Conversation: Lou Beach’s ’420 Characters’

BY Jeffrey Brown  June 8, 2012 at 2:15 PM EST

They began as status updates on Facebook, but Lou Beach came to see something more in the short pieces he was writing — a new form of short story, in fact. And it’s an interesting and compelling approach, indeed, in an age when books, blogs, tweets and more all coexist and tell stories in different ways. Beach’s book is titled, simply, “420 Characters.”

We talked earlier this week:

A transcript is after the jump. You can read Beach’s stories and see some of his art on his website.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat once again. I’m Jeffrey Brown. They began as status updates on Facebook, but Lou Beach came to see something more in the short pieces he was writing — a new form of short story in fact. And in an age where the book, the blog, the tweet and so much more coexist as story telling devices, it’s quite a compelling idea, indeed. The book that he’s out with now is called “420 Characters.” Lou Beach joins us from Los Angeles, and welcome to you.

LOU BEACH: Good morning, Jeffrey how are you?

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m good. So, “420 Characters,” this was the old, I guess, set by Facebook for updates. Tell us how this started for you.

LOU BEACH: I joined Facebook at the end of 2007, and by March of 2008, I was — no, it was 2009 actually — I became restless and bored with this sort everyday posts of you know, who I had coffee with or whatever, so I the first thing that wrote was: ‘While shaving this morning I noticed a small metal valve just under my jaw near the ear. I hear a faint hissing.’ That was the first fictional post that I posted, and subsequent ones I decided to fill in that 420 limitation, and it just snowballed from there. And people started noticing and liking it and I made it an exercise in fiction writing every morning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you think of them as actual short stories or thoughts, or how did that evolve from the one description, fiction or not, into something that feels like a short story?

LOU BEACH: I’d always entertained notions of being a writer, but I gravitated toward the visual arts. They just seemed to be easier for me frankly. But I started writing the posts as an exercise in writing to see if I could actually fulfill that dream in a very limited way. Because of the editing involved of taking out all the unnecessary stuff to fit into that constraint, you have to experience it at the end, that you’ve actually traveled from word one to word or character 420 and that you’ve gone somewhere. It was as much a surprise to me as it was to a lot of other people that it took off and that these things were actually stories and not just fragments.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you used the word dream, the dream of writing. I mean, some of these have a sort of almost dream like quality, or bits of overheard conversation. How do they come about?

LOU BEACH: The dream state is one that I employ and it’s something that I’ve practiced for years in my visual art. There’s a time in the morning just before I wake where I’m aware that I’m sleeping and somehow I’m able to roam around in that space and find characters and themes or perhaps something is left over there from the day before, a bit of a conversation or something that I’ve seen on the street, and it just grows like a mold. A mold in my mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you want to read one of them for us?

LOU BEACH: Sure. She trusted grins, they were shot directly from the heart. Whereas smiles, oh smiles could trick, be untrue, do you harm. Mendacious, twisted with bad intentions, like her father’s, his mouth turned up at one corner like a beckoning finger, pulling his eyes down into a squint.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s interesting, because you’re writing so short, so small in a way, but when you put it in the book form, you’ve got this multitude of characters and situations so it becomes something perhaps bigger in a way. Write short, think big almost?

LOU BEACH: Less is more. I don’t do them very much anymore. It was a real exercise. I’m writing longer pieces and putting together a book of pieces that are a page or two long.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what’s the difference for you in the writing, the 420 or less characters and writing longer pieces?

LOU BEACH: Well, it’s like moving out of a one-room apartment into a ranch house, you know, just more room to move around, there’s more ways to decorate, more wall space.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you finally, I mentioned in the introduction, you know, this age that we are in — books, blogs, tweets etc. — people worry about short attention spans, people worry about the survival of longer form narrative stories. What does your experience tell you?

LOU BEACH: I don’t know. I keep buying books all the time and I have friends who keep purchasing books as well. I have a Kindle and I have an iPad and I read on both of those, but I enjoy the physicality of the book, and it may be because I’m an artist and I enjoy the cover and the typeface and just the tactileness of it. I think they just have to coexist. I hope that books themselves aren’t relegated to something like blacksmiths.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well these stories come in the form of 420 characters or less, and that’s the name of the book: “420 Characters.” Lou Beach, thanks for talking to us.

LOU BEACH: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.