A Conversation with
Arthur Bradford author of
Q: Your stories have appeared in McSweeney's and Esquire, but
this is your first published collection. How long have you been working on this
project, and what was it like to gather your stories together? Did you write new
stories specifically for this collection?
A: Some of the stories in Dogwalker were written as long as four years
ago, but I wouldn't say I've been working on this collection for four years. I
have always been a little unsure of whether I could make it as a writer so I've
held other jobs and worked on other projects this whole time. I've also written
a lot more stories than this, but these were the ones which I thought might work
as a collection. I wanted to do a collection where the narrator is constant
throughout, so that there's a little unity. About six months ago I went through
all my stories and sorted out the ones which might fit into this category and
this is pretty much what I came up with. The first story I wrote with this type
of narrator was "Catface" which was later selected for The O. Henry
Collection, so that gave me some confidence to try some more. Gathering
these stories together was fun, but I realized when I read them that I have
certain mental preoccupations and they keep recurring in my stories.
Q: Throughout your stories we meet outcasts, misfits, and mutants whose
disabilities range from physical to emotional to economic. What inspires you to
write about bizarre--and often unlikely--circumstances?
A: I'm trying to write stories that are interesting and enjoyable. I want people
to read them and enjoy the experience and feel entertained. A lot of the best
stories revolve around strange people, people whose decisions and logic and
circumstances are not easily understood. Likewise, I want the situations and
plots to be surprising and unusual. I know that some of the things which happen
in these stories are not likely, but sometimes I wonder if they are not possible
in some way.
Q: All of your stories are told in first-person narrative by nameless, male
characters who could be read as the same narrator throughout the collection. Why
do you use this common voice, and how autobiographical is the way he lives in,
and reacts to, the world?
A: When I think about the narrator of these stories, I think of someone a little
bit (or maybe a lot) like myself who is strangely fascinated by weird people and
animals, and is also not very judgmental about it all. He is very open to these
situations. Personally, I've found that I seek out oddballs; I like strange and
eccentric people a lot. The narrator is a little different in each story, but
he's always a basic variation of the same form, which is in a lot of ways based
on me and probably also some of my other favorite narrators in fiction and
non-fiction (William Burrough's Junky, Hemmingway's narrator in The
Sun Also Rises). Sometimes the autobiographical link in each story is very
literal, like I did work at The Texas School for the Blind, and I did once lose
a mattress out of the back of a friend's truck. Other times it's more of just a
feeling-- like with "Dogs" I was living in a house with 11 dogs and
all I thought about was dogs. I never had sex with any of them though. I chose
the title Dogwalker because that describes me pretty well. I spend a lot
of time walking around with my dogs. I'd say the narrator is me in an alternate
Q: You've worked with people with Downs Syndrome and other disabilities for more
than eight years. How has this experience influenced your writing?
A: This experience has definitely influenced me a lot. Like I said before, I
like people who lead unusual lives, and very often a person with a disability
fits into that category. Although I've worked in several different places, most
of my experience comes from spending eight summers at a camp for adults with a
wide range of disabilities. For six years I spent every summer living in a small
cabin with five men with Downes Syndrome. It was just me and these five guys,
all in their forties and fifties. We had such a great time. Sometimes living in
that cabin was like living in a sort of separate universe and I think I picked
up some unusual speech patterns from those guys. I would often stay up late
writing in that cabin until one of them would wake up and tell me to shut off
Q: Do you think people with disabilities might take offense to some of your
A: What I hope comes across most of all in my writing is a real appreciation
and love for the characters. I think it does people with disabilities a
disservice to portray them in a sappy or sentimental fashion, or for that
matter, to avoid portraying them at all. I make films about people with
disabilities as well and I think this question is more relevant in regards to
these documentaries where the actual person appears on film. I know these people
are proud of who they are and what they are doing with their lives. It seems to
me that to hide them away, avoid portraying them in fiction, or to represent
them as sentimental objects of pity, that is the real offense.
Dogwalker is a book of fiction, with characters based on the types of
people who truly exist in the world. I've seen them and know them--some of them
I know really well. Although the stories are sometimes gritty and unsettling, my
hope is that in the end they hit a positive note.
Q: Describe your writing process.
A: Well, I'm not very disciplined. I tend to write late at night because I get
distracted during the day. I write most of my first drafts on an old manual
typewriter, a really old one. It's a big black metal "Woodstock" from
about 1920. I try to write everything down at once, in one sitting. The longer
stories in this collection are divided up into sections. Each section represents
a different sitting, a different idea for the same story. After I type it out I
look it over with a pen and decide if it's worth re-typing into the computer. I
have many stories which don't make it to the computer. When I put it into the
computer I make some changes and often add a few sentences here and there. I
like the typewriter for first drafts because it means you can't change anything
right away, you just have to put it all down.
Q: Did you do any research for these stories?
A: I never really set out to research any of these stories. I try to lead an
interesting life though. I guess the closest I came to research was when I
applied to work at the state mental institution in Austin, TX. I wanted to work
the night shift like Ken Kesey did when he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's
Nest. I thought that might inspire me to write a book that great. They
turned me down at the institution, but suggested that I apply at The Texas
School for the Blind because of my previous experience. I did work there for a
while, and there are two stories in this collection that involve blind people.
Q: Almost every story in this collection involves a dog of some kind--whether it
has three legs, flippers, the power of speech, or is biologically average. So
why dogs? Why not cats, or frogs, or a mongoose or something?
A: As I guess you can tell, I'm just a dog person. I love dogs very much,
especially big ones, hounds, and retrievers. I think they are funny and often
have good senses of humor. Plus, they give unconditional love. It's so
beautiful. And sad too sometimes because we humans often betray them. I have two
dogs myself and they are always around when I write, so they tend to creep in
there. I'm interested in other animals too though. There's the slug in
"Mollusks", and I wrote a story about bees and one about a cat which
got thrown out a window by mistake, but those never made it into the collection.
It's funny you mention frogs because I've been interested in the recent reports
of high rates of mutation amongst wild pond-dwelling frogs. I've tried a couple
of times to write something along those lines.
Q: Who are some of the writers who have influenced you, and what advice would
you offer to young writers?
A: I've always liked the classic "young adult" writers like Mark
Twain, Jack London, Roald Dahl, Charles Dickens. They write so clearly, and they
know how to entertain. Like I said before William Burroughs' Junky,
Denis Johnson's Jesus Son, Hemingway's Sun Also Rises, Charles
Portis' The Dog of the South, Lars Eighner's Travels with Lizbeth,
Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, Jim Carrol's The
Basketball Diaries. Those are some great books written in first person which
I have read over and over.
Advice for young writers? Yes, lots of it. But I guess I'd just like to point
out that almost all of these stories in this collection were rejected by some
publication at one time or another, some of them have been rejected a lot, in
fact. Find people you trust and listen to them.
Q: What is next for you?
A: Right now I'm working on a couple of new stories, one which I'm recording
for the new McSweeney's (it comes with a CD), and one which I'd like to add to
the collection, if it works out. After that I will set out to write a novel.
I've wanted to do that for a long time. I also want to make another movie, but I
think I'll try to finish the novel first.