Josh Denslow’s debut collection, Not Everyone Is Special, follows a cast of memorable characters who have resigned themselves to failure. “I do indeed write about broken souls, but I tend to think of my characters as superheroes,” Denslow told me. “Except instead of courageously moving forward under adversity, they never get past their origin stories. They have already decided they will lose.”
Whether Denslow seeks to capture failed love—as in “Too Late for a Lot of Things”—or shows us how special powers aren’t always so glamorous in “Proximity,” he presents stories with equal amounts of humor and loss. Ultimately, the collected 15 stories in Not Everyone Is Special serve as a heartfelt ode to those living among impossible-to-escape difficulties.
Denslow and I recently discussed the appeal of failing, the importance of humor, and the inspirations behind some of his most memorable characters.
The Millions: When I finished Not Everyone Is Special, I began, almost immediately, to think back about your characters. Whether I was reflecting on the lovelorn Keith in “Too Late for a Lot of Things,” jealous Neil in “Proximity,” or even the current and soon-to-be guilt-plagued group of boys in “Crossing Guard,” I realized just how broken these souls are. What is it about these troubled lives that make them such good subjects?
Josh Denslow: I can’t imagine a more wonderful compliment than knowing you are still thinking about the characters, Bradley. Thank you.
I do indeed write about broken souls, but I tend to think of my characters as superheroes. Except instead of courageously moving forward under adversity, they never get past their origin stories. They have already decided they will lose.
When I begin a story, I usually start with one of these “superheroes” on the precipice, and I find it’s impossible to fill in the backstory without unearthing all the sadness and pain and regret. I mean, who doesn’t have all of that in their past? But one of the real tragedies of life is when we root for someone to succeed and that person can’t quite rise to the challenge. Almost as if our expectations are a curse. That’s the feeling I like to evoke in my stories. Because everyone can relate to failure and disappointment.
TM: With characters such as these, there’s of course going to be plenty of sadness and loneliness. However, there’s also a lot of funny stuff going on here. How important was it for you to balance some of the darkness with moments of humor?
JD: I might even say it’s the most important thing to me. Humor is how we understand each other. It’s how we relate to each other. It’s how we mask our pain. I think of my stories as comedies even though they can indeed be just as sad and lonely as you say. A lot of times when I tell someone what one of my stories is about, I have to follow up with, “But it’s a comedy!”—because it usually doesn’t sound all that funny when it’s broken down into its working parts. There is, of course, what a story is about, but then there is also how it’s about. For me, the humor holds the parts together.
Because real life is a balance of tragedy and comedy, I try to replicate that as best as I can. I usually find if I just let my characters talk, the comedy will find a way in. And that humor has a way of making the truth of the story land harder.
TM: Do you still think of any of the characters from Not Everyone Is Special?
JD: Probably the character I come back to the most is Mark from the story “Mousetrap.” He has an interesting job picking up dead bodies and bringing them to a funeral home. He’s also contemplating suicide. (But it’s a comedy!) He might be my saddest character, but also, the most self-aware and critical, and I find that really interesting. A guy who is critical of himself can learn from his mistakes, and more than anything Mark wants to be a better person. That’s a journey I could easily continue following. Plus, I’m fascinated by his job, and I bet there are a million stories to be told about it. I really like the jobs people choose to do, and I think that manifests itself through the collection.
I actually attempted a series of stories that feature Squid from the story “Everyone Continued to Sing.” He valet parks cars, which is a job I held for many years in college, and his stories were colored by the actual experiences I had during that time. There’s even a character in that series named Cody who might be the closest to autobiographical I have ever written. But ultimately it is Squid who is the most fascinating character, the way he sees life as a contest, and I think about him whenever I’m in a parking garage. Only one of my parking stories made this collection, and it’s because watching Squid deal with grief is fascinating and it fit thematically with everything else in Not Everyone Is Special.
TM: There’s a sense of realness that’s clearly established in your stories. I mean, honestly, I could probably pick any one story out of the collection and see myself or someone I know reflected in some way. But you also use magic at times. “Proximity,” which follows a young man who teleports, is the story that probably takes the biggest leap into the fantastic. What does the addition of magic add to your stories that staying with realism just can’t?
JD: One way to truly understand a character is to thrust him into an extraordinary experience. And since I already think of my characters as superheroes, it wasn’t too big of a leap to start giving them actual superpowers.
