Tuesday
Jan212014

"The Hair Stylist Who Fell Twenty Feet and Landed Upright": An Interview with Roberta Allen

Roberta Allen is the author of eight books, including the novel, The Dreaming Girl, which was republished in 2011, two short short collections, a novella-in-shorts, a travel memoir and writing guides. She has recently finished a novel and two story collections. A conceptual/visual artist as well, she has work in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum. She leads private writing workshops.

Her story, "Forgotten," appeared in Issue Fifty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, interviewer Melissa Goodrich chats with Roberta Allen about darkly-humorous details, the collective unconscious, and a series of imaginary islands.

How do auxiliary details help inform your writing? Like the shared stylist who had once fallen twenty feet off a cliff while hiking and landed on her feet, or the all-white bedroom, or the old boyfriend who bar mitzvahed his dogall of them vivid, curious, and full of metaphoric implications.
 

I am drawn to details—some darkly humorous—that exemplify to me, the strangeness of life, the strangeness of human experience and behavior, (the hair stylist who fell twenty feet and landed upright, the bar mitzvahed dog), and the absurdities that abound in the world. Curious and peculiar differences are remembered by the narrator rather than connections between one character and another. Details moved the story in directions I didn’t expect it to take and played a part in determining the form of “Forgotten.” 

 
At the end of this story, the narrator has lost more than her memory—but the actual friendships with the people she’s struggling to recall. Do you consider her forgetfulness a defense mechanism? Or a kind of trauma she’s suffering (“is there a giant repository with all the words that were ever spoken?” “Can the desire to remember fool you into believe that you do?”)? Those black Australian caves stick out to me—kind of magnificent, kind of horrific—“the sort of nothing…which seems to suddenly drop to infinite depths.”
The narrator, who is older and afraid of memory loss,  plays a game with herself. A serious game. She is testing her memory. I imagined the narrator as a character who doesn't have much feeling for Katherine, Valerie or Yolanda. The narrator’s anxiety about her memory (not the friendships) fueled this story for me. But she may be hiding her motives for remembering. Of course, the unconscious has its own motives. The “black Australian caves…which seem to drop to infinite depths”) are a metaphor for the unconscious, for all the memories that are lost, that may never be retrieved—not only in the narrator's memory but in the collective unconscious as well. The same holds true for “the giant repository of all the words that were ever spoken.” After the banal incident that triggers her memory of the characters, I imagined the narrator struggling to recall them because they are unimportant to her.
If I said that memories of important people in her life, important events, might have aroused too much anxiety in the narrator, I think I would be reading into my story more than is there.
You’ve written many short-shorts (a novella in shorts as well as two short short collections)—is your current writing still signified by the brief, or are you writing longer work these days? Do you ever combine your writing with your work as a visual artist?
 
I am reworking longer works, originally written years ago, that were unsuccessful or left unfinished. The ones I’m rewriting still resonate with me. In between, I am writing surreal flash fictions, each less than 200 words, as part of an ongoing series, Amulets From Imaginary Islands. The name of each island mixes up the letters of an existing one. The flash fictions were inspired by a series of my photos, which I call amulet photos. These are my only stories that combine images but the stories also stand on their own.  My conceptual art is something quite different.
 
What excellent things have you been reading?
 
I was impressed by The Guardian, Sarah Manguso’s memoir, and by the novel, Acqua Viva by Clarice Lispector. I thought I had read just about everything by Lispector, translated into English, except for the two novels that came out last year, Acqua Viva being one. (Her other books I read in 1989.)  The story collection, Family Ties, which isn’t recent, I somehow missed but I’m enjoying it now. I wish I had more time to read. There are a number of books on my list but my writing, my art—the solo exhibition I am preparing for—and my writing workshops keep me very busy.
 

 

Saturday
Jan182014

"As They Wobble into View": An Interview with Kyle McCord

Kyle McCord is the author of three books of poetry, including Sympathy from the Devil (Gold Wake Press 2013). He has work featured in Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Verse and elsewhere. He co-edits iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, and he is the co-founder and lead content editor for LitBridge. He teaches at the University of North Texas in Denton, TX.

His poem, "[I may never understand why you purchased the bonnet]," appeared in Issue Fifty-One of The Collagist. 

Here, he speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about human correlative and the length lines want to be.

Could you tell us about the genesis of [I may never understand why you purchased the bonnet]?

Truth be told, I’m not sure of the genesis, but here are some possible ways I could have written this poem:

1. I was on residency in Latvia. I had recently returned from a visit to Krakow. After the visit to Krakow in which a friendly man with a sword insisted that I take photos with him, then pay him, I wrote this poem.

2. I was on residency in Latvia. I was eating a fancy breakfast at the Hotel Bergs and thought “today I will write a poem that’s fancy.” I’ve had this thought before. I will have this thought again. I ate another plate of baguette and sliced meats. I returned to my room to write.

3. I was on residency in Latvia. I started thinking about my strange form of employment. I thought of my father, who is a law professor, and his years working for a firm in Phoenix. I thought of the sun. Then I remembered that I needed to finish the section of The Odyssey I was planning to teach my students. I went downstairs to get a kiwi, but there were no kiwis. I returned to my room to write.

