Author Q&A: David Leo Rice (Drifter)

David Leo Rice, author of Drifter

David Leo Rice is the author of the novels A Room in Dodge City (“David Lynch meets Neil Gaiman meets Samuel Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd,” says Nick Antosca), A Room in Dodge City Vol. 2: The Blut Branson Era (“At once a parody of and tribute to film culture, it reads like what might happen if William S. Burroughs got loaded and did a cut-up using issues of Cahiers du Cinema from an alternate dimension,” says Brian Evenson), and Angel House (“A headfuck of utterly monumental proportions,” says Tobias Carroll).

This summer, 11:11 Press released Rice's story collection Drifter, which contains a decade’s worth of stories originally published in places such as Black Clock, Catapult, and The Rumpus.

Two of Rice’s early short stories appeared in Identity Theory: “Jack and Emily Texas Roadside Incident, Summer 2012” and “Swimming School.” We caught up with the Brooklyn-based author to hear about his new story collection and find out what he’s learned about being a writer over the first decade of what we expect will be a long career.

We last heard from you in 2017 when we published your short story “Swimming School.” This was around the time you released your first novel, A Room in Dodge City. What have you been up to since then?

Great to be back in touch! It’s been an exciting, busy time since then, as a few things that had been brewing since about 2010 have made their way into print. Angel Housemy biggest novel so far, in terms of length and overall ambition—came out in 2019, then a novella called The PornME Trinity came out in 2020, just before Covid, and two new books came out this year: A Room in Dodge City: Vol. 2, and Drifter: Stories, a collection gathering about 10 years’ worth of stories.

I’ve also been teaching a lot and, just recently, I started cohosting the Wake Island podcast, a discussion series about transgressive art, American spirituality, and escape, which has been a lot of fun and a new challenge to apply a slightly different set of skills to (some of which I’ve tried to develop on the fly).

What have you learned about being a writer during that time?

I think the biggest joy and potential challenge of these past four years has been to work toward striking a durable balance between public and private life. The circle of people I’ve been in touch with and events I’ve been a part of has grown exponentially, which is absolutely wonderful, but it requires a new approach to my daily workflow, in terms of doing much more communication and planning than I used to do, while also maintaining full engagement with new writing.

If the challenge of the first five or so years of my post-college writing life was mostly about, as one mentor put it, “carrying the candle in the rain,” the challenge of this second phase has been about fully embracing the new opportunities that have begun to emerge, and doing right by the older work that’s now being published, while at the same time constantly reaffirming my commitment to new books and stories. This also involves adjusting to the feeling of seeing myself through other people’s eyes a little bit, whereas in the earlier phase I saw myself only through my own eyes, since almost no one else was looking.

Tell us about your new book, Drifter.

Drifter is a collection of stories that all involve themes of transience, transformation, and exile. While many of the stories focus on actual drifters, I also think of the title as partly referring to the reader, or to myself while writing the book—a sense of drifting from story to story and across the dead zones in between, remaining partly the same while also feeling that part of you has been left behind, while some as-yet-unknown new part of you is waiting up ahead.

I discussed the title with my father in the run-up to publication, and we debated whether it should instead be called Seeker. His argument was that Drifter implies passivity, a sense of neither leaving nor approaching anything definite, whereas Seeker is more active, more about an engaged search for… something. I’m still not sure which title better describes the essence of the stories, so perhaps the reality is somewhere in between: the characters aren’t self-aware or in control enough to actively seek anything, and yet the worlds they inhabit are perverse and dynamic enough that they do indeed reveal something by the end—whether for good or evil, there is at least a provisional conclusion to drifting in each story, leaving only the reader and the writer to drift on.

Drifter by David Leo Rice

What writers and literary publications have you discovered over the past few years who deserve more attention?

