Making Short Work of Commentary: A Conversation with Dennard Dayle
Dennard Dayle is a serious prankster. No, really. Even the news says this, so you know it’s true. Well, that program may not have used the term “prank,” but The New Yorker did. Dayle may be recognized by many for the pranks he’s pulled, but he’s also a successful fiction author with impressive sales and a debut collection coming out from a major publisher.
Dennard Dayle was born in the Bronx and spent his teenage years in Yorktown Heights, NY. “When I want to sound cool, I say the Bronx. When I’m on a job interview, I say Westchester.” He went to Princeton for his bachelors in English, then earned his MFA in creative writing at Columbia University. He also took a stand-up comedy workshop run by Kevin Dombrowski in Manhattan. “Stand-up did a lot for my writing. I learned a lot about managing the pace of information, which is an eternal balancing act with your audience. You never have to water yourself down, but you always have to make yourself understood.”
Before returning to Columbia to teach, Dayle worked a range of gigs: “fashion magazine intern, start-up publicity assistant, unemployed, MLB video logger, writer for an Onion knockoff, editor for a firm that caused the financial crisis, office support monkey, nonprofit library assistant, rehab clinic temp, and advertising copywriter. My trick is nodding with verve during job interviews. I actually learned some useful writing tricks at the ad agency, where I stayed for three years.” Dayle has played with various modes of writing for a long time—even in high school he experimented with web publishing under different names.
For more casual interests, he’s drawn to many things. “I’m a nerd chimera (comics, anime, gaming, pro-wrestling). I’m also into break dancing, as both a fan and mediocre practitioner. I have a special love for science fiction and martial arts films, so I’ve already seen Everything Everywhere All at Once twice. I’m a big believer in inspiration coming from everywhere. I have fond memories of visiting comedy clubs with my sister and late mother. There was a lot of personal chaos at the time but surprise sets from D. L. Hughley and the like made things seem brighter. Karaoke saves families, friendships, and weekends.”
Dayle’s first genre fiction sale was through the now defunct NewBookBay science fiction contest with “Liberty Points.” Next was “The New Romance” in POST(blank), cowritten with Sam Lagow, published in 2017. “That was a body-horror comedy about practical problems in future romance. To this day I don’t know if the journal editors have a fantastic sense of humor or didn’t know that the scene was meant to be humorous.” Dayle has a slew of writing credits with a range of publishers, including McSweeney’s, Whiteness at Work, and Points in Case, but his genre fiction sales include “Eight First Impressions of a Time Traveler,” in The New Yorker, “Kenichi and the Wolves” in Fairy Tales and Folklore Re-imagined, and “Own Goal” in Clarkesworld.
Besides teaching at Columbia, Dayle runs website See More Evil and cohosts anime podcast Weaboo Hell. His career as a prankster lives on: “Last year, I had a stunt with sci-fi flavor with Climate Apocalypse Survival Tips.”
Everything Abridged: Stories is a collection partially inspired by Neal Stephenson’s 1992 climate apocalypse novel Snow Crash and Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize winning novel The Sellout. In Dayle’s own words: “Everything Abridged combines my three loves: comedy, sci-fi, and attention. I liked the idea of using The Devil’s Dictionary-style short definitions as palate cleansers between stories. I think the results are a lot of fun, and a good fit for current attention spans. My Columbia thesis actually morphed into an entry in [the book] (the apocalypse gave me a lot of revision time).” Everything Abridged is due from Abrams imprint The Overlook Press on May 24th.
What were the books, stories, or authors that were important to you when you were younger, the ones that influenced your writing or inspired you to write?
Blame Joseph Heller. During a trip to Jamaica (not fun Jamaica, but fundamentalist Jamaica), it was just me and a copy of Catch-22. After that, this was the only outcome.
While my sister introduced me to sci-fi with The X Files, I fell in love with it after reading Snow Crash. It led me past the aesthetic appeal of androids and starships, and into a rabbit hole of books I barely understood. Though I still enjoy and exploit the aesthetic appeal of androids and starships. Transmetropolitan had the same effect a year later.
Anthologies of The Boondocks were also very formative. Underrated is probably the wrong word for someone with Aaron McGruder’s success, but I think he should have his own theme park.
And yes, cards on the table: I’ve read a lot of Terry Pratchett.
What does your usual process look like? Do you have regular writing routines—and did COVID affect your routines?
New ideas tend to come at random, so I keep notebooks on hand to preserve them. If there’s one thing I learned in advertising, it’s the value of a shower thought.
I tend to work from short outlines and ignore them just as often. But I never ignore sticky notes. I try to write the core point of a piece down on a yellow square, to make sure I don’t lose my way. The concept comes from a TV writer—I can’t remember which one—but the theory is that when you keep the story’s purpose in mind, you’ll be fine whether it’s season one or twelve.
As for timing, I write in short consistent bursts. I get much more done in three one-hour heats than a four-hour struggle session. When the ideas are hot, I focus more on first drafts and new premises. When they’re not, I deal with line editing, outlining, and the benighted world of email. I find working consistently and productively healthier than fretting over hours and page count.
