by John Madera
Brian Evenson’s fiction is peopled by estranged ciphers, paranoiac wanderers, hyper self-aware talking heads, broken but not beaten skeptics, philosophizing cutthroats, and no small number of maimed and dismembered. Over the course of ten books, most recently the story collection Fugue State (Coffee House Press) and a limited-edition novella, Baby Leg (New York Tyrant Books), Evenson has proven that he’s as much a provocative storyteller as he is a masterful syntactical stylist; his sentence-driven narratives circumvent conventional story expectations and trespass genre boundaries while simultaneously navigating ontological and epistemological quandaries.
No stranger to awards, Evenson was a finalist for both the prestigious Edgar Award and an International Horror Guild Award for his novel The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press, 2006); his story collection The Wavering Knife (FC2, 2004) won the IHG Award, and he has received an O. Henry Prize and an NEA fellowship. Other recent books include Last Days (Underland Press, 2009), and Aliens: No Exit (Dark Horse Books, 2008); his co-translation (with Joanna Howard) of Marcel Cohen’s Walls has just appeared from Black Square Editions. He lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island, where he directs Brown University’s Literary Arts Program.
John Madera: The first time I read Fugue State, I was riding on a late night bus to New York City. And once again I learned that it’s unwise to read terrifying stories when all the lights are out save two tiny bulbs above your head. One scary moment hit me while I was reading “Wander.” I had zoned out from fatigue and came to the point where the harried company are in the hall and see “a hole brimmed with water, and through that hole came a bluish light and heat, and looking closer one could see the shape of a blinking eye.” At that moment, I felt—in a kind of faint echo of that episode of The Twilight Zone, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”—that if I turned to look outside my window, I would have seen that eye staring at me. This all brings me to my first question: why do you write scary stories?
Brian Evenson: The story you tell reminds me of a semester when I was in college when I was taking seven classes (all of them English courses) and working the night shift at a 24-hour taco place. Six of the seven classes met in the same room, so I’d just sit at the same desk as the classes flowed in and out around me. I was getting more sleep on the two days of the weekend than I was getting during the whole rest of the week and began genuinely to feel like (a) I was going crazy (which I probably was), and (b) the entire world was a hallucination. There were times, sitting in that classroom, when I felt like the desk itself was opening in front of me like a hole that I was about to fall into. Weirdly enough, all that didn’t scare me (though it’s probably good that my girlfriend at the time talked me into dropping the job). Instead, it fascinated me, and caused me to revise notions I had had about consciousness, about what it was and what it could do, and about what it had to do with me. On one level, many of my stories are attempts to investigate a consciousness that has undergone stress or trauma or collapse, because I really think that consciousness reveals things about itself in that state that it doesn’t when the armor is up and it’s protected. As a reader, I like stories that change me, that open me up in ways that I don’t expect, that worm their way through my armor and keep on working virally on me long after the story is over. I’m trying to reproduce that effect in my own fiction.
JM: Sometimes, when I reflect on how destructive our militarist, consumerist, sexist society is to most of the world, and how diminished the possibility there is for any kind of substantial change, especially when the post-industrial world may be likened to an elevator where, if one person lights up and smokes there, everyone leaves it smelling like an ashtray, I almost yearn for some kind of giant reset button, some terrible cataclysm, where almost everything is wiped away—a clean slate, a new beginning. It’s one reason why I enjoy post-apocalyptic novels, from A Canticle for Leibowitz to Dhalgren to The Road, and why I will watch any film with this theme no matter how schlocky, from Planet of the Apes to I Am Legend. This is most likely a residue of my evangelical upbringing, which was filled with stories of plagues, floods, and the like. What post-apocalyptic fiction teaches us, among other things, is that the idea that paradise ensues after the fallout is a fallacy on many levels. In Fugue State the post-apocalyptic theme serves as a backdrop for several of your stories, sometimes explicitly (“An Accounting,” “Wander,” “The Adjudicator”) and sometimes hinted at (“Desire with Digressions” and “Fugue State”). So what is it that attracts you to writing this kind of story? What stories, novels, and films in this genre have affected you deeply?
