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Alumnus author seeks to deliver ‘that Bruce Lee punch’ with his debut collection

portrait of man in hat
X.C. Atkins’ newest work is a debut collection of short stories. “Grace Street Alley and Other Stories” contains 27 interlinked stories, set largely in Richmond. (Images courtesy of Makeout Creek Books)

X.C. Atkins, a Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus, is a writer of many interests. He has published works as varied as noir-tinged short stories, comic books about spirit animals who roam a post-apocalyptic Earth, and zines on a range of topics, including a tribute issue dedicated to Rod Stewart that was lauded as “a brilliant masterpiece” by the singer’s oldest fan club.

Atkins’ newest work is a debut collection of short stories. “Grace Street Alley and Other Stories” contains 27 interlinked stories, set largely in Richmond, that follow a character named Levy Bahm “as he navigates education, love, race, work, drink and violence, and strives to understand his place in a universe that is mostly uncaring yet still somehow beautiful,” according to publisher Makeout Creek Books.

“Grace Street Alley and Other Stories.” (Images courtesy of Makeout Creek Books)
“Grace Street Alley and Other Stories.” (Images courtesy of Makeout Creek Books)

Atkins’ work has previously appeared in the anthologies “Richmond Noir,” “The Evil One” and “The Chinatown Bus Stories,” as well as in the journals Prairie Schooner, Paper Darts and Annalemma, among others. He currently works as a bartender in Los Angeles. 

Atkins generally does not have a favorable view of college’s value in the United States, but said he feels fortunate to have taken courses with “some great English professors” while a student at VCU.

“I’ll forever be indebted to Liz Canfield, Gregory Donovan, Bryant Mangum and the legendary William Tester,” said Atkins, who majored in English in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “They each spent time on me, and I’ll cherish them forever for that.”

Atkins will read from his new collection on Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. at Chop Suey Books to celebrate the release of the book. A signing will follow.

Atkins answered questions from VCU News about his first book and his writing interests.

 

Tell us about Levy Bahm, the man at the center of the stories in this collection. Why have you returned to this character in your fiction?

Levy is an extension of me. He is portraying me in a time of my life when I was learning a lot of lessons but still not understanding those lessons until years after. Polaroids through words. With Levy, I stuck close to something one of my professors told me early on, and that is with fiction you can write about something that happened, but then extend it, make it more colorful. Like in real life, you had this great night and then you went home. But in fiction … you can say you didn’t go home, that more happened.

Richmond gave me so much. And it taught me how to explore other cities and how to trust my gut, trust my instincts.

Levy's experiences seem particularly tied to the city and the neighborhoods he moves through. How do you view the role of Richmond in these stories? What does the city mean to you?  

I view the city of Richmond as a character in these stories, as much as any other character that gets introduced. Richmond was the first city I lived in by myself, separate from my parents and family. I have yet to have lived anywhere for a longer duration. And through Richmond I found a love for cities in general, wanting to know them, wanting to know the streets, know the people, discover what’s down an alley, go wherever the path would take me. Richmond gave me so much. And it taught me how to explore other cities and how to trust my gut, trust my instincts.

Were you surprised at how these stories linked together when it was time to collect them into a book? Does the cumulative effect of publishing them side by side bring a new dimension to the stories?

The connect was all by design. I wanted to create a journey, however disjointed. Life is like that sometimes. Not necessarily something complete, but definitely highlights. I think it was important for me to do this in order to move forward on other projects. I have goals in mind, a timeline for my life.

Some of these stories are very short pieces, typically capturing a compelling, meaningful moment in time. What appeals to you about the flash fiction form?

I got into flash fiction at the tail end of college. Combination of the zines I was making with friends and a trend I saw in literary magazines and what they were looking for. And honestly, it makes sense in this day and age. There are so many mediums for us to absorb information, news, entertainment, etc. I don’t hang out with very academic types. I’m not talking about literature at a bar typically. But I love to write. When I want a friend to read something, I’d be a fool to think they’ll always sit down and read a 10-page story. Not when they have a phone itching in their pocket for them to look at an Instagram model. So attention span was a big thing, but also I enjoy the challenge of flash fiction. The goal is to pack a potent punch in such a small space — that Bruce Lee punch. To be able to fit so much in the tight margins … it almost gives you an edge in real life I think. For me, anyway. I’m not so into being long-winded, until it’s that time.

You've also collaborated with artists on comic books and zines. What do you enjoy about working in those mediums?

I really love to collaborate and I’ve done it a lot over the years, and I’ve learned a lot through it, about how to negotiate with people. Navigate tricky situations with people in a different capacity. It can be a good friend, but you see a different side of them when there are real expectations. You come to understand compromise, when to push and when to relent. That’s interesting to me. But the truth is, I know so many talented artists, that what I enjoy the most is seeing an idea be presented — a good idea, a silly idea — and then have it blossom into something that exceeds expectation, a true work of art. I’ve seen it over and over again, in zines, comics, artists like Eden Chubb, Brian Villalon, Emerald Grippa, Keith Ansel, Will Gaynor. That’s why I thought it’d be really cool to have a handful of illustrations in the book by my friend Mauricio Patarroyo. We used to make zines together all the way back in Richmond, and some of the stories in there, those ideas were birthed from us working together. Feels kind of full circle that way, for me.

Are there writers you see as particular influences on your work or on this book in particular?

I started with the usual suspects as a high schooler and then English major. All the stuff a young man would predictably admire as he attempts to define what path he wants to take in life. I like the words raw and true. What I will say is a lot of these stories started a long time ago and they needed time to evolve to become what they are now, and that evolution came about from the stuff I read beyond academia, stuff I read today, or even movies I watch today. I draw inspiration from everywhere. School was reading a bunch of white dudes doing what white dudes do. And that has its place. But now I read a bunch of stuff by people of all different colors and genders and backgrounds and that helps me put so much more depth to what I write.

What are you working on now?

I like to stay busy. I’m learning as I go. I have a novel finished but I’m learning how to interact with literary agents. I’ve learned to be patient. You can read however many articles giving you tips on how to do business, but the real thing is the real thing. It is not fun. They do tell you that in class but you only half listen. At the time, I was just too hungry. So I’m being patient but still working hard. I’m halfway done with my second novel. And then I always have side projects on deck. My comic book “Totem” is going to the third issue. More zines. I’m putting more attention on zine fests. It’s cool meeting more creative people who are enthusiastic. Knowing your purpose is a beautiful thing.