Issue 80: A Conversation with Paisley Rekdal

Willow Springs Issue 80 cover shows photo of little girl in rain boots standing in ivy.

Interview in Willow Springs 80

Works in Willow Springs 47 and 44

February 10, 2017



Paisley Rekdal

Photo Credit: Trane Devore

THE  SPEAKERS  IN  PAISLEY  REKDAL'S  POEMS are often observers—drawing connections between the private and the personal, the historical, mythological, and scientific. Her lyricism and her combination of loose, free verse and structured, traditional forms come together to emphasize the slippage between fact and fantasy, old myths and new. In a review of Imaginary Vessels for the Los Angeles Times, Craig Morgan Teicher writes that Paisley Rekdal is "a poet of observation and history, one who carefully weighs the consequences of time. She revels in detail but writes vast, moral poems that help us live in a world of contraries in which 'we hold still for the camera, believing / it will shore up time, knowing it won't."'

Paisley Rekdal is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Imaginary Vessels (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) and Animal Eye (University of Pittsburgh, 2012), a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee (Pantheon Books, 2000), and a hybrid genre, photo-text memoir entitled Intimate (Tupelo Press, 2012). Her book-length essay, The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam, is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press in September 2017. She's been awarded an NEA Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Laurence Goldstein Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and the 2011-2012 Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship.

Newly appointed as Utah Poet Laureate, Rekdal is invested in exploring humanity in all its complexities. She shies away from nothing: racism, sex, violence, religion, death, and all the intersections therein. Her voice is clear and original, allowing her to navigate through thought and emotion with relative ease. To read her work is to engage in a conversation about compassion and self-reflection that goes beyond the page. We met with her at the AWP Conference in Washington, DC, where we talked about ethical memory, World of Warcraft, and the failure of the American Dream.


Your work straddles lyric and narrative. What do you see as the role of narrative in poetry?


A lot of people have said I'm a narrative poet, and they don't mean that in a good way. Narrative is not hip right now, and I take that as a formal challenge to be even more narrative. My newest project is a rewriting of Ovid's Metamorphoses, taking several of his major myths and reworking them. It's not a one-to-one translation where the gods come down and are made more contemporary by wearing Nikes. I've seen a lot of those reworkings, the kind that make the formal innovation Ovid was working with glib. I want to figure out what the myth is about, then reset it in a completely different contemporary setting. For instance, in the Tiresias myth, Tiresias lived as a woman and a man. I retell this story as a mother who has breast cancer and a daughter who is going through gender reassignment surgery. Both are trying to figure out, am I entirely myself now? Another story involves Io the young woman raped by Zeus and changed into a cow. In my story, she is a woman who ends up as a quadriplegic stuck in a body she doesn't understand anymore.

Narrative allows me to do that. Narrative gives me characters. But writing a narrative poem is not natural to me. I have moments that seem narrative. But if you're doing a narrative poem in the way that Ovid was thinking of a narrative poem, really telling a story, suddenly you are thinking of time very differently. You're bringing in plot and foreshadowing. You're thinking like a fiction writer.

I learned the difference between narrative and lyric in a pedagogy class with my graduate students, a bunch of fiction writers and a bunch of poets. We were reading a James Tate poem a student brought in to show us that poets can write prose. He said, "This is like a short story." And the short story writers went insane. "This is not a short story at all," they said. But the poets thought it read like a short story because there's character. Something happens to that character, something else happens to that character. The end. The fiction writers said it was not a short story because there was no reason for anything. In fiction, there's a cause-effect relationship. In poetry, there is no necessary cause and effect. Something happens, something happens, something happens, something happens. The cause and effect, if you will, is the resonance between the images. But that is not cause and effect. When you are writing a narrative poem, you have to think about psychological cause and effect. This happens, thus they start to feel this way, thus they act that way. It changes the nature of the poem entirely. A lot of the time we call a poem narrative simply because it has a character and the character says something or does something. Oftentimes though, the poem disrupts the very idea of what a narrative actually is.


Many of your poems are interested in, to quote Ovid, "bodies changing into other bodies." For example, the "Epithalamium" sequence in Six Girls Without Pants. How are you engaging the Metamorphoses and this concept?


One continuing obsession in my work is about this nature of change. This whole book is about questioning the nature of change. What's fascinating about Ovid's Metamorphoses is that there is no consistent answer. Many people think change is only a form of punishment in that book. People become animals because they behave badly. Change is metonymic, it becomes the emblem of your past behaviors. If you are a greedy person, all you do is eat later on. Eat yourself to death. If you're Acteon, a hunter, you turn into a deer and are torn apart by dogs. But there are a lot of people who change for the better. Like Baucis and Philemon in Imaginary Vessels. They get change that is not a punishment. In fact, change was the reward. You did good and you want to live and die together, so you will turn into an ever-blooming myrtle. Ovid himself changes the nature of change from story to story to story. I love that.


In Imaginary Vessels you inhabit various personas, including Mae West's. What do you see as the limitations and opportunities of personification?


The limitation is that it's still you, as much as you're performing as somebody else. Those Mae West sonnets are unusual for me because I wrote all of them, except two or three, using only letters that appear in the opening line of the poem. So there's a formal limitation that is not obvious, but it's something that registers sonically over time as a way of enacting and pointing out the real delight of her humor to me—which is wordplay. She used to compare herself to Shakespeare, which is absurd, because she's not a Shakespearean writer, though she was obviously committed to wit. There's a high level of verbal play in her one-liners and humor, and that was one of the opportunities for me to figure out a formal way to reenact voice and a persona. The idea of these sonnets was also to be sort of ossifying—they're so trapped in their wordplay that they don't open up in ways I would more naturally like. One of the things I love about persona poems is they allow you to imagine another character, but they also push you to figure out your own limitations as a thinker and a writer.


Is there anything that the persona frees you up to do? Do you find you're able to explore different ideas or themes?


What it frees me up to do—especially in the "Shooting the Skulls: A Wartime Devotional" sonnet sequence—is make an almost didactic move. Several of those sonnets talk back to me and sort of say, "Why are you overlaying your family's narratives and wars onto people who had nothing to do with those wars?" I was writing those sonnets and thinking what it was to capture someone's individuality once it's been lost. Talking back in a persona allowed me to point out that ethical problem. You can't just transfer your emotions onto something and have that not be another form of erasure. The fact is, those bodies that were disinterred from the Colorado State Mental Institution, they're gone. Those photographs were fascinating because they're trying to reclaim individuality to these people and give them a sense of humanity.

Whenever you have a representation, you have a fantasy, you have an idea of what that person is or is not supposed to be. There is no reclamation, there is only the fantasy of intimacy, the fantasy of seeing and reclaiming and getting back to an original lost body. That's what those moments of talking back offer, an ethical nudge to say, yeah, you think you're doing that, but you just made another erasure.

I was reading the forensic archaeologist Shannon Novak's work when I was working on those sonnets. She has this great essay about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which happened in Utah about a century and a half ago and is still debated today. Mormon settlers slaughtered a wagon train party headed west, and covered it up as a Native American massacre. The church recovered the bones and bits of garments, buttons, pieces of shoe leather, and returned them to people they think of as the descendants. And people started to—even though they had no way of proving these buttons were from their grandmother or great-grandmother—treat them with reverence and assign them a relic status. There was a way in which they transferred all of their sense of historical trauma onto bodies that may or may not even belong to them.

What Novak talks about is a transference of emotion onto different objects. I thought that was fascinating but also disturbing. A lot of people have traumatic narratives within their family stories or their own lives and we don't necessarily have the physical evidence of them. In fact, memorials work on that level, which is why we go to the Washington Monument, or the Lincoln Memorial. We don't have attachment to them personally, but we transfer our emotional ideas upon these cultural icons, these eulogized sculptures. In lieu of a body, we create bodies.


In The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, you include two versions of how your grandfather acquired his laundromat. In your mother's version, he received it for safekeeping from a Japanese neighbor interned during World War II. But according to other family members, he purchased it. You wrote, "If I have children I will tell them my mother's story about Gung Gung's laundromat," instead of what actually happened. Why?


I'm finishing a book, The Broken Country, which collects oral histories from Southeast Asian refugees in post-1970 America. And there, the importance for me was facts, to get these people's narratives right and to not indulge in fantasy. But one of the things I found fascinating is how to a certain extent a traumatic narrative is also a fantasy narrative.

The problem of narrative is that it is constructed event—it always has beginning, middle, and end. The perfect narrative has a sense of resolution. The essay about my grandfather was about that fantasy of narrative. What does the narrative offer us? Closure. Out of a damaging set of circumstances, my family came to the United States, and my grandmother would never speak about what happened to the family, the racist things I know she experienced. She'd be mortified that I'm telling everybody everything all the time. So that fantasy construction is in some ways an emotional connection with my grandmother, a healing, where people can all get along.

America is a place of opportunity. America is a place of cross­ cultural connection. America is a place where a bad past can be magically erased or eased over in a kumbaya way. And the reality is that that isn't true. So there is something beautiful about telling that story. When I wrote that essay, I thought that if l had children, I would tell that story over and over to give them a sense of hope. Now I think I would tell both versions. Partly because the facts are in dispute. My grandmother has many reasons to want to lie about that story. She hated Japanese Americans, she hated Japanese people. And my grandfather hated the English. So there was no sense of historical feeling there at all.


Why do you think she clung to that narrative even though it went against what she was comfortable with?


My grandmother never clung to that narrative—my mother did, I think because that's the assimilation story, the story of America we've been told over and over, and it's an attractive one. Who doesn't want to believe, at some level, whether it's a salad bowl or a melting pot, that there's a possibility of entering and assimilating—And I don't even like that word—into American culture and being a deep part of it and not being the outsider? I think that's what that story is about: how two different types of outsiders use the system to their advantage.

That fantasy about becoming American is powerful because it's terrifying. You can spend your life in a country and then be told you're not one of us and you never were and you didn't realize it. You've been going along fine for a time and then someone is like, "Where are you from?" or "Go back to your country." And you're like, "No thank you, I've been here the whole time. This is my country." That sense of being deeply franchised in America is a real longing and it's not to be taken lightly.


In The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, you write about tensions you feel with your racial identity in various countries, but it seems like the place you feel the most discomfort is in the United States, when you travel to the South, and in Seattle growing up. Is there something about America that makes it more uncomfortable than a foreign country?


When you're in a foreign country, you're prepared to be an outsider, but when you're in your own nation you're not. That's what makes it uncomfortable. What was funny to me living in Korea, spending time in Japan, traveling to China, and, recently, living in Southeast Asia is how familiar some of the racial and gender stereotypes are. It's not as if Americans are the only ones who have them. It turns out you can find them everywhere you go because of our media. We've exported so many things. In those countries, they want people to be lighter skinned, they want women to have certain eye shapes, to be a certain physical size. They're just more open about it, in a weird way. Whereas in America, I think there is an emphasis on being polite and hiding.

That's why this election—for me at least, and for many people­—was deeply unsettling, because you think, after eight years, we haven't moved the needle more significantly. When you hear these things being said—probably not representative of all Trump voters, I understand that—but they say, "Finally we can say what we've always wanted to say" and it's one of those ugly, ugly moments where you're like, "Is this really what you've always been thinking?" That's what makes it uncomfortable in America. And maybe it's also some level of hope, to say that because I've grown up with these people—half my family is white—why would I assume that's how they feel about me?

In the Atlantic article that Ta-Nehisi Coates did with Obama, he makes a comment that Obama's biracial background might have made him not as good about fighting some things, like he didn't understand the depth of certain white anger and anxiety around African Americans.


Because half his family is white?


Right, and of course they're going to treat him well. Of course they're going to love him. And he might see some level of racism, but it's going to be tempered by the fact of his presence. It was the same with me. Being biracial gives you a fascinating insight into the way people will behave, but at the same time there are ways in which you might not see fully how bad it can be.


In his Willow Springs interview, Thomas Lynch said, "The reason poets aren't read is because we don't hang them anymore." He goes on to describe an obligation he feels that artists, and poets in particular, should be engaged in political discourse. Do you feel that obligation?


What I find hard about that question is that I don't know what we mean by political. People can look at Adrienne Rich and say that is political writing, they can look at some Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and say that is political writing. They can look at Patricia Smith, they can name a dozen writers and immediately point out what's political writing. But the question is: Is it political writing because of the bodies that have written the poems? Or is it the subject matter? Or is it a combination of both? Because one could make the argument that all of us are political writers.

Maybe narrative is a political act because you're writing a narrative poem that is reaching a lot of people, and it describes your own existence that has not previously been described before. That's what Adrienne Rich's target was, that political act. But I really don't know what people mean by "political poem" anymore.


In your Fogged Clarity interview, you said you thought that if you were to have an honest discussion about some political things in a public sphere that maybe poetry isn't the best way to do that because it limits the conversation. You went on to argue that narrative in poetry is a political act in itself.


That's me trying to work out the definition of political. Because if the political is ultimately an argument we need to make about policy, then poetry is a terrible place to do that. First of all, the audience is limited and second of all, didactic verse still exists—it's just not a lot of people want to read it, and for good reason. But oftentimes poems rely on an engagement with the world, of a particular person in the world, and that person's experience in the world. In that sense, a poem is always about change, and a didactic political piece of writing can't be about change. You're arguing from a fixed position, and that's propaganda, so that's why it doesn't work for me as a poem.

Going back to Lynch's argument, a poem relies on complexity. It's not that political thought doesn't depend on it, but that political writing has to make an argument. Political thinking can be complex, and in that sense we could re-frame the question to say, "In what ways can poems enact political thinking?" We see hundreds of examples because we see people engaged with the world and engaged with ideas that are not fixed positions, and they are working toward and through difficult ideas. Patricia Smith has a wonderful poem written in the voice of a skinhead, and it's not an easy poem. It's not what you think. It's not an automatic Nazi salute, Sieg Heil. There's complexity.


You do a lot of research in your work—historical and scientific. What's the difference between truth and fact, and what's poetry's role in that discussion?


Poetry is all truth and very little fact, unfortunately. Fact is normally in the realm of journalism, but there is an ethical component to that question—when poetry relies on truth, oftentimes facts will change around time, will change around events. But it becomes problematic when you're dealing with people who have been de-voiced. There is an ethical problem at the heart of the "Shooting the Skulls" sequence.

In his book, Memory, History, Forgetting, Paul Ricœr talks about ethical memory, which is essentially the attempt to try to remember all of the people who normally become voiceless in traumatic conflict. He himself was interned at a concentration camp during World War II, so he was generally speaking about wartime conflicts and how we think about them and memorialize them. We think about soldiers, but we don't think about the women who were raped. We don't think about the children who died. We don't think about the descendants of the people who survived the war. We don't think about the disabled. We don't think about the mentally ill.  We don't think about the illiterate. We don't think about the poor. His idea about ethical memory is that we need to reclaim as many of these voices as possible.

When a poem goes for truth, one question you need to ask is, does it reclaim or erase or continue to forget certain existences? Some people are able to speak for themselves and some people aren't. Forgetting is a political act. We don't memorialize or remember certain people, and we essentially continue to erase them because it benefits another narrative.

Narrative is ultimately a political statement too, if you think about who gets written into a narrative and who gets taken out. Going back to the question regarding truth and fact, I would never ignore facts in a poem if they speak to an existence that I don't want to see because it doesn't suit my narrative. There are facts that matter more than others, and to continue to ignore certain facts only to back up your personal story can become problematic. At the worst, it continues to erase real historical people that had very particular meanings to their lives. At the best, it will highlight that you're only using history as a sort of recitation of your own awesomeness.


Do you see truth as an emotional reality and facts as objective reality?


Facts are objective, exactly. If handled badly, you can overload anything with facts and it becomes about showing off—I know all this stuff and you don't. And then you lose the line, the sense of music. In some ways I'm not going to have a good answer to this question because some part of this is instinctual. You don't know why there is a connection, but you're researching and you start writing, and you free write, and you put things together, and you take notes, and suddenly you're like, that's what I'm interested in, that's what I'm talking about.

Why did I become fascinated with the photographs of Edward Sheriff Curtis? There was nothing on the surface except that they're beautiful. But I kept going back and back and the more I read about him, the more I realized he's just anxious about modernity. The project looks like it's about American Indians but it's actually about whiteness. That's where research helps. The more questions you ask, the more likely you are to realize something about what you're examining.

But the other thing I rely on to balance things is music. Poetry has to sound good. If you've got a lot of facts, they don't tend to sound good. "Five million people died in the Johannesburg mines" is a really hard line to scan. I spend a lot of time reading drafts out loud, making sure they sound beautiful. To a certain extent, I rely on the music to tell me there's something wrong here. Whether it's intellectual or in terms of the image or whatever, something is wrong here, so I can circle it and go back.


Is that only with poetry, or do you do that with prose as well?


It's only with poetry because—and this is terrible to say—I don't care about prose. To me, it's the dumping ground. If I have other things I have to get to, I'll put that in prose because I don't care if it sounds as pretty. It's not like I don't work on the sentences. I just don't care as much.


What about other forms? You put a lot of work into the blog you kept while traveling through Southeast Asia. It felt like an essay. How does working online, in Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. work into your view of literature, given the new spaces we have to write in the world?


You're right about the blog—at some point it became exhausting because I had to keep the blog, but I was writing it like an essay I would publish in a magazine. I also edit and work with the website, Mapping Salt Lake City. One of the things I learned is that you can't just do a one-to-one transference. Certain material works better on the internet. We read differently online. We have that great back end feature where you can see how many people clicked on a piece and how long they stayed. Longer form journalism, longer form essays, no one stays on them for long. Everyone wants pithy, two hundred, maybe five hundred words, short sentences, very direct. And it sounds obvious, but that was eye opening to me. I should have known that. I work in poetry and I work in nonfiction, and there are things that I know—that's an essay and that's a poem. You feel it instinctively. You know the form demands different kinds of reading experiences and different kinds of language.


Does that relate to how you said you don't care about prose? Is it something you don't engage with on an artistic level?


This is probably my failing, because every prose writer in America would be like, "Fuck you. This is art!" And I would have to say the same thing. The arguments I made suggest there is an art to digital writing too. I have not been taught to respect it. But there's a formal quality to it. Twitter, say what you will, is a form of writing. A Facebook post is a form of writing. We may not take it seriously, but they're all forms of expression.

My first training was not as a creative writer, it was as a medievalist. I sometimes think how amazing it would be to have had medieval Twitter, because when you're doing research into the medieval period, you're so limited by the text. There's just not a lot of material. One of the great things about Twitter and Facebook and blogs is that they form an incredible historical record that's constantly evolving. If you were an historian coming back and trying to figure out what 21st century America was like, you would have records that no other period of history has. The ability of people to express themselves like that is fantastic.

That's one of the reasons I wanted to do a website for Mapping Salt Lake City and not a regular book. Once you've got a book, you've got an editing process and selection process. Certain voices come in because you want it to sound a certain way. The internet works against that—it's community. But what I also learned is that there's a class­ based privilege on the internet. You and I, we go on the internet and we're there for hours, buying things and reading blogs and Twittering and Instagramming. But a lot of communities go to the internet because they've got to get health services, they've got to get job information. I'm in, I'm out, boom. They don't play there. Their reading and writing experience on the internet is different. All of these things came up while writing the blog. And the blog finally killed me. I got midway through my time in Vietnam and thought, oh my god, just take a break. And then I didn't go back. But it was a lot of fun too, the instantaneous reactions. People would send me emails like, "I love that piece." That never happens. It was satisfying.


How do you think the growing access to the internet, and the subsequent shrinking of the world has affected marginalized voices? Has it given them a chance to come out? Or has it given them more places to be hidden?


My suspicion would be a little of both. There are always going to be the outliers that learn how to use technology for their benefit. But one of the things that globalism has taught us is that people don't necessarily like to be connected—maybe because it's not that everybody is connected in their individuation; we're connected via capitalism, too. So it's not just that the internet allows for freedom of individual expression—it's still within a certain type of economy of thought and self-expression based on Western values and capitalistic practices.

Have you heard about gold farmers? World of Warcraft is this endless game, but you can skip levels if you have gold that you can buy new weapons with. Rich players, mostly in the West, don't want to go through all the levels. So they purchase gold. There were a couple communities in China where people were playing 24/7, just making gold, and selling it for real money online to players in the West so that they could skip ahead. Here's leisure time of the West capitalizing on Chinese production and labor.

In Tung-Hui Hu's book, A Prehistory of the Cloud, he talks about all these ways in which digital leisure time involves a lot of invisible capital and production. The reason our Facebook feeds are free of pornography and beheadings is because people in the Philippines watch animal torture and child pornography and the worst of humanity eight hours a day to scrub it—no algorithm can actually determine with 100 percent accuracy what is bad and what is good. People are getting traumatized in the second and third world so we can go through our feed and not see that stuff. When we're talking about whether the internet opens up the world or just re-marginalizes the same voices, I think it does a bit of both. If you're a rich Chinese person in Hong Kong, you're not having these problems either. But if you're poor and you have access to the internet and you figure out how to use it in certain ways, your labor might go into this.

I lived in Hanoi, where you can't get Twitter, you can't get Facebook, but everybody has it anyway because they get a VPN. You go into a café and see everyone on their computers with their VPNs. Are they reading The Guardian? The New York Times? No. They're on Facebook, scrolling, looking at ads, which produces money for the West. Here's a communist nation full of people who are entering a capitalist economy because they want to be online. This has nothing to do with digital expression, but someone will always take advantage of someone else. And it works both ways. It is both a liberating experience but also a reinforcement of the same things that are going on.


Can you talk about the ekphrastic impulse in your work? I'm thinking of the way the text in Intimate responds directly to the photographs of Edward Sheriff Curtis.


For me, poetry and photography are similar media. They're static representations of a moment. And they may represent and create multiple emotions, changeable complex emotions, but they're highly artistic, highly crafted, highly manipulated moments in time. I use the poems as my own photographs, basically. Sometimes a documentary photograph in Intimate has a distant, if not nonexistent, relationship to the prose that accompanies it. I wanted that interesting way in which we read the photograph one way, we read the text another way, and then we see them together and think, wow, that's a completely different way of moving these against each other.


You said you're creating a third art object, which exists within the reader—


Only within the reader. I have ideas of what that object should be. There's a reason why I put this photograph next to this thing, but the resonance that I hope the reader experiences may not entirely exist. Maybe there's a possibility for it.

The reader is always the unknown. Sometimes you'll get the reader you've always wanted—which is you. And they're like, oh my god, you're brilliant, I totally see everything you were doing, I get it. And then you get the other readers, which is most people, and they're like, uh, what? But they end up sometimes having rich reading experiences in directions, where you're like, okay, have fun there, I have no idea how you got there, but I'll accept it because that's reading. Reading triggers the imagination, it triggers memories and associations, and those are impossible to pare back. And you don't want to.


Does that triangulation of poem, photograph, and reader work in a different way than, say, an essay?


I can only point to the work of other writers to answer that question. Because I don't necessarily know if it does in my work. I was influenced by W.G. Sebald and then Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. The ways they use photographs are exactly the ways I wanted to use photographs, where there is that triangulation effect. I cheat, though. In my two books, I have beautiful photos. But if you read Sebald's work, those photos are incredibly dull. If you were just flipping through them, you would pass them up. They don't register. And oftentimes they're badly reproduced, deliberately so. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, same thing. Badly reproduced photos, oftentimes of moments that look like they could be meaningful, but stripped of context. And her text refuses to give you context. Sebald does that too. If you took these photos outside of the context of the text he produces, you'd say, "These are the world's worst vacation photos." But when you put them next to text, suddenly we're talking about the decay of Victorian values as World War I and World War II are looming on the horizon. An innocent beach scene becomes the Holocaust. It's amazing. He infuses history into photos that are absolutely devoid of any sense of time. Cha does the same thing with her photographs of traumas in Korean history. You'll see people looking into the distance screaming. But you can't see what they're seeing. You have no idea if they're at a game and they're shouting excitedly or they're watching a horrific massacre. That sense of the information being off-screen is terrifying and creates a sense of unease. It disrupts this sense of history. Both Cha's book and Sebald's work are trying to reclaim moments of history. Sebald is pointing out what we normally forget, what we normally write over, and trying to bring those to the forefront, to make us see what we have suppressed. In Cha's case, she's like, you may think you know, but I'm going to suppress what you want to see, all the time, until it's actually the opposite. I love their work.


That triangulation effect relies on the reader to internalize whatever they are taking in. What is the relationship between the poem and the reader?


That goes back to what I said about ethical memory. At the heart of that idea is an impossibility. The desire to represent the world in language is an attempt to get closer to the reader. To have an empathetic experience, the reader imagines that they've walked a mile in your shoes. It is an attempt to force the reader to have a certain emotional response. So in one way, it is this intimate and emotional bid that the artist is making. But there is selfishness and egotism that can never be denied. The persona poem is still the writer. The representation has a failure built into it. There's always a limitation to what we can express and what we can hear and what we can imagine. But that doesn't mean that you can't make an attempt. If you make no attempt whatsoever, there's no communication at all, no possibility of intimacy.

That's what fascinates me about the nature of intimacy. You're backing away as much as you're coming close. What I love about photography is that it purports to document the real world. This thing happened to me, and I saw it. But every photograph is posed. Every photograph is framed. In every photograph, there is more that you don't see than you do see. As soon as you aim the camera, you've said I'm not looking at that. A poem is the same. As soon as you say this fits, something else does not. And so it is not documentary, not an accurate representation of the world. We are more likely to say that is true about a poem. We recognize that it's highly manipulated. But a lot of people still want to see the photograph as the actual thing. Narrative and lyric poems make an interesting bid, because they are the more realistic forms of poetry. There is a suggestion that the reader is going to say that this happened to the writer. I now know who this person is. That is a mistake. The form suggests transparency, but it is just as opaque as anything else.


In your poem, "The History of Paisley," you turn the lens onto yourself in a way that's accommodating to your readers. I'm wondering how you look at yourself with such clarity.


That's assuming that I'm right, that I'm looking at myself clearly. Because I could totally be making shit up. I'm writing about myself, but that doesn't mean it's accurate. It's a performance of myself that appeals to readers because it hits certain notes of humility and charm. I've read lots of poems from horrendous people I've known personally. We all know horrific people who are writing wonderful poems. I don't think just because you like the persona that you like me.


So when you write about yourself, it is a persona as well? How aware are you of that?


This is important with memoir. Oftentimes when you are writing about things that happened, other people look bad. So it's your turn. You have to turn the gaze around and let yourself look bad. That's a formal device. But it's absolutely necessary as a bid to the reader to say, "You can trust what's coming out of my mouth." And it works in poetry too. When the self behaves badly, it can do one of two things. If the self behaves too consistently badly, people may be horrified and walk away. But if the self behaves just badly enough, there is a moment of "authenticity," which is funny because it's a performance. It is always a performance.

Issue 81: A Conversation with Gary Copeland Lilley

Issue 81 Cover shows Chris Bovey print of Spokane's famous garbage goat in teal and yellow with Willow Springs in decorative font.

Interview in Willow Springs 81

Works in Willow Springs 73 and 65

MARCH 30, 2017





THROUGH HIS CONTROL of persona and voice, Gary Copeland Lilley examines the experiences of people often relegated to the margins—sex workers, prisoners, drifters. The undercurrent unifying these characters and voices is Lilley's innately felt musicality, drawn from the litanies of the King James Bible, the looseness of the blues, and the recitation of hoodoo ritual. A deep lyricism suffuses his poetry. In a review of Alpha Zulu (Ausable Press, 2008) for The Believer, Stephen Burt writes, "Without such stories there would be no poems, but no good poem is only a story, and Lilley's power comes from his sound: syncopated, densely compacted, defiantly resigned."

Gary Copeland Lilley is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Bushman's Medicine Show (Lost Horse Press, 2017) and High Water Everywhere (Willow Books, 2013), as well as three chapbooks, including Cape Fear (Q Ave Press, 2012) and Black Poem (Hollyridge Press, 2005). He's received the DC Commission on the Arts Fellowship for Poetry twice, in 1996 and 2000, and earned his MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College in 2002. A founding member of the Black Rooster Collective, he is also a Cave Canem fellow.

Originally from North Carolina, Lilley was a longtime resident of Washington, DC, served a stint as a Navy submariner, and currently resides in Port Orchard, Washington. His breadth of travel informs his work, as place and geography act as a singularity around which his personas form. To read his poetry is to engage with often­-overlooked voices, with haunted and defiant landscapes. Lilley's poems are powerful vehicles of empathy, relaying autobiographical, historical, and folkloric memories with precision and compassion. We met with him in mid-spring in Spokane for the release of the Bushman's Medicine Show, where we talked about the risks of persona, the Wilmington massacre of 1898, and the balance of craft and politics in writing.


There seem to be two competing schools of thought in contem­porary literature. One is that you need to have a life full of experience, which you've had—you were in the navy, a member of the Black Panther Party, and have lived many different places. The other school says you need extended time in academia. You've had both. Are those two worlds harmonious?


I've been a lot of things. I was in a band. I was a submarine sailor. I was in the Black Panthers. Sometimes people look at me and say, "How can you do that—both the submarines and the Panthers?" I believe in the right to dissent, but my family has always had people in the military. Me and my cousin are the only ones from our generation. He was Army, I was Navy, but we went for the same reason. We believe in freedom, that we have a document that guarantees that. So yes, these things are compatible to me because I have lived all these lives.

When I got the Joan Beebe Teaching Fellowship, to go back to Warren Wilson College and teach in the undergraduate program, one of my friends said, "Gary, I don't know if you can handle the politics." I'm thinking, politics? Of course I can. But I didn't know about those kind of politics. That's what gets me in the academic world—people are so protective of their space, competitive. They'll undermine you and cut your throat for that tenure.

There's always someone who doesn't like the way you're doing things. You're moving too fast. "He wears leather. Did you know he listens to hip hop in his class?" You said we can design our own composition class? Mine is based on Hip Hop America by Nelson George. We'll read it, discuss it, play the music he talks about. Okay, now you don't like it because I wear Timberlands while I'm doing that. Really?

And then, lo and behold, I know what the real problem is: I'm the only black faculty member there, and they didn't know I was coming. Because I won the Beebe, they had no choice. That's chosen by the MFA program. So when I showed up, I'm like, why are they on my shit? I didn't understand what my friend meant when he said, "You aren't gonna like the politics." All this jockeying for position. And this is the trip—I love teaching; I just don't like what comes with it.


Your work often deals with racialized experiences in different parts of the United States: North Carolina, Louisiana, the Pacific Northwest. In these places, and in your poems, there are ghosts­—historical figures and phenomena often overlooked by society at large. Would you talk about this in the context of your work?


I grew up around the area where some of John Brown's Raiders came from. So I'm always close to that. My family is connected with that whole movement. There are all these stories, and you can see how just one thought of freedom—just one thing—blossoms. But I'm not about making a manifesto, I'm just trying to write a poem or a story.

That's where I differ from the Black Arts Movement. Their whole thing is that the poetry is subordinate to the politics. My feeling is that poetry can never—art can never—be subordinate to anything. If you're going to use art, why is it subordinate? If you make art, make art. If you want to write a manifesto, you can do that.

The art in Larry Neal's Hoodoo Hollerin' Bebop Ghosts is not subordinate to anything. The message is in it, but it's not the type of poetry that people typically want to see from the Black Arts Move­ment. That aesthetic comes from Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka. We know Baraka because he lived. Larry Neal died in his forties, so we don't know Larry Neal, though he was the main architect of the Black Arts Movement. They wanted music to be represented in how they write—something Langston Hughes did too, when he was doing the blues. No one did that before that generation of African American writers. But when Langston goes there, he goes in the twelve-bar blues form. When Sterling Brown goes there, he goes with work songs, like his poem "Southern Road."

Langston's first poem is the poem I think he chased his entire career—"The Negro Speaks of Rivers." That poem's a killer, and to be your first. Damn. What heartache, over and over and over. In the end he started stripping all the music and everything out of his poems because people were misinterpreting them. I feel compelled to keep that kind of stuff in. I'm not anything without music. It's been such a big part of my life. To me, Langston was removing the art.

Look at his last book. That's where he makes everything crystal clear—"This is where I stand politically." I don't want to be that.


What do you want to do instead?


A bunch of us started writing in DC, the Black Rooster Col­lective. It was four poets and we wrote our own aesthetic, what we were personally looking for, because we were horrified by what had happened to Langston. People were not understanding, were always trying to define what he was trying to do. We said, "Well, let's just remove that barrier right now. Let's tell people what we're trying to do. Individually, what we're trying to do."

We started from this visual artist, Renée Stout, who said she was getting more inspiration from the poets in town than the visual artists. She was coming to all the poetry readings and open mics and she picked four of us who she wanted to workshop in her studio.

We walked in and the first thing we saw was this huge painting of a black rooster. Everybody gets the wrong idea—"Yeah, four black male poets call themselves Black Rooster." No! We would talk to each other like, "Meet you at the Rooster Monday night," and people would be like, "The Black Roosters, that's who they are." I mean, when you walk through her door, it's the first thing you see.

She wanted a company of poets around her, so she started this workshop, and we would meet every week, for five or six hours. We'd cook food, then have discussions about what was going on in the political world, what was going on in the art world, and then it was just random street gossip, all of which became the basis for that work. We're singing the street that we live on . . . this is our street, the politics and everything that's happening, being represented on that street. We see what's going on, and that's driving us, but how do we take this world onto the page? We had the Black Arts Movement, we
had Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka.

Baraka's first book just killed me, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note. People ask, "What happened later?" He just got angrier and angrier. No more beauty, just rant. I was glad to see him a few years ago, just before he passed, in a teaching mode, working with younger writers. He's this elder, and there's a total change in him. Now he is really kind of connecting to us and trying to teach us and make us feel welcome . . . but that was not him in the day.

It's like you listen to the blues long enough and you can tell these guys' lineage. Mississippi Fred McDowell in the hill country—and Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside, you know, are a branch of that family. You have Otha Turner and Jessie Mae Hemphill. Then you start seeing the people who come off of that tree of musicians. Literature is like that too, especially poetry. You have people who have worked with people, people who come from the same places, and you can see where this is the trunk and these are the branches.

