When Aaron Teel started writing the stories in his award-winning chapbook, Shampoo Horns, it was a piece for a nonfiction writing class he was taking at the University of North Texas. Ann McCutchan was the teacher.
“I hit a wall with it,” said Teel, who graduated from UNT in 2006 and now lives in Austin. “I just didn’t know where I was going with it.”
Six years later, the piece is published by Rose Metal Press, and Teel finds himself a rung higher on the ladder of literary success.
“That class was great. It ended up being a really important time for me, and Ann McCutchan is a friend of mine now,” Teel said. “Once I turned the material into flash fiction, I was able to get through it and do what I needed to do with it.”
Wait. Flash fiction?
Call it a new brand for “short shorts,” narrative that are wrapped up in 300 words. Some writers say you can zip up a story in 1,000 words and still be under the flash-fiction tent.
Shampoo Horns is a collection of 19 compact stories. They aren’t in chronological order, but together, they account for the growing identity of a young boy who lives in a Texas trailer park. Cherry, the boy, is trying to figure out how to live with a teenage half-brother with a mean streak. The half-brother comes to the trailer park, and with him comes a twister.
“It’s mostly about this emotionally stunted kid at 12 [years old] who wears Superman Underoos, with a towel around his neck as a cape, who is very much in his own world,” Teel said.
Shampoo Horns tells the story of how Cherry wakes up from his dreams and starts to learn how to make sense of the adult world.
Teel said he was inspired to revisit the stubborn nonfiction project after he read Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory.
In the book, the Lolita author recalls how he grew up as part of a loving family of liberal aristocrats who amused themselves with literature and politics. The autobiography also remembers how the author’s life changed when, at age 18, he saw the Russian Revolution upend the family and its fortune.
“Nabokov uses these fantastic elements to remember his childhood, out of order. And he really created this felling of where he was,” Teel said. “I was interested in doing that, but, of course, not in this Russian, luxurious countryside. I wanted it to be this earthy Texas countryside.”
Shampoo Horns does concoct a sense of place. Through Cherry, the reader sees the sad and shiftless fate of the occupants of careworn trailer houses. Each story is yoked to the hot, dry ground and the rusted-out and tottering boxes where adults turn to religion, television or the bottle to ease the gritty edges of poverty.
“I changed the names of the characters, changed some of the situations, and then I gave it this tornado, which seemed to be an appropriate metaphor — I was able to finish it,” Teel said. “The tornado is really a framing device. It’s really about the relationship between these two boys, these brothers. I didn’t want to deal with the material as an essayist. I wanted it to be sense-driven.”
Teel teaches high school English and leads workshops for Badgerdog Literary Publishing in Austin.
Teel said he finds flash fiction a challenge.
“I love the compression and I love the completion, having so much finished in such a small amount of space. But it has its limitations,” Teel said. “You can’t do the character development the way you can with a longer form of fiction. And for a lot of writers, character development is really important.”
And as he earns acclaim for mastering pocket-size fiction, Teel says that he’s “on this kick of reading these epic 1,000-page novels.”
“I’m not exactly sure why,” he said. “I think I’m trying to understand the narcissism it takes to write something that huge, as well as the focus it takes to stay with something that long.”
Teel credits UNT’s creative writing program for developing his skills and directing talented writers.
“The workshops were really helpful,” he said. “Having 15 to 20 people critique your work is a good experience for a writer to have. And I have to say that the support I got from Ann McCutchan and the whole UNT English department was important.”
Teel said that making strides in the literary world means doing a lot of writing, making a lot of submissions and not hearing much from publishers. He’s had work published in Tin House, SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Matter Press, Brevity magazine, North Texas Review and Side B Magazine.
Teel said he approached magazines with smaller circulations before seeing Shampoo Horns picked up by Rose Metal Press.
“There are very few narrative chapbook publishers, and Chicago-based Rose Metal is one of them,” Teel said. “I love Rose Metal and have for a while. They make the most beautiful chapbooks in my opinion.”
A chapbook is a small book, often handmade. The form was popularized in the 1800s, when English publishing advanced to the point that it could affordably make pocket-size publications — tracts, nursery rhymes and pamphlets.
The form is a boutique publication these days, popular with organizations who need to condense data into a product that folds, and with bookmakers who want an edition of portable books. In the do-it-yourself scene, chapbooks are a way to self-publish zines and poetry.
Teel has two authors to recommend for readers who want more flash fiction: Austin writer Mary Miller (Broken) and SmokeLong editor Randall Brown (Mad to Live).
When Teel won Rose Metal Press’ sixth annual Short Short Chapbook Contest, part of the prize was publication. Teel said he’s hard at work on another project.
“I have sort of a rule that I don’t talk about anything until it comes out,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier with the Rose Metal publication, and I love coming back to Denton. I kind of consider it home.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
AARON TEEL AT UNT
What: UNT graduate reads from his award-winning chapbook
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Room 110 in the UNT Environmental Education, Science and Technology Building, on the northwest corner of Avenue C and West Mulberry Street. Visitors can park for free near the building.
On the Web: http://aaron-teel.com.
FROM THE BOOK
Clay looked at me and shook his head. His thick eyebrows were scrunched together and his mouth was open. Bits of half-chewed ravioli were visible on his tongue. Tater waited for him to turn back to the television and discreetly gave him the finger, then looked guiltily up at me for approval.
“Let me see those clippers, Tate,” I said, and snatched them out of his hand. I clamped his left nipple inside the little metal mouth and squeezed. I could feel the skin resist at first then quickly give way. It was harder to cut through than a fingernail but the sound of the metal mouth snapping together was louder and more satisfying. His eyes went wide. His pupils dilated. His jaw fell open. The blood ran down his chest and belly in a thick, oily stream, mixing with the dirt and the sweat and the tiny fuzzy hairs on his skin, and I threw up in my mother’s sun-wilted rosebush while he screamed.
— Excerpt from “Tater’s Nipple” in Shampoo Horns by Aaron Teel, published by Rose Metal Press