If It Turns Out Strange: An Interview with Bradley Sands

bradley sands

by Mark Alvarez

Bradley Sands once said that his stories do not follow the laws of physics, but that their realities are only bound by the laws of grammar. This is evident in his latest book, Liquid Status, about one household’s transformation after a death in the family. But it is not a merely a metaphoric transformation; it is a transformation of their physicality: feet become boxes, armpits become doors.

In the surreal transformations of its characters, Liquid Status evokes several visual artists: Dali, Escher, and ero-guro extraordinaire, Shintaro Kago … with a little bit of Ovid thrown in for good measure.

I think I’ve read things with similar stylistic strategies as Liquid StatusFlatland, maybe, Lautréamont? Those strange 70s counter-culture novels only Tom Robbins gets remembered for?—but I’m not sure.  It’s experiential literature like Delaney’s Dhalgren or Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy—the reader does not know where the book will go, nor the “rules” governing the physical world within the book; all you do is experience its unfolding and let your mind smile.

From a stylistic standpoint, Liquid Status is especially notable for its images of the characters’ transformations, and the facility with which Sands presents them—no attempt at explanation, just physics ruled by syntax.  And unlike other contemporary authors, Sands makes going inside your grandmother’s mouth actually sound like fun.

Beyond that, Sands, winner of an &Now Award for Innovative Fiction, is an extremely generous writer. When I was thinking about doing an MFA, he reached out on Twitter to give insight into his own experience.

I interviewed Sands via email about Liquid Status, the literary movement he is associated with, bizarro fiction, and his advice for writers who write towards the strange.

Your earlier work seemed more pop-culture motivated, while Liquid Status is much more classically surreal and absurdist. Is this the direction you are working towards right now, or does it shift with the project?

Writing is difficult for me, so mocking stuff just makes it easier to do. Movies, TV, and books are fascinating and strange in ways that people don’t typically think about. So Rico Slade Will Fucking Kill You satirizes action movies, which are traditionally over the top and absurd. TV Snorted My Brain features TV characters from fictional shows that are based on actual shows from throughout the years. And Frankie Nougat is a boy detective in the novella “Frankie Nougat and the Case of the Missing Heart” (from Please Do Not Shoot Me in the Face) because I read a lot of books about boy detectives when I was a kid. And as far as Liquid Status, I’m mocking my own childhood and my experience growing up with my family. Maybe one day I’ll write something that doesn’t mock anything.

Liquid Status reminded me of Dali or the manga work of Shintaro Kago, with images of body parts transforming into objects and people entering doors inside their own bodies.  But intermixed with this is the subtext of family dysfunction. How do these two relate?

I lived in the same house until I graduated from high school. Other people who haven’t had this experience might not make the same association as me, but when I think of my childhood and my family, it tends to blur together with the house, so it’s difficult to think of my parents and my brother without also thinking about it. Because of this, I wrote about a family that literally becomes part of their house.

“Small entertainment companies are likely to have fans while the big ones just have customers.”

liquid statusIs Liquid Status the 21st century Ovid’s Metamorposes?

I haven’t read it, so I don’t know. Apparently, Metamorphoses consists of fifteen books while Liquid Status is a single extremely short book that’s only about eight thousand words long, so in answer to your question: probably not.

I’ve seen you compared to Richard Brautigan, and your writing does evoke his in the narrative distance and syntactic simplicity of your sentences, as well of course the humor. How did he influence you?

I’m influenced by his simple language and short chapters

How did the bizarro scene start? Did you already know each other? Certain sites? How did it grow, and why is it centered in Portland?

There were a few writers in the horror scene who were writing weird books that couldn’t really be classified as horror. They found each other and started Eraserhead Press, which was originally run as a publishing collective. There was also a site at the time that some of these authors frequented called The New Absurdist, which was a place to post stories. I discovered Eraserhead via a list of books on Amazon, checked out a few of them, and thought that they matched my aesthetic. I think Carlton Mellick had a message board back then, so that’s probably where I first interacted with other authors. This was prior to the bizarro fiction classification being coined, which occurred in response to an essay written by Kevin Dole II that was called “What the Fuck is This All About?” The genre is centered in Portland, Oregon because that’s where Eraserhead Press is based and it’s where a lot of bizarro authors live. I lived there for a couple of years myself.

A lot of the writers in The Bizarro Starter Kit share similar non-literary influences: Zappa, Lynch, underground punk/metal/industrial, Takashi Miike, etc. And in your case, a lot of TV comedies, as well. How do non-literary arts inform your aesthetics/writing?

Writers are influenced by stories in general even if the story is on a screen instead of written in words. I’m not sure how much music influences us. I assume the list of influences in the Starter Kits includes music because we wanted to list our interests. There are also some similarities between the underground music scenes and the bizarro fiction scene, particularly in reference to publishers and music labels both being curators. I feel confident that I’ll enjoy a release from a few specific small presses and music labels, so I’ll often take my chances on something without knowing the first thing about the author or the band. I have had much different experiences with traditional NYC presses and big music companies, who only release stuff because they think it will sell. Small entertainment companies are likely to have fans while the big ones just have customers.

If you could master one other art and really innovate in it, which would it be?

Drawing comics. I’ve always wanted to write them, but I lack the artistic talent to create comics by myself.

The MFA world is pretty closed to innovation, and generally prefers the aesthetics of using new words to describe old things. I know when I first thought about applying, you recommended not doing one. I know of good writers doing offbeat things being pushed in more mainstream, realist directions by bad workshops. What was your experience?

I never experienced workshops pushing writers into doing more traditional work, but my grad school was kind of weird. It was worth my time, but not my money. And because of that, I regret doing it. I really don’t think anyone should bother with it unless you get into a fully-funded program or you have a lot of money to waste. I think MFA programs are for rich people, those lucky enough to get a full ride, and complete idiots like myself. Writing classes might be costly, but they’re still significantly cheaper than what it usually costs to get an MFA. I think it’s a much better idea to take a few online classes through a site like Litreactor for $300 each instead of having to take out student loans from the government. Or you can do take classes in person from a writing center like GrubStreet. I’ve taught both online classes and classroom classes, and I’ve found the in-person classes much better due to the superior student interactions. Getting students to interact with each other online was often difficult. But it’s easier to find an online class that’s related to your interests if you have esoteric tastes.

What advice do you have for young writers trying to publish strange fiction?

Don’t try to write strange stuff. Don’t force it. If it turns out strange, then that’s cool.

Fuck, you are influenced by the Zucker Brothers. This isn’t really a question. Kentucky Fried Movie rules.

I used to compare my early books to movies like The Naked Gun and Airplane because the surreal humor came out fast and furious. At times, I felt like I was burning hundreds of ideas per page. Later on, my writing slowed down a bit in that regard.