Some of the details in this poem seem too specific not to be drawn from real life (“the bonnet / embroidered with a nude merman” and the numbering of the evil law firm and evil corporate client.) If these are drawn from real life, how do you go about picking and choosing what will be represented in the poem, while still remaining accessible to outsiders? If I’m totally off base here and they aren’t drawn from real life, how do you pick details that ring true to such a specific feeling?

I don’t have a nude merman bonnet and I have since been asked to resign from Evil Law Firm #5 (the partners found me insufficiently discrete following Evil Convention #7), but these things do have some basis in the real world. When I am picking an image I think: “What can’t be in a poem?” Resistance to an image indicates that a space hasn’t been carved out for how that thing could happen in a poem. It’s one way to “make it new.”

To me, the question is less about whether a poem is accessible and more about what it provides access to. Is a poem an abandoned building? Is it a shrine? Is it a party for ghosts? How does the poem make you access it? Do you feel comfortable accessing it? Does it change when you turn it upside down? Is it two places at the same time? Is it in a duel with itself?

A poem has got to have some emotional resonance, some human correlative. I do my best to bow to that. But I also want to offer an array of ways to access and inhabit a poem. That means letting go of some literal meaning and perhaps changing the means of access.

This poem’s line breaks pace it wonderfully, so that the reader can move easily through the poem. The poem itself is almost entirely “regular” sentences, though, and so I’m curious as to how you came to this line length (as opposed to having a prose poem, having much longer/short lines). Is this something that came with revision and playing with the text, or was it more organic?

It’s kind of you to say. I’ve written very long lines, and I’ve written medium length lines. This piece is from my forthcoming book You Are Indeed an Elk, But This is Not the Forest You Were Born to Graze (Gold Wake, 2015). It’s the first book where I really diced things up.

I demand some leaping on the part of the reader. The linebreaks are my way of shortening the distance. The lines didn’t want to be long anyway. I tried that. The images needed too much space. The winos and the spirograph didn’t want to share. I prefer to let images have their own life on a line when it doesn’t impede meaning or flatten things out too much. The smaller line gave me that permission.

Could you give us some reading suggestions?

Rebecca Gayle Howell’s Render, Hannah Gamble’s Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast, Nick Courtright’s Let There Be Light. Jason Bredle’s Carnival.

Also, check out these journals: Big Lucks, Gulf Coast, and Tin House.

What other projects are you working on right now?

I edit this site: http://www.americanmicroreviews.com/

I co-edit this site with the amazing Wendy Xu: http://iopoetry.org/

I run this reading series: https://www.facebook.com/KrakenReadingSeries?ref=hl

I’m also hammering away on a new manuscript that moves in and around art.

Friday
Jan172014

"This Is a Middle That Looks Like a Beginning": An Interview with Kate Petersen

Kate Petersen is a Stegner fellow at Stanford University, and holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She is at work on a novel and a book of stories.

Her story, "Jukebox," appears in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about self awareness, self conciousness, and the proper order of things.

What was your process for writing “Jukebox”?

Many many many hours staring at “the glowing screen,” as my family calls it.

The speaker in this story is very self conscious, both about her story (“I know: you've heard this one before.”) and the way that she’s telling it (I’m thinking of the line “Anyway, this isn’t even the beginning. / This is a middle that looks like a beginning.”). Could you talk about writing this speaker who is very self-aware?

Interesting question, and I’m intrigued that you use both “self-conscious” and “self-aware,” which strike me as two very different modes.

But in any case, writing seems to me to be a terribly self-conscious sport. At least from the writing side, there’s none of that self-losing purported to happen in other art. Acute, uncomfortable self-awareness seems definitional to the act—for me, anyways.

In a third-person story, in which a writer disappears behind her imagined world (or aims to), some of a writer’s energy gets tied up in masking that self-consciousness, pushing it beneath the surface of the story, making her choices seem invisible and inevitable. To a certain extent, one senses this happening in many first person stories and novels, as well.

But in “Jukebox,” rather than masking that narratorial self-consciousness, I wondered whether I could harness it to a sort of advantage by leaving it opened up. Whether fronting a certain amount of worry over the telling itself might not torque the story in interesting ways—especially because the story is all about the very deliberate working out of a problem, a woman trying to introduce light or at least order into a life that seems to keep certain things dark for her, and out-of-reach.

A secondary answer might be that teaching writing for a number of years now has made me ultra-aware of the "Whys" of everything: why does the story start here? Why does the story end here? Why is this sentence given this room, why the white space? Teaching means one has to have semi-legitimate answers for all of these questions, or at least have asked them. I was interested in what might happen if I fronted all of those very legitimate questions within a piece—whether the piece might then have to take them up and carry them somewhere.

The form seems to mimic the speaker’s self-consciousness: paragraphs are rarely more than a few sentences, often times only one line, and flit from subject to subject. Towards the end of the story, when the speaker seems to be reaching her peak of falling apart, we get fourteen one-line paragraphs. Could you talk about working with these lines? I’m also particularly interested in your process of revision, as I could see them being shifted around fairly easily.

I’m glad you see form and voice working in tandem here.

It’s hard for me to talk about working inside this piece line by line, because the story came to me early on as told, as Brooke’s voice—this cool, tough voice with heartbreak that fissures in. She wants to make a joke of all this, but it’s getting harder and harder to do. It’s very spoken story, which I heard first, and I did my best to honor that with the writing.

