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On my birthday a few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I spent a half-day in Anacortes. The downtown area of a small town on a weekday affords the opportunity to really allow the town to breathe all around you. Especially when you turn toward the bay and see the water shimmering in the distance, the docked boats dotting the marina, squinting into shop windows as the sun beams into them.
We went to A’Town Bistro (where the special birthday drink I ordered was called “the Persephone”), browsed through more than one bookstore, spent a while in The Business where I bought a Dogbreth cassette and coveted a Sic Alps poster I hope will still be there the next time I visit, and made a (very short) pilgrimage to the Department of Safety. It looked like an old fire station because that’s exactly what it was. Like many great DIY spaces, it wasn’t much to look at from the outside, especially in the harsh light of mid-afternoon.
Later that week, I read Little Wonder all the way through for the second time, using an office birthday card as a bookmark. I saw the streets of Anacortes – its small, mostly old buildings, its occasionally half-furnished spaces – in my mind’s eye. The duality of the town’s occasionally warring ideologies (I try to support small businesses as often as I can, but Walgreens is the easiest place in any town to find Burt’s Bees), its insularity and skepticism toward outsiders.
What happens when you hand your life over to a pursuit that fails? Was it worth the sacrifice to be miserable and sweeping up leafy greens on a busy and stressful day, What the Heck Fest going on all around you? Does it matter whether or not Calvin Johnson was actually sorry for dropping his salad or not? A stanza from a song by the band Photosynthesis precedes the story of Little Wonder, a handful of affecting lines about the emotional reward of risk. The book of microfiction, written by Kat Gardiner and out now via Father/Daughter Records, regards the same subject through a much more emotionally complex lens.
One of the things you’ll read everywhere about the book is how it is explicitly about failure. Not in the general, “I tried something and it didn’t work out, it’s cool” sense (maybe with the benefit of hindsight, but certainly not in the moment), instead deeply articulating the miserably bitter taste in your mouth that failure leaves behind. Sobbing uncontrollably in public; wanting to scream, “Fuck you! Fuck all of you!” down an alleyway.
Little Wonder is a showcase in allowing a story’s characters to exist as the narrative. A woman, her affable husband, an employee who suffered a specifically cruel homophobic assault involving a Big Gulp of Mountain Dew, and another with a neon-colored penis straw for every occasion. The stoic landlord, the chaotic-neutral record shop owner who only ever listens to Dub Side of the Moon when she’s working, the unkempt wizard, the boatbuilder coming in to drink his Americano and tell funny stories. There are things that happen in the center of the plot, but they serve more as the rolling tide underneath the ships rather than the driving force of the story.
Gardiner uses these narratives in miniature to convey a startling array of themes. The heavy feeling of failure dragging you in the undertow, and getting wasted at a country club fundraiser to cope. Being twenty-four and having a nine-year-old look up to you for that and only that reason. Many passages about trying to make a place your home and coming up short. Uncomfortable realities about individual lives, about how society at large affects individual lives, crouched in anecdotal set pieces.
“That brand new desire that is accepted in boys and deemed unreal in girls,” Gardiner writes of a fourteen-year-old girl in a bikini, pretty aggressively checking out her husband. “The need to declare, I am here, I am ready, this is what you want of me, isn’t it?”
As the cafe – the backdrop of Gardiner’s protagonist’s experience and the fulcrum for the wreckage she is surveying – also serves as an all-ages venue; music is ever-present in Little Wonder. Pacific Northwest music stalwarts (as well as music scattered across regions and decades) make their way into the pages of the book in the form of cameos, assorted ephemera, and a spirituality between the lines on the page. Spencer Moody appears as a symbol of years of teenage lust and its blisteringly awkward aftermath, a glass painting by Neko Case (from “when she was still a dishwasher at Hattie’s Hat”) is cast as a deity looking inside the souls of all who see it, Karl Blau playing music in his backyard studio offers a quaint and fulfilling snapshot of friendship.
