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"The Brad Pitt Method"

This month’s story comes from a newer market that is shaking things up when it comes to the submission process. HAD, which publishes one new piece a day, is a spin-off of the long-established lit mag Hobart (hence HAD, aka Hobart After Dark). Their aesthetic is modeled after the minimalist look of early online journals, they frequently host guest editors, and they have a sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants submission schedule. You never know when they will be open or for how long. But when the pop-call for submissions suddenly appears on Twitter, it’s like Taco Bell announcing “Free chalupas! One hour only!” The panic is real.

And “The Brad Pitt Method” by Abbie Barker is a great example of the kind of incredible and unexpected work they consistently put out. Click on the link below to check it out and then come back for a great Q&A with the author.

Favorite line: The day Brad Pitt follows me, I run a mile in under nine minutes.

I had to choose the opening line for two reasons. First off, if I don’t then I’m forced to choose only one of the many hilarious lines throughout the piece, and that would be an impossible feat. And secondly… What?! The day Brad Pitt follows me, I run a mile in under nine minutes. Talk about a hook! I’m in. Instantly. There’s no set up, no tip-toeing gently into the shallow end of the story. This opener is a cannon ball from the rooftop. And the best part is, the rest of the story lives up to the splash. Part of us thinks it's the most absurd thing we’ve read in a while, yet part of us believes this could actually be real. Part of us wonders what it would be like to have a celebrity follower ourselves, yet part of us thinks there can be nothing worse than this nightmare. Such a fun ride. Check out what author Abbie Barker says about how it is we even got here:

1) I'm always curious about where stories come from, that first tiny seed. What was the inspiration or idea-spark for “The Brad Pitt Method”?

My stories seem to develop one of two ways: from a workshop prompt or from a first line that pops into my head, inspired by something I see, read, or overhear. “The Brad Pitt Method” began with a first line, sparked by a Brad Pitt bot that followed me on Twitter one day. The Twitter handle was something like @PittMan06592, and the profile pic was an old stock photo of Brad with long hair and a white flowing shirt, probably something taken around the time of Legends of the Fall or Interview with a Vampire. Fake celebrities accounts are everywhere (almost everyone I know has been followed by “Keanu Reeves”) but this was the first time it happened to me, and the phrase, “The day Brad Pitt followed me,” starting bouncing around in my head and wouldn’t let go. Often, when I have an idea for a first line, I jot it down in my notebook and let it sit. This allows my subconscious to play around with it before I open a fresh Word Doc.

In those weeks that I let the idea sit, I also happened to read a recent New York Times article about the prevalence of languishing in the time of COVID. When Hobart After Dark announced a longer submission window in advance, I used this as the push I needed to draft the full story. I can be a slow drafter, and even slower reviser, but this story came out fast and nearly intact. When the idea first came to me, I was thinking of Brad in terms of a social media follower, not a literal follower, and how it might be interesting to explore the idea of a protagonist believing a real celebrity was following her on Twitter and how this might lead to a boost in the protagonist’s productivity. However, before I sat down to write, the premise had already morphed, and once I decided a live “celebrity” was following the narrator, “The Brad Pitt Method” almost wrote itself. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun drafting a story, nor have I turned around and submitted something so soon after writing it, but that’s part of the thrill of the HAD submission windows.

As a creative writing instructor, I can’t generally recommend writing something in two days and sending it out; however, there is something to be said for occasionally putting that kind of pressure on yourself. Every writer I know is an overthinker, and I believe it’s useful to find ways to free ourselves from our own nit-picking. Constraints, deadlines, and tight spaces have a way of leading to strange and surprising results.

2) This story perfectly and brilliantly exemplifies the idea that often the most effective way to convey something serious/personal (e.g. depression, languishing) is through distraction/humor (e.g. an imitation Brad Pitt sitting in the back of your Camry on the way to Goodwill). How conscious were you of this dynamic when you’re writing a piece like this? And why do you think this approach is often more impactful than talking about the thing in a more direct way?

