« “Bright Things Still Exist”: An Interview with Jessica Lee Richardson | Main | "The Moon is Not a Spy": An Interview with Dana Koster »

"Approximating Personhood": An interview with Adrian Van Young

Adrian Van Young's first book, The Man Who Noticed Everything, a collection of stories, won Black Lawrence Press' 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award for a Collection of Stories and was published in 2013. His fiction and non-fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Lumina, Black Warrior Review, The American Reader, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, The Lineup, Slate, VICE, The Believer, and anthologized in States of Terror Volume II and Gigantic Worlds: An Anthology of Flash Science Fiction. He is a regular contributor to the website electricliterature.com. His first novel, Shadows in Summerland, is forthcoming from ChiZine in spring of 2016. He lives in New Orleans with his wife Darcy and son Sebastian. For more, visit  adrianvanyoung.com.

His story, "Ex Machina," appeared in Issue Fifty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about online personas, serial killers,and living in a culture of pre-digested narratives.

Could you tell us what inspired “Ex Machina”?

Sure thing, although the story has since been re-titled “In Network” pending its inclusion in an upcoming short story collection. The Alex Garland movie about AI, which I recently saw and liked well enough, was just such a hit and I didn’t want the two to be confused. Anyway, the inspiration for the story was very direct, actually. It’s based on the crimes and capture of amateur porn star and ‘Canadian psycho’ Luka Magnotta, who was convicted of killing, dismembering and cannibalizing his lover Jun Lin in 2012 in Montreal. Previous to the murder, Magnotta was also linked to a series of verboten You-Tube videos in which Magnotta (off camera) tortures and kills kittens live via various sadistic methods. Rumor has it that animal rights activists got word of the videos, traced them to Magnotta and then contacted (I kid you not) Ron Jeremy to set up a sort of sting to capture Magnotta wherein Jeremy would arrange a meeting with him to audition for a porn, but then before they could begin filming the activists would move in. Before the plan could move forward, however, Magnotta was arrested for murder in Canada. Quite a story, right? Grim and sensational. Couldn’t resist. That said, as I did some preliminary research, I found myself really drawn to the idea of Magnotta (re-named Gio Sporanga in the story) as being this sort of Lovecraftian cipher or entity that, literally, resides in the internet. In the videos he posts and stars in, and in chat-rooms—his digital footprint, let’s say—he appears to be a living, breathing person, but once you step back he’s only fragments, this malevolent force that travels by way of and, as it turns out, is part and parcel with the internet itself. Or anyway that’s how I envisioned it. Magnotta, it seems, was very much like that. Whether he was killing cats, posing for glamour shots, starring in gay porn or writhing on couches in these disturbing, self-indulgent videos he made, the guy practically lived his entire life online. Albeit less psychotic than Magnotta (I would hope), a lot of us are like that, too. The proliferation of the internet has enabled us to be more connected, sure, but it’s also scattered us further afield—fragmented us from each other and ourselves. That’s certainly something, in extremis, I was interested in looking at when I wrote the story.

This story’s form puts the reader in the position of the internet voyeur, which is simultaneously unsettling and thrilling. Is this intentional on your part? How do you hope that your reader feels while consuming this story?

Yes, that was certainly intentional—to have the process of reading the story mimic the kind of voyeurism that attracts us to social media, file-sharing sites, You Tube, gossip blogs, all the narcotic delights the internet has to offer. I’m glad I achieved it, more or less. And yes, there was an element of me wanting the reader to feel problematically complicit in what she’s witnessing—like Michael Haneke does (somewhat heavy-handedly) in the movie Funny Games, for instance, or like Brian Evenson does in much of his more violent fiction. Then again, beyond complicating things morally, I was also interested in disorienting the reader—entering her into a place of temporal dislocation. The kind of numb, scorched feeling you get when you’ve been staring at a screen for too long reading post after post, watching clip after clip, and often late at night after you’ve had a few drinks or imbibed something else. In those moments of over-saturation, you’re cloudy-headed, but you’re also very suggestible. Your defenses are down. You’re very open to becoming inhabited or possessed by something outside yourself and I’d hoped the structure of the story and how it’s narrated, with lots of fragments and repetition, might do that to a reader. Make her feel like at any moment she might be possessed by something malignant like Sporanga (i.e. Magnotta). The character named the Porn Star is meant to stand in for the reader, in some ways. He experiences Sporanga’s malevolence first-hand (so to speak) and he’ll never be able to shake it. Of course, I was also banking on the fact that since The Collagist is an online journal, a lot of people would be reading the story on their computers, thus compounding its mimetic potential.  Like the Japanese movie Ringu, you know. You see the ring and then you die. A film about a film that kills. ‘In Network’ is an online story about a killer who gets at his victims online.

Do you feel that writers are taking a risk when they venture into the dark or grotesque? In what ways might this risk be important?

