Slacker Fabulists: A Conversation with Jeremy T. Wilson and Josh Denslow

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

I first encountered Josh Denslow’s work on the writer Ilana Masad’s The Other Stories podcast. Josh read his story “Dorian Vandercleef” from his debut short story collection Not Everyone is Special. The story was smart and tender and surprising and weird and funny and mildly speculative, and I was immediately hooked. Who was this guy? Back when Twitter was Twitter, I reached out to Josh, we exchanged books, and I found out he was coming to Chicago to read.

We met in person and discovered we had a lot in common. Our short story collections were both released on independent presses. We both have connections to the Chicago area. We’ve both written screenplays. We both proudly display photos of ourselves with cats on our shoulders. We also share an interest in what the writer and publisher Leland Cheuk coined “slacker fabulism.” Josh and I are slackers by generational default, but the fabulist element in our work might also be called slacker, for the weirdness is often rendered as mundanely as Pop-Tarts on a gray Wednesday morning.

The trajectory of our writing lives coalesced once again with the release of our debut novels on the same day! To celebrate, we corresponded over several emails touching on topics such as aging, the mystery of humor, bruised superheroes, and the freedom that comes from not being special.


TriQuarterly: You say in the acknowledgments that Super Normal has been with you for two decades in one form or another. It’s important for writers like me who are, ahem, older, to hear stories of perseverance. Makes me think of what Taylor says late in the novel: “You’re the one telling your story. If you love acting and you’re putting yourself out there and everyone is too stupid to cast you, then you’re still an actress.” I think we could fairly replace actress with writer here. So how important was it for you to keep thinking of yourself as a writer as you experienced the long road to this novel's publication?

Josh Denslow: Super Normal was the first novel I ever tried to write. And over the last two decades, I started it over from scratch, ditching nearly everything that came before it, four times. So in the end, writing this one novel was like writing four novels. For me, the best way to feel like a writer was to always believe that at some point I’d get it right. I took many breaks from Super Normal to work on other novels that are still unpublished. One is a 540-page behemoth, and the other is a middle grade thing. Plus I wrote two story collections. Anyway, what I’m trying to say here is if I keep busy, then I forget for a time that it’s not going well. And every once in a while, something awesome happens. Like Stillhouse pulling Super Normal out of the slush pile and then waiting patiently for nearly two years for me to rewrite it from scratch one last time. I completely agree with what Taylor says in this scene, and I think it's good advice for anyone out there struggling. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Doesn’t matter if no one knows what you’re working on. And perhaps, they never will. But you don't have any control over that part. You can only control the writing. Do the thing you can control! Do it whenever you can and as often as you can. That's being a writer.

TQ: Speaking of age, a sense of loss pervades your novel, and I’m not just talking about the big losses like losing a parent or the dissolution of a marriage or the inevitable decline of our once-promising “gifts.” Inevitably, this is something that happens to us more and more as we get older. But all of our losses aren’t physical or material. We might also lose our sense of wonder, our imagination, our curiosity, our faith. You describe Phillip as a character who “wanted magic and mystery in the world and he wasn’t convinced that all of it didn’t exist.” As a kid, his position stands in contrast to the more jaded views of the adults. What is it about getting older that makes us lose this “magic and mystery?” And is your attraction to writing fiction with speculative elements a way to maintain a certain level of wonder?

JD: I think it applies to your novel as well. Your characters struggle with real life stuff. All the things that destroy your imagination. And then into this world comes a magical transformation. People turning into full grown quails. It’s funny to watch how quickly their society deals with it. Almost immediately renders it mundane.

And in a way, that’s what I like most about putting magical stuff into a story. I try to make the world as real as possible and then think about how these people would deal with something otherworldly. Many times that answer is that they would hide it. Or disregard it completely. In Super Normal, I was definitely drawn to that juxtaposition of how a child views the world as opposed to an adult. I think the older you get, and the more routines you establish it makes it difficult to distinguish one day from another. Then it's hard to believe there is anything out there that could change your life. In my writing, I’m a child. I look for magic. Anything is possible.

We're talking about being old, but really we should be talking about humor! I really loved the humor in your book and I think we have a similar approach to it. It comes out of the situations and it's mostly in dialogue.

TQ: Yes! My default mode is humor, and not just in my writing. I'm the guy who if things are getting a little too heavy will always make a joke. But humor is so mysterious to me. I'm sure there are people out there who won't find either one of our books funny at all (dreary bastards). This mystery is part of the reason I keep trying to write humor. I want to know how to make a scene funny. The demands of that are particular to any given story, and so they are not replicable, which keeps things from getting stale.

