Interview with Gary Floyd - 2021
Interview #1 (fiction, political fiction, hybrid text, flash fiction)
Gary Floyd is a Massachusetts writer who has worked as a journalist and with at-risk youth. He has attended the Wildacres Writers Conference in North Carolina annually for over 25 years. From 2011-2014, he edited a Boston labor blog called Labors Pains. During that time he was on the periphery of covering the US Uncut movement as well as Boston’s Occupy Wall Street movement. He was a member of SEIU who took part in the union’s lobbying efforts. His short stories and flash fiction have appeared in several magazines. Last year he published Liberté: The Days of Rage 1990-2020. His collection Eyes Open With Your Mask On is the follow-up story, even though it also functions as a stand-alone piece of literature.
The conversation was conducted by email over three weeks in December. The author and interviewer first met at Literary Fiction Writers, a Facebook group the interviewer runs as a volunteer administrator.
Randal Eldon Greene: Hello, Gary Floyd.
It seems like you’ve had quite the prolific year, publishing two books. Why did you feel the need to get them both out within six months of one another?
Gary Floyd: I think that my pace has been driven by the times.
My first book, Liberté, took much longer than my second. I think I was writing it for a couple of years before I put out a finished product. I had gone to the same writer's conference for over twenty years and have met plenty of wonderful writers there. When I put out Liberté, it was after I had become immersed in flash fiction (under 1000 words). It was a new form that I was still trying to learn, but I was drawn to it because it helped me boil everything down to its most concise form.
After returning from the conference probably in 2017, I think, I ran my own flash group with a number of other writers. The genesis of Liberté came from a prompt. It was nothing I planned to write and instead it was just, ‘Wow where did that come from?’ It was being part of a union and petitioning our representatives in Washington for the Card Check bill in 2008. It was then that I realized that nobody in Washington (friend or foe) cared about us. It was like we weren't represented by anyone and they really just wished we'd go back to wherever it was we came from. I got two stories out of that trip, and I realized there was something there. I just didn't think there was enough for a full book. Several other stories were added to this and each seemed to have a similar theme: the outsider seeking changes and trying to overcome the politically connected. I began to wonder if a book could hold up on a theme rather than on a traditional storyline. This was at the time of the yellow vest movement in France, and there were protests coming out across the globe against the political insiders. This was an effort to connect what I saw in this country with movements I saw going on around the world. Once the Coronavirus came, I figured I had to get this book out, sooner rather than later, because everything I had been writing about would soon be on full display.
I had decided to write the second book, Eyes Open With Your Mask On, almost before Liberté ever came out. Where everything I talked about in Liberté was in the abstract, I felt pretty certain that they'd all be on full display in the government's response to the current crisis. And I'm sad to say I feel I was right. For the second book – also written in flash – I almost felt like someone who was chronicling the events we were living through, and I let the events carry me along. I'd make a note of different subjects that I was interested in and wanted to touch on in pandemic America. I used areas from our past (Hurricane Katrina, Standing Rock, Flint, and Diego Garcia) to demonstrate the roots of many of the problems we are experiencing today. I tried to connect this period to pandemics of our past, often amazed by the similarity of our actions to those of our predecessors. I hope it makes for a satisfying blend of fiction, non-fiction, and essay.
Randal Eldon Greene: You also included prose poems in these two books, right? Or is it maybe poetic fiction? I had one story published as a prose poem, although I submitted it as a story. So I know that the demarcation between the two can be quite fluid. Do you think an average reader of your books is likely to know which pieces are story and which poetry? And how much does it even matter?
Gary Floyd: Yes, there are poetic interludes within both pieces. There are parts that are almost done in a stream of consciousness. They aren't written in the form of: here's the lead character, here's the problem, and here's the resolution. In these particular pieces, you can basically place the reader inside a swirl of images. They become a kind of stand-in for every man/woman. I almost look at it as a way to paint with images; these sections hopefully both feed into and support the collective whole. It's really a mosaic.
