Nearly Unavoidable and Never Ever Cool: An Interview with Dave Housley by Jen Michalski

Dave Housley is the author of the novel The Other Ones. His other novels are Howard and Charles at the Factory and This Darkness Got to Give. He is also the author of four collections of short fiction, the most recent being Massive, Cleansing Fire, a collection of stories that all end in a massive, cleansing fire. He is one of the founding editors of Barrelhouse, a national literary magazine, small press, and literary-based nonprofit. He is also one of the co-founders and organizers of the Conversations and Connections writer’s conference.

Jen Michalski: Congratulations on The Other Ones! After four collections of short fiction spanning a decade, since 2018 you’ve banged out a lot of long fiction, with This Darkness Got to Give, then the novella Howard and Charles at the Factory in 2020 and now The Other Ones in 2022. Is this an exciting, new trend of longer fiction for you? Will we see novels and 400-page Michener-style tomes from Dave Housley from here on out?

Dave Housley: I guess that is a thing I’m doing? Well, not the full-on Michener 400-page opus, but I have been focusing mostly on longer things lately. I also have another novel that I wrote with my friend and fellow Barrelhouse editor Becky Barnard, The Grays, coming out later in 2022, so I suppose I have been focusing on writing longer things for some time now. Seems like that’s a natural progression for some people. Novels definitely present a new, different set of challenges, I think, so maybe that’s why some of us move in that direction over a certain period of time. Like most writers, I still have a handful of half-finished short stories sitting on my laptop, and ideas for stories popping into my dumb brain pretty much every time I go out of my house and see people doing weird/interesting/confounding things, which is all the time.

JM: So how did you come to team up with Alan Squire Publishing?

DH: The short version is they were open for novel submissions and I had this novel.

The long version is I went through what I think is probably the standard process when you have a novel you think might be appealing to larger publishers and you don’t have an agent: I tried and failed at the agent query thing. I should preface this by saying that most, if not all the books I’ve published so far do not fall into the category of “maybe an agent would be interested in this book.” I’ve tried to be pretty honest with myself about that. I thought this one might be different, more potentially appealing to agents and larger publishers. A lot of people work in offices, right? That was my thinking. My spreadsheets tells me I went at it for about six months, and I queried 57 agents before I threw in the towel. I’m guessing there are people who  might read that and say he hardly even scratched the surface, and they may be right. To me, eventually it felt like I was just blind-querying, sending out to anybody for no reason at all other than some listing somewhere said they were an agent who represented literary fiction and they were open. I also realized I could probably keep on doing that forever. So I started to look at small/medium presses who were open to non-agented submissions. That’s kind of a rolling affair. Sometimes places are open and sometimes they’re not. There were some great publishers that just weren’t open at the time. I was lucky that Alan Squire happened to be open. In the end, I’m really happy with how it turned out because they’ve been wonderful to work with, just really great all the way through. We’re just on the edge of publishing the book now and I’m very happy to be working with everybody there.

JM: That’s great news—I love a happy publishing story! And, really, I’ve seen so much crossover in the past several years–so many agented authors winding up on indies like Dzanc, Black Lawrence, Santa Fe Writers Project, Flux, Unnamed, and others. It really feels like you can get the quality of editing that the big 5 offer from independent presses but with more individual attention and less pressure regarding sales. There are some small presses for whom, yeah, I’d feel like I won the lottery if I wound up working with them. Speaking of which, The Other Ones—a bunch of guys at a marketing firm in State College, Pennsylvania, DO win the lottery. But this book isn’t about them—it’s about the other ones, their colleagues who didn’t put money in the pool and didn’t win 8.8 million dollars each. Where did the idea come from?

DH: The idea was very much rooted in real life. I’m the Director of Web Strategy at Penn State Outreach and Online Education. I should preface this by saying that I wrote the book prior to the pandemic, and signed a contract for it right before the whole thing went kablooey, so up until March 2020 I was working in a building just off campus, and in our department there was a group who played the lottery, run by a person who had taken it on himself to organize the whole thing every few weeks. He’s thanked in the acknowledgments, actually, because as I was writing this book I was continually getting this drip of lottery emails, and each one of them was like an alarm that said “finish that book.” I had this very real fear that one day I’d walk into the building and find out that they had won the lottery, and for whatever reason I had neglected to play that week. The first several scenes in the book are all people arriving at work and finding out one way or another—I had a really visceral idea of the various ways this might happen—that their co-workers won the lottery. I used to “joke” that I was only playing because I couldn’t bear the idea that I might walk in one day and find out that they had won. I guess classic writer move: I took that weird fear and the really specific ideas about what it would be like that day, and the next day, and all of the days after that, and started a novel about it.

JM: I’m always very interested in how authors frame stories, and I’m a great admirer of the multi-person point of view, the ensemble cast. Did you know right away you were going to write from the perspective of so many people? Did you plot each journey individually, or did one person’s narrative as you were writing it inform the others? Were there any difficulties you encountered along the way?