How does anyone revise? I wish I had a better answer. My current one is just hours, saying and reading these things back to yourself until a sort of logic introduces itself to the work, and sticks.

Order had to lock in for me, because it had to lock in for the narrator, Brooke. At bottom, “Jukebox” is all about a woman trying to put things in the right order, to do things in the right order, to find a logic to these almosts that will give her life a sort of meaning.

I don’t mean to suggest there’s not a sort of messiness to the leaps and returns Brooke makes. The piece is a deliberate working out of a problem in a way, and messy in the way that always is. I do sense a desperation that gets in at the end of the piece, where her experience-loop has left her empty-handed again, and she cannot quite believe it.

What have you read and loved recently?

Story-wise, I recently enjoyed Laurie Colwin’s The Lone Pilgrim, and am reading Edward P. Jones Lost in the City now, which is masterful. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (out this month) is singular, winsome and heartrending. John Brandon’s A Million Heavens stayed with me—he is so good at doing the desert. And I’ve been relishing the stories in Tin House, especially the twilit hypnosis of Alexander Maksik’s “Trim Palace” in the winter issue. He gets the weight of a dog’s head on you exactly right.

What else have you been writing and working on?

I have been going headlong at a novel for awhile now, as well as some stories that make use of my long and storied love for Costco. I am about to read Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” again for a project, and I’m looking forward to that.

Thursday
Jan162014

"What It Might Look Like to Manipulate Time": An Interview with Chris Daley

Chris Daley teaches creative nonfiction for Writing Workshops Los Angeles and academic writing at Caltech. She has reviewed fiction and nonfiction, primarily on music and L.A. history, for the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Review of Books. She earned a Ph.D. in English from the City University of New York Graduate Center, and she enjoys wasting time.

Her essay, "Thoughts on Time After Viewing Christian Marclay's "The Clock"," appeared in Issue Fifty of The Collagist.

Here, Chris Daley talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about time constraints, research hallucinations, and writing based on art.

Tell us about when you first saw Christian Marclay’s "The Clock." When/How did you decide you would write an essay on your reactions to it?

One thing about “The Clock” is that it’s relatively hard to see. While it has the body of a film, it has the soul (and exclusivity) of an installation. There are some clips on YouTube, but otherwise, you have to wait for it to come to a museum near you. Fortunately for me, it has shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art twice—once in summer 2011 and once in spring 2012.

I’m sure there are people who have seen more of it than I have, considering I’ve only watched two hours, one at each run. The first time I saw a portion starting at 3:30 PM between tourist stops with a friend from out of town. What most struck me then was how difficult it was to describe in the aftermath and how I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When it came to town the second time, I went for the 10:00 hour on a Sunday morning as if attending church. I was equally compelled. The next time it comes to LA, I’d love to go at 4:00 AM or midnight. Or midnight to 4:00 AM.

I’m sure I thought about writing the essay after that 2012 viewing, but I didn’t attempt it until about six months later. Every September I take myself on a writing retreat to Lake Arrowhead, and one day I was stuck on what I was working on, so I went down to the fireplace in the lobby with the intention to just write for one hour (goddamnit). I remembered my desire to write about “The Clock,” had the idea to time the sections, and got started.

You say you gave yourself an hour to write this piece. How long did you take to revise it? Did you take extra care to keep the text close to how it originally looked?

I almost don’t want to admit this because as a writing teacher, I constantly emphasize the importance of revision, but I didn’t revise it much. Partly I wanted to honor the time constraint and partly I was happy with it. When I decided to start submitting it, I didn’t change or add any content, but I did tweak word choice right up until it was published here. I think I was anxious at the end that there hadn’t been more of a revision process. Matthew Olzmann was extremely understanding.

This essay is an example of ekphrasis. How does art beget more art? How do you see this phenomenon taking place in your other work?

I did not sit down and think I was about to compose ekphrasis, but it definitely was a rhetorical exercise in creating expression out of artistic inspiration. I am occasionally an academic, and at other times a book critic, so it’s interesting for me to think about the distinction between reviewing or critiquing art and engaging with it to produce more art.

I don’t know if ekphrasis can be literary commentary on literary objects, but the novel I’m working on now does have another book at its center. When I was completing my dissertation on Los Angeles literature and alternative religion (over the course of three delirious months), I thought I came across a pulp novel called The Power. In this book, as the result of a radiation explosion, a group of San Fernando Valley housewives turn into colossal Amazons and torment the citizens of 1930s Los Angeles. When I finished my defense, I went looking for this book only to discover it didn't exist. A research hallucination. Now I’m trying to bring The Power into existence for real.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I haven’t worked on The Power for awhile, but I’m looking forward to my first residency at Ucross in April. I plan to spend some time tracing the imaginary history of this imaginary novel using its author, printer, readers, collectors, detractors, and the text of the book itself. Right now, I’ve got lottery winners, used bookstore owners, UPS delivery men, homicidal mothers, and Albert Einstein all coming into contact with the book in some way.

What did you read in 2013 that you want to recommend to the people?

I like that—to the people. I’ll stick with nonfiction. After my essay appeared in The Collagist, someone recommended that I read David Antin’s i never knew what time it was, a collection of prose poems that explore the nature of time, and I pass the recommendation on. I also enjoyed Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s and Other Essays, Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, Ali Smith’s Artful (although this is many genres at once), and Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. Thanks for asking.

