Jim Breslin is the author of Shoplandia, a humorous novel about the working lives of show hosts, producers, and crew at a home shopping channel, which was inspired by Jim’s seventeen years as a television producer at QVC, and which was called “a raucous novel” by Huffington Post Books. His short story collection, Elephant, came out in 2011.
Jim’s short fiction has appeared in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Molotov Cocktail, Turk’s Head Review, and other journals. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was the writer in residence at Elizabethtown College in the summer of 2014. His micro-publishing project, Oermead Press, has also published two anthologies, West Chester Story Slam – Selected Stories and Chester County Fiction, and a poetry chapbook, Exit Pursued by a Bear by Virginia Beards. Jim is the founder of the West Chester Story Slam and the co-founder of the Lancaster Story Slam.
Matty Dalrymple: Welcome to Episode 6 of the Indy Author Podcast. Today my guest is Jim Breslin. Welcome, Jim.
Jim Breslin: Hi Matty, thanks for having me.
Matty: It’s my pleasure. What we wanted to do is take advantage of your Story Slam experience in combination with your fiction writing and talk about the importance of storytelling as part of fiction, so my first question for you is: What came first, your interest in writing or your interest in storytelling?
Jim: I would say my interest really started with the writing and I always wanted to be a writer. Back in high school, I wanted to go to school for English or creative writing but my parents suggested I take something broader, like television and journalism, so I did that, which was a wise thing to do.
We were always told stories and being from a large family, Irish, the oldest of eight kids, definitely storytelling was something we always did around the house. Even our family gatherings now are filled with remembering tales of all of us growing up. But really, it was writing that I was in to first.
Matty: That’s interesting. I was comparing that to my own experience when I was thinking about that question. My initial interest was in writing a book. My dad was a writer so that was always a goal of mine. I did some writing in college, wrote some short stories that were more like character studies, kind of vignettes—in fact, one of them won an award—but I feel like it wasn’t until 2011 when I started work on the story for The Sense of Death that I really had a story that I was interested enough to write a book about and thought people would be interested in reading a novel length work about.
Jim: I think there’s a lot of people that have stories that do want to write but in everyday life, between paying for the mortgage, full time jobs, and families and stuff, it was really tough for me until after I left QVC and I was able to have down time and chill out and really be able to sit at a desk for three hours a day, uninterrupted, to really start cranking stuff out and feel like you’re devoting time to the craft. It’s hard for people.
I made several false starts throughout the years—trying to get up in the morning or stay up late at night and do some writing—but it’s hard to put your heart and soul into it when you’re so torn.
Matty: I can sympathize with that. Shoplandia has a novel arc but it also has an aspect that is short stories within a novel. Do you want to talk a little bit about how your interest in storytelling inform that decision?
Jim: I’m a short story fanatic. Raymond Carver’s my favorite writer and I read a lot of short stories. I do read a lot of novels too, but the idea of bridging this, I really wanted with Shoplandia since it is about the live studio of a shopping channel like QVC.
I really wanted to get the spirit of the studio and I thought the best way to do that is through multiple perspectives, so we have Jake who works back stage and then becomes a producer. But we also hear the different perspectives of show hosts, a couple of other producers, and people in the studio. I didn’t want the whole novel to be one perspective.
It’s really a fractured novel, which does go back in time. But I thought having a fractured novel like that would be more representative of what I went through those 17 years.
Matty: [Laughs] It was a fractured experience for you?
Jim: Right. There’s so many different perspectives and so many different things happen that I couldn’t put one character, Jake, in all these different situations. By having a story about a show host, you can get into different rooms that maybe one producer wouldn’t be in.
Matty: Was there an approach you used when you were stitching together the pieces to make a novel arc? Was there an underlying story that you had in mind, so that at the end of the day you had individual stories but you were also telling this larger story, and what was that story?
Jim: When I first left QVC, I started writing a couple of the short stories. Then I put them aside and realized I needed to work on my craft. I worked on more contemporary short stories and started getting a couple published and then decided to come back and work on Shoplandia.
I really just worked on several different short stories that I thought were interesting and captured the essence of what I wanted to do. Then after I got several of them done, I thought about the order of them and some other pieces that might be missing, so I put in some more flash fiction pieces in between.
Matty: Can you describe what flash fiction is?
Jim: Flash fiction is generally considered fiction under a thousand words—maybe 500 or 600 words. I find that flash fiction can be very powerful. Sometimes it will be called prose poems and it’s interesting when people started referring to some of mine as prose poems. I thought that was really interesting.
