Dolan Morgan lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He is the author of two books: That's When the Knives Come Down (A|P, 2014) and INSIGNIFICANA (CCM, 2016). His writing has appeared in The Believer, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, The Collagist, Selected Shorts, and the trash.
His story, "Celebrity Training, Mon Amour: Christian Bale," appeared in Issue Seventy-Four of The Collagist.
Here, Dolan Morgan talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about failure, Yahoo! News, and the nonexistence of nonfiction.
Looking at your publication history, it appears that this Christian Bale piece is part of a series of stories partially titled “Celebrity Training, Mon Amour.” So what can you tell us about the origins of this series and this piece in particular?
Yes! That Christian Bale piece is one of five super short investigations into how celebrities train for their roles. The others (which appear together in a new story collection called Insignificana, woohoo!) are Tom Selleck, Audrey Hepburn, David Bowie, and the Titanic. All of them are inspired by Yahoo!’s front page news portal, which is among the most popular news outlets in the world. Somehow, more Americans receive current event info from this site than almost any other platform around. One glance at what the page has to offer, too, will make that fact superbly sad. I just stopped by and was prompted with the following choices: “Man kills dad, then naps before calling police,” “10 delicious things to do with broccoli,” “2 huskies have a very dramatic argument over a chew toy,” “Bahati Prinsloo just bought her first pair of maternity jeans ‘and it feels so good,’” and “5 Things Olivia Munn Did to Get Her 'X-Men' Body.” I read it every day.
A super common topic on the Yahoo! news feed is celebrity body image articles. How much weight this person lost for a particular movie. How much another person gained. The workout schedule an actor followed in the months prior to filming. How we can, in just a few weeks, be like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in mind/body/spirit. The “insane” schedule. The “unbelievable transformation.” So and so is “unrecognizable.”
My first inclination when seeing these types of articles is to dismiss them, or to think of them as terribly unimportant. I want to begrudge the significance ascribed to them by a major media outlet when so many more relevant and urgent things demand our attention. And, at surface level, the “Celebrity Training, Mon Amour” pieces affirm that dismissal—they are named after two extremely powerful and gorgeous works, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” and “HIV, Mon Amour,” both of which tackle far more urgent topics than celebrity weight gain (and both of which I adore); and so the title is a nod to the utter absurdity and uselessness of tabloid journalism in the face of everything else the world lays down upon us. However, I’m not satisfied by the act of simply mocking something. Ridicule is easy. And often empty. And so, the “Celebrity Training, Mon Amour” pieces are also an attempt to move past my own inclinations to be dismissive. To get past my own sense of what is inherently valuable. In fact, most of the stories in my new collection are attempts to find some kind of value or meaning or magic in seemingly insignificant things. Tabloid-style celebrity body articles might feel useless and trivial, and in fact they probably are (inasmuch as most things are), but I’ve set myself the goal of taking the useless and insignificant as a starting point in the movement toward meaning. And, if you think about it, at the heart of every puff piece on some celebrity’s physical transformation is in fact a single person struggling with their place in the world. A person in a body in a sea of choices. Whether they’re famous or not, that circumstance is still weird and horrifying (being here, in a body). And at the edge, too, of every one of those articles is a mass of onlooking people also struggling with their presence in the world—their physical shape, yes, but also their sense of willpower and agency. When we talk about transforming our bodies, we mean controlling what we do and don’t do (eating, exercising, committing, breathing, etc., and gaining dominion over our thoughts and time), and coming to terms with the ways in which we fail to be what we imagine ourselves to be, often and almost exclusively by our own hands. Astonishing celebrity transformation articles are almost always fueled by a shared sense of our own personal and ongoing self-destruction and futility. The Christian Bale piece in particular hinges on the extreme weight loss that actors undertake for roles. I rarely see men struggling with body image issues represented in fiction, and so I wanted that here. In my own life, certainly, I have struggled with how I understand and know my body—its shape, and its weight, and its limits. Beyond physical shape, however, that struggle is more often about the ability, or inability, to exact influence over my own life. Which can be scary and humiliating—because, at the very least, we are supposed to have influence over ourselves. Celebrity training journalism whispers to us (or shouts, really) the secret that sometimes we don’t. That often our actions fall short of our intentions. And, of course, this all sounds a little fatalistic, but I think these pieces are also somewhat joyful and irreverent. They follow a certain line of thinking to a hyperbolic end, which (for me at least) can help render small the scary things that usually loom so large. A little giggle in the face of our own uselessness is sometimes all we can offer. It’s not enough, of course, but luckily, at the moment when you’re giggling, not enough is sometimes enough.
