1. The Minor Outsider was originally a short story published in Vice magazine. What sort of response did you receive from readers at the time, and when and why did you decide to turn the story into a novel?
What became The Minor Outsider began before the VICE excerpt appeared and soon after I crushed my hand in an industrial mixer, while I was working at a bakery in Missoula, Montana, around 2012. At the hospital, a nurse laid me down, put an IV in my arm, pumped me full of dilaudid, and, after listening to my deranged laments, said, very calmly, “Maybe the universe is trying to tell you something.” In retrospect, her insight sounds obvious, cavalier. But I was desperate then, and I tried to listen. The only way to listen to something as inarticulate as the universe, I found, was to try to slow down and pay closer attention to my experience in the universe.
So, during this period, I started to write (one-handed) in third-person about my life, because if my life were my subject, I would have to try to notice it. The stories I wrote were formless and mundane, like my life, so I began to insert lies into the truth I was trying to record. The lies began to give the anecdotes plots, turning them into stories. The stories were all about the same character: a skewed version of me. Stories about one character? That’s a novel, I thought. Or could be, if I did a lot of work, which I put off doing. In one of these stories, this character was in love, worked in a bakery, found out he had tumors growing in his brain, fled to a mermaid bar in Great Falls, Montana, and slept with a young stranger in a primitive cabin. Much to my surprise, an editor at VICE accepted it for publication. When it was posted online, I eagerly went to see my story there, in all its glory. I found a comment from someone from Arizona. It said, ‘I cant fap to this!’ Someone else commented, ‘Faggot.’ Someone else sent me a drawing of the protagonist’s girlfriend lying seductively in bed. And someone else—a German living in London—told me he wanted to make a short film of the story, flew to LA, drove several days to Montana, stayed in my house, and went with me to the Great Falls mermaid bar where the story was set. One thing I found interesting about the response was that a lot of people seemed to believe the story was about a person who was heavily into hard drugs, which it wasn’t. It was about a person who was into smoking a lot of pot and watching people do hard drugs on the internet. Not to spoil anything, but that response informed what I decided to have happen to the protagonist later on in his story, when I decided to expand it.
Over the next couple of years, that’s what I did: I kept writing about this character, assembling these various stories and scraps, revising them and arranging them, adding to them and subtracting from them. And all the while, the VICE story—“The Minor Outsider”—served as a kind of keystone that I built around until I completed The Minor Outsider.
2. Your novel is set mostly in the town of Missoula, Montana, where you have lived for a number of years. How close is this fictional setting to the real one, and how did living in Montana influence your writing?
I tried to carefully document Missoula as I knew it during the writing of The Minor Outsider. The names of bars, mountains, rivers, and streets are all real. So are the backyards, apartments, parties, shows, bike rides, and head shops depicted. ‘Real’ in the sense that they reflect my experience of them. As with anywhere, though, there are many versions of Missoula, many spheres that intersect to various extents. Some barely intersect at all. In The Minor Outsider, I wanted to document the sphere where young adult slackers—many of them privileged, like me—live like they’re still twenty and always will be, riding their bikes to little house parties, seeing fun punk bands at the VFW, smoking weed on a Tuesday afternoon, making their art without expectations, swimming and hiking and skiing in some of the most beautiful and remote locations in the Lower 48. Oh, and drinking. Drinking a lot. It’s an amazing world and living in it allowed me to find and follow my intuition and write The Minor Outsider. Anywhere else, and I don’t think I would’ve.
3. Ed and Taylor’s love story is both beautiful and painful to ‘watch’. Was it difficult to write?
When love first takes over, it more or less erases all other concerns. To the lover, the beloved looks like the solution to all of their problems: If only I had her, I wouldn’t care about anything else. It’s kind of desperate and embarrassing. It’s like realizing you need God: If You do this for me, I’ll do whatever You want. From the outside, when the beloved is obviously just a person—or worse yet, a fictional character—this feeling often seems absurd, dumb. It can be extremely tedious to be around or to read about. There’s no tension. It’s not interesting. What makes love interesting—in a song or a book or a movie—is when you can see the love so close up and with such specificity that you notice the cracks that exist from the very beginning and that will spread and, as they spread, undermine the love. Often, these flaws are the very characteristics that make the love possible to begin with. This makes love interesting in art, but it’s also what makes love so painful in life, it seems to me. So, yes, Ed and Taylor’s love story was difficult to write. And painful. But it was also a pleasure. Anytime you look at something more closely, it becomes more fascinating and beautiful.
4. Almost everyone in your novel is an outsider, in a state of transience. Does this reflect your own experience?
Three months ago, my wife and I sold most of our stuff and packed the rest in the back of a pickup truck and moved 2,500 miles away, to a city where we literally know no one, where my wife had never been, where we did not have jobs, and where we have no reason to be. So, yes, I think I like to put myself in situations where I can be on the outside, looking in, from a vantage that offers a little more perspective. One of the easiest ways to get into that position is to go somewhere new. But if you’re always on your way somewhere else, you’re never able to look long enough, to see anything more than the superficial. I like to move but not travel.
