David S. Atkinson is the author of Not Quite So Stories:
The center of Not Quite So Stories is the idea that life is inherently absurd and all people can do is figure out how they will live in the face of that fact. The traditional explanation for the function of myth (including such works as the relatively modern Rudyard Kiping’s Just So Stories) is as an attempt by humans to explain and demystify the world. However, that’s hollow. We may be able to come to terms with small pieces, but existence as a whole is beyond our grasp. Life simply is absurd, ultimately beyond our comprehension, and the best we can do is to just proceed on with our lives. The stories in this collection proceed from this conception, each focusing on a character encountering an absurdity and focusing on how they manage to live with it.
Read on for a special interview with David, as well as an excerpt from his book.
S.R.: What was the inspiration for Not Quite So Stories?
D.A.: Just so Stories by Rudyard Kipling seems like an obvious influence.
S.R.: What other books or authors have influenced you?
D.A.: I’m actually going to answer questions 1 and 2 at the same time, if that’s all right. At the time, I was writing mainly straightforward literary realism, much of it with a child narrator focus. Every once in a while, I got a wild hair to write something that was still essentially realism, but with a wild element included that threw the realism on its ear (like my story “Context Driven”). I had so much energy for those stories when they came up and they were so much fun to write, I couldn’t ignore them. I’d jump off whatever project I was currently on in favor of them when it happened. Still, I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Then I ran across writers doing similar things (Etgar Keret, Amelia Gray, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Haruki Murakami, and so on). Each author led to others, journals that featured that kind of work, and more ideas. I started seeing all kinds of things I could do that I had never considered doing before. It was a different worldview, turning around the idea that the world is an inherently mundane place into the basic assumption that the world is bizarre and wonderful. I thought about myth at the time, particularly simplistic ones such as Just so Stories, that make halfhearted attempts at explaining the world. But why would we want it explained? Why would we want to drain the magic just to be able to cope with it? Why not accept that it is inherently inexplicable, beyond our grasps, and just try to figure out how we live with that? I found myself writing stories from that position, answering the imaginary voices I head from that other side, and that’s when I started trying to put these stories together in a collection with that central idea.
S.R.: What, in your opinion, is the most absurd story in Not Quite So Stories? Do you have a favorite?
D.A.: I have trouble ranking things on an absolute scale, whether favorites or which story is the most absurd. The rankings would change depending on which of a set of factors was given more weight than others, and which should be given most weight seems shifting. Some of this is even dependent on my mood. Some stories are less absurd in that there is nothing physically impossible, but the people themselves are absurd. “Changes for the Château” is one of these, where a pair of French brothers decide to offer a bargain rate where they annoy their guests since all the rooms are the same size. Other stories involve reasonable people, but with physically impossible elements, such as “G-Men” where the main character snatches skydivers mid-jump in order to perform government security screening. They’re all absurd in different ways and I just can’t seem to choose among them.
S.R.: What do you hope readers take away from Not Quite So Stories?
D.A.: My bottom line hope is that readers enjoy themselves. I’d like them to be intrigued, to look at the world again as the essentially wondrous place it is, look on each other as fellow passengers amidst this bizarre existence in which we find ourselves, but none of that matters if readers don’t enjoy the stories. As long as readers have fun, I’ll be happy.
S.R.: You’ve written both novels and short stories. Do you have a preference?
D.A.: I don’t think I have a preference inherently between the two, more for one over the other for a particular project. Some projects are better done in a short, crystalized space whereas others need more room to expand. My book Bones Buried in the Dirt started as a story, but there was more there and I followed it. My story “An Endless Series of Meaningless Miracles” started as a novel, but needed to be more concentrated to come off right. I enjoy both though, and I enjoy hopping back and forth between the two. I tend to follow the flow of the ideas. There’s always one going, so I just ride along.
S.R.: How do you approach writing a novel versus writing a short story?
D.A.: Strangely enough, I don’t find I approach writing a novel that much differently from a short story in general. It’s more that each project is so different, carrying with it its own way that it needs to be approached. If I find I’m going nowhere, it’s usually because I’m not listening to the project and how it insists it’s going to be handled. Once I tune in to its particular own set of rules, things tend to go well. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to that though as far as short stories or novels go. There are some mechanical differences, but those aren’t that difficult (compared to the more challenging aspects of what the story is and where it is going) so I don’t focus on them as much.
S.R.: What are you working on next?
D.A.: I’ve always got a couple different projects midstream. I’ve got someone taking a look at an essay-ish book on the original The Legend of Zelda and I’ve got a post-post apocalyptic novel about characters sick of living amidst apocalypses that never end that I may soon be making an announcement about. The front and center project right now is a series of really weird flash pieces, ones that made the deceased gentleman renting an apartment in “Turndown Service” seem normal by comparison. Those are almost too weird, but are so much fun to write, so full of energy. We’ll see where those lead me.
