Interview with Joe Baumann

This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.

Joe Baumann received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he served as the editor-in-chief of Rougarou: an Online Literary Journal and the Southwestern Review.  He is the author of Ivory Children: Flash Fictions, and his work has appeared in Tulane Review, Willow Review, Hawai’i Review, and many others, and is forthcoming in Jelly Bucket, Lunch Ticket and others. He teaches composition, literature and creative writing at St. Charles Community College in St. Charles, Missouri. Baumann’s story “The House on the Edge of the Canyon” appeared in issue 1.2 of The 3288 Review.

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3288 Review: How and when did you start writing? Was there a specific event or moment which sparked your interest in the written word?

Joe Baumann: I can’t remember the exact moment at which I started writing stories, but I have a distinct memory of writing something in first grade. I was living in New York, and in elementary school we had a program—looking back, it feels like magic that this was a thing the school could do—where every student was asked to write a short book that would be published as a hardback. I have little memory of what that book was about (I’m sure my parents have it shelved away somewhere), and I don’t distinctly remember having a deep love of writing before that, but perhaps that’s because I have a very blurry sense of my memory before that moment (my first five years of life are spotty and bleary, as young memories tend to be). That, however, was certainly a major starting point for me. Being able to hold, in my hands, my own work, made me feel immediately empowered as a writer, even at that age. I had been a reader for all of my childhood—I devoured Goosebumps, The Boxcar Children, and the Clue books, even at that age—and somewhere inside, consciously or unconsciously, having that item in my hands made me feel ready to be a part of that world. The rest, I suppose, is history.

3288 Review: Your story “The House on the Edge of the Canyon” seems to have a few different influences—some magical realism, some weird fiction or light horror, while never quite straying from literary fiction. How did this come about? What was the origin of the story?

Joe Baumann: I’ve been writing stories “like” this one—that utilize magical realism, and perhaps some weird fiction and/or light horror while always being grounded in a sense of the literary—for quite some time, so in that regard it’s a fairly “typical” story for me; I enjoy blending the surreal with the realistic, and this story is pretty typical in that way. In terms of origin, the story started from a brief memory I have from a dream (I often draw on my dreams as points of entry for the “weird” elements of my stories). The only thing I really remembered from the dream was the image of a house perched perilously on the side of a canyon, the ground beneath it starting to wither away to reveal the structure of the basement hanging on like some bulbous bag; that was really where the story began. Funnily enough, as I was writing the story, I was watching a show on the food network in which sea urchin was being cooked and that was what inspired the tangle of hair in the middle of the water. I actually didn’t figure out that the wife was going to be dead until I was about halfway through writing it (I often simply “wander” through stories until a through-line strikes me, as happened here), and then once I figured out that element, much of the remainder of the story seemed to click into place.

3288 Review: You recently joined the faculty of St. Charles Community College, teaching composition and creative writing. How does the community college experience differ from your experience at the University of Louisiana? What are students reading (and writing) these days?

Joe Baumann: Well, one of the most obvious differences is the teaching load. Not only was I a graduate student while in Louisiana (and thus only teaching two courses per semester), but community colleges place a greater emphasis on teaching as part of work load—so I’m typically teaching five courses per term now. One might expect these to mostly be composition courses, but our department is fortunate to get to teach a sizable number of literature and creative writing courses (we just created a certificate in creative writing program, which has boosted the number of students in those courses by a wide margin).

The other big difference is the kind of student one gets at a community college; there are a lot more returning, non-traditional students, who bring a very different element to the classroom. They’re veterans, people also working 40-hours per week, people who have been out of school for twenty years instead of two months between high school graduation and starting school. They’re often incredibly motivated, but often do require a bit more one-on-one attention (often, they haven’t kept up with technology, and at a school that uses a lot of tech, they can sometimes get overwhelmed), but their interest in being there is refreshing. This isn’t to say that traditional students don’t want to be there; they’re just more likely to be there because it was expected of them or decided beyond their choosing.

But that aside, I treat my classes just like I treated my four-year university students, and they mostly manage quite well. This past semester I taught a contemporary literature course that required eight books (six novels and two short story collections) as well as independently reading two other short stories to present on. And my comp students are writing 20 pages, polished, over the course of the semester. Some people come in with (or, if they’re not students, simply have) notions that community colleges are somehow less rigorous than four-year universities, and, at least where I’m at, that’s simply not the case.

3288 Review: In addition to teaching you also edit The Gateway Review: A Journal of Magical Realism. How did that come about? What has the experience been like? And how have readers responded?

Joe Baumann: I had always wanted to run my own literary magazine, and last year seemed the right time to do so. My English Department had just started a creative writing program, and I was slated to teach an advanced course in literary publishing, and I thought: what a good opportunity it would be for students to get to read and edit manuscript submissions. My own publishing success took a notable uptick after I was first a student editor as a graduate student, and so I thought this would be a great way to help our students as well. Because I write so much magic realism, it seemed apropos to have that be the central theme of my own journal.

The experience has been great, if sometimes tiring. We’re still fairly small, so we only have somewhere between 80-100 manuscripts to sift through for each issue’s submission stack. Even now, I continue to learn about my own writing and how it must get lost amongst lots of stories that often read much like it, and this has helped me try to learn more about how to make my own work unique and appealing to editors.

Reader response has been great. Our following is admittedly fairly small, but isn’t that how most followings begin? The first issue of the magazine didn’t turn out exactly as I’d envisioned (not because of the work, but because of some design mistakes I made), but I was really happy with our recent second issue, and I hope for things to keep going strong from here.

3288 Review: What is your writing process? Do you start out with the framework of the story and fill in details, or do you begin with a scene and let it grow from there?

Joe Baumann: I was actually talking about process just the other day with one of my creative writing classes. Admittedly, my process is a bit unconventional: I often start with an opening line or two, along with a title—I can rarely make any inroads without having some kind of title to work with, which I realize is strange—and then see where the story takes me. I find I have to write my way into it, but the moment that a draft really picks up steam is when I figure out the ending. Then, for me, the fun part begins: getting from what I have and getting to where I want the work to end. Once those three pieces—opening, ending, and title (which often helps me figure out what the story is “about” thematically)—the early draft gets going fairly quickly. Thereafter, I write usually in small bursts, a few hundred words each day in the morning, simply because my work schedule doesn’t accommodate much else. This sometimes creates a slightly fragmented-feeling first draft, but, of course, that gets smoothed out as I enter the much-dreaded but so important revising phase.

3288 Review: What’s on your reading stack right now, and which of them stand out as must-reads?

Joe Baumann: Well, my stack is pretty sizable—I’m doing a “project” this year where I’m trying to read 100 books over the course of the academic year (I just finished number 70, The Revenant by Michael Punke)—and I’m currently reading Angela Fluorney’s The Turner House and Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking (I usually read two books at once, a “morning book” before I squeeze in some writing, and a “night book” before I go to bed). Others on my current shelf include After the Flood by Margaret Atwood, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and an entire full stack. I just bought a few short story collection, and I’m really looking forward to reading The Nimrod Flipout by Etgar Keret.

3288 Review: With issue 2 of The Gateway Review on the shelves, what’s next? Do you have anything in the works we should look for in 2016?

Joe Baumann: The most exciting thing we have in the works is our first-ever writing competition, along with our usual two issues for the year (the contest is part of issue 3, which will come out this spring, and then we’ll get into issue four in the fall after a much-needed summer off). We’re also looking to expand what we’ve got on our website and Facebook page, with some interviews with past contributors and keeping up with news of their various endeavors.