Clay Waters has had short stories published in The Santa Barbara Review, Liquid Ohio, Abyss & Apex, and Three-Lobe Burning Eye, and poetry in Poet Lore, River Oak Review, and Tribeca Poetry Review. For ten years he ran Times Watch, a division of the Media Research Center focused on the liberal bias of The New York Times. He lives in New Jersey by way of Mississippi.
1. Who are some of your favorite writers, books, movies, and intellectual influences?
The first book that really got to me, at the age of 10, was Moby Dick, that timeless allegory on the limits of human knowledge and the delusion of fate… no, actually it was Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the movie Alien. Great stuff, seriously. The one piece of art I know a little of by heart. Also, Watership Down – the one about the rabbits? – the greatest adventure novel I know of. And the movie is almost as good.
2. How do you describe yourself ideologically?
3. Which thinkers/commentators have influenced you?
4. What was the impulse for this story?
I’ve always wanted to write something short, simple, and sinister, that uses narrative misdirection to turn a reader’s assumptions 180 degrees at the end. “Wrath” combines the puzzling fascination that I, a Mississippi-raised, non-surfer, and non-sunbather, have with California, the ocean, and quiet, blissful college campuses, which exist in my head mostly as archetypes. I tried to imbue it with 1960’s-era California decadence, as I’m a big fan of setting things in specific, real-world times and places, no matter how fanciful the actual plot. Probably some trace elements of R.E.M.’s “I Remember California” in there as well. I aimed for a sense of hidden danger, of manicured menace.
5. Where are you from/currently reside?
From Mississippi, now in New Jersey
6. What are your writing goals?
To get my “cozy” mystery novel published. It’s about a blind girl in 1920s England who is pushed down the stairs, hits her head, regains her sight, but doesn’t tell anyone, as she tries to figure out who in the house is trying to kill her. Sounds neat, huh?
7. What’s your craziest hobby/pastime/interest?
I play trivia at my local bar every Tuesday night. Not seeing a VH-1bio in my future.
An Excerpt from Clay Waters’, “The Wrath of Okeanos”:
Two short stories lay atop the desk of the creative writing professor. One was cleanly typed and covered with the white frosting of a title page. The other consisted of three or four stiff, wrinkled sheets of blocky handwriting on clean butcher’s paper. The neat manuscript on the left belonged to the neat girl on Professor Keene’s left; the grimy hobo foolscap was tagged to the deep-eyed big blonde boy across the table, wafting of sand and surf, whom the professor now addressed.
“First off, Joseph, let me tell you what I like about ‘The Wrath of Okeanos.’ You obviously feel this ocean mythos deep in your DNA. But one needs some irony, some possibility of an outside perspective.”
Professor Keene’s tone was the type you employed with a rattlesnake when you have a rock tucked behind your back. “What I don’t like as much, besides the handwriting,” he added tolerantly, “is the relative brevity and lack of character development. You clearly grasp the need to show and not tell, but we don’t know enough about the inner life of your protagonist.”
“Protagonist?” Joseph’s voice was drowsy, like someone deeply ensconced in a bed, or a bathtub.
“Your hero, um, Okeanos. You need to fill us in on him, because while these characters–archetypes, almost–could be interesting, we need an entry point, a way to join the conversation. How did they get this way?”
“They were always that way.”
Keene looked over his glasses at Joseph. Actually, the professor wasn’t totally sure about the “Joseph”–the first symbol of the boy’s signature on the class card resembled a fishhook more than it did the tenth letter of the Roman alphabet. “And as for the victory of Okeanos over the resulka in his rescue of the oceanid–”
“Sorry, rusalka, I’m not up on my Russian ocean mythology–it did not feel sufficiently hard-won to me.” He cleared his throat and read. “‘The long-armed Okeanos glided easily through the choppy waves and captured the betraying rusalka, with claws that could open a raw sea bass for supper.‘ And the ending is too easy. The rusalka simply says, “I go willingly,” and she dies a merciful death. The End. It’s what we in the biz call an anticlimax.”
The professor knew he should cool it with the subtle ridicule, but my God the boy had actually written the words “tenth son to a god.” Aquaman was a Shakespearean hero by comparison.
Still the story would earn Joseph an A. Keene stamped A’s on every story that crossed his desk because that was how it was done in the Year of our Lord 1969 at this wave-of-the-future, study-what-you-feel-college. And because Joseph or Hoseph had a blank face and a big frame and a certain dead-seaweed look in his eyes that Keene could imagine scoped to the business end of a rifle if he ever woke up. A good thing the college was under-budgeted for a clock-tower.
“But that’s what happened to Okeanos ages ago. When the land was empty and the sea was full.”
Oh boy. Keene had endured this same talk at the boy’s last student conference. It had given him ample food for thought. It had even enabled him to work out a plot of his own.
“Joseph, this is Sarah Maloney. She’s in the other section.”
Sarah extended a lotioned hand. “Charmed.” She brushed the bangs out of her eyes, tossing back her head in a lioness sweep.
“So, Sarah, let’s talk about ‘The Night He Died.’ Your story is corrosive and dramatic. An abused girl thirsting for vengeance against her brutal military father. But perhaps crafting an appeal to straight melodrama would have been preferable to this unconvincing attempt at day-to-day realism.” The grin became sly. “And what’s with the slumming? Do you think you have the chops to convincingly capture a middle-class family? Don’t forget that reactionary cliche, write what you know.”
An attuned observer would have discerned a second conversation flowing below the actual one. Joseph, blinking steadily at something beyond the wall, was not that observer.
“The story, to be blunt, is a little boring,” Keene said into the languid afternoon. “And after all her brooding, daughter pushing father down the stairs is anti-climactic. Why not buy a gun from a pawn shop? Better yet…concoct some mysterious third character who can be persuaded to do your dirty work for you. I’m giving this a provisional A, but it needs more work.”
After the session Sarah fiddled with her makeup mirror until Joseph had lumbered across the room and retrieved his sea-green canvas bag, so that they ended up walking out together.
“Mr. Keene’s quite a character, isn’t he? He knows his stuff, though,” she said.
“I like my story the way it is.”
The bright, well-trimmed April afternoon was a crinkly blanket of blankness, green with potentiality: anything could happen because nothing had happened. It had to be said that Pacific Park College was far from the worst place to tuck oneself away from the world’s confusion (and, oh yes, the military draft) and learn ancient Greek, or integral calculus, or all about the local mangrove trees. As for Sarah–she’d spent her three semesters waiting. She would know it when she saw it. Now, she was blinking.
image courtesy shutterstock / EpicStockMedia