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"A Form of Survival": An Interview with Dennis James Sweeney

Dennis James Sweeney's hybrid fictions have appeared in The Collagist, Crazyhorse, Five Points, Indiana Review, and Passages North, among others. He is the Small Press Editor of Entropy, an Assistant Editor of Denver Quarterly, the recipient of an MFA from Oregon State University, and a recent Fulbright fellow in Malta. Originally from Cincinnati, he lives in Colorado, where he is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Denver.

His three pieces, "The Plan," "Empire," "Out Hunting," appeared in Issue Seventy-Eight of The Collagist. 

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about writing as improvisation, Clarice Lispector, and goals for 2018. 

What inspired you to write “The Plan”?

I was working on a series of pieces that began “I went out in the woods,” and ideas were coming to me very quickly for a very short period of time. Sometimes this happens; when I have a basic form within which to write a story, and am writing several stories in that form, content arrives that I didn’t know I had in me. In the case of “The Plan,” and in the case of a number of the stories in that series, I think the unforeseen theme was the selfishness of men like myself in their attempted epiphanies.

The original line that began the stories was “I went out in the woods to find myself.” I have long had an impulse to leave my everyday life for nature, or travel, or some other relief from my commitment to the things and people I love. And while following that impulse does yield epiphanies, the epiphany is often that I want to return to the life I fled.

So much of this story is in what we don’t see: the men’s relationships with their families, what triggered them to follow through with the plan, etc. The beauty of the story comes, in part, from what you chose to leave out. When you write a short story, do you feel like you know the details surrounding the story, or are they a mystery to you, as well?

I’m afraid to say I do think of writing as a mystical process. Or at least an improvisational one—while I used to believe I was seeking out a story that already existed in the ether, I now feel as if I’m manifesting unmanifested possibilities by writing, so that the finished product is the trace of my mind’s momentary path instead of a representation of some ideal form.

A mystical interpretation I hear more often is that a voice speaks through the writer, and the writer is just a conduit. But to me thinking of writing improvisationally leaves more room for mystery: suddenly what you create is the product of an impossible-to-reproduce collision of time and space and circumstances. My best writing moments are animated not by determinism but by accident—when on my way to find what I was looking for I find something entirely else.

In the time between the present and publishing “The Plan” in December 2015, you have lived as a Fulbright fellow in Malta. Did writing about your experience in Malta as you were there shape your experience of the place in any way? If so, how?

Immensely, and writing continues to shape that experience even now—or misshape it. Since leaving Malta I’ve started about a million projects that fail over and over to describe what it was like to be there. Being in Malta was an incredibly rich and trying experience, but I still haven’t discovered how to convey that.

A lot of the time, writing in Malta felt like a form of survival; when I was struggling to get through an experience it helped me to tell myself I could write about it. Since I’m an every day writer, the real-time processing of these experiences anchored me in a way I rarely felt anchored otherwise. In the case of the series on Entropy, it particularly helped that I could immediately share these experiences with people. It made the experiences feel more meaningful, and contextualized them in a world I already knew.

What are you reading (or watching or listening to!) right now that you love?

Clarice Lispector’s short stories. It’s a constant epiphany with her, and though that is exhausting it’s also exhilarating in a way that reading has never been for me before. Sometimes it feels irresponsible to read her work, because it fuels the part of me that goes for runs in the cold, and eat too much chili, and forgets itself, and has no idea how to write. But it would be worse not to read it; to know that these paths are carved and I haven’t followed them would be a shame. I also love discovering a writer while so many other people are reading her, and while New Directions is still in the process of publishing translations of her work.

Do you have any writing or reading related goals for 2018?

After my failed NaNoWriMo commitment to producing a blockbuster sci-fi novel, I decided to be more modest in 2018. I’ll only work on projects I’m really committed to, only revise projects I think are worth revising, and treat the unknown not as an end in itself but as a means that allows me to invest stories with meaning. And trust the process: keep writing every day and trust that doing so will take me where I need to go, wherever that is.

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