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"Shifting, Second-to-Second Demands of the Improvised Moment": An Interview with Aaron Gilbreath

Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Kenyon Review, Tin House, Oxford American, Black Warrior Review, Brick, Hotel Amerika, Paris Review and Yeti. He works at Smith Tea in Portland, Oregon and blogs about music, food and miscellany here: 'http://aarongilbreath.wordpress.com/

His essay "Searching for Literary Sasquatch, the Elusive Narrative Voice" appears in Issue Thirty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, Aaron Gilbreath speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about the recipe and taste of narrative voice.

1. How did you come to write an essay on narrative voice?

In my graduate writing program, students had to deliver a final lecture –write ten or so pages on a topic, enough to read for twenty-five to thirty minutes. The subject could be about writing, a book, an author, whatever, as long as it focused on the literary and was well-researched. During my early years writing narrative nonfiction, any assignment would have felt smothering – I just wanted to write whatever I wanted to write about. This assignment was open-ended, though. Rather than feel confined creatively, or take this lecture as an intrusive waste of my “real” writing time (a feeling I often have about certain elements of regular Earthly life, such as shaving and shopping for shirts), I decided to think of this not as a lecture but as a creative opportunity, a chance to do something different. When I changed my perspective, I gave my mind free reign to tackle subjects that I knew in practice but never thought of as material.

I write narrative, often first-person essays involving music, food, people and places. I like writing about books and authors, but I never wanted to write about writing. I’m glad I tried to here, though. If an essay is often the process of a writer working through something – the search for answers, an attempt at understanding – then a school paper can provide a chance to make sense of a topic more scholarly than you’d usually assay about. One of my MO’s as a nonfiction writer is: follow my obsessions. Whenever I find myself fixated on some new thing– learning about Korea’s herbal tea tradition, for instance, or getting to know the origins of Tropicália – that thing is something I should look into writing about. At this point in grad school, I was taken with the idea of narrative voice: what was it? Why was it always coming up? When I recognized that, I also found my lecture topic. What was particularly beneficial for me was that the assignment forced me to abandon my preferred first-person format and to write a piece that didn’t allow me to weave myself in. Sometimes you get stuck in a rut. This and a previous essay broke me of the habit by forcing me out of my comfort zone. It was a watershed moment for me, after which I felt confident writing more probing, topical pieces that weren’t narrative. For the second time in my writing life, I felt what Sven Birkerts, essayist and director of my grad program, later expressed when he said, “Assigned essays can be a God-send. And nothing illuminates the mind’s mysterious workings as persuasively as seeing how an assignment, or even a prompt, charges particles and then gathers them to itself. Quite amazing. I can be in what feels like a creative void, a Gobi, but if the directive were given: write an essay on old batteries—I would.”

And then, some two years after finishing the essay, I sent Collagist editor Matt Bell the wrong draft and only realized it when I read his editorial comments: “Again, this references outside the essay/our experience.” Oops.

2. Could you talk more about your decision to create a list of ingredients in order to break down the large topic of narrative voice?

In my attempt to figure out what this thing called voice is, I used numerous microscopes to analyze it. I tried to capture its essence with the butterfly net of metaphors. I tried exposition to clearly articulate a definition. I used examples, hoping to point to cases in lieu of a definition. I’m horrible at math and rarely think in terms of formulae, but my mind can wrap around the lists and simple measurements in a recipe. The recipe is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It’s just me tasting a dish and saying, “I think there’s salt, garlic, chili and lime in here.” Here’s how I phrased it:

“If there could be gleaned some sort of essential recipe, it might be something like this: voice is word choice plus favored sentence structures plus rhythm plus ratio of sentence complexity to simplicity plus some personalized sonic fingerprint that impresses itself onto the sound of one’s words in some unquantifiable way.”

One problem is, when trying to describe what elements you taste in tea, coffee and wine, everyone picks up different things: hints of apricot here, a little melon note there. Voice seems the same way. I work for a tea company. When people come in to our tasting room and smell our teas, one person might smell hints of grass and earth in a particular varietal, while another picks up strong hints of sticky rice. When I say, “I taste salt, garlic, chili and lime in here,” I’m probably missing a few key ingredients. Aside from sense variations, a list of ingredients doesn’t add up to a definition. It gives a serviceable, broad impression of a thing, but it doesn’t capture its complete character.