After I read Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note, I wrote like LeRoi Jones for six months. I wanted to be him. Something he does resonates with me, grabs me. Then it was Baldwin. The start of it, though, was Gwendolyn Brooks. In that little poem, "We Real Cool."

Me and my friends walked into a headshop back in the day, and there was a black light poster that had that poem on it. We learned it right then, the entire poem, because we thought she was talking to us. We're at this age, and we're rebellious, and it speaks to who we are. She got us. That's it, man, that's our poem. So we'd see each other in school, "Hey, man, what's up?" "We real cool." We'd just bounce lines.

I'm teaching some high schoolers, and they, the hip hop boys, are all into that poem. They all felt the same way we did. It's not fatal­istic. It's defiance. When I met Ms. Brooks, I told her the impact of her poem on me: "And now I'm teaching and I'm seeing the impact of your poem on this generation." And she says, "Really?" And I said, "Yeah. It was just like this fighting thing." She said, "They feel like that too? I wrote it as a dirge." And I said, "That's not the way we do it!" I'm serious, I went there—"that's not the way we do it." I mean everyone who does that poem, no one is thinking this is something sorrowful.

The hip hop boys were reading it the same way I was reading it. We thought the poem was for our time of rebellion, and they can think it's for their time of rebellion. That's the impact. What comes through is defiance, look at the way she wrote the lines. Why does it start every sentence with "We" but the "We" is falling on the last word of that line? That moment of inflection. That's where you see it. "We/Left school. We/Real cool." It's like that, you know? "We/Lurk late. We/Strike straight." She breaks that line. That's some bad stuff, man.

I didn't know a poem could do that, could make you feel that­—until then. All four of us standing there looking like . . . might as well have been Moses walking down the mountain with that poem. For us, as teenagers in a time of rebellion, we're seeing everything happen—the war, all sorts of racial stuff, and everything is going against us—then there's this poem. It gave us some steel. You know, that inflection, the little things you pick up. I see the power of that and I know what it did for me. I want to make that effect, too.


Can you say more about how you find poets you love and try to inhabit their voices?


With Baraka, LeRoi Jones, I did that for six months. When I started doing Langston, and hearing Langston do the blues, I was like, well Langston's writing the blues, but this leads all the way back to the mother country.

I used to get criticized as a young poet by other African American poets. They were like "Where are you coming from?" They said, "It's hard for me to find the word 'black' in any of your work."

Do you doubt the person speaking is black? I wrote a poem called "Black Poem." I mean, that was it. That's in response to not having a poem that said the word "black." It doesn't have to, but since you want one, you know, here's "Black Poem."

This was before the MFA. I was a student, but I couldn't believe I was being criticized—you're questioning my ethnicity from the page or something? You're not picking up enough correlatives there? I mean, do you need me to say for sure that I'm black? So my issue then was, how come they didn't pick it up?

But I don't feel like I need to raise that flag every time, to say, “This is who I am." Who I am is already there. I try to follow some­thing Walter Malty said—that every day he sits down to write, he puts the truth about himself into that work.


You've lived in many places. Does where you're living effect how you're writing?


It does, but it doesn't effect the main aesthetic—what I wrote with the Roosters long ago. I believe that fifteen percent of African American people speak nothing but standard English, and another fifteen percent speak nothing but what we have come to call Ebonics. I work that other seventy percent—on both sides. I want my work to reflect where I'm from. I want my work to have that music in it. And that's a simple thing, aesthetic.

When I move from place to place, the main aesthetic stays the same, but the specifics change. I couldn't write "High Water Everywhere," or any of the stuff about New Orleans until I was in the Pacific Northwest. I had to have distance.

Writing about North Carolina, which I think is probably one of the most beautiful states and also one of the most oppressive, is tough. I never understood why my family was so worried when I would fight Klansmen's sons when they said something to me, or did something I thought was disrespectful. I had come from New York. Dude, I'm not taking this. It took me a long while to figure out that my family knew what happens—they were born and raised in North Carolina. They knew people who were dragged out of their homes. They knew that retribution would be paid for putting your hands on one of those Klansmen's sons. It took me a while to get the optic on, like, what's wrong with my people? And then I figured out later—oh, it's about safety. The sheriff is thirty miles away, and he's probably a Klansman too. There will be no calls responded to here.

To write Cape Fear about the Wilmington Massacre and every­thing? I studied that after I discovered it up in Province town read­ing the paper—"The New York Times apologizes for their part in the Wilmington Massacre of 1898." You know one of those little articles. Whoa, Cape Fear is sixty miles from where I lived. I had never heard of it. None of the black people in my county or any­ where around there ever speak of it. How can a massacre happen and we not hear about it? A massacre of African American people. And why is the Times apologizing? I researched for a year or two before I could start to write those poems. I got down to Wilmington; you know what I didn't find? Tombstones that had any correlating dates or anything close to it. It's like, this is how we censor you.

The blacks are saying there were over 2,000 people murdered. The whites are saying twenty. Those white families are people who became our governors and congressmen for the next sixty-something years. They shaped everything. They shaped what's taught in the schools.

North Carolina history is required. How come I don't know about the Wilmington Massacre? The research has shown me this: there had been a white party, small farmers who felt like they were being victimized by the industrialists of the time. They couldn't ship their crops because they were being charged too much. You have the blacks who are into the Reconstruction. They are the most upwardly driven people the white farmers have ever seen. They're in Wilmington, the biggest city in North Carolina at that time. 25,000 people. 17,000 African Americans. Those white small farmers joined with them to create the Diffusion Party. The election of 1896 rolls up, they win every available seat. And that's when the conspiracy starts, from the old Confederates, to restore the order. By the next election, 1898, if they don't elect us again, we'll take it from them. That's what went down. They murdered a bunch of people. So how come we don't know this stuff? You look at North Carolina now­—that kind of repression and silencing was allowed to go on. It put us in the political shape we're in today, changed the trajectory of everything.

Now we're in this spot where they can pass a stupid-ass bathroom bill and lose billions of dollars over it. It's not about the bathroom. They have a provision in that bill that makes it impossible to file against discrimination. They want that—that you can't legally chal­lenge discrimination. It's not, "We want people to go to the bath­room of their natural gender." That's not the bill. That's the fight the rest of the country sees. The real fight is about retaining the legal right to file against discrimination. To have a legal recourse against discrimination. They want to take it away.

The same stuff made my parents fearful of me fighting Klansmen's sons. They knew what could happen. I didn't. Now, do I think my parents knew about the Wilmington Massacre? Oh, yeah. How could you not? Word travels. If they're killing your kind, you better believe word travels. They knew. So I write stuff like that just to counter the effect of the silence. We need to talk honestly. I understand the change the whites in Wilmington were going through. But here's the funny thing. For people who have always had privilege, equality is oppres­sion. That's how they saw it. How they're seeing it today.


How did your activism as a member of the Black Panther Party influence your work?


A lot of the people I knew around the Panthers were also solidly into the Black Arts Movement. The Panthers started in '66, the Black Arts Movement started, I believe, a couple years later. Everything was in support of their activism. But I was a writer when I joined, you know. So that wasn't an issue to me. Is art second, here? No, it's not. I was a writer who joined the Panthers, so I'm not shifting. I did write political articles, but that was different than my creative work.

As far as activism, I also went to the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences in the 1990s. It's a center for Poetry of Witness. That's activist writers—Carolyn Forche, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tim O'Brien, Bruce Weigl, Fred Marchant, and on and on. Poetry of Witness. That's what they all came together for after the Vietnam War. I was there about the time Carolyn did that anthology, Against Forgetting. I had read The Country Between Us and "The Colonel," that poem of Forché’s that everybody goes to, but to me it's the whole book.

Tell me that's not art. There's something political about "The Colonel," yes. He's got a bag of fucking ears, you know, that he has taken from people. She starts off, "What you have heard is true." And she's there with the friend and his eyes that say: "say nothing." We can read newspapers for the facts, or the alleged facts. But art has such a bigger impact. This is a character who is sitting in the presence of someone who has a bag of ears. He takes one of them, drops it into a glass of water, and it comes alive. The others, he sweeps to the floor. "Something for your poetry, no?" And "Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground." Killer lines.

I'm still an activist. I participate in many things. Writers Resist? That was great. Everyone just puts that stuff out there and the next day, the next day there's all these people setting up readings. Yes, I'm down. And what was it about? Freedoms, baseline equality. Why can't equality be a baseline? My activism pulled me into other things in the community. It's about making change. At the same time, in my work itself, I'm not going to be lobbying for those politics. I will show you something about that world though. I will show you a character from that world. I hope people don't necessarily think that's me, though, because I wrote serial killers too.


With poems that aren't clearly delineated as "persona," people do often read them as autobiographical—


I made the mistake of reading that serial killer poem at a reading­—didn't sell one damn book. I knew I was in trouble when the publisher started explaining, "He's not like that ... "
There was a person in DC when I was living there killing women and stashing them in the 'hood. But DC doesn't want to call attention to serial killers walking their touristy streets. Around victim seven, I started writing the serial killer, would read it at open mics. Because I had already kind of got this inkling, like, maybe this is someone who can walk in my community undetected.

I was pissed off about everybody in the black community knowing that something is happening, and nothing seems to be coming from the administration, nothing seems to be coming from the police about it. They're just finding bodies and saying, "Well, separate inci­dents; this is the murder capital." But it was a serial killer. I figured it's somebody who can walk around, who knows the drug territory. I had to bring that to attention. That's the risk of persona, that people associate the speaker of the poem with the poet.

With my poem "American Rapture at 13 Degrees," people are like, "That was such a great poem about you and your son going to that football game." I don't have any children. I wrote that watching a game on TV. I saw this black man and his son, they've got end-zone seats, and just the way he looked at the boy when the player gave him the ball after scoring a touchdown, I was like, that's enough for me. It was a play off game in Chicago—cold as shit—and I'm watching this and it was clear to me that they weren't people who were well off. This guy in his seat is just as happy as this boy. Right after the game, I started my first draft of that poem. I don't know them, but I have to make the character work somewhere. And I do know people who work at businesses as cleaning people who are given tickets for games. So I put those two together. That's what I'm talking about—truths mean more than facts.


When starting a poem, do you hear its voice or see its images first?


I start with sound first. I don't have line breaks when I start. It's just a free flow of writing that takes me all the way through. Then I have a score. The next stage is the images. But I'm from the South, so territory and location are important to me. Sound helps me locate the poem. It defines the space I'm in, the territory. I start looking at the natural things first. Even if I'm writing from an urban area, from an urban space, an urban poem, it will be the broken glass in the street, and how it looks . . .  the street lights look like semiprecious gems, something like that, because I'm always called to the territory I'm in. One of the main pillars of the Black Arts Movement was the language of the poem as reflective of the music in our community. Southerners have a way of talking that's musical. There's a musical quality in language itself, a musical quality in all of us speaking, that we don't normally look at.

This is one of the hardest things to teach students. They'll be writing a poem, and all of a sudden, they have a different idea of what language is because I've said we're going to write a poem. And they start thinking about the language, the lines, the this, the that. Okay. So we're not going to do any line breaks. You have to bring to them the idea that we can write the way we talk. Create the voice you hear. A lot of times, people assume that what you're talking about is the authorial voice. No, that's the aesthetic, the style. But the voice is the voice that actually comes off that page, the character's speech that you hear. And you can make that as distinct as you want. That's where the poem is located.

I have to make sure people understand where we are. And if I know some of the natural things that are around, it's easier to build images with them. The diction is also going to show social status, the economics of the person speaking. I want to understand syntax, to make that dialect without inventive spellings. I want to use the English spelling and just invert the syntax enough to where people can hear a voice from a particular region, a particular social class, use the syntax to do that, and still have that ear for music, to make the music happen.


In your first book, you have a glossary of terms, but not in your later books. Why?


In the first book, the publisher was like, "Nobody understands this. What do these things mean?" My readers have a responsibility too. For my first one, I was like, well maybe they won't understand what these hoodoo terms are and what they mean. And even though I've continued to use those references in other books, I don't provide definitions now.

I hope my work makes readers curious enough to satisfy that itch, to go after it themselves. I want to lead them there. I don't want to drop them into a dark room with no light. In the context of the work, I think there are enough clues for you to find out, especially if I'm talking about the gods. If I've got a girl dancing in the strip club, wearing certain colors, and there's a series of fives—maybe she has five rings on or something like that—that's a representation of an orisha. The people who are into that automatically know it. And for people who aren't, it's just a nice image with this woman wearing five rings, and they still make note of it. But people who are into the Yoruba or any of the old African religions, they know these represen­tations without me saying it. I figured that out after the first book.

I still want to write the good poem, the good piece, that keeps others interested too, and hopefully they will be curious enough to ask, "What is this about?" That's their responsibility. Mine is to lead them there, and to have clarity. That's hard enough.


What role does the blend between Christianity and hoodoo prac­tice play in your work?


They mingle in any Southern territory. You find the people who are devout. They are very much aware of the conjure; they are aware of the hoodoo, and the people in their community that practice. These are the same people sitting in church. It's not like there's a distinct school of this and a distinct school of that. You have both sides, but there's ground in between, which is where most people are.

My family is devout Christian, and I'm probably the last serious convert to Christianity they had. But everyone is like, "He's into this other thing." You know, they wouldn't even mention it. "He's into this other thing." But my mom would come to me and say like, "This is happening to me, over and over. Somebody has targeted me. Do you know anybody that can make this better?" That's how she'd ask. I'm not supposed to say, "Yeah! You can go see the conjure." No—it's, "Do you know anybody that can make this better?" And that means I've got to handle this for her. I know who to go to. But at the same time, she's praying and doing all this other stuff.


I'm interested in how your poems, especially in The Bushman's Medicine Show, seem to jettison much of organized religion, with the exception of the music. They set out a sort of reclamation of the profane and the holy. Can you speak about that tension between backslider and saint?


The whole thing's about religion. When I was younger, it was a problem for me that my family was such a Christian family, because I came up in a time when we were investigating everything that allowed slavery to happen. And the Christian church, of course, was a part of that. The blessings of the slave boats, the investment of the North into shipping. When slaves arrived on the plantation they were stripped of their own religion and made to be Christians. They weren't allowed to even say the names of their gods, or play any of their rhythms in worship. Except in one place—New Orleans. That's why there's such a presence of voodoo there. Slaves were allowed to go to Congo Square to worship and play their dances. They were allowed to say those gods' names. That wasn't the case anywhere else in the South. They'd get severely punished for that. The Christian Bible became the way slave masters controlled slaves. So I had this big problem with Christianity. I did my investigation of all these different religions and then decided that religion was the problem.

Imagine a room that has eight, nine, ten doors. Each is a religion. People will open a particular door and stand in the doorway. But if you walk into the room, that's where you find spirituality. To me, all those were the same.

My brother was a minister for twenty-eight years, and we talk about this all the time. You see the beats that they do in the Pente­costal church, they're doing them on their bodies and stuff? That's the same beats they play on drums. And the state of possession that y'all call the Holy Ghost? Yeah, we call it state of possession, period. I mean, really. But it's those gods that would enter the space. We believe they are represented in ordinary people, that the presence is there, all the time. You won't necessarily know, but you start to recognize different people you meet, some facet. And there is this duality. It felt more free to me. It felt more true, honest. That approach made Christianity accessible to me.

And the music? It's a natural fit. There's a sacred blues and a secular blues. This whole nature of how blues came about—people like W.C. Handy "discovering" the blues, "creating" the blues. 1910, that's when he wrote it down. He was the first person to do notation for it, but it comes from way back. Way back. When Africans were exposed to the Bible by the plantation owners and masters, they weren't allowed inside the church. But they could stand outside and listen through the windows. And they were given the same hymnal.

That's why you see those old church songs from black people­—the sacred blues. The secular blues is stuff played when people are drinking, dancing, trying to get it on. But it's the same basis for the music. You look at so many old blues players, like Son House, a child evangelist who got in trouble, went to jail. It was over a woman. But he comes out, and that's the thing, that's the tension within him. What is the secular and sacred? He was always at battle with that. You could go listen to Son House back in the day and he'd start off in the juke joint on Saturday night, playing those drinking and blues songs, and the drunks that passed out in the place would wake up Sunday morning and he'd still be playing. Only now he's doing gospel. It's the same music. Church people tried to change it around, to use different chords. But those blues guys, they play church songs too. I came up hearing all that stuff and hearing it both ways.

I kind of lean towards the blues guys. Church people like G, C, and D chords. It sounds so melodic, softer and beautiful. But the blues guys would play those songs and they're doing E, A, and B, you know, or D, G, A. They're doing stuff that churches don't normally do because of the sounds. Church people will run you away for playing those tones. When I grew up, you were not allowed to bring an instrument into the church except for a piano or an organ. You couldn't even bring a guitar. Now you go into those churches, the drum kit is set up. They've got the bass and guitar, a keyboard. That's the freedom of the music, but it took a long while to get there, except for the people who played the blues. They played it, period. They still play it. They play it better.

It was a big thing, because I played guitar. When I went home to take care of my mom, I dropped out of sight for about two and a half years to take care of her. But I came home with guitars. I was her fallen son at that time, and she walked into the house and I'm play­ing blues. It was a quick switch then to the church songs. If I wanted to play guitar in the house, I'd have to play something like, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."


Your work is in conversation with a long oral history. What do you think is the difference between poetry read aloud and poetry on the page?


None. I mean, really. Patricia Smith won the first four national slams. She was part of the Green Mill team from Chicago. But she was slamming the same poems that are in her first two books, her first book especially. She's winning with those. She erased the barrier between stage and page.

People used to argue that the barrier existed. There was a hierarchy. The page writers were the ones deemed to be literature, and I was like, this is some apartheid shit going down. This is literature, you know. When I started my MFA, the word was, "Oh, he's a street poet." And we do read on the streets, we read in the bars, we do all that, but we write them too. And read them. Stage or page, what you want to do is have a poem that has sonic quality. You want to hear it. I get amazed at people who write poems and don't read them while they're writing and drafting and revising. If you do that constantly you start to pick up the hard sounds, start to pick up on the rhythm.

Then you're like, why is that rhythm off? Oh wait a minute. I need to check out the Handbook of Poetic Forms. And you look at it . . . ah, it's the combination of that anapest and that dactyl. Once I become aware of that, then I see how the different combinations of sounds work or don't. It's not like you sit down and say, I'm going to write a line that has two spondees. You write and say: Why's that line grab so hard? What did I just come up with that gives it that quality? You don't sit down with a formula, but once you get it, you start to recognize it. It's like playing music. You become aware of the riffs that are available, and it's like you have choices of words to make the tune fit. You start to feel the effects of how changes in rhythms work. I know spondees are propulsive. So if I want to run them together, boom boom, that's the sound. They're both accented, those syllables, and it's that propulsive thing you get. I had a teacher once who was trying to explain to a class what a double spondee was, and the kids said, "What's a double spondee?" And the teacher said, "Fuck you, asshole!"

You will never forget then that these are accented syllables. You're creating that effect on the line—where you break a line if you choose to use line breaks. And you can use that line break to frame music, to frame image. To try to keep it intact as long you can, and then to break it so it has tension. If I'm enjambing, I know that it'll pull down—it's going to put a moment in there. Not a stop, not a soft spot even, just a moment, what Dana Levin calls "the space where you can also create inflection." It's in how you run that line, how you run that sentence down.

Issue 82: A Conversation with Kim Barnes


Found in Willow Springs 82

January 27, 2018




Photo Credit: University of Idaho

"I CAME TO UNDERSTAND that my father was my antagonist," Kim Barnes declared in a 2009 essay for the New York Times, "the one against whom I tested myself every day, the one who had both scarred and shaped me." Barnes's female characters—in her fiction and nonfiction—face two primary obstacles: overbearing men and religious fundamentalism. In the face of these challenges, they do their best to escape and forge their own destinies.

This narrative first appears in Barnes's debut memoir, In the Wilder­ness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country (Doubleday/Anchor, 1996), which was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize. Along with her subsequent memoir, Hungry for the World (Villard, 2000), In the Wilderness tells the story of Barnes's early life, growing up in rural Idaho logging camps, joining the Pentecostal church, and rebelling against her father, only to fall into an abusive relationship with another controlling man.

Following the success of her memoirs, Barnes has published three novels, Finding Caruso (Putnam, 2003), A Country Called Home (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), and most recently, In the Kingdom of Men (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), which leaves the Idaho country of her previous books and takes the reader to an American-owned oil compound in 1960s Saudi Arabia. But the same challenges follow Barnes's young American protagonist, Gin. In a review for the New York Times, Juliet Lapidos notes, "It shouldn't come as a surprise that Gin pays for her recalcitrance—so did Eve. But Gin won't repent, because it dawns on her that whether she's in the compound or outside it, in Saudi Arabia or America, she lives in a 'kingdom of men' where female behavior is strictly regulated. And she comes to embrace defiance as a way to assert her agency." Gin, like Barnes, eventually escapes the rule of men, but not without suffering incredible loss.

In addition to her award-winning books, Kim Barnes's essays, poems, and stories have appeared in The Georgia Review, Shenan­doah, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, Oprah Magazine, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. She teaches creative writing at the University of ldaho.

We met Kimat a cafe in Moscow, Idaho, where we talked about religion, obsession, female tragic heroes, the death of fiction, and more.


You mentioned you're particularly interested in oral histories right now. Is that a personal project?


Honestly, I've been having a hard time writing. Since last year in November. The election just stopped me. I was on sabbatical and all I could do was fixate on, like, Facebook and Pantsuit Nation. I think a lot of us kind of freaked out. I was asking myself what a lot of people are asking. What am I doing? Why aren't I handing out pamphlets and saving lives?

I realized that one thing I was doing was self-isolating. I was holing up in my office. I wasn't really interacting. Because it had gotten painful. So I decided these oral histories were a way to reconnect with people and get back out and hear their stories. People don't remember much about Studs Terkel. But man, when I was in college he was everything. He did all these radio shows and oral histories with workers. I've been thinking a lot about the new working class, what that means in the current system, and have started doing oral interviews. Of course, in the 1970s Terkel was in Chicago and everyone was unionized. They were worried about machines taking over their jobs. And now, my son is worried about
A.I. He said, "What am I going to do? It's all going to be gone."


One of the things that stands out for me most in your work is the incredible specificity of your details. How are you able to render such vivid scenes?


I was brought up in the wilderness. We were very poor. We didn't really have toys. What was out in the world was all we had. So I learned to inspect my world very carefully. And as I grew—and in my father's and uncles' footsteps started fishing and hunting—I learned to hyper-monitor my environment. Everything is sign. A broken leaf can be sign that you follow. This path. And also as a child who grew up with a certain kind of abuse and molestation, I learned to really monitor my environment. You could go in and see something out of place in the living room, and the hair would go up on the back of your neck. Those things together—which are not unrelated if you think about it, predator and prey—I learned early on.

I think as writers and readers, we're naturally given to inventory, inventory, inventory. Because we know stuff matters. Things matter. Without stuff, without inventory, you've got nothing to work with. What I've also learned, and what I tell my own students, is that those are props on my stage. How do you decide what props you are going to put on the stage? You don't just go and grab stuff and throw it out there. Every single thing has to work on more than one level. I want it to work on ten levels. You know, I started out as a poet. And that's never left me.


How does your background in poetry inform the lyricism in your prose?


When I teach lyricism, I talk about how it's not poetic. I think we've started thinking about it like that: "Oh, it reads like poetry." But that's not what lyric means. Lyric comes from the lyre, the musical instrument. The chorus in Greek tragedies had the lyre. Their job was to mourn and lament. "Oh, don't go there. He does not know." Little Shop of Horrors had a ball with the Greek chorus. So it's less about its sounding poetic than tone. The lyric is always lament. That's the tone informing it. You can already feel the loss.

I always say—because I like to break things into impossible dualities that most of us are either writers of lament or writers of celebration. I can go right down through my students and say: lament, celebration. You're Catholic and you left your family home? You've got lament. But I also associate that with a kind of Western European, Christian mythology—which I was raised in-the Old and New Testament. The Old Testament is lament. Oh my god, lament. There goes the Garden. But then after the crucifixion, we left the Old Testament and entered into celebration.

We're also probably either writers of mercy or grace. Lament, Old Testament, is mercy. Celebration, New Testament, is grace. This is why I love Flannery O'Connor. That's all she ever wrote about. She was like, "Oh yeah? You want the bitchy white lady to die because she's being a terrible bigot against her neighbor and doesn't want the black bull in her pasture? You want her to die, don't you?" And then when she dies, we're like, "I didn't mean it!" It's that whole idea. Are you really existing in a state of grace? Are you Christ-like? Even if it's the Misfit. Mercy is like the kings, right? You are not given the punishment you deserve. It is lifted from you. After Christ dies for our sins, we're in a state of grace, meaning you are given the forgiveness you don't deserve. And then, Hallelujah. I'm free, I'm free, I'm free at last.

And so A Country Called Home is divided into two sections: the first section is the Old Testament, and the second section is the New Testament. And that ending, that's a moment of grace. My father, who was very much an Old Testament guy, spoke in the voice of God, the Old Testament God. That's also what you hear. That lament is already there. We live in a fallen world.


You said people are either writers of celebration or lament, but you're saying A Country Called Home contains both?


Yeah, that's what I'm hoping for. I'm hoping to move toward grace. Because mercy is all about punishment. And the thing is, as a woman writer growing up like I did, if I went against men in any way—father, lover, preacher, stranger, boss—I would be punished. I'd be whipped, I'd be shunned, I'd be raped, I'd be beaten. Those were my choices.

In every one of my books, a woman drowns. It's all about Ophelia. Her choices were to go to the nunnery or die. Have you ever seen Thelma and Louise? I had PTSD from that film. Because Thelma and Louise are basically Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid except it's about rape and then one of them kills the bad guy, and then everybody's after them and the cops are after them. And no one's going to believe them. They're women. They're going down. And it's probably going to be awful before they even make it to prison. Because they're bad girls. And instead, they drive off the cliff. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid went out in a rain of bullets. As heroes. Whereas Thelma and Louise have to sacrifice themselves. Go out as girls. That movie just killed me. Because I think I just realized the truth of it. That's my life. Those are my choices.

So in A Country Called Home, we have that with Helen. She's trapped. She can't get out. Shecalls her mom. Her mom's not going to help. And, you know, I was shunned. I know what that feels like. To be in a terrible situation and not have anyone there to help you at all. But then with her daughter, Elise, we get a chance for redemption and a new way to move forward. Hopefully, that's all in there. I feel like I'm working my way along in each book, kind of pushing. In my most recent novel, In the Kingdom of Men, Gin pushes, but she doesn't die. Wooo!

My editor said, ''Can't you have her find a lover in Italy?" And I said, certainly. So I gave her a lover because they always want "women's books" to have happy endings. This is absolutely a market thing. And if you fight it, it's not going to go well. So I rewrote the ending of In the Kingdom of Men, and Gin had an Italian lover—I did all this research and he smelled like peppercorns. Then my editor read it, and she said, "You're right. It's not going to end like this." And so instead, she's exiled to Italy, but she doesn't die.

The book I'm writing now started out with a man in his 80s who has Alzheimer's and lives way up on the Montana-Idaho border. When he was a logger, he accidentally killed his son and his daughter's never forgiven him, but now he can't remember. My question was—and this has to do with mercy and grace—what do you do? How do you resolve your anger if you can't forgive someone for a mistake he's made and he forgets his sin? How do you live with that? You can never have resolution. And, oh my god, he was a logger who loved multiverse theory and physics—which I love—and it had Hieronymus Bosch and opera. I was just having a ball. Except it wasn't doing anything. I kept backing out of these characters, and then I thought, why is the protagonist a man?

I always identified with my father, not my mother because I thought she was weak. She was silent. She was punished. She was abused. I would take all the punishment if I could be my dad and have free agency, which is what got me in so much trouble, believing that. Stories that are big, dramatic stories are still very male to me. So I have this man who is clearing trail, takes his kid, shouldn't have, incident happens, kills his son. And I got to wondering why he's a man. A woman logger? Why not?

My generation was not allowed to do anything. We couldn't play full-court basketball because it would hurt our wombs. They told us this. Anything like that would make you sterile. Forty degrees below zero. Once we got to wear pants. And so it's hard for me, it's not natural. I've always done things that women I knew didn't do—things like logging—but I watch all these women now working for the forest service and they're coming across the river with their twenty-six-inch Stihl in one hand and their Pulaski in the other. And I'm going, can I have a do-over? And they're not being punished. They're out :fighting fires, they're not being punished. So I thought, I'm going to make her a thirty-something woman who killed her son in a logging accident, living out all by herself in this old hot springs that's defunct and no longer hot called Salvo. Okay, that's interesting.

In this new novel, I've got a second woman and the man—the bad guy. And shit, you know, in Lewiston and Spokane there are more serial killers and serial rapists than anywhere else in the coun­try. These stories are with me all the time. Two of my girlfriends were kidnapped when I was an undergraduate and murdered and left in a ditch. And that's this guy. He's done it before and he's trying to do it again, and she gets away and finds my woman logger.

But this new novel isn't Thelma and Louise; they're not going to drive off a cliff My agent said, "Oh, these two women. They're going to heal each other." And I said, "Oh, hell no!" That's the thing­ women healing. That's what we expect. They only heal, they can't do violence. If they do violence, they're monsters. Have you seen the movie Monster? With Charlize Theron. If it's The Outlaw Josey Wales and Clint Eastwood, they're heroes. A woman gets abused, goes nuts, starts killing and getting revenge, she's a monster.


Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between women and religion in your books? The impression I got was of things not matching up between women and religion. But you're saying these beautiful things about the Old Testament and the New Testament. And so I'm interested in how that comes across in your books.


Well, when I moved out, the week after I turned eighteen, that was it for me and the church. I've only been back in a church once. I was asked by a friend to deliver a little sermon at a Universal Unitar­ian. And I thought, I can do U. U. You know, they're singing Beatles songs. But I got up there and I started shaking. I literally cannot go in a church.

I'm a scientific realist. And I need to say that because I'm really working in and out of that and what it means to literature. Because we create story to make sense of what we don't understand. And I do not believe in free will. Number one: you have to believe and I've had enough of that. If free will exists, where does it reside? If you believe in the soul, you can believe in free will. Otherwise, no. But what I also understand is that while I was growing, my brain was being shaped. And trauma literally does shape the brain. Neural pathways. So even things like watching exorcisms, that's still lodged in me. That terror is lodged in me.

When I started writing In the Wilderness, I hadn't been to church. It was so absolute that you were either in or you were out. There was no questing. I absolutely believe in "the quest" and that we need to honor it. And so after I left the church, I was just doomed. I was damned. And I don't think I really ''believed" anymore. But I felt it. It continued to inform my life. The idea, always. And the social structure in my family. That very impoverished patriarchy where the men beat their wives, they beat their kids, they broke their cows' tails. I mean brutal, brutal, brutal. And that is so much about gender. Women in my family, even the ones who weren't Fundamentalists, never talked. You were a child. You were to be seen and not heard. And you better look pretty while you're being seen. I'm still working my way out of that.

One thing I've come to realize, especially writing this new book, which has two female main characters, is that even though I'm a female writer, writing stories that aren't heard, I'm still writing from the male gaze—the idea that the stories we tell and the way we tell them come through the male psyche. And eyes. And it's absolutely true. Even when women are writing stories about women, they're still writing from the male gaze. Because it's all we know.


Do you think that's partly because those are the stories we've all grown up with? You talked about the Bible, which is a very male-centric narrative. And so is every other Western story.


Absolutely. And the fact that women haven't been allowed to tell their stories. And have been punished for their stories. I mean, my god. You know the Me Too campaign scared the shit out of me, even though I was really involved in it. But I thought, we're going to pay. We're going to pay. But we've got to do it. We've got to do it. In other cultures, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which I researched for In the Kingdom of Men, women's names cannot be spoken. So forget their stories. We do not know how many women are in the royal family. We don't know how many daughters, how many wives, how many granddaughters. Because they can't be recorded. See what I mean? We're simply erased. We're not there.

When I wrote In the Wilderness, everybody was like, "We've never seen this kind of story from a woman before." "This is a new voice out of the West." And it felt new, you know. It was new. But eventually I had to really think about the fact that I'm writing through my father's eyes. And that's part of the lament. I see my father as a kind of tragic figure in the Aristotelian sense. Someone who is attempting nobility, but is blind. Hubristic, in fact. Too much pride. And that's a very patriarchal story.

We don't really know what it looks like to have a female tragic hero. And we're not sure if we want it. I'm actually pretty intent on wanting it. Because Aristotle said that women cannot be tragic because they are not noble enough to fall. We don't allow women to be tragic. Because if they're tragic, they have to commit a terrible sin. We don't want Mom and Sis doing that! Not my mother! And when they do it, we can't believe they did it with intent because that's a monster. That's terrifying. And certainly, they cannot bear the penance of realization. We can't let Mom and Sis suffer!

Have you read "A Father's Story" by Andre Dubus? It's a beautiful story, best thing Dubusever wrote.The main character, Luke Ripley, is very Catholic. He's divorced. His daughter is off at school. He takes care of horses. He goes every day to the priest. He's that Catholic. His daughter comes home from college—he loves his daughter and her girlfriends—and they're all girly and they have perfume and they drink beer. He loves it. But then, his daughter goes out driving on the back road, hits a man and kills him. And she's drunk. So she comes home and tells her dad. He goes out, finds the body. And the guy may or may not be dead. And then the father takes the car and runs it into a tree and says he blacked out or something, and takes the blame. He can't even tell the priest because he wants to shield his daughter. He doesn't want her to be punished. At the end, he has an argument with God. And God says, "You did the wrong thing. You shielded her from her punishment. You lied to shield her." And Luke says, "You would have done the same." And God says, ''I gave my only son to be sacrificed on the cross." And Luke Ripley says, "Yes, but if she had been your daughter, you could not have borne her passion." And there you have it. It is amazing. How the fuck do you get away with that? Suddenly talking to God?

You know Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, which I'm very fasci­nated by and believe in. It's fairly universal. We're always asking, what does it look like if it's the heroine's journey? We're always trying to rewrite the journey as though it's just opposite of the men's, and that's not true. So I've been intent on trying to create a female char­acter who we might see as noble if she were male.

