When we found out that Aaron Burch would be touring along the west coast in support of his forthcoming book, a “Bookmarked” memoir structured around Stephen King’s The Body and Stand By Me, we thought: dibs.
The Foundry is our shiny new literary reading series, launched beautifully this spring with fantastic readings from Adrian Van Young, Lizz Huerta, Ryan Bradford, and Lauren Becker. Our second installment is this month, July 30th, at a fantastic and curious venue: Tiger Eye Hair in Golden Hill. Aaron will be joined by many other greats: Jean Guerrero, Juliet Escoria, Jim Ruland, Uzodinma Okehi, and Scott McClanahan.
So Say We All’s production director (and Foundry host) Julia Dixon Evans had a chance to email back and forth with Aaron recently. We discuss memoir, Stand By Me, and “the most important things,” to name a few. Enjoy Aaron’s answers (we did).
JULIA DIXON EVANS: I’ve seen Stand By Me countless times, though not in years, and I have never read The Body. I think, going into it, I felt unqualified as a reader for that reason, but that feeling vanished on the first page. I love the way the movie and the book have non-warring real estate in your memoir. They do not compete for superiority, and neither feels more literary, more intellectual than the other. Have you always felt that way? Or, did you have some sort of evolution? Did you once think: “I should like the book better than the movie, because I’m a professor or whatever,” and then finally one day come around to recognizing that both book and movie are great?
AARON BURCH: I like the way you put that. That they have non-warring real-estate, and I’m glad any feelings of being unqualified vanished.
A couple things: Bookmarked was pitched to me as kind of like a “33-1/3, but for books.” I’m familiar with the series, though more as concept; I haven’t actually read very many. I think I’ve read all of the Boss Fight Books series though, itself a kind of “like 33-1/3, but for video games.” That said, of the first 12 books in that series, I think I’ve only played two of the games. What I learned from reading them was that whether or not I’d played the game had a small impact on my reading experience, via the pleasure of the familiar, but it was pretty minimal. Whenever a book got bogged down in the details of the game, either I’d played the game and those details felt only like they were telling me something I already knew, or I hadn’t played the game and the details felt confusing and distancing.
That gets at the first half of your question, I hope. The idea of being familiar or degree of qualification. As far as book v. movie… I kind of get at this in the book, I think, but I really love both. I don’t think I ever had any thoughts that I should prefer one or the other. Like many (I think?) I saw the movie first, and came to the novella through that, and though I read the novella at some point growing up, unlike the movie, I never revisited and reread. Until I added it to a syllabus, without rereading it first, so if anything there was something of a sigh of relief when the story held up in the classroom and gave us enough to talk about. I just think each is really strong on its own merits, though part of what I love about each is how similar they are, so the pleasure in one is often echoed in what I love about the other.
JULIA: [Mutual friend] Ryan Bradford and I both joked that we felt like we’d gone through one of your classes as we read the book. (Well, technically, I’m 99% sure I wrote it in the margins and then he read my review copy, so I like to think that I subliminally gave him that idea). I felt like I not only understood The Body / Stand By Me on an academic level, but I felt like I understood writing. It made me want to write. As an academic, did your teaching change over the year you wrote this book? How will you tackle this story in the future?
AARON: I think maybe I won’t teach the book again, actually. Part of my approach to teaching is encouraging my students to try to figure something out. As I say in the book, to ask interesting questions, and then struggle for interesting answers. And I often find myself in the process of discovery right alongside them. I don’t think I “figured out” The Body while writing this book, but now that the book is written and done, it does feel like maybe I’d be a little less open to discovery, which feels like it would be a hinderance in the classroom.
I think my understanding of my teaching changed more than my actual teaching. Like, I don’t think I would have said the above paragraph in quite that way before working on this book.
JULIA: I was eager to hear about friendship in this book. I expected it. I think, though, in the end, that we didn’t so much learn about your “four,” just the fact that you’ve always had that as your touchstone. I think the book gives us your ideas of friendship rather than the grit and the intimacy of your actual friendships. Did you feel guarded about that? Or do you feel on some level, that the idea of friendships — and the availability of them — are maybe the biggest source of comfort in the friendship anyway? That is, the details aren’t the thing here?
