The Big Idea: Josh Rountree
Author Josh Rountree believes in bringing the reader the best of both worlds. Or, in this case, many worlds. Dive into his Big Idea as he tells you about all the different genres that have played a part in crafting his diverse collection of short stories, Fantastic Americana.
Here’s my problem. I’ve never been able to stick to one genre.
I read dozens of paperback westerns before I was in middle school. My nightstand was loaded with horror anthologies and epic fantasies and books about teenaged detectives. I came home from the library every week with World War II histories, science fiction movie novelizations, and books about portals to worlds that were more interesting than mine.
I loved reading all of this when I was a kid, and I still do.
More than that, I love writing all of it.
So, when I got the Big Idea to put together a collection of my strongest short stories published over the past fifteen years, I felt like I had a bunch of puzzle pieces that didn’t necessarily fit together. Maybe a few pieces had gotten lost or chewed up by the dog. But when I found all the corner pieces — the stories that would anchor the collection — and started filling in the middle, I realized it was an image of an alternate America, both its past and its potential future.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. A friend of mine told me years ago that she considered most of what I wrote to be Fantastic Americana, and I put that title in my hip pocket and saved it for a rainy day.
But with my whole body of work laid out in front of me, I realized how right she was. America is a character that fights and claws and screams its way through most of my stories. Sometimes a hero and sometimes a villain. Broken but hopeful. Trying to figure things out.
All the best characters are flawed, right?
A lot of the people in my stories are stuck. They understand something better is waiting for them, maybe just beyond the horizon, but they aren’t sure how to get there. A few of them want to hold on to how things have always been, afraid to face their own history, unwilling to own what they’ve done and strive to be better. But the strong ones ask themselves questions that might lead to a better tomorrow.
I do my best to follow a path carved by some of my favorite writers, who don’t take our history at face value. Writers who ignore the mythic Hollywood version of America and examine it through a more critical lens. History isn’t easy. Your mythology might have overwritten someone else’s mythology, and there’s no use in trying to ignore that and sweep it under the rug.
The people in these stories are on the move. They race down pitted backroad highways on the run from supernatural killers. They work in post-apocalyptic video stores and sing rock and roll songs at the top of their lungs. They defend their log cabins from fairy tale monsters and cry when their grandchildren leave for Mars. They break people’s hearts and have their own hearts broken in return.
The America they live in is grand, but their lives and troubles are intimate.
The mythologized American West calls to them, a promise made to some, but one that can never really come true. Not without a high cost to someone else. I set out to write stories about ghost chickens and forest wolves, river witches and cosmic horrors that will melt your brain if you think too long about them. These are things I love. These are fun things to write about, and hopefully things that people will have fun reading. But putting this collection together, I realized all the characters are chasing their own skewed version of the American Dream, even the ones who should know better. The American landscape they inhabit is a place of old bones, secrets, and realities they don’t always want to face.
So many of them try to go backwards, but time only moves one way.
My nightstand is still stacked with books. Music biographies. Crime novels. Science fiction anthologies and ghost story collections. And I read a lot of history, but I don’t live there. Stories help us figure out the world, and the good ones can teach us things about ourselves. The kind of people we are, and the kind of people we could be.
A lot of these stories have that kind of meaning to me, and hopefully will to others.