What’s the appeal for you of engaging celebrity and pop culture in your writing? Do you see your work as part of a contemporary trend or subgenre? What do you think accounts for this trend of literary writers inserting famous people into their fiction (e.g., Salvatore Pane’s “Kanye West Saved from Drowning,” Sam Martone’s “Gho$t in the Machine,” etc.)?
I don’t think the use of celebrity in writing is a contemporary trend or subgenre. Rather, popular culture is simply part of the landscape now. It constitutes a significant portion of the environment, like trees. We are surrounded by mountains, sidewalks, TV shows, pop-up ads, birds, and celebrities. In fact, on certain days, a lot of people probably encounter more popular media than plants. It’s mundane, not kitschy or clever. Some might like to bemoan or chide the idea of celebrity or popular culture in art and writing. Those people are delusional and in denial about where they live. Like someone who doesn’t think that ponds are part of the real world. Which is fine, of course. Ponds don’t have to be real.
Your story contains several quotes and attributions to people and publications. What was important to you about dropping in these “outside sources” (e.g., Bale’s personal trainer, his girlfriend, TMZ, etc.)? Were you trying to emulate (and/or elevate) tabloid journalism, or any other specific genre?
Many of my stories incorporate structures taken from nonfiction texts. It’s a habit. Or obsession. For example, in addition to tabloid journalism, Insignificana includes stories in the form of textbook entries, a series of film synopses, business reviews, food criticism, self help, and consumer warnings. This is a product of desperation mostly. I am not a naturally organized person. I think of myself as innately undisciplined. And I am bad at making decisions. These pre-existing structures stolen from nonfiction texts offer a box to be filled. A machinery that automates decision making. A computer in the form of language. Basically, I endeavor to be a robot, or to not exist, and these forms help me to enter autopilot or get out of my own way just long enough to make something else be there or come to life. There’s a somewhat awful video online of a person pouring liquid metal into a very large ant hill. When it cools, the person scrapes away the dirt and reveals a beautiful metal sculpture underneath. Or: I don’t know if it’s actually beautiful. It might be horrible. That’s a good confusion to engender probably. At any rate, the hot metal flows into the ant hill, and out comes some new thing in the world. That feels a little bit like life in general (something close to formless dropped into and shaped by preexisting and unrelated circumstances), but it’s also comparable to how the structures of nonfiction can be used to create surprising fiction. Take the outline of a mail order catalog, for example, and dump the unformed elements of a fictional world into it. Scrape away the dirt and out pops an unexpected hunk of gleaming metal.
