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Jun232010

Interview: Brian Kubarycz

Brian Kubarycz's fiction appears in the June 2010 issue of the Collagist. Brian writes and paints in Salt Lake City, where he teaches Intellectual Traditions for the Honors College of the University of Utah.  His work appears in The Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, Unsaid, The New York Tyrant, and other literary journals.

Can you talk about the inspiration for “Calvino’s Fingers”? What was on your mind when you were writing this story?

When I write I try not to think so much as listen.  Though in the case of “Calvino’s Fingers” I suppose I cast myself back into my own childhood and tried to relive certain experiences, and to type everything as quickly as possible once I could feel myself within certain once-familiar situations.  Again, I try not to think so much as feel and respond, react as quickly as possible through the medium of language.  Which is what I mean by listening.  As for the actual content of the story, I suppose what I managed to do there was combine various experiences I’d had – going to mass, fishing with my grandparents, taking biology and shop classes, swimming in the Erie Canal, exploring other people’s bathrooms - into one very condensed, overdetermined narrative.



There’s a quite nicely balanced straining sexuality all through this piece, from the exact mix of force and grace required to push a frog into a jar, to the way the narrator is aware of how Calvino “made lying under the knife appear somehow to be comforting.” The title underscores this (or perhaps bolds it) though content-wise it’s more a story of frogs than Calvino, and while it’s wonderfully suggestive, it remains vague; a bit of intrigue rather than a focal point. Why did you choose this title, then? And perhaps more generally, how do you like titles to work—more as direction or more as a point to reference back to?

Usually, I’ll just cull a title from a phrase within the body of the work.  In this case I actually fretted over the name.  It was the hardest part of writing the story.  Generally, I have a name locked into place from the moment I begin writing.  In fact, most of my stories are built around the sound of a character’s name. Or my characters are built around the absence of a name.  In this case though the name actually came last.   I liked the name Calvino because it sounded at once foreign and familiar.  Calvino seems constructed as culturally other, an Italian kid living in the land of Guiness.  And yet we all know Calvino to be the name of the author of Invisible Cities and we carry countless associations with that.  But, ultimately, the name just sounded right to me.

As for the unselfconscious incipient sexuality in the story, I guess that was just an attempt at evoking a time when everything felt new and good and slimy.  I think some of our first real excitements in life are creep-out or gross-out moments.  Certainly the children’s-book world is aware of this.  Dr. Seuss gets at that in his story about the Pale Green Pants with nobody inside them.  And Maurice Sendak, at his most daring, understood the delight of the gooey, goopy, lumpy and squishy.  When I was a kid I really liked his In The Night Kitchen, and as an adult I often wondered why I never saw it around more.  It seems that parents were disturbed by imaginative exploration of the erotics of childhood and tried to have the book banned.

I think my favorite thing about this piece is that everything surrounding the very vivid details is just the opposite of that. It could be set anywhere, at any time, it seems. The narrator could be anybody, male or female, age 12 or 20. It seems to me that to leave a story so open in this way, the writer has to have quite a lot of faith in his readers and their ability to make something of the open spaces in a story. Is the idea of a partnership between author and audience something you had in mind while writing this story?

I don’t think I’m trying to foster an open form or a relationship with the reader, at least not deliberately.  I suppose I just take certain things for granted.  If I meet someone at a Prince show I imagine they’re there to shake some ass, and if they’re at a Slayer gig they’re there to bang some head.  And I will interact with them accordingly.  The same thing applies in writing.  I assume my reader has picked up a journal with a certain set of expectations in place, with a desire to get right down to lit, without being patronized by descriptions of characters and settings and motivations, all of which would just bog the reading down.  There are certainly many stories out there which do teach a reader how to read, but those aren’t my stories.

In a recent interview with PANK, you say, “All editing, ideally, should take place while the story is first emerging. Or, editing should take place after a story has been allowed to sit for so long that it is no longer even a story anymore but just raw rock to be dug up, crooked timber to be hewn.” If it’s not giving away too much of the mystery, was “Calvino’s Fingers” a piece that came to you mostly whole, or did it need some time to cure? Which of those processes do you prefer, or maybe just tend, to work through?

