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Renaissance Guy

Arthur Bradford Makes Films, Smashes Guitars, and Writes Damn Fine Short Stories

By Frank Diller | Posted 10/24/2001

At the beginning of each bookstore appearance, Arthur Bradford slips a guitar over his tall frame. He introduces a selection from his impressive new short-story collection, Dogwalker (Knopf), and strums away. The staccato rhythm and chord changes of his guitar provide a complementary soundtrack to his ridiculously funny stories.

The music captures the audience's attention while it undermines expectations. It enhances the natural momentum of Bradford's narrative but disappears before each major punch line. The sudden silence that results creates a dramatic pause, an opportunity for both narrator and audience to marvel at the wonderfully awkward moment when the right words are spoken at the wrong time.

This is the case throughout a story such as "Mollusks," the tale of a troubled marriage and the 10-pound slug that threatens to destroy it. The narrator and his pal Kenneth discover the slug in a junkyard and take it home, where the new tenant offers the promise of financial gain but poses problems to the friends' relationships.

The trifling tale is funnier in practice than in paraphrase because of Bradford's comic timing. The assorted oddities populating the dozen stories in Dogwalker benefit from the author's ear for dialogue and his sense of humor. Bradford's guitar work simply enhances the live performance of these pieces--but even that started as a joke.

Bradford was a student in the creative-writing program at Stanford University when he first brought his guitar to the program's required readings. "It could be so boring, and . . . I wanted to try to do something that would liven things up," he explains in a phone interview. "I was definitely not a good guitarist at that point, and I thought it would be funny."

Fortunately for Bradford, his guitar skills improved. He appeared pretty comfortable behind the microphone at a recent appearance. "I think that good writing has a rhythm to it, and [playing guitar] keeps me on beat when I'm reading," he says.

His performance style also prompts him to occasionally rewrite stories for a live audience. For example, Bradford altered an excerpt from his story "Dogs," adding a completely new ending and a visual component to a November 2000 reading in New York. "With some stories," he says, "I get a real cheap guitar from a pawn shop, and at exciting parts I'll smash [it]."

Despite such dramatic tendencies, Bradford says he was somewhat reluctant to become a full-time author. "I never called myself a writer until the book was almost on the shelves because I didn't feel like I was qualified yet," he says. "I worked other jobs . . . which is probably why I [wrote] short stories instead of novels.

"Every story in [Dogwalker] was rejected [for publication] a few times," he says, but little successes kept him writing. For example, an early version of "Catface"--the 1998 O. Henry Award-winning story that kicks off the collection--was accepted by the literary journal Epoch when Bradford was 25. "I thought back then that the whole submission process was pretty easy, but I didn't get another [acceptance] for years," he says.

"Mollusks" originally appeared in the first issue of Dave Eggers' literary journal, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. "[A] lot of people read it and I started getting more luck [with submissions]," Bradford says. The second issue of McSweeney's included "Chainsaw Apple," the tale of a trick wherein the title components combine to horrible ends. Bradford remains a regular contributor.

"It really was a long process," Bradford says of becoming a published author. "I'm 31 now, and it seems like a long time."

Luckily his other interests during that time offered Bradford a different sort of artistic success. In 1993, he started working summers at Camp Jabberwocky, a Massachusetts camp for mentally and physically disabled adults. He lived in a cabin with five campers, wrote fiction at night, and taught a video-production class during the day.

As part of his class, Bradford created a short film of campers interviewing community members and one another. The video was so popular with campers and counselors that he made a short film each summer and began circulating the tapes outside of the camp. One of his videos reached South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who contacted Bradford about funding a new Camp Jabberwocky film.

Bradford and other counselors recruited five campers to form a news team and travel across New England and into New York to cover local events and conduct person-on-the-street interviews. The resulting 30-minute short, How's Your News?, earned a good reputation at underground film festivals, and Bradford eventually received funding from the production company Grainy Pictures to create a cross-country feature-length version.

The volunteer cast and crew traveled from Massachusetts to California in a borrowed RV as Bradford and company documented the trip. The new How's Your News? is currently touring film festivals and is scheduled to premiere on HBO in January 2002.

"How's Your News? was really made with genuine motivations," Bradford says, explaining that, as he edited the film, he wanted to avoid any appearance of exploiting the campers or casting them in a maudlin light. "We really liked the idea of driving across the country with people with disabilities."

Bradford says that his recent successes in writing and filmmaking are a pleasant surprise, but he recognizes that the two interests are connected--both require the ability to tell a good story. When filming a documentary, he says, "I try to cultivate the ability . . . to approach strangers and talk to them and [have them] tell me their story. That's a useful skill in writing too. True events inspire [my stories], and the two processes feed off each other."

Right now, however, Bradford is concentrating his energies on the art of promotion. He's traveling to film festivals with How's Your News? and heading to Europe in November to tour with Dogwalker. Bradford is also slated to record an audio version of Dogwalker--complete with guitar accompaniment--to coincide with the release of the paperback edition. "I'm really excited about it and I [have already] recorded some of the stories for practice," he says. "I'm going to try to make it different [enough] so that somebody who owns the book will want to get the CD."

Visit www.randomhouse.com/knopf/ authors/bradford to hear Bradford read his story "Roslyn's Dog." More information about How's Your News? is available at www.howsyournews.com.

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