Corey Mesler is one of the most prolific writers out there, and a real nice guy. He owns Burke's Books in Memphis, which is a fine bookstore with great prices and a hell of a selection. Corey has two new novels out as well as a new poetry collection...
Me: I recently read your new poetry collection, Before the Great Troubling. I don’t mean to tie you down but can you tell me what you had in mind with the title? I had a couple theories…
Corey: The title, like all good titles, is both specific and general. Specifically, I am speaking about a very personal troubling. It’s no great secret that over ten years ago I suddenly developed agoraphobia and panic syndrome. I say suddenly, but, of course, as a therapist would tell you, I was building my phobic life all of my days, from not being breastfed, to schoolyard bullies, to a bad first marriage, etc. So, in the poem of that title and in many of the introspective poems in my book, I was harkening back to a time when life seemed better, simpler, less treacherous. But, also, generally speaking, it can be any troubling, personal, professional, political (and those are just the “p’s”!). So, like many writers, I am hoping to hit on universal truths. Everyone has had a “troubling.”
Me: I noticed several of the poems in Troubling were about your kids. How has being a father influenced your writing?
Corey: Oh, Lord, parenting is the Big Subject, isn’t it? I mean, if you’re there, if you’re paying attention as a parent, you’re witnessing the world being born, as it is busy being born every day in thousands of different ways. A human life is a microcosm of the universe. I heard Robert Bly say that poets don’t write anything worthwhile in their 20s. They are just sitting around waiting for a friend to die so they have subject matter. I would say being a parent is a more positive way of agreeing with Mr. Bly.
Me: Who are your biggest literary influences? & how have they influenced you?
Corey: I could make a list as long as a Thanksgiving sermon but I will try to hit the highlights. William Carlos Williams, James Tate, John Berryman, Mark Strand, C. K. Williams, Steve Stern, Kafka, Sylvia Plath, Ikkyu, Merwin, Vonnegut, John Barth, Steven Millhauser, Walker Percy, Nabokov, Donald Barthelme, Iris Murdoch, Joyce, Beckett, Pinter, Albee, Mamet (before he turned into a Republican), Brautigan, DeLillo, Bob Dylan, The Marx Brothers, Leonard Cohen, Looney Toons, Rod Serling. Now, to get to the “how.” When I was young I wrote a lot of late night, sad bastard poetry, full of self-pity and longing for I didn’t know what. But I got to where I could pen a verse that was passable interesting. However, what I really wanted to write was fiction. I just assumed, without really trying, that I couldn’t do it. It was the word count itself that held me back. Then a talisman came into my hands that changed my thinking, and that transformative talisman was Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Little stories that knocked me ass over teakettle. And I thought, I don’t know how he does that in 5-10 pages but I want to aim at that. So I started writing little micro-fictions. That’s probably enough on this question except I want to add, I heard a friend say once, “I am working on a novel,” and I thought that was just about as fine an aspiration as any human being could dream about. A novel, to my way of thinking, may be mankind’s greatest achievement. Better than The Enlightenment, better than walking on the moon, better than tinfoil. And, later, after my 40th birthday, after my father had already gone the way of all flesh, I wrote and published a novel. Landsakes!
Me: What have you read recently that knocked you on your ass?
Corey: This is one of my favorite questions. I don’t meet many new people nor do I socialize much (see agoraphobia) but I can’t think of a better ice-breaker, or a better way to start a confab. I love talking about what I‘ve read. So, lately, let’s see. Kobo Abe’s The Women in the Dunes, Jesse Ball’s The Curfew, Emma Donoghue’s Room, Charles McCarry’s Last Supper, Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now?, Donald Westlake’s Memory. Those were all great novels. Probably the work of fiction I’ve been most excited about in the last couple years is Anthony Powell’s 12 novel cycle, Dance to the Music of Time. I am through book seven and I think it is one of the crowning achievements in 20th century literature. Oh and I’ve just discovered Alice Munro’s stories, which are spun from fine stuff. And let me re-emphasize my admiration for the Fallada novel. I had never read him before and now I want everything by him. In poetry I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen Dunn, Sharon Olds, Bei Dao, Gregory Orr, Roethke, Kay Ryan. I think my pal, Marly Youman’s new book, The Throne of Psyche, is dynamite.
