Alice Eris Urchin. Poet. Storyteller. Artist. Performer. Queer. Humanist. Feminist. New Orleans Transplant. Word Janitor. Bibliophile. Tea Drinker. Human Canvas. Comics Enthusiast. Maker of Bad Decisions. Collector of Knowledge.
C. A. Mullins is a poet and storyteller from Missouri who has travelled all over the United States and through many other parts of the world. Most recently, he spent several months in Alaska. Mullins went to Alaska after getting a job with a company that primarily made its money entertaining cruise ship tourists but was fired over certain “creative differences” with his boss not long after arriving. Essentially stranded in a freezing alien land, Mullins found other ways to make money and pass the time in Alaska, which he has written about in his latest book, Klondike Oddjobs. Mullins’ writing has all of the fanciful strangeness of Alice in Wonderland but often touches on darker themes—drugs, drink, alienation—not unlike the stories of Denis Johnson.
Mullins’ book was released this morning, Sunday, November 10, 2013 and is available to the public for free at www.sarcasticbottlecap.com. On this website, there is also an extended version with 30 pages of bonus material available for the price of one tall pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks. So, if you enjoy Mullins’ writing and want to buy him a coffee, you can fund the caffeine buzz he’s going to need to finish the other four projects he’s currently working on. Also, if you’re a fan of his work, he will soon begin his U.S. book tour for Klondike Oddjobs, so stay tuned for more information as to whether he might be coming to a town near you.
I had the privilege of reading Klondike Oddjobs on early release, and yesterday got a chance to exchange a few words with Mullins about what writing this book was like for him.
A. E. Urchin: I know that travel is a big part of your life, especially your creative life, and that for over the past few years you’ve visited many places. How has travel shaped your writing; in particular, how did this trip to Alaska affect you, and why did you choose it as the subject of this book?
C. A. Mullins: Exploration puts me into a state where everything is fresh and new. Every time I’ve started a different life with different characters, I’ve felt like there were suddenly millions of new possibilities, like anything can happen. And as I write, it helps me narrow down those possibilities into one very specific story. I actually didn’t even realize I was writing this book until I had already written about a quarter of it. Mostly, these were just stories that I wanted to tell, and they just happened to fit together nicely. Alaska itself was strange to me. There was a lot of drama, and less isolation than one would expect. Like, when you live in a small town and everyone knows your secrets. It was fascinating, and I wanted to share that fascination.
AEU: Do you think you’ll ever go back to Alaska?
CAM: I do think I’ll go back, though I haven’t decided if I’ll be spending such a long time there again at any point. I’m planning a national poetry tour and I’d really like to do some readings of this work up there.
AEU: When I was reading Klondike Oddjobs, I actually felt that it captured a lot of strange truths about living in America, not just specifically Alaska, was that something that you intentionally did as a writer or was it more something that happened naturally?
CAM: Skagway, the town I was living in, has the weirdest subset of American culture. In the summer, it’s completely dominated by greedy tourists who are there one day and gone the next, and by the people who are there to serve those tourists, whose presence feels even more fleeting because you have the time to get to know them before they vanish. Living in Skagway is very much like living in a gigantic shopping mall that just happens to be surrounded by beautiful, untouched wilderness. It makes you feel really big and really small at the same time. The comparisons that can be made with American life as a whole definitely came naturally, but I was acutely aware of them. Alaska during the tour season is America on steroids.
AEU: You wrote a lot, if not all, of this book while you were actually traveling and working the jobs that you’ve written about, so I wanted to ask what it means to you to be personally oriented on the page at a moment when so much was happening in the world around you, especially in a foreign place that you were still exploring?
CAM: I actually did write a lot of the poems and stories in the book as they were happening to me. A good example of this is the poem “I Am Trapped Under a Gazebo in the Pouring Rain in Bear Country,” which was written while that exact situation was underway. I think writing while doing gives me the chance to explore my thoughts and emotions in the moment, in a way that’s harder to do when you’re looking back. It was exciting for me, because while I was writing Klondike Oddjobs, I had no idea how it was going to turn out, and I just had to trust that the right things would happen to me to make the book as interesting as possible. And thankfully, in a place like Skagway, interesting things happen without much effort. Admittedly though, I do regularly go out of my way to make things happen to me just so I can write about them, which is exactly why I wound up in Alaska in the first place. It was a bit disorienting at times though. There were days when I felt like I had to leave parties, stop doing what I was doing, just so I could write it down. When you’ve got a good line in your head, there’s nothing that can keep it from coming out. There were some good portions of poems that I originally wrote as text messages to friends just so I wouldn’t forget them, because too much was going on all the time.
