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Thursday
Jan092014

“An Immanent Pattern in the Emptiness”: An Interview with Michael Sheehan

Michael Sheehan teaches fiction at Stephen F. Austin State University. He is a former editor in chief of Sonora Review, and is the reviews editor for DIAGRAM. He is the author of Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned (Colony Collapse Press).

His story, "Boléro," appeared in Issue Fifty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, Michael Sheehan talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about layering, stripping away and the intersections between language, music and math.

This is such an intricate and layered story, I’m curious about its origin. What was the initial source of inspiration?

The initial inspiration—and this story has kind of been with me for a while—was an article I read about a woman with this condition, Allison’s; at the same time I was reading my way through David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More and David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind. So I think it was maybe a confluence of these things that contributed to the story’s genesis. I had notes on this story for a long while, though, before ever really writing it. I don’t remember what exactly was the secondary spark that allowed me to write the whole story out from those notes and first drafts—I know the initial inspiration came just before I started my MFA and the story got written after I’d left. But I’ve always been really interested in the intersection(s) between language, music, and math. I’m also really interested in consciousness, theory of mind stuff. So there was a lot coming together in the story that excited me: Allison’s consciousness and the formal challenges that presented, which also allowed me to explore and talk about math and music and creation and language. Gaddis talked about setting problems for himself as a writer, that this was how he kept interested in writing any particular project. Along with the parts of this story that were just basically fun to write about, the idea of creating a form that mapped onto her deteriorating consciousness while also embodying the idea of seeking patterns, meaning—the pieces of the narrative arranged kind of like music, kind of like numbers through which we seek a greater understanding—was a sort of problem I set myself that I really enjoyed trying to solve.

Throughout the piece Allison is dealing with numbers, patterns, music, language—all of which attempt to capture and provide some sort of meaning to what seems, by the stories end, as the meaning: our ongoing connection through our very attempts at explanation. An ongoing dialogue is created that spans countries and time periods. You manage to convey this with such beauty and elegance. What was the revision process like in creating such a narrative?

There was kind of a layering process to writing the story, as well as the stripping away process of revision. So, here, I wrote various parts of this, and then would come back through and add more. I started with Allison, and then kind of expanded more into the historical examples, like with Gödel; at one point Pascal had a section in the story (another historical genius who gave up math to seek and serve God). So, hopefully without sounding too pretentious, this story kind of developed radially out from the center (Allison), exploring her past, her painting, her family, her condition, and also exploring mathematical ideas and history, seeking resonance there, as well as exploring out into other examples of either frontotemporal dementia or creation as a response to absence, deterioration—the Paul Wittgenstein story. The revision process involved a lot over quite a long time, altering the form of the story—it once had section headings, for one thing—as well as tightening the connections between the historical examples and Allison’s character. I also stripped some sections of Allison’s life out simply to focus her character. In general, I revised in favor of the central idea of seeking through the primes, the painting, looking for connections and resonances—my own search for patterns.

There is so much I love about this story. For example, that final scene between Allison, her husband Tim and the gallery owner. It’s such a wonderfully heartbreaking moment when Allison understands Tim’s desperation to recognize her art as “less about his overwhelming acceptance and support, and more about his ability to view [Allison’s art] as something he could handle, eliminating all trace of deterioration and death.” As a writer, I’m always curious about other writer’s means of thinking through a scene such as this. If you’re willing to share, what are some of your writerly quirks and traditions when creating such prose?

I don’t know that I’ve got anything too interesting, in terms of quirks and traditions. What comes to mind—well, two things: I listen to music when I write, which for whatever reason tends to focus my thoughts (as in allows me to forget myself in my chair, ignore the lyrics, unaware of how loudly I’m typing [I type really loudly], such that my thoughts are only on the words and the images, the space between my mind and the page), and second I tend to write really quickly which allows me to kind of go to this space—I don’t know how best to describe it, but this kind of creative trance (dorky as that sounds), where you lose yourself and just don’t stop writing forward, into the scene, etc. I think this scene originally came from that, not exactly a thinking-through but almost a semi-conscious type of creating, or at least a type of writing that is not at that time self-aware. I hate to say something as hokey as the scene wrote itself, because that’s not true. But as for quirks, I’m not sure how I got myself to the place where I wrote this other than to bury my distractions in music and to let my thoughts push into the moment until it seems like the scene, the fiction, is the only thing that really exists—my own self momentarily left behind. 

What’s the latest piece of writing you are working on?

So, I’ve been working for a couple years now on a novel, which is at present pretty long (around 250,000 words) and I would like to say nearly finished. It’s centered on three interwoven narrative threads: an 80s metal singer turned recluse who is working on a magnum opus—a rock opera called The Lamentations—which is inspired by the real life tragedy of an Iraq War veteran with a traumatic childhood who serves during The Surge and comes home with PTSD, and tries to reconnect with his high school girlfriend and ultimately commits a terrible act of violence; then there is an itinerant preacher who was once addicted to metal music as much as he was drugs and alcohol, who has since found Jesus and focuses expressly on preaching against the evils of rock music and sex and drugs and so on—so he becomes set on stopping the rock opera, part of a protest movement that objects to the music itself as well as the exploitation of the soldier’s story. There’s also a literary crossover-pornstar character, a sex addict obsessed with saving her soul, a struggling writer turned librettist, a mythic guitar virtuoso, and a whole lot besides. Not unlike “Bolero,” maybe, the form of the novel is in part inspired by musical composition—it’s broken into four parts to sort of align with Wagner’s Ring cycle, and also to be kind of symphonic in terms of voice, and tempo, and so on. Also like “Bolero,” it balances (I hope) intellectual and emotional development.

As 2013 comes to an end, what were your top three favorite books of the year? What are you excited to read come 2014?

I’m terrible with this type of thing; I always have a hard time narrowing stuff down. Top three of 2013? I really loved Bennett Sims’ A Questionable Shape, Sergio de la Pava’s Personae, and The Letters of William Gaddis, which I took with me when my wife and I went to Paris and Barcelona, which seems sort of appropriate. I’ve got some things sitting on my desk that I’m hoping to get to soon, too—Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Steven Moore’s second volume of The Novel, which I’ve only just barely started. I read some great research for the novel as well, including David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service and Louder Than Hell (an oral history of metal music). I’ve already read a couple books coming out in 2014 (I have the good fortune of getting to review these): Ben Marcus’ Leaving the Sea and Robert Coover’s The Brunist Day of Wrath, which I read over the summer and loved.

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