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.

Thursday
Dec122013

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Morris Collins

Morris Collins's first novel Horse Latitudes is out this August. Other fiction and poetry has recently appeared in, or is forthcoming from Pleiades, Gulf Coast, The Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Nimrod among others. He received his MFA in fiction from Penn State in 2008 and he lives and teaches in Boston.

An excerpt from his novel, Horse Latitudes, appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Horse Latitudes Enjoy!

What is writing like?

[I try to get in over my head…]

On his stunned walk back into town, he had seen a lake pooling out on the plateau behind the shanties. Under the slivered moonlight it hung flat and motionless and Ethan thought about what he would have to do in the coming days. Once when he went snorkeling off the north coast of Honduras he had watched pearl divers in boats out beyond the reef line grab weights and jump overboard. It was like that. Getting down there would be easy. You let yourself sink. Anyone could do it. But getting back without consequences, where the stakes raised with every moment, would be difficult.

[and stay determined…]

She set out for one of the many raft launches. The sun had fallen and the lights appeared on the far shore, blinking between the trees like the moving lanterns of phantom guides. In the stories she had been told as a child, to follow the lights through the jungles was to follow the Duende—the spirit that lured children into the forest. But she was not her little sister, she was not afraid of spirits and did not believe in stories, and she knew as she watched the lights flashing out of the crooked coves of shadowed trees that she was drawn to them, that she would cross the river and move toward the lights the way the fishermen on her island followed stars, or the way the fish themselves rose toward the lure of the reed lanterns rocking below waiting spears. So be it.

What isn’t writing like?

Ethan stood and watched Doyle dance and felt the sudden freedom one feels when a menacing dream turns to nightmare. At least now he knew what he was dealing with, and whatever it was, it was another world altogether, a new wrinkle forever removed from any choice made in any morning at any table in New York. The whole thing reeked of ruin, and Ethan felt the urge to reach for a camera that was not there. He raised his hand to Doyle but Doyle did not see him. Doyle had made his way to the stage, where he frolicked with the club dancers, the women paid to stay and dance as long as there were customers. He moved between them, he bumped and bounced, he laughed over the hundred decibels of reggaeton—he produced, in the blackened half-second between strobes, a dead chicken.

When you do it, why?

[Usually,]

He had woken alone in a stranger’s bed wearing only his argyle socks.  Fine, that was the state of things, the way the evening played out, but it was a hard state to ignore.

[But also,]

Ethan kept the picture. He didn’t take many and he kept even fewer. In it, she’s turning her head to the side to look not at him but at the sea, at the boats there, the darkening waves. She’s saying something, though—her mouth is open and her lips drawn up in an expression of wonder. The day’s last light tangles in her black hair. Condensation glints on the outside of her piña colada, but if you wanted you could say the blush in her skin is just sunlight, the glow in her eyes some kind of pleasure. Sometimes, when he looks at the picture, he knows it for what it is: a vanishing life tricked into permanence, the last perfect moment before the falling dark. Other times it’s simply evidence and he tries to see her as she saw herself—diminished somehow. But for him it’s just the opposite. If he could, he’d reduce the whole of their lives together to these photographs, moments outside of memory, stills that if you tried, could mean anything.

When you don’t, why?

At some point, to some degree, everyone abandoned their charmed life and lived as best they could in the world. What did it matter? There was purity in light but not in illumination. The light touched the world and the world appeared sullied. Get over it.  We mold our own scars, we make our own mercy.

[And, also, unfortunately, sometimes:]

The margarita came and it was terrible.

Monday
Oct212013

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Ravi Mangla

Ravi Mangla lives in Fairport, NY. His stories have appeared in Mid-American Review, American Short Fiction, Wigleaf, matchbook, and Tin House Online. He keeps a blog at ravimangla.com.

An excerpt from his novel, Understudies, appeared in Issue Fifty of The Collagist.

 

Here, Ravi Manngla answers interview questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from his book. Enjoy!

What is writing like?

It’s like peeing in a lake or masturbating in a movie theatre.

What isn’t writing like?

Some sloping, decrepit dwelling, the grass overgrown and grounds for dumping, a relic of personal ruin.

When you do it, why?

I’m a Methodist.

When you don’t, why?

I’m not about to appropriate the internal landscape of a mourner just to feel better about myself. 

Thursday
Oct102013

" . . . In the End We Can't and Don't Know Anything": An Interview with David Hollander

David Hollander is the author of the novel L.I.E. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in dozens of print and online forums, including McSweeney’s, Post Road, The New York Times Magazine, Failbetter, Poets & Writers, Unsaid, and previous issues of The Collagist. His work has been adapted for film and frequently anthologized, notably in Best American Fantasy. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife and two children and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, where he is revered as a God.

