Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in 6 words.
Christopher Allen: Personal. Risky. Blue. Magic. Real. Eclectic.
NS: This is your second book—you also have a book called Conversations with S. Teri O’ Type (a satire).
CA: They are so different but maybe I could use the same six words above to describe both. Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a satire) is an episodic cartoon and absurdist play with the same recurring characters, a wildly over-the-top satirical crash course in how to be gay, a conversation set simply on a sit-com stage. Voice is everything in Conversations. Other Household Toxins has a few absurdist stories, but each story is its own world with lots of different characters dealing with their own hard questions.
NS: Your stories often straddle the line between real and surreal. One of my favorites in this regard is “Beyond the Fences”, where the story is basically realistic with an unexpected and perfect swipe of surrealism at the end. This could come off as clashing in some circumstances, but in this case it works. Can you talk about the relationship of the real to the surreal in your work?
CA: Thank you so much for this question, Nancy. In this story I was trying to describe the feeling of being outed by awful people: that moment in a boy’s playful life when everything changes and he is left exposed to the cruelty of his abusers. For this character—and for myself—it was so traumatic that nothing less than walking off the face of the earth could describe the horror of it.
I write surrealism but more in the direction of dramatic surrealism. I think this is most recognizable in “Falling Man,” “When Susan Died the First Time,” and the title story “Other Household Toxins.” These are all collisions of disparate elements I’ve used to help me make sense of death. Most of my stories that veer from realism are magic realism.
My relationship to reality is something I think and write about a lot. I grew up in the Baptist Church where my concept of “real” was (de)formed. So I guess you could say the metaphysical was not very much different from the physical. I’m sure this influenced my stories as I began to write.
NS: Many of your stories deal with the complicated relationship between fathers and sons, in multiple and nuanced combinations. Is this a theme that continues to hold energy for you?
CA: Definitely. I don’t think there’s another theme that occupies my thoughts more, and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Maybe when I figure it all out I’ll stop writing stories about fathers and sons. That might be a while though: I’m a bit thick sometimes.
NS: Many writers struggle with arranging their stories into a collection. How did you decide on the order of the stories? I was particularly struck by the choice to put the story “Fred’s Massive Sorrow”, a 32-page story, in the middle of primarily 1-3 page flashes. You could have decided to put it, say, at the beginning or end. Can you talk about your organizing process?
CA: Ah, yes, Fred. He’s the big sad elephant smackdab in the middle of this flash collection. “Fred’s Massive Sorrow” is a short story in flash, or he’s here to show how writing flash has affected my longer stories, or he’s here just because I love him. “Fred’s Massive Sorrow” is a modular, multi-voiced narrative with sections all under 1000 words. I see it as the centerpiece of the collection, and of course the cover art is based on the story.
Other Household Toxins, the collection, begins with a little boy trying to figure out his place in the world and his relationship to his father. The progression of stories then follows characters as they deal with life’s difficult questions from young to old, but I don’t think I stuck to this religiously. There are a few “sections”: the Southern characters are mostly together, and the German stories are together. “Other Household Toxins,” the story, ends the collection with a teenager who still doesn’t understand his father but has found a way to deal with his past through magic realism.
NS: I love that you have so many stories set on the train! I also commute by train and actually do much of my reading (including your book) on the train. Talk about the train as a theme in your work.
CA: Thank you so much for reading my book, Nancy! We are so lucky. Public transportation is a thunderstorm of stories every day. All you have to do is sit there and sponge it up. Anything can happen, and anyone could walk into your life. I love—and hate—this aspect of the train. I rarely interact with people. I’ve lived in Germany for the last couple of decades where talking on public transportation is a sure sign of insanity. But the train brings characters into my life and into my stories. The Clown Lady in “A Clown’s Lips” is one of those characters. She ends up teaching the narrator so much about himself.
NS: I’m struck by your ambidexterity when it comes to gender—you seem to write and create empathy for characters of all genders with equal ease. I actually find this unusual for a writer—we may aspire to it but it doesn’t always hit the mark. What are your thoughts on this?
CA: Thank you. When I was in my twenties I thought about becoming a psychiatrist because I was passionate about understanding people. And I still am. I’ve always seen the lines between gender as fluid. I think I understood at a very young age that humans come in a much wider variety than just masculine and feminine.
A few years ago, I wrote a story for STRIPPED: A Collection of Anonymous Flash Fiction, a project that took bylines and thus gender away from the stories. Readers were invited to guess the gender of the authors (a field that included most well-known flash fiction writers then). I’m happy to say that I fooled everyone, even the software program that promised to spot the gender of the writer. Did I try to “write like a woman”? I don’t think so. Did I try to become the character? Yes. The story still tears me apart.
NS: Some of your stories are of course set in Germany (or overseas). How has being an ex-pat influenced your work?
CA: I think very similar to riding the train, living in different places—I’ve also lived in London and Dublin—has forced characters into my life and into my stories that would otherwise never have appeared. Being an expat has taught me so such. First of all, I am stupid. My education was awful. The guidance that I received as a child and as a teenager was bullshit. I work with people every day who speak five languages and talk about paintings, opera, and chemistry. Being an expat has taught me humility. Being an expat has also driven me to learn, which has affected my work deeply.
NS: Death and dying is a prominent theme in this book, though I wouldn’t call it a morbid book. Sometimes your exploration is tragic and other times it’s completely surreal, like the guy who is dying for a living. I remember listening to you read the “The Ground Above My Feet” at AWP, and at the time the audience cracked up laughing. On the page it felt much more serious. Where is the line between funny and serious for you?
CA: I’m thrilled when readers see the humor. I hope “The Ground Above My Feet” makes the reader laugh—until it doesn’t of course. There’s a big dark line between funny and serious in that story. My publisher, Randall Brown, describes the collection as “fiercely funny,” and I wonder if readers too will think this about a collection almost entirely about death. A few nights ago as I was writing the letter from the editor for SmokeLong while watching a documentary about Stephen Hawking, I was trying to figure out how to communicate to our readers why humor is so important. And then Stephen Hawking told me: “Humor helps people think about difficult questions.” That’s exactly how I use humor—in my work and in my life. So to answer your question, maybe there is no line? Or maybe the exchange between the two blurs the line?
When Conversations with S. Teri O’Type first came out in 2012, lots of readers asked this question since humor plays such a large role in the story. Occasionally a reader would say something like “Whoa. This is really dark. Is this supposed to be funny or serious?” My response then was “There’s nothing serious here except everything.” And I think this still rings true in Other Household Toxins.
NS: What advice would you give to a writer creating their first book?
CA: Be yourself. Do something you love. There are enough books out there written because the author and their publisher thought this is the thing people want to read. Write something you’re dying to tell the world.
NS: Thanks for hanging out, Chris!