The narrator of Turtleface and Beyond, Arthur Bradford’s new book of linked short stories, finds imperfection hot. He dates a woman with a prosthetic arm, has a dalliance with a mental patient, and is particularly drawn to women with flawed teeth. Like Lila, who “had a large gap between her two front teeth, which was not unattractive.” Or Greta, who “had one little fang tooth on the side which stuck out from the rest and you could tell she was self-conscious about it. It looked great though.”
“That’s totally how I feel about imperfections,” says Bradford. “Especially with people’s teeth—a set of white, straight teeth is almost unattractive to me. It’s what makes people interesting.”
This proclivity isn’t the only thing Bradford shares with his narrator, Georgie. “It’s very close to my own narrative voice,” he says. “If I was to write a memoir, it would be a pretty similar voice.” The plotlines, too, take root in Bradford’s experience: “There’s always some real-life event that triggers a story for me. A lot of the situations and the environments that Georgie’s in are things that I’m very familiar with.”
In one story, “Lost Limbs,” Georgie takes a job loading old Christmas trees into a wood chipper, gets his pants leg caught in the machine, and loses his lower leg. He addresses this turn of events with equanimity, even curiosity: “I lost the lower part of my leg, almost to the knee. Chopped into mulch by that chipper!” (Bradford’s use of exclamation points is pitch-perfect throughout.) “To be honest, I was not overly alarmed at the time and thought it wouldn’t be a great hardship living without this section of my leg, but it turned out I was wrong about that.”
Bradford has both legs, but has circulation problems in his right foot. He wears a compression sock and was told years ago by a doctor that if he didn’t properly care for it, he could lose it. “I guess I do picture only having one foot, so I think that’s why I wrote about that,” he says. “I really admire when people are really matter-of-fact and accepting of bizarre or unfortunate circumstances. Ever since I was told that about my foot, I’ve wondered: what would life be like without a foot?”
Other stories sprang from similar musings. Once, Bradford took a canoe trip in a remote area two days from the nearest road, with no phone reception. What if someone were to really get hurt? How would that work? And, also: “What would be the most bizarre, surprising injury here?” Out of that curiosity grew Turtleface’s title story, in which Georgie’s friend jumps from a cliff onto a turtle, disfiguring his face, not to mention the turtle’s shell. (Those physical imperfections again.) “I’ll have those ideas and I’ll try to write them down in a notebook or something, and then explore them more,” Bradford says. “That’s where the short story ideas come from. And really every one of the stories in the book has that kind of genesis.”
The imperfections that Bradford and Georgie are drawn to are not only physical, but mental, too. “People with q uirky mental situations are more interesting to talk to than someone that’s just very normal,” Bradford says. “People who make really weird decisions, that’s much more interesting than a person who makes a decision that is really easy to defend.” Bradford spent many years working at a residential camp for people with disabilities, where he taught video and eventually became the director. As video teacher, Bradford created a news show in which his adult campers interviewed people on the street. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who would go on to create South Park, ended up seeing the videos, and helped Bradford turn the project into a documentary, How’s Your News? Bradford also did an hourlong film about Parker and Stone, Six Days to Air, and is now working on a longer movie about them.
Bradford, who lives in Portland, Oregon, also works part-time at a juvenile detention center. While he hopes to write about it one day, it’s not his main motivation for being there. But the dynamic—interactive, emotional, unpredictable—goes a long way toward opening that creative door in his mind. “I think it’s really important to have a lot of physical interaction with people if you’re going to try to write about people, even if you’re writing in the realm of fantasy,” he says. “That’s part of the reason I felt it was important I have this job—it got me out of the house, talking to people who had interesting stories to tell.”
Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.