Monday
Jul112016

"Life on the Winning Side": An Interview with Rob Walsh

Rob Walsh has lived recently in Seattle, Providence, and Seoul. He is the author of Troublers, a collection of stories.

His story, "The Children's Book," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about bringing abandoned stories back to life, fairy tales, and Conan the Formidable.

Please tell us where this story began for you.

I wanted to write a story where someone finds a mysterious object. That was all I knew at the beginning. Before writing “The Children’s Book” I had been working on some longer projects and was getting kind of sick of those longer projects, so I wanted to step away and write something short and fast-moving and hopefully finish it in a day. Would it be helpful to any writers out there if I mention that as soon as I finished the “Children’s Book” I decided it was terrible and banished it to one of my many failed-story folders?

It was at least six months until I found it again. I had forgotten it existed. What’s this? I thought. I could barely remember writing it. Now, just like the young girl in “The Children’s Book,” I had discovered a mysterious piece of writing. And it has led me all the way to this interview. 

What was your favorite book as a child?

Hmmm. Maybe the Redwall books? Do you remember those? And then a few years went by and I moved on to the Conan franchise—not the Robert E. Howard books but the string of franchise titles that came out in the 80s and 90s, like “Conan the Formidable” and “Conan and Indomitable.” I don’t know what to say about them. Conan fights, and wins! Sometimes when you’re a lonely kid who makes a lot of mistakes, it can be nice to imagine life on the winning side.

Do you think the literature we love as kids informs who we will be as adults?

This question is asking me to reflect on the Redwall and Conan books. While Conan got into a lot of skirmishes, I’m much less of a violent force. And I can say pretty confidently that nothing I read when I was ten or eleven has become an influence on the stories I write now. I wish “The Name of the Wind” was around when I was a kid—I would have absolutely loved that book.

Looking back to my childhood, I read mainly to escape. Some might say that’s not a very useful pastime. However, others might say that we develop our capacity for imagination in early childhood.

For me this story echoed the plot of fairy tales—a lost child, a stranger supposedly luring children into his home, a mysterious book—except of course, in this story, the parents are kind and well-meaning. Instead of driving their child away, they want desperately to protect her. How do you feel “The Children’s Book” is in conversation with traditional fairy tales?

When I was considering your earlier question and trying to think of books that I “loved” as a kid, I wanted to write about the Brothers Grimm—but I didn’t know about the Brothers Grimm until I was an adult! I wish I had those stories as a kid . . . then I could give you a better answer for the previous question.

But, yes, definitely, fairy tales are a big influence on my work. How is a story like “The Children’s Book” in conversation with them? Well, I think it’s possible to talk about time and transition, how quickly the story unfolds and jumps ahead. I always appreciate fairy tales that can do a lot of work within a small space. These stories are also unafraid to twist logic, and for me these are usually the moments that feel truly magical.

I noticed, also, that you interviewed Michael J. Lee a few weeks ago. He’s the writer of one of my favorite modern fairy tales, “The New Year.” Would he like that I’m calling it a fairy tale? Maybe not! But I think if anyone is reading this right now and found my story halfway interesting, they should check out Lee’s collection “Something in My Eye.”

I don’t mean to go off-topic. Let’s talk more about “The Children’s Book.”

I appreciate the speakers’ honest attitude about parenthood. I especially love this confession: “In a few years she would be old enough to have a lock on her door, and we would have to knock before entering, so we enjoyed while we could the luxury of strolling into our daughter’s room without the fear of discovering her doing anything that we weren’t supposed to see.” Can you tell us how you found the voice of the parents? Were you inspired by anyone?

Sometimes I feel like all of my characters sound like the parents. When I’m writing, the characters have one job: keep me interested in the project. So I think that’s where the voice comes from: it’s just amusing to me, I have a soft spot for it, and so that’s what gets written. I’m trying to work on this. I don’t want to be called self-indulgent!

You mention an “honest attitude about parenthood,” and this is very important to me even if the characters are a bit silly and absurd. I think there are some truths that become easier to accept or confront when they’re packaged in the absurd. Kind of like how you sometimes need to roll a pill in butter to get the dog to swallow it?  

Who are you reading right now?

I would love to provide a short list of books that I’ve really enjoyed in the past few months:

Peacekeeping, Mischa Berlinski
The Loney, Andrew Hurley
The North Water, Ian McGuire
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Diane Williams
New Animals, Nick Francis Potter

I’m excited about Deb Olin Unferth’s new story collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance. The Internet tells me that this will be coming out early 2017.

I’m also looking forward to The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George and Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh.

One more: there’s a book coming out called The Deaths of Henry King, a collaboration between Brian Evenson and Jesse Ball. Sounds pretty good, right?

What are you working on now?

For about a decade I’ve been working on this trilogy of short novels. Sometimes I think it’s good, but then I look at it six months later and think “You Fool!” and have to tear it up and start again. My hope is that this process will lead somewhere eventually.

I have some new stories coming out, though. There’s one in the current issue of Heavy Feather Review, and two that will appear in the next issue of NOON.

Monday
Jul042016

"Sheets of Sound": An Interview with Jaydn DeWald

Jaydn DeWald is a writer, teacher, and musician. Recent poems, stories, and critical essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Best New Poets 2015, The Carolina Quarterly, Fairy Tale Review, Puerto del Sol, Writing on the Edge, and many others. He lives with his wife and two kids in Bogart, Georgia, where he’s a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. 

His two stories, "Lineage (5)" and "Lineage (6)," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about jazz, writing in the domestic sphere, and how a word compares to a musical note.

“Lineage (5)” and “Lineage (6)” are part of a larger “Lineage” series. Can you please describe this series and tell us how these two stories fit into the larger project?

The “Lineage” series is an ongoing narrative experiment triggered (in part) by Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, a study in which Russian fairy tales are broken into and analyzed as thematic and narratological chunks, which tend to be, Propp discovers, sequenced in particular ways. I won’t belabor this point; instead, I’ll simply mention that I was struck by passages like this one: “The names of the dramatic personae change (as well as the attributes of each), but neither their actions nor functions change. From this we can draw the inference that a tale often attributes identical actions to various personages.” My “Lineage” series attempts to create “versions” or “variations” of a single narrative, but rather than attribute “identical actions to various personages,” the series attributes various actions in identical (or almost identical) sentence structures—most notably the opening sentence of each “Lineage,” wherein the triad of the narrative is established: “My grandmother’s alone, more alone than I, though less alone than my grandfather…”; or, “I’m handsome—a bit handsomer, I think, than my brother—but perhaps not quite as handsome as our father…”; etc, etc. For this reason, each “Lineage” is not so much connected narratively—I don’t think of the characters as members of an extended family, for example, à la the soldiers in William March’s WWI novel-in-vignettes Company K (1933)—as connected morphologically: particular words and phrases and sentence structures, particular narrative moves and units, appear and reappear, like strands of linguistic DNA, across the series. The “Lineage” stories are, to my mind, blood relatives.

On a personal note, I find “lineage” as a subject endlessly fascinating—I’ve become a writer of the domestic sphere—“I like to get lost in my house,” as David Shapiro once wrote—and it’s linked for me to a larger life project: the intricacies of familial relations. My partner, Kali, and I have two kids, a three-year-old daughter and a two-month-old son, and though the “Lineage” stories are by no means autobiographical, writing them has been a valuable, even vital, experience whereby I reaffirm for myself the importance—as well as the difficulty—of intimacy and connection.

