13 Questions with A. C. Koch

A C KochCoffin Bell: Introduce yourself.

A. C. Koch: A. C. Koch is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has been published in literary journals such as F(r)iction, Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, and the Columbia Journal. Two of his short stories have been awarded first place in the Raymond Carver Short Story Award at Carve Magazine (2003, 2007), and another story was just named winner of the Supernatural Fiction Contest at Ghost Story. He lives in Denver, CO where he teaches linguistics and plays guitar and sings in Firstimers, a powerpop ensemble.

CB: When you write, do you start with a plan and move from there, or do you generally go where the writing takes you?

ACK: The most pleasurable part of writing fiction is finding out where the story is going to go. I love to start a story with a premise, which is often little more than a joke or a what-if scenario—“What if a guy discovered that popular songs seemed to presage his romantic liaisons and breakups?”—and then start writing to see where it goes.

CB: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

ACK: I love all of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing advice, but my favorite is what he says about making awful things happen to your leading characters. It’s tempting to give them everything they want—after all, I love them as my own creations—but it’s so much more interesting and rewarding to discover what they’re capable of when you paint them into a corner. I also really appreciate the tip to make all the characters want something, even if it’s as simple as a glass of water. When you throw two characters together who want vastly different things, sparks can fly and the story gets interesting.

I also think there’s a lot of wisdom in Stephen King’s advice to write with the door closed and rewrite with the door open. I’m my own first audience, but I rely on the ideas, reactions, and critiques of trusted friends to help me make my work satisfying to a wider audience.

CB: What advice can you give on editing and revising?

ACK: Set a story aside for a while after finishing the first draft, then cleanse the palate by working on something entirely different. When I go back to that first draft, I see it with fresh eyes. I also find it helpful to switch modes: if I wrote the piece long-hand, I’ll revise by typing it up on the computer. If I wrote it on computer the first time, I’ll print it and make revision notes by hand. This seems to help with establishing that sense of distance that makes it easier to see the story objectively.

CB: What publishing advice can you give?

ACK: My publishing strategy with short stories and flash fiction has been something like targeted carpet-bombing. I maintain a big spreadsheet of literary journals I like, including many from the various tiers of Erika Krouse’s Ranking of 500 Literary Magazines. I make sure that all my polished pieces are under submission to at least one place at all times. As soon as a rejection comes in—which it almost always does—I go back to the spreadsheet and pick out a place to send it next. The spreadsheet helps to take the sting out of rejection; instead of being the end of the line for a story, it’s just another step on the journey. What’s really encouraging about this approach is being able to crunch the numbers and discover that about 5% of my submissions end up getting accepted. That may not sound like a lot, but it drives me to keep sending stories out there, knowing that if I can collect 19 rejections, the 20th response might just be the jackpot.

CB: Who are your influences?

ACK: Jennifer Egan, Michael Chabon, Becky Chambers, Arthur Rimbaud, Haruki Murakami, Charlie Mehrhoff, Stephen King, Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell, Kurt Vonnegut, Colson Whitehead, Isaac Marion, Italo Calvino, Raymond Carver, Ian Christopher Hooper, Etgar Keret, Tom Perotta, ZZ Packer, Ted Chiang, Don Winslow, Ken Liu, Kristin Hannah, Peter Heller, JK Rowling, Tana French, Paul Auster, Ben Winters, Don Winslow, Philippe Tapon, Dennis Lehane, Anita Shreve, Ian McEwan. I can do this all day.

CB: What’s one thing you wish every journal editor knew?

ACK: I’m not scared of rejection; I’m scared of wasting my time. Send me a ‘no’ as quickly as you can so I can move on.

CB: Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. Tell us about your fears.

ACK: Fear of living forever.

CB: What draws you to dark fiction?

ACK: Horror and comedy are just two sides of the same coin. I didn’t even realize I wrote dark fiction until I came across Coffin Bell’s call for submissions and then started looking at my stories to find something dark enough. Very quickly, I realized that practically everything I write has a dark edge to it. My sense of humor comes from the same place, and my stories often start out with a  comically dark premise.

CB: How does the darkness in your piece enhance the work?

I recently had a story accepted at a journal that specialized in uplifting fiction. I was a little surprised that they’d chosen my story, which was about an apprentice baker who ends up learning the secret ingredient on the master baker’s last day: the baker’s own ashes. The editor apparently hadn’t realized what the twist was when he accepted the story; when he figured it out, he asked me to rewrite the last paragraph to remove the implications of cannibalism. But without the twist, it was just a story about a guy working in a bakery.

The mystery of death, the fear of shadows, the loss of control to sinister forces—all of these things are both profoundly terrifying and deeply funny. It’s why we pay money to scream and squirm in horror movies, and why we laugh so hard after escaping a dangerous situation. In my piece in Coffin Bell, “Yacht Rock,” a guy discovers that the same songs are always playing nearby whenever a romance begins or ends. This could have become the premise for a light comedy, but I followed it to a much darker place, where the guy ends up becoming a kind of international gigolo-assassin. The dark turn always strikes me as a more interesting place to end up. After all, in the long run, isn’t all art about death?

CB: How important are your surroundings when you write?

ACK: It’s vital for me to get out of my house. Busy coffeehouses are my favorite place to write; something about the buzz of conversation and activity helps me focus. I used to go with my notebook to write at the departure lounge at the train station where everything was a whirl of noise and activity. The hardest place for me to write is at home where there are limitless distractions, or too much silence.

CB: Do you use any sources for your material aside from experience?

ACK: Constant reading. Genre doesn’t matter, although I do try to avoid reading highbrow literary stuff when I’m in the midst of a project, so I don’t start unconsciously imitating the author’s voice. I often choose movies, books, or shows that deal with a theme that a character of mine is grappling with, like leadership, friendship, betrayal, secrets, sacrifice, whatever. For a recent sci-fi piece about two women trying to earn positions of power on an intergenerational starship, I watched Thelma and Louise for inspiration on the dynamics of female friendship and competition. This is why genre doesn’t matter. The stories that interest me are centered around people, regardless of the setting or plot or style.

CB: Where can we find more of your work?

ACK: Last year, I wrote a whole collection of short stories and flash pieces with dark and strange twists. Several of these have been published recently, in Suspect Press (Cities of the Future), Fictive Dream (Angry God), Wanderlust Journal (Bastille), Chaleur (Circle of Blazers), Columbia Journal (Rio Muerto), and Gemini (Tea Cup). A stand-alone chapter from my sci-fi novel-in-progress was just named first place winner in the short story contest at F(r)iction (Running Bear). A very strange piece about teleportation and the evil of power won the Supernatural Fiction Award at Ghost Story (Cloudscape). If music is more your style, follow my band, Firstimers, where the dark twists are all set to catchy powerpop tunes.