His story, "Powers of Ten," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, David Hollander talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about the myopic nature of human myopia, stealing structures, and self-destruction.

What section or scene did you first write, in what would eventually become, “Powers of Ten”?  

Believe it or not, I wrote the sections in the order they appear. I was working from an outline and had some idea of what additional sections might look like, and I moved very methodically forward.

 The structure of this piece had an odd effect on me, in that on my first read through I felt sadder/more horrified after each section, but on my second read through I felt almost the opposite. A sort of: man-if-10³-only-knew-how-good-she-had-it sort of take, which isn’t to say that my second interpretation is true, but the work seems to invite this oddly hopeful perspective. Could you talk about the overall structure and how you view this piece? 

So there’s a picture book titled Powers of Ten, which is where I got the idea for the piece. Basically you crack the book’s cover and see a picture of a couple picnicking together in a park. The shot is taken from 10 meters above their heads and is titled, 10. You turn the page and see a shot of the same couple, taken from 100 meters above their heads, titled 10². And so on. By the time you get to the last shot, taken from 10,000,000,000 meters away, you’re “viewing” the couple from deep space. Then the book reboots and you’re again looking at the original picture, only this time you move one power of ten closer with each page. By the end you’re looking at the atomic structures that form the surfaces of their bodies. The amazing thing is that the most distant shots of galactic madness and the most close-up shots of molecular chains are very nearly identical.

Anyway, that book made an impression on me 20 years ago and for whatever reason it occurred to me that it would be an interesting structure for a story. I am often looking to steal structures from elsewhere. But what I decided to pour into that structure was a conundrum that has informed many of my fictions in recent years: Here I am, a tiny collection of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen atoms, locomoting around on a tiny planet orbiting an average yellow star lost among (cue the Carl Sagan) billions and billions of other stars, and the entire mechanism that contains my individual life—with all its seeming nuances and complexities—is soaring around a galactic black hole that is itself soaring through what is for all intents and purposes an infinite freezing blackness. Not only my life but the existence of our entire accidental species nets out to zero in the cosmic prospectus. And yet my life feels so important. My stupid experiences seem to matter so much. This incongruity interests me, and cracks me up, and brings me sometimes to the brink of self-destruction.

I guess I wondered what it would be like to take the suffering that I feel and to keep expanding it by another “power of ten” until we reached a variety of suffering that might have some objective validity… suffering as known by God or by the Universe. So yeah, the 10³ woman may not know how good she has it, but I don’t think I was trying to say anything about who has it good and who has it bad, so much as I was exploring (or like, scoffing at) the perspective that venerates suffering and assumes any of this matters. Which, after all, is the perspective from which most of our nation’s most lauded fictions are written.

This is a story told in the third, but it reads in many sections like a first-person narrative, due in large part to your use of the free indirect. Can you tell us about your experience in writing this piece? Was there ever a moment where you found yourself absorbed in a particular voice or character? 

The free indirect, huh? I’ve always thought that was a pretty dumb or misleading expression for this variety of very close, inside-out third person. But I blame James Wood, not The Collagist. You guys are the only ones who’ll publish me at all these days and I love you all. In any event all the characters and scenarios are interesting to me and I enjoyed, more than anything else, what it felt like to switch into a new cadence and diction at the end of each section. I could feel a little “pop” whenever I entered a new Power of Ten. I know that with certain sections I felt more “on,” in terms of the sentence writing, than I did in others. And I struggled a lot with how to end the piece. Originally I looped back to the vapidity of the opening section, but that didn’t seem right. I wanted to find an ending that might suggest that the story’s (implicit) suggestion of human myopia was itself myopic, and that in the end we can’t and don’t know anything. Which is my default intellectual position these days.

If so, were there moments where you had to step back from the particular character and remind yourself that this was not the story’s character, but a character contributing to the overall story?

Honestly, I think I just drove my way through the structure with maniacal certainty in its excellence.

Are you familiar with the old SNL skit: the Chris Farley Show? If so let’s pretend you are Chris Farley interviewing David Hollander. How would you fill in the blank: “Do you remember that time in your story “Powers of Ten” when ____________happened?...That was awesome!” 

Greatest question ever, but hard to answer because all the scenarios in “Powers of Ten” are either laughably shallow or seriously bleak. Maybe Chris Farley (or the character in the skit who shared his name) would have liked the last section. “Remember that story you wrote, ‘Powers of Ten’?” “Yes, I do.” “Remember when God was looking around at all the darkness and smoking a joint?” “Yes.” “And then he thought about all those different kinds of darkness and how dark they were and how darkness was like, really dark?” “Yes, I remember, Chris.” (awkward pause) “That was awesome.”