In “Lineage (6)” there is a moment in which the speaker addresses the reader. “[D]on’t you think?” he asks us, in reference to his handsomeness. When a narrator or speaker addresses the reader in a story, how do you think that changes our relationship with the text?

Before answering your question, I’ll mention that this address—“don’t you think?”—is one of those linguistic strands of DNA mentioned above: “Lineage (6)” followed the heels of another “Lineage” (which takes as its epigraph this line from David St. John: “Yesterday is so boring, don’t you think?”) wherein that address is repeated like a refrain or, more accurately, a conversational tic. Anyway, considering his extreme solipsism, the “handsome” protagonist of “Lineage (6)” is likelier addressing himself—his own reflection, as it were—than anybody else.

But to your question. I must admit I’m rather ambivalent about the proverbial “reader”—even though I adore those “dear reader” moments in old novels—seeing as my own readers (the people to and for whom I write) are specific people: my partner, my father, a few long-standing writer friends, a few teachers. And yet does one ever really believe that nobody else will read one’s writing? For this reason, I tend to experience readerly addresses as private, despite a text’s ability or inability to communicate widely, so that the general “reader” is in fact a voyeur, eavesdropping on a private conversation. On the whole, such an address will force me to peer deeplier into the peephole (so to speak) of the text. My unavoidable outsiderness arouses my desire to enter.

In “Lineage (5)” the speaker, like you, is a writer. What is the benefit (or what can we learn) by writing about characters who share our passions, our hobbies, or other important aspects of our personalities?

“Lineage (5)” is an aesthetic exploration, which is, of course, always already an existential exploration: Why should I be this particular way, to the inevitable and inadvertent exclusion of other ways? But I wasn’t interested in writing an aesthetics essay. I was interested in enacting—an aesthetic stance in itself, no?—the conflict(s) between generalized areas on the aesthetic-existential spectrum. In any event, for me, the benefit of writing about a writer is that I can enlarge myself: I can enter into the consciousness of a writer whose output exceeds, and whose aesthetic-existential range varies from, my own. Because the occasional battles in writing workshops tend to arise in my experience not from “problems” of execution, say, or attraction/repulsion to particular subject matter, but rather from the clashing of aesthetic sensibilities, the benefit of writing about a writer (a writer unlike oneself, anyway) is that one can become a richer and more tolerant writer, reader, teacher, peer, and maybe even person.

You are also a musician. Do you find any similarities between music and writing as art forms?

Absolutely. Playing music, especially jazz—and I played electric bass for the DeWald-Taylor Quintet for over a decade—one develops valuable, multidisciplinary instincts: one’s body knows more (or better) than one’s mind; twelve notes is more than enough; every instantiation of a tune is a different tune; silence, too, is music; listen and react, listen and react, listen and react . . . How can these instincts (and many others) not influence my writing? This is just to say that, for me, the useful similarities between music and writing relate principally to practice and approach.

Yet there are useful differences, too. Consider musicians like Miles or Jaco Pastorious, musicians who can wound us with a single, arrow-like note. Writing, alas, cannot compete. Even the strongest writing cannot appear (on the page, at least) in a single word, but rather requires an alchemy of words, seeing as a word in isolation cannot be written uniquely—cannot be played, so to speak—though I once dreamt that my laptop keyboard was a piano keyboard, and words were chords, and each letter could be sharped or flatted at will. On the other hand, a single word culled from a gazillion possible words—isn’t that far more precious than a single note, which is merely one of twelve? I love parsing out these differences, and I find the impossible task of obliterating them—the differences, that is—extraordinarily generative.

Do you listen to music while you write? Are there any musical artists who have inspired your writing?

Almost never. Language is its own music, just as music is its own language. Even so, while writing I’ll occasionally listen to a particular piece of music over and over again, when that music is (I mean this quite literally) the soundtrack of the poem or story or essay—as when a character listens to a song on the radio, for instance.

As for musicians who have inspired my writing, they are many and various—too many to responsibly introduce here—though the “Lineage” series is very much indebted to Coltrane. Jazz critic Ira Gitler famously described Coltrane’s solos as “sheets of sound,” and the “Lineage” stories are almost all long, single-paragraph stories, which I rather fancifully regard as Coltranian sheets of sound. Furthermore, Coltrane had a gift for extending phrases beyond their expected conclusions, for broadening or artfully complicating the improvisational units of which his solos are composed—there’s a real reluctance to pause or stop. In one well-known anecdote, Coltrane, defending the length of his solos, tells Miles, “I can’t find a way to stop,” to which Miles replies, “You might start by taking the horn out of your fucking mouth.” My “Lineage” series tries to channel the spirit of Coltrane, refusing the impulse to place periods and end paragraphs—to take the horn out of my mouth—preferring longer, more complicated compositional units.

I suspect this all sounds rather intellectual. Yet when you’ve played jazz and admired Coltrane’s virtuosity for as long as I have, it feels very personal indeed—an act of reverence and reciprocation. As Clark Terry, the great jazz trumpet, once said: “There’s nothing wrong with being a copycat, so long as you copy the right cats.”

What projects are you working on now?

I’m putting the finishing touches (I hope) on a cross-genre manuscript. I’ve also been writing new poems, stories, essays, and occasionally setting poems to music and/or soundwork. Most importantly, though, the project of raising two kids—my own lineage.

Friday
Jun242016

"Secret Subterranean Spaces": An Interview Janalyn Guo

Janalyn Guo lives in Austin, Texas and works as a grants management consultant. Her most recent short fictions have appeared in The Tusculum Review, Heavy Feather Review, Quarterly West, and other places. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University and was once artist-in-residence at Lijiang Studio in Yunnan, China.

Her story, "Heart Site," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about rapdoors, edible mushrooms, and Remedios Varo.

How did the idea of the Heart Site and its wish-fulfilling crones first come to you?

I had some old material that I’d written when I spent a summer in Yunnan, China with a Naxi family (a minority group in China with a matriarchal history). The landscape was very interesting. In Baoshan, women would go out and labor in these tiered fields, which were on very steep mountainsides. I’d watch some elderly women scale up and down this terrain to pick vegetables. They were extremely nimble. They carried sickles in one hand and moved like wind. I felt this strange sense of protection because they were everywhere. I started some stories about them and never quite finished any. When I set out to write “Heart Site,” I was attempting to revive some of those stories. At the time, I was also reading 1001 Arabian Nights. Something that really intrigued me about the tales was the repeated discovery of secret subterranean spaces: metal and wood trapdoors in the ground leading to a flight of stairs and finally to a very domesticated space, lavishly decorated with carpets and silks, and a figure waiting to be questioned. I wanted to write a story that opened up into strange underground territory.

So, that sheds a bit of light on how the story originated, though it’s morphed from my plans and there’s not much semblance to what I originally thought it’d be. One reason I enjoy writing stories is that it’s a little bit like putting together a memory capsule, and you don’t know how each thing you add is going to color everything inside. Now that I’m thinking back on how the story came to be, it’s all the stuff I mentioned above, but it could also be that during that time, a good friend of mine had a summer job cleaning statues in Central Park, a beekeeper at a coffee shop educated me on the behaviors of bees, and I was also obsessively reading a Japanese horror manga called Uzumaki, which is all about evil spirals.

The strange is often met with a lack of surprise by the characters within this story. For example, when the speaker and Elsinore encounter crones within the heart, they are undaunted. Why do you think this unflinching acceptance of magic is important, if not necessary, in fabulist literature?