I’m mortal, so I go through drafts. When it comes to line editing, I’m a prolific tree-murderer. Paper makes it easier to hack sentences apart, and I can only stare at a screen for so long without nodding off.
Regarding COVID, lockdown made wage theft from my old agency much easier. I could dedicate my entire day to writing, editing, and Bloodborne.
As an author who has sold work to a range of venues, but who often plays in speculative settings and ideas, do you draw a distinction between “literary” and “science fiction”? Do you feel like these categories hold important meanings?
The distinction helps marketers and egoists. Marketers have a hard job, especially around a launch, so I sympathize. Egoists are harder to deal with.
I should be a little more precise. Literary fiction has a few competing definitions, which leads to people talking past each other. Commentators referring to literary fiction generally mean one of three things:
- Books more focused on interiority or form than plot.
- Books in a broadly realistic milieu.
- Books regarded as serious art.
Fans of definition one should dig deeper. Plenty of sci-fi focuses on the interiority and formal experimentation praised in MFA day care. Moreover, a lot of work uncontested as literary fiction deals heavily in plot.
Advocates of definition two are simply fans of vanilla ice cream, white bread, and Brooklyn barbecue. Leave them in peace.
Three, however, is the most common, and often the subtext of the other two. I invite anyone insisting science fiction can’t be serious art to discuss the matter in a Chili’s parking lot. The winner gets to teach my class at Columbia.
You’ve been publishing on your website since 2010 and selling work for a number of years. What did “breaking in” look like for you?
Never take business advice from me. Anyone else could have done this in half the time.
I could have lifted off in 2017, when my first prank gained traction. But after a back-to-back funeral and divorce, my brain was an early Trent Reznor song on loop. Apologies to the reporters that dealt with me at the time. I was present, but not there.
Later on, there was a big near miss with [REDACTED], regarding a now-outdated satire about American populism (political comedy moves quickly, and publishing does not). They gently requested that I make the book slightly closer to Dear White People. I think Dear White People is slightly terrible, so I prodded for clarification. They meant blacker. I tried cutting forty percent of the book, but the deal fell through.
Getting published in Clarkesworld (heard of it?) and McSweeney’s changed my outlook. I stopped feeling like water in the ocean. I could stand out, like oil in the ocean. Now I aspire to be my generation’s Exxon Valdez.
I’m amazed to see things going well today. It feels unnatural. I keep expecting to wake up back in Princeton, explaining why my story needs nanobots and black people.
One of the things your readers love about your work is the humor. In terms of craft, what is the key to landing humor, especially in work that carries important subtext?
I promised myself I’d stop giving this question glib, blow-off answers. Prepare for text.
Humor comes in countless strains, and I can’t cover them all here. Some say that it’s innate or unteachable. I think they need better teachers. There’s only one kind of unteachable comedy.
Take satire, which is all about caricaturing a fact of life. Sci-fi fans have an advantage here, even when there’s no speculative element. Both niches ask “Imagine if . . . ” in the same tone of voice. For me, it helps to ensure a story’s basic concept (or pitch, for other advertising refugees) passes a laugh test. However good your line-to-line writing is, I find it often collapses when building toward a thin point, and flows freely when I’m onto something.
Then there’s your classic joke. Set-up, turn, punch line. Stereotypically associated with club comedy, but easily applied in prose (or even a story’s structure). In my mind, jokes are all about leaving the perfect gap of information between the set-up and punch line. Too small, and you’ve said nothing. Too large, and you don’t make sense. Leave enough room for them to make the connection themselves, but not so much they fall in. The best part is less what you say, and more what you force someone to think.
Absurdist humor is a bit like horror. Keeping one toe in the familiar makes the strangeness stronger. Think of it as the house inside the uncanny valley. Vernon Chatman is the living master of this.
The only unteachable comedy is slapstick. You either get why a crotch kick is funny, or you don’t.
On your website, you list your Clarkesworld story, “Own Goal,” as your personal favorite of your short stories. What makes this one stand out for you, what do you like most about it?
I’ve tried a few different angles on grief in my writing, and “Own Goal” wins. It reflects life marching on before you’re ready, and you missing the other problems snowballing in the background. When your figurative world’s on fire, it’s easy to miss the literal one.
Beyond feelings (avoid those, they make your muscles fall off), I think the story captures my pet political fixations well. It’s easy to lose the story when nuclear winter is on your mind, but “Own Goal” never reads like a Twitter diatribe.
I also like the line-to-line writing, particularly the closing. I don’t go for a flourish like “We were racing the dead” often, but it felt right there.
What was the inspiration for “Own Goal,” and how did the piece develop? Was the final version close to the original idea, or did you go through a number of edits to get it to where it is now?
“Own Goal” started with me writing mock ad briefs for superweapons. I enjoy fictional documents and wanted to apply some of my experience selling sugar pills. I ended up focusing on one brief and building prose around it. The first version had additional briefs for competing products, but it felt self-indulgent.
The focus on mourning draws from my own mother’s death, and the subsequent three years I spent on autopilot. It became a bigger part of the story as time went on, and then the entire story. I’m happy with that change.