What are you currently working on? 

I’m finishing a great novel that no one will publish. In fact I’ve got three great unpublished books in the hopper at this point, and this will make four. But I like the book a lot. It features an inept terrorist organization bent on the eradication of the human species, enormous superintelligent robots with a vendetta, multiple kinds of mind control, a small army of paranoid schizophrenics, and best of all, Ultimate Frisbee.

What are some books you are eager to read?

During the teaching year I’m so busy with student manuscripts that I have to choose my published reading carefully. I end up rereading books I love more than taking a risk on a new release. Though I did just finish Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, which was so good that I don’t even know how to talk about it; it’s actually rekindled my belief in literature. I hope to have a chance to read my friend and colleague Nelly Reifler’s short new novel, Elect H. Mouse for State Judge, which is on the bedside table. Also I have sitting here on my desk a copy of Robert Coover’s A Child Again, which McSweeney’s released maybe 7 or 8 years ago and which I’m almost scared to read because of the influence Coover has had on me in the past. But I’ll be honest—most days I come home exhausted, either from the College or from one of my several other jobs, and then I spend a further exhausting hour or two with my kids before getting them to bed and turning on the television and thinking of how my entire career has been defined by failure and rejection and self-loathing. Which is to say I’m suffering a lot out here, and it doesn’t matter and nobody cares.

Wednesday
Oct092013

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Claudia Zuluaga

Claudia Zuluaga was born in White Plains, NY, grew up both there and Port St. Lucie, Florida, and now lives in New Jersey. She earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine, JMWW, and Lost Magazine, and was included in Dzanc Books's Best of the Web series. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories. Claudia is a full time Lecturer in the English department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

An excerpt from her novel, Fort Starlightappeared in Issue Fifty of The Collagist.

Here, Claudia Zuluaga answers interview questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from her book. Enjoy!

What is writing like?

She straightens her legs, but can’t feel the bottom.

She can climb back out. She will. In a minute. First, she needs this cool water all around her. God, it feels good. Weightless and clean. She wishes she’d taken off her clothes.

Steeling herself with a deep inhalation, Ida pushes herself under the surface. She forces herself further down with her arms, at first only to where the water covers her head, then further. And further. Her toes don’t touch anything and her hair streams out above her. When she opens her eyes underwater, they burn. All is darkness. She thinks about baptisms in the water, how you have to be pushed under and then everything is new the second you pop back up. Then she thinks of the woman in the movie, trapped under the surface of the water, and raises her arms and kicks her legs.

The light of the sun is so bright when she surfaces. She sucks in the air and tastes salt on her lips. A small, soft wave rushes across her shoulders. She is facing a different continent. Africa.

What isn’t writing like?

She saw it on the menu: warm, flourless chocolate cake. Though she was too full to consider it earlier, she wishes she could have a bit now. She isn’t sure she knows how to make one. This is something she needs to learn.

And she will learn it. There is no magic. Cakes are like anything else; it is just a recipe that she will have to make time to practice. She loves the experience of starting from nothing but sugar, flour, fat, and heat and ending up with something so mood-altering. She checked a few baking books out of the library in Aster, knowing full well that she would never bring them back. They are in her apartment still and she wishes she had brought them with her. Besides doubling the cinnamon, or adding a pinch of some other spice, she never does much to change the recipes, but the people who run the community center were crazy about her blackberry crumbles, banana walnut muffins, pecan tarts, and caramel squares, as though she gave them some special touch.

When you do it, why?

Ida is only going because she needs to get out of the house. It is probably built on some lost souls’ burial ground. Haunted with misery. The tarp has a death rattle lately; at night, it takes all of her energy to block it out so that she can sleep. Relief doesn’t come in the daytime, either. There is nothing to see when she looks out the window, no way to distract herself from her tongue touching the tender, empty space. The cool baths give some escape, at least from the heat, but the darkness of the bathroom makes her imagine a sarcophagus. The other night, she climbed up on the bathroom sink to screw a light bulb in, but there was no fixture. Just a hole for one.

When you don’t, why?

Banal, New-age garbage. When his carefully selected and recorded sounds came together, they created nothing. The first time he heard it, he was hopeful; he strained his ears and his mind to ear what wasn’t there. It didn’t tug at his brain in any way, or make him feel like he was privy to any secrets. It would tug at no one’s brain, except for the biggest of fools. No one needed to be evolved to appreciate it. IT was music for now, and not even particularly good in that respect. It might be played in yoga classes, or in environmentally-conscious retail stores, if he cared to try to make such a thing happen, which he did not. He sat with his head in his hands.