AEU: What, besides travel, inspires you, as a writer? Who are your biggest influences?
CAM.: I’m especially inspired by interactions with people. Nearly everyone I’ve ever come across exists somewhere as a character, or some portion of a character, in some bit of fiction. Psychology is a big part of my writing. What makes people act the way they do. A lot of times I have trouble understanding people’s actions, and so when I write a character, using real people helps me analyze what makes them tick. As for influences, I did a great deal of reading in Skagway. If there’s any one writer who influenced this book more than any other, it was Richard Brautigan, who gets a namedrop in this book. His work was so disconnected from what was considered mainstream literature at the time. It makes me hopeful when I read him. That if a book like Trout Fishing in America can end up as a cult classic, maybe all hope isn’t lost for an offbeat writer like myself. Some other authors I read in Alaska: Antoine de St-Exupery (there’s supposed to be an accent on that last e, but I don’t know how to do it on this keyboard), Cormac McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis, David Sedaris, Hemingway. Lots of Hemingway. And lots more Richard Brautigan.
AEU: Though I feel that your writing could oftentimes be described as whimsical, there’s actually a lot of pain in it. The worlds you create are funny but also dark. What are your feelings about this pain and darkness? Do you view them as positive things as well as negative things?
CAM: I think pain and darkness are necessary side effects of whimsy. Two sides of the same coin, as they say. In order to live a whimsical sort of life, you’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices. I’ve lost friends to my adventures. I have family members who say horrible things about me behind my back because I’m the kind of guy who disappears to work for a summer and write a book in Alaska, instead of settling down, getting a boring desk job, etc. And no adventure ever turns out to be exactly how you want it to be. You go out looking for some wild, funny thing, and you end up nearly getting mugged in London, or sleeping on the street in Bellingham, Washington (both things that have happened to me.) It’s a theme I’ve explored a lot, and on a lot of different projects, because it always seems to have its way in the real world. Some sort of bizarre karma balancing effect. I like to think I’m good at seeing the humor in that pain though. Like, yeah, I got into this shitty place because I thought it was a good idea to run off to (insert place here.) Whimsy and despair are the cause and effect of my life. And yes, it’s worth it.
AEU: Now that you’ve finished this book, how do you see it fitting into your life? Do you plan on starting any new projects soon?
CAM: Well, I do intend on touring with a lot of this material, doing bizarre and unconventional sorts of readings at strangers’ house parties and street corners. As for the themes, I mean, I certainly learned a lot in Alaska, but I can’t say just yet where I might go with those lessons. As for new projects, I’m planning on writing a similar book during my tour, with the working title Velociraptor Cockfighting, with one poem or story written in every town I visit. I’m also working on a new novel, called How To Cook Like a Single, White, American Man: My Life With Fido or Spot. It’s about a man and his Shih Tzu as they struggle together through bachelorhood. It’s got characters with names like The Eponymous Man, That Mormon Psychiatrist, Archibald the Talking Pancreas, and Mellon Collie Smashing Pumpkins Dog. And of course Fido or Spot, one character with no particular name at all. It’ll explore some of the same themes as Klondike Oddjobs, along with the hypocrisy of Puritanical values, relationships, and growing up. And hopefully, it’ll be funny.
AEU: One last question. You have an interesting dedication page in your book. It reads: “THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO EITAN MORSE. Look at me now, asshole.” Can I ask, who is Eitan Morse?