BE: It probably has something to do with my own religious background as well (Mormonism), and the way that’s become oddly fused with/complicated by an intense philosophical nihilism. I think there’s a constant struggle in me between a kind of relentless optimism and an exhilaratingly bleak worldview; in life I tend to default to the former, and in my work to the latter, and that somehow creates a very workable, albeit potentially schizophrenic, balance. But I think also it’s because my formative years in the late ’70s were a heyday for post-apocalyptic movies. There was a sense in general then, at least among my peers, that the world was ending, that the ecosystem was collapsing, that things were likely to break down completely. Then people were distracted by things like the introduction of the kiwi fruit and the frozen bagel and swoopy hair, and we stopped being people and started being consumers, and through the ’80s and a good part of the ’90s we seemed just to forget about these fears, to repress them. But those fears have started to surge back up again with a vengeance both in popular and literary culture. I think they were always present for me and have always been at the heart of my work.
Two movies that I watched when I was eleven (in 1977) have always stuck with me, though I’d guess if I went back and watched them again I’d probably think they were awful. One was Day of the Animals and the other was Damnation Alley. Around the same time I was playing Gamma World and watching the gas lines (the latter was a little earlier, when I was seven or eight, but it made a huge impression on me). Philip K. Dick was a big influence on me in terms of post-apocalyptic work as well, as were a lot of other SF writers, and I think that Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast did a lot to cement a certain worldview for me. Also David Ohle’s Motorman. More recently, I was impressed by The Road, which initially I wasn’t sure about but which worked on me for months after I finished it. But I’ve watched and read a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff over the years. Each of the stories you mention above tries to take on post-apocalyptic themes in a different way, playing with different genres and subgenres.
JM: Many of your protagonists are either trying to break down blocks in their consciousness, or they are struggling to maintain their identity, their sense of self, in the face of its fragmentation. These are psychological portraits without feeling like case studies. How do these kinds of stories evolve for you? When I read that Sindt had failed in his critical examination of Roger Craven’s work, its “concern with dislocation and possession, its insistence on postulating all human relations as a form of torture,” I thought it might have been a winking self-deprecatory jab, as it might also serve as an apt description of many of your stories in Fugue State. There are sisters’ fragmentary relationships with their parents in “Younger” and “Girls in Tents.” The narrator in “The Third Factor” finds himself “alone and adrift.” In “A Pursuit,” the paranoid, perhaps delusional, narrator admits that his own psychology is “a decidedly murky affair.” How much psychology have you studied? And where do your interests and allegiances lie? What schools of thought do you privilege over others, if any?
BE: I think my stories tend to evolve eccentrically; I never know exactly where they’re going to take me until I’m almost done with them—if I figure that out too quickly, I don’t end up finishing them. I’m very interested in the way that consciousness structures itself and also interested in the way that we, as consciousnesses (if that’s what we are), interact with the world, about what it feels like to be embodied in a particular situation. I never took a psychology class in college but have read a lot of psychiatrists and philosophers who deal with similar issues: Freud, Jung, Klein, Kristeva, Bachelard, Foucault, Ferenczi, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Deleuze and Guattari, etc. I’m also very skeptical of a lot of generally accepted notions about the structure of the mind—I’m not convinced, for instance, that there is such a thing as a subconscious, at least not in the way that Freud and others discuss it. That model leaves a lot to be desired. I find Deleuze and Guattari provocative and feel they move in a more productive direction, particularly in A Thousand Plateaus. More recently I’ve been reading Thomas Metzinger, and find his models very compelling.
JM: What is the short story form for you? Do you find yourself working on them as separate entities in between novels? Do you begin stories without regard for what they are going to be until you’ve made a lot of progress within them—that is, is there a certain point when you realize, “This has the makings of a short story,” and then take it from there to completion? Or do you begin with the idea of a form?
BE: I’m always working on three or four things at once and usually have a few stories I’m working on as I’m trying to write a longer piece—a novel or novella. Some of them never get finished, and some get finished and then put into a drawer to be revised later and some actually work. I’ve got pages of notes of ideas for stories that I’ll probably never get around to writing, and which say things like “man looking for his brother so as to prove that he's not him.” I once knew what I intended by that but no longer know. With most of these notes I no longer have any idea what I was actually thinking when I wrote them.