Wednesday
Jan152014

"The Thing Reeks of Hot Jazz": An Interview with Amber Sparks

Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, and co-author (with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish) of the novella The Desert Places.

Her story, "When They Shake What God Gave Them," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Amber Sparks talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about myth-making, black humor, and writing dreams.

Tell us about how you began writing "When They Shake What God Gave Them."

This particular story started with a phrase I couldn’t get out of my head. I read something somewhere that mentioned jazz babies, and I had just been reading about Lizzie Borden, and for some reason, the two phrases clumped themselves together in my head and were hilarious to me – the Lizzie Borden jazz babies. I loved that phrase. (Not least because of its musical sound.) And the story just sort of took off from there. It was all about matching the language to the time period – I hope the thing reeks of hot jazz.

Reading your story the first time through, I immediately had the feeling I was reading a modern-day myth. (This phenomenon, I think, has something to do, at least partially, with the omniscience of the narrator.) What have you intentionally done to cultivate this fable-like feeling in your fiction?

I’m not sure that I cultivate it, per se, but I think it probably invades almost everything I write because that sensibility, the myth-making, is such a huge and living part of my brain. I’ve read and breathed myth and fairy tale since I was very small, so I think I just tend to look at the world through that lens.

The narrative takes a sharp turn for the dark with the clause "they start making plans to kill their parents." This line was so surprising I had to laugh out loud a little. Can you talk about how much of a role a sense of humor played in the formation of this story? (What makes us find, or supply, humor in the most morbid, morose material?)

Black humor is the only kind for me – or at least, it appears to be the only kind I can write. It’s also my favorite – sad funny is such a different kind of funny - it’s visceral, wet, soaked through and heavy. I like happy funny, too, but it tends to disappear off the page and the mind immediately after the joke. Sad funny sticks. It stays, like wet sand. I found the humor here both in the extraordinary contradictions of that time period, and also in the timeless contradictions and madness of teenage girls.

The final paragraph of the story visits the previously unexplored territory of Cat's dreaming mind. What made you decide to end this tale with a scene set in a dream?

Dreams are tricky things, and as every writer knows, they’re dangerous to write about because the writer either makes them too symbolic or too boring. But I knew I wanted to end the scene with a murder, and a lot of ambiguity, and the only way to really do that is in a dream. In real life, a murder invites immediate and black and white consequences, and I wanted to leave it open what my characters could be capable of, leave them in their own ambivalence, you know?

What writing projects are you working on now?

I finished another short story collection earlier this year, and I’m just in the finishing stages of a novel I’ve been working on for a little over a year. I’m alternately despairing and exuberant over it, depending on when you ask. Today I’m feeling hopeful. I think I’m a short story writer at heart, so I feel a little out of my element most days.

What did you read in 2013 that you want to recommend to the people?

Oh, so much good stuff. Matt Bell’s wonderful book In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Joseph Bates’ Tomorrowland, Laura Van den Berg’s Isle of Youth, Gabriel Blackwell’s The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men, Joseph Riippi’s Because, Lindsay Hunter’s Don’t Kiss Me, Karen Green’s Bough Down, Ravi Mangla’s Understudies, Jess Walter’s We Live in Water – plus this year I (finally) read Moby-Dick and Confidence Man, and Renata Adler’s Speedboat which if anyone is living in a bubble and still hasn’t read – get to it, clearly.

Thursday
Jan092014

“An Immanent Pattern in the Emptiness”: An Interview with Michael Sheehan

Michael Sheehan teaches fiction at Stephen F. Austin State University. He is a former editor in chief of Sonora Review, and is the reviews editor for DIAGRAM. He is the author of Proposals for the Recovery of the Apparently Drowned (Colony Collapse Press).

His story, "Boléro," appeared in Issue Fifty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, Michael Sheehan talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about layering, stripping away and the intersections between language, music and math.

This is such an intricate and layered story, I’m curious about its origin. What was the initial source of inspiration?

The initial inspiration—and this story has kind of been with me for a while—was an article I read about a woman with this condition, Allison’s; at the same time I was reading my way through David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More and David Chalmers’ The Conscious Mind. So I think it was maybe a confluence of these things that contributed to the story’s genesis. I had notes on this story for a long while, though, before ever really writing it. I don’t remember what exactly was the secondary spark that allowed me to write the whole story out from those notes and first drafts—I know the initial inspiration came just before I started my MFA and the story got written after I’d left. But I’ve always been really interested in the intersection(s) between language, music, and math. I’m also really interested in consciousness, theory of mind stuff. So there was a lot coming together in the story that excited me: Allison’s consciousness and the formal challenges that presented, which also allowed me to explore and talk about math and music and creation and language. Gaddis talked about setting problems for himself as a writer, that this was how he kept interested in writing any particular project. Along with the parts of this story that were just basically fun to write about, the idea of creating a form that mapped onto her deteriorating consciousness while also embodying the idea of seeking patterns, meaning—the pieces of the narrative arranged kind of like music, kind of like numbers through which we seek a greater understanding—was a sort of problem I set myself that I really enjoyed trying to solve.

