Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with James Warner

by Karen Craigo Read the Story June 19, 2017

The language, for me, is the star of this story. I love the name “Boneyard Zeke,” and I also love the hobo vocabulary. Some of it is real enough (“yegg”), and some of it seems like it was coined by you, although I may be mistaken (“mollymawk’s talon” as a kind of weapon). I feel as though the language is part of the genesis of the piece; how close am I to being right?

I can’t usually remember the genesis of a story. The writing process tends to bury that memory for me. But you’re probably right—this must have started with me stumbling on some narratives by hobos and being fascinated by their lifestyle, as preserved in their terminology. Depression-era hobo slang suggests a coherent worldview in the way contemporary corporate jargon doesn’t.

It’s a story about wanting escape, and that’s something I like to noodle over, too, from time to time. Have you ever exacted a getaway, and from what?

I like that phrase “exact a getaway.” My getaways have been too inexact. After its completion, I noticed this story’s debt to James Thurber, who I read a lot when I was a kid. Thurber’s heroes are profoundly dissatisfied with reality and seek to escape, usually into more linguistically vibrant realms.

My own getaways tend to be self-defeating. While getting away from something, one must know what one is getting away with/ getting away to. Typically I’m trying to escape from myself.

I like the advice Zeke receives, such as the suggestion that he take a bucket of skulls “to spark a conversation.” I’m thinking of escaping; what should I take along?

I’m not great at packing, so I asked my Welsh niece. She recommends you bring some Ritalin and a block of cheddar.

I’m primarily a poet, and I often reflect on what I see as this or that crisis in poetry today. It’s a way to pass the time. Right now I’m fixated on the idea that people should offer more focused attention and be less driven to produce, produce, produce. (I’ll have a different idea tomorrow.) What is fiction’s biggest crisis?

Genrification? If we can’t abolish the concept of genre, we could at least do a better job of generating new genres and phasing out old ones.

Or one can blame sequels. I agree with you about focused attention. Writing is inherently a spiritual endeavor, so corporate restructuring isn’t good for it. But perhaps fiction and poetry should be permanently in crisis—it’s preferable to stasis.

If you were an animal, what would you be?

Maybe a vaquita, an asocial and endangered harbor porpoise. Although my bladder would be not worth as much as a vaquita’s on the black market.

About the Author:

James Warner's short fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Santa Monica Review, Mid-American Review, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. He is also the author of the novel All Her Father's Guns from Numina Press. Subverting the gridding of conventional language as a site of authorized knowledge, he highlights the productivity of non-knowledge, or of error as its own epistemology.

About the Interviewer:

Karen Craigo is the editor of The Marshfield Mail newspaper in Marshfield, Missouri. She is the author of the poetry collections Passing Through Humansville (Sundress Publications, 2018) and No More Milk (Sundress Publications, 2016).