Perhaps you know Corey Mesler, the man behind the counter at Burke's Book Store, which he co-owns with wife Cheryl. Or perhaps you know Corey Mesler as byline, the name behind book reviews inside the pages of The Commercial Appeal and, on occasion, this newspaper. Or behind past essays inside Memphis magazine. Or behind short stories inside such journals as Yellow Silk or Pindeldyboz.
Put that name now behind Talk (Livingston Press), subtitle: A Novel in Dialogue. Make that totally in dialogue: no outside exposition, no authorial asides, no descriptive passages to bridge scenes, to act as backup, background -- just talk, the human voice, six voices total in (Mesler, wordsmith that he is, won't mind the four-star term) stichomythic exchange.
Meet now chief talker Jim, owner of an independent bookstore in Midtown Memphis, a man in his early 40s, a man of "sequestered sensibility," nerves "stretched taut," a man "trapped in his own head" who "over-thinks everything" but a man who right off the bat is telling his good buddy and sounding board Mark that he's "reviewing here. Looking at my life with an objective eye" -- when, that is, he is not hearing back from a perplexed Mark on the subjects of marriage and morality, music and movies, from his patient wife Dorothea on the subject of what's in the fridge, from his children Conrad and Katey on the subject of Halloween costumes and bedtime reading, or from Katya, Mark's co-worker and Jim's afternoon delight, on the subject of extramarital hanky-panky.
Now meet Mesler the first-time novelist, subject to question. The topic: Talk.
Flyer: A story told exclusively through dialogue ... You got the idea how?
Corey Mesler: It was William Gaddis and his novel, A Frolic Of His Own, which gave me "permission" to write entirely in dialogue. Plus, I'd never written an extended piece before, and I wanted to try, to spread my wings a bit. I was used to writing short stories, and I asked myself, What in those stories do I do best? I thought, Dialogue. But I'm not a playwright. I have no idea how to get characters on and off stage. Still, I was interested in defining character and place strictly by voice. That's when the writing became a flood of voices -- four adults, two children. I think I talk in my head anyway, but as I wrote, the voices began to differentiate themselves, separate into characters, into something organic.
Your method was to ...
I wrote many conversations down as they came to me, seemingly out of the ether. And once I gave these characters free rein, they would not shut up. So I had scads of back-and-forths, pages of them just riffing on everything. After doing that for about eight months, I began the more difficult task of shaping it into what I hope is a lucid narrative.
A narrative with strong autobiographical components. Any fear your readers will confuse you and the fictional Jim?
That's a very real concern, and I'm going to have to be prepared to answer that question. Jim is not an entirely sympathetic character. Jim has everything, and he looks for ways to screw that up. But Jim is not me. Authors use autobiographical elements all the time, and maybe it's true Jim represents the egocentric in myself, some particulars of my life. But it makes me bristle to think readers will only see Jim as autobiographical. They aren't taking into account the imagination, giving me credit for some craftsmanship, some vision, some ingenuity. And more importantly, when I wrote Jim's dialogue, I didn't think, What would I say? I thought, What would Jim say? That's an important distinction.
Throughout Talk, you leave Jim's mother's voice a blank. We don't read her words, but we do read Jim's responses to them. Your strategy here was what?
There are certain aspects of the book I don't want to give away, and that's one of them. I'd like to keep to myself my reasons for keeping the mother silent, for personal, for literary reasons. Let's just say she's a wafting spirit, an invisible presence.
You're a book reviewer about to be reviewed yourself. It's ...
Scary. If I get a good review for every four bad reviews, I'll be happy. Heck, if I get reviewed at all I'll be thankful. Livingston is a small press, and this is a first novel, after all.
Talk has some pretty graphic scenes between Jim and Katya. Care to comment?
I know I'm gonna hear about the sex scenes, but they were fun to write, though problematic at times, because I didn't want them to take over the book, upset the rhythm. My first thought, of course, was: What's my mother going to think? And then, What's my mother-in-law gonna think? While I may want to caution readers, I think, hey, we're adults here. After Ulysses, after Henry Miller, after The Story of O, we're still timid about erotic writing? I've already had a friend tell me the sex scenes are too explicit. And I said, Well, yes, they are. But sex is talk too. Those scenes are appropriate, part of the overall communication that's going on, and, finally, well, sexy.
In the forthcoming New Stories Of the South 2002 from Algonquin Books, your short story "The Growth and Death of Buddy Gardner" will show up alongside stories by William Gay, Doris Betts, and Russell Banks, preface by Larry Brown. Did you ever think you'd see the day your work was in with theirs?
Never. People are going to say, Who in the name of all that's holy is Corey Mesler?