By Michelle Elvy Reprinted
with permission from Michelle Elvy’s Glow Worm Blog, September 14, 2012
When Christopher Allen asked me to join his
Blog Tour for his new novel Conversations
with S. Teri O’Type, I said yes–without having read the book. It was not
much of a gamble, saying yes to Chris. I’ve read a lot of his work. I’ve
nominated one of his short stories for a Pushcart Prize. He doesn’t disappoint.
And his new novel (yes, I’ve read it by now) is no exception. This book
kept me chuckling all the way and I want it to be HUGE–like big bouffant hair
huge. So I’m pleased to take part in this big beautiful blog tour.
Here’s how our own conversation developed…
(Note to readers: I
spoke to Christopher from New Zealand, so my questions are written in Kiwi
English, but I’ve left Chris’s responses, unedited, in American English. Don’t
let that distract you. Whether you see it as ‘humour’ or ‘humor’, this book is
ME: Chris, one of
the things we’ve talked about before is the success of flash fiction and the
increasing desire among such a variety of readers to embrace episodic
literature. Even though the traditional long-winded biography still
exists, we find ourselves turning often to collections that offer threads
through a life, but in short bursts of colour as opposed to long-handed
blending of hues. Grey is out; fuschia is in–at least I think that is what S.
Teri O’Type would say. Or am I stereotyping Teri (but not Curt)? So
let’s begin there. Why do you think episodic literature appeals, and why does
this particular story fit into the episodic genre? Is it because it flits–to
use one of Curt’s newly acquired and realised expressions–or is there something
else going on?
Michelle! I think there’s certainly room for both long, grey strokes and sudden
bursts of fuschia in contemporary literature, but we are turning more to the
sudden and the unexpected—and I think TV has a lot to do with this. The average
situation comedy is 22 minutes long, around 30 minutes with commercials. And
thank goodness for the commercials! We’d probably get bored now if we had to
keep our eyes on the TV for 22 minutes. We’ve been conditioned by television to
feel the story arc more quickly, and since TV is at the core of Conversations with S. Teri O’Type it
just made since to give the lessons an episodic structure.
ME: Do you see
these episodes in film form? As images before you? And have you imagined it
transforming into episodes for a viewer, as opposed to episodes for a reader?
In other words, did you set out to make it this splash of visual colour or did
it just turn out that way?
question. I don’t think I’ve ever written a story that didn’t happen—at least for
me—like a film. I suppose this is just another influence of television on my
brain. The voices, though, are stronger than the setting, which is usually a
parody of the typical situation comedy set. I think most readers have this
set(ting) well anchored in their minds: three walls a couch and the fourth wall
(the audience). Anything else in the room is gravy.
Several readers have told me I should write
the Conversations for the
stage. I have my reasons for not having done so. In the end, I decided to keep
Teri and Curt as voices in the reader’s head and let the reader imagine—as much
as possible—how they look. I didn’t set out with these questions in mind, but
the constant feedback from workshop comrades forced me to consider issues like
form and setting. The episodic nature of the story was there from the beginning
Episodes, when you think about it, are not
very much different from a class you take in school. You have short bursts of
learning followed by hours or days of reflection. As a teacher, I’m keenly
aware of the dwindling human attention span. I have to change gears every 10-15
minutes in my own classes. And Curt—poor Curt—has a learning disability. He
needs his lessons in Greater Gayness in small doses.
ME: And these
doses are very effective. The reader, like Curt, gets to observe lessons in
Greater Gayness as well. We realise we all have ‘gayspectations’–even as Teri’s
are high and Curt’s are almost non-existent. So here we have a lesson unfolding
bit by bit. In the end, do you think it’s more about lessons in GG (Greater
Gayness) or something else entirely? Something even literary perhaps? (Literary
with a boa, for Teri’s sake.)
