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Joseph Michael Owens

Joseph Michael Owens has written for various publications including [PANK], Specter Magazine, The Rumpus, The Houston Literary Review, and InDigest Magazine. His collectio(novel)la, Shenanigans! was recently released by Grey Sparrow Press. Joe lives in Omaha with four dogs and one wife.

Blurbs

"Shenanigans! is the textual photo-album of Anna and Ben, language made to Polaroid the gentle tangle of coupling and maturation. This is a collection wonderfully tinged with humor, beautifully tempered with landscape, and soaked in the genuine.”

– J. A. Tyler

"The voice in Shenanigans! is muscular, rhythmic, and full of whizz-bang linguistic energy. The stories view the world with the kind of self-deprecating humor that makes you want to spend an afternoon just wandering around in Benjamin’s mind. Read Shenanigans! You’ll laugh, you’ll think…you’ll have a great time."

– Amy Hassinger

"The charm of Joseph Michael Owens's debut collection, Shenanigans! can be found in his voice. At heart, these are a young man's stories of love and loss, of life and death. There‟s a sincerity that flirts with retro yet feels like innovation. Each one reads like a conversation . . . unscathed by the unsentimental tone that too often passes for hipness in this day and age, yet clearly of his own time. These are honest stories."

– Karen Gettert Shoemaker

"Between Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace's essays, Joseph Owens's stories will take you through a caffeinated romp through his life, its exciting highs and frightening lows. Dogs, horses, bicycles come alive with as much love and empathy as the people he holds dear. Owens's voice, spirited, crackling with energy, is too fierce and engaging to be ignored."

– Catherine Texier

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Shenanigans!

An Interview with Joseph Michael Owens

12/11/13

Recently, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to read Joseph Michael Owens’s short story collection Shenanigans! and I must say that I’m really into his style! For those of you who don’t know, Joe is also the Web Content Manager here at the Lit Pub, and once I had read his work, I was really happy to know that I was working with some highly talented writers here. Joe was very gracious in his allowing me to interview him, and his intelligence and generosity definitely shine through in his writing and in his discussion with me.

I hope you all enjoy learning about Joe as much as I did!

Sam Song: It was a pleasure to read Shenanigans! What were your major inspirations for writing this piece?

Joseph Michael Owens: Shenanigans! was a collection that began its life as my MFA thesis and turned into something more. The inspirations are probably too many to count, but the most prominent books that influenced it were Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End. These books all have the ability to sort of charm their readers with closely examining what’s happening in their characters’ lives. I think Shenanigans! provides a little slice of slice-of-life writing. It’s almost like an appetizer sampler platter. You sort of get a taste of the various things that take place in a couple characters’ day-to-day lives that may seem uninteresting at first but becomes interesting (I hope) by humanizing them in a relatable way; but at the same time, you also never spend too much time on one thing in order to prevent it (again, I hope) from getting boring.

SS: What were some of the influences for Ben’s and Anna’s characters? Do you know people like them in real life?

JMO: Half of the answer is likely predictable; the other half might not be. Originally, the characters were actually based on Jennifer, the woman who I’d eventually marry, and I. However, I saw a lot of potential in other couples whose relationships I admired, as well as stories I’d read with characters who were genuinely likable. I feel like there is so much fiction being written right now where characters are either unlikable or unrelatable (by design) that I thought it might be fun to give a glimpse into people’s lives where the worst things that were happening were trivial, mundane things. Eventually, the characters became less and less Jenni and I and more themselves, which I loved. I’m leaving it up to the readers to figure out which parts are based on real events and which are completely made up.

SS: Why did you have what happened to Ben happen? For instance, why did you make Ben bike up a freezing cold mountain or have him spill scalding coffee all over himself?

JMO: One of those events may or may not have happened to either me or someone I know. I think with Ben’s bike ride up the mountain, it was sort of a way to show how people can do these amazing things when they don’t know they aren’t supposed to be able to. Ben basically sets off riding a distance he’s probably covered many times but isn’t really thinking about the fact that it’s nearly all uphill, which, having ridden a bike my fair share of miles, I can tell you, there is a big difference. He dresses for the weather at the base of the mountain, not considering how cold it’s going to be at the top. He just knows he wants to ride up the damn thing and so he does it. It’s only later he realizes that it isn’t the easiest thing in the world to “just do.”