Sometimes a story will start from those notes or from a fleeting thought or in response to something I’m reading or listening to. Other times, I’ll simply sit down to a blank page and try a few starts at random until something clicks. Still other times, I’ll have a mood or a character name or something else in mind and I’ll try to tease something out of it. It’s a very random and organic process for me and never works in exactly the same way twice.
JM: One of the things that bothers me about anthologies of classic short stories is how unimaginative the choices are. As much as I love Cheever’s “The Swimmer” and O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” if I see them included in an anthology or labored over again in some book, I think I’m going to yelp. If you were asked to compile an anthology of short stories, with an eye toward under-recognized greats, what would you include? And to make it fun, what story/stories would you choose as demonstrative examples for each of these respective subjects: image, voice, persona, point of view, character (as expressed in its myriad forms), setting (concrete, symbolic, mood), plot, journey, conflict, unity, fragmentation, backstory, flashback, exposition, rhythm, density, metaphor, satire, parody?
BE: I’m pretty resistant to the idea of teaching a story as demonstrating a particular element, because I think it’s only how all the elements of a given story come together that make it interesting, and all the parts of a story work rhizomatically to reinforce and transform one another. I talk about many of the elements you mention when I teach narrative theory, but when I do it’s usually with a number of short excerpts from dozens of different stories, as a way of preparing students to think of these elements function organically, complexly, and multi-tonally in a longer story.
Some of the stories I always come back to, when I’m teaching full stories and trying to get students to understand how all the different elements of a story are working together, include William Trevor’s “Miss Smith,” which I think does amazing things with shifting the reader’s sympathy; Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” which does something amazingly manic with doubling and which may be my favorite story ever; Isak Dinesen’s “The Roads Round Pisa” or “The Monkey,” both of which do things that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else do; Peter Straub’s “Bunny Is Good Bread” and “Lapland,” which do very important things in terms of questioning the relation of genre to literature; Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which manages to collapse as a story while still establishing an incredible resonance; D. H. Lawrence’s “The Prussian Officer,” because it works even though it does all sorts of things that contemporary writers have been taught a story shouldn’t do. I often teach Kafka’s “A Fratricide”—it’s far from his best story, but it’s very rich in the things it can teach a writer; I can talk about it for hours. I love, too, to teach Muriel Spark’s novellas, Ohle’s Motorman, Dambudzo Marechera, Barbara Comyns, Leonardo Sciascia, Ann Quin, Jean Echenoz, Éric Chevillard, certain Chekhov stories, Bruno Schulz, Heinrich Böll, Nabokov, Gary Lutz, Stanley Crawford, Kelly Link, etc., etc. There are a lot of writers I draw on and they’re different every semester, which is probably why I find it difficult to stick to an anthology. I end up teaching stories that I think are likely to be helpful or important to particular students.
JM: Would you talk about the relationship between genre and literature? Also, would you talk about when you first started teaching and how your style has evolved since then? Were there any pedagogical models that you found useful? What teachers have affected your approach?
BE: I think the clear and judgmental division between genre and literature is a 20th-century notion and is something that strikes me as very dubious. I think that different sorts of writing have always fed each other and that there’s always been a very active exchange that cuts across genre lines. That’s not to suggest there’s a free-for-all, only that the allegiances are much more complex than any categories would suggest. There are excellent books on both sides of whatever line you want to draw, and also awful books on either side of whatever line you want to draw. At a certain point I realized that my reading patterns were basically hopping across all sorts of divisions, that I was learning as much or more, say, from Dashiell Hammett or Jim Thompson or Mervyn Peake as I was from Raymond Carver or Flannery O’Connor.
I was never in an MFA program, so I kind of had to make things up as I went as a teacher. As an undergraduate, I worked closely with a Welsh poet named Leslie Norris who had a tremendous impact on the way I thought about writing and teaching writing. He had a real ability to approach any work in its own terms and also read voraciously, so had lots of models that he could draw on. Even though I was never in his New York class, Gordon Lish was also very useful to me in terms of getting me to think very closely and intensely about the dynamics of individual sentences. Pedagogically, I’ve always done workshops that are reading intensive, but in the last six or seven years I’ve moved away from a standard workshop and toward a model I now call the diminishing workshop, which involves an increasingly intense approach with increasingly fewer people.
