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Tyler Parker On Inherently Flawed Characters And Embracing Maximalism

by Brendan Dowling on June 13, 2023

In Tyler Parker’s tragicomic western, the equally hilarious and heartbreaking A Little Blood And Dancing, readers are introduced to a trio of unforgettable characters whose lives collide with one another over the span of several decades. When we first meet Table, a low-level criminal adept at discovering new levels of incompetence, he’s fresh off a drug deal gone disastrously wrong. At a meeting with Table’s boss that night, also attended by Solomon’s five-year-old daughter, Priscilla, Table impulsively commits an act of violence that upends the course of Priscilla and Table’s lives. Years later, Table falls in love with the perceptive and tart Lady Sixkiller, and the two embark on their singular version of domestic bliss. Yet Table resists regular employment, and his financial hopes are thwarted by a wealthy relative who refuses to die. Meanwhile, the now grown Priscilla struggles to reckon her burgeoning faith with her past trauma as she enters the adult world. Both Priscilla and Table are haunted by the violent act that connects them, and this shared memory leads to an inexorable reunion. Parker is a staff writer for The Ringer and, prior to that, studied improv comedy at both iO and Second City in Chicago. Parker spoke to us about his literary influences, creating the comic world of the novel, and embracing maximalism in epigraphs.

The book has been compared to the works of Charles Portis and Elmore Leonard. I was wondering who were the authors who were significant to you, both as a reader and as a writer?

The people that I was reading as I was deciding that I think I might like to try my hand at this were like Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show, some Cormac McCarthy stuff. I remember being in Chicago and really enjoying improv, but feeling like there was some muscle that I wasn’t quite stretching and I couldn’t really figure it out.  I was doing some of the basketball writing that I still do at the time. It was just on the side, in addition to answering laser hair removal questions at Groupon. I just remember reading some of [McMurtry and McCarthy’s] stuff, and then honestly, it was also reading some of the stuff at Grantland. Brian Phillips  was a big dude for me. Reading his stuff opened me up to taking chances with writing and not being afraid to have a lot of different flavors in your tone, know what I mean? Like not shying away from a good bit, even if you have some more emotional hammer coming a little bit later. Just trusting that if you keep working at it, there’s a way to do it the way that you want to do it. Sportswriters like Wright Thompson and Spencer Hall were big for that stuff too. As for the comps, they are very flattering and blasphemous. Leonard has been a bit of a blind spot for me in my reading education, a fault of mine I need to correct, but I’ve read enough to know he rules. And then yeah, Portis. I mean, that’s heresy. Guy’s a magician. He can do anything. 

The epigraph contains quotes from everyone from Edna Ferber to Hakeem Olajuwon and does such a wonderful job of preparing the reader for the different aspects of the world of the novel. How did the epigraph come about?

At first, there were just a couple. The first one I had was the Ferber [quote] from the preface to Cimarron. When I came across that, I just danced a jig. I was just like, “Well, this is wonderful for what’s going on in my head.” And then I think it might have been the Hakeem Olajuwon quote about design, architecture, and the feel of certain rooms, because he obviously plays a prominent role in the book, so that felt good to include him in there. I would be editing and then I would get back to, “Okay, let’s consider this thing as a whole piece again,” because those things are fun to think about. I think it helps you hone in on, “Okay, what’s the book about?”

It just started to feel like I wasn’t explaining all the vibes that are in this book by just having these two quotes. It felt like it was going to be overkill, probably, having ten of them, but who cares? Let’s just do it, embrace a little maximalism here at the beginning, and just get it all out. I was sort of like, “Who knows if I get to do another one? Let’s just make sure that in this one you feel like you got all the arrows out of your quiver.” anytime I would come across one of these I’d be like, “Oh, that’s just too good to not put in there.”

One of the things that is most embarrassing to me about this is that I did not catch a typo in the quote from Robert Robinson’s “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing.” It’s not supposed to be “wonder” with an “o,” it’s supposed to be [“wander” with] an “a.” I thought that it was “wonder” for forever when I was younger. Knew better this time around. I don’t know what happened, but I missed it and others missed it. I would get the galley and I would comb through it because there would be [a voice] in my head, “You messed something up. You’re going to find something.” And I did find a couple of things, but I had the feeling that there was something outstanding, you know what I mean? Like maybe the gas wasn’t left on but maybe a side door was unlocked? It’s hidden by bushes, but it is open. That sort of thing. Hopefully, readers are forgiving.

That kind of switch fits in so perfectly with Table’s personality. He’s someone who would mishear a lyric and then just double down and say that’s the way it’s always been.

Yes, or that he must have heard a special live rendition for one time only where they did a special change up just for the night and they changed the lyric at his suggestion. “You know, we have to keep singing it the same way, just because the way that people know the song, the way it’s famous, is this other way. But we agree with you, Table, it would be better if we kept it.”

I want to talk about Table and Lady because their dynamic is so compelling. Their relationship is very dysfunctional at times, but it’s also really funny and she seems to really challenge him in a way no one else does. Can you talk about what went into creating all the different aspects of their relationship?

