“I wanted that space to be something more”: An interview with Joshua Bohnsack

Joshua Bohnsack is a talented writer whose debut collection, Burnt Sienna: Cocktails and Stories, was recently published by Throwback Books. The book defines recipes in new and inventive ways, as well as explores alcohol’s status as a catalyst for social interactions. Bohnsack also brings a creative approach to editing as the founder of Long Day Press. Calamus recently interviewed him about his new collection, his goals for his press, what influences his writing, and more.

Calamus Journal: Your new collection, Burnt Sienna: Cocktails and Stories, combines short stories with drink recipes. How did you get this unique idea for the formatting, and was it part of the project from the beginning?

Joshua Bohnsack: In college, I worked in restaurants and bars and wanted to learn more about making drinks. There are some good cocktail books out there, but none of them interacted with the actual act of writing as much as I wanted to see. You get the ingredients and measurements, then long detail about how to mix them together, and I wanted that space with instructions to be something more, so I started making my recipes for my coworkers with anecdotes instead of mixing instructions.

Calamus: Speaking of your process putting the collection together, how did you decide what pieces to include or not include? Did you go through any major revisions?

Bohnsack: I wrote a few “bar stories” about my time working and paired those with the drinks I wanted the character to interact with. Most of those stories got thrown out or drastically reworked, but the project started off as a writing exercise to play with the form of something as standard as a recipe.

For Burnt Sienna, I wanted to stick to shorter pieces where they can interact together or stand on their own. The Throwback editors, c.vance and Rae, suggested making this collection as recipe cards in a box, which allows the reader to reinterpret the story according to the order of the cards. I loved the idea, because the reader can interact with the stories even more.

Calamus: This collection makes frequent use of the pronoun “I.” To what degree do you consider your work autobiographical and/or confessional?

Bohnsack: In my longer short stories, I like to be in first person, or free indirect discourse, but they aren’t always as biographically based. I would say there is a lot of myself in these pieces. Using the first person let me interact with the second person ‘You’ that I wanted to incorporate in Burnt Sienna, and when the stories are so brief, they are naturally going to draw from my experiences.

Calamus: By the nature of both its format and content, one of Burnt Sienna‘s most frequently recurring motifs is alcohol. Could you tell us about your approach to using that theme in your work?

Bohnsack: I started writing the pieces that would later form Burnt Sienna a few years back in Iowa City, which is a great place, but unfortunately doesn’t have much to do besides drink. Working in bars I felt constantly surrounded by alcohol. It came naturally to put those elements into my work.

It wasn’t until I moved away that I could really focus in on what was happening with these pieces. My characters weren’t interacting with alcohol, but rather were trying to interact with each other. Alcohol was more the catalyst than the subject.

Calamus: One story in particular that stood out to us from your collection was “Whiskey Sour.” Could you tell us more about your goals for and process creating that piece?

Bohnsack: “Whiskey Sour” has seen a lot of lives. I set out to write a reaction to The Beach Boy’s “God Only Knows,” by playing with the lyrics. If you do a close reading of the song, it’s got to be Brian Wilson’s unused suicide note (or maybe Tony Asher’s). I paired the story with Whiskey Sour, due to the Beach Boys residency when Whisky A Go Go first opened in West Hollywood.

The Dennis Wilson reference was the hardest part to scale back. It’s a fascinating, if not tragic story of his death, but I didn’t want it to take over the narrative.

This story probably went through more revisions than any piece I had written for this series. I had a lot of feedback on it from friends, peers in my MFA workshops, professors, and editors. Everybody seemed to want something different from the story. I wanted to abandon the piece altogether, but I was so stuck on the Beach Boys lyrics that I couldn’t leave it. I kept playing with it until the story became what I wanted.

Calamus: In addition to writing your own work, you also run Long Day Press. Could you tell us about your mission statement and what you publish?

Bohnsack: I started Long Day Press out of an interest in bookbinding. I wanted to make something handmade and I noticed a lot of my friends were not publishing, despite their talents. It just seemed to go hand-in-hand. I reached out to the folks at Spork Press who were a major inspiration to me, and Drew told me all the things I was doing wrong, and better yet, how I could do them better.

We bind our journals using beer boxes for the covers and we like to publish alcohol related prose for our journals, including stories, essays, and beer reviews. For the website, we’re open to shorter works that fit our vibe.

We’re also looking for chapbooks of prose. I’m a sucker for chapbooks. There are a lot of venues for short poetry manuscripts, but not enough for prose chapbooks. Hopefully through our books we can serve authors as a launch pad to larger collections.

We want to eventually take on different analog projects. I’ve been wanting to release a spoken-word/music tape for a while now, and it looks like the concept is making some progress. Basically, who knows? We’re up for anything.

Calamus: Outside of writing and editing, what else do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Bohnsack: I’m a musician as well. Writing music was my first love. In high school, I would stay up all night and write sad folk songs. I’m a bit obsessed with music, and I think that tends to come out in my writing. I’m also an avid runner. It helps keep me sane.

Calamus: Are you personally working on any new projects? Do you have a website or social media presence where fans can follow your work?

Bohnsack: Right now I’m working on what I am hesitant to call a novel. It’s a short story collection with the same characters over the period of a summer. It revolves around a friend of mine being imprisoned on gun-related charges. And I’m working on some lighter things too.

I tweet and Instagram at @joshuabohnsack, have info at joshuabohnsack.tumblr.com, and you can get Burnt Sienna at throwbackbooks.org.