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Caleb Michael Sarvis

Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the author of Dead Aquarium or (i don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith) (Mastodon Publishing 2019). He is the managing editor for Bridge Eight Press and co-host of the Drunken Book Review Podcast. His work can be found in Volt, Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Saw Palm, and others.


"These stories are full of people living in the in-between spaces, downtrodden people at their lowest points who are still trying to do their best. They are all enduring some personal crisis and grasping for some kind of connection. Though the stories are elancholy, they are also funny and hopeful, and you can't help but root for these damaged characters to put it all together, or at least put something together. In Dead Aquarium, Caleb Michael Sarvis has written a collection that is thoughtful, inventive, smart, and a little bit weird, in the best possible way."

– Tom McAllister, author of How to Be Safe

"Caleb Michael Sarvis' kaleidoscopic vision is just what we need in these topsy-turvy times. His collection, Dead Aquarium, bursts unbridled onto the scene. The warped Florida landscape serves as a backdrop for the zany-but-lovable inhabitants including a mini T-Rex) who populate these stories. There's aching here and a yearning desire to make a meaningful human connection. Many of the characters suffer from an all-too-familiar 'flu of the heart.' Lucky for them (and for us) Mr. Sarvis knows the cure. Dead Aquarium serves as an antidote to the bleak, ordinary, humdrum days."

– Jason Ockert author of Wasp Box and Neighbors of Nothing

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Dead Aquarium

Dead Aquarium: An Interview with Caleb Michael Sarvis


Caleb Michael Sarvis’s forthcoming Dead Aquarium is a collection of twelve short stories and a novella that Tom McAllister described as being “full of people living in the in-between spaces, downtrodden people at their lowest points who are still trying to do their best. . . . Though the stories are melancholy, they are also funny and hopeful, and you can’t help but root for these damaged characters to put it all together, or at least put something together. In Dead Aquarium, Caleb Michael Sarvis has written a collection that is thoughtful, inventive, smart, and a little bit weird, in the best possible way.”

Sarvis’s writing has appeared in Barrelhouse, Flock, Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, and various other journals. In addition to writing, he’s the managing editor for Bridge Eight Press and the co-host of the Drunken Book Review podcast.


Michelle Ross: At the beginning of the story “Goose Island,” the protagonist tells us that his sister, an aspiring doctor, “ loved how [chemo] made you suffer before you recovered.”  That line really struck me. One, because it’s an interesting, and rather alarming, characteristic in a would-be doctor, but also, two, because it kind of resonates with the book as a whole. That is, your characters do a lot of suffering in this book. So I wonder: is there a way in which you like to write about suffering? Grief? Is there joy in that somehow? Or are you compelled to write about suffering for other reasons, e.g., as a necessary step toward recovery?

Caleb Michael Sarvis: I do tend to gravitate towards suffering in a way. I’m very mean to my characters, and it may just be a matter of feeling in the general sense. When I think about happiness, and this idea of joy, it seems really static. Writing for me is that pursuit of happiness, and to pursue something means you don’t have it yet. So I guess I’m mean to my characters because I want them to move. I want them to pursue something.

MR: Another line that particularly resonated with me and with your book as a whole comes from “Unfaded Black:” “Growing up was learning what was worth saying.” Many of these characters are young adults grappling with growing up, coming into themselves, as we all do. What draws you to writing about this age group, this time of life?  

CMS: I’m all about people figuring themselves out, because I’m not sure what the fuck I’m doing, and I’m still a sucker for a good existential quest in a way. Writing for me is discovery. It’s almost scientific, in that I’m just curious to see what happens. I think young adults, and those on the cusp of growing up, are more susceptible to chaos, which is an important element for me as a writer.

MR: There are a lot of dead fathers and other dead loved ones, and dead animals, too, in Dead Aquarium. Hence the title? How do you see the book’s title as speaking to all of the stories in this collection?