Thank you! I’m not sure I’m always very conscious of what I’m doing as I write. Naturally, I seem to aim for that line between sad/serious and wry/humorous. Janelle Bassett is a writer who always walks that line really well. I feel like I write toward that line, but end up on different sides of it with each story I write. “The Brad Pitt Method” ventured the farthest onto the humorous side for me. Mental illness and depression (in its various forms) are topics that are close to me, and they are topics that impact so many of us, whether personally, or those we love. These topics come up in my writing a lot, as I way to understand depression, or pose questions, or simply observe its prevalence. I am not always the most direct person, so coming at subjects subtly or more sarcastically is how I approach life (which isn’t generally the most effective way to communicate), but fortunately it works well in writing. This indirectness adds layers and gives the reader a chance to consider what’s been left off the page and what’s hidden behind the distraction. Or others might read a story like this and simply appreciate the distraction. I think I had a strong response to this story because it appeals to a wide range of readers for different reasons.

3) I love the moment when we learn it’s not even the real Brad Pitt, and for so many reasons – 1) it’s hilarious, 2) it makes the whole thing even more sad, and 3) also makes it all almost believable (because really, who would believe the real Brad would do this?) And while I’m not a big believer in huge twists or punchline endings in flash, I do think there needs to be a shift, for the status quo to get knocked off course a bit. And this is the moment here that does just that. Can you talk about that decision (did you know all along it wouldn’t be him? How do you think it changes the piece? Etc.)

From the first scene I was imagining the Fight Club version of Brad Pitt because I liked the idea of the narrator expecting a “safe bet” and ending up with a version of Brad Pitt that made her, and by extension the reader, uneasy. (A 12 Monkeys Brad Pitt might have worked as well). So, early on, I was already thinking in terms of “versions” and while I do sometimes try to venture into the uncanny, my natural mode is realism. I couldn’t picture the Real Brad Pitt showing up at someone’s house as one of his prior movie characters. Additionally, if celebrity following was an actual business, I started thinking about how a company could keep up with demand when the “method” did gain momentum.

I did question when I should reveal the fact that this wasn’t the Real Brad Pitt, and I initially considered revealing this information earlier in the story. The line “Of course, Real Brad Pitt isn’t following me today, but a scrawny imitation who’s watched Fight Club an above-average number of times,” came to me as I was writing the first scene, but I kept moving it down the page.

I try not to conceal something from the reader for the sake of concealing it. However, holding off on sharing this information until the middle of the story felt authentic to the narrator. I can’t imagine that she’d be particularly forthright with her disappointment. I felt this twist worked well for the tone and the humor. The first couple of scenes would feel less absurd if the reader knew right away that this was a fake Brad. If I waited to reveal this fact until the end, then the reader could feel tricked. Creating this shift in the middle seemed to work well with the movement of the story, and I love when a shift in fiction is both surprising and natural. I’m hoping that’s the effect it has.

4) If you had to have one celebrity (not named Brad) follow you for a day, who would it be and why?

This is a tough question for me because I’m such an introvert, and the idea of anyone following me around for an entire day sounds awful. But if I had to, I’d choose someone who I imagine would make it fun, like Jimmy Fallon or maybe Kristen Wigg, and I’d take her to Target. Or (and this feels like cheating) I’d choose Joanna Gaines and select the “kitchen renovation” option.

5) What are you working on now, and where can we see more of your writing?

I’ve been fully immersed in writing flash fiction since late 2019 when I wrote my first story under 1,000 words and started devouring the SmokeLong Quarterly archives. I’m now at the point where I’m working on compiling a chapbook of flash stories that connect thematically. “The Brad Pitt Method” is different than most of my stories in tone, so I’m not sure it will make it into this collection, but I do hope it will make it into a future collection. I would love to embrace the more humorous and absurd side of my imagination. The problem is, humor can’t be forced, and a premise like this feels like a gift. All I can do is pay attention.

I’ve tried to maintain something of an intermittent Twitter presence, so that’s where I direct people to see my work, @AbbieMBarker. There’s a link to my current website there. I don’t advertise my website separately because I plan to change my domain name soon. Some of my favorite stories have appeared in Cease, Cows, Monkeybicyle, and Atticus Review. I also have stories coming out in Lost Balloon and Barren Magazine this month.

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