Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

The Details, The Dread: An Interview with Austin Bunn

BY SHANNON PENDER

Austin Bunn’s debut short story collection, The Brink, is out this month from Harper Perennial. But as a storyteller, he does not limit himself to one form. As a director, screenwriter, playwright, fiction, and nonfiction writer, Bunn has amassed quite the collection of work. Among others, his credits include the screenplay, Kill Your Darlings, pieces in The Atlantic Monthly and New York Times Magazine, and his forthcoming film project, In The Hollow—a short documentary about a shooting on the Appalachian Trail that he both wrote and directed. An alum of Yale University and the University of Iowa’s Writing Workshop, Bunn is currently a professor in Cornell University’s Performing and Media Arts program. Over email, he was gracious enough to share with us his experiences, insights, and inspirations, discussing his storytelling craft and how he has navigated his astonishing multi-genre balancing act.  

Hot Metal Bridge: What advice can you give for writers – maybe writers who are considering writing screenplays?

Austin Bunn: The writer Paul Monette says, “Every day when I sit down to write, I try to write more honestly than the day before.” I think that’s one to grow on. The Brink explores some extreme scenarios — metaphysical, psychological, and even physical—but I wanted to do it honestly, without too much artifice or irony. The older I get, the more I find myself drawn to that directness and emotional availability. So my advice? Worry less about “productivity” (how many hours, pages, publications) and more about sensitivity and curiosity: trust the questions you are asking because there might never be answers. Also: read. Keep building that private canon of inspiration.

In terms of writing screenplays (as opposed to fiction), my advice is write the most personal film you can, the one that comes from, as the wonderful novelist Diane Johnson says, “your obsessions and your wounds.” Idiosyncratic, regional, specific: the world needs more films like these. Directors want to make them, actors want to be in them. It’s only the money people who get scared off, but I don’t think they are watching movies anymore. Believe me: you don’t want to get in line to write Batman 8 because that line doesn’t move.

HMB: What inspires you to write short stories?

Bunn: I have always loved the short form—I think it’s the structuralist in me that is drawn to the shape of fiction, like an étude in music. You can pretty much stick any landing, if you try hard enough. At the same time, I adore range in writers, and the short story form is a great place to exercise that skill and admire it in others. I might not want to read an entire novel written from within a death cult, but a short story is the perfect length of time to explore the voices, the details, the dread.

HMB: How did you “break in” to the writing world, so to speak?

Bunn: When I left college, I needed a paying job—my parents were not going to float me, Girls-style. I had been writing film and theatre reviews for the college paper (and then went onto editing the section), and so I moved into magazine journalism as a way to support myself. I worked at Newsweek, then the Village Voice, then The New York Times Magazine as a freelancer, and looking back this seems like a coherent life experience, but at the time, my twenties were a chaotic, bewildering, and opportunistic period of utter professional promiscuity: I wrote for anyone who would have me. (CUPS magazine, anyone?) But I paid my rent. That training at least got me used to deadlines. What I needed to learn to do was track and honor the inner-experience, what fiction and novels do, and graduate school helped me slow down and dive into characters. Then it was just a matter of sending stories out.

HMB: Do you feel that there are some stories best told in a fiction format, and others best told in screenplays or longer works? How do you differentiate between these forms?

Bunn: Oh definitely—fiction is the terrain, I think, of consciousness and voice. Film is about external reality and perception. When film tries to capture inner experience—say, pretty much everything Terrence Malick ever done—it often feels to me to a crude adaptation of what prose does naturally. In general, I find fiction to be a place where experimentation gets rewarded, where stories can bloom without the burden of production value, budgets, casting, etc., which might make the idea prohibitive (15th century galleons, ahem). Screenplays are, ultimately, sales documents. Blueprints for a house to be. And the prose of a screenplay is purely functional—you’re not writing beautiful sentences and there can be pain in that recognition for fiction writers. I just have to switch off my sentence-focused mind and focus exclusively on story.

HMB: As all writers do, I’m sure you’ve experienced your fair share of rejection. How do you handle that?

Bunn: I had a friend who made a collage out of all her rejection letters and then shellacked it. She’s a published novelist now. So there. Rejection is the worst, and the only solution, I think, is to just have another project, another enthusiasm to move your feelings onto when it happens. What I struggled with, in fiction, was the long delay: journals that let you know they don’t want a piece after MONTHS. The system is very, shall we say, ruminative. My metabolism is naturally spazzy, so I tended to have already moved on by the time I heard no!

HMB: I’m curious how you feel about the written word versus the spoken word, considering the breadth of your experience. Do you feel some stories are best read, and others heard? Do you think there’s overlap?

Bunn: No question. Yes, there are great stories to hear aloud and some that are more of a reading experience. I love the monologue form in theatre, the solo performance, and I think you might see that in some of the stories in The Brink—the first personal testimony. One of them, “The Worst You Can Imagine Is Where This Starts,” was actually written as a performance story, to unspool in real time. With a book coming out, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to bring the stories alive for audiences, and one of the things I look for is what the writer Ethan Rutherford calls “vividness”—scene, action before your eyes, event. It makes sense: this is the ancient story tradition of just things happening. Beautiful prose, interior material, can shrink in a spoken environment. Chuck Palahniuk talks about his teacher Tom Spanbauer making workshops read their stories aloud in a bar: that’s the true test of whether you can hold someone’s attention. Can it grip people with noise all around?

