But when asked whether this collection has an underlying theme, there’s no equivocation: “life on the margins.”
Photo Credit: PC Fig Tree
To start, is there a theme that connects the stories in Bugsy & Other Stories?
I would say that if the collection has any sort of theme, it’s “outsiderness,” or perhaps more precisely: “life on the margins.”
It might be tempting to think of the “margins” purely in terms of “marginalization” as we understand it, vis-à-vis progressive politics. (One is marginalized by the cisheteropatriarchy, white supremacy, etc.) And while identity certainly factors in here, these stories are about more than the typical me-versus-the world antagonism that leftist politics — and, more strangely, art-under-capitalism itself — exhorts us non-standard storytellers to bake into the stories we tell.
I aim to explore “the margins” as a broader, almost metaphysical category. I’m looking to subvert standards of literary realism not just in terms of who’s speaking and how, but from where. Instead of, say, a crowded party in Brooklyn or a handsome stranger’s bed, these stories take place in a house rented solely for the purpose of making lesbian BDSM porn, or within the DMT-addled brain of an elderly woman dying of a stroke. The prose will remind readers of my first two books, but everything else is different.
So, did you start out with the theme and then pick stories that fit it, or did the theme emerge as you were putting this together?
I would say the “on the margins” theme emerged as I was composing the stories. What was happening was: it was Covid, I was figuring out that I was trans, and I was sort of helplessly producing these stories that all felt in some way a part of myself. Not because they directly reflect my lived experience, but because the characters’ preoccupations and struggles were (and in some cases still are) my own, just refracted through the helpful prism of fiction. I wrote “Fugato” first, and then “Bugsy,” and by the time I had stumbled into writing “On The Inside,” I was like, “It feels like I’m writing in a diary.”
What made you realize the stories you were collecting shared this theme, and why did you decide to run with it as opposed to running away from it?
Ha! Yeah, there’s no running away from a theme like this for me, especially not as a queer and trans person. Attempt to run away from “life on the margins” — or, in this particular case, from the pages of my own diary — and you run right back into it, just in more upsetting ways.
I had to accept pretty early on that even the characters who least superficially resembled me were still me to some degree. There’s a story about a pre-Ye Kanye West-like figure that we had to cut for legal reasons, in which he and a Kim Kardashian stand-in alternate in telling the story of his mental breakdown. When I realized that even this story was in many ways an act of self-disclosure, I felt I had no choice but to commit to the bit and hope to find an editor who’d get it. (Which I did with the fabulous Zack Knoll!)
What genres are represented by the stories in Bugsy & Other Stories?
My students are probably getting pretty sick of hearing this by now, but I constantly refer to myself as a “genre abolitionist.” Like yes, there are many helpful things that can come out of genre distinctions in terms of craft (dramatic structure, awareness of tropes, etc.), but hard-lining genre criteria — i.e. “This isn’t literary because it has aliens in it” or “This doesn’t count as a romance novel because the sex doesn’t happen within the first sixty pages” — feel pretty specious to me, and you don’t have to peel back that many layers to reveal what those kids of comments are really about: marketing and sales.
That crusty old MFA instructor who felt he was enshrining some great literary tradition of truth and beauty by telling you that there’d be “no genre writing” allowed in his workshop, that your stories should eschew any mention of the “frivolous now,” etc.? He probably had no idea how much he was unconsciously replicating an aesthetic honed to deliver a specific set of dramatic beats to a specific (paying!) audience. To claim that literary fiction is the ur-category, the “purest” narrative category, would be a lapse of insight similar to the idea that anyone’s journalism is capable of “objectivity.” Like…you’re telling me you’re a human being witnessing an event at a particular time and place, from a particular subject position, and yet your description of it is somehow objective? Girl, I don’t care how many adverbs you edit out — it’s subjective!
I say all this because I think Bugsy‘s genre is in fact “literary,” but that’s only because all fiction is literary. Instead of submitting to the gatekeepers’ desire to position literary fiction as the unattainable category-on-high that only a select few are genius enough to access, why not expand it to include literally everything? There are so many mega-popular, mega-brilliant literary writers whose work is pretty clearly genre hybridism. Karen Russell, George Saunders, Colson Whitehead, and Jonathan Lethem have all riffed on horror, sci-fi, and noir to varying degrees, for instance.