Little Wonder itself serves as the fiction equivalent of a twee-punk album, with twenty-five one-minute (sometimes thirty-second, sometimes ten-second) songs. Fractured, affecting, irreverent, brief glimpses of fully-rendered people and relationships.
Finding the tragedy in a story ultimately about failure is woefully easy; finding the small corners of humor in everyday life with its guillotine held ominously above your head takes a lot more effort, but is ultimately essential to the experience. In Little Wonder, Gardiner’s writing is often hysterical; sometimes in a “laugh to keep yourself from crying” sort of way, sometimes profoundly inappropriate, and sometimes the sort that makes you laugh out loud in public.
The humor therein is shown in brief character sketches co-starring lecherous babies, injury-fakers, bemused cops telling your drunken ass to turn the music down, and cafe soup secrets. It's hinted at in riotously funny titles such as “I Wonder What My Face Looks Like When it is Filled With Sympathy for Your Spouse” and “The Only Way to Sell Vegan Pastries in a Small Town in 2007.” If those titles don't seem riotously funny to you reading them now, wait for the punchlines.
What happens when you hand your life over to a pursuit that fails? At the risk of oversimplification, a lot. Life has this uncanny way of showing a person many things at once, and in its pocket-sized passages, Little Wonder encapsulates the many tiny moving parts of a small town, the years and years of life you can capture in an instant.
KEXP: Do you feel you have found your hometown in Detroit, or are you still looking for your hometown? Are you even still looking for your hometown?
Kat Gardiner: I wish I could give a simple answer here, but I still feel like a Northwest expat living in the Midwest. Might be the pains of moving, but I miss the saltwater. I miss the rain. I miss the gloom. Which is not to shit on Detroit. I love this city, even if I do feel like an outsider here. I mean, I am an outsider here. I am not from here. I am happy to be a resident, though, and am grateful for all that particular Motor City weirdness. And yes, I suppose some part of me is still looking for a hometown, but there’s another part of me that believes I will probably never find it.
I've been thinking a lot about the structure of Little Wonder. Was there anything that particularly inspired you to break the narrative into small pieces and glue the story back together?
It was born out of accident and grew into intention. The fractured narrative mimics the fractured nature of my own memories. I don’t remember periods of time in my life in a linear fashion, but rather in fragmentary moments. Images and recollections divorced from each other, but connected in their nature.
In addition to writing about music in your book, I've read some of the actual music journalism you've done. I find that, writing about music as long as I have, sometimes I imagine approaching my writing the way a musician approaches playing music. That was a pretty long-winded way to ask: Do you feel any of your approaches to writing are similar to that of a singer/songwriter crafting a song?
Yes and no, and really, I can’t say. I’ve tried to write music on a myriad of occasions and failed each time. Or rather, I didn’t like the results. I do think that all creative pursuits have similarities in their methods of tapping into the bubbling cauldron beneath the surface of the daily thought. I imagine songwriters tap into that underbelly and come out with a tune, where I come out with a string of words, or the rhythm of a sentence. Or at least I imagine they do. I do try to write with musicality. Rhythm is important to me. How the words feel in my mouth and in my head. Cadence gives me reason to write the next line, as much as any plot point or character arc, if not more so.
How often do you hear a song or an album and say, "I want to write something that feels like this?"
Often. The nice thing about having music as an inspiring force, too, in addition to other people’s fiction, is that the inspiration comes out more warped than reflected back. It’s harder to copy influences across medias, and I like the distortion that comes with that kind of inspiration. Now, I don’t know how often my stories are inspired, one to one, by a song or an album, but I definitely know exactly the song playing over the speakers in each story I write. And I have some stories I have written where I want to listen to a single song or album each time I reread them. This happens for me with other people’s novels as well. Certain albums become entangled with certain books for me.
A lot of the book features the protagonist (which, based on its context, is either a fictionalized version of you or the actual you in a fictionalized version of Anacortes) living in the community, serving the community, and gathering handfuls of friends, but ultimately being shut out from the community in a deep, spiritual sense. Did you feel alienated by Anacortes when you lived there?