JM: Would you reflect on your notions of space in your fiction, how it’s structured, divided, compromised, and trespassed in your stories? “Girls in Tents” strikes me an eloquent meditation on space, changing spaces. What is a window to you? A road? (There is that lovely mirroring in “Desire with Digressions” of the narrator walking “up the dirt road and then up the gravel road and then down the paved road,” and then later, when he returns, he walks “up the paved road, down the gravel road, down the dirt road.” What does a door mean to you? Some passages from “A Pursuit” come to mind:
Inside, the house was brightly lit, a generator slowly humming just behind a rear wall. Beside the sink was a bucket of silty water and into this I placed the flowers. The cone of paper I removed and smoothed flat, intending to use it to write a note, and this I would have done had I not noticed, just then, the line of blood trailing from the fireplace grate to the bedroom door. I approached it and prodded it with the tip of my shoe. It was mostly dry, but somehow that did not reassure me . . . .
I am by inclination a curious man but have learned through the years . . . to squelch this curiosity. Perhaps my first ex-wife was lying dying on the other side of the door, or perhaps she was already dead. Perhaps this was not her blood at all but the blood of another and she was there beside the cold corpse of the man (assuming it was a man) she had killed . . . . To find out, all I had to do was step across the room, perhaps four modest strides in all, and open the bedroom door.
But I could think of no scenario whereby I stood to gain anything by opening the door. I had read in my impressionable youth too many crime novels not to know that these things always go awry, that certain doors one should never open.
BE: Well, I’m very interested in movement through space and also in things that stop or interrupt that movement, the kinds of trajectories we take in certain real and metaphorical directions and the way those trajectories get deflected, reversed, or blocked. I’m very interested in space, partly because of an interest in Gaston Bachelard’s work. A lot of my stories are based around very simple movements—needing to get out of a house but not being able to, feeling both bound to a place and wanting to escape it, orbiting around a place or a thing. I don’t think I primarily see things like roads in Bakhtinian chronotopic terms, though with a story like “Desire with Digressions” you can make an argument for that. I’d also like to think that a window is a window and a door a door, but I think it’s a little disingenuous of me to claim that. I think for me a window is often also a mirror and a ghost, both in life and in fiction. More recently I’ve gotten interested in the fact that Old Norse for window is “vindauga” which means “wind eye”—that somehow complicates my sense of what a window can be. Sometimes a door is just a door, but the problem with a door is that it always opens up on something and until it’s open you don’t know for certain what lies behind it. I’d also argue that until it’s open you don’t understand the space you’re currently standing in with your hand on the doorknob. A door is basically a vertical hole and going through a door can be very much like falling through a hole. The door in both “Younger” and “A Pursuit” is also the point where, because it’s not opened, a trajectory is deflected. When that happens, the unknown presence behind the door festers and deforms, becomes the occasion for an imagined trauma that has actual rather than imaginary consequences.
JM: One of my favorite passages from Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space is his discussion of intimate spaces, how discovery of the “immensity in the intimate domain is intensity, an intensity of being, the intensity of a being evolving in a vast perspective of intimate immensity.” There is a kind of claustrophobic feeling to the spaces in “A Pursuit” and to the rooms in “Fugue State.” In “Desire with Digressions,” the narrator comes back to his house and finds it “still, the floors and furniture dim with dust.” In “Dread,” the narrator wants to “systematically dismantle” his house. Would you talk a bit about how/why your characters interact with their spaces in such intense ways? If you were to do a topographical study on the spaces you inhabit/have inhabited what would you concentrate on? What spaces have impacted you personally? What correspondences can be made between these spaces and your being?
BE: I like the notion of an intensity of being, but also think my work is fairly foreign to the idea of intimate immensity. As you suggest, much of my work is about enclosed spaces, confinement, limited spaces, in which immensity isn’t found, or if it is, it turns into a kind of madness. One of my earlier stories, “The Polygamy of Language,” has a character who is convinced that if he can just get his enclosed space right then a kind of immensity of understanding will crack open and reveal itself to him. But all his attempts to make this happen fail. The universe remains mute. The most intimate and potentially immense space in Fugue State is probably the tent in “Girls in Tents,” but even that can’t save the girl in the way she hopes it will. Or maybe it’s the armpit that functions as a cave in “Younger” and actually does accomplish something, even though that something is quickly swept away. I suppose that you could argue that the plastic bag around the head in “Life without Father” is my rebuttal to the Bachelardian space you reference—that intimate spaces are, for me, very much tied to annihilation.
