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Smoking With Joseph Gross

Interview by Nancy Stebbins (Read the Story) December 20, 2011

Joseph L. Gross

A Smoke Backstage by William Michael Harnett

The setting is so unique, and weighted with history: the glaciers, the narrator’s father’s cairns, which inspired his love of geology. Did an actual place inspire this story?

Yes. The place in question is, as in the story, some property my dad bought outside of Kalamazoo where he could prune trees and move rocks. A recent walk on that property with a geologist friend supplied my story’s central image and most of the science. I love the swampy landscape and its glacial rocks, but I didn’t fall in love with the study of them. I fell in love with the study of playing in rock bands.

The narrator thinks of Colleen’s freckles as rusty feldspar in granite, and then he thinks that the two of them are like the xenolith. Can you say more about these comparisons?†

He has appropriated her tendency for metaphor, even though it scares him, and he’s a little rabid about his discipline, as a young scholar tends to be. He sees it everywhere. The xenolith and glacial drift images, though, felt resonant to meóthe way we enter and alter each other’s lives.

Given the last sentence in your bio, I have to ask, what sorts of books you particularly like.

For some reason this question frightened me. It looked like easy pickins until I struggled to grab hold of an answer. I guess I like books that fill me with a sense of wonder. And funny never hurts. On a physical level, I’m most attracted to hardcover novels and collections with brains that are in the 300-400 page range. They look good on the shelf. They feel comfortable. Recently, I’ve loved One Hundred Years of Solitude (again), by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon; Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem; Lord of Misrule, by Jaime Gordon; and Once Upon a River, by Bonnie-Jo Campbell.

I’ve been hearing that Kalamazoo is becoming quite a literary hotspot.

The last two writers I mentioned live in the Kalamazoo areaówriters who have had big successes recently (both were nominated for the National Book Award, and Jaime won it). I was lucky enough to take a couple classes with Jaime while studying for an MFA at Western Michigan University. I grew up in Kalamazoo and still live here, and the literary scene rocks for a small town. A lot of talent lives and performs here, both in and out of the university. Poets Dianne Seuss, William Olsen, Nancy Eimers, Scott Bade, and many others have led a local explosion in verse. Great young writers like Chad and Jennifer Sweeney, Adam Clay, Melinda Moustakis, and James Miranda have moved away from here recently to take university positions elsewhere (I miss them). Andy Mozina, Gail Griffin, Debra Marquart for some of the year, John Rybicki lives near here. And maybe most of all, Stuart Dybek’s long presence in Kalamazoo put us on the map. He certainly influenced meóhis first book, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, was one of the first that made me want to become a writer. The knowledge that the writer of these strange, beautiful stories lived in town made the thought seem possible somehow.

About the Author

Joseph L. Gross holds a Master of Fine Arts from Western Michigan University. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared recently in various journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Mid-American Review, Redivider, Salamander, and Summerset Review. He lives with his wife and two young children in Kalamazoo, MI, and this year has become the assistant director of the Ransom District Library. He likes books.

About the Interviewer

Nancy Stebbins is a psychiatrist, a Flash Factory groupie, and an MFA student at Pacific University. Her short stories have been published in The Summerset Review, Grey Sparrow Journal and other places. She shares a blog with three other Pacific students: http://pop-upprincesses.blogspot.com.

About the Artist

William Michael Harnett (August 10, 1848–October 29, 1892) was an Irish-American painter known for his trompe-l’œil still lifes of ordinary objects.

This interview appeared in Issue Thirty-Four of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Thirty-Four
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