Dzvinia Orlowsky: It’s a pleasure having this opportunity to interview both of you for Solstice. Jeff, I’ve been a fan of your work for decades, and Meg, more recently, I’ve gotten to know and greatly admire yours. It’s said that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But much to your credit, in this case, I think you can. Hats off to you and Meg for the whimsical cover art which gives the reader a preview of the deliciously humorous nature of the micro stories in your collection, The House of Grana Padano (2022). How did you come up with the idea for the cover?
Jeff Friedman and Meg Pokrass (answering together): It started out with Meg, who loves to play with photoshop, creating scenes from our stories, using our faces. One of the preliminary cover ideas had us walking out of a wheel of Grana Padano cheese. We got a great kick out of that, but realized pretty quickly it wasn’t quite right for the book. Then we started talking some more, and we decided one of the most important concepts in the book circled around Italo Calvino’s essay “Lightness,” published in his collection Six Memos for the Next Millennium. We used a statement from him as the epigraph. And that led us to Marc Chagall’s paintings. We decided that we wanted something with a similar flavor, and Meg photoshopped our faces in a parody of a Chagall. Subsequently, we altered the background and other details to highlight the idea of lightness and to bring out the humor. Our publisher, Mark Givens, made the whole thing work.
DO: It amuses me as a cross between Dirty Dancing (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner…”) and Chagall’s dreamy Over the Town, which depicts an embracing couple flying midair above houses in a predominantly gray landscape. In your version, the two figures here can be viewed as Meg trying to pull you, Jeff, up into the sky or you trying to ground or anchor her. How do you interpret this?
JF & MP: Both of us write prose poems and micro stories. Meg leans toward stories that rely on their poetry, and Jeff tends toward poems that rely on story. Jeff’s micro stories are really rooted in fabulism, and Meg’s stories are often surrealistic in nature. When the two storytelling approaches came together, sometimes the pieces were so light that they felt like they might fly away. And other times they felt too heavy and needed to be unburdened. The image of Jeff holding Meg’s hand to stop her from floating away represents one part of this, while Meg gently attempting to lift Jeff from the grass represents the other part. In actuality, either of us could have been in either role or position.
DO: I have so many favorites in this collection. I wanted to dog-ear practically every page. A piece of writing breaks the silence to enter the world. Your striking, surreal openings make the reader question the nature of silence and restrictive assumptions they might make about it. In that way, your work is remarkably freeing. Vast emotional distances are traveled within the span of a single page. I start out laughing, but often by the story’s end, I’m returned to silence. Bill Knott once said, “Pain passes for sunlight at some depths.” I feel this kind of depth, this kind of reflection, in so many of the pieces. Can you tell us more about your process and how together you were able to write stories with such depth of mind?
JF & MP: Our process in writing was always changing. Each story had its own alchemy. We let the stories decide how they needed to be told and created. Probably Meg started more stories and handed them off to Jeff to finish. But Jeff also started stories that Meg finished. But that was only one way we worked. Another approach that triggered stories involved doing versions of each other’s previous pieces. So Meg wrote her version of Jeff’s story, and Jeff followed that up by writing his version of Meg’s version of his story, like a hall of mirrors. We also experimented with constraints such as writing a story in the negative and writing a story backwards. You can see these experiments in the “Grana Padano” section of the book. Often we would tell each other about things that happened to us during the week that might be sad or funny, and those sad or funny anecdotes would become the triggering point for new stories. At some point during our many conversations, we realized our lives had big parallels and shared themes. For example, both of our parents were salespeople; in addition, we both had jobs in sales for a while. Our recognition of what we had in common led to us writing about real experience or memoir as fabulist microfiction. We interwove both of our voices into the tapestry of almost every story.
DO: The House of Grana Padano is organized into seven distinct sections, including the one you just mentioned. How did you come up with the sections? Given the cohesiveness of themes, were any of these sections initiated or shaped by writing prompts?
JF & MP: The themes emerged from the writing itself. We realized somewhere along the line that we were dealing with specific themes, and those themes were connected to dysfunction. In the “Sales Force” section, the characters always suffer rejection. The circus acts are never up to par. The love stories are all messy and dysfunctional. The “Grana Padano” stories reveal a marriage in conflict through a humorous lens. And “Cognac Dream” merges failure with dreams, memories, and reality. Also, we’d like to add that all of the work really came out of our discussions on Zoom and the common ground between us. Only later in the process of ordering the pieces in the book did our themes become sections.
Yes, we did work with prompts at times. For example, the “Motown and More” section was initiated through the prompt of writing a story based on a song. Most of the pieces in that section were written through that prompt. In “The House of Grana Padano” section, we agreed to write stories that explore three characters and three very similar cheeses. Every story includes the same elements and tells the same story, but the way the story is told makes the difference. Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style influenced us to try out multiple perspectives, narrative styles, and formal approaches.
