Scott Wrobel’s powerful collection Cul De Sac consists of eleven stories that all surround a hellish, rabid, but very familiar suburbia that could be any neighborhood in the interlocked tiny worlds that revolve around the cities residential areas, as well. The beauty is in the horseshoe shaped landscape of the cul de sac. There is no way out, once you entrench yourself in the lives of these characters that seem shackled to each other like prison cellmates. They all know each other’s business and yet so much goes on within the inner walls of their separate worlds. Here are just a few beauties from the hilarious, dark universe of Wrobel’s unforgettable collection.
“Ken’s in the middle of this outpatient treatments program with a bunch of other court-ordered drunks because six weeks ago he got off his shift at the hospital where he works as a lead maintenance technician, had too many beers at an Applebee’s bar, drove his Harley Heritage Softtail into a row of mailboxes, and ended up concussed on some guy’s driveway.”
“It happened when Liz let him go on a camping trip alone about four months earlier, in August, to get away and “rediscover his energy,” she said, and she gave him a plastic storage bin full of self-help books she got at a garage sale–Wayne Dyer, Leo Buscaglia, Deepak Chopra. He took the Jayco pop-up camper to a state park in a river valley and fished for trout and hiked and burned wood and drank beer and didn’t talk to anyone for five days. He didn’t read any of the books or rediscover his energy, but he learned that if you leave a guy alone in a camper in an empty campground late at night and there’s a twelve-pack of Heineken and a jar of mayonnaise in the mini-fridge, then that jar of mayonnaise is going to get raped.”
This one is not to be missed. Get on it and order a copy through Sententia Books.
Scott Wrobel’s Cul De Sac will keep you mesmerized and laughing. On the page with the Cul De Map of the eight main character’s houses is a definition of cul de sac: In French, literally, the bottom of the bag (1738). So fitting!
Scott Wrobel interview with Meg Tuite
WOW! So love this collection, Scott. And the story that you sent “Engravings,” is so visual. I can definitely see this as a scene in a film. The narrator, in one of my favorite scenes in this story, has finally got the guts up to come out to his family.
“The dinner conversation becomes two-directional between Gary and Lyle and the women eat and look down at their food. Peter’s thigh nerves bubble, and he’s had enough. He slams his palms down on his thighs and says loudly, ‘I’m gay and so is Amanda and this is all bullshit.’
Amanda reaches under the table and sets her hand on Peter’s thigh, and after three seconds, Gary says, ‘I’m gay, too, fella. How’m I gonna tell my wife?’
Laughter all around. The wind blows again. The family portrait straightens back up, but only Peter notices.”
You so beautifully depict the extended family scene and how powerful denial can be. Can you elaborate a bit on this story and how it fits so perfectly in with this collection?
Thank you. The main character, like all the male characters in Cul De Sac, is struggling to figure something out but the rest of the world won’t cooperate. All my characters attempt some sort of significant transformation but usually fall short. The history of literature and storytelling has been full of both ordinary and extraordinary heroes overcoming obstacles and improving themselves and their communities. This quest is taught – and I teach it myself – as the core of narrative, what makes a story a “story,” and it has been this way throughout history. But I tried hard to avoid it in favor of reality, a place where most humans are not heroic. This book celebrates those who, by either choice or by nature, are incapable of major personal transformations. The Cul De Sac characters often do not improve or grow as a result of their struggles. This may seem like a cynical and misanthropic view of American suburban domesticity from the male perspective, but if it is, then it’s cynicism and misanthropy in a fun sort of way in that it’s accepting of humans for what they are: flawed, inconsistent, poor decision-makers, hilarious, and beautiful in their failures. They are admirable for being unremarkable. Dark comedy is what I aimed for. I ended that sentence with a preposition. Dark comedy is that for which I aimed.
The end of “Engravings” is powerful and so crucial to the entire story. How do the tales come to you? Do you get a first sentence that starts the process or is it a character that starts to shape in your head?
When I decided to write stories about the suburbs, instead of entering into them with ideas, I instead used a writing exercise – my favorite one – that I always give to my creative writing students: the object exercise, but with a variation. Instead of just describing any objects through action and description only, and no exposition, I described objects that seemed suburban, like plastic storage bins, portable firepits on wheels, extension cords, and power washers, with the hope that characters and stories would build up around the descriptions. I went to Menards.
