Crouse served as chair of the Chester College Department of Writing and Literature before becoming a faculty member in the MFA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2007.
His short story collection Copy Cats was awarded the prestigious Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2005 and subsequently nominated for the Pen-Faulkner in 2006. The Man Back There, Crouse's second collection of short fiction, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction in 2007. Selected by judge Mary Gaitskill from more than 400 manuscripts, the collection is a nuanced portrayal of nine very different--but also very similar--men living on the margins of society. In her introduction, Gaitskill writes simply, "I chose these stories because they made me feel. . . ."
Crouse's stories have appeared in some of the country's most well regarded journals, including The Greensboro Review, Chelsea, Quarterly West, and The Beloit Fiction Journal. His comic book writing has been anthologized in The Darkhorse Book of the Dead, published by Darkhorse Comics. He is currently working on several projects, including mixed-genre work involving text and image.
SO Good Interview with David Crouse
SO Good: What was the first piece of writing you got published, and what was the publishing process like?
David Crouse: Well, there was stuff I published in college magazines, but the first “big” publication I landed was in The Louisville Review in the mid-nineties, when I was in graduate school. I had submitted the story to a contest, and although I didn’t win the contest, I received second place and they wanted to publish the story anyway. They lightly edited it—just a few sentences—and it came out about half a year later. By that point I had changed the story considerably for my thesis and wasn’t happy with the story as it appeared in print, but it was still a great feeling to be published. Hopefully every young writer will have a chance to experience that feeling, because it’s fantastic, very pure and intense.
SG: What inspires you or helps you get into the "writing mode"?
Crouse: Coffee and quiet.
SG: How much of your work is based on personal life experiences?
Crouse: Almost zero. I’m a fiction writer. I love to make things up.
I think sometimes people feel an emotional connection to a story and they want somehow to believe that it’s more than just made up stuff—that they’ve seen a glimpse into something private and personal—but making stuff up is a personal act too, and one that I think is a very important part of our culture.
So there are tiny little things in there that might be based on personal life experiences, but they’re very, very small, and probably things only my mother would notice. I probably wouldn’t even notice them. I do have a couple of stories that use real life people or events as jumping off points, but only in the very loosest sense.
SG: What is your revising process like?
Crouse: I revise most of my stories multiple times, often over the course of a year or two. Some stories take longer, and there’s the occasional one that springs forth almost fully formed—it’s almost all there in the first draft, and it just takes a couple more drafts to really put some polish on it. But those cases happen so infrequently that I try not too expect them—they’re happy surprises.
What’s more common is that I begin a story with an intention, then figure out somewhere in the second or third draft that my intention is wrong, or half-formed, or less interesting than I had originally thought. So new things happen and I keep revising to make the story interesting to me again. This can take a good amount of revision. And then once I figure out what I really want it to be, there are the revisions that polish it up, refine it. So that’s usually about a dozen revisions or so, although it’s hard to put a number on it.
Revising is fun to me though. I could revise forever—which is dangerous in its own way.
SG: In Copy Cats, quite a few of your stories deal with internal conflict within main characters. Is this a more appealing form of conflict to you?
Crouse: Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s the only kind of conflict worth writing about. Stories in which the conflict is mainly externalized—in which the inner tensions of the character haven’t been delineated strongly enough—strike me as being very tedious—and sort of cartoonish as well. I like to create situations in which the inner conflict is so strong that it sort of “boils over” into the external world, so there’s a relationship between the inner and outer world; having a story with only external conflict is like having a fancy car without an engine under the hood. You’re not going to end up anywhere up any importance with a story like that.
SG: Where do your characters come from?
Crouse: The short answer is that I make them up; the long answer is that they come from everywhere, that I try to stay attuned to the world and draw on inspiration for my characters from everything around me, from literature, from pop culture, from eavesdropping in restaurants, from daydreams.
I think the act of writing itself is a way of keeping attuned to the world, and if you’re in a zone where you’re writing a lot, you’re probably more attuned to the possibility of new characters even when you’re not writing—when you’re just walking across a parking lot looking at people as they push their groceries to their cars.
SG: What is your writing process like? Does it differ depending on what you're working on?
Crouse: I wish I could tell you that I get up every morning at six, write for two hours, go for a run, take a shower, and rejoin the world, but I’m not that kind of writer. I’m not that regimented. I write when I find the time, obsessively when I can and less so when time and my other responsibilities allow. I try not to write out of a sense of guilt—it’s supposed to be fun—so sometimes that means I don’t write quite as often as I could, but I guess that’s okay. The process is definitely different for longer work. I’m writing a longer piece now and it’s definitely demanding more of my mental and emotional energy.
SG: Who are your influences?
Crouse: So many, and not just in literature. Music and film too. I’m watching a lot of Japanese cinema from the fifties and sixties lately, and the use of structure and narrative time is fascinating. Lots of stories within stories, that kind of thing, and it’s done so naturally and effortlessly.
I’m reading a lot of stuff now—Ginsberg, , Virginia Woolfe, Italo Calvino—that doesn’t read at all like my work, but I want to draw influence from unlikely sources, ad it finds its way in there, sometimes in ways you don’t understand until much later.
I should also mention Andre Dubus as an influence, as he was the first writer I noticed who was writing about the world in which I lived. So in a way he validated my experiences by saying it was okay to write about those places and those people.
SG: What do you like to read when you have time, and how does what you're reading affect your writing?
Crouse: I love to read short story collections. Eric Puchner’s Music Through the Floor, which I read this summer, is fantastic, and The Littlest Hitler, by Ryan Boudinot. I try to keep up on what’s being published in the genre, and although I’m sometimes disappointed, my general feeling is that the form is in a very good place. It’s hard to get a collection published, but the ones that are published are usually fantastic. The small press has been very good to the form, so I try to check out work coming from some of the independent publishers like , Sarabande (my publisher), and the university presses.
I also read the work of friends and colleagues, like The Dark Lantern by Gerri Brightwell, which is a wonderful mystery taking place in the Victorian era, and Freaked by J.T. Dutton, a friend of mine from graduate school. Freaked is a young adult novel about a kid who is obsessed with The Grateful Dead, and it’s fantastic. I’m reading an advanced copy right now—just began it last night actually.
SG: What is your advice to aspiring writers?
Crouse: Fall in love with your own work—enough that you want to spend lots of time with it but not so much that you put it on a pedestal.