In his short story collection Everyone Worth Knowing (Circuit Breaker Books, June 1, 2021), author Jeff Richards explores the stories of everyday acquaintances through the stories of 17 male protagonists.
I believe that music—especially rock and the blues—influenced this collection. Could you talk a little more about how music has informed your writing, and this book in particular?
Four of the stories in this collection are based on the lyrics in songs. For instance, the title for Riding the Fences comes from the Eagles song “Desperado.” The story itself follows closely the lyrics and theme of the song. Happiness comes from the John Prine song “All the Best.” Both are about the break-up of a marriage. One of the other stories is based on Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers’ “Cool Guitar.” I interviewed Jimmy for a magazine article and this is what he said about that song: “It sounded like, you know, it came from an old blues singer and it had a great twist, a great hook, ‘I’m gonna sell the bitches car./And buy myself a cool guitar.’ You know the guy gets even with the lady for throwing him out of their apartment. And, of course, I thought either this will be a big hit or I am going to be in big trouble with the National Organization of Women. But the real idea, when you listen to the lyrics, is that the guy singing the song is the asshole and he admits it at the end. And fortunately people get this. I think more women than even men.”
Also, I’m trying to set a blues tone for the story collection. The male protagonists in the stories often screw up in their relationships with the opposite sex and they either solve their problems, or not, depending, I guess, on where they end up on the macho scale.
It seems many of your characters have questionable morals, like the one who won’t wear a mask in 2020, and another who gets rich off donations to his church while finding comfort at a brothel. How do you think about writing from the perspectives of these characters, and what draws you to their stories?
I don’t think you are born with morality. I think it is something you are taught through experience, mostly. The man who doesn’t wear a mask is doing so because it’s his way of acting manly. He doesn’t want to restrict his freedom, which seems to be a common theme among those who don’t wear masks, but really it goes deeper into what happened to him when he was a child. That he is hurting other people in the process doesn’t seem to bother him until the end of the story. The preacher in the other story becomes a Jimmy Swaggart type after the death of his wife and daughter. Maybe he doesn’t like what God did to him so he’s trying to get even. Most of these stories are about men and how they struggle to understand how they fit into society. Often it is hard for them to get beyond the male stereotype.
You’ve written novels as well as short story collections. How does your approach to each differ?
To me a novel is a very long short story and a short story is a very short novel. Edgar Allan Poe said that “there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” This goes for both so it may seem easier to put together a collection of stories though harder to come up with a “pre-established design” in that collection. I approach a novel like it is a whole bunch of short stories since I have more practice writing short stories. I write the first chapter and perfect it according to Poe’s design. Then I write the second in the same way and find that I must go back to the first to change a few things to make sure it jives with the second, and so on throughout the novel. Though as I get deeper into the subject I find that I have to make fewer changes because I have a clearer idea of the design.
Everyone Worth Knowing is like a character study in failed relationships. To riff off the book’s musical influences, a collection like yours is like reading variations on a theme. Can you talk about what it’s like to put together a collection in this vein? Did you know the themes from the start, or do you discover them as you go?
All but two of the stories in my collection have been previously published in magazines so I had to read them over to figure out, hey, what’s the common theme. Here is what I found: 1) All of the protagonists in the stories are men. That makes sense. I write from experience. 2) All the stories are about men doing stupid things that mostly only men would do. Some stories are funny, like a man eating and drinking too much, falling out of his chair, and knocking himself out when he hits the floor. Other stories are more serious, like a man who finds out he is as incapable as his father in sustaining a lasting relationship. Flannery O’Connor once said, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.” I’m like her, only I wouldn’t turn the other cheek. I’d duck.
Where and when do you do your best writing?
I can write anywhere as long as it’s quiet though not in the rain since I use a computer.
Do you have a favorite story in the collection? If so, why?
Riding the Fences because it’s the last story I wrote. Also the male character is redeemed at the end of the story by his mother.
Thanks so much, Jeff.
A remarried man dreams of his dead wife. A widowed preacher seeks out guilt and inspiration in a brothel. A man who refuses to wear a mask in the spring of 2020 faces the consequences of his choice. Through the eyes of these and other flawed men, Jeff Richards explores childhood, parenthood, love, life, and toxic masculinity.
The men in these stories struggle in relationships and mourn the loves of their past as they search for meaning. Often hoping to find clarity through work, they are instead left questioning their preconceived ideas of what being a man truly means.
Approaching his flawed characters without judgment in these tightly written stories, Richards shows men who have brief violent urges against themselves and others. They drink too much. They have crushes and get divorced and watch their lives fall apart. And, finally, they attempt to overcome their directionless yearning and shame to understand their place in society.