I think that when they step into the heart, they’re already on this quest to find something spectacular, and when they encounter the crones, the world they inhabit turns out to be much more expansive than it seems. So maybe what they feel is more like awe and relief.

I’m often anxious when I start on something new because as I write, I’m waiting for the leap into fantasy. Sometimes, all it takes is the first sentence to feel like I’m there. But, sometimes I write stories that are only realism for the first few pages, so I put them in the metaphorical drawer and come back to them later. I don’t want to force anything. I want the magic to feel inevitable in each story I write, entirely probable within the logic of the world, but maybe initially dormant. I like having fantastical elements in my stories arrive a little bit late.

As for why this unflinching acceptance of magic is important in fabulist literature, I think it has to do with the space we are able to create. It’s evocative. There are so many more ways to tell the stories we want to tell, or maybe, for some of us, it is the only way.

I love that mushroom pickers and light saber-style canes exist side by side in this story. There’s a wonderful combination of modernity and timelessness in this piece. Why did this style appeal to you?

In Yunnan, I wandered around a pine forest with my neighbor, an expert mushroom picker, who then prepared a mushroom dish for dinner. Those edible mushrooms were some of the weirdest shaped and textured things I’ve ever put in my mouth, and I think about them from time to time. At the same time, the town where we stayed was modernizing. A highway was being constructed to connect it to the rest of China.

I think that sense of timelessness, as you described, is what it’s like to wander through a Chinese landscape, sometimes. It’s hyper modern in some ways and also very unchanged at the same time. I also think that if you look at any social landscape close enough, anywhere in the world, you’d find those layers of old and new traditions.

I admit I do like setting my stories in spaces and timeframes that are not easily identifiable. It could have happened in the past; it could be happening in the future. I feel like I’m granted more freedom to build my world.

If an old crone offered you a wish when you were a kid, what would you have asked for?

That’s a tough question. I think I would have made a terribly informed wish. I remember that I was an avoidant kid. If I could get out of doing something, I would, even if it was something I mildly enjoyed—like choir practice or line soccer. I think I would have wished for a little trapdoor to follow me wherever I went so that if I wanted to get out of a situation, I could step through it and immediately land in my bed at home.  

And of course the crone would have said no. So, I would have wished for unfrizzy hair or maybe to be less shy around adults

If you were to pair this story with another work of art (a song, a painting, etc.), what would its companion piece be?

That’s a really hard question, but I have an answer for you! So a companion painting would be anything painted by Remedios Varo. The colors she uses are what I imagine the world of the story would be: reds, yellows, and oranges—a light and dark, whimsical and mysterious. The subjects are often mysterious figures, sometimes emerging from openings in walls. As for music, I would pair this story with something like Erik Satie’s The Velvet Gentleman. When it starts out, there’s this sort of orchestral thing in a melancholy key going on. Then it transitions into something wonderfully playful and MOOG-y. And then there’s all those elements mixing together throughout. That juxtaposition of sounds seems right.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m revising a novel I started years ago, which is challenging because I am not the same person as I was then. I am also working on a short story collection, which is coming easier to me. So hopefully, more things to come from me soon!  

Thursday
Jun162016

"My Spicy Mysteries": An Interview with Michael Jeffrey Lee

Michael Jeffrey Lee first book, Something in My Eye, won the Mary McCarthy Prize and was published by Sarabande. New work has appeared or is forthcoming in BOMB, DIAGRAM, and Parcel. He lives in New Orleans.

His story, "The Burned-out House," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about productive ambiguities, colorful neighbors, and the house as a metaphor.

Please tell us where this story began for you.

This story began with the rather absurd first line: I was about 35 when I moved into the burned-out house. “Right, then,” I thought, “Time to figure out who said this.” It’s interesting because the early drafts had a much more plaintive tone—the narrator seemed on the verge of tears the whole time. It droned on rather sadly and prettily for about 10 pages—the structure was more or less the same. However, during some conversations with (patient) friends, it was suggested that I might try to be a bit more violent with the voice, try making him more of a brute, someone who would put up a tougher front. And these suggestions, to use a phrase the narrator might employ, blew it wide open. It helped that around that time there was this interesting fellow in my neighborhood, who, when he wasn’t performing random acts of kindness for his neighbors, was screaming racial and homophobic slurs at the top of his lungs, usually in the middle of the night. A complex individual, to say the least. I thought about him while re-writing.      

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard claims, “[t]he house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” How do you think the speaker in this story would respond to this?

I think he’d say, “With all due respect, Doctor, it sounds to me like that guy spent most of his childhood pulling his pud in a quiet corner, counting sheep. I’ll bet good money he never spent one night in a burned-out house, not that I’d particularly recommend it.”

Mysteries are peppered throughout this story. There’s the mystery of the speaker’s history, the mystery of the previous tenants buried in the backyard. How do you choose which mysteries to resolve in a story and which to leave unanswered?

I really like the idea of the mysteries peppering the story. My spicy mysteries. But your point’s well taken. These ambiguities are always at the center of my work. I’m going to talk about my first drafts again, forgive me, but one of the ways in which they’re always lacking is in the inelegance of these ambiguities—they’re too vague in their suggestions, they open up too many interpretive possibilities, so the work feels intentionally obscure and self-indulgent and shuts the reader out. Or often the opposite is true, and I’m spending too much time explaining things better left alluded to. But to answer your question it’s usually just a process of trial and error. I’ll have a conversation with myself along the lines of, “Well if the narrator says this then it will suggest this, and this and this, and do I want that? Is that a productive ambiguity?” In the first draft, the narrator spoke of a distant family, but that did something I didn’t like to the story—it kind of steered it sentimental, so I cut it. I thought it would be better, more pleasantly vexing, as a question mark.

Why is the house “burned-out” as opposed to run down or abandoned?

Without playing my own critic too much, I’ll say it’s obviously connected to his inner state (although he’d vehemently deny it—he even tries to shoot down the house-as metaphor reading). But why “burned-out?” Well, he’s a bit charred by life, you know, a bit ashed-on, a little run down but not abandoned. But don’t count him out. He’s made some bad decisions but he’s still got that dirty smirk, don’t you worry. He’s been through the fire, and now he’s peeling right before your eyes. I also liked the way “burned-out” reflected his relationship to narrative itself, perhaps my relationship too. Exhausted, wore out, nothing but dregs, adios.             

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on something longer, a novella probably, nothing too ambitious. I’m in the mixing stages of an album I sang on. I’m slowly attempting to become a legitimate musician—been practicing a lot of piano. Bard of the Burned-Out House, that’s what they’ll call me. Thanks for this interview. These were great questions.

Thursday
Jun092016

"Bilingual, Multicultural, and Variously-Housed-and-Homed": An Interview with Ilana Masad

Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney's, Printer's Row, Joyland Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Hobart, and more. She is also the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring the work and voices of new, emerging, and struggling fiction writers. She tweets a lot: @ilanaslightly.

Her story, "In Re", appeared in Issue Eighty-One of The Collagist.

Here, Ilana Masad talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about metafiction, revising flash, and being an Israeli-American.

Although your story “In Re” is published as fiction, it reads much like nonfiction, written in first person with a sometimes anecdotal voice. Is any part of this story based on real events? How much does your work blend fiction and nonfiction?

