The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: David Shields (Part One)

David Shields's Reality Hunger: A Manifesto has been eagerly anticipated by many, including The Millions. (Note to reader: It might be useful to click over to Max Magee’s pre-pub consideration of it – including a description of the book’s format and structure – from last summer.) Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (RH:AM) is Shields’s tenth book, and a culmination of his dynamic and studied 30-year journey from fiction to nonfiction, conventional narrative to fragment/collage, genre category to genre blur, story hunger to reality hunger. Shields’s adventures into essay/memoir/collage began with the acclaimed Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity (1996), his fourth book (following three novels), which Carolyn See of The Washington Post described as “a mishmash, a potpourri; it's impersonal, it's embarrassingly revealing… Without stooping to anything like characterization or chronology, Shields gives us his life, an American life, perilously close to the ones we ourselves live.” I’ve known David Shields for 14 years, since I entered the graduate writing program at the University of Washington. While I consider David a mentor, he is also someone I have enjoyed (and from whom I have learned by) disagreeing with as much as anything. In this context, we had a spirited exchange about RH:AM. In fact, we got rather carried away, so we will be publishing this interview in two parts, today and tomorrow. The Millions: Explicit self-exhibition has become such an integral part of contemporary culture: blogs, reality TV, YouTube, Facebook, etc. Look at me! is the unofficial slogan of digital life. You seem to both posit the reality of this, and argue for its artistic interest and vibrancy – in RH:AM and also in your previous nonfiction work. Is there anything you think is being lost as a result? Do you see any value in the privacy of artistic process, or, say, in the reader or viewer having no direct access to the author/artist but only direct experience of the work? (I am thinking just now of the late J.D. Salinger’s hyper-reclusion; clearly he felt that the work and the artist must be distinct.) David Shields: Seems to me a very old-fashioned, high-modernist distinction—between the artist paring his fingernails high above the planet, and the work down below, to be studied and envied. It’s a completely false mythology and it’s made for an amazing number of books that are really bad and that no one reads. I’m not interested in Facebook and YouTube that much. I’m really interested in searing, soaring work that constructs a bridge across the existential abyss between author and reader. Without exception, such works are those that risk everything on a personal level, from St. Augustine’s Confessions to Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries. TM: RH:AM features many different kinds of lists. You in fact inform the reader, “The earliest uses of writing were list-making and account-keeping.” At The Millions, we’ve noticed that posts and essays which feature lists tend to be very popular with readers. What is it about lists that interests you? Why do you think readers love lists so much? DS: Why am I interested in lists and why do readers like lists so much? Because lists remind us of the randomness of the world, the insane heterogeneity and voluptuousness of the world, and the list evokes that in us. It separates the line between “art” and “life.” The list is the world, reframed as art. TM: I was probably 1/4 into the book when I realized that many – most? – of the text is composed of quotations. At that point I had a decision to make about how to read the book, i.e. to read it straight through as a continuous voice – David Shields as a kind of “ventriloquist” for all these other voices, both owning and presenting these ideas as part of his larger thesis – or to flip back and forth to the citations in the back, to hear the polyphony in a more distinct, pointillistic way.  I ended up doing both -- somewhat arbitrarily, sometimes because the passage particularly interested me -- through different sections of the book. Tell us a little about your vision of the reader’s reading experience. DS: I love your discovery 1/4 of the way through, Sonya, and I admire your mix-and-match approach, combining looking at appendix with not. I’m certainly very interested in this liminal space. My ideal reader is not going to be a quote-spotter or a cite-sifter. I very much want the reader to experience a certain vertigo when reading the book—is this Shields? Is it Chung? Is it some odd combination of the two? Is it both? Is it neither? Is it all of us? Just as a work of fiction might be based heavily on quotation (Finnegans Wake, anyone? Joyce said he’d be happy to go down to posterity as scissors-and-paste man), so, too, might a work of nonfiction. I want to claim for nonfiction the same license and freedoms as fiction writers and visual artists have done for centuries. So, too, just as I’m arguing for confusion as to who is talking—me or Sonny Rollins—I want to argue for the excitement of work that slips the bonds of genre. The two arguments overlap: when we are in doubt, we are alive. I want work that defies genre, and I want work the author of which and the provenance of which is debatable, that is to say not fixed, that is to say alive. TM: RH:AM seems on one level a book length “worrying” over certain trouble-words: real/reality, truth, honest, fiction, nonfiction, authenticity, facts, know/knowledge. How much of the ideas and arguments you explore in the book boil down to problems of semantics – and in that sense are unresolvable, a kind of running-in-place?  