Street Talk

Craig Bernier

A jack-of-all-trades, Craig Bernier has supported his writing with occupations both professional and menial ranging from college instructor to line cook, technical writer to bartender, carpenter to dishwasher, kennel cleaner, sailor, and pizza delivery. Work is a key theme in his stories and Detroit the premier setting for that.

His collection of short stories, Your Life Idyllic, won the St. Lawrence Book Award. The story “Bender” from the book was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His work has been published in Great Lakes Review, Gigantic Sequins, Dogwood, Western Humanities Review, Roanoke Review, and a compilation from Akashic Books called Detroit Noir. His nonfiction appeared in the journal Creative Nonfiction.  He is a graduate of Macomb Community College and Wayne State University in Detroit. He was a Jacob K. Javits Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. He lives in Wilkinsburg, PA.


Sorting It Out: An Interview with Craig Bernier, author of Your Life Idyllic


Braddock Avenue Books: Although the pervading idea of Your Life Idyllic is the setting of Detroit, the collection depicts vastly different characters from many walks of life; yet each one has his or her own voice and personal idiosyncrasies. They feel authentic and are very accessible to us as readers. What was your goal in compiling these individual stories with Detroit as their common thread?


Craig Bernier: I have to talk a bit about process to formulate a sensible answer to that, so the first thing to note is that the stories in the collection, along with about 50 more like them, were written and revised over the span of 5 to 10 years (in some cases 15). So the short story process for me has always involved working separate strands at different times to see what (or who) is speaking loudest, clearest, or in the most unusual and interesting fashion. Any richness and authenticity is really a byproduct of weeding through a sea of stories that aren’t such in search of ones that are. So I’m usually looking for the most artful, effective, and alluring pieces to stand up and say, “It’s me! I’m the one.” If I could show you all the stories that didn’t make it to page four, page ten, to a second, fifth, or tenth revision, then the whole book would look haphazard and incongruous. To me, the goal of writing (which can’t be known really in the mess of it) is always about unearthing whatever’s running around in the your skull during a specific period/event of your life, to have it take shape, and then to revise it until it’s a gleaming piece of art, then find and pool more just like it until la voila. In the case of Your Life Idyllic, it was my return to Southeast Michigan after dangerous work in the service all the while trying to make sense of where I was from, why exactly I was back, the histories of the folks around me as well as the psychic energy of the history of that place from race to labor to industry to class, back even to history that predates settlement by the French. Folks were walking the same land as me long before there was a United States. So, trying to get a handle on all that I suppose.    


BAB: Many of your characters have a background in military service; and throughout the book the notion of enlisting, if only to leave the city, is shown from varying perspectives. Why was it important for you to explore this topic, and how do you think it helped to craft the message of the collection?

Bernier: The opportunity (in volunteer forces that is) to join say, the French Foreign Legion to get out of Shitsville, France, or Caesar’s Gallic Asskicking Division to get a paycheck, it’s a pretty old byway for folks (admittedly mostly men until recently), especially those from lower socio-economic strata. I think Your Life Idyllic reflects that notion. That said, more and more (not to get political) I think that’s a bit of an oddity to younger readers, even if they’re from lower socio-economic classes. It’s an option used by fewer and fewer people, especially American youth. This is despite the sort of “Cult of the Military” mentality that’s grown over the past two decades and abounds in platitudes on TV and in conversation about the troops. While I have no evidence to back this up, I’d say if the burden of military service were spread more evenly across the populous, we’d have fewer and briefer wars. Most of my students who’ve come seeking advice over the past decade, whether with a blasé feeling regarding college or an aimlessness, have reacted to my suggestion that they might consider a stint in the military as if I’d said, “How about a stint in prostitution?” So as far as Your Life Idyllic goes I think it’s just a bleed over from my own experience with the service, that of my friends, and folks I know who’ve made that their career, who, for one reason or another didn’t want to go to college but also wanted a job that involved more than burger flipping or cubicle sitting. Too, there’s always that crew who knows at the back of their mind, “if shit gets ugly, I’ll join the Navy.” Growing up, I saw the local recruiters almost as much as, if not more than, I did my guidance counselor. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, just the case for me.  

BAB: The stories in your collection are told using many points of view, including second person. Few writers show such versatility in a single book. What was the thought process behind employing such variety?

Bernier: Again, I think that comes from sorting through many, many short stories from my “tutelage years,” a time when I was trying different POVs, tenses, and distances in hopes of finding a few that felt comfortable enough to keep on with it. So the stories in the book might just represent the best from those years. In my current work, I’d have to say that I’ve found a “home” of sorts in third person, present tense, limited omniscience, or good old first person past tense. The former offers neat surprises for me as a writer, that is the thing that can be discovered with plot and language. There’s a neat samurai film called Samurai Assassin with Tishiro Mifune, set in 1860, but told in with a third-person, present tense, limited omniscience that just rocks my world every time I watch it. With the first person, I feel that the subjective quality it lends gives plenty of wiggle room to play with perception between what characters say and what the reader sees from their actions.

BAB: The most technically different of the stories is “The Manual of Heavy Drinking” which contrasts with all the other pieces in format, POV, style, and is the only story to lack a traditional protagonist and setting. How did decide to include it in this collection and how do you believe it affects the book as a whole?

Bernier: It’s certainly an oddball story, in the collection, and at large for that matter. I’m not sure about that one. Sometimes, as a writer, you need to get out of the way and let the story, the character(s), narrative voice, or whatever do what it is that it needs to do. You need to become possessed by these things, which might sound strange to a reader, but I hope not so strange to writers. It’s in those times of possession that I feel very much like a passenger, an onlooker, maybe a chronicler of sorts. That’s how it was with “The Manual.” After a few passes and preps it started to reveal itself to me in a clear and distinct fashion that had nothing to do with what I wanted to shape or hone. I wanted it in the collection because it still seems to echo a theme I see haunting the book, that being, “you ain’t always the best judge of what’s best for you.”

BAB: Your Life Idyllic is a truly rich and complex book, both thematically and stylistically.  I wonder which writers have most influenced your work.

Bernier: When I was “coming up” I aped Tobias Wolff in almost every story I wrote. In language, style, voice, subject, I wanted the writing world to know there was only one legitimate heir to that style of writing. I was to be Wolff’s long lost son. I wanted to surpass The Night in Question (my favorite) in every way. It was Michael Byers at Pitt’s Writing Program (now at U of Michigan) who basically pulled me aside to say, “You don’t write like Wolff. You write like Richard Yates.” I of course didn’t know who that was. Back then (maybe now too?), I tended to read very few books, but the ones I read, I did so many, many times, studying them for different characteristics and effects with each read. At any rate, I went out immediately and read all of Yates and sure enough Byers was correct, I wrote like Yates. Who else has influenced my work? The works of my mentors have been great guides: Christopher Leland, Chuck Kinder, Michael Byers, and Buddy Nordan, but also that of the many great workshop cohorts I’ve had over the years, both at Wayne State and the University of Pittsburgh. They didn’t seem so far aloft as Denis Johnson or Alice Munro. My peers were doing great work right beside me. We were at the same stage and I could learn from them if I looked. I mimicked techniques from them, constantly incorporating what I could handle and appreciating what I couldn’t. Way back when, I fashioned myself a poet, reading poems at bars in Metro Detroit, so I’d have to say I was also influenced by poets like Philip Larkin, Jim Daniels, and Philip Levine too.