Last November, Larry Gross published a slender volume of dark diamonds entitled Signed, Sealed and Delivered. The short stories were described by one reviewer as a "late-night conspiracy between Hemingway and O. Henry." To be sure, Gross's writing often makes an unexpected swerve but he doesn't waste much time serving up O. Henry whimsy or Hemingway heroics. Instead, he lets his characters be deeply flawed and, on occasion, downright despicable, sometimes teetering on the edge of madness like the narrator of "The Photograph," where the story pulls the reader into a bizarre Twilight Zone of subconscious self-sabotage.
The stories are smart, terse, and Gross proves himself to be the master of the artfully positioned void. Like Raymond Carver, Gross knows that less is more. He never tells when he can show, and he's fully aware that the stolen glimpse is often far more titillating then full exposure.
I interviewed him while he was recuperating from a recent illness.
D.B. Wells: Your characters smoke too much, drink too much, have lots of meaningless sex and stumble into blunders that are sometimes atrocious. I hope you aren't like that.
Larry Gross: I do smoke too much and yeah, I drink sometimes but I sure don't have meaningless sex — I let my characters do that. I do think meaningless sex can sometimes lead to atrocious blunders. Maybe that's why I don't date much. But when people confuse me with some of my characters and ask if I'm really like that, all I can say is I hope not. You see, I do think all fiction is somehow based on truth, drawn from a personal experience. I know when I read some of your stories, I can see D.B. Wells in some. But do I really? That's the fun in writing fiction. You base some of it on fact, then make the rest up.
D.B.: A lot of your stories take place in Cincinnati bars, where your characters not only have a drink or two but really hammer them down. You describe these establishments so well that it's obvious you've been in a few Queen City taverns yourself. Would you call yourself a drinking man?
L.G.: I can't remember the last time I was in a bar.
D.B.: You were that drunk?
L.G.: Yeah, blackouts can be pure hell. Seriously though, sometimes on Fridays, the news editor at CityBeat and myself will have what we call "an important business meeting," which involves going over to The Washington Platform downtown and putting a few away. We've been known to get drunk on occasion — something not to be proud of, but we we're not driving or hurting anybody. Most of the bars in the stories are made up. I do think there is a bar in Covington called "The Pad" — thought it was an interesting name so I wrote it down.
D.B.: You're a smoker?
L.G.: Yes, a heavy smoker. My doctor and I are working on a way to help me quit.
D.B.: And yet you have diabetes. One of your stories, "Friends," features a character that lost a toe to the disease and still drinks and smokes. Based on fact?
L.G.: Totally. Even the confrontation that Roy has with Richard is based on fact.
D.B.: He really gives it to that creep in the story. I suspect reading "Friends" is a real cathartic release for people. Everyone has a false friend like that who deserves to be put in his place. But I wonder why you continue doing things that are so bad for you? I'm asking because some of your stories are so dark and I wonder about your own dark side.
L.G.: Well, I could go into the bit that it's the quality of life, not the quantity, but I don't think you would buy that. Drinking is not good for a diabetic, but it's not out of control for me. Smoking is out of control, and I have to do something about it. I enjoy smoking, and that's going to make it difficult to quit, but I have to.
D.B.: I think drinking and smoking helps me write.
L.G.: Really? I think it can give you some creative ideas but drinking generally turns my writing into shit on the page. I have to be sober when I write. I know others who do their best work while drinking, but I'm not one of them.
D.B.: Sometimes I think alcoholism is a professional hazard for writers. I'm thinking of the really great ones who were boozers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Poe.
L.G.: I think it can be. One of my favorite writers is Richard Yates, and I just finished a book about him called A Tragic Honesty. Yates could not stop drinking, and it slowed down his work. He died alone, broke. That is very self-destructive behavior, and I know some writers go that way. You need to look for the signs and be honest with yourself.
D.B.: One of my favorite Larry Gross lines occurs when one of your narrators sits in a seedy bar recalling the time his wife caught him in a cheap motel with an over-the-hill stripper: "I put out my cigarette forcefully, hoping that would also crush out the memory." There's a certain Carveresque minimalism to the scene. Do you have a favorite line? A favorite story?
L.G.: When I think of a line that I like, I usually write it down in my notebook and hope I'll have a chance to use it in a story. That line you like came to me one day, and I wrote it down and it ended up in "The Birthday Gift" — but no, I don't really have favorite lines. I do have favorite stories. When I wrote the title story, "Signed, Sealed and Delivered," I knew I wanted to call the book that. I think it's a good story. I think my favorite in the book is "The Birthday Gift" — it was a stretch for me to write it and somehow it just came out exactly as I wanted it. That doesn't always happen.
D.B.: So many people would give anything to get their work published. You've been successful but you've written about the struggles and disappointments of the publishing process. What's that about?
L.G.: I'm very sensitive when it comes to my work; and in the process of getting the book published, I dealt with people I didn't know. I spent about four years putting this collection together, and the stories kind of became my children — and you don't mess with my children. For example, an editor wanted to leave out the story "Merry Christmas" because she thought it was too dark and disturbing to read.
D.B.: It's such a powerful piece of writing. Didn't you think the editor was an idiot for even suggesting cutting it?
L.G.: Well, the story had already been published in an arts magazine and got a very good response there, so I knew it was good. Did I think she was an idiot? No, just dead wrong. I don't view editors as gods, you know?
D.B.: "Merry Christmas" contains the starkest description of AIDS devastation that one is likely to find. Knowing that your brother died of AIDS — your twin brother — I wondered how you managed to write it. Wasn't that excruciating?