I think most readers will sense which are prose poetry and which are more traditional story, though they might not necessarily know how to properly categorize them. I've had readers who read Liberté and thought it was an important book but still felt unsure of their ability to evaluate the rules of flash. I told them that that was okay because I do believe what I'm doing is a potentially new art form. It's almost more external, with regards to its interactions with the world, than internal as some writing is.
When I was younger I wanted to write a quote book that was completely fragmented but that added up to something. I've always been drawn to stuff like that. I don't know what it is - perhaps it's just the way my brain works. I like synthesizing diverse information. My goal with both of these books was that flash could take on a larger role in our discourse and to have my readers reconsider assumptions they might have had on various societal issues. I've enjoyed hearing that my work doesn't provide pat answers but instead provides a wide range of experiences that allows the reader to draw their own conclusions. I know the effect I'm going for. I only hope, and I try to trust, that my reader will make the leap with me.
Randal Eldon Greene: "Fragmented but that added up to something." I'm beginning to see how something like a collection of vignettes, fragments, poems, and stories can add up to something that reflects the roots of our problems. If you're going to go beyond the pandemic and really dig into our social issues and patterns of responses to crisis, it seems like a fragmented collection just might be the most thematically true way to do it.
Gary Floyd: The first book was more difficult to write than the second because I was uncertain of the style I was writing in, but it was something that I sensed I could work with. In both works I cannibalized a few old stories that I had written in the past and tried to craft them to fit into the new form. I got this idea from watching Bruce Springsteen's The Promise (The making of Darkness on the Edge of Town), in which he talked about treating past work like working with spare car parts. To paraphrase, if you need a carburetor you just rip it out and use it in your new work. I loved the image. I wound up doing this with both books. In the first book there are at least three sets of stories that are linked in which a close reader might guess that there is carryover between characters in multiple stories. To my mind, it's a little like adding the straps to a collection to help confine the piece into a concrete whole.
By the time the second book came along, I had a better understanding of the medium I was working in, and I had a better feel of how to get from point A to B. Each new story began to feel less like a surprise, less like I required a certain amount of creative alchemy to get to some place interesting. I actually began to feel surer of my ability to drive my own train. I began to guide my own writing into the situations I wanted it to go. I think this made the second book more of a concrete whole. In this one, like the first, I have characters appear in multiple stories. These people occupy my world.
Randal Eldon Greene: Will there be a third book?
Gary Floyd: It's too early to tell. I'd definitely consider it. I still have my antenna up trying to sense the passing currents. I'm still interested in the fact that half the country won't accept the election results or that half the country won't accept that there is even a pandemic in the middle of a pandemic, or at their inability to band together, at their politicians' clueless indifference to bankrupting half their fellow citizens. The news that we consume is totally different and there is so little commonality. We allow the talking heads on television to make caricatures of each other. It's literally tearing the country apart, and they've had little pushback to it. I'm less interested in the core arguments than I am with why people allow themselves to be divided so easily. My plan right now is to allow events to play out and, at a later point, to decide whether there'll be a third book. In some ways, these books have been my way of dealing with the stressors we are all under. It's an attempt to say a true statement that we all know is true but won't vocalize.
Randal Eldon Greene: I think there's something to be said about great art and literature being created in times of social unrest. Not that artists should want the wars and the dictators, the death and the cultural pain. Still, I've seen it argued that the constrictions and stress of major societal upheavals sometimes drive more meaningful acts of art to be created. Most of what I've read so far in relation to the pandemic and current political climate has been journalism, opinion, and other kinds of nonfiction. With everyone in one way or another documenting their story of this time in words and pictures captured in millions of social media posts, what do you think fictional characters have to bring to the conversation?
Gary Floyd: I'd agree with your assessment. Cultural unrest is conflict which can be the basis of drama. I was a history major as an undergraduate and an American Studies major as a post-graduate. That's a combination of English, History, and Political Science. So I guess I'd say that man's place in our world has always been inside my DNA. Who are we as a people?
Several years ago, I read Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again. Wolfe was in Berlin during the 1936 Olympics. He documented the Nazi regime as it came to fruition. It was like he was documenting the regime in real time. I always liked that and wanted to do something as meaningful as Wolfe. He wasn't the only one to do this. Hemingway did similar things in his early work, as did Erich Maria Remarque. A writer's place in the world has always been a theme that interests me.
