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From our side of the pool we Bluegills watch the boys from the Coast Guard saunter out of the visitor’s locker room to a complicated group clap that resounds in layered echoes all across the natatorium; over the sloshing pale green of the pool water, out onto the lacquered deck tiles, bang against the concrete ceiling and back down again, and from the roar in the stands it seems they must have brought their own fans, or else turned ours instantly against us. The Coasties all look, to a man, all of them, like bachelorette strip-tease dancers, or gigolos even, each one of them shaved and tanned and buffed to a shine with a crew cut in a black Speedo, each emerging from the tunnel out into the fluorescent light one by one by one, from the shortest man to the tallest, in perfectly timed increments, each stopping to pose for a beat at the edge of the entranceway with his hands upon his hips before strolling on toward the visitor’s bench, the whole line of them eventually laid out before us like a de-nested matryoshka doll, the entire rise and run of them forming a perfectly apportioned slope of blunt brushcuts, and a foot below that, a perfectly angled plane of broad shoulders.
Robert Travieso grew up in Baltimore, MD and now lives in Brooklyn, NY, where he recently received his MFA from Brooklyn College . His short stories have been published in Tin House and in Smoklong Quarterly.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- RT: Well I’m not sure if there was a particular idea, per se. Most of what I started with I eventually cut. I mean, when I think of the first draft I think of it as essentially the same as the final draft, with just a bit more roughness to the edges, but in fact, between the two there are probably something like ten sentences in common, total. That’s how it usually works for me. I have to write through a ton of crap to get to the good stuff. But I think my intentions were maybe always the same. I think mostly I just wanted to write about what it felt like to go to college. I mean, for me to go to college. So the feelings are autobiographical, if not the actual action.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- RT: Early on it read like an amphetamine rant. I had to work really hard to cut down on the general spazziness.
- HT: The details of the game are so vivid. Have you ever played any water sports?
- RT: Yeah. I played Water Polo for a year in college. We were terrible, or I should say just not very good, but it was a lot of fun. Well, kind of. Actually it sort of wasn’t very much fun at all. I remember the chlorine burn on my eyeballs being just basically constant and super-intense, and I never really got over it, all season long, which was surprising to me, because I was someone who had spent a lot of time in swimming pools. But I guess when you swim recreationally, you close your eyes underwater, and when you swim laps you wear goggles. Anyway, I think I have ultra-sensitive eyeballs, so this isn’t some warning about water polo. I can’t really cut an onion without weeping uncontrollably. But yes, I did play for one season.
- HT: You have said you’re a fan of Nicholson Baker, what other writers have been an influence on your writing?
- RT: Who knows? I mean, I don’t think there’s a way to actually know the real answer to this question. Influence doesn’t always come from the writers you admire, and you can’t always tell who’s influencing you and why, or how or when. It just sort of happens, in a punctuated equilibrium—you read something, some verb form, or some sentence structure, and bam, that’s something you forever after have access to—but you don’t notice it happening as it’s happening, I don’t think—almost necessarily so. It’s like puberty: you don’t actually look down one day in the shower and say, What?! What is happening to me?! It’s like watching a baby grow—you can’t. Same with writing. I think if you try to use a writer wholesale as a model, or somehow “get” influenced by someone, or some piece of writing, you can start to sound really lame really quickly. But all that said, the writer I’ve consciously stolen from the most is probably John Updike.
- HT: Was Thor based on any real life bullies? How did you come up with his voice/ dialogue?
- RT: Thor/Harm was based on no one in particular. I haven’t been bullied much in my lifetime thus far, thank god, so I don’t think I even thought of him as a bully, really. Just more of an asshole. The whole Thor thing, I don’t know, it just seemed like the way Thor would talk. It’s probably a bit overdone.
- HT: The juxtaposition of mythic tropes and drug culture in Bluegills is very effective. Did this correlation exist in the first draft?
- RT: The juxtaposition was there, but not the correlation. I added the correlation in later.
- HT: Did you laugh out loud at any point while writing We Bluegills?
- RT: Definitely not. I don’t tend to laugh out loud too often when I’m all by myself. When I watch comedies on TV alone I’m completely stone-faced. Is that the same for everyone? Am I normal? It’s hard to know. I think actually, half metaphorically, and half literally, that that’s why I read—to find out about all that kind of stuff. All that secret stuff.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- RT: I just looked on my computer. There’s a file there that’s sort of somehow related to the story at hand that’s dated 8/17/06. But nothing from there is included in here.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- RT: I’m working on, and very close to finished with, a novel, or something very close to a novel, called Can You Hear Me? It’s all very exciting.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- RT: I really can’t think of anything specifically. Often I’ll write something and send it to someone and they’ll write me back a note that says, essentially, This is all bullshit. Can’t you see that this is bullshit? And that usually helps me snap out of whatever faulty mode I’ve been in. When someone mentions it to me flat out, I see it. Otherwise I’m lost. The thing Hemingway is famous for having said? About writers needing to have excellent Bullshit-detectors? Well I think I just might have a terrible bullshit detector. I’m honestly worried about it. Not in life—I can generally tell when something is bullshit in real life—and not in other people’s writing, but in my own writing. That’s the biggest trouble I have—identifying what, exactly is wheat, and what is chaff. I mean, I’ve spent hours and hours and polishing up chaff to a shine. I guess we all do.