Smoking With Our Guest Editor — Jim Ruland
by Kelly Spitzer December 15, 2007
You brought a lot of new voices to SmokeLong this issue—a lot of strong voices, I must add. Did you have a certain vision in mind for this issue when soliciting writers?
I can’t say that I had a vision per se, but organizing the reading series Vermin on the Mount puts me in contact with a lot of writers. So when I received the invitation to be the guest editor of SmokeLong, I was confident that I could approach a diverse range of voices.
Many of the stories in this issue fall outside of the standard literary genre, with elements of quirk and the fantastical. On a broad scale, do you see any indicators that fiction is headed away from realism?
Not necessarily. Sure, there are indicators. I don’t think anyone would question the influence of George Saunders on the American short story landscape, and he doesn’t write realism. So that’s an indicator. We’re seeing more and more apocalyptic fiction and movies are dominated by epic escape fantasies and adaptations of comic books. There’s a few more. Political parties cling to fictitious agendas and our politicians are constructed like characters. So, yeah, there are plenty of indicators that we’re drifting away from realism and toward something else, but I don’t think it’s the case.
American culture is essentially stagnant and it’s most stagnant in places where wealth is concentrated. We live in a consumer culture that defines success by amassing wealth and disposing of it as conspicuously as possible with little thought to anyone but ourselves. (Sorry, I was having a Marcuse moment there. Let me reel myself back in a bit.) I think a culture like the one I just described is always going to be fixated on itself and if that’s not a recipe for realism, then I don’t know what is. The world is changing. Will we? Yes, but only if we have to. I think it will happen, and I don’t think that’s good news for our culture/country.
That said, there are thousands of artists operating outside the “standard literary genre,” all one has to do is ignore the familiar filters and seek them out.
What does a writer need to do to catch Jim Ruland’s eye?
I tend to gravitate toward stories that live on the quirky side of the street, but to be perfectly frank, I get more enjoyment out of the weekend editions of the Los Angeles Times than the literary journals that arrive in my mailbox on a weekly basis.
Any surprises during your stint as Guest Editor?
The number of submissions for one. It was staggering. I think it’s a testament to the infrastructure at SmokeLong. Writers are confident they will get a fair read and a timely response and that says a lot about the quality of the magazine; but I had no idea there were so many people out there writing short short fiction. I was under the impression it was a niche.
I also thought it was somewhat surprising how some of the pieces work together. Ben Ehrenreich and Trinie Dalton submitted stories that are compatible. I was definitely surprised by the weirdness of Benjamin Weismann’s piece. The flying squirrel with the scrotum-chute? Now there’s an image that I was utterly unprepared for and will not soon forget!
Laird Hunt’s submission was the biggest surprise, because it got me twice. Its excellence was apparent immediately and I was so excited to have it I sent off a quick note to the author and forwarded the piece to the other editors; but when I read it again, the next day, it devastated me. I nearly burst into tears at my desk. The next time someone asks me what can short short fiction do that regular fiction can’t, I’ll just direct them to Hunt’s “How 9) Strange.”
Have you edited for a literary journal before?
Organizing Vermin on the Mount is a little bit like editing a magazine, but it’s a lot less work. Someday I’d like to have the opportunity to edit an anthology of Vermin writers and include all the marvelous art work that has been contributed to the series.
You write for several big(ger) name publications—The Oxford American, The Believer, LA Weekly, and NPR’s “Day to Day.” How did you break into these markets? Do you write on assignment or freelance?
The best way to break into a magazine is to have a story that no one else can tell. I don’t mean to sound like I’m over-simplifying things but there it is. First of all, it’s helpful to remember that we’re not talking about fiction, but narrative nonfiction, which has a lot less competition. Second, it’s absolutely true that you need to know somebody who knows somebody.
I did my first piece for NPR because I told a friend who freelanced for them that I was going to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth “Mission Accomplished” banquet at Disneyworld with my father, who was a member. She convinced me that I had to do a story about him, which I was very reluctant to do as our political views are very different, but it ended up being a great experience for my father and I. This gave me a lot of confidence to keep pitching stories.
