"The Anxious Compass of Something Yet to Be Averted": An Interview-in-Excerpts with Gina Apostol

Gina Apostol won the Philippine National Book Award for her first two novels, Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata. She lives in New York City.

An excerpt from her novel Gun Dealers' Daughter appears in Issue Thirty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, Gina Apostol answers interview questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Gun Dealers' Daughter.

1. What is writing like?

Mucking through this part of the story discourages me, but I might as well go through with it. I’ve been told Kierkegaard’s sickness unto death is only a bodily malfunction, a glandular lack. Maybe this throb of incompleteness is the same. In my mind, the anxious compass of something yet to be averted—a sordid, unsatisfying suspension. I keep pushing it down, stomping on it, this heft of my expectancy, my wish to resurrect him, again.

2. What isn’t writing like?

When he wrapped me up, in that windy Oxford pontoon, prissily wiping off the splashing water from my summer calves; when he fussed over my Spanish mantilla before the march of the Feast of Fallas, one spring in Valencia, tightening the corset and smoothing the lace on my springtime chest; when he patted me on the head like a puppy, danced with me like a Gypsy, or put me to bed like my dad—odd sensations of replenishment, of completion, of being loved with the absolute devotion of someone who would always be loved back, no matter what she did.

3. When you do it, why?

I discovered that our books of history were invariably in the voice of the colonist, the one who misrecognized us. Filipinos were inscrutable apes engaging in implausible insurrections against gun-wielding epic heroes who disdained our culture but wanted our land. The simplicity and rapacity of those books’ reductions were consistent and provided the ballast for my tardy revolt.

4. When you don’t, why?

I should beat my breast, retreat into an ashram, join the crucifers of Pampanga and lash my body against a bloody cross, at the mere sound of my name. Because I do not have the imagination to possess affection. To be honest, I have never been able to envision society as a creature with genuine warmth or pumping heart. I act by impulse, by the inarticulate suggestions of my errant sensations. I have a cadaverous soul. In short, I am a member of the damned burgis—the Filipino bourgeoisie, with links to feudal lords. Whenever I think of my work, source of privilege and horror, I believe it is with conflicting purposes and incoherent intentions, when, in fact, I should never speak of it at all.


"Shifting, Second-to-Second Demands of the Improvised Moment": An Interview with Aaron Gilbreath

Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Kenyon Review, Tin House, Oxford American, Black Warrior Review, Brick, Hotel Amerika, Paris Review and Yeti. He works at Smith Tea in Portland, Oregon and blogs about music, food and miscellany here: '

His essay "Searching for Literary Sasquatch, the Elusive Narrative Voice" appears in Issue Thirty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, Aaron Gilbreath speaks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about the recipe and taste of narrative voice.

1. How did you come to write an essay on narrative voice?

In my graduate writing program, students had to deliver a final lecture –write ten or so pages on a topic, enough to read for twenty-five to thirty minutes. The subject could be about writing, a book, an author, whatever, as long as it focused on the literary and was well-researched. During my early years writing narrative nonfiction, any assignment would have felt smothering – I just wanted to write whatever I wanted to write about. This assignment was open-ended, though. Rather than feel confined creatively, or take this lecture as an intrusive waste of my “real” writing time (a feeling I often have about certain elements of regular Earthly life, such as shaving and shopping for shirts), I decided to think of this not as a lecture but as a creative opportunity, a chance to do something different. When I changed my perspective, I gave my mind free reign to tackle subjects that I knew in practice but never thought of as material.

I write narrative, often first-person essays involving music, food, people and places. I like writing about books and authors, but I never wanted to write about writing. I’m glad I tried to here, though. If an essay is often the process of a writer working through something – the search for answers, an attempt at understanding – then a school paper can provide a chance to make sense of a topic more scholarly than you’d usually assay about. One of my MO’s as a nonfiction writer is: follow my obsessions. Whenever I find myself fixated on some new thing– learning about Korea’s herbal tea tradition, for instance, or getting to know the origins of Tropicália – that thing is something I should look into writing about. At this point in grad school, I was taken with the idea of narrative voice: what was it? Why was it always coming up? When I recognized that, I also found my lecture topic. What was particularly beneficial for me was that the assignment forced me to abandon my preferred first-person format and to write a piece that didn’t allow me to weave myself in. Sometimes you get stuck in a rut. This and a previous essay broke me of the habit by forcing me out of my comfort zone. It was a watershed moment for me, after which I felt confident writing more probing, topical pieces that weren’t narrative. For the second time in my writing life, I felt what Sven Birkerts, essayist and director of my grad program, later expressed when he said, “Assigned essays can be a God-send. And nothing illuminates the mind’s mysterious workings as persuasively as seeing how an assignment, or even a prompt, charges particles and then gathers them to itself. Quite amazing. I can be in what feels like a creative void, a Gobi, but if the directive were given: write an essay on old batteries—I would.”

And then, some two years after finishing the essay, I sent Collagist editor Matt Bell the wrong draft and only realized it when I read his editorial comments: “Again, this references outside the essay/our experience.” Oops.

2. Could you talk more about your decision to create a list of ingredients in order to break down the large topic of narrative voice?

In my attempt to figure out what this thing called voice is, I used numerous microscopes to analyze it. I tried to capture its essence with the butterfly net of metaphors. I tried exposition to clearly articulate a definition. I used examples, hoping to point to cases in lieu of a definition. I’m horrible at math and rarely think in terms of formulae, but my mind can wrap around the lists and simple measurements in a recipe. The recipe is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It’s just me tasting a dish and saying, “I think there’s salt, garlic, chili and lime in here.” Here’s how I phrased it:

“If there could be gleaned some sort of essential recipe, it might be something like this: voice is word choice plus favored sentence structures plus rhythm plus ratio of sentence complexity to simplicity plus some personalized sonic fingerprint that impresses itself onto the sound of one’s words in some unquantifiable way.”

One problem is, when trying to describe what elements you taste in tea, coffee and wine, everyone picks up different things: hints of apricot here, a little melon note there. Voice seems the same way. I work for a tea company. When people come in to our tasting room and smell our teas, one person might smell hints of grass and earth in a particular varietal, while another picks up strong hints of sticky rice. When I say, “I taste salt, garlic, chili and lime in here,” I’m probably missing a few key ingredients. Aside from sense variations, a list of ingredients doesn’t add up to a definition. It gives a serviceable, broad impression of a thing, but it doesn’t capture its complete character.

3. If picking up on the different parts of narrative voice gives "a serviceable, broad impression of a thing, but it doesn’t capture its complete character," then what do you believe we can garner from actively digesting the voice in this manner?