It strikes me that defining these terms is a little like asking, "What is love?" and these are all of course The Central Questions; but I couldn’t quite reconcile it with “A Manifesto.” DS: These are the central questions, yep, and they have no definitive answers, yep, but the book is best read as an anti-manifesto manifesto, is it not? I include many statements that argue against my premises; I argue against myself; I show the psychic underpinnings and artistic yearning underneath my manifesto. It’s best to see this manifesto as an unusually self-incriminating and self-doubting manifesto. TM: Related to the above, you write in a chapter called “blur”: “These categories are plastic. But they aren’t. Ah, but they are,” and also quote traditional storytellers in Majorca, who would begin their performances with, “It was and it was not so.” Tell us a little about the inherent paradox of positing “A Manifesto” about blur and shifting ground and the slipperiness of truth and reality. Is this ultimately a book about the certainty of uncertainty? DS: Seems to me close to a rhetorical question. Also, see above. I think you’ve captured it well, Sonya. A book about the certainty of uncertainty. Hard to think of a better description. Don’t have a lot more to add. You’ve left me speechless. I quote the Graham Greene line as epigraph, “When we are not sure, we are alive.” That’s the book. TM: Leonard Bernstein I believe wrote that in music he was making “cosmos out of chaos” – in other words, the notion that the power of art is not just in reflecting the world as it is, but also in shaping and transforming that world with one’s artistic vision. Many people look to religion in this way, i.e. to give shape and meaning to apparent chaos, which is something you clearly reject as a false management of the human experience. Do you have a sense that RH:AM primarily reflects contemporary life, in its blur, chaos, mix-and-match experience; or is your vision that the book will also effect a shaping of the culture, of lived experience? DS: The latter, with a bullet. I definitely don’t see the book as merely reflecting contemporary culture, which would be a major yawn for me. I have the vainglorious hope that the book will shape the culture. That has to be the goal. TM: A follow-up, then -- you write: What I want to do is take the banality of nonfiction (the literalness of “facts,” “truth,” “reality”), turn that banality inside out, and thereby make nonfiction a staging area for the investigation of any claim of facts and truth, an extremely rich theater for investigating the most serious epistemological questions. The lyric essay is the literary form that gives the writer the best opportunity for rigorous investigation, because its theater is the world (the mind contemplating the world) and offers no consoling dream-world, no exit door; and Autobiography at its very best is a serious handshake or even a full embrace between the writer willing to face him/herself and the reader doing the same. At a lower level, it’s a sentimental narrative about fall and forgiveness. You also quote Lauren Slater who wrote, “I, for one, expect that my readers will be troubled; I envision my readers as depressed, guilty, or maybe mourning a medication that failed them. I write to say, ‘You’re not the only one.’” So it seems clear that, for you, genuine solace and consolation happen in a “misery loves company” kind of way, or, as I’ve heard you say before, “Aren’t we all Bozos on this bus?” I wonder, though, if you at all share Chekhov’s moral vision for his art, i.e. “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.” DS: Yikes. The Chekhov line is fingernails on a blackboard to me. That can’t be what we’re after, is it? It’s not even what Chekhov did, did he? I have nothing like the reverence that so many contemporary writers do for Chekhov, but he said that he was diagnostician, not solver, of people’s woes. I’m not sure my aesthetic is “misery loves company.” I’m interested in writers finding a metaphor and making that metaphor ramify as The World, and that metaphor must always include the fact that we die and that we are in some sense alone on the globe. The end-point of all this is that serious work is at the very least deeply shadowed, deeply tainted by sadness and failure. I think of Mark Schorer’s lovely introduction to The Good Soldier; Schorer says that good work shows us how we fail, and that makes us at least want to—futilely—live better lives. TM: Follow-up to follow-up: I’m not sure how the Schorer quote is so different from the Chekhov quote. Is the main difference “futilely”? DS: Oops. You’re right. I misread the Chekhov line as “what he can be like.” My remix. TM: A strong thread throughout RH:AM is a refutation of the novel in its conventional, plot-and-invented characters form. You write, for instance, [Writing fiction] feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere, but you’re in a costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody, and Living as we perforce do in a manufactured and artificial world, we yearn for the ‘real,’ semblances of the real. We want to pose something nonfictional against all the fabrication—autobiographical frisson or framed or filmed or caught moments that, in their seeming unrehearsedness, possess at least the possibility of breaking through the clutter. More invention, more fabrication, aren’t going to do this. I doubt very much that I’m the only person who’s finding it more and more difficult to want to read or write novels. You also quote Geoff Dyer who wrote, “Increasingly, the novel goes hand in hand with a straitjacketing of the material’s expressive potential.” This was