On May 15th, at the 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating ten of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books.
This week, we’re speaking with literary debutante Austin Bunn, author of One Story issue #68, “The Ledge.” Nearly 10 years ago, “The Ledge,” kept Editor-in-Chief Hannah Tinti wide awake in the middle of the night, so she called our publisher, Maribeth Batcha, right away to make sure we published Austin’s short story before anyone else.
It’s no surprise that Hannah was haunted by Austin’s work. Like a favorite Don DeLillo, J.G. Ballard, Chuck Palahniuk, or Jose Saramago novel, Austin’s collection will keep you up at night, pondering the bleak fate of humanity. Discovering the world is flat, suffocating in a suicidal cult, learning how to survive nuclear fallout, and terrorism on a tropical island: these snapshots merely scratch the surface of Austin Bunn’s short story collection, The Brink.
Austin’s stories are rich with imagination, exploring the complexity and resilience of each tested character. He explores sexuality, desire, and periods of transformation, ranging from 15th century Spain to 20th century San Diego. Austin’s ability to modulate his voice distinctly from one story to the next is a recognizable feat. While reading, you might ask: how could one man create ten such diverse stories? Austin has lived many lives as a boat carpenter, journalist, playwright, screenwriter, professor, and game designer for reality TV. Perhaps this allows him to crawl underneath the skin of such unique characters, perfectly emulating their point of view and tone.
We thank Austin for taking the time to answer a few questions about his book and the writing life.
Where were you when you found out that your first book, The Brink: Stories, was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
Watering the plants? Reheating coffee in the microwave? Restarting the AppleTV? It’s funny—you spend years waiting for the moment of knowing that your secret project, the countless hours of revision and rumination and prayer, will come to something, and when it happens, you’re on hold with NYSEG. I celebrated by taking myself out to lunch.
As a dramatist and the son of two language teachers, it’s no surprise that you begin the draft process by focusing on a voice. A voice grabs you and you hear the story first. You have so many unique, diverse voices in this short story collection. Where do you find inspiration?
I’ve always been drawn to premise and concept—maybe from too much science fiction and Stephen King in my youth?—but then I realized in my twenties that stories only happen because someone tells them. With that in mind: research. So, for example, once I got fascinated with end-time cults, I tracked down the Time magazine that had, as its cover, all the faces of those that died in the Heaven’s Gate suicide. Most of the faces were older, in their 40s and 50s and up. Just two of them were in their twenties: a young man and a young woman. And I thought to myself, what if they fell in love? I imbibed all the wild idiomatic expressions of their religion—thank you, language prof parents—and a story was born.
How long have you been working on this collection? Which story is the oldest story and which story is the newest?
I first dreamed of knitting a collection together in grad school at Iowa—when amazingly talented classmates (Kevin Moffitt, Nam Le, Matthew Vollmer) were teaching me how by building theirs. But mine was spazzy and not very considered, just the net of everything I’d done up to that point. The “oldest” story is the last, “Curious Father,” but I put it in quotes because after drafting it, I turned it into a play and then back into a story, where it became something else entirely. The “newest” are “Hazard 9” and “The Worst You Can Imagine Is Where This Starts.”
Receiving encouragement from Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, you completed research on the Spanish Inquisition while writing, “The Ledge.” How much research did you complete on the religious cult Heaven’s Gate while writing “The End of the Age Is Upon Us”?
Let me just say first that it would take a certain willful amnesia to call Marilynne Robinson’s response to the period, gay, sea-faring, ghost story “The Ledge” as “encouragement”! In that first draft, I was aiming for Poe and ended up at John Carpenter. You’re reading a much deepened, more honest, less performative version because of Marilynn’s spectacular let’s call it agnosticism towards that first draft. I did lots of research for “End of the Age”, since much of the cult’s ephemera remains online and was intended for the Internet: goodbye videos, testimonials, religious documentation. After a few months, I was convinced I needed to get to 0 emotionally as well.
In addition to research completed for this short story collection, you conducted research to write your biographical screenplay, Kill Your Darlings. How was that research process different from the research involved in writing these short stories? Do you research first and write second or do you write a first draft and then fill in the gaps with research? What advice do you have for fiction writers regarding research? How historically accurate does a fictional story need to be?
I love research—it feels like the story writes itself. This was especially true for Kill Your Darlings, though at a certain point, there is just not any information and you have to invent. I always read first and immerse myself and take notes and then start drafting when I’m most excited by the material. Then you hit dramatic or emotional corners, and invention is your way out (though I’m proud of just how accurate the film is). I used to be a journalist, so I trust actuality and fact perhaps more than other fiction writers. But I am also a former journalist for that very reason—the world doesn’t always produce stories.
One of the many reasons why your stories are powerful is because they are dark. Why do you feel drawn to writing apocalyptic stories?
A friend just read the collection and told me the same thing, Austin, these stories are so dark—I don’t think of them as dark as much as worlds under threat. My honest answer is that I’m terrified of boring people—the pathology of having of an alcoholic parent—and the fiction that grips me, that compels me to read forward and stay up and see where it goes (Sam Lipsyte, J.G. Ballard, Saunders, Kelly Link) tends to explore the edges of disaster, catastrophe, annihilation. I’m also a kid who grew up convinced that the world would end before I was the age I am now. That does things to you!
At the end of your collection, you mention some of your favorite speculative fiction writers. Would you consider stories from this collection to fit into the speculative genre as well? Do you have any advice for emerging writers who feel like their work doesn’t fit in with “the norm”?
I do find myself drawn to speculative fiction—the permission it gives—and some of these stories might fit the category. But I also love the writers who seem to move in and out of whatever category created for them. There are so many great outlets for work now, and I think the success of these less conventional writers (Saunders especially) has tested what “the norm” is. I’m just drawn to voice primarily, less so genre, so my advice is to trust your point of view more than anything. After “The Ledge” was rejected by two dozen other publications, Hannah Tinti pulled it from the submission pile and it was my first published story. Keep the faith.
What are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?
Being given away. I want to see what that looks like.