Suspend Your Disbelief

Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs, and a Couple of Barbie Dolls: An Interview with Barrett Bowlin

"I’m really fortunate that small presses and indie presses exist because I tend to write weird shit."

Interviews |

Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs, and a Couple of Barbie Dolls: An Interview with Barrett Bowlin

FWR editor Eric McDowell and Barrett Bowlin sit down to talk small presses, the fiction of shitty jobs, and Bowlin's debut collection, Ghosts Caught on Film, winner of the Bridge Eight Press Fiction Prize.

“We can save ourselves by understanding what kills us.” So begins “New Careers in Science,” the lead story of Barrett Bowlin’s Ghosts Caught on Film, winner of the Bridge Eight Press Fiction Prize. Spoken—or rather bellowed over the roar of a medical waste incinerator—by the story’s narrator’s grandson, a pathologist at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in Bristol, Rhode Island, these words sound pitched not just to serve as an entry point to the story itself, in which freak lightning storms have begun terrorizing the region and rendering its inhabitants burn victims, but also to set a direction for the collection as a whole, packed as it is with “what kills us”: calamitous weather events, nuclear meltdowns, devastating diagnoses.

Now, Ghosts Caught on Film isn’t all devastation—salvation is inseparable from ruin in those opening words. Throughout his debut collection, Bowlin proves a master at holding up that inseparability for inspection and wonder, entertainment and, perhaps after all, instruction. There’s the chef whose five-star steaks are seasoned with a sinister ingredient. The firefighter, on hospice care, who insists on telling his teenage son intricate jokes. The MIT geneticist toiling in her lab to make gummy bears dance while her pregnant sister sobs at the sight of her ultrasound.

And yet to spend time with Bowlin, who earned his Ph.D. in creative writing from upstate New York’s Binghamton University and currently teaches at Suffolk University in Boston, is nothing but a joy, his energy for shoptalk and the warmth of his personal bearing a balm for the weary writer. As a contributor, his generosity and insight have long been on display in these pages, and it was my privilege to turn the spotlight on him and his patiently debuted, justly admired collection. On a recent Friday evening after his office hours, we sat down over IPAs and barleywine to shoot the breeze. A few days later, we met over Zoom, took a deep breath, and hit “record.” 


Eric McDowell: Barrett, you’ve been contributing interviews to Fiction Writers Review since 2015. So first, thank you for that. And congratulations on your collection. How does it feel to be on the other side of the table?

Barrett Bowlin: Honestly, it feels weird. Like I’m really underprepared for this since I haven’t read the book in so long. I don’t know what questions I’m going to ask the author!

When did you publish the earliest story in the collection?

The first one was published in 2007. I’m such a slow writer. I release—I say “release” like I have any control over it—or rather, I tend to publish one or two short stories a year, minus flash fiction, and I just keep asking, “Is this part of a collection yet?”

Would you say you’ve felt your interests, your process, your understanding of what a story should be change over the fifteen years since you started publishing these stories?

The very first short story I ever got published is the title story from the collection. It started off as this image of a guy taking radiographs of a woman and then finding out right afterward that her cancer’s come back. I used to do that as an X-ray tech. This main character in the story sees her trying to hold her world together as she waits for her results, but he’s a stalker. He’s not a good guy. I then saw this image of him watching her through a window after he learns this information but before she has knowledge of it. I had no idea what to do with that image, though, or how to build the story off it. So, I had to figure out that this needed to happen first, and then this needed to happen, and then this. Then it was: how the hell do I close this sequence?

But now, it’s gotten to a spot to where I’m confident enough to take just a single image and build everything else around that organically. Instead of setting up a big set piece first, I’ve shrunk it down to this small ember of joy that’s going to keep me warm and focused enough to continue. The logistics will come later, but I’ll have to start with whatever’s going to give me enough sheer entertainment to write the story, and I just build off it from there.

