All Killer, No Filler

Andrew Martin

A story collection takes shape over years, usually (or at least in my case, and that of most other writers I’ve known) without an overarching plan in place. The stories accumulate, creating patterns and echoes, until there is a group that one hopes will be interesting and illuminating when brought together in a book. I know that some writers claim to sidestep what feels to me like the crucial process of selecting and ordering their collections—I remember reading that Deborah Eisenberg, once she had written enough stories to make up a book, asked her editor to create an order, and I’ve read recent collections that are simply presented in the order in which the stories were written or published. Lorrie Moore just published a book of her collected stories in alphabetical order by title, which seems like a delightfully perverse method of generating new connections and resonances. After all, no matter how little effort one puts into the process, readers will make connections, intended or not.

For me the selection and placement felt like the reward after the difficult work of actually writing the damn things. It was a chance to imagine myself as Fiona Apple or Kendrick Lamar, finding through lines and transitions in the products of disparate recording sessions and, just as importantly, deciding what needed to be shelved, either for the possibility of future use, or more likely, forever. (Would that I had a collection of leftovers half as good as those on Lamar’s untitled unmastered, a jaw-droppingly great set of outtakes from the To Pimp a Butterfly sessions that can stand perfectly well as a self-sufficient work.)

Neil Young, one of the patron saints of Cool for America (he comes in for some gentle ribbing in the book’s final story), is famous for his idiosyncratic approach to assembling and releasing albums. A song recorded a decade earlier will suddenly find itself sharing space with a collection wildly different in tone and style (see, for example, “Like an Inca,” a clumsy, rocking ode to pre-Columbian civilizations, as the closing track to Trans, an 80s concept album about robots), or, as in the case of the just-released Homegrown, an entire album might be set aside for forty years for being “too personal,” despite having been recorded around the same time as Tonight’s the Night, widely considered one of the most harrowing and raw albums ever released.

I certainly didn’t make any decisions to rival old Neil at his weirdest, but I tried to be conscious of pacing and consistency on the order of, say, his great 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps, which mimics the structure of Bob Dylan’s mid-60s sets, transitioning from acoustic to electric midway through, though without the hostility from betrayed folkies that Dylan endured. Rust Never Sleeps begins and ends with different versions of the song “Hey Hey, My My,” one gentle and plaintive, the other sprawling and defiant. It was a structure rattling around the back of my head when I had my collection begin and end with two stories about Leslie, one of the protagonists of my first novel, Early Work. I decided to open the collection with a tentatively hopeful story about her first steps forward as a writer—the acoustic version, if you will — and to end it with a story about, among other things, feeling trapped and exhausted in one’s life and experience. If there was music playing over the credits after the final story, it would be distorted and repetitive, like the instrumental backing of the last song on Rust.

Though music appears in almost everything I’ve written, the one story in the collection where it gets, um, center stage is “Deep Cut,” which follows a pair of teenagers over the course of a night out at a hardcore show in the mid-2000s. The story is very much influenced by—one might say it’s more of a cheerfully embellished reconstruction of—the shows I went to with friends in New Jersey when I was in high school. The shows, like the one in the story, often featured bands of very different temperaments and styles, all of which were categorized, somewhat inexactly, as “punk.” The band that most captured our hearts when we were sixteen was the emo band Thursday, from New Brunswick, just up Route 1 from where I grew up. (One of their early songs, “Dying in New Brunswick,” seemed to capture the general malaise of the state, even though we were from the posh suburbs rather than the titular city.) Their sophomore album, Full Collapse, was full of romantic despair and violent screaming, literary allusions (or at least titles like “Paris in Flames” and “Autobiography of a Nation” seemed literary to us), and juvenile complaints about girls. It seemed to capture what we imagined our lives to be better than anything else we’d ever heard, except for maybe the collected works of The Smashing Pumpkins, who probably had a bigger influence on emo than most bands who would openly call themselves that.

Even at that age, I was deeply interested in criticism, reading Rolling Stone and old Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs books and, like the character in my story, learning about classic rock and punk from an idiosyncratic Russian website helpfully called George Starostin’s Classic Rock and Pop Album Reviews. (I guess I found that last one through whatever primitive search engine I had access to back then. Google can now tell me that Starostin is a historical linguist, in his professional life, like his father before him. In any case: thank you, George.) But one of the joys of going to punk shows was the chance for unmediated experience, seeing bands I’d never heard of and deciding whether or not I liked them. These bands—even ones like Thursday that eventually got a decent amount of national attention—could belong to you in a way that the Clash never could. Most of the music I listened to during that time hasn’t held up for me; regardless of its objectivity quality (and that period of emo has its serious defenders), the extremity of the feelings in those songs is too directly linked to my teenage self for me to want to revisit them very often. But I definitely don’t regret my devotion in the moment.

One of the best things about punk is the “all killer, no filler” ethos. If all of your songs are more or less the same, best to get in and out quickly. But one of the most difficult things about writing fiction for me is the process of taking out things that don’t fit, either for reasons of tone, pacing, or repetition. Some of my favorite albums—Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, Sign O’ the Times by Prince, Life After Death by the Notorious BIG—are defined by sprawl, by the sense that the artist has tried to fit in as many different things as possible, decorum be damned. I very much hope to write a book like that someday—keep your eye out for Difficult, Overconfident Follow-up sometime between 2022 and 2030—but with these books I opted for discipline, something more like a Ramones or Clipse album, with internal consistency and, I hope, enough variation to keep things exciting. In the almost-decade I spent writing the stories in Cool for America, I also wrote half a novel of political satire (it has not aged well); a vaguely science-fictionish parable about encountering one’s doppelganger in a Best Buy; a story in the form of a precocious 11-year old’s diary; an attempt at a kind of Quiet American situation set in Turkey; and lots and lots of unpublished stories and scenes about would-be writers in Montana, Virginia, and New Jersey getting into trouble with love and substances. Some were too different from the others in the collection; many more were too similar. I tried hard not to get too caught up in thinking about the fact that if I didn’t include a story, it would have been “wasted” effort. Maybe every writer has to tell him or herself that nothing is wasted, that everything in some way contributes to the final product, or at least helps to rack up the 100 million hours you need to get good at anything.

The best way to not despair, maybe, is to keep those stories and fragments on your hard drive and pull them up every now and then, imagining they might “fit into something later.” After all, the book that you strived to make perfect might prove so popular that the publisher demands a new book immediately, in time for Christmas, and step on it! At first you’ll despair—a whole new book, it isn’t possible! But then you’ll remember: the Word documents! All those half-finished stories and novel fragments! You’ll realize you’ve already written the new book, your very own untitled unmastered, for all the world to see.

Andrew Martin‘s reviews and essays have been published in The New York Times Book Review, The New YorkerThe New York Review of BooksThe Washington Post, VICE, and elsewhere. His debut novel, Early Work, was published in 2018. He lives in New York with his partner Laura and their dog, Bonnie.