5. How do you feel about the fact that you are first being published by a London-based publishing house?
Publishing a book is something I never really believed I’d do, even as I staked so much upon the dream of doing so. When The Minor Outsider was bought, even my computer didn’t believe it was true: the email containing the official offer from ONE was filed in my Spam folder. So, first off, I’m grateful my book’s being published at all. Second off, I was so pleased by the accidental way in which you discovered it (or I discovered you), via my LinkedIn profile, which I didn’t even know I had and which you didn’t even mean to look at. Third off, I was amazed that the person who found my book in this way was you, an editor not only for a press I greatly admire (Pushkin) but also for a newish imprint devoted to debut writers. It was such a serendipitous and unlikely shortcut for my manuscript to take, from my house in Montana to your desk on the other side of the world and, next, to bookshelves in a country where I have never been. I can’t imagine a better route or destination for my book. In many ways, being published in the UK before being published in the US makes perfect sense. For me, the best things seem to happen the way this happened: via accident and coincidence. Plus, doesn’t it seem fitting for a book called The Minor Outsider to begin its life abroad, in temporary exile?
6. Do you think you might return to Ed and/or Taylor in a future novel?
That’s an interesting question. As a reader, I like to think about the author at work behind the scenes, tinkering with things. For example, I love the great Geoff Dyer novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which is split into two parts, one of which is told in the third-person and one of which is told in the first-person and both of which seem to be about the same character, who also seems to be essentially the author. The reader wonders who is who, a whole new layer of intrigue opens up, the book assumes another dimension or two. All of which is just to say, I’m working on a new novel now and, while Ed and Taylor will likely return, they will likely do so with new identities, disguised but still themselves.
7. You have had many different and unusual jobs – have any of them influenced your writing?
Some have, some haven’t. There’s this romantic idea that you work some crappy job—washing dishes at a vegetarian restaurant in South Carolina, making omelets at a fake French restaurant in Michigan, moving people out of apartments in Chicago, slicing deli meats in a warehouse in Montana—and you learn about life, about how a wide variety of people live, and this knowledge extends the range and depth of your writing. I have believed in this idea, but in my experience, it’s not that easy. Being a college-educated American working in a restaurant kitchen is not the same as being an illegal Mexican immigrant working in a restaurant kitchen. For one thing, you work eight hours a day and he works sixteen. For another, you move onto graduate school and he gets deported. So, despite enjoying some of them, I don’t think I’ve learned all that much from many of the menial jobs I’ve worked. Except don’t put your hand in an industrial mixer. On the other hand, when you spend your workday, as I did today, writing a 1,000-word biography of a seventeenth-century poet so obscure not even his birth or death dates are known, it can’t help but influence the way you write other things, including fiction. From the years I’ve spent doing this kind of dry reference writing, plus the time I’ve spent as a newspaper reporter and as a staff writer for a disreputable regional boating magazine, I’ve learned the value of treating writing as a method of communication instead of as a means for demonstrating the writer’s cleverness. This was an important—and difficult—lesson for me to learn.
8. When you first thought about writing Ed’s character, did you know immediately that he would be defined by his illness?
Yes, I believe so. One main impetus for the book was an interest in the ways we distance ourselves from our selves. One big example: the internet, a place store your thoughts, memories, and identity while your body deteriorates and you move toward death. We’re becoming like Krang from The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: brains trapped inside machines. And that’s how the medical world treats the body: as a machine, with the brain acting as the computer that operates it. This treatment has always fascinated and disturbed me, in part because I have spent a lot of time in waiting rooms and operating rooms and hospital beds and MRI machines, being prodded and diagnosed and rebuilt and repaired. One of the first things I saw when I started to write about Ed was the tumor growing on the inside of his arm. It was a little bomb of plot implanted inside him. The wick starts to burn when Taylor notices it and forces Ed to see it.
9. Who are your favourite writers and most important literary influences?
Julie Hecht, James Salter, Paul Maliszewski, Geoff Dyer, Édouard Levé, Roberto Bolano, W.G. Sebald, Joy Williams, David Berman, David Gates, Dennis Cooper, James Welch, Tove Jansson, Viktor Shklovsky, Atticus Lish, J.M. Coetzee, Leonard Michaels, Mavis Gallant, James Purdy, Lawrence Weschler, Leo Tolstoy, Gilbert Sorrentino, Samuel Beckett, John O’Hara, Gertrude Stein, Douglas Glover, Lydia Davis, Rachel Aviv, Flann O’Brien, Peter Stamm.
10. Who is Ted McDermott?
Just a guy in West Philadelphia who hates the passage of time, seeks ways to slow it down, and, so far, has found that writing works best.