But there's that other idea of tragedy: a man trying to go against his fate, trying to batter the walls of the gods and bring fire. If we told the story of Eve in a different way, she would be a tragic hero. She went against her fate. She dared the gods; she ate from the tree of knowledge and scared them so bad that they had to put an angel to guard the tree of life.If she had eaten the tree of life, she would have been a god. So she falls. How is she not a tragic figure?


Are you able to look back now and see what your stories would've been like if written from the female gaze?


I can. Yeah. There wouldn't be so much lament.


You were saying you're trying to work more toward being a writer of celebration, but you also mentioned not really believing in free will. So how do you reconcile those two conflicting notions of wanting to push back when everything is already predestined?


Predestination, of course, is something I grew up with. How do you have free will to accept God or not accept God if you believe everything is predestined? I'm going to go all Carl Sagan on you. There's one idea that during whatever we might call the Big Bang, our paths were set. It's a trajectory. It's energy and physics. My son and I argue about it. He's a physicist, but he said, "I think I love character more than equations," so now he's a filmmaker. So we now know that DNA can be changed even though we thought it couldn't. We now know that trauma—as Native Americans have known forever—can insert itself into a DNA so that even if you yourself are not in the face of being massacred, you have the response of someone who has been traumatized.

My grandma was undoubtedly raped. I think every woman in my family was raped, and even if l were never raped, I could have a rape response because it's epigenetically in me. It's just like seeing a snake, and then next time the snake's not there but the same tree, same light and you're like, why am I nervous? This is in the brain. I'm fascinated by neuroscience too. I think we see variables. They seem infinite, but in fact they're not. If I walk out of here and I see a raccoon, and it comes up and bites me, it's a variable. My son says no, it was always going to happen that way, because it was set into motion.

Free will means we can punish people. And I think that might be even bigger. We can blame people for what they do. I'm unnerved about the idea of not having free will because it doesn't actually change anything.

My daughter, who is a Buddhist, says, "If you believe in free will, free will exists." I get that too. You feel like the decisions you're mak­ing are not even in your brain or body but somehow you are making your own decisions. But if there is no free will, that's part of the trajectory. Right? I think you can either enact free will or you can't. Depending on your makeup.

I'm also very interested in addiction studies because my father turned towards Christianity because he was afraid he was going to be an alcoholic like his father. But he was still an addict. He smoked cigarettes every day, even though God didn't want him to. He drank bottles of Robitussin DM. He was an over-the-counter junkie all his life. And religion was like another addiction to him. Do I believe you can get sober? Yup. If you can. See what I mean? And so, if you can survive, you will. If you can get better, you will.

So what happens to literature? If our characters in literature don't have free will, there's no conflict. That's why we don't have charac­ters, except for a couple, who are drunks or addicts, because if they're addicts, they don't have free will. So you don't trust them. They're inherently unreliable. Do I think literature is going to go away? I do.


Because that's what stories are? A character making a choice in a situation?


Exactly. That's the only reason Oedipus matters. He didn't have choice. He was only trying to escape his fate. So, I don't know. We may find another reason for story. The stories we've been telling are artifacts.

The stories we're telling now and the way we're telling them, they have so much to do with digital narratives, podcasts, everything's changing. Have you seen that first Superman movie? Little baby Superman is put in his pod, and his father puts in all these cassettes and sends him off. And all the while he's growing in the pod, he's being infused with the history of humans and the earth and the solar system, and that's what we're doing. I think stories will always exist, but more and more, we're more interested in observing real life. Story as it happens.

It's like that podcast, S-Town. It's real. It's almost like listening to stuff unfold. We're still fascinated by the choices people make. But like David Shields says, he's done with fiction. He feels like the artifice of fiction and storytelling has become too apparent. So he sees us completely moving away. We've moved away from so much, but I think that because I'm an evolutionist as well, even though I don't think it's going to go well. I mean entropy happens. We ain't gonna save the planet. We can try. And that's grace under pressure. I think we're getting ready for the next evolution.


But you think fiction is dead?


I do. I love it, baby.


I don't know where to go after that.


Your writing has a lot of strong women characters who are push­ing against this patriarchal world. Do you feel like your writing is explicitly political? Do you think of it as feminist?


Here's my hierarchy of how and why I write: First and foremost, to serve the art. Nothing else. Second, to bear witness to my story, or the characters in my stories, in order to bear witness to the stories of others. Third, fourth, fifth after that, it's all gravy. You can't do any of those things well, politics, gender awareness, if you're not writing well. If you write it well enough, it does all those things.

When I wrote In the Wilderness, I didn't let my parents read it until after I finished it. I talked to them about it a lot. But if you start trying to talk about something like this with your family, they're like, "Oh no, that didn't happen." So I'm trying to get at not just the facts of a story—that's less important than the why. Not the what, but the why. And I'm going to be really looking from a woman's perspective. I'm really going to be trying to find the women in the stories that I wasn't given.

What am I going to do with that memory of my mother crying in the kitchen, reading a letter? Her friend Joanne had written her this plea because she was being literally demonized. My mom, of course, couldn't go against the men. Not my father. Mom's never been able to do that. She's lost her friends, and everyone, because she can't say no to the men and is terrified. Just telling a story like Hungry far the World is an act of resistance.

I challenge myself, like on the male gaze. Once I became aware of that, I thought, I don't even know how to write from the female gaze? How can that be? So I started exploring that because it doesn't just mean we're healing everybody and being happy with our bodies.

I've never been a girly girl. I always wanted Tonka Trucks, not Barbie Dolls. I hated their creepy little feet. So the world as I see it is probably more masculine. Because I really don't know how to write girls. And probably a lot of that is they were just never around. I was isolated. Women in my church, you know, we all looked like Hutter­ites. Mennonites. Amish. There was no "shopping." Maybe it would have been different. I did love the mall in Lewiston.

But once again, you've heard this before, and I believe it: politics should serve art, but art should never serve politics. I think there are times when art can serve politics, but it probably takes it out of the realm of art. It's still art, but it's got an agenda. There's a lot of that anyway. And I think it's fabulous.

I had a professor who was a lech. I think about that now in this context. The #Me Too list is really long. Really long! I don't even . . . I can't even begin. He loved that I wore cowboy boots. And he was a student of Derrida. He would catch me out in the hallway and whisper, "I love your boots." And you didn't want him to get mad at you because he might give you a bad grade, and so you just nodded, "Mm, thank you."

So when The Color Purple came out, black men boycotted the movie because of the way men, black men, were depicted. They felt like it was further marginalizing them. And demonizing them. We talked about that in class when I was a student. And we talked about "The Colonel" by Carolyn Forché—about how it makes something ugly aesthetically lovely through the art of poetry. The subject mat­ter's horrible. The poem's beautiful. And my professor argued that to use art to make something ugly and political and brutal into some­ thing beautiful was immoral. And I said, "Art can't be about moral­ity." It can't be relative to morality. Whose morality? Your morality? My morality? It can't serve that.

Patti-Ann Rogers, this fabulous poet, she and I got in a huge debate. It was over a Cor­mac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. She hates Cormac McCarthy. And she hated Blood Meridian because, she said, if there had been women characters—which there aren’t, I can’t even remember one—if he had put women characters in there, the men would have been redeemed. I'm kind of tired of that talk, this redeeming thing. Is that part of the requirement? We have to have so many female characters, and they have to be saving everybody, and redeeming, and showing the men what brutes they are?

I think literature can be redemptive and have amazing outcomes. Uncle Tom's Cabin changed everything. Our awareness of slavery. But it was a piece of propaganda. And it was inherently racist.

I love transgressive literature by the way, which is terrifying. I taught a transgressive lit class two years ago. And my chair said, "Why are you doing this?" I had to do all these trigger warnings and everything. But it was amazing. We got at something, socially, that we couldn't have gotten at otherwise. But that morality has a strange underlying social commentary. Even when it seems to be normaliz­ing, like, children being brutally abused, it's actually commentary on that. But you have to be willing to go there, and you have to be willing to tolerate awful, awful stuff.

But so, this Professor Flores, after I said, "I just don't believe art should be attached to morality"—he said, "You are the most amoral person I've ever met in my life." Well, it was seduction. Later, after my time, he got canned for sexual harassment.

Anyway, it's a fascinating question. I think each of us has to make our own decisions.

Bill Kittredge's family owned the largest cattle ranch in Oregon. And he walked away from it and disinherited himself. Legally disinherited himself because he felt so guilty about what they were doing to the land and the agri-business it had turned into. He wanted nothing of it. And he wrote about what we're doing to the land again and again. He always said—and I still believe this, even if it's transgressive fiction, actually—he said, "Stories teach us how to behave." I do believe that. They do that. But I don't think that's what they should set out to do. They should set out to tell a story.


It's interesting that your first novel, Finding Caruso, was from a male point of view. It's the only one. Everything else is from a female perspective.


That book, when I started writing it, was multiple-points-of­ view. Third person. And I took it to my writing group—we've been meeting for thirty years every summer. They've read everything I've written. I've read everything they've written and published, and they asked, "Who's your main character?"

And I said, "I don't know." It's devastating to not know who your main character is. I thought, who is my main character? I went back and forth, back and forth. And it dawned on me that I was trying to retell Shane. Do you remember Shane? It was a book, and then it was a movie. Farmers and cattle-ranchers are fighting, and the gun­ fighter rides in on his black horse. And he puts down his guns; he doesn't want to fight anymore. But that's his fate, and he can't escape his fate. There's a little boy, whose point of view it's from. Shane ends up having to take up his guns to defend the family against the ranchers and then rides off. And the little boy's going, "Shane, come back! Shane!" I thought, what would that look like if Shane were a woman?

Okay, she rides in in a black car. She's "Stranger Comes to Town." She's trying to escape her fate, which is the abuse of her sexuality. That book is just a retelling of Shane. She has to become a sin-eater and take the blame, and then she has to leave and take the sin with her.

And I thought, okay, whose point of view would it be? The little boy's. It's an observational story, like Moby Dick, where the main character isn't Ishmael. He never changes. What? He gets better? He gets smarter? No. The main character is Ahab, who's changed. So your narrator isn't always your most interesting character. In Finding Caruso, Irene is more interesting to me, but Buddy is the one who has to tell the story.

I was reading up in Spokane at Auntie's, and I read from that book, Finding Caruso, and this woman starts sobbing. I turned to look at her, and she jumped up and said, "How could you do this to us? You have abandoned women! You have written from a male voice. You have betrayed us!" and then ran out of the room.

Everybody's like. . .

And I can't remember who it was—it may have been Jess Walter­— he said, "I think it's a personal issue."

I thought so too. It kind of wrecked the evening.

But that's how invested we can get in who the story belongs to. You're writing for me, and how dare you put it into a male voice. That's why you've got to serve the art.


So was Irene your first attempt to write a tragic woman?


Yeah, she absolutely is. She tries to escape her fate, she can't do it. She just has to stay on that road. She never can leave that road. And that's absolutely how I saw her. It's sad. And it's almost like she has to take up her guns. Except her guns are her sexuality.


Your second memoir, Hungry for the World, has a lot of incredibly painful moments. You have that one scene that is written as if it's a movie. Are there techniques like this that you use and recommend to other writers of nonfiction?


When I started writing In the Wilderness and Hungry for the World, we didn't have "trauma narratives." We were just starting to see that kind of memoir. It really broke when Kathryn Harrison wrote The Kiss about her incestuous relationship with her father as an adult. Oh my god, the men in New York lost their minds and swore they would never review another memoir again. They made these big public posts. Frank McCourt, which I will never forgive him for, said, “I didn't need to hear that."

But there was no talk about how to write trauma. And I'd been teaching at Lewiston for ten years. I had three children, a stepson and my two little ones, when my husband, Bob, got an offer to be the Richard Hugo chair in Montana, and I thought, this is my only chance to get an MFA.

So I applied to the program, but I already had my contract because I sold In the Wilderness on proposal, thirty pages. And so I went to the program—a year with two little kids and teaching. I don't even remember. I remember throwing a new bar of soap at the kids. It was crazy, I don't know how I did it. I finished writing In the Wilderness in December. It was due January 1st. My editor had one word he wanted changed. He didn't want the word "innate." And I just said, no.

But then I was so exhausted. And I thought, oh my god, give me fiction, give me poetry. So I started writing a novel called Hungry for the World. Bill Kittredge was my teacher then, at the MFA program at University of Montana. An old sage, an enlightened redneck—­very much patriarchal. But also trying to learn how to be more than that. He's always questing after enlightenment. He would let anyone into workshop. It's an MFA program, one of the best in the country but he'd go to the bar and be like, "You've got a story, come on in!" He'd go to the gym, and he'd say, "Come and join the workshop!" And so here we are, MFA candidates, and we've got thirty drunks in the classroom. It was insane. I think about that now and I think it was either wonderful or just weird.

I brought the first chapter which starts out like, "The yellow Cor­vette drives up to the bank teller window. . .” It has that kind of noir tone to it. Everybody loved it, even the women from the bar. You know how it is in workshop. I was just so happy. I wrote some­ thing that everybody liked. And there was no blood on the table. And Kittredge looked up at me and said, “This is great. You can sell this novel right now based on this chapter. But the question is, why would you write it as fiction?" Boy, class got quiet.

He really shouldn't have done that, I know that now, but he didn't know anything about ''trauma narratives." We weren't saying, "Don't trigger here." I just sat there. I had a lot of emotions. One was a kind of embarrassment and shame because that's a shame story to me. And I went home and got angry. I always go through these emo­tions. First, I get angry. And then I get a little weepy. And then I go to work. So I got up the next day and started writing it as nonfiction, and I just couldn't do it. Instead, I started writing poetry.

You know, poetry is the most intimate genre. It just is. But you have that veil you can pull. So I was protected. I started writing some poems and sort of bridged into it. Then I called Carol Houck Smith, who was this famous editor at Norton. She was Pam Houston's editor, Brady Udall's editor. The number of poets she edited, it was amazing.

She'd helped me out on In the Wilderness when she saw the first thirty pages. My agent said, ''Carol Houck Smith's going to call you."
And I was like, "Oh my god, she's interested. Oh my god." So the telephone rings, and she said, ''Kim? This is Carol Houck Smith. And she said, "What is up with all this poetic shit?"
I was stunned. What do you say? I mean when you're this logging camp girl.

She said, "Honey, you're not writing poems."

It was very lyrical. I thought it was lovely. It was very spatial. And she says, ''This is not a poem. You've got to start at the beginning and go to the end." And I got off, got mad. Fumed around. And cried because I was so mad. And then I got up in the middle of the night, and I turned on the light, got those thirty pages, and got scissors and tape. And I cut up all those pages and I set them on the bed and I taped them back together again. And I started filling in the narrative from the beginning to the end. If l could have been on Adderall, I could have written In the Wilderness in one sitting. It just came to me. Not so with the next book.

I think In the Wilderness was easier because I'm just a girl and I'm not responsible for my fate. That second book, Hungry for the World, about killed me. I mean, it put me on my knees, that book, literally. I'd be on the floor. Because I was going back and looking at stuff I hadn't allowed myself to look at. I never forgot it, but I just hadn't told anybody. I hadn't told my husband.

I was struggling. I couldn't go there. And so this time, I called Carol. And I said, "Carol, I don't want to be that girl again. I'm married. I have children. I'm teaching. I can't be that girl again." Because when you write like that, you become that person. She said, ''Kim, you have to lie down with that girl."

I didn't want to. And literally, on the phone with her, I fell down on the floor. And when I got up, I couldn't sit at the computer be­ cause I just couldn't bear it. I couldn't face it. But I could kneel. Isn't that weird?

It's like when I was in the church. You'd quest for the spirit to follow you and kneel all night. And you'd quest for the spirit and pray for the gift of healing or the gift of tongues or the gift of inter­pretations. Sometimes you never got it, but you still prayed; you still quested. That's what I was doing.

So I get to the point of the rape, and I was like, I can't write it. I could not write it. Now I know, so I can help my students talk about writing trauma and what to expect. I can tell them what's going to happen. I can tell them, if someone forced you into fellatio, you might lose your voice. It's weird how the body keeps the story. Or they can get so sick they have to be hospitalized. It's weird how the body remembers. So anyway, I thought, okay I'm going to write it in third person, like a movie because that's how it keeps coming back to me. That's the thing about PTSD, you're stuck in the moment. Frozen inside it. You're like a rabbit. If you can't fight and you can't flee, you freeze inside of it. And that would happen. I'd get catatonic. I mean literally catatonic while writing this for three days, sitting in the chair, not moving. Not eating or talking or anything. So I wrote it in persona and I sent it to my editor and he said, "Leave it." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Because it's protecting the reader."

But I think he's wrong. I think seeing it replayed like a movie­—"the man comes to the door and the girl lets him in"—actually heightens the tension. Because it's so terrible you can't face it. I've read that section in readings. People have asked me to read it, trauma survivors, and I've had different responses. I've had the response that I'm re-traumatizing. Women have come up furious at me, crying. "Don't do that to me!"

The idea is that I take you there.

And I still had a hard time. I had the manuscript, and I tied it with twine. I had to go buy twine, which I think is so weird when I look back. I went and bought twine and I tied it up in a nice little packet and I put it in the trunk of my car and held it hostage for weeks in the trunk of my car. And my editor called—he was a lovely gay man from New York who'd been with me through the first two books—and he said, "Kim . . . where's the manuscript, honey?"

"In my trunk!" So I finally had to let it go, but it scared me so bad. Even though it had been twenty-some years, I felt like I was calling him back to me. This is typical, I know now, of someone who's been treated in this way and abused in this way. You become enmeshed. You feel like they know what you're thinking.

All of these narratives are dysfunctional, are dysfunctional narratives. And in order to own them or to have power over them, you have to impose a narrative meaning. And in nonfiction you're imposing that narrative meaning on your own life and memory. Memory knows nothing about chronology. We remember spatially, and we create narratives that are inherently not true. We start writing memoir and all those places open up, and sometimes they're just holes you have to open up. I remember being in Aunt Mary's wedding, but I wasn't yet born? What? Huh? Sometimes, it's like the rug gets pulled out from underneath you. You find out things you didn't know or remember by trying to fill in those spaces. And sometimes you make other discoveries. Sometimes, all you can say is, I don't know. I don't know where my father was that night. And that, writing in the negative, is very powerful in memoir. I don't remember what my father smelled like when he tucked me in bed at night. It's very poignant. It's another tool.


How do you reconcile this idea of what you do or don't remember in terms of your sensory memory and what may or may not have actually happened?


I'm a real stickler in the factual debate. It's a lack of imagination. That's all it is. If you can't write it, that's your problem. Because it's all about craft. There's no reason to make up a scene. That is a missed opportunity in nonfiction. Because what you should do is write the scene and then say, "But that never happened." In nonfiction you can talk so much. You can say, "But that never happened. Some part of me wishes it had."

And so the whole discussion about ''What is truth with a capital T?" is just intentional ignorance. I can't bear it. At like AWP, "If I want to read truth, I'll read the newspaper." And I went, what? What? I stopped going to AWP. It was a ridiculous argument. There's no reason to make stuff up. With nonfiction, you start out with your in­ventory, but the more you try to remember, the more you remember. If I don't remember if my mom's dress was red or blue, I just don't say its color. And even if I did, maybe it was red and maybe it was blue, who gives a shit? But she was always in a dress. I remember that.

So when I do things like the landscape, what I'm doing is a com­posite of memory. I remember that May when we left the woods—it was one of the big snow years, and I have pictures of my birthday, May 22, the snow was eight feet high behind us. So I can detail that and remember things around it.

One thing that really bothered me in In the Wilderness was my dad praying in the bomb shelter. Which was surreal anyway. I mean, how do you remember? It's weird how your memory messes with stuff like that. So I acknowledged that, too. I remembered lying in bed kind of scared and worried. And I remember it was spring. And I remember seeing this bird flying by that looked like a robin. I re­member that because it was kind of low in the window. But I added one more detail. I said, "With a piece of bread in his beak," because my dad was eating bread. It didn't have bread. But that was my fic­ tion writer: ''Hell, yeah, I can tie this together." I don't think I even realized I was doing it. And someone said to me after a reading, "Kim, robins don't eat bread." I was like, damn!

But I do try really hard. I'll never forget Tony Earley—fiction writer but he wrote a fabulous collection of essays called Somehow Form a Family. Oh man, it's so good. In one of the essays, he's writing about looking through a telescope when they landed on the moon. And he remembers it as a full moon. And so he wrote it as a full moon. Well, guess what? It wasn't a full moon. And he has never gotten over it. He's traumatized. He seriously is.
He will never write nonfiction again because he says, "How can I get that wrong? How can memory be wrong?"

And I said, ''Tony, it would have been so interesting if you'd just said, 'But the moon wasn't full.’”

I always say in memoir—literary memoir—that the story isn't what happened, it's why you remember it the way you do. It's not wrestling with what happened. You already know what happened, for the most part. It's wrestling with memory. That's what memoir means. And that's where the story is. That's where the tension is. How do you make sense of your life? Memory's a narrative. Bill Kittredge says, "We wake up every morning and we look in the mirror and we tell ourselves the story of who we are. And if that story fractures, we fall into chaos."

So if you find out, as my students have, that your uncle's really your father, or you were adopted, or your wife's been having an affair for fifteen years, everything you believed, everything you thought was true, every memory you thought you had, was just gone. If what you believed isn't true, how is anything true? It could all be fabricated. That idea of testing memory for truth is not about what you find, it's about the act of the testing. And talking to us about it. There's no resolution. The thing about memoir is there's no resolution. Carol Houck Smith said, "Kim, you don't have to come to resolutions. But your book sure does."

And it's true. How do you bring it to resolution? In Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar—which is cast as fiction, but which is really memoir—­ she just walks out of the office, and into the day, into the light. You can't do that in memoir. But when I'm reading, especially from that book, I think we should be able to do it with detail.

John Gardner talks about "the uninterrupted dream." And now we know that the brain backs him up. His idea is that you create a world that is so real we lose our ability to exist outside of it, and we have the "willing suspension of disbelief." We know what it's like, how you fall into a book and you lose yourself. And in brain studies now, we know that when we enter into that world in a book, we can get to a point where the brain doesn't know the difference. It thinks we're actually living that reality.

And so the details matter. I hope, and this is my goal, when people read Hungry for the World, they get worried about me.

I ask you, your dad left when you were four, what do you remem­ber about him? Nothing. Okay. Did he smoke? Yes. What did he smoke? Camel Lights. How do you know that? You remember, or you've seen photographs, or your mother's told you.

So it's just a matter of creating a reality that we can fall into. I remember when I wrote In the Wilderness, and my editor in New York, his husband, who was a Jewish man who spent all his life in Manhattan and his family was from New York, he wrote me and he said, ''Kim, when I read In the Wilderness, I felt like I was reading about myself."

And I thought, "Wow, that's what I want."

The other thing Bill Kittridge said to me was, "Kim, when I read your story, I should come away knowing more about myself than I do about you."

And that's why I write. That's why I write. To bear witness. And not just to myself.

Issue 78: A Conversation with Emily ST. John Mandel


Found in Willow Springs 78

OCTOBER 29, 2015




Photo Credit:

“IT’S DIFFICULT IN TIMES LIKE THESE,” Anne Frank wrote. “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Frank’s words, delivered in the face of what she called “grim reality,” reflect the same innate sense of hope woven throughout Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven. The book begins in the hours before a deadly pandemic sweeps across the globe, with the opening scenes set onstage during a production of King Lear. The story jumps ahead to twenty years later, as a troupe of actors and symphony musicians— survivors of what they call The Collapse—travel around Lake Michigan performing music and Shakespeare for other survivors. Weaving together multiple points of view, Mandel moves back and forth across time to slowly reveal connecting threads between the characters’ lives, while examining what was lost and what might be gained as her characters look toward rebuilding civilization. Station Eleven, Joshua Rothman wrote in The New Yorker, “asks how culture gets put together again. It imagines a future in which art, shorn of the distractions of celebrity, pedigree, and class, might find a new equilibrium.”

Station Eleven was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the novel won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Toronto Book Award, and the Morning News Tournament of Books. It has been translated into twenty-seven languages. One of Mandel’s three previous novels, The Singer’s Gun, was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystère de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including Best American Mystery Stories 2013 and Goodbye To All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. She is a staff writer for The Millions, and lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

In the spring 2016 issue of Humanities magazine, Mandel reflected on her time on the road with Station Eleven, a tour initially planned for five cities that grew into well over one hundred events in seven countries, during which time Mandel and her husband learned they were expecting their first child. She recalled photographing each hotel room door so as not to forget the room number, and joked about flight attendants looking nervous that she’d go into labor midair. “The tour had begun to mirror the book; we traveled endlessly, my fictional characters and I, afraid of violence and sustained by our art, exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure, and the costs were not insignificant but we’d chosen this life.”

We spoke with Mandel during her visit for Spokane is Reading, a citywide common read program. Our conversation took place at the Davenport Hotel in a boardroom adorned with white marble, a gild- ed mirror over a fireplace, and an impressive chandelier. We discussed endangered elements of culture, the limiting nature of genre labels, and finding pleasure in privacy.



Author Dani Shapiro, in her craft book Still Writing, encourages writers to approach writing in the way that dancers approach their craft: “Think of a ballet dancer at the barre. . .she knows there is no difference between the practice and the art. The practice is the art.” As an artist who has pursued both dance and writing, does that resonate with you?


Absolutely. Dance was something I was set on doing from a very young age—I was one of those obsessive six-year-olds who only wanted to do ballet. I trained pretty intensively through my teens and went to school for contemporary dance in Toronto when I was eighteen. It was a great program, a great experience, but by the time I graduated, I felt done. That was all I’d wanted to do since six years old and I was twenty-one. It wasn’t fun anymore. I was living in Montreal and the auditions weren’t going well; they were in French, which was difficult, plus I had a hard time finding classes to take. I found myself drifting away from it. When I was very young it was part of my parents’ homeschooling curriculum that I had to write something every day, so I was in the habit of writing short stories and poems, which grew into a hobby. What’s funny in retrospect is that even during my late teens and early twenties, when I thought of dancing as my sole pursuit, I still found I had to take pen and paper with me when I went for a walk. I was a bit obsessive about writing. The transition between mediums was slow. I began gradually thinking of myself as a dancer who sometimes wrote, to a writer who sometimes danced, to just a writer. By the time I was twenty-two I wasn’t dancing anymore, only the occasional class, and I was at work on what eventually became my first novel, Last Night in Montreal.


Have you written about dance or ballet, drawing on your experience?


Maybe it’s still too close. I may write about it at some point, but I haven’t yet.


In addition to your novels and essays, you write book reviews regularly, which requires a different skill set than fiction writing. How has writing reviews influenced your other work?


Writing reviews has made me a better fiction writer. It forces you to deeply consider a work in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise, even as a careful reader. With a review you have to take a stance and defend it. Some people learn how to do that in their academic education, but that wasn’t part of my experience because of dance school, so I found reviewing to be helpful, forcing me to think about books in a more rigorous way.

There are some downsides to reviewing. I strongly dislike writing negative reviews. If someone gives me a book which in my opinion has a lot of problems, I hate that position. It’s possible I’m a little too soft-hearted to be the best possible reviewer but I try to be honest. There’s usually something good about a book or it wouldn’t have been published in the first place, but if there isn’t, I contact my editor and say “I don’t want to trash a book in the New York Times,” and they’ve been cool about it.


In the acknowledgements for The Lola Quartet you thanked author and critic Gina Frangello for her review of your first two novels, and you’ve written for The Millions about the sting of a bad review. What effect do reviews of your own work have on shaping your writing?


In the case of Gina Frangello’s review, she observed that in Last Night in Montreal and The Singer’s Gun, the female characters tended to have an ice queen aspect to them, perfectly controlled and impeccable and focused. It stung, but I thought, You know what, she’s right. They need to be more human, more flawed, a little messier. That shaped the writing of The Lola Quartet, and I was grateful to her. But I try not to read too many reviews at this point. When you get tagged on Twitter with a hundred blog reviews and they all contradict each other, there’s not a clear lesson to draw. Generally speaking, I don’t find them helpful. The bad ones do sting, especially when you feel they’re based on a misreading of your work. Of course you can’t respond without seeming like a lunatic. But even good reviews are subjective, representing one person’s point of view, and if you open yourself to being affected by the praise you also have to consider the negativity, some of which can be intense. I try not to read my reviews at this point, and I find I’m happier for it. It’s good for your sanity.


You wrote a lovely review of Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, which portrays life in France after the German army invaded. I saw some similarities between Station Eleven and Suite Française, in terms of traveling bands of people affected by cataclysmic events. Was that book an influence on your writing?


I want to say that it was. It’s hard to remember—you write a book and then four years later you try to remember what you were thinking at the time—but yes, I believe I had started Station Eleven at the time I reviewed Suite Française. There’s such a clarity, lucidity, and power about her prose, that I do find myself thinking about those qualities when I’m writing. I think her work’s extraordinary.


You’ve worked with small presses and big publishers, as well as online and print venues. Could you talk about the editing process and your relationship with editors?


Editors have made my books so much better than they other- wise would have been. My first editor, Greg Michalson at Unbridled Books, worked with me on the first three novels. He had a great line for what happens when you’ve been working on a book for a long time: you get snow-blind. That’s absolutely true. You could have a typo in your opening sentence and you won’t notice because you’ve been staring at it for two and a half years.

For Station Eleven, I made the jump from Unbridled, which is quite small, to a larger publisher. I agonized over it because Unbridled was great, but where small presses are concerned, I think it’s fair to say there’s a problem with book discoverability in this country. It’s extremely difficult for a small press title to gain significant momentum, readership, and attention, so I felt like I had to jump to a bigger publisher to find more readers. We sold the book to Knopf in the US, after I’d spoken to probably seven American editors in the lead-up to the auction, but I knew when my editor was the one. She was great. But the next day we sold it in Canada and the Canadian editor said, “Well, we’ve made an investment here, we’d like to be involved in the editing process.” I spoke to that editor on the phone, and she and the American editor were in agreement about where they wanted to take the book, so my agent and I decided, Okay, we’ll have two editors. Then the next week we sold in the UK and they said the same thing: “We’ve made an investment, we’d like to be involved.” We drew the line at three editors. I was really nervous about it; I was afraid it would be an editing-by-committee nightmare. It turned out to be extraordinary. Having three talented editors give you slightly different but complementary takes on the same work made the book so much better.


Would you be willing to go through that same editing process in the future?



With those three? Yes.


You mentioned the problem of book discoverability. You wrote an essay a few years ago for The Millions about a book tour that you financed yourself. Could you talk about that experience compared to what touring looks like for you now?


There were certainly no interviews in marble rooms back then. Unbridled Books did send me out on tour but it was short because it’s a small press and limited budget. I wanted to be able to say I’d done everything I could for the book, so I decided to do another tour in the Midwest where I knew there were booksellers who were interested. They set up a five-city tour, which I paid for. I justified going into debt to pay for it because I was expecting a check from my Canadian publishers the next month (which ended up being delayed for a year). So I put myself in debt to send myself on a tour of sketchy airport hotels in the Midwest. Tours like that are difficult because you’re out on your own, and I don’t drive, so there were a lot of uncomfortable Greyhound experiences and creepy hotels. At a couple of stops, I slept on friends’ floors. Touring at that level is difficult, but it was worth it because it helped build goodwill with booksellers, who appreciate it when you make an effort to visit their stores.

The current tour has been sort of endless. Last night was my 115th event for Station Eleven. That’s a lot of events, and audiences often have the same questions. But I’m grateful for being in this position. A lot of writers would love to have that problem, of touring “too much.” One of the pleasant things about touring is that I saw my career change over the course of the Station Eleven tour. I went out upon publication in September 2014, and there was some momentum, but when the National Book Award long list was announced while I was on the road, and the shortlist while I was still on the road a month later. . .it was incredible to see that gradual build over the course of my tour.


It’s refreshing to hear you talk about the realities of the DIY tour. It sounds so romantic: strike out on the road to promote your art, be independent, visit bookstores across the country, but the reality—


—is a 4 a.m. airport pickup the fourth day in a row and it’s too early to get breakfast so you’re eating almonds from your bag. It’s funny, though, because even at this level—my hotel in Spokane is beautiful and it’s been such a pleasure being here—but a few days ago I was in a small town in the Midwest for a few nights and that was a very different experience. Even when you’re lucky enough to sometimes stay in lovely places, you still stay in places where breakfast is inedible and the creamers in the restaurant are spoiled. You’re doing laundry in hotel room sinks and hanging it out to dry overnight, which is actually good because then you don’t wake in the morning with a sore throat from the dry air in hotel rooms. Sometimes I’ll steal the flowers from room service trays delivered in my hallway and by the time I leave, I’ll have a little garden.

As the tour goes on, I’ve found myself more and more interested in spending time alone in my room writing. At events, you’re constantly talking to people. It can be nice to spend time by yourself after all of those interactions and conversations, instead of being out in the city. You get some work done and remind yourself, I’m a writer, that’s why I’m here.


In her praise of Station Eleven, Emma Straub said, “It’s the kind of book that speaks to the dozens of readers in me—the Hollywood devotee, the comic book fan, the cult junkie, the love lover, the disaster tourist.” The novel incorporates elements of multiple genres, and you’ve spoken about being surprised that it’s been categorized as speculative fiction. Can you talk about the experience of having genre labels applied to your book, and how those affect audience?


Genre is such a subjective, confounding thing and I’ve dealt with it with all four of my books. With my first novel I thought I was writing literary fiction. But then rejections started coming in from publishers, many of whom said, “We like the book but we’re not sure how we’d market a book that’s more than one genre.” Hearing that response, I thought, Wait, I put a detective in it so it’s automatically detective fiction? I suppose I should have anticipated that. With the two books that followed, The Singer’s Gun and The Lola Quartet, I wanted to play with genre and take it further. Could I speed up a story into a fast literary novel with a strong narrative drive and flirt with crime fiction? Then, of course, it’s categorized as crime fiction.