Oh yes. By the town, immensely, by specific people, less so. We definitely formed a close family in our time there. Some of the best people I’ve met in my life sprang from that spring. Did I want to burn the whole town down by the time I left? Maybe. Did I want to scream “Fuck all y’all” into the wind? Yes. Do I really hate the place deep down? Probably not entirely. I think I hated that it didn’t let us in.
Where would you rank Sandman the Rappin' Cowboy on your list of favorite rappers?
You write very explicitly about failure in Little Wonder, but are there points after the fact where you see the success of being a 24-year-old business owner, of finding this cafe on Craigslist and rolling the dice and not waffling on it out of doubt or fear? The fact that you and your husband made this happen is a pretty impressive gambit.
Well, thank you, and yes, for sure, there is that vague success of trying in there. It was a wild gamble and I am ultimately, very happy we brought this place into the world, even for the short amount of time that it was there. It was almost a soup-kitchen-art-installation, and I still meet people whose first live music experiences were at the cafe, though I didn’t know them at the time. That definitely feels like a kind of success. There aren’t a lot of options for people in the country to hear good music from outside their community, especially for kids. The venues are often in bars, or not interested in the actual music, as much as the amount of locals it will coax out.
I think the cafe was a shining light for a lot of people, and in that way, a success, no matter how short lived.
What is the little wonder your book is titled after? Do you have a firm footing on it, or do you think it's inherently subjective?
There are a few different answers. The whole idealistic cafe/all ages venue idea was one filled with wonder, but on a small scale. Something little we knew we could do to make the world a better place to live in. Then there was the flip side of that: it was little wonder that the place failed so firmly based on idealism. There’s also the brevity of stories, both in individual length and the size of the finished collection. A collection of microfiction with “Little” in the title does give readers a sense of what they’ll find inside. Something I realized after the fact – or remembered again, I should say – was that one of the most influential bands of that scene, Little Wings, did a series of albums called The Wonder Trilogy. I didn’t consciously draw on this fact when I was naming the piece, but I’m sure, subconsciously, it factored into the ring sounding true.
"Little Wonder, and the life the book was based on, are so wrapped up in music, they’ve become inseparable from it. Specific music. Music from that time and place of fog and sadness and joy. This mix holds a handful of songs that propelled me through that year, as well as my writing about that year.
"From the purely Anacortian music of D+ (Bret Lunsford, Phil Elverum and Karl Blau), PHOTOSYNTHESIS (a short-lived, but brilliant, high school band), the Pounding Serfs (perhaps the most influential of all Anacortian bands, and fifth K Records release), and Mt. Eerie (of P. W. Elverum & Sun) to music of those that found themselves in Anacortes at one time or another and left with their DNA somehow changed by the same saltwater that changed mine -- the ethereal Ô Paon, the inimitable Little Wings, and the raw honesty of Your Heart Breaks.
"There are also a smattering in here of some of the fine bands we had over to play the cafe -- Coconut Coolouts, Triumph of Lethargy Skinned Alive to Death, The Pyramids, Immaculate Machine, and Sandman the Rappin’ Cowboy. I tried to flex my back catalog muscles here, and I hope both those oldly and newly acquainted with this music find some surprises in here and enjoy these songs as much as I do." -- Kat Gardiner
City of Music Open Mic is Happening Tomorrow at the Vera Project
Tomorrow evening, October 19th, at the Vera Project, youth leaders from Totem Star, KEXP, The Vera Project, 206 Zulu, and The Residency will host the very first City of Music Open Mic. This will be a great opportunity to support the younger members of our music scene and offer them an environment to express themselves, as the all-ages scene is of paramount importance to Seattle's music community. Sign-up will start at 6:30, and the event itself will run from 7-9. Wanna RSVP? Here is the Facebook event page.
In advance of Gardiner's Anacortes-based book of microfiction, coming out October 5th, KEXP has an exclusive collection of excerpts available.