“Making Myself Hurt”: Caleb Michael Sarvis on His Story Collection DEAD AQUARIUM

Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and received his MFA from the University of Tampa. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Literary Orphans, The Molotov Cocktail, Barrelhouse, Yellow Chair Review, and Empty Sink Publishing. You can follow him on Twitter @calebmsarvis or come to Jacksonville and grab a beer.

Dead Aquarium or (I don’t have stamina for that kind of faith) by Caleb Michael Sarvis is the newest story collection out from Mastodon Publishing. The book is strange, beautiful, and steeped in the essence of Florida. Caleb was kind enough to answer a few questions from me (a fellow Caleb) about the process of pulling these stories together.



Caleb Tankersley: Congratulations on publishing Dead Aquarium. Can you talk a bit about the process of moving this book from drafts to a finished collection? How long have you been working on these particular stories?

Caleb Michael Sarvis: That’s a hefty endeavor. Most of these stories were written over the two and half years I spent in grad school, and the six months after graduation in which I still had a lot of absorbed material in me. But the oldest story in the collection began in January of 2015.

CT: Did you write any of these pieces for the collection, to fit a similar aesthetic? Or was this grouping shaped after the fact?

CMS: All after the fact. The only thing that was somewhat intentional was a focus on the “imaginary” character. I wanted to incorporate something “unreal” in each story in some way or another, whether that reality is assumed or explicitly questioned.

CT: You’re a publisher yourself with Bridge Eight Press. Did your role as a publisher/editor inform the way in which you approached your own collection?

CMS: Every writer should read for a journal or press at some point. Working with Bridge Eight has reinforced my love for the first sentence. I was really set on making sure the first sentence in each of these stories accomplished something.

CT: While reading, I was struck by this collection’s playful negativity. So many of Dead Aquarium’s characters are lost and aimless. But rather than wallowing, they’re out having fun with their own despair. I’m thinking of Savannah in “Sinking Moments” or the narrator in “Gastropod.” Even the collection’s title and subtitle hint at this. What kind of a worldview or philosophy are you trying to impart on your readers? Is this even something a writer considers or thinks about?

CMS: This is a bizarre question, because on one hand, I hoping to impart something while I write, but on the other, I’m just trying to finish the story. That playful negativity is kind of a resigned acceptance. I’m putting my characters in situations outside of their control, but what they do within that situation is what actually matters. You can’t change every result, you can only change how you choose to be affected in a way.

CT: Dead Aquarium divides its stories into four sections: Mundane, Supra-Terrestrial, (Loon)acy, and Sublime. I read these sections as a kind of spectrum. We begin with more realistic stories (“Sinking Moments,” “Goose Island” or “Cages”) and slowly build toward more fabulist pieces (“Terra,” “Emerson,” or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”). Am I reading the structure right? What was your intention with the section divisions? How did you envision the arc of the collection?

CMS: You’re on it. I wanted the collection to be a slow descent into my own fuckery. It’s kind of like dating a person. When the relationship begins, you’re as grounded as you can be, but the more comfortable you get and the longer the relationship goes on, the more you’re sucked into the nonsense of what it means to build your life around another human. I wanted each story to suck the reader into a little more nonsense.

CT: So much of Dead Aquarium is about place. Mugginess steams off the page. Many stories revolve around storms and hurricanes. Alligators and nutria are frequent pests. It’s an intentionally Florida book, which seems to be a bustling contemporary subgenre. What are you trying to capture or convey about your home state? And why do you think Florida is such a unique place and topic for contemporary fiction?

CMS: In the same way I want people to sink into my own fuckery, I wanted my characters to be on the verge on sinking in some form or another. Muggy is a good description. That kind of heat that can be cozy in the night and insufferable in the day can make a person unsure which way to go. In a world that’s growing more and more virtual, Florida is a regular reminder of the tangible. The state is a potpourri of textures that remind you that you are real and capable of dying.

CT: Drinking is a huge part of Dead Aquarium. Characters are constantly drowning their sorrows in a wide variety of alcohols. Half of the novella “Emerson” takes place in a bar. What does this signify for you? What does it convey about these characters and their worlds?

CMS: Drowning is the word to focus on here. All of these characters want to do or say something that they are incapable of enacting sober. Drinking is a natural means of lowering their inhibitions, of getting some of the shit out into the real world and making them move. Drinking is also just a big part of my life. Getting myself in a position where I can sink into my work. I’m drunk right now answering these questions.

CT: I loved “Cages.” The simplicity of the concept covers how complex the story is, the narrator physically batting to hold off his own aging. He’s sore and slowing down, knows he will eventually have to stop. The act of anticipating baseballs and striking them is so beautifully rendered here. What inspired this particular story?

CMS: Honestly, I just love going to the cages and making myself hurt. Like I said above, sometimes it’s just about feeling something physical, and I think when I wrote that story I just was reflecting on my life pre and post marriage, and how my experience at the batting cages was changed by the fact that I was a husband now.

CT: The concept of “Emerson” is so whimsical, a town filled with and built around aquariums. Yet the story is more concerned with how this fantastical concept decays and deteriorates into the future. The remnants of what used to be great. In the present of the story, Emerson is ravaged by storms, poverty, and directionless characters. This is embodied by the Rogers twins, who seem driven a bit insane by their family’s past. Despite all this, Xavier builds a home in Emerson. Is this an accurate interpretation of some of the themes of “Emerson,” finding a place to belong in the debris of all this has-been?

CMS: Writing “Emerson” was a hell of a process, because the conceit of the thing was this guy Xavier and his imaginary friend Sebastian. The town itself started in another short story that didn’t work and I don’t know… I think it’s my natural instinct to tear things apart. So the moment I created this fictional place, all I wanted was to destroy it. I can’t say I have a lot of intention there, I just like building things just to tear it all down. Legos, Sim City, my own fictional worlds.

CT: Some of the later stories in the collection fly off into wonderfully strange territory. I especially admire “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The scene in which the robot tells Roscoe “Finish me” was a beautiful, layered moment that struck me as a microcosm of the entire collection, so many of these characters feeling incomplete, torn, and unfinished within themselves. How do go about creating stories like this? Is the ending planned or discovered in the writing?

CMS: This story was one born of guilt. My wife is so supportive and so patient with this dumb writing thing I do. When I’m on a roll on a project, I’m completely useless everywhere else in my life and she’s so good at letting me go through my process. So I tried to imagine a breaking point for her. What would happen if she started falling apart? Would I even notice? I’m trying really hard to notice these things.

CT: Do you have a typical process, a pattern to how you create stories? What are you currently working on? What’s your next project?

CMS: I’m an image guy. I like to start with something that would be weird to see (a thumb falling off, breaking legs on a trampoline, a hundred nutria squirming around a backyard), and think of what’s the next step after that. Otherwise, I like to write in the morning, away from my house, where I can hear enough shit that I end up hearing nothing.

I’ve recently finished a novel. It’s about another whimsical world in which Major League Baseball is dead and the country is tearing down all the ballparks. It’s dark, surreal, and more of the nonsense I like to indulge in and hopefully discover a little heart along the way.

CT: Finally, what beer would pair best with Dead Aquarium?

CMS: New Belgium’s Fat Tire is the way to go. An amber ale that taste better than the usual commercial stuff but isn’t overtly funky like a craft IPA.

Caleb Tankersley is the Full Length Editor for Split Lip Press and teaches English courses in Seattle. Previously, he led the creative writing program at Mississippi School of the Arts. He holds a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His chapbook Jesus Works the Night Shift was published by Urban Farmhouse Press.

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