Except when it’s not, in which case it’s categorized as literary fiction. In France I’m a thriller writer, based on the same books. You start to realize how incredibly subjective these labels are.

With Station Eleven, I set out to do something different from those first three books. As much as I respect crime fiction, I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a crime writer. I wanted to be free to write anything I wanted. But again, if you set a book partly in the future, apparently you’ve written speculative fiction.

As readers, we have an unfortunate tendency to limit ourselves in regard to genre. I hear from a lot of people who say, “I really liked your book, but ten people had to tell me to read it before I picked it up because I don’t read sci-fi.” Okay, but you are cutting yourself off from a massive, rich literary tradition by taking that stance. Do you not read Margaret Atwood?

There was a great essay about genre in The New Yorker, and Joshua Rothman made what should be an obvious point: a book can be more than one genre. Look at Jane Eyre or Crime and Punishment. Both books are literary fiction and genre fiction. A novel can be science fiction and literary fiction, or literary fiction and a love story and a detective novel. I love that idea. It seems to me to be a more expansive way of looking at books.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a seminal book in this conversation, in terms of showing people that you can have a book that’s serious and literary but set in the post-apocalypse territory formerly reserved for pulp novels. The Road gave a generation of literary writers permission to write books that cross over, and it may have given readers a greater sense of acceptance for books that are more than one genre. A few years later there was a book called The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, which was very successful, won some of the top awards in Canada, and it’s essentially a Western. It’s also a spectacularly written literary novel. It makes for an exciting time to be a writer and a reader, that so many people are trying new experiments.


With each successive book, it seems as if you’ve pushed a multi-point-of-view, non-linear structure further and further. How do you view that progression in your work thus far?


My first novel, Last Night in Montreal, had multiple points of view from the first draft, jumping back and forth between two characters, Eli and Lilia. My concept, in terms of the structure, was that it might be interesting to build toward the moments of greatest tension and perhaps in two plotlines simultaneously, rather than moving straight from linear time A to linear time B. That was an idea I tried to push further with each work. The structure lends itself to noir or crime fiction-influenced works because you can withhold information, flash back to the past, and sustain a lot of tension. With Station Eleven, I took it further, creating interview segments and sections about comic books, jumping back and forth from the interviews in year fifteen to Jeevan leaving Toronto. It created more of a collage effect, which I find to be effective in terms of character development. If you have a chapter from the point of view of character A, and the next chapter is character B looking at character A at a completely different time in her life, the reader gets a more complete vision of character A. I also found juxtaposition useful for contrasting the two worlds in the book. Rather than having a character say, “Oh, it was amazing when we used to have cell phones,” you can drop in a scene where they have cell phones and see the contrast in a visceral, immediate way.


How do you decide a strategy for how much to divulge to the reader and when? With multiple time frames and multiple points of view, it seems challenging to decide how to parse out information while sustaining tension.


It’s a hard balance to strike. We’ve all read books where a writer withholds information in what’s ultimately an obnoxious and manipulative way. You think, “You could have just told me that and spared me twenty pages!” You try to put together a complex, interesting story and withhold enough information to sustain tension, but you don’t want to be a jerk about it. I read a book once where a chapter ended with a guy holding a knife to a woman’s throat and she was about to die. As a reader, you think, “Oh, my God, he just killed her” and then she comes back twenty pages later because, guess what, he decided not to at the last minute. You want to throw the book across the room. I try to avoid that.


Many of your characters are interested in freedom from their past: Anton and Elena in The Singer’s Gun, Gavin running from his disgrace in The Lola Quartet, and all of the characters in Station Eleven, particularly Miranda and Kirsten. What interests you about characters trying to escape their pasts?


I left home when I was eighteen, moved by myself from rural British Columbia to Toronto, roughly 3,000 miles. I found that to be a profound experience, how you can leave one life and at the other end of an airplane ride, a new life is waiting. I wasn’t escaping anything horrific, only the restlessness you feel as a teenager when you want to leave home and be independent and have your own life, but I think that’s why I seem to be obsessed with escape. Aren’t we all aspiring toward freedom, trying to be free within the constraints of our lives, our obligations and commitments? It’s something I struggled with in my own life, in terms of always needing a day job. How do you find a sense of freedom when you have to do a job you strongly dislike? It’s part of being a writer; you do a lot of unfortunate things to pay the rent. How do you find an internal sense of freedom when you’re forced to spend the finite hours of your life doing meaningless tasks? I’ve thought about it a lot and I keep returning to those questions in my work.


Your characters have some great lines on that subject. In The Singer’s Gun, Elena says, “Work is always a little sordid.” For her, the difference between being a model for a somewhat pornographic photographer is not that different from her terrible office job.


It’s certainly not worse. I was really burnt out at my day jobs while I was writing The Singer’s Gun, so those questions of freedom and obligation were important to me. We’ve all been there. It’s a difficult, soul-crushing thing to navigate: how to make a living as a writer. I was particularly struggling with it when I wrote that novel.


Because of the success of Station Eleven, you were able to transition from your part-time job to writing full time, though you’ve been occupied speaking practically full time. What did that shift mean to you?


It’s a transition I never thought I would be able to make. It never occurred to me that I’d be able to quit my day job. I was a part-time administrative assistant to the Cancer Research Lab at the Rockefeller University until August 2015, almost a year after Station Eleven came out. It was an interesting environment, working with scientists doing breast cancer research—my colleagues were brilliant, my boss was great—but it was getting a little ridiculous trying to be an administrative assistant remotely during my book tour. I realized I had to quit when I found myself in a hotel room in London at midnight on a Sunday, booking plane tickets for my boss.

The reality is that it’s hard to quit your job when you grew up without much money I know what it’s like to be poor. Plus, having grown up in Canada, I’m slightly traumatized by the American health care system. It felt like a leap to quit my day job because I’m acutely aware that while people are paying me to do events this year, that doesn’t mean they will two years from now. So much is out of my control. It’s not like a traditional workplace where if you do a good job, you’ll have some guarantee of future employment. What does “a good job” mean in literary fiction from one year to the next? Fashions change; maybe a jury will pick your book for an award or maybe they won’t. It was a little terrifying to make that decision, and because of that fear, I held on to my job for much longer than made sense. But it has made a huge difference. It’s great not trying to deal with scheduling meetings in New York while I’m six time zones away overseas. I’m looking forward to seeing what my life is like when the travel slows down.


I was struck, after reading Station Eleven and your other novels, by the way that you handle dead or dying elements of culture. The character Eli in Last Night in Montreal studies dead languages; in Station Eleven, Kirsten searches for additional issues of Miranda’s comics, Clarke curates the Museum of Civilization, and so on. What compels you to write about elements of culture that are fading, endangered, or lost?


It never occurred to me to draw a parallel there. It does fascinate me, the way we hold on to things. It seems as if the instinct that drives a person to create the Museum of Civilization in an airport is similar to the linguist recording the last speaker of an endangered language. I suppose I have that instinct for preservation, too.

Often, it’s a matter of my interests adhering to specific characters. With Last Night in Montreal, I read a fascinating article about dead and endangered languages, so I wrote about a character obsessed with it. I was fascinated by how there are 6,000 languages spoken on Earth, but half will be gone in the next hundred years and one disappears every ten days. The profound loneliness of the concept of last speakers, that it always comes down to one last speaker who looks around at the age of eighty-five and they’re the only one left who knows the language they grew up with. . .that’s haunting. With The Singer’s Gun, I was interested in illegal immigration. It was interesting to have a character who’s engaged in that field in a somewhat criminal way—he sells fake passports—and made research difficult. If you Google “how to fake a US passport,” those are not links you really want to click on, so ultimately, I had to make it up. In The Lola Quartet, Gavin is obsessed with the past, he loves mechanical cameras and fedoras and jazz—things that I love. You can attach your obsessions to particular characters; I find I’ve done it a lot.


In The Singer’s Gun, you wrote a scene where one character tells another about a geology student who chopped down the oldest living tree on earth without realizing it. The character hearing the story says, “Gosh, that’s awful,” but the character telling the story is horrified that the first person doesn’t comprehend how truly upsetting the loss of that tree is.


That was an article I read in The New York Review of Books that just broke my heart. The reaction of the person telling the story was me; I was like, Oh, my God. Basically, in 1964, a grad student was doing climate change research in what later became Great Basin National Park in Nevada, and he was using a corer, this little device you drill to take a sample to study the rings. His corer got stuck in the tree, and it’s kind of an expensive tool, so he got permission from a park ranger to cut it down. After they cut it down and started counting the rings, they realized it was the oldest living thing on earth. Doesn’t that just make you despair of humanity? Apparently there’s a slice of that trunk on display in a bar in Nevada.


In a previous interview you called Station Eleven “A love letter to this extraordinary world in which we live. . .a love letter in the form of a requiem.” Within the novel, so many characters are engaged in fundamentally hopeful activities—Clarke curating the Museum of Civilization, the symphony continuing to travel and perform, and Jeevan becoming a doctor—while at the same time grappling with whether there’s a reason to have any hope for the future. Could you talk about the push and pull between hope and hopelessness?


I think a cataclysmic event needs to be handled with the lightest possible touch. It can get melodramatic so quickly. It was important to give it a light touch without trivializing it, which is why I wrote the chapters set during the collapse in Toronto between Jeevan and his brother. I thought it’d be a little bit dishonest to completely glide over what happened, so the book touches on it briefly. But I was interested in avoiding the nihilism of most post-apocalyptic works. Post-apocalyptic is often shorthand for horror, and I was interested in going a different direction, moving from “look at this horror and mayhem and chaos” to thinking about what comes after horror, chaos, and mayhem. I loved The Road, but it functioned as a kind of negative example when I was writing Station Eleven. I kept thinking, This can’t be The Road, that’s been done. I was interested in what comes next: the new culture that begins to emerge, which does imply evolution and hopefulness, and made for a more hopeful book. It wasn’t really about the end of the world; it was about what happens as people try to reconstruct a new world.


The idea of consciously writing the inverse of a particular story is fascinating. When you’re reading fiction, is that always percolating?


As a reader, it’s always interesting to consider. There’s a book I really liked, After Midnight by Irmgard Keun. The author is German and it’s about the German experience in the late 1930s, when the vise was tightening and Germany was becoming a police state. It was revelatory to me because as much as you know, intellectually, that the German people suffered terribly, most World War II fiction we’re exposed to centers on the suffering Germans inflicted on other people. It’s fascinating to see the flipside of that story.


It seems that each of your books is concerned with memory, with what we want to remember, what we can’t remember, what we want to forget. In Station Eleven, Kirsten says, “The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.” How does memory function in your work?


I have always been fascinated by the phenomenon where three different people were witness to the same event and tell three different accounts of it and nobody’s lying. I used that in The Lola Quartet, where everybody remembers the last concert in a different way. Memory was also one of the most interesting aspects of writing a post-apocalyptic book. How would we remember this world when it was gone? For people who didn’t remember it at all—who were either small children when it disappeared or were born afterward—all of this that we take for granted would seem like science fiction. I love that idea. In terms of character development, the younger people in the post-apocalyptic world are generally doing better, because the more you remember, the more you’ve lost. It’s the older people who can’t stop thinking about when sixty wasn’t old and when diabetes wasn’t a death sentence and when we had antibiotics. For them, they’ve lost so much. But for younger people, it’s abstract.


You’ve said that you love linear narratives as a reader but that you haven’t found a way to write them—which isn’t to say that you have to. Is that something you’d like to try?


I admire linear storytelling, but I don’t know if I could sustain it for a novel; I might write a straightforward linear novella instead. As a reader, I am drawn to those books. I love Stoner by John Williams, which is such a beautiful example. The story moves forward from the beginning to the end and that takes real skill to sustain, particularly over the course of a character’s lifetime.


You’ve mentioned Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto as two of your favorite books. Reading Station Eleven evoked both of those books for me: the innate sense of hopefulness in Bel Canto, and Tartt’s ability to move readers back and forth in time while still keeping us grounded, which is something Station Eleven does so well. It seems like it would be challenging to balance a large cast of characters in the way that all three of those books do, to establish each of them as complex individuals. Did you begin with a particular character in Station Eleven?


Both of those books achieve brilliantly, in my opinion, something I’m always striving for: they are of the highest literary quality but also have narrative drive and are exciting to read. I love those books. Patchett takes such care with her characters. They are never allowed to be two dimensional; everybody is human.

With Station Eleven I knew I wanted to write about the lives of actors, which was more concrete than the beginnings of my other books. The first three, I began with a wisp of a premise. With Last Night in Montreal, I had the image of a car driving across the desert. That image raised questions like, Why is it driving across the desert? An answer to one of those questions formed the plot. Same for The Singer’s Gun: the starting point for that book was the question, What if a man left his wife on their honeymoon? Why would he do that, you ask, and the plot comes out of that exploration. With The Lola Quartet, I wanted to write about disgraced journalists and the economic collapse.

The first character I had for Station Eleven was Arthur. I had the idea of an actor dying of a heart attack on stage during the fourth act of King Lear as the opening scene of the novel. I knew I wanted to borrow a particular staging of Lear that I’d seen—James Lapine’s direction at the Public Theater in New York in 2007. I mention this in the acknowledgments, but he had three little girls on stage in nonspeaking roles as Lear’s daughters, and that gave me my next character: one of the little girls, imagining what happens to her. Those were the first two characters to emerge. I also liked the idea of having a guy in the audience trying to save him, so I thought, Okay, there’s character number three; I can follow him. I thought about Miranda from fairly early on, and other characters came along later.


In Station Eleven, you employ many devices: letters, lists, interviews for a newsletter, and so on. Was that fun for you as a writer, playing with multiple conventions?


It was. I loved writing the interview segments, particularly. Writing only dialogue in that way is what I imagine playwriting would be like. I enjoyed writing the list you mention, in chapter six. It was probably twenty pages long before I shortened it. The letters created an opportunity for me to see a clearer image of who Arthur was, by giving him a first person voice.


You talked about your personal interests finding homes in your fiction. Do you see yourself as someone who would explore personal interests in memoir or creative nonfiction?


Probably not. I’ve been on social media for a really long time—I was on BBSes when I was fourteen, not quite pre-internet but close—and I always felt comfortable in that milieu, sharing a lot of my life online. What I find lately is that I’m less and less interested in revealing much of myself online. I’ve come to find immense pleasure in privacy. It’s an interesting dynamic because there is a certain pressure, particularly on women writers, to write personal essays in the service of a book. You go to the New York Times website and you’ll read the most harrowing, excruciatingly personal essay—the loss of a parent, the death of a spouse, the most wrenching subjects—and then the byline will be “and Lucy Smith has a novel coming out next year” and you’re like, Of course she does. That’s how we’re promoting our books these days, mining our lives for material. I prefer to do that in fiction. So many of my personal interests and even autobiographical aspects of my life work their way into my fiction. For example, Miranda’s background in Station Eleven. She grows up on the same island as me; she has an identical experience with moving to Toronto and finding that the anonymity of living in the city feels like freedom; she’s an administrative assistant. . .there are many parallels. I find it more interesting to explore my interests and write about certain parts of my life through fiction than doing it through memoir or personal essay. I love reading essays, and I sometimes enjoy reading memoirs, but presently I don’t have that instinct to share my life.


Another reason to preserve your privacy are the trolls on social media.


Absolutely. You find yourself thinking, Life is so short, why do I care what anybody is saying on Twitter? I’ve been ignoring my Twitter account for months and it’s opened up this space in my life. It’s so nice. I don’t know if I’ll go back. Same with Facebook. But you also see writers like Margaret Atwood or Neil Gaiman who are highly prolific and all over Twitter. How can they pull it off? Somehow I find it too distracting, but Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood are publishing multiple books a year.


Is community something that plays a significant role in your writing life?


No. Which is kind of strange, I realize, since I live in Brooklyn and there are so many writers there. People come to Brooklyn because they want that sense of community, which can be hard to find outside of an MFA program. To tell you the truth, when I first started writing seriously in my early twenties, what most attracted me was the solitude. I loved the contrast with dance, which is such a group activity. You’re always in classes and auditions and all the rest, but writing could be done alone in a room or alone in a café. I’ve accumulated a few friends over the years who happen to be writers but I mostly avoid the Brooklyn literary scene. It’s distracting and somewhat incestuous; you see the same twelve people at every event. It can get a little gossipy and small in the way that any scene can, in the way the world of academia can or any pod of people who spend a lot of time in close proximity and are engaged in the same pursuit. I go to readings if it’s a friend or an author I really admire, but for the most part I don’t go out of my way to attend events and mingle.


Do you feel any pressure after the success of a book like Station Eleven?


There is a certain pressure. There’s also a certain confidence, I have to say. For me, those two things have balanced each other out. I hope it stays that way.

Issue 71: A Conversation with Blake Butler


Interview in Willow Springs 71

Works in Willow Spring 64 and 61

March 2, 2012

Samuel Ligon, Robert Lopez, Joseph Salvatore



Photo Credit:

In Blake Butler’s work, the ordinary world is made and remade, the familiar becomes strange, the quotidian becomes uncanny, haunted: families discover their own doubles living among them; homes retain their usual dimensions on the outside, but inside are doubling and expanding with secret passages and dark tunnels and strange rooms; caterpillars mysteriously overrun mailboxes and children get inexplicably sick. But that’s mere content. Butler is also a narratologist’s dream dissertation topic. As one of our interviewers, Joseph Salvatore, wrote about There is No Year in The New York Times Book Review: “[T]his novel presents itself as an eye-widening narrative puzzle. Its surface features alone immediately call attention to themselves. Some of the passages are typographically laid down in verse, running Whitmanesque across the page, Dickinsonianly down in thin shafts or randomly in block stanzas. Italics abound. White space abounds. Footnotes are employed, some of them without primary referents: mere subscripts floating on the empty page like gnats.”

Blake Butler was born in Atlanta, Georgia, where he currently lives. He is the author of three novels, Ever, Scorched Atlas, and There is No Year; as well as a nonfiction book, Nothing. Butler also founded and runs the popular website, HTMLGIANT.

A New York Times review of Nothing noted that “Butler is obsessed with the possibilities of syntax, and the most obvious feature of Nothing is a lyric and intellectual buffer overflow that results in long, often interestingly ungrammatical sentences, sometimes stretching over six pages. The most ornate of these is adorned with footnotes, a nod to David Foster Wallace, to whose memory the book is dedicated. As such the book draws attention to its own linguistic surfaces in ways that most memoirs never attempt.” And from the website Creative Loafing: “Nothing is endlessly surprising, funny, exciting, harrowing. There are some cues from the sprawling internal monologues of Nicholson Baker and the genre-defying nonfiction of William T. Vollmann in this expansive exploration of sleeplessness, but Butler is a writer unto himself.”

We met with Mr. Butler at the Palmer House in Chicago, where we talked about ordinary and anti-ordinary worlds, insomnia, dementia, parents and children, the use of footnotes, the internet, popular culture, HTMLGIANT, David Lynch, David Foster Wallace, reading habits, houses and homes, and the problems with metaphor.


All of your books have a post-apocalyptic or dystopic feeling. Can you talk about how the natural world works in your fiction, or how natural and unnatural worlds work together?


Those worlds just seem like every day to me, like how going to the grocery store seems hellish. So why shouldn’t I show it in a hellish way? In no way am I the architect. It doesn’t seem like apocalypse; it seems contemporary. That’s what I’m feeling. Maybe it’s more like emotional texture than reality. Maybe I’m angry, without being angry on purpose—like getting up and driving to the room where I’m going to write makes me mad. So, the fact that I have to do it, or whatever other minor orchestration of feelings I have for a day might be what makes me kill people on paper.


That room where you go to write is in your former home, your childhood home, and much of your work is about home. How important is that room to your material?


I’m actually afraid of that going away, because I’ve never been able to write anywhere else after getting used to that place. I can do a coffee shop, but it just doesn’t feel right; maybe there’s more emotional texture in that room that comes out in the writing. I write in the dark, with just the computer screen, and for a long time the room was full of crap, like if you turned on the light, it was a room full of trash. But it was all my stuff. It’s the room that used to be my bedroom, and it’s the room I write in now, which is totally weird, right? Nothing was written in that room, and that’s where I edited There Is No Year, but the books before that were written in another room, a second room. I used to write on my mom’s computer. She’s a sewer and an artist and a quilter, and she has a workroom with her computer, and I’d use it to write and if she came in to do anything I’d be like, “You’re ruining my air,” and finally she was like, “Go put your computer in the other room and work in there, and then you won’t be bothered.”

It’s totally weird writing with your parents around, but at this point I do it to save my mom’s brain a little, because she’s dealing with my dad’s dementia, which is pretty deep at this point. He’s basically a toddler: He wears diapers, needs full care at all times, and acts like a child, banging on things all day. He thinks he’s working, so he always wants to be busy, constantly walking around. I get up a lot while I’m writing and go to see him. Someone asked me recently, I think Michael Kimball, “Is the father in There Is No Year your dad?” And I was like, “No man, not at all.” Then I thought more and looked at some of the behavior in the book, and I thought, Yeah, he is.


There Is No Year seems to include criticism of traditional masculinity, especially regarding fathers and sons. The father in that book is in many ways ineffectual. He’s got weaknesses—his memory is bad, he’s unable to find his way back home, and he watches porn. The mother finds the copy father more pleasant than the “real father.” And the mother is a more active character, with a great deal of agency and depth and heroism, in the Campbellian sense. I don’t hear much about gender issues when I hear Blake Butler being discussed, but they’re at play there with the mother and father. Is that something you think about?


I don’t ever think: The mother’s like this. But when typing, that’s how it comes out. And I’ve always been closer with my mom. She was an art teacher, and read me Don Quixote, Dickens, Twain, all before I could understand any of it. There weren’t children’s books in my house. We read those books. I think I became a big reader because of her.

The way she got me to read when I was little, five or six, she’d buy a bag of books, and she’d let me reach in and take one, without looking. When I finished reading and had talked to her about it for a minute, I could take another one. I don’t think I enjoyed the book as much as I enjoyed the idea of, What else is in that bag? I read voraciously because of that.

And I’ve always been closer with her. I think my dad and I have an interesting relationship, but there was also this distance because he was working constantly. He’d get up at five to go to work and when he was around, it’s not like he wasn’t there, but I just—the one I was surrounded with was my mother. She’s so stellar a person, and creatively, she’s just, like, perfect to me, so I guess that’s where that depth of the mother comes out, just because I see the amount she gives to me and everything around her. I can’t see a mother any way but that. And maybe I like to beat up the dad because I see myself eventually doing things a dad does, and it’s probably more internally me beating myself up than my dad, but some of the agency maybe comes from his actions.


Does your father have opinions about your writing?


My dad has read one book that I know of—Bill Clinton’s My Life. And he didn’t really read that. He just liked Bill Clinton, so he bought it, but he’s not a reader. He went to a one-room schoolhouse and he never went to college.


A mother figure comes up often in your work, but you don’t seem to worry about Freudian implications. Or what the repetition of Mother might mean.


Right. I’d rather look at the thing itself than figure out what’s around it. I’m more interested in images and sounds than I am in plots or unconscious machines behind the thoughts.


It’s interesting that you say images and sounds. I’ve heard Dawn Raffel—who generally writes short—say that the acoustics of a sentence is basically all she’s concerned about. I think you can get away with that in a short piece, but in longer work, there has to be something more than just sound. Do you consider that in terms of form or the genre you’re working in—that there has to be more than sound? Or is it sound all the way through?


I always thought it was sound, but now I’m thinking it’s more rhythm. I know a lot of people in revision will read their work out loud to see what it sounds like, but I never do. I think I like more the way sentences connect together. I mean, I like interesting sentences, but that’s a given. I’m more interested in how a sentence can reflect an image and then the next sentence comes from that sentence and slightly alters the image. There Is No Year came from one image. The book starts with the mother and father sitting next to each other on the sofa without touching, very close, and that was where the book came from. An image. And I describe the image the way it made sense to describe it, and then started another page, writing scene after scene, and the language was important the whole time and sound was important the whole time and rhythm is what makes me type, because I’m not thinking, you know, just kind of running through what comes to me, analyzing it as I go, you know, as a reader, writing it as a writer and a reader at the same time.

I’m not trying to find anything or reveal anything. I like the feeling of typing and I like the momentum. The times I feel best writing are the times I’m in a frenzy. I get the beginning and then little jumps start happening and you almost completely lose the feeling that you’re typing. And I think that burst is awesome. But you can’t do that for hours and hours. So I’ll leave the desk, letting my mind disconnect from what I was doing. And then I’ll come back and look at where I ended, the feeling of it, and progress from there.

I tried to write books where I stayed and sat in the minute and had an arc that just continued the right way and I was really bad at it. I’d feel like I was under some kind of stress. It wasn’t pleasurable. It was like, How am I going to figure out this problem? I know the guy needs to do this, but how? My solutions were always bad. I couldn’t do the straight line. My line would get so curvy that it was like: This is idiotic; this is a horrible story; you’re not a good storyteller. But I do feel like I know when to respond to images and how to put words to them.


You alternately use the words “typing” and “writing.” And I’ve seen you refer to “typing” in HTMLGIANT posts. I think about what Capote said regarding Kerouac’s work, something like, “That’s not writing; that’s typing.” Is there a difference in your mind between writing and typing?


I prefer the word “typing,” because it’s not romantic. I don’t like the romantic idea of the writer. I’m repelled by the romance of the ego and the writer. I come from a technical background. I went to Georgia Tech for computer science and I grew up writing code, basic programs, and they told stories on the computer. And that’s typing—you’re typing commands into the computer—and I still think of writing as just that act. I like the more logical, almost proof nature of constructing something. So it’s like I’m not trying to tell a story; I’m almost constructing a proof or a program more than I’m writing. I sometimes think I like writing because all it is is pressing a lot of buttons, and I like pressing buttons.


So you never write longhand?


I’ve tried and it comes out like I’m an eight-year-old. Just horrible. Or it looks horrible and it feels wrong. It has to be on the machine.


Your second book, Scorch Atlas, is unlike any other book I’ve seen. Each page is different. Where did that design come from, and how did the visual interact with your text? If that book were to be republished, would how it looks be part of the next incarnation?


The design of the book was all Zach Dodson at Featherproof, an intensely focused designer. I told him I wanted it to look like a beaten up science manual from the 1970s, and he came back with that. The fact that there are like eleven storms raining different stuff from the sky throughout the book, that was all one piece beforehand. It was Zach’s design idea to weave those sections throughout the book, so that he could let each storm affect the look of the pages thereafter, which made the book to me.

My first book, Ever, has brackets throughout. When I sent it to the editor, Derek White, it was all numbered lists and he was like, “The numbers probably work for you to write it, but they look weird on paper.” So he put the brackets in there.

And I got addicted to em dashes. I like visual elements. I think the way you look at something while you’re writing it changes your relationship with it, and that’s why there’s a lot of space play in There Is No Year. Design has always been important to me.


When I look at the chapters in Nothing, and the lyrical footnotes, or when I look at the lists you’ve published, I see you playing with form. When are you conscious of the work and the form and shaping it to an end?


I’m a big fan of writing a fast first draft. I like the idea of a book being almost a photograph of your ideas at that time. And because I spent so long trying to write a straight novel—and the longer it took, the more I fucked it up—I try to do a fast draft, because I can get that energy in there. But then returning to it as a reader and revising it, it’s like, Oh, I missed this, or, Look at that thing that’s stuck in here that I didn’t develop at all, and then whole other scenes might eject from that, in the same way that programming is routines and subroutines. It’s very analytical—it can’t be mush; it has to be logically placed ideas that come from not quite knowing what you’re doing.

Those lyrical footnotes try to reconstruct how a thought process works. When I’m trying to go to sleep, the thing that keeps me awake is busy brain. Often, one thought has three thoughts at the same time. So how to mirror that? I can do the run-on sentence and pack a bunch of things into it, but it’s still one thought at a time. And so I looked for moments where it felt like another thought would be inserted, and a lot of times it’s quotes or gibberish, the nature of the other thought so widely varied and particular to a moment. That was my way of trying to replicate multiple thoughts recurring, and they kind of mess you up as you’re reading.


I thought the footnotes provided relief in some sentences, acting like punctuation. Sometimes it seemed like a footnote was talking back to the text, while also providing relief, and throughout, the footnotes felt like conscious punctuation. But you’re saying they weren’t?


No. I was trying to punctuate the moment. It wasn’t like I picked any random quote and stuck it there or any random thing. It’s more like this exact thought ejects this exact thought. I could have actually maybe even stuck them in as more of the sentence, but they’re in some way parenthetical and they’re supposed to be happening at the same time. So they’re definitely supposed to continue the logic of the thing. But you can read it without those, too. Still, in order to get that jumbledness of brain, I think it’s important to have them as footnotes.


The footnotes in your fiction work differently. How would you compare your use of footnotes in There Is No Year to Nothing?


There are only two parts of There Is No Year that have footnotes, the list of people who died young, and the second list mirroring that, and it’s the exact same number of footnotes each time, a mirror image of the sections. That’s why the names look like a spine, because the names were there and now they’re not. I wanted to replicate the list of names, of dead people as being gone, because part of the book is about people being removed from the world before their time. And so that first list is all people who were creators of things, who were then removed and therefore did not create other objects that would have been part of the world. The fact that they’re absent and the objects that they were going to create don’t exist—that’s a residue of sorts. I wanted to show them gone, and at first, the second section was just blank footnotes. But I was like, No, they’re not just blank; there’s something missing where they were going to be, or something left behind, so that’s what the footnotes in the second section do. They’re way more intuitive than abstract, and work in a functional way. The first time the footnotes appear, it’s all, He died in this way; you know, it’s factual and it’s meant to give context to the situation of dying as a human. The second half is the residual.


And so regarding the missing referents, the footnotes in the second section correspond to the first section of the obituary list—but they seem figuratively connected rather than literally, as in the biographical manner used in the first section. For instance, you have this line, “One white hair grown out on all dogs surrounding.” I read that and had to hunt back through the book and work to understand what that meant. How did you conceptualize that second set of footnotes?


The mirrored section I figured out while I was revising; it wasn’t in the original draft. And when I realized what I wanted to do, I was like, But how am I going to make it work? I was in my mother’s bathtub and I’d go underwater—she has a humongous bathtub—and I figured out that it had to be these pieces like the one you read, and maybe the first one occurred to me as actual words, like I’ll often just think of words and that begins the ejection of other ones. I was lying there and maybe it was the words that came to me or maybe the idea of how it should work. It was probably the words. I got out of the bathtub and went and typed them.


In a way, the second list functions like a copy family. A mirroring. But in the case of the footnote mirroring David Foster Wallace’s earlier note, when you write the line, “Another Instant for the Night,” should the reader assume that’s the narrator’s comment on Wallace? If so, are we to understand it as poetic? Or something else? Or is it not intended to be read in any way other than merely to experience the language of it?


I don’t know that I did it for each person specifically, but Wallace, he’s last on the list for a reason—because he’s why I started writing. I was at Tech, a computer science major, and I read Infinite Jest and that was the first book that I was like, You can talk like this on paper? You can make these things happen on paper? I became obsessed with him. I think he’s a brain that’s been unmatched. So, to me, he’s one of the biggest examples of that missing thing. He’s a presence still and there’s something not there because he was removed.


Do you get irritated when people say they like Wallace’s nonfiction, but not his fiction?


I think it’s idiotic. His nonfiction is amazing, but Infinite Jest is the greatest literary achievement of all time to me. Most people who say that about the nonfiction didn’t read Infinite Jest. And I don’t know if he would think this, but I think it’s clearly his crowning work.


When you started writing those widely published numbered lists, it seemed like a move toward nonfiction, because they felt like hybrid poetry/nonfiction pieces. And you’ve now written a book of nonfiction. What’s your relationship to nonfiction versus fiction?


I’ll always write fiction first. Nothing was a specific project. I sold the book before I wrote it and I wrote it to a deadline, the same way I write for the internet for a living. I like the challenge and the puzzle of it, but my heart’s in fiction and I think fiction’s more interesting. That’s you creating space, whereas nonfiction is analyzing space, although you can create space also. But the bigger art to me is fiction. There are a lot of my fictional elements in Nothing that I wanted to get in there, and I’m feeling weird calling it nonfiction, to be honest, because it’s just like a big collage of things to me.


But like in the lists, we have these mini-moments in Nothing where you’re bringing the reader specific news from your research. That feels like traditional nonfiction. But then you work against that with other parts of the book, like those lyrical passages.


I don’t know that I’m working against it; that’s just my natural assembly process. I’ve been asked a lot: Do you intend to obfuscate the reader’s direction and challenge them? No, that’s just how I think about things. I started writing the lists because I was working at a collection agency and I came in one day and the guy that was like my overboss, who sat in the desk behind me, I looked at him and I was like, I can’t fucking stand this room right now. The first list came out of me being angry in that room. And then I realized that it was a puzzle, and I challenged myself to write fifty lists of fifty things, and it was like I had a model.

I like the way form can dictate content. I knew certain things about the orchestration of the frame of Nothing when I was beginning it. I’ve been finding that form gives me a structure to play inside of, like it encages you. It’s mathematical more than exploratory.

But as for nonfiction, when I was researching Nothing, I read all these books about insomnia, and they were all so dry and straight ahead. They had an approach, but I wanted to convey the feeling of restlessness and unconscious tension rather than talk about how to solve it. You’re just going to frustrate yourself looking for a cure. Ironically, I entered the best sleeping period of my life after I wrote that book.


How would you characterize your insomnia? As a clinically diagnosable condition with an objective “cure”? Or is there something more personal and frustrating happening?


I think the latter. I took sleeping pills for a while and they were putting me to sleep, and when I ran out of them I was like, I have to have more of these. What stresses me out usually isn’t the creative thing—like, I have to figure out the next sixteen pages of my novel—or remembering to do something; it’s all entirely garbage thought, and the more you try to stop thinking, the more you think.