Just because you can’t completely answer a question doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to. That’s the entire basis for assaying. Digesting it in this way is as much a reflection of how my mind works as it is the elusive nature of voice. Clearly I’m no Einstein, but Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” If my incomplete portrait of narrative voice can provide some insight for fellow writers and readers, then it’s worthwhile. In journalism, a profile can be said to work similarly: as detailed as a profile can be, is one ever a complete portrait of a human being? We’re too vast and complex. But a good profile can give us a clear sense of someone’s character and all its complexities.

4. What have you been reading in the past few months?

Always too many things at once, which is just how I like it. Recently I devoured Tom Bissell’s excellent essay collection Magic Hours. Nearly every piece in there is a knockout. Even his Author’s Note is engaging. I’m always reading literary magazines. These past months it’s been The Normal SchoolSlakeBlack Warrior Review and Granta. Also, the new Lucky Peachmagazine is stellar.

Like many people, I love The New Yorker. I especially love reading it on Sunday at a certain bakery with a certain someone whose name I won’t specify, but it rhymes with Rebekah. Recently I got a free subscription to The Economist, so I’ve been waving that around in public so strangers think I’m sophisticated. I also used a page of it to jot the opening lines of a new essay, which I’m grateful for.

In addition to pleasure reading, I’m always researching things for various works-in-progress. I recently read parts of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles and Marc Reisner’s A Dangerous Place: California’s Unsettling Fate for some LA-related pieces.

5. What other writing projects have you been tackling?

Because I’m too restless to sit around relaxing, I’m usually working on a few things at once: some short, some long, some topical, some personal.

This summer I finished a short essay about death and California’s infamous Grapevine Grade, a scenic, dangerous section of highway north of Los Angeles. That’s slated for The Threepenny Review. Now I’m writing a long personal essay based on the sale of my childhood Star Wars toys, but I don’t entirely know what it’s about yet. I have what Vivian Gornick calls “the situation,” and I’m pawing through the gravels of experience for what she calls “the story.” I’m in that exciting spelunking phase where you’re delving below the subject’s surface to see what it all really means. I think the essay’s about what the toys and their loss reveal about the nature of childhood, my own life and parental relationships, maybe also something to do with the pain of passing time and nature of mingled fates, maybe a bit about the way the human mind remembers childhood as a series of sense impressions, colors and images as much as specific experiences. But again, I don’t totally know yet. I just know that, as a kid, my Star Wars toys were my favorite possessions, that at age twenty-four I sold them all to a vintage toy store and used the money to buy a thousand dollar mountain bike that I barely rode for the next ten years. Based on the feelings those toys and that short anecdote evoke in me, I think there’s something more revealing and interesting waiting to be extracted, so I’m looking for it. This phase of writing is both frustrating and fun: your mind makes connections and finds meaning, symbolic resonance, metaphors and so on. (Note: there are fewer Chewbacca metaphors than you’d think. Chewbacca puns, thankfully, are plentiful.)

Another ongoing project is a series of interviews I did with homeless and transient people here in Portland, Oregon. In the summer of 2011, I talked with people I encountered on the street, and I transcribed our conversations. The first of the ten appears here in The Collagist. The awesome Jacob Knabb and Victor Giron are going to publish a number of them at Curbside Splendor. I’m circulating others now so that people will be able to read the interviews, and to give the homeless a voice that they don’t always have on their own. In the process, one magazine editor mentioned Studs Turkel to me after reading the interview I sent him, so I tracked down one of Turkel’s books. Man, was I clueless. I didn’t know anything about Turkel’s oral history work. I only knew that his astute, funny quotations seemed to be everywhere. Glad to be coming out of the dark on this one.

I’m also working on book of first-person narrative travel writing set in Canada, so I’ve been taking in Canada books like a baleen whale takes in krill: Will Ferguson’s Beauty Tips from Moosejaw, Roy MacGregor Canadians: A Portrait of a Country and Its People, and Bill Gaston’s wild hockey memoir, Midnight Hockey: All About Beer, the Boys, and the Real Canadian Game. One thing I’ve learned: Canada makes their books out of paper, just like we do. As kid in Arizona, I imagined they’d be chiseled from glacial ice or bone scrimshaw. These books also appear mostly in English, which makes reading easier for me.


"Many Kinds of Deterioration": An Interview with Dara Barnat

Dara Barnat’s poetry appears or is forthcoming in diode, Poet Lore, Salamander, Crab Orchard Review, Flyway, The Collagist,and elsewhere. She has been a poetry work-study scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Dara’s chapbook, Headwind Migration, was released by Pudding House Publications in 2009. Dara’s PhD is from Tel Aviv University, where she teaches poetry and creative writing in the faculty of English and American Studies. 

Her poems “Highway” and “Grief’s Language” appear in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Dara Barnat talks with interviewer Amber L. Cook through topics of intuition, memory, and instability. 

1. What made you sit down and write both “Highway” and “Grief’s Language?”

My motivation to write these poems was at first intuitive, unarticulated. However, I’ve come to realize that there was a strong urgency behind them (and other poems), to confront, personally and poetically, my father’s illness and death. For a long time I wasn’t ready to talk, let alone write, about these painful experiences. In retrospect, I believe “Highway” and “Grief’s Language” were important breakthroughs in finally examining and somehow writing through the fear, anger, and sadness. I hadn’t expected other types of sentiments to accompany this reckoning, such as joy, grace, and empathy. Lucky me, I found those, too.

2. I sense that the speaker’s father in “Highway” perhaps had a disease like Alzheimer’s that affected his memory. Does the form of this poem (couplets) help you to write to this subject?

That is a very discerning reading of “Highway.” Certainly I had in mind that the father displays signs of mental illness, although not specifically Alzheimer’s. I do think that in terms of form, the couplets create white space, which can represent gaps in memory. I was actually more conscious of using enjambments to echo the instability of the father’s mind, as well as the destabilizing effect of the father’s condition on the speaker, like in the line: “I know / this, because someone told me / they saw my father on / I-84…” That said, while the poem autobiographically relates to mental illness, my hope is that it also speaks to experiences beyond my own. For instance, I heard someone explain it as about old age. Walking “to nowhere” might be read as a metaphor for many kinds of deterioration.

3. In “Grief’s Language” we see a shift from a speaker trying to do anything to avoid grief to one who eventually accepts it as almost a friend. One line that I’m especially drawn to is: “I’ve started speaking to grief in every language possible.” How does the speaker earn this shift? Do the indents help the speaker to reconcile with this change?

