Interview by Nicholas Deitch
I was first introduced to Max Talley at the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference in 2013, where he read from his then soon-to-be-published dystopian novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, a scene in which a ten-mile stretch of the 405 freeway has been converted into a high-security prison, an auto prison; the next logical step from its hellishly default traffic jam prison mode of the present day.
A strange elixir of the sarcastic and visionary, mixed with snarky, often biting humor and occasional doom, thus began my journey into the many worlds of Max Talley. Since that time, I have discovered his paintings, many of which could illustrate the peculiar characters and surreal landscapes of his stories, and I've even begun my own surreptitious digital collection of his artworks on my iPhone (but don't tell him). For the past few years, I've been privileged to share the trust of a writer's group with Max, to hear his storytelling in process, and to receive his thoughtful critique of my own storytelling as well. So I was delighted, when the opportunity came, to delve into his inner world for the benefit of sharing in the Santa Barbara Literary Journal.
"Trinity in the Soaking Pool” by Max Talley
Nick: In a perfect world, this conversation would have taken place over breakfast with bacon, at four o'clock in the afternoon—the way we conclude every session of our writer's group. So let's pretend that this is the setting for our conversation... Your father was in the publishing business for many years, and your mother was a highly successful Wall Street executive who introduced you to art at a very young age. You grew up surrounded by books, and you're very well-read. How did your parent's work, and their world, influence your creative journey? Max: Some of my earliest memories are of my dad bringing home the cover proofs for his hardcover books to show the family. He was not an artist but he micro-managed the art and cover copy for books he published. Somewhere around age 6, I did my own versions of his book covers with colored pens and maybe even finger paints. They looked abstract (messy) but the colors matched. In New York, my mother took me to the Metropolitan, the Whitney, and Museum of Modern Art as a child, so I immediately related to Miro, Picasso, and Chagall, because they seemed playful and childish. By the time I was a teenager, Dali, Magritte, and other Surrealists had captured my imagination, then in college I became drawn to German Expressionists like Max Beckmann and George Grosz.
“The German Book” by Max Talley
Nick: Your paintings and stories often weave cynical humor and social commentary with strange and fantastic twists of perception. Is the world of Max Talley more a place of dreams, or nightmares? Max: Both. People look at certain paintings and ask, were you on drugs when you did that? No. I was always weird. Reading science fiction, horror stories, and comic books, studying album cover art and concert poster art, as well as surreal paintings were my main influences. I seriously dove into painting in my late twenties for economical reasons. I wanted cool, bizarre art on my apartment walls but couldn't afford paintings by other artists. It took a couple years to respect my stuff enough to hang it up, but I got some early encouragement from my teacher at the Art Students League. Leatrice Rose told me I had imagination and originality, but needed to really work on my technique and mixing colors. She said I had to convince people I meant to paint the way I did. That it wasn't a mistake, or some experiment gone monstrously awry.
“Desert Triumvirate” by Max Talley
Nick: The story, "Clap Hands," in SB LitJo Vol. 3, left me with some startling images and a lingering smile. Your stories and your art are often poignant, while also edgy and courageous. Where does this stuff come from? Max: With writing, I get a lot of ideas in the space between waking and actually getting up in the morning. Those odd waking-dream ideas are easy to remember for a few hours. I cannot rise in the middle of the night and write them down. I'm too lazy. For “Clap Hands,” I was thinking of Franz Kafka and Nickolai Gogol. In their absurdist stories where someone transforms into a cockroach, or a nose leaves a man's face and is seen parading about the city square, the fantastical event doesn't change the basic tenets of reality. Families still squabble over minor things, coworkers at jobs are annoying, and romantic relations are delicate minefields to be navigated. When I write such stories, they can disturb me, but I try not to self-censor. Of course some people will be outraged or annoyed, but perhaps others will be delighted. If universally loved creators like The Beatles, Norman Rockwell, and Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame had their detractors, I think most writers and artists should expect some slings and arrows. Keep creating; keep in motion. A moving target is harder to hit. With art, some of my paintings are stories. Other times, I'm putting in various images that have lingered in my mind from a movie or from traveling and seeing unfamiliar faces. Maybe they add up to something, or they're just a laundry list of my focus at the time of painting. I think the best paintings are the ones you only understand a few months after completion.