CAM: Eitan Morse was my boss at the first job I had in Skagway (which lasted about a month.) We didn’t exactly get along. He was an Israeli military officer and I was that pot smoking slacker who only showed up when it was absolutely necessary. Something was just not right between us from the start. One day, me and a friend who was technically 20, just about a month before his 21st birthday, were walking away from the liquor store with huge black bags filled to the brim and Eitan just happened to drive by. Let’s just say he wasn’t happy. I already knew he didn’t like me and there were rumors going around that the company had hired too many people for the summer and was getting ready to lay people off, so on my next work day, I climbed a mountain and screamed “fuck you, Eitan” from the top. It was liberating, and thankfully, it was easy to find a new job with a boss who wound up being like a family member to me. Alaska is full of drama. Even if some of it is self-inflicted.
is the sweetest lady
I am proud to confess to you that I am a murderer. Please believe me when I say that we’d all be better off if we did a little killing every once in awhile.
This morning I looked in the mirror and saw that my eyes looked more tired than usual. And that’s when the voices started up—sad, mean, angry, desperate voices—familiar voices. These voices have been with me since I can remember. When I was learning to walk, they were there, telling me I wasn’t strong enough to stand on my own two feet. They’ve kept me from sleeping—incessantly whispering in my ears that failure is inevitable. They’ve kept me from eating—pinching the fat on my side and tsk-tsking when I’ve thought of ordering pizza. They’ve kept me from loving—shouting so loudly that I could never hear my sweetheart’s soft words over those goddamn voices’ unkind cries.
But it was not until today that I actually crawled inside myself and found a horde of sick, sick people living inside me. I came face-to-face with a girl with eyes the color of three-day-old bruises and hair the color of thick scabs, and it was when I noticed the scars on her wrists that I recognized her. She was the part of myself who was always trying to disassemble Venus razors and take them to my wrists at the slightest sign of emotional turmoil. She was the one who, when I was sad and she without a blade, would dig her fingernails into my flesh until blood was drawn. She was the one who stashed a bottle of sleeping pills in the drawer by my bed and whispered as I sobbed, “Just finish the whole bottle, darling. And maybe you’ll wake up tomorrow and feel better, or maybe you won’t wake up at all! And wouldn’t that be marvelous if you didn’t wake up at all?”
"There is no reason to be afraid to die" were her last words before I forced handfuls of pills down her throat. I handed her a bottle of merlot and watched her drain it. I was only slightly surprised that she did not struggle when I took each of her wrists in my hands and cut her from palm to elbow. Her blood poured from her body like wine from a broken bottle, and I felt an intoxicating surge of strength at the sight of it.
After that it was easy. I forced fountain pens through the eyes of the cantankerous old man who was constantly convincing me that my words weren’t worth reading and reduced him to a wrinkly twitch before bashing his skull in with a dictionary.
After snapping her twig bones, I reached right into the ribcage of the waif who’d been bent on starving me skinny since I can remember. I devoured her plump heart before her eyes and did not worry about the calories.
And then, without batting an eye, I took a blowtorch to her sister’s face, that bitch who never let me leave the house without makeup on.
Using the muscle in my thighs, I strangled the broad-shouldered man who’d made me believe I was never strong enough.
And then the thin man who’d called me a slut night after night screamed, “But I’m a nice guy!” before I castrated him and watched him writhe before he bled out.
I slaughtered every part of myself who’d ever caused me to start a sentence with “I can’t.” I tore limb from limb every person inside me who’d ever made me feel small. And when all of the corpses of the voices who had made it impossible to love myself were finally in a pile, I felt better than I had in my entire life.
I painted my lips and cheeks and eyelids with the blood of the dead parts of myself, and when I caught my reflection in the crimson pool at my feet, I found myself so fiercely beautiful that I never wanted to look away. As I stared into the scarlet, I realized that I had created for myself an endless supply of ink. Now I’m free to create a million works of art, but first, I want all of you to be free, too.
You are all you will ever certainly have, and it is essential to love yourself. Self-hatred is a crime punishable by death—either your death or the death of all those voices in your head insisting that you’re unlovable. Never in my life have I condoned violence, but after today, I say if there is a part of you that makes you hurt so much that sometimes you question whether life is worth living, if there is a part of you that paralyzes you, prevents you from filling your life with meaning, he or she must be sacrificed. Take a machete to your meanest parts. Poison the pieces of you who hold you back. Turn their blood into poetry. You owe it to yourself. You’ll feel better, I promise.