Ross Robbins looks up as if his answer is scribed on the ceiling before locking …
photo by Mercy McNab
The first short story in The Folly of Loving Life begins with a lover’s note from the narrator pleading for forgiveness after throwing her boyfriend’s favorite shirt in a free box on the curb and trying to throw his sneakers up on the power lines. It’s these kind of quirky, Portland-specific details that have endeared Monica Drake to her readers since her debut novel Clown Girl. The taco stands, the dive bars, the hangover juice carts, the stale beer can recycling center. This collection of intertwined short stories portray a family over time, mainly two sisters who engage in the perverse persistence we call folly.
In “See You Later Fry-O-Lator,” the younger sister Lu toils in a menial job at a burger joint and is literally branded by deep frying machine. She finds some redemption with a boy suffering through a similar job. The story “S.T.D. Demon” follows the older sister Vanessa as she pursues an attractive stranger, her Pilgrim, while he constantly runs into ex-wives on the street. With The Folly of Loving Life, Monica creates a humorous, yet poignant version of the old Portland, with its gritty charm. The characters grow with the city, and are affected by the infill and gentrification going on around them and forcing them into the bland suburbs.
Monica Drake has won both an Eric Hoffer Book Award and an IPPY award for storytelling for her novel Clown Girl. She is lead faculty in the writing program at Pacific Northwest College of Art, where she has recently created a unique program that merges the visual arts with writing. ELEVEN sat down with her to discuss her brand new book, her writing style and the fine art of creating art with the written word.
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ELEVEN: All of your stories seem to be Portland- centric. How much of the flavor of this town inspires your writing?
Monica Drake: This collection is all based on Portland, and it kind of sprawls out east, to the base of Mt Hood. Most of my writing, actually, is kind of speaking back to Portland. I love the city — I’ve been here a long, long time. And it changes a lot. I think that this collection of linked stories speaks to that change. So I can contain the place, and let the movement be through time.
11: How much of you is in the voices of your characters?
MD: I would say all of these stories are both me and not me. That’s true for all my writing. Even the men and the women and the children. They’re all representing me to a certain extent. It would be a mistake to read them as memoir. But I worked at Burger King. I’ve gotten many a burn on my arm. I’ve also worked as a clown, and that fed into Clown Girl. I’ve also worked as a cake cutter, and mortgage broker–I’ve worked all of the jobs that show up in my stories.
11: This is your first collection of short stories. How is that different from writing a novel?
MD: I really love writing short stories, and some of these reach way back in my history. The majority of this book is written more recently. It was a wonderful exercise to pull out stories and think of how they relate to each other, and build a world in pieces. The writer Kevin Canty described it as “lightning flashes.” I just love that idea of it being flashes. It’s a different way of building a continuous narrative. In some ways, this may or may not be the pivotal moments of these characters’ lives. Or they may not seem as the largest moments. These are not the weddings and the traditional celebrations. These are the small moments that illuminate a life.
11: That reminds me of Raymond Carver, the way he condensed so much between the dialogue. How is that different from writing a full narrative of a novel?
MD: Well, stories are all about compression. I think that that’s the fun of writing a story. Compressing the things around a moment. You mentioned Carver, that kind of compression. When you write a novel, you have to start some place and end some place, and fill out all the places in between. Clown Girl was moment to moment, day by day. It is a compressed period of time. In my second novel, Stud Book there are seven points of view. Because there are multiple points of view, you can justify jumping around in time and place for each character. So in some ways it is a collection of stories that are merged enough to be a novel. With this book I’m stepping back even a little further, and leaving a little more space between the stories.
11: What advice would you have for the aspiring writers in this city?
MD: I think what’s great about Portland is that we have all of these kind of kitchen table classes now.
I studied with Tom Spanbauer when he first started teaching classes here, about 1991. That was a turning point for me. It wasn’t an MFA, it wasn’t even a community college.
It was just paying Tom some money to join his group at home. I think that because he was just trying to get off the ground, having people that stuck around and took his classes helped generate steam for what he was doing, and at the same time he helped us all pick up our speed as writers. So there’s that kind of connecting with people who you have an affinity for. We can compliment each other, and hopefully generate a positive scene around what you’re doing. That’s where I met Chuck Palahniuk before he published Fight Club.
11: And you also became a teacher. Can you tell me about your program?
MD: I teach down at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, PNCA. I designed an undergraduate writing program that’s in place there now. We’re just getting it off the ground. It is a BFA that joins writing and art. It’s a small private school, but it is an amazing place to come and study writing and art. When designing the program, that was a big part of what I wanted to assert. Before I started writing, I studied art history and painting. I think that painting was incredibly satisfying, but writing, to me, is more directly communicative. But there’s something about painting that allows your mind to range and settle. So I set the program up to have the foundation classes as visual arts classes. So you will have an art foundation– design and drawing and art history. But when you come to your studio arts, instead of film, or sculpture, or graphic design, you would be working on writing.
11: “Clown Girl” is a very visual story. Can you tell me more about that process?
MD: My idea of a clown was based on Charlie Chaplin, a very toned down visual image of a clown. It was the idea of the struggling underdog with small but determined aspirations, who is kind of run over by life. The comedy comes from persistence. In the end I think it has a lot of underpainting, to use a visual arts term. I think all those layer show through. It’s almost like archeology, or when you paint–you start with just a bare sketch on a canvas and just build up, it’s all still there.
11: There is a lot of humor in both this book and Clown Girl. How important is humor in your stories?
MD: A lot of my writing is funny to me. I don’t know if people always see the humor in it, but when you find people that recognize what is going on, personally that’s satisfying. To connect with the reader who enjoys the absurdity of what’s on the page. Clown Girl is about the character’s adherence to clowning as a high art, and how much that means to her. When her life gets worse, and the ground begins falling out from under her feet, all she can think to do is to work out another act. She just thinks, “I’ll make a better one, it will save me this time.” In many ways, I was making fun of myself because I was dirt poor and all I could think was, “I’m going to write another novel.” Somebody else might say, “I’ll go to law school.” In this new book, there’s a lot that makes me laugh, and I hope that comes across. I think things like “Fry-O-Lator” are funny, the word is just inherently funny. With that burn on her arm she is kind of branded by that crummy job. I was always told in high school that a job would help build character, but when
I worked at Burger King it sure didn’t build any character. It wasn’t a character I wanted to build. But there is an art in it. That’s what art is for right? You’ve got these life experiences, and art somehow makes them richer, whatever art you turn to. It enriches the humanity of that job.
11: Is there still room for writers and artists to make it in this climate?
MD: We have to keep room. We have to make that room. We have to keep asserting that room.