EXCERPT: TURNDOWN SERVICE
Margaret’s heels clicked repetitiously on the polished marble floors of Finklebean’s Mortuary. The sharp sound echoed down aisles of metal-faced vaults in the chilled, solemn hallways. Her steps were quick but purposeful, her stride constrained by the tight skirt of her starched navy business dress. An invoice was clutched tightly in her talon-like hand. Someone owed her an explanation…and that debt would be paid.
Catching sight of the plain brown wooden door hidden off in a back hallway bearing a faded Caretaker’s Office sign, Margaret halted, causing her heels to clack loudly on the stone. She pursed her lips as she scrutinized the sign. As if using the white metal sign with flaking black letters as a mirror, she adjusted the smartly coiled chestnut bun of her hair. Then she shoved open the weathered door and marched inside.
“Excuse me,” she called out sternly before looking what the room happened to contain, or even whether it was occupied.
A portly man in old blue coveralls sitting at a rough wooden worktable looked up at her calmly. Long stringy gray hair framed his face around a set of coke bottle eyeglasses perched on the end of his reddened bulbous nose. A metal cart, half full of plastic funeral flower arrangements, was positioned next to the worktable. Individual plastic flowers littered the table surface.
Unlike the somber and silent polished gray marble trimmed in shining brass of the hallway outside, the caretaker’s room felt more like a basement or garage. The walls were cinderblock, unpainted, and the floor was bare concrete. Obviously, the room was not used for professional services.
“My bill is incorrect,” Margaret said, thrusting the invoice out at the frumpy little man between a thumb and forefinger, both with nails bearing a French manicure. “You maintain my grandfather’s plot, but this month’s bill is way over the usual twenty-five sixty-three…nine hundred dollars more to be precise. You may not be the person in charge of this, but you’re who I found.”
The older man quietly looked at her still presenting the invoice even though he had made no move to take it. “Name?”
“Margaret Lane,” Margaret said curtly.
“No,” the caretaker shook his mess of oily old hair. “I won’t remember you. I meant your granddad’s.”
Margaret pursed her lips again. “Winston Lane.”
“Ah, yes.” The heavyset man leaned back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head and cocking out his elbows. His belly pushed on the table slightly, causing loose plastic flowers to roll around on the tabletop. The flowers were separated into piles according to color: red, white, yellow, purple, and orange. “Winston Lane. His is over on hillside four, I believe.”
“I’m sure.” Margaret crossed her arms, still clutching the invoice. “So why do I have a bill for over nine hundred dollars?”
The caretaker hunched forward, setting his chin on a pudgy arm and wrapping a flabby hand around his mouth. “Let’s see…Winston Lane…bigger than normal bill…oh, that’s right!” His face brightened with recollection.
Margaret smugly waited for the expected rationalization to begin, the extras and add-ons designed to take advantage of the gullible grieving. She wouldn’t be so easily manipulated.
“He got an apartment.”
Margaret’s expression cracked.
“That’s what the extra money is,” he pleasantly explained. “It’s to cover the rent.”
Margaret stared, blinking occasionally. A thin purple vein throbbed angrily at the side of her neck.
The man smiled. Then he pushed his round glasses further back up his nose and grabbed one of the plastic funeral arrangements from the cart. It had a block of dense green foam set in a fake bronze vase and various colors of plastic flowers stuck in the foam. The man pulled all the flowers out in a single movement and set each in the respective colored pile on the worktable. Then he placed the vase in a pile of similar vases on the floor.
“You…rented my grandfather an apartment?” Margaret finally asked. “Why?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the older man snorted, dismembering another arrangement. “He rented the apartment, not us.”
Margaret sneered, having recovered her self-possession and indignation. “Sir, my grandfather is deceased.”
“Yep,” the caretaker agreed. He started quickly taking vases from the cart, ripping them apart, and then tossing the materials in the respective sort piles. “Guess he didn’t like the plot he picked out. Maybe it wasn’t roomy enough, I don’t know. Some things like that you just can’t be sure of till you get in a place and stay there a while. Anyway, he must not have liked something about it because he went and got himself that apartment. He wouldn’t have done that if he’d been happy where he was at.”
Margaret stood rigid. The toe of one foot tapped irritably. “How could my grandfather possibly rent an apartment? He’s dead!”
“How couldn’t he?” The caretaker snorted again. “It’s a great apartment. Plenty of light. Nice carpets. Good amount of space. It’s got a nice pool, too. Not that pools make much of a difference to a guy like him, being dead and all. Anyway, take a look; happen to have a photo of the place right here. Can’t rightly remember why.”