It worked well in some cases, not so well in others. I have what I think is a great description of a guy standing at the edge of his garage untangling extension cords and swearing that never went anywhere. But another story, “Storage,” which concludes Cul De Sac, started from going to Target with a notepad and writing physical descriptions of plastic storage bins. There was a whole row. I have pictures.
Other stories grew from first lines, such as in “After the Lovin’,” which is about a guy who is taking care of his wife who has the condition of gross obesity. It all started with a line I heard from a co-worker at a summer temp-job I had back in college seventeen years ago. My first day on the job, I was sitting in a cubicle at a computer with a bunch of other temp workers doing data-entry in a huge cubicle complex and a large woman walked by, breathing heavy. One of my co-workers leaned over to me and said, “That’s Betty. She starts throwing off a stink about noon every day.” What she said was terrible, but I filed the line away, thinking, “That line will start a story some day.” And it did, over a decade later. But through the revision process – I revise obsessively – that line remained in the story but ended up somewhere in the middle rather than at the start.
Brilliant! I love the visual of you in Target with your notepad staring at storage bins. If there was another writer in there, I’m sure he/she was jotting that one in the memory for a future character. Tell us more about “Cul De Sac,” as an entire collection. Did you come up with the notion of the cul de sac as the central theme that pulls these stories together?
My initial goal was to write something about the suburban world after I moved into a suburban neighborhood in 2004. The ‘burbs blew my mind. I also became fascinated in seeing how big, institutional-sized dreams die, like the American Dream in-general, some examples being The Salton Sea, Glen Canyon, Las Vegas, and The Ice Capades. But being a Midwesterner, I had to go more local in order to get the visceral qualities right, and the American Suburbs seemed one of the greatest emblems of one of the Great American Dream’s lies: that even middle-class people can be regal and happy and safe so long as they contribute to the economy and keep their lawns tended and pray to Jesus with public regularity.
Once I decided I wanted to write about the suburbs, I had to decide the form, and it was a process of elimination. I ruled out poems right away because I’m simple-minded and my only line breaks are periods. And then I ruled out any nonfiction that would compromise the privacy of myself or my real neighbors, so I instead started reading a lot of books and watching a lot of movies and exploring art and photography about the suburbs, everything from Cheever and Updike fictions to movies like American Beauty and more critical studies like Henry Miller’s The Air Conditioned Nightmare; Suburban Nation: The Rise and Sprawl of the American Dream; The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. But I also didn’t want to write a sociological exploration of the suburbs because that would be ordinary; I wasn’t interested in writing the usual essays about homogeneity, conservatism, consumerism, malaise, etc. I didn’t want to name themes or be political, so instead I decided to write stories that relied on action, dialogue and description rather than my own opinions. I wanted to keep myself, as the writer, hidden in the background.
So I considered writing a novel, but that was too daunting. I was raising kids (still am) and working full-time (still am), trying to build a career (still am), and so I couldn’t commit to a long narrative or long spells of writing time, so I decided to start working on short stories, since I loved the form (still do), and the idea for making a group of stories about people who live in a typical middle-class American cul de sac came from a book called Trailer Park by Russell Banks. Instead of a single arc, it told the interconnected the stories of characters living in a small trailer park in New England.
And then my publisher Paula Bomer came up with some terrific ideas to make the stories cohere even more: First, to split the book into two sections, the first half being stand-alone stories, each from the perspective of a different guy in the cul de sac, and the second half a novella chronicling the character who is in the most stories, Gary Wiegard, the prototypical American suburban father. “Engravings” is a part of the Gary Wiegard sequence, but is told from the point of view of one of Gary’s son’s, Peter. So, the first half of the book is titled “Regular Guys,” and is anchored by the story “Regular Guy,” which is about an old-school neighborhood racist who wants to keep the cul de sac (and by default, “America”) Caucasian, and the second half of the book is a novella in stories called “The Ballad of Gary Wiegard.”
Another perfect idea of Paula’s was to make a map of the cul de sac in the beginning of the book and label where all the characters lived. That helped to unify the stories even more, right from the outset. We called it the “Cul De Map.”
The “Cul De Map” is a great addition. You really do capture so many exceptional characters in this collection that seem familiar and yet you brandish them with your own twist that makes them unique and unforgettable. Did you publish these first as separate stories in literary magazines?