AARON: Here’s a theory I came up with after reading through these questions, which means I haven’t really road-tested it yet or anything, so I’m not sure how it’s going to come across. I think it’ll start self-deprecating and turn into a humblebrag, and it also might be wrong, but here goes…
I think most books (all? all that are good?) are “failures” in two ways:
One being that, unless you have an incredible ego about your own writing and/or are unimaginative in ambition, they feel not quite as good as what you’d envisioned it to be. The second is a failure of expectation, not so much expectation of quality but that it isn’t quite about what you thought it would be. (That isn’t really a “failure,” but I’m calling it one for sake of theory.)
Both of these are because what’s on the page is just never quite what was in your mind. Ira Glass called that first way “The Gap“; it’s often at the heart of writer’s block, etc. Embracing that gap is kinda the only way you’ll ever finish anything. And then, embracing that second “failure,” is what makes most good writing good, I think. Letting something become what it wants to be, instead of what you think it should be, or want it to be, or had set out for it to be, or whatever.
Which is a long, kinda bullshitty way of saying: half the reason I chose The Body to write about was because I wanted to write about (male) friendship. Maybe I was too guarded to do so, or maybe I just didn’t have as much to say about friendship as I thought I did, but at some point the book ended up being about teaching and marriage and narrative–how and why we tell the stories that we do–and so I tried to embrace those ideas, even though they weren’t what I’d set out to do.
JULIA: So many of my questions for you are whether you knew something all along or developed the idea as you examined the story to write this book. Gordie says: “The most important things are the hardest things to say,” and I think every time that came up, I read it through my hands, cringing a little bit, hoping you wouldn’t apply it to marriage. But you did, because: of course. Because that’s the trouble, isn’t it? And I wonder: Did you know this all along? Every read of The Body, every watch of the movie, every class you taught this to, did you know that this is a profound concept for friendships, for parents, for life, but the most difficult and most worth-it relationship you’ll ever want to say the hard things for is a marriage? Or was that a connection you made in writing your book?
AARON: Totally while writing the book. Almost every idea in the book was developed while actually writing the book. That sentence isn’t in the movie, and it had actually never stuck out with me when reading and teaching the novella, until I started working on this book. I just kept coming back to it, and at some point was like, shit, I guess that is how and why this book is gonna become about marriage…
JULIA: I feel like this is the tricky part of what I want to ask you, because it’s always the tricky part of things I want to talk about, and this part of the book was both beautiful but horrifying in its resonance with me. The way you write candidly about your marriage — and I use the word candid in a non-lip-service sort of way: You not only speak openly and kinda shrug-y about the difficulties of marriage, but you seem like you actually just feel open and shrug-y about it. I got such a strong sense of waiting as I read this. I think of early re-watches I’ve done of Stand By Me, and how you know the action is mere minutes away, so why are they just sitting there doing nothing at the dump? Get on with it. But the waiting is magical in really quiet ways. I know that waiting out the dark parts of a marriage is anything but magical, but the truth is: every marriage has dark parts, and even though that’s a unifying thing, those dark parts are different for everyone. And the end product of this in your book is that we are left with a suspended state. A marriage in flux, in suspension. And I wonder: as you finished the book, were you tempted to go back and either clue us in or clean it up? Show us what was resolved, the way Gordie does at the end of the movie and the book?
AARON: I think “open and shrug-y” is actually probably a pretty apt way of describing me in general. I started to answer a lot of questions not actually asked here, but instead will just say, no, I wasn’t ever really tempted to give that aspect of the book more resolution. I’m not sure why not but the lack of resolution always felt right. My question, a little more, became trying to pull that off, to end the book while still leaving some aspects of it in flux.
JULIA: Shortly before I started reading your book, writer Wendy C. Ortiz tweeted this: “I like when I’m familiar with a writer’s spoken voice & I like it & then read their whole book hearing it narrated in their voice.” And I thought about this tweet often as I read. I heard this entire book in your voice, which made it amazing. It felt like a friend. And I think what is masterful about the book is that I think it would feel like this regardless — your style is very conversational, very informal, even while dropping some major concepts. You have a very untidy and approachable style. You write a lot about not writing much non-fiction, but I’m curious if you studied it before diving in. If this was a calculated move: writing in a spoken, casual style?
AARON: Thanks! That’s an incredibly kind sentiment. I wouldn’t say it was calculated but… purposeful, maybe?