The man handed Margaret a bent-up photograph he pulled from a coverall pocket. It depicted a pleasantly-lit living room with vaulted ceilings. Tasteful black leather and chrome furniture was arranged around a delicate glass coffee table. On top of the coffee table sat her grandfather’s mahogany coffin, looking just as stately as it had at her grandfather’s funeral service.
Margaret glowered, unsure what to make of the photograph, noticing after a moment that she was chewing her lip as she ground her teeth. Her brain couldn’t keep up, it was all just too ludicrous for her to grasp. The man sorted more funeral arrangements. “So…you’re telling me that my deceased grandfather rented an apartment. Him, not you.”
“Yep. That’s the long and short of it.” The man jammed the photograph back into his pocket.
“My dead grandfather.”
“Yes’m.” He took the last arrangement off the cart and disposed of it as he had the others.
He paused to dust off his hands. Then he grabbed a vase from the floor, jammed a plastic flower inside from each stack, and set the newly arranged arrangement on the cart.
“How could anyone rent my grandfather an apartment!?” Margaret threw up her arms.
“He’s dead! The landlord couldn’t do that!”
“Sure they can,” the caretaker countered, paying more attention to the funeral arrangements than Margaret. “The building is zoned for mixed use.”
“Mixed use?! He’s dead!” She wiped her hand down her face slowly, stretching her skin as it went.
“So? He’s residing there. That’s a residential use. Certainly isn’t commercial.” The caretaker accidentally shoved two red plastic flowers in the same vase. Laughing at himself, he ripped them out again and started over.
Margaret stepped back, perhaps wondering if the caretaker was insane as opposed to just conning her. That would explain the photograph.
She crossed her arms loosely and tilted her chin upwards just a little, trying to mentally get a handle on the situation. Her brain felt like an overheated car with no oil in the engine.
“I’m sorry, but that’s very distracting,” Margaret commented, pointing at the plastic flower piles on the worktable. “Is there any way that you could stop a moment?”
“Sorry.” The older man shook a thick calloused finger at an old clock on the wall, stopped as far as Margaret could tell. “I got to get this done.”
“But…what exactly are you doing? You’re just taking them apart and putting them back together.”
The rumpled man gestured at the flowers. “Well, people pay us to put these on graves, don’t they?”
“They come from a factory, don’t they? Someone paying someone else to bring something a machine made? I don’t think much of that. My way, there’s at least some thought in it.”
Margaret did not respond. Instead, she watched the man fill up the cart again. The arrangements looked exactly the same as before.
“Anyway,” the caretaker went on, “don’t you owe your granddad?”
“Pardon me?” Margaret puffed out her chest.
“Sure,” the man said, peering up at her through the finger-smudged lenses of his glasses.
“He said when he bought the plot that you were going to take care of it and he was going to leave you money to keep going to school. He thought you should start working, but helped you out since you were going to mind his spot.”
Margaret swallowed, ruining her attempt to look indignant. A few beads of sweat gathered at her temples.
“You figure you’ve done enough?” The man had his head held low, hiding the tiny smirk on his face.
Margaret’s eyes widened. Her arms hung limply at her sides and her shoulders slumped.
“Hey, that’s between you two. I just take care of things like I’m paid to. If he wants his plot, I do that. If he wants a two-bedroom palace, I do that instead.”
Margaret absentmindedly twisted an old, ornate gold ring on her finger. Suddenly, her eyes narrowed as if the light in the dim room had gotten brighter. The meticulously squared corners of her mind twisted and stretched deliciously. “That’s right…it was a deal.”
“I agreed to have his plot cared for.”
“Well…” Her lips slipped into a pointed grin. “I pay you a fixed monthly amount to care for that plot. Apparently this apartment is his plot now, so the rent should be part of your monthly care. I expect you to take care of it accordingly. After all, caring for his plot is caring for his plot.”
“Now see here–”
“Regardless, I can’t help but think,” she went on, “that it reflects poorly on your services if grandfather isn’t happy with his plot, not mine.”
The caretaker gawked at Margaret, his mouth hanging loose. “Is that what you think now?” The older man finally growled.
“It is,” she responded with a saccharine tone, “and I expect that all future bills will be for the correct amount.”
“Hmph,” he huffed, settling back into his chair. “Wonder what your granddad would say about that.”
Margaret smirked. “You’re welcome to go and ask him, if you think it will get you anywhere.”
David S. Atkinson is the author of “Not Quite so Stories” (“Literary Wanderlust” 2016), “The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes” (2015 National Indie Excellence Awards finalist in humor), and “Bones Buried in the Dirt” (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K). His writing appears in “Bartleby Snopes,” “Grey Sparrow Journal,” “Atticus Review,” and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.
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