Interview with Boise Author, Josh Gross (Edited for space)
(August 24, 2012, Dawson Taylor Coffee – neutral territory)
When you first asked us to review it [your book] I saw that it was a collection of short stories and I never really never got into short stories just because, for me, I never thought there was enough to get into, but actually, short story writers are very talented because you have to get all of that in there, you have to get the bang of the character in the story right away—
–And you have to start over every time.
Yeah exactly, and you don’t have that many pages to get everything across to your reader and get them hooked. So good job, I’m converted. I enjoy short stories, because it’s a nice little window–snapshot–into someone’s life without getting committed for 300 pages.
Yeah, it’s good because it’s nice and nonthreatening. You can pick up a couple when you feel like it, and you don’t feel like you’re locked into a book. It wasn’t like I had a giant ambition to pursue short stories over everything else; but—I have some completed manuscripts, or novels, it’s just that this was the material that was most publishable at the time.
So, over what time span did all of these get written?
The first big batch of them I wrote in the summer of 2004/2005 I think, because I had—or maybe it was 2005—I can’t remember—because I had this really great job as the editor of the college newspaper and it paid of the summer but we didn’t have to publish over the summer which was nice so basically I just had a free check to do nothing—which I’m not saying that’s that not something that should be amended, but I had a lot of free time to work on stuff. I initially published them as a zine (something similar to being published at Kinko’s), ran off about 100’s copies and sold those, about 120 pages, I think it had nine stories. I did all the illustrations myself—they were much cruder. And then the rest of them were sort of plunked in over time. After that there was a two year time before I moved here to Boise, and during that time I finished off a number of the stories that were in that book, finished off two novel manuscripts, full length play, two screenplays—I had a lot of free time then.
Wow, so you’re all over the place, then. I noticed that quite a few of your stories have already been published in different magazines and have won a number of awards, so is that how the collection got started? Sort of The Best Of?
Yeah, I started with more and then cut some out because they weren’t good enough. I initially was sending this to publishers but they aren’t’ that interested in short story collections from unknown authors, they want you to have a bestselling novel, first.
There’s obviously a trick to writing short fiction well; how do you make sure you’re writing a good compelling short story?
I don’t know if it’s really any different from writing a novel, it’s just—stories have a certain length that they naturally go to and the problems usually come when you try to make it shorter or longer than it needs to be. I mean, there’s nothing worse than a short story written to novel length or a novel compressed into a short story. These are just stories that ended where they naturally fell. I have stories that are longer, but these ones are just where they naturally settled. If there was room to expand them, I probably would. Some of them are only two or three pages long, but that’s the natural length of the story, but if you mutilate it by trying to stretch it out…
Yeah, there were a couple that were longer, and I was like, ‘Oh, man, these are longer compared to the other ones’ and then I started reading them and they were over like that.
Yeah, some are like novellas and others are like blips, and I like that.
Tell me more about your other projects you have.
When I moved here I had a stack of stuff this high that I’d built up when I wasn’t really doing much, and my idea was, build up a big stock of material and start going through it. I have a short novel that I’d written that my friend was going to put out on one of his publishing imprints, but for whatever reasons it ended up taking too long so he just gave it back to me, so I have that done and ready to go. I could upload that to Amazon tomorrow, but I wanted one thing at a time. And I have another novel that I need some pretty serious redrafting that’s about a rock band and I wanted to go back and record an album to go with it.
Cool, that’s actually trending, even with physical books, and also to include song lists.
Yeah, well, this would actually be recording songs as the band described them in the book; I sort of have this side project going on. There’s that and then I had a play that was put on earlier in the year at the Linen Building for a couple of days, and it was a big success and it goes with enough other plays and scripts that I’ve written that I’m also going to compile a collection of scripts. I have one more that I want to put through the workshop process and get produced before then, and that’s probably going to be sometime next year, maybe. And then I have the one mega project which I sort of fear going back to, and that’s a memoir I wrote about my time in youth prison. And that is the first thing I ever really wrote, and it’s a “train wreck wrapped in a cluster[omitted] tied in a Celtic knot”
That’s a great little blurb for the front of the book.
But that needs a lot of reworking, but I think that it’s a great story. But it’s going to take a lot of time and emotional energy, so I wanted to get some of this other stuff first. And I’m also working on a musical puppet show that’s going go on Halloween for a couple days. It’s going to all be put on through Homegrown Theatre which is who I worked with for the play in the spring.
And the puppet show, it’s for adults, right, not for children?
Yeah, it’s called the Ritual killing of the Musical
Very promising, I’m liking that.
Yeah, well, it’s a Halloween show, so, it’s gonna be a little…and then, what else is going on? The film version of that [The Dog House] is coming out in the fall.