DO: Many are drawn to collaborative work. It’s intense and fun. What do you feel is essential for a collaboration to work successfully?
JF & MP: Friendship, trust, mutual admiration, and playfulness. Our collaboration began in playfulness and our two-hour Zoom sessions each Tuesday night. We started our collaboration with an open spirit about mimicking each other’s styles for fun and just to see what would happen. Meg picked out pieces from Floating Tales to work on and sometimes satirize, and I did the same with The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down. We had a great time parodying each other and then moved on to revising the pieces together. We quickly recognized that the stories had a tremendous energy. We inspired each other into generating a myriad of ideas and stories. We could barely get them down they came so fast. We wrote probably 200 micros in a relatively short time, but it’s also amazing how many stories we didn’t write. In a sense, were both creative muses for each other. Also, the whole project was really based in our previous mutual admiration for each other’s work. The friendship grew out of our collaboration, and the collaboration grew out of our evolving friendship.
DO: You put forth an intriguing marketing plan: buy the book and you’ll get three hours of writing prompts. Without giving away too much, can you give us an example of what a prompt might look like?
JF & MP: If you buy The House of Grana Padano, you’ll instantly start coming up with great ideas you never knew you had. Like this one from the section “The Circus Comes to Town”: Write about a circus act that nobody would pay to see or one that has never actually existed. Before writing, please read: “The Weak Man in the Circus, “The Tea Drinker,” “The Quiet Woman,” and “The Amazing Peeing Woman.”
DO: Do you have any future collaborations planned?
JF & MP: We’re working on a sequence of interconnected stories about bald characters (including “At the Bald Man Society Clubhouse,” which appears after this interview), and we’ll be working on these for the rest of our lives because we have no idea who would want to publish them.
DO: I’m sure someone will! Thank you, Jeff and Meg, for taking part in this conversation.
Let’s end on three stories: “The Weak Man in the Circus,” “Memories of Motown,” and “At the Bald Men Society Clubhouse” (new, unpublished).
The Weak Man in the Circus
I live on a diet of air particles and gnats, enough to keep me awake, but not enough to give me the strength to walk outside or even to lift a glass of water to my lips. For if I could do that, I would lose my living. Each day, the boisterous crowd clamors inside my tent eager to see me attempt my famous feats. I start with hoisting a book, but my skinny arms can’t hold it up for even a second, so it falls on the ground. Then I rise slowly with Selena, my lover and assistant, at my side, holding me up as I take a step or two. Next, I might flex my arm to show off my very small hump of a bicep and my bony elbows. Eventually, I lift a piece of paper. As it rises almost to my chest, I give out, and the paper floats toward the crowd. They cheer wildly and throw bills and coins in my direction. I place my fingers around a quarter and act as if I’m going to pocket it, but it’s no use; it’s too heavy, and it drops, which causes them to pitch even more money at me, knowing that I don’t have the strength to spend it. When I pretend to faint, dropping into my cot, my lover signals for the crowd to empty out. When they leave, she collects the money and counts it before locking it away in a trunk. “You outdid yourself, honey,” she says, even if I didn’t. When we make love, it’s from a distance. She blows kisses at me with her hand. I catch them with my lips and close my eyes.
From The House of Grana Padano
Memories of Motown
It makes me sad to think about how my father, the magician, loved to dance with me, how he’d turn me in the living room to “Love Is Here Standing By” or “My Girl.” I’d stare up at him like he was my Houdini and he’d lead me right into his own haze of smoke, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He danced with me instead of my sister, danced with me instead of my mom, a slippery grin on his face, oblivious to anything but moving with me to the music. My sister cried until my mom held her, swaying together in the living room, slow dancing to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” as my father folded me so far into himself that for the rest of my childhood, I disappeared.
From The House of Grana Padano
At the Bald Men Society Clubhouse
“You’re not bald enough,” Bob, the president, told Elias, whose whole dome was empty of hair, but not his sidewalls. There was not a speck or stubble of hair to be found on the president’s glowing lump of head. It was a cool night in the desert, and the moon was full, but it did not cheer Elias up. He needed a support group, people to share his stories with about baldness. He remembered the line about how you wouldn’t actually want to belong to a club that wanted you as a member. He may have believed that at one time, but he hadn’t gotten laid in over a year, and his ex-wife used his photo as a target for darts. The president looked down on him as if he were a hairy hubcap. He shook his head. “We can’t accept pretenders.” “But Bob,” he said, “You’re my brother.” Bob placed his hand on Elias’s shoulder and shoved him out of the doorway. Elias stumbled toward a family of tall, spiky cacti, their wispy hair blowing around in the dark.
(From a new sequence of pieces, unpublished)