Throughout the piece Allison is dealing with numbers, patterns, music, language—all of which attempt to capture and provide some sort of meaning to what seems, by the stories end, as the meaning: our ongoing connection through our very attempts at explanation. An ongoing dialogue is created that spans countries and time periods. You manage to convey this with such beauty and elegance. What was the revision process like in creating such a narrative?

There was kind of a layering process to writing the story, as well as the stripping away process of revision. So, here, I wrote various parts of this, and then would come back through and add more. I started with Allison, and then kind of expanded more into the historical examples, like with Gödel; at one point Pascal had a section in the story (another historical genius who gave up math to seek and serve God). So, hopefully without sounding too pretentious, this story kind of developed radially out from the center (Allison), exploring her past, her painting, her family, her condition, and also exploring mathematical ideas and history, seeking resonance there, as well as exploring out into other examples of either frontotemporal dementia or creation as a response to absence, deterioration—the Paul Wittgenstein story. The revision process involved a lot over quite a long time, altering the form of the story—it once had section headings, for one thing—as well as tightening the connections between the historical examples and Allison’s character. I also stripped some sections of Allison’s life out simply to focus her character. In general, I revised in favor of the central idea of seeking through the primes, the painting, looking for connections and resonances—my own search for patterns.

There is so much I love about this story. For example, that final scene between Allison, her husband Tim and the gallery owner. It’s such a wonderfully heartbreaking moment when Allison understands Tim’s desperation to recognize her art as “less about his overwhelming acceptance and support, and more about his ability to view [Allison’s art] as something he could handle, eliminating all trace of deterioration and death.” As a writer, I’m always curious about other writer’s means of thinking through a scene such as this. If you’re willing to share, what are some of your writerly quirks and traditions when creating such prose?

I don’t know that I’ve got anything too interesting, in terms of quirks and traditions. What comes to mind—well, two things: I listen to music when I write, which for whatever reason tends to focus my thoughts (as in allows me to forget myself in my chair, ignore the lyrics, unaware of how loudly I’m typing [I type really loudly], such that my thoughts are only on the words and the images, the space between my mind and the page), and second I tend to write really quickly which allows me to kind of go to this space—I don’t know how best to describe it, but this kind of creative trance (dorky as that sounds), where you lose yourself and just don’t stop writing forward, into the scene, etc. I think this scene originally came from that, not exactly a thinking-through but almost a semi-conscious type of creating, or at least a type of writing that is not at that time self-aware. I hate to say something as hokey as the scene wrote itself, because that’s not true. But as for quirks, I’m not sure how I got myself to the place where I wrote this other than to bury my distractions in music and to let my thoughts push into the moment until it seems like the scene, the fiction, is the only thing that really exists—my own self momentarily left behind. 

What’s the latest piece of writing you are working on?

So, I’ve been working for a couple years now on a novel, which is at present pretty long (around 250,000 words) and I would like to say nearly finished. It’s centered on three interwoven narrative threads: an 80s metal singer turned recluse who is working on a magnum opus—a rock opera called The Lamentations—which is inspired by the real life tragedy of an Iraq War veteran with a traumatic childhood who serves during The Surge and comes home with PTSD, and tries to reconnect with his high school girlfriend and ultimately commits a terrible act of violence; then there is an itinerant preacher who was once addicted to metal music as much as he was drugs and alcohol, who has since found Jesus and focuses expressly on preaching against the evils of rock music and sex and drugs and so on—so he becomes set on stopping the rock opera, part of a protest movement that objects to the music itself as well as the exploitation of the soldier’s story. There’s also a literary crossover-pornstar character, a sex addict obsessed with saving her soul, a struggling writer turned librettist, a mythic guitar virtuoso, and a whole lot besides. Not unlike “Bolero,” maybe, the form of the novel is in part inspired by musical composition—it’s broken into four parts to sort of align with Wagner’s Ring cycle, and also to be kind of symphonic in terms of voice, and tempo, and so on. Also like “Bolero,” it balances (I hope) intellectual and emotional development.

As 2013 comes to an end, what were your top three favorite books of the year? What are you excited to read come 2014?

I’m terrible with this type of thing; I always have a hard time narrowing stuff down. Top three of 2013? I really loved Bennett Sims’ A Questionable Shape, Sergio de la Pava’s Personae, and The Letters of William Gaddis, which I took with me when my wife and I went to Paris and Barcelona, which seems sort of appropriate. I’ve got some things sitting on my desk that I’m hoping to get to soon, too—Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Steven Moore’s second volume of The Novel, which I’ve only just barely started. I read some great research for the novel as well, including David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service and Louder Than Hell (an oral history of metal music). I’ve already read a couple books coming out in 2014 (I have the good fortune of getting to review these): Ben Marcus’ Leaving the Sea and Robert Coover’s The Brunist Day of Wrath, which I read over the summer and loved.

Wednesday
Jan082014

"The Thing You Want to Be Haunted by": An Interview with Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson is the author of over a dozen books of fiction, most recently the novel Immobility (Tor, 2012) and the collection Windeye (Coffee House Press, 2012). He lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife Kristen Tracy and his son Max, and works at Brown University.

His short story, "Lost Dog," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Brian Evenson talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about the aftermath of tragedy, readers' imaginations, and ghosts that aren't ghosts.

What sparked the idea that made you start writing "Lost Dog"?

