CD: The common thread in your short story collection, Muscle Cars, and in “Slattery’s Ghost” are engaging, flawed men struggling through life. This is not unique, yet your stories most certainly are. How did you develop your taut, unflinchingly honest voice? In your creative process, which comes first, character or plot?
SE: What comes first is something real, a nugget of truth, a fact quirky or interesting enough that gets me thinking that a story can be built around it. I read a newspaper article about migrating geese taking over a local park and “Culling” was born. Ted Williams’ head is really frozen and sitting in a canister in Arizona. How bizarre is that? My parish priest was killed when I was sixteen and it was traumatic so “Slip Kid” was written decades later. I had just finished reading Jimmy Slattery’s biography and was fascinated with the multiple sightings of his ghost haunting his favorite bar and staggering down Chippewa Street. I knew I wanted to write about that and even came up with the title—“Slattery’s Ghost”—before I had either a plot or a main character. Once I stumble over or remember something that makes me curious, character comes next. What kind of guy would want to shoot all those geese with a World War Two rifle? Who would drive cross country to steal Ted Williams’ head just to bury it in Fenway? Who shot that priest five times in the back and why? Who would be interested in Jimmy Slattery ninety years after he was lightweight champ? The stories and the voices of the characters emerged when I was trying to answer those questions.
CD: “Stealing Ted Willams’ Head” is one of my favorite stories from Muscle Cars. This overwhelmed-by-normal-life protagonist agrees with his buddy’s plan to steal the head of famed baseball player, Ted Williams. But, like with many of your protagonists, plans don’t work out. Talk about the genesis for that character and the quirky scheme to take the head.
SE: I used to work out at this gym in North Buffalo and in the locker room there was a black-and-white photograph of Ted Williams hung on the wall. His swing was perfect. I’d admire that picture every time I went to work out. I vaguely remember reading about how his head had been cryogenically frozen after he died, but I didn’t recall the details. I found the articles online and it was all so macabre and sad. Teddy deserved a better fate. Actually, he deserved to be rescued but by whom? I was thinking about that the night I went to my high school reunion. At some point during the night, I realized I had just finished the same conversation with a guy that I’d had with him thirty years earlier. I started eavesdropping then on the conversations around me and heard old arguments like which Tripi sister was hotter and who had the coolest car back in the day. I felt like I had one foot in the present and one in the past and it struck me that that should be exactly the predicament of the guys who want to steal Teddy Ballgame’s head. Both characters are stuck—one in the past and one in the present–and they need an adventure like driving two thousand miles to steal a head to get them moving forward. I went home that night and started working on the story. It’s one of my favorites in the collection.
CD: What has been the most surprising thing about your life as a writer?
SE: The most surprising thing to me is that I have a writing life. Writing is humbling. I had three failed novels and a drawer crammed with rejection slips before I began to publish on a regular basis. I think I averaged about a published story every eight years until not too long ago. It’s hard to keep trying when the rejections are pouring in and there’s no support or encouragement coming from any quarter. There’s a great deal of self-validation and satisfaction with each story that’s published and each invitation I receive to give a reading or to teach a class or to give an interview like this one. I love the network of writers that I now have in my life and the people I’ve met—bookstore owners, editors, publishers, readers—who love books and reading and writing. I feel very fortunate to be a small part of it.
CD: Also, as a writer, what is your Kryptonite?
SE: Time. I fight against it every day, and it always wins. There are not enough writing hours in the morning before I have to go to my paying job. There are not enough editing hours at night before I have to sleep. Getting up at 5am to write has gotten more difficult over this past year, and I think it’s because I’m older. I have a sense of urgency now to get words down on paper because time is going so quickly. It doesn’t help that I write slowly. People always say you have to ‘make’ time to write. Well, you can’t make time. We’re stuck with the twenty-four hours we got. I can’t create an extra hour so I can revise. What I have to do is steal time. I steal from my nine-to-five job. I steal from time with my kids. Workouts are cut short or skipped all together. I’m stealing minutes at lunchtime and on breaks to polish sentences. I have a buddy who writes screenplays. He grew tired of Chicago winters and not having enough time to write because of his real estate job so he quit his old life, cashed in his 401K and headed to Hollywood. There is no Plan B. I’m rooting for him. He stole back the whole 24/7. I hope he writes something magnificent for all us time thieves nickel and diming are way through our manuscripts.
CD: Which writers inspire you?
SE: John Irving was the first writer to inspire me. He was the one that made me want to be a writer in the first place. I remember finishing The Hotel New Hampshire when I was in high school and wishing I had written it. I loved how Irving could make me laugh until I realized how sad it all really was and then the laughter stopped. It was like a slap coming right off the page. I then discovered William Kennedy and Richard Russo at about the same time and loved the sense of place in their novels. They were New York writers like I wanted to be, not New York City writers. I wanted—still want—to write about Buffalo the way Kennedy writes about Albany and Russo writes about Upstate New York. Their turf just isn’t the setting for their work. It becomes a character as fully developed as any other. It took me a long time, too long, before I realized that my home town, my neighborhood, is filled with stories waiting to be discovered and told. My writing went to another level when I finally realized this and began mining in my own backyard. “Slattery’s Ghost” is a good example of this. I knew Slattery was a South Buffalo fighter and light weight champ in the twenties and that my Dad had thrown him out of his restaurant in the forties when Slattery was washed up and an alcoholic, but I didn’t know anything else. I read his biography, Slats by Rich Blake, and realized that Slats was such a Buffalo guy, a legend, that I wanted to write about him and his life and somehow weave it in to a present-day story. I was very pleased with how the story was constructed and that it found a home at r.kv.ry. How cool would it be if that story inspires a young writer out there to take a swing at writing a story of their own? If it does, I hope that writer lets me know so I can buy them a beer. I’m still waiting for Russo and Irving to buy me that first round.
Carla Damron draws on her experiences as a southerner and a social worker in her writings, including the literary novel, The Stone Necklace (2016), and three mystery novels, Keeping Silent, (2001,) Spider Blue (2006) and Death in Zooville, (2010). Damron’s short stories have appeared in literary collections and journals such as Marked by Water, Six Minute Fiction, Melusine, In Posse Review and Fall Lines. Damron received an MFA in Creative Writing in 2011. In 2016, she was honored to have The Stone Necklace selected to be the “One Book, One Community” read for Columbia, SC. Read more about Carla at www.carladamron.com