The starting image of the story I’m working on right now, for example, is this woman putting her dead husband’s pornography collection out in a Little Free Library. And that’s it—that thought entertains me enough to run with it. So, I get to build from that. For no reason whatsoever, I’ve decided to make her a pharmacist, so now all this research and logistics come into play as to how to make her a pharmacist, and what her job actually involves and what she specializes in has to come on the back end. I’d say it’s a lot more work to create stories now, but the process keeps me more entertained and engaged as I do it.

I love this image of the ember because I think part of the challenge of writing a story is to nurture that ember into a flame but to keep it from getting out of hand. How do you follow a story on its own terms but not leave it so open that you become overwhelmed and it loses momentum?

It’s just whatever’s going to entertain me for that time. One of the reasons it takes me forever to write something is because I have the attention span of a fruit fly. If something is boring me in a story, I’ll know I can’t continue with it as it is, so I’ll have to go off and work on a different project for a time, like an essay or a flash piece. So, I never have writer’s block. It’s more like, “Am I bored with this? I guess I’ll have to go do something different.” If I’m bored with it, I’ll know there’s something wrong with the story, and I’ll take it in a totally different direction, which means I’ll have to do additional research. Then I’ll have to move the pieces around so that it makes sense logistically. It’s all about fun. If I’m having fun with the image, if I’m having fun working backwards from there, if I’m having fun giving my characters backstories, then I know I’m on the right path toward something—not necessarily publishing, but at least I know I can finish it.

So, your process isn’t linear.

It’s rare that I can write something from beginning to end. Wherever that strongest image starts is where I’m going to begin work on the piece. I might not figure out the finished story structure until three-quarters of the way through the final draft. No matter how many books or stories or essays I write and publish, I know I’ll never come out with a craft book because it’s all chaos. It’s Play-Doh and Lincoln Logs and a couple of Barbie Dolls, and I’m just trying to jam them all together. That’s my process.

What’s the cue for you that the story’s actually done?

If I have an idea for how it ends and that ending is surprising to me, then I know I can bash out that last fourth. I know if I overthink it too much, I’m going to ruin it.

There’s this one story in the collection, “Embryology,” about a geneticist who brings a gummy bear to life. That was just the image I wanted to start off with. I had to work out all the backstory for that. Now that I’d brought this tiny little Frankenstein’s monster to life, I had to find out what to do with it. And then for a second, I saw how it ended. I thought, “That’s surprising,” so I had to type the hell out of it really quickly in order for that to work.

Do you see a connection between your writing routine and this creative process?

I’ve gotten much better about protecting my writing time since I now take the train into work. Summer’s coming up and I won’t go into campus as much, so I’m going to have to recreate and protect that writing space and time. I’m not one of those writers who has to write every day, but when I know I’m going to have the time and I have the inclination to do it, I have to protect that time. Otherwise, my attention will go out the window.

It’s just about scheduling it. It’s like I have to announce, “Goodbye wife, goodbye children, goodbye animals, goodbye household duties. I’m going to run upstairs and work, but just for an hour.” I’m not so precious as to say, “The artist is working now! Excuse me!” But if I don’t build that time into my calendar, I’m not going to do it. I have to schedule my writing time the same way I might schedule my kids’ dentist appointments or my annual physical.

So, you give yourself that hour to sit down with a draft. How do you protect yourself from finding yourself forty-five minutes later without having gotten anything done? How do you make that a productive hour?

I know in advance exactly what I’m going to do for that hour. And I don’t dedicate it to research. The research happens while I’m totally distracted from everything else. I’ll be making dinner and just thinking about how pressure cooker bombs work or something like that, and I’ll have to go scour the web and maybe get flagged by the FBI while I’m doing it. Or the dog might be pooping outside on the lawn while I’m holding his leash, and I’ll be buried in my Notes app. At the desk, though, it’s pure, dedicated writing instead of research.

I know if I overthink it too much, I’m going to ruin it.

Let’s talk more about research—it’s amazing the level of technical detail you achieve in these stories. That’s clearly something you care about.

