Working Writers Series: Caleb True
Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com
Our interview this week is with Caleb True
First, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I started writing stories in elementary school, then in middle school I wrote mostly song lyrics. In high school, between playing a lot of punk rock shows, tri-weekly fencing practices, and school, I started writing fiction again, some pretty awful novels and some slightly-less awful poetry. In college, though I started out as an English major, I wasn’t super excited about the prospect of reading and discussing the canon. I felt like I’d already done that in High School. So I studied abroad in Germany, changed my major a lot and eventually finished with an interdisciplinary major. That allowed me to take a variety of honors classes, and, more importantly, some creative writing workshops, which got the ball rolling again. I went to graduate school in History, taking upper-level fiction writing workshops as a kind of recess from coursework. A year out of grad school, out in LA working and playing music, I’d racked up a few fiction publications. I was getting pretty serious about it. This past fall, I applied to some MFA programs, and it looks like I’ll be a part of that world come Autumn. I’m so excited! In a lot of ways it’s a dream come true.
Congrats on getting accepted into an MFA program! What was it that made you want to return to the academy to pursue your craft?
For one thing I’ve always wanted to teach. Working as a TA during my History masters program made me realize I like the seminar, the discussion. Teaching writing, particularly, seems like a dream job, especially after working in restaurants for years and years. Of course an MFA offers me, above all else, the chance to focus on my own writing. I realize, being out of school, that I’ve never been more productive than when taking creative writing workshops. In the first fiction workshop I took “for fun” in graduate school, I wrote something like ten short stories in a matter of weeks. Being in that sort of environment made me want to write, and write hard.
What were the subjects that you were driven to pursue in your writing? Does your music also influence your written work?
Definitely! Some of the history I was reading kind of screamed at me for characterization. So I have this batch of historical fictions. This story is one; it’s a surrealistic portrait of a sad cousin of American eugenicist Charles B. Davenport. In addition to eugenics, I was reading a lot of gender history, history of the body, history of food, and Soviet History, so a good deal of that stuff finds its way into my work.
As for music, it took me longer to figure out how to write about myself in a way that didn’t feel corny. I think I’ve found a way, finally. Of course, it’s always hard to make high school seem cool in retrospect, but I write fiction, after all, not memoir, so I can fill in where life has dropped the ball. The novel I’m shopping around, “Warm Gun,” delves into the crazy fake-fame I sort of belly-tickled in High School. Small time, sort of small-townie fame. Cozy, you know?
I wish. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Practically metropolitan so long as you could get on the train. Could you tell us a bit more about “Warm Gun”? Great title, by the by.
Thanks! it was shortened to “Warm Gun” from a longer and sillier title.
What was the first title?
“Happiness is a Warm (Yes it is!) Gun,” as per the line in the song by the Beatles.
Hah! I don’t know, I like both. “Warm Gun” seems a bit more serious, the latter more tongue in cheek.
Both humors apply I think, maybe more the tongue and the cheek one. So this Warm Gun: It’s an episodic portrait of a 21st century misfit. It begins on the banks of the Missouri River and ends on the shores of the Bosphorus. “Life begins on a riverbank (did somebody say that? No one said it. I say it!)… the river rises and washes us all away…” It’s a sad, funny, exciting tale of underground music, being an artist, having no money, traveling around, losing friends, sex. The usual. There is even some murder in there. Cute murder. Rather adorable murder.
What does adorable murder look like? Puppies with knives in their teeth?
THAT is cute! It does now! Just kidding–well, it does involve small animals, believe it or not. (Not viruses). Animals, yay! Animals, cute. Animals kept in a jar. Animals UNLEASHED!
Ah, the furry epidemic shall rise. So what is the state of underground music these days? Do you consider yourself a part of it?
Sadly I am not part of it right now. I was in LA, last year, for a while, and for a time in Massachusetts too. But not since I was in St. Louis have I been really a strong part of an underground scene. In college I was pretty active at this nonprofit music and arts venue, The Lemp Arts Center, where I learned a lot about art and aesthetics, and saw a lot of incredible bands that will never exist ever again. It’s the extinction of so many great bands, these flashes in the pan, which has left an impression on me.
