Barrelhouse Presents Ryan MacDonald

Barrelhouse Presents is our monthly reading series at Petworth Citizen in Washington, DC. It's our chance to share work from writers appearing in literary magazines and small presses we love.

On Sunday, March 15th at 7 PM Barrelhouse Presents Magic Helicopter and FC2 with Jordan Stempleman and Ryan MacDonald. Ahead of the reading, we sat down with Ryan to learn a little more about his book The Observable Characteristics of Organisms which just came out from FC2.

Barrelhouse: The title story, which won American Short Fiction’s American Short(er) Fiction Prize, is awesome. Where did that story come from?    

Ryan MacDonald: Thanks Dan. Some of these stories, like this one, are vaguely autobiographical, or have autobio elements. When I was a kid my parents worked at the Kansas City Zoo, so I spent most of my days running around there and had a lot of behind-the-scenes privileges. As to the father in the story, I once had the behind-the-scenes privilege of watching the birth of Jordan Stempleman’s daughter. It was one of the most incredible things I've ever witnessed, but I remember feeling that “the father”, Jordan in this case, was nothing more than a bystander, kind of disconnected. I don't know if Jordan felt this way at all, but for me, a true bystander, I guess I just felt this lack when it came to the idea of creating a life, and I felt envious and so I wrote it all into the father character. Why is he cruel and loving all at once? I'm fascinated by this contradiction that I think we all carry around in some way.    

BH: What does the short short/flash fiction/prose poem allow you do to that a conventional short story does not?

RM: Compression adds a deft hand...I like the way that sounds, but I’m not sure it means anything. It allows for immediacy, for me the writer and you the reader, in a way a conventional short story doesn’t always. In the end though, I’d say I put the same things into these shorter stories that I put into writing longer stories, just with fewer sentences. 

BH: It seems a few of your pieces (“The Observable Characteristics of Organism,” “Lollipop Lane,” “Preggos,” etc.) involve speaker-dads or focus on inter-generational relationships. Are you a dad? What intrigues you about those relationships?

RM: Sadly not a dad. Too wracked with student loan debt and temporary adjunct positions to responsibly have a kid. I'd really like to be. It will probably happen anyway. Most of these relationships stem from observations of my friends and their kids. My sister Amy once called me and delivered the line “Someone’s goddamned kid at the daycare center has scabies.” So "Lollipop Lane" started out there. Many stories touch on my own relationship with my parents, specifically from those cloudy pre-divorce pre-adolescent memories.

BH: I’m curious about the sequencing of the stories in the book. When you’re assembling a poetry manuscript, a lot of thought goes into the order of the poems. I imagine with short pieces like this, it’d be similar. Can you tell us a little bit about how the book came together?

RM: One of the most difficult aspects of publishing this book for me was sequencing these stories. There are so many threads but so many differences and too many moments where one story should really not be next to another, whether for reasons of narrative connection or even phonetics. It took a really long time. My amazingly patient wife Aretha helped me a great deal. Here she is giving me a “loving look” while arranging them.


BH: What was it like working with FC2? Are there any other FC2 books you’d recommend to our readers?

RM: FC2 has been great. I am so incredibly grateful to them and proud to be a part of their impressive crew. 
Way too many to recommend but here goes a handful: Hilary Plum’s They Dragged Them Through the Streets, Noy Holland’s Swim for the Little One First, Joseph Cardinale’s The Size of the Universe, Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird, Matthew Kirkpatrick’s Light Without Heat, Susan Steinberg’s Hydroplane, Brian Evenson’s The Wavering Knife, Lance Olsen’s Calendar of Regrets, and the great Stanley Crawford has a new book I can’t wait to read, Seed, coming soon. Seriously, so many good books.

BH: Anything else we should know before the reading?

RM: I'll be projecting videos, some made in collaboration with Jordan, some not. 3D glasses will not be provided and are also not at all necessary. 

BH: At Barrelhouse, we always end every interview with the same question. What’s your favorite Patrick Swayze movie? 

RM: This 1979 PBR commercial


and yes, Point Break.