Before I really got serious about fiction, I studied film, video, and screenwriting. The screenwriting courses taught me so much about scene creation and, of course, dialogue. I also discovered I wasn't so great at rendering a character's interior life, so relying on action and dialogue allowed me to mask my faults. I still believe the best way to establish character is to have them do something or say something. (I hate those worksheets that treat tastes and habits as the source of character, "what's your character's favorite pizza topping?") Stories are just better if people are walking and talking. Less navel gazing, more hell raising!

I will say this: miscommunication is funny (and also tragic). When people are having a conversation, they are often having two different conversations. They could be responding to one another accurately, but they are often working at cross purposes or with different intentions. I try to remember this when writing dialogue. I know you've also written screenplays. Did that influence your approach to humor? And what's the secret, man? How do you write dialogue this funny?

JD: I was flipping through your book to talk about humor and realized there are many parts in here I thought were really funny. But if I try to pull a line, it doesn’t come off as funny on its own. And that is the secret about humor. It comes from the characters and that particular moment they are in and the knowledge you already have about them from reading what came before that moment. And armed with all of that, a line of dialogue can fly off the page, can make you actually laugh out loud. But without it, that line is just a line.

And that squares with what you’re saying about stories being better if the characters are walking and talking. That’s the stuff that accumulates, and that’s what builds the humor. I can’t pretend I know what’s funny. In fact, if I try to be funny, it rarely works out. Instead I focus on the voice of the story. The tone. Then I let the characters talk and they can say all kinds of funny things all on their own!

My wife has confirmed that when I write I’m sort of acting it out. I make faces. I whisper dialogue. I’m channeling the characters and then letting them lead me. As for screenplays, I think every fiction writer should learn how to write a script. Everyone should write one before attacking a novel. There’s something so mathematical about the layout.

TQ: In addition to the humor, both our books share, if not an obsession, at least an acute attention to the body. You write in Super Normal: "Your body knows more than you do." The body will come for us no matter what. You can be the strongest man alive and be brought down by a bee. Your characters are literally getting beaten down and confronting their cravings and constantly dealing with the particularly humbling experience of having a body. And, of course, in my novel turning into a quail is a physical transformation. Many of my characters are experimenting with their physical appearance or attempting to hide what they don't like or simply giving into their physical urges. I don't really have a question here, but I like when I read a book and can feel the characters inhabiting the oddity of their bodies. This is something that horror has down.

JD: The earliest draft of Super Normal was called Touch, and there was a huge subplot about Phillip, the young boy protagonist, being deathly afraid of being touched. The novel veered away from that over the years, focusing more on the adult siblings and their powers, and I eventually kept the boy and got rid of his fear. But, that idea is still in there. Of being scared of what can happen to our bodies. And worried about how our bodies will be perceived.

TQ: One last question for you. I notice an echo in your novel of your previous short story collection Not Everyone is Special. Even those who have been gifted special powers aren't necessarily destined for what we might call "greatness." I hate to generalize too much, but as a Gen Xer I feel like this is something we internalized very early on in our lives. Expectations were low. We said, well, whatever, and slacked off at the mall. But there's something incredibly liberating about this, because it allows us to define what it means to be "special" in a different way. In your novel it means performing simple acts of kindness or teaming up with others to have a larger effect. Once we can see ourselves as nothing particularly special, we might be able to do even greater things through cooperation and community. Why do you think this idea keeps popping up in your work, and do you think that the idea of not being special is harder and harder for people to swallow these days?

JD: Well, at the risk of sounding old, I think it’s different for kids now. They grow up thinking they can get famous on Instagram or TikTok or that someone might find the mundane minutiae of their life interesting. So they become special without doing anything special. When I was a kid, I wanted to write and make movies and I used to imagine my name on a title card: A film by Josh Denslow. Shit like that. I wanted to be special because of the skills I was building. I played the drums in bands. I went to film school. I moved to Los Angeles and worked in the film industry. The knockdown comes when you realize there is no specialness there either. There are thousands and thousands of people all trying to do the same thing as you. I wrote a novel. Am I special? Hell no. Look at all the novels that come out in a year and then think of all the ones that didn’t come out. Then think about all the books of the last ten years. The last hundred. Full of non-special people. Filled to the brim. So it’s not that I have low expectations. As a person in my mid-forties my dreams are still very vivid to me. I can picture “making it” in any number of ways and whatever you imagine that to be. Whereas I feel a lot of the people I knew in school have moved on from it. If you can’t picture it anymore, why keep going with that particular thing?

I’m not sure if I’m answering your question here, but I think knowing you aren’t special has many advantages. The first person being that you can favor hard work. I don’t want to be known for just being me. You know, taking my kids to school in the morning. Picking them up after school. Cleaning up the house a bit. Spending time with my wife. Those are just things I do. Read books. Listen to music. I don’t know. I’m just existing. But if I work hard and I focus my skills, maybe someone out there will like what I created. It will resonate with them. Maybe they’ll reach out to me. Like the way you did a few years ago! We connected over our art. But we aren’t special. Not special at all.