From age fourteen to twenty-two I was pretty deep in the St. Louis scene. There was this exciting boom. Suddenly there were 100s—no joke—100s of local bands. And then, sometime around 2007, the number plummeted. Like the dinosaurs. A musical meteor hit St. Louis and wiped them out. Made all the bandies go to college or something. Move to Chicago. There’s still a scene in St. Louis, but I think, objectively, there are far fewer bands. I’m sure a local whippersnapper and I could have a heated discussion about it.
Tell us a bit about the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, and your role there as a student, or teacher?
I was definitely a student, but I also served on the Board of Directors when I was active (booking bands, playing shows, running shows, etc.). I got involved there initially when I booked my band there in 2004. The Lemp was and is the nicest venue in St. Louis. Their motto is “No Drugs, No Booze, No Jerks,” kind of a straight edge sort of thing, but they don’t profess as sXe; they simply don’t label one way or the other. Anyone is welcome, but smoking has to happen outside, or elsewhere. No booze makes it all-ages, and if you mosh mean, you get kicked out. These days they run Orchestrating Diversity, which (from their website) “empowers young people through the education and performance of orchestral music.” They’re doing well.
When I was there, aside from board meetings, I attended the Sunday seminars, which challenged us young artists to consider our art as a social tool. What social purpose has our art? Or, more simply, what is our art saying? Thinking about art like that, new ideas pop out, new meanings. I learned kind of quickly about some nefarious and embarrassing things some of my art/music was professing, believe you me.
Want to share one of those embarrassing things?
I was reading impressionistically in socialism and politics, utopia—those sorts of things. My lack of knowledge was manifesting as dogma, to put it simply. You know, ‘kill capitalists,’ that sort of thing. Simplistic, reductive. The big transformation comes with more consideration, more personal connection. Later I wrote this simple song called “Fall” that went: “I watch my friends fall / into life / and die / with the / fall.” A song about getting caught up in growing up. It sums up fears I had as a young person about aging, friendship, authenticity (as an artist/human being), staying “real.”
It sounds like your writing employs a mix of the awkwardness of adolescence, as well as factoring in major social upheavals and necessary social change – none of which seems to be capable without violence. Do you compress, say, High School and eugenics? Is that setting a Petri dish?
When you say “High School” you mean High School where kids go, right?
Huh, good point. Whatever you mean by high school.
Either way, I think. I love insecure and bizarre stories about kids, and also, in thinking of the literary high school, the canonical ‘high school,’ heh, I like the idea of inserting stomach-twisting ideas about eugenics, or feminist theory, or various sorts of Gazes, or inappropriate sex—general discomfort into the overly-comfortable world of the literary story. I think whichever way my stories go, there is (hopefully) some modicum of discomfort.
Who or what has been your creative influence?
So I got into short story writing by the German writer Judith Hermann. Before her I had no clue about short stories. I wrote almost no fiction in college until I discovered Hermann’s “Sommerhaus, Spater” [Summerhouse, Later] which I started in German and finished in English. Before that (in ‘High School’) it was mostly Vonnegut. And some Kevin J. Anderson. And Douglas Adams. Pretty basic stuff. In grad school I escaped with Richard Brautigan, Linh Dinh, Milan Kundera. And some heartbreaking historians like Fawn Brodie, Laurel Thatcher Ullrich, Darra Goldstein, Laura Lovett. I could add a dude, William Manchester, to that list as well. In Los Angeles I read almost nothing but literary journals (lots and lots) and Roberto Bolaño.
Which literary journals are you reading now?
Redivider, Fence, Whole/Beast/Rag, Sein und Werden, Fourteen Hills, McSweeney’s, Gigantic Sequins… I tend to sample widely, buy a lot of single issues. Oh and I gotta say I discovered Amina Cain recently. She’s an amazing writer. She can duke it out with Rachel B. Glaser, another mad genius, for some obscure, unspecified writer’s prize. (These are compliments!).
You can follow Caleb True at Calebtrue.tumblr.com or on twitter @Calebjtrue