Monday
Oct072013

"Illness from a Flaw in the Womb": An Interview with Diana Khoi Nguyen

A native of California, Diana Khoi Nguyen is a recipient of awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Key West Literary Seminar. She's also received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Diana's poems and reviews appear or are forthcoming in Phantom Limb, Memorious, Lana Turner, Poetry, and elsewhere.  www.dianakhoinguyen.com

 

Her poems, "Self-Portrait as Justin Boening" and "Flaw in the Nursery," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

 

Here, she speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about self portraits, the left margin, and the mishearing of "bray" as "pray."

I looked up Justin Boening, and he just had a chapbook come out called Self-Portrait as Missing Person and we published his Self-Portrait in Which I Resemble the Man Next to Me in Issue FortyCould you tell us about the connection and about writing your poem, Self-Portrait as Justin Boening?

In graduate school, I couldn't for the life of me write a self-portrait when assigned. I think I submitted some picayune thing in which a speaker described her body in terms of paper products and insects that live under a rock. Basically, I thought I was ugly. That thinking likely hasn't changed, but I no longer feel it has a place in my poems. It was also in grad school that I met the illustrious Justin Boening--there's a term for this now, meet-cute--anyway, we've been partners since then and are currently residing in Amish country, where he's the Stadler Fellow in Poetry at Bucknell University for the next two years.

I was living with Justin when he wrote the poems that would later comprise Self-Portrait as Missing Person; it's wonderful to share a home with a significant other, but it's especially enlightening to share it with a partner who is also a poet. As when one lives with another (be it family member, roommate, lover) for a long period of time, one picks up on all the intimate details and preferences of that person. I knew Justin's poems well--I had seen them go through their various transformations, just as I knew the man himself well.

In April of this year, we both signed on to write a poem a day for Tupelo Press's 30/30 fundraising challenge. When you have to summon a brand new poem each day for thirty days, it really opens you up to trying anything. So of course I thought I'd renew my attempt at a self-portrait; I mean, why not? One of my favorite self-portraits comes from my mentor, Lucie Brock-Broido, "Self-Portrait as Kaspar Hauser." The poem is revealed in a Q & A format, a form with which I am currently obsessed. So I thought I'd try my hand at writing a Q & A self-portrait--and instead of choosing a historical figure, I thought it would be funny to choose my best friend. It was a revelatory experience to learn about my self (or perception of self) through the guise of detailing someone I love.

At the time of composition, I had no idea if the project would yield a poem (especially in the constraint of twenty-four hours), but I took it, one call and response at a time. When I finished the draft, I stepped back from the poem (rather, I rolled my office chair away from my monitor) and read the poem through. I remember asking myself, "Is this a poem?" and then thinking, "Okay what just happened?" This is what I love about creating--starting from a block or blank, working on all the minute details, and feeling that sense of wonder when your body feels the task is done (for the time being). I think it must be similar to how endorphins work or how oxytocin is released after a mother gives birth so that she can connect with her child.

I love how Flaw in the Nursery pushes the lines away from the left margin, making the lines, which already feel distinct from each other, feel as if they are floating on the page. Could you talk about your use of line in this poem? 

I can certainly try. As a person who bores easily, I'm often loathe to render all my poems left-justified--but I'm also loathe to randomly disperse language just because I don't like the left margin. So I can never figure out what I want.

For this particular poem, I felt the poem had much to gain from pauses between each stanza. And in this poem, each stanza also happens to be a contained thought, so the placement of lines were a kind of ruling. A ruler is apt in this case since rulers are associated with early schooling and with measurement (as in lines marking sibling growth on a doorframe). Then, by extension, the lines are a form of measurement in the poem. Or so I hope.

Self-Portrait as Justin Boening asks a lot of questions that arent exactly answered. Im most interested in answers to the question What did it feel like? which gives a series of forward slashes as an answer, and the last question And? which is answered with And bray (when, my ears at least, expected to hear pray.)  Where did the answers come from? Did the questions come first, or the answers? A little of both?

To me, I feel that inquiry should lead to further inquiry. Which is another way of saying that receipt of information should lead one to pursue even more information--which is really a process that doesn't ever end as far as curiosity is concerned.

So where do the poem's answers come from? Me, of course. Which is to say, The Black Lodge from Twin Peaks, or the pitch-black phantom floor at which the elevator sometimes stops in Haruki Murakami's Dance Dance Dance.

