Eric Blix’s debut story collection, Physically Alarming Men, is filled with eccentric voices and formal surprise. These stories invoke the legacies of David Foster Wallace, Raymond Carver, and Flannery O’Conner, while questioning the conventions of storytelling. They include a tale of a snake-oil scheme gone wrong, a would-be revenge plot, and a touching story of unlikely human connection, reminiscent of “Cathedral.”
Eric is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where I had the pleasure of attending workshops with him, and a current PhD student at the University of Utah. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Caketrain, Paper Darts, Necessary Fiction, and numerous other publications. His collection, Physically Alarming Men, was published by Stephen F. Austin University Press in 2017.
I spoke with Eric about his stories, his writing process, and his views on politics and literature.
Justin Eells: How does a story start for you? How much of it can you see before you write your first sentence?
Eric Blix: It kind of depends. Sometimes I’ll have kind of a basic structure in mind that I want to pursue, and that changes, most of the time, as I’m writing it. Sometimes it’ll be a scrap of language, or a weird disjunction of words that I think of, or that I hear, that just strikes me as really bizarre, and I think it’s that disjunction in language that makes me want to tell a story about it.
Eells: Are there any stories from this collection that started out that way, with a disjunction of words?
Blix: The story “Call Me Randy” kind of started that way. I just thought of someone saying, “Call Me Randy” over and over again, like what a weird thing to say. I was picturing someone who was adamant that they be called their name. I didn’t know what that particular story would be like, but it felt like it was going to be weird, and it kind of turned out weird, but yeah, it just kind of started with this idea of someone saying something unusual. There’s other stories I’ve written that I haven’t published yet, and I don’t know if I ever will publish them. There’s one called “The Brother Creature” which started with a Freudian slip that I heard someone say, and I just literalized the Brother Creature into something.
Eells: Can you talk about a story in this collection that you struggled with, how it started, and how you got it to be what it is now?
Blix: Yeah, so there was maybe one in the entire collection that came even kind of easily, but I think the story “Golden Years” is a good example. The idea behind that story was to write a text that followed the logic of consumer capitalism. So I wanted something that advanced furiously for the sake of advancing, and something that would grow too big and collapse under its own weight. It’s still a really interesting premise to me, to tell a story that way, but at that particular time, it was kind of a failure, at least at first. So it was a big struggle to try to retain what I wanted the story to be about but put it in a structure that was, I guess, comprehensible or palatable. If I were to do it again I might be less concerned about that, but it worked out, I guess.
Eells: “Golden Years” also features an antagonist who is, in some ways, reminiscent of our current president. What role does politics play, consciously or subconsciously, in your writing?
Blix: It’s something that’s always there, and it’s something that I’ve wrestled with and thought a lot about, in terms of how explicit it should be. I think, in these stories, it definitely comes through in some more than in others, but it’s something that’s always going to be there in my work because it’s something that I care about and it’s hard to be an American and not have your consciousness fundamentally shaped by the political moment, especially when it’s kind of constantly oppressing us these days and it just filters down into the texture of daily life. So for me it’s just kind of a fact of storytelling that there’s some political dimension, and I guess lately for me that’s been manifesting in trying out new aesthetic arrangements that try to undermine the accepted logics of storytelling. Which is a loaded term.
Eells: Are you informed by the politics of the present moment when you write, or do you distance yourself from current events during that process?
Blix: I have a very torn sentiment toward the particular political moment, and I guess I’ll just go out and say it: I’m very ambivalent about Trump when I’m writing. Do I directly engage him or his ethos, or do I repress it and just let it come out in more indirect ways? Generally, I opt for the latter just because I don’t want to write stuff that is—and maybe this sounds kind of strange—too immediate. Like, I don’t want to write SNL sketches, which, I mean, they’re funny and they serve their purpose, but I just don’t want to write stuff that’s too bound to this exact moment. There are writers who do that. I just don’t think that I’m able to do that. So I think the way that I try to handle it is by maybe exploring what is our political reality, or how does our political reality—again, kind of a loaded, flawed term—how does our politics shape our reality, or asking questions like, what is the role of power.
I’ve been thinking about Baudrillard a lot lately, and in some of his writing he basically argues that American power is not really a thing anymore because we’re just kind of going off of inertia, so maybe a metaphor would be a dead body where the hair and nails keep growing, where the effects outlast the thing that set them in motion. So I guess maybe a way to kind of sum this up is, I try to write my way into what it’s like being in this political moment, rather than take apart or name the political moment, if that makes sense.
Eells: “Doctor on a Hill,” one of the weirder stories in the collection, imagines talking body parts, one of which plays the role of host of The Newlywed Game. “Pool Boy” features a boy who interrupts himself to blurt out weather forecasts for various locales, and “The Hero” features a down-and-out protagonist seeking salvation in a reality TV star. These stories had me thinking about the interplay between TV and prose fiction, and I was reminded of Don Delillo’s White Noise and some of the work of David Foster Wallace, who was concerned with the role of TV and entertainment in our lives. What inspires you to write these odd invasions of TV into your characters’ lives?