probably the argument in the book that I found most frustrating; not surprisingly, since I am a novelist. For me, personally, I find that writing a “me” persona in a memoir-type work always feels like a caricatured me, or a sliced-off cross-section of me; whereas in fiction, I can inhabit many characters, so that a truer, fuller me, lives in and is expressed through the work, via multiple characters, their psyches/experiences, and all the in-between spaces of the story. In other words, fiction is more “purely true” from my perspective than memoir. What would you say to novelists like myself who feel that in fact fiction is the more honest, less clown-like medium? DS: Different strokes, isn’t it, Sonya That’s interesting that for you essayistic gesture flattens things out whereas for me the novelistic gesture is invariably deadening. I’ve always loved that piece you wrote about Leonardo DiCaprio; wasn’t that a work of essay—not exactly? You think of that as a fiction? TM: Yes, fiction; and I always remember and find it interesting that you assume/assumed that it is/was essay; I absolutely think of it as fiction, and if I had tried to write it as memoir, it would have turned out terrible, I think. I will say, however, that I pretty much stole the activating premise – of meditating on celebrity – from Remote. (Note: the piece discussed was published in the Crab Orchard Review in 2002; it was not categorized by the editors as either fiction or nonfiction.) DS: I agree that it’s interesting and revealing and funny that I keep insisting on that story as essay. I tend to try to kidnap work for the nonfiction canon. John D’Agata does this, too, beautifully, in his anthologies of the lyric essay. To me, that work is among the most powerful things you’ve ever done. And for writer after writer after writer I see that their best work is their essayistic work, in my view. Wallace’s essays. Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist. D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classical American Literature. Hawthorne’s “Custom-House.” I could go on and on. Cheever’s Journals, which dwarf his fiction. Simon Gray’s Smoking Diaries, which dwarf his plays. Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up. Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain. Leonard Michaels’s Shuffle. Naipaul’s A Way in the World. Let us Now Praise Famous Men. Baldwin. Nicholson Baker. Flaubert’s Parrot. Didion. Barry Hannah’s Boomerang (nominally a novel). Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss. David Markson’s last four books (nominally novels). If you’re against abortions, don’t have one; if my argument doesn’t work for people, they should go on writing the novels that they’re writing. But I do think we’re at a crossroads. I’m trying to renew the novel form, not end it. A relationship is like a shark; if it doesn’t keep moving, it dies. What we have here is a dead shark. Can we not shock it awake? Read Part Two of this interview.
Notable Articles, The Future of the Book, The Millions Interview

Confessions of a Book Pirate

For several years, it seemed as though the book industry was getting a reprieve. As the music industry was ravaged by file sharing, and the film and TV industry were increasingly targeted by downloaders, book piracy was but a quaint cul de sac in the vast file sharing ecology. The tide, however, may be changing. Ereaders have become mainstream, making reading ebooks palatable to many more readers. Meanwhile, technology for scanning physical books and breaking the DRM on ebooks has continued to advance. A recent study by Attributor, a firm that specializes in monitoring content online, came to some spectacular conclusions, including the headline claim that book piracy costs the industry nearly $3 billion, or over 10% of total revenue. Of all the conclusions in the Attributor study, this one seemed the most outlandish, and the study itself might be met with some skepticism since Attributor is in the business of charging companies to protect their content from the threat of piracy. Nonetheless, the study, which monitored 913 titles on several popular file hosting sites, did point to a level of activity that suggested illegal downloading of books was becoming more than just a niche pastime. Even if the various extrapolations that led to the $3-billion figure are easy to poke holes in, Attributor still directly counted 3.2 million downloaded books. For some, however, the study may inspire more questions than answers. Who are the people downloading these books? How are they doing it and where is it happening? And, perhaps most critical for the publishing industry, why are people deciding to download books and why now? I decided to find out, and after a few hours of searching - stalled by a number dead links and password protected sites - I found, on an online forum focused on sharing books via BitTorrent, someone willing to talk. He lives in the Midwest, he's in his mid-30s and is a computer programmer by trade. By some measures, he's the publishing industry's ideal customer, an avid reader who buys dozens of books a year and enthusiastically recommends his favorites to friends. But he's also uploaded hundreds of books to file sharing sites and he's downloaded thousands. We discussed his file sharing activity over the course of a weekend, via email, and in his answers lie a critical challenge facing the publishing industry: how to quash the emerging piracy threat without alienating their most enthusiastic customers. As is typical of anonymous online communities, he has a peculiar handle: "The Real Caterpillar." This is what he told me: The Millions: How active are you. How many books have you uploaded