But I knew I needed to treat any magical additions as I would any other mundane revelation. “Proximity” was the first story where I attempted this. I wanted to explore what it would be like to have a superpower in the exact world we live in now. I believe that if given a power like that, a lot of people would hide it; scared to take a chance on greatness.
In fact, a unifying theme in the collection is how people squander their talents. So instead of Neil having some secret artistic talent that no one knows about, he’s hiding his ability to teleport across town. But when he does it, it’s incredibly painful, so he has to choose his times carefully. I didn’t want the teleportation to become what the story was about. I wanted to keep that realness you mention. That’s incredibly important to me, that the characters feel real no matter what crazy thing is happening.
“Proximity” turns out to be a fairly sweet story about a guy who is new to adulthood and his relationship with his mother. The addition of his teleportation power makes everything worse than it would be without it, and that’s what I like most. The way powers complicate things.
TM: One story in particular that’s loaded with funny bits is “Too Late for a Lot of Things.” The story is about a small person named Keith, who works as an elf at Santa’s Workshop. He dislikes basically everyone and everything except for Tina, and he’s in love with her. I won’t spoil the ending, but I think it’s such a unique and special story. Do you mind talking about the genesis of it?
JD: There was an actual place near where I grew up in Illinois that was a year-round Christmas-themed amusement park. I never actually went, which makes me a little sad now considering I don’t think it’s there anymore. But for some reason it always fascinated me. There was something incredibly sad about capitalizing on Christmas for an entire year, and so of course, I always wanted to write a story about it.
One thing I like to do, particularly in this collection, is to give my main characters a disadvantage. In “Too Late for a Lot of Things,” Keith uses his diminutive stature to hold himself back in every aspect of his life. Because he dislikes himself, he takes it out on everyone around him. And what is around him is this rundown Christmas park where he works as an elf. It is a form of self-punishment in which Keith forces the world to see him as he sees himself. In fact, when I was submitting this story for publication, the title was actually “How I See Myself,” but I think Third Coast was right to change the title before they published it. “Too Late for a Lot of Things” opens up the theme to encompass everyone who works there. They all missed out on something.
Once I then created an antagonist in the form of the guy who portrays Santa Claus at the park, this story just fell into place. All I needed at that point was a very tall love interest. And a whole sleigh full of bad feelings.
TM: Another standout is “Not Everyone Is Special,” which closes your collection. What made this particularly story stick out for it to be your titular one?
JD: “Not Everyone Is Special” was the name of the collection before there was even a collection. In fact, years ago when Cutbank accepted this story for publication, they also wanted to change the title. But unlike with Third Coast, this time I pushed back. My argument was that I was using this as the titular story of my collection. With the hazy way memory works, I might even say that was first time I thought of collecting my stories. What was apparent though during that exchange, was how much the title meant to me.
Cut to many years later when I was actually putting this collection together. I’d amassed quite a few stories by that point, and that title actually became a litmus test. If one of my stories could theoretically be called “Not Everyone Is Special” then it made the cut. So, in a strange way, to answer your question, it wasn’t anything about the actual content of the story that caused it to be the titular story, it was the title itself and how it tied everything together.
But that all being said, I think the title story is the most hopeful in the collection, and I love having it last because it leaves you thinking there might be a chance for some of these characters if they just figure out what makes them special.
TM: I have to ask about how your music influences your writing. For readers who don’t know, you are in the band Borrisokane. Do you feel like your drummer self helps better your writer self and vice versa?
JD: I would like to think that drumming has helped me with my rhythm in stories. When rewriting, I sometimes add or subtract words just to get the flow right. I give the sentences a tempo by controlling when they appear. I love the musicality of dialogue.
But I don’t know. A lot of writers have great rhythm and don’t play the drums. The one thing I can say for certain is that performing on stage as a drummer has helped me with the more uncomfortable aspects of being a writer. My time spent promoting Borrisokane, including all of our live shows and albums, paved the way toward promoting Not Everyone Is Special.
When you’re in a band, you have to put yourself out there, much more than we do as writers. My instinct is to hide away with my stories because they feel so intensely personal. But my time spent on stage gave me a lot more confidence to get out there and talk about myself. I actually treat my writing like a band now. My output, including my time spent promoting, is a form of branding. It makes it a little easier when I feel like I’m promoting a product and not just me as an individual.
I’m not sure if writing fiction has influenced my drumming, though there is a cohesion I have been striving for in the last few years. Much in the way I try to let my voice come through in my stories, I want to have a voice behind the drums. I love the idea that perhaps someone could recognize my drumming by just hearing a Borrisokane song. I want to have an identity in everything I do.