Ray Bradbury once said of Ben Loory, “This guy can write.” Or maybe he said, “That boy ain’t right” and someone just heard him wrong. Either way, it’s high praise, high praise indeed. In honor of Loory’s second short story collection, Tales Of Falling And Flying (paperback, digital), I spoke to him about what inspires his tales, whether he’d like to see them adapted to the big screen, and which writers he thinks can write.
Tales Of Falling And Flying is a collection of short stories. But what kind of stories are they? Sci-fi? Horror? Cautionary tales about why you should stay out of the pit at Metallica concerts?
There’s nothing to be scared of in a Metallica pit, it’s the Slayer pits you have to watch out for. But yeah, they’re horror stories. And also science fiction. And fantasy. And fables and fairy tales. Some people tell me they’re parables and allegories, and I was once even accused of writing ridiculously short novels. So yeah, I don’t know. I just think of them as stories. They’re stories about people — and sometimes animals — and their problems.
Is there a common theme to the stories in Tales Of Falling And Flying, or maybe a framing device?
I try not to think too much in that direction; I try to focus on the emotional impact and the ride of each story. I’m sure that there are some common themes — identity and belonging, and hope, despair, and courage are some for example that people are always telling me I write about — but theme is never what I’m interested in, that’s just the raw material. I’m much more focused on what the stories feel like to read, on the shape of their experience, than I am on their explication. I kind of see stories as little roller coasters; there’s a lot of physics behind them but I’m interested in the thrill.
Your stories have garnered praise from such fellow writers as Ray Bradbury [The Illustrated Man], Charles Yu [How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe], Ransom Riggs [Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children], Peter Straub [Ghost Story], and others. But are there any writers, or specific books, that you feel were a big influence on the stories in Tales Of Falling And Flying?
As far as I’m concerned, Aesop’s Fables is the greatest book ever written. Children’s stories from the bible and Richard Scarry and William Steig, especially Sylvester And The Magic Pebble; I’m always writing stories about people finding rocks. There’s a lot of fantasy in my past, especially Michael Moorcock, who I was obsessed with for years. I’d still love to see an anime version of his Elric books. Beyond that, I think there’s some Richard Brautigan in my writing — in the voice, the attitude, the sort of deadpan comedic surrealism — and also probably some J.D. Salinger, as I read The Catcher In The Rye about 95 times when I was 12. I owe a lot to Patricia Highsmith in the way she just smoothly carries you along on these sociopathic journeys and refuses to say whether she’s kidding or not; and I’ve always loved Philip K. Dick and the way he rides that line between parody and deadly fucking serious. And then of course there are Beckett and Ionesco and Pinter, the absurdist playwrights. “The Killer” and “Waiting for Godot” and “The Caretaker” are always on my mind. They have that sense that the world is far stranger than anyone thought and anything might happen at any moment.
What about non-literary influences; do you think any of the stories in Tales Of Falling And Flying were influenced by movies, TV shows, or video games?
Movies are always an influence, especially Hitchcock, who I love. He knew to always keep things moving and getting worse, spiraling down and down into obsession and madness. He never took things easy on his characters and didn’t worry too much about “reality.” Also there’s a lot of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; I was obsessed with them both when I was little. And still am. They taught me to always keep things physically grounded; there’s a lot of slapstick in what I do. Video game-wise, I feel like I am still and always and forever playing Pitfall in my mind; that’s how I see stories: as unfolding from one side of the screen to the other, leaping over pits and crocodiles and whatnot, swinging on vines and falling into holes.
You’ve said in the past that your stories are, and I’m quoting here, “…like little Twilight Zone episodes if they were done as Warner Brothers cartoons.” But which WB cartoons? Like, the Bugs Bunny ones, Daffy Duck, Marvin The Martian…or are we talking the Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League stuff?
The old ones, yeah. Not that new-fangled crap. “The Dover Boys At Pimento University” is my favorite. Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett. Coyote and Roadrunner. I’d like to be friends with Foghorn Leghorn.
So were The Twilight Zone or those Warner Brothers cartoons an influence on the stories on Tales Of Falling And Flying?
The Twilight Zone taught me that the point of storytelling is that moment at the end when the fuse finally gets lit and then suddenly you look and you see the whole story behind the story and then something inside you explodes. The cartoons taught me that storytelling can be fast; that people are quick and don’t need to be led by the nose and explained to every single step of the way. And also, of course, that funny is good, and the impossible isn’t just useful but required.
Now, Tales Of Falling And Flying is your second collection of short stories; you released Stories For Nighttime And Some For The Day in 2011. Do any of the stories in Tales Of Falling And Flying have connections, narrative or otherwise, to ones in Stories For Nighttime And Some For The Day?
Yeah, I mean, they all come from the same brain, and that brain is just sitting here making them up without regard for what book they’re gonna wind up being printed in. Really, it’s all just one giant book of stories. You can tear off the covers and just glue ’em together.
The thing I noticed about the stories in both Tales Of Falling And Flying and Stories For Nighttime And Some For The Day is that they’re really short. Most are less than 10 pages long. What is it about really short stories that you like so much?
I don’t know…I don’t like being bored, I guess? Though really, they don’t seem really short to me. I mean I don’t set out trying to write really short stories; I just write stories and that’s how long they turn out. That’s how long it takes me to tell them. For a while I tried to figure out how to make them longer, God knows why, but it mostly just seemed to involve sticking in a lot of extra crap.
Tales Of Falling And Flying also starts with an author’s note that says, “More stories! Sorry they took so long. Next one will be quicker.” So, what can you tell us about the next one?
Uh, okay. So aside from your two short story collections, you also wrote a book for kids called The Baseball Player And The Walrus. Are there any stories in Tales Of Falling And Flying that you think would appeal to fans of The Baseball Player And The Walrus?
Yeah, all of them. The Baseball Player And The Walrus was just a story I wrote like any other. Then at some point a friend of mine said, “Hey that story would make a good picture book.” So then my agent took it and sold it to Dial Books for Young Readers, and now it’s a picture book. Which I love very much. But really, it’s just a story like any other story I ever wrote.
Do you think fans of Tales Of Falling And Flying would appreciate The Baseball Player And The Walrus? Because I’ll read a kids’ book if it’s funny. Just ask Berkeley Breathed.
You will love it; it will be your favorite book of all time. See if you can spot the Deathtöngue reference.
We talked earlier about The Twilight Zone and the old Warner Brothers cartoons being an influence on your writing, But has there been any interest in turning any of the stories in Tales Of Falling And Flying into a movie, TV show, or video game?
The story “The Duck” was made into an animated short; you can find it on Google [or just click here], they did a great job. I’ve seen a couple short films that I think people did for school, and there’s been some interest in adapting a few others into shorts. Steven Spielberg hasn’t come a-knockin’ at my door yet, but when he does, I’ll be after him to do “UFO: A Love Story.” Personally, I’ve always imagined my stories as an animated anthology show, as a sort of Warner Brothers cartoon version of The Twilight Zone. That’s the dream. I’d also love to see a graphic novel adaptation. Or “The Dodo” made into a feature length live-action film starring Tom Cruise as the dodo. That would be hilarious and hopefully would make me rich.
Finally, if someone enjoys Tales Of Falling And Flying, and they’ve already read Stories For Nighttime And Some For The Day, what short story collection would you suggest they read while waiting for your third one to come out?
Well, it’s more of a novel-in-stories than a short story collection per se, but Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America by Damien Lincoln Ober is the best and funniest book I’ve read in ages. I’d also recommend Axiomatic by Greg Egan, though it’s about 9000 miles in the other direction from what I do.