Yes, most of the stories were published in literary magazines, and Paula Bomer first noticed one of them in Night Train, the story “Peckers.” On a side note, early on in the writing process, I had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about submitting stories for “online” publication versus “print” journals. Some thought print publications were perceived as more credible to editors and publishers, but I always aimed for online publications with the idea that the readership was unlimited and the ceiling for being noticed was higher, and so how can that be a bad thing? I can say for once in my life that I was right about something. Cul De Sac would still probably be published if I hadn’t placed “Peckers” in Night Train and “Storage” in Identity Theory, both stories which Paula read and liked and remembered. And as far as “credibility” goes, I think we’ve all learned that publishing quality literature via the internets is the present and also the future of literature. Terrifically quality-driven publications like Night Train and Identity Theory and Connotation Press, to name a few of many, have proven their mettle and will be around a long time.
How has it been on the circuit doing readings and signing books?
I enjoy reading out loud and performing. One of my regrets in life is that I never pursued stand-up comedy, so giving “readings” now gives me that opportunity to do the shtick and bit that I’ve always thought about doing but never tried. I love to work audiences and make them uncomfortable, in a fun way, and being this “Suburban Guy” persona has been a good vehicle. And then when I break character and become myself, I’m even more awkward and embarrassing, which I enjoy. I love humor a lot, even if no else thinks it’s funny. I take humor seriously.
The part of the promotion side that I’m still getting used to is setting up readings and events. I do not like to sell or promote myself. That’s been the hardest part. I love to perform, but not so much to promote, and those are two very different skills, I’m finding, and the promotion skills are probably more important, and harder, than the performing skills. I’m new at this; this is my first book. I’m learning a lot. I’ve learned that I can’t be good at everything, but I can type over a hundred words a minute and I never took a keyboarding class in my life, so that must be good for something, except the guys in my neighborhood aren’t too impressed by that.
Well, to hell with them, I’m extremely impressed, Scott! And I’m hoping I get to witness one of your readings sometime soon.
As a writer and a teacher, where and how do you see the future of publishing moving? You spoke about online publishing a bit as having become essential to getting more readers and I agree with you. What else do you see happening?
I don’t know much about how publishing works, but it seems that, at least in the teaching of writing, there has been a move from the teaching rhetoric with words toward the teaching of rhetoric in multi-media forms, meaning composition teachers, due to cultural pressures, are being encouraged to “meet the students where they are” and teach rhetoric through visual and audio mediums as much as through actual words on the page, through such things as hypertext essays, blogging, etc. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I know it’s inevitable. Longer-form writings seem to be phasing out in favor of short fictions and multi-media-style writings. This is the way the culture is moving. When people want to learn how to caulk a tub or grow weed in their basement, they go straight to Youtube, don’t they? They’re not looking for essays to teach them; they’re looking for videos. This is the culture we live in (the culture in which we live). At the same time, even though it seems the culture doesn’t want to read anymore, everyone still seems to want to write a book, and so self-publishing is becoming more common. The thing I hope self-publishers realize is that peer-review, overall, is a good thing; writers learn and get better from it. Without it, standards lower, and too many bad books about vampires and zombies and bondage get published just because there’s enough money to throw down. As a result, sometimes writing just becomes a commodity.
One of my favorite quotes from Flannery O’Connor: “Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
Who are your inspirations as a writer?
My main influence is Edward Abbey, who wrote terrific nonfiction and decent fiction, though he always wished the opposite. I imitated his prose style for a long time. And in the larger sense, I wanted be a nonfiction travel-nature-environmental-political-memoir writer like him. I wanted to write, as he wrote, to “defend the diversity and freedom of humankind from those forces on our modern techno-industrial culture that would reduce us all, if we let them, to the status of things, objects, raw material, personnel; to the rank of subjects.”
That was my goal, but then after my grad school MFA, I got married and reproduced twice and landed a responsible job, which I’ve had for fifteen years. I didn’t have the time or resources to write essays against the techno-industrial empire from campgrounds and fire towers since I was living in a Midwestern apartment with drooling babies who wouldn’t sleep. Ed Abbey once said that the lowest form of literature is fiction about domestic life, so I went ahead and did that instead, because that’s what I knew. I traded in my backpack for baby bottles. I wrote a book about the domestic life of the American male father creature, albeit somewhat satirical.