That’s an interesting way to explain the shift. I’m not totally sure (in my own reading of the poem) whether the speaker earns the shift in attitude toward grief, as much as she (or he) is forced to accept it. My idea is that grief follows you, no matter how far you run to escape it (even, as in my case, as far as the US to Tel Aviv). I think the indents represent the speaker’s transition from resisting, to accepting, and then, as you suggest, almostcelebrating grief.

4. What’s something you’ve read lately that you got lost in?

For several years I mostly read poetry that was connected to my dissertation, Walt Whitman and Jewish American Poetry. I spent a lot of time in the library with every edition of Leaves of Grass, and work by Charles Reznikoff, Karl Shapiro, Muriel Rukeyser, Alicia Ostriker, Marge Piercy, Gerald Stern, and C. K. Williams, among others. When the dissertation was finished, I entered a phase where I read a lot of memoirs, short stories, and the occasional chick lit novel. After a while I started to miss poetry. One beautiful book I recently read (and reviewed) is A Messenger Comes, by Rachel Tzvia Back. It is an elegiac collection, filled with stunning, prayer-like poems. I also just ordered several new books of contemporary poetry, though I like to forget what I ordered and be happily surprised when they show up.

5. These poems to me feel very connected; are they part of the same project? Is there anything else you’ve been working on lately?

Yes, absolutely, these poems are part of the same collection, which has a title I’m still keeping to myself. The poems in the collection arise from the life circumstances I’ve described, and grief that is confronted after a period of being delayed, deferred, or repressed, because of fear, shame, and/or stigma. The writing process – truthfully my way of mourning my father – has been simultaneously devastating and uplifting. I’ve been keeping a sort of journal about the writing process at a blog: Writing a post every few weeks has made me more accountable to myself, in terms of getting the book done, and tracking its (very non-linear) progress.


"Meta Waters and Real Waters": An Interview with Nate Pritts

Nate Pritts is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Sweet Nothing.  His poetry & prose have been published widely, both online and in print and on barns, at places like Forklift, Ohio, Court Green, Untoward, and PopMatters, as well as Rain Taxi and Boston Review where he frequently contributes reviews. He is the founder and principal editor of H_NGM_N, an online journal and small press.

His story "The Translation" appears in Issue Thirty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, Nate Pritts speaks with interviewer Melissa Goodrich about enthusiasm, endings, and his poems painted on barns. 

1. Right away we’re struck with meta, at the end of your opening paragraph: “Insert here a few sentences, straightforward in style, about his life that allows transition to—but downplays—the moment of crisis.”  The narrator coaches, “Elicit resounding waves of emotion.”  What is your relation to meta?  Do you ever find it obnoxious?  Do you tread meta waters carefully?

I tread everything carefully – meta waters & real waters, the path under my feet & even the clouds in the sky, the real things in my real life, as well as the things made out of letters on pages that I type.

Which I suppose is my way of saying that everything (meta included) gets worn out, gets used up, becomes a meme.  I don’t find meta any more annoying than I find narrative annoying, or lyric, or language, or the air that I breathe.  These are all things that exist – my annoyance, or my labeling them as obnoxious, doesn’t change that. People fall into styles, or boxes, all the time.  To me, the most interesting part of any trap is trying to figure out how to escape.

2. What is the best metafiction you have ever encountered?  (My money’s on Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius)

I’ve never read that.  I’ve never encountered it.  Does that mean I win?  My favorite novel is The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford, a book that is mostly about how to tell a story (the saddest story).  When I wrote “The Translation,” I had been reading some novels by Philippe Sollers (friend of Lacan & Barthes).  His novels (originally in French – hence my narrator’s/my desire to learn the language) are written in an incredibly abstracted stream of self-consciousness.  It’s amazing that they proceed from page to page at all since they’re so cripplingly self-aware.  There is not much action in the traditional sense, & everything (characters & setting) are transmitted in a fairly vague manner, an almost impenetrable subjectivity. 

3. You write, “At times, he feels as if his own language has failed him… Or rather, […] the enthusiasm has dulled.”  Do you find yourself feeling this way, ever, as a writer, as a poet/prosette?  How do they inform one another, and do you find yourself genre-leaping when ‘the enthusiasm’ for one ‘dulls’?

I don’t often genre leap.  But the situation you describe is the current state of my dis/union.  The answer to your question about enthusiasm, then, is both YES & NO.

My poetry has often been constructed out of a series of moments, very intentionally MADE.  Lately, my poetry has come to me through a process of uncovering – clearing away the noise to discover what’s really present, stripping experiences down to recover the initial impulses, whatever threads are resident already (rather than building some new house).  So one way to think of it (the way I think of it) is that my process has gone from generating intentional utterances to now attempting to step back, trying to approach a more gestural utterance. 

But I’m a writer. And so I found I still had all this intentional energy, this drive to create something – to be ACTIVE instead of just ATTUNED.  I needed something to do where I could still write in terms of building, in terms of directing something to happen.

My enthusiasm for poetry is all I know.  It hasn’t dulled.  But it has started engaging with my intellect & my soul in different ways, & this led to new paths, new options.  New challenges.

4. You’ve had work published on barns?  What words?  Could they be read from the road?

I’ve never driven by to see them, though I would like to soon.  The painter Bill Dunlap is at work on an ever-growing series of public art reclamations.  He paints barns & sometimes he includes snippets of poems.  You can read more about the project that involved my poem “Spring Psalter” (from my third book of poems, The Wonderfull Yeare) here, along with some images of Bill’s terrific work.

5. What are endings meant to do?  And yours in particular: do you seek a lilt uplifting, a reckoning, a glad-sad?  “He seeks a new project undeterred by the mess he’s made which is really all the mess there is.”

Endings are a trick.  We all know that, because we’re people – people alive & seeking every day for some shape to our narrative, some arc to our struggle.  And it’s not really there: no resolution.  Thank God. 

Endings in writing, then, have a chance to be the only kinds of endings we know.  They should reveal / revisit the tensions that have arisen throughout the course of the work (the poem, the story, the whatever).  I like my endings to FEEL final, even if they aren’t – which, for me, means that they sometimes come across as abrupt, or seem to veer from the direction they appeared to be going.  

Maybe most of all, an ending should remind you that there are beginnings.

In “The Translation,” the arc I was interested in had to do with this character losing himself on purpose.  It seems to me now that I wanted a reader to question whether or not this was viable – to lose oneself, to forget oneself, to live both inside your own head as well as somehow separate from it.

6. What’s next in your writing life?

As a result of what I said earlier (Q#3), I’m working mostly on fiction right now.  By which I mean I am dividing my time between writing & staring out the window trying to think through how everything might fall into place.  I started a new piece this morning (after a few days of staring out the window) but I think it’s going to be easier for me if I storyboard the whole thing first, so I’m sharpening my pencils.