“Too Much Information” by Max Talley
Nick: Your novel, YWFT, was published in 2014. Since then you've had at least one other novel in search of a publisher, much of which I've had the privilege of reading. But you've been deep in the writings of short stories for the past few years, with lots of success in seeing them published. Can we expect another novel in the near future, and if so, what kind of a story can we look forward to? Max: Yes. I have a finished novel that's about music and pop culture ranging from 1967 to 2010 that I hope will be published pre-posthumously, and am working on a crime novel or novella (depending on how brutally I edit it) that takes place in Santa Fe and across New Mexico. I would love to get a collection of my short stories published, but editors and agents have been telling people since Jack London and Ray Bradbury were in short pants that nobody's buying or reading short stories... So even if that's total BS, collections are still a tough sell. Nick: Your painting, “Lady Autumn,” graces the cover of SB LitJo, Vol. 3. A woman with a wry smile, and a glint of mischief in her eye. A friend of yours, perhaps? Max: I saw a photo of a woman on social media attending some steampunk meeting or convention. (I live in a cave and know nothing of these things.) I immediately thought, that would make a great cover for Santa Barbara Literary Journal. There was a sense of joy and fun and even glee in the pose, so I went to work. I added a background that was sort of Santa Barbara around the old Mission, but wanted it to be vague enough that people outside the area could appreciate it too. By the time I finished, I liked it enough to not care if it was accepted as a cover. We're in a dark time politically and perhaps socially, so I wanted to show positivity and hope, which I think sums up the contributors to the journal, as well as the creator of it.
"Lady Autumn Takes the Air" by Max Talley
Nick: You are a prolific artist, in words, music and painting. Your paintings are often much like your stories, set in fantastical landscapes, with strange casts of ever-changing characters playing out seemingly symbolic roles. In what ways are your paintings and your stories connected, and how intentional is this? Max: Sometimes I'll paint an image that would work with my short story or novel. Other times I'm thinking of a frozen scene in time. A paragraph could be written about that scene, but it's not a whole conclusive story. We all have our concerns, our obsessions, so similar themes may bleed over from one medium to the other. I will say that the more intentional I try to make it, the harder it is. Trying to recreate an exact story idea or image can be frustrating. Part of painting is allowing the unexpected to intrude. As a control freak, I sketch out my paintings in pencil before, to map out the canvas space. But I always change things, and welcome those changes. More recently, I've been doing portraits. Part of it, a stupid part, was to prove that I could do art that is semi-realistic, semi-representational. I'll start with a photo, then put it aside and move on through instinct. If someone sees a self-portrait and says, “Is that supposed to be you?” that makes me happy. I don't want it to be exact. It's part me and part just imagination. Same with depicting other people. I want a semblance of a resemblance and maybe a certain tilt of the head or expression that's familiar, but then it should become a separate being—a painting individual from the person.
“Robinson Forever!” by Max Talley
Nick: I attended one of your workshops, on submitting short-story writing and publishing. For someone whose outlook and writing are often sourced from a darker world, I was surprised at how generous and hopeful you were as a teacher and guide for other writers. Can you help us understand your motivation as a workshop leader and long-time associate at the SBWC? Max: You know I'm a snarky guy with a twisted sense of humor. However, that has zero value when teaching a submission workshop. Over the years, I have attended classes and writing workshops where I've seen other people destroyed and also had my work lambasted. Sometimes with reason, other times not. I decided I didn't want to lead a workshop where people leave broken or go back to their rooms and cry. It sounds melodramatic, but I know this has happened at writers conferences. It's not my job to crush writing that doesn't align with my interests, nor compete with individuals nice enough to attend my workshop. Not every story brought to me sounds ready to submit to literary journals, and not every topic/genre is of interest to me, but what do I know? I'm one guy. It seems best to just accept that the person is going to write the story they want to, and I should just think of ways to improve their writing so it has a better chance at publication. If I get cranky about anything, it's formatting. If you want to submit to journals or to book editors and not be immediately rejected, you have to obey formatting rules. I hate following rules, but we all have to obey rules while driving, we have to wear clothes in public, not scream “fire” in crowded theaters, etc. I once thought that if publishers and literary journals wanted my scathingly brilliant writing, they should take it the way I sent it to them. That stubborn, idiotic thinking is why I'm getting published as a middle-aged writer instead of in my thirties.
“Gates of the Deserted City at Dawn” by Max Talley
Max Talley’s fiction and essays have appeared in Fiction Southeast, Gravel, Hofstra University - Windmill, Bridge Eight, Santa Fe Literary Review, Litro, and The Opiate. His novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, was published in 2014, and he teaches at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. www.maxdevoetalley.com.
Nick is a writer, teacher, architect, and activist. Originally from Los Angeles, California, he now lives in Ventura, with his wife, Diana. He is an annual participant at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference. He has been published in the London literary journal, Litro, and is currently writing his first novel, Death and Life in the City of Dreams, a story about a dying city and those who struggle to save it.
Max's art art will be featured in Volume 3 of Santa Barbara Literary Journal: Bellatrix, coming out on June 8th. His painting "Lady Autumn Takes the Air" will be featured on the cover.