There’s a couple of these short pieces that are in second person—you can just change the perspective—and there’s a lot of flash fiction on the internet these days. Reading online articles, people tend to like to stick to about 500 words. It’s harder to read long form content on the internet so flash fiction has kind of taken off.
Matty: The story that the novel as a whole is telling, was there a moral that you were after or just the experience of relating your experience at QVC or this fictional shopping channel?
Jim: Definitely, I’m not into really writing moral fiction per se. I try to be non-judgmental and write about real experiences. For each of the characters, even though there are different characters, there’s a part of my soul in each of them. The experiences I’ve had, whether it was sadness or disappointment or disenfranchisement. So for me, the whole idea of the novel—working in the studio of a shopping channel, that’s live 24 hours a day—that is capitalism.
One thing that was important for me was I wanted to have empathy for the characters. My friends all worked there, and I felt there had not been anything written in that genre that did have empathy for the main character, so the satire and the comedy that comes from it is not necessarily because the characters are goofy, it’s the situation. It’s the machine that the characters are trapped in, if you will. This idea of always making money or of being live— the show must go on—and how the characters have to deal with it; it is both a comedy and a tragedy.
Matty: Did you ever have to make decisions about what you included in the story based on what you felt the reaction of the people who were had been included in those experiences that inspired the book?
Jim: There are so many things that really happen at QVC that I would never have put in the book because I just wouldn’t do that. The book really is fiction. I think a lot of the stories are more inspired by things we would joke about in the studio. I won’t give away anything but one thing I get a lot of emails about is, “I can’t believe the dog! What happened to the dog?”
Basically, we would often joke in the studio about Joan Rivers’ dog, Spike, and we were careful to make sure the dog did not get injured. But because that was such a long running joke behind the scenes, I thought, “Well, let’s have some fun with it in the show.”
Matty: When you were saying before about having empathy for the characters, the counter to that that popped into my head was Sellevision by Augusten Burroughs. That story is clearly more cynical about these character than Shoplandia is.
Jim: I had read Sellevision. I remember when I heard it came out, it was a Friday. I ran over to Chester County Book Company, bought it—that was 20 years ago or so. I took it home and I read it in one weekend, but I felt the characters in Sellevision were kind of like cardboard cut outs. Yet, I could tell they were based on friends of mine [Laughs].
They were based on some of the people that I’m friends with, and it kind of broke my heart, like the one show host who is the nicest show host I know and I’m friends with, and then how she’s portrayed in Sellevision. Especially, knowing Augusten, basically was staying up late at night watching QVC and writing Sellevision. People have said that Shoplandia is almost a counterpoint to Sellevision. The characters have redemptive values. The characters are trying to make a living. They came because they wanted to work in television, and how they’re caught in this 24-hour, non-stop circus.
Matty: I think that Sellevision does seem like it has more of a moral in the sense that he seems to be poking fun in order to call out the foibles of capitalism. But it does seem, from a story point of view, as if the attraction you can get from your readers by portraying characters in an empathetic and positive way, it’s a whole different approach. You’re drawing people in by presenting them with characters that they’re going to like and want to form a relationship with —
Jim: Yeah, want to cheer them on. I think, they cheer on Dottie, Jake, and Frankie Mack. I always enjoy reading novels about characters I’m able to cheer on. One of my favorite novels is a novella by Stewart O’Nan, Last Night at the Lobster, about a red lobster in Connecticut. The parent company has decided to close it down and this is the last day of this restaurant.
The manager is a guy named Manny who gets stoned in the parking lot before his shift and before opening up the restaurant. It’s basically all about this one snowy day right before Christmas. His girlfriend’s breaking up with him, he has to close down this Red Lobster, so half the employees don’t show up. A bus tour does show up and they’re scrambling, and of course nobody’s hearts in it because the restaurant is closing.
But Manny, you just feel for this guy, and he is trying to make sure the last day ends with dignity and it’s kind of heart-wrenching. Even though it starts off with him getting high in his car before his shift, you really feel for this guy, and what he does by the end, he’s a hero.
Matty: I’m going to have to look that up, that sounds fantastic. So what was the timing between your involvement with Story Slam and the publication of your books?
Jim: Basically, in the summer of 2009, I was listening to a podcast, The Moth, which is storytelling out in New York City. I listened to the podcast and I just sent a tweet, “I love The Moth. Is there anything like that around West Chester?”
A couple friends replied, “No, but you should start one and we’ll come.”
So I held one in my living room in November 2009. Basically, I just went through my Facebook page and I looked for people that I thought would be able to get up on stage and tell a story, so I did have a QVC show host there, a couple people that were producers at QVC, a couple of friends from my writers group, Brandywine Valley Writers Group.
