I had the privilege of hearing Ron Austin read his work at the Luther College Writers Festival earlier this fall. His work is edgy, fun, playful, serious, mysterious, lyrical, entertaining, and moving. Steve Almond said something to the effect that good fiction will awaken the heart of a reader. In Austin’s fiction, he moves both the heart and the mind. His stories are smart, funny, at times absurd (in the best possible way), but always with a clear-eye toward social awareness and the plight of those characters who inhabit his stories. I can’t wait for his forthcoming collection: Avery Colt is a Snake, A Thief, A Liar.
Below is an interview about his story “Teeth’s Story,” which will be published in his forthcoming collection. Also, before the interview, below, Ron offers a brief preface to his answers.
Ron Austin: Keith, thanks for these excellent questions. I’m going to frame my responses by attempting to describe the nature and dimensions of hustle. Hustle is a mutagenic substance that rapidly transforms organic and conceptual matter, allowing organisms, both organic and inorganic, to increase adaptability and survivability in worrisome conditions. In language, narrative sense, and characterization, I pursue the judicious application of hustle to all techniques.
Interview: Ron Austin and Keith Lesmeister
KL: The thing that jumps out at me almost immediately in Teeth’s Story is the rhythm and cadence of the language — the musicality. It’s fantastic and addictive. There’s poetry throughout the entire story, but these lines stood out to me right away:
“Hot pipes split lips, chemical clouds suffocated kin, rocks avalanched, crushed sons and daughters.”
And, “I feared his death wasn’t enough to clear the karmic debt he had charged to our bloodline. “I imagined elders chewing iron nails, banging hammers, erecting crosses of shame to crucify me and my folks.”
And: “Old dude was a defunct dope dealer and prison mystic who rocked gold fangs.”
Could you share a little about writing in such a poetic way? Are these lines the result of a lot of revision? Or is this your natural rhythm and flow while writing through a first draft?
RA: In one dimension, I rely on lyricism to generate momentum from line to line. Poetic methods, theories, and principles act as filament that conduct the intensity, direction, and duration of contact with pure thought and emotion. The stronger the filament, the higher the fidelity. In another dimension, both literally and figuratively, the text itself is an organism, something conceived somewhere between synapses and brainstems, the fruit of an experiment conducted in a laboratory. One commits sacrilege in engineering a homunculus. In this sense, crafting strong individual lines is the work of synthesizing fiber and blood vessels, building muscles that power an arm, an arm that gives language the ability to reach out and grip readers. Hustle allows the larynx to produce hypnotic melodies, birdsong. Hustle turns tongues dexterous, prehensile. Hustle turns teeth to metal that can crack thick hides. While these techniques can be learned, Teeth understands this innately.
*But also, to come off the fun for a bit, my initial drafts take forever. I’ll usually spend a week or so polishing a page or a few before finding that they don’t fit into a full narrative frame and throwing them into my scraps file. And then a few months later, I’ll land on the narrative frame and push hard from there.
KL: The beautiful, gripping language up against the stark contrast of dim reality in which the narrator is growing up creates a kind of tension in the narrative. How do you balance the beauty of the language against some of the grittier locales and hardscrabble lives that make up the characters in the story? Or even many of your stories?
RA: In the story, Teeth knows no one is going to spend time or attention on common items, bruised goods. He uses hustle to transform hair clippers and bus passes into supernatural relics. But hustle, in its strange properties, does more than that. Hustle can reveal the true nature of objects, settings, people. Hustle reveals the satisfaction in struggle, the profit in pain. By using heightened language, I aim to give the place and characters I describe the presence and power they deserve.
KL: The story is aptly titled “Teeth’s Story” because this is in essence about his life and the kind of legacy he hopes to leave behind for the youngsters growing up in his neighborhood, namely the narrator of the story who brings Teeth contraband left behind by his deceased uncle. In the middle of the story there’s a kind of historic, mythic, fable, that Teeth shares with the narrator. It’s a fantastic interlude. Could you talk about blending the story within a story? And perhaps a little of what the fable means to you (not sure if fable is the right word here….)?