For as chaotic as I can be, I'm also fairly linear. The questions came first, because query is such an instrumental key to accessing mystery. I'm not sure if I could have written this poem had I started with the answers first. It would have been a different poem altogether.

To address the answer to the poem's question, "What did it feel like," it felt natural to try something other than words for once--I mean, this was part of the poem-a-day, so if non-words in a poem didn't work, it didn't matter since I'd have to shell out a new poem the next morning anyway. I must admit I nearly always have trouble articulating feelings into words, which is why I try to direct my focus to concrete images (created by words). Since this particular question asks the addressee to relay a feeling, it made sense to try to replicate the source instead of rendering that feeling into likeness or image. The act of tapping on the forward slash key irregularly to create the poem's response produced this tense momentum in my body to which my mind was resistant. I hoped something similar to this effect would be achieved by the reader since one's eye has to follow forward slashes and spaces between the slashes.

It's a reasonable expectation to want to hear "pray" in the last line since the previous question's answer involves brothers kneeling down on the floor. But "bray" made sense not only because it is animal in nature and directly deals with the sound emitted from one's mouth (as in the act of prayer or song), but that it had to also call to mind what creature makes a braying sound.

Could you tell us about some of the things that youve been reading?

I read as much fiction and non-fiction as I do poetry, and in some ways, prose tends to have a more direct influence on the composition and inspiration for poems. Don't get me wrong: I love poetry--but after reading so many great poets and poems, all I want to do is mimic--which is a form of instruction, certainly. But after reading phenomenal prose, I feel there's no way I could imitate it since my medium is poetry; so this frees me up to focus directly on the sublime feeling derived from each prose experience. I suppose the same process could be applied to reading poetry--except I haven't figure out how to do that yet.

To answer your question, I'm currently reading (and rereading) some of my favorites: Willa Cather, Carson McCullers (no one does that in-between ennui quite like she does), Yoko Tawada, Marilynne Robinson. I'm also reading this incredible book called Tinkers by Paul Harding and the new Eliot Weinberger I picked up from AWP earlier this year.

As for poetry reads, I'm currently inhabited and inhabiting Berryman's "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet," and anything by Mark Levine. I just started reading David Baker's Midwest Eclogue and Bridget Lowe's At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky, two incredible poets and humans I met at Bread Loaf (albeit on two different occasions).

Could you tell us about what else youve been writing recently?

Poems, or at least, I hope they are poems.

But I think this question wants me perhaps to discuss the details of my current project(s)--in which case, I can say that I'm working on assembling my first manuscript. The recent poems I've been writing have either been other kinds of direct or indirect self-portraits (surprise!) or poems which examine abuse and empathy in human and animal behavior. Which is to say I'm writing about family.

Friday
Oct042013

"They Want One But Can't": An Interview with Robert Lopez

Robert Lopez is the author of two novels, Part of the World and Kamby Bolongo Mean River and a story collection, Asunder.

His story, "A Good Percentage," appeared in Issue Forty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he talks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about babies, aloofness, and a subway encounter.

How did you go about writing “A Good Percentage? 

This one started on the subway. Something like what happened in the story happened that night on the subway. Perhaps not exactly like in the story, but close enough. I went home after seeing what I saw and finished the story that night or maybe it was the next day.

I love how you repeat baby so many times in this story. I feel like it really builds up the baby into an ideal or an icon, something like the “form” of baby. Could you talk about your decision use the word “baby” over and over instead of “child,” “infant,” etc.?

Baby is a great word. Child is good, but this was a baby, not a child. The baby was indeed an infant, but that word didn’t occur to me while putting this together. Baby seemed right at the time.

Though we know the speaker is first person (the “I” is used early on), the speaker feels almost third person until nearer to the end, because s/he only observes what’s going on with the baby and the reactions of the seven women. At the end, when the speaker admits his or her own weaknesses and that s/he plans on calling Esperanza, it’s refreshing, as if the speaker has made the decision to try to realign something amiss in his or her life. I found this reading especially interesting when I found out that Esperanza means “hope” in Spanish. Could you talk about writing such a short piece with such an aloof speaker? 

Seems that aloof narrators are the only ones that speak to me. Again, this might not be altogether true. But the use of Esperanza was deliberate. I think there might have been another name at some point, but then Esperanza occurred to me and the piece was finished.

What reading suggestions can you give us?

Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo.

What have you been writing recently?

I started a new story last night. Perhaps it’s a story. Seems like it could be, like it has that potential. This has been the only writing I’ve done since June, which again, isn’t altogether true.