Also, there are six pieces in Insignificana that not only employ some structural elements of nonfiction, but are actually just plain nonfiction. Not like memoir or autobiography (my life is not nearly interesting enough for that), but researched essays on the obscure history of early airplane hijackings. They probably don’t belong in a book of short stories. But there they are. The sources are real. With articles cited in a bibliography. Facts, quotes, etc. One of the hijacking pieces is itself referenced in a recent academic paper on contemporary airplane security protocols. So these pieces have seeped into the broader network of things that constitute some kind of mutually agreed upon sense of the world. I’ve presented these hijacking pieces as fiction, though, because, well, why not. Or, to be blunt, I’ve positioned them as fiction because I don’t believe that nonfiction exists. It’s all made up and pretty tenuous out there. Everything, that is. The news. Academic journals. Professional reports. People. All a kind of speculative fiction and mostly magic. I recently watched the film Concussion starring Will Smith, a film ostensibly about the discovery of brain injuries in football players, but which is really about the prevalence of magical thinking in football and everywhere else. In the film, numerous scientific bodies disseminate reports to govern people’s lives. Authority, research, and data coalesce to help everyone in the film form an understanding of the world around them, along with the rules that create it. Will Smith discovers information that conflicts with the ideas put forth by those scientific bodies, and as such conflicts with the rules governing our lives. To Will Smith’s chagrin, the notion that these established reports and findings are in fact untrue hardly matters at all to anybody; the football players, fans, and officials have already lived, and can continue to live, in a real world undergirded by unreal things. Everyone is fine with it. I mean, what else is there. They can live in a magical landscape, supported by some data (not all the data, of course, but some of it anyway, and what else can we ask for—we’ll never have all of the data, don’t be silly. All data and research is undercut by what is omitted, and as a matter of percentages, roughly everything is always omitted). In this way, nonfiction (at its heart) is perhaps even more fictional than fiction—because nonfiction starts from the premise that it is somehow real or factual. Which is a much grander bluff or lie than fiction can ever hope to offer us. (At least fiction tells us the truth by admitting that it doesn’t. Which is itself a lie.) To begin from the notion that you’re telling the truth is the most bald-faced lie one can make. Nobody is telling the truth, not even Will Smith; anything parading as such is really just the purest kind of myth making. And that’s why I’m fine including nonfiction in a collection of stories.
As for whether or not I’m aiming to elevate these genres? No. I wouldn’t presume to be able elevate anything. More likely: they elevate my work in ways that I could never hope to alone.
This story is only one paragraph consisting of only a little over 400 words. Did it require a lot of revision and/or restraint to be so concise? How do you achieve this economy of language?
There are maybe two answers to this question. One is simpler than the other. First, the ratio of writing to editing for this was probably 1:4. I think I wrote this story in about an hour. Then I edited it off and on for a few more hours, cutting and revising and tinkering. That makes it seem relatively simple, and I suppose it is. The broader answer, and the one that I think is more accurate, is that writing (for me at least) includes a lot of a) not writing at all, and b) writing a lot of crap. So, the particular words in this specific piece took a few hours to render, sure, but they wouldn’t exist if I didn’t also spend just as many hours writing and then abandoning other things, and even more hours (days? months? years?) wasting time and staring into space and wondering what I’m doing with my life, and failing at one thing and then another (and another and another). In fact, failure is probably the most accurate well-spring to pin the Christian Bale story to, as well as most of the shorter pieces I’ve written. I often belabor the act of writing—I plan, and I conspire, and I outline and I draft and make notes—and then everything collapses and I’m left with a breathtaking pile of nothing. In that moment of complete failure, feeling out of sorts and a little unhinged, I usually start writing a lot of smaller things in short bursts. Things that specifically seem not worth pursuing. It offers a kind of contrast to what I’ve wanted so desperately, and have strived for uselessly. But it’s only by first chasing something that seems “important” to me that I’m then able to fail and commit to something trivial. It’s almost always more rewarding. And, so, yeah, I wrote these particular 400 words pretty quickly, but I arrived at the moment in which I would write them only through a humbling jumble of missteps, futility, ill-conceived nonsense, and delusion. I mean, these 400 words are also a humbling jumble of missteps and delusion, but they are set of mistakes that are at the very least complete.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m writing something about giants, another thing about airports, something else about board games, and also trying out a collaboration with the wonderful composer Will Aronson. Also, a lot of notes about one thing or another that I think are important at the time but that I will probably never look at again.
What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?
Recently, I read The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. It’s fantastic and offers a great, necessary response to The Stranger. I think The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander should probably be required reading for anyone living in the U.S.. Melissa Broder’s new essay collection, So Sad Today, is absolutely amazing; super funny, smart, gorgeous, and, yes, sad. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli makes me dance because anything is possible. Signs Preceding the End of the World is so unbelievably precise and calculated and still manages to be both contemporary and mythic all at once. There are just too many things to mention. It’s a good time for books.