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Spencer Dew

Website: SpencerDew.com

Spencer Dew lives in Chicago, where he is completing a PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is a member of the Chicago Review fiction staff. His stories have appeared in numerous journals, including 3:AM Magazine, Thieves Jargon, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, and Wandering Army

Short story collections

Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008) 

Reviewed by David Erlewine

Interview with Spencer Dew

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Spencer Dew: The earliest stories in the book were written over the summer of 2004, though some pieces actually go back to the winter of ‘01/‘02. But it was in ‘04 when I really started concentrating on short pieces and first began to publish pieces with any regularity. By the very end of 2006 I had written the last pieces to be included in Songs, so there’s about two and a half years of writing in the book.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

SD: I started with the idea of a chapbook, really, a very short collection of pieces arranged around a theme, under the working title Some Themes of the Second Bush Administration (which I later used as the title for a story that very much fits with, but postdates, this collection). I batted the chapbook around for a while, but it kept growing, frankly, as there were so many angles and aspects of what I wanted to talk about – the sense of terror and addiction to news in The Disaster Addict, for instance, or the various solipsistic responses to war and trauma in The Heart of It All, etc. – so soon I had something more like a book, and Matt DiGangi of Thieves Jargon and Thieves Jargon Press, who’d had me as a weekly writer for a while and had been and remains a strong supporter of my work, he put me in touch with a fellow from Vagabond Press, down in Texas, and one afternoon at a conference in Boulder I skipped a session and put together the manuscript to Songs of Insurgency instead.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

SD: Well, I see all the pieces as addressing certain themes, and engaging each other. I wanted to write a book that bore witness to some of the experiences of post-9/11 life – from the immediate shock and obsession with security levels and barricades around public buildings to the deeper, more lingering ramifications, the sense of alienation and, in the political sphere, a real hopelessness. I was in Denver during the ’04 elections, and I talked with a lot of people who really felt both threatened, as if terrorists might seize the Broken Arrow or drop bombs on the a Broncos game, and disconnected from any sense of change. People were dissatisfied with Bush, but there was all this talk about “not switching horses mid-stream,” etc., and no one seemed angry, just broken. It feels, in hindsight, like a lot of long-festering apathy came to a kind of dull head; the Twin Towers getting knocked down, for too many folks, reiterated their own powerlessness and vulnerability and alienation from each other and the world. I find it pretty disgusting, but it’s easy to belittle such reactions and at the time I felt – I think correctly – that understanding those kinds of feelings was extremely important, because, yes, there were very concrete ramifications to people feeling that way. Apathy became complicity with an unjust regime, to offer one thumbnail, but that’s only one sliver of it. What frightened me most about post-9/11 America wasn’t the possibility of a terror attack but what happened in the aftermath of and was revealed by that one, horrible attack. So, to go back to your question, I wanted to put together a collection that addressed ways people felt and ways people thought – alienation from each other, the confusion of mediated perception with reality. So I wrote stories about phone sex, which offers bizarre dynamics of intimacy and imagination and commerce, and I wrote stories about the media. I wrote stories about instances where communication doesn’t work, and I explored some reasons for these failures.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

SD:  I used the word “song” in the title in part because I think of story-writing in terms of song-writing. I’m interested, certainly, in writing big, meaty “Nick Adams went into the woods...” stories, of course, but I’m also interested in writing pieces – whether they’re called stories or poems or whatever – that follow very simple trajectories, that work like songs. A song – a pop song, a rock song, etc. – takes a very basic idea, a couple of images, and it glosses on and plays with them. The book Songs of Insurgency also deals with visual art a great deal, and I guess I could say the same thing about stories being like paintings. I’m thinking, for instance, of Sleater Kinney’s “Words and Guitar.” That’s a “simple” song in some ways. I mean, is there character development, plot? But it does the job, and then some. It’s not far off to say prose can work much like that. I remember, as a kid, when I first encountered a copy of Aloysius Bertrand’s Haarlem, and it’s this, well, a “prose poem,” designed to offer a picture, in tone and image, with, if I remember correctly, a bird hanging in a window, a fowl, for sale, and the point is it absolutely blew my mind. I thought, wow, this isn’t like any form I know, isn’t quite a “short story” and isn’t quite a “poem” and whatever it is, it’s an absolute pleasure, enchanting, exhilarating… And that’s what I want from whatever I write, both in the act of writing and the act of reading (and in performing, too, I should add, which is very important to me). I want to write things that give me pleasure. I mean, I just said all this stuff about political analysis or whatnot, about the content and the ideas in the book, but I hope the stories are also pleasurable – in the sense of being funny, for instance, but also in the sounds of the words, the juxtapositions and images conjured…

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

SD:  Sometimes, maybe. Many of my pieces I design as performance pieces, so I write with an ear toward the audience in that way.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

SD: Oh, I’d ask them about something else. I wouldn’t want to talk about my stories.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

SD: Well, of course I like that people like my stories. I think that’s great.

TSR: What are you working on now?

SD: I’m at work on another collection of stories, also arranged around a theme. I have a novel manuscript I’m shopping around as well, about nostalgia.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

SD: Probably Adrian Tomine’s books, the story collections Summer Blonde and 32 Stories and Sleepwalk and Other Stories. I reviewed Summer Blonde for Rain Taxi Review of Books and wrote an essay for Kartika Review on Tomine’s work, which has been extremely important to me. He does great stuff. And he’s working in another form altogether, graphic literature, comic literature, words and pictures, whatever you want to call it.