So you’re a musician too, then. Qhat do you play, or do you do everything? It’s kind of sounding like you’re a Jack of All Trades.
Um, yeah, a little bit. I was a drummer in a band here called The Ratings Battle—a loud rock and roll band. Originally called the Northend Snugglers, but we had to change it. A lot of guys don’t like that, apparently.
[Me, laughing] The Northend Snugglers.
I thought that was hysterical.
Yeah, that was awesome.
Our new guitar player just shipped out to basic training so it’s on hiatus now. I also play drums for a kid named Bridgeport. He’s an acoustic act but I’ve played with him a couple of times. I have three or four different solo projects depending on how you define them. One of them is a ukulele heavy metal cover project—
That is a very…eclectic…mix.
And then I did a EP with that, and a ukulele, accordion, bass, and drums. And then there’s a version of that that performs as a trio. And then there’s sort of indie rock one man act, and then I have a new one that’s sort of a one man DJ mixes with a guitar and a drum machine and a looping petal.
Is any of your music available in iTunes?
Lots of it
Under Josh Gross?
Um, I’ll send you some links because it’s over the place.
So, the two stories I like the most in here are The Dog House, because that was the first one I read. And the entire time I’m reading it, I’m thinking, I can’t believe this guy is doing this, he’s freaking psychotic! But I could totally see someone who’s obsessed with their new dog doing that. And then the end was just awesome. And the other one was One Friday in April.
The thing I think I really like about your stories is that they’re not all funny, there are some serious moments, but then also the fact that you have this story itself that’s about some main secret, then within that secret you have a couple other secrets going on which are very subtle. So, when you’re doing that, is it intentional, or is it just a natural development of writing the story?
I do a lot of that stuff intentionally, because you don’t want to be too heavy handed with that, you don’t want it to be too obvious, but you want the reader to figure it out on their own so that they become an active participant in the story. I don’t want to say ‘show don’t tell’ because that’s such a clichéd thing to say, but I feel like a really good story, you should feel like an active participant and sometimes that’s instilling that sense of mystery and of figuring things out for yourself. And it’s backfired a lot. A lot of the times I’ve put things in there and people are like, ‘I totally didn’t get that’.
So which do you prefer writing? Do you prefer your novel length, screenplays, short fiction?
I jump around a lot. It’s whatever I’m in the mood for. And if I get bored, I’ll move on to something else. There’s nothing there that says if you wrote novels you can’t write scripts. If you write screenplays you can’t write songs. I like writing books that are really daunting and exhausting. I like writing songs that really purge.
So are any of these derived from real life experiences?
Well, I tell people, a lot of times, my method of coming up with stories, is I get some crazy idea of something I should do and then I’ll go, ‘That’s a terrible idea, don’t do that! You’ll get arrested.’ And then I’ll go and write a story about it. Like The Dog House, for example. I adopted a dog and he was in the pound because a couple had gotten divorced and I was really angry. This was the best dog in the history of dogs and I was really angry that someone would give up a dog like this; I wanted to find them and yell at them, but I couldn’t, so they end up more like a thought experiment.
You have a lot of different points of view that a lot of people never think about, like One Friday in April, people never think about an abortion for the guy’s point of view.
No, they don’t.
And so, reading that, I was like, ‘Wow, the guy’s going through all of this too, not just the girl.’ Do you have any favorites in here? Or are they all near and dear to your heart?
Dog House is definitely one of my favorites. I feel like I’m onto something really good when I feel like I’m getting away with something, It’s almost like, good writing is like mischief and you’re thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is actually coming out!’ And I felt that way the entire time writing The Dog House, and I loved that. I just became aggressively more farcical. I do think that One Friday in April is one of the best things I’ve ever written, only because it kind of a third rail topic, and it’s especially a third rail topic because it’s never covered from that perspective, so I feel like that was an important story to write.
Then the last one, Debate is a Many Splendored Thing, is actually, probably my favorite one. The perspective for me was really fun, where so much of it was not so ‘action happens’ but compressed moments, trying to unravel. That was a lot of fun for me. I seem to have a thing for really damaged people, and I did a lot of competitive debate in college and there’s this unbelievable collection of…there are people who read that story and say, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting and cool.’ And then there are debaters who can read that story and go, ‘Oh, God, I’ve been there.’ A lot of those are little anecdotes that I took from the world of international competitive debate.
How long did you do debate for?
All of my life but officially, the last two years of college.
Are there any skills you picked up in debate that you think helped you with your writing? I mean, obviously to craft good arguments and to do a lot of research, but are there any other skills that you picked up in debate that transferred well to your writing?
