Welcome, Grant Faulkner!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired in the past six months. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods. Today we bring you Grant Faulkner, author of the short story collection All the Comfort Sin Can Provide, which will be published in 2020.

Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our November Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies) and translations from German. Also, our Big Moose Prize for the novel is currently open to early bird submissions.

The Author

Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. He’s published two books on writing: Brave the Page and Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. He’s also published Fissures, a collection of 100-word stories and Nothing Short of 100: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story

His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Tin HouseThe Southwest Review, and The Gettysburg Review, as wellas in anthologies such as Best Small Fictions and Norton’s New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. His essays on creativity have been published in The New York TimesPoets & WritersWriter’s Digest, and The Writer. He also co-hosts Write-minded, a weekly podcast on writing and publishing. 

Excerpt from “The Names of All Things”

Hills shimmered like quartz in the heat. One street towns sidled up against the highway, each skyline nearly the same: a Texaco, a ramshackle convenience store, a McDonald’s, and a used auto dealer or two. Motels promised hot showers, cable television, air conditioning, free coffee, and a swimming pool for only $39.99. Jim’s sunglasses made everything soft and green, as if the world was made of pillows. He was always startled at how the edges of things cut into his eyes when he took them off.

Sometimes they would stop driving at sunset. Not when the sun flooded the sky with its bright oranges and transcendent purple sweeps, but after that, when the brightness was just beginning to pale into dusty pinks. They liked the quiet eeriness of the world then, the night’s gray, cool light taking the world over. They pulled off at rest stops where bare-footed kids ran yelling around picnic tables and people stretched outside of their cars and splashed water over their faces in restrooms. They were caught in a drift of cars heading north, almost like birds migrating in the spring, except they weren’t in sync with any season. 

There was one sunset when a bank of clouds mottled in pink and gray stood proudly over the jagged reaches of the mountains. The lights of solitary traffic scudded across the horizon, and he held Crystal close to him. He felt a drunken rush of clarity, as if he was right in the center of the great sweep of life, but not moving. He held her chin in the palm of his hand. A touch, a dare, laughter. It seemed as if neither of them would ever die. 

* * *

Crystal’s eyes widened as she talked on the pay phone, a gleeful, sinister smile sneaking out of the corner of her mouth. She was talking with Penn, her best friend, and Jim could tell she had news—bad news, maybe good news, but whichever it was, she was excited. She stood squarely in jean cut-offs that hung loosely on her tiny hips and kicked her clunky military boots against the curb as she toyed with a damp curl of hair. She’d dumped a bottle of water over her head several miles back to cool off, and her pale skin looked fresh and newly washed, like she’d just finished swimming on a hot summer day. 

He turned to the Chevron cashier, a gangly teenage boy whose round blue eyes shined with innocence. The boy reminded Jim of himself at that age: wan cheeks dotted with pimples and meek eyes ready to please. He probably had a Penthouse centerfold stuffed under the bottom drawer of his dresser, felt God’s eyes watching him when he masturbated, and then promised never to sin again. 

Nothing matters, Jim wanted to tell him. You can do what you want, and it’s best if you do, a lesson Jim wished he’d learned sooner.

“Where’s the nearest campground?” Jim asked, bowing his head down so that the boy wouldn’t see his mark, a childhood scar that curved like a creek down from the corner of his mouth. Jim had started to grow a beard to change his appearance, wore a Chicago Cubs baseball cap pushed down over his forehead, and kept his sunglasses on even indoors.

“Which way are you heading?”

“South, down to Sedona,” Jim lied. As part of a paranoid plan of his, every time they stopped, he asked for directions, drove out the way the service station attendant told him, and then took the first road in the opposite direction. He’d once heard of a convict who eluded the police for weeks because he traveled in a gradually expanding circle. It’s only when people travel in one direction that they get caught.

“There’s a KOA about ten miles from here, just off the highway,” the boy said enthusiastically. “They’ve got a swimming pool.”

Jim pulled bills that were all moist from the heat out of his pocket. Military jets thundered by overhead as if searching for them, ready to shoot them down. The boy stuffed a bag with their provisions, mentioning other KOA amenities—hot showers, video games, a big screen TV—and Jim nodded his head absently, watching Crystal as she sauntered across the parking lot to the car, her satchel tossed over her straight back, her long shadow trailing behind her in the tail of the orange sunset. 

When they first met, they stayed up for days, didn’t leave the apartment. Merezine and Ephedrine and Benedryl, Dromamine and Ketamine and Nyquil. Her medicine cabinet was a jukebox of over-the-counter pills. The light shined in through the window, golden, days stretching out forever, dust floating like sparkles in the air. Passion resembled exhaustion or vice versa. Sounds, delicately arranged. He wanted to stay there forever, as if that was all he’d been waiting for his entire life, breathing light, trying to feel smoke, telling God the shapes of things.

