Each story in Drew Buxton’s debut collection, So Much Heart, puts readers right into the thick of its author’s obsessions, an intoxicating blend of cryptozoology, hucksters, and stray bits of Americana that prompt grandiose delusions of wealth and success from their wayward protagonists. Whether they’re selling the stolen sperm of Sea World Tulsa’s beloved Orca Whale, hoarding D.B. Cooper’s recovered loot, or engaging in elementary school power plays, Buxton’s characters consistently push back against their fundamentally bleak circumstances by striving for higher status. When Buxton and I first met in 2019, we were both striving in our own ways, having just moved to Champaign, Illinois, to start our MFAs at the University of Illinois. As a result, these are stories that I’ve been reading in various permutations for several years now. Earlier this month, we sat down to talk about revising from workshop to final product, our shared obsession with cryptids, and the difficulty of finding a balance between humor and melancholy.
Writing about Pat Benatar for Electric Literature, you noted that part of what ignited our connection was a shared love of “fast food, psychedelics, and horror movies.” I was struck re-reading that passage by the obvious influence and inclusion of those elements on the stories in So Much Heart, and I was reminded of Kelly Link’s generative practice of “[sitting] down and, very quickly, [making] a list of all the things that I most liked in other people’s fiction” in order to help produce ideas for her own work. Fast food, psychedelics, horror movies–what else would be on your list? What other interests and obsessions found their way into this book?
I love this exercise. Some others would have to be petty schemes, pro wrestling, preachers, motivational speakers, and cryptids. I’m in awe of charismatic public speakers. Another thing I’m obsessed with is delusion. I’ve known some people who are just aggressively wrong about everything and totally confident. There’s a lot of comedy in that, just incredibly confident and dumb. I mean, I’ve been that guy before without a doubt, but I like to think those days are behind me.
It’s fun to write oblivious characters because you get to signal things to the reader that the character isn’t aware of. In “Tilikum Gets Loose,” it’s immediately clear that the narrator’s plans are going to fail miserably, but you want to keep reading to see the failure play out. The Coen brothers are a big influence—Walter’s plan to foil the kidnappers in The Big Lebowski. Incredible.
Let’s linger on cryptids for a second, as that’s another shared obsession of ours, and various cryptids seem to find their way into our work pretty regularly. Mothman’s the one I keep returning to over and over, even if I haven’t quite found a way to cram him into a story just yet. What do you think it is about cryptids that we keep returning to over and over? What role do they play in your work?
I saw some documentary where this guy returns to the woods where he says he saw Mothman. He starts breaking down and crying and can’t even step foot into the woods. He remembers how the eyes glowed and were locked on him. He said he’d barely left his house in a year and couldn’t sleep out of fear. I mean, this dude was legitimately traumatized by his experience. I know cryptids aren’t real, but I still find these kind of testimonies compelling. I can’t just dismiss them outright.
I love debates like “Are the Sasquatch and the Yeti distinct species or just subtypes of the same species?” The pretense being that they’re obviously real, so let’s sort out the details. Again, the confidence! Like the mom in the title story. She knows Bigfoot is real. She’s just trying to figure out its tendencies, when it’s most active. Anyway, do you think Mothman caused the bridge collapse at Point Pleasant or he was there to warn people?
Definitely there to warn people! But let’s refocus: there’s something you said when we were living in Champaign that’s always stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, probably, but it was something like: “It’s both really encouraging and really frustrating that the only real way to improve a story is to spend several more hours on the page with it.” I’ve seen early and middle drafts of pretty much every story in this collection, and I’m wondering what your revision process looks like–what did those additional hours on the page reveal to you about these stories?
I think that’s true. A story will get better the longer you spend with it almost always. Like a lot of young writers, for a long time I was lazy and wanted to be some prodigy—delusion, like we talked about earlier. At one point, my brother read a story of mine and told me it was just nihilistic trash, basically. It hurt but I needed to hear it. Eventually I realized you just have to put the work in. Not very sexy.
With most of these stories, it wasn’t revision as much as rewriting. I’d print out the story and have it next to me while I rewrote it. Having to type a sentence out again makes me question whether it’s really needed. I hope to find a more efficient way someday!
When we’ve traded work in the past, and when we’ve collaborated on projects together, a refrain that we’ve returned to over and over again is to avoid “selling out for the bit,” meaning to resist the impulse to include jokes–even good ones–that compromise characterization or narrative or tone. For all the darkness in these stories, each contains at least a moment or two that’s really, really funny. How do you strike that tonal balance between melancholy and humor?
I think it’s just that “killing your babies” thing, but with us, it’s almost always some stupid gag that we’ve become way too attached to. I’ve learned those moments are something you have to earn through characterization and tone. I know now that I have to convincingly establish that a character is capable of doing something ridiculous first before the crazy bit. I realize that’s just basic craft stuff. Nothing mind blowing. I also don’t seek to squeeze jokes in wherever I can like I used to. I try to let them pop up naturally. A single bit used to be the whole point of a story for me, so I think I’ve come a long way. [Laughs]
With balancing melancholy and humor, I think they go together really naturally. I look back at dark times in my life and have to laugh. Some people have this philosophy that something can only be one thing, like if it’s sad or fucked up, it can’t be funny. But of course it can be both!
I’m remembering, writing this, that the early drafts of “Tilikum Gets Loose” included a subplot about the narrator attempting to build a makeshift submarine in his garage in order to retrieve something from the bottom of a lake. I’m still a little heartbroken that got cut, but I’m figuring that would have been an instance of selling out for the bit. What were some other difficult cuts?
It killed me to get rid of the submarine, but it just didn’t make any sense. Even in an outlandish story with an orca ghost, it made no sense. It was definitely an instance of not being able to let go of something that was part of the original vision for the story. This can create a blindspot for me. If it’s part of the original premise, I tend to see it as fundamental to the story when it isn’t.
Another tough cut was this whole thing in “You’re Gonna Know My Name” where they hold the rooster hostage for ransom. I remember we talked about this. You were like, “You can have one ransom note or three but not two.” Totally right, but I still want to write a story one day with an absurd amount of ransom notes.
Will the absurd number of ransom notes story find its way into the next collection? Is that something you’re thinking about just yet?
Definitely possible. I’ve got some ideas. I’m focused on a novel right now but can’t wait to get back to short fiction. Ideas for short stories are like sirens trying to lure me away from finishing the novel. I’m trying to stay disciplined and just make quick note of the idea for later.
So Much Heart: Stories
By Drew Buxton
With an X Books
Published July 25, 2023