Well, first let me say thanks for having me in your digital space for this conversation! I’m excited to spend some time with your questions.
The differences between the work on the first and the second: I think the work changed in as many ways as I have changed. The Orange Suitcase is more personal, [more] intimate, more confident in tone, more sure of itself. DSDSDS is quite a bit sadder, confused, twisted, and overall just much more concerned with philosophical, existential questions.
Writing DSDSDS was a whiskey-fueled wrestling match. Writing The Orange Suitcase was a conversation over coffee.
2. Your stories are often very short—less than a page, three pages at the most—all seemingly disparate snatches of the narrator’s life. What ties them together thematically and philosophically?
The pieces were written in a very short span of time, from a very specific narrative place, and I think they’re linked by that reflective voice—that watchful, remembering person, whatever his philosophy might be. Their brevity has to do with that too, I think. Most of the stories didn’t get written down until I had it complete in my head. The first drafts were fairly complete thoughts—the dozens and dozens of revisions were more about language than content.
3. In “Something About Poetry” you say, “A structure that will not hold water / is not, / and should never be confused with / a waterfall.” In your opinion, what makes a story a waterfall?
It’s easy to justify writing that doesn’t work very hard by convincing yourself that it’s doing something better than what you’d intended. In this context, a waterfall is simply a story that works, that doesn’t leak or whine or flop or break down.
4. You’re in your last semester at City College right now, completing your MFA in fiction. What has been your experience in an MFA program?
Actually, not quite at my last semester yet. But this is the end of year four, so you’d think I’d have finished. The MFA has been a good experience for me. It established readers and an audience (the workshop) that I didn’t have when I started, and I think are necessary to learn what you don’t know. Two of the chapters of DSDSDS were originally workshop pieces. The MFA also introduced me to other writer types, many of whom were doing crazy kinds of writing it never occurred to me to do. Figuring out how other people go about the whole writing struggle has been the biggest benefit. Writers (broadly speaking) are weirdoes, and it’s nice to meet and spend time with other weirdoes, to talk about the super-weirdoes whose weirdosity inspires you.
5. You often refer to other artists in your work—Elliott Smith, Salinger, Franzen, Pollock—how has the work of your predecessors shaped your own?
I really don’t mean to refer to them that much. In these instances the mentions are more about characterization, setting, tone. Of those in The Orange Suitcase, Elliott Smith is the only one that really holds a place of sentiment in my heart—and the piece “Something About The Zombies” centers around hearing of his death for the first time because of that. The rest serve more as adjectives than anything else. Franzen and Pollock’s appearances serve to illustrate how the Cedar Tavern changed over time (from Pollock’s banning, to Franzen’s use in The Corrections) not because of any indebtedness to their work. Salinger is in the book because that opening scene in “Something About My Blood and Yours” is more or less a true story and, well, I felt like Salinger fit. (This explanation is all more about avoiding the actual question you asked, because I’m not really sure how to answer how the work of “my predecessors” has shaped mine. To be honest, the writer whose work has most influenced me in my life is probably Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes. More recently, I’ve been reading a lot of Diane Williams and Roy Kesey, both of whom I’m enjoying quite a bit.)
6. The “orange suitcase” is a recurring image in this book, appearing first in a monologue spoken by the narrator’s grandmother and last in the hands of a fiancee, who has filled it with photographs for an anniversary present. When did you first start exploring this prop in your writing? How has it changed over time?
The title story mentions a Lego orange suitcase that the narrator dreams about as a boy. That was the image that first made me think, “I want to write a book of short memories,“ and the suitcase existed solely for the purposes of the book. I haven’t really thought of using it elsewhere. It’s not so much a prop to me as an image I explored in these pieces until it felt done.
7. You reference Moby Dick more than once. I love hearing writers talk about this book. What does it mean to you?
Well, Moby Dick is that monster novel I keep trying to write and keep failing at. I pick it up often just to read the sermon to the sharks, or that wonderful final scene with Tashtego’s fist grasping at the bird, or the chapter that’s basically a Wikipedia entry of the color white and its cultural and historical meanings, or, or, or…It’s the American Crime and Punishment. I want to go read it right now.
8. What is the relationship of prose to poetry in your writing?
I don’t distinguish the two. “Something About Rings” is a somewhat loose Petrarchan sonnet because that’s how I wanted to write that scene, and some reviewers have referred to different “stories” as being more “prose poems” than stories, but fail to really give a rationale. Writing is writing, words are words. The distinction between prose and poetry is something like distinguishing a Pollock drip painting from a Leyendecker oil illustration. Painting is painting. There are lots of ways to do it, but let’s not argue over broad categorizations.
9. Where can someone get their hands on the orange suitcase?
The book’s being distributed by Small Press Distribution (SPD), so that‘s a good spot (www.spdbooks.org). Amazon is out of stock as of this writing, but for the time being, while some stores are still waiting for shipments and whatnot, you can order through my website and Paypal. I’ve got a limited supply of copies I‘ll sign and inscribe and all that (www.josephriippi.com).