CMS: The original title of this book was Looney Purgatory, because I was really into the idea of a cartoon-like immediacy mixing with a sense of suspended displacement. But after a while, Looney Purgatory just started to feel like a mouthful. I settled on Dead Aquarium because yeah, there’s a lot of death in here, but I also wanted to stick with the idea of suspension. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it meant to tread water in a large tank that may or not may be full of dead things.

MR: I read that you’re from Florida, Jacksonville specifically. Certainly Florida is very present in this book. Have you lived in Florida all your life? How would you describe your work’s relationship to Florida?   

CMS: I moved to Jacksonville when I was nine after my parent’s divorce. I’d just spent the last six years living in Spain, and the first thing I noticed about Florida was that it stayed hot after the sun went down. That was so bizarre to me, and growing up, I continued to have experiences like that, where I would kind of just ask myself, “What is this place?” You start to realize what’s normal for Floridians is absurd to outsiders, and it just became natural fodder for my work. Need a story idea? Just walk outside, something will try to kill you or eat you, and then you will write.

MR: This description sounds so much like Tucson, Arizona, where I’ve lived for the past 13 years. I find the environment endlessly fascinating and inspiring and have written quite a few stories set in the desert. At the same time, I’m drawn to writing about the swampy Gulf Coast of Texas, where I grew up. Do you ever write about Spain? Or are there ways in which Spain or other places inspire your work in less direct ways?

CMS: It’s funny, but I don’t write about Spain, but maybe because we lived on the base and it didn’t feel all that different than America. I have a lot of personal anecdotes (catching scorpions in shoe boxes, breaking into empty homes), that I use for other things. I was born in Maryland, just outside DC, and my dad lives there now. I think my fondness for that area shows up more than anything else.

MR: Another element that shows up several times in this book is comics. For instance, the protagonist in “Goose Island” write a comic strip. The protagonist in “Scoop Carry Dump Repeat,” bonds with his deceased father over Calvin and Hobbes. Are you a big comics fan? What relationship, if any, do you see between comics and writing fiction?

CMS: I wouldn’t call myself a comics fan. Just a huge Calvin and Hobbes fan. I’m working on essays / a book about this now, but I contribute a lot of my writing style and success to Calvin and Hobbes. I think the shape of a daily strip (four panels, minimal detail, punchy dialogue) is a perfect model for a short story. In his essay “On Writing,” Raymond Carver says, “Get in, get out, don’t linger,” which is exactly what Bill Watterson does in Calvin and Hobbes.

MR: It’s interesting that you say this because, on the other hand, within your short fiction you do linger in a way. You allow your characters to brood some. One certainly wouldn’t accuse you of being a writer who doesn’t go deep. This brings me back to that line, “Growing up was learning what was worth saying.” Maybe while short stories must have a certain economy, at the same time, they must linger when it’s worth lingering?

CMS: I definitely agree with this. It kind of goes back to this whole treading water thing, right? I don’t want my characters to swim from one side to the other. That’s not quite enough. I want them to feel the water a bit, struggle along the way, give them opportunities to run out of breath.

MR: There’s quite a bit of range here in terms of genre. Many stories are rather straight-up realism. Others are more fabulist. Do you think much about genre when you set out to write? Did you think about it much in collecting these stories?

CMS: I’m sort of a sponge when I read, and a lot of the time, the stuff I write has a direct relationship with whatever I’ve just read. So I don’t have it in my head that I’m going to pursue any sort of genre or style when I write, I just kind of follow the rhythm of whatever I’m feeling that day. In “Terra,” when a man crawls out of the tree hole, I remember exactly where I was when I made that decision. I kind of just let the story be the story.

MR: Do you often remember where you were or what you were doing when the ideas for particular stories come into being?

CMS: In a way, for sure. I always know where I was when I started a story. “The Matter of Dust” was written in a Mellow Mushroom. “Vertical Leapland” was started while I was proctoring the PSAT. “Gastropod” was written in my garage after Hurricane Irma had blown through.

