[Interview_1] Christian A. Dumais

Christian A. Dumais' work has been featured in newspapers and magazines that include the St. Petersburg Times, GUD Magazine and Third Wednesday.

His latest book, Empty Rooms Lonely Countries (CreateSpace, 2009) is a collection of short stories that draws on his experiences as an American living in Poland as well as on his adventures in the United States.

When he is not writing, Dumais works as a university lecturer in Wroclaw, Poland, where he teaches American Literature, as well as Creative Writing and American Pop Culture.

In this interview, Christian Dumais talks about his concerns as a writer:

How would you describe your writing?

I’ve been asked this a few times and I’m still uncertain on how to answer. The category I keep coming across is autobiographical fiction, but I don’t think that’s what I’m out to achieve. The stories in Empty Rooms Lonely Countries are true. The events happened. The conversations are as I remember them. The people are real. However, for the benefit of telling a cohesive and entertaining story, the chronology has been altered at times, separate events have been combined into one, and of course, it’s all filtered through my own experiences. If anything, I’m fortunate to have lived a life with enough events that sound like fiction.

I guess my concern is that I don’t want the book to come across as a memoir full of angst and heartache, the kind you’ve seen a dozen times already. Sure there’s angst and heartache, but there are also monsters, imaginary friends, elves, gnomes, fairies, vampires, cupids, mariachis, pornstars, devils and lots of alcohol. Now that I think of it, it’s a lot like the Bible. How is that for a selling point?

Who is your target audience?

My target audience? This is something I've considered a lot in the last few months of promoting the new book. I know the book as a whole isn't for everyone, but I believe without a doubt that there is a story or two in the book for everyone.

But if I had to be specific, I believe Empty Rooms Lonely Countries is written for people my age (I'm going to be 35) who remember the 80s as the first decade they actively participated in and who remember their history through a massive overload of pop cultural references.

I wouldn't say there was any particular motivation to start writing for this specific audience; if anything, I was writing the kinds of stories I liked to read. The stories written in the 90s were written from my dissatisfaction of the decade and how, as a generation, we were in this bizarre holding pattern. And I'd like to believe that if I was noticing this, that there were plenty of others doing the same, and sometimes it's nice to see your thoughts in someone else's words. Many of the books I've fallen in love with in my life were the ones that appeared to be written just for me, and the joy of the story comes from both the recognition of your thoughts in someone else's words and the satisfaction of knowing you're not alone.

What would you say Empty Rooms Lonely Countries is about?

Empty Rooms Lonely Countries is a collection of 27 short stories. The stories move from Tampa, Florida to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to London, England to Paris, France and eventually end up in Wroclaw, Poland, with plenty of places in between. The stories jump genres, from horror to humor to romance to drama. Like I said before, there is something for everyone.

The book collects a small amount of the short stories written over the last 12 years. If anything, this book is a nice sampler of the kinds of things I can write, so I can’t really say it stands apart from my other work. I do like how the stories selected for Empty Rooms Lonely Countries work together to tell a much larger story. Even the About the Author works as an epilogue.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My greatest concern as a writer is to tell an entertaining story that is emotionally honest. I've read thousands of short stories that were amazingly entertaining, but the ones that have stuck with me were the ones with a sincere emotional connection. The details of the stories themselves might have been forgotten, but the way those stories made me feel will not.

As for how I deal with that, I'm always considering the best approach to telling the story. Okay, something interesting happened in my life this week that I believe warrants a story, but unless I can find the emotional hook, it won't be written. For instance, the story "Mad Dogs" is about my evening out with some of the members of the Secret Service in Krakow, and that alone, I believe, is an effective hook. However, if I only used that, the story itself might be entertaining, but it would be empty. By focusing on the displacement of the American agents in Poland, this helped to emphasize my own feelings of alienation, and because of this, I hope that it created something more identifiable for the reader to hold onto as they work through the story.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

My personal experiences are my writing. I think one of the things that helped my writing was to stop pretending I was not writing about myself and stop creating fictional characters that were so overtly me that I may as well have named them Dristian Chumais.