I’d had an idea jotted down for a while, in a very basic way that led to the story:  “a ghost that isn't a ghost, only an earlier or later manifestation of one of them, a time slippage.”  But it might have sat there forever if someone hadn’t written asking me if I had a time machine story for an anthology he was working on.  I didn’t, but thought it was a good excuse to write this story up, though it became more and more clear that it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination a time machine story.

The story opens with a man living in a kind of stasis after the death of his wife. Why focus the narrative on the aftermath of loss rather than the tragic event itself?

I’m often more interested in the moment that precedes a disaster or the ruins existing after it than on the tragic event itself.  A lot of my stories either truncate at a moment of tension, just on the verge of something huge actually happening, or start after something’s occurred, after it’s already too late.  We all go through tragedy; that’s the nature of being human.  A lot more is revealed about someone’s nature by how they get to the point of tension or collapse, how they resist it or guide it forward, and by how they pick up the pieces afterward.  And I didn’t want this to be a story about a man losing his wife, but about different kinds of loss. I like the idea of being haunted but not by the thing you want to be haunted by...

In part two, the man begins to experience what might be a haunting or a rift in time. How did you make this decision to include a supernatural element? (Did you know from the very beginning you wanted to take this story to a surreal place?)

Yes, I did.  That’s rare for me, but it was the case with this story.  The challenge of this story was to figure out how to articulate that idea in a way that worked, and with a language that didn’t either simplify or diminish the idea, and wouldn’t leave readers feeling like they deserved more explanation.  I ended up opting for a voice that corrects itself gently and folds back on itself, keeps qualifying itself.  That struck me as something that would allow for the strange tentative space of doubled time to exist.

I noticed very few limiting markers of specificity in this story (e.g., the breed of the dog, the name of the man, the appearance of the house). What made you decide to withhold such information? What effect do you think is achieved by having the readers supply such details with their own imaginations?

I think there are often good reasons for giving those details, but I also think that for certain sorts of effects they’re not really important.  I could have had it be a story about Bert Jeppson, owner of a Labradoodle, living in a craftsman house, but none of those details would have really added much to the situation, and they would have distracted a great deal, made the story something that was easier to put in a box and forget about it once you were done.  We always exercise our imaginations when reading, but some stories ask us to take more of an active role in the act of creating their worlds than other stories do.  I like to think that my stories when they give details tend to give evocative details, little things with sensory or phenomenological resonance that galvanize the reader’s imagination into creating a world around them.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just finished a new story collection, which “Lost Dog” is part of.  It’ll come out in early 2015.  I’m trying to dive into a new novel, but still haven’t really made things click yet.  I have an idea for a Noir that I’d very much like to do, but there are only so many hours in a day.

What did you read in 2013 that you want to recommend to the people?

I loved Chris Wright’s graphic novel Black Lung, and reread and thoroughly enjoyed Chester Brown’s comic Ed the Happy Clown.  John Burnside’s The Devil’s Footprints was really great, as was Rob Walsh’s story collection Troublers.  Really loved Karen Green’s Bough Down.  Also loved Joe Ashby Porter’s Eelgrass, Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games, and John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.  Those are the things that come immediately to mind—I’m sure I’m missing a lot of good things.

Saturday
Jan042014

"Like a Baseline in Dropped D": An Interview with Josh MacIvor-Andersen

Josh MacIvor-Andersen is an award-winning writer, teacher, and competitive tree climber. He lives in Marquette, Michigan with his family, and teaches at Northern Michigan University.

His essay, "Double Helix," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Josh MacIvor-Andersen talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about how we process loss, internet research, arrivals and endings.

What sparked the idea that made you start writing "Double Helix"?

It really was a triple play of grief. My wife and I lost a baby we very much wanted to have, then my grandfather died, then a student from my small, intimate writing class took her own life. I was upstairs one night trying to grade papers in that dark wake and realized I was feeding on two different strains of background music: one worshipful and hopeful and the other accusatory and violent, surging from the screen in dropped D. That’s when the essaying took hold, or the insistence that, yes, all of these things can start to connect and be in conversation with each other—the processing of loss, the binary of faith and doubt, these two postures toward God. All of it coalesced there and I started pounding keys. Like a baseline in dropped D.

In other words, it’s not that all of these things meant anything, but that night I wanted them to mean something, or needed them to, so I essayed the connections. Or maybe the connections were there and somehow cosmically viable, but I still had to essay them into being. I don’t know. Maybe both are true. Either way, the spark was the juxtaposition of that YouTube feed: Tool clips weaving in with worship clips and my hunger for both.

This, by the way, is exactly where I start feeling excited and pedagogical and want to start riffing on the awesomeness of essays. It’s a sickness. I’ll subdue the urge.

The bookends of this essay feature two singers, Maynard Keenan and Kim Walker-Smith. It can be quite difficult to describe pieces of music in our text-based medium that can't do them justice. How do you rise to this challenge?

The verdict on whether or not I rose to the challenge is perpetually out, I’m afraid. And the idea of doing something “justice” in prose gets us into some complicated theories that I would be in fear and trembling to tackle here. 

