Thursday, March 16, 2023

The 40 But 10 Interview Series: Caleb Tankersley


I had decided to retire the literary Would You Rather series, but didn't want to stop interviews on the site all together. Instead, I've pulled together 40ish questions - some bookish, some silly - and have asked authors to limit themselves to answering only 10 of them. That way, it keeps the interviews fresh and connectable for all of us!

Joining us today is Caleb Tankersley. Caleb is the author of the story collection Sin Eaters—winner of the Permafrost Book Prize—and Jesus Works the Night Shift. His writing can be found in Carve, The Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol, Sycamore Review, and other magazines. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of St. Thomas and serves as Managing Director for Split/Lip Press.

What’s the most useless skill you possess?

I’m a dynamite whistler. I can whistle any song, which is useful for about three seconds until my partner gets annoyed and tells me to stop.



What is your favorite book from childhood?

My first literary love was Jean Craighead George. She wrote dozens of environmentally focused children’s books, My Side of the Mountain and Julie of the Wolves being some of her most famous. But I was more into the obscure books: The Missing ‘Gator of Gumbo Limbo, Who Killed Cock Robin, There’s an Owl in the Shower, and my favorite, Water Sky. I read that book over and over, and its complexity (discussing a whale research team in northern Alaska who gets caught up in a native Inuit tribe’s whale hunting ritual) expanded my young mind. I owe my literary life to many writers, but chief among them is Jean Craighead George.



What made you start writing?

In fifth grade my teacher—Mrs. Sachse—made us write short stories with different themes. I remember having to write a “cowboy” story, which meant I had a list of words to include: “pemmican”, “alfalfa”, “ranch”, and the like. Mrs. Sachse chose what she deemed the best stories and gave them a dramatic reading in front of the class. Watching my classmates react to this silly little cowboy story I wrote (A sheriff stops a rouge rancher who has encroached on a nature reserve) had a profound effect on me that lasts to this day.



What do you do when you’re not writing?

I hate to pick apart the question, but I think it’s difficult to discern when a writer is “not writing.” Of course, I’m more often than not away from my laptop, not typing. But I don’t think that’s the same as not writing.

I take a lot of long walks and listen to podcasts or music. Most of the time, on those walks, I’m writing. I’m working out scenes and lines that have been on the back burner of my brain for a while. I’ll then jot the results down in the Notes app of my phone to save them for my typing time. It’s amazing how much of my novel-to-be has been written on the Notes app, all from thoughts while walking. No matter what my body is doing, I am very often in the process of writing.



What’s the one book someone else wrote that you wish you had written?

There are many, but at the top of the list would be Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson. Also, Bear Down, Bear North by Melinda Moustakis. Or Get in Trouble by Kelly Link. Or Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. There are many books I read and think “I could never write this but it’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever read and I really wish against all odds that I’d written it.” I recently read Ai Weiwei’s memoir 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows and had the same feeling. It’s a pretty consistent response to good books.



What’s on your literary bucket list?

I want to be constantly leaping among forms and genres. I’ve published a story collection, and I would like to keep working on stories. But I also want to write a literary novel, a poetry collection, a sci fi trilogy, a movie, an essay collection, a graphic novel, a TV series, and about twelve other genres of writing I enjoy. I’ve worked on all these in some capacity, and in my ideal world they’ll all see themselves in print/on screens someday.



Do you read the reviews of your books or do you stay far far away from them, and why?

I have read a number of reviews of the book. I enjoyed them, even when the reviews pointed out aspects of the book the reviewer didn’t particularly admire. Maybe this will wear off at some point, but at the moment I’m intensely gratified by the idea that anyone anywhere is interested in my writing. The fact that any reader engages with my work to the depth of writing a review is still a marvel.



What songs would be on the soundtrack of your life?

“We Own the Sky” by M83

“Famous Last Words” by My Chemical Romance

“Ode to My Next Life” by Kishi Bashi

“Miss Sarajevo” by U2

“I Feel You” by Noso


What’s the one thing you wish you knew when you were younger?

That I’ll survive major career failures. I remember feeling so much anxiety about my writing, career, and future in general. I felt like I needed to succeed as a writer in order to be provide a stable life for myself. That kind of pressure, ironically, stifled my writing. At one point, I found myself completely without a job. This thing I had been fearing finally happened to me, and to my great astonishment, I survived. Life moved on. I kept working, and eventually things started to happen for me. I’d tell my younger self to relax and keep working.


Are you a toilet paper over or under kind of person?

Over, of course. I’m not a monster.



Magical, heartfelt, and surprisingly funny, Sin Eaters paints a tumultuous picture of religion and repression while hinting at the love and connection that come with healing. The powerful stories in Caleb Tankersley’s debut collection illuminate the shadowy edges of the American Midwest, featuring aspects of religion, sex and desire, monsters and magic, and humor.

Tankersley’s characters—including swamp creatures looking for love, pothead pastors, ghosts obsessed with TV, and a Jesus made of rust—arrive at the crossroads of pleasure and hunger in a world that is equal parts playful, hopeful, and dark. In “Never Been More in Love” a man must come to terms with his wife’s degenerative illness. “Uncle Bob” explores suicide attempts as a family heirloom. And the titular story follows a woman who must accept her monstrous role to find redemption for herself and her small town.

Sin Eaters is a fight for authenticity in a world that is mysterious, muggy, and punctured by violence. This stunning collection full of complex themes will both challenge and delight.

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