Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Paul Crenshaw’s fiction piece, World’s Greatest Dad


John: This story is certainly timely, amid the blizzard of true-life stories of men behaving badly. Where do you fall on the nature/nurture debate? How much of all of this is pathological socialization, and how much is just the inherently tawdry nature of men?

Paul: We certainly see in nature the alpha male, the marking of territory, the ownership of the herd, so men might be predisposed to such behavior. But we’ve also been walking upright for a few million years, and writing our hopes and fears down for a few thousand, so I’d like to believe we’ve grown out of that.

Then again, as someone who’s been in high school locker rooms and military barracks, I’m not sure we’ve outgrown it. Those are places of high adrenaline, often anger. Tired after practice or training, stressed from the last football game or the unknown future, we revert back to instinct, sling our fists to mark our territory, hurl words at one another like growls.

And there’s certainly a culture that promotes toxic masculinity. I remember once while standing in line at a store a man took out a wad of cash and waved it in my face as if to show he was better than me—I still think of it often, still have no idea what he meant to accomplish. I can’t go in gyms because of the testosterone clogging up the air, the grunts and groans to lift a few pounds more. Young boys are taught not to cry, to be a man—the marked term “man” here telling them that only women cry. On that same point, the hatred/fear of male homosexuality is a fear of submission, performing what is considered to be a woman’s act.

So it’s both nature and nurture, but without the culture that teaches men to become toxic, the instinct wouldn’t rear its head as often. Which means that by educating ourselves—by doing away with a culture that creates angry white men—we can overcome those impulses.

The subtext of gender/sexual orientation bias is a strong component of this story—the flute playing and music versus more “manly” activities, the feminizing joke that breaks up the argument. Is this sense of masculine insecurity the root of the problem, or do you think there is something more?

In literature courses I teach David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and I always ask how women are treated in it. We watch the film adaptation with Ed Harris and Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino, and students ask “What women? There aren’t any in the film.” So I ask how women are talked about. I ask what names the men call each other. They’re constantly in competition with each other, and they constantly belittle each other, and they do so by referring to each other in feminine terms, which is supposed to be an insult.

In that case, as it is here, it’s insecurity, as you point out. The culture tells us to conquer. That we’re lesser if we lose, and only by winning—by being better than someone else—can we be secure. The flipside, of course, is that anytime we lose, we’re insecure again, so we have to always be conquering. In the movie, Alec Baldwin even delivers the line “Always be closing.”

But I don’t think it’s only masculinity. I chose a sales conference because our capitalist culture values bigger houses, nicer cars, more vacations. Again, conquering. The men in my story were already in competition with one another before they even met. If we’re always trying to outperform some vague idea of what success is, we’re never secure. And we’re never secure—we see that in the constant drive to own and consume more. Advertising tells us we need this product to make us happy. We need this and this and this—how can we be secure without owning this car or this insurance or this security system? I’m surprised we aren’t all insane.

I love the bleak descriptions of the sales conference breakfast buffet, which seems to be some upper circle of hell. Have you had personal experiences with such things?

Never a sales conference, but a few similar situations. And I’ve been in those junior high locker rooms I mentioned earlier, and military barracks. Which answers the next question: Where did the idea of the world’s greatest dad competition come from? I was thinking of those World’s Greatest Dad mugs, and just thought of two men, child-like, getting into an argument over one. I set it at a sales conference—the adult version of junior high locker rooms—put the two guys together, and started ratcheting up the tension: the alcohol, the estranged families, the need to always one-up each other. The sales conference was also perfect in that one-upping—you’re only as good as your last quarter sales or performance review, so is there is a constant need to challenge one another. And, like in so many other professions, people tend to compete instead of helping each other, so there was built-in tension already. I imagine a sales conference would be its own level of hell, so there was that, too.

I’m always interested in writers’ processes. Are you a planner, or do you just wander around in the wilderness hoping for the best?

I don’t plan much. I like to have a general idea—setting, maybe, a bit of tension—and see where it leads, which is where the wandering around in the wilderness comes in. I also write a lot of essays, and that’s been helpful in fiction, knowing that it’s ok to wander around for a bit to find out where you’re going. In “World’s Greatest Dad,” I had the mug, and the idea of two guys arguing. The rest was wandering around. It’s a short story, and it came out quick enough that it seemed planned, but it wasn’t. I don’t think the best stories ever are. There’s that saying “If there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader,” which isn’t always true, but it this case it was. I got stuck on the ending and was wandering around. I knew I didn’t want them to actually fight, but it took a while to come up with the diffusing line that also serves to emasculate them. From that point they have to look inward, which I think is what all stories should do.

Do you have a World’s Greatest Dad mug?

I don’t. I have a button my daughters got for me that says “I’m the Boss, that’s why.” I only get to be the boss when I’m writing, but that’s good enough for me.