I think just a clear narrative. It’s one of those things where good commutation plays across all forms. You need to have sort of proper elements in place in order to create a compelling narrative that conveys what you need to convey in a way that keeps people interested and moves around between different fields.
An academic debate round is one person comes up, says something, someone else responds and says something else which turns everything in a completely different direction, the next person comes up and responds to that, in a way that turns everything on its head and finally brings everything to this climactic finale that leaves us saying, how do I possibly choose between these two sides? I mean, to me, that’s dramatic structure. That’s your first scene. Someone steps on stage and says, ‘I’m going to kill my wife’ and your character comes in and goes, ‘Oh, but your wife is already planning to kill you.’ And suddenly everything turns around; it’s exactly the same structure. Maybe some of the details of the conventions of how you lay it out are different, but the concepts are the same.
As long as you give good material of substance delivered in a compelling way that translates across.
So, fun questions: favorite TV show currently on the air?
I don’t actually have a TV so—
–Okay, then, of all time.
The Daily Show [with JonStewart], Battlestar Galactica (new), Star Trek: The Next Generation, The X-Files.
(I request a high five at the mention of The X-Files, my all-time FAVORITE series )
I’m big on robots and spaceships.
Do you watch Doctor Who at all?
I don’t. I don’t watch British television.
(Then we go on to get into a geeky conversation about TV shows. If you want to hear it all, I’ll get it to you).
What is your favorite song of all time? And I will make you narrow it down to one. And it could be at this particular moment [your favorite song].
Can we come back to this one?
Yes. What’s the last book that you read?
Oh, it’s one I read for a review. It’s called, Forget About Today, it’s sort of a self-help book based of the career of Bob Dylan. I’m not going to say that it’s a great book.
Is it interesting?
It is…interesting, but a lot of it is sort of…I would never expect a self-help book off the career of Bob Dylan.
It says in the back [of your book] that you like to create trouble around Boise in your free time; so what does that include?
Oh, generally a trouble maker. I’m a little more honest than most people. It’s not malicious. I think it’s ruder to tell people you like their band when you don’t. Read any of the comments on the stories that I write and you’ll get an idea about the kind of trouble maker, I guess.
If you could co-author a book with any author, alive or dead, who would it be and what would it be called?
Well, I have a title to a book but I haven’t figured out what the book is about yet, I’m going to have to think about this for a second. Okay, the title is, Death Rides A Pogo Stick, and I don’t know what it’s about yet, but I know with a title like that, you can’t go wrong. It would probably be Douglas Adams, John Kennedy Toole, or there’s a science fiction writer in Austin who I have identified more closely with than any other writer, ever—Bradley Denton. I picked up a book of his called Buddy Holly is Alive and Well Again in Jupiter […] I laughed, I cried. There’s no one else ever who’s written about rock and roll so eloquently. In a way that I feel is a strange and magical book.
I would say him, but I don’t want to meet him because I’m so afraid of putting people on a pedestal. I had a very bad experience with Vanilla Ice, and I never recovered, so…
I’m still struggling over this song one. [long pause] Ke$ha and her cover of Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right. It’s on YouTube. It’s a very, very moving rendition. Sometimes I think my theme song is by Weird Al Yankovic, I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead.
You’d mentioned that the first short story in Secrets & Lies was made into a film, can you tell me more about that?
The Dog House was made into a film by a Boston-based filmmaker named Kimberly Rideout, who I was part of a filmmaking collective with, alongside a bunch of the crew from Coraline, in Portland before I moved here. She bought the rights for the story during the run-up to its publication, and shot it as her senior thesis for film school at Boston University. Her adapted screenplay won a $5,000 grant from the Adrienne Shelley (director of Waitress) Foundation, which was good because animal actors are absurdly expensive. It’s also a fairly prestigious award.
The film adaptation is especially exciting for me because a short film I wrote, The Lost Van Gogh, made the rounds on the festival circuit last year, even won the Audience Choice Award at the Tulsa International Film Festival. So I’m hoping to keep that trend going.
Congrats, that’s awesome, and thanks so much for your time, I appreciate you coming out.
Whew! So, if you stuck with me, that’s a six page interview. Josh and I sat down and chatted for over half an hour that day, but he’s a funny, talented guy. If you get the opportunity, pick up some of his songs and read his book, Secrets & Lies. I’ve included some links to his work below. Enjoy!
The link to buy Secret & Lies
The video for Josh’s ukulele/accordion project (officially being released at the 208 Video Show at Neurolux for Sept. First Thursday.)
Another ukulele video
The solo looping project
The Ratings Battle (formerly The North End Snugglers)
Bridgeport (the other band I occasionally plays drums for)
Some previous bands.
A standup comedy video