I appreciate the integration of video and interactive maps into storytelling, but what an unexhaustible technology we have in the sentence.
Author of The Slide, with short fiction appearing in Pank, Five Chapters, Juked, and more
One mother mothered my body's top, waistline to hairline including tits and fingers and mouth. The second mothered my body's bottom, waist to toe and glorious nethers, and the third mothered my inside. They spoke to my body and I listened hard.
In the next hotel it happens again, except this time Buddy tries to joke through it. O–limp–ics, he says, O–dick–limpics, O–limp–dickets, so I smack him harder than I ever and take another bath. Then another day and another drive and the same circle sun drawing us onward before rising out of our way, then landing behind us as if to push.
We read it in Wigleaf.
You were a Philosophy/English major, not an atypical background for a writer. When and what spurred you to start writing fiction?
I started writing fiction because I found myself fairly besieged by a complicated and contradictory set of feelings that I did not understand, although I had the ego to believe I probably should have understood, or at least been able to approach with some strategy for comprehension. I was a young person and was pretty stupid, as we expect from young people, and lacked any real clue about how the world worked, or where even approximately I fit into it. This was my personal mystery that I wrote my way into, and eventually my efforts became a novel. It's been twelve years now and I remain, of course, as baffled as before, more baffled, but my project of writing fiction is finding ways around my own private bafflement by moving into different and more compelling mysteries than my own. Because, after all, a mystery doesn't have to be solved for it to become boring.
To be totally honest, my biggest influence currently is the faceless chorus of CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS who, in my weaker moments, make me crazy by their output.
A lot of your shorter fiction is in the third person, but very close third person. Are you playing with the point of view throughout the drafts and what are your aims by keeping a close third person?
I am constantly fiddling with points of view during novel work, in ways that do not exactly promote the generation of new material. One way that I work through these big questions of who is telling a given story, and how, and why, is by writing a short story. In general, my aim is to stop these big questions from sinking into something assumed – that so called “invisible” narrator that I rarely appreciate because it is narcotizing and frankly dishonest. We hear a lot of people hollering empathy these days and this, yes, this is the magic and glory of fictional prose. I agree. But don't let's ignore the giant thundering lie at the core of our practice: no matter how exacting your portrait of a character's experience, I am not inside that person's head. It's an approximation – the view is always obstructed.
So we can either go about whistling and smiling and pretending that the obstruction isn't there, or we confront the obstruction and make it into part of the experience. Empathy doesn't mean a casual foray into another experience – it is a process of your own private system, which requires a radical awareness of self above all else. I don't very often read for the pleasures of losing, or forgetting myself.
No matter how exacting your portrait of a character's experience, I am not inside that person's head. It's an approximation – the view is always obstructed.
How then, personally, do you determine whether a writer is simply writing from ‘other’ or is actively engaged in reaching the ‘other?’
All fiction is, de facto, the engagement of an other. It's just that some of us like to imagine that language is a magical conduit between selves, while others more actively respect its problems and limitations by playing with and among them. So, personally, I read for a sense of playfulness, which is itself a terribly problematic answer, and one I couldn't possibly prescribe beyond my own subjective tastes.
“Buddy's Body” feels like there's some Ben Marcus in there. What contemporary writers would you consider influences?
That story was written for Lindsay Hunter, whose stories influence me in strange, uncomfortable ways. I am influenced by the poetry of Kristin Lueke and Dave Snyder and Chris Bower. I'm reading more European authors than I used to. But to be totally honest, my biggest influence currently is the faceless chorus of CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS who, in my weaker moments, make me crazy by their output – these people who I watch write and publish at a rate that makes me feel small and inept and fairly certain that I'm engaged in the wrong pursuit. This equation is obviously unhealthy and a thing I'm constantly fighting against, but it's true, it's there, and it's crazy-making. And then Bill Gass and Anne Carson, if we're discussing wizards.
You've talked about your appreciation for writing at the sentence level, and your writing evidences this. I'm thinking of “Everett Pike, Nearly” – “He shed red hairs onto her hand whenever she rubbed. She rubbed.” Or in “Allegory” – “I struggle her onto my shoulder.” You're playing with timing, repetition; re-appropriating the function of a word, etc. How did this style, or this desire to play with things on a micro-level begin?
I'm of the camp that believes reading literature should be an activity, not a suckling. As our casual, ambient reading gets every day sharper and funnier and more and more charming – you've read this stuff; it is the funniest and most insightful writing in human history, tender and hilarious and helpful, it feels, a dozen daily #longreads that resonate like small bursts of therapy – the more regularly I turn to fiction that asks different work from me. This will be an unsatisfying aesthetic manifesto but also the best I can offer: I began writing sentences because sentences were what I wanted to read. Reading them triggered a kind of sweat that I didn't know I could produce, for which there was no shorthand. I appreciate the integration of video and interactive maps into storytelling, but what an unexhaustible technology we have in the sentence. How infinite its applications in complicating the growth and change that narrative purports to describe.
To be bland, may I ask how you begin writing a story? Or, more, when does the sentence play begin for you, is there an attempt to get the general story down first?