“In Re” is one of my weirdest stories, and yes, it’s very much based on a real and inconsequential evening during which I was chatting to a friend at a real place called Re:Bar and the same man seemed to be going up (or down) the escalator nearby several times. But this was an absolute outlier for me. I rarely blend nonfiction into my fiction work, though the first “proper” short story I wrote was apparently so convincing that my creative writing teacher at the time (this was in college) thought that it was entirely autobiographical. I wasn’t sure at the time whether to be insulted or flattered, but I think I’ve decided that it was flattering. I had an editor later accuse me of the same thing, saying that it was an interesting blend of fiction and non-fiction. I had to tell the editor that it was 100% fictional, and I never heard back from him.

But back to “In Re,” the point is that it was a weird thing for me to do. But I was trying out metafiction for the first time and taking the idea quite literally, and this was the result.

This story contains a few parenthetical, observational digressions, two of which showcase wordplay. In the first of these, you write, “It would have made us look so witty, inserting puns into our conversations so casually. I don't want you to think we aren't funny girls, because we are. We just didn't think of it at the time.” Why devote these moments to the narrator’s esprit d'escalier? How much of your writing process involves play with language?

There are two questions here, and both are fascinating, but let me answer them in order. As to the first—why devote these moments etc.—it was, I think, my attempt at creating what I thought metafiction was all about. It was me trying to observe a moment from the outside, in hindsight, and create a story out of it that was also social commentary, because when it comes to the country I spent most of my life in (I’ll be able to say that until I’m in my mid-30s), it’s impossible to discuss it or anything about it without addressing the problematic nature of its whole existence, from the fact that it gets so much money from Christian fundamentalists who are waiting for the Second Coming (which I’ve always found a strangely dirty phrase) to the fact that there are occupied territories that are contested on a daily basis, to the fact that the Holocaust happened and Jews really did need a place to go and feel safe in after that. There is so much to talk about there that keeping those parentheticals as short as they are was a struggle. But I was trying to be somewhat glib and definitely concise, so that’s how I managed to address Israeli-ness and Israel-ness and Hebrew-speaking; through (parentheticals).

The second part—about language—is so interesting to think about, because at the time that I first wrote this, language play was not on my radar at all. It happened here because of the literal language play—writing a story in English about an event that was transpiring in Hebrew, in a Hebrew-speaking country. The interplay of the two languages themselves were what led to the language (inter)play. See, there I go again. Language is very much in my lexicon, so to speak, nowadays. But it’s strange; some of my work has absolutely nothing to do with language and everything to do with character and attempts at plot, whereas some of my stories and one of my novels are consumed with language to the point where some people see them as “avant-garde” (this was the very obviously unflattering phrase an agent used about that novel).

Israel is discussed in two paragraphs of this story, both times as a seeming non sequitur, especially toward the beginning, when the reader has been introduced to a man holding a briefcase and two characters sitting at a nearby bar, when suddenly: “Israel reinstated itself after millennia of persecution,” a jarring transition apparently fitting into the proceedings only by virtue of the “re” in “reinstated.” How did you decide this story would follow such associative thinking rather than a more chronological approach? Why make statements about Israel and a pink, fruity drink share the stage in such a brief story?

Because as someone bilingual, multicultural, and variously-housed-and-homed, there is no way for me to think about anything that happens in Israel without thinking about what it means that it happened there. As I mentioned before, I spent most of my life in Israel, and while I lived there, I could still think about it simply, just as home, even if it was a home that did terrible things to people, even if it was a home where I feared for my father’s life when he took buses every day but also didn’t entirely fault the people blowing up those buses because of the circumstances they came from and the way violence and persecution begets more violence. I didn’t have words for all this at the time, but it was very much felt and understood.

Going to college in the United States though—well, that opened up a whole big can of worms, because suddenly I was the Israeli girl and that meant that I was either an overzealous Zionist nut-job (and the word Zionism is far more complicated than I’m making it seem here) or I was a self-hating Arab-lover. There seemed no room for nuance in the public perception of what I was. But nuance is there. Just recently, I had a dear friend call me out on language I used regarding the West Bank, and I was extremely offended and pissed off because she spent all of ten days there while I spent my life in the country that has occupied the Palestinian territories, and disregarding any nuance on either side of the conflict is impossible if there is to be any sort of understanding, ever (a prospect which I have very little belief in, by the by; I’m a bit of a nihilist when it comes to both my home countries in that sense).

SO. To answer the original question. Why bring Israel into it? Because anything that happened to me in Israel or that I wanted to write about Israel after I’d begun to see myself for the first time as a minority (an atheist Jew) and a stereotype (of one of the kinds of Israeli stereotypes above) had to include something involving the complexities and mind-bending one has to endure living there as a left-wing individual.

Plus, the point is partially that even in such a complex, nuanced place things like pink fruity drinks exist. Frivolity exists everywhere, in some ways, and especially in a country that is as Americanized as Israel is. Normal life goes on, even as atrocities and terrible things (and men with brown briefcases) keep on going in an endless loop.

Can you describe your revision process for this story and others like it? How many drafts does a story of this length go through? How much addition and subtraction must you perform from the first draft to the final?

The revision process for this story is particular and different than any other story because the revision became part of the story itself—the question I ask my friend about which word to use? That was real. I called her up while typing the story and asked her about it. So in that way, I folded revision into the very nature of this story.

In general, though… well, there isn’t an “in general,” I guess. I taught a class on Skillshare about flash fiction recently where I think I talked quite a bit about how different stories of this length come about. Some are flash fiction in the sense that they truly come out in a flash of inspiration and barely anything changes between the original draft and when I’m finished with the story. In general, though, I’m a rather impatient writer when it comes to editing my shortest stories, and I’ll often send them out before they’re ready, almost as if I need the rejections to tell me that I need to revise them. And maybe I do.

More recently I’ve become far more concerned with editing though, and so maybe now my process is a little different with such short work. I often put pieces away after I write the first draft, which I usually think is utter crap, and then open it up a week or two months or a year later and realize that there’s maybe something here, that there’s something I can work on here. And then I take the metaphorical fine-toothed comb to the sentences and tweak a word here or delete a sentence or phrase there until I feel like I’ve tinkered enough.

What writing projects are you working on now?

So, so, so many. I have a new writing group where I’m responding to prompts, which is excellent for me. But otherwise, I have one project that’s my main focus—editing a novel I wrote about five years ago—and everything else is on hold. The on hold includes a novel I need to complete, another novel I need to heavily revise, a novel/collection of interlinked short stories (not sure how to classify that quite yet) that also needs revision but very carefully because all the stories are the same exact length (including title) and I want to keep that going, and short story ideas constantly running through my head as sentences. There’s also a historical novel that I will write one day because I know who and what it’s about and they haven’t been written about yet in their own novel and they deserve to be.

Plus, I’m a freelance writer so I’m constantly working on articles, book reviews, blog posts, etc. I’m a bit of a workhorse.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Almost everything I’ve read recently I’d like to recommend. Sarah-Jane Stratford’s Radio Girls; Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things; Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life; Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You; Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night; Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours… The list could go on and on and on.

Sunday
Jun052016

"How Bad Habits Work": An Interview with Rochelle Hurt

Rochelle Hurt is the author of two poetry collections: In Which I Play the Runaway (2016), winner of the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City, published in the Marie Alexander Series from White Pine Press (2014). She is the recipient of awards from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, Phoebe, Poetry International, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fund, as well as fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and the Jentel Artist Residency Program. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati.

Her story, "Blood Loop," appeared in Issue Eighty of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer William Hoffacker about about flash fiction, metaphor, and feedback loops.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “Blood Loop”? What inspired the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

I became fascinated with the idea of a positive feedback loop, in which cause and effect (in very unscientific terms) essentially feed each other. I first read about this phenomenon in a scientific context, but I immediately started thinking about it as a metaphor: how shame works, how bad habits work, how family relationships often mimic feedback loops.

