George Salis: Your new book, An Angel of Sodom, contains a short novel and thirteen short stories. What was the thought-process behind curating this collection? How do the stories complement each other?
David Vardeman: The stories were written over the course of several years, and in one instance over a decade ago, so any relation they bear to one another is purely accidental, inadvertent. I write with blinders on and don’t think back, sideways, or very far forward. The stories complement one another by virtue of the fact that they come of one single source. Looking at this now, I see that my people struggle with a sense of worthlessness, both inborn and imposed and confirmed from the outside, and their efforts to struggle against that abiding feeling of their contributions being beside the point in any given situation, of their perceptions being idiosyncratic and therefore painfully inappropriate to the conversations by which they try to connect with others, have darkly hilarious consequences and create the tonality that resonates across the work. This is not a programmed technique I think about consciously or use to enliven a story but organic to the way I think and see things. Only in the aftermath, and after considering one story against another or others, do I see that this is what I’m about and what manages to float the boat, what forms that mysterious sea supporting my vessels. As for the magical number seven, I submitted twelve stories besides Angel, but the publisher arbitrarily gave the collection the subtitle “and seven stories” because he thought it sounded euphonious as a title. So I took out five. That was likely a hint from him and not a bad thing as perhaps it squeezed out the weakest. The fittest survived. Angel and Seven sounds like something you’d order at a bar. Give me an Angel and Seven.
GS: If you could compare An Angel of Sodom to one other book, which would it be and why?
DV: I admire Kafka. I was told by various persons that he was a depressing read, to avoid him, etc., but I didn’t listen and found him laugh-out-loud funny. The ending of “A Hunger Artist” is comedic and heartbreaking at the same time. If I had to compare the short novel to anything I might compare it to “Metamorphosis,” because of the length, which I think is perfect, it’s not the sort of thing that need go on much longer than it does, and because it is a flawless rendering of the duality of our nature, our aspirations to the highest, simply to live full lives, while most of the time finding ourselves stuck on our buggy backs helplessly wiggling our tiny legs and being wounded, sometimes mortally, by the very persons we want most to connect to or give our love to or whom we depend most upon for sense our well-being.
I am not in any way implying that I am a writer of Kafka’s caliber, only that looking in the rearview mirror I can see him waving and shouting, “You’re driving a Bug, you know.”
GS: What role does humor play in your fiction?
DV: A very odd writer Jane Bowles wrote of one of her characters something like “She found it hard to believe one bad thing kept happening after another.” This strikes me as hilarious, though it is not hilarious to the character, nor are such chains of unfortunate occurrences ever to me, with my tendency to over-react, until I can sit down and by writing leverage my ongoing sense of potential disaster that hangs over my head. I am conscious always that the laughter of human disaster lurks behind what is happening to my people in their efforts to make the best, with their limited resources, of bad situations. They are not good planners, nor am I, and the improvisatory nature of their dealings with their quandaries have more of panic than cool logic to them. I also think of Flannery O’Connor’s statement that the devil is a comic character because he is always achieving other than his desired ends. Nothing ends as one has hoped.
GS: Considering the title of your collection, what role does theology play in your fiction?
DV: We are told in my faith, which is Christian, that every human being (and every created thing) is of infinite and ultimate worth. We don’t need religion to tell us this, but the sacred texts emphasize this ethic in every line while containing what I can only call horror stories showing what happens when we act as though value is relative to utility and the human drive for exploitation, to which nothing is sacred. One’s own feeling of utter worthlessness, a desecration too and a by-product of one’s being treated as a utility by other individuals and corporate entities, is as well opposed to the divine nature. I am no theologian, but the role God-belief plays in my fiction is that my fragile beings, who cannot quite believe in their own value, look for that ministering angel to lead them out of Sodom, that by-word for an inimical inhospitable place, and make life bearable again or as it never has been for them. The angel can be a pet dog, a drink, the white-washed memory of one’s failures, the nearest madman, an act of violence. We’re not very good judges of what is best for us in extremity. Granted, the options are often limited, and it seems that in desperate times anything will serve.
GS: As a reader, what makes you roll your eyes, as it were?
DV: Bad writing, of which I myself provide many excellent examples. Any passage that compares what is going on to a movie. Something like a line I went over obsessively with a genius friend of mine, a line from that big hit, whatever it was. It later had Tom Hanks in it and was a great soporific. Hmmm. Give me a minute. It was The Da Vicini Code. I am of an age when coming up with a name takes three lines. In the first page of the D Code, if memory serves, someone is about to be murdered. And the victim’s final line is, “’No,’ he said slowly.” Making gold out of pig shit is the new alchemy. There are many ways to make money and being bad at something has never disqualified anyone from getting some.
Fiction in which people stand for types or are rolled in to make speeches that give us the point we are supposed to get from reading the thing. Think Ayn Rand. Also blurbs that include the words devastating, shattering, and poignant. The best seller list. Award lists that exclude writers not published by conglomerates.
GS: What is the most memorable or impactful reading experience you’ve had?
DV: This sort of experience comes early when one is most impressionable or has yet to have any sense of what fiction is or can be or why anyone would want to write it, though the desire to read it is pretty good proof that there is something in us that makes it necessary that people write fiction. That experience came for me when I was maybe thirteen trying to read and comprehend The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which seemed a suffocating struggle through darkness but with a lyrical realism that made it as palpable to me as my own struggle with identity and my sense of estrangement from the light and easy.
GS: What does the word ‘passion’ mean to you and how does it relate to your experience as a writer?
DV: It means unwavering commitment, a total and final absorption in someone or something that has nothing to do with dogged duty or the determination to fulfill an ill-considered vow. In terms of writing it means “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” No one asks for another story, at least not from me. Yet write I shall. I can do none other than write, come what may, regardless the lack of external imperatives. That is one form of passion. The threat of complete obscurity does nothing to kill it. Is this a form of idolatry? The morally rigorous with their lists of approved idols might say so. Whatever the answer, it’s a relationship for sure.
I’ve written many things where in the process passion fails or I realize I’ve been lying to myself and manufacturing a false sentiment. These broken relationships should all find the wastebasket, but sometimes they don’t. Looking for proof of a relationship I’ll sometimes, maybe often, accept something rather than stand with the loneliness of nothing. I’ll accept the scorpion my wicked daddy offers me instead of a fish. God forbid I become satisfied with that, but sometimes it’s a long time between authentic experiences, real passion.
David Vardeman is a native of Iowa and a graduate of Indiana University Southeast and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His short fiction has appeared in Little Patuxent Review, Writing Tomorrow, Sand: Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Whiskey Island, Printer’s Devil Review, Dukool, Five:2:One, Mystery Weekly, Chariton Review, and various online journals. An Angel of Sodom (corona/samizdat) is his first book.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books / corona/samizdat). His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram (@george.salis), and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.