Read the first interview with Mike Bahl about his debut story collection here.
The first story in Scenic Utah went through many revisions. What was the process for you with this story?
Most of my first drafts are a plot with a lot of the word fuck in them. No real details. This wasn’t much different. So, on a second pass-through, I add details, flesh things out, throw as many non-swear-words into the story as I can. Then, on the third time through, I strip as much away as possible. Usually, what I’m left with is something pretty close to a finished product. I’ll still have to make three more passes to change one word each time, but it’s close at this point. Somewhere around the third pass, I’ll realize a theme of the story that I hadn’t noticed before and begin accentuating that theme. For “All Out,” that theme was identity. The narrator may have had a real name at one point, which I had to strip away. More costumes came into being. A wig stayed on.
I believe this story initially included a next-day epilogue where the narrator gets a ride home from Veronica and the girl the roommate took home for the night is still there. This version ended with the tag: “Everyone gets laid on Kimdependence Day.” Which is one of those lines that’s too terrible to keep in, but too awesome to cut. So I cut the whole section and no longer had to make that choice.
There was at least one other title, but you settled on “All Out.” Care to discuss the process that led you to it?
I hate titles and names. They’re very difficult for me because they seem so final. You have to encompass everything about a story in a title and everything about a person in a name. And so, sometimes, I try to title things not as a summary, but as something just to the left of a summary, that also has a nice ring to it. The original title of this was, “Tainted Teeth And Tarnished Tits.” The “And Tarnished Tits” came out pretty early, because it was only there for alliteration and is pretty cringeworthy. But “Tainted Teeth,” I did still like. It’s almost said in the story: “‘Now you’re tainted, too, bitch,’ through white, white teeth.” But not quite. It sounds kinda cool, I could sort of justify it because the word tainted and the word teeth appear in the same sentence, but, ultimately, it was meaningless in the context of the story and my editor (again, full disclosure, is you) very rightly told me I was a dummy if I didn’t change it. I think when I changed it to “All Out,” this phrase only appeared once in the story, so I added a few more occurrences and, voila, a title is born.
Why did you make it the first story? Do you think it’s representative of your work?
There’s a flow to these sorts of things. The first story has to lay the groundwork for the rest of the collection. I wanted to start on a high note and then work my way through the gamut of human emotion from there. I wanted something that at least had the potential to draw people in. If I’ve ever written anything that could be described as fun, then “All Out,” is it. Most of what I write will make you feel bad feelings, but I don’t think that will happen here. Admittedly, the story isn’t for everyone. But it is a pretty good measuring stick. If you are disgusted by the frivolous sexuality in “All Out,” then you probably won’t enjoy a lot of what’s to come in this collection. I wanted something to announce to those people who will not like my writing that this collection is not for you. It’s only fair. If you’re repulsed already, stop, please. It gets worse from here. Actually, the stories get better. Much better. But their topics can sometimes be difficult to handle for some people. So, keep reading if you at all enjoyed the first story because, I promise, you will feel things throughout the rest of the collection.
“Ricardo” seems to be both in and not in the story’s theme party scene. What inspired you to write such a character? Do you think he’s authentic or shallow?
I suppose I did intend for the reader to question “Ricardo’s” persona. I don’t know that it was my primary focus, though. I think “Ricardo” questions his own persona (and the personae of all around him). And if your narrator questions his persona, it only follows that the reader would also question that persona. Is “Ricardo’s” persona calculated? I don’t know. I suppose it could be and also could not be. Like an early Bret Easton Ellis character, he could just be playacting shallow, but longing for more. Really there’s a deep yearning for more, but also an unwillingness to admit to that sort of caring. But also, sometimes all you want in the world is to dance and that’s okay too.
I am an ironic person. I rarely say what I mean and when I do say what I mean, I lilt my voice enough to make it seem like I might be joking just in case you don’t agree with me. Being sincere is hard. Really hard. Because if you’re sincere and no one likes you, that means you suck. But if you can hide behind a bit of irony and no one likes you, that means they don’t know the real you. This isn’t about “Ricardo,” it’s about me. But the point is, irony is a weird tool. It’s one I personally employ without really thinking about and one that keeps me close, but not too close to a lot of people. But, right now, I am being absolutely earnest and sincere. So, to answer your question, both. He’s absolutely authentic, but knows how scary that is, but has to be shallow in order to show his authenticity. (See how I managed to take my earnestness and turn it into something about the character, questioning the whole validity of what I’d said? Was I really talking about myself or was I using myself as a vehicle to talk about “Ricardo” and the story? Or is “Ricardo” my vehicle to talk about myself?)
Your work sometimes seems so bizarre that I think it must be true. So is this story based on experience?
Everything is based on something that is true. Is that the particular true part? Or is my unwillingness to admit to who I am the true part? Or are hipster parties full of irony the true part? Or, am I half a step away from a drinking problem actually? Is anything true with a narrator as unreliable as “Ricardo?” Have you ever told a story and then a person who was there when the story occurred (who is also there for the telling of said story) corrected you in every aspect of the story? But you’re still quite certain that your version is true. Do you create histories for yourself this way? The stories of Scenic Utah are how I remember each of these pieces of my life, no matter how they may have actually happened, so for me, yes, it is all absolutely true. The only question left then is, can I write it well enough that it comes across as true for the reader as well?
The following is an excerpt from “All Out,” the first story in Mike Bahl’s collection, Scenic Utah.
When we got into her room she immediately started undressing. “Do you want me to keep the bikini on?” I asked.
She answered by lifting the straps off my shoulders. She reached up to the top of her head and I snatched her arms down. “Leave the wig on.”
She had a loft bed with a ladder as narrow as a stiletto and I was drunk, with an erection throwing off my balance. “Be careful,” she said as she turned off the overhead light, opting for the mood of lamplight instead.
There was already a person in the bed. A girl. A naked girl. A naked girl named Christina.
“What are you doing here?” I was still halfway on the ladder.
“I decided to stay and get my clothes in the morning. Is that okay? I can go.”
“No. You can stay. It’s fine. Let’s go all out.”
I had no idea what to do with one girl, let alone two. But this was typical-guy paradise: Two girls, one full-bodied and breasts big as white sand dunes, the other tiny and petite. One shaved, the other hairy. One pierced and tattooed, the other something for Thanksgiving dinner with grandma. And they both wanted to fuck me.
Veronica initiated a blowjob. Christina sat on my face.
She had an entire cigar box packed full of different kinds of condoms and lubricants.
I reached in at random and pulled out something studded and ribbed. “Are you sure you’re ready for that?”
As ready as I’ll ever be. I strapped it on.