Playing words in Songs for the Deaf

USF professor John Henry Fleming invents modern American tall tales in his first book of short stories.



Writing is about re-creating, from describing past events in a new way to reinventing timeless tales. With his first collection of short stories, Songs for the DeafJohn Henry Fleming adds sardonic realism to fantastical tales. The straight-faced humorist delivers a biblical account of a teenage messiah winning a pickup game of 3-on-3 basketball, a travelogue of a family outing to Everest with "discount Sherpas," and a close alien encounter of the sexual kind. Fleming's style of combining the mythic with the mundane to create modern American tall tales not only provides fertile terrain for humor, it also challenges readers to reconsider the stories and beliefs that shape our world. 

I recently spoke seriously about the art of the absurd with Fleming, who teaches creative writing at USF.

CL: What connects all the stories in this collection?

Fleming: Among other things, an interest in legends, mythmaking, and belief. How do we come to accept something as true? How do we convince others? To me, those are the foundational questions of personality and society. They keep cropping up in my work whether I like it or not.

In the collection’s opening story, “Cloud Reader,” you write: “The known world diminished overnight, the encroaching mysteries a sudden reminder of the folly of knowing. Nothing, it seems, will ever be certain again.” Would you say that much of the humor in this book comes from poking fun at notions of absolute faith, belief, and certainty?

I enjoy sticking pins into the pomposity of overbelievers. Of course, belief itself is no crime. The character of the cloud reader, for example, understands the sometimes arbitrary nature of belief, yet he’s willing to die for it because he knows that his life has no meaning without it. The father in “Chomolungma” is a different case. He manages to convince his entire family that a trip to climb Mount Everest will solve all of their family problems. While he’s not an entirely self-serving asshole (like the unnamed general in “The General”), his unexamined beliefs are (spoiler alert!) killing others. It’s uncomfortably funny when our beliefs turn grotesque but we cling to them anyway. I hope my stories remind us that it’s okay to laugh at ourselves even when (or especially when) we’re at our most serious.

In “Cloud Reader,” you also write of the title character that, “Contradictions of faith and deed are the foundation of his profession, his bread and butter.” As a fiction writer, what is your “bread and butter”?

Fiction writing is the art of belief. It’s different from, say, film, where the events are immediately convincing because you can see them with your own eyes, right there on the screen! It’s even different from memoir, which comes pre-validated as “non-fiction.” So, a fiction writer’s struggle is to make the reader believe what he’s writing, if only for the duration of the story. At the same time, I feel ethically inclined to remind readers of a story’s artificiality—to remind them that their suspension of disbelief is a choice and that they are willing partners in the construction of the fiction. That tension between belief and unbelief underlies many of the stories in Songs for the Deaf. I never forget that people come to fiction because they want to be entertained. They really do want to believe the story, at least for the duration of the reading experience. So I guess you could say that my bread and butter is this very important and very human desire to make meaning through belief.

How has your exploration of alternative realms in your work influenced your world view?

I started writing fiction out of the sheer joy of making things up, twisting the world a little bit to see what would happen. In that regard, I don’t think my world view has changed. I’m just doing what I’ve done since I was a first grader playing “what-if” on the bus.

“A Charmed Life” tells the story of a halfwit who constantly gets distracted from achieving his goal by side adventures, much like the title characters in Don Quixote and Candide. Is there a name for these types of satirical stories that follow the strange lives of anti-heroes? What do all of these stories comment on: fatalism, the assumption that we can control our destinies, the seemingly trivial events that shape a life?

I think of that story as a tall tale, but it’s also a picaresque in the tradition of those novels you mention. A character like the one in “A Charmed Life”—naïve, hopeful, a little dumb—is a blank slate for everyone to write on, a slow-moving box car for graffiti artists everywhere. I suppose that’s the attraction of such a character; he takes on meaning wherever he goes. He becomes a reflection for society. My own character wants only one thing—to find his worth—but he’s thwarted at every turn, as much by his own superstitions and naiveté as by the whims and cruelties of others. I’m glad he gains a few cents of redemption at the end. The guy deserves it.

Do you think comedic writing can be broken down into a formula the way most stories can be broken down into a common story arc?

Freud divided jokes into three varieties. In pranks, an existing paradigm is thwarted by nonsense. In jests, a paradigm is thwarted by something more meaningful but unimportant. In wit, a paradigm is thwarted by something more meaningful and sometimes profound. In order for humor to work, it has to follow the outlines of an existing pattern—one that’s created within the story or else borrowed from the culture—and then thwart that pattern in a jarring and unexpected way. “The Day of Our Lord’s Triumph” is funny because we have certain very serious cultural expectations associated with the biblical voice of the narration, and those expectations are constantly thwarted by the mock-serious nature of the character and events in the story—the way he eats chips, rides a skateboard, or plays basketball. I understand that my appropriation of the biblical voice might offend some—I had a woman recently walk out of a reading of “The Day of Our Lord’s Triumph” because she felt I was mocking her religion—but I’m not anti-Christian. I respect people’s beliefs while reserving the right to use them as cultural material for purposeful humor. Either that or I’m made of poop.