I can’t help it. I write stuff about medicine and technology—that’s my jam. That speaks a little to my background—I was a pre-med student for all four years. I went and worked for a psychiatric hospital. I worked for an oncology group. I teach classes on writing about science, medicine, health, and technology. Every October when the Mariner Best American Science and Nature Writing comes out, that’s my Christmas morning right there. Reading those wonderful essays lets me tap into what I’m curious about on the non-Humanities side. I figure if I’m going to write about those worlds, then I have to get it right. When an author clearly hasn’t done enough research, I’m taken out of the story. Maybe it’s an obsession of mine, then, to get the details as close to right as possible.

Angie Pelekidis, one of my writing partners when I was in upstate New York, told me to be less focused on broadcasting all those details to the reader, and she was absolutely right. But as long as I know what’s going on and I can dim it down a little bit—not dumb it down—I can make the scene work.

I often think about how much we need to know to achieve what we want to on the page. Is that true for you, too, when it comes to characters?

For major characters, I’ll do a character sketch—a full-page write-up of their background, who they were at particular times in their life. Like, for example, what the word was that won them the spelling bee in elementary school, or what the weather was like that first afternoon they decided to kill a turtle with a brick. I’ll write all that up—and then none of it will come onto the actual page. But I need that background info in order to be able to figure out what the character would do in a given situation. So, it’s not time wasted. It’s time I absolutely needed to have put in in order to figure out how to make this thing work, what details are going to make this character tick or function a certain way.

Do you have any anxiety about how to know which details need to carry over, what to keep in and what to leave out?

I figure that out in the actual drafting. I’ll try to stick in some of those details and then I’ll look back at it a week later and think, “Why the hell did I mention that? That’s completely out of left field.” It’s not even the act of killing a darling—it’s more like I felt I needed to stick this in when it was totally unimportant.

And it’s a process of selecting what I’m going to stick in there. We think about creative nonfiction as actually being more freeing because we’re required to stay within certain constraints, and I try to bring that over to fiction as well. This is how this character is—I can’t just invent new details from their background in order to be able to justify what they’re going to do. So I’m limited by that—I’ve made that conscious choice. So it’s going to come out in some way, and I have to figure out how I can work around this complication.

As you went back to these stories with the goal of putting them together, what emerged as some of the through lines, themes, and concerns of the collection?

Looking at it now, I’d say that most of the stories involve shitty dudes. They might think they’re cool. They might think they’re nice. But they’re actually bastards. I noticed that was a thread throughout. And if a story’s not featuring a shitty dude, I’ve noticed instead that my heroines are always really strong characters who will do surprising things. So, it’s more like shitty dudes and strong women.

I’m thinking about your epigraph.

Oh, yeah—it’s lyrics from Bowie’s song “Boys Keep Swinging”:

When you’re a boy

Other boys check you out,

You get a girl:

These are your favorite things

When you’re a boy.

He said in an interview that the song was about decolonizing gender. And I like that idea of this dude singing about the bravado and the benefits of being a guy—and then you look back at it, and it’s just details about being a shitty dude. It’s such an overly grandiose celebration of being a man, but this guy is someone you’d never want to hang out with, ever. I liked that Bowie was in tune with what it means to be a shitty dude and then rejecting that idea, and people were bopping their heads to it.

In the video for the song, Bowie dresses up as three singers in drag—three different versions of them. You’ve got one super thin woman, like a counterpart from his Thin White Duke stage. You’ve got another one with a beehive, and you have this kind of older matron with a shawl on and a wig. And the video is the three of them superimposed next to each other, singing as Bowie’s background trio. And then at the end of the video, Bowie struts out on stage as each one of the women, and he rips his own wig off and throws it, so it’s this idea of taking apart gender and what it means to be this person and what’s expected of you. I just really liked that idea.

We talked the other night about the idea of arranging a collection like an album or a mix tape. 

I really had to think of this as putting together an album. I think of my favorite albums and how the songs lead into each other thematically or tonally. Radiohead, for example, will have one song that ends, but then say the background beat leads into the next track, and maybe they’ll change up keys, but you don’t know exactly where the first song ends and the next one begins. A reader is obviously going to know where one story ends and one story begins, but in terms of tone, how does that broadcast?