We had so much fun each telling five minutes stories. I think we heard 13 stories. Then I went to a local pub and asked if we could do West Chester Story Slam there and we started in January 2010. I had no idea that was going to turn into something so big. When Elephant was published, around 2011, Story Slam had just started but it hadn’t grown into what it is today.
I just felt storytelling is kind of like cross training for writers. Mainly, storytelling is nonfiction—at least, the type we do at Story Slam—so it’s people telling real stories, true as you remember, five-minutes long, something that really happened to you. It’s different than writing fiction, obviously. But I am one that believes everybody has stories. When I get in conversations with people, they tend to tell me incredible stories now. It’s just been an amazing thing to reach a larger audience.
Matty: One of the things that I had misunderstood about the idea of Story Slam when I first heard about it is I pictured that people would go in cold and be given a topic and then instantly they would have to come up with a story, and that’s not the case. They know the topic in advance and they can prepare. I’m assuming that notes are either not allowed or discouraged.
Jim: Notes are not allowed. We get a couple different types of people that come to Story Slam. By December 1st, I’ll have the themes and the dates for all of 2017 announced. Some people will scour ahead and they have certain stories that they’re going to write down, polish, and prepare, and they know they’re going to come in May for this one topic or whenever.
At every Story Slam, we’ll get five or six people that come and they sign up right away, they know they want to tell the story, but we also get people that aren’t too sure. They’re thinking about the theme, they have a couple beers, and then in the intermission they sign up. What happens during that first half is they see a couple story tellers and it strikes them that the classic story that they’ve told to friends in bars for the past 15 years, or the story they tell in the Thanksgiving dinner table, they should tell it. Here’s their chance to get up on stage and tell it in front of an audience and have it recorded for posterity on YouTube.
Sometimes they get up there and they know it’s an incredible story. You can see they know when they’re going to get a laugh. They know when to pause for effect. They’ve really have rehearsed it but they’ve never written a word of it down. It’s probably been embellished over those 15 years a little bit. But it’s true as you remember, but if anybody tells a story about college, you’re going to make jokes and add a little bit and have fun with it.
Matty: I can imagine many novel writers are saying, “Well, yeah, sure. That would be fun to go to but I would never get up in front of a group.” But it sounds sort of like a book pitch. The one time that I think that a fiction writer needs to be able to give, maybe not five minutes, but maybe it’s 30 or 45 seconds pitch, without notes, in a compelling way is if they’re pitching their book to someone—the proverbial elevator pitch.
In the time that you’ve been hearing all these stories being told, are there tips that you’ve picked up, that you would then advise either for yourself or others could apply in their own fiction writing to their benefit—not so much about the elevator pitch, but more generally in their writing?
Jim: I would say that seeing what has happened to Story Slam has transformed how I do book readings. It’s amazing. You know, I’ve done book readings over the years and gone to many. I’ll go to book readings and there may not be a large crowd in the bookstore. We know how tough it is for bookstores these days. I’ve gone to readings where three or four people show up for a reading.
Also, let’s face it, a lot of writers are introverts. They’re maybe not comfortable in front of an audience and they get up there and their heads are down in the book doing the reading for 15, 20 minutes, whereas at a Story Slam, we get a packed room in a bar, 75 people, it’s rowdy, when anybody gets up to tell a story, all they have is the microphone. There’s no notes. You’re making eye contact with the audience. The audience is feeding off you and it becomes like a loop. It’s so much more engaging.
What I have started doing a few years ago was, if I’m going to a book reading and I’m expected to do 20 minutes, I’ll plan on telling a quick story about QVC, a real story, and then doing a five-minute reading and then telling another real story at QVC and say, “And that story I just told you kind of inspired this.” So for that 20 minutes, I’m doing a couple readings. I’m reading a couple of chapters or a couple portions of chapters but I’m also engaging with the audience. It’s eye to eye and telling them some of the funniest stories that are in some ways more incredible than the stories in the book. I get a really good feedback about doing that.
Matty: That’s a great tip because it is brutal sometimes to go to a reading and the person just opens the book, reads for five or ten or fifteen or twenty minutes, and then shuts the book and they’re done. It’s very hard to get engaged to as an audience member in that kind of experience.
Jim: I’ve had a really interesting experience. Tim O’Brien, who wrote The Things They Carried, which is a short story collection, very revered, about the Vietnam War. I saw him speak at West Chester University. I had just read the collection. He got up on stage and he basically told one of the stories in the book but he told it in first person, as though it had really happened to him, and he told the story for like 10, 15 minutes and then he ended by saying, “Now, that didn’t happen to me. But all those feelings and emotions that were in that, I experienced when I was drafted for Vietnam,” and I knew he was basically paraphrasing a short story in the book. But if somebody had been there and had not read the book, it was believable that that had happened to him.