It was a very similar situation with my first piece for the Believer : a combination of knowing someone and being uniquely qualified to write the story I pitched. That particular story attracted the attention of an editor at Oxford American , so I was very fortunate.
With all that in mind, it doesn’t get any easier. You still have to put yourself out there and find great stories that really excite you as you’ll be dealing with them for months, even years, before you’re through with them. I don’t know how full-time freelancers do it. I certainly don’t have the stamina/people skills for it.
Your short story collection BIG LONESOME was published in 2005. Do you have any plans for more book length projects?
I recently completed a novel about America ‘s first sports celebrity, John L. Sullivan. I’m presently in-between agents so it’s still a long ways off from joining Big Lonesome on the shelf, but I’m optimistic.
I want to know more about the Esquire Napkin Fiction Project.
When you find out, tell me! Seriously, one day a white oversized envelope with the Esquire logo in the corner arrived in my mailbox. I thought it was a subscription solicitation and nearly threw it away, but inside was a request to write a very short story on the enclosed napkin. Evidently they sent hundreds of these out there. How my name ended up on the list is anybody’s guess. But what to write?
Shortly after this strange envelope arrived, my fiancée’s uncle was murdered in Ensenada just down the road from the rancho where we were planning on getting married. The burial was intense. So I wrote about that. Some of the events in the story I made up, some I couldn’t make up if I had a thousand years to prepare. We went ahead with our wedding plans and I like to think that we brought happiness back to that particular spot. Some of the wedding guests took the flower arrangements from their tables and left them at the memorial that had been erected by the side of the road. Obviously, it’s a great honor to be included in the project, but the story is very meaningful to me.
I have it on good authority that burritos are your favorite food. Give us the 101 on burritos.
Your sources are mistaken. I do indeed love a good burrito—who doesn’t?—but I hold tamales in much higher esteem since they are much more labor intensive. I know this because my wife and I have been experimenting with an Irish tamale. We will either be very rich or very fat.
But since you asked about burritos I will state the obvious and say it’s all about the tortilla. Also, a good burrito should have a minimum of cheese. Perhaps a sprinkling of queso fresco or Oaxacan cheese, but they should never be slathered in melted cheese the way they are at chain restaurants. A burrito is meant to be eaten with your hands—that’s the purpose of the tortilla after all, to gather up all the good stuff. You wouldn’t eat a hot dog with a knife and fork, would you?
SLQ completed issue 18 at the close of summer and launched this issue, 19, on the threshold of winter. During the three months in between, the crops were harvested, the leaves fell, the rain returned, temperatures dropped, darkness lengthened. Death in increments. How does the turning of the seasons affect your “muse,” your inspiration?
Well, I would add “the mother of all firestorms broke out” to that list, but that’s specific to Southern California, where I’ve lived for over 11 years now. A good part of those 11 years were spent in beach towns where the weather doesn’t change that much. So I don’t define seasons by weather so much as by significant events. For instance, right now it’s “tamale season” given the Mexican tradition of serving tamales around Christmas time. I love tamale season. I also love “football season” and, to a lesser extent, “baseball season,” especially when my teams are winning. I tend to get a lot of work done in between the Super Bowl and Opening Day, especially when my teams have lost, which is always. But my favorite season of all is “get in touch with your ancestors with an excess of Guinness and corned beef season” aka St. Patrick’s Day. I kick the muse to the curb for a few days, but she always comes crawling back. It’s not a very healthy relationship, but it work.
Jim Ruland is the author of the novel, Forest of Fortune, the short story collection Big Lonesome and co-author with Scott Campbell, Jr. of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch of Giving the Finger. He is currently collaborating with Keith Morris, founding member of Black Flag, Circle Jerks and OFF!, on his memoir My Damage, which will be published in the Fall of 2016.
Jim is the books columnist for San Diego CityBeat and his column, The Floating Library, appears every three weeks. He also writes for the Los Angeles Times and Razorcake – America’s only non-profit independent music zine. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Believer, Esquire, Granta, Hobart and Oxford American, and his work has received awards from Canteen, Reader’s Digest and the National Endowment for the Arts. He runs the Southern California-based reading series Vermin on the Mount, now in its eleventh year.
About the Artist:
A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison's work here.