7. And reading life?

I have three or four books going at any one time, & I cycle through them pretty quickly – finishing one & then picking up something new in one motion.  Though I sometimes get on kicks (of theme or topic or author that I stick with & explore) mostly my reading is loose & varied. 

The stack next to me looks like this: poetry (Mary Wroth & Shelley & Matt Hart), fiction (Carson McCullers, Sarah Orne Jewett, & a friend just recommended another French novelist, Michel Houellebecq), non-fiction (Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, which reminds me that furious energy can be maintained, & Many Subtle Channels, which is a little too pleased with itself) & comic books (a collection of METAL MEN issues as well as a new Jack Kirby KAMANDI collection that I’ll be writing about for Rain Taxi).


"There Are Probably Many Ways a Song Could Destroy a City": An Interview with Mark Walters

Mark Walters lives in Omaha. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in elimaeDinosaur Bees, and NAP

His story "Three Songs" appears in Issue Thirty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, Mark Walters speaks to interviewer David Bachmann about turning songs into stories, saving the reader from boredom, and well-known imaginary cities.

1. Where did this story begin? Were you prompted by the flash of a specific idea, or was it a larger motif that you were attempting to articulate, which you then cultivated inside this work as you wrote?

I wrote a bunch of these story-songs over the course of a few months. Generating ideas for songs and then turning the ideas into stories allowed me to use imagination in my fiction in ways I hadn’t thought about before. Eventually, I wanted to put a bigger chunk of these pieces together, so I came up with these three.

2. The fullness and wide-ranging movement of this work makes me wonder what previous drafts looked like. Can you comment on how you arrived at this draft? (Was there much fluctuation here? Where did this go before settling into what it is now?)

There wasn’t much fluctuation. The stories were written in the order presented. The hardest bit was the end of the final story. The piece sat around for a few weeks, going nowhere, until I tweaked the ending of the first song. That seemed to help me with the ending of the last one, somehow. It opened things up. Matt Bell helped me with some changes after it was accepted at The Collagist.

3. You begin with a ballad about a "particular village in a particular region of the country," an abstraction that I find compelling in the way it invites me to place these images anywhere I want to. The second song moves away from the abstract in its use of a specific city, Kansas City. What, if any, is the significance, not necessarily of Kansas City, but of your decision to move away from the abstract in the first song? Is that something you want the reader to take note of? Was this something the story asked for without any particular rationale?

I think I picked Kansas City because it’s the closest big city to Omaha, where I live. It may have been Baltimore at first. KC seemed a better fit. I wanted the shift from the abstract to the specific to ground the entire piece. Mixing the nameless city with a well-known city made the nameless city seem more real. Less abstract. Even though it’s still imaginary. It’s all imaginary. Does that make sense?

4. The populations of the Misinterpreters and Listeners are beautiful to me in their lunacy. Are these populations supposed to represent something more than what they are in this story? (Do you think a writer has an obligation to makes his/her characters and/or landscapes representative of something outside the work they live in, or does the writer have an obligation to avoid such symbolism? Or is neither an obligation?)

All they represent for me is two opposing responses to a particular imaginary song. Everything else is left up to the reader. If they represent other things for other readers, that's cool. If a reader wants to bring a meaning or interpretation to a piece of fiction I write, I am 100% down with that. I don’t think a writer of fiction has any obligation beyond the primary one: keeping a reader interested. Keeping the reader from being bored.

5. I find your depiction of hysteria in the second song strange and wonderful, a cataclysm without death. Can you talk about how you decided upon and/or developed this brand of hysteria?

The hysteria was dictated by the destruction. I was thinking about how people listen to songs over and over again. I was also thinking about a song that could level a city. There are probably many ways a song could destroy a city. This is just the one I picked.

Do you know that song, "Precision Auto" by Superchunk? Just listen to that song ten times in a row. That's the real answer. 

6. The third song's final image suggests peace in the form of sleep as an end to insomnia, brought on by the painstakingly-achieved sound of the musicians. Do you view this as a resolution? (Do you think resolution is important in this or in any of your other works?)

I do see the sleeping as a resolution, though maybe it’s a bit of a cop out, almost too easy. It always had to end there though.

7. What are you reading these days? Do you ever read something and think, "I wish I'd written this" or "I want to write like this," or are you able to avoid this sort of envy? 

I've been reading a lot of poetry from Matthew Rohrer and Heather Christle. Also Mary Ruefle's Selected Poems. I just finished Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Just started Jane Eyre--usually, this kind of novel is not my thing, but I’m loving it so far. I get the “I wish I’d written this” thing all the time, but I see it as inspiration, not envy. It’s more like “I want to write something as good as this.”

8. What are you writing these days? Do you have plans to embark on a large work?

I’m still working on song-stories, and I hope to put a bunch of them together into a book. 


"Magical Keys Found so Often in Folk Tales": An Interview with Gregory Howard

Gregory Howard is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Maine. His work can be found in Harp & AltarBirkensnake, and Tarpaulin Sky among other journals and magazines.

 His essay "The Object is Always Magic: Narrative as Collection" appears in Issue Thirty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Gregory Howard speaks to interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about obsession, collection, and negotiation.  

1. How did you go about writing your essay? Did you collect pieces of it over time (much like the collections that you write about)?

The essay came out of several different attentions and over a long period of time. I’ll do my best to compress it as much as possible. During the last year or years of my time at the University of Denver, I was working on a book that was going to be my dissertation (which eventually became two different things: a short novel and long story) and I was working with the ideas of hospitals and trauma and thinking about memory and narrative. And I’d already been thinking a lot about the uncanny, which was an idea I previously obsessed over and still do.  For the dissertation I had to write a critical afterward and it was in that context, of having to write and think about the writing I had done, about the fiction I had worked on, which was much more intuitive and bound up in all these images and thoughts and impressions, that I remembered my trip to the British museum and the Henry Wellcome collection and that was the kind of catalyst for the whole thing—a way in. But that version was a bit more academic, a bit more airless, than what the essay eventually became. The final version owes its existence to the privilege of teaching the MFA students at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program, for which I had to present a forty-five minute talk/lecture, something that totally terrified me. So I looked back to the critical afterward for some grounding and found that parts of it still resonated while others just fell away. I had just taught a class on fairy tales and had also been reading and responding to fiction that used gaps in the way I talk about in the essay—stuff like Amina Cain’s —and I felt like all of this was tied together in some way, so I began again with a new focus: obsession, collection, and narrative. And as I rewrote the essay the personal material began to crop up. I began to talk about my own obsessions and relationships to obsession and think about my relationship to writing and the essay became more of a thinking-through than the argument/declamation it had been. So, the essay ended up being a kind of summing up and processing of all the things I had been interested in and internalizing over the last four or five years as well as a way to begin to understand my own relationship to writing and the idea of being a writer. It was a long and convoluted process for sure and maybe this is a long way of saying “yes” to the question. But this, I’ve found and much to my sometime chagrin, is how my writing process seems to work . It’s often like I’m in a big dark room with only a flashlight, or maybe even something smaller, a penlight, to illuminate my surroundings, and each movement of the light reveals something odd and disparate, a room full of baubles and gewgaws, a long revealing. After I’ve spent a lot of time seeing these things, seeing each thing, wandering the whole room, I finally find the light switch on the wall and turn it on and it’s like, “oh: I see everything now and how it all relates.”

