One of the nice things about doing this Short Story Month deal every year is discovering writers I was previously unaware of. I'd not read any of Aaron Tillman's work until picking up his collection late in 2017 after adding it to the SSC Database. I've not finished the entire collection, but really liked what I've read to date.
DW: Your short story collection, Every Single Bone in My Brain, was published in 2017. What story within the collection had the earliest publication history outside of being in the collection, and what was that history?
AT: The oldest and opening story in the collection, “The Great Salt Lake Desert,” was first published in 2002, and it was my very first published story. In a stroke of incredibly good fortune, it was the first-place winner in Glimmer Train Stories’ Short Story Award for New Writers, and I couldn’t have asked for a better landing spot.
The story was written during a transitional period in my life. I was moving across the country from New York to San Francisco, as Ian—the central character in the story—longs to do. As my life was changing, I was simultaneously fulfilling this fantasy that I had had since I was a kid about crossing the George Washington Bridge, getting on Interstate 80, and not turning back: driving all the way across the country until I crossed the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. But the real-life fantasy was mixed with substantial anxiety, and the combination took me to a near-breaking point in Nebraska. It was dark and flat and the winds were fierce, shoving the moving truck I was driving all over the road. I felt a kind of paranoid split in my brain, and I was fairly convinced I was going to die. Not to spoil anything, but I survived. I felt changed a little, though. It wasn’t until the following day, when I made it into Utah and stopped at the Great Salt Lake Desert that I started to regain some composure. I remember looking over this vast stretch of salt and all the seeds of paranoia that had been planted during the previous days started to wriggle. Since I had sort of fled the east coast and was now looking over this seemingly endless expanse of salt, Sodom and Gomorrah came to mind fairly quickly. The short story really flowered from there.
DW: How did the publication of this particular collection come about? Were you solicited by the publisher, win a contest, agent submission, etc.?
AT: In 2014, my friend Mike Martin (Michael Gerhard Martin) published his first collection of short stories, Easiest If I Had a Gun, with Braddock Avenue Books. I was not only impressed with the stories in Mike’s collection, but with the look and feel of the book itself. It was beautiful. As the generous person he is, Mike made an email introduction to Jeffrey Condran and Robert Peluso, the publishers of Braddock Avenue Books, and they encouraged me to submit my collection, Every Single Bone in My Brain. As they were considering my work, I found myself picking up other books from Braddock Avenue, and they were terrific and all wonderfully put together. Although it took some time, Jeff and Robert eventually got back to me with an offer to publish my book. I was thrilled and am still in awe. When the first box of books arrived, I wanted to bathe in. They did such an incredible job—they really make beautiful books! They’re worth getting just to look at and to hold. The words, merely gravy.
DW: Where do short stories fit within your life as an author? Primary form to work with, or something you write when an idea hits, or …?
AT: Although I have written and am currently writing a novel-length work, the short story is the most natural and really my favorite literary genre to write and to read. I often imagine the world around me as a series of short stories, some with recurring characters and overlapping themes; some very real and others truly surreal. Ideas for stories enter my head-space fairly often, and as I begin to put them down on the page, they become richer and more exciting. Connections start to occur and the ideas begin to take on a certain shape. Once that shape is in place, I keep cycling around it, like a kid in a malleable cul-de-sac, letting my imagination run wild and allowing new possibilities to emerge within a space that grows more familiar and mysterious with each new lap. Creating fiction involves such a process of writing and rewriting, that I relish the opportunity to read over a complete work nearly every time I revise, which is something that short story writing usually allows. It is the ideal drafting process for me, and it’s a literary form I really love.
DW: Where do short stories fit within your life as a reader?
AT: I was introduced to and really came to love so many of my literary heroes from the short story: from Borges and Kafka to James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, and the list, thankfully, goes on and on. I read them and teach them all the time. There is an obvious appeal: you can start and finish a story over a cup of coffee or in the bath or before bed. And just like that, this complete thing is now living in your mind where it can hang out on its own, or interact with other, fully or half-formed things, influence the way you think about the world. And if you want, you can read the same story again in a short enough period of time, and it takes on more color and complexion, more definition to help you understand and relate to circumstances and events both inside and outside the text. What more could you ask for?
DW: How will you be celebrating National Short Story Month this May?
AT: I have the pleasure of teaching literature and creative writing at a small college in Massachusetts, so May is a wonderful time to celebrate National Short Story Month as we revise and reflect on the work we’ve been reading and writing. In my creative writing class, we not only share our short story revisions, but we comprise a collective list of stories that we didn’t read for the class—gifting these recommendations to each other—and begin to scratch out the beginnings of our next writing projects. Whenever possible, I like to end courses with beginnings, and in this case, we have new stories to write and to read—a fitting way to celebrate this most worthy month!
DW: Thank you very much for your time!
AT: It was a thrill to think and to write about the short story. Thank you so much for the opportunity and for being such a champion of the genre!
Aaron Tillman is a fiction writer and 2018 Pushcart Prize nominee. He is Associate Professor of English at Newbury College and Director of Newbury's Honors Program. His short story collection, Every Single Bone in My Brain, was published by Braddock Avenue Books in July of 2017, and his book of criticism, Magical American Jew: The Enigma of Difference in Contemporary Jewish American Short Fiction and Film, was published by Lexington Books in November 2017. Aaron received a Short Story Award for New Writers from Glimmer Train Stories and won First Prize in the Nancy Potter Short Story Contest at University of Rhode Island. Two pieces of his flash fiction were nominated for inclusion in The Best Small Fictions of 2015 anthology, and his novel was a finalist in the 2016 Molly Ivors Prize for Fiction. His stories have appeared in Mississippi Review, Glimmer Train Stories, Sou'Wester, upstreet, The Tishman Review, The Madison Review, Arcadia Magazine, The Carolina Quarterly, great weather for MEDIA, Prick of the Spindle, Burrow Press Review, and elsewhere. He has recorded two stories for broadcast on the Words & Music program at Tufts University and another for Functionally Literate Radio. His essays have appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, Studies in American Humor, Symbolism, The CEA Critic, and The Intersection of Fantasy and Native America (Mythopoeic 2009).