Playing with Loneliness: Caleb Michael Sarvis on Dead Aquarium

Interview by Shayne Terry

Sarvis DEAD AQUARIUM cover.png

A man and a woman crawl out of the hole left by a fallen tree after a hurricane. A woman sits down to a bowl of leftover salad and her thumb falls off. In a span of two weeks, fifteen kids break their legs on the trampolines at Vertical Leapland. The twelve stories and novella that make up Caleb Michael Sarvis’s Dead Aquarium or (i don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith) are built on delightfully strange premises yet are filled with a human longing that keeps them grounded, just enough.

I spoke with Sarvis on the eve of the collection’s publication about isolation in fiction, talking stuffed dinosaurs, and the irresistibility of Florida stories.

Caleb Michael Sarvis.jpg

Shayne Terry: From hurricanes and their aftermath to nutria invasions, your stories have deep roots in Florida. Dead Aquarium feels right at home among the fantastic, often unsettling Florida fiction that's been coming out in recent years — Karen Russel's Swamplandia!, Lauren Groff's Florida, and many of Laura van den Berg’s stories come immediately to mind. What is it about Florida that makes it such a prime setting for weird stories? 

Caleb Michael Sarvis: I think living in Florida means being surrounded by a multitude of existential threats that you can’t help but be aware of at all times. We’re sinking a little more every day, there is a handful of species that would happily kill us if given the chance. That, plus the weird juxtaposition of “your favorite vacation/retirement spot” and what it means to actually live here… it’s just a rich concoction of story-telling ingredients.

ST: One of the common threads in this collection is missing family members — parents who have abandoned their children, siblings who have disappeared or died, runaway spouses, stillborn babies — and we're often following a protagonist who is drifting in the wake. Some stories, like “Goose Island,” end in a kind of closure, but many are more open-ended. What do you think about the impulse, or lack thereof, to end a sad story with a sense of relief? 

CMS: I think I’m drawn to these things because that’s just the nature of how I grew up. My parents separated when I was six, and I have a lot of siblings across different nuclear family units. As the oldest of my mom’s children, I think I’ve always been chasing a sense of relief. A lot of my adult life has been learning what’s not my responsibility, what I should be able to let go. Most of my fiction is about characters figuring out what they should let go of.

ST: That perfectly captures this collection. In “Goose Island,” for me, the moment of relief comes not when Chelsea makes the decision to let go and rolls the dead nutria over the side of the boat, but when she witnesses all the other nutria gather around the body and take it away. It seems, for many of these characters, that there's also an element of learning they are not alone — and that revelation then helps to facilitate the letting go.

CMS: I think that’s always the general consensus. I think these issues of isolation are pretty honest, even if the situations change story to story. We struggle to accept that our lives are more relatable than we think, but fiction exists to bridge that cognitive divide.

ST: One of my favorite characters in Dead Aquarium is Sebastian, the talking stuffed t-rex who basically functions as the devil on Xavier's shoulder in the novella “Emerson.” Tell me about your inspiration for Sebastian. 

CMS: I have a fascination with imaginary characters in fiction of all sorts. The idea that a character could be “invented” in a form that is already invented is super interesting to me. Calvin and Hobbes is a huge influence on my writing, and I like the suspension of disbelief that comes with cartoons like that. My favorite movie is Birdman (that’s why Dead Aquarium has a subtitle) and my favorite stories tend to be those that offer a character or perspective that may or may not be “real.” I knew the story of Xavier would require a lot of alone time, and I thought having a character like Sebastian would allow me to play a little bit more with that loneliness.

ST: For those of us who haven't seen Birdman (myself included), what's the connection between that movie and Dead Aquarium's subtitle?

CMS: The full title of Birdman is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The movie is a textbook example of how to utilize the “imaginary” character as the nagging subconscious, which is what I tried to do with Sebastian. Also, one of my favorite scenes in the film is when a random man is shouting the famous soliloquy from Macbeth, which kind of captures the entire movie. In “Emerson,” I pay a little homage to Macbeth as well.

ST: Two of your stories are set in theme park-like places. “Cages” takes place in Adventure Zone and then of course there's “Vertical Leapland.” What's interesting to you about these spaces? 

CMS: I think it goes back to the same reason I like occupying the space of cartoons while I write. Theme parks or other Fun Zones often use cartoon-like mascots and have a loony sort of feel to them. I’m always trying to make my sentences as interesting as I can without making them convoluted, and the sort of active nature of places like these (a baseball zipping by or people soaring on trampolines) allows me to at least trick people into thinking I’m successful.

ST: Tell me about your writing process.  

CMS: I hear a lot about writers writing first drafts by hand then typing it later on the laptop, but that sounds horrifying to me. It feels dangerous and convoluted and exhausting. I just don’t have that muscle memory anymore. It’s not something I do… ever. The only thing I need to write is to feel like writing. I prefer not to write at home, but I’ll do it if I have to.

My first reader is my wife. She’s not a writerly person, and sometimes her notes are super vague, but that’s just how I like them. Editing on a line level is easy, but “feeling” like something is missing, or slow, or not working… she’s the best at telling me that.

ST: You also edit fiction for Bridge Eight Press, a literary press based in Jacksonville. What excites you about that work, and what do you hope to accomplish? 

CMS: I love publishing work I love by writers I both know and don’t know. That’s the gist of it. The fact that we’ve provided a platform for some of the work that we have is such a damn honor. My hope is just to keep the thing alive. We just published our first novel, Alligator Zoo-Park Magic by C.H. Hooks, which is super Florida and one to add to your Floridian collection if you’ve got one going, and we have two story collections in the pipeline for the next year. I want to keep publishing two books a year until I’m dead.

ST: How does Bridge Eight select which two books it will put out each year? Are you reading manuscripts from a slush pile, soliciting writers whose work you like, a little bit of both?  

CMS: We run a fiction contest every fall, where the winner gets $1,000 and publication, and occasionally we’ll open for manuscript queries, where I might ask a writer to send their full manuscript, which is how I just found our Spring 2020 book. Sometimes I invite writers whose work I love to send me something, but that doesn’t always work out for whatever reason. We’re thinking about Fall 2021 right now, and I’m hoping to maybe add a poetry collection to our catalog. But we’ll see.

ST: Who are some of your other favorite Florida writers?

CMS: Currently, I’m reading Train Shots by Vanessa Blakeslee and really enjoying it. I’m also looking forward to Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, Radio Dark by Shane Hinton, and there’s a new one out by Jacksonville writer Blake Middleton called College Novel. But if you’re looking for a sampling, definitely try Burrow Press’s anthology We Can’t Help It If We’re From Florida, which features a lot of great Florida work.

ST: What are you working on now?

CMS: I just finished a novel, which is something I never thought I’d do. But an idea struck, and now I’m shopping it around. So if you know anyone that wants a surrealist, post-apocalyptic novel about the death of Major League Baseball, tell them I’m free to chat.


Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the Senior Fiction Editor for Bridge Eight Press and co-host of the Drunken Book Review Podcast. His work has been featured in Hobart, Saw Palm, Split Lip Magazine, Ghost Parachute, and elsewhere. He writes a column on FX’s Atlanta for Barrelhouse Magazine. Tweet at him @cmsarvis.

Shayne Terry's fiction has appeared in American Chordata, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Wigleaf, Okay Donkey, and elsewhere and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Born and raised in Illinois, Shayne lives and writes in Brooklyn. Read her work at shayneterry.com.