Monday, February 22, 2021

TBR: The Ways We Get By by Joe Dornich

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

The Ways We Get By is a linked short story collection that uses humor as an entryway to examine loneliness, consequence, and the commodification of compassion. Each of the stories in the collection centers on the narrator’s job and the measure of compassion – physical, emotional, psychological – that that service provides. Characters work as camp counselors, certified cuddlers, professional mourners, and animal conservationists. Others capitalize on people’s pleasure with the familiar by dressing up as super heroes and religious figures. What I have found in reality, and what I hope to explore with this book, is that when it comes to this specific kind of economy there is an irony at play. Those tasked with doling out compassion, with being nurturing vessels of support and encouragement, are often lacking these qualities in their personal lives. This absence of support and compassion in their personal lives, and the ways in which it complicates their professional ones, serves as one of the unifying themes of the book.



Which story did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?

My favorite story to write was, “Camp Vampire Kids.” This is one of the stories that resulted from me having a hands-on experience, in this case as a volunteer for the Xeroderma Pigmentosum Society’s annual summer camp. Meeting these kids and their families was such a unique and rewarding experience and one of the reasons that made me want to be a writer. When it came time to rework my experiences into a short story it came quite easily.

The most challenging was probably, “The Yellow Mama Experience.” Of the nine, this was the story where I had the least amount of direct experience and proved to be the most difficult to research. I was (and still am) fascinated by odd objects and the stories behind them, but working those into a larger narrative with characters that felt believable was a bit of a slog.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

I have been truly fortunate. Black Lawrence was the first press I submitted to and they are the ones publishing my book. I’d heard of Diane and BLP in graduate school and was eager to work with them. I had missed the window for their annual contest and so I submitted to their open reading period, which I believe is in November. By May I had signed a contract. I have friends who have taken years to get their manuscript published, others who are still looking, and so I know how lucky I am.

The biggest challenge now is how to promote a book in the middle of a pandemic.  We were hoping to do a tour and bring the book to AWP, and now we are revising those strategies.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

In The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays From Tin House, Ben Percy has an essay titled, “The Importance of Work.” In it, Percy suggests giving your characters a job. He reminds us that, “Whether we like it or not, work defines us. Work dominates our lives.”

I see employment as an opportunity for empathy. First, everyone has, or at least has had, a job. Also, regardless of workplace specifics, there are a number of commonalities: jobs we’ve hated but feared losing; jobs that were beneath us and made us question our self-worth; rude clients/customers or selfish/cruel/foolish/myopic bosses that made us feel a myriad of emotions; workplace crushes that did or did not evolve into relationships; financial instability; jealousy, envy, and resentment. The list goes on and on. I lean on these familiar aspects to hopefully generate empathy from my readers, and then I try to test the strength of that empathy and upend reader’s expectations about where that empathy may arise. I believe that once a foundation of empathy is established (and revisited throughout the narrative), I can add a structure that, no matter how foreign or silly, won’t “lose” a reader.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

How enjoyable it is to write mean characters. There is something cathartic about inhabiting that mentality for a bit and having a repository for all of those snarky jokes and cruel comments that come to mind.


How did you find the title of your book?

 All of the stories are told from the first-person point of view, and so I wanted the “We” in The Ways We Get By to reflect that chorus. There isn’t a story with that title, instead it is meant to represent the ways in which these people are getting through the day. The stories are also loosely linked, and so the “We” also represents that singular world in which the characters inhabit.







READ A STORY FROM THIS BOOK, “The Reluctant Son of a Fake Hero”:





DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.