When I was very young, my sister Kristen (who later changed her name) and I had a white toy box that had a small cubby in the bottom of it with a door and a lock. One of us could just barely fit into the cubby, our arms and legs and the rest of our body touching all sides of the space. We used to take turns having one of us lock the other in and then we’d go to the door of the room and yell things like “I’m leaving now! Bye!” It was at once terrifying and perversely fun. I often think about that toy box and what it felt like to be in there, which I suppose means, in very real terms, that part of me never came out. We also used to build tent cities, taking over the whole living room, and that imaginary, semi-claustrophobic, and somewhat magical space was very important to me. There are a lot of other spaces, both in childhood and well after.
JM: Many of your stories in Fugue State are concerned with looking, seeing, and blindness. There is the artist’s struggle in “Bauer in the Tyrol” to see and the difficulty he finds rendering what is there. In “Helpful,” the narrator goes blind after being struck by a wire and, besides dealing with this loss, attempts to make his wife see. Several of the characters bleed from their eyes in “Fugue State” and experience myriad visual and other types of disorientation. And in the same story there’s Arnaud, who in the end is caught in this vicious circle of “looking for something or someone.” In “Wander,” there is the man with no name and no father, whose eyes “had sizzled away in the sockets.” They’re looking at, for, or forward to something but they usually fail. Why?
BE: Human communication and connection are things that work relatively well on a coarse, unexamined level, but the more specific we get in terms of trying to get people to occupy our position, to see what it’s like for us, the more dubious things become. There’s a certain point that we just can’t go past, at least not methodically. I’d say the same about knowledge. On a day-to-day level we “know” things well enough to get by, to function, but at bottom it’s almost impossible to know anything with any sort of certainty. Art, both written and visual, is a remarkably imprecise process, and the act of artistic creation infinitely frustrating, but when it works it’s amazing.
Usually when you feel genuinely close to someone or when a work of art has an effect it’s because the rational has been short-circuited in a very positive and necessary way. The main character in “Helpful” is desperate to make his wife empathize with his situation; what he does rationally makes sense to him, but he hasn’t empathized with her situation so the results can only be disastrous. I don’t know, though, why blindness and impaired vision come up in a lot of my work. Probably it’s part of a larger interest in consciousness and the way perception affects it, but it probably also has to do with my own eye-related fears.
JM: What are some aspects of artistic creation that you have found “infinitely frustrating?” What are some ways that you circumvent its imprecision?
BE: Well, the thing that’s most frustrating is when I feel like I have all the components for a good story and the story itself just isn’t coming together. Or, even worse, it’s come together but it just isn’t as good as it could be and I can’t figure out why. So much of good fiction is intuition, so much builds up almost imperceptibly through very simple gestures of language and rhythm and repetition and arrangement and velocity, that a really excellent story manages to accomplish something without you knowing what it’s doing to you as it does it. There are a lot of writers who can do that at one iteration, that create that effect the first time you read them but not upon later readings. But there are only a few writers who manage to maintain that effect through multiple readings, who have stories or novels that remain numinous and subtle and resonant no matter how many times you read them. W. G. Sebald is like that for me, as are Nabokov and Dinesen and Beckett at their best. Stendhal is wonderful that way—the complexity of his style and the interaction of that style with his ideas is astounding. Bolaño is remarkable in being someone who holds up with multiple readings but writes in a remarkably unadorned style: that’s incredibly difficult, as you can see with someone like Raymond Carver. You can read most Carver stories once and then you see the mechanisms in them, the way they work as they’re developing. He’s a good writer, but except for a few stories he’s not a writer that stands up well to rereading.
All of that is to say, I guess, that what’s infinitely frustrating about writing is that you so rarely achieve so fully what you want to achieve, and when you do you don’t do so in a way that you can duplicate. I want to write stories that get inside readers’ heads and continue to work on them after the story is over, and I want them to be the kind of stories that, if you reread them, will get into your head and go to work again, maybe in a different way. But there’s always going to be a modicum of failure in every effort. You just have to accept that as part of the process and struggle against it—either that or learn to be satisfied with something you shouldn’t be satisfied with.
