I met Peyton Burgess at an uptown coffee shop on the first day of spring. Under a blue cloudlessness, we discussed parenting (“earlier mornings,” reports Burgess), the immediate power of our iced coffees, and his debut story collection, The Fry Pans Aren’t Sufficing.
Burgess’ collection, published by Lavender Ink, is as much about what Elizabeth McKenzie calls “emotional dislocation” as interrogating the limits of literary realism. Burgess’ work variously participates in, rejects, and makes newly different conventions of contemporary fiction, without sacrificing what it means to be a person for the sake of formal inventiveness. Our conversation begins below.
ROOM 220: When someone like Yusef Komunyakaa says, “This is a funny book,” I think this must be a funny book! This was true for your first story in this quotidian moment where your narrator is asked something like “How is your day going?” and replies, “It’s funny you say that, because I’m sort of on an adventure today.” This totally disarmed me, and I encountered so many moments like this in your collection. The moments I thought were funniest were moments when your narrators poked at or unmasked the everydayness or platitudes of how they’re being asked to interact by their social scripts. So I’m asking someone whose work as been recognized as comedic, how much does comedy have something to do with unmasking or unveiling social scripts from which we all read in these banal instances?
Peyton Burgess: It’s funny when I got that blurb from Yusef because I was thrilled. I admired him a lot, and he’s a big part of why I went to NYU. When I saw it printed, I had this “Oh, wow” moment. It made me a little nervous. He’s saying that about me. I don’t want to disappoint him. It felt like the book is a living thing that will continue to be read. I hope people see what he was touching on.
I guess the funny stuff is mostly about giving the reader some sense of entertainment. I want to entertain my reader. That’s important to me now, maybe not when I was younger–when I thought I knew more than I did–but now, reading funny stuff is entertaining, but also not just cheap laughs. I needed my work to be rooted in some kinds of disappointment or sadness that is happening day-to-day, or I just look at boring day-to-day experiences in a way that pokes fun at them without cheapening them, showing they’re also significant.
I have heard that there is a lot of banal stuff in the book, which there is. I think there is some fun there, too, but it’s all meant to make the everyday feel important.
Rm220: You’re maybe putting your finger on how your work participates in a certain type of realism, how it’s easy when reading to think about comedy as separate from what’s happening dramatically, as if the jokes hover above characters and their interiors and the narration. I think you’re saying the humor isn’t the opposite of the writing but is a part of it? And that it’s sad, and vulnerable, and still serious.
PB: There isn’t a lot of direct handling of the circumstances and conditions. The real drama and trauma and the bad stuff has been stuff I don’t directly handle in my day. Like, the really intense shit would defeat me if I spent 90% of my time engaging it, so what I tend to do is focus on the regular or monotonous stuff and make sense of that and make that feel good, while at the same time being driven by the real stuff, the real source of how you find yourself in a certain place.
A lot of people say it’s about loneliness, and a lot of that for me is the conditional stuff, the stuff if I spent most of my time on it would defeat me–that loneliness would win. In an effort to not let loneliness win, there’s a celebration of everything else. Like how someone’s nails are painted, or their handling of an orange, this is what I think about in terms of distraction that works to also indirectly handle the drama. This can also sneak up on the reader. Things I don’t deal with or observe in some way either demand some type of handling later, or there ends up being a lost opportunity.
Rm220: There’s this line at the beginning of “The Koala Conception” that reads: “There’s no time to think about how it’s happening, it’s happening!” That provides, for me, an operative logic for your book. It makes me think about the process of negotiating, or refusing to negotiate, the pieces of what you have to or need in a relationship– and how that could cause some type of eruption.
PB: Every time I’ve ever moved on from a story it wasn’t because it felt like a story was ready to be observed or explained, it was because I felt like I had done all I could and I was ready to move on. Because there’s a point where I don’t know if I can do much more. I would explain it that way, too, I guess, maybe about writing as well.