or downloaded? The Real Caterpillar: In the past month, I have uploaded approximately 50 books to the torrent site where you contacted me. I am much less active then I once was. I used to scan many books, but in the past two years I have only done a few. Between 2002-2005 I created around 200 ebooks by scanning the physical copy, OCRing and proofing the output, and uploading them to USENET. I generally only upload content that I have scanned, with some exceptions. I have been out of the book scene for a while, concentrating on rare and out of print movies instead of books because it is much easier to rip a movie from VHS or DVD than to scan and proof a book. I have downloaded a couple thousand ebooks via USENET and private torrent sites. TM: Do you typically see scanned physical books or ebooks where the DRM has been broken? TRC: Most of what I have seen is scanned physical books. Stephen King's Under the Dome was the first DRM-broken book I downloaded knowingly. TM: Why have you gone this route as opposed to using a library or buying books? Do you consider this "stealing" or is it a gray area? TRC: I own around 1,600 physical books, maybe a third of which were bought new, the rest used. I buy many hardcovers in a given year and generally purchase more books than I end up reading, so I have not chosen to collect electronic books as opposed to paper books but in addition to them. My electronic library has about a 50% crossover with my physical library, so that I can read the book on my electronic reader, "loan" the book without endangering my physical copy, or eventually rid myself of the paper copy if it is a book I do not have strong feelings about. I do not buy DRM'd ebooks that are priced at more than a few dollars, but would pay up to $10 for a clean file if it was a new release. I do not pretend that uploading or downloading unpurchased electronic books is morally correct, but I do think it is more of a grey area than some of your readers may. Perhaps this will change as the Kindle and other e-ink readers make electronic books more convenient, but the Baen Free Library is an interesting experiment that proves that at least in that case, their business was actually enhanced by giving away their product free. That is probably not a business model that will work for everyone, but what is shows is that as a company they have their ear to the ground and are willing to think in new directions and take chances instead of putting their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, and railing against their customers, as the music industry is doing. The world is changing and business models have to change with it. Three additional points: 1) With digital copies, what is "stolen" is not as clear as with physical copies. With physical copies, you can assign a cost to the physical product, and each unit costs x dollars to create. Therefore, if the product is stolen, it is easy to say that an object was stolen that was worth x dollars. With digital copies, it is more difficult to assign cost. The initial file costs x dollars to create, but you can make a million copies of that file for no cost. Therefore, it is hard to assign a specific value to a digital copy of a work except as it relates to lost sales. 2) Just because someone downloads a file, it does not mean they would have bought the product I think this is the key fact that many people in the music industry ignore - a download does not translate to a lost sale. I own hundreds of paper copies of books I have e-copies of, many of which were bought after downloading the e-copy. In other cases I have downloaded books I would never have purchased, simply because they were recommended or sounded interesting. 3) Just because someone downloads a file, it doesn't mean they will read it. I realize that buying a book doesn't mean someone is going to read it either, but clicking a link and paying $10-$30 is very different - many more people will download a book and not read it than buy a book and not read it. In truth, I think it is clear that morally, the act of pirating a product is, in fact, the moral equivalent of stealing... although that nagging question of what the person who has been stolen from is missing still lingers. Realistically and financially, however, I feel the impact of e-piracy is overrated, at least in terms of ebooks. TM: How easy is it to go online and find a book you're looking for? How long does it take to download and how much technical expertise is required? TRC: I have specific tastes, so it is usually not very easy to find specifically what I am looking for. The dearth of material I was interested in is what prompted me to scan in the past, in order to share some of my favorite, less popular authors with as many people as possible. It does not take much time to download once something you want has been found, however, and little technical experience is required. Since books are generally very small files, they can be downloaded in minutes. You can then convert the file using one of many applications, for instance Mobipocket Creator, to PRC or another format that works with your reader. You can then plug your Kindle into your computer and copy the file over. The entire process typically takes 5-10 minutes. BitTorrent technology is easy to install and use, and just about anyone can install the basic software needed and begin downloading their first torrent in less than an hour. However, discovering and gaining access to private torrent sites (invite only) can take a lot of time - and of course, that is where the good stuff is. Public sites (no account needed) and semi-private sites (sites that require an account, but usually have open enrollment) have a limited