Corey Mertes’ Self-Defense challenges readers to empathize with everyone, even the most unlikable characters

Self Defense is Corey Mertes’ first published book. // Courtesy of Corey Mertes

Kansas Citian Corey Mertes’ first book Self-Defense is an exploration of human behavior and gives us a glimpse of Mertes’ eclectic past. Live the life of 12 struggling, down-on-their-luck individuals that are fighting for control through Mertes’ collection of short stories.

Although this is his first published work, he has been writing and submitting his stories to journals for years. Self-Defense is the first serious step he has taken to make his “radical” dream to be a writer come true.

Each chapter of his book has a unique cast and premise, but they are connected through a dark theme–everyone has inner demons to battle. Even though each story averages only 10 pages, Mertes manages to paint a complete picture of a person’s life.

Mertes worked as a dance instructor, a casino dealer, and an attorney before sitting down to write Self-Defense. His unique background bled through the pages and inspired a few of the characters and plots.

“Especially in the stories that involve gamblers, they are generally based on people that I know, although fictionalized,” Mertes says.

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Cover of Self-Defense by Corey Mertes. // Courtesy of Corey Mertes

The main character in the chapter Lurch drew from some of Mertes’ vivid memories of working as a craps dealer. The man Mertes knew in a past life was a bit of a “bully” in the casino.

“He stuck me with the nickname ‘Horshack,’” Mertes recalls. “It’s a character from a sitcom years ago called Welcome Back, Kotter. It’s not a flattering name to be called.”

In the story, Lurch focuses on a man who is also an antagonist at his casino. The first time he walked through the casino doors, everyone called him Ted, but after years of betting, losing, and acting up, Lurch is all that’s left. This chapter is an example of Mertes’ efforts not to exploit the pitfalls of struggling people but to attempt to understand them. He expands a single memory into a story that helps readers empathize with generally unkind characters.

None of the people in the stories are particularly likable, but they are relatable. The situations may look different, but I saw myself in multiple characters and couldn’t help but root for most of them.

“Many of the characters in the book are down and out, struggling; some of them have a mental illness or are on the verge of mental illness,” Mertes says.

One of the stories that stayed with me is titled Shih Tzu and tells the story of a man trying to keep his dog from plotting an escape. This one has remained fresh in my mind because the author allowed me to dislike the main character. He didn’t try to redeem himself, and this isn’t something I find in many books.

As Shih Tzu unfolds, the reader is led through a series of obsessive observations the man makes, convincing himself that the dog is planning to bolt. Sprinkled throughout the chapter are hints that the man is drowning in an unhappy relationship, but rather than make this the main point of his story, Mertes simply tells a story of a man and his dog.

Mertes also has a relaxed way of writing that sets a tone for the book. He writes as if these are stories that he would tell at a dinner party—without the fluff. Although the end product flows well, it took many years of writing and rewriting to produce the 12 stories included in the book. The oldest stories in Self-Defense were written in 2014, and the newest one was completed six years later. 

“Most of the good stuff comes out of rewriting, which is a long process and my favorite process because every day when you face a rewrite, you’re improving the work,” Mertes says.

He knew he wanted these short stories to be bound into a single work eventually, but he spent a lot of time searching for the theme to connect them all. Overall, he wanted to include the works that meant the most to him.

“I picked stories that really stand the test of time with me,” Mertes says. “The story Rabbit and the story Flood Plain still, after many years, strike me as powerful and meaningful.”

He started sending versions of this book to publishers in 2015—five years before it was accepted. Some of the chapters included weren’t even written when he was sending the first drafts of the book.

Mertes faced a lot of rejection, but he never let this change his goal. He would just sit back down, rework the weak stories, and send it to more publishers until he got the email from Cornerstone Press that they wanted to work with him.

The book took several forms over five years and was rejected many times by publishers,” Mertes says. “Until I arrived at a set of stories that are all strong and have an underlying thematic tone that makes the book feel consistent.”

When asked what it felt like to have his book accepted finally, he took a moment before responding.

“After years of sending this thing out in its various forms, it kind of validated what I was doing,” Mertes says. “I was hoping that I could just write for a living, but I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to. But when the book got accepted, that told me that maybe I could get away with this lucky thing. Maybe it can actually be done.”

For lovers of short stories, love, tragedy, paranoia, and self-realization, Self-Defense checks all the boxes. Woven with memories of Mertes’ many career paths, this book will take you into the lives of struggling people to show that everyone has inner demons to battle.

Self-Defense is available for purchase now, and although Mertes just wrapped up this book, he is already planning his next project. He teased that the work he is building is taking him out of his short story comfort zone and into novel territory.

Categories: Culture