I’d like to think the Conversations hold
literary water. I’ve often toyed with banging the book into the genre of
literary humor, but I’ve never researched enough to know whether “literary
humor” is even a genre. These lessons in Greater Gayness are indeed
something else entirely, and Teri is someone else entirely as the old buddy he
claims to be. I’ve tried to be subtle enough so that the reader doesn’t lose
interest in Teri’s “efforts” to “help” Curt.
Satire is slippery. Is there anything more
misunderstood? When I first started workshopping the Conversations, I got dozens of
responses every day. I’d open one that said something like “OMG! I KNOW someone
just like OMG! and I love him!” and then one that would say “How dare you make
fun of gay men! Are YOU gay? I’m appalled!” And then I would make the “I’m
appalled” gesture to myself—spread palm to clavicle per Teri’s example—and
laugh. Neither one of these readers understood what I was doing. I’m going to
be misunderstood. I know that. And that’s why I know it must be literary.
ME: Which gets me
to my next point–how we communicate and the pitfalls of our inability to say
what we mean. So much in these conversations is about communication and
(mis)communications. Curt using expressions like “DUDE” and Teri saying “Is
that even a word?” Or Curt saying “awesome” and Teri countering sharply that
what he really meant was “it’s redolent of a breezy Alpine Alm with a hint of
sage and mandarin orange blossoms.” It’s Teri’s very specific take on Gaydom,
in fact, that makes him stand out–that makes him such a specifically memorable
character. And yet, this is about more than the specificity of language and
designer label–this is about the specificity of identity. So tell us, if
the grey-and-lilac-pinstripes of the $300 shirt don’t matter to Curt, what
exists between those lines and why does that matter?
want to get to that shirt, but first I’d like to go back to the theme of
(mis)communication. It’s a big one in the story. Teri constantly misinforms
Curt; in fact, you might say the stereotype misinforms Curt, even tries to
deform Curt. (Un)fortunately, Curt never understands anything Teri teaches
him—which is, for him, a triumph. Wait, he does figure out how to hang a
picture at eye level—if the eyes belong to someone tallish.
That shirt. Well, can I admit something, just
between you and me and the thousands of people who’ll read this interview? Yes?
I would love to have that shirt. Curt, on the other hand, is an accounter. He thinks about these
things much more rationally than I do. He’s not a character who can read
between the grey-and-lilac lines. Sometimes I like to feel the beauty of
designer clothing. I would never pay $300 for one though. To answer your question,
superficiality lies between those lines. Clothing in fact is a sweet metaphor
ME: And from
there we move right to the theme of ‘trappings’ and form. The way you play with
form here is great fun. Without giving too much away, I refer to the
play-within-a play, the riff on Dickens, the Tchaikowsky moment (Errrrrrrski!),
and an early reference to those silly sitcom laugh tracks but then the
recurring mysterious laugh emanating from the wall behind the yucca. And
then there’s a meta-moment which threatens to undo Teri altogether if he can’t
keep the audience laugh-track on straight. So which is more important here for
you as a writer–form or content? The means or the meaning? Or is it all wrapped
up in one large, ahem, package?
trappings. The trapped. The traps. Packaging. I’m trying to start a sentence
here. The trappings are so VERY important to Teri: the outer shell, the facade
of the gay man. Who cares what’s really going on inside the sitcom character’s
soul? We just want to be entertained regardless of content. That’s Teri, and he
very much holds the reins—or the whip—in this story.
Form is important for me as the writer. Parody
and allusion play huge roles in this satire for lots of reasons. I like parody.
I’m not sure if this is reason number one, but it’s up there in the ranking.
Teri is a congregation of characters. There are rare moments when something
like a real person peeks through his facade, but usually he’s impersonating some
other character from a sitcom or often just playing a role he thinks will
entertain. I hope the readers feel as if they are constantly asking themselves,
“Do I want to be entertained? Is it OK to laugh? Do I want/need Curt to be
Teri?” Would it be wrong to say that form is content in this satire? May I go
the “large, ahem, package” route? Well, who wouldn’t want to?