I’ve been very excited about what feels like an emergent literary renaissance in the indie press world. 10 years ago, when I was just starting out after college, there was the whole “alt-lit” world of HTMLGiant and NY Tyrant and other presses, and then that kind of ran its course, and now it feels like something else is ramping up—maybe even something better, in that it seems more inclusive, more dynamic, and more ambitious in terms of its potential for growth.

It was a total dream working with 11:11 Press on Drifter, and I’ve been inspired by many of the other titles they’ve published, including work by Grant Maierhofer, Vi Khi Nao, and Gary J. Shipley. In this same world, there’s also Clash Books, Kernpunkt, Whiskey Tit, Amphetamine Sulfate, Apocalypse Party—who published BR Yeager’s magisterial Negative Space—and many other enterprising, innovative presses who seem to be doing it for true love of the art form, not only despite but in many ways because of the myriad ways that digital media has undermined our time and attention for books. It feels like a rescue mission in a wonderful way, especially as mainstream publishing grows ever more conservative. Like many teenagers probably, I used to dream about being part of a creative movement or scene, like Paris in the ‘20s or London in the ‘60s or the Lower East Side in the ‘80s. In a modest but sincere way, this feels like that dream coming true.

What are you working on now?

2022 will see the release of The New House, a standalone novel about a reclusive artist loosely based on Joseph Cornell, and A Room in Dodge City: Vol. 3, the conclusion of the trilogy, which I’m working on now. The New House is pretty much done, so I’m starting the production process on that with Whiskey Tit, while trying to muster as much apocalyptic energy as I can for Dodge City 3, to really cauterize the whole project and bring my 10-year sojourn in that seedy mental space to a satisfying conclusion.

I’m also working on a new story collection called The Squimbop Condition, which delves deeper into the trans-dimensional exploits of my American charlatan duo The Brothers Squimbop, who show up in Drifter and Angel House. This collection, if I can pull it off, will be a kind of meta-book within my body of work, drawing connections between and adding an apocryphal dimension to much of what I’ve published so far. Lastly, I just came onboard to co-edit an anthology about the early films of David Cronenberg with the Scottish author Chris Kelso.

In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?

Literature has the ability to remind people that they have a timeless and infinitely spacious internal realm that isn’t bound by the constraints of the outside world. Everyone lives in this realm during childhood, but it seems that many of us believe adulthood requires shutting it down. Literature is the best proof we have that this realm can and should remain open for a lifetime. I think if more adults were in touch with their internal worlds, and proud of this fact, there’d be much less conflict in the external world.

What was the last book you gave as a present?

The Last Picture Show. A few months ago, I visited Archer City, TX where Larry McMurtry lived and wrote, and fell completely in love with this book, which I read on the way. Soon after, I gave it to my brother for his birthday.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

On balancing accessibility with strangeness: “(Some) people will take any ride you build for them, but they have to be able to get on first. If the ride starts 80 feet in the air, no matter how cool it looks, no one will be able to ride it.”

Is it better to write for your worst reader or your best reader?

It’s ideal to write for someone who’s fully willing and able to appreciate what you do best, but who, by that same token, can honestly tell you when you’re not doing it.

Which author do you re-read most frequently?

I’m a bad re-reader since there’s so much new work I’m constantly trying to absorb, and I associate rereading mostly with teaching, but the author who best renews and refreshes me, even upon short repeat visits, is Bruno Schulz.

What is the best sentence you’ve ever read?

“Something is going to happen to me; I am going to do something,” from Faulkner’s Light in August.

Joe Christmas, the protagonist, thinks this while standing in the street with a straight razor in the middle of the night, right before committing the murder that forms one of the book’s central events. The combination of active and passive self-awareness in that sentence—the idea that “doing something” could be a form of “something happening” to you—is chilling and, I think, spot-on in terms of how human psychology works.

How do you decide what books to read?

I have three categories that I cycle among: classics I’ve been meaning to get to, newish books I’ve been meaning to get to, and wild cards, in the sense of occasionally letting books skip the queue and reading something unexpected right away, to keep a feeling of dynamism in the flow. Now, with having more friends who are writers, writing blurbs, teaching, and doing the podcast, I also have a lot on my to-read list that comes from these sources.

