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"The Thing You Want to Be Haunted by": An Interview with Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson is the author of over a dozen books of fiction, most recently the novel Immobility (Tor, 2012) and the collection Windeye (Coffee House Press, 2012). He lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife Kristen Tracy and his son Max, and works at Brown University.

His short story, "Lost Dog," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Brian Evenson talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about the aftermath of tragedy, readers' imaginations, and ghosts that aren't ghosts.

What sparked the idea that made you start writing "Lost Dog"?

I’d had an idea jotted down for a while, in a very basic way that led to the story:  “a ghost that isn't a ghost, only an earlier or later manifestation of one of them, a time slippage.”  But it might have sat there forever if someone hadn’t written asking me if I had a time machine story for an anthology he was working on.  I didn’t, but thought it was a good excuse to write this story up, though it became more and more clear that it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination a time machine story.

The story opens with a man living in a kind of stasis after the death of his wife. Why focus the narrative on the aftermath of loss rather than the tragic event itself?

I’m often more interested in the moment that precedes a disaster or the ruins existing after it than on the tragic event itself.  A lot of my stories either truncate at a moment of tension, just on the verge of something huge actually happening, or start after something’s occurred, after it’s already too late.  We all go through tragedy; that’s the nature of being human.  A lot more is revealed about someone’s nature by how they get to the point of tension or collapse, how they resist it or guide it forward, and by how they pick up the pieces afterward.  And I didn’t want this to be a story about a man losing his wife, but about different kinds of loss. I like the idea of being haunted but not by the thing you want to be haunted by...

In part two, the man begins to experience what might be a haunting or a rift in time. How did you make this decision to include a supernatural element? (Did you know from the very beginning you wanted to take this story to a surreal place?)

Yes, I did.  That’s rare for me, but it was the case with this story.  The challenge of this story was to figure out how to articulate that idea in a way that worked, and with a language that didn’t either simplify or diminish the idea, and wouldn’t leave readers feeling like they deserved more explanation.  I ended up opting for a voice that corrects itself gently and folds back on itself, keeps qualifying itself.  That struck me as something that would allow for the strange tentative space of doubled time to exist.

I noticed very few limiting markers of specificity in this story (e.g., the breed of the dog, the name of the man, the appearance of the house). What made you decide to withhold such information? What effect do you think is achieved by having the readers supply such details with their own imaginations?

I think there are often good reasons for giving those details, but I also think that for certain sorts of effects they’re not really important.  I could have had it be a story about Bert Jeppson, owner of a Labradoodle, living in a craftsman house, but none of those details would have really added much to the situation, and they would have distracted a great deal, made the story something that was easier to put in a box and forget about it once you were done.  We always exercise our imaginations when reading, but some stories ask us to take more of an active role in the act of creating their worlds than other stories do.  I like to think that my stories when they give details tend to give evocative details, little things with sensory or phenomenological resonance that galvanize the reader’s imagination into creating a world around them.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just finished a new story collection, which “Lost Dog” is part of.  It’ll come out in early 2015.  I’m trying to dive into a new novel, but still haven’t really made things click yet.  I have an idea for a Noir that I’d very much like to do, but there are only so many hours in a day.

What did you read in 2013 that you want to recommend to the people?

I loved Chris Wright’s graphic novel Black Lung, and reread and thoroughly enjoyed Chester Brown’s comic Ed the Happy Clown.  John Burnside’s The Devil’s Footprints was really great, as was Rob Walsh’s story collection Troublers.  Really loved Karen Green’s Bough Down.  Also loved Joe Ashby Porter’s Eelgrass, Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games, and John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.  Those are the things that come immediately to mind—I’m sure I’m missing a lot of good things.

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