Also, is there a reason why this collection is called Bugsy & Other Stories and not Fugato And Other Stories or Like And Subscribe And Other Stories? What’s the significance of the story “Bugsy” that made you want to name this collection after it?
Despite my claim that none of these stories are autofiction — a claim I continue to stand by! — the title story is the most obvious self-insert story. While I didn’t experience the protagonist’s academic struggles (for myriad reasons, navigating the classroom often felt easier and safer for me than navigating my inner emotional turmoil), I certainly shared their preoccupations around queerness and kink. And though that particular shame was long gone by the time of writing, I was still caught up in a kind of wish fulfillment for myself. My coming out was not the worst ever, but it wasn’t the most pleasant, either — the same is true of Bugsy, but they at least got to do it surrounded by a compassionate group of queer, kinky porn stars. That, along with the fact that it makes it easier to describe the mood of the entire collection as “very gay Boogie Nights,” led to me choosing “Bugsy” as the title story.
Who got me into writing in the first place, made me aware of what’s possible in terms of linguistic and formal experimentation? That would be James Joyce, as well as a number of others who undertook a similar project but with genius slants of their own: Djuna Barnes, Eugene Jolas, Fran Ross.
Who are working writers and artists I greatly admire now, whose work keeps me grounded while I navigate being an early-career guy in an ever-changing landscape? Nathan Hill, Jonathan Lethem, Margaret Atwood, Harry Dodge, Annie Ernaux, Jordan Peele.
Who are the people I’m talking to constantly, from whom I’m drawing tons of strength as a creative, with whom I’m engaged in a constant exchange of ideas? My millennial writer friends, of course! (Too many to name here — but I’m regularly plugging all their books on my Instagram.)
And are there any writers who had a big influence on any of the stories in Bugsy, but not on either novel?
I wish I had a good answer to this because it’s an entirely reasonable question, but I have to say that I really don’t think so. Confidence definitely has its very specific set of influences, but Bugsy, like my first novel, is very much a “burrowing-into-myself-at-this-time-in-my-life” project. Perhaps that’s my way of avoiding the anxiety of influence?
How about non-literary influences? Were any of the stories in Bugsy & Other Stories influenced by any movies, shows, or games? You mentioned the movie Boogie Nights a moment ago, as well as movie director Jordan Peele.
I never get asked questions like this, and I really wish people would ask them more. Like, just because I’m a writer, doesn’t mean I’m not also consuming media other than books!
Besides Boogie Nights, the influences for Bugsy range from On The Town / Frank O’Hara films in general (“The Last Show”) to the genre-defying e-girl performance art of Belle Delphine (“Like And Subscribe”), to — I kid you not — the surreal rabbit hole that is anti-vaxxer social media (“On The Inside”).
And what about your pets? What influence did they have on the stories in Bugsy & Other Stories?
My pets are a pitbull / black lab mix named Mina, and two kitty-men named Bubba (a glorious chub with heart-shaped paw pads) and Cowboy (tuxedo kitty protector-boy with half a white mustache). The cats came with my fiancé, and Mina came with me, and when we moved in together we were shocked to find that they are all black & white. I think the cosmically beautiful (non-)coincidence of their aesthetic consistency is definitely something I strive for in my own work.
Mina, Bubba, Cowboy
Mina — who is named for Mina Purefoy in Ulysses because she underwent a difficult pregnancy and birth — is my soul puppy. I adore her and she adores me, and I really think we knew each other in a past life. We both have our Midwesternisms, too: I’m forever “sneaking past” people and “popping in” places, and she loves to very politely do something she knows she’s not supposed to do — such as eat a few nibbles of Bubba and Cowboy’s wet food — and then wear the most put-upon hangdog look when we tell her to stop. I’m actually working on a project that features her prominently, and will be dedicated to her.