The collection starts with “New Careers in Science.” It’s about the end of the world and this hospital that’s trying to stay afloat in Bristol, Rhode Island, despite all the lightning and the weird storms that are happening outside and killing people. It had a lot to do with pathology, and there’s this one character dissecting a diseased colon and then putting it in the incinerator. So I thought it would be nice to have the very next story be “You Must Give of Yourself,” about this chef who accidentally bleeds onto steaks one night, and it turns out his blood actually makes the steaks especially delicious. I liked that idea of moving from the images of blood and diseased colons to meat and the body again.

And then “Hands Like Birds on Strings” has these sensual, cam-girl sessions, and it moves immediately into “Snuff Film,” which doesn’t have any sex in it. It’s about this old couple trying to save a nuclear reactor from going full overload, and they’re being watched by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Arkansas. Both audiences in the paired stories are watching this very raw thing happening in front of them, and there’s this sense of voyeurism. So, it’s a matter of putting that kind of stuff together tonally.

Exactly. In both stories, too, the characters’ experiences are mediated by screens.

That Laura Mulvey essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” was really formative for me. I love film and thinking about how we process images, how we respond to them, what’s an audience, stuff like that. At first blush, we think that the people who are doing the watching have the power, but then we remember: if you know you’re being watched, you’re the one who has the power in that situation. So in “Hands Like Birds on Strings,” the cam girl knows she’s able to pull in money. She’s able to pay for school with this. The couple in “Snuff Film,” too, know they’re being watched, but nobody’s going to do anything—nobody’s coming to stop them from what they’re doing. They know that.

What are the things that excite you in the fiction that excites you?

I love reading about shitty jobs. I want to know all the details—they inform so much about the character. I love knowing a character is an addiction counselor at a treatment center, for example, and that they have their own addiction. They’re trying to keep their life together in the background while they’re trying to counsel. Or I love reading about shitty restaurant jobs. Just give me the doldrums of your work and make it so that I’m right there with you.

Have you read Raven Leilani’s Luster? It’s incredible. One of the things I liked about that book is how much time she spends talking about what it means to work in the unglamorous corners of publishing. I love that she got into the details of what it meant to be in that world, how boring it was, how monotonous and disappointing. I love fiction that takes our assumptions about a profession and lets us see what it’s really like. Get me into your character’s profession and what their day-to-day is like—and then what makes that particular day different.

You mentioned having some of the jobs we see in Ghosts.

Of course we borrow so heavily from what we know. I had a job at an oncology clinic. Doing radiographs was only a small part of my job, but I made that the entirety of the main character’s job in “Ghosts Caught on Film.” In “You Must Give of Yourself,” the character’s a chef who’s working the grill. I’ve worked in kitchens before, and even though I never worked the grill on busy nights, I studied enough of what my coworkers were doing at the time to be able to say, “I know enough about your profession to make the reader believe that they’re part of it.”

I love reading about shitty jobs.

I’m curious to know your thoughts on Saunders.

Oh, my god, yes. Saunders really does like to give his characters shitty jobs, and they’re not just shitty but really warped.

“Sea Oak” is one of my favorite stories because the main character is a stripper at this place called Joysticks, a strip club/restaurant. His job is terrible. He has to serve food to people who want to see his ass or his cock, and it only gets worse for him as the story gets on because he’s always at risk of losing the job. And then his dead aunt comes back to life and tells him he has to show his cock at work in order to make money and get out of this terrible economic situation. I’m not saying Saunders has ever been a stripper at a Hooters or the equivalent, but he made me believe the character.

Can you imagine working in any of those theme parks in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia? If you’re working in a theme park, you already have to deal with horrible human beings every single time you interact with a customer, but then throw in a really warped system like a theme park dedicated to the Civil War that’s also haunted by ghosts. It really goes from bad to worse with every decision he makes about his characters. And they just have to dig themselves out.