The coffee story is, in some ways, an homage to shows like The Office and movies like Office Space. A fun fact is that the story is actually the first chapter of a novel I’ve been working on set in the same office with the same characters. Now that it was published in Shenanigans!, it might get cut from the final draft, but there’s certainly going to be more of Ben and Anna because why not, right? I really think the coffee scene is mostly indicative of the chaos and insanity that sort of defines most professional office settings. I work/have worked in them since I was eighteen, and this just seems like something that could (basically) happen. People are rushing around; the break-rooms and kitchens are often small but see heavy traffic; it’s the minutia of the day that really tends to get under people’s skin. I just set out with the hopes of recreating a sense of that.

SS: Is the idea of “just doing” an aspect present in other chapters in Shenanigans! as well?

JMO: If not for the characters, then it definitely is for the writing part. For example, “We Always Trust Each Other…” and “Ninjas! . . . (In the Suburbs?)” were both stories I started sketching out with no real idea of what they’d be or even if they’d be anything at all. One thing I really like to do is include free associations in my writing. I think the finished product stays a step or two short of becoming fully absurdist — e.g. in the vein of Mark Leyner or Jon Konrath — but it allows me to sort of take things to their strangest- and most extreme conclusions (i.e. ones that could feasibly happen).

SS: It seems pretty clear that Ben indeed cherishes his dogs. Why did you decide to let dogs be a huge part of his life? Are you a dog person yourself?

JMO: One thing I can say is that the dogs in the book were based on real life. I’ve always had dogs. Right now, Jenni and I have four total, but we’ve had as many as five. I thought it might be kind of fun to have a couple who don’t have kids but instead, a rowdy pack of dogs that keep them more than busy. We’re animal lovers, in general. I think it’d be hard to write a book without having some furry companions in it.

SS: Continuing the topic on Ben’s and Anna’s dogs, I notice that you even give them distinct “voices” and personalities. Mish and Brock are notable examples, in that they “speak” directly to Ben. Can you elaborate as to what this reveals about Ben’s relationship with them?

JMO: Dogs are so hilarious. I’ve always sort of had different voices for dogs in my head based on their mannerisms and expressions. It’s easy to forget that they aren’t actually human and responding in that way. I think this is something a number of people probably also do, but it adds an element that is new or weird to readers who perhaps aren’t “animal people.” That being said, non-animal people would probably get annoyed with the number of times dogs or horses or wildlife appear in my stories.

SS: Boxcars and Bomb Pops is different from the other chapters in that it isn’t so much about Ben’s present experience as it is about his flow of thought. In this chapter, Ben arrives at this epiphany that in society, “there is something wrong with or different about them if they find themselves not wanting, if they find things and stuff somehow unappealing”. What moved you to acknowledge this idea? Are these your own thoughts, someone else’s, or ones you fabricated for Ben’s introspective character?

JMO: There is this sort of unsaid and overarching idea in the book that people are (of course) incredibly multi-faceted and even go as far as to have different voices, depending on the situation they find themselves in. Ben is kind of a goof, but he’s also hyper-analytical at work as well as kind of introspective in ways that many of those that know him perhaps don’t recognize when he’s by himself. Ultimately, I think, when people are all alone and spending time with their thoughts, everyone is introspective. I liken it to wizened older people who don’t talk a lot but say almost profound things when they do talk; people who might not have a formal education, but are more in touch with the way things work than “book smart” people who’ve never really experienced much of the world outside of a classroom. These are two extreme examples of course, but the idea is that people are smart, in general, especially when they are allowed to sit down and just think about things outside of the hubbub of society.

SS: Do you yourself perceive this idea to be true?

JMO: I think it was something I first noticed in myself, certainly. It seems like when it comes to wanting something, the process of wanting is the driving factor, not actually acquiring the thing was that was wanted. This is really evident in hobbies that involve a lot of tinkering. When the project is finished that someone spent “X” amount of time tinkering with or upgrading or modifying, the person usually moves on to a new project. There are even commercials now about upgrading cell phones before the typical two years a person waits between new phones because there is always something newer and shinier on the market or just around the corner. All of this isn’t really what’s surprising. What’s surprising is that we really don’t like our bleeding edge device (e.g.) being rolled out with planned obsolescence in mind. (But that’s just my two cents.)

SS: The final and arguably most complex short story of Shenanigans! is The Year that Was…And Was Not. So much happens in this chapter, and instead of merely a glimpse at a moment in Ben’s life, we are presented with a dire prospect of his future. Why did you decide to make this chapter such an emotional roller-coaster for Ben and his family and Anna? Why the interplay of the good and the bad?