I write every day and most of the day, because that’s all I really have to do. The way I work, the way I make money, is partitioned into a different time, but I have most of all day, every day to write. And because of that, I think: I should be writing. I have intense guilt about that. It’s gotten better since I started to accomplish things, but during the time I was having the worst insomnia, I was like, I have to sit down and get something done today so I can feel good enough to sleep tonight. The insomnia would be worse if I didn’t do anything. But that sets you up for a whole lot more shit, because you type and you make this thing and it doesn’t go anywhere and you’re like, Oh, now I feel even worse, because I sat here for eight hours, didn’t make any money, and nothing will come of this except that I spun my wheels some more. But if you’re going to write without the beginning position clear, then you have to do some of that to get to the project that you want to do. And that’s what the list project came from; it was like, I just don’t know how else to get this out of me. I like to have little things between finding the project. It’s almost a puzzle. Like, Oh, I’m going to do this to start the day every day so I at least feel like I did something. I’m completing an equation.


Your work seems to exist in the moments between wakefulness and sleep. It seems like you couldn’t be who you are unless you were sleepless, and the sleeplessness comes through the work, and almost everything feels born from that and is about that. Would you ever want to be a good sleeper?


Not sleeping knocks you off center a bit. You feel a little crazy. The times I feel most productive are when I am sleeping well, and I’m always fearing sleeplessness, because when you don’t sleep, you can’t get up and write well. It ruins your brain to some extent. But being in that middle zone works pretty well. A good night of sleep for me is five or six hours, so I’m still a little bit off. It takes me like five hours to wake up, before I can really talk to people, so I always feel like I’m in that middle, waking- up-or-going-to-sleep mode.

That’s probably the worst part about sleeping. Because I know I need to be well rested to do what I want to do the next morning, I want to go to sleep. My mania starts around three, and if I’m not feeling tired, it’s like it reverses itself so it’s a self-fulfilling insanity. If I could press a button that said, You will sleep eight hours a night for the rest of your life, I would press it. And I would be the same person. But if I hadn’t gone through that insomnia as a teenager and through my twenties, I’d probably still be coding computers instead of writing.


Do you think in terms of a body of work, or how your books work together in sequence?


I don’t think about it while I’m writing. I don’t think about anything while I’m writing. I started to think about arc, because I guess I ended up doing more than I thought I would already. But when I sit down, if I think about that, it will make me get on Facebook instead of writing. I have to be blank of mind when I’m typing. It’s good to have an idea of where you’re going, and from the beginning I knew I wanted to write novels and the first thing I ever sat down to write was a novel. I didn’t write poems or short stories—well, I wrote poems when I was sixteen—but after I read Wallace, I was like, I’m going to write a novel now. And I wrote like seven novels that are never going to be anything, because they were all me learning how to write. I learned how to write a novel by writing one and failing over and over, and I finally got to the point where I was broken and wrote the first real one.

I was starting with the story, like, This will be about this. And I’m a bad problem solver in that way. It took me finding out that the less I knew—and actually knowing absolutely nothing and not even thinking—the better. To be able to get to that level of confidence and that level of intuneness with how I type took doing it a lot. And finally, like the fourth of these novels I wrote got me an agent. I published a short piece online and got an agent and he took on this novel. It was called Pupils of an Inflated Giraffe, and it was about two brothers who were in their fifties living with their severely obese mother and it went into all this crazy stuff.

And then I went to an MFA program and they were like, What is this stuff? In the first thing I workshopped, I remember there was some description in there, and the teacher was like, “I can’t see that. I don’t know what that means.” I must have done something weird. But then I was getting beaten up and being encouraged into ways I knew weren’t what I wanted, and writing these novels for this agent, who kept saying, “Oh, it’s weirder, man. You keep getting weirder. Go the other way,” and that’s when small presses were really starting to pick up again, and I thought, I’m just going to send this out myself. Then it worked out its own way and I ended up with a different agent by getting my own book deal. And he probably thinks I’m insane, too. I’m still pretty much selling it myself.


Are you interested in plot?


I love plot, but approaching plot as plot doesn’t work for me. I like to fall into plot, write until I figure out what the plot is. The plots create themselves, rather than me creating them. If I think I’m going to write the story of a man who goes home to Wisconsin, the way my brain would want to write that would be horrible. But if I start with a sentence, and the next sentence comes from logic, then that’s still linear storytelling. I feel like I’m telling an A to B story in There Is No Year, even though there are all these weird parts. It has a plot, even if it goes through these weird patterns to get to it.


How would you describe the plot of There Is No Year?


There’s a family—a mother, a father, and a son—and the son has been sick with an illness that should have been terminal, but he didn’t die, so he’s kind of living in this phase of death still coming for him, because death didn’t occur like it should have. I would say there are like four plots, though I don’t know how to tell you about all four. It’s the same as the ejection, the thoughts inside of thoughts. There’s a plot about the son not having died and the lure of death and the fact that he’s making this object—he’s writing a book—that should not exist, because he was supposed to die. He’s creating an object that should not exist, and the world doesn’t want him to do that and is trying to destroy him. People living are kind of haunted by this air, like the fact that we live in the middle of all this, and all this has happened over and over again. You know, there’s a kind of air that we live in. . . I don’t even know what it is. This is the problem of me trying to tell a story. I see so many plots working at the same time.

After I gave this to my editor, he said, “So I’ve read the book eleven times, and I think I know what it’s about now—I think the father is molesting the son.” And I was like, “That is not what this is about at all.” Then he showed me all this weird penile imagery. He pointed out these things and I was like, I’ll have to get rid of that. I added 10,000 words and then removed 5,000, because I was like, I don’t want this to go that direction, and I do want it to go this direction, and, Look here’s this thing I didn’t find, like another room I should add.


If you were teaching young writers, how would you help them understand the notion of plot? I guess to do that you’d have to define it. How would you do that?


Plot is what happens to the reader while they’re reading the book. It’s more effect based to me than a story. Traditionally, plot is the story that happens, but I want it to be more interactive than that, and that’s why I use images that could mean multiple things. People often have different responses to a book, and I like the fact that it’s open-ended enough within the logical plot that it can go these multiple directions. The reader has to be involved with that. Even though the object is the object and what’s in the book is in the book, the person interfacing with it, their approach, is going to change the field, right? I like the fact that I have a vision of what I feel the book does that no one’s ever said exactly, and I like that people say different things.


Regarding that idea of plot being the reader’s journey, when I get to a section from There Is No Year like, “Passing the parents’ bedroom he heard the mother talking to herself in a language the son had only heard one time,” I wonder, When was that “one time”? In a traditionally plotted book, that might be a moment where you get a flashback to a specific “one time.” The passage continues after a dash, “heard through the crack of his old bed frame, the bed the men in plastic had come to haul away—the bed the doctors said had been infested and was the reason he got sick. The son knew that wasn’t why he had gotten sick. It was a bed. No one would listen. The son had heard the mother’s language noises once coming also from a crack in his newer bed, but he stuffed the crack with gum. The house would sing to him for hours. The son did not try the parents’ door.”

But the source of the son’s illness really isn’t the point, and whether the doctors got the diagnosis right isn’t the point, and this “one time” when he’d heard the mother’s talk is not really a plot point at all. So, for me, there were strands that I felt never got tied up. You said earlier that the one time you tried to write a “straight novel”—and it’s interesting that Lynch has a movie called The Straight Story—you said you “fucked it all up.” So when you talk about extracting 5,000 words and putting in 10,000, are you worrying about connecting dots, or are you going to put this object or that image out there and let the reader do what she will with it?


It’s more like setting up the frame for it to go in. I don’t want to explain away the image, but the image has an order, right? So I’m looking for moments where image is giving too much or giving too little and I’m trying to organize it in a way where it opens more, instead of closes. The reason I love David Lynch and the reason I love reading is that they open things I didn’t understand before. Or they bring me things I couldn’t experience anywhere else that make my brain come alive.

The image of the white horse from Twin Peaks is a haunting image, and the man behind the dumpster in Mulholland Drive is terrifying. Why? Because Lynch doesn’t say, “The horse is this. Or that.” He has no idea. That’s not to say that the image of the horse should not be specific. You have to fine tune all the elements of the image, even if you don’t know what the image is doing. And I also like to pile things in. For instance, there’s a reference to every Lynch film in There Is No Year. I like using other people’s containers in ways that, like, I steal the idea, but not in a palpable way, more a way of figuring out how to say what I wanted to say.


The egg in the novel reminded me of the black box in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.


And there’s one point where the father’s walking through the house and I write, “The father aged eighteen months,” or something like that, and that comes from Eraserhead. When they were filming Eraserhead, it took so long to get enough money to film it, you see Jack Nance walk up to the door, and he opens the door and comes in and, literally, in the change of the shot, there were eighteen months between, and he looks exactly the same. I love the discontinuity within the continuity. Or I remember reading William Vollman talking about how he revises. He talked about messing with a sentence, packing things into it and removing things till it pops like a popcorn kernel. It was this egg-shaped thing and all of a sudden it explodes into all these textures. I love reading and thinking about sentences in that way.


You often use repetition, even certain words coming up over and over, like “meat,” “air,” “light.” How does repetition serve your work?


I feel comforted by repetition. I try to live every day as if it were the same day. In my ultimate world, every day would be the same day, in which nothing happens except I sit in a room and do what I want by myself. The art I like does that too. And so I keep saying “hair” and “light” because I can’t stop. If I’m writing without thinking about it, those are the words that are going to keep coming out of my hands. I do it too close in sentences, or it feels redundant, I like that it can create a texture—but you can overtexture something. I’ll try not to use the same words in the same sentences unless I mean to. You know, like I’ll go back and be like, Oh, I said this twice and it’s just kind of annoying. It doesn’t have that ecstatic repetition; it’s an annoying repetition.


You seem to trust image and metaphor and let metaphor do a lot of work. But in a footnote in Nothing, you wrote, “There’s no such thing as metaphor.”


I have a good buddy and we get in this metaphor argument all the time. Metaphor seems like an orchestration to me. When I say that there’s a closet full of hair, I want there to be a closet of hair. When I say the father aged eighteen months walking across the living room, I want that to happen. The same goes with the copy family. And that’s real; that’s not science fiction. Like you have copies of yourself. I think it’s so defeatist to call that a metaphor, because that compacts the world in a way that’s boring. The art I like makes me know that those things exist, even if it’s like believing in god. I believe in the fact that there can be seven of me in a room that I can’t see. Or that anything can happen.

When you say something in fiction happens, you’re creating that instance, and that’s why fiction’s not just reciting your mom’s bedtime stories. It’s creating space, rather than explaining it. That’s why I love Lynch. Because the rooms in Lynch are places, and they don’t have a name, but they’re places, and you can think about those places and you can traverse those places and they didn’t exist before he orchestrated them, and that’s why the deletion of people making those spaces is so important to There Is No Year.

And that’s why the reader is part of plot to me, because I can’t control what that is. Because you’re going to read “hair” and without even thinking about it, hair is going to mean one thing to you and it’s going to mean another thing to someone else.

Maybe my problem with metaphor is that I don’t want there to be one specific thing that it stands for. It should be all the things that it could be. That’s why you don’t pick one or explain it, and that’s why movies that do explain or books that explain, I don’t think about them after that—Okay, that’s what you were trying to tell me, I got it. I heard that. But I want to be haunted by a book. I want to be haunted by an object. That’s art. I like to read things that wash over me. I like to not have to organize myself when I’m reading. I want to be pushed and knocked around and then think, Oh, what just happened? I don’t know, but I felt something was happening.


When I first met the copy family in There Is No Year, I thought they were a metaphor for the dark side of a family, but it never turns out to be anything like that. And so I believe you when you say you’re not thinking about metaphor when you write.


I’m saying it’s obsequious or overbearing, because so many people do rely on metaphor, and I think it’s important to counteract it by saying metaphor doesn’t exist. Of course metaphor does things. That’s just an abstract way of saying there are bigger things than the thing is, and that’s fine. But I’m going to shit on the feeling of the traditional use of metaphor, because I think it’s destructive to the language and books.


Poets talk about how a poem teaches you how to read it, that you learn how to read the poem by being in the poem—and I think your work operates that way. There was a moment when I was reading Nothing that I realized what I was doing was experiencing consciousness, and needed to let that wash over me.


And in There Is No Year, I had to admit that I wasn’t fully going to understand everything, but I felt the author was in some kind of control. And so I give up trying to read it as a “conventional” novel, as though certain details were clues: like, Oh, I get it: The son got sick because he was incested or because the mother drank when she was pregnant with him—the family-secret plot. I came around to accept that that’s not the way this book was going to work.


I hope to be in control of the thing. I don’t want it to be a mess, and I get frustrated when a reader comes to a book with expectations, and if those expectations aren’t met, then the art failed, or they just give it up. To me, the fun of reading is going into the book—books shouldn’t be entertainment, or at least the books I’m interested in.


David Foster Wallace would say that it’s got to be fun.


I’m not saying it shouldn’t be fun. I’m saying a reader should come with a willingness to be open to this game. A lot of people read and they’re like, I want this out of this book, and what I got didn’t make sense to me. And I think, You didn’t even try. Just keep going. Why not experience something without knowing what it is? So entertain, sure. But create a space rather than explain a space. I don’t want to read a book that’s all work for me. And I think there are a lot of funny parts in my work that are dark because of the dark context, but it’s supposed to be a fun thing, though not to provide a solution on a platter. Brian Evenson was important to me in learning how to tell a fun and compelling story, but also to be doing something inexplicable, while incorporating horror tropes and terror tropes—doing the same thing a horror movie does, but also opening into an intense space. And that’s entertainment to me. I have fun reading that. But it should keep you wanting to do it. Books fail that try to do these grand things and don’t get that the reader needs to pay attention.


Are there any works you’ve come to with certain expectations as a reader, and then found yourself resistant?


Often the way it happens is that the book explains too much to me. I don’t need you to tell me this. It’s disrespectful. It’s like assuming the reader can’t do some work. I’m looking for a reader who’s interested and wants to be in that puzzle. I can’t force someone to work a puzzle.


How has the internet shaped you as an artist?


I can’t write without it. If the computer is not attached to the internet, I’m not going to write. Because that comes into play under my anxiety. While I’m writing, my Gmail, Twitter, and probably two other things are open, and I am constantly going back and forth between what I’m writing and links and things. So I’ll write in a burst, and like I said, I get up, or I read a website for a minute. I think that gives your brain a turn off moment where you stop over-analyzing what you just did, and that gives you a reset and feeds you in ways that you don’t realize you’re getting fed. You read a story and it gives you something, changes your mood, and that gives a palette for your writing to change into, unprompted. I like being chaotically programmed by my emotions, and maybe that’s sadistic. To me, typing without the internet on my computer feels like writing longhand. I need that machine.

But I hope I’m not part of that machine. It’s a sick space, but I mean, I sleep with the computer on my bed at this point. It’s the first thing I do in the morning, the last thing I do at night. I spend more time with it than anything. But I’m looking at the same seven websites, refreshing them, e-mailing people, Gmail chatting.


How much of your day is taken up with HTMLGIANT?


Usually not very much. I don’t really edit anything. Everyone writes whatever they want. I correct the way it looks. I orchestrate the tastes and pick the people that are in there. I tune in enough to pay attention to the feel of the website. I’m more interested in being a facilitator and putting my own voice in, but not controlling it.

There’s pretty decent traffic and I think that’s because there’s not a critical apparatus for the kind of writing I’m interested in. There are a lot of people putting it out there, but there aren’t a lot of places for it to be discussed and analyzed. So I want a forum. I want a conversation. I don’t have people that I really talk with about writing much at home, and the only way I’m not just a sad bastard in a room typing on my mom’s computer is that there are other people inside this box. I built a place to play with those people.

And it’s a place to get rid of some of the tension that comes from sitting on the internet all day, a place to talk about books. It’s like a mess and intellectual at the same time. Hopefully, it brings people together. The reason we started it is that I was reading thirty different blogs on my RSS feed, all these websites, and I was like, Why don’t we just put these people in the same place, instead of these people just barking in their own area. And why do I have to go to this website and refresh to see if this new thing is up. Why isn’t there a site that will just tell me? I think we meant at the beginning to have more of a “new issue of x or y” and blah blah blah, and we did that for a while, but it’s become more of a conversation now, and a place to have conversations.


In There Is No Year there’s a string of stuff about celebrities, most of whom are dead. Those sections were the places I felt the author’s controlling hand most, setting up quotes to frame certain sections. What role does popular culture play in your work?


A question I’ve gotten a few times is: Why are the characters nameless, but then, McDonald’s has a name. And I think, Because I thought it was funny. That was where it came from, but I also like the idea of absorbing auras from things. I can mention Sharon Tate and quote her and that automatically sets this weird tone. It’s like stealing the tone. In There Is No Year, the object that the son’s trying to make, that shouldn’t exist, is a book that transcends possible, transcends what a book can do. It contains all things. I like the idea that all objects could contain all other objects. That doesn’t answer why I would use McDonald’s. I think it comes down to the comedic, mixed with eeriness. The child is nameless, but the buildings around him aren’t. That, to me, seems like a kind of deleting in a way, and it makes the body of the person a specific site, whereas McDonald’s is a site that exists all over the world, but with one floor of sorts. Or how Walmart seems to have this weird air, and you think about it as Walmart, but the feeling of being in a Walmart is very specific. And it’s as compelling in its own way as a desert.

Issue 70: A Conversation with Tim O’Brien


Found in Willow Springs 70

April 16, 2011




Photo courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Tim O’Brien’s characters occupy a world in which narrative has the power to consume, to unite, and to heal. Stories are repeated and memories revisited, until accuracy sometimes gives way to isolation, fear, and despair, until the only way forward is to keep telling them. “The best of these stories are memory as prophecy,” writes Richard Eder, in the Los Angeles Times. “They tell us not where we were, but where we are, and perhaps where we will be.”

Tim O’Brien was born and raised in small-town Minnesota. Upon graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul in 1968, he was drafted to fight in Vietnam, serving from 1969-70. When he returned, he became a graduate student at Harvard University, but dropped out to pursue an internship at the Washington Post, where he began work on his memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone. Since then, he has written seven novels, including Going After Cacciato, which won the 1979 National Book Award, and his novel in stories, The Things They Carried, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, a French literary prize for best foreign work of fiction. He has received literary achievement awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He currently lives in central Texas and teaches at Texas State University–San Marcos.

We met with Mr. O’Brien at the Brooklyn Deli in Spokane, where we discussed absolutism and ambiguity, the slippery, evasive qualities of truth, crippling idealism, and how “we all do little tricks to try to erase our flaws, even from ourselves. We’ll fine tune, and we’ll try as much as we can to forget the bad things we’ve done and wish we hadn’t, and magnify those things we’re proud of. I think our country does it, too, and other countries as well where we erase what we did…. Nobody thinks about what their country did—how we once had slaves and once exterminated a whole race of people, the Indians. People don’t think about that stuff. It’s erased.”



You’ve said that one of your main themes is exploring the human heart under stress. In what ways has this theme changed from If I Die in a Combat Zone to July, July?


Not at all. The stories change, but I’m always interested in exploring a set of circumstances or a character in trouble, how the trouble started and how it will be resolved, if at all. It’s like conversations you overhear on a train: some you’re interested in and want to explore, while others bore you. So nothing really has changed. I do think good writing is often about the human heart under stress. And I think bad writing has an agenda. It’s polemical oftentimes—makes a point, delivers a message, offers counsel or advice about something. For me, good writing is tentative. I don’t want to be an absolutist, but a good book is not one in which I detect an agenda, because art takes both sides of a thing; it doesn’t just present one point of view, it contains others—this character’s, that character’s. And even those points of view are often undermined or evolve throughout a book.


In your interview with Big Think, you talk about news and news writing. Is that an example of what you consider bad writing?


There’s an absolutism to that kind of writing that has disturbed me since I was a little boy. I see ambiguity everywhere, including inside myself. It could be a serial killer we’re reading about, Ted Bundy or someone, and I’ll be interested not just in how evil he is and how he could have done what he did, but in his side of the story; what does he have to say about it?

I think that’s why I became a novelist. If I knew what I thought about everything, I’d write nonfiction: Here’s what I think. But I don’t know what I think about everything. On virtually any subject, I’m— I guess you could call it wishy-washy. That would be a pejorative way of saying it. Or you could say open-minded, but I don’t think of myself as that. I seek all sides of everything to a fault.

It explains a lot about why, in my books about Vietnam, I saw all sides in the war. I wanted to do what was right for myself and my country. I wanted to be faithful to my conscience, but I also loved my country and didn’t want to leave it. I felt paralyzed by these competing and ambiguous thoughts. And that’s true about love and fathers and mothers and everything in the world.


In Tomcat in Love and In the Lake of the Woods, your protagonists are aware of their desire to be loved. How does that need for love play out in your work?


Love separates us from dogs and mice—we know what love is. We crave it and want it, and sometimes it’s a really good, positive thing. But we can do evil things in the name of love too, like kill people. Like go to war: “I love my country, and I’m going to go kill people because I love it so much.” And that’s a macro, kind of gross example, but it’s true. “I love God,” and the Crusades come and you get millions of dead people. On a daily level, what we do for love—to get it and give it—includes tiny things: paying a check or smiling at somebody in an elevator so they’ll like us. You know, holding a door for a person. I want people to like me, and I think we all do, in small petty ways and in big political ways. More than we realize, our behaviors come out of a desire to be loved. To go into a war is a pretty good example of wanting my country to love me, as well as my mom and dad and hometown, even though I thought it was a bad thing to do. I wanted that love more than I wanted to love myself in doing the right thing.


You’ve written about going to war for that love, or going to Canada—


That’s an example of seeing both sides. Part of me is the person who went to Canada, who did the courageous and difficult thing of saying, “No,” which was, for me, really hard for the reason I just mentioned.

I wanted to be loved. So, I didn’t say, “No.” I said, “Okay.” I like to write about characters who did have the courage to say, “No,” and who live with the consequences of it.


You often use repetition in your work, for example, in Northern Lights, when Grace is calling Perry “Poor Boy,” telling him to “Lie down, lie down there. It feels better.” How important is repetition to your prose?


There are times when repetition has the effect of a song. If the chorus weren’t there, it wouldn’t really be a song, because it wouldn’t be unified. Repetition has that unifying function. It also functions to remind the reader of the “aboutness” of what they’re reading. It brings you back to a kind of center.

The tough thing as a writer is to know when repetition’s called for and when it’s going to get in the way. There are times when I’ll say, “I shouldn’t be doing it now,” and other times I feel like I have to. I have no formula or recipe for it; there’s a feel in phrasing each repetition, or there’s not. But I do think, in beautiful writing, there’s some kind of repetition that saves it from the prosaic or dull or monotonous—even if it’s just a phrase or a few syllables. It makes a work feel whole and unified, and without it, the work might feel kind of meandering.


Certain stories are repeated in your work, as well.


You’re right. The killing of the baby buffalo, for example, has appeared in three of my books. What I see in writing is what I see in life—recurrence. Life is full of repetition, and throughout my life, the killing of that baby buffalo has recurred—not in actuality—but in my dreams or when I’m sitting alone thinking about the war. I’ll see that animal and I’ll see it again thirty years later or ten minutes later. But I’ll always see it through slightly different perspectives. Sometimes it’ll be the perspective of anger—I felt angry the day it happened—and anger will bring it out of me. Other times it’s a sense of guilt—why should that poor animal have suffered for something it didn’t do? So the repetition is not always exact. That’s how memories keep coming back—the same way as with any writer: Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. All drew repetitively on things they had written about before, but through different angles of vision.


You’ve said that truth is a function of statements we make about the world. Can you talk more about that?


How can there be truth without declarations of truth? It’s a construct of language; the very word “true” is a word. T-R-U-E. And can there be T-R-U-E without the word? Little bits of truth go by, so there goes a hunk, and there goes another chunk, and there goes a piece. The declarations we make about the world are what we mean about things being true or not. So I say that this table is made of wood, and that’s a declaration. Ericka might look under it and see a piece of plastic attached to it. So it’s made partly of wood, but there’s plastic under it, so it’s not made of wood. The truth has been amended.

You could say it’s true when you say, “I love you.” It’s a declaration and it comes out of your mouth. When we say “true,” I guess it has to do with intent—does it feel real to the speaker? But two weeks later, the person says, “I love you,” and it may not be true, because time has passed and feelings change, people change. So the same declaration— exactly the same words—a month later, ten years later, may not be true anymore, even though they’re the same words.

I think language is what we’re looking at when we’re deciding whether something is true or not. There are more complicated examples, such as my Methodist minister back in Worthington saying to me, “Thou shalt not kill,” and developing a whole sermon on it. Two months later, I get to Vietnam and there’s this guy saying, “You better kill or we’ll court-martial your ass.” Can they both be true? Does it depend on the speaker if a thing is true or not? Who uttered it? There were certainly no qualifications made by that minister. He didn’t say, “Thou shalt not kill, unless your country tells you to, or unless it’s a Vietcong soldier.”

And so—when you’re a twenty-one-year-old kid, sent from that church to that war, and you’re told to kill people for causes you don’t believe in, that you think are plainly stupid and ridiculous—where’s truth? And what’s true about yourself? Am I the nice guy I thought I was? You wonder where truth resides, even within yourself. Then you come home and spend the next four decades looking back on it, angry at yourself and feeling guilty. Truth is just really difficult and evasive and fluid.

It reminds me of what we were talking about earlier, concerning absolutism. There’s a current in the world nowadays—it’s always been there, but now it seems more pronounced—a kind of absolute I’m- right-you’re-wrong. Turn on CNN and Fox. It’s right in front of you: “I’m right, you’re wrong. Here’s the truth of things.” There’s no humility. There’s no “Maybe.” There’s no “I think.” It’s just, “Here’s the truth.”

And that kills people: Stop the communists, those people are trying to invade South Vietnam. There’s no room for debate or to look at history—it’s just, “That’s the truth,” a simple-minded, zealous, fanatical, complacent, pious, self-righteousness that eats at somebody who’s been in war and watched people die as a result.


You said in a recent interview that art is cutting through rhetoric and convention to open a trapdoor in your soul. What art has done that for you?


There are so many beautiful stories that have done it for me. It’s a feeling of moving away from obligation as I turn the pages. Here’s a classic, and I’m going to find out why, I think with a little skepticism. And then I begin turning pages and this trapdoor feeling comes and I tumble through it, entranced. To name the books or the stories, you’d have to do an encyclopedia of great writing, because the trapdoors are all different and the fall is further and different in its feeling—a fall of sadness or lightness or happiness, of the miraculous—all kinds of different ways of falling.


When you talk about falling through the trapdoor, do you have that sense of not wanting to leave?


Very much so. You can see the pages dwindling and you know the dream is going to end. When you’re actually dreaming, you don’t have that feeling; you don’t count the pages in your dream, so it feels as if it could go on to eternity. But with a book, when you’re lying in bed and you see the dwindling pages, there’s a sense of growing sadness—much like getting old. You can feel the end approaching. It carries a sense of sadness with it. But it carries a sense of resolution too, so it’s okay.


Is that something you’re conscious of when you’re writing the fictional dream?


I’m conscious of the story coming to a conclusion and that the characters are going to join not just other characters of mine and those I’ve read, but the literal dead and Shakespeare and my dad. There’s a sadness to that, that makes us human. I think it’s probably a sign of dominance, that we’re aware of our mortality. And I feel it in the writing even of short stories, that this is coming to a sad end, even if it’s a cheerful or joyful end.


In the final footnote at the end of each “Evidence” chapter of In the Lake of the Woods, we hear what sounds like an essayist’s voice. Can you discuss those footnotes?


It’s an organizing device, for one thing, where the story of John Wade is being told by someone trying to discover what happened to him and whether he did it or not. This narrator, as the story goes on, is frustrated the way most readers are, and not getting very far, not getting much closer to what really happened.

I wanted his sense of frustration to mirror the reader’s; it was a way of diffusing pure frustration—to say that not just the reader is frustrated by not getting an answer to the mystery, but take it beyond that, to a narrator saying, “Well, at least I can accommodate not knowing by realizing that that’s life for you. We don’t know where we go when we die, and that’s life. Do we go to heaven with halos and harps? We don’t know.” People pretend they know, and this narrator says that religions are constructed to make up answers for what we really don’t know. We’re fooling ourselves, the way John Wade fools himself by building artificial constructs of what we call faith. But, you know, a non-believer is going to say, “I have faith that the table’s going to rise in three seconds, watch.” It may not rise, but for a true believer, that’s not going to do anything to their faith. You can’t debate with faith.

So the device is meant to organize this frustration about not knowing, but also to raise it to a level beyond the story, to the level of the world we live in. The most important things for most of us are unknowable. Did that person love me? You can’t know for a fact; you can’t get into somebody’s head and read their thoughts. All you can go on is evidence, how the person talked and behaved, and even then we’re fooled a lot. Even things about ourselves are unknowable. I wanted the book to go beyond the surface mystery of a woman vanishing and then a husband vanishing, and to reduce the gap of inevitable frustration. That’s part of being alive, and we’re all going to end up where John and Kathy Wade are. We’re all going to vanish from our lives. And where we’re going, we don’t know. It may be a good place, a bad place, or maybe back to nothingness. We don’t know.


How did the three part structure of The Nuclear Age—Fission, Fusion, and Critical Mass—come about?


With that book, I was into actually counting lines and doing a kind of mathematical structure. I wanted almost what you do with poetry—and that was an error on my part. Not that the idea was bad, but it forced me to play a game I didn’t want to play. The aliveness of the novel is killed in part by the too-severe rules I put on myself.

It would have been a better book had I limited the story to the wife, the daughter, and the obsessed guy in his backyard digging a hole. I was too ambitious in my architecture, and the book suffered. It came out of a desire to make rules for myself and be faithful to them. Sometimes that works. I did the same thing with The Things They Carried, where I set up rules: I’m going to write a novel that reads like a memoir, and I’m going to obey all the conventions of memoir. You know, my own name, and dedicating the book to the characters in the book. I wanted to make it feel like you’re reading something that really happened, but then periodically say, “This is a novel, a work of fiction.” Those rules worked. They opened things where the other rules closed things. You never know which way it’s going to go, until you’re ten years done with it and sort of feel the result.

I do like to experiment with setting parameters that will structure story. I’m going to try these parameters and make them new and all mine—as new as I can make them, and then try to be faithful to them. Really good things can come out of rigid parameters, not always failures.


Twenty years passed between If I Die in a Combat Zone and The Things They Carried. How would you differentiate those two books in terms of structure and theme?


If I Die was written as a pretty straightforward war memoir, but not entirely straightforward. I scrambled chronologies. The book opens in the war and circles back to growing up and then goes forward. Most memoirs are written as a straightforward chronology, and I wasn’t interested in that. I didn’t think it would engage the reader. The book is about a character’s experiences in Vietnam, and to get there 150 pages into the book seems to me to kind of cheat. Right away I was moving slightly away from the conventions of memoir. Nonetheless, If I Die is a fairly accurate representation of what I went through in Vietnam; the events occurred more or less as they’re described.

But you can’t put everything in. Should this memory go in or that one? All memoirs go through this selecting, and in the end, memoir is not utterly and absolutely faithful to what occurred. Memory fails. You can remember the feel of a conversation: “Oh, I love you,” Jean said. “Oh, I love you too,” Jack said. You can remember the “love you” stuff, but your memory is going to fail at what was said next, or what was said first. How you got to “I love you” is erased from your memory.

In writing If I Die, I learned distrust of truth. Pick up a newspaper. You’re reading what you take as absolute truth: “Today Richard Nixon blah blah blah.” You read it, but what you’re forgetting is that the reporter had to throw away all these other truths. His editor tells him, “Put in these column inches.” Everything else is thrown away.

You’re getting part of the truth, but is that the truth if you leave stuff out? Where I come from, that’s called a half-truth. And you compound that because of all kinds of other variables.
In a work of history about the Battle of Hastings, say—you know, a history book—you’re writing about the battle, but you can’t put in every thought of every soldier as the battle unfolds. You don’t know every thought of every soldier. So, when you call a thing “true,” how true is the truth? I mean, is part of the truth true? I’m not saying that historians or newspaper writers lie. What I’m saying is, to bill something as the truth is suspect, and I learned that in If I Die. I felt I was reasonably faithful to what had occurred, but I knew I hadn’t held a mirror up to what had actually happened.

It was liberating to think, Well, if you could do that in a memoir, why not write a work of fiction, in which, through fictional strategies, you don’t have to worry about being faithful to the truth? There are different kind of truths you’re after, a feel, an emotional truth, a spiritual and psychological truth not tethered to the world we live in. You can leave that behind and search for truths that remain true despite the real world. People do bad things for love, good things for it. That’s the kind of truth that’s untethered to the world. So, they’re different in that fundamental aspect, these two books.


Could you extend that comparison to Cacciato as well?


Cacciato was born out of a real thing, a desire to run from war. I wanted to get the fuck out, and I fantasized about it during AIT—at Fort Lewis, where Canada’s ninety miles away. I’d be walking around the fort doing all this preparation stuff—you know, target practice and all the crap we did—knowing I could be on a bus and in Canada maybe two hours later. I dreamt about it—I don’t mean during sleep, I mean as I’m doing this stuff. I’d hold it out as a thing: God, if this gets bad enough, I can do it. As I wrote about it in If I Die, I kind of half planned it, thinking, Maybe I’ll leave.

Cacciato was born out of something similar. All through Vietnam, you’re carrying a weapon and war’s all around you and people die and you’re getting wounded. There are these mountains, and what’s to stop you from just walking into them? There’s no authority or MPs in the bush. You’ve got this weapon, so you can get food if you need it by holding people up. What’s keeping you in the war has nothing to do with the stuff that did in the States: authority and borders. What’s keeping you is social pressure. I want my friends to love me. I don’t want to be seen as a deserter. It’s all interior stuff that’s keeping you in this horror, when every impulse is to get out.

I’m not the first person to have written about this. Hemingway wrote about it in A Farewell to Arms and Heller in Catch-22 and Homer in The Illiad. The desire to flee the murder and homicide and mayhem is fundamental. You’d have to be insane to not want to do that. So the story was born out of real stuff, but I wanted to write something that extended this daydream I’d had in AIT, through the story of Cacciato; the soldier has an extended daydream. What if we went after Cacciato, what would have happened next? Would we have made it to Paris? And what would have happened in Paris? Could I have lived with myself walking away from a war?