3. If picking up on the different parts of narrative voice gives "a serviceable, broad impression of a thing, but it doesn’t capture its complete character," then what do you believe we can garner from actively digesting the voice in this manner?

Just because you can’t completely answer a question doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to. That’s the entire basis for assaying. Digesting it in this way is as much a reflection of how my mind works as it is the elusive nature of voice. Clearly I’m no Einstein, but Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” If my incomplete portrait of narrative voice can provide some insight for fellow writers and readers, then it’s worthwhile. In journalism, a profile can be said to work similarly: as detailed as a profile can be, is one ever a complete portrait of a human being? We’re too vast and complex. But a good profile can give us a clear sense of someone’s character and all its complexities.

4. What have you been reading in the past few months?

Always too many things at once, which is just how I like it. Recently I devoured Tom Bissell’s excellent essay collection Magic Hours. Nearly every piece in there is a knockout. Even his Author’s Note is engaging. I’m always reading literary magazines. These past months it’s been The Normal SchoolSlakeBlack Warrior Review and Granta. Also, the new Lucky Peachmagazine is stellar.

Like many people, I love The New Yorker. I especially love reading it on Sunday at a certain bakery with a certain someone whose name I won’t specify, but it rhymes with Rebekah. Recently I got a free subscription to The Economist, so I’ve been waving that around in public so strangers think I’m sophisticated. I also used a page of it to jot the opening lines of a new essay, which I’m grateful for.

In addition to pleasure reading, I’m always researching things for various works-in-progress. I recently read parts of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles and Marc Reisner’s A Dangerous Place: California’s Unsettling Fate for some LA-related pieces.

5. What other writing projects have you been tackling?

Because I’m too restless to sit around relaxing, I’m usually working on a few things at once: some short, some long, some topical, some personal.

This summer I finished a short essay about death and California’s infamous Grapevine Grade, a scenic, dangerous section of highway north of Los Angeles. That’s slated for The Threepenny Review. Now I’m writing a long personal essay based on the sale of my childhood Star Wars toys, but I don’t entirely know what it’s about yet. I have what Vivian Gornick calls “the situation,” and I’m pawing through the gravels of experience for what she calls “the story.” I’m in that exciting spelunking phase where you’re delving below the subject’s surface to see what it all really means. I think the essay’s about what the toys and their loss reveal about the nature of childhood, my own life and parental relationships, maybe also something to do with the pain of passing time and nature of mingled fates, maybe a bit about the way the human mind remembers childhood as a series of sense impressions, colors and images as much as specific experiences. But again, I don’t totally know yet. I just know that, as a kid, my Star Wars toys were my favorite possessions, that at age twenty-four I sold them all to a vintage toy store and used the money to buy a thousand dollar mountain bike that I barely rode for the next ten years. Based on the feelings those toys and that short anecdote evoke in me, I think there’s something more revealing and interesting waiting to be extracted, so I’m looking for it. This phase of writing is both frustrating and fun: your mind makes connections and finds meaning, symbolic resonance, metaphors and so on. (Note: there are fewer Chewbacca metaphors than you’d think. Chewbacca puns, thankfully, are plentiful.)

Another ongoing project is a series of interviews I did with homeless and transient people here in Portland, Oregon. In the summer of 2011, I talked with people I encountered on the street, and I transcribed our conversations. The first of the ten appears here in The Collagist. The awesome Jacob Knabb and Victor Giron are going to publish a number of them at Curbside Splendor. I’m circulating others now so that people will be able to read the interviews, and to give the homeless a voice that they don’t always have on their own. In the process, one magazine editor mentioned Studs Turkel to me after reading the interview I sent him, so I tracked down one of Turkel’s books. Man, was I clueless. I didn’t know anything about Turkel’s oral history work. I only knew that his astute, funny quotations seemed to be everywhere. Glad to be coming out of the dark on this one.

I’m also working on book of first-person narrative travel writing set in Canada, so I’ve been taking in Canada books like a baleen whale takes in krill: Will Ferguson’s Beauty Tips from Moosejaw, Roy MacGregor Canadians: A Portrait of a Country and Its People, and Bill Gaston’s wild hockey memoir, Midnight Hockey: All About Beer, the Boys, and the Real Canadian Game. One thing I’ve learned: Canada makes their books out of paper, just like we do. As kid in Arizona, I imagined they’d be chiseled from glacial ice or bone scrimshaw. These books also appear mostly in English, which makes reading easier for me.

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