The maternal and pregnant body is endlessly fascinating to me as well. In popular culture it’s often depicted as soft and vulnerable, and mothers are depicted as sweet and selfless creatures (unless they’re being demonized). That always strikes me as false and fairly boring. The pregnant body doesn’t simply house another body; it’s part of a complex system in which two bodies respond to one another.

The entire story contains fewer than 500 words. How do you achieve such an economy of language? Does it require a lot of restraint and/or chaff-cutting to write so concisely? (Did you have to make any tough decisions during the revision process?)

I didn’t cut much—maybe a few sentences, but they were mostly extra modifiers or layered metaphors. Mostly I rearranged. Mechanically, I write flash prose in much the same way I write poems, focusing on description and metaphor. I think some of the economy is a habit developed out of writing poetry—you start to think in dramatic, condensed phrases. So it’s really just a series of figurative descriptions that move the story forward. In this mode, restraint is actually counterproductive, since it might limit those figurative descriptions.

For me, “condensed” prose is not necessarily the same as “economic” prose—it just means that phrases are highly concentrated. Sometimes they’re of little consequence for the plot, but they accomplish other things that are just as pleasurable and important. I remember encountering the term “muscular prose” in college and being initially offended at the thinly veiled gendering of a valued writing style. Then I realized “muscular prose” was likely something I didn’t want to write anyway.

Your story ends in a pivotal moment with both mother and daughter caught red-handed, each in the act of stealing from the other. The two characters are described as “stuck” and “blushing,” but the narrative cuts off before either of them can react in any active way. How did you decide that the story should end in this scene and go no further despite the reader’s natural curiosity about what would happen next?

The mother and daughter are stuck in a permanent feedback loop, so I felt I couldn’t allow them out of that moment. This is another reason I like to write flash: in order to focus on a metaphor or a single moment, to get inside it and make a reader understand it—but then to leave it, rather than pursue it beyond that understanding. That last scene was in my mind from the start, and the rest was really a way of climbing inside that scene and teasing out its symbolic significance through context.

In addition to writing fiction and creative nonfiction, you have published two books of poetry. How does working in multiple genres inform your writing? What lessons have you learned from poetry that you’ve applied to how you write prose, or vice versa?

In addition to the things I’ve mentioned, I think having multiple genres on the table when I get an idea helps me to hone that idea down to something artful. When I have to ask myself whether a metaphor about maternal feedback loops should be a poem, a story, or an essay, I begin to understand more precisely what it is about that idea that appeals to me, what aspect of it I really want to convey. While these categories sometimes help me at the start of a project, they always become blurry in the end, which is freeing.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a couple of nonfiction essays, along with a third book of poems that address sexuality and gender politics. I’m trying to envision this third book as a larger narrative built through individual poems and characters, so there are some fictional elements there, but for the most part, (flash) fiction is sort of my little escape on the side. If I were secretly trying to write a novel, I don’t think I’d talk about it until it was finished.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I recently re-read Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin, which is fantastic. To me, the writing seems somehow no-nonsense and hallucinatory at once. I was also amazed by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is genre-bending, hypnotic, eye-opening, heart-wrenching, and infuriating. Right now I’m reading poetry: Cate Marvin’s Oracle, Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl, and francine j. harris’s play dead, all great.

Thursday
Jun022016

"The Entire Experience Seemed Like an Invitation": An Interview with James M. Chesbro

James M. Chesbro’s work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Under the Gum Tree, Connecticut Review, The Huffington Post, AOL.com, The Good Men Project, Superstition Review, Pilgrim, Weston Magazine, The Connecticut Post, and Spiritus. You can follow him on Twitter @Jamie_Chesbro.

His essay, "Green Mazes," appeared in Issue Eighty of The Collagist.

Here, James M. Chesbro talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about feelingful thoughts, memory gaps, and mowing the lawn.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Green Mazes”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Unlike all my other roles, mowing the lawn brings me immediate satisfaction. I like drawing stripes into the yard, of cutting all the blades the same length, of bringing order to the unkempt. The results are immediate, unlike writing, teaching high school students, or freshman undergraduates, and fathering three young children.

One particular time, as I write in the essay, “the gasoline fumes and the cooing mourning dove made me think of my father,” and my childhood backyard. These thoughts and feelings wouldn’t leave me alone long after I finished the lawn. In Phillip Lopate’s “The Personal Essay and First-Person Character” he writes, “In my own essays, I try to convey thought infused with feeling—a feelingful thought as well as a thoughtful feeling. I try to merge heart and mind.” I began to give the material a try because this seemed like what I had—lots of “feelingful thought[s]” to work with. From inside, I could still hear that mourning dove, cooing, cooing, cooing, and the entire experience seemed like an invitation.

Your essay contains several phrases that imply uncertainty about certain details: e.g., “I bet when I asked him,” “he must have given me some instruction,” etc. How much leeway do you give yourself when filling in the gaps of memory? Do you have an obligation to the reader to make it clear when you’re embellishing or making an assumption about how an event probably happened?

Sure, but I think the reader intuits that I’m working with memory, rather than anything verifiable and I suppose these somewhat self-conscious asides remind them of that as I move along. I like how Tobias Wolff addresses writing about memory in his brief preface for This Boy’s Life. “I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.”

That’s the goal for all literary nonfiction writers, right?—to do one’s best in telling a truthful story. We research what is researchable, look at pictures, ask family members if they remember an event (sometimes). We speculate another’s perspective, their internal workings, their motivations. 

As I mention in “Green Mazes,” my father was an artist. He completed his BFA at the University of the Arts. At night or on the weekends he often took classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Sketch Club, where his favorite artist, Thomas Eakins once belonged. The Sketch Club chose to display his work once (and they misspelled his name). I think his figure drawings were attempts to sketch the human body with as much honesty as his ability and skill would allow, which is what I think writers try to do in words with human experience. Your question prompts me to think about the correlations and overlapping considerations visual and literary artists have about how to approach assumptions, embellishments, and portraying the truthfulness of memory.

The second-to-last line asks, “What kind of father am I becoming, and what do the memories of my dad have to teach me as flashes of his figure walk over the lines we’ve drawn?” I’m interested in this turn because the rest of the essay hardly mentions your own children. Were you at all tempted to focus on your own family and attempt to answer this question within the essay, or was this piece always more concerned with your relationship with your father?

This essay was always about the reconciliations I never made with my father, it just took me a long time to see that larger subject. I hope “Green Mazes” causes the reader to ask themselves these questions, about their own parents, which is one reason I’m comfortable letting them linger. The essay can stand alone, as it does in The Collagist, but it also serves my linked collection well as the first essay, as a launching off point for the rest of the manuscript which is mostly about fathering and looking at my deceased father from the new vantage point of being one.

One of the essay’s more profound moments comes when you write that your father’s death “has become an extension of the reconciliations we never made.” How do you approach a topic as universal and sentimental as grief for a family member in a work of nonfiction? And why broach the subject in the context of recalling something as seemingly trivial as mowing the lawn?