To ask, what can fiction bring to a story that journalism can't is a valid question. I feel there can be overlap. Journalism, in general, takes one viewpoint. Fiction can allow you to explore several different perspectives at once. Maybe it's my own prejudice, but I believe that fiction writers have more freedom to color outside the lines and that they're usually more skillful at making stories interesting. As a fiction writer, I feel more freedom to explore a wider range of perspectives. One thing I used in Eyes Open is transcripts of our political leaders. I juxtaposed their words into a text and explored how these words influence the lives of people that the politicians were unlikely to meet or ever interact with. I tried to use this to showcase the disconnection between our political leaders and the people they believe that they are leading. This was something I hadn't done with Liberté.
Randal Eldon Greene: That's funny you mention You Can't Go Home Again. I almost picked it up last night but instead went with Roberto Balano's Nazi Literature in the Americas, which is certainly a work that explores the place of writers in our world. The way you describe using quotes and transcripts reminds me of Enrique Vila-Matas. He uses quotes liberally within his texts. Do you keep a quote book of any sort for inspiration or writing fodder? Or is your process more researching quotes that meet the immediate needs of your narrative?
Gary Floyd: It's actually funny, Wolfe died young. Thirty-nine I think, and it's amazing what he might have turned out. He was immensely talented. In some ways You Can't Go Home Again isn't really his true book because when he died he left a trunk filled with a manuscript, and other people are the ones who took it and shaped it into what became perhaps four books. The writing is his but who knows how he would have shaped the manuscript if he had lived. It really doesn't matter; some of his writing is genius. It reminds me of what Paul McCartney said about people who complained that the White Album should have been a single album. He said, "Oh what can you say. It's the Beatles, now get out of here."
I have kept notebooks in the past. Mostly, I rely on having a good memory. Even if I have to do some research, I usually have a pretty good idea of what I'm looking for, and then I'll go onto the internet or turn to a book to find the specifics. That is not to say I'm averse to researching. Early on in the Eyes Open project I decided that I wanted to link my writing to past pandemics. I had time on my hands (no one was going anywhere), so I watched a series - really a collection of college lectures - on the Black Death to find out the best writers with regard to the plague. I then looked at the names I'd etched down on more than one occasion. I've also been clued in by friends with regards to quotes or stories to look into. I'm really someone who likes researching. I enjoy learning new things.
Randal Eldon Greene: I can definitely tell you researched and enjoy incorporating your research into your writing. So much of Eyes Open with Your Mask On is a cacophony of facts. Painful facts that tell stories of government failure and neoliberal brutality. You point out instances of apathy to the plight of hurting U.S. citizens and, even worse, complicity in creating those situations from officials of our city governments all the way to our elected presidents. It hurts reading so many factual accounts so close together—Katrina, Standing Rock, not to mention the 2020 pandemic itself. Yet, the onslaught of these facts, interspersed in both the fiction and the flash-sized historical accounts, is what can really help you see. To me that's the Eyes Open of the title. It's remembering history in order to see the present state as anything other than aberration; it's a contemporary spin on age-old injustice. And, really, your book is also a call to remember so we can do something about it other than vote or whatever ineffective actions the plutocrats seal with their stamp of approval.
Gary Floyd: I'm glad some of the research I put into this book came through. I worked as a teacher in jail and the year before I retired, my students wanted to learn English through documentaries. I took this as being their way of saying they really cared about what happened in their world. Three of my last lessons dealt with Hurricane Katrina, Standing Rock, and Flint Michigan. I've always been someone who enjoys finding out what the corporate media doesn't want us to know. I decided to use these three subjects after becoming convinced that what was underlying the government's reaction in a pandemic was some of the same things they had displayed before. A friend of mine told me about Diego Garcia, and I watched a documentary about it and began researching it. That was how the fourth case study came to be. It made sense because it was the U.S.'s military footprint expanding out.