ME: Indeed. But
let’s get serious here for a moment. Deep down, this is a story of existential
angst in the midst of all this slapstick, epitomised by Teri’s monologue about
the meaning of the shag–or the lack thereof. So let’s talk a bit about
the relationship between satire and existential angst. Did you start out
intending to tackle both?
I did. I think I said this in another interview, but I’ll repeat it here:
There’s nothing serious here except everything. That moment when Teri steps out
of character to talk about real sex has always stopped me and made me hug the
monster. For a moment he actually says there’s no difference between gay and
straight people when all the trappings are thrown off and we’re lying naked in
our own bedrooms. This scares the hell out of Teri.
It was Kate Brown, a British filmmaker living
in Berlin, who asked me if I could have written this story in another form. I
don’t think I could have written the story as a deep, grey existential work
without the slapstick; I don’t think I’ve ever seen the world without both.
This probably means that I’m also trapped between the need to entertain and the
need to find myself. I’d like to see this as balance.
has everything to do with power. So here comes the last set of questions,
Chris. We touched on Michel Foucault in an earlier conversation (yes, Facebook
– where else?) which makes me wonder about those more serious themes underlying
the slapstick quality of this laugh-out-loud conversation between the muddled
Curt and the dominatrix diva Teri. Tell me, do you think there’s something
happening here that says more about power than we see at first glance? In a
humorous way, are you driving at some kind of better understanding in terms of
power and identity? How does power inform the relationship between Teri and
Curt? And, finally, who would play Michel Foucault if he were to make a special
appearance in the sitcom version of Conversations
with S. Teri O’Type?
of all, I’d like to marry this question. I’m glad I’ve woken up to it this
morning. Teri and Curt’s relationship is all about knowledge, power and who’s
pulling the strings. Teri has all the power because he supposedly has all the
knowledge. As you say, he’s cast as a domanatrix, but he also takes the forms
of director, Kung Fu Master, Santa Claus, Dog whisperer, and even Bea Arthur. I
hope, however, if readers look more closely they’ll see that Teri’s “knowledge”
is almost always misinformation–deliberately so. It was Marcus Speh that
mentioned in a review that Teri is a trickster, and he’s so right. Teri is the
übertrickster. I think it’s a beautiful coincidence that this volcanic
imbalance of knowledge/power is exactly what makes their conversations humorous
There is another element to the theme of power
in the Conversations. Teri, Curt and Cary Grant are not the only characters
here. There’s an audience, which Curt gradually learns to accept, to hear their
praise and their disappointment. In the end, it’s the power of the audience
that Teri can’t overcome. Does Curt learn to turn off the laugh track? I don’t
Michel Michel. Cary Grant usually takes on the
guest appearance roles. He’s done Naomi Campbell, Eddie Murphy’s Donkey, Tiny
Tim, Eddie Murphy’s Donkey ímpersonating Tiny Tim, Tchaikovsky, Eddie Murphy’s
Donkey impersonating Tiny Tim in the body of Chewbacca, and Sophia from The
Golden Girls. He’s so versatile that I think he’d be able to do Foucault with
his paws tied behind his back. He would only speak French of course.
Errrrreaux! and Errrrrelle! but Teri would translate (horribly and
incorrectly). Curt would have absolutely no idea what was going on. I’m sure
the topic of the lesson would be The Prison Day.
ME: And now,
finally, something your readers will surely want to know: if you did have
a dog, would he be named Dilbert or DeBarge?
would have to look into the pup’s eyes to know his name. I wouldn’t want him to
be stuck for dog’s years with the wrong name. But Dilbert is much more
versatile than DeBarge. I could call him Dil or Bert, but I’d probably end up
calling him fella anyway.
ME: Thank you,
Christopher Allen, for your honesty, your wit and your book!
About the author and the book:
Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a
Satire). His fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in numerous
journals and magazines both online and in print. In 2011 Allen was a finalist
at Glimmer Train and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Christopher is an editor,
teacher and an obsessed traveller. He blogs atwww.imustbeoff.com.
For more about his book, visit: the Conversations blog tour.