2. Mid-essay, you write, “In other words, writing is a way of dealing with obsessions that might otherwise isolate and ruin us.” This line really nicely sums up what you’ve been building upon in the first half of the essay.  However, it makes me wonder: what happens if we (as writers) aren’t obsessed? What if we are dedicated but not voracious? I like the idea that writing gives us a way to build cages around these things that we could not otherwise grapple with; however, this mindset also indicates that we will need these harmful obsessions us in order to write at all, which seems to me to not be totally true.

I think you’re right—that it’s not totally true. It’s kind of a blanket statement and one that could lend itself to  . . . dramatic readings. I don’t want to suggest that writers need to be obsessed in the haunted/tormented genius/chewed fingernails kind of way and that if they’re not, then they aren’t “real writers.”  However, I do think that there are different kinds of obsession/fascination and that writers are all driven by it in some basic way. Writing takes intense focus and concentration and hours and hours of time and if your writing isn’t driven by obsession with subject matter or image or thought or emotion, it’s likely driven by obsession with language and form, with innovation, with the nuts and bolts of fiction, with literature itself. I think here of Italo Calvino. Is there a seemingly sunnier/lighter presence in world literature than Calvino?  When you think of Calvino you don't necessarily think of obsession. At least I don’t. Yet, in his essay on Quickness in Six Memos, Calvino offers, as a way of describing what he means by the value of quickness in literature, offers the anecdote of the artist, asked by a king to draw the perfect crab. The artist asks for five years, a country estate and a bunch of servants. At the end of the five years the artist comes back only to ask for five more years. Then at the end of all this returns to the king once more and, in one stroke, draws the crab, the perfect crab. That’sobsession with craft.  Or thinking about it another way and to paraphrase (and probably distort) Gilbert Sorrentino: writers don’t really know what they want to say until they say it, until they do the work. The knowing comes through the writing itself. The thing that drives us to the writing, to spend a lot of time thinking and reading and pacing and drinking coffee—whatever it is—is something that can only come out via fiction. So we write to understand what it is we want to know or be or make. And knowing in this sense is a long haul, often. Knowing as unfolding and shaping and fine-tuning. There’s something obsessive in that, right? But in a nourishing way, I think. In the way that Jean Rhys talks about when she describes writing as “feeding the lake of literature.” In a way that plugs into a network of other knowing, doing, making. So writing, in this sense, keeps us engaged in the conversations that can nourish us.

3. As a reader, I wonder about how to deal with encountering stories that utilize collections.  While, as you mentioned early in your essay, I am constantly being bombarded by information (Facebook posts, news stories, e-mails, every blog ever), I also feel as if I’m being bombarded by literature, with the literary magazines that I receive in the mail piling up on my bedside table, the list of online literary magazines that I should probably read getting many issues behind my reading of them.  This is not even including the piles of chapbooks, books, and anthologies. How do you think the reader can go about collecting stories, crafting a body of work that causes them to “[unlock] the door to a wondrous and terrible parallel world that is somehow strangely like our own”?

It seems like the crux of this question is how, as active readers, to negotiate all the work out there and that’s a tough one. With access to so much, it can be easy to take it all in like you’re sunbathing or just close your eyes and pretend none of is happening at all. It’s also easy to find the things that generally give you a charge and just live there—hang out in the same old joints, as it were. I must say: I’m not sure I have an answer. I always feel like I’m behind on the things everyone is reading and that I don’t have the time to read the things I should. As a reader, “unlocking the door” for me mostly means being as open to surprise as possible, to actively work against my tendencies/tastes and try to read widely. There are so many literary pleasures to be had/experienced, so many things to discover and rediscover. Also, I try not to be anxious and to be nice to myself about not getting to more things.

4. What’s worth reading these days?

Holy shit! What a question! So much, so much.

I’ve been reading around, as I begin a new project, so the stuff I’m most familiar with right now is some older things I’m investigating/reengaging with as I try to solve some problems and work with some models. So maybe I’ll mention a few of those, each of which are incredible and about which I could write pages and pages.

Elio Vittorini’s Conversation in Sicily

Alisdair Gray’s 1982, Janine

Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust

Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus

Lia Yiwu The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories China from the Bottom Up

Other than that I’ve recently loved Christopher Narozny’s Jonah Man, which is a taught kaleidoscope of thwarted ambition and desire. Renee Gladman’s two Ravickia books are pretty mesmerizing/distorting/magical. Suzanne Scanlon has a book coming out in the fall called Promising Young Women, which I’ve read chunks of, and said chunks forecast a pretty incredible whole. I recently read Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, which I had missed out on when it first came out and which I find absolutely stunning in its simplicity, honesty, and depth. I’m sure I’m missing a bunch of others.

5. What else have you been writing recently?

I’ve just started working on a longer project/novel. It involves radio, retirement homes for rich old people, a missing modernist home, and Germany. So far.


"We Are so Many Things": An Interview with J. P. Dancing Bear

J. P. Dancing Bear is editor for the American Poetry Journal and Dream Horse Press. Bear also hosts the weekly hour-long poetry show, Out of Our Minds, on public station, KKUP and available as podcasts. His eleventh poetry collection is Family of Marsupial Centaurs and other birthday poems (Iris Press, 2012).

His poem "Every Seven Years the Cells of the Body Are Replaced" appears in Issue Thirty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, J.P. Dancing Bear talks with interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about dust, time passing, and being eaten by the world.

1. Could you talk about crafting this poem? Did you pile up the lines like dust pushed by a broom?

I very much had a solid idea in mind when I wrote this poem. The words and flowed straight out of the ideas that I had formed about dust and connection.

2. Speaking of dust, I loved how the form of the poem was spread out amongst itself, slowing down the reading as the poem transformed, much like the body loses/changes its cells every seven years, but that change is hard, while within it, to locate and notice.  Could you talk about how you crafted this form?