In the first days of the pandemic there appeared to be a feeling of disbelief regarding the U.S. government's lack of action, but I really wasn't surprised by it. It seemed like the root cause hadn't changed. It's always about how this country treats its most marginalized, because an assessment appears to have been made by the most powerful that they can do anything they want because nobody really cares about those people. In truth, the degradation of human life usually happens overseas long before it reaches our shores.
When things finally broke down and there were actually riots in the streets, I felt the way we treated the marginalized was always the hidden component to the disruption. The lack of mask wearing and the rioting felt like a giant fuck you to those in Washington and state capitals who didn't appear to give a crap about its citizens. Unfortunately, for many Americans it's always the symptom that matters and not the root cause. I still see this when I advertise my book; I get people telling me how the pandemic is fake. They make false assumptions on what I'm writing about without ever having read my book. Most of their assumptions are wrong. I'm not a doctor, and I doubt many of them are either. I always wanted to ask if they believed that the Black Death was real or was it just being done so the king of Florence would be forced out of office. I've heard people call it a "plandemic", "a hoax," and many have a dozen reasons why masks don't work and how government leaders are just nefariously trying to screw them over. It never seems to occur to them that their leaders might not be that smart and that they may be doing a terrible job while winging it. Stay home and starve isn't a solution. It just makes me sad for our future. Eyes Open was written to spur on a return to a time when we could talk to one another and work collectively together (as we did during World War 2 or the Space Program).
Randal Eldon Greene: What kind of solidarity do you envision? Neither side of our body politic seems to truly understand the extent to which they are exploited, let alone how our country exploits the poorest nations as dumping grounds for our trash, wrecking economies and then wringing out every last natural resource. If the people struggle with acknowledging the true conditions of our exploitative and inherently broken economic system, how do we move people toward a unified vision?
Gary Floyd: That is a great question. I wish I had a great answer. One thing I'm certain of is it has to begin with some sort of acceptance of the commonality of facts, which we don't have right now. Too many people refuse to listen to news that doesn't conform to their preconceived view of the facts. There's a wonderful book by Matt Taibbi called Hate Inc. It is basically about how whether you're a Fox viewer or an MSNBC viewer, they already know what news you consume, and they choose stories that'll conform with your prejudices. Actually, the news and the way it's presented is merely done for the products that they believe that people who think like you do will consume. That's why I chose to include a Roger Ailes quote. He is really the father of modern American news, not just Fox but also MSNBC, and has done more damage to the institution than anyone I know. MSNBC is supposedly the polar opposite of Fox, but I go back to Rachel Maddow calling Ailes her good friend. They've learned all the tricks from Fox, and they now just magnify it from the other side.
What it does is set up a world in which you never get any news that will challenge you, and it instead perpetuates a situation in which neither side can talk to one another. Winning is enough, and it doesn't really matter if your side does nothing for you or not. At least it prevents the other side from winning. In a way, the Americans are getting played by the people they elect and their mass media allies. They have no common language in which to talk to one another because they believe the endless stereotypes of their fellow citizens that they're constantly fed. Fiction can play a role in helping to undermine these prejudices. Writers frequently have the ability to empathize with often overlooked characters and can turn them into something other than the cardboard cut-outs that both sides present.
I've often wrestled with your questions in my writing. I can't say I'm completely satisfied with my answers, but I like the overall trend of what I present. I'm all for ‘Let's have a conversation and see where we meet,’ but I refuse to accept unproven conjecture. It strikes me that the people who actually run this country - and who put money into both sides - are much more united than the people who fight each other, like cats and dogs, and demonize one another. On Social Media you know who's already going to post what and how the other side is just evil incarnate. It never convinces anyone of anything and instead gets a lot of “likes” from people who think exactly like they do. I think a big part of a way forward is being willing to call out your own team rather than always excusing them because you're convinced the other side has to be worse. One thing that makes me happy is that there is a fledgling group of people who are starting to realize that whichever side of the divide you're on, you're getting played if you allow yourself to fall into this trap. Even though, in my opinion, there still aren't enough people who realize it yet. I think the overall trends are in the right direction.
About the interviewer:
Randal Eldon Greene is the author of Descriptions of Heaven, a novella about a linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death. His typos are tweeted @AuthorGreene and his website is AuthorGreene.com