UA English Instructor Brian Whalen’s collection Semiotic Love [Stories] was published in 2020 by Awst Press and was chosen as one of the Best Indie Books of 2021 by Kirkus Reviews. Before coming to UA, Whalen earned a PhD from the State University of New York at Albany and an MFA from Iowa State University. He was awarded a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. In his fourth year at the Capstone, Whalen teaches creative writing and first-year composition courses. His work can be found in The Southern Review, Creative Nonfiction, Lit Hub, Copper Nickel, North American Review, the Flash Nonfiction Food anthology, The Southern Poetry Anthology Vol. IX: Virginia, and dozens of other journals. I sat down with Brian to discuss his latest book.
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from originally?
I grew up in a rural suburb of Binghamton, NY. It’s ranked as one of the cloudiest places in the US, so it’s taking me a hot minute to get used to sunny Tuscaloosa. I never owned a pair of prescription sunglasses in my life. I do now.
What brought you to UA?
I was toiling away at SUNY-Albany for a few years after I finished my PhD, stay-at-home dad during the day, adjunct lecturer teaching Professional Writing by night. It wasn’t sustainable, or inspiring. I love teaching here at UA, where I can teach what I’m passionate about. We have an amazing faculty, both tenure-track and instructors, and that’s invigorating. And my students, especially my creative writing students, are fantastic. I’ve been teaching since 2006, but in the three years I’ve been here I’ve had more opportunities to see students grow over the course of their academic careers than ever before. It’s a wonderful student body. I’m very happy to be here.
Let’s get into the work. This book runs the gamut of human emotion. How much of your own experiences go into creating works that connect so authentically with readers?
Most of the stories are rooted in experience or fact. I got flak from a former mentor because I label some of my stories “true” and others “fictional.” She didn’t like the semantics of “true,” since any story, fictional or factual, can ring true. So I’ll just say, many of the stories in my book are memoir-by-another-name. Some of the stories in my book were first published as essays, and one or two as prose poems. I like cross-genre, or hybrid, projects.
Themes of love & loss permeate the works collected within Semiotic Love [Stories]. How do you go about navigating those feelings so genuinely when putting ideas on paper?
I was once told: as a fiction writer, your life experience is your palette. It’s what you use to paint the feeling, the emotion, onto the page. I tell my students to write what they know. That’s what my first writing teacher told me in college, and I guess it stuck. If someone were to psychoanalyze me through the stories in the book, they might say I laugh when I should cry and I cry when I should laugh. I admire writers like George Saunders and Lydia Davis, who can make you laugh and move you to tears in the same story—or in adjacent stories in their books. After a workshop with Davis during my PhD days, I told her I often throw out or delete old stories or journals, if I think they’re garbage. She told me to never, never get rid of anything—you don’t know what might be useful to you later on. She meant the value of experience, to keep that palette well-stocked and handy.
The presence of symbols and objects play significant roles in many stories. How do you go about selecting these and finding just the right spot for them within the work?
Many of the objects, mementos, and artifacts are taken from real life. I like the realness of the physical world. The way to access a reader’s emotions is through concrete imagery. In micro-fiction or flash prose, you only get a handful of details on the page—so those details must weigh heavily, and must have suggestive significance. I use Hemingway’s Iceberg Principle to suggest what readers cannot see, so the details that are present point to what’s beneath the surface.
I like to think, in the micro-fictions that work best in my collection, that there’s an actual weight, a physical heft, to the stories, if my reader held them in their hand. And of course I’m thinking of Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, one of the pioneers of the short-short form. I achieve weight through concrete details and objects-as-symbols, and trust my reader to bring the deeper significance to the text—to bring their own experience and feeling into play. Objects have the added benefit of a natural backstory, an origin: how, when, where, and why a character received, bought, or found the thing. Another added benefit is thematic, like the photo in my short story “Exposure.” It’s a real photograph, but in fiction, it takes on more meaning—the process/act of photography, of light exposure, speaks to loss in that story in a more evocative, emotional way than exposition alone would have. That’s the aesthetic I’m after.
Tell us a little about your writing/editing process. What do you focus on while creating an impactful story but trying to maintain brevity?
I don’t have a consistent routine. I write in bursts and stolen moments. Teaching keeps me busy and being a dad means there’s little free time. Even during my PhD, when most of these stories were written, I was busy as hell—balancing coursework, comps, language exams, the dissertation. I wrote these stories, in a way, as an escape from all that other work. I take inspiration from an anecdote I read about Raymond Carver, how at one point in his life he’d write his stories sitting in his car in his garage, in the twenty or thirty minutes after he got home from work and before dinner. Gertrude Stein said 15 minutes of writing, here and there, adds up to a lot of pages over the course of several years. It’s about accumulation, however long it takes.
My revision process is messy, and—when it’s working well—brutal. I don’t like the phrase “kill your darlings,” but I do find great relief in gutting a story. I’m a perfectionist, and if something in my prose isn’t just right, I’ll never stop trying to rework a sentence, or a phrase, or a paragraph. When I get bogged down in my writing, I can almost always free myself up by deleting, deleting, deleting. I’m not afraid to pare something down and rebuild it from scratch. A lot of times I don’t know what a story is about until I learn through trial and error what it’s not about.
If I focus on anything it’s human moments, and dialogue—what one character does to another character by speaking, or what someone reveals about themselves in conversation. I’m interested in relationships: those that endure and those that don’t.
How do you know when a story is finished?
It’s a feeling. I wish had a better answer. If I read through a story and nothing bothers me, I see no other avenues I want to pursue, and nothing causes me to hiccup, rhythmically or syntactically, in my reading—then I figure, hell, onto the next one. If I send a story out, though, and it dies in submission queues, then I’ll revisit it to see if I missed something. I used to be very eager to send out my work the moment I thought something was done. I wasted a lot of time garnering rejections, only to discover with the passage of time, that I just needed a little distance to see the story in the right light. Now I take my time to let a “finished” story sit. If I look back at it a few months later and it still feels done to me, then I’ll send it out.
The short story, “Semiotic Love,” uses alternating voices to capture the tension of a crumbling relationship. How did you make that decision as a writer?
That’s the oldest story in the book, written in the year between my MFA and PhD. It’s the most experimental story in the book, I think. In my MFA I thought I was going to be some kind of wild postmodern writer, and I was really drawn to literary theory. I lost that interest in my PhD program, and became much more interested in the concrete world, in the dirty realism that informs my style. That story, in a way, is my saying goodbye to theory. It bridged the gap between the more “thinky” writing I was trying to do in my MFA and the minimalist, character-based stuff I focused on after. A lot came out of reading lists and critical inquiry. The time and breadth of exposure in my PhD program was crucial for me. But back to the question. The harmony between theory and character works because it’s a character story at heart. You could take out all the theoretical interjections and the story would still function, more or less, the same way—about the break-up, and the ways people can be in love but it’s not enough, and how language fails us. I’m more interested these days in the stuffed hippopotamus in the story than I am with the theory. Maybe it’s just the dad in me.
What is next? What are you currently working on?
I’m trying to see a memoir about my sister—a collection of lyrics essays and prose poems—into print. My sister died of a heroin overdose in 2016. My nonfiction is similar to my short fiction, a nontraditional approach to form and storytelling, with a minimalist bent. I’m also revising a novel, based on my experience working for homeless shelters in central Iowa, and also informed by my sister’s addictions and the toll they took on our family. When that manuscript is in the right place, I’ll query agents. I think it’s a more mainstream narrative, and a timely narrative, and I want to honor my sister by reaching a wider audience with her story.