Yes, I very much wanted some of the lines, the phrases, the words to break away from structure, so that the physical poem is a metaphor.

3. I interpreted the “house of love” as being our bodies at some point in time (or, perhaps, our bodies together, at some static moment where we can both understand that we are no longer/soon will not be the same.) Could you talk about what you think it means to have bodies that are, many times in our lives, no longer the bodies that we remember?

I think this goes to the heart of the poem. That the physical body proves we are spiritual and because our “dust” is eaten or absorbed and spread throughout the world, we are also interconnected.

4. What have you read so far in the heat of this summer?

I’ve had a chance to read the last two Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, Snuff and Unseen Academicals. I just finished John Scalzi’s Redshirts, and I’ve recently started Christopher Moore’s Fool, which I am totally loving!

5. What other things have you been working on, writing wise?

I’ve been working on my next book, The Abandoned Eye, which will be released by FutureCycle Press.


"The Sound of a Hand Pulling a Bell": An Interview with Laurie Saurborn Young

Laurie Saurborn Young is a poet, writer and photographer. She is the author of Carnavoria, a book of poems, published by H_NGM_N BKS. She holds an MFA in poetry from the low-residency program at Warren Wilson College and studied in the Program for Poets and Writers at UMASS-Amherst.

Her poem "Draught" appears in Issue Thirty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, Laurie Saurborn Young talks to interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about a noiseless sound, refrain, and fantasies of rain.

1. How did you end up writing this poem?

“Draught” was the product of cabin fever and fantasies of rain, during a long, hot Texas summer. There are no day trips out of the heat—no way to escape—so I spent much of those four months inside. It’s like deep winter but in a bright and sunny hell. Rain was a memory. What it sounded like on the roof, I no longer knew. All I could hear were bells. Though that may have been an air-conditioning-induced hallucination.

As well, the poem is about dreaming—it could be read as an Ode to Dreams I Would Rather Have. Most of my dreams are about falling from nervous heights. I’d rather dream about Nietzsche and rabbits and leaves. And water.

2. The line “I dream I am the sound of a hand / pulling a bell” is particularly poignant to me in this poem, because it’s the first time that we encounter isolation that follows. To dream that one is a sound (a wave in the air, something from something else), and a quiet sound at that (not the bell, but the hand, pulling), is so far from what we’d obviously think when imagining a hand pulling a bell, that its loneliness resonates.  Could you talk more about this isolation?

Good question. Perhaps I was considering how we are not only what we perceive ourselves to be composed of (the bell, the pulling), but also the singular elements often overlooked (the hand that creates the ringing, and the life of that hand). The sound the hand pulling the bell makes—inaudible to us, but not to a more highly attuned animal—exists at the same time as the noise of the ringing. It’s not dependent upon our perception.

By the end of the poem, these isolated particulars become their own operatives. Here, sound can cause a direct action, one we would normally reserve for a hand and arm—pulling the bell.

And sleep is a generous isolation. Although many people share the experience of dreaming, dreams create worlds we each process on our own.

3. You repeat the line, “Much happens every day until it disappears” once after it opens the poem. How do you think this line works the second time around?

Repeating, “Much happens every day” makes it both crystalline and common. In the poem I feel it operates not simply as a soothing refrain, but as a method of marking subtle shifts in the perception of time.

The first time, the line is: “Much happens every day until it disappears.”

The second time, the line is slightly different: “Much happens every / day and then it disappears.”

“Until” implies an unchangeable change—an interruption—has occurred. “Until” is the Big Bang.

“And then” holds some promise, realized or not, that there is a possibility of passing back and forth between states—times, places, ways of being in the world. “And then” is a line of begets. It’s also a way to remind oneself that even if the tragic hinge of “Until” appears, time passes and a new string of “And then” begins.

I feel certain that while working on this poem, in my subconscious lurked two lines:

In Lawrence Raab’s poem, “My Soul is a Light Housekeeper,” the speaker says, “On almost every day / nothing happens.”  This “nothing” is my speaker’s “much.” I don’t think they contradict one another.

And as Éluard said, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” Where the sound of a bell can pull the bell.

4. Have you devoured any good books lately (or mulled over one for a long period of time?

Devoured, yes. I have to force myself to mull.

Virginia Woolf’s On Fiction and On Being Ill

Roberto Bolaño’s The Insufferable Gaucho

Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories

Jac Jemc’s My Only Wife

Maggie Nelson’s Jane (a murder)

Lydia Davis’s The Cows

Bruno Munari’s Design as Art

The Tempest

The Collected Stories of Leonard Michaels

As far as poetry goes, I just read Jenny Browne’s The Second Reason, Betsy Wheeler’s Loud Dreaming in a Quiet Room, and Charles Simic’s Jackstraws.

5.  What else have you been writing recently?

This summer, I’ve been very lucky to have time to focus on a variety of writing projects: a poetry manuscript, a couple of short fiction stories, and several creative non-fiction/memoir pieces. 


"All Manner of Interstylistic Mayhem": An Interview with Miles Klee

Miles Klee is the author of the novel Ivyland (OR Books 2012). He writes for Vanity FairThe Awl and others. He lives in Manhattan with his radiant wife and two ill-mannered dogs. 

Several of his pieces--"Five Miniatures"--appear in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Miles Klee speaks with interviewer Joseph Scapellato about apparent incompletion, infinitudes, and short forms.  Enjoy!

1. Where did these pieces begin for you, and how did they get to here?

I found that my stories—including those that make up Ivyland, my first novel—kept falling into one of two molds. There were manic efforts that ran about 5,000 words, trying to keep three or four absurd plots in the air; then there were stories, closer to 2,000 words, that strove for atmospheric intensity. I wanted to shake off those patterns and scale my ambition down to the atomic level—stories closer to 150 words in length, compressed, that made meaning out of their apparent incompletion. I think many writers come up with fun plots or riffs they have neither the time nor motivation to flesh out; my thought was that the sketches themselves might be worthwhile. Seurat painted lots of studies for “A Sunday on La Grande Jotte” before reconciling the lot into the recognized masterpiece, and there’s something lonely, even haunting, about those loose fragments, parts of a grander process that swept them aside once they had served their purpose. I sat down and over a week poured out a dozen-plus daydreams that could have incited longer stories but resisted further complication. Matt Bell was generous enough to find some merit in these five.

2. I love the decision to call these pieces “miniatures”—for me, strangely enough, this designation makes them larger; they stand independently, as scale models of universes.  Can you talk a little about your decision to call these pieces “miniatures”?  