JM: “Bauer in the Tyrol” is the story of an artist on some sort of a retreat whose deteriorating skills mirror his wife’s slowly ebbing life. After several failed efforts to render a figure in plaster, and after considering modeling his wife’s dying face in plaster, he decides instead to draw, and here we’re offered one of your most startling passages:
In an instant, almost immediately, he had captured her profile, almost too easily somehow, yet when he looked at her again he saw it was not the same face and he drew it again, on top of the first profile. He kept drawing, adding to the profile the rest of her and the bed, and he kept drawing, the lines multiplying. He watched the head of his wife being transformed, the nose becoming sharper, the cheeks growing more and more gaunt, the open, almost immobile mouth seeming to breathe less and less. He kept drawing. He had never really seen his wife, he realized, and he realized further something that unsettled him, that he wasn’t seeing her now. But there was nothing for it but to keep drawing. Toward evening, he was seized by a sudden panic in the face of her oncoming death, and looking down at the paper he realized, through the haze of lines, that every image was being destroyed but in that destruction something was arising unlike anything he had ever seen. A bed, a harrow of lines, the many ghosts of his wife, and all of them somehow, in their erasures and obscurements, beginning to add up to his wife herself. He kept drawing, trying to bring her out. But she was dead; there was no longer anything to bring out. He hesitated, trying not to look at her, looking instead at his own solitary and solid hand, afraid to let go of his pencil, wondering what line he could possibly bear to draw next.
The way the sentences tumble along makes the underlying emotions much more powerful. I wonder if you would talk about your rhetorical strategies here, the voices and texts that may have informed it, and also in those stories I consider its cousins in terms of its tone and language, namely, “In the Greenhouse” and “Alfons Kuylers.” Reading these stories, the balmy and wonderfully suffocating prose of Joseph Conrad comes to mind.
BE: I think for a story to work well it has to have a certain texture, and that texture has to shift in a way that gives it a significant relation to the story itself. There are moments in my prose where, for lack of a better term, velocity increases, it becomes harder to catch one’s breath, sentences become more rapid and tumbling in a way that both reflects the character’s state of mind and hopefully gets under the reader’s skin. It happens in the stories you mention and happens in a somewhat different way in the last part of “Invisible Box” as well. In “Bauer,” there’s an allusion to Alberto Giacometti’s writings that’s embedded in the paragraph you quote, and it may be that which partially inspired the style of the whole. But yes, Joseph Conrad, who for me is one of the most brilliant stylists of the English language, is certainly there and is important to me, always will be important to me. Conrad must be a presence in “Alfons Kuylers” as well—hard for me to think about writing about the sea without thinking of Conrad—but that story is also partly a response to Raúl Ruiz. The lineage of “In the Greenhouse” is a little more difficult for me to sort out; I think it’s coming from a different place, more influenced by early Thomas Bernhard (Frost, etc.) and notions of observation found there, though that’s complicated by a number of other things, very few of them actually literary.
JM: Earlier you mentioned that you want stories to open you up in unexpected ways. And now you talk about how you want stories to get “under the reader’s skin.” It seems to me that in Giacometti’s drawings he was doing something similar. With a combination of erasure and an intricate meshing of lines he gets under the skin of the subject. His sculptures strike me as doing something very different. There he’s strictly reducing, subtracting as a way of finding what’s left. The kind of burrowing in Fugue State is mainly achieved with cumulative sentences. What is it about this kind of construction that you find so attractive?
BE: Yes, I love Giacometti’s drawings, love the way he overlaps lines and seems at once to be constructing an image and effacing it. The same with his paintings, but perhaps to an even more extreme degree, so that sometimes the faces are reduced to a blackened mass somewhere between life and death in what Reza Negarestani calls (in admittedly a different context) nigredo. I like the sculptures as well, particularly the early sculptures, but for me his drawings and paintings do something to the mind that the sculptures don’t. The late sculptures are bodies eaten away by remoteness, by distance; the drawings and paintings function and create a kind of figuration that verges on abstraction and in which the very thing that creates the image is what destroys it. Aesthetically I find that remarkably appealing, and I find the tension it creates very attractive.
JM: “Ninety over Ninety” stands out as a very different story in this collection and in relation to the rest of your work. What inspired this story? Are there any other stories in the works for you with this tone?