I'm frankly terrible with plot and causality, or building meaning through events, so I don't draft in a way that begins until it middles until it ends. I begin with an image or sentence or situation, some kind of tension. But beyond that I can't describe the practice of development because there's no common characteristic in the short work I've done. Again, I defer to bafflement, which isn't helpful in this discussion, I don't imagine, but is at least mostly true.
Thematically some of your stories (and Twitter feed) are slightly anti modern times. “Within The Cathedral, An Echo” and “Without Realizing” both have hints of nostalgia. Are you wrestling often with things we're to view as ‘progress?’ And if so, how do you navigate the balance of fictionalizing those issues without being too didactic (if that is a concern)?
Well it depends which types of “progress” you're suggesting. I am not anti- modern fuel economy in automobiles, or modern advancements for homosexual couples in the United States to marry, or modern developments for drought-resistant crops, not even slightly. What I am anti, and vehemently so, are the historically ugly behaviors that the modern economy has found ways to congratulate and endorse. Like performing, posturing, and the basic denial that other people's eyes and brains and chests and genitals function in a way totally differently than your own, and that therefore nothing is simple, or easy, or clean. And while none of these behaviors are new, the forms we have today feel amplified, less by technology and more by the economy of communication that these technologies have wrought. The instant response, the quick essayization of world events into spoon-fed interpretations that reduce, compartmentalize, and frame a concept so that readers don't have to so much as lift a finger to believe, genuinely, that they understand enough to stop needing more.
But my project is never to “fictionalize” beliefs into stories. I am a person who believes things and also regularly discovers that I believe new things, often to my own surprise. My narrators will make judgments, yes, because they are meant to represent humans, but those judgments are quite often are not my own. Nor will they always be the character's own, if indeed he's “human.” And this is the mystery that justifies the crazy of writing fiction, the endless bafflement.
Recommended by Kyle Beachy
The knall is undoubtedly a handy device: it isn’t metal, and hence its presence is not detected by common magnetic instruments or X rays; it weighs and costs little; its action is silent, swift, and sure; it’s very easy to dispose of. Some psychologists, however, insist that these qualities are not sufficient to explain the knall’s proliferation. They maintain that its use would be limitied to criminal and terrorist circles if setting it off required a simple movement, such as pressure or friction; however, the knall goes off only if it is maneuvered in a particular way, a precise and rhythmic sequence of twists in one direction and then the other - an operation, in short, that requires skill and dexterity, a little like unlocking the combination of a safe.
We found the baby in the medicine cabinet. Kid smelled like hickory and something else. Deodrant? I creaked the cabinet’s joints and witnessed a three inch baby yawn and grump and paw the air with an experimental baby fist. Then I shut the cabinet and bit my knuckles. “Jesus fuck,” I said, and my wife, Johnnie Mae, said “Do what?” She was standing in the bathtub with a screwdriver, cleaning the showerhead of pebbles and silt. Her jeans were rolled up to her ankles. She wore a sports bra. I pointed at the cabinet. She gouged the showerhead. “What’d you do to the cabinet?”
The fish is for her — there is no one else in the house. But she has had a troubling day. How can she eat this fish, cooling on a slab of marble? And yet the fish, too, motionless as it is, and dismantled from its bones, and fleeced of its silver skin, has never been so completely alone as it is now...
We read it in Break It Down.
The afternoon welcomed me into its swelters. An hour went by, then cleared the way for another. I had found a bench near the store and stood in quiet beside it. Others came and sat: unfinished–looking men, a pair of proudly ungabby girls I took for lovers done for now with their love, a woman graphically sad in ambitious pinpoints of jewelry. Then a man so moodless, I could see all the different grades and genres of zilch behind his eyes. The city flattered these people who in the country would have been flattened fast for all to see all the same.
We read it in Divorcer.
We listen to the old radio shows. Light flares and spreads across the blue-banded edge, sunrise, sunset, the urban grids in shadow. A man and a woman trade well-timed remarks, light, pointed, bantering. There is a sweetness in the tenor voice of the young man singing, a simple vigor that time and distance and random noise have enveloped in eloquence and yearning. Every sound, every lilt of strings has this veneer of age. Vollmer says he remembers these programs, although of course he has never heard them before. What odd happenstance, what flourish or grace of the laws of physics enables us to pick up these signals? Traveled voices, chambered and dense. At times they have the detached and surreal quality of aural hallucination, voices in attic rooms, the complaints of dead relatives. But the sound effects are full of urgency and verve. Cars turn dangerous corners, crisp gunfire fills the night. It was, it is, wartime. Wartime for Duz and Grape-Nuts Flakes. Comedians make fun of the way the enemy talks. We hear hysterical mock German, moonshine Japanese. The cities are in light, the listening millions fed, met comfortably in drowsy rooms, at war, as the night comes softly down. Vollmer says he recalls specific moments, the comic inflections, the announcer’s fat-man laughter. He recalls individual voices rising from the laughter of the studio audience, the cackle of a St. Louis businessman, the brassy wail of a high-shouldered blonde just arrived in California, where women wear their hair this year in aromatic balesa.