L.G.: It was difficult. A lot of tears came when writing that story but I had to write it. So much of the story is based on truth. After Jered died, I volunteered for AVOC and I came to know a lot of people dying from AIDS, and this story is based on a real person. The bedsores, the thrush in Greg's mouth — all of that was true. About the only thing made up was the ending. I was with Greg — which was his real name — when he died. All I could do was hold his hand and tell him it was all right. He wanted to live. Very painful. Very emotional. AIDS is not pretty, and I wanted the reader to see that.
D.B.: One of the editors of Signed, Sealed and Delivered said your short stories were about "the failures and shortcomings of middle-aged men." How did that sit with you?
L.G.: Not very well at first. I can see her point in a way, but I think the book is bigger, better than that, or I hope it is.
D.B.: I mean didn't Cheever, Updike and Carver build sizable literary reputations mining that very vein not too long ago? I just wonder why middle-class, middle-age angst seemingly fell out of fashion so fast.
L.G.: I never once looked at it that way — mining a vein. These writers, especially Carver, know how to tell a story with good sentences that keep you turning the page. I don't label good writers. I just read them. When it comes to discussing literature, I'm pretty simple. All I really know is I like variety and different voices. I can read a dark novel like Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, then pick up an Ann Beattie book and have a good old time.
D.B.: Your articles in CityBeat are uncompromisingly honest, often uncomfortably so. For instance, you wrote an article about witnessing a man slap his kid in a grocery store, which then segued into a remembrance of your abusive mother. Is there a price to pay for standing naked in such a way?
L.G.: There is a price to pay. Readers come to know you and decide what side of the fence they want to be on. I got a lot of mail on the story about that father slapping his child. A lot of people liked it and saw my point, but many didn't and I got a ton of hate mail on it — even hate phone calls telling me to mind my own business and to keep my personal issues to myself. But this is how I write. I want readers to know who I am even if they decide not to like me.
D.B.: What does your family think of such honesty?
L.G.: My daughter would really like me to just shut up! We have a really good relationship but when I write about personal issues in my life, I know it sometimes makes her uneasy. We've talked about it a few times and she knows I am what I am, but when I start to write a piece that is personal, I now think about how she's going to react to it; and if I think something is really going to upset her, I won't write it.
D.B.: Did you have to grow into this kind of candor or was it always a part of your personality?
L.G.: I spent a lot of my life not being honest with myself and really didn't like who I was or maybe even didn't know who I was. I sort of went through a marriage and raising my kids with no real purpose in life other than to make money. I don't think I was a bad person or a bad husband or father, but I felt out of place in my life and didn't know how to be honest about it. The death of my twin brother in 1994 changed that. Jered was a great man, a great brother, generous, warm and extremely funny. But I always felt like he was running from his life. He had secrets and I don't know why they existed. He was gay — some knew, some didn't. He had AIDS — some knew, some didn't. He told lies sometimes — and I mean big ones — and to this day, I don't know why. Somehow he just couldn't be honest with himself; and when I saw that in him, after his death, I also saw it in me and went into therapy. I'm a much happier person now, and I wish Jered could see me. Life is too short to have secrets and to hide and to not be honest. Maybe this accounts for my candor. I try to say what I feel, and I have to be honest and personal. It was a long time in coming.
D.B.: You had a real doppelganger, a double. You dedicated the book to your brother.
L.G.: Losing Jered has been the biggest blow in my life. There's not a day that goes by I don't think of him or miss him. Some things in life you can't get over — you just go on, and he not being here with me is just damn hard.
D.B.: The publication of Signed, Sealed and Delivered is not your first brush with fame. You and your brothers had a hit song on the Country charts back in the '70s and toured with Loretta Lynn. That's the stuff of dreams for so many kids, but it was pretty much a nightmare for you.
L.G.: My childhood was not happy, and music accounted for a lot of that unhappiness — along with being beaten by my mother. I wrote about the music and the beatings in CityBeat a few years ago and it surprised some people, again, putting myself out there. But writing that story was therapy for me. Now I'm done with it and can move on.
D.B.: Then you became a husband, father and businessman for twenty-some years, only to give it all the old Paul Gauguin heave-ho in order to pursue your art. How did that come about?
L.G.: I've been writing off and on for my whole life, and for most of it I was told I could never make a living at it and that I was wasting my time, so I would always stop. What bullshit. I woke up to that bullshit on October 17, 1997. I'll never forget that day. I no longer was married, was fed up with corporate life and was not that happy and I thought to myself, 'When am I happy?' The answer was right there in front of my face. I was happy when I wrote my little essays or stories. I wanted to write. Then and there I made a commitment to it, told myself I wanted to give it a shot. Life is not always about money; it's about creating and being who you want to be and why the hell I waited so long to change my life all goes back to not being honest with myself and listening to other people — people who meant well but couldn't understand my need to be creative. Again, therapy showed me the way on this. It's better late than never for me, and I feel blessed to have this in my life — finally.
D.B.: And so now you have this sudden literary output at the age of 50. A book of essays coming out next year? A novel in the works?
L.G.: It's sort of like the genie is out of the bottle, if that makes any sense. My kids are grown, and while I still need to make money, it's not that overriding concern anymore. I don't have to put food on the table, you know? I waited a long time to let myself do this, to tell myself it's just fine to be a writer; and what writers do is write. I'm having the time my life.
D.B. Wells is the author of Your Lolita, a collection of short stories. Her first novel, The Terrestrial Paradise will be published this fall.