BE: I had the title before anything else, but had no idea what it meant. I also had a sense that the story would take place in the publishing world, but nothing else. Actually that’s not quite true about the title: the title that came to me first was “90 über 90,” which probably had something to do with the relationship of German companies to American publishing and which sometimes I still wish I would have used. I still don’t know where the dolls came from. Yes, it’s much more overtly satirical than my other work in the collection, more playful. It wasn’t inspired by anything that happened to me specifically, though I think there are certain echoes that you could probably trace back to actual people and actual events. No plans for other similar stories at the moment, though I suppose that could change.
JM: In a way, “Girls in Tents” feels like a look into the recent past of the two girls in the earlier story “Younger.” Here the father has left the mother and the girls cope with their shattered feelings and allegiances by making tents in their home, “a substitute house within the larger house,” where the two girls could be “alone but together, and nothing changing unless they wanted it to.” The girls feel that “when the father had left, it was as if he had taken part of the house with him.” It’s a theme you return to in another story here, “Helpful,” where the narrator, drifting away from his wife, reflects: “They were living in the same house, but for him it was no longer the same house anymore. It was as if they were living in two different houses that overlapped the same space, himself and his wife knocking slightly against each other as they passed through two different places.”
What’s the relationship between these two stories? Also, to what do you attribute your fascination with children’s perceptions of frightening events?
BE: They’re very connected, though one story is perceptually close to the younger child and other to the older. And both the stories are closely connected to an older story, “The Ex-Father,” which is a pretty direct response to some of Hans Bellmer’s photographs. I don’t see the pair of girls in each of those stories as exactly the same, but more as versions of one another, and each of the stories as trying to get to the heart of a certain kind of childhood trauma that we all experience intimations of when we’re children. I drew heavily on my own experience as an older child, but also on my fears as a divorced father and my desire to understand what my children must have been facing. In both “Younger” and “Girls in Tents” almost nothing happens, but it’s a nothing that will resonate for years and years for those girls. Those stories demanded of me a kind of merciless emotional honesty that I found almost unbearable. I originally planned to do more of them but just couldn’t.
Not long ago I came across the notes that led to “Younger”:
Kids uncomfortable in a house.
Kids left alone, not knowing if they should call their father, not wanting to offend him.
There is less of me but I understand myself better.
A directive from on-high, a breathing tube, letters.
Two girls in the house, told not to open the door for anyone, told also to go to school when the alarm rings. Alarm rings, but someone knocks on the door.
Don’t know what to do, progressively becoming more imaginative, increasing pressure. Pedersen kids.
Final piece—like an epilogue: “Years later, she would still call her sister, trying to understand what, exactly, had happened.”
They’re in that order, all on the same piece of paper. You can see in that too the split that led to “Girls in Tents,” and also see certain things abandoned or rearranged—the way for instance what I thought to be an epilogue immediately became the beginning of the piece, and the dropping of that “but I understand better.” I have no idea what the directive from on-high and the breathing tube were all about . . . The weirdest thing for me is “Pederson kids,” which suggests I had that William H. Gass story, which is very, very different, in mind.
Also found the notes that led to “An Accounting,” which were much more succinct and vague: “A devastated Midwest, a religious state.” They’re usually more like that.
JM: While “An Accounting” certainly doesn’t read as an allegorical tract, some kind of moral seems to be proposed. Actually, “proposed” isn’t the right word—it’s far more subtle than that. So how did the story evolve from that thought fragment above? Another thing that’s striking about the story is the narrator’s voice. How do you bring these disparate consciousnesses to life on the page, give flesh to them? How do your words become flesh?
BE: I think there’s something potentially moral proposed, but by a voice whose motives remain suspect, unclear. I think that that suspect quality is something that infuses both the voice of the narrator and the voice of the author implied behind the piece, whose motives may well be suspect in a different way, if that makes any sense. Hopefully the reader’s relationship to the piece itself is very complicated by the end, his or her allegiances unsettled.
I don’t remember exactly how the story developed. Very early on the narrator’s voice took on a quality that seemed archaic, at once biblical and 18th century, and that seemed essential to me. But the moment when it started to feel like a real story to me was when I named the dog Finger.
JM: I wonder how you negotiate your various roles and responsibilities and schedules with your life as a writer, and do they in any way determine the form or the approach you take with your creative projects.