  When Crystal’s father found out about them, he threatened to file a statutory rape charge against Jim and take away her apartment so she’d have to live in the dorms at her prep school, Lester Preparatory Academy. It was a fancy name for a dubious school that promised to straighten out wayward rich kids. They tested the kids for drugs daily, took them on survivalist desert treks, had a stable full of horses, and dished out tough love along with new-age, touchy-feely group sessions and organic, vegetarian meals. Oddly enough, students also earned liberties, such as the privilege of living off campus their senior year if they achieved a 3.5 grade point average and went a year without an infraction of any sort. It was a reward system that Crystal took full advantage of. 

She was seventeen years old. Jim was thirty-three. Crystal insisted that her father would be relentless to the point of absurdity in pursuing them. “If the police don’t do what he wants, he’ll hire private detectives. He’s a control freak. He wants to control my life.” Jim didn’t think he was hurting anyone. He was neither guilty nor innocent.

They had $500 from the sale of his junk of a car, and Crystal had pawned several hundred dollars of her mother’s jewelry that she’d stolen from her last visit home. They drove her Audi. Jim knew that her credit card could be traced, so they took out the maximum cash advance just before they left: $5,000. If they didn’t use the credit card, no one could find them.

She smoked a cigarette and fervently scribbled in her journal as Jim loaded the sack of groceries in the car. She held the pen tightly, pressing down hard on the paper as if she was carving words into wood.

“What did Penn say?” he asked. 

Crystal blew out a stream of smoke. “My father is freaking,” she said. “He showed up at the school with a detective. Penn said he was smoking. He hasn’t smoked in five years. She played dumb, said stupid stuff like, ‘Crystal’s always talked about going to Mexico.’”

He tapped the point of the car key on his knee. He’d never done anything terribly bad as a child, but his parents were the sort who caught him whenever he did and then punished him unequivocally. They were good Lutheran Nebraskans, their childhoods marked by hard work on poor farms during the depression. They knew little about joyfulness or mischievousness, and even less about waywardness or extravagance. When he got caught for teepeeing a house with some friends in the ninth grade, he overheard his mother praying for his soul. His father pointed at his belt and said, “For each action, there is a consequence.” Reverend Lowry told him that every command of the Bible was the directive of God himself.

Crystal knew none of that. At her home in Laguna, her father relaxed with a joint by the pool after work, her mother liked to swim nude, and Crystal had every sort of gadget from the time she was four years old, cell phones and laptops and TVs and video games.

She dug into the grocery bag and fished out her bottle of Evian, her tattooed rose climbing up her chest to her shoulder. The droopy corners of her eyes contrasted with the ornery smile twisting from the corner of her small mouth. 

“We’re still beautiful, aren’t we, Jim?” she asked, taking a drink of water and then putting her hand on his.

“Of course, we’re beautiful.”

“We have to be beautiful. It’s a requirement of mine.”

When he put his hands on her side, he felt the lightness of her body. Her ribs were like feathers, her shoulders narrow and delicate. They kissed, big slow kisses and then small playful ones. Her body held a jittery energy, even in moments of tenderness. She nibbled at his neck, then nestled her head onto his shoulder and stroked the hair on his arm with her hand.

They drove toward the mountains, flat black silhouettes cutting into the sky. Trucks bullied their way past them, unflinching, unaware, everywhere, crisscrossing the world. Mangos. Heroin. Apples. Potatoes. Marijuana. Plastic toys from China. All of the coils of highway crammed in his head. They were specks in this swarm.

She lit a joint. They watched the sun go down, dipping in the sky as if its light was being drained. He thought of Geronimo hiding from the cavalry in the Chiricahuas and how he seemed to become invisible, his movements so mysterious that some people thought he was a ghost. He hoped that they could disappear.  He hoped that disappearing was still possible in this world. To be nothing, again and again.

On Writing “The Names of All Things”

I was living in Tucson when I began writing this story. It was 1995, and I was very poor and very hot. Our little hovel of a dusty house didn’t have air conditioning, just something called a swamp cooler, which provided little relief in the damning days of the summer. I didn’t like living in a place where people shouldn’t live—in the middle of the desert—yet I was transfixed by it at the same time. The vastness. The transient characters known as “desert rats.” The general spirit of lawlessness that was still left over from Wild West days. It was a place to drop out in. It was a place where it seemed like no one was watching you, yet you always knew that a rattlesnake might be close by. And it was a place of the strangest kind of beauty. I loved its ragged, desultory rhythms, the burns of its textures. The desert was always alive, even in its deathliness, its light transforming the world daily in soft pinks and vibrant oranges.

I wanted to write about all of these things, about a wayward character who steps over the line almost without knowing it. I wanted to write a road story where sprawling highways promise freedom at the same time they become a tangled snare. I wanted to write about the urge to escape and the impossibility of ever truly getting lost. I wanted to place it all in a drifting state of abeyance. I’ve always been interested in, and sympathetic to, those drastic lunges of what I’ll call selfhood—the daring jail breaks from social norms, whether misguided, doomed, or embarrassing, that are often necessary for a person to feel alive. And so this story was born while sitting at my rickety desk in the oven of my house thinking such things. I carried it with me later to San Francisco, where it went through who knows how many revisions. It was finally published in 2010 by The Southwest Review.