Blix: What’s interesting to me about TV is that it speaks whether or not anyone is listening. If you’re like me, when you’re cooking dinner or doing whatever, the TV is probably on, and you might not be listening that closely to it, if at all, so it’s just like this background noise. And what I find interesting about that, or just about TV in general, is that, in some ways, it’s kind of spare language that just enters into the world, or enters into our consciousness. Especially if we’re not listening to it, which it, in many ways, encourages us not to listen. I think the reason why I put it into stories sometimes is that it opens up interesting possibilities for me in examining ways we either communicate, or miscommunicate, or pretend to communicate, or fail to communicate. So with “Doctor on a Hill,” in particular, I was interested in putting in this character that is not a character, and this consciousness that is not a consciousness, into the story, and basically having it short-circuit the logic that starts at the story, but also, by doing that, creating a new kind of logic that can only exist in that story.
And TV is also interesting now—and I haven’t necessarily explored this in fiction yet—but it’s also interesting now with streaming services, because in Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Plurum,” he says that TV is furniture that we watch, but now with the reality of algorithms, TV also watches us back, which is something that I’m interested in exploring down the road.
Eells: Rainy River, which I found one of the most moving stories in the collection, takes place mid-century, in the rural Midwest. It features a man who drives his teenage daughter away and drinks himself into isolation, and it was the kind of sad story that could have taken place anytime, anywhere. How did you decide on the setting for that story, and what were the challenges of setting it then and there?
Blix: I think of that story as existing in a sort of transition area for me, where I started becoming more explicitly interested in how history is either represented or created on the page. And that was like a first try at that problem. So that’s one of the reasons why I decided to set it in the past. Especially I think what’s attractive about the middle of the twentieth century is that in some ways it’s really packed with nostalgia for us. This is probably true of every historical period, but it’s a time that I think we seriously distort and have difficulty accessing because of that filter of nostalgia that tends to cover it. So that was part of it. And in terms of geography, it was kind of selfish because it takes place in the part of Minnesota—it’s not where I come from in the state, but it’s very close to where I come from in the state—so there was some selfishness that went into choosing the location. Also, it enabled me to have the logging camp and all that stuff, because there were lumber camps there.
Eells: What draws you to write short stories? Is there something the genre does for you that other genres can’t do so well?
Blix: With short stories, what I find attractive about them is that they allow me to play around in ways that other forms don’t really. Short stories, for me, at least lately, are just kind of a chance to be weird and surprise myself and see how much pressure I can put on language in a small space in order to have some type of effect. It’s this particular kind of play, this condensed form of play, that attracts me to it. And to be honest, I think I’ve forgotten how to write short stories in the last couple of years, because I haven’t written many.
Eells: As a reader, what do you look for in a short story? And what are some stories that have given you what you look for?
Blix: The main thing I look for is surprise. And I don’t mean twist endings or things like that. I’m interested in stories that kind of trouble categories that we take for granted, like plot, character, things like that—all these so-called “crafty” things. I’m interested in stories that trouble those categories because those categories really are fluid things that we treat as these stable, natural objects. So Robert Coover’s collection, Pricksongs and Descants, is really joyful to me, because he’s hyper aware in those pieces that he’s telling stories, and he’s deliberately taking apart the problem of what it means to tell a story. So he has narrators who are narrating their narration and characters who are not characters, characters who change shape throughout stories and things like that. So it’s those types of—maybe you could call them idiosyncrasies of particular authors—but I’m mostly interested in stories that bring us to awareness of their form.
I’m interested in stories that use the medium as a way to manipulate the medium itself, or use the medium as a tool to use the medium, which is circular and makes no sense. To make an analogy, it’s kind of like painters making us aware that they’re using paint, or artists who turn objects that we wouldn’t consider art into art, like Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, for example, it’s this thing that troubles classifications and kind of breaks down these neat little boxes that we’ve created. So I guess maybe “innovation and play” is a really quick way of putting that.
Eells: What does the future hold for you as a writer? Are there any exciting projects in the pipeline that you’d care to talk about?
Blix: I’m working on a novel-ish thing, and the more I work on it the less it becomes a novel, partly because formally it’s falling apart on the page. I don’t say “falling apart” to mean that it’s failing, which it probably is failing, but it’s failing in ways that are interesting to me. And when I say “falling apart” I mean that literally the language on the page is coming undone in a lot of areas. So I’m playing around with what the page is and what the page can do, and I’m also interested in doing more projects that incorporate multiple forms of media, whether it’s image or sound or video, or even performance or whatever. Just in general I’m interested in doing stuff that collapses the boundary between the real and the unreal, or the invented and the natural.
Justin Eells lives in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in formercactus, Molotov Cocktail, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He tweets @jt_eells.