Interview by Robert Shaw
Daniel Perry’s debut short fiction collection, Hamburger (Thistledown Press) was released this spring. With its impressive ability to seamlessly move between flash and prose pieces, the collection explores both the humour and poignancy of contemporary life in urban centres. Divided into three sections, the more than twenty pieces that make up the collection pay a particular emphasis on relationships, travel and class, and often left me further contemplating some sort of ethical dilemma. Daniel’s work has appeared in literary journals throughout Canada and his second collection, Nobody Looks That Young Here, is already set for release in 2018. Recently, I had the pleasure of asking Daniel more about putting together a collection, submitting to literary publications, and how he arrived at the title, Hamburger.
The stories in Hamburger are very tight, where did the seed for this collection come from? Is there one story or theme that you built everything around?
The first of these stories was drafted in 2006, the last in early 2015, and unlike the other collection of interlinked stories I was working on over the same period, Hamburger wasn’t planned as a group. What I think did emerge over time, though, were themes of dislocation, alienation and powerlessness that brought these stories together. They’re about unfulfilling jobs (a museum security guard who didn’t get to be a cop in “Rocky Steps”), culture shock (a young man seeking the “real” Bahamas on his first vacation cruise in “Tender Port”), generation gaps (a family dealing with the multi-generational legacy of a Second World War fatality in “Three Deaths of James Arthur Doole”), bad relationships (an overworked couple whose bond has been broken through overwork in “Be Your Own Master”), class consciousness (a young banker’s reconciliation of his working-class roots and his current self in “The N”), and more.
Do you begin a story with a certain character or structure in mind, or do you just let it unfold?
Contrary to some popular wisdom, I don’t think the audience has to know from the beginning what the characters want—I’m not saying obscure it, I’m saying characters who don’t entirely know themselves are more appealing to me. They might get the Holy Grail or the girl or the bad guy in the end, but it can take some legwork to figure out what these objectives even are. I think there’s more to characters than whether their missions succeed or fail.
The first half of Hamburger is a series of flash pieces and the second half is prose, how difficult is it to make that transition?
I hesitate to differentiate between the two forms, but I think the shorter the work, the better the selection of details has to be. You only get to add so much texture to a short story, and to a flash piece, even less. Flash pieces are about a moment, to me.
What did you find the most challenging aspect of the collection?
“Three Deaths” is the longest piece of fiction I’ve written yet, which I think brings its own degree of difficulty. And as a story based on historical events a lot of people know and care a lot about, I didn’t want to get even the smallest fact wrong; I spent probably five years carrying around the idea of writing about the multi-generational legacy of one Second World War bomber pilot’s death. I might never have found the nerve to write it without the one thing every writer gets from every publisher: a deadline.
The story “Hamburger” was written near a personal turning point: I was just starting to get published, just starting to believe I could get a book written one day, and the desire to write was really starting to overwhelm the comfort of going to work every day. I thought the feeling of being ground down was reflected in a lot of the stories, and so long as I didn’t put a hamburger on the cover, the title seemed open-ended enough. As a bonus, it meant a lot to me.
You have an impressive publishing history (20+ literary journals). Do you have any advice for writers looking to publish their first story?
Always remember that editors receive hundreds more stories than they can publish. Don’t make it easy for them to disregard your work. Make it perfect before you submit—and this includes following the submission guidelines as well as copy editing and proofreading. Get absolutely everything else out of the equation, so that the editor can focus entirely on the story.
(And then, when your perfect story gets rejected anyway, send it to a different magazine. Good work will get through eventually.)
How do you know when a story is finished?
I’ve always identified with this statement attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I’ll stack two more clichés on top of that one, too: “A work of art answers all its own questions” (don’t know who said this), and Errol Morris’s advice to “set up an arbitrary set of rules and then follow them slavishly.” A finished story, for me, is one I can’t stand to look at anymore and one in which I can’t see any inconsistencies to resolve.
Added to that, what is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
“Mystery is precise”—I got this by way of Rufi Thorpe, who I think got it from Deborah Eisenberg, and though I’m still not sure I fully understand it, I think it boils down to “know what you’re not telling your reader.” Know your whole story, and leave no questions dangling other than those you want the reader to ask. The reader won’t wonder what happens next or fill in the blank spaces by default; you have to select what you leave out just as well as what you include. Neither plot nor the implied forward momentum of reading is enough by themselves.
What are you currently reading and who are some of your influences?
Right now, I’m finally reading and quite enjoying my Brockton Writers Series partner-in-crime Farzana Doctor’s latest novel, All Inclusive, which was released last fall. My biggest influences, in no particular order, are probably Carver, Munro, Steinbeck, Camus, Hemingway, Tim O’Brien and S.E. Hinton.
What’s up next for you?
I’ve been drafting a novella (or if it goes well, a novel) since mid-2014, about a guy who moves into a haunted apartment. I’m also in the very early stages of the tragicomic hockey novel so many Canadian writers can’t help but write. Before I get back to either, though, I’m turning in that other story collection I mentioned to Guernica Editions this summer. It’s called Nobody Looks That Young Here and it’s due out in 2018.
If you’re interested in learning more about Daniel Perry, please visit his website.
Robert Shaw’s fiction has appeared in The New Orphic Review and Joyland. He has an MFA from the University of British Columbia. You can learn more about him at rdshaw.ca.