I think all good writing probably has its own specific rhythms and timing, and I think my own writing is usually strongest when it feels most conversational. I’m not sure how I found or realized that, but I’ve done a good number of readings and tours over the years, often with really great readers, and I think if and when I hold my own it is via a more informal, casual tone. I think when it’s felt both most natural and strongest or best or whatever is maybe when it feels most like I’m just telling a story.
As far as study or calculation… I didn’t “study” any nonfiction for this book, but I at times teach my Intro English classes as a kind of creative nonfiction class, despite having never really written creative nonfiction, and I ended up finding my own teaching to be incredibly self-instructive, in a way that I hadn’t realized it ever would be at the time. My second piece of “study” was probably reading so many of the Boss Fight Books. Each book took its own tactic at being “about” the game it was about and the ones that affected me the most were the ones that most braided being about the game and about the author. It’s funny, I’ve glanced at those books’ Goodreads pages and everyone (of course) has totally different opinions–some people aren’t really fans of the books that go personal, some people most loved the books in the series that I just didn’t. I reminded myself of that while working on this. I’d have moments of, “Ugh, nobody cares about you,” or “Oh, no, what if people just want to read more about Stand By Me,” but I’d remind myself of my own tastes, I’d remind myself that I was trying to write the book that I myself would most want to read.
JULIA: Early in your book, you talk about the origin story of Hobart, the literary journal you founded 15 years ago. Hobart is possibly my top “go-to” in the literary world. It’s the thing I recommend to the most people, either readers or writers. Sure, you’re boundary-pushing in many ways, but it’s still a very literary and very respected thing. But it had such a simple start. It’s so earnest, in a way, that you just started a website with a cool name. That you didn’t even understand that you were making a literary magazine when you first made it. You just knew what you liked. In a way, it sounds similar to your writing process for Bookmarked: The Body: That you wanted to write the kind of book you’d read. What’s your favorite piece you’ve published in the last 15 years? Maybe asking for a favorite is unfair, but what’s the first piece that comes to mind when I asked that? The most Hobart-y?
And can you sort of track your own tastes by looking at the kind of work you’ve published over the years? I suppose that would be a really cool look at the changing lit scene of the last decade and a half.
AARON: Again, Julia: thanks. That’s a very kind way of putting it.
[Wife and partner] Elizabeth gives me shit sometimes, for not really having goals; or, more specifically, I think she gives me shit for being afraid to say I have goals, or afraid to name them specifically. Which is fair enough. I’m more ambitious than I typically want to admit, which I think comes back to the “shrug-y”ness we talked about, my general “aw shucks”-y attitude. But, mostly, I want to write things that I would be most stoked to read, as a reader; and with Hobart, I mostly want to put out a journal that I’d want to read, and I don’t really read many journals.
Anyway. Again, that wasn’t quite your question. Nothing jumps to mind as a favorite. The more I think about it, the more Mike Meginnis’s “Navigators” stands out, in part cause I really love that story, in part cause it was in Best American Short Stories, so it’s easy to point to the anthologized thing as something that stands out. Also, I wasn’t only stoked for Mike to be in BASS, or for Hobart, but I thought it was extra rad just to see a story about video games get so recognized. I think that speaks to Hobart: literary and quality, all that, but also fun, a little more goofy or pop culture-y, or just generally not taking ourselves that seriously.
Speaking of, Roxane Gay’s “North Country” was in that same issue and was also in that year’s BASS. And as much as I loved the story at the time, I’ve taught it a number of times since, and I love it more each time I get to discuss it with a classroom of students, which I guess brings us back to The Body.
JULIA: Thank you so much, Aaron. We look forward to having you in town! And, of course, hearing you read from The Body: Bookmarked at The Foundry reading series on July 30th. It’s gonna be a great night of readings and I can’t wait to pour you a drink!
Come hear Aaron read at The Foundry No. 2, our literary reading series, Saturday, July 30th at 7 PM at Tiger Eye Hair in Golden Hill. For more details and to invite your Stand By Me-loving friends: https://www.facebook.com/events/1762857903955708/
Aaron Burch is the author of Stephen King’s The Body: Bookmarked, a memoir about the King novella and Stand By Me. He is also the author of the short story collection, Backswing, and is the Founding Editor of the literary journal Hobart. Read an excerpt of The Body: Bookmarked here.
(Aaron, a couple of months ago)
If you like what we do at So Say We All, please consider supporting us and becoming a member. Details on our membership page here.