Two wonderful Steven Millhauser stories come to mind: one, “In the Reign of Harad IV,” is about a diabolically talented miniaturist, who manufactures worlds too small to be sensed; the other, “The New Automaton Theatre” is about a visionary who elevates wind-up toys into the realm of subversive, god-like art. I wanted that degree of precision combined with that mechanical elegance: paragraphs that did only one thing, had only one turn, but executed it perfectly, with no room for error … and yet somehow, as you said, contained infinitudes. 

3. These pieces bring to mind many forms: parables, aphorisms, axioms, newspaper articles, journal entries.  What short forms do you enjoy reading—and why?

Four writers of very short bursts of prose loom large over what I tried to do here: Thomas Bernhard (specifically in The Voice Imitator), Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme and W.S. Merwin. All are able to pack wickedly funny narratives down to the size and shape of a newspaper obituary or classified ad (incidentally, the best parts of a newspaper). That journalistic or moralizing voice is a wonderful tool for fiction because it allows you to render the fanciful in what we normally think of as objective language, inviting all manner of interstylistic mayhem. A lot of the formality has drained out of the news media—they read people’s tweets on CNN now. What if literary fiction took up the abandoned set of ethics? For its own nefarious purposes, I mean. I also like digging up my middle-school diary now and then, if only to wince.

4. What writing projects are you working on right now?

There are scattered notes for another novel, something that in my cynicism I believe could be successfully controversial, though the less said there, the more likely I am to make a good-faith effort toward it some day. There’s a novella awaiting painful revisions, too; I’d like it to cap the short story collection I’m currently polishing off. That’ll be the follow-up to Ivyland, is the hope.

5.  What spectacular writing have you been reading recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about? 

I just finished Robert Coover’s The Public Burning over July 4th, appropriately enough—as well as Coover’s journals covering its troubled production and publication. Both are horrifying and side-splitting in equal measure—a quality I value highly. Barry Hannah has been an inspiration of late, as he tends to be every six months or so. I’m looking forward to Padget Powell’s new book; I do love a good novel about nothing.   



"Where Our Stakes of Self Are Planted": An Interview with Tim Horvath

Tim Horvath teaches creative writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art and Boston’s Grub Street writing center and works part-time as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital, primarily with autistic children and adolescents. Understories, his first book, is out now from Bellevue Literary Press.

His story "The Conversations" appears in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Tim Horvath speaks with interviewer Joseph Scapellato about carrying on a dialogue with one's forebearers, the role of conversation in relationships, and "verbal cheese, beer, sauerkraut."

1. Where did “The Conversations” begin for you?

It is the only story I’ve ever written that came out of playing with my daughter. Since she was very young we’ve collaborated on handmade books together, combining words and drawn pictures and collage. Our first effort was Bees, Bears, Alaska and the Stars, which involved a trip to Alaska and then on to Jupiter, with a riveting climactic scene in the Great Red Spot, I might add. More recently, we were working on a story and she asked me to come up with villain. Well, I thought, we can’t have the classic mustachioed bringer-of-malice. I decided I wanted an infiltrator, someone surreptitious and as close to impossible to detect, and so I conceived of the idea of having “the Conversations” as the villain, where the “bad guys” would disguise themselves as ordinary conversations. She liked the idea on its face, though I’m not sure if either of us really knew what I was talking about, but it went onto the list of items that were going to go into the book—usually we go for broke and just fill the pages, but on this occasion we were actually planning, I guess. Around that time, I was sunk deep into a couple of stories that never made it into Understories, serious, intense stories that were getting bogged down all over, and I started writing “The Conversations” as a distraction, a little side-action, a story-fling while my serious-story-relationship was going south. It came easily because it didn’t matter. And at some point I had to approach her and say, “Remember our villain, the Conversations? How would you feel if Daddy used that in a grown-up story? Daddy could really use that in a grown-up story.” Thankfully she was amenable and didn’t call in a team of intellectual property lawyers or anything. So that was the conception. Before that, though, I’d been reading a lot of Joshua Cohen for the past few years, and he’d become one of my favorite writers, and via an interview I’d done with him on the release of his first novel, a friend. His book A Heaven of Others, which involves a Jewish boy who is blown up while shoe-shopping and winds up in the Muslim afterlife, and so I also had explosions somewhere in my brain as an actual possibility. Josh’s writing is rich with jokes (one of the meanings of Witz, his magnum opus, is in fact “to joke”), and the first line of this story, “The first of the Conversations had taken at once in Rome, in Vegas, and in Hoboken,” sounds like a lead-in to a joke, no offense to Hoboken. One thing I like about this is that we never find out what happened in this third segment—what happened in Hoboken stays in Hoboken. And at first this seemed like cheating, but on reflection, it seemed somehow fitting to have that nod to Hoboken without actually going into gory detail. As in, everyone can go off and write his or her own Hoboken episode.

2. Forgive me if I’m influenced too much by the title, but as I read this piece I felt as if I were engaging in a conversation with the narrator—as if we were moving somewhere together, and I was participating in this movement.  For me, this feeling was confirmed in the story’s stunning final paragraph, when the narrator speaks for “us”: “We started to talk again.”  I wonder: to what degree is your writing process “conversational”?  And in what crucial ways is it “non-conversational”?

That’s very cool, Joseph, and to be truthful that particular resonance of the title hadn’t even occurred to me. Crazy, huh? That’s very insightful, though. My writing process is conversational in maybe some of the obvious ways, in that I am carrying on a dialogue with my forbearers. I am always talking with Norman Rush and Primo Levi and Borges and Marilyn Bowering and Annie Proulx and William T. Vollmann. I am constantly arguing with Raymond Carver. And with whatever I am reading at the moment. Recently I’ve been chewing the fat with Hari Kunzru and Franzen and Jennifer Spiegel. I’m a very auditory person—I love listening to audiobooks when they are decently-rendered, and there are moments in most of my stories where it turns out that I’ve been speaking to a listener if you read carefully (in “Circulation,” the narrator worries about offending the reader, while in “Planetarium,” the narrator points out that the reader might be wondering why he didn’t reveal a piece of critical information earlier). I think there’s a part of me that is foremost a musician—in my head, I am never tuneless—and improvisation in particular is one of the things I admire most, when an ensemble can carry that off.

Something I’d like to get back to in my work is dialogue. I used to write more of it, and I’m not sure why I got away from it. I’ve been reading Jennifer Spiegel’s The Freak Chronicles this past week and drooling over her dialogue, which consists of a steady series of jabs amounting to a knockout. 