HMB: Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction?

Bunn: A friend of mine joked that I’m not bi, I’m quad: fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting and plays. I think nonfiction is an exceptionally powerful prose mode, especially for readings (in that testimonial tradition). I love me a good memoir (and I’d include Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in that). I’d like to write more nonfiction in my future, but fiction has my heart.

HMB: What is your editing process? Does it change based on whether you’re writing a story, a screenplay, or a play?

Bunn: Oh yes. Fiction, for me, is about paving a road and then making sure it goes somewhere interesting. I don’t tend to know where I’m going and I want it to be a vivid ride. With screenwriting, it’s far more structural and architected intentionally—I tend to have a sense of where I’ll end. I think this is mostly because so much of screenwriting is about set-up and payoff, that your Act I is introducing material that will cascade and transform in Acts II and III. Screenwriting is also the terrain of “page one” rewrites: everything gets reworked, constantly, and sometimes against your instincts (but in line with a producer’s vision or the budget). With fiction, once I get to the end of a story and it feels right, I go back to expand moments, rework the opening, sharpen the perceptions, but rarely do I completely gut the thing and start over. Those stories just go into a drawer.

HMB: How does your work as a professor inform your work as a writer and a screenwriter?

Bunn: In a thousand ways. Teaching asks you to reify your impulses and instincts for export: students want to understand why you made certain decisions, and you also quickly learn that you’re reading for certain elements as you grade, as you give feedback. My years of teaching have brought my values into relief, and I’m sure my students would roll their eyes because they hear me chime the same chords over and over (perceptual management, stories are about a climactic decision, bad choices = good stories), but these values are what the teaching is about. I don’t pretend I’m the authority, only another student who has spent more time thinking about these things and what moves me.

HMB: Do you think that working as a director for your own screenplay made this project even closer to you? How does working as a director differ from working as a writer?

Bunn: I’ve discovered that making your own films is an incredibly rewarding (and challenging) experience as a screenwriter because screenwriters must wait for someone else to produce their vision: producers, directors. If you make your own film, you are ultimately accountable but you are also ultimately able to execute to the best of your abilities. You give yourself permission and that is a profound enfranchisement. In the Hollow benefited enormously from the work of two people, my cinematographer Spencer Gillis (who is a director in his own right) and my partner and production manager Bob Hazen, who acquired the period cars, helped make the whole thing run.

HMB: In The Hollow follows Claudia Brenner as she returns to the site on the Appalachian Trail where Stephen Roy Carr shot her and her girlfriend in 1988. What inspired you to pick this story to write about with In The Hollow? What was your process to develop this project?

Bunn: Claudia saw a documentary I had made, about the rise and fall of an LGBT commune outside of Ithaca (where I live), and she invited me to learn more about her and her story. She imagined a feature film, but I knew that as a first-time director, there was no way I would take that on. As someone drawn to extreme experiences and the resilience required to get through them, I knew this story was powerful, if almost impossible to describe and capture on film. I struggled for months to figure out how to shape and frame the story, but seeing The Imposter and studying a Herzog movie called Wings of Hope (about the sole survivor of a plane crash returning to the site—it’s on YouTube) gave me the inspiration to mix narrative and documentary modes to produce the film you saw. It took us a week shooting on the Appalachian Trail, and those were some of the toughest work days of my life: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. production, then returning to a cabin on the trail with no electricity, no bathroom, no running water, and collapsing on a cot with no beer to round out the day. You don’t see any of that struggle on film though.

HMB: From a screenwriting perspective, was it difficult to turn Claudia’s testimony about the shooting and her survival into a story with a clear narrative arc in In The Hollow? How much collaboration was there between you and Claudia to create the screenplay of the film?

Bunn: A lot. Claudia approached me about making a film from her experience, and she had written a memoir that was published through a small press in the early 90s. I used that, and extensive conversations with her, to construct the narrative. Although the dialogue is effectively “mine,” the story is obviously hers. She’s a very strong person and survived the unspeakable. I didn’t need to invent much of anything.

HMB: Both In the Hollow and Kill Your Darlings are true stories about LGBTQ people. Does this topic have a particular significance to you?

Bunn: As a gay person, I’m invested in telling undertold stories about the LGBT experience. At the same time, as you may have noticed with The Brink, I like to people my stories with gay or lesbian characters, but they go unremarked and the coming-out narrative is nowhere to be found. I’m drawn to stories with more subtle, under-articulated desires rather than romances or liberation stories. I have a twin brother who is straight, and I think I have found myself with feet in both worlds—or rather believing that those two worlds are actually the same world. The screenwriter Charlie Kaufman says, “What I have to offer is me. What you have to offer is you.”

HMB: What’s next for you?

Bunn: At the moment, I’m finishing up In the Hollow to take it to film festivals and starting work on a new screenplay based on a play of mine. I have a short story I’m wrangling into shape and I’m also having fun planning out a book launch, which means lots of parties in the future. This is going to be a fun spring.