selection, but are easily accessible and anyone with basic computer skills can find and download very popular novels. Usenet is an older technology, and is considered a safer place to pirate files. For older users like me who were around at the beginning of the internet it seems very simple, but to newer computer users it may seem unnecessarily complex, and more expensive because you need an account separate from your regular internet connection to access it. TM: Once you've downloaded a book, what format is it in and how do you read it? On you computer? Printed out? TRC: My preferred format for distribution is RTF because it holds metadata such as italics, boldfaces, and special characters that TXT does not, is easily converted to other formats using Word, cannot contain a virus, and is an open format that will be readable forever. Other popular formats are DOC, HTML, PDF, LIT (Microsoft Reader), PRC (Palm), MOBI (Palm), CBR (rar'd image files) - and there is a new format with each new reader that is released. Most formats can be converted to your preferred format with enough ingenuity or the correct software. To read, I convert to PRC and load the books onto my Kindle. Before I got that, I read on my Palm or laptop. TM: How long does it take you to scan a physical book? TRC: The scanning process takes about 1 hour per 100 scans. Mass market paperbacks can be scanned two pages at a time flat on the scanner bed, while large trades and hardcovers usually need to be scanned one page at a time. I'm sure that some of the more hardcore scanners disassemble the book and run it through an automatic feeder or something, but I prefer the manual approach because I'd like to save the book, and don't want to invest in the tools. Usually I can scan a book while watching a movie or two. Once scanned, the output needs to be OCR'd - this is a fairly quick process using a tool like ABBYY FineReader. The final step is the longest and most grueling. I've spent anywhere from 5 to 40 hours proofing the OCR output, depending on the size of the book and the quality of type in the original. This can be done in your OCR tool side-by-side with the scan of the original image or separately in your final output type (RTF, DOC, HTML, etc.). If there are few errors on the first few pages of text my preference is to proof in RTF, otherwise I do the proof within Finereader itself. TM: What types of books do you look for? What is generally available? Is any fiction or popular non-fiction available? TRC: I restrict my downloads to books I will likely read - this includes some popular novels, literary novels, and general non-fiction such as humor, biography, science, sociology, etc. Unlike DVD rips, the newest releases are not typically available two weeks before the product is released, if at all. I'm assuming that this is due to the smaller devoted audience books have, as well as the increased difficulty of sharing a book. TM: Do you have a sense of where these books are coming from and who is putting them online? TRC: I assume they are primarily produced by individuals like me - bibliophiles who want to share their favorite books with others. They likely own hundreds of books, and when asked what their favorite book is look at you like you are crazy before rattling of 10-15 authors, and then emailing you later with several more. The next time you see them, they have a bag of 5-10 books for you to borrow. I'm sure that there are others - the compulsive collectors who download and re-share without ever reading one, the habitual pirates who want to be the first to upload a new release, and people with some other weird agenda that only they understand. TM: Is it your sense that a lot of people are out there looking to get books this way? Or is it just a tiny group? TRC: I would say that there is a small unaffiliated "group" of people responsible for sourcing the material. Also, keep in mind that everything I'm saying applies mostly to fiction and general-interest non-fiction. Textbook, programming and technical manuals are all over the place and its very easy to obtain almost anything you want. I assume there are more sources for that material, and that their high price is a larger factor in people deciding to pirate them. Similarly, there are many communities creating comic, graphic novel and magazine content of whom I am only vaguely aware. TM: Do you worry at all about getting in trouble for scanning and uploading ebooks? TRC: A little, but the books I do are typically not bestsellers and are rarely new. I figure I have a bit of a buffer if trouble comes down because the Stephen King or Nora Roberts or "whoever the latest bestseller is" scanners would be the ones to get hit first. I've done a lot of out-of-print stuff, and when it is not out of print it's books by authors like John Barth - someone who no longer sells very well, I imagine. I've debated doing some newer authors and books, but I would need to protect myself better and resolve the moral dilemma of actually causing noticeable financial harm to the author whose work I love enough to spend so much time working on getting a nice e-copy if I were to do so. TM: What changes in the ebook industry would inspire you to stop participating in ebook file sharing? TRC: This is a tough question. I guess if every book was available in electronic format with no DRM for reasonable prices ($10 max for new/bestseller/omnibus, scaling downwards for popularity and value) it just wouldn't be worth the time, effort, and risk to find, download, convert and load the book when the same thing could be accomplished with a single click on your Kindle. Even in this situation, I would probably still grab a book if I stumbled across