It was kind of a mirror to what I was thinking during those nightmarish days at Fort Lewis, when I couldn’t quite get myself to imagine crossing the border. I couldn’t quite get that far. But this character in the book, Paul Berlin, could see himself, or at least imagine himself, doing it. It’s a made-up story, but it’s born out of a real thing.


Were you trying to play with truth in Tomcat in Love, with Chippering’s obsession with words and what they mean?


I wasn’t playing with truth exactly, but with the endless hairsplitting and self-justifications of our own bad behaviors. It was written during the Clinton era, so I was kind of modeling it on that Monica Lewinsky stuff, you know—“It wasn’t sex.” You draw these fine lines about whether blowjobs are sex or not and it’s just laughable. It was kind of the world around me, a guy who has no filter over what proper behavior is. It was written about the relentless remorselessness of his sexism. He just couldn’t and wouldn’t stop. He’d go through one demeaning, horrendous happenstance and march into the next one, the way, through history, we’ve all—mankind—done it, you know?

War is bad, but we don’t stop making it. Same with his behavior toward women. He will not learn from the most embarrassing and demeaning things that happen to him. In a way it was playing with truth, because this guy doesn’t recognize truth, even if it’s right in front of him. Other books are largely tragic, in the sense that they’re somber and pretty grim. This book, because of the Clinton thing, made me want to write a comedy and laugh at what is really not very laughable stuff.


When you were talking about the Battle of Hastings and history, I was reminded of July, July and how we have all these different characters from a class. Were you trying to create a history of the class of ’69?


I was trying to create a different take on the same stuff—different people responding to the same central phenomena. There’s a war in progress, and so many people are full of idealism. How do we respond to the same things? And the characters are different aspects of my own personality. Sometimes I’d be Billy going to Winnipeg, and other times I’d be David Todd going to Vietnam and living with the crippling, debilitating, corrosive effects afterward, the way he did. Other times, I’d be Amy, living in the world of a marriage gone sour.

The idealism is crippled for all of these characters in different ways— what they aspire to wasn’t always shattered, but it was diminished for everybody in the book. It’s meant to be, in part, a story of a generation. I was part of that romanticism and naiveté and the high ideals. This is a generation to stop war, hit the streets, and not just change war, but change male-female relations and make them more equal and fonder. Those expectations were ground away by what happened to these people, the way my own idealism was ground away by Vietnam. I became cynical, skeptical of political leadership and my fellow man. It’s not only the political leadership, but also the old lady in Dubuque who’s voting for another war without any thought, but doesn’t want her son in it: “Anybody else’s kid, but not mine,” the way Bush’s two daughters weren’t sent off to war and so on. To see that hypocrisy repeated again and again makes you cynical.


What’s your take on the situation in Libya?


There’s this ambivalence that hits me. A part of me thinks, God, Gadhafi is a tyrant and he’s evil; he tortures people and he should be tossed out on his ear. A lot of people in his own country think so. Then another part of me thinks, Man, we’ve tried that before—doing other people’s work for them, and it doesn’t always turn out the way we want. As in, say, Vietnam.

The noblest of ideals can turn sour and backfire. Nobody appointed the United States policeman of the world and arbiter of conflicts: We’re going to step in and get rid of this tyrant and that tyrant. We could be at war with three quarters of the world right now, for the same reasons. Overthrowing despots. You could be at war everywhere. Is that what we want? Do people have a right to determine their own destinies, or are we supposed to step in?

So I’m ambivalent. Part of me thinks, I don’t like that guy. And part of me thinks, Man, that could be really dangerous. In the end, I don’t trust principle. I don’t trust generalizations. I mean, I have to ask myself basic questions. For example, would I want my kids to go die over there to get rid of that guy? Do I feel that strongly about it? I try to make it personal. Would I want to lose my life for that? Is it worth it? And sometimes the answer is, Yeah, it probably would be. Say, a World War II situation. Other times, I’m not so sure. Say, Vietnam.


I wonder if you could talk about how your stories arise or develop.


It varies by book and by short story. Sometimes I start with a scrap of language that interests me, and I pursue it. There’s a story in The Things They Carried called “How to Tell a True War Story” and the first line is, “This is true.” Period. Three words. And I wrote those words without knowledge of what was true, what the word “this” referred to, and what the word “true” meant. True in what way? Then I wrote the next two sentences: “I had a buddy in Vietnam. His name was Bob Kiley, but everyone called him Rat.” Period. Right away I knew that the first sentence and next two sentences were in contradiction, because I didn’t have a buddy in Vietnam by the name of Bob Kiley, and there was no Rat. That contradiction intrigued me, because, I guess, it was part of the overall structure of the book—playing with what’s true and challenging that word in every way I could.

But then it was an investigation. The sentences that followed were a way of trying—through a story told in bits and pieces, a collage—to get at what I meant in the first sentence, with “This is true.” What does it mean when you say a thing is “true,” and how do the meanings of the word “true” change through story?

Other stories are born in different ways. An image will come into my head—Cacciato was born that way, those mountains I mentioned. It came from a memory of looking at the mountains and saying to a guy, “God, we could just walk into those mountains, and who’s going to stop us? We can get out of here.” I remember the guy laughing and saying, “You’re out of your mind,” you know, and that was the end of it. But the image of looking at those mountains and saying that was the genesis of a novel.

Some of them begin from overheard conversations. One came out of a letter received in the mail from a woman that made me want to write a story about that letter. They start in all kinds of different ways. One of the things about talking about writing, period, is that it’s so reductive. You pull out a thread and talk about that theme or this, and you feel like you haven’t done service to the whole web of it all: language, character, plot, all that stuff.


Northern Lights is told from the close perspective of Perry, who is not in the war. What was the dichotomy like in inhabiting Perry, while developing Harvey?


We started out by talking about how part of me is the guy that stayed home and didn’t want to go, and didn’t go, who wanted a peaceful life and wanted nothing to do with killing anybody and was slightly in awe of and felt estranged from this other personality that went to the war. To this day, I look skeptically at that other part of my personality who went to war, and I don’t feel like that’s the person you’re looking at here.


Is that what you were exploring in Lake of the Woods, with Wade’s attempt to sort of magically remove his participation in the massacre?


I think we all do little tricks to try to erase our flaws, even from ourselves. We’ll fine tune, and we’ll try as much as we can to forget the bad things we’ve done and wish we hadn’t, and magnify those things we’re proud of. I think our country does it, too, and other countries as well, where we erase what we did. We think of America, the great and the good and the beautiful, and we could talk for an eternity about the Constitution and all that. But you could also talk about slavery and American Indians, Jim Crow laws, Hollywood blacklists. Our country, like other countries, erases, through forgetfulness, the reality of what was and probably still is. When John Wade erases his name from the roles after what happened at the My Lai massacre, he’s doing pretty much what everybody in this country is doing as they eat their lunch. They’ve erased My Lai. Nobody thinks about what their country did—how we once had slaves and once exterminated a whole race of people, the Indians. People don’t think about that stuff. It’s erased.

Certain people really erase it. The Fourth of July types in their speeches, for example: “America the great and the honorable and sacrificial,” and most of them are fellow soldiers in Vietnam who’ve erased it all. It’s all nostalgia and, “Boy, we sacrificed ourselves,” and they walk around in their fatigues that don’t fit anymore over their potbellies. They’ve erased how much they hated it and what a sewer of nastiness it all was. And not just the stuff you’d expect—the killing and the daily firefights—just the daily nastiness of it all: beating up on people and racism and knocking kids around and burning down people’s houses and pissing in their wells and all the nastiness that’s part of even a righteous war, much less one that’s utterly without rectitude.

I find it frustrating to meet veterans. I’ll give a reading or a talk and they’ll come up to me and say, “Thank you for your service,” and my heart just goes to my guts. Oh man, they didn’t hear what I said or they’d know I don’t want to be thanked for it. That would be like telling Ted Bundy, “Thank you for your service.” I feel like I did something bad, and they’re saying, “Thank you.” They didn’t hear what I was talking about. You know you’re not the person they should be saying that to. Say it to somebody who believes in it and wants to hear it, but not to this guy.

So you feel that it’s all futile in a way. I’ll think, What the fuck am I doing, writing these books and going to colleges? It feels like it’s all been a waste when you hear somebody say that to you. It’s as though I’ve been inadequate or they’re deaf—probably a mixture of the two. You go home feeling like, Oh man, I’m not doing this again for a long time, because you feel like you can’t do anything. It feels like after all of these years of trying to write as truly and gracefully and beautifully as I can, I’ve gotten nowhere. And I’m not the only person who’s felt that way. That’s what Vonnegut meant in Slaughterhouse-Five, that line about how you might as well write an anti-glacier book as an anti-war book, wars being as easy to stop as glaciers. I met Mailer late in his life and he had the same sort of thing to say, that he didn’t get anywhere. He smiled at me and said, “And you didn’t either.”


How’s writing changed for you since you had your sons, Timmy and Tad?


I’m writing about being an older dad with two little boys, but the fundamentals are the same. As in Vietnam, where I felt this proximity to death—you’re aware of your mortality when you’re in a war, and the same when you’re old and become a parent. What’s going to become of these boys? Thirty years from now, I’m either going to be really old or dead. Life delivers stuff to you—a war or kids—that makes you viscerally aware of what we’re all aware of intellectually—that we’re going to die. We know that, but we erase it. We don’t want to look at it, and we don’t. But certain things put it in your face. I’m trying to write a book now that takes account of my own mortality and the youth of those kids, the realities of it, but that then tries to do what I did with the books in Vietnam, to salvage something from the inevitable and the ugly, the little stories and the works of art that I hope will be carried not just by my boys when I’m gone, but in other hearts as well. The object, I guess, is to leave behind, both for my children and for other readers, something that we all aspire to, something that’s beautiful in one way or another, a story that does something to our hearts that wouldn’t have been done otherwise.

Issue 69: A Conversation with Matthew Dickman


Interview in Willow Springs 69

Works in Willow Springs 68

April 15, 2011




Photo Credit: Academy of American Poets

It's difficult to read a Matthew Dickman poem and not uncover some essential nugget of humanity. His debut collection, Alt-American Poem, charts a wavering world of involved pleasures and intense dramas, where any experience is worth mining, be it a morning trip to die farmers' market or ruminations on suicide.

While acutely aware of grief, his poems never become steeped in it, and his readers never feel bombarded by it. His voice is a companionable one: funny, warm, profane, yet always springing from some place of incense longing to connect with others, in spite of often violent or bewildering circumstances. Dickman's drive for communion is refreshingly proactive, as he searches, sometimes manically, for any semblance of hope he can find, such as in "Slow Dance," when he arrives at a place of sobering clarity:

There is no one to save us
because there is no need to be saved.
I've hurt you. I've loved you. I've mowed
the front yard.

Dickman is also a master of die sensorium. So rich are his poems in sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures, reading them is like eating a full Thanksgiving spread with your best friend, men curling up by the fireplace together to listen to all your favorite records. Tony Hoagland, in his intro to All-American Poem, says, "We turn loose such powers into our culture so that delay can provoke the rest of us into saying everything in our minds. They use the bribery of imagination to convince us of the benefits of liberty." For such art to exist, we are all for fortunate.

Calling Dickman's rise to literary fame a "rags to riches story" wouldn't be entirely accurate (when is it ever?) but one might call it "a rags to nicer rags story." In 2008, when he won the Honickman First Book Prize for All-American Poem, Dickman was thirty-four and working at Whole Foods in Portland, Oregon. That Same Year, All-American Poem won the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' May Sarton Poetry Prize and, in 2009, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Stafford/ Hall Award for Poetry.
Add a New Yorker profile and fellowships from The Fine Arts Work Center in Province town and the Vermont Studio Center, and Dickman seems a literary wunderkind. The man himself lacks all pretension though. During our interview at the Northern Lights Brewery in Spokane, he poured the beer, sporting a faded hoodie, a pair of thirty dollar blue jeans, and some beat up sneakers. He was in town for the 13"' annual Get Lit! festival, and talked with us about growing up in Portland, his relationship with Dorianne Laux, surrendering to influence, the importance of empathy, and what it's like being famous.



Let's start from the beginning. How long has poetry been in your life and how have you nurtured it to where you are today?


I fell in love with an older girl in high school who liked poems, so I started reading poems and writing bad versions of them to give to her in hopes she would make out with me or take her shirt off. I failed miserably at that part of it. But I started reading Anne Sexton and other poets, and Anne Sexton totally blew my mind. I'd never read poems like hers. In high school, we were reading Donne and Shakespeare, which were great, but not very exciting for a high school boy. Sexton led to others-Plath and Lowell and later Wachowski- and my reading life sort of took off, and I continued to write poems as well.

I grew up in a very healthy single-mom home in a pretty shitty neighborhood. No one was really hanging out reading poems. It was kind of a private thing, but it was also a way for me to deal with what was happening in my neighborhood with my friends: violence, drug abuse and things like that, also, sort of,  something to have that  was just mine. When I went into community college to start what ended up being my six-year undergraduate program, I got interested in the Beat poets, and I remember seeing a photo of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and all of these people standing on a corner outside City Lights bookstore. And I thought, This is amazing-a group of men standing together on a corner, and they're not going to hurt anybody. Because, in my neighborhood, if I was walking home and there was a group of men on a corner, you'd want to walk around that corner. Something was going to happen or something had just happened. They certainly weren't talking about beatific, angelic powers. I thought it was amazing that you could be a guy- you could be a man-and you could be humane and compassionate. You could be an artist, but you look at Neal Cassady and he's still wearing jeans and a tight shirt. Not that I could ever pull that off.

I also had my twin brother, Michael, who is a great poet he and I started sharing poems. I ended up finishing school at the University of Oregon. I had gone there because Dorianne Laux taught there. But I never took a class from her. I went there, Michael, me and Dorianne all befriended each other- and then I worked as Dorianne's personal assistant for a while. We would just hang out and talk about poems and write together.


How did you befriend Dorianne Laux? Is she just an approachable lady?


I think all poets are. It's poetry. It's not like being able to approach a cobbler. "God, he makes really great shoes. He really knows how to fix a Birkenstock. Let's not talk to him." My brother and I found out Dorianne was teaching at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and we were living in Portland. It seemed really, really close and we were huge fans. So we called and lied to her. We called the university and said we wanted to talk to Professor Laux about an MFA program that we wanted to attend. We set up a meeting, which my brother and I thought was crazy. We couldn't believe we could just call her office. We got into the only car we’ve ever owned- his station wagon-and cruised down. We went into her office and started talking and, of course, within ten minutes, she could tell we were full of shit, that we were nowhere near approaching an MFA program, but we did talk for an hour about poets we loved, and we wrote her when we got back to Portland and said, "Thank you so much for your time" and she was very sweet and wrote us back. We started writing back and forth.

I always tell people to do that. I have friendships with poets I never would have had if I hadn't reached out in some way. And it was never like, "Hey, I really like your poems, do you think you'd write me a recommendation?" It was always like, "When my brother died, I read this poem of yours for months afterwards." Or, "I'm pretty sure that this poem you wrote made it possible for me to have sex with this woman that I really liked."

So if you reach out to poets and say, "Hey, your work has meant a lot to me; I think it's awesome," most people will write you back. If you connect as human beings, then you might have a mentor relationship, or you might have a friendship relationship, and I think that's really, really important. Sometimes with schools, and different coasts, and different cities, we get into this thing where we feel like we can't reach out, or we're embroiled in our own scene. But poets, even the most "famous," don't get a lot of letters saying, "Your work meant something to me."


Do you consciously bring that passion or drive to be in touch to your poetry?


I think community is really important. I like that people have different communities. I think the danger is when you start only identifying with one community. Then you have things like the East Coast/West Coast rap wars. In my poems, I'm certainly writing out of my own life, and hopefully in some way it's with a heart that tries to be inclusive. I want that in my relationships too. I have friends that barely read poems and I have friends that that's all they do. I have blue-collar friends and I have friends who have earned millions of dollars. Bur I think we all have something in common. I'm also kind of a romantic, I think. And kind of naive.


The immediate audience is always just me. It would be baffling to sit down and write a poem in a way that I would think, Okay, this poem needs to reach this certain person. I would not have the first idea how to do that. In fact, one of my fears is that my second book will come out and people will read it and be like, This is just Matthew talking. Why buy the book?

So I'm my audience, first and foremost, and then, after that, I don't really imagine anybody in particular. I mean, I want my poems to be read by people. I don't think any acting troupe ever rehearses a play for months to not put it on stage. And I love it when people read one of my poems and they're affected by it. In kind of a base way, I'm happy if they're affected, regardless of whether they like it or not. If they just fucking hate it and think it's the worse, it's something. The worst response would be, like, "Eh, it's a thing." I know there are people who like my poems and people who don't, so I feel lucky in that combination.
I used to have rules for myself when I was writing, and ideas about whom I was writing for. However a poem gets written is great, but I used to write poems and do a lot of research first. Like, project-poems. And these poems were in stanzas, and pretty squared off. And then, right after my first year of graduate school, I had what some people refer to as a "mental breakdown." A son of psychic break. I had to take a little time off, and during that time, I decided that I was not going to worry about poems.
I used to worry about them a lot before this happened. If I didn't write within two or three days, I'd imagine I was experiencing this thing that people called "writer's block."

But during this time of getting my brain and my heart right, I decided l wouldn't deal with it. I would read poems when I wanted to, but I wouldn't write any. So I didn't write poems for eight months or so. And then I went back to school and thought, Well, if I can't write poems anymore, poetry will still be part of my life. It has changed my life, it has molded my life. I thought about doing something cool like a lit review, or running a reading series, or something awesome like that.

But I started writing again. Those poems ended up being like my poems in All-American Poem. No stanzas, no idea in my head before sitting down, just sort of an emotional feeling, like I needed to get something out. Like the poem "V." I walked by this girl in Austin who was wearing a shirt that said, "Talk nerdy to me," and I thought it was



Do you see empathy as the ultimate responsibility in what you're writing about?


I think empathy is one of the greatest things besides love. Empathy is in love; it's a part of it. But empathy is the most important thing a human being can do. And I don't ever, when I'm making a poem, set out to be empathetic. But I think the world is so scary, and in my experience it's been, sometimes, so wildly violent, that's my desire- my hope, and where my imagination goes--for there to be at least a strand of empathy there.

You know, making art and experiencing art are both pretty radical, because, in the end, art is about humanization, empathy, and even trust. I think everything can make art-heartbreak, erotic love, familial love, jealousy, headiness. All of these different attributes of human beings can make art. There are only two things that can't make it, and those are meanness and violence. They can't sustain themselves, because they-like some creature from Greek mythology-eat themselves and crap themselves out, eat themselves and crap themselves out. There are no moments of exploration, no moments of epiphany in meanness, like there are even in pettiness. I think that's the only way that things are somehow ruled. You can do so much more out of empathy and love than you can ever accomplish out of meanness or violence.

You can create art looking at chosen things, but you can't create art out of them. I have a friend who was a neo- Nazi for seven or eight years, and we've recently reconnected. He has not been involved in that gang for fourteen years now, but he writes about his experience. His prose about it is moving and terrifying and empathetic and complicated. He could never have done that when he was a neo-Nazi. He could never have created art that could sustain itself out of that.


Your poems never feel like they're excluding anyone. I'm curious who you consider your ideal audience. Do you think about that when you're writing?


The immediate audience is always just me. It would be baffling to sit down and write a poem in a way that I would think, Okay, this poem needs to reach this certain person. I would not have the first idea how to do that. In fact, one of my fears is that my second book will come out and people will read it and be like, This is just Mathew talking. Why buy the book?

So I'm my audience, first and foremost, and then after that, I don't really imagine anybody in particular. I mean, I want my poems to be read by people. I don't think any acting troupe rehearses a play for months to not put it on stage. And I love when people read one of my poems and they're affected by it. In kind of a base way, I'm happy if they're affected, regardless of whether they like it or not. If they just fucking hate it and think its the worse, it's something. The worst response would be, like, "Eh, it's a thing." I know there are people who like my poems and people who don't, so I feel lucky in that combination.

I used to have rules for myself when I was writing, and ideas about whom I was writing for. However a people gets written is great, but I used to write poems and do a lot of research first. Like, project-poems. And these poems were in stanzas, and pretty squared off. And then, right at my first year of graduate school, I had what some people refer to as a "mental breakdown." A sort of psychic break. I had to take a little time off, and during that time, I decided that I was not going to worry about poems.

I used to worry about them a lot before this happened. If I didn't write within two or three days, I'd imagine I was experiencing this thing that people call "writers block." But during this time of getting my brain right and my heart right, I decided I wouldn't deal with it. I would read poems when I wanted to, but I wouldn't write poems for eight months or so. And then I went back to school and thought, Well, if I can't write poems anymore, poetry will still be a part of my life, it has molded my life. I thought about doing something cool like a lit review, or running a reading series, or something awesome like that.

But I started writing again. Those poems ended up being like the poems in All-American Poem. No stanzas, no idea in my head before sitting down, just sort of an emotional feeling, like I needed to get something out. Like the poem in "V." I walked by this girl in Austin who was wearing a shirt that said, "Talk nerdy to me," and thought it was a great shirt. It was was common, but it was also more than that, because I went home and there was something bothering me about the shirt. Something that seemed to be resonating. I sat down and wrote the first couple lines, where this girl walks by wearing this shirt that says, "Blah blah blah." No idea where I was going. It was like colorful building blocks, sort of being stacked one on top of another.



It's interesting to hear you say you were working in stanzas and tighter lines, because, just looking through All-American Poem, there's such freedom in how your poems are constructed. Is that really just a response to your mental state? Like you were one way for a while and you felt constricted by air, and once you broke free it was like, I'm never going back; I just want my lines to do whatever they want?


I felt that way not just in my writing, but in my life. So, before I went to therapy, I felt that there were parts of my life I was constricting and not dealing with, and I was not as free as I could be. Which is not very free at all, for any of us. So I think it was a reaction to that, but it wasn't very conscious. It was only after I had been writing like that for a couple months that I realized, This is actually fucking fun. I'm not suffering over the page as much. I might be suffering about what I'm writing about, but not how I'm writing it. I think you can trace that impulse back to the fact that I was a really poor student. It's like somebody saying, "Well, I don't do essays. Or paragraphs. I don't figure out this thing that's actually very fascinating." I think stanzas, line breaks-you know, these things are interesting and powerful in molding a poem and your experience of a poem. But I'm horrible with line breaks and, for me, when I'm making a poem, I'm interested in the things that stanza breaks and sometimes smart line breaks don't concern themselves with- the experience.


When do you get a sense that a poem is coming to its end?


Sometimes it's just instinct, like an exhale. Sometimes the exhale is short and sometimes it's long and sometimes you can write a poem and it sort of naturally comes to the end and it just feels right. It's like if you ask, "Why are you and this person together?" No one says, "Well, here's the list of things that make us lit together. "You're just like, "It feels good." But, also, I'm a true believer in redraft and rewriting. I once asked Jorie Graham: "How Do you know a poem is finished?" I was particularly interested in a couple of her poems that were sort of listy and went on for a long time, because I'm kind of a listy, blabby, poet too. And that can go on forever. If it's a bad date-how do you stop it so it's a good date? She said, "If you're unsure about the last line, you should write another fifty to a hundred lines."

The instinct in workshops is often to cut stuff, which is natural, but sometimes unhealthy. Her suggestion might be rough if you're writing a ten-line poem, but I think what she's talking about, really, is to go beyond further. You're not going to keep all of it, but you might figure out something about the poem with that kind of writing.

Sometimes, I'm having a rough time with a poem, I'll read it and then turn it over and immediately type it up without looking at it. It's not so much an exercise in memory; the point isn't to read the poem, turn it over, and remember the whole thing. But you read it and you get a close sense of it, and if you try to write it again, new things will come out. What's happening, I think, is that the conscious part of your brain is busy trying to remember the poem, and since you've got your conscious over in the corner being busy, your subconscious can come out and have more freedom. Other things will come up. And then I print it and look at them side by side. Maybe it's a failure. Fine. But maybe, scuff that's come up in this new draft looks better than the old one, or maybe the old one and the new one together makes you think about something else, which could lead to a better ending to the poem or a better beginning.


In an interview on Bookworm with Michael Silverblatt, you were talking about how you'll read someone like Jorie Graham, someone who's sort of heady and cerebral, and you'll think, Why aren't I writing chosen types of poems? But then, when you sit down to the page, it's like, you do what you do. I feel like sometimes we put pressure on ourselves-at least I do-to become like, Oh, how can I be headier? or, How can I shatter the world a little more?


I think we shatter the world in our own way. Jorie Graham Applied to be Jorie Graham. It's no shock that if I applied to be Jorie Graham, and Jorie Graham applied to be Jorie Graham, she would get the job. I might be shortlisted for the work, but I wouldn't get it, which is fine. But I think that's a healthy reaction; it also means you're a reader. You're reading something beyond what you write, which is so intensely important.

When I came back to grad school from my waylay, something I started doing, which I never would have done consciously- I started imitating people I liked. Like, really closely imitating them. I remember reading a ton of Lucille Clifton. She's amazing. And I started writing these Lucille Clifton kind of poems. They were short. I was trying to find these bright, hyper-energetic of crystalline images. A lot of poems were about my own mother's bout with breast cancer. So, you know, sometimes the subjects sort of overlapped. I would do that for a while, and then I'd pick up someone else and start interacting them. I never sent out any of those poems to get published. I was just digging on them. And it was actually more exercise as a reader than as a writer, because in attempting to mimic them, I got closer to the language that I was reading. And even though each one was a type of failure, it was at least a failure in the left field of the same stadium that this person was in. Whoever said you should be cautious of in influence, or afraid of influence, is just wrong. We are influenced by so many things. If you're afraid of influence, then don't ever watch TV, don't read anything, certainly don't talk to anybody- I mean it's a path of insanity to try to
not be influenced.


You're observant of everything and it's like, I see this, I'll Follow it. I feel this, I'll follow it. I smell this, I'll follow it. Is there anywhere you haven't gone that you'd like co go?


The new book I'm working on is called Mayakovsky's Revolver. Vladimir Mayakovsky was a revolutionary Russian poet who shot himself. There are rumors that the KGB killed him, but most of his friends believe he committed suicide. This book is called that partly because its center is a group of elegies for my older brother, who also committed suicide. Some moments are about friends of mine who died that way. I'm delving into a place I never went to in All-American Poem, which is this idea of the Shadow- the Shadow being, obviously, the shadowy, darker part of ourselves. We present ourselves like, I'm not going to kill you. But depending on the circumstances, who knows? We're all nice people. I'm nice, we're all nice together, but we have this shadowy, dark stuff. I wanted to explore some of that in an artistic way. There are a couple poems in the book that come out of almost exact personal experience. Like "An Elegy to Goldfish," about killing my sister's fish, and then chasing her around with a piece of an orange, telling her it was the dead goldfish and making her eat it. And then, another experience when I was younger: telling a very inappropriate joke in what my grandmother would call "mixed company," and that joke being something that had happened to one of the people in the "mixed company." And also, not just particular experiences of the Shadow, but also what's emotionally of the Shadow, like my own failures and things like that. I mean, talk about multitudes: our failures
as well as our great moments of empathy.


Is there anything you consider off-limits, something that doesn't belong in a poem?


If you consider separating areas, like writing a poem, into the spiritual world and the secular world, then in the spiritual world I don't think anything is off-limits. In the secular world, there might be limits. You might have something you wrote about your grandmother or your boyfriend that you don't want to publish while they're alive. Or you might say, "Fuck it, it's my life. I'm going to publish it." Larry Levis once said in a poem, "Out here, I can say anything," and when I heard that, it was this amazing moment about freedom, because we're not free people, except when we're making art. That's the only moment when we're truly free, the only moment when we're the people with the key to the lock. I don't think anything should be cast out as far as subject matter in a poem, though, or how you write a poem, or what you want to include in a poem. I mean, fuck, we're going to die.


Would you talk a little about your whirlwind rise to poetry fame, because it all seemed so fast- winning the American Poetry Review first book prize and being profiled with your brother in the New Yorker. What was that like?


Well, it was weird, because I had been part of this group of poets, and still am-me and my twin brother and my friend Carl and my friend Mike. My brother had this string of successes where he'd gotten poems in American Poetry Review, and I got a rejection. Then he got into the New Yorker, and then he got his book taken by Copper Canyon. And after that, Mike won the Starrett Prize, which is the first book prize for the Pitt Poetry Series.

Carl and I were like, "Well, can’t happen for everybody." You know what I mean? We're close friends, we all share our writing, we've shared it for thirteen years and I sent out to a bunch of book contests and to a couple publishers that were interested though the book I sent them was very different from this one. And they all said no.

Then I sent some more poems off to APR and I got an e-mail, and they were like "Hey, we want to publish these two poems you sent us." I was fucking stoked. Like, American Poetry Review, which is huge. It felt great. In my e-mail back to them, I said, "I've done a couple redrafts on one of the poems that I'd love to send you, and you CU1 publish either version.

A week later, I got a phone message from Eliwbeth Scanlon at APR who's a wonderful lady. She was like, "Hey, this is Elizabeth at APR Give me a call back." I thought she was calling because I e-mailed her the redraft of the poem. I called her and she said, "Matthew, we are your new favorite literary review." And J was like, "Oh, great, yeah. You guys are awesome." And she said, "Do you know why I called you?" And I said, "Yeah,about the redraft I sent you." And she said, "No, you just won the Honickman First Book Prize." I was so shocked, I was like, "Get the fuck out."

I got off the phone and ran down the stairs screaming and called my brother. From the time I found out to three days after-at least three days-I felt on top of the world. And then, after many months, I got the book in the mail. It didn't feel like a real book. It felt like something I'd made at Costco, if Costco had a printing press. A Couple days later, I picked it up again and it looked like a real book. But just because it had my name on it, it didn't seem real to me. A while after that it felt normal, and it was awesome and continues to be awesome.

The New Yorker profile interviews happened right before I got the book in the mail. So the interviews were conducted between finding out I'd won a book prize, and the book being printed. Then it came out, I got an e-mail from a friend of mine- a kind of "big deal" poet in New York- who was like, "So, how does it feel to be famous?" I told her this true story. I was working at Whole Foods in Portland and had recently moved from the dish room- where I'd started as a thirty-four-year-old- to the deli, where I'd just gotten done with this dinner rush of assholes who were really, super rude. That's the sad tiling; I hadn't done customer service in a long time and sort of thought we were really brave, just to be human. But then, working the sandwich/pizza lines at Whole Foods, dealing with people's rudeness was amazing to me. And disheartening. I was sort of broken after the rush, standing there in my uniform, in my apron, covered in pizza sauce and flour, looking out the sliding glass doors at the little lights coming through the Portland sky. The cash registers were right there in my view, and there were all these magazines at the cash registers and the person who always came to switch out the magazines walked into my view. He took the old New Yorker off, and put the new New Yorker on that had this big profile of my brother and me. And then he left. I was at the pizza island, staring at it, thinking, This is life. You know? This is life. You're working the shitty job, paying rent, but then , sometimes, something incredible happens. And so I wrote my friend about this. I was like, This is what it's like to be famous.

Issue 68: A Conversation with Richard Russo


Found in Willow Springs 68

April 17, 2010

Sam Edmonds, Laura Ender, Brendan Lynaugh



Photo Credit: Authors Guild

Richard Russo was born and raised in the “Glove Cities,” Johnstown and Gloversville, New York, which would become the backdrop for many of his novels. In a 2007 interview with NPR, he said, “I’ve always had the distinct feeling that there was a ghost version of myself still living back in that place that’s still so real in my imagination and that I’ve been telling fibs about all this time.” In “High and Dry,” an essay featured in the summer 2010 issue of Granta, Russo revisits his hometown, grappling with the unpleasant history of Gloversville’s leather tanning industry.

Russo is the author of seven novels, including the Pulitzer Prize- winning Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs, and most recently, That Old Cape Magic, as well as a collection of short stories entitled The Whore’s Child. His work has appeared in a variety of periodicals, including The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Esquire. He’s written and co-written screenplays for movies such as the 1998 film Twilight and 2005’s The Ice Harvest.

Russo’s work has been widely lauded for its humor, its sharp storytelling, and its keen portrayal of the world it inhabits. The New York Times called Bridge of Sighs “an improbably neighborly and nonchalant version of the great American novel.” In a review of That Old Cape Magic in the Washington Post, Ron Charles said, “American white guys may have no better ally in the world of fiction than Richard Russo.” We met with Mr. Russo at Spokane’s Davenport Hotel, after attending a panel discussion in which he and several other screenwriters talked about the intricacies of adapting novels into films. We discussed the ups and downs of writing partnerships, damaged characters, humor and suffering, Russo’s doctoral study despair, and how he discovered that he was going to become a fiction writer.


Sam Edmonds

In a 2006 interview, you said that you initially wrote to avoid working construction in college, and then you wrote to avoid doing scholarly research. Did this type of avoidance get you where you are today?

Richard Russo

I did what a lot of people who love literature do. You become an English major, and you think what a great deal this is. You spend your time reading great books, you write about them a little bit, it enriches your life, and if you become a teacher, you can make a decent enough living out of it. So you do a BA, and then you do an MA, and the MA is even more fun, because you get to concentrate. If you liked Huckleberry Finn, for example, then chances are pretty good that you’re going to be able to take courses where you get to read Pudd’nhead Wilson and all the other good Twain stuff; you get to go deeper, and the more of it you read, the better rounded you become as a human being and certainly as a reader and teacher. But to have the kind of career that a lot of people in that circumstance want—why not do the PhD? And then you can become, instead of a high school teacher, a professor. There’s a kind of allure to becoming a professor, but when you get into the PhD program, you realize that you’re not really reading books anymore; you’re reading books about books. You’re reading scholarship. And you keep going, because you’ve started, and you don’t want to stop once you’ve started something. But every year in the PhD program I became more unhappy. I had started down a road that was only likely to get worse. I was looking at my professors at the University of Arizona, the people in literature, and seeing how difficult it was for them to find ever more and more obscure things to write about. You couldn’t just teach the books you loved, because you would never get tenure that way, and so I found myself starting down this road toward scholarship regarding second- and third-ranked writers and some of their most obscure books. I found that I would have to buy that franchise. I would be serving that food, and you’ve got to defend it against other franchises, or other people who want into your franchise. So you become the Twain scholar or whatever. By the time I’d finished my course work and was starting to write my dissertation, I was in a pit of despair. I realized I’d made a terrible mistake that was going to affect and infect the rest of my life. I could see absolutely no way out of it, until I discovered creative writing. I discovered that, in doing all of that reading, I was studying to be a writer. Creative writing gave me another avenue, and it saved my life.

