Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Robert Hinderliter’s fiction piece, One Last Night at the Dead Dog Saloon
Sommer: This is a really fun story. Part of its lightheartedness comes from the narrator’s voice. You do a wonderful job at creating this unreliable, corrupted narrator who at the same time reveals the truth of himself in an “oh damn but oh well” kind of way. Was it difficult working with this kind of character without falling into the traps of his stereotype?
Robert: Working with this narrator was a lot of fun. I tried to give him as many unique details as possible to avoid having him become a stereotypical addict-in-denial. He’s a curmudgeonly old scoundrel with delusions of grandeur, unwilling to admit that his glory days are behind him and that his actions are hurting him and the people he loves. After this one shocking incident in the Dead Dog Saloon, he’s finally able to admit the truth.
The narrator is someone I want to scold and hug at the same time. Do you believe that writers should be more under the control of their characters, or in control of them?
Definitely the most rewarding moments of writing come when your characters do something that surprises you. If you can be surprised by your own story, you’ve got the seed of something good. But then, of course, you have to find a way to fit those surprising moments into the plot and themes of your story so seamlessly that in retrospect they seem inevitable. So, your characters can be in control for the first draft, but after that you have to be the boss.
Beginning the story with the mysterious Mongolian and his fruit basket is brilliant, and they come to a satisfyingly full circle at the end. How did the Mongolian come to you, and how did you choose to begin the story focusing on him instead of the main character? A bit of sleight of hand?
I just tried to think of an interesting way that utter mayhem could break out at a poker table. I wanted to start with someone who would be an outsider at the table—someone to put the regular players on edge and add immediate tension. The Mongolian character, with his weird quirks and mysterious past, seemed to fit that role. The fruit basket came to me because the famous poker player Johnny Chan always has an orange at the poker table that he sniffs because he doesn’t like the smell of smoke. I thought it would be funny to have a character sniffing a banana. Then I thought, why not give him a whole fruit basket? So this story started with the image of a mysterious outsider sniffing a banana. Developing the narrator came later.
I love the pacing of this story—brisk, exciting, never a lagging moment. Is this something you planned out, or did it just flow naturally given the character of the narrator and subject matter?
Thank you! My goal is always to have sharp, fast-paced writing, but it’s so hard to pull off. If the end result seems smooth and effortless, it’s totally an illusion. This story has been through tons of drafts, and I’ve suffered over every sentence.
Do you have a favorite quote or piece of advice that you turn to often, whether for writing or life in general?
It’s too long to quote here, but I often think about Carol Sagan’s remarks about the Pale Blue Dot photograph taken by Voyager 1. The picture shows the Earth as a microscopic dot in the vast expanse of space. I think it’s important to be reminded that we’re all in this together and that if we zoom out just a little, our differences, squabbles, and woes become astonishingly insignificant. I like to remind my wife about the Pale Blue Dot whenever she gets upset at me for forgetting to pay a bill.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
The first rejection I ever received was a snail mail slip from ZYZZYVA magazine. It was a printed form rejection, with a one-word handwritten personal touch: “Onward!” I still think about that “Onward!” frequently. I think that’s the best advice a rejected writer can hear.
When and where can we read more of your work?
I have stories in the most recent issues of Sycamore Review, Fugue, and Opossum, and another forthcoming in Columbia Journal. I’ve just finished a collection of linked stories called I’m Afraid It’s Kansas that I would love to see published at some point.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
Thank you so much!