Does teaching find its way into your stories?  

It’s weird. Teaching’s been my primary profession for almost the last twenty years, but I don’t think I have anything new or useful or insightful to say when it comes to teaching. I think I’m at least aware enough of that as a writer to be able to say, “All right, I’m not going to touch that subject with a ten-foot pole. I have to go find something else to write about.”

So, I’m borrowing from what I did before higher education for so much of the work of my characters. They might be a hospital pathologist or an X-ray tech or a line cook, things I haven’t done in years. I dig up the past, and I rip those bodies out of the ground every so often, instead of talking about what I do now.

You’re in the Boston area now, and when I read the opening story, set in Rhode Island, I thought we might have a New England collection on our hands. But that didn’t turn out to be the case.

I think I actively resist writing about where I am at that moment. It’ll take me a long time to be able to come up with anything to say about a particular place. “Snuff Film,” for example, is set down in Arkansas, and that’s where I grew up. I spent twenty-three years of my life in Arkansas, but I don’t have any stories set there except for “Snuff Film,” and the only reason I set it there was because I would travel back and forth pretty frequently between Fayetteville, which is in the northwest corner of the state, and Little Rock, which is down in the center of the state. And any time I would go down there or drive over to Memphis, I would pass by Arkansas Nuclear One, this pair of cooling towers near Russellville and the processing plant there. So, it took me two decades’ worth of driving past that thing to say maybe I want to have a story set there. And the only reason that story came together was because I was also obsessed at the time with the video footage and photos from Fukushima.

Or I lived in Kansas, but I don’t have any stories set where I lived in Kansas—instead, I have a story set in Kansas City, which I visited pretty frequently, but it took me more than a decade to write about that place. I visited Bristol, Rhode Island, once years ago for a friend’s wedding, and I just liked the idea of the bridge that was set there to connect the little inlets. And there was the military base right alongside it. I thought, “Eh, this seems like a fun spot for a setting.” I can’t write about where I am at that moment, though. It takes me years of just thinking about it in the background before I can write about it. Someday I might have an upstate New York story, but I don’t have that yet. There are two stories in the collection, “Embryology” and “Caltrops,” that are set in Massachusetts, but I wrote those stories years before I moved here.

Do you have any impressions of our local literary scene in Massachusetts?

I’m starting to. But we’ve only lived here since 2018, and the bulk of that has been during the sheltering-in-place, pandemic times. I will say that per capita, Massachusetts has the most independent bookstores that I’ve ever seen in one spot, and I love that.

What about your own literary circle?

My friend Jason Allen and I talk about writing all the time. Jason’s the author of The East End, and he’s one of the blurbs on the back of my book. We have a weekly phone call on Sundays when we’re just checking in most of the time, not talking about writing all the time necessarily, but supporting each other and what we’re working on. I get energy from those conversations, and I’m really thankful that I get to have them.

Friends who I went to school with, especially in the doctoral program, have also been great. Where I teach now, at Suffolk, most every one of my colleagues is a writer, too. So even if we’re not doing the same genres, everybody knows the struggle.

And I’m weirdly thankful for Twitter, just because so many writers are on there, going through the same thing. It’s like going to mini-AWP on a daily basis. They might be new, baby writers asking, “What the fuck is Submittable?” Or they might be grizzled veterans with multiple books out. It’s great. There’s this whole spectrum, and no one has any idea what they’re doing or how to approach life, and I love knowing that.

Barrett Bowlin

At Fiction Writers Review, we’ve always tried to devote space to emerging writers and small presses. How do you think about the importance of this side of the publishing world?

I’m really fortunate that small presses and indie presses exist because I tend to write weird shit. I’m never going to have a story in The New Yorker or The Paris Review or The Atlantic or Harper’s, and I’m okay with that. I don’t write New Yorker stories that are deeply contemplative, very literary—you know, where a character moves a finger and they remember their childhood. Don’t get me wrong. I love so much of what The New Yorker puts out, but I’ll never write a New Yorker story.