What is your go-to activity when procrastinating on writing?

Unfortunately, just ambient Internet scrolling. I wish I were better at turning it on and off, only sitting down at the computer when I’m actually going to write, and then getting up and taking a walk or doing something totally different when I’m not writing, but, like most of us, I lose a lot of time in the lurch between these two states. I do love reading reviews of new media and interesting articles on contemporary life, so all that Internet time isn’t totally wasted, but it feels involuntary in a way I’m not proud of, which makes me think the battle for the future of humanity will involve the battle to reclaim our attention—a battle I often fear was lost long ago.

How do you decide when to be done with a written work?

This has also changed in recent years, as I have more external deadlines than I used to, so the decision of when to be done feels less autonomous than it once did.

Barring any deadline, I try to reach an initial point where I feel satisfied—I often get a sense of physical relief upon finishing a draft—and then step back for a while, even a few months maybe, and then come back and read it again, printed out, with an eye toward editing it as a reader, not a writer. Once I’ve done this and can relate to the piece from that reader’s point of view, no longer considering what I intended as a writer but only what I’d get from it if I encountered it anew, I can call it done.

Name a writer who is a deep influence on you who you suspect hardly anyone you know has read.

I’m in love with the Uruguayan short story writer Felisberto Hernandez. He was an influence on Borges and Garcia Marquez, and his dreamy, memory-soaked visions of early 20th century Uruguay and Argentina have a gossamer beauty that enchants me. He was also a piano player in silent movie theaters, so his ominous and nostalgic sense of silent cinema as a narrative mode reminds me of Guy Maddin and the Quay Brothers, who I believe adapted one of his stories for animation (though not quite as successfully as they did with Bruno Schulz’s “Street of Crocodiles”).

Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what’s on your playlist?

I listen constantly. In earlier years, I’d have a more consistent roster of favorite bands and albums, often in the “Ghost Folk” genre—Sparklehorse, Vic Chesnutt, Will Oldham, Califone, etc—but today, with Spotify, I’m much more promiscuous, usually loading up a new list every week or so, depending on my whims and/or any new releases that cross my radar. Speaking of Larry McMurtry, I’ve been listening to his son James a lot lately.

Best bookstore you’ve ever been to?

Massolit Books in Krakow. It’s a sprawling complex with several browsing rooms of new and used books, a café, and a number of lounge setups, ideal for whiling away an entire day, and reminiscent—in a secondhand sense—of a bygone European literary culture of coffeehouses and serious debates among young poets, the kind of lost world that Bolano conjures as well.

What job have you held that was most helpful for your writing?

I worked at a Moroccan restaurant in my hometown in high school. It was run by two brothers from Morocco and, when I took a gap year before college and told them I wanted to go there, they arranged for me and two friends to stay with a bunch of their relatives all around the country. Anywhere we went in Morocco, it seemed like, there was someone to take us in and show us around. That trip was a hugely formative time, both in terms of the specific sights and sounds it offered, and the more existential feeling of being a drifter at large in the wide world… and it never would’ve happened if I hadn’t worked at that restaurant.

What is one of your vices?

Trying to do too much at once and wasting time moving among and organizing projects, rather than jumping into any of them.

What is one of your prejudices?

I used to look down on people who consumed art “purely for entertainment,” and who didn’t—to my teenage mind—seem serious enough about their aesthetic diet. After spending a decade-plus in the working world, I can now more easily understand why so many people just want to relax and unwind, and I don’t begrudge them that, even if I do still wish more people would engage with demanding and disturbing work, and be more open to it changing them on a fundamental level.

Favorite books you’ve read in the past year?

The Wasp Factory, The Mezzanine & The Fermata, At Night All Blood is Black, Stoner, Always Crashing in the Same Car, Slow Days, Fast Company and Tender is the Flesh.

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Visit David Leo Rice at raviddice.com.

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