Me: Your first novel, Talk, was completely written in dialogue. We Are Billion Year Old Carbon is a novel in collage. The Ballad of the Two Tom Mores is a kind of portrait of a town (as I suppose Carbon was as well), a very southern novel with multiple narrators and lots of humor. All of these books seem vastly different, stylistically. How would you describe the Mesler style or voice?
Corey: I know, I feel as if, to a degree, I backed through the novelist door by writing my first novel all in unattributed dialogue. I got that idea from reading William Gaddis, by the way. I do think each of my books is unique and, in that way, every one is an experiment. Does that make me an experimental writer? I ask this sincerely. I am shaky on the term but it has been applied to my writing before. I don’t think I have a voice that you can pin down easily. Maybe in the poetry. I try to do something different with every novel because that keeps me interested. I have another “collage” novel, this one set on Beale Street, coming out next year but it is very different from We are Billion-Year-Old Carbon. Thanks, by the way, for finding The Ballad of the Two Tom Mores funny. I think you and I and my friend Mark Hendren are the only ones in that club.
Me: You’re very prolific, Can you tell me a little about your writing routine?
Corey: When I was younger Ben Franklin took me aside and told me this: early to bed and early to rise will make little Corey wise. In middle-age I took that as my guiding principle. I wake every day around 5 and am at the keyboard usually by 6. At that time, on a good day, I feel how God must have felt before the whole 6 days of labor thing. When my wife and I bought the bookstore in 2000 she gave me a great gift, Fridays off to do nothing but write. Then the agoraphobia phenomenon sorta took my legs out from under me and I find myself home a lot. I don’t recommend agoraphobia as a component of one’s writing method but, when I contemplate how much time I am home alone, I think, Damn it, you better be prolific. It is a lonely way of life but it is mine.
Me: What are you working on?
Corey: I am about 1/3 of the way through the first draft of a new novel. Nothing makes me happier than working on a novel. I love the long haul, the Indy 500 as opposed to the 50 yard dash. And, what I am saying about this novel, when asked, is that it is more conventional; it is plot-drive, character-driven. In other words, I am experimenting with not being experimental. I also have a book of stories due out before the end of the year so I will be polishing that with the help of my perspicacious editor. And, always, I am pecking away at poems in the interstices.
Me: If you were to be remembered for one work, which would it be?
Corey: I want to be remembered for Ulysses. Oh, you probably mean something of mine. I don’t know. I am still very fond of Talk. And I am very proud of my new short story collection, Notes Toward the Story and Other Stories. But, if my Beale Street book comes off like I think it will, it may be my best writing so far, so I will want to be remembered for that. I labored long and hard over that book, over every sentence, over every word, and I think it is intricate and funny and off-center and full of anti-history and whimsy. At this point I hope, it, you know, works.
Me: I am looking forward to reading your novel Following Richard Brautigan. What is it about Brautigan that inspires you?
Corey: I came to Brautigan in my late teens and early 20s. He was possibly my first favorite writer. So, in a sense, I thought I owed him homage. My novel, in which he appears as a very persuasive ghost, was really begun when the phrase “following Richard Brautigan” floated across my inner screen. I thought, hm, that would make a nice title. And I’ve always wanted to write a road novel, having read the Beats about the same time I was reading Mr. B. So my novel was born less from being directly inspired by Brautigan’s loopy, winsome surrealism—though I still admire that about him---but more from a desire to touch the part of myself that first began to read books, my innocent younger self.
Me: One of your kids comes to you and says, “Dad, I want to be a writer.” What advice would you give?
Corey: It would make me extremely happy. And I would say to him or her what I would say to any wannabe writer: read a lot of books. Then read more books. Then write and write and write as if Old Scratch were hot on your ass.