Midwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talked with author Robert Vaughan about his book FUNHOUSE, the rhythmic tone of his prose, letting the story tell you, and more.
Audrey Meyers: What is your connection to the Midwest?
Robert Vaughan: I moved to Milwaukee in 2003. It’s the longest I have lived in any one place, in the same house, since I was born. I’m from New York and have previously lived on mostly the East or West coast as an adult. And on Maui briefly. Milwaukee is a nice sized city, and has a large number of artists and writers. It’s the city that has made my writing “come alive,” or provided the conducive backdrop, or vessel in which my writing could emerge.
AM: How has living in Milwaukee impacted your writing style? What about Milwaukee inspires you to write?
RV: I write mostly in a studio in my house, but also have been part of a vibrant writing community called Red Oak Writers, and have lead a writing roundtable group for the past 12 years. On occasion, I like to write in local cafes, coffeehouses, or bars. Milwaukee has a plethora of these, and they are conducive to the stories I enjoy writing. Often you read or hear that Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in America, but there are places I like to hang out, (Riverwest, for example), that seem very integrated to me.
AM: FUNHOUSE reads like a collection of classic American memories written from a unique perspective. Your writing is packed with hard-hitting one liners that have the reader stop and consider the power of life’s little moments. Do you have any advice for developing a personalized style that resonates with a diverse readership?
RV: Thanks! My largest advice would be to write as often as you can, even if you aren’t necessarily working on any one particular story, or poem, or longer project. Just keep at it, and read as much as you possibly can, both in the genre you write, as well as outside that genre, too. Another thing you can do is to read for a literary magazine. I’ve done this many times in my writing career, and although it can be consuming, it helps guide one’s own personal style.
AM: Each segment of your book feels like a song on an album because your prose is connected by a rhythmic tone, bringing each individual piece together. What are your intentions for writing in this style?
RV: Again, that is really kind of you, to compare my writing to a musical origin or essence. I was in two bands, and went to college originally for music. I think this aspect of my work grows much more in the numerous edits of every single piece. Also it helps to read one’s work aloud, listening to the sounds and the sentence structure, the pitch and timbre.
AM: During the course of writing FUNHOUSE, was dividing the book into four sections a deliberate choice from the beginning, or did the idea develop as you wrote?
RV: The two middle sections of FUNHOUSE, “Another Brick in the Wall” and “DIVA”, were sections I’d started years ago, possibly as early as 2010. The first and fourth sections came about much more recently. I talked over the section components with Bud Smith, my publisher at Unknown Press, and he liked the idea of the four sections.
AM: How do the four sections — “Balloon Darts,” “Hall of Mirrors,” “Tunnel of Love,” and “Ferris Wheel” — relate to one another? Why did you decide to put them in this order? What was the overall process like for structuring FUNHOUSE?
RV: I am not quite sure how the sections within the book “relate” to one another. I’m intrigued to hear more about this from its reviews. The order came organically, once I’d assembled the majority of the material, and with help from Unknown Press. It always feels a little bit risky, and yet this is part of what makes a collection fun, overall. It’s the same way I like to write, incidentally- into the dark, without knowing where I am going. No maps.
AM: How would you describe the voice of narration in FUNHOUSE?
RV: I’d say it’s a book filled with multiple voices, all screaming to get out. All stuck in one huge amusement park. Probably not willing to share their cotton candy, and all fairly clueless.
AM: Where did the idea of alphabetizing a collection of kids in the “Another Brick in the Wall”/”Hall of Mirrors” section come from?
RV: One of my favorite childhood books is Edward Gorey’s The Gashleycrumb Tinies. It’s a stunning book, also A-Z, all told in iambic pentameter, in which each kid dies (“A is for AMY who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by bears”. Etc.) And so, “Another Brick in the Wall” is an homage. My kids don’t die, and they are “stuck” inside the same classroom. And I chose flash fiction (free form) for each student.
AM: How do you believe a story should be told? In other words, how do you find direction when telling a story?
RV: I don’t think there is any one way to tell a story – typically the story tells you (the writer). One of the reasons I wanted to include the fourth section, “Ferris Wheels”, is because I do write more traditional length stories, which are included here. But especially in first draft, just let it out, get the words onto the page. It’s in the editing stages that you can “steer” or “guide,” slightly more. But not too much – it’s such a delicate balance.
AM: What do you enjoy most about writing flash fiction?
RV: The tempo, discovery, pace, getting in and out quickly. No rules, per se. The satisfaction of feeling as if you have nailed a great piece. It’s a rare, uncanny thing.
AM: What did you learn about yourself as a writer when creating FUNHOUSE?
RV: I learned it is okay to not know whether or not a book has “succeeded” or “failed” during the writing process. I can step off the proverbial ‘cliff,’ and land on my two feet (or maybe one).
AM: What’s next for you?
RV: I have nearly completed a full-length play. I’m working on an epistolary project. And I am teaching three workshops this year, so getting all of those organized and (hopefully) full! I’m also in one of those “gestation” periods. Not fallow, but also unclear. And that feels, for the most part, great!
Robert Vaughan teaches workshops in hybrid writing, poetry, fiction, and hike/ write. He has facilitated these at locations like Alverno College, UWM, Red Oak Writing, The Clearing, Synergia Ranch and Mabel Dodge Luhan House. He leads writing roundtables in Milwaukee, WI, and he’s an editor at (b)OINK zine. He was a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Award for Fiction twice (2013, 2014). He was the head judge for the Bath International Flash Fiction Awards, 2016. His short fiction, ‘A Box’ was selected for Best Small Fictions 2016 (Queen’s Ferry Press). Vaughan is the author of five books: Microtones (Cervena Barva Press); Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits (Deadly Chaps); Addicts & Basements (CCM) and RIFT, a flash collection co-authored with Kathy Fish (Unknown Press). His new book is FUNHOUSE (Unknown Press). He blogs at www.robert-vaughan.com.