Vampire Conditions, the new story collection from Brian Allen Carr, includes his 2011 Texas Observer Short Story Contest prize winner “The First Henley.”
Recently I caught up with Carr and asked him a few questions about “The First Henley,” how winning the story contest has impacted his career, and why so much of his writing deals with characters self-destructing along the Texas/Mexico border.
Texas Observer: Did you write “The First Henley” specifically for the contest?
Brian Carr: I had a draft before I knew about the contest, a short story I was trying to do in the tradition of [Guy de] Maupassant or O. Henry, maybe even [Faulkner’s] “A Rose for Emily” to a certain extent because I knew the ending before I started it. There were a few other little storylines in it that I pulled out to make it fit the word count, and I think doing so made it a stronger story.
TO: Did you always envision a Texas setting for it?
BC: Yeah, definitely. In a lot of the story the setting is unknown, but it ends in Corpus Christi, and all that stuff is historically accurate. The first Lone Star Fair did take place in Corpus [in 1852], and it was supposed to launch Corpus as a really big town: they sent out 20,000 circulars, trying to get all these people to come and party—but not as many people came as they wanted. And there actually was a woman named Sally Scull who killed someone at that fair. That aspect of it’s completely true, or as true as the historians say it is.
TO: Are you a fan of Larry McMurtry [the contest’s guest judge]?
BC: I like his stuff quite a bit. I like different writers for different reasons, and with him, he’s pretty damn good at plot-driven narrative, and I think growing up in Texas he’s somebody that you know for sure. He’s very important, probably the most important Texas writer ever. Well, depending on who you ask: some say Barthelme, McCarthy, if you consider him now Texan… but McMurtry is in the conversation.
TO: He once said he’s a critic of the “Cowboy Myth.”
BC: I hope that’s what he likes about the concept of “The First Henley,” because that story intends to poke fun at the cowboy myth as well, more in the revelation at the end. It’s supposed to be one of those things where it’s all myth, and it really is inflated in the retelling, and so that’s the point of the conclusion.
But it’s all uncertain and really silly when you think about it; I mean, I love the cowboy myth, and McCarthy is still working in the cowboy myth, he just sort of twists it differently. So the cowboy myth’s still there. No Country For Old Men, that’s a cowboy story, it just has a different ending. The hero doesn’t win, or there is no hero.
TO: What was your reaction to winning the contest?
BC: When you called me I just knew it was some number I didn’t know, so I let it ring through. As soon as you said who you were in the message, because I remembered your name from writing the cover letter, I was like “No, no, no fucking way.” I’ve never won anything.
When I got the news I geeked out. McMurtry’s a cool guy, and the idea that he would’ve picked one of my stories, that’s pretty awesome. For someone who’s born in Texas and who’s a writer, that’s one of the coolest things that could happen.
TO: Who’d you tell first?
BC: My wife. I called my wife, then I called Eric Miles Williamson, and then I called my mom and my little sister. Then other folks here and there.
TO: What has the contest done for your career?
BC: More than anything else, it gave me a ton of confidence. The coolest thing was that all my non-writer friends knew what it was; they knew who Larry McMurtry was, they knew Lonesome Dove, they knew Brokeback Mountain, which he had just done the screenplay for. My mom’s favorite movie is Terms of Endearment. So that made me feel good.
It was a big load of confidence, something I needed at the time.
It’s probably a lot of the reason I was shortlisted for the TIL Award [the Texas Institute of Letters’ 2011 Steve Turner Award for First Fiction]; it definitely opened up doors for me.
TO: What did you do with the $1,000 prize money?
BC: I told my wife I was going to spend it on hookers and blow, but she told me I couldn’t.
TO: So you had to do it without her knowing.
BC: Yeah, I had to keep it on the down low.
TO: Would you call yourself a lifelong Texan?
BC: I lived in Vermont for a year, but other than that I’ve been only in TX. I was born in Austin, and have lived in Galveston, Houston, Dallas, Corpus, McAllen, Corpus, McAllen, Victoria, McAllen …
TO: Once a Texas boy always a Texas boy.
BC: There have definitely been times where I’ve been done with this place, but I just keep getting … I don’t know how to leave it, for a lot of different reasons. They must’ve done a good job beating that sadistic Texas pride into me in elementary and middle school, taking me to the Alamo and shit. When I was in Vermont it was during Kerry/Bush [in 2004], I’d be at parties and people would be talking shit about Texas because of Bush and it would piss me off; you get this sort of nationalism in being a Texan, if you grow up here.
Also, there’s not as much good Mexican food if you go north of here.
It just sucks when you’re in a place that doesn’t have any other kind of cultural influence. I get bored or nervous. My wife’s from Indiana, so we’ll go to Indiana … and I don’t hate Indiana, but it’s weird to me to be around all those white people, even though I’m one of them. I keep wanting to ask someone, “What the hell is wrong, where are you keeping all the other people?”
Additional cultures, whatever they might be, add a much-needed element to America, because otherwise America’s kind of bland.
But the majority of the people who make news from Texas are people I’d really rather be distanced from, like your Governor Perrys or your George W. Bushes.
TO: Did the TIL nomination give you a confidence boost like the contest did?
BC: Not even remotely close, for a couple of reasons. I didn’t really care if I won that; I didn’t enter myself in it. To me, what TIL does is they give away a prize each year to the book that did best in terms of recognition around the nation. Siobhan Fallon, who won the award, she lived on the base in Austin for a year and so she set her book there; but she’s on a big press.
TO: And she was just passing through.
BC: Exactly. She was just passing through. And the other finalist, Miroslav Penkov, teaches at UNT. But I knew that Siobhan’s book was going to win. I don’t care that I lost, but I wanted to lose to Miroslav, because he’s here, and it made sense to the mission statement of TIL.
To me, it feels like they’re just fools.
TO: Tell me about Vampire Conditions.
BC: It’s a small collection of six short stories, tied together in this sort of sense of self-destruction and the border. You can read it in an afternoon.
TO: Short Bus also centers on self-destruction and the border. What draws you to those?
BC: The border has made me see things very differently about the way people live their lives and the way people can do the same things so differently.
Like, we call it the Rio Grande River. If I drive 20 miles south, they call it the Rio Bravo; the connotation isn’t “brave river,” it’s “wild river.” They call it the Wild River because people die trying to cross it, we call it Rio Grande like it’s this big, grand thing. The reality is, it’s just a seedy river, and in most places you can easily swim across it. Life is so different based upon a river with two inaccurate names where in most spots it’s ten yards across.
For self-destruction, it’s just that people are the biggest pains in the ass to themselves. Most people know how to live healthy, manageable lives; but we don’t do it. We like to destroy ourselves. It’s our greatest hobby.
Brian Allen Carr lives with his wife and daughter in McAllen, Texas. His stories appear in Annalemma, Boulevard, Fiction International, Hobart, Keyhole, Kitty Snacks, Texas Review and other publications. He was chosen as the inaugural winner of the Texas Observer Story Prize by Larry McMurtry. He teaches at South Texas College.