But it helped that the attempt was based on videos as well as audio. I agree: those whose job it is to review music in fresh and meaningful ways have a hell of a challenge. I mean, how many ways can you actually describe a guitar solo, album after album after album? Crunchy? Fluid? Like seagulls? Like angry sex? I played my hand with “shotgun blast” and “screeching,” both worn enough to make a seasoned music critique wince, I’m sure, although I’m suddenly wondering why I didn’t go with “angry seagull sex,” which works particularly well for Tool.

The videos, though, allowed me to draw from two pools: the visual and auditory. I can’t tell you how many times I watched those videos trying to get the essay right. A hundred times each, easy. So I got a chance to get all meditative about how Maynard Keenan looked—“shocked by a powerful battery,” I wrote—while also trying to get at the quality of his voice which, like much of his art, is strangely beautiful and menacing at the same time. Similarly, it helped to see the crescendo-ing of the Jesus Culture folks over and over again while listening for the musical nuances of climax, which always seem to center on kick drum, crashing cymbals and a catchy refrain.

Anyway, I want to say something here like: all writing involves the same challenge of wrapping language around the ineffable. Trying to write in a fresh way about what it feels like to be in a good mood can be just as challenging as writing about the gravelly quiver in Emmy Lou Harris’s voice. I’m thinking here of Rilke’s attempt to describe the panther, its actual body, but also its imprisonment. Both aspects (the abstract and the concrete) were equally potent in the poem, and I imagine him agonizing similarly over both. In fact, they both gain potency in relationship to the other. It kind of gets us to the very heart of good writing, I guess—the way someone can move us to tears describing the surface of water we’ve seen a hundred thousand times. It’s a never-ending challenge, and one I’m not sure I rose to in this piece, but it was a sincere attempt!

Your musical framing device is made possible by watching online video clips, including what you call "a YouTube moment so intimate it feels like I should give her some privacy." How have the Internet and other recent technological advances changed the content, form, or process of your writing?

For better or worse, the web is central to my process and has been for years. I started writing longhand in a journal while I traveled, but for almost a decade I’ve primarily sat behind a Wi-Fi connected desk with access to everything all the time, which means I can chase every fleeting idea immediately to an internet end. I waste a lot of time falling down unhelpful rabbit holes. Of course I occasionally find the right one, which is super exciting because a whole vascular system of internet marginalia opens up, but I’ve increasingly felt anxious and overwhelmed by that access, and by the resulting acceleration of the writing process. It feels too frenetic. Way back in the day I would try and write entire essays using only the books on my singular bookshelf and a pacing circuit around the room. These days, it feels like I can’t even get started without exhausting an hour or two of internet curiosity, much of which leads nowhere.

I sometimes wonder, though, if internet “abundance,” as Franzen calls it, is more useful for the essayist, forever circling an idea from angle after angle, than for the fiction writer, who creates under “conditions of absorption,” according to Franzen. Yet I find that when I get deep enough into an essay, regardless of subject or how many hours I’ve spent prodding the internet for answers, I, too, need a vacuum of distraction, the discipline to simply not go chase an idea I might have read about once on, say, Slate, and instead stay in whatever that space is I’m trying to create on the page. In the end, absorption is paramount regardless of genre. At least for me.

This piece ends on a quite a meta note, saying of essays (and more, of course) that "you could tinker forever trying to get it perfect. The trick is to know when to simply set it down and let go." Tell us about what it's like to write about writing in your creative works. What are the potential risks and benefits of this decision?

I’m pretty sure a former writing professor told me to never, ever write about my own writing, unless I had a contract to write a book on craft. Somehow that mantra stuck, and generally I’ve stuck to it. I know I preach accordingly at least twice a year when one of my students tries to narrate his or her writer’s block, or otherwise go “meta” on the creative process (“I stare at the blinking cursor and blank page…”) or, god forbid, anthropomorphize a journal or diary.

But as I tried to feel out the ending for this piece, which is about a specific season of grief but also a lifelong wrestling with faith and doubt, I realized that the conversation I had with my student that one day was somehow significant. It was one of those light bulbs. A quickening. The conversation happened a few months before she took her life, and it was difficult to get myself emotionally back into that space but, when I did (having turned off my internet browser), I realized that most of the dialogue was about knowing when to put a piece of writing to rest, which instantly triggered the connection with my waning faith, the baby my wife and I lost, the ways in which we white knuckle so much in life that turns to sand between our fingers. I guess I broke my own rule, but it felt right when it hit the page. It seemed to speak to the handful of threads I had tried to weave and provide the right knot at the end.

It’s tough business, these endings. That final punctuation. In my less than contemplative moments I lean toward exclamation points. I’m trying to learn the simple period. Or even better, the ellipsis… 

But to answer your question, finally, I stick with my professor’s advice: avoid going meta on yourself at your writing desk unless Harper Collins has asked for a personal memoir on craft.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Mainly, I’m tethered to a manuscript that has been through so many permutations I want to stab it in the eye. I’ve recently admitted, reluctantly, that it is a spiritual memoir, a story of multiple conversions, but it took a while to land there and I’m not sure it’s ultimately the right form. It could just as easily be (and until recently was) a memoir centered on my years as a professional and competitive tree climber, forever hungry for transcendence: chemical, spiritual, relational, etc.