To what would you compare the challenges of teaching comedic writing?

All you can do is look at examples. Funny or not? Why? Humor’s a life strategy; if you haven’t used it all your life, you’re not going to learn it by studying Freud. But if you’re already inclined to it, then studying Mark Twain or Louis C.K. might make you funnier.

Do you come up with the premise of your stories first, or do you start with a point you want to make and then find a premise that illuminates that point? Is it more important for you to tell an entertaining story, or one that carries a message?

I don’t go into any story with a point I want to make. Sometimes I start on the micro level—a detail, a line of dialogue, a gesture—anything that grabs my attention for unknown reasons. A woman eating a chocolate llama, let’s say. If I already know what interests me about the woman and the chocolate llama—if it’s just a Buzzfeedesque oddity—then the story’s not worth pursuing. But if I have a dream that night about chocolate llamas trying to eat my brains, or if I find myself idly thinking about who would make a chocolate llama and why, or why the woman decided to eat the legs first, then I might need to start exploring that original image in writing. The exploring part is important. I have to have a sense of adventure to get me through the writing. Other times, I approach stories like a reckless scientist. I conduct little experiments. What would happen if we put a suburban family on Everest? What would happen if a high school kid’s story got the biblical treatment? Explosions follow. Smoke and poison gas. Mad, I tell you! Mad! Ideally, the Bride of Frankenstein bursts from the smoldering lab, licking the chocolate off her fingers. So sexy.

Would you label your work as “post modern?”

I’m a writer of metafictional tall tales, absurdist satires, compressed realism, satirical micro-screeds, sci-fi humor, fake legends and myths, magical unrealism, and weird love stories. What’s the label for that?

"The Day of Our Lord’s Triumph” and “Songs for the Deaf” derive humor from adding a dramatic tone to the seemingly insignificant happenings of grammar school. Does the school yard provide fertile ground for pointing out the ridiculousness of adults who take themselves too seriously? If there is an afterlife, do you think the beings in it look down on the hustle and bustle of the “real world” with the same knowing smirk which with adults look down on the pettiness of schoolyard politics?

It does sometimes seem that grown-ups are just kids who’ve forgotten that they’re playing. I suppose it’s the price we pay if we want our lives to seem more and more meaningful. In the end, that’s a kind of vanity, I think. If you’ve got a good cake, at some point you’ve got to quit adding layers of frosting and just eat the damned thing. I’m saying that because we have a dessert theme going here. Also, if those afterlife people are casting knowing smirks at us, I’m guessing that death hasn’t changed them a bit. They just took their playground balls and left the four square court so they could smirk at us from the bleachers.

How do you distinguish between ideas or writing styles that are suitable for a short story as opposed to a novel?

I don’t think it’s the ideas themselves that make a story or a novel, it’s the writer’s way of thinking about them, and that’s not always under the writer’s control. My first novel, The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman (shameless plug: about to be re-released as a 20th Anniversary Edition ebook by Burrow Press), began as a longish short story. The story already had a big cast and a complicated plot, so that was an easy decision to expand. Other times, it just doesn’t work out. I toyed with the idea of making a novel from “Xenophilia” and actually wrote some pages of it. There are a number of ways I could expand it, and I think I could make a good novel from it. But somehow the possibilities didn’t light up my brain in a way that compelled me to write it. Not yet, anyway.

What short story collections have most influenced your writing?

Many stories by Kafka, Borges, Calvino, García Márquez, Bruno Shulz, Mark Twain, Heinrich von Kleist—they all opened up possibilities for me when I was first learning to write—and, more recently, Karen RussellGeorge Saunders, Sherman Alexie, and Denis Johnson.

Did you at all take into consideration the fact that Queens of the Stone Age released an album in 2002 titled, Songs for the Deaf, when naming your book and the title short story? What other marketing factors, if any, do you consider when shopping a collection of short stories to publishers?

I didn’t know of the album when I titled the book. I’ve since bought it and like it. I didn’t think much about how I’d market this book to publishers. Publishers seem to like collections linked by character, setting, or some other marketable trait, but I didn’t have that. I had a group of stories I thought were good and simply hoped I could find a publisher who’d agree. I found Burrow Press (or they found me), and they’ve been completely wonderful in designing, distributing, and publicizing the book.

Fleming will be reading his angsty adolescent prose at Wordier Than Thou's Smells Like Teen Lit: Teenage Wasteland II, an event featuring local writers reading passages from their adolescent journals, on Sat., June 7, at 7 p.m., at Planet Retro Gallery, 2414 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Click here for Facebook event page.

Find out more about John Henry Fleming, and check out excerpts from Songs for the Deaf at

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