So that line, spoken by Reb, acts as a challenge to the narrator to just sort of accept things and act. At the same time it was meant to be a playful address to the reader, a kind of invitation, like just go with us here. A lot of these stories started for me in really just normal, real situations, maybe some were challenging or traumatic, and then as I’d actually write them, I’d allow myself to enjoy writing away from the realism, and then back to it, and then away from it again; that’s where I have fun with the process.
Rm220: This book starts with a distinctive type of realism in the first three stories, and over the course of the collection you arrive at a koala being conceived. How do you think about your work in terms of its participation in different traditions of realism. What are the benefits or necessities of structuring a collection by taking certain moments or stories and making surreal?
PB: I wish the book could’ve been structured more as a package. I tinkered with how things fit: the first three stories fit naturally. And then the second section was really coming out of experiments and feedback in graduate school, but the third section, specifically “The Koala Conception,” was me embracing the original feelings that got me into writing. “The Koala Conception” was a fun story to write, but I’m worried it might be indulgent and maybe boring. It asks a lot, in terms of narration. I took a lot of liberties and asked the reader to go with me.
With that story, I’m harping because it became clear that I was looking for a way to wrap this collection up. I started trying to decide what I wanted to embrace and what I wanted to move away from in terms of form and possibility. The other stories were driven by weird ambition. I don’t have that kind of ambition anymore; I have a different kind of ambition now. When I write now, I feel more confident.
Rm220: If we think about the bookends of this collection, they’re different, sure, but they share so many preoccupations: negotiations, relationships, stress. This book moves through so many set pieces and modes of writing that still bears down on that experience.
PB: I think the last story was one I felt confident writing, while at the same time thinking that the reader won’t be as thrilled, maybe? It’s a demand. I had a better handle on what I had to do as a writer. There are elements of figuring out how to be a partner under stress, but I have a different understanding of that now. I was so scared when I would write that story, trying to handle different characters fairly and accurately, and I try to be respectful and understand how who I am informs who I am as a writer.
I think I can write better when I think about the limits of my experience and the relationship of that to my work and the dynamics I’m interested in.
Rm220: “Sunday Brunch with Daisy” reminded me, in some way, of Flannery O’Connor’s darker stories. Do you think that same type of Southern grotesquerie is operating in the contemporary South like it did 50 or 60 years ago?
PB: Maybe not in exactly the same way, but it’s hard because in that story I was trying to portray a type of Southern identity I encounter pretty often: offensive, misogynistic, racist. I tried writing a character like that because people like that still, from my experience, exist in the South.
I think writing the South has to include some offensive or irksome element, in some way, because the South is still an offensive place.
Rm220: We’ve talked a little about the writer’s relationship to the reader. It might depend on who you ask if a writer should entertain an audience, but do you think you’re trying to make your readers happy or more uncomfortable or strained a bit? How do you think about that relationship?
PB: When you’re young and you think you’re a writer, you have a different understanding of this relationship that doesn’t help as much. You think the audience would be lucky to have you, and then you find out you would be lucky to have them. I think that when you start writing for the reader, my expectations for the story change in that the story needs to exist on its own terms but also on the reader’s terms. That might be unfortunate to some people, but I don’t think that because I think my readers are great, smart people. Maybe they’re ill equipped for some day-to-day things, like me, but they have good intentions. They like reading because they like finding ways to care about people they aren’t otherwise encouraged to care about.
So I think about that when I revise, and I think that allows me to get a grasp on where I can push a story or experiment as far as the reader’s understanding of what’s believable or not. A caring reader is willing to let a writer take them places that aren’t necessarily obvious. I like taking chances, and sometimes there’s more of a pay-off, sometimes I’m pushing a reader in terms of believability and even if there are some issues, all in all, there’s a decent pay-off. Some stuff that’s hard to believe, maybe it wasn’t meant to be believed? It’s just part of the experience of reading the story.
Peyton Burgess lives with his wife and son in New Orleans where he teaches at Loyola University New Orleans and works in the Monroe Library. He is a graduate of the New York University MFA program, and his work has appeared in Salon, Chicago Quarterly Review, Banango Street, Fiction Southeast, and Big Muddy, among others.