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"Their Fundamental Indecision": An Interview with Ravi Mangla

Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies (Outpost19). His writing has appeared most recently in The Kenyon Review, The Nation, Cincinnati Review, The Baffler, and Puerto del Sol. He lives in Rochester, NY.

His story, "Lever," appeared in Issue Seventy-Five of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about the tactile qualities of language, dimmer switches, and the unfolding of details.

How did this story begin for you?

I’ll credit the story to a fascination with dimmers, which are curious in their fundamental indecision. I grew up in a house full of dimmers. (We were a dimmer family.) I have memories of rooms cast in the subterraneous glow of an opium den. At the time I was writing stories about neuroses and obsession, and the dimmer seemed a fitting vehicle. (“Face,” an older fiction in The Collagist, is a kind of companion piece.)

When we learn that the speaker and his wife are separated, the story takes on a new life. We begin to see the speaker’s aggravation with the dimmer switch as a projection of a larger problem. I’m interested in this choice to concentrate on the dimmer switch rather than on the relationship. How can examining a problem from a “slant” actually bring a story into sharper focus?

Certain authorities on writing might be critical of holding back key information in a story. (After all, it goes against Vonnegut’s rules.) I think of it less as a “slant” than an unfolding—or an efflorescence. Details budding further details and, finally, a flower.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story? How did you overcome this challenge?

Calibrating the fade so it didn’t look tacky or cheap. (It’s possible I came up short in this respect.) There was quite a bit of tinkering with the effect, figuring out where to start it and where to end it. Gabe Blackwell was cool with fine-tuning until we got it just right. Or thereabouts.

Is there a writer or artist who you would say influenced this piece?

Many. Text-based artists like Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer, and John Baldessari, folks who taught me to appreciate the physical, tactile qualities of language. Also, I should acknowledge the wonderfully unconventional essays of John Cage.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel (sort of Graham Greene-ish), though the writing keeps getting derailed by other commitments, so give it a good five to ten years.

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