David is a great storyteller who has a way of accessing what many male writers cannot. We conducted the interview in a bar nestled in the corner of one of those strip-malls with a Radio-Shack where we had been sitting at a table for the past two hours surrounded by collections of families and lovers and groups of friends. It was mid-day and there were two empty pint glasses on the table and a faint trace of mildew which waved by every few minutes. I was no closer to knowing any of David’s secrets and I wasn’t leaving until I had at least one.
RAJAH BOSE: Your first piece of nonfiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
DAVID ALASDAIR: You can’t say it’s my first, you’ve gotta build up my reputation. They say it’s easy to sit back on your laurels. I have like one laurel and I already want to sit on it.
Waitress: Would you like anything?
I get the the Taco Salad with Tofu. David orders the Pork Tacos. There’s a brief look between us – a sizing up – and I add two more beers to the order.
RB: Ok fine, I’ll cut that question out. You wrote this essay during your MFA and now it has been nominated for a top writing prize. There’s always someone who thinks your piece needs work – I might be a hater while someone else loves it. How do you decide this is the right time for something you’ve written?
DA: Really smart people were giving me advice that I didn’t think fit. It only happens occasionally but this piece came out fully formed. I thought about editing it and then I decided, fuck it, I like it how it is. It’s like having a kid: maybe I wished their eyes weren’t so close together, but I love them for who they are.
RB: In your essay (The West Elm Sofa), you talk about recovery and the people that help you get through the struggle. You are both vulnerable and secretive. How do you choose the elements that you are going to allow people to know and what to keep secret?
DA: I’m a big believer in the gaps. I remember a few years ago in high school they made us watch Shane, the old cowboy movie, which has very little dialog. Afterward they told us to go write an essay where you suggest everything without saying it. When I was a kid that was a revolutionary concept, to suggest something without saying it. So I try and do that whenever possible. It’s quite clear there’s loss involved in my characters and it’s more universal when you leave it to the reader to fill in the gaps. I bet everyone who read that piece has had some kind of loss and they can imagine themselves having one space where they have some kind of solace. They don’t need me to explain why.
RB: Speaking of kids, let’s talk about Kerry Howley’s book Thrown, I’ve heard you talk about that book more than you talk about your kids. What have you learned from other people’s writing that you brought to this essay and your work otherwise?
DA: The one thing I say to people reading that book is “Don’t get discouraged.” Because it’s a book where you can read it and think “I have to give up,” because I could never be that good. The music of her language, the ability see something anew, is just phenomenal. For instance, when she talks about all the fighters drinking PediaLite and she describes the crushed teddy bears on the floor. I guess it’s like Walter Kirn said: “Music comes first.” You have your own particular music. Don’t be afraid to describe things the way you see them and to be musical in your language. So much of our training is about being clear, but a little bit of abstract, a little bit of musicality is a good thing.
Our tacos and salad arrive. David eyes the grilled tofu, I check out the tacos. I offer him a bite that he declines.
Waitress: Another round?
There’s another sizing up. “Sure,” says David.
RB: You write about sports, your balls, fighting, masculinity and your feelings. Explain.
DA: One time I wrote about my balls.
RB: And you read it at VoiceOver. In front of 100 people. Including your daughter.
DA: True. Maybe it’s just the world I know. The cliché is that women will talk about everything and men will talk about sports, but I think it’s pretty normal for a guy to talk about his feelings. You get into a very macho setting like a gym or a soccer team and you think
that men won’t communicate on an intimate level and they do. I guess I just try to capture that.
RB: So we’ve mentioned that you write about your balls…
DA: One time.
RB: …I wrote a recent essay about cowboys and manhood, and there’s a scene about cutting off the manhood of a bull. There’s also a bunch of other introspection about masculinity and roles, etc…
DA: Did I read that?
RB: No, it’s new. The problem is, when people read it, they kept saying: go to the balls, go the balls. I didn’t think it wasn’t about that, but I feel that people often want to explore what is off-limits.
DA: I don’t think it’s the off-limits that works, it’s the structure of a joke. There’s a setup and a punchline. The ending should feel inevitable but not predicable. So you’re like, “Ah-ha. I get it. I didn’t predict it, but I get it.” When people do it to be outrageous, it doesn’t work. There has to be a story.
RB: Is that to say that all of your pieces are just jokes?
DA: [Laughter] No, they just have the mechanics. Not necessarily a punchline, but an ending you didn’t predict.
RB: There are male writers who write about their feelings: Jess Walter in Financial Lives of the Poets or Shan Ray in his recent poetry book Bailfire.
DA: Agreed. I feel if I went into a locker room with a guy and couldn’t talk about my feelings, I would think this is not a solid relationship – this is pretty superficial. Mind you I have that relationship with some women.
RB: Well, I guess we should talk about our feelings.
DA: OK, it’s your interview.
Waitress: Another round?
“Yes,” we both say at the same time.
RB: So. Tell me about your feelings.
DA: You tell me about yours.
There’s a long pause.
RB: My girlfriend is too good for me.
DA: Yes, she is.
RB: She thinks she’s lucky to have me. But it’s the other way round. I don’t know what she sees in me.
DA: A good-looking, well-dressed, talented artist who is both very masculine yet also sensitive. Yeah, I don’t know what she sees in you either.
RB: Your turn.
DA: I get lonely. Not as lonely as when I first moved here and I knew no-one, but still.
Waitress: You guys need more beer?
“We’re talking about our feelings!” I say.
The waitress turns and walks away unimpressed. She shouts over her shoulder, “That’s great. Let me know if you need anything else.”
RB: [Laughter] She doesn’t care.
DA: I don’t blame her. We might not be making much sense anymore.
RB: We should do this more often.
DA: We should.
Rajah Bose is a veteran photojournalist from Spokane, Washington. He is good-looking, well-dressed, and masculine yet sensitive. You can see his work at http://www.rajahstudio.com/blog/.