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"The Saltiness of That Street Pretzel": An Interview with Michelle Chan Brown

Michelle Chan Brown’s Double Agent was the winner of the 2012 Kore First Book Award, judged by Bhanu Kapil. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, Cimarron Review, The Missouri Review, Witness, and many other journals and anthologies. A Kundiman fellow, Michelle is poetry editor of Drunken Boat. In the fall, she'll head to Almaty, Kazakhstan on a Fulbright.

Her story, "Campaign," appeared in Issue Sixty of The Collagist.

Here, Michelle Chan Brown talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about fiction exercises, completing stories, and evoking setting.

Please tell us about the origins of your story “Campaign.” What inspired the initial idea that led you to write the first draft?

Last summer, I prescribed myself a regimen of one fiction exercise per day. I’m drawn to things that seem fruitless or overwhelming when conceived of as having an endpoint, where the prospect of finishing is impossible (yoga, jogging, winning over everyone). The only way I could write was to think, well, this doesn’t really matter; if one exercise fails, you’ll have the next day to look forward to. And I was humbled at how inept I was at the technical parts of fiction: plot and time, specifically. (Poetry had kept me safe and warm for a while.) At a certain point, though, I realized that these exercises were just prolonging the habits that seem creative/ generative but are actually enactments of perfectionism. When you finish nothing, nothing really matters, and you can lull yourself with the tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow mantra until you feel pretty masterful in your lack of mastery. I discovered that the real “risk” in trying to write fiction was finishing something. Anything. “Campaign” was my first really finished story, and the second short story I’ve ever sent out. You asked about inspiration: the making of this story was just getting from one sentence to the next, and allowing the sentence’s impulses to drive the narrative forward. Trusting that. I stopped trying to plot and started listening. And I read Conrad and Kafka. Looking back, though, I do think the world of the story, and the tonal oddities—it’s not really ironic, but it’s rather flat—were influenced by the Russians I read in college—Bely and Bulgakov and Sologub, who wrote a terrific, savage novella called “The Petty Demon.” There’s a haplessness and passivity and darkness there, held by a twine that’s not humor (tears, helpless submission to the funny) but not sadness or pity. There’s not much blame in those stories, in spite of the suffering. And so with the narrator of “Campaign” where it’s ambiguous if he’s a willing participant in the machinery of the town and the family and the ritual, a victim, or a bystander.

One of the unconventional aspects of this story is that the characters do not have names, only initials (e.g., “K.”). How did you make that decision? How does this choice work as a part of the larger world of the story?

The narrator is involved in K.’s world, and he invests energy into observing her physicality and psychology (the scabs on her scalp, her fear and romantic impulses towards her father, her cringing passivity, etc.). That level of detail suggests care, but he’s dispassionate. He doesn’t seem interested in her, or to love her. He sees everything about her but doesn’t seem compelled to empathize. Is he incapable of empathy, or unwilling? Calling her K. emphasizes his distance from her, an attempt to be her superior, I think. It’s also a bit pompous, as is he. He assumes that the story is significant enough, and that he, as protagonist, imbued with an equal significance—that Identifying Details Must Be Concealed.

Your story is especially intriguing for all that it leaves up to the reader’s imagination. The narrator makes many references to “our city,” but its name and location are never revealed. I got the sense that the setting might be of a different time than our own, but the year/era isn’t clearly stated either. Near the end, a prisoner is wheeled into the proceedings, but the story ends before we learn his fate. How did you determine what should remain mysterious? What effect do you expect these layers of ambiguity to have on the reader?

With setting, the only places I’ve felt alive in describing were composites of cities I’ve lived in or read about. I respect writers who can evoke topography and chronology with gorgeous specificity, but because I moved so much (I was a foreign-service brat), I have trouble with those particulars—and, to be honest, I bore myself when I try to channel them on the page. I’m excited by particulars, the saltiness of that street pretzel, or that hat with the purple veil, or the stoop where a man is sucking a woman’s breast in broad daylight, but I trust that those specifics will do the work of invoking time, theme, and concern. As for the ending, I listened to the narrator. He was never interested in the fate of the prisoner, which seems like it should be the climax of the story. Ultimately, he never resolves whether he’s implicated in his own future; he tries to take ownership by writing the story, but in the end, he’s as passive to the reader as he is to K. and her family, and ambivalent (or dishonest) about his own attraction to power.

Your website and publication history give me the impression that you’re primarily a poet. How often do you write fiction? What creative opportunities does prose offer you that poetry cannot (and vice versa)?

I’m writing as much fiction as I can write now, because it’s what I want to read. It’s my love. Also, I’m currently waiting on a visa to Kazakhstan (I’m going on a Fulbright) and I have a month off from teaching, and it’s such a gift to have the hours required to develop momentum in a story. With a poem, I can draft for ten minutes or an hour, and perhaps I’ll have something I can turn back to and salvage. With prose, what I abandon stays abandoned, so I pursue any opportunity not to. Reading and writing a lot of prose also strengthen my instincts as a poetry editor for Drunken Boat. I’m less patient with certain poetic gestures.

What writing projects are you working on now?

A second manuscript of poems.

Short stories.

Hybrid pieces.

Reviews—a longish piece about the poetics of trauma that draws on the work of Cathy Linh Che, Chloe Honum, Lisa Fay Coutley, and Allison Benis White.

Translations of Russian news articles to beef up for Central Asia.

What reading recommendations would you like to offer?

Prose: David Mitchell, Patricia Highsmith, Morvern Caller, “Butcher Boy” by Patrick McCabe, The Odyssey, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, the James boys, Sheila Heti, Maria Bamford’s stand-up, Nabokov, Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis, Tessa Hadley, Christine Schutt, Gary Lutz, James Baldwin. I’m a glutton.

Their collections aren’t out yet, but I want to read more by Ottessa Moshfegh and Greg Jackson. I’m really excited to read Zia Haider Rahman’s first novel, In the Light of What We Know and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

Poetry: Chloe Honum, Sally Wen Mao, Eugenia Leigh, Cathy Linh Che, Matthew Olzmann, Srikanth Reddy, Kendra DeColo, Tarfia Faizullah, Claudia Rankine, Darcie Dennigan, Thylias Moss, and, of course, the great Laura Kasischke.

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