Interview: Daniel Paul
Interview with Daniel Paul
By Yemassee Editors
Daniel Paul received his MFA from Southern Illinois University. His fiction, non-fiction and humor writing has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Puerto Del Sol, The Briar Cliff Review, New Delta Review, Lumina, and other magazines. He lives in Ohio where he is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Cincinnati.
Paul’s short story “The Ones Without Writers”is the winner of the 2017 Yemassee Fiction Contest.
Yemassee: Where are you from and where are you now? How does (or doesn’t) place influence your work?
Daniel Paul: I grew up in New York City, currently live in Cincinnati, and have mostly lived in the Midwest in between. Living in Ohio as a New Yorker I do feel a bit out of place (#BagelDesertsAreReal). But whenever I visit New York I feel as if everyone and everything needs to calm down, so I suppose I feel out of place there too. I think this sense that no place really feels like “home” anymore influences my writing more than any particular place does.
Y: What’s your number one rule of writing?
DP: Enjoy it? I think I spent a lot of time as a writer assuming that the things that were most fun for me or came easiest to me were, by definition, less valuable or “artistic” than the things that were much harder. I think the energy we find in stories we love to read must at least in some sense align with the energy and enthusiasm that the author had in writing them. I mean, I’m sure many great writers suffer for their writing, but I’m just not that deep or full of inner pain to write anything like that. For me, the more fun I’m having writing, the more likely the piece is to have energy and to work.
Y: Has there been a particular something (idea/image/phrase/quote/obsession) knocking around in your head lately?
DP: I have a friend at grad school, Gwen Kirby, who wrote an excellent story about a couple who celebrates an anniversary with dinner at a pretty shady crab restaurant. My suggestion to her in workshop (which she wisely ignored) was to add “more crab” (I wanted crab bibs, I wanted long riffs about the crab themed restaurant décor, I wanted flashbacks from prior crab meals). As is too often the case in workshop, my comments to her revealed a lot more about the commenter than about the story. But I have been trying to embrace “more crab” as my own mantra in writing. Or, as Boyd Crowder says in Justified, “If you’re gonna be a bear, be a Grizzly.”
Y: Can you talk about your piece “The Ones Without Writers” and how it came to be?
DP: I guess I just watch too much TV? And I can get really pedantic about it (like, do you ever notice how nobody ever finishes the food they order on a sitcom? What happens to all this food) and so I just started thinking about what would happen to sitcom characters (particularly the ones on Friends) if they weren’t restricted by the conventions of the genre. Then I just tried to get out of their way and let them fill the space the conceit opened for them.
Y: How does (or doesn’t) this piece fit in with your larger body of work?
DP: I’m always interested in mixing pop culture into my writing. It’s part of our language at this point. A lot of people (readers and writers) work to create divisions between literary stories and popular stories. And I encourage them to do so. As Tom Haverford says in Parks and Rec, “I’ve never taken the high road. But I tell other people to. ‘Cause then there’s more room for me, on the low road”. Also, I love reading stories that are about how we tell stories, and so looking at characters who no longer have someone else determining their narratives for them was appealing.
Y: What is the strangest thing about your writing process?
DP: Probably the role of my dog. We go on a lot of “plot walks” (a term I think I heard in an interview with Michael Chabon, though I can’t confirm he took his dog with him), and sometimes she will whimper by the door and this will motivate me to finish a section so I can take her out. So I think it’s entirely possible that pacing in my writing is determined by my dog’s bladder and patience.
Y: How does it feel that Alexandra Kleeman chose “The Ones Without Writers” as the winner of the 2017 Fiction Prize?
DP: On the one hand, it is particularly gratifying, as I am a big fan of her work. On the other hand, I think I would have to win a contest by someone who I actively disliked to know if it would feel any different. I mean, it’s pretty exciting to win something even if it’s by random lottery. Like, I recently won the pet store raffle (shout-out to “Petey’s Pet Stop” on Howell Ave in Cincinnati), and, even though I hadn’t done anything to deserve it, and winning was not a reflection on my merits as determined by a judge whose opinion I respected, it was still pretty fucking exciting. (The dog certainly seemed excited, attacking the bounty with a verve that seemed undiminished but not having “earned” the snausages in question.) But yes, it’s exciting to know she liked the story.