DH: I knew that it would be a group of people and that they would shoot off in different directions. I had the Chris Bachelder novel The Throwback Special, which is just brilliant, in my head the entire time. I wanted one person to lean into work, one person to try to revisit some kind of artistic ambitions, one person to quit and drive across country. The first chapter I wrote was the guy who jumps off the building and then comes back as a ghost to ineptly haunt the houses of the lottery winners. Those were really just the most vague ideas. Just directions I thought people might go. Probably directions I could see myself going at various times in my life (well, hopefully with the exception of the incompetent ghost). The other characters just kind of showed up. I don’t outline anything, which isn’t something I exactly recommend but it’s the only way I can do it without sucking the life out of the writing, so nothing was plotted other than those vague ideas about the kinds of directions something like that might send you depending on who you are and where you are in your life/career.

For a pretty short book that I at least think of as primarily literary, character-driven fiction, I think it’s also pretty plot heavy. I’ve been kind of relieved to have a couple of people say that it moves quickly because there’s a lot of movement, a lot of things happening in those various timelines. The difficulty for me was at about the three-quarters point, when I had kind of pushed these pieces around on the table some, and I knew they all had to come back together for a resolution. We always joke that you can end a short story with a character looking meaningfully up at the moon. I wrote a whole book of stories that end in massive cleansing fires. Novels are definitely different. For a book, especially a book where you’ve pushed the pieces around this much, some of them across the country, you really do need to resolve the story in terms of plot, so the biggest challenge for me was trying to pull all those various threads back together again in a way that seemed more or less realistic and also satisfying.

JM: Oh, the ending—wow! I wasn’t expecting it. Of course, when I went back, I could see the clues, the buildup, but maybe I just wasn’t ready to believe it was going to happen. Did you know how you were going to end it when you began writing, or did it come to you later as you began to inhabit the headspace of the characters?

DH: I did not know how I was going to end it at all! That was really the challenge, because I had all of those threads out there, those seven different storylines and a fair amount of plot happening, and I knew I was going to have to pull all of these threads back together somehow. Some of the specifics felt like they fell into place pretty well, like the way the angry ghost influences the final action, and that was a very pleasant surprise. I’m sure you’ve had that feeling where you realize how something you’ve put into a story or novel might fit into the larger picture, or in service of the overall story or novel, much later in the writing. It’s happened to me a few times, that feeling of oh now I know what to do with this thing I thought I had put into this kind of randomly, and it definitely happened in writing the ending to this novel.

JM: I always enjoy seeing how people approach characterizations, specifically the building of details. What characteristics are usually important to establish for you? I ask because I think at least three characters had foot overuse injuries (two with plantar fasciitis), and there was a lot of Dockers action. It made me think of this Reddit post I read that was basically men trying to remember the last time they’d gotten a hug from someone who was not their mother. I think I finally understood the fragileness of men in that post, and I felt so sorry for them. I don’t know why, but the Dockers and feet problems kind of touched on that nerve for me—the secret codes of conduct and fragilities of modern men.

DH: That’s really interesting. The foot thing is probably because I have tendinitis in my Achilles, and that’s been one of the hallmarks of officially getting old for me. A particularly shitty hallmark, I should note. Playing basketball was an important part of my identity from when I was in elementary school all the way up to my late thirties, when this tendinitis really kicked in, so I’m sure I have some of that foot pain stuff all tied up with identity in a way that’s very particular to me. “The fragilities of modern men” is a good way to put it. I tried to lean in to that kind of grievance culture in some of these characters, in a way that I don’t exactly want to be entirely sympathetic, but I also want their concerns about the small things that stack up—the foot pain and the doctor’s appointments and the bills to pay—at least realistic, even for readers who have yet to buy their first tube of heel cream.

Dockers are something I’ve almost certainly written into all my books. To me they represent a kind of genericized corporate culture, a giving in to a thing that’s always going to be just fine and nearly unavoidable and literally never cool. You Docker up and you pack your lunch and you go punch that elevator button and all of it is literally you sucking it up and doing what you have to do to just get by in this situation which for most of us is just like the Dockers themselves: just fine and nearly unavoidable and never ever cool.

JM: LOL, I’ve had Achilles tendinitis, too, now, for a few years! It just appeared one day, out of nowhere. And it’s fine and nearly unavoidable, I guess. 😉 I do dig your Dockers philosophy, though. You’ve been exploring this middle-age alienation for a little bit now, particularly with your last book, Howard and Charles at the Factory, but really even as far back as This Darkness Got to Give. It really does seem like one day you go to bed with a P90X body and wake up with the body of a recreational softball player. Is it the government? The media? Comet Ping Pong Pizza? Anyway, I’m curious as to whether you’ll be following these themes to their logical end in The Grays. What’s that all about?

DH: The Grays is a real departure from all of this old-man bullshit, which feels very refreshing to me at least. It’s a young adult science fiction book that I wrote with my friend and fellow Barrelhouse editor Becky Barnard, about an alien girl who is undercover in an Indiana high school, trying to find out what happened to her disappeared predecessor while also navigating the confounding ins and outs of high school and slowly untangling the real reason she and her parents have been sent to Earth. It was really fun to write and probably part of the reason for that is it was a total departure from everything I had been writing for the past decade or so. The other reason is Becky is a much better writer than me, so it was quite fun to ride her coattails for this one.

Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Tide King and Summer She Was Under Water (both Black Lawrence Press) and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and three collections of fiction. She’s also the editor in chief of jmww


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