Bradley Sides creates worlds of fantasy and sets them into a reality you may think you know in his new short story collection Those Fantastic Lives and Other Strange Stories from City of Light Publishing. He takes mundane, real-life situations that readers can connect with and expands them into the fantastical, leaning into emotional undercurrents that only unveil themselves fully in the last few lines of each story.
Those Fantastic Lives is a book I, myself, couldn’t and didn’t want to put down. It’s a Kelly Link-esque collection of stories that feeds but leaves you hungry for more; its beauty and strangeness create a brilliant cocktail that promises magic, wonder, and something straddling the in-between, and it delivers each in spades. Bradley Sides’ work in this collection is incredibly detailed; the characters themselves feel like actors on a movie set rather than words dancing on a page — they breathe, they laugh, they cry.
Bradley Sides’ writing appears at Chapter 16, Chicago Review of Books, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Rumpus, and Southern Review of Books. He holds an MA from the University of North Alabama and is an MFA candidate at Queens University of Charlotte, where he serves as Fiction Editor of Qu. He lives in Florence, Alabama, with his wife, and he can be found on most days teaching creative writing and English in southern Tennessee. Those Fantastic Lives is his debut.
I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Bradley Sides via email, just in time for his book launch, and Halloween.
To start off, I love to talk about the process of shaping a book. How did these short stories become a collection? What was your process?
I didn’t have a collection in mind when I first began writing stories. I was simply writing for pleasure. I didn’t, in those earlier years of my writing, know my voice yet, so I was trying to find it, too, I think. I wrote a couple of Southern stories. I tried a historical fiction piece. I tried several genres. As I wrote more, though, my stories began to take on the weird, and they were about loss, loneliness, and transformation. I found my voice, without knowing I’d found it.
After I knew my space, I wrote more and more stories inside that area. Ideas came quickly. I was excited because I was writing stories that I felt good about — that I felt proud of.
I didn’t use all of my weird stories for Those Fantastic Lives. Far from it actually. I’ve been working on these kinds of stories since 2013, so I have a lot of them. Hundreds of pages. I cut and cut (and cut some more). I even took out stories I love because I didn’t think they fit with the stories surrounding them. It took some time, but it was important to me to showcase a set of stories that felt cohesive.
Do you have a favorite story in the collection? If so, what makes it your favorite?
This is a hard one. Each of the seventeen stories in the collection means something special to me, really. I love the title story and have since I wrote it. “The Mooneaters” was the first story I wrote that got some critical attention. “Dolls for the End of the World” and “The Galactic Healers” are a couple of others that I find myself thinking about a lot. It’s difficult to select a favorite, but, at least for today, these are the four I’d put in the running.
Along that same line, do you have any particular story that you feel embodies the collection more than others?
I think the opener, “Those Fantastic Lives,” best captures the collection as a whole. It possesses a light element of the fantastical. It has tenderness. It captures the relationship between the adult and child worlds. It’s sad, but also somewhat hopeful. It sets up the stories that follow it, and it will hopefully place my readers in the right space as they get ready for what’s next.
Your writing style is very powerful, full of detail and a voice that pulls the reader into the midst of these stories. How would you describe Those Fantastic Lives? What do you hope readers take away from your book?
First of all, thank you, Jordan. I appreciate your kindness. I’d describe Those Fantastic Lives as a book of magical realism and weird fiction stories that looks and lives in spaces we all know but can probably not always describe. It examines the separation between the adult and childhood worlds. It exists somewhere between the very real world and the fantastic world. It believes in the impact of loss, but it also believes in the power of connection and love. It’s interested in the peace found from looking at the moon and the stars, but it’s also aware of the terrors of the world, too: meanness, destruction, and death.
I hope readers feel connected to the stories — that they find what it is they are searching for and feel more seen and, consequently, less alone. That’s a big hope, maybe, but that’s my aim.
Several pieces (“Back in Crowville,” “A Complicated Correspondence”) are formatted to look like an email chain or a list — what was the process or inspiration there?
I thought the formatting play would add in a little bit of fun. Both of the stories you mention are about serious topics, but I thought the list and email formats would help ease some of that heaviness. I was thinking the same thing when I wrote “Losing Light,” which is told in a before and after style. I really wanted to create an emotional balance throughout the collection, and I thought experimenting with varying formats would help accomplish that.
What was one of the most surprising things in the process of writing Those Fantastic Lives and Other Strange Stories?
This is a great question, and it’s making me reflect quite a lot. You know, one of the most surprising parts is that I knew when the writing cycle for this collection was over. I noticed that my voice was beginning to shift. My thematic exploration was opening a bit more. My style was getting more experimental. My stories were changing. I knew in my gut that it was time to put together Those Fantastic Lives.
What was your hardest scene to write, and why?
I had the hardest time figuring out the ending to “The Mooneaters.” I went into the story with a plan, but after I executed my plan, what I had didn’t seem right. The way the boy’s story ended in that early draft (and drafts) just didn’t work. I got frustrated with it — so frustrated that I actually put the story away and moved on to something else.
Several months later, I woke up one random morning with the nameless mother and son from “The Mooneaters” on my mind. I returned to them, and I found my way. Or the boy found his, I should say.
What is your next project? Is there another Bradley Sides’ collection the readers can look forward to?
There is. I’m working on a new collection of weird stories. So far, these stories are slightly more experimental in regards to format. If things go as I hope, I should have a gameplay story, a manual story, an epistolary story, and others along these lines. I’m having fun. Seeing what works and what doesn’t. I have a handful of the new stories on submission at magazines, and my first one of these was just picked up recently. That was a huge encouragement to really get this new book going. I’m hoping it won’t take as long as Those Fantastic Lives did, but I’ll leave it to my gut to tell me when this new cycle is over.
I want to thank you for taking the time out to talk with me. Congratulations on Those Fantastic Lives, a feat of a book!
Those Fantastic Lives and Other Strange Stories
City of Light Publishing
Published October 1, 2021