Brendan Lynaugh

So studying literature, as opposed to creative writing, helped you become a writer?


Yes, especially the kind of reading I was doing. A lot of my colleagues, who were in the MFA program in fiction writing, were reading contemporary stuff. I don’t want to call it a literary dead end, but it certainly wasn’t mainstream. They were reading William Gaddis, Stanley Elkin, Vonnegut, William Gass, John Hawkes, all the biggest names in metafictional, experimental writing, and they were all weaned on it. That would not have been good for me, because as great as those writers were at what they did, I was, without knowing it, going to be writing 20th century or 19th century novels. That’s the kind of writer I was going to be. I wasn’t interested in metafictional games, and it didn’t matter to me how great that stuff was, whereas, when I realized that I was going to have to start reading contemporaries who were doing what I wanted to do, I discovered Richard Yates and John Cheever, and all those people who are much more traditional and had a sensibility closer to my own. I was the kind of writer who was informed by Dickens, the Brontës, and Twain, all of whom were clearly more important in terms of the writer I ultimately became than if I’d been taking contemporary fiction courses in writers who, despite their brilliance, didn’t have much to say to me.


You’ve done a lot of screenwriting in addition to novels and short stories. Has screenwriting enriched your fiction?


When I first started writing screenplays, I had some writer friends who said, “Oh, do you really dare to do that? Aren’t you afraid?” They said they would be afraid of all sorts of things—that I would be corrupted by film, corrupted by the Hollywood lifestyle. When I wrote my first script, a couple of friends said, “Are you going to move to LA?” As soon as you mention that kind of work, there’s an aura about the whole thing—“Oh, Russo’s sold out,” as if I’d give up novel writing, move to LA, drive a Porsche, and do nothing but take meetings. Needless to say, none of that happened.

The other thing people worry about, when they worry about novelists working in Hollywood, is that the novels you write after writing screenplays will become more like screenplays and less like novels, that they’ll become dialogue-heavy, take place in time present, that the amount of fictional time that will take place in order for the story to unfold will get smaller, that everything will shrink. They say, “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to become a different kind of writer?” And strangely enough, writing screenplays plays right into my strengths, because most screenplays are about dialogue, which comes easiest for me. The other thing about screenplays—they’re action heavy. You put characters in motion and let them talk and behave in ways that reveal their inner life, and those are the two things that, for me, are easiest to do. What happens when I’ve been working on a screenplay for a while, though, especially if I do a couple of screenplays, is that it almost feels like I’m cheating. Because I’m not required to do the things that are, for me, the most difficult. I’ve always thought that I have a better ear than eye, and when I’m writing badly, it’s like I’m taking dictation. Somebody says something, somebody responds, somebody says something, somebody responds. When I’m writing badly, I’m often writing very quickly, and what’s happening is that my ear’s taking dictation, and my eye’s forgetting to see the world out there. I have to remind myself, Slow down, slow down, because if you’re missing things with your eye while your ear is having a real good time, and if you’re just moving along at that great pace, you’re going to miss important props in a story, important objects. After I’ve written a couple screenplays, when I get back to writing novels, I feel like I’ve been working with a hammer and a wrench, maybe a socket wrench, and when I start on a novel again, it’s like I take out my old tool box. I’ve only been using a couple of tools, and then I flip it up and look at all those things in there that you use when you write a novel; it’s good to be able to use all those tools again.

I started writing screenplays right after Nobody’s Fool came out. I worked with Robert Benton on the film version while I was writing Straight Man. The two novels that came after that were Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs, both of which were bigger, more expansive, more interior. I never spent as much time as I did in Bridge of Sighs describing the physical world; I just luxuriated in all the physical objects, from the trunk that Lucy gets stuck in, to the items on the shelf of that store, and how they were placed, and how the store was going to be run. All of that stuff became enormously important, because I’m not a particularly interior writer. I don’t spend an enormous amount of time in my character’s heads. I like to know who they are as a result of what they say and what they do. And yet, in those two books, I probably spent more time in my characters’ heads than I had in any of my other books. I trace that back to screenwriting, because I had those things denied. So when I came back to novel writing, I was able to embrace them in a way that I hadn’t before, and make them part of my repertoire.


How is the process of writing a screenplay different from writing a novel?


Screenplay writing is much more collaborative, although I enjoy collaborating with the director much more than collaborating with other writers. There are two times that I’ve worked with another writer on a screenplay, once with a Colby colleague of mine at the time, Jim Boyland, who was interested in learning the form, had an idea. So I said, “Well, let’s sit down and we’ll write the first act of a screenplay.” We wrote a couple drafts and sent it out to a few people, and there wasn’t an awful lot of enthusiasm about it. Some liked it, some didn’t, and some thought it would be difficult to get made. But at any rate, Jim was having a wonderful time, and that’s the kind of person he is, very collaborative, and he enjoyed the process. Plus, he was learning.

So I worked with him on that, and then I collaborated with Robert Benton on Nobody’s Fool, but it wasn’t so much a collaboration. He was unable to work on it, because it was snowing and he was shooting every day and he was getting further and further behind, so he would send me a set of instructions, and I would rewrite a scene. After that, we wrote a script together called Twilight. I’d send him twenty pages worth of scenes, and he’d write back and revise what I’d written, and then I’d go back and revise what he’d written, and then for a while he would take over the story and write for twenty pages or so and send me what he’d written, and I would busily change everything he’d done and send it back to him. When we got about a hundred pages into this detective movie, neither of us knew who had committed the murder, and we were twenty pages from the end of the script. So we went backward and just decided, All right, here’s the guy who committed the murder. All right, so why?

And then we worked backward and rewrote the screenplay the same way. Even as I tell that story, it’s astonishing to me that the movie could possibly have been made working in that lunatic way, and I think that Benton is a genuine collaborator. He loves to collaborate with another writer. He loves to collaborate with the actors. He even enjoys talking with producers at the beginning stages of things. How are we going to cast this, where are we going to shoot it? For Benton, making a movie is like inventing a family who you’re going to live with for a long time; he loves every aspect of it.

I had been a novelist for so long that the actual rhythm of writing twenty pages and sending it off to him and waiting for a couple of weeks for him to write back drove me crazy. To be honest, I also didn’t want to share. I was having a good time. It wasn’t that I didn’t want his opinion, but I would have rather written the whole thing start to finish and had him revise the whole thing start to finish. It was like reducing a three year film school program into five months, because he’s such a brilliant writer and director. But after learning what I learned, I thought to myself, I don’t think I want to collaborate in quite that way again.

Laura Ender

Is it difficult for you when actors become part of the collaboration? Do you trust them?


It depends on the actor. Strangely enough, sometimes the actors with smaller roles are more problematic. One of the reasons I love to stay away from the set and rehearsals is that the actors, especially good actors in smaller roles, always lobby for more lines. They wanted to do the movie, but they get into the movie, and then if the writer is on set or there in rehearsals, they’re always saying, “You know, I really love my character, but I feel like I need just a few more lines….” They’re always working behind the director’s back. The director doesn’t want to hear any of that. If the script is being rewritten at the time, it’s to the director’s specifications, not the actors’.

Some actors will want to subtract from another character’s lines. And other actors are curious—Paul Newman’s a perfect example of this. When I was on set for Nobody’s Fool, Paul was the soul of generosity, but he was also the soul of curiosity. When I went to the set the first time, he took me aside. He didn’t want the director there, didn’t want anybody there, and he started rifling questions at me: “When Sully’s alone in his truck, what kind of music does he listen to?” He had a whole list of questions, and it was so deeply embarrassing and humiliating, because I didn’t really have any answers for him. I had no idea what kind of music Sully would listen to. Everything I knew about that guy was in the book, and it wasn’t like there were outtakes that I could sweep up from the floor. But he was voraciously looking for anything that would give him more of a handle on who this character was. When I met him, he was already limping, and I almost asked him if he’d hurt himself, until I realized he was in my character, Sully, who’d broken his knee. Paul limped during that entire shoot, on and off camera. He was always looking for something to anchor his character to—he wasn’t looking for dialogue. It was nothing that was ever going to be on the screen, except in a close-up on his face.

We had a pivotal scene, where Sully and his son are sitting in a truck, and his son has asked him, basically, why he left him and his mother. Sully’s explanation to his son in the script was a page and a half, Sully talking about the kind of man his father was, the kind of woman his mother was, how much his father drank, how difficult it was for his mother, who tried to step between his father and him. It was a writer’s explanation of a character that Paul felt very uncomfortable, in character, giving to his son. So he kept asking us to cut. And I would cut and cut, and it was still too much. We finally got it down to a third of the size it was. It became a wonderful scene. In my script, I had written about one particular night where Sully’s father had just beaten the crap out of his mother, and Sully found her on the floor and she was bleeding. Paul took all of that out and I think kept just one or two lines. He says “Your grandfather… your grandfather…” And he pauses, and just looks off, and then says something like, “And of course your grandmother, she was just a little bit of a woman. He could make her fly.” That was it. “He could make her fly.” All the rest of it, he cut out. Everything that man had ever done to that woman was written on his face. We didn’t need any details. He just had to know what had happened to him as a young man, and all the explanation in the world wasn’t going to get him there, wasn’t going to get the movie there. He just needed a little suggestion and a metaphor, and then let all the viewers see his face and see that woman, as the result of a punch, fly across the room.


You brought up Sully’s problem with his knee. A lot of your protagonists seem to have disabilities—in Straight Man, Hank has trouble peeing from the onset, and in That Old Cape Magic, the protagonist hears voices. How purposefully do you make the choice to limit or disable your characters, and how do these disabilities help the novel?


Damage plays a role, and not just with the main characters. Maybe it has something to do with my sense that, that’s just human nature. We all get damaged in some way or other, and if you can make that damage seem real, we relate to it in ways that run below the surface.

In the The Risk Pool, there’s a scene that’s as graphically violent as anything I’ve ever written, a scene in which father and son have gone fishing, way back up the river, and Sam Hall, who can’t admit to his son that he has no idea how to fish, he goes up around the bend and immediately has a nest of monofilament on his line. He can’t cast anymore because it’s tangled. The first thing he does when he’s trying to untangle the line is snag his own thumb with a barbed hook, and he spends the rest of his time trying to get the fish hook out of his thumb, while his son and the other guy are fishing. Sam succeeds only in driving it deeper into his thumb as he’s trying to maneuver it out. At the end of the scene, his son, who’s ten years old, and his best friend, Wussy, come walking back up the stream, and here’s Sam sitting on the rock, still connected to his rod, and Wussy just takes one look at him, shakes his head, comes over, and says, “I need my rod back now,” and he bites off the monofilament, like Sam hasn’t figured out that that’s the obvious thing to do, because he doesn’t have any pliers. He bites off the line, takes his rod and reel back, and Sam has to follow. So all of this takes place over a short period of time, but as they walk out of the woods and get back to the car, Sam, by this point, is enraged. He wanted to take his son fishing and everything has gone wrong. As he’s driving down the road, the monofilament line, which is still hanging out of his thumb, is dancing in the breeze, and at one point they have to pull over. That’s when the car breaks down. Sam’s trying to do something with the length of monofilament still dangling, and he just can’t take it anymore. He wraps it around his finger, pulls, and a chunk of his thumb comes out. I remember the first time I read that to an audience. Everybody in the place went “Gasp!” and it taught me a lesson. We’re living in a world in which we’re seeing people blown apart, where violence gets amplified to these epic, often melodramatic proportions. But if you can get somebody to feel a small pain that they have felt, that doesn’t feel small at the time, and get them to relive that, the rewards are astonishing. I even disable dogs. In Nobody’s Fool, I give a dog a stroke. In Straight Man, Hank’s trying to pass a stone. The moments of pain come in small packages, but they can be enormously, dramatically rewarding. We’ve all had the sliver that works its way under the skin and then comes out later, and the way we worry about it.


That thumb in The Risk Pool gets injured over and over. Is the thumb symbolic? How does the character’s pain work within the novel?


Every now and then when you’re writing a book you realize you’ve done something, and it works, and you think, All right, how can I use this again? I’ve always believed, as it’s possible, in what I call the rule of threes. When something really works, it’s good to use it three times. The first time it just happens, the second time it seems to pivot a little bit, and the third time brings it home. It becomes something other than the thing. The first time it’s just a thumb, Sam’s thumb and Sam’s pain. The second time, as I recall, it’s the kid trying to understand about pain, saying, How can you do that, doesn’t it hurt? And Sam trying to explain to him, that’s not the point. It’s learning to deal with it. I think when you stumble on something in the real world, you try to use it two or three times, just to see how much you can get out of it and how you can transform it from something that’s literal into something that might be symbolic, or carry a little bit more weight than its literal weight.


All your books are funny. When you go into a book, do you think, I’m going to make this funny, or does it just happen?


I think my least funny book is almost certainly Bridge of Sighs, and I don’t think I went into that thinking it was going to be less funny than my other books. If I thought it was going to be less funny, I’m not sure I would have written it, because I’m basically a comic writer. The material itself has to dictate how many laughs there are going to be. Bridge of Sighs is a book about despair, at least on some level. Lucy Lynch starts that book locked in a trunk, and lives the rest of his life kind of locked in the trunk of Thomaston, and has done a terrible thing, really, as regards his wife. He has been throwing away the letters that Bobby has been sending them, and pretending that they are going to Venice, when he knows perfectly well that they’re not. When he almost makes it across that Bridge of Sighs when he goes into his wife’s painting and he’s trying to make it all the way across the bridge into the darkness, that’s as dark a place as I’ve ever been in a book. His suffering is so intense there. If I could have seen anything humorous in that, I’m not above making a joke, as you know.

I think the best humor is related in some ways to suffering. Most of the time, if you think about them in adjacent rooms, the door adjoining suffering and humor is very often wide open, but as we get closer and closer to suffering, the doorway adjoining the rooms gets smaller and smaller, because you just can’t stand it otherwise. Or you just seem to be making bad jokes, or cruel jokes, at somebody’s expense. So it has something to do with distance, too.

Straight Man was the easiest of my books to write and the funniest. Part of the reason it was the funniest was that it was the easiest. There’s Hank suffering and trying to pass that stone, and there’s also a kind of suffering of middle age, he may be losing his wife, there’s something going on with his daughter. It’s not like there’s nothing at stake, but those stories of academic absurdity I had been storing for years—it had been almost ten years since I walked around at Penn State Altoona. I walked around a pond with the dean. Classes were to start in three or four days. He still didn’t have his budget, and he couldn’t hire his adjunct teachers. And this real-life guy said to me, “Same every year. What am I gonna do, kill a duck a day until they give me my budget?” And of course he meant it figuratively, but ten years later I figured what to do with that, and as soon as I get to make it literal, as you often do with things, you sometimes have a pretty good joke. And then, suddenly, all of the absurdity of my life as an academic gushed out. But by that time, I was out of a couple of horrible jobs that I’d had and into a good one, and I had distance on it, and I could do it without one-upsmanship; I wasn’t writing that book out of revenge. I didn’t want to do any “gotcha,” or get even with any academics. I could do it from, I hoped, a good spirit. Distance gives you the ability to do that, I think. But it’s the material itself that tells you in terms of tone just how funny it’s likely to be.


When you say it all came gushing out, does that also refer to plot? Was it easy to map the book out?


Part of a fiction writer’s job is to make it look like he knew what he was doing right from the start. When you read a novel like Straight Man, and you think, Boy, how did this get orchestrated this way? part of what you’re thinking is, How did this writer keep all of that in his mind and know exactly the time to reveal this and withhold that, and when do we bring in the woodwinds? But what happens is that you just do it, and you make all kinds of mistakes, and you don’t have to do it right the first time. It’s not like a stand-up comedian who has to go in front of an audience and get the joke right in the first telling. Really you have years. It took me five years to make it look like all the ducks were lined up facing the same direction, like I knew what I was doing from the start, whereas often what was happening was I would look at it and I’d say, “All right, we’ve gone too long here; we haven’t seen Tony Camilia in a while, and Tony is always good for a laugh.” I had him in another scene fifty pages later, but thought, Let’s move him down here, because he’ll break up this scene. We’ve seen these two characters too often, or I need to separate this peeing scene from that peeing scene. So that might have been in draft six, that I saw that this works better over here, and that over there, and you get things to line up, and then hopefully, at the very end it looks like you knew what you were doing from the start.


Did you do that kind of juggling with any of your other books?


Every single one. Straight Man was the easiest to write and Bridge of Sighs was the most difficult, partly because it was so dark, but I’d also made a terrible mistake right at the start. I’d told Lucy’s story straight through. It began with Lucy about to become sixty, planning his trip with his wife, Sarah, to Venice, and then telling the story of his life, and it was interrupted by all these flashbacks into his youth with his best friend, Bobby. I got to a point, about 250 pages into it, where I just couldn’t seem to force his story any further, and I felt trapped inside Lucy’s voice, because he’s not a reliable narrator. He doesn’t know the truth of the story he’s telling. I thought at that point that it would be kind of interesting to have Bobby’s take on all of this, so I started in, and I introduced Noonan. On page 251 Noonan is in Venice, waiting for his agent to come along. They’re going to talk about his upcoming show in New York, and whether he’s going to go to New York, and how long he’ll have to stay there, and he has not been feeling well, so he’ll go to the clinic. I set up various meetings with his agent, and I thought, All right, so he’ll have to go to New York or not go to New York. That’ll be the conclusion, but then we’ll go back and revisit many of those scenes that we saw through Lucy. Bobby’s going to see them differently, and then we’ll understand Lucy’s narrative. I wrote Noonan’s section start to finish, so now I’m up to 500 and some pages, and they’re both in love with the same woman. Well, how fair is it to have them both in love with the same woman—who would see things differently than both of them? You have to give her a say. So all right, now Sarah gets the third part, and so page 551 begins Sarah’s narrative. And now we’ve revisited some of these things three times.

I got up to about page 700, and I seemed to have three different novels. I thought I was suddenly in Lawrence Durell territory, where I was writing a trilogy or something, and I sent the whole thing off to my agent. I said, “I think I might be working on a trilogy, but if so, I don’t have an ending to any of them. I have three novels with no ending. Am I crazy?” I went to New York shortly after that, and we had a little walk around the park, as we often do, and he said “No. This is one book, but you can’t structure it this way. You have to go back and forth between all three narrators. You can’t finish one story before going on to another. You have go back and forth between past and present, and you’re going to have to withhold certain information that was revealed too soon, because it’s going to mess things up, and basically what you have to do is a juggling act, going back and forth, past and present, narrator to narrator.” I spent about an hour on our walk that day explaining to him why that could not be done, and by the time I finished it, of course I realized it could be done. By explaining to him how it couldn’t be, it got me thinking how it could be, and then I went and finished the book. Everything about that book ended up in a different place, almost, than where it was originally. I will always think of Nat as saving that novel, because I really was at a loss. I was completely up a stump. I didn’t know what happened next or how to go about it.


It seems like in the past there was more of a working relationship between writers and editors, going back and forth, and now maybe that’s been replaced by agents.


I think it’s true—the editor/writer, agent/writer relationship has changed since I broke in. I think that, number one, there are fewer old-school editors around. My editor puts pen to paper. No sentence of mine goes unchallenged, and he’s a wonderful editor, a wonderful line editor, but there are not that many around anymore, and there are a lot of acquiring editors who will take a book and then turn it over to a copy editor, and that’s pretty much it. There are so many editors who will say, “I can sell this. I’ll send it to the copy editor and we’ll sell it,” which has meant that a lot of agents have, in the last twenty years, begun to take on some of the traditional roles of the editor. They’ll get a book that’s good, but it’s not quite there, and they’re not going to want to send it off to the kind of editor who can’t fix it, and so helping to fix it becomes part of what an agent does now, probably more so than twenty years ago.


How do you choose a point of view for a story? I’m thinking about Empire Falls and the multiple third person points of view, some of which are in the present tense, some of which are in the past.


I think it was one of those things I probably just did and thought about later. I can tell you why it works now, years after the fact, but at the time it just seemed, instinctively, like the right thing to do. The present tense is the most immediate, which is why it works so well in film, and why films are almost always written as, “He does, he says,” not, “He said.” It’s happening now.

I think time changes. When you’re young, the clock goes slower, and everything seems to be happening in present tense, because you don’t have that much past tense in your life. In Empire Falls, I was convinced that the point of view was right by the time we get to the final scene where John Voss comes in. That section begins with Tic speculating about the nature of time. Do things happen fast or slow? That’s what she’s trying to figure out as she sees John Voss coming across the parking lot. When I started writing that, I thought, Well, that’s kind of what her point of view is all about. It slows the clock down, it makes everything happen in a kind of teenage time, as opposed to her father’s time. As soon as we go to Miles’ time, everything goes much faster in third person and in past tense.


In the story, “The Whore’s Child,” Sister Ursula is in a fiction workshop, but she’s writing nonfiction. Have you ever considered writing nonfiction?


I just finished a long nonfiction piece for Granta. I’ve done a little bit of nonfiction before, but never anything as sustained as this. And it was a new experience. It’s a piece about the town I grew up in, Gloversville, New York, and it’s odd because I’ve been writing about that town throughout my career. North Bath, Mohawk, Thomaston, even Empire Falls, although the novel is set in Maine, those are all towns based on my hometown. In those, I was able to start there and just create a world, but re-imagine the geography, do all of that fictive stuff. When I didn’t know something, I made it up, but in this piece I had to call it Gloversville, and I realized I had a responsibility not to the kind of truth that I normally strive for, but to the literal truth of real people’s lives. It made me careful, cautious; it made me absolutely want to get things as right as I could, because I was writing about people’s lives, people who had real names and had experienced what I was writing about secondhand. I had to get it literally right, making sure that their names were spelled correctly, making sure that I understood that part of this was about the kind of lives, the really dangerous lives, that people lived working in the tanneries where I grew up. Those machines were deadly. I was writing about people who had lost arms up to the elbow, hands, thumbs, in these machines, as a result of doing what, back in the industry at the time, was piece work. Everybody got paid by the square foot of stuff they shoved through the machines. The machines had safety devices, which these men took off, because they were being paid by the square foot, and the safety devices slowed them down. They could not feed their family with the safety devices on, and they’d take them off, and work until they sliced something off.

I had been hearing about these machines all my life, but I found out that I didn’t actually know what a staking machine was or how it worked. I just knew it was real goddamn dangerous. I talked with my aunts and a couple of cousins who’d been in the mills and knew how all of this worked, because I couldn’t afford to be cavalier about it. I mean, if people have lost limbs in these things, I could at least figure out how they worked and where the danger was, and what it felt like to be doing this kind of job, what it felt like to disable a machine in order to feed your family, and what it’s like to know that the foreman, the guy behind you, turns his back while you disable your machine. Because he fully understands what you’re going to do and why, and he’ll turn his back so that he’s not a witness to you doing it. That stuff was important, and I had to get it as close to right as I could. So it was different—I should probably be doing that sort of stuff in my fiction, but it was suddenly very important to me to get that stuff right.


Are there other ways it was different?


A lot of the mechanics of storytelling remain the same. You still make a decision, for instance, about what to include, because so much of this is about the dangerous work that went on in the tanneries, and the way that people were maimed and the way they were poisoned and later died of various exotic cancers. Because of all of the details, you find yourself realizing that you cannot put all of those things in the same section of the piece. In order for readers not to turn away, you have to take them out of that world and into a different world for a time, so that when they go back to it, they’re not so shocked that they’re tempted to skip through the pages to get to the part where they’re not in that horrible world anymore. You want to structure the piece like you would a story. You want the rhythms of fiction, even though you’re writing nonfiction. I would find ways to go into that world and come out, go back into it again, come out, so you get the shock, you get that sense that it bends both ways. Entering. Leaving. Entering. Leaving. It was almost like a gothic novel or a gothic movie, where you have those portions that are shot in the daytime—and you know, the very fact that it’s shot in the daytime, that nothing terrible is going to happen. But then you look at the sun going down on the horizon, and you think, “Oh shit, here we go.” You know the werewolf or the vampire is out. I found myself shaping this nonfiction in the way I would want it to work if it were a story. Even though it wasn’t fiction, I wanted it to read like fiction, to have the rhythms of fiction. I would ask myself a lot of the same questions. Too much here, too many examples? Break it off? Do it differently, does it work better here, does it work better there?


How did you handle dialogue?


There isn’t an awful lot of dialogue in this piece, and a lot of it comes from just a couple of characters, a couple of real life people. I was pretty scrupulous about making sure that I didn’t say anything that they didn’t say, either literally or figuratively. I wanted to make sure I caught the essence of what they were saying. But I did play with their speech patterns, in some cases, because I didn’t want to do dialect that would make them look stupid. I didn’t want readers to think that because people did these jobs that their experience was somehow crippled by their inability to describe that experience in language that the reader’s used to. But I was always striving to catch the emotion behind the dialogue. Is this a person feeling rage, feeling fear? I tried to use those fictional techniques, like, “He cannot meet my eye,” or, “He looks off in the distance,” or “It takes him a while to continue,” that same sort of attribution that you’d make in a story. You set it up the same way on the page.


In the collection, The Whore’s Child, the story “The Farther You Go,” has a lot of similarities to the novel Straight Man.


That was the short story that Straight Man grew out of. I wrote that first, came through the conclusion, and I liked the character. I put it aside for a while and then went back and I could not surrender.


Do novels often come out of shorter pieces?


More often, shorter pieces come out of novels. The Sister Ursula story in The Whore’s Child came out of Straight Man. Sister Ursula was once one of Hank’s students. He’s got the kid that writes the misogynistic ripper stories, and the girl who writes these flighty symbolic pieces, and Sister Ursula was there writing her story about her childhood. But it was so dark. I looked at it, and my editor looked at it, and Sister Ursula’s story is so dark that it just didn’t fit with the rest of the novel, so we yanked it out, and the story “Linwood Heart,” the final story in The Whore’s Child, the boy in that story was Miles Roby. I took all of that out of the novel because it was slowing the story down, and gave him a new name and some other things to do. So, more often, I’ll realize that there’s something really good happening in a novel, except it doesn’t belong there, and I’ll excise it and come back at it as a short story later.


What kind of truth are you going for in your fiction?


Well, when you reduce something it always comes out sounding… reduced. But I think it’s the truth of the human heart. It’s when Miles Roby in Empire Falls, after fighting with himself throughout his life, realizes that being a father, and a good father, to Tic, and being an adult in Empire Falls, is better than being a child, because his mother wanted him to have a different life, and he’s always in some way or other, because of her sacrifices, felt that he’s failed her and failed himself, and has always tried to escape. That moment when he realizes, after almost losing Tic, that everything he wants is right there, that’s the truth of his heart. It should have probably been obvious to him and to everybody, but it wasn’t, and he struggled through 700 pages or so to arrive at a conclusion. It’s the truth of his own heart. It’s the truth of his own experience of life.

At the end of a book, I always want to meet at a kind of crossroads where there’s an understanding. I don’t want to say a strictly intellectual understanding, but the character arrives at someplace that’s different. But for the reader, I want there to be real emotion to that. I want the reader not just to understand something, but to be profoundly moved. Take Bridge of Sighs. He begins the novel by saying, “We’re going to Venice. My wife and I. We will be going to Venice. We are going to visit our old friend Bobby. I’ve never traveled, but we’re going to go.” At the beginning of the book, he’s lying. At the end of the book, the last line is, “We will go.” And this time we believe him. Because that enormous journey he’s taken is from one sentence to the same sentence. A thousand pages later. He returns to his initial statement, except this time it’s true. There’s an element of human understanding in it, but I’m hoping that when that moment strikes the character, it hits us as readers not in the head, but in the heart.

Issue 66: A Conversation with Jess Walter


Interview in Willow Springs 66

Works in Willow Springs 67 and 58

February 20 & March 16 , 2010

Gabe Ehrnwald, Samuel Ligon, Brendan Lynaugh, and Shawn Vestal



Photo Credit:

JESS WALTER FOLLOWED A CONVOLUTED PATH into the literary mainstream: He was a newspaper reporter who became a nonfiction author who became a ghostwriter who became a mystery novelist who became a literary novelist who also writes screenplays. But no matter the genre,  Walter’s work is stamped with vivid watermarks—prose that blends rapid-fire rants with unerring rhythm, a dark humor that has been called “standup tragedy,” an engagement with the political and social, and a devotion to storytelling. “The idea that plot is this ugly, brutish thing that we have to drape our beauty over is infuriating,” he says, “because to me, plot is this beautiful, elegant shape.”  

His essays, short fiction, criticism, and journalism have appeared in Details, Playboy, Willow Springs, Newsweek, the Washington Post, the  Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere. His nonfiction book,  Every Knee Shall Bow, was a finalist for the PEN Center West literary nonfiction award in 1996. His novel Citizen Vince won a 2006 Edgar  Allan Poe award, and his following novel, The Zero, was a finalist for the  2006 National Book Award. 

Walter started his career writing for his hometown newspaper, the Spokesman-Review, where he helped cover the standoff between Randy  Weaver and federal agents at Ruby Ridge, in North Idaho—work that eventually led to the publication of Every Knee Shall Bow in 1996. His first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, came out in 2001, followed by The Land of the Blind, Citizen Vince, The Zero, and most recently, The Financial  Lives of the Poets, which Time magazine called “a small masterpiece, a  Wodehouse-level comic performance. But it’s also a deceptively amusing  survey of the post-Fannie-and-Freddie American landscape, with a mother lode of bitter truths lying right below its perfect, manicured  lawns.”  

We spoke with Walter over two meetings at Spokane’s Davenport  Hotel, which features prominently in The Land of the Blind. “It’s taken  me a long time,” Walter said, “to arrive at a place where I feel like I’m  doing the work I set out to do.” 


How has your writing career evolved or developed since your start as a journalist? 


It’s evolved accidentally, the way natural selection works in making platypuses. If you decided to become a literary writer by going into journalism and then ghostwriting and then writing mysteries, that’s the worst path you could take. I like to say I’ve taken the service entrance into literary fiction. 

I started at the newspaper in 1986 as a junior in college. When Ruby Ridge happened in 1992, I started sending out proposals right away and I took sabbaticals from the newspaper to work on that book. Later, my publisher asked if I wanted to help write Chris Darden’s book on the  O.J. Simpson trial. I was compelled by Darden’s Shakespearean angst. I teased him about it later, and called him “Black Hamlet” because I  didn’t understand what he was so anxious about. 

 My publisher at the time said, “Would you be interested in helping  him write his book?” In my naiveté, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as ghostwriting. I knew it existed, but I didn’t realize it was an industry, so when she asked me to help him, I just assumed we were going to write it together. We sat down to negotiate, and I didn’t have an agent at the time. I sat across from his agent, his lawyer, and Chris,  and they have this contract that says I’m ghostwriting, and I said, “I’m not doing this if my name’s not on the book.” They were like, “How big  do you want your name?” I said, “I want my mom to see it from outside  a bookstore window.” So that was the agreement, and then there was discussion about what the cover would say—“By Christopher Darden,  as told to,” or “By Christopher Darden with”—and I said, “I don’t care about that. I just think it’s a lie to not have my name on the cover.”

Later, when I would do ghostwriting projects—I didn’t want my name on a book once I realized the stigma, and once it became clear to me that ghostwriting was not what I wanted to do. But that was the first ghost job, the Darden book, and again, it wasn’t strictly a ghost project,  because my name’s on it. And also, this was a really intelligent guy, and I  said, “We’re going to write this book together.” So we had two laptops,  and we’d write sentences back and forth. It was collaborative. I moved in with him. And I feel…everything’s accidental, nothing’s planned,  but I look at that early part of my career, the ghostwriting, which began with Darden and ended with the Bernard Kerik situation placing me at Ground Zero. I’ve got Ruby Ridge, the O.J. Simpson case, the terrorist attacks of September 11th. I kind of had a perfect fiction writer’s vantage to these cases that, for someone who loves satire and writing about the culture, turned out to be perfect training. It’s not the training I’d advise someone to undertake, and I was miserable through much of it, but it turned out to be a great track to the kind of fiction I wanted to write. 


How have your books changed from Every Knee Shall Bow to The  Financial Lives of the Poets


Each book I write is a kind of reaction to the last one. It’s a constant leveling and adjustment to try to make each book complete and full in itself. When you’re in a book, you’re not thinking about the next one or the last one, you’re only thinking about the one you’re in, but you bring the way the last one felt. My starting point is often, The last one felt like this, now I need to do that. Especially Over Tumbled Graves—I  was stunned that everyone saw it as a mystery novel. I look back now and see that’s because it was a mystery novel. You put a serial killer in your book, people tend to treat it like a serial killer book. You eat one lousy foot, they call you a cannibal. But at the time I was writing it, I  thought I was writing this deep literary novel that happened to have serial killers and cops in it. And then when it came out, that wasn’t the response. So, with Land of the Blind I thought, Well, I’ll nudge it over a little further. And with Citizen Vince, I think I was a little aware of the way these books were landing, the way they were received, the way they were perceived, the way they were put into bookstores.

There are all sorts of indignities along the way that cause you to do certain things. I remember I was excited to have a reading at Powell’s,  this amazing bookstore. I told some friends to meet me there. I didn’t really think that two o’clock in the afternoon was a funny time for a  reading at Powell’s. So my friends show up and I walk to the desk and  say, “I’m Jess Walter, I have a reading here.” The woman at the counter says, “Oh, that’s a drop-in signing. What’s your book about?” And I said,  “Well, it’s a kind of literary crime novel about a serial killer—” I didn’t  even finish and she grabs the microphone and says, “Genre department.”  This guy comes forward and my friends are standing right there and I’m thinking, Oh, this sucks! 