MR: Another way your book demonstrates range is in story length. You’ve got a little bit of everything here—traditional short stories, flash fiction, and a novella. How did you decide to put these particular stories together? Were there particular challenges involved in collecting pieces of different lengths together into one collection?

CMS: Again, I think these are all just products of wanting to emulate and write things that were similar to the things I liked to read. This idea of combining stories and a novella came about because I’d just read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders and Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely by Matt Fogarty. Both of those reinforced this idea that the novella shouldn’t begin or end the book, but rather, exist somewhere halfway. Once I figured that out, shaping the rest of the collection was easy.

MR: I’m always interested in hearing writers’ thoughts about ordering the stories in their collections. Your book is divided into four sections: Mundane, Supra-Terrestrial, (Loon)acy, and Sublime. Would you talk about how you came around to this structure and why you chose it?

CMS: Originally, I opened the collection with “Bad Zeitgeist” because it’s the kind of flash story I think punches the reader in the mouth and prepares them for what’s next. But an editor who rejected an early version of the book made a comment about “the stories not building off one another” and that really made me think. So I printed all the stories out and organized them in piles based on which stories “belonged” together. I realized I had my “realist” stories, my “absurd” stories, and those that were somewhere on the spectrum. Then I became really interested in this idea of a slow descent in absurdity. So my “realist” stories open the book, but as you continue on, the hope is that the reader feels like they are slowly sinking into the abyss of my own literary fuckery. The only story that might be out of place is the last one, because it’s actually kind of a peaceful read, but it felt necessary to close the collection that way.

MR: I love this description of your book as a slow descent into absurdity. This arc calls to mind Ben Marcus’s Leaving the Sea, a collection which also moves from more familiar, realistic stories to stranger, less familiar worlds as it progresses. Have you read it?

CMS: I have not, but I will definitely put it on the list. I think collections need an arc of some sort. I want to finish a book and have an immediate impression, and I think the right sequence of stories (like a mixtape) can do that really well.

MR: How long was this book in the making? 

CMS: About three years, I’d say. Most of these were written in grad school, which could be why there’s so much range. “Scoop Carry Dump Repeat” was the first of these stories to be written but was probably the last one to be “finished.”

MR: Several of the protagonists in these stories are female and Xavier in the novella is black. What are your thoughts on writing from the point of view of characters whose experiences may be rather different from yours?

CMS: I just had these characters I was desperate to exist, and it wasn’t like I could tap on another writer’s shoulder (whether they be a woman or black), and say, “Hey, will you write this for me?” Xavier had been hanging with me for a while, and I ended up pursuing his story because I thought he was really interesting and hell, no one else was going to write him, specifically. Same thing with Taylor in “Vertical Leapland.” I just loved her, but until I wrote her, she wouldn’t exist. And once I did, they felt like real people I’m happy to have in my life.

MR: Do you have a favorite story here? Or one that is dearer to you for whatever reason?

CMS: I go back and forth. I’m so proud of the novella, because I managed to actually write one after struggling with long-form narrative for so long, and there are aspects of it I am so happy to have written (Sebastian the T-Rex or the Salamander, a superhero who is not the least bit super or hero). But “Terra” is probably the go-to. It’s my favorite to read out loud. I think it’s the story that mostly encapsulates who I am as a writer.

MR: In closing, what particular writers and/or books do you feel inspired or helped shape these individual stories or this book as a whole?

CMS: This would be a long list if I really got into it, but I did read a lot of Florida work while working on this. The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant, Felt in the Jaw by Kristen Arnett, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, Ovenman by Jeff Parker. When I look back at some of my book, I can see the moment where I was reading the above work. Then there were the sort of research-style reads, where I was trying to figure out a George Saunders sentence, Jason Ockert’ voice, and Amy Hempel’s sense of emotional destruction. But yeah, the list could go on and on.

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