Writing about mowing the lawn gives me the occasion to ponder the other matters you mention. How to avoid sentimentality when writing about grief, about family? I have several quotes nailed to the exposed stud above my computer in an unfinished section of our basement where I write. One of my favorites, and one that can address this question more eloquently than I can is from Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York, when he writes: “We can write about the world only by writing about a world, and that world the one we think, at least, we really know. Journalism is made from the outside in; but writing is made from the inside out. Applicable metaphors, not all-over views, are what writers and readers trade in. The metaphors of experience each writer finds in his own backyard, or air shaft, or palace gardens, have, of necessity, different colors—some are gold and some are green and some merely gray—but in the end, the shapes we know are all the same: the arc of desire and disappointment, the rising half circle of hope, the descending crescent of aging, the scribble of the city or the oval of the park, or just the long, falling tunnel of life. Each of these shapes is to be found in any life lucky enough to have any shape at all. (The cosmic-sentimental essay is, in any case, a kind of antimemoir, a nonconfession confession, whose point is not to strip experience bare but to use experience for some other purpose: to draw a moral or construct an argument, make a case, or just tell a joke.)”

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Of the books I picked up at AWP, the two that have been winning my attention are: B.J. Hollars’s This Is Only a Test, and Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick: Essays.

Wednesday
Jun012016

"A Spread of Phosphorus": An Interview with E.C. Belli

E.C. Belli’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in VERSE, AGNI, Colorado Review, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Caketrain, DIAGRAM, Forklift, and FIELD, among others. Her translation of I, Little Asylum, a short novel by Emmanuelle Guattari, was published by Semiotext(e) as part of an exhibit for the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and a selected volume of her translations of French poet Pierre Peuchmaurd, The Nothing Bird, was released by Oberlin College Press (2013).

Her story, "Breathing," appeared in Issue of The Collagist.

Here she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about homonyms, transitioning between poetry and prose, and finding new paths.

Please describe where this story began for you.

It began as failed poetry. (I only moonlight as a fiction writer.) I was reflecting on a few isolated things that ended up pivoting in tension: lifelong learning, domesticity, mothers. The usual things. I had a few lonely lines, but nothing with the tensile strength for the type of short poem I’ve been interested in writing lately; they did have the elasticity required for a short story though. One line led me to the next, and the story ended up building itself like that. I’ve started many, but I’ve only ever finished four or five stories.

This story has a pivot point. I feel it when the older woman in the girl’s memory begins to speak, and suddenly I’m transported. Do you have any advice for short fiction writers trying to achieve a similar shift or movement in such a small space?

Process is a hard thing to discuss because for me it’s adaptive; it morphs to fit whatever the poem or piece requires. I have to uncover a new path each time. In this case, I reached a point in the conversation that the class is having and thought, This is boring! I need a lift off. Something or someone to stand in contrast to whatever is going on. The old woman came—actually, her hair came: a spread of phosphorus—and I immediately knew her.  

I’m interested in the many ways writers choose to depict dialogue. Could you explain why you chose to omit traditional quotation marks and paragraph breaks for your characters’ dialogue?

The overall form of this story was difficult to settle on because it’s actually quite ugly and stifling. I’ve always loved a nice airy poem: the kind with the windows open and the laundry flapping in the wind. The topic of the story, however—“breathing,” and all of its discontents—necessitated a breathless environment in order to maximize impact. I wanted the end to come as a great release. Which is why even the dialogue got swallowed by that hideous magma of text. What an eyesore. I almost couldn’t do it. I’m sure it will discourage some readers initially, but I think the aesthetic integrity of the piece benefits overall. I hope.

You also work as a translator. How does a knowledge of more than one language affect the first stages of your writing process, when you’re first putting ideas to paper?

I was thinking about connections between words the other day. For instance, take the homonyms “LARME/L’ARME” in French (“TEAR/WEAPON” in English). Then take “TEAR/TEAR” in English. In both French and English, the homonym for a tear can be something with violence at its core. I think, as a translator, being forced to reflect deeply on the various dimensions of meaning of a single word, or of a small group of words, you come upon these little gateways that are so generative. Stories and poems can arise from them.

What projects are you working on now?

I’ve just finished revising my poetry manuscript. Went at it with a scythe, really. I’m also working on the translation of a book by the Franco-Swiss poet Brigitte Gyr and a science-fiction book from the early ’60s by a French writer. I have a few little stories in the works, but I’m very slow.  

Monday
May302016

"From Outside Me": An Interview with Cynthia Arrieu-King

Cynthia Arrieu-King teaches creative writing at Stockton University and is a former Kundiman fellow. Her poems appeared in Fence this year and a creative non-fiction piece will appear in The Volta later this summer. Her poetry collaboration with the late Hillary Gravendyk, Unlikely Conditions, came out from 1913 Press this past spring.

Her story, "Boxes," appaered in Issue Sixty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about secret skulls, haunted beds, and quilting.

Please tell us where this story began for you.

When I was sixteen, a neighbor showed me that she had kept a skull someone in her family had given her. She’d received it under circumstances similar to the one in the story. Told me not to tell my mom. She thought it might be haunting her. That afternoon stuck with me. Then, one day in graduate school, I had a dream from a particular side of my bed that I started to think was haunted. The dream seemed to be coming from outside me: skeletons walking in robes. This dream was pretty vivid and ghastly and I actually made my boyfriend at the time sleep in that spot without telling him about the dream, and he woke up complaining of terrible nightmares on that side of the bed. These two things came together and seemed to allow in many mini-narratives and details I knew from my growing up in Kentucky.

The objects in this story are so vivid and physical. I can feel the shapes they make on the page. For example:

“Clink. One medal. One handkerchief. Smelling of cedar. He heard what he knew were a few baby teeth skitter across the table: his mothers, his. He crushed one accidently simply by trying to pick it up.”

Can you speak to the power of objects in fiction? Why do you think some objects feel flat on the page, while others come alive?

I was just talking to the poet Joel Dias-Porter: He had read that concrete objects make a more measurable reaction in the brain that abstract language. They did a study! But I think some objects feel incidental and some objects operate in a system of icons that the reader perceives as relevant emotionally. Whether to their own emotions or to the character, I think it can be a diffuse system. I don’t know if it matters if an author intends for objects to be world-building.  I think the medal and the teeth in this little passage you’ve kindly excerpted make me think I probably wanted to create as well a symmetry between the American story and the Japanese story collaged together in “Boxes.” Someone told me once my poems don’t have symbols but icons and I think maybe this means that the object doesn’t have a preordained abstract meaning; the icon means as much as possible both the actual object and all it means plus something about attention and reverence, but in a private or idiosyncratic way. So without really consciously thinking about it, I probably wrote that the Japanese people have their cold hard metal (in the medal, military) and their bones (the baby teeth) that no one knows what to do with as a way of gesturing to the American story which is where, ironically, the missing Japanese skull ended up. The objects help me lay out a kind of algebra that says we may be playing out in our emotions a kind of law of conservation of mass both with ourselves and with our cultural counterparts. This also works on the level of trauma, comeuppance, and the quotidian. I also think objects are a good way of making chaos or order specific to a story.

You are doing some interesting things with the movement of time. We flow so quickly, so seamlessly, from Frank’s toddlerhood to his adulthood. What are the challenges and joys of writing a short story that spans such a large amount of time?

Thank you! Great question. I honestly think I have trouble sticking to a short amount of time in a short story. I’ve taught for so long that a short story can be an important moment or an important single day in someone’s life. That way the student doesn’t bite off more than they can chew. But it’s hard to follow suit and even feels weirdly eighties to me. I feel the whole world trying to cram its way into a narrative once I get going, so it’s almost like I feel obliged to show that largeness and experience, people getting old. I’m big on the elderly and all they have seen. I recently saw a photo of the woman in Italy who is 116 and the last person to live in the 1800’s and I was totally overwhelmed and tearful. To me it is a joy to show how time is passing and doing so through detail. It is a challenge to say exactly what is the outcome—in wisdom, in acceptance--of that passage of time.