He conveyed all the emotions and that’s what you do in fiction—you’re trying to convey emotions, as though they really happened to you. To make it authentic is the key to powerful writing.
Matty: Do you think that there’s a benefit of people describing material that they’re never intending to necessarily read in any form—maybe someone just never wants to do a reading of their book—but to tell the story out loud to sympathetic listeners to help formulate the story for their fiction work? I’m wondering if there’s a way you could capitalize on that kind of energy that you’re talking about by just relating the story to a group of people or even a single person who might be part of your target audience.
Jim: You know, it would probably be a good way to gauge some kind of feedback for the topic of the story and if it captures people’s interests. I think obviously, if you’re going to be writing, you have to have a closed loop in getting your writing out there after a couple drafts. In my view when I’m really in the writing process, I have a couple small private critique groups I go to and I get feedback almost as if it’s a focus group. Then I might take a draft, take it to a group, get feedback from them, tinker with it, take it to another group, see what feedback I get there. That’s what I really like to do for writing.
Because if the same comments come back and they’re unrelated groups, then this is something you need to address. About telling stories like that, I think if you’re writing a book, it’s probably more important to focus on what the written word is in the development process.
Matty: Are you working on new fiction work now?
Jim: I have drafts of a couple novels that I don’t know what I’m ever going to do with them. I had done NaNoWriMo twice and basically did a 60,000 word rough draft in a month and then spend the next eleven months revising. The one was close to going over the goal line but I’m still not happy with it and that’s four or five years old, a very dark novel.
Then another one is just kind of a crazy… Imagine if the Hardy Boys were in an updated movie directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Jim: It’s really different than anything I’ve written—
Matty: I think that’s different than anything anyone has ever written.
Jim: [Laughs] I think it’s a very picaresque, in the way because they’re traveling across country with different types of scenes or different chapters in different states.
I went to a nonfiction seminar in Lancaster in August, HippoCamp it’s called. I’ve been writing a lot of short things that are creative nonfiction, that I haven’t really been publishing but just writing them and sharing them with my group. I really haven’t been out there trying to get any short fiction published lately. I have so many things that are 80%, 90%, that I need to just go back and finish.
Matty: When you were talking about HippoCamp you mentioned something that seems to be very much a trend in nonfiction writing, to pose it in the context of a story in order to engage people in a way that traditional non-fiction does not.
Jim: You know, what really has been amazing with Story Slams is somebody gets up and tells a story and it’s a personal story. It’s something that happened to them and you understand their point of view. It can change people’s politics in a way.
I’ve heard stories that are just really heartfelt that give you a perspective. We had a woman get up on stage and talk about her transgender son. As her child was young and was this adorable little girl and was dressed as a bridesmaid for her sister’s wedding and the mother liked to do girly things with her, ‘girly’ being a word she used.
Then, as her child came to her mom and said, “Mom, I think I’m gay” and then “I think I’m bisexual,” and then, a year later, “I think, I’m transgender”—the mother told this story so eloquently and it was just such a shocker to us that she got up on stage and told this. But she told the story about how she loves her son and she’s been supportive of everything.
But you also realized, she’s mourning the loss of her daughter, and it was amazing. We’ve heard some other stories. We just heard some stories about people having really intense personal issues, whether they were growing up being bullied or whatever, and it makes you think about the civilization we live in. It’s really amazing—they’re personal, they’re touching, and then the next story is hilarious.
Matty: Well, I think you will probably have won over some fans for Story Slam if people haven’t already experienced them, so tell people where they can find out more about Story Slam and also more about your writing.
Jim: For Story Slam, there’s WCStorySlam.com—West Chester Story Slam, if you Google. We have a website, it has the news, the upcoming events. You do have to buy tickets because the event sells out every month. We just had our Grand Slam where the winning storytellers tell stories and that sold out—there were 270 people in the audience.
The new season starts in January. On YouTube you can watch videos of some of the stories. There are several hundred posted. We also have a podcast that’s available on iTunes. We also have Lancaster Story Slam, which is an event held at Tellus 360. Google Lancaster Story Slam. We have a Grand Slam coming up and then the new season will start in January.
My personal website is JimBreslin.com and that lists all my projects that I work on, including storytelling, books I’ve published, and other shenanigans I’ve done. Having been a video producer I play around with different things. It also has a list of different links to different short stories I’ve written.
Matty: Great—thank you so much, Jim. That was very helpful.
Jim: Great. Thanks, Matty.