Occasionally I Fall in Love with Words: An Interview with Chuck Augello

Our Literary Debutante Ball is postponed until the fall, which is when we’ll be running the rest of the interviews with the debut authors being celebrated. But given that our Debutante Chuck Augello has two books coming out in April, in the midst of a pandemic, no less, we wanted to spotlight him now. We hope you’ll consider supporting Chuck—and writers like him who have Spring 2020 release dates—by purchasing their books. – One Story

In The Inexplicable Grey Space We Call Love, out now from Duck Lake Books, Chuck Augello pulls us closer to the realities of everyday life by exploring magical worlds outside of our own. While whimsical and lighthearted in tone, these stories force us to reckon with our own humanity: from heartbreak to healing, from misfortune to kismet, from chaos to purpose. In Augello’s peculiar characters, we see ourselves, and these recognitions make us laugh, cry, and gape at our surprising proximity to the fantastical.

Twinkle Bharwaney: Where were you when you found out The Inexplicable Grey Space We Call Love was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Chuck Augello: I was at work, so it wasn’t an environment where I could jump up and shout, “Yes!”  I think I went to the vending machine and celebrated with a pack of Peanut M&M’s.  I’m not big on celebration, particularly when it concerns myself, but there was definitely a sense of achievement, and to a lesser extent, relief. Rejection is common, and it’s easy to lose faith in oneself, so when Edward Parris of Duck Lake Books contacted me with an offer to publish my story collection, it was an important validation. Oddly, while The Inexplicable Grey Space We Call Love is my first published book, it holds that distinction by only fifteen days, and it’s the second book of mine to be accepted. Grey Space is being published on April 1, and my novel The Revolving Heart is being published on April 16 by Black Rose Writing; I received the contract offer for The Revolving Heart about a month before Grey Space was accepted. So in a short window of time there was cause for double celebration. Of course whatever celebration I might have planned for the publication dates will be tampered by the Covid-19 crisis, but I will definitely mark each date. Maybe I’ll break open another pack of Peanut M&M’s.

TB: The stories in this collection seem to deal with the arbitrary nature of timing. Whether it’s the urgency for twenty boxes of pizza or a soon-to-be-couple meeting as a man chokes on blueberry pie, your characters’ lives hinge on strange moments that change everything. Can you speak more about how you use the concepts of fate and destiny in your fiction? How do they inform both the inner and external worlds of your characters? 

CA: Interesting question. The other day my wife and I had a conversation in which I said I don’t believe in destiny, but perhaps I believe in it more than I think since it slips into my work with some frequency. Much of life is routine but every now and then we experience what I’ll call opportunities for movement, events with the potential to alter the trajectory of our lives. Usually we don’t realize it at the time, and these moments slip away. I can think of several in my own life that I let pass.  So in my stories I often place characters in situations with distinct choices, and in choosing an action, they create their destiny. In hindsight we might think it was fate, but there are multiple destinies available. You referred to the story “Pizza Monks,” in which Flynn feels his fate is certain, and it’s not a happy one.  When the monks come into his shop and order twenty pizzas, he could simply make the pies and be done with it. But it’s an opportunity for movement, and his decision to engage with the monks and deliver the pizzas himself leads to an exploration of Buddhism and the possibility of accepting his father’s suicide. From an interior perspective, it may feel like destiny, but the larger workings of the world are indifferent to us, although characters, and people, often think otherwise. I try to include that tension in my fiction.       

TB: Cool City” began with the story’s first line popping into your head one morning. You have some extraordinary first lines in this collection. Some I loved in particular were from “Thursday Night at the Tick Tock Diner, “Languid” and “Extraction.” Did these stories begin as compelling first lines too? How did these stories begin for you?

CA: Thanks for the compliment. A while back I was searching online and came across a list of one hundred great opening lines in fiction. To my utter surprise, I found one of my stories included on the list: the opening line of “Cool City,” published by One Story, which begins, “I was in the kitchen watching The Weather Channel when the girl from two floors down knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to fall in love.” I’m not sure I belong on any list that includes Tolstoy and Flannery O’Connor, but I’ll take it. Regarding your question, yes, they all began with what I hoped was a compelling first line. I struggle with endings, but my head contains a decent supply of first lines, most of which never develop into a story, or at least haven’t yet. As with “Cool City,” the opening line will arrive unannounced, and if it sticks around, I’ll start writing, hoping that a story takes shape. When it does, it’s a great feeling until I reach the end, which is when things get sticky.

“Extraction” began as an exercise in a workshop taught by Anthony Varallo at the Iowa Summer Writers Festival. The opening line came from an old-fashioned writing exercise with a prompt. “Languid” opens with the line “Three days after his roommate Calvin’s funeral, William K. fell in love with the word languid.” Occasionally I fall in love with words; over the years I’ve had relationships with brouhaha, unitard, cumbersome, and a few others, including languid, although I’ve never gone as far with it as William K. It was just a goofy idea about myself that I transformed into a story.    

There are many wonderful stories with unmemorable opening lines, but I respect the competition for a reader’s attention, and hope to hook them from the beginning. Kurt Vonnegut has written, to paraphrase, that writers should use the time of a total stranger in a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. With a strong opening line, I hope that a potential reader will trust that my story will be a good use of the next fifteen minutes of his or her life. Hopefully the rest of the story lives up to the beginning.

TB: How does magical realism, as a genre, afford you the breadth to explore heavier topics such as love, loss, and neuroses?

CA: I’ve never really considered these stories magical realism, though I see how the term is absolutely applicable to many of them. It’s a way of being playful and imaginative and opening doors that hopefully take the story in unique and interesting directions. My goal in writing is always to entertain; introducing magical elements provides a release valve when writing about heavier topics. It’s also wishful thinking. Wouldn’t it be great if strange, magical occurrences happened in real life? Like that Borges story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Who wouldn’t want to find that old man in his or her back yard? I know I would. I spend a lot of time outdoors walking my dog and I’m always hoping we’ll stumble upon something unexpected and unexplainable, but we never do. We just find discarded plastic, crushed soda cans, and the occasional dead frog. I wish it were otherwise, and some of that desire informs my approach to fiction.

TB: What is a piece of advice you would give young, aspiring writers? 

CA: It’s hard to put myself in the role of an advice-giver, especially about writing fiction, but I’ll offer a few thoughts that may be useful: first, whenever you think you’re done with a story, you’re probably only half-way there; approach your work like a sculptor chipping away at a giant block of clay until you can’t imagine the story existing in any other form. You may never write the story as perfectly as you’d like it to be, but don’t settle for anything other than your absolute best. That’s pretty standard advice; every writer mentions the importance of revision. Secondly, make sure that writing is something that you absolutely want to do because the external rewards will most likely be sporadic and not commensurate with the effort. You should really enjoy sitting down and working on a piece of writing as the reward in itself. If you knew no one would ever read what you wrote, would you still write? For me, the answer is yes, and so when good things happen, like One Story accepting “Cool City,” it’s wonderful, but it was equally wonderful sitting at my desk working through the story line by line. Finally, read a lot. It will make you a more thoughtful writer, and a better person, and it’s fun. 

Twinkle Bharwaney is a writer and student living in New York City. She is currently an MA candidate at NYU Steinhardt, pursuing a degree in Media, Culture, and Communication. She earned her BFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU Tisch in 2017.

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