were.
But more conventionally adult, I just did a book of tiny stories that’s about to come out in Japan: Cell Phone Stories. They were first serialized over Japanese cell-phone Internet–stories written for reading on cell phones. In Japan, Internet connection is mainly via cell phones. It was a hoot. I love Japan!
KS: Wow. That sounds really interesting. How many stories are there and how long are they?
BY: I wrote three stories per week for six months. How many’s that? The longest was 300 words, shortest 75 or so. I figured brevity was the key here. I’ve since learned of an epic sized novel, I believe, being serialized over cell phones in China.
KS: Would you call this a sub-genre of flash fiction?
BY: I’m not a big one for tags like “flash fiction” and “sudden fiction.” I never use them myself and I’ve never felt party to any movement. I call what I do “stories,” and leave it at that: whether 50 words long or 5,000.
KS: What’s your favorite monster?
BY: In NASTYbook, it’s the narcissitic werewolf who wants to make a video documentary about himself. Outside the book, I guess the beast of Beauty and the Beast? Although werewolves in general interest me: the idea of horrible transformation.
KS: It’s harder than it looks to write these kinds of brief tales. What helps you create?
BY: Fear and anxiety help me create. But also knowing that what’s left out is as important as what you put in. The famous rule of thumb of comedy—Woody Allen just cited it in a book review—is: to be funnier, be shorter. Think of how movie scripts work: they’re pared to the bone, but they swell in the imagination. You need just the right detail that conjures a movie scene in the reader’s head. Now I’m interested in bringing this technique to longer forms. That ‘s why, again, this next NASTYbook being a novel was exciting for me. What can I say, I’m excitable.
KS: You’ve also done a lot of performance stuff. From MTV to club shows. What are your most memorable experiences in that arena?
BY: Yeah, for me performing is as vital as the written page. It gives that priceless connecting jolt. The sound of laughter! Two favorite experiences: first, all the good times doing my spoken-word act in little clubs, such as the downstairs cabaret at old LunaPark in LA. Oneself and the audience, squeezed in together, working in harmony—like a surfer riding a wave. Second memory: from the set of The Sadness of Sex, the film I did adapted from my book. I lay in cheap fake satin sheets, naked, me and my dyed hair, having just done take after take of a steamy skin-to-skin love scene with Peta Wilson’s body double. I lay there thinking, “I’m a literary writer. How did I get here?” Then I lost consciousness, again. I joke.
KS: What’s your favorite book of your own?
BY: Oh, I’m very fond of Wearing Dad’s Head, all the family stuff. Haunted Traveller is very dear to me, too. I got to be so atmospheric. NASTYbook was a gas: opening up to pop culture, using proper names. And as I say, stretching my technique out to novel size, with the upcoming Another NASTYbook, has been a real thrill.
KS: What other writers inspire you?
BY: Lately… I’d never been one for Borges, but then I got hold of his first book, A Universal History of Infamy. It’s slender and magical, worth its weight in gold. Borges led me to Chesterton’s masterpiece, The Man Who Was Thursday—you see where much of Borges came from. Beyond that, I’m always a fan of tiptop comically inclined Amercian crimewriters: Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard. And in a non-humorous, tough as nails vein, Richard Stark—Donald Westlake, but without jokes. I love the propulsiveness of such writers. A big influence on NASTYbook was John Collier, the fantastical English short-story writer, who helped inspire The Twilight Zone. Hans Christian Andersen, I’ve mentioned. My biggest influences when I started out? Isaac Babel, and Raymond Carver’s first book.
KS: Lastly, I notice that your publisher is doing a “direct mail campaign to summer camps”. That sounds like marketing genius. Do you have any memories of summer camps when you were a kid?
BY: I didn’t go to summer camp. But I was in Boy Scouts, and remember well a certain summer jamboree, like a big camping event. A bunch of fat fellow Scouts sat on me and gave me a cherry belly; and then a slenderer maniac chased me round and round our tent with a hatchet. There were winter memories too: camping in an igloo we’d built in the snowy woods, and in which we then got to spent a sleepless, agonized, freezing night, before hobbling at dawn to the scoutmasters toasty farmhouse. But fun, looking back at it. I guess.