Timothy Willis Sanders tweets stuff like, “The man who coined ‘I’m the shit’ is probably dead.” That kind of funny, flat-lined but real-talk minimalism is all over his writing, carefully remarking on a world where Google Reader and Target are just as regular relations as other people. This week marks the rerelease of Orange Juice, his debut collection of fiction, which sold out in its original print run in 2010 and is newly available from Publishing Genius for five bucks.
I don’t know how many people could pull off writing stories about R. Kelly and a guy cleaning up cat shit in the same book, but I do know that no one could do it with a more definitive style and poise than Timothy Sanders.
VICE: The style of the stories in Orange Juice are super minimal and slick; was that tone a thing you had in mind when you set out, or did it just turn out that way?
Timothy Willis Sanders: I wanted that tone. The minimal approach allowed me to a.) gain emotional distance from my subject, b.) sort of 'democratize' the text so it was accessible to anyone, and c.) let the reader's imagination fill in the gaps.
"You Have A Crush on Kellz" takes R. Kelly as its protagonist. I remember seeing that the first time and being like, “Damn, Tim is really going for it.”
I enjoyed writing that story. It was just funny to think about R. Kelly in the context of unrequited love.
In general you aren't afraid to use products/brands in your stories, and not in the Bret Easton Ellis way where its kind of used against itself. Do you have thoughts on the old trope that doing that in fiction dates it?
Just thought, "If you mention an umbrella twice in your story, and the next day something better is invented, or it never rains again, and humans universally quit umbrellas, do you cut the umbrella references to avoid dating your work?"
I just try to set down a certain reality, and perceive brands as an inextricable part of that reality.
I feel confused when writers try to make up new names for Taco Bell. The brand name can convey so much information. I think we can come to some conclusions about a character by whether she goes to Walmart or Target to buy black drawing salve.
I really like how you use food throughout the book. It kind of feels like an emotional backdrop, maybe even more than settings or other traditional elements of storytelling. Were you aware you were doing that? What did you eat today?
I didn't do that intentionally, but I’m constantly thinking about what I put into my body (re: obesity, diabetes, cancer, stroke, heart disease). Just like brand names, I think food can convey things. “Tuna casserole” and “Burrito Supreme” have different connotations.
Today I ate toast, avocado, sushi, steamed broccoli, a pear, and vegetable pad thai.
You just finished a novel you've been working on for a while. What's up with that?
It's a short, relationship-driven novel that takes place in 2004. It’s written in a similar style and titled Nokia 5160. I enjoyed writing the novel. I didn’t enjoy living life while writing the novel.
The book became a thing I wanted to be next to or interacting with constantly, so I never left my house. When I wasn't working, I experienced what Google told me was “suicidal ideation,” so… yeah, I just want to write short things and live life for now. I’m cool with just that.
"You Have a Crush on Kellz"
By Timothy Willis Sanders
R Kelly did the Tootsee Roll. Adina Howard watched R Kelly. R Kelly dipped and looked at Adina Howard. Adina Howard walked to R Kelly.
“I like watching you Tootsee Roll,” said Adina Howard, “Take me to that Kevin Bacon movie.” She handed R Kelly a folded napkin.
Later, R Kelly got on the highway with Michael Bivins. R Kelly unfolded the napkin on the steering wheel.
“Digits. Kevin Bacon movie,” said R Kelly.
“Big ass chi-chis. Go for it,” said Michael Bivins.
“Hate Kevin Bacon though,” said R Kelly. “Don’t know…she was with DMX. I think he’s in jail.”
“I don’t know. Maybe you have to watch out for girls who make those kinds of choices.”
“No. Why is he in jail?”
“They found a gun in his car or something.”
“When does he get out?” said Michael Bivins.
“I don’t know. I don’t really know him,” said R Kelly.
“Probably be a while,” said Michael Bivins, “Big ass chi-chis.” Michael Bivins spread his hands over his chest. R Kelly laughed. They exited the highway.
R Kelly sat in the box office. He saw the Mall Security Guard. R Kelly flagged down the Mall Security Guard. The Mall Security Guard waddled over. R Kelly thought, “You’re like 800 pounds. Your face…” He looked at the things on the Mall Security Guard’s face.
“How long does someone go to jail for if he’s caught with a gun?” said R Kelly.
“Depends if the gun was stolen, or used in a murder,” said the Mall Security Guard. R Kelly looked away. He thought, “Giant chi-chis.”
Aaliyah walked to the box office. R Kelly met her at the glass.
“Two for Titanic, 7:30 show,” said Aaliyah.
R Kelly looked at Aaliyah’s body. Aaliyah wore slacks and a low cut top. He looked at her Banana Republic name tag.
“7:30. Are you bringing your boyfriend?” said R Kelly.
“No. My girlfriend Missy. I like boats. She has a crush on Leonardo.”
“And you have a crush on Kells.” R Kelly smiled and pointed to his name-tag. The name-tag read KELLZ.
“No,” said Aaliyah. She took her tickets and walked away. R Kelly watched her walk away.
R Kelly swept behind the popcorn machine. Teddy Riley stacked popcorn buckets.
“I like Aaliyah,” said R Kelly. “She works at Banana Republic, dresses nice, watches movies like Titanic…not the Kevin Bacon shit I’m seeing Friday night.”