I guess my writing is non-conversational insofar as it undergoes tight revision to the point where the sentences feel fully-wrought and crafted. I worry about wielding the chisel heavy-handedly. I do miss the days when I’d write a bit more un-self-consciously, a bit more conversationally, perhaps, before I even used a word-processor. It’s likely a natural outcome, too, of spending a bunch of years studying the sentences of writers and wanting to emulate those. I’m glad that this story felt as though it enlisted you in conversation, I’m hoping not of the Ancient Mariner type but something with a bit more back-and-forth. If I had to point to the best moments of my life, they’d probably be conversations. I won’t say anything about the context of them, or what was going on around them, behind them, between them…I’ve said enough already.

3. When the Conversations occur, the characters feel like they’re “reading someone else’s lines, lines that made an astounding, uncanny sense in the context of [their relationships],” often “after an impasse of some sort had been reached or at a point of extreme frustration, where those involved had been ‘going in circles,’ or had ‘already talked about this, in one form or another, a thousand times.’”  I love how this elegantly suggests that a relationship’s most mundanely aggravating moments have the greatest potential to be destructive to our lives.  Can you talk a little about how you struck upon and/or developed this trigger for the Conversations?

I think it was a stroke of fortune that when I got to that part of the story, this trigger actually worked. Up until writing it, it hadn’t occurred to me that the Conversations would be anything laden or loaded—remember I began with a villain looking to be inconspicuous, incognito. But my passions and interests incline me more toward human nature and relationships rather than the supernatural, so at some point I realized that the particular subspecies of conversation that was being put on trial here was the perennial conversation, the one we always have. That’s a shapeshifter, nothing supernatural about it—in every relationship, I’m guessing, there are one or two that manifest themselves in every season and every circumstance. They’re like whirlpools or strange attractors, too—they suck the interlocutors in from any given point, any given subject. Maybe each of us, with our significant others, is engaged in that conversation at all times, and everything else, from where to go for dinner to where to spend the holidays to how those choices are made are all variations on that conversation. Can that be destructive? Absolutely. Sometimes, maybe it is better if that conversation is held in abeyance, stays dressed as a sheep, gets drowned out in bad connections. Because it reveals, nakedly, who we are, where our stakes of self are planted, and how deeply, how tough they are to pluck out of the frozen ground. Again, just surmising here, but probably most relationships that end do so with a whimper rather than a bang, and the bang—the explosion—has already taken place, dispersed in a million infinitesimal non-explosions that are strewn throughout time, in the said and the unsaid, the ignored and the “understood otherwise.” Alcohol brings them out more as it brings out the capillaries in eyes, but makes it tougher to actually articulate the issues or understand them, and maybe that’s a good thing.

4. Does this piece appear in your story collection Understories?  If so, how does it fit in?  (And if it isn’t in this collection, does it mark a new direction for you, aesthetically?)

This was one of the last stories written for Understories. I’d like to think that I want to try everything, aesthetically and thematically. I was thrilled when The Collagist wanted this piece, because I dig the journal greatly and it was only one of two stories that was still unpublished. It’s interesting because I don’t think of myself as a writer of fantastic stories in general, but rather of stories that enlist reality and imagination in, if you’ll pardon the borrowing, a conversation with one another. In some sense, I think that this story may be viewed as a darker, menacing reprise of “Circulation,” which was the first story written that made it into the collection. Both are teeming with stories within stories, but in “Circulation” those stories serve as balm, showing off their power to connect, to nurture and sustain. I was younger when I wrote it, not necessarily more optimistic—I am still—but I hadn’t then read Joshua Cohen or Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas or Gary Lutz’s or Matt Bell’s work. Again, though, I wouldn’t describe this as a new direction, per se. My tendency in the past has been to veer in the opposite direction from what I’ve done most recently. One direction from the story where I’m likely to wind up, though, is the desert. I’m a desertphile, and I want to write something that takes place in there to a significant degree, although Hari Kunzru has now written Gods Without Men, which is like three or four desert novels in one. Between that and Breaking Bad, I think I should just go off the grid and just read and watch the desert itself, first-hand. 

5. What writing projects are you working on right now?

Picking up on the previous point, one of the stories that I was most heartbroken about not being able to get it up to par for Understories was called “The Desert of Maine,” which is about a young woman who essentially abandons her home and family and relocates to the Desert of Maine, a 45 acre tourist attraction that actually does resemble a very tiny desert. At this point, it—the story, not the attraction itself— is threatening to becoming a novel, although whether that is mere bravado or not on its part remains to be seen. I’m also working on several stories, including one called “The Nodder” and one involving people who climb bridges and recovering addicts. 

6. What knock-out writing have you been reading recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

Two books to look out for later this year are Gabe Blackwell’s debut novel, Shadow Man and Peter Tieryas’s collection, Watering Heaven. Gabe is someone with whom I share more than one obsession, including shadows and film. Shadow Man  brilliantly reimagines biography as a mashup of literary criticism, history, and noir itself, at once parodying and paying homage to each of these genres—all that while being plain fun and having some of the funniest similes I’ve seen this side of Chandler. Tieryas’s collection sprawls over a lot of space, geographically and thematically, but his specialty seems to be nascent relationships, which flicker in his stories like neon signs from which maybe a letter has been knocked out, so we read them while ever-reminded of what is missing. His writing is incredibly witty and intelligent, and science seems to find its way into most of his stories in thoroughly unexpected ways. I’m also enjoying and admiring Jennifer Spiegel’s The Freak Chronicles, just out from Dzanc (I know, it will appear that I am playing to the home crowd, but it is all sincere and circumstantial that I happen to be reading these). Other things I’ve enjoyed a lot recently are Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk about Anne Frank, “The Particles” by Andrea Barrett in a recent Tin House (best story of hers I’ve read since “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,”), and Gary Lutz’s Divorcer sentence #414. Seriously, although I can’t vouch for the number, you could number the sentences in that book and cull from them a top list. I open at random: “An accelerating metabolism meant he needed starches within arm’s reach—pillowy regional bagels, pretzels candied in their contortions.” What a great description of his own sentences, come to think of it. I love it. His brain is like a fermentation tank, English words undergoing a chemical change into something new—verbal cheese, beer, sauerkraut.  Also, as I mentioned earlier, the Kunzru novel really stole my breath away. Upcoming, Junot Diaz is going to have a short story collection out, his first since Drown. He’s such a master of rhythm and voice—talk about a conversational writer, in the best possible sense. I’m also excited about the next issue of Camera Obscura, issue 5, which includes “The Selected Mugshots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” by Tamas Dobozy, a story which somehow manages to live up to that great title. And presumably next year, Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies will come out. I see his work the way a certain type of astronomer might view a long-awaited comet—the first faint gleam in the scope is enough to make me slightly giddy.