This is one of the things that drew me so heavily to Hunter S. Thompson, this insistence on destroying the reality of Thompson and exploring the myth of Thompson, to the point that a lot of readers continue to have difficulty discerning what's true and what's not. This ambiguity creates a third version of Thompson that is neither true nor false, but rather, a Thompson that's more real than the previous versions could ever be.

I’m not saying I’ve accomplished anything remotely like Thompson, but it's something I consider as I reconcile who I am in real life as opposed to who I am in print.

In terms of the direction of my writing in terms of my experiences, because the stories in Empty Rooms Lonely Countries are based on real documented events, whether it be my aforementioned experience with the Secret Service or the drug conferences I attended as a “pharmacist” from 1997 to 1998, I have an obligation to be honest for those who were there with me, but an even bigger responsibility to translate those experiences and emotions as honestly as I can for the readers.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenge I’m currently facing is getting the book noticed. It’s hard work trying to be heard on the internet (even with a contest to give away $1,000), especially when there are hundreds of new incredible things arriving every day. I mean, here I am with this little book screaming, “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! I WANT TO GIVE YOU A $1,000!” and meanwhile everyone is watching a YouTube clip of a slow loris being tickled. And then when that’s done, they are Googling “slow loris” to find out just what the hell it is.

You just can’t compete with a tickled slow loris. It’s tough out there.

How many books have you written so far?

This is my second book. Though, in full disclosure, the first book was a novel and it’s been locked away in a very dark place. Nobody has been able to look at it for over ten years now. There is a rumor that whenever someone reads the novel, a puppy dies. I couldn’t live with that.

How did you choose the publisher for the book?

I went with CreateSpace and self-published Empty Rooms Lonely Countries. A lot of this was done out of impatience, and since many of the stories in the book had been published previously in magazines and journals, I believed that it was time to collect them into one handy package.

Plus, I spent most of last year studying a movement called liberature for my MA work, and one of the things it endorsed was the writer’s active participation in every aspect of the book’s creation. It likened the writer giving the manuscript to a publisher and not being involved in the packaging of the book to a musician creating a score and not stating what kind of instruments are to be used. I really liked the idea of putting the book together, creating the cover and knowing the book inside and out. I know CreateSpace prints my book, but it’s gratifying to know that this book is mine, that it’s precisely how I wanted it to be through my own choices.

Which aspect of the work did you enjoy most?

I just enjoyed going through the stories again and picking out what should and shouldn’t go into the book. Some of the stories made me cringe (and still do) and some of the stories surprised me. I like the memories each story gives me, which is why I’m having a lot of fun now writing commentaries for each of the stories from the book on my website.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

My most significant achievement as a writer on a personal level has been that I’ve kept writing all of these years, even when no one was reading my stories and I wasn’t getting published. The easy thing to do is not write, to turn on a movie or read a book instead, and I’m thrilled to have this large body of work that’s accumulated over the years. I’m really proud of that.

Outside of that, I’m thrilled to have avoided some of the more common traps writers fall in, like shoot themselves in the face or marry their 13-year-old cousin.

What will your next book be about?

The next book will be another collection of short stories -- out sometime in late 2010 -- and it is tentatively titled You Are Going to Die and Other Stories of Hope and Inspiration. After that, I hope I will have finally finished the novel I’ve been threatening to finish for far too long. Or who knows, maybe I’m really a short story writer after all.

Anything else before we go?

I just want to thank everyone who has bought the book. I know I’m not selling huge numbers, but it thrills me to know that there are copies out there in the world being read.

For those who are on the fence, I’m having a contest to give away $1,000 to one of my readers if I manage to sell 1,000 copies of Empty Rooms Lonely Countries by the end of this year.

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