Of all stories published by After Happy Hour Review, none obtained nearly as much reader feedback as Brandon Getz’s short story “White People,” published in Issue Three. As part of a retrospective on our most popular stories, we sat down with Getz to discuss how the story came about, and what made it so popular.
What were you thinking when you first came up with this story?
This was started actually back in early 2011. I had been living in Buenos Aires for a couple months and had finally found an English-language bookstore in the San Telmo neighborhood called Walrus Books. And they had this tome of Isaac Asimov stories, and I bought it for myself for Christmas. And I was reading through this book, and I got to this story “Rain, Rain, Go Away.” It basically was about some neighbors moving in, and they’re doing weird stuff, and there’s a twist at the end and….it’s not even the best story in the collection. Certainly not one of Asimov’s best, not even really science fiction. It’s just…weird. And it stuck out, I guess, because it was weird and so I got this idea to write this weird neighbor story.
And going back to even the MFA [program], one of the things I liked to do is mess with perceptions that people have about certain words. So calling it “White People” and continually referring to the white people….people have a feeling about the phrase “white people.” So you bring those preconceptions to it, maybe the story doesn’t turn them on their head, but it messes with them a little bit. It sort of holds a funhouse mirror up to them. I sort of did this with demons in a story that was the last story in my thesis. Kelly Link does this with zombies in a story called “The Hortlak.” Kind of like calling a thing a thing, and then playing of the archetype of that thing. And the zombies in “The Hortlak” are still kinda zombies, but they’re certainly not Walking Dead or Romero zombies. It’s different. And so the white people in “White People” are white people. They’re just a different kind of white people. [laughing]
Describe the writing process. Did the story come more fully formed, or was it radically different from the final product?
Yes and no it emerged the way it is. When I started in 2011, I was in a quarter-life crisis and while I was in Buenos Aires seemingly living it up in paradise, I was actually pretty deep into a depression and couldn’t really finish anything. I started a couple projects and would give up after a couple of pages. And this was no different. I wrote maybe the first half a page and then gave up and didn’t start again until….when was “White People” published?
So late 2014 is when I was like “All right. I’m going to write this fucking story!” [Laughs] It’s been on my list, I’m just going to sit down, and I’m going to write it. And at that point after sitting a few years, it did kind of take shape. But I did have trouble ending it. In stories like that, I don’t want to follow traditional plotlines and expectations. I don’t want big things to happen. I don’t want things to take on obvious meaning. And so I want to play against not only word expectations, but story expectations. So finding how to maneuver this story and get it to a place where it felt ended without feeling like it had the big ta-da! finish…this is what it meant all along! This is what the white people are! That was a challenge. That took some work.
So how does “White People” fit in with the stories you usually write. Is the rest of your work in the same vein, or was this a break for you?
“White People” is like 100% the kind of stories I write. In voice and thematic notes, it kind of ties back to an older story called “Skins” that I have, about a guy that has a family and works in a taxidermy factory. And both a little bit giving a nod to George Saunders and his style. But all of my stuff is weird. It’s literary weird. All of it is like regular people dealing with some intrusion of strangeness in their lives.
I wanted to ask how you would classify this story. This didn’t feel like genre, but it can’t really be classified as straight literary fiction. It felt like genre that was totally dismissive of the fact that it was genre fiction. Or is this just an irrelevant question?
First off, I don’t want to be dismissive of genre fiction. I think genre fiction versus literary fiction gets a bad rap. People in literary circles kind of turn their noses up at it, as though it’s all sword and sorcery and rayguns and monsters and it doesn’t have any artistry. A lot of what I write is what Michael Chabon would call writing along the borderlands. It’s this stuff that overlaps. And it wasn’t uncommon for literary heroes of yore. I mean, Edgar Allen Poe – he basically invented science fiction, horror and the detective story. And he’s taught in our high school English classes. Dickens and Henry James wrote ghost stories. It was only in the Raymond Carver celebratory era that this attitude exists. And I love Raymond Carver too, but I think there’s been this idea going about that those tropes of horror or science fiction or fantasy are a separate thing.
I don’t think that’s the case. I think you need to write a good story. And all those traditions have good and bad writers, and all those traditions have tropes that you can play with and use to create really cool and interesting stories.
There was an original ending that you cut. And I think you might have alluded to this earlier, but the reason for cutting is that it was a bit too obvious. Tell me a bit more about that ending, and why you made the final choice.
Yeah, it was basically this really weird wrap-up paragraph at the end that was like fast-forwarding to after the white people came back with their alien race and blew up the moon or something. And I kind of just did it to go big and see what would happen, see what people would think of it. Because I had trouble finding the end point, and again going back to Kelly Link – she has trouble ending her stories, and some of her stories just have godawful endings. But she goes big every time, she goes for some crazy shit. So I’m like, I’m going to do the crazy shit ending and see where it goes.
Mostly people hated it and I had to agree, even though there was something I liked about it. But ultimately, it answered too many questions, and I didn’t want those questions to be answered.
How did you feel about this story when you wrote it? Have those feeling changed since publication?
When I finished it I was kind of like, hot damn! [Laughs] I was feeling pretty good. I was at a point where I was getting back into the flow of writing, and I felt like I had churned out something with a lot of potential. Even now, looking back at it, I think it’s one of the best stories I’ve been able to complete in the last couple years. It’s definitely one I feel pretty comfortable sending a link to when I tell somebody this is the kind of shit I write.
Hindsight is 20/20, but is there anything you’d change about it?
This one, more than others, feels very complete, it feels like it does what it sets out to do. If there’s anything I wish I had figured out, and I still haven’t figured out, is kind of rhythmically a better ending. I’m still cool with the main characters going back to their regular lives, but I think the flow of the sentences stops abruptly. If I could have figured out a better way to put those words together at the end or maybe a better way to say the same thing that felt conclusive, I’d feel better. But overall, this feels like one of my most complete.
Out of all the stories we published, “White People” probably got the most comments. So what do you think it is that made people like this story?
I think it probably stands out because it’s weird. Typically a lot of magazines are getting the straight-up literary stuff, and not to say anything about the quality of that stuff, it’s just – you see a lot of it. Just recently I was reading through this magazine where I’d gotten a story about a robot published. And there’s my robot story, and four stories about cheating husbands. So when something like “White People” or a robot on a park bench show up…I think people are feeling a bit refreshed.
I also feel like this one is pretty light and funny and doesn’t dig too deeply, although if you wanted to, you could probably dig up some issues about suburbia, and race relations and housing. But I don’t answer those questions. I’m a writer, not a literature student. As a writer, I don’t like to say “yeah, this means X.” I think that limits the story. I’ll leave parsing meaning to the readers and the lit students. I just put characters in a situation and see what happens
For more from this author, visit http://www.brandongetz.com/