the file and thought it might interest me - or if I wanted to check it out before buying a paper copy. I was impressed by the Indie filmmakers of the movie "Ink" - when their movie leaked before the DVD was released, they put a donation button on their site doubleedgefilms.com. I donated even though I haven't watched the movie yet, just because of their thoughtfulness and sincerity. This didn't seem to work for King's "The Plant", but I think that had a lot to do with the lack of reading technology at the time. I would like to see the experiment tried again by someone like Eggers or Murakami - someone with a very devoted fanbase. Perhaps if readers were more confident that the majority of the money went to the author, people would feel more guilty about depriving the author of payment. I think most of the filesharing community feels that the record industry is a vestigal organ that will slowly fall off and die - I don't know to what extent that feeling would extend to publishing houses since they are to some extent a different animal. In the end, I think that regular people will never feel very guilty "stealing" from a faceless corporation, or to a lesser extent, a multi-millionaire like King. One thing that will definitely not change anyone's mind or inspire them to stop are polemics from people like Mark Helprin and Harlan Ellison - attitudes like that ensure that all of their works are available online all of the time. [Image credit: Patrick Feller]
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

The Russian language is the real hero of Tolstoy's masterpiece; it is his voice of truth. The English-speaking world is indebted to these two magnificent translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, for revealing more of its hidden riches than any who have tried to translate the book before. -- Orlando Figes After reading their 2007 translation of War and Peace, Orlando Figes, the eminent Russian historian, did not mince words about Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. And so, neither will I: When I found out that I had the opportunity to interview the translators, I was giddy as a girlish Beatles fan circa 1964. As the bestselling and award-winning translators of sixteen great works of Russian literature, Pevear and Volokhonsky are something of a rock star duo in the literary world. The fluency of their translations, grounded in a nuanced understanding of the time and place that the source texts were written, have given cause for many of us to fall more deeply in love with The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Notes from Underground, The Master and Margarita, Dead Souls, and the fiction of Anton Chekhov, among many others. The pair have been working together since 1986; Pevear has also published individual translations from French and Italian. As a duo, they were twice awarded the PEN Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize. Their 2004 translation of Anna Karenina was an Oprah’s Book Club pick. The couple, who are married and live in Paris, added a new title to their oeuvre just last month: The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy. The collection includes eleven glittering and strange tales, among them "The Kreutzer Sonata," "Master and Man," "The Prisoner of the Caucasus," and the novella Hadji Murat, which was Tolstoy’s final work. While Pevear and Volokhonsky have previously translated the short fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, and Nikolai Gogol, this is their first turn at the stories of Tolstoy. The ones they’ve chosen are largely from Tolstoy’s later years; together, the stories wrestle with questions of war, honor, death, sex, obsession, resentment, redemption, crime, and innocence. Seven of the stories collected were never published in Tolstoy’s lifetime. So how do they do it? Pevear and Volokhonsky are candid about their tag-team approach to translation. Volokhonsky, a native speaker of Russian, pores over the original text first and creates a transliterated draft marked with her comments about the author’s literary style. Pevear, who does not read Russian, works from that draft to polish the English text, discussing pressing questions that emerge along the way with Volokhonsky. Should any disagreements emerge, Pevear makes the call. As Volokhonsky recently told Jeffrey Tractenberg in the Wall Street Journal: Richard is a native speaker of English. I'm a native speaker of Russian. My task is to explain to Richard what is happening in the Russian text. Then it is up to him to do what he can. The final word is always his. I can say this is not quite what the Russian says. Either he finds something that satisfies me or he says no, this is how we're going to do it. We discuss endlessly and sometimes it becomes a nuisance because we return to it again and again even after the manuscript goes off. But we really don't quarrel. It would be much more interesting if we did. Pevear and Volokhonsky do agree, however, to refrain from using contemporary expressions in their translations, choosing to remain faithful to the style of the novel’s time. Their current project? A translation of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. In kind with their team approach, Pevear and Volokhonsky approached this email interview for The Millions as a pair. The Millions: Your newest translation together is The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories. Why did you choose to do this particular book? Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: Quite simply because these later stories are among Tolstoy's greatest works. In fact, the short novel Hadji Murat is perhaps the finest thing he wrote, and he seems to