“Calvino’s Fingers” emerged in a fairly typical manner.  I wrote it in about as much time as it might take someone to read it.  Which is why I say I didn’t think about anything in it but rather felt and listened.  Sometimes I’m a decent thinker. But I’m always a very slow thinker.  Whereas here I just sat down and kicked out a story the way someone in a figure-drawing class might crank out a gesture study, or a student at the piano might bust out an improvisation.  There’s no time to think and no time to be self conscious.  You’ve got ten minutes to get in and get out and there’s no possibility of backing up and correcting.  But if you sketch or improvise regularly enough, you train yourself to correct along the way, without retracting.  Correction becomes a way of moving forward.  So I just wrote this and moved on to the next exercise.  When I came back to it quite a while later I’d already forgotten most of what I’d done.  I could have torn it up and used it as raw material, something I’ve said I do.  But in this case I rather rewrote the story by making a few very rapid and decisive cuts.  Snip, snip, snip.  Much like Calvino working on the frog, very quickly but delicately laying it open in such a way that it doesn’t seem even deader but seems actually to be coming back to life, to enjoy its own dissection.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

Most recently I’ve been painting and trying to get a local show.  I haven’t had my work in a real gallery for a few years now and it feels like it’s again time to get it out there and seen.  I’ve written a few stories that will be appearing in the next Unsaid, a journal edited by the very talented David McLendon.  Those pieces are examples of the two poles of writing you asked me about earlier.  One was written by hand in a single sitting, no erasing or striking out in the act of execution, and then sent off the same day without any revision.  The other two, by contrasts, were the result of a process which altered every single word, not really a revision so much as an act of reconstitution.  Which of these processes leads to better results I will leave to the reader to decide.  Finally, I’ve got a novella that I’ve been sitting on for a few years now.  It’s about painters.  At present the whole thing is a mess.  McLendon read it and found the one good page out of one hundred and twenty, and he published it as a short story called Zimmerman.  Ever since then, the other one hundred and nineteen pages look ever worse to me.  And yet I still feel there’s something in it I should try to rescue.  Mucho trabajo.

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

I was very impressed by the controlled claustrophia of Robet Lopez’s Kamby Bolongo Mean River.  Also, Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence pretty much floored me, all sentence long. Unfortunately, though, I probably don’t pursue emergent literature as tenaciously as many of your other readers.  It’s not that I don’t want to.  But my teaching duties require me to stay current with scholarship, and I can only do so much.  What I’ll try to do though is read everything, including historical texts and critical theory, as if it were contemporary fiction or poetry.  I think this accounts for a lot of the archaisms and anachronisms which find their way into my work. I have always liked Virginia Woolf’s novels, though most recently I read her thoughts on the history of literature and amateur reading, in The Common Reader.  There, Woolf provides a perfect example of what I try to do as a reader, broadly survey various historical materials and ask what still holds up, not for modern scholars but rather today’s fan of literature, and why?

I was eager for the release of Daniel Heller-Roazen’s The Enemy of All, a study of the history of the pirate, as a legal category.  Everything he writes is brilliantly insightful and wonderfully readable.  I can’t think of anyone else who can convey such nuanced observations so clearly, even compassionately.  Michael Taussig’s ceaseless output of ethnographic writings continues to fascinate me, though I think his best book is still The Magic of The State. There he gets into disturbing affects of the sort I mentioned before, especially in a chapter called “Mucoid Ignominy”.  Sianne Ngai does something similar in her recent Ugly Feelings.  I also read a lot of art criticism, not so much to help my painting as to develop analogues to trends in literature.  Rosalind Krauss’s The Originality of The Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths and The Optical Unconscious overturned everything for me, in art and literature.  After reading those strident and maddening books I couldn’t look at the creative act the same way again.

Finally, I read a lot of theology and devotional literature.  Most people would probably find this a huge waste of time, but I’m fascinated by the centrality that feeling, indeed exquisite extremes of feeling, played in medieval life, and the ways that various artists and writers have attempted to maintain the centrality of affect after the apotheosis of Reason. The two novels I always come back to are Kenneth Burke’s Towards A Better Life and Gordon Lish’s Dear Mr. Capote, both are protracted monologues of aggressive artificiality.  I see them as baroque efforts to crucify the human voice, force it to burst forth in a climatic ecstatic cry.  And I always think of them together, because they had a similar effect on me: I was scared shitless.  I finished the book, put it down and thought, I have got to get out of the house now and just move around if I want to keep my sanity.  The effect was huge, and very physical.  That’s a pretty amazing quality in a book, the power to kick you out of the house, chase you down the block.

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"when everything felt new and good and slimy." Love it!

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