Nicholas Grider is no slouch. With an extensive catalogue of art and photography projects that extends back more than a decade, as well as a long list of written work that includes fiction, memoir and poetry, it’s almost a surprise that Grider has only just published his first book.
Misadventure, the second title from A Strange Object, the new, Austin-based indie press, is a thing to behold: 16 stories jettison the reader through the psyches of their troubled characters—unapologetic terrain that is at once disturbing and deeply beautiful. Grider’s forays into the grim worlds that encompass human relationships are matched by his investment in and care for the humans themselves. Though they’re not always lovable, those who populate the collection’s pages—including a man who threatens to cut off his hands if his lover rejects a wedding proposal; another who all but waterboards prospective partners; and a series of gay lovers categorized by their sexual performance—are enticing specimens. They’re all people we know, in one form or another, and Grider’s knowledge of this and exploration of their myriad flaws and humiliations is fearless and refreshing.
“How a story is being told is just as interesting to me as what story is being told,” Grider says of his affinity to latch onto characters, rather than plot, and propel his fiction forward using experiments in language, form and perspective. Many of the stories, which were mostly written between 2011 and 2012, feature either a first-person narrative voice or a close third, with information that is fragmented, incomplete and sometimes unreliable. Some stories are in list form, such as “Liars” and the aptly titled “Formers (An Index),” while others are written in the style of reading comprehension tests, with questions at the end, like the title story. Grider likens this constraint-fueled writing to “lab experiments,” adding, “I sort of tend towards brief, schematic forms and ideas.”
Working within constraints is also something Grider’s characters find themselves at odds with. One of the more intriguing aspects of Misadventure is the way Grider weaves bondage throughout, whether literal (the reporter who is tasked with maneuvering his way out of handcuffs in “Escapology”) or figurative (the narrator who is tied to a former lover through illness in “This Is Not a Romance”).
“When I was writing what I wanted to be a coherent collection, it was a really interesting thing to try to explore,” Grider says. “People sort of end up in these situations in the book, partly because I thought of it as a way to unite the stories, their relationship to each other, and partly because it was an interesting plot or motif to explore to see the different things I could do with it.”
Though the collection often dips into a pool of gritty realism, Grider is quick to assert his fiction isn’t borne from his own life. “With short stories, you get to avoid that,” he says. “You get to inhabit another character who is living a completely different life from yours, has a completely different world, different experiences.” That’s the fun, he says: “I get to shed my own autobiographical leanings and jump into characters that are completely different from the way I am.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Grider came to words in high school. “I started writing when I was a teenager, as teenagers do,” he says, citing poetry as his first brush with the form. He later became inspired by writers like David Foster Wallace and Glenway Wescott, and notes that “there’s something about both those writers, and a couple of other figures, that spoke to me, and where I thought, ‘Maybe I can try my hand at this.’ ” He wrote his first “serious fiction” in grad school in 2003, in an inter-school program at the California Institute of the Arts that allowed him to earn a double degree and dually focus on words and images.
Grider has often shifted his attention from one art form to another. Photography, for instance, has played a prominent role in his artistic life, with exhibitions in major U.S. cities and also in the U.K. and Germany. He’s tackled subjects ranging from masculinity and fashion to “the photograph as record or editorial,” and even spent four years at military simulation sites, role-playing an embedded photojournalist for a multi-part project called Theater of War. Nowadays, he is focusing on text, with a book of poetry and another short story collection in the pipeline.
“I learned an enormous amount in writing these stories,” Grider says of Misadventure. “I tend to short-sell my writing and think, ‘Okay, I could do better. I should be doing better than this.’ Finishing the collection gave me a sense of confidence, and seeing it in book form is amazing.”