Along with Bugsy & Other Stories, the paperback edition of your novel Confidence is going to be out in a month. What is Confidence about, and when and where does it take place?
I’ll give you the elevator pitch: two con men, on-again-off-again lovers, form a fake startup that’s really more of an MLM, only to become entangled with a naïve movie star, a closeted “activist investor,” and the truly Sophoclean corporate drama of being “too big to fail.”
The story is set in a number of different places, including a fictional South American country called Urmau, but because it’s very much a novel about money and its fetishists, most of the action unfolds in New York’s financial district, as well as on The Farm upstate, which is the site of the bizarre/bucolic cult they build.
Where did you get the idea for Confidence? What inspired it?
It happened during Covid when my friend and I watched The Vow (amazing HBO documentary about the NXIVM cult), and then took one of those ambling lockdown walks. We were talking about NXIVM founder Keith Raniere, and I was wondering who the millennial Ranieres are, and what their cults and / or cons would be.
My friend, well-researched and practically-minded person that she is, suggested something to do with cryptocurrency, but I was already off in the clouds dreaming up P.T. Barnum-esque cons with hyper-ironic, digital-age slants.
Later on, I did some research and the surreally entertaining scams of Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos), Anna Delvey, and Billy McFarland (Fyre Festival) all came to the surface. Throw in some Highsmithian homoeroticism and you’ve got my book.
I’m sure you can imagine my immense satisfaction when the writer and critic Michelle Hart described Confidence as “Theranos, but make it gay”!
Are there any connections — either narratively or thematically — between Confidence and any of the stories in Bugsy?
I’ll take a break from being long-winded here and answer this one with a single word: GAY!!!1!!1
Going back to Bugsy & Other Stories, some of the stories in it were published before. “Fugato,” for instance, appeared in Granta. Are the versions of those stories in Bugsy the same as they were in those journals, or did you change anything about them?
I used to have a “this must stay the same” policy about excerpts from works-in-progress printed before the book’s release. That was certainly more the case with this excerpt from The Comedown, which then also appeared in an anthology about video games in fiction [Continue? The Boss Fights Books Anthology].
Nowadays, though, I’m so loosey-goosey with this kind of stuff that you can almost guarantee whatever I published online on my own is going to be fairly reworked by the time it appears in print — especially if I published it before selling the book. That said, both “Bugsy” and “Fugato” hew fairly close to their print versions, so it may just be that this loosey-goosey-ness only applies to novel excerpts.
Hollywood loves making movies out of short stories. Are there any stories in Bugsy & Other Stories that you think could work especially well as a movie?
Honestly, I think the stories in this book are all way more adaptable than my first novel, which is actually being adapted! So yeah, any of them, really.
But if I had to pick, I’d probably choose “Bugsy” and “Like And Subscribe,” just for sentimental reasons, and because they both have a dramatic structure that, beat-by-beat, would probably work well onscreen.
“Bugsy” is a very queer hero’s journey — even though it’s about a trans kid losing their mind and finding it again among a loving-but-troubled “porn family,” it does have sort of a mythic quality to it. And “Like and Subscribe” of course has the Belle Delphine tie-in (there’s a 4.2 million-person viewership already!) but it’s also modeled off Shakespearian comedies of errors, specifically Much Ado About Nothing. I love Shakespearian comedy — the escalating ridiculousness, the manic addition of characters, the cutting asides, the dick jokes — and so I think it would be fun to see someone do a treatment of “Like And Subscribe” for the stage or screen who understood that tie-in.
Finally, it’s been my experience that short story collections are a great way to get to know a writer. And it seems like Bugsy & Other Stories is that for you, based on what you’ve said about it. Given that, which of your novels would you suggest someone read if they’ve liked the stories in Bugsy?
If you liked the headier, trippy, mysticism-and-neuroses stories (“On The Inside,” “Fugato,” and “The Last Show”), you’re probably ready to tackle my debut, The Comedown (reprinted last year without my deadname on the cover courtesy of Lori Kusatzky!) If you liked the sexy, twisted gay romps (“Bugsy” and “Like And Subscribe”), then Confidence is probably your next read.