Some other influences: Flannery O’Connor, William Kennedy, Hunter S. Thompson, John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bowden, Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, Mad Magazine, Monty Python and other British satirists like Spike Milligan and Peter Cook, and Donald Ray Pollock, my favorite writer, who graciously blurbed Cul De Sac. He’s a brilliant writer and a great person.
Oh, yes. I would include most of them on my list, as well. Do you have a set schedule for your writing? How do you fit it in with your teaching schedule?
I teach my own students to write daily, as I have been taught, by journaling or applying writing exercises – something to establish a regular discipline -- but I have terrible writing habits myself as far as regular discipline. I usually don’t write unless prompted, which is why, as mentioned, I use writing exercises to get myself going. And I don’t drink coffee anymore, so almost any prompt is a good prompt.
I don’t write for months at a time and then I’ll binge for a week or a two, and sometimes I’ll write fifteen minutes here, ten minutes there, between chores. For the stories in Cul De Sac, though I didn’t write on a schedule, I worked on each with obsession and ran each through the workshop process multiple times. I did a lot of the writing while cooking dinner, the laptop parked on the kitchen counter: type for a few minutes, stir noodles, yell at kids for not liking the food, type more words. I don’t write regularly, but when I do, I’m obsessive about getting it right. When I write and revise, I need to go full force until I’m tired. I can’t punch in or out at set times. And ninety percent of my time is probably spent revising, and maybe ten percent in the actual writing/drafting/creating stages.
Do you enjoy teaching? And do you think it helps or hinders your writing practice?
I’m grateful to be an English professor. I find the teaching process fun and natural, from preparation to delivery to feedback. My typical load for the past fifteen years has been ¾ freshman composition and ¼ either creative writing or literature, so I spend a lot of time reading, critiquing, and grading – all of which I enjoy -- and the rest of the time complaining that I don’t have any time to write. Writing and revising demands a lot of time and so does teaching, and at least in my case, teaching gets more attention. If I were a loner-vagabond, the priorities might be reversed, but I’m a family-guy, so I put the daily grind before the art. And teaching writing demands more of the emotions also. In sum, teaching demands more of the brain and emotions and leaves little energy for creative production, though I know a lot of superhuman colleagues who can do both, and do both well. The benefit to my own writing is that from my teaching of creative writing, I have learned and developed a lot of great writing exercises that have helped me generate material, and I’ve also learned to be good at revision through running a lot of workshops.
Well, you have proven that you are able to teach and still write damn great stories!
I loved your book trailer! The pipe was a nice touch. Did you put that one together on your own or was it with the publisher, Sententia Books?
Thank you! I recorded that during a break after fall semester when I was starting to gear up for promoting of the book in spring. I’d seen a lot of writers doing book trailers, but few actually had the writers in them, so I decided to take the opportunity, as mentioned earlier, to do comedy, since I never pursued it earlier. I did a fake-interview sort of thing, the interviewee being me as a pretentious idiot writer, which I partially outlined and then mostly improvised, and I made purposeful bad edits and used schmaltzy music from Engelbert Humperdinck, who is a big part of the one of the stories in Cul De Sac, and Styx’s Dennis De Young, who isn’t. I’m probably violating copyright, but music lawyers haven’t contacted me yet. I’m hoping they will so I can get some free publicity for the book. I sent the video to my publisher Paula Bomer to see if she thought it was okay or too embarrassing, and she gave it the thumbs-up and posted it immediately to the Sententia Books website. I like it that my publisher supports my “art.” I like that a lot. I might do some more awkward video bits.
I hope so. I look forward to more of those.
Give me a favorite quote of yours that says a lot about what you believe as a person and a writer?
“I write to entertain my friends and exasperate our enemies.” Edward Abbey wrote that. That’s simple, but it’s how I view my own work. If I can entertain my friends and peers, whose judgment I respect, and at the same time, make uncomfortable those other people of whom I am not so fond – those who I find dangerous to life such as motivational speakers, sales associates, zealots, marketers, politicians, CEO’s, and car rental agency clerks -- then I’m achieving a worthy purpose.
That’s for damn sure! Thank you so much, Scott, for a superlative interview. I am posting the link to the book trailer and your outstanding collection “Cul De Sac.” Hope everyone gets a copy of this unforgettable collection. And enjoy “Engravings,” one of the stories from “Cul De Sac” that Connotation Press has published below.