These things all overlap, of course. And that’s the crux: finding the deepest or most important undercurrent and organizing accordingly.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to arrive, to return, the dynamics of landing or docking or coming to rest. Specifically as they apply to the giant ore ships that float quietly into Upper Harbor here on Lake Superior, having traveled across what can be a very scary body of water. Some, of course, never make it, which leads to a different kind of arrival. I have a feeling I might try and get on one of those ships in order to feel all those thousands of buoyant tons leaning in against the docks. See what starts to connect. I’m still not sure if it might be a book or a long essay, but I like the idea of exhausting the idea creatively.

In the meantime, I plug away on smaller projects (a hybrid fiction/cnf piece about a dream in which I am a heretical youth group leader named Dirk) and blog posts for a great journal called Ruminate.

What did you read in 2013 that you want to recommend to the people?

I enjoyed Tracy Kidder’s recent book on nonfiction craft, “Good Prose,” in which he has a conversation on the page with his long-time editor and friend, Richard Todd. I guess it’s geeky and nostalgic, but ever since I read Steinbeck’s “Journal of a Novel,” I’ve loved the idea of a literary relationship that arcs through one’s creative life. A person who pushes on you both professionally and personally to get the job done, and get it done right.

I’m late to the game on this, but Ann Carson’s “Autobiography of Red” kind of messed me up in a good way. I was going to teach it without having read it for an entry-level mythology class that was cancelled last-minute, so I kept the book in my pocket for a month or two, and it started to feel as if it were something close to scripture, as if I were carrying around one of those old Gideon pocket bibles.

This, too, isn’t new news, but John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Pulphead” is one of the more important releases in creative nonfiction I’ve recently read, and I’ll plug Louise Erdrich’s “Round House” here, too, which was both accessible for students of an entry-level English class but also challenging and ultimately timely, as some of the very issues of jurisdiction and justice at the center of the novel were tackled earlier this year by lawmakers who ended up tweaking the Violence Against Women Act.

I’m currently reading Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers,” and next on the shelf are Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Once Upon a River,” and Junot Diaz’s “Drown.”

Anyway, cheers, Collagist crew. It’s an honor to be included in the journal, and equally great to be asked for my thoughts. Here’s to 2014!

Sunday
Dec222013

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Elizabeth Gentry

Elizabeth Gentry received the 2012 Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize for Housebound. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, she lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she works as Writing Specialist for the University of Tennessee College of Law and teaches for the University English Department. She received a MFA in fiction writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

An excerpt from her novel, Housebound, appeared in Issue Fifty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, she answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Housebound Enjoy!

What is writing like?

Lately they all came up from reading as if at the end of a morphine drip, incapable of making the transition into the concrete reality of their surroundings, anxious to plunge back down again.

What isn’t writing like?

“When the stairs are up, and you want to be somewhere else, you not only can’t get there, you can’t stop thinking about the place where you want to be—the kitchen or your father’s workshop or the woods. The places don’t have to be important for it to become impossible to settle back into the bedroom, even for pleasant activities. You’re upstairs breathing fresh air from the open windows, but you might as well be buried.”

When you do it, why?

For they had all begun a struggle over what to say and what not to say, when to say it and in what way and to whom. Maggie knew they would do so badly and in spite of themselves, hoping others would listen past the details for the origin of stories, occurring once and repeatedly across the limitless span of time.

When you don’t, why?

Novels in particular, with all of their morbid focus on what happens at the end, had caused her to depend on the ending of her own story to clarify the argument of all the preceding chapters—that love was possible, that healing and renewal reclaimed lives, or that everything was in an inevitable state of degeneration and unraveling—as if from her deathbed she could look back and decide then and only then what to believe about her own life, evaluating the recurring images and central themes for the appropriate messages, telling her what to believe just at the time that it no longer mattered.

Monday
Dec162013

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Yuriy Tarnawsky

Yuriy Tarnawsky has authored more than two dozen books of poetry, fiction, drama, essays, and translations, including the books of fiction Meningitis, Three Blondes and Death, Like Blood in Water (all FC2), Short Tails (JEF Books), and most recently The Placebo Effect Trilogy (JEF Books, 2013), consisting of Like Blood in Water (revised edition), The Future of Giraffes, and View of Delft. His other most recent book is a collection of Heuristic poems Modus Tollens: IPDs (improvised poetic devices; Jaded Ibis Press. 2013). He was born in Ukraine but raised and educated in the West. An engineer and linguist by training, he has worked as a computer scientist at IBM Corporation and professor of Ukrainian literature and culture at Columbia University. He writes in Ukrainian and English and resides in the New York City area. “The Quarry” is one of five mininovels from The Future of Giraffes.

Excerpts from his novel, "The Future of Giraffes," appear in Issue Fifty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, he answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from The Future of Giraffes Enjoy!

What is writing like?

Like hitting a tin sheet with a hammer and then taking these flat forms and turning them into round ones, joining them together….  I’d do it all day long, sitting on my stool and hammering away, and cutting and bending, with no one bothering me.

What isn’t writing like?

Like a silly child’s game. Like a giant malignant tumor under the skin. Like a fierce black bird.  Like a black cat.  Like a thin red snake.  Like nothing.

When you do it, why?

Because it makes a wonderful sound.  Because I don’t want to fall into the sky and disappear in it. Because it’s lonely up there.  

When you don’t, why?

Because I’m afraid to disappear in it like Jonas inside the whale. Because it’s pitch-black in there.   Because no matter how hard I scream it would never be loud enough.