Are there any other forms of art (music, visual art, etc.) that inform or inspire your writing?

Oh dear, I think about paintings, color, and photographs obsessively. I’ve quilted since I was a teen and the other night I dreamt a whole color scheme for a quilt made out of my clothes and each kind of square represented a season. Give it a rest prefrontal cortex! Probably this informs my poems in the sense that quilts and poems tend to ask you to see why two things are together and to be okay with the pattern and the breaking of that same pattern. I grew up in a house full of books of paintings. I’m terrible at remembering exactly what someone said, only retain the value of it, but can almost always recall how something looked or what someone wore. Movies are a big deal to me: RAN by Kurosawa informs a very long poem in my third book manuscript. I think a lot of people use music now to change gears and prepare to write. Jazz and songs like “You Drink a Lot of Coffee for a Teenager” by Don Caballero shape I think both my prosody and my Main Idea. I probably wouldn’t know how to articulate my Main Idea except that my friend Jesseca Cornelson, awesome poet, once said she could see that my idea of order is faith in and through and beyond the heartbreaking disorder. So jazz in its way helps me see that and those great old quilts that shatter and reconstitute and vary the given pattern also do that.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m just finishing up a long issue of dusie for Susana Gardner dedicated to Asian Anglophone poetry. I think of it as a really really long mixtape of my favorite poems people sent me. Susana told me “the sky’s the limit” and I’m really grateful for that. Hope to see many more collections out there gathered by others!

Also working on short stories with an eye towards a collection, including “Boxes”. My friend the poet Emari DiGiorgio said she could see my short stories were about someone struggling to be a caretaker. I believe these will revolve about how women, especially elderly women deal with coming to terms with the way things are rather than prefabricated ideas of marriage, lifestyle, career, etc., all that shit they try to sell you: I want to show what those negotiations look like.

I have a third manuscript of poetry about war and the idea of order versus chaos in the aftermath of war, Continuity. I think it might have another couple major poems heading its way before it’s really complete.

This coming fall, I’m also slated to work on the late Hillary Gravendyk’s last collection of poems, a chapbook that’s coming out from Omnidawn in the fall of 2017. I’ve been working to make sure that gets its proper reception and publicity. We collaborated seriously and had a book of our collaborations come out this past March: I can say that American poetry should always remember her, her contributions to lyric, to California poetry, to illness studies. It breaks my heart to say it, but I think everyone who knows her poems knows she was at the beginning of the career that would have shown her to be one of our most major poets. You know, ever. So get Harm, everybody. (I’ll send you one if you e-mail me.)

I’m aghast, in love with, feel totally at home in Lily Hoang’s The Bestiary and she and I are supposed to have a conversation about that on paper and about a collaborative book of poems I did with Hillary called Unlikely Conditions. That should come out in the summer from The Conversant.

There are always collaborative poems lurking in my e-mail between myself and Sophia Kartsonis.

Thursday
May052016

"Not Enough Is Sometimes Enough": An Interview with Dolan Morgan

Dolan Morgan lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He is the author of two books: That's When the Knives Come Down (A|P, 2014) and INSIGNIFICANA (CCM, 2016). His writing has appeared in The Believer, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, The Collagist, Selected Shorts, and the trash.

His story, "Celebrity Training, Mon Amour: Christian Bale," appeared in Issue Seventy-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Dolan Morgan talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about failure, Yahoo! News, and the nonexistence of nonfiction.

Looking at your publication history, it appears that this Christian Bale piece is part of a series of stories partially titled “Celebrity Training, Mon Amour.” So what can you tell us about the origins of this series and this piece in particular?

Yes! That Christian Bale piece is one of five super short investigations into how celebrities train for their roles. The others (which appear together in a new story collection called Insignificana, woohoo!) are Tom Selleck, Audrey Hepburn, David Bowie, and the Titanic. All of them are inspired by Yahoo!’s front page news portal, which is among the most popular news outlets in the world. Somehow, more Americans receive current event info from this site than almost any other platform around. One glance at what the page has to offer, too, will make that fact superbly sad. I just stopped by and was prompted with the following choices: “Man kills dad, then naps before calling police,” “10 delicious things to do with broccoli,” “2 huskies have a very dramatic argument over a chew toy,” “Bahati Prinsloo just bought her first pair of maternity jeans ‘and it feels so good,’” and “5 Things Olivia Munn Did to Get Her 'X-Men' Body.” I read it every day.

A super common topic on the Yahoo! news feed is celebrity body image articles. How much weight this person lost for a particular movie. How much another person gained. The workout schedule an actor followed in the months prior to filming. How we can, in just a few weeks, be like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in mind/body/spirit. The “insane” schedule. The “unbelievable transformation.” So and so is “unrecognizable.”

My first inclination when seeing these types of articles is to dismiss them, or to think of them as terribly unimportant. I want to begrudge the significance ascribed to them by a major media outlet when so many more relevant and urgent things demand our attention. And, at surface level, the “Celebrity Training, Mon Amour” pieces affirm that dismissal—they are named after two extremely powerful and gorgeous works, “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” and “HIV, Mon Amour,” both of which tackle far more urgent topics than celebrity weight gain (and both of which I adore); and so the title is a nod to the utter absurdity and uselessness of tabloid journalism in the face of everything else the world lays down upon us. However, I’m not satisfied by the act of simply mocking something. Ridicule is easy. And often empty. And so, the “Celebrity Training, Mon Amour” pieces are also an attempt to move past my own inclinations to be dismissive. To get past my own sense of what is inherently valuable. In fact, most of the stories in my new collection are attempts to find some kind of value or meaning or magic in seemingly insignificant things. Tabloid-style celebrity body articles might feel useless and trivial, and in fact they probably are (inasmuch as most things are), but I’ve set myself the goal of taking the useless and insignificant as a starting point in the movement toward meaning. And, if you think about it, at the heart of every puff piece on some celebrity’s physical transformation is in fact a single person struggling with their place in the world. A person in a body in a sea of choices. Whether they’re famous or not, that circumstance is still weird and horrifying (being here, in a body). And at the edge, too, of every one of those articles is a mass of onlooking people also struggling with their presence in the world—their physical shape, yes, but also their sense of willpower and agency. When we talk about transforming our bodies, we mean controlling what we do and don’t do (eating, exercising, committing, breathing, etc., and gaining dominion over our thoughts and time), and coming to terms with the ways in which we fail to be what we imagine ourselves to be, often and almost exclusively by our own hands. Astonishing celebrity transformation articles are almost always fueled by a shared sense of our own personal and ongoing self-destruction and futility. The Christian Bale piece in particular hinges on the extreme weight loss that actors undertake for roles. I rarely see men struggling with body image issues represented in fiction, and so I wanted that here. In my own life, certainly, I have struggled with how I understand and know my body—its shape, and its weight, and its limits. Beyond physical shape, however, that struggle is more often about the ability, or inability, to exact influence over my own life. Which can be scary and humiliating—because, at the very least, we are supposed to have influence over ourselves. Celebrity training journalism whispers to us (or shouts, really) the secret that sometimes we don’t. That often our actions fall short of our intentions. And, of course, this all sounds a little fatalistic, but I think these pieces are also somewhat joyful and irreverent. They follow a certain line of thinking to a hyperbolic end, which (for me at least) can help render small the scary things that usually loom so large. A little giggle in the face of our own uselessness is sometimes all we can offer. It’s not enough, of course, but luckily, at the moment when you’re giggling, not enough is sometimes enough.