I’m thankful then, that indie presses are willing to take a chance on the weird, perverted stuff that I come up with. I have stories about a gummy bear that comes to life, college bros watching a deaf cam girl, an elderly couple dying from radiation poisoning. While certain magazines will definitely publish that material, I don’t think many larger presses are going to take that leap immediately. So, I’m really thankful for these smaller, indie presses that are willing to publish works that are more out there.

Not that there’s not an audience out there for that stuff.  

Readers seem to be much more into small and indie press books these days. And I love how certain bookstores are dedicated to showcasing those presses, too. I love Tin House and Graywolf and Two Dollar Radio because you’re going to get something like Jennifer Pashley’s The Scamp, which is this amazingly queer, psychosexual thriller, or Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. I love that essay collection. It’s fantastic. And I love that Hanif has gotten much bigger since then, but that collection with Two Dollar Radio just blew my mind.

Or Carmen Maria Machado publishing Her Body and Other Parties with Graywolf. You have a press that’s going to publish a collection of stories that involves this bizarre take on Law & Order: SVU or queer, end-of-the-world stories set on islands. So you’re going to find these great collections that start off with some place like Graywolf or Tin House. And then those presses are weirdly able to bend the larger publishing scene to say, “You need to make space for this.” I love that small and indie presses are able to make an impact on these larger presses.

And In the Dream House was such an amazing follow-up.

Exactly. If they didn’t have Her Body and Other Parties out first, In the Dream House might not have come out or might not have been so well-received. We’re really fortunate to have presses that are willing to take chances on more adventurous stuff.

Tell me about publishing with Bridge Eight.

Bridge Eight was on my radar first because of their fantastic magazine. It’s one of those very cool, highly stylized journals. And I liked that they had featured work from authors like Tom McAllister and Kristen Arnett and Aaron Burch before.

I’d submitted to Bridge Eight’s magazine before. Totally didn’t get into the journal because my work wasn’t good enough. But I knew that they did a book contest. And I finally thought that my collection was in a good spot, that I had maybe not a good product, but a working product. And I was at first one of their finalists—they choose five. The end of March is when their contest ends, and they read like motherfuckers over April and May. And I think toward the middle of May is when they announced who the finalists were. I’d been a finalist before for book prizes, and it was kind of a situation of “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” So when I found out I was a finalist, it got an eyebrow up, but I wasn’t expecting anything past that. I thought, “This isn’t going to happen, but that’s okay. I’m prepared for the next year of manuscript submissions.” And so on. But then they let me know that I won, and I promptly shat the bed.

(If that winds up in the interview, let me say that I did not literally shit the bed. I figuratively shat the bed.)

We’ll add an editor’s note.

Figuratively, not literally.

So, what’s next?

I’m getting ready to send out my essay collection for pickup from some houses. I just have to switch out a couple more pieces.

I didn’t know you were working on an essay collection.

Because the story collection got picked up, I’m trying to avoid thinking of the essays I’ve written as: “How can I incorporate this as part of a collection? Is it part of a larger theme? Do I need to write about this? Do I need to incorporate this as part of this essay?” I’ve always loved random essay collections like those from Hunter S. Thompson or Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby—where some essays have absolutely nothing to do with the others, but where there’s that singular voice throughout as the thing that resonates tonally. And now it seems like what’s being published by the larger houses is a lot more thematically linked.

So the answer to that is two-fold. One, I try not to think about how it’s going to be part of a book. Otherwise, if it’s a short story or an essay, I’m going to lose my drive for it. The big project itself just feels overwhelming. The small project is what I have the attention span for. But I will say that I include pieces with that little voice in my head, whispering, “If I incorporate this, this might be part of the collection later on, whether or not it gets published because it will be linked thematically.”

That’s about it. I have to keep doing what’s working for me, what’s going to entertain me. I can’t think about the larger picture. Otherwise, it’s going to wind up becoming a shitty story or a shitty essay.

Thank you so much, Barrett. It’s been a pleasure. 

The pleasure was absolutely mine, Eric. Cheers!

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