Some of the first things of theirs that I wrote were them meeting. Early on, they were almost written as like a montage of scenes. They were not chronological. It was all over the place, because I didn’t know what I was doing or anything. “Maybe they should go to Carl’s Jr.? I don’t know.” (laughs) I wanted to have a kind of bullshit artist that seems like he’s at the center of the stuff. That he’s charismatic and funny in his own way, but is also just a piece of shit. He’s capable of good moments, but he is ultimately a selfish person.

It felt like to make the relationship as compelling as possible, the best way to deal with somebody like that would be to put them with someone who won’t let them get away with any of their shit. And if they do put up with it, they acknowledge it and are pretty realistic about the whole thing. They’re still going to push back and be capable of putting him in his place. It’s ultimately just a more interesting character. I wanted it to be a thing where people are reading it and thinking that it’s more of a Table kind of story, and then they realize that’s not what it is. He’s definitely one person, but then it’s like a real three-hander in that that you’re getting stuff from all sides.

Sam Lipsyte was a teacher of mine at Columbia and he said something in class one time that really landed.The things that make characters interesting is they’re both victims and victimizers. They’re oppressed, but they also make mistakes. That was the way that I wanted to approach pretty much all the characters in the book, at least the main ones where you’re actually dealing with some interiority. These are inherently flawed people that are sometimes in the right, and then, at least in Table’s case, often in the wrong. I liked the idea of trying to have somebody complicated and charming, but who is ultimately just kind of a piece of shit. I think sometimes the complicated and charming guy gets to wind up being complicated and charming, but [by the end] he’s figured some stuff out. Everybody’s like, “Man, look at this guy. He finally got it. He’s going to have a great family with this girl that he just met. This is great.” I wanted it to be like if it was an Apatow movie or something, one of those kind of stunted [characters] taken to its conclusion, where they don’t figure out how to really be, at least not personality wise, right?

I think one of the things that makes him so funny is that he’s so resistant to any kind of growth. He’s almost incapable of having any kind of emotional development.

Yeah, I wanted to be intentional, especially in the quieter times, when either it’s a softer moment or he’s having to apologize or something.It’s clear that he’s trying to get to an understanding place with her, but then he immediately is like, “I’m sorry, I want to stop talking about this.” One of the other things going on in the book is that it’s just a bunch of people who desperately want to feel connected to someone or something else, and just can’t. Shit’s getting in the way. His lack of comfort doing that gave Lady stuff to play off and it could show her sort of resiliency, you know what I mean? This woman’s dealing with this shit every day.

I think Table’s so appealing because of all the different ways he overcompensates for his insecurities, but Lady’s an equally funny character. I loved how her sense  of humor shines through and how she deals with him.

I really wanted to make sure that she and Priscilla, even though they’re going through stuff, that they had fun, that you saw their personalities and the playful sides of who they were. I hate it when the guy gets all the laugh lines. That’s just such bullshit and not how it ever goes. Table’s ultimately, like you say, just such an insecure guy, and Lady knows that and knows all the ways to get him. It would have felt not even truthful to the nature of the way that the relationship was written if he was besting her all the time. He’s coming in just firing away without aiming and she’s really concentrating on where she’s pointing her sights. She’s just a more focused person than he is. I really wanted the women to have moments where they were either in on the laugh or they were being properly entertaining—or interesting or thoughtful or eloquent or trying to be able to word a thought, but not able to do that. I wanted them to have all the same complexities and everything that Table had.

I was always thinking of this kind of as a comic Western, but it turned into a comic Western tragedy. Halfway through the writing of the whole thing, I was like, “Oh, this is a tragedy. This has got a lot of good bits in here, hopefully, but this is going to be a sad story.” When I was thinking about it as this Western, I was trying to be intentional about the women getting just as much of a say as the dude does. Native characters will have a say in this. Not that those things haven’t existed in certain Westerns, but it just feels like by and large, that was not something that a lot of the older stuff we came up on seemed interested in doing.

I was really delighted by the scope of the novel, as it follows these characters’ lives for about thirty years. What was appealing to you about covering these characters for such a huge span of time?

This is a bad answer, but it just sort of felt like that. I fussed with the structure of it, [asking,] “Is it chronological? Is it not?” I fussed with that for a long time. It was super late into the writing that I realized, “Oh, you need to lead with the Solomon scene.” Basically what was happening was I was starting with just Priscilla and Table meeting. That was the first thing that you saw, and you see them get married and everything. It was basically like the book was split into two parts, so part one was Lady and Table and part two was just Priscilla. You didn’t even see her until the second half of the book.