As for my interest in superweapons, I have nuke anxiety. I don’t know how anyone got through the Cold War sane. Be nice to your parents, they’re surprised to be alive.
Your collection, Everything Abridged, features a number of dictionary-style entries as well as longer pieces, including both reprints and new material. What are some of your favorite new pieces in the book, and what are they about?
The longest piece, “Post-Atomic Stress,” is my baby. It has a hook I’m proud of, puts my spin on the cyberpunk niche that’s owned my imagination for ten years, and was conceived in an inspired rush I spend most of my time trying to recreate. The story follows an alphabet agency hacker’s attempt to ignore his role in a failing surveillance state.
After all the rereads that go into a book, I still can’t get through “Apex Competitor”without laughing. It contains enough unleaded madness to make me doubt my own health. It’s about one Olympian’s desire for gold vs. his dignity.
“Free Panels” was a personal exorcism. I was frustrated with recurring depictions of modern extremists as brain-dead sexual failures and wanted to take another angle. It’s also my love letter to spec-fic in comics. By writing about a struggling comic writer’s downward spiral, I was able to sneak in style parodies of everything I love.
For the longer pieces, is there an organizational principle behind the selections?
Several of them share a setting in the Free Dominion, the lunatic state that follows the American experiment. To borrow a Paul Heyman line, it’s not a prediction. It’s a spoiler.
The rest are more diffuse in setting and subject. They’re united by painting American life today. I’d call the book American Life if the name weren’t cursed.
If readers looked at three stories in this book, what would you want them to be, and why?
My ego wants you to spend as much time at my party as possible, so first I’ll suggest “Post-Atomic Stress,” since it’s the longest. Other virtues put it in the top three as well, including my best execution of a Greek chorus in anything, an inventive conspiracy, the pettiest use for nanobots I can think of, and a slapstick posthuman sex scene. But I mostly want to monopolize your time.
We’ve talked enough about “Own Goal,” so I’ll give the second seat up to “Death Comedy Jam.” I like the hook enough that I think I’m going to revisit it later. Without giving the game away, it puts strain between a space station and the Earth through a different lens.
Finally, “Apex Competitor.” While the other stories filter my thoughts on the future, mortality, and American exceptionalism eating itself, this one is raw human stupidity. It’s a borderline prank, and at least a few readers will ask “why?”
Which, for you, were the stories that were most challenging to write?
One story, “Recent Activity,” consists of bank transactions and includes a running balance. I botched the math for it an embarrassing number of times. Shout out to Chelsea Cutchens for her patience and willingness to teach a thirty-year-old to add.
It took me a while to find the right voice for “Welcome.” The original narrator was much less of a true believer in the wonders of incarceration. Then I discovered the power of a good strawman.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about this book?
Everything Abridged is an attempt to Xerox my brain. If you read it, and already know one thing I don’t, then you’ll be smarter than me at the end. That’s two free Ivy League degrees (though I question the value of the orange one).
For all I’ve talked about autocracy, nukes, and funerals, the book is a fun ride. I think there’s a lot of joy and bewilderment left to experience, and the text reflects that. Think of it as the party at the end of the world.
Who are authors working today that you enjoy? What are some of your favorite recent reads, and what did you like most about them?
Reading’s for dorks.
As a dork, I’ve been revisiting short fiction. I’m a big Alice Sola Kim fan. She’s got an inimitable voice, which you should try to imitate anyway.
Robert Brockway, Seanbaby, and Lydia Bugg are keeping Internet punch lines alive in a decade where the standard is “doesn’t the other team suck?” I deeply admire this, despite my public and fervent resentment of the other team. They remind me to focus on my better comedic angels.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my ongoing Rick Remender binge. For sci-fi fans, I recommend Low. It’s a treatise on hope in a world with an environment collapsing even more quickly than ours.
I just sprinted through The Count of Monte Cristo to understand a parody of it by the cartoonist Unwinder. And while I really like Alexandre Dumas, I love Unwinder. If you have a soft spot for webcomics or format parodies, he’s worth your time. If you don’t, he’s still worth your time.
One day I’ll duel Paul Beatty, eat his heart, and be the funniest writer in America. Or maybe Mateo Askaripour will do it first, Black Buck is great. We could try a seeded tournament? Round robin? Think Mortal Kombat but intentionally funny.
What else are you working on now, and what do you have coming up that you can tell us about?
I’m working on a novel, currently untitled, that has some momentum. It’s twice as focused, but three times as nonsensical. I have a lot of shorter work that I’m shopping around, so hopefully you’ll see more of that as well. I’m also keeping the deluge of articles, mock text adventures, and stunts on See More Evil coming. In terms of the stunts, my personal goal is provoking Eric Adams into saying something deeply stupid by the end of the year. He can handle that on his own, but the personal touch adds flavor.
I’m also, paradoxically, sleeping much more. Working yourself to death is sorely overrated. It’s about pacing things out.
Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards, for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes and run workshops for Clarion West, Augur Magazine, and more, and has been a guest speaker at a range of events. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.