What’s the appeal for you of engaging celebrity and pop culture in your writing? Do you see your work as part of a contemporary trend or subgenre? What do you think accounts for this trend of literary writers inserting famous people into their fiction (e.g., Salvatore Pane’s “Kanye West Saved from Drowning,” Sam Martone’s “Gho$t in the Machine,” etc.)?

I don’t think the use of celebrity in writing is a contemporary trend or subgenre. Rather, popular culture is simply part of the landscape now. It constitutes a significant portion of the environment, like trees. We are surrounded by mountains, sidewalks, TV shows, pop-up ads, birds, and celebrities. In fact, on certain days, a lot of people probably encounter more popular media than plants. It’s mundane, not kitschy or clever. Some might like to bemoan or chide the idea of celebrity or popular culture in art and writing. Those people are delusional and in denial about where they live. Like someone who doesn’t think that ponds are part of the real world. Which is fine, of course. Ponds don’t have to be real.

Your story contains several quotes and attributions to people and publications. What was important to you about dropping in these “outside sources” (e.g., Bale’s personal trainer, his girlfriend, TMZ, etc.)? Were you trying to emulate (and/or elevate) tabloid journalism, or any other specific genre?

Many of my stories incorporate structures taken from nonfiction texts. It’s a habit. Or obsession. For example, in addition to tabloid journalism, Insignificana includes stories in the form of textbook entries, a series of film synopses, business reviews, food criticism, self help, and consumer warnings. This is a product of desperation mostly. I am not a naturally organized person. I think of myself as innately undisciplined. And I am bad at making decisions. These pre-existing structures stolen from nonfiction texts offer a box to be filled. A machinery that automates decision making. A computer in the form of language. Basically, I endeavor to be a robot, or to not exist, and these forms help me to enter autopilot or get out of my own way just long enough to make something else be there or come to life. There’s a somewhat awful video online of a person pouring liquid metal into a very large ant hill. When it cools, the person scrapes away the dirt and reveals a beautiful metal sculpture underneath. Or: I don’t know if it’s actually beautiful. It might be horrible. That’s a good confusion to engender probably. At any rate, the hot metal flows into the ant hill, and out comes some new thing in the world. That feels a little bit like life in general (something close to formless dropped into and shaped by preexisting and unrelated circumstances), but it’s also comparable to how the structures of nonfiction can be used to create surprising fiction. Take the outline of a mail order catalog, for example, and dump the unformed elements of a fictional world into it. Scrape away the dirt and out pops an unexpected hunk of gleaming metal.

Also, there are six pieces in Insignificana that not only employ some structural elements of nonfiction, but are actually just plain nonfiction. Not like memoir or autobiography (my life is not nearly interesting enough for that), but researched essays on the obscure history of early airplane hijackings. They probably don’t belong in a book of short stories. But there they are. The sources are real. With articles cited in a bibliography. Facts, quotes, etc. One of the hijacking pieces is itself referenced in a recent academic paper on contemporary airplane security protocols. So these pieces have seeped into the broader network of things that constitute some kind of mutually agreed upon sense of the world. I’ve presented these hijacking pieces as fiction, though, because, well, why not. Or, to be blunt, I’ve positioned them as fiction because I don’t believe that nonfiction exists. It’s all made up and pretty tenuous out there. Everything, that is. The news. Academic journals. Professional reports. People. All a kind of speculative fiction and mostly magic. I recently watched the film Concussion starring Will Smith, a film ostensibly about the discovery of brain injuries in football players, but which is really about the prevalence of magical thinking in football and everywhere else. In the film, numerous scientific bodies disseminate reports to govern people’s lives. Authority, research, and data coalesce to help everyone in the film form an understanding of the world around them, along with the rules that create it. Will Smith discovers information that conflicts with the ideas put forth by those scientific bodies, and as such conflicts with the rules governing our lives. To Will Smith’s chagrin, the notion that these established reports and findings are in fact untrue hardly matters at all to anybody; the football players, fans, and officials have already lived, and can continue to live, in a real world undergirded by unreal things. Everyone is fine with it. I mean, what else is there. They can live in a magical landscape, supported by some data (not all the data, of course, but some of it anyway, and what else can we ask for—we’ll never have all of the data, don’t be silly. All data and research is undercut by what is omitted, and as a matter of percentages, roughly everything is always omitted). In this way, nonfiction (at its heart) is perhaps even more fictional than fiction—because nonfiction starts from the premise that it is somehow real or factual. Which is a much grander bluff or lie than fiction can ever hope to offer us. (At least fiction tells us the truth by admitting that it doesn’t. Which is itself a lie.) To begin from the notion that you’re telling the truth is the most bald-faced lie one can make. Nobody is telling the truth, not even Will Smith; anything parading as such is really just the purest kind of myth making. And that’s why I’m fine including nonfiction in a collection of stories.

As for whether or not I’m aiming to elevate these genres? No. I wouldn’t presume to be able elevate anything. More likely: they elevate my work in ways that I could never hope to alone.

This story is only one paragraph consisting of only a little over 400 words. Did it require a lot of revision and/or restraint to be so concise? How do you achieve this economy of language?

There are maybe two answers to this question. One is simpler than the other. First, the ratio of writing to editing for this was probably 1:4. I think I wrote this story in about an hour. Then I edited it off and on for a few more hours, cutting and revising and tinkering. That makes it seem relatively simple, and I suppose it is. The broader answer, and the one that I think is more accurate, is that writing (for me at least) includes a lot of a) not writing at all, and b) writing a lot of crap. So, the particular words in this specific piece took a few hours to render, sure, but they wouldn’t exist if I didn’t also spend just as many hours writing and then abandoning other things, and even more hours (days? months? years?) wasting time and staring into space and wondering what I’m doing with my life, and failing at one thing and then another (and another and another). In fact, failure is probably the most accurate well-spring to pin the Christian Bale story to, as well as most of the shorter pieces I’ve written. I often belabor the act of writing—I plan, and I conspire, and I outline and I draft and make notes—and then everything collapses and I’m left with a breathtaking pile of nothing. In that moment of complete failure, feeling out of sorts and a little unhinged, I usually start writing a lot of smaller things in short bursts. Things that specifically seem not worth pursuing. It offers a kind of contrast to what I’ve wanted so desperately, and have strived for uselessly. But it’s only by first chasing something that seems “important” to me that I’m then able to fail and commit to something trivial. It’s almost always more rewarding. And, so, yeah, I wrote these particular 400 words pretty quickly, but I arrived at the moment in which I would write them only through a humbling jumble of missteps, futility, ill-conceived nonsense, and delusion. I mean, these 400 words are also a humbling jumble of missteps and delusion, but they are set of mistakes that are at the very least complete.  

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m writing something about giants, another thing about airports, something else about board games, and also trying out a collaboration with the wonderful composer Will Aronson. Also, a lot of notes about one thing or another that I think are important at the time but that I will probably never look at again.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Recently, I read The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. It’s fantastic and offers a great, necessary response to The Stranger. I think The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander should probably be required reading for anyone living in the U.S.. Melissa Broder’s new essay collection, So Sad Today, is absolutely amazing; super funny, smart, gorgeous, and, yes, sad. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli makes me dance because anything is possible. Signs Preceding the End of the World is so unbelievably precise and calculated and still manages to be both contemporary and mythic all at once. There are just too many things to mention. It’s a good time for books.