Well, given that ‘the dark or grotesque’ is my preferred milieu as a writer and always has been, I feel very much at home working within its aesthetic parameters, which are broad. I find something almost comforting in it. After putting my kid to sleep, taking out the trash, grading student papers, whatever, sometimes I like to gear down at the end of the day by watching a bad movie on Netflix and those bad movies are uniformly either horror films or romantic comedies. Let’s say mostly the former, though probably the latter more than I’d like to admit. Pretty often, though, I come across people who genuinely can’t stomach the grotesque or the terrible in film, literature, anywhere, and it will hit me: believe it or not, not everyone goes in for the dark stuff! So in that sense I suppose it is a risk—especially when you’re writing about animal torture, sexual voyeurism and the like. You do risk alienating a certain kind of reader. And as a writer, I’m okay with that. In all honesty, I would say that this story is probably the most outwardly disturbing one I’ve ever written—I haven’t shown it to my parents, and I don’t think my wife has read it yet (though she does know what it’s about and will probably get around to it eventually with me wincing in a corner while she reads). By the same token, however, putting yourself in a space of discomfort as a writer and then putting your reader in that same space can yield some interesting results. For one thing, I do think it forces you to explore your relationship to the material more conscientiously than you otherwise might. As in: okay, why am I writing this? To what end? Or, as a reader: why am I reading this? Why am I reacting to it the way that I am? Why am I fascinated? Why am I disgusted? Why cannot I not look away? When you’re working inside a culture of pre-digested narratives like ours—the same story being told again and again—it’s easy to begin producing and consuming passively. I do feel that writing or reading in the vein of the dark and the grotesque can provoke a more active, engaged stance. It demands a reaction. Reactions aren’t passive. That said, in many ways I also feel like ‘In Network’ is a funny story. Or at least I intended it to be. It’s a flinching, uncomfortable humor, sure, but in my opinion that species rings truest. Humor and horror are so intertwined. When you can’t bear to look anymore, you start laughing.

Why kittens?

The real events the story draws on: kittens were Magnotta’s prey. One thing about the kittens that I’m not sure most people notice is that the Animal Rights Advocate claims in his call-to-arms spam-mail about the killings that the kitten in the videos never changes; it’s always the same kitten. As though the same killing is running on a loop with only the method of execution appearing different. So you ask me: why kittens? I ask you: why kitten? In all seriousness, though, the real-life murderer Magnotta was in the butterfly-stages of becoming a serial killer, I would hazard to say, when he was arrested. He started with cats and then moved on to humans. Tragically, with poor Jun Lin. In the story, I wanted to convey that very common pathology as it applies to Magnotta and many other killers in the initiate stages of pathology, but also to show how the entity in the story that calls itself Gio Sporanga is trying to approximate sociopathic human behavior to sort of blend, if you will, with the online persona that he’s adopted. So in many ways you could characterize his sadistic exhibitionism with the kitten as essentially childlike. He’s dipping his toes in the human condition, approximating personhood, trying on masks. Which he literally does throughout the story. And, if you want to briefly journey into symbolism, which I try to avoid at all costs writing fiction, the kitten is him in malign infancy: Cthulhu with a ball of yarn. We humans are the yarn, of course.

Who are you reading right now? Can you recommend anyone?

Mostly, I’ve been doing a lot of manuscript exchanges with distinguished friends & colleagues as I begin revising my 3rd book of fiction, another collection of stories, provisionally titled The Woman Who Bends. To that end, I’ve hugely enjoyed re-encountering the work of Lincoln Michel, whose hilarious, poignant and uncanny debut collection Upright Beasts will be released in October on Coffee House. Someone I’m new to and have been really impressed by is Jim Ruland, who also has a wild & mordantly funny collection of interlinked short stories in the works called Catsitting in Hollywood. Otherwise, I’ve continued to devour the stories of Ottessa Mosfegh, whose novel Eileen I feel I can’t put in my eyes fast enough. I’ve also been quite enamored of the high-end, dark-as-midnight murder mysteries of Gillian Flynn. They’re just so artful, mean and grim. Also, they’ve been helpful to me as I start to write one of my own (TBD), hopefully this fall. I’ve also heard wonderful things about the work of Megan Abbot, who I’ve been meaning to get to one of these days. Mostly it’s the same old story: so many prospects with so little time. Another writer who I’m excited about from whom I’ve only read one story but loved, loved, loved is Alice Sola Kim—“Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying” from The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. Here’s to looking out for whenever she publishes her debut book, which I hope will be soon.

What projects are you currently working on?

As I said, this murder mystery in some small part inspired by the works of Gillian Flynn but maybe, also, American Rust by Phillipp Meyer, The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich and, oddly, a book which I think is overrated but which has nonetheless wormed its way into my psyche: The Great Gatsby. If you could somehow imagine a swirling-together of those titles, that would be the template I’d like to be working from, roughly. It’s a novel about the black metal scene in New Orleans set in the present-day and involves the murder of a particular band’s front man and its aftermath. Truth be told, my main project at the moment is raising my 1-year-old son Sebastian, who I take care of full-time. So, on an average day, I’d say diaper changes, tickling, feeding, bathing and the like with about two hours of writing-time, if I’m lucky, are my predominant projects. But that’s not complaining. It’s a privilege to be able to spend so much time with him. And it forces me, mostly, to be more efficient. Talk about writing in the moment! A sentence while I feed him lunch, a few more as he naps it off. Before I’m aware of it, voila, a book.

References (21)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>