The book read, I think, a little bit slower. It wasn’t clear how focused it was, because you are sort of like, “Okay, is this about this married couple and kind of a little slice of life? Is it just with them? Is any other conflict going to emerge here?” When I added the Priscilla and Solomon stuff and put that at the beginning, it focused everything and propelled it. It just made everything else fall into place. It wasn’t even necessarily like when I started it that I was like, “I want to see these characters for a large swath of time.” Initially I just thought that what I was writing was going to basically be set over the course of a week, two weeks, something like that. In writing it more I realized that no, Priscilla is a big part of this. You need to have her running on a parallel track for it to all kind of land in the ways that I wanted it to. Whenever I was waiting to reveal the Table and Solomon stuff, some of the writing would get cagey. It would get a little too cute for itself. I wasn’t good enough to be trying to make those moves at the time. It was also really maudlin. When I would go back and read it, it just feel like, “You’re clearly withholding something.” Sometimes that’s fun, but it wasn’t feeling like it was a rewarding sort of thing, you know what I mean? So it was like, “Oh, let’s just get all this out in the open for the most part. Everybody’s seeing all the cards.”

I love hearing about that because I find that first scene so engrossing. It colors the rest of the novel with a sense of foreboding. None of the characters involved are able to ever really escape the violence from the opening chapter. It holds so much weight in their lives.

No, totally. I wanted to be conscientious. I don’t like the idea of tricking the reader into like, “You thought it was gonna be like this, but it’s like this.” There’s something a little bit like, “Well just show me how it is!” I wanted there to be some light stuff there at the beginning and have it register as a good loving, father daughter relationship. But you also are trying to put up some decorations so that people know what kind of party they’re walking into. You don’t want to put up a bunch of Christmas lights and Snoopy on a sleigh outside and then you walk inside and it’s a bubble rave. Why not have the bubble rave also be outside with all the Christmas decorations too?  Let’s just throw it all in. Let them know, “Hey, there’s gonna be a trail mix here. It’s not a layer cake.” I also don’t know what a layer cake is. 

The story is  bookended by two five-year-old girls, first with Priscilla as a five-year-old and then later, Table and Lady’s daughter, Dianna. They’re both such unique and specific little girls, I wanted to hear about how you approached writing your child characters.

That’s a good question. I wanted Priscilla to be smart and quick in her own way. She wants to play the game, and Solomon’s trying to perform for himself. “Maybe hopefully there’s a neighbor a couple of yards over and they’re hearing me be really funny to my daughter too.” He’s doing a couple things there, and she’s like, “Can we just play the game?” There’s something in that immediacy, like, “This is what is happening, this is what I want to be doing, and this is my thing. Stop trying to be the star of this game because I’m supposed to be the star of this game, dad.” I wanted her to feel like this is a smart kid who is not going to be intimidated, but also just wants to have fun. There’s some mischief there.

I wanted her to have like a streak of silliness in her, you know what I mean? I wanted her to feel like she would be a lot of fun to have around. Once you get into [the scene] with Table, I wanted her to not be afraid to throw her weight around. In some way, Dad’s conducting business, but she interrupts whenever she wants. There’s the unhealthy stuff that’s going on too, obviously the stuff that you don’t want a child seeing, but there’s the unhealthy aspect of like, “Oh, no. I see my daddy is sad, I should be the one to fix this.” As a dad, you don’t ever want your kids thinking that they are at all responsible for cheering you up. You just want them to be kids. And so I thought that it would be a way to show, “Oh, this is a discerning kind of girl who’s gonna pay attention to stuff.”

With Dianna, I wanted to keep looking at that idea of connection. [Lady believes,] “If just this thing will happen then everything will be fine and exactly how it’s supposed to be. Things will be heading downhill.” Lady doesn’t have Dianna just so that she’ll have someone to connect with, but I think that any parent, if you have a kid, you want to be able to talk with them and then for them to talk back to you. It felt like a way to show other sides of Lady and other ways that she can be both empathetic, but also maybe not be on the ball. [It shows] ways that her confidence and things like that can also get in the way of her making decisions that would be for the betterment of her and her family, right?

The other aspect of it was you’ve got Priscilla desperately wanting to hear from God and desperately wanting God to talk back to her, and he just won’t. I wanted there to be a mirror on the opposite side of the narrative that could do some similar things and run around in not only the same territory, but also other nooks and crannies.

Finally, since this is for the Public Library Association, what role has the library played in your life? Is there a particular book you remember getting from the library as a child?

I have such fond memories of my librarians growing up. The first chapter book that I remember ever connecting with was one my upper school elementary librarian gave me called Danger Zone by David Klass. I remember looking for it and it’s out of print, and there’s also been a staggering number of books called Danger Zone, if you can believe it. It’s about this high school basketball player, of course, so that would have resonated with me. He’s added to U-18 team for the U.S., and when he gets there, the best player doesn’t like him because he took the last spot on the team that [everyone] thought was going to [the best player’s] friend or cousin or something. It’s all very sort of “Remember the Titans,” but the coach isn’t the big thing, it’s just the players. It wasn’t even the librarian making some great leap right? She didn’t have to do a lot of digging, but she took the time to be like, “Oh, I know you, you sporty jerk. You like basketball? Come here and give this a try.” And you know, there’s a world where they don’t care enough to know that, right? And you’re left to your own devices and you try to read the skinniest sports autobiography that you can get through very quickly before your Accelerated Reader test. That book always has a special place in my memory for just, you know, actually getting my attention.