Moments that transform us: AS Patrić on Las Vegas for Vegans

I first met AS (Alec) Patrić when we were both participants in the Overland Masterclass for Progressive Writers, back in 2009. Alec is an incredibly hard-working, dedicated and talented writer. Since we met he has been published in almost every Australian literary magazine, has won prizes and has released two collections of stories. His latest is Las Vegas for Vegans (Transit Lounge). He is also working on a novel. I got in touch with Alec to ask him a few questions about his latest collection.

So I want to ask first about your process of discovery. Las Vegas for Vegans reaches far and wide in terms of subject, setting and style. Before we get to the philosophical and psychological elements, can I ask about the process of selecting and engaging with the material aspects of the stories? Why hotel rooms? Why insects and gods?

Until now I didn’t realise how many of my stories are set in hotel and motel rooms. Then there are stories set in a post office and a book shop, rooms in hospitals and shelters, a boarding school and an acting academy, an airplane toilet cubicle and even a spaceship. Those settings open doors to insects and gods, and vitally, the stories themselves. ‘The Eternal City’ takes place in a hotel room in Rome but that material aspect is fundamental to the story. It’s not just a location. I don’t think it could be set in a Melbourne flat. ‘Las Vegas for Vegans’ takes place in a hotel that looks out at the Mojave desert and that’s just as crucial to the characters and ideas in that piece. ‘The Mirage Inn’ revolves around a motel on the edge of the Simpson desert, but the difference between the two deserts is significant. In one, a character has more of a chance to find himself, and in the other, he’s likely to lose himself—one man wants to find his way home and the other wants the opposite. If a story is set in the family home, as with ‘Beckett & Son’ or ‘Daughters of Vesuvius’, it’s because family is the chief feature of those stories. Whenever I write a short story or novel, the first thing I look for is a vehicle for the characters and ideas I want to explore. If you’re asking me specifically, why a hotel room, my answer is because it strips a person down to a fundamental state of transition, and the ways we change, moments that transform us for better or worse, is what interests me most about the characters I’m creating or discovering in books when I’m reading.

I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘in-between’ space of hotels and motels, too, so I really enjoyed those stories. Out of the settings and characters in Las Vegas for Vegans comes a range of intellectual, philosophical and moral enquiries. At least as a reader I was faced with questions about love, family, society, history (and personal history), death and what may or may not come after; space, existence… Do you see the stories like this? Or do you think there is more of a single overarching concern?

I don’t write stories with a theme in mind or to explore a philosophical idea or examine a moral, though I do feel gratified that you found yourself responding to those things in my book. I don’t want to educate my reader, but if there are those features you mention in Las Vegas for Vegans, they arise because what I’m doing is testing my own existence in each one of the stories. (I think that’s why writing can be so hard, even though it seems the simplest of activities—to sit comfortably at a desk and tap away at a keyboard). Despite the highfaluting rationale, the primary concern for me is always the dramatic potential of narrative and vitality of character. Hopefully, this translates to nothing more complicated than a great story and my motivation is as basic as wanting to be a compelling storyteller. Anything else is a bonus.

I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about your interest in flash fiction, or very short stories (of which there are a few in the collection).

A flash fiction might seem an exotic bird but they’re as common as canaries. Any three-minute song you’ve ever enjoyed is a flash fiction. Lyrics have word counts of 500 words or less and they open up the world through a window we call ‘story’. That’d be my technical definition of a flash fiction. Interesting articles in the newspaper might qualify as well, perhaps even a blog post or a weekend anecdote told at work Monday morning. And yet when we’re offered the same creature on a literary page it’s a dodo. A song has a singer and musical instruments (often an accompanying video) to help the story out the window, so it’s not easy getting the same story to fly off the page with so few words and none of those accoutrements. Creating a character, an involving narrative, satisfying beginning/middle/end—with tens of thousands of words—is a lot easier. That’s why many readers think the novel is the only place to find what they’re looking for. I don’t think we’re really interested in birds though; how big or small, how high they fly or how pretty the feathers. It’s still all about the song and what it does to our heart/mind/soul. The only question for me is whether that song gives us another way to fly.

It seems like you do want to play with different ‘effects’ though, in terms of what a story does to heart/mind/soul. Some of the stories in Las Vegas for Vegans are warm and tingly, like ‘Below Zero’; others have a kind of blank emotional tone. Numbness itself is a theme of the story ‘Measured Turbulence’. Are these tonal explorations deliberate? Or do you find it happens organically depending on what mood or state of mind you’re in when you sit down to begin a story?

It’s a lovely irony that the warmest piece in Las Vegas for Vegans is a story called ‘Below Zero’, but you’re right of course. It’s a flash fiction that is essentially a burst of love. It’s about falling for a person before they’re born. I wrote it when my eldest daughter was in the womb and I was delighted to be able to read it to her recently. Summer is almost three years old now. ‘One in a Million’ is at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps the coldest story in the collection. It’s about emotional isolation and so that blank tone was certainly intentional. That sense of ice-cold reality is what I wanted to capture. The emotional tone was primary. Tone is usually secondary to most other stories. ‘Measured Turbulence’ was inspired by Bunuel, Lynch and Fassbinder, and I have found in many of their films there’s a kind of placid tone that drifts along until very disruptive events storm through the narrative.