Can you talk about the difference between “literary” fiction and  “genre” fiction? 


I’ve often felt frustrated at the divide between commercial and literary fiction, because to me, it hurts both. You can have this horrible writing in crime fiction because people only focus on plots, and they treat them like crossword puzzles. “Well, I knew who the killer was on page eleven! I’ve solved it! Why do I need to keep reading?” And when people complain about literary fiction, they say there’s not enough story.  So I’ve always felt like there’s got to be some sweet spot in the middle you can hit. With Land of the Blind, I thought, Oh, I’m writing a coming of age novel, and I’m kind of melding it with this other thing, and it’s also a novel of ideas! You have all the conventions of crime fiction that I  wasn’t following. There was no murder. It starts with a confession instead of the body, which is where you start with a murder mystery. I wanted someone to come in and confess to a crime that hasn’t actually been committed. And then it was a kind of twenty-five-year-long murder that began when they were children—it’s really about the way he treated this guy as a kid. So it was, in my mind, a coming-of-age novel disguised.  Again, you hit what you think is some sweet spot and no one wants it.  People really want crime fiction and they love those books. You mess with the conventions, they don’t understand why. I was making Subaru  Brats—you know those little Subarus that were a cross between a pickup and a car? Nobody wanted those or there would be a bunch of them around today. And I made a great Subaru Brat, but I was the only one who appreciated it. 


Do you think anybody succeeds in that kind of hybrid? 


I think Richard Price comes closest. Once he established his literary bona fides he could write crime fiction. Pete Dexter, because he won the  National Book Award, can write a crime novel and have his position. John Banville wins a Booker Prize and can go write crime fiction. But it doesn’t work the other way. You can’t name someone who’s made a career as a crime writer who is then respected as a literary novelist. 


But after you won the Edgar for Citizen Vince, the next book, The  Zero, was a finalist for the National Book Award. 


When I say no one’s done it, I kind of think I’m the only one.  [Laughs.] And I don’t know that most people want to do that. It’s one of those Guinness Book of World Records things that no one else really wants to do. You stand on your head on a toilet for four years and you’ve done it longer than anyone else. It’s not a path a lot of people want to take. 


Citizen Vince felt like more than a crime novel. Were you aware that you were turning a corner? 


It felt like the kind of novel I wanted to be writing. I get really excited about thematic elements, probably more than I should, and more than most writers. I kept thinking, This is really about voting. That was the sweet spot I had always imagined between crime fiction and literary fiction—you know, that I could create characters that were hopefully deep and rich. There would be all these ideas swirling around, especially in the character Vince and in his monologues. I like ranting and riffing,  and Vince could do that in a voice I was pleased with, and yet, I could still drape it over the conventions of a crime novel. I think it was more the sort of novel I’d imagined I would write all along. And it does feel like I turned a corner at that point. And then I moved on to The Zero and Financial Lives of the Poets


You’ve mentioned having to teach yourself how to write a novel.  Can you remember big moments in that process? 


I still feel like I’m teaching myself all the time, learning things and in a constant conversation with myself about what it is. The emotions of writing a novel, the highs and lows, the ups and downs, the loathing for what you’ve written—I described it in my journal at one point as the diary of a man living on the ocean who has no idea what tides are. “Oh my God, the water’s going out! It’s a drought! Oh my God, the water’s coming in! It’s a flood!” I couldn’t believe how seriously I took this. With every book I would say, “If this is not the worst thing ever written… I need to just throw this away and start from scratch.” And then the next day, I would say, “I may be writing a new kind of literature here. There’s a very good chance that my grandchildren will have to study this book. I should put a little note in there for them.” The grandiosity was stunning, and the lows were stunning, too. 

I think of it as this engine, these pistons going up and down. The process that I fool myself with is that I write the last sentence last, and so  I’ll comb over the beginning so many times, but I can’t finish if I feel like there’s something wrong early on. I always have to go back and rewrite things. The moment I finish a novel, I always feel the same incredible high. My finishes are phony at first. I always have to go back through dozens of times, but that sense, when I write the last sentence and pull my hands away or clap my hands like a Vegas dealer, it’s thrilling. And then maybe a week later, or two days later, the crashing doubt comes back. I’ve learned now that I love almost every part of that journey. I even love the self-loathing. I think to separate the hypercritical self-loathing writer from the one who dreams of doing something beyond his ability is impossible and probably not even worthwhile. I don’t think you could have one without the other. 

I just read David Shields’ new book Reality Hunger and now my debate and argument with myself is also with him. I’m constantly walking  around, saying, “Well, take that, David Shields!” or “What about this,  David Shields?” Which is great—to have a foil. But that book was remarkable and vexing in so many ways. I found myself walking around arguing with him, which is such a pointless thing to do. It reminded me of some drunk guy on the dorm floor you’re trying to argue with and he just keeps quoting Pink Floyd. You can’t win that argument. And other times, it reminded me of arguing with a girlfriend, because you say, “Well, clearly this, this, and this,” and she says, “But that’s just how I feel.” You can’t win that, either. 

But it makes me want to debate those points, because I think it’s a really compelling case, a great read, and really powerful work. Because it’s a manifesto, it wants to make a case, and it’s a case I would certainly argue with. First, that narrative is dead, and that there’s some supplanting of it by a desire for reality. I think the reality that we’re really desiring is far more narrative-driven than he’s letting on. We don’t really want reality. We want reality set in a certain narrative frame. What we really want is the Elephant Man. We want freak show. Reality tv is not like the lyric essay, which is the thing he’s arguing for. It’s like the Elephant  Man. It’s the freakiest stuff you can imagine. That’s what we want to see on YouTube—glimpses of the freakish. 

I find it illustrative that A Million Little Pieces was rejected as a novel, because you couldn’t get away with that shit in fiction, but you can, oddly enough, in this kind of hybrid nonfiction thing. So there’s the idea that fiction and nonfiction have blended in a way. That because history is subjective, that because memoirs only come from memory,  because journalism has been proven to be imperfect, there should be no filter between fiction and nonfiction, which I find to be almost insane, almost a kind of academic trick in which you point to a swamp and say, “Look, therefore there is no land, nor water. They are only the same thing.” And you get there through some sort of “if or then” dialogue with yourself, and pretty soon, you’re trying to drive a boat through the desert. You can’t do that. 

Just because there are places where there’s swampland doesn’t mean that there isn’t a desire and need and higher form for nonfiction and fiction. So that’s the argument I walk around having. Zadie Smith wrote about Reality Hunger—something like, “All right, Mr. Shields, read better fiction. You’re right. There’s a lot that’s dead with fiction. Now go read the good stuff, because those manipulations and tired conventions are exactly what good fiction tries to overcome and subvert and not fall victim to.” 


You suggested that nonfiction can get away with stuff that fiction can’t. Like what? 


What was Tom Wolfe’s famous pronouncement? That fiction can’t keep up with the real world? I think fiction has the responsibility of a kind of universality that nonfiction doesn’t. A good example is Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. His portrayal of Tourette’s is—to anyone who has nervous habits or tics or things—so real that it immediately takes you inside that condition. It’s brilliant for that. It isn’t just someone with Tourette’s spouting dirty words, which is what the reality television version would be. It’s a human portrayal of this thing that may be freakish to people who don’t have it, but through Lethem’s telling is a fully realized and human condition that we relate to. 


You mentioned two North Korean pieces the other day, one fiction, one nonfiction. What could the nonfiction deliver that the fiction couldn’t? 


The first thing that pops into my head that the nonfiction delivered was context. Both pieces had to do with the period of starvation in North Korea. Both had people making this sort of paste from tree bark that they would eat. In some ways, the nonfiction was more harrowing for its authority, for its truth, I guess. It provided context. I found out how many people starved to death during this period. And the nonfiction piece was structured almost like a short story, which is really interesting, because it was not a big societal piece. It was focused on one woman who had been a party believer and whose husband and mother and one of her children had starved to death. She’d finally made her way into South Korea. And it was a narrative of these people starving to death, with the context that this was happening to the entire nation, the politics behind it, the seamless way in which those externalities could be brought in and not break you out of the illusion of the piece. You could come in and out of narrative and pure informative reporting, and I think when fiction does that—one good example is The Known World—it can be thrilling, but it’s also a really tricky thing. It’s an innovation of voice that when I see it, I’m kind of thrilled. That’s what this nonfiction piece was able to do. 

The great thing about it, the thing I would probably agree with  David Shields about, is that it did not require a movement at the end. It did not require some artful ending. It just ended. The woman went to South Korea. She lived with her daughter and she put on a bunch of weight. There didn’t need to be one last scene in which she goes out to the woods and strips some tree bark and takes it home because she’s acquired a taste for it. It was able to sort of just play itself out. 

The short story (which hasn’t been published yet but is forthcoming in Playboy) by Adam Johnson was about an orphan in the same time period, who kidnaps Japanese tourists and brings them back to North  Korea—kind of sanctioned by the army. The story is full of starvations, full of all this stuff, and the movement of it, the artful movement is really pleasing and yet you’re aware that that’s where it’s going. When it finishes, you have the sense of release of a story. You’ve been taken to this world and then released from it. And you’ve seen a full movement of character. You’ve seen something that wasn’t required in the nonfiction piece, a reckoning or a surprise or some other narrative turn; the stone was carved into a figure. And I think we know those effects and we know those feelings that we expect to get from both, and maybe that’s what  Shields finds so thrilling about the hybrid style that he’s working in. To confuse those effects, to fire off these neurons when you expected those to be fired off, that’s what every fiction writer hopes to do—to not give you what you expect, but something that’s satisfying in some way and which you didn’t see coming. 


Do you think that the nonfiction was about a phenomenon that occurred in North Korea and something systemic to North Korea, and the fiction was about a person?


It’s funny, because the nonfiction was about a person, and this person was used to illustrate a condition within North Korea. And so the person was almost a way of viewing the larger context, whereas in the short story, the context was backdrop at most, or was a way to sort of narrow down on that person. You know the world you’re in. You’re in North Korea. It’s this period of hardship and starvation and that telescopes down on the individual, whereas the other one opens up the world that way. I do think those are both intriguing shapes and that they do very different things. Thank God for both. 


Often in your books, the main character has some sort of disability— the blindness in The Zero, and various characters in other books who can’t sleep the entire story. What does disability do for your novels? 


I think everybody has some disability. I think that’s the condition of being human. What happens when they’re more visible, more on the surface? You’re definitely putting pressure on. That’s what I like about crime in fiction. I like conflict that’s sharper and higher-pitched. And I like that within—I think it’s another kind of conflict, a conflict within the character, and the way in which the world deals with these people and they deal with the world. I guess it’s heightening that stuff. 

I got a stick in my eye when I was five and had to train myself to look people in the eye, because when I was a kid I would constantly look down so that other kids wouldn’t make fun of me—so to me, disability is a very real state of humanity that I think we all have in some way. I  think I use the vision and eyesight issues because that’s such an elemental and key way in which we deal with each other. I also think it’s probably an autobiographical desire of mine to try to explore this in fiction. 


In Land of the Blind, Clark lost an eye as a kid. In The Zero, Remy has a problem with detached retinas. How does your experience of getting a stick in the eye when you were a kid move away from autobiography in your work and take on a fictional quality? 


Autobiography is a tool of the fiction writer. I think that Land of the  Blind is all about vision, about how Clark sees himself, how the world sees him. And the gaps within there. You become interested in those things in a really personal way, and then I think the thing to do with fiction is refine that interest, refine that sort of thematic push that you have in something until it takes on some meaning you weren’t aware of. I think you arrive at levels of meaning in fiction that you don’t always reach with memoir, that you might not reach with any other kind of writing because of the process, which forces you to go possibly deeper into character than you would with nonfiction or memoir. I think it forces you to create themes that are even more alive than a memoir would be. We’ve all read those autobiographies by generals or politicians, in which you think, “Were they even around for their own life?” They seem to be describing it as this series of achievements that have no motivations connected to them. 


You write about the newspaper industry in The Financial Lives of the  Poets. Do you think the decline of journalism’s had an impact on fiction? 


It’s hard to not focus on the ancillary effects, where the review is going to come from and things like that. I’ve always thought that journalism has been a great training ground for novelists. I would make twenty-seven percent of our novelists go work at a newspaper, because you learn to navigate these systems. 

You cover any sort of politics, you cover crime. You begin to see the difference between public and private, the way people show themselves in public and the way they really are. You learn the mechanisms of a culture, how a courtroom works, how a police department works, how an election works. One of the ghost jobs I did involved a political campaign and these political operatives…. I’ve got these characters stowed away. They’re such great characters because they have insight into the hypocrisies that we know are there, but we don’t exactly know how they work. That precision, that journalistic precision, is something.  Like Richard Price. He’s very much like a documentarian in that style. He’s in there, in those cop cars, in those projects. He’s working with those social workers, and to hear anyone describe his process, it sounds exactly like immersion journalism. So in that way, I think journalists can be outward-looking in their fiction; I think they can get beyond the limits of their own experience and imagination more freely because of their training. 

Also, you write every day. You lose fear of publication. You know how to work on deadlines. But you also get out of yourself as a writer.  You write something that is very utilitarian—people use it. It’s sort of disposable. I remember being in MFA workshops and people bringing their stories in and the angst of that room was almost too much for me to bear. They had so much invested and I never felt that. 

At a newspaper someone is going to handle your stuff. They’re going to edit it, they’re going to change things. You learn to keep your stories separate from yourself. That’s valuable for a new writer because the fear of publication stops a lot of people from working, the idea that it’s got to be perfect. No journalist goes in thinking that they know everything at the beginning, and yet, today, as a fiction writer, you almost get more attention for your debut novel than the ones after. You’re expected to kind of arrive as this fully formed artist, and I know I wasn’t. It’s taken me a long time to arrive at a place where I feel like I’m doing the work I set out to do. I used to have an editor at the newspaper who would say,  “All right, this is beautiful writing here, but you have three adjectives.  We’re going to pick one. What’s the best one?” I was constantly pruning and looking for the telling detail. 

Also, because of the constraints on space, I think journalists often write better-paced fiction, which is the reason people love crime fiction and other potboilers. It’s not that people have bloodlust. It’s about pacing. 


Many of your books have humorous elements. What makes something funny? And how do you use that toward a serious purpose? 


One of the tics I’m trying to get away from is tending toward things only because they’re funny. A few times, I’ll find myself so in love with something I thought was funny that it takes away from the narrative or it introduces something that strains credulity. Some of the humor in Citizen Vince I’m proudest of is the really quiet stuff. It doesn’t come out of absurdity. It just comes out of small character moments. I guess some of it is absurd, two guys in a witness protection program debating the pizza in town, but that’s also a complaint I’ve heard from every New Yorker who ever moved to Spokane, so it seems weirdly grounded, too. You don’t want anything to be a crutch. Plot has been a crutch for me,  suspense has been a crutch for me, and sometimes I think humor is a  crutch for me. 


Plot seems to be one of the hardest things to talk about, and people  often ask writers, “Do you know the plot before you go in?” What do you know of the story before you start actually writing words? 


There’s a fallacy that the story starts when you’re writing words. I  walk around with the idea, with the characters, with all of that stuff,  until I think I may have a clear sense of what that story is—before I  start writing it. 

I’m going to digress a little bit. One of the frustrations I have with  Shields’ book is that he keeps saying narrative is clearly dead, that clearly no one likes narrative. And it’s like, No! People are reading Dan Brown not because he’s a great prose stylist, but because of the narrative. Story is alive and well. People love it. And it doesn’t even have to be a new story. It can be the same old story. That central premise is totally wrong. 

I loved reading Charles Baxter’s essay on rhyming action, because  to me, there’s an artistic elegance in plot and story. There’s a sense among some people that there’s been an academic movement away from storytelling. There was a great essay—and I call it great because it was infuriating to me in so many ways—that blamed the Cult of the  Sentence for the death of literary fiction, the much talked about death of literary fiction, the idea being that somehow, writers focusing only on the sentence as a unit of beauty and on the writing itself, have divorced themselves from what readers want. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but I have heard writers say, “I don’t want any story at all. I just  want beautiful language.” And I think, first of all, Bullshit. But second of all, the idea that plot is this ugly, brutish thing that we have to drape our beauty over is infuriating, because to me, plot is this beautiful, elegant shape. And that’s what I get so thrilled about in writing. That’s what I got excited about with Citizen Vince, when I began to see this kind of movement of the character and the way the language and everything would reveal this movement that would take you to this place where you would have a feeling of completion. The plot of that story is inseparable from a kind of motion in which Vince lives in this town. He’s afraid someone has been sent to kill him from New York. So he goes to New York, where he’s assigned to kill the guy he thinks came to kill him. I love that movement. 


In the plot of Citizen Vince, toward the end, there’s a withholding of Vince’s plan. Did you worry about that being too “devicey”? 


I love device. When that comes about is when we go in Reagan and  Carter’s heads, the day that Vince comes home. If I’m showing those scenes, he’s on an airplane, he’s thinking, Holy crap, now I gotta go kill this guy. Or maybe I won’t. I’ve got a big decision. It would have been so static. The book is third person and there are plenty of other times in which you don’t exactly know what Vince is up to. You don’t exactly know what he’s doing at that card game until he tells Gotti why he’s there. So if it was the first time it had come up, it would have felt far more “devicey” and I probably would have been too embarrassed to do it. But instead, we’re looking at Carter and Reagan, who are doing a sort of thematic dance around what this novel is about, the idea of shadows following each other, and when we get back to Vince, he’s taking action and his thoughts are in the moment. 


Some readers might feel there’s a kind of withholding in terms of the vote. 


Who he votes for? Maybe because I initially saw this as a screenplay,  I thought of that scene as a camera shot, like the famous tracking shot in Citizen Kane in which the camera rises and rises and rises. It’s one of the longest shots in history. It rises completely out of where Kane is speaking. And so I imagined that same shot when Vince is voting, that you’d be centered over him and you’d be seeing the ballot the way he does and then all of a sudden, the camera rises and rises and rises so you could see the act of voting but you could never see who he voted for. I  really did imagine that I turned my head when Vince voted and gave him the same privacy we all get. 


What does it do for the novel that the reader doesn’t know? 


If it was just a novel about a guy who became a Republican or Democrat, what would that be worth? It’s about a guy who chooses as his point of redemption, his symbolic redemption, the process of voting,  which is a really corny thing, and I knew it was corny the minute I thought of it. Am I really going to write a civic thriller? That’s what it is, a kind of civic thriller, but no one else gets to choose what our own symbols of redemption are. And for Vince, voting is meaningful. On the most basic level, not telling the reader who he votes for connects with a theme of the book, that it’s about this person choosing this thing we all take for granted and maybe see as empty or corny or whatever it is, and around that creating a new identity and allowing himself to change. 


Can you talk about other devices you’ve used? 


Fiction writing can feel kind of meek sometimes, and if we’re going to run from device, if we’re going to run from things like that, it’s going to stay meek. Your job is to engage the reader. Sometimes to fool them awhile, sometimes to suspend something that you don’t want them to know for a while. Sometimes it’s to have the action interrupted by an end dash and not tell the reader what happened. Sometimes it’s to write something in the first person. There are all different kinds of tools and techniques and I don’t know what makes them devices. But I like to be playful, and I like inventive styles of writing.

The book that nailed me the hardest in the last few years was David  Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is a Russian nesting doll of a book. It’s a  device at its very genetic core and I was thrilled reading it. I loved to see what could be accomplished. 

I don’t have some bag of devices. But I certainly am constantly looking for something inventive to do with structure, with voice, with all of those elemental pieces of writing that combine to make the whole. So it might be a large structural thing. It might be a voice thing. It might be something that feels as “devicey” as having the action break at midpoint in The Zero and then having the character discover alongside the reader what’s missing. Which feels more blatantly “devicey,” but opens up the thing in a way that you wouldn’t have gotten if you’d written the novel straight. I think those kinds of formal inventions and devices and gimmicks can sometimes lead you to a place to discover not only what’s possible with the language and the sentences and paragraphs, but also what your story is about, what brought you to this. For me, when it works the way it did in The Zero, there’s not a lot of distance between the formal playfulness and the thematic drive that made me want to do it in the first place. 


Why is withholding important to fiction? Can withholding ever become cheap? 


A lot of times, what makes something work is what isn’t there. We know that with language, we know that with character, so why wouldn’t it be the same with story? Why wouldn’t the things that you choose not to put in be those things that kind of open the piece up? 

When is it cheap? When you’re honestly assessing your own work and you worry about things, what I worry about is that I’ll sell the farm for a cheap gimmick. One of my favorite novels is Martin Amis’  Time’s Arrow, which occurs in reverse. It’s all gimmick. Does it work?  Depends on the reader, but I love the inventiveness of it. And Martin  Amis referred to that book in The Information, which is another great novel. In The Information, the novel that the protagonist has just written makes people nauseous and causes them to have strokes. Amis is writing about Time’s Arrow and people’s reaction to it. 

You know your weaknesses and strengths as a writer, so I’m probably the worst person in the world to ask when a device becomes cheap, when it overwhelms the thing it’s working on, because I tend to like those.  Maybe it’s because I read a great deal and I’m looking for something new and different. But I also think it goes back to the fact that I’m most interested in the elemental things, finding out what exactly makes voice,  and then the large things, almost like a scientist. Science is interested in the very tiny and the huge, the universe and the subatomic. So I think that my concern with structure, with the fullness of things, makes me more prone to like those sorts of innovations. 


What are the similarities or differences between the Spokane in your books and the real one? Or have you set out to capture the “real” Spokane? 


I don’t know if William Kennedy said, “I’m going to capture  Albany.” You just tell those handful of stories that strike you, and then later, if they end up creating a full sense of a place, I can’t imagine it being anything more than accidental at best, because I never set out to create Spokane. I was a crime reporter, so I think I’ve probably created a much more downtrodden, crime-ridden, nasty-ass place than really exists, and yet, I think it’s a very real version of some of those places,  too. The Financial Lives of the Poets is set anywhere, and yet to me, it’s so clearly Spokane. People write to me and say, “I think that 7-11 is right by my house! I live in Santa Monica.” “I think that 7-11 is right across  the street, except it’s a Piggly Wiggly here.” So I think there’s probably something universal in what I’m envisioning as Spokane in that book. 


Vince makes a brief cameo—uncredited as Vince—in The Financial  Lives of the Poets, and it made me wonder if you had a sort of vision of a kind of world behind the immediately present world. Or a kind of network. 


I think I do, and I think every author kind of does. I don’t mind those things overlapping a little, but in no way do I think of that as some definitive portrait of the city. It’s just the terrain that I happen to be writing about. Usually when I’m done with a book—I don’t, for instance,  wonder if anything else happened to Brian Remy from The Zero. Maybe  Carolyn Mabry from my first two novels, I think there might be more to talk about there, but for the most part, I don’t feel like characters deserve a second novel. And though some of my characters have reoccurred,  they’ve been fringe characters. I think it’s another kind of playfulness that made me sneak Vince in there. And the fact that I don’t call him  Vince—because at the end of Citizen Vince he’s sort of gone back and claimed his early identity, which is Marty. But I also liked the wink at myself that ninety-nine percent of readers won’t get. When people do  discover it, though—again, we talked about withholding—there’s a kind  of withholding. I could have easily made it Vince and made it clear, but  when people get it, it’s like this special thing between me and the couple of readers who have noticed it. 


Does your fiction get anything from the place—Spokane—that it wouldn’t get from a different town, like Tallahassee or Des Moines or  Providence? 


I think Spokane is one of the most isolated cities of its size in the  United States, and that its isolation casts a lot of different shadows. I  think there’s a sense of isolation here that’s great for fiction. And yet the place doesn’t have an accent. It doesn’t have a special ethnicity. It’s a really general place, but hours from anywhere, which gives it a kind of lab quality. As if you could have any kind of experiment here that you wanted. There’s a lot of film work here now because it has that quality—it could be anywhere. So I think yes and no. Spokane could be  Des Moines. It could be Providence. It could be the Lower East Side in certain ways, and yet, I think its isolation allows a lot of different things to happen. In thrillers, you’re constantly trying to get your hero alone,  and if you think about it, cops always travel in at least twos, sometimes twelves, and yet, you’ve got to get to a point where your protagonist is alone facing whatever he or she is facing. I think that the isolation from the rest of the world that Spokane has creates story possibilities. You can have guys from the Witness Protection Program show up here and have everything they need. It’s kind of self-contained. Most cities of two or three hundred thousand are not self-contained. Most are outside bigger cities and this is like Pluto. I guess Pluto isn’t a planet anymore.  It’s like Neptune, a small, distant planet. It doesn’t have moons. It’s in its own orbit. 


What’s the difference between writing a screenplay and writing a  novel? 


Screenwriting is so collaborative. It’s not the writer’s medium. It’s a director’s medium and an actor’s medium. So that’s the first thing,  the collaboration. Also, form is so important and so is economy. Form and economy are the two things you’re constantly battling, and I sort of equate the formal restrictions to poetry, not that I’m much of a poet myself. But I’ll start writing a poem and it’ll turn into prose because I can’t master the economy or the form. I’ve said before that scripts tend to be more external, more action-driven. They don’t have to be. You can have a voice-driven script. You can have My Dinner with Andre, all dialogue.  So it doesn’t have to have action. You could have 110 pages of voice-over. It could all be internal. Didn’t they make Johnny Got His Gun into a movie? I think they did, which takes place entirely inside the mind of someone who has been maimed in battle and is unable to communicate with the outside world. Then it’s done through flashback; you still have to show something on the screen. But practically, they couldn’t be more different forms. I like both. Screenwriting I just don’t take as seriously. I  don’t think it’s as hard. I don’t think it’s as interesting. I don’t think it’s as rewarding. I think because it takes someone to animate it and make it live that it is beyond my understanding. I can’t imagine ever being fully satisfied with a screenplay. I like fiction better, as a reader and a  writer. I like the process of reading a novel far more than seeing a film. 

Because my own fiction has flirted with being adapted and made,  I’ve had to kind of come up with a mental divorce between a film and the source material—because they are totally different things. One Flew  Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my favorite novels and one of my favorite films, and they are not the same thing at all. You can’t get that paranoia from the book in the movie. You can’t get the walls, the machinery behind the walls from the novel into the film. You couldn’t get Jack Nicholson into the novel and you shouldn’t try. You couldn’t get Danny DeVito as Martini. Those things are animated by actors. 


Were there any trends that you noticed as a judge for the 2008  National Book Award? 


Another judge told me, “You’ll be stunned by how many good  books you read and how few great ones.” And I think that’s probably true of any year you judge. There’s a ton of very good fiction out there,  but I finished most of the books with some sense of their failing. And their failing was not necessarily the author’s fault. The thing that comes to every writer as they start to finish something is that they’ve begun an imperfect journey. I don’t think any book is perfect and sometimes things are more interesting because of the imperfections. 

The other thing you’ll hear people say sometimes: “Why isn’t anyone  writing realism?” or, “Why did postmodernism die?” or, “Why isn’t  anyone doing this or that?” And the thing I realized is that everyone is doing everything. I found examples of every literary trend you could imagine. Are we finding our way to those books? Are publishers getting behind those books? Are those books reaching wider audiences? No. But someone was trying almost everything. There were some small things that I noticed, like books with titled chapters. There were a lot of linked story collections. It’s hard to tell what’s driven by the writers and what’s driven by the marketplace, such as it exists. It may be publishers saying,  “We need more linked stories.” The collections that I thought worked best, though, often weren’t linked. Those collections that were linked  felt like bland novels or you’d make a game of saying, “All right, which  story did they write to try to link this together?” 


A lot of your work involves an individual with some kind of fraught relationship with a system. Did your work on Ruby Ridge in any way set that course?


I think my whole life as a reporter was geared toward seeing how systems fail us. You look at the systems we love—just the people at this table—we love universities and they’re in a kind of spiral of failure right now that is epic in scale. We love newspapers and they’re dying out from under us. We love literature and it’s not healthy at all. I love movies and that system’s falling apart. It isn’t just the criminal justice system, it isn’t just the government. The kind of systems that we create to take care of us and to take care of the things we care about and love always break down and fail, almost inevitably. You build the machine and the machine is going to fall apart. The thing I always go back to in my fiction is that these systems, in a way, don’t even exist. They’re powered by people’s insecurities, emotions, greed. One example is New  York politics. It’s a huge interworking system of all of these different elements, and yet my experience of it was Rudolph Giuliani, who had a  kind of Mussolini-like desire for power and acclaim, and Bernard Kerik,  who was a figure destined to implode because of his own appetites,  weaknesses, and frailties. And the O.J. Simpson murder case, which  I saw kind of secondhand, coming into the wreckage afterward, was all about the failings of people, or the way human frailty causes these systems to break down. 

There’s a relationship between a jury and the judge and lawyers that approaches Stockholm Syndrome or one of those syndromes. Gerry  Spence, in Ruby Ridge, was brilliant at playing juries. He would do everything but crawl in the box with them. “You and I all know that this  case is insane….” The most brilliant thing that he did in that case—the prosecution put up all of these rifles. All the Weavers’ guns were on this  big pegboard. It was daunting, all these guns. At one point, Spence just strode up there and yanked a gun off and sighted it and then handed it through the jury box. The prosecution objected, and Spence said,  “Your Honor, they put them up here. I just wanted the jury to get a  closer look.” Knowing that an Idaho jury—everyone’s sighted a rifle at some point. So now these rifles aren’t things on a wall. You’d see jurors  looking around the courtroom with rifles, and the prosecution going,  “Oh shit, we just lost the case.” That was the kind of thing that went on in the Simpson case, too. 

I find the anti-government furor today fascinating in so many ways.  Because there is no government. It’s us. And in Every Knee Shall Bow,  that was the thing I sort of tried to pull back the curtain from. White separatism was another kind of system. Systems don’t battle. It’s the people within them. 


Do you see common attributes in your characters? Can you look at  your characters and say, “I recognize this character as having this kind of  moral code or that set of beliefs, or being stuck in this system?” 


It’s one of those things that can freeze you up if you spend too much time thinking about it. My characters can be wiseasses. They can be a  little lost, a little out of step with everything going on around them.  But that also allows them to be more observant of paradoxes and ironies and of those moments in which the things that we strive for, and the things that we do, don’t connect. Or, to go back to systems, the things that the system’s supposed to do and what it actually does don’t align. 

I think the kind of character I’m drawn to is someone who sees the cracks that other people don’t see, Brian Remy in The Zero being one example—he’s the only one aware of his own condition, which he comes to believe the rest of the world shares but just doesn’t recognize.  I think the characters’ awareness of the absurdities around them is the main thing. And then there are obviously some surface things—that they don’t sleep, they’ve all lost an eye, they probably order the same drinks.  They riff the way I like to riff. I love Marilynne Robinson’s answer when  someone asked her if any of her characters were her and she said, “Oh,  yes, all of them.” I think there’s that sense when you create these people that they’re extensions, hopefully not only of you, but partly of you. 


You talked about fragmentation in Over Tumbled Graves, but there was a different kind of fragmentation in The Zero. Did that fragmentation come early for you in the writing? 


I had written a short story years ago called “Flashers, Floaters, and  Vitreous Detachment.” In that story, there was an insane person who saw streaks and lines and believed the streaks and lines were connecting people and buildings and ideas and things. I had that piece just sitting there forever. When I was at Ground Zero, we kept not finding bodies.  We kept thinking we were going to find more bodies and we kept not finding them. The idea that these people were just gone, that they had been atomized, was hard to get your mind around. I kept thinking about that Maltese Falcon idea of disappearing and starting your life over. So I  started mulling a novel about someone who disappears and starts life over. 

More than any of the other books, that was a thematic book. There were all these things I wanted to say about the culture, about the way we reacted to September 11th, about the leadership at Ground Zero, about all those things that were bubbling around, and yet I couldn’t quite ever complete those thoughts. I couldn’t get my mind around what it was  I was trying to say to myself. And I thought, If I wait for this, I will never get there. I sort of transferred my own confusion and inability to track and process to the character. And that felt right. I can’t remember the first time I wrote one of those sentences where I just ended it with a dash, but oh my God, it was the most freeing thing, realizing that you don’t have to write those transitions. Transitions suck. Transitions are almost always forced. Or if they’re not, then they take you—they transition—to a place you don’t want to go. 

I had done some screenwriting at that point, and there’s an old saw in screenwriting that you want to begin a scene as late as possible and end it as soon as possible. And I thought, What if I end the scene way before anyone even knows what the scene is about? The freedom of that was a great discovery once I realized I could just bail out of scenes any time I wanted. Sometimes, the scene would accomplish what I thought it was going to, and other times, it would just hang there, a complete fragment. I was aware, all along, of the larger story I was telling, but the fragmentation kept it so fresh for me, because I was never sure how  much of it I was going to reveal. I had almost two versions of the story.  I had the full story, and I had this fragmented version I was telling. It made me a little crazy as a writer to be walking around with this kind of insane story that I’m telling myself in my head. 


And that book was also about systems—


Part of it is that I’m writing in 2003 and we’re all gung ho to get into  Iraq, and I’m writing a book that when I showed my wife, she said, “I  think you’ll go to jail for this.” And my agent said, “I don’t think I can  represent this book.” But I couldn’t stop working on it. 

I went back to Kafka and kept drawing in my mind these lines between Kafka’s systems and the kind of overarching sense in Kafka’s work that the state is bearing down on him, on the individual. And in  my mind, this was worse, because we were culpable. We were the system that was bearing down on us. We had a part in it by our inaction, by the fact that we kept electing George W. Bush. We were culpable in the surreal nature of our response to this action. We all knew that we weren’t really going to war because Iraq had gotten yellowcake uranium. We  knew that wasn’t the reason. We just wanted to kick some ass. Maybe some of us put little “no war” signs in our windows. And I felt a little  bit...I felt as if we’d all gone insane, as if the whole culture had gone  a little bit insane. Maybe some of us were only a little insane, but it felt like such a big, important thing to be working on and writing and saying. And from a writer’s standpoint, it was thrilling to be dangling  these scenes, and to be sort of nakedly saying things that I, as a younger  writer, would not have had the courage to even try to say.