BE: I think initially roles and responsibilities and schedules did determine shape, and I ended up writing a lot of short-shorts and sectioned pieces. But I eventually started to feel that was too binding, that it didn’t accommodate certain kinds of things I wanted to explore, so I’ve taught myself different strategies for approaching longer forms and keeping them going even if I’m facing a very fragmented week. I have little prompts to remind me of the direction I’m going next time I sit down, just a word or two in brackets, which I often ignore. I also write by hand and then will type what I’ve written in before continuing to write by hand the next day. I used to stop writing only once I’d completed a section or a discreet unit, but I’ve deliberately stopped doing that. I find that more interesting things seem to happen when I stop in the middle of a paragraph or even in the middle of a sentence, that it lets my mind continue to work in a way that stopping at the end of a complete unit doesn’t. I don’t think that would work for everyone, and I know it wouldn’t have worked for me when I was a younger writer—I needed control and discreet shape then to the same degree I need chaos and chance now.
JM: I noticed in your acknowledgments that you thanked Gary Lutz “for his meticulous reading of the manuscript.” Would you talk about Lutz’s fiction, and whether you think it’s influenced your work? And then would you talk about what role he played in the completion of Fugue State?
BE: Gary is a dear friend; we’ve known each other for a long time, since the mid-’90s. I’m a great admirer of his fiction; he does things with language that nobody else does, and I love the kind of wandering and deceptive ease that many of his stories have—they’re incredibly and wonderfully structured but the structure is organic and perfectly submerged at the same time the language is incredibly wrought. He’s one of the great contemporary writers. In terms of influence, I do think I’ve learned a great deal from his writing and from the dynamics of his sentences, but we end up applying things very differently, so I don’t know how visible that would be. For Fugue State, he read the manuscript through several times and caught some errors and other things that I’d missed, and also made me rethink a stylistic gesture in a critical way.
JM: Care to elaborate on that “stylistic gesture”?
BE: No. It would take a lot of explanation for almost no payoff.
JM: What is the best dynamic for you with an editor? What are your expectations from him or her? What do you want them to look for, question, critique? And what do you see as your role when you are editing other people’s work?
BE: I want an editor who has a clear aesthetic, even if it’s an aesthetic I disagree with. I have reasons for everything I do, and I’ve been teaching long enough that it’s easy for me to manufacture a reason to justify something that shouldn’t be justified, so I like an editor who is willing to make me think seriously about what I’m doing, even if in the end we disagree. And someone who can be clear about how they’re reading a particular story or passage. I try, in the classroom and in my own editorial gestures, to respect what authors are trying to do and make it better in those terms, but also to challenge them and try to shake them out of their complacencies.
JM: Just to throw a curveball at you, I know you’re an avid music listener and have written some music reviews and such, so if you were a musician, what instrument would you play and why? Also, what are your favorite things to listen to while you write and what are your top ten favorite albums of all time?
BE: I’m not a musician and never have really wanted to be, though yes, I listen to music almost fanatically and obsessively. I end up often fixating on an album or a song and listening to it obsessively when I’m working on a piece of fiction, but what that piece is varies dramatically from album to album. Top ten favorite albums is almost impossible because I think things shift and change for me all the time and I’ll go from listening to something excessively for months to not listening to it at all. The things I’ve been listening to repeatedly over the last few years include Sunburned Hand of the Man’s No Magic Man (especially two tracks, “Every Direction” and “The First Degree”), Death Vessel’s Nothing Is Precious Enough for Us (great lyrics and incredibly beautiful singing), Scott Walker’s The Drift (which may be my favorite album of all time) and Tilt, Girl Talk’s Night Ripper, Sunn 0))) (pretty much everything), Growing’s His Return, Earth’s Pentastar: In the Style of Demons and Hex (Or Printing in the Infernal Method), Hecker’s Sun Pandämonium, John Oswald’s Plunderphonics and Plexure, Belong’s October Language, and then old favorites like The Fall, Belle and Sebastian, Talk Talk, Radiohead, the great David Bowie, Echo and the Bunnymen, Can, Faust, Neu!, Schnittke, Schoenberg, etc., etc. If you ask me again in six months, it’d probably be a somewhat different list.
Click here to purchase Fugue State at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010