In Conversation

Never Set out to Trick Readers: ghost ocean talks with Christian Tebordo


Chrisitan Tebordo's short story collection, The Awful Possibilities, is available from Featherproof Books. His work has appeared in Avery Anthology, Sleeping Fish, Ninth Letter, and Lamination Colony, among many others. He also has published two novels. He teaches and lives in Philadelphia. You can find him at

Ghost Ocean: These stories are dark and disturbing in the best possible way. How do you get into the mindsets of such strange characters and situations?

Christian Tebordo: In these stories I started with a voice and let the language go where it went. Sometimes it was something I overheard; sometimes it was just something in my head. Once I get the first couple of sentences down, I usually have a good idea where a story's going, and my job is to keep with the rhythm while trying not to bore myself. That's usually enough to distract me from the more disturbing aspects of what I'm writing.

But then, "disturbing" is a relative concept, to both time and place, right? My stories have dealt with school shootings and organ thievery and friend-skinning, but earlier this year I was reading a lot of Jerzy Kosinski. He wrote this novel Cockpit that really has very little in the way of plot or explicit social commentary. (That latter is in there, though, if you read it closely.) It's pretty much a picaresque about a former spy who uses his skills to fuck with people and includes some pretty graphic scenes of rape and torture. Back in the seventies he was considered a major writer (and rightly so, I think). Anyway, his stuff makes most contemporary fiction look twee.

GO: A great part about these stories is the importance placed not just on who's telling the story but who they're telling them to.  And just when we, as readers, think we know: NOPE, we’re wrongthe story changes and becomes something more.  Can you tell us your thought process behind this?

CT: The relation of teller to listener has been really important to me. I say "has been" because I've been too much of a stickler about it at times and am trying to relax a little. But if you totally neglect that relation, it will lead to too much first person present tense fiction narrated by dead people, if that makes any sense. There's that idea we all learn about in high school English: suspension of disbelief. I have a much harder time suspending disbelief about how anybody's story got in my hands (what is this book doing here?) than I do about anything that happens in the story itself.

That said, I never set out to trick readers. I hope that the kind of reversals that happen in my stories flow naturally from the language and the kind of decisions the person using that language would make.

GO: What are the special challenges in making a collection of short stories? Do you find yourself consciously tying them together based on mood?Content?

CT: For me, the challenge in making a collection is in the individual stories. I've had friends who I think are really good writers tell me that they just need x more stories to finish their collections and I have no idea what that means. I would be much more likely to leave a story out of a collection for being too similar to another than I would to add one because something's missing. I want my stories to be in as much tension with each other as I can keep them while still not losing the reader. That's one of the reasons The Awful Possibilities is such a slim book. I guess what I'm saying is, my advice to anyone thinking about a collection is to write awesome stories and be willing to try anything. You can pretend you meant them to go together once the book's out.

GO: What are you working on now?

CT: I've got a novel done. It's called The Philosophical Apology of Knight Rider to Knight Ridder, but I'll probably have to change that in order to get it published. Otherwise, and always, I'm making short stories. Plus my wife and I just got our baby Wes and he is awesome. I'm going to learn his all-vowel language so we can do some collaborations.