JMO: A lot of the motivation behind the last chapter was selfishness on my part. It was kind of my way of not wanting to let go of the characters, so rather than have everything tidied up in a nice complete package, I wanted to show that the young couple still had most of their lives together ahead of them. Life is a bit of an emotional roller coaster, regardless of how exciting a person’s life is – or is perceived to be, and nothing is either 100 percent terrible or 100 percent awesome. What is a huge crisis to some of us may seem like no big deal to others. Ultimately, we’re all just here on the planet trying to do the best we can within the situation(s) we find ourselves.

SS: I’ll end my questions about the plot of Shenanigans! here; I don’t want to spoil it for all the lovely people at The Lit Pub! Why don’t you share with us some of your upcoming projects?

JMO: I’m currently working on two very different novels. One is a sort of spin-off of Ben’s character in Shenanigans! called Human Services where it focuses on the people who work at The Agency and all of the insanity that occurs in a professional office setting. I would say it’s pretty much solidly in the literary fiction camp.

The other thing I’m working on is a project I’ve been kicking around in my mind for a few years now, which is a sort of literary epic sci-fi/fantasy novel tentatively called “Of Gods and Men.” I grew up reading lots of sci-fi and fantasy — especially the latter — and always kind of wanted to do something in the genre that inspired me to be a writer. It wasn’t until recently, with the popularity of the A Song and Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones) that I sort of realized that this was a viable option for me. That is to say, I’d really been wanting to use the skills I’d picked up writing literary fiction the past seven or eight years and apply it to something more genre related. Perhaps the work most responsible for this epiphany, even more so than Game of Thrones, is M. John Harrison’s unbelievably impressive Viriconium omnibus. The prose is awe-inspiring and the way he includes elements of surrealism and bits of magical realism is something I can’t begin to do justice here. You’d simply have to read it yourself.

SS: Is there a particular writing process you go through?

JMO: My process is pretty un-process like. I’ve got severe ADD, so it’s almost impossible for me to get into anything that resembles a regular writing schedule. I basically write when I can and/or when I’ve got an idea that’s begging to be put down on paper. Though when I do, I typically draft longhand first; it’s always been that way for me. I find it easier to compose with a pen than I do with a keyboard. Then I’ll type out a first draft, print that draft, and proceed to edit the printed copy with a pen. I know there are a lot of steps, but this has always been the best method for me, personally. There seems to be a number of established writers who do this too, so I don’t feel quite so weird about it. I feel like I could probably write more if I decided to skip the longhand and type everything — editing it solely within the word processing app — but my current method feels to me like what I do write is better; quality over quantity!

SS: People have often told me that if I want to write, I must first ask myself why I want to write. So, Joe, why do you write?

JMO: I think a lot of people describe their reasons in terms of zen sayings or for their sanity or they profoundly muse on their destiny or life’s calling as writers, but for me it’s really so much simpler than that: I just really like to do it! Admittedly, I feel bad — or maybe guilty is the right word —  sometimes when I don’t write, but there can be significant gaps in my output during a given year. I think I feel worse because I know it’s easier to stay in a kind of writing flow than try to repeatedly build your momentum back up, but it also comes down to your own personal capacity: write as much as you can within the amount of time you feel like you want to spend doing it.

SS: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

JMO: Part of this can probably apply here, but the most important thing people who are aspiring writers can do is read as much as they can. Stephen King said you have to read a lot to write well, and I think that still holds true. I think it’s especially important to read books you like, which may seem obvious, but often students will get bogged down reading stuff they are assigned to read or reading stuff they’ve been told they should like. I’m sorry to say, but not everyone is going to love reading Faulkner (e.g.), especially if their style is more similar to, say, Barry Hannah, to compare two Southern writers. Maybe you’d be better off reading George Saunders than John Updike, or Zadie Smith instead of Margaret Fuller. I’m just throwing names out there, but the point is, find something you love and read as much of it as possible.

SS: What are some of your own aspirations as a writer?

JMO: I think my biggest aspirations as a writer start simple: #1, to finish projects! People with ADD tend to start a million projects and finish a few, if any, of them. So for now, my priority is to finish both Human Services and Of Gods and Men. Beyond that, I just want to write books that at least a few people really like. It’s an incredibly humbling thing when someone tells you that your work really resonated with them. It makes you want to write a special book just for that person because they took the time to read your work that they could’ve spent doing any number of other things. Time is a hot commodity in 2013, and people never seem to have enough of it. My biggest aspiration is that I’d really love to write for a living. I don’t even mean becoming rich and famous because of my work — though I’d certainly not turn it away. I just mean I’d give almost anything to spend each of my days with my imagination and churning out ideas on the page, and through that work (because make no mistake, writing is work!), be able to support/contribute to supporting my family. I think that’s a pretty kickass definition of “happiness!”

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