RA: Teeth is the closest thing to a villain that appears in “Avery Colt Is A Snake, A Thief, A Liar.” Because of that, I wanted him to have a chance at redemption. The role of a neighborhood drug dealer is more complex than good and evil, right and wrong. If your grandmother sells illicit goods out of her basement, and that gets you through college, where you work to become a counselor, what could be said? What judgements can be made. Teeth never had designs on ruin. He only wanted money and status. Drug dealing ultimately does him no favors, and he falls back on hustle. He can’t let “defunct drug dealer” be his legacy. He can’t let people know his neighborhood as only abandoned buildings, the specter of danger. The narrative interlude acts as a consequence of the hustle he spits. The transformation of Avery’s story and the mode in which Teeth asserts his own transforms the meta-narrative into a collaborative effort, bridging the gap between them and the reader with story-telling.
KL: Objects play an important role in many of your stories, including this one. Without giving too much away, I’m thinking of the jar left behind be the deceased uncle, which goes through its own kind of process and change as the story progresses. Could you share a little bit of how objects work in your stories? Do you have any special fascination with any objects in particular?
RA: The objects I introduce into stories generally are the concrete residue of a concept. In “Avery Colt Is A Snake, A Thief, A Liar,” Granddad’s WWII service revolver is an item that represents power, toxic masculinity, protection, fear, obedience, and heart break. The jar and its contents represent decay, greed, and choice. At the end of Teeth’s story, Avery is being unfair and foolish by shoving the jar back in Teeth’s face. But he’s also giving Teeth a chance at moving on from what he was and committing to a new path.
KL: As mentioned, the title of the story fits quiet well as this is a story about Teeth, more or less. But the narrator goes through a kind of change of his own, which mirrors, in a sense, the change that Teeth comes to realize — or express publicly — to his own self, along with the narrator. Still, the narrator seems to take a back seat to the goat-bearded women, the elders who shame the dealers and crackheads, and to Teeth himself. Was there ever a version of the story when the narrator had a larger role? And what effect might this have in your view — the narrator taking a kind of back seat to the other figures in the story?
RA: In the arc of the stories, Avery is the reader’s point of entry into the community, but I never wanted him to be the only focal point. His story and whether or not he survives is not as important as the community’s story. The first half of the collection, Avery has less agency and takes up more space in the narratives as he deliberates on what’s around him. As he gains more agency in later stories, I intended for the community and other characters to take the forefront.
KL: I’m looking forward to the release of your debut collection of stories. Is Teeth’s Story part of the collection? And could you maybe share a little about the collection here?
RA: Yes! “Teeth’s Story” is in the collection. It’s the eighth story and works in tandem with the seventh story, “Cauldron,” which originally appeared in Story Quarterly. “Cauldron” is where Teeth is first introduced. After finishing a major project, it takes some time to really nail what it’s all about. In a concrete sense, “Avery Colt Is A Snake, A Thief, A Liar” is about whether or not Avery and his family can survive the economic downturn in his neighborhood as opportunities decrease and violence escalates. In another sense, it’s about adapting to the barbs of grief and whether the way forward is amassing methods of brutality or negotiating surrender to vulnerability.
KL: Last series of questions.
KL: Do you prefer…
KL: Pumpkin or Squash?
KL: Almonds or Cashews?
KL: Neat or On the Rocks?
KL: Bikes or Scooters?
KL: Boy Bands or Hair Bands?
RA: Boy Bands (Brock Hampton)
KL: Leaves on trees or leaves on the ground?
RA: Leaves on the ground
Ron A. Austin holds an MFA from the University of Missouri–St. Louis and is a 2016 Regional Arts Commission Fellow. Avery Colt Is a Snake, a Thief, a Liar, his first collection of linked stories, won the 2017 Nilsen Prize. The book will be released in fall of 2019. Austin’s short stories have been placed or are forthcoming in Pleiades, Story Quarterly, Ninth Letter, Black Warrior Review, Midwestern Gothic, Juked and other journals. He, his partner Jennie, and son Elijah live in St. Louis with a whippet named Carmen.