Fiction co-editor Grace Safford recently had this exchange with Issue #40 featured fiction writer Joe Baumann. Here’s what Joe had to say about his approach to brainstorming story ideas, what role exposition plays in a piece, and what he’s working on now.
“Vernix” is such a unique piece. The concept of a teen boy with vernix still laced in his skin is extremely original. What inspired such a fantastic idea?
Oof. Is it bad that I can’t quite remember how I came up with this idea? I’ve gone through a long period recently where I’ve been interested in strange bodies—people born with or experiencing oddities, and I think this developed during that stint. I’m regularly imagining/paralleling “strange” physicality with (often perceived) “strange” sexuality, and I had, I think, just read something (don’t ask me what, please) about vernix, and thought, Hmm, what if that couldn’t get wiped away? And poof—the story idea came to me.
Do you have any tips for your fellow writers about brainstorming original story ideas?
I’m a thief. I read a ton of short stories and novels and I’m always looking for little nuggets from other peoples’ work that I might use as the genesis of my own work (Picasso once said that great artists steal, so I think this practice is perfectly acceptable). So, anyone who wants to write a great, unusual idea should look out for how that can take a one-off line or tiny bit of something they read and turn it into their own story. After all, there are no new stories (that’s old hat insight by now, yeah?), so finding one’s own twists on things is always great.
A visiting writer when I was in my Ph.D. once spoke, too, about a “third element”—taking a premise/idea and injecting another (sometimes, though not necessarily) unusual element into a work to see how that can transform and elevate an idea. I often use Adam Johnson’s “Nirvana” or Chris Adrian’s “Stab” as examples that have these extra things in them that create these gorgeous, complex layers of resonance and a unique premise (again: read, read, read).
When I was reading “Vernix” for the first time, I couldn’t help but be struck with how well you handled exposition in this story. The entire first section of your piece sets up the rest of your story—but it doesn’t feel like set up. How can writers, in your opinion, write exposition well, and incorporate it smoothly into their stories?
Oh, that’s another toughy. I read a lot of submissions for my own literary journal, and this is one of the biggest hiccups—I often feel like I’m drowning in exposition in the first few pages, the premise having been abandoned after the first paragraph or two for all this bloated, weighty backstory. I’m glad that you guys didn’t feel like that with this story, because I came this close to cutting a lot of that, then decided it was necessary set up (so, yay that you agreed!).
I try to ask myself two things when it comes to backstory/exposition/setup: 1. If I’m going to include it, how do I make it interesting and revelatory? Is the backstory itself interesting? Would I want to read that story on its own? If not, nope, no thanks. Get it out of there. 2. How I am directly connecting that backstory to the present? Is there no other way to make what I show in the backstory clear in the present of the story? In the case of “Vernix,” I thought that what was happening in-scene was so specific and narrow—one particular, strange night in Evan’s life—that I needed to establish his loneliness through his history.
“Vernix” clearly has some very magical elements to it (I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet). How do you think touches of magical elements can enhance a story—especially a story based in real life situations?
I’m a humongous magic realism nerd—my own magazine only publishes stuff in the surrealist vein—and my favorite writers are in that school (Aimee Bender, Julia Elliott, Ramona Ausubel, if anyone needs some incredible kooky short story writers to add to their bookshelves). I’ve always loved, as a writer, sussing out how to connect the bizarre to the real, which I think is the great challenge of surrealism and magic realism: there’s a puzzle there. By adding this unusual thing, you, as a writer, make a promise to a reader: this is here for a reason. That reason could be plot-oriented, character-oriented, or thematic, but there has to be a reason. How does that strange thing add resonance and substance to the reader’s experience? As a reader, I love thinking about that as I read an otherwise “normal” story (or a not-so-normal story, even), and I think that writers who make those connections and parallels meaningful add these extra echoes that create beautiful vibrations in their writing that readers can really appreciate.
“Vernix” is a very layered, deep, and beautifully crafted piece. The effort and thought you put into your narrative really shows. How many revisions did “Vernix” go through? Is revision an important step in your writing process?
Well, thank you! Oftentimes, I actually think through a story a good amount before I set anything down on the page; once I get an idea, I let it sit in my brain for a few days and then start writing. Sometimes I know exactly where a story is going, and sometimes I don’t. With this story, I was somewhere in the middle: I knew the basic plot (Evan is born with vernix on his skin that won’t come off; he meets another boy and they have a meaningful, romantic encounter at a lake house party), but I was stifled by what I wanted to do to end it (I won’t spoil it for the yet-uninitiated reader).
I face this problem a lot, and generally just keep writing more material until I sort it out. Once I get an ending (which can involve creating lots and lots of extra pages that end up getting trashed), I usually get through the rest of the process fairly quickly in terms of cinching up a first draft. Then comes cutting unnecessary material and refining at the sentence level—making sure every phrase means something, that every description and action is punchy and as sharp and specific as I can make it. That often takes two or three more read-throughs, followed by a week or two of no-touching, then one more read.
We’ve already spoken about idea creation and how you brainstorm unique concepts. I’m also interested in your relationship with theme. Are there certain themes you are naturally drawn to exploring as a writer? Are there themes that challenge you and your work?
For the last few years, I’ve really written a lot of work through an LGBT lens—I identify as bi, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through the experiences that people who identify as bisexual experience. There are issues of erasure, rejection, confusion, and passing that crop up in a lot of my work, especially with male characters who are having their first real experiences with other male romantic partners.
Do any particular authors help to inspire your writing?
I named a few earlier, but they’re worth mentioning again: I love Julia Elliott, Ramona Ausubel, Aimee Bender. Also a big fan of Kelly Link’s work. Other writers I look to often include Jamie Poissant, Adam Johnson, and Jennifer Egan—A Visit from the Goon Squad (though not magic realism) is probably my favorite book I’ve read in the last five years.
Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: could you share a best—or worst—workshop experience?
I’m not sure it’s a “worst,” exactly, but I once wrote a story in which the narrator of a story refused to identify the gender of her child (who was named Jamie, a purposefully gender-neutral name). Someone in the class wondered aloud if I had “accidentally” or “purposefully” managed to not use a single gender-specific pronoun in an entire 17-page draft. I was not allowed to speak during this discussion, but fortunately a good friend and smart reader came to my aid by pointing out how difficult it would have been for me to accidentally never use “she” or “he” all that time.
What are you working on now?
I’m one of those idiot writers always at work on too many things at once. Right now, I’m shopping a novel that went through more drafts than I want to count, and am chipping away at a second one involving (maybe) the Rapture and a group of people following a set of mysterious sedans across the country. I’m also wrapping up a ten-story project that reimagines the plagues of Egypt happening in the modern day, one plague per story.
Do physical circumstances such as place, time of day, smells, or sounds ever help to inspire your writing?
I’m not sure if this actually answers this question correctly, but I like to write in the morning; by afternoon/evening, I’m too tired to really do much creatively. I do like to use places that I’ve lived — Missouri and Louisiana — as settings for my work, though I’m not sure there are particular places that make me want to write. I do often get inspiration from the stories and memories my friends and family share and often borrow—steal—those as ideas for my own work (thanks, everyone!).