Teddy Riley sighed a little. He walked to the store room without looking at R Kelly.
“And she likes boats,” said R Kelly.
“Boats?” said Teddy Riley from the store room.
“Wrong movie to see if she likes boats.”
“Yeah. Who says that though? I like boats.”
“Didn’t she go out with Keith Sweat?”
Teddy Riley walked out of the store room. He had five bags of Twizzlers. He said, “I don’t know…” in a low voice. R Kelly swept some popcorn kernels into a pile. He swept the pile into a dustpan.
R Kelly picked Adina Howard up at 8:30. She wore a pink top and tall black heels. Children stood at the movie theater entrance. They looked at Adina Howard’s chest and laughed. R Kelly thought, “Giant chi-chis.”
R Kelly looked at Kevin Bacon. He thought, “Jesus. I hate Kevin Bacon.” Adina Howard put her tongue into R Kelly’s mouth. He put his hand on Adina Howard’s breast. He thought, “Feels empty.” Adina Howard pushed her tongue further into R Kelly’s mouth. He thought, “I am going to choke. I am going to die during a Kevin Bacon movie.”
R Kelly got in the car. He rubbed his jaw. His jaw was sore from kissing Adina Howard. He parked near Adina Howard’s apartment. Adina Howard looked at R Kelly. She looked at the ignition.
“Do you want to come in?” said Adina Howard.
“No,” said R Kelly. He thought, “Aaliyah.”
“Not even for a little bit?” said Adina Howard.
R Kelly drove home. He thought, “ Banana Republic.” He will talk to Keith Sweat tomorrow. “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel came on the radio. R Kelly turned the volume knob. He rubbed his jaw.
R Kelly saw Keith Sweat outside Foot Locker. Keith Sweat was holding a job application.
“15% discount, if I get it,” said Keith Sweat.
“Tight,” said R Kelly.
Keith Sweat and R Kelly slapped hands. They walked to the food court. R Kelly looked at the Starter logo on Keith Sweat’s Green Bay pullover. He thought, “Tight.” They got eight-piece nugget meals from Chick-fil-A. Keith Sweat got Polynesian sauce. R Kelly got Honey Mustard.
“What’s up with Aaliyah?” said R Kelly.
“She’s cool. I don’t know.”
“Don’t know what?”
“She’s alright. I kissed her once in the Hallmark Store.”
Keith Sweat looked around. R Kelly put a waffle fry in his mouth. He thought, “They just kissed. That’s all.” Keith Sweat took out the job application.
“You got a pen?”
“No,” said R Kelly, “good luck.”
R Kelly made a peace sign. Keith Sweat nodded. R Kelly threw away his Chick-fil-A bag.
R Kelly sat in the box office. He watched Aaliyah walk by. She looked at him. R Kelly smiled. She kept walking. R Kelly pulled out a spiral notebook. The spiral notebook had “Lyfe Journal” drawn on the cover in graffiti letters. He thought, “Aaliyah.”
He wrote two lines:
You remind me of my jeep
I want to ride it
R Kelly thought, “A jeep is a good metaphor for Aaliyah. I should write this on a card from the Hallmark Store and send it to Banana Republic.”
R Kelly imagined Aaliyah reading the card. He imagined being on a boat with Aaliyah. The phone rang.
“Heritage Plaza 3, this is Kells,” said R Kelly. He looked at the two lines.
"It’s dark and hell is hot."
"You will be motherfucker."
R Kelly hung up. He looked at the phone lines. Line 1 was red. R Kelly pressed Line 1.
Line 1 went clear. Line 2 blinked red. The phone rang.
"Heritage Park 3, this is Teddy," said R Kelly.
"Do you know the latest time Titanic is playing," said a lady.
R Kelly told the lady 9:30. He hung up. Line 1 and Line 2 were clear. He heard the theater doors open. People walked into the lobby. R Kelly closed his spiral notebook. He went into the theater. He swept popcorn into the dustpan. He picked up an empty box of Milk Duds. He swept a Hot Tamale into the dustpan.
“Kells!” said Teddy Riley.
R Kelly jumped. He saw Teddy Riley at the door.
“Someone wants to talk to you,” said Teddy Riley.
R Kelly looked out the theater doors. R Kelly saw a man standing in the lobby. The man had on a tank top, jeans, Timberland boots. The man looked at R Kelly. R Kelly nodded at the man. The man walked to R Kelly.
“You R Kelly?” said the man.
“Yeah,” said R Kelly.
“I’m the brother you just got off the phone with.”
R Kelly looked away.
“I didn’t know you was so young. I should’ve known since you workin’ at a motherfuckin’ movie theater in the motherfuckin’ mall,” said DMX. “No wonder Dina said nothing happened…how old are you?”
R Kelly looked away.
“Shit, I came ready to stomp some ass. But nothing happened. Right?”
DMX looked at R Kelly. R Kelly shook his head.
“Right. Cause I’d stomp your ass.”
DMX walked out of the lobby. R Kelly exhaled. Aaliyah walked by the box office. DMX waved at Aaliyah. They talked. R Kelly watched DMX talk to Aaliyah. Aaliyah laughed and threw back her hair.
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