Tonal variation across a book (whether novel or collection) is vital to me. Many writers choose a narrative voice, rhythm, mode, and write in the same way in story after story, and often, novel after novel. That bores me as a reader. John Updike can be too persistently elegant in the same way that David Foster Wallace can be persistently pyrotechnic. As a writer, I want to do more than lull my reader into a narrative dream (or nightmare). I want to wake my reader up to an experience, jolt them with an idea, shock them with the warmth of an emotion, chill with a realization a few seconds later. And yet variation in tone is only valuable if it can open up the fissures of heart/mind/soul. A sentimental story like ‘Below Zero’ benefits from being very short—also from the brutal emotional tone of ‘The Mirage Inn’ which precedes it in Las Vegas for Vegans, and revivifies a reader ready to move on to the following story. ‘Boys’ is next, and I hope a reader at that point has no idea what might happen. Which is more true to life. And I suppose what I’m hoping is that I can offer a totality of experience with a book. One moment you have a careful hand to your wife’s womb waiting for a movement and the next moment the world breaks in with whatever comes next.

Alec also interviewed yours truly in 2011 for Verity La, an online magazine he founded. If you like our banter, you might want to check that out.

Response to A.S. Patric’s ‘Questionnaire’

I was thinking about A.S. Patric’s recent post on the Overland blog all of yesterday afternoon. I thought I’d have a go at responding to his piece, just off-the-cuff. Note: the words in bold are Alec’s.

Are we more disconnected?

I know how late my crush goes to bed.

Are we more superficial?

Skin is a surface.

Does the internet cripple the creative life?

There’s a book in that.

Are we more distracted?

I was thinking about the present, and then someone hyperlinked the past.

Debased and disillusioned?

Our placards have dimension.

Do we abandon a spiritual centre for a cyber stratosphere?

Did you ask for God on the telephone?

Or is it merely two centimetres of distraction?

I have been distracted by many paintings, less than a centimetre thick.

Are we ourselves filtered through the thoughts of others?

And through the thoughts of ourselves, given to others.

Are we distillations of the failures and successes of our parents, or perhaps, just our social networks?

He wanted his too too solid flesh to melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew because of his parents (and his social networks then helped him).

How much of myself is originated solely from the private recesses of the singularity that is my ego?

Just the affection.

How much of me is already historical, global, communal, whether I want it or not?

How much of me is Bart Simpson?

Where is all this going?

 

 

 

Where is all this happening?

In the Matrix.

Is there some point of culmination where consciousness experiences itself as a collective phenomenon?

Why don’t you crowdsource the answer to that one?

Do we understand where we have been?

I was once a twinkle in my Dad’s eye.

Do we understand where we will be?

‘From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity’ – Edvard Munch

Have we seen all the tools we have made, and all the tools we will build, for the machines that are our past and future?

DOS.

Has an everlasting moment always slipped through our fingers?

I decided to look time in the face but it ran away from me.

Do we stand alone below the stars?

Each star is surrounded by space.

Have we always wondered how to see them properly?

It’s difficult to look into someone’s eyes if they’re focused on the sky.

Have we always wondered how to see you properly?

It’s hard for me to look into someone’s eyes.

Are there really nothing but questions?

42.

Nothing more than a code of 0s and 1s?

As above.

Combinations of such broken figures?

Broken things are more interesting.

Just so many broken fingers?

Fingers are older than numbers.

Do you think in such fractured circles –> wear such incomplete rings?

The beginning and the ending don’t meet.

Have we been little things?

Almost all of the time.

Have we been voiceless?

You’ll have to speak up, I’m wearing a towel.

Have we been a sum on the other side of the sun?

Is music part of your equation?

Have we dreamed and found all our answers and then forgotten such sunless places?

Smell is a sunless thing.

Have I known you and lost you?

You knew only the avatar.

Have I misplaced our misread faces?

You’ll draw another one (to you).

Printed them wrong, forgotten and gone?

The paper from the printer is warm.

Will we now drift?

Continental drift is a natural occurence.

Each from each?

Like ‘Ratso’ Rizzo from Joe Buck.

Clusters of poetry turning into rings, barely detectable, and spinning around Jupiter?

I’d prefer to be a Martian poem.

Powdering out in white dust as far away as Pluto’s underworld?

It’s where all the cool kids are. Like James Dean.

What were we when we discovered that our planet offers us an absolute answer to everything we could ever ask?

We thought ourselves no longer ridiculous. Of course, we were wankers.

Answering

1 + 1

1 + 1

1 + 1

Answering

everything

else

with

zeros

I had a question about that

but I got distracted.