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Interview: Gabriel Blackwell

Gabriel Blackwell's fiction "Play" appears in the January 2010 issue of The Collagist. He is currently at work on a polycephalic, semi-biographical novel. His work has appeared in Conjunctions and Web Conjunctions.

1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "Play"? What was on your mind while you were writing this story?

“Play” was inspired by a translation of Aristophanes that I read a few years back that prefaced one of the plays (maybe “The Frogs,” I’m no longer sure) with two synopses that seemed to cancel each other out. I don’t mean that they were contradictory, just that they didn’t seem to be summarizing the same play. And of course, neither really encompassed all that the play did. This could just be my misreading of the aims of the publisher, but it seemed such a pathetic, risibly human act: to take this great piece of art and, in the act of trying to reduce it down to its quintessence, to make a hash of it instead, to miss the point altogether, and then to try again and to botch it again. I feel a great deal of sympathy

2. More than a prologue, this reads to me as the theoretical ideal of a play; that is, what you’ve written is the way a play with all these conditions should go off, but, alas, there might no accounting for what they’d do once the play itself begins. I got a similar impression from your piece in Conjunctions, “The Behavior of Pidgeons.” They feel like stories that are, in ways, more like buildup toward other, further stories. Was this your intention? And based on this, what would you like your readers to come away with?

Yes. I like that—how a play should come off, a schematic for a play. For me, fiction that is presented as a fait accompli is pretty tedious to read and, especially, to write. Here are these characters, here are their “motivations,” and now, rather than let you have some fun, I’m going to play with my dolls for half an hour and you’re going to watch. When that play is skillfully managed, and the imagination behind it is exceptional, it can be fun to follow along, illuminating in some way, provocative, whatever it is that is keeping the reader engaged. But I personally feel inadequate to the demands of that mode of storytelling.

The too-humble Michael Martone used to say that his stories were really all ground situation, the stuff that comes before rising action, climax, falling action, etc. That’s what interested him. I’m in the same camp. I decided to hedge my bets a little here: “Play” gives some strong suggestions as to where these might come in, but, as you say, they may not.

3. I’ll be honest. I felt mostly bewildered reading through this a first time. I think—after as many reads as there are Marks—that I’ve got everybody straight, but each time something shifts. It seemed like some kind of physical construction might be necessary to keep it static: a family tree or a Venn diagram. Could you talk a little about balancing these people and relationships during the writing process? Or, perhaps, discuss whether you’d like readers to form that kind of absolute idea about this piece at all?

My first drafts of “Play” were logically incoherent. There was a sort of glee in making it as incoherent and difficult to follow as I could. But as I rewrote, I realized that that wasn’t really what I was after, and I did make an effort to sink foundations for these floating platforms that are Marks, Jeans, David, Marie, Jeanne. In my mind, their relationships are static and rooted, but, in the story, they must also be flexible enough that they can carry different loads based on the outcome that the reader comes up with. It was actually excellent practice for the novel that I’m working on, which is much more complex and intricate. So much of the content of fiction necessarily is elucidation and example, that, without that content, there is a feeling of being unmoored. I like that feeling. It is an adventurous feeling, a feeling of possibility. But it does mean keeping a whole lot of information in your head.

4. On your blog recently, you posted this Lovecraft quote about so-called realistic fiction:

While having the highest respect for the authors of realistic fiction, & envying those who are able to accomplish the successful reflection of life in narrative form, I am sadly aware through actual experiment that this is a province definitely closed to me. The fact is, that I have absolutely nothing to say where actual, unvarnished life is concerned. The events of life are so profoundly & chronically uninteresting to me-- & I know so little about them as a whole-- that I can't scrape up anything in connexion with them which could possibly have the zest & tension & suspense needed to form a real story. That is, I am incurably blind to dramatic or fictional values except where violations of the natural order are concerned. Of course, I understand objectively what these values are, & can apply them with fair success to the criticism & revision of others' work; but they do not take hold of my imagination sufficiently to find creative expression.”

You seem to have held to this notion, moving away in your work from detailing events with straight narrative toward more theoretical ways of telling a world. How did you come to this style, and how have ideas like Lovecraft’s colored your writing life?

“Straight narrative,” as you have it, is my analogue to Lovecraft’s “realistic” fiction. For me, it just doesn’t have “the zest & tension & suspense to form a real story.” I don’t think it’s a matter of sophistication or progression—I wouldn’t say that I am moving away from something that may have been more detailed and/or more character-oriented. I think that it’s a matter of taste—I have never been able to do “straight narrative.”

I say that Mark is an ambassador; that is his function in the story. If you want to imagine that he is five feet tall, one-eyed, peg-legged, mustachioed, that’s up to you. He’s an ambassador. I don’t know precisely what that means to you, and it doesn’t matter. And if you agree that it doesn’t matter, we can move on. It may be that all of the ceremony that goes into maintaining the fiction that I am trying to make you believe that what you are reading is in some sense “real” is the value of fiction. I prefer to believe otherwise.

5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I am revising a biography of Lewis Miles Archer, a name readers familiar with Hammett and Ross Macdonald should recognize, and drafting a triptych novel centered on my childhood obsessions: Lovecraft, Mysteries of the Unknown, and true-crime books.

6. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

I have been looking for patterned works, and I had the great good fortune of finding, completely by accident, three excellent examples among my recent reading: W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, Peter Straub’s Mister X, and Ron Loewinsohn’s Magnetic Field(s). I was re-reading the Sebald, but I obviously did not get it at all the first time around, because reading it this time was unbelievable. I had a great time reading Kevin Sampsell’s new memoir, A Common Pornography, and the same goes for Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts, although A Cool Million is my favorite. Just now, I am reading Salvatore Scibona’s The End, which is a beautiful lockpick for James Wood’s whole free indirect discourse argument, and Joanna Howard’s wonderful first collection, On the Winding Stair, which just denies its existence. There are at least a hundred books on my to-read list, but of those not yet released, I am very much looking forward to Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point and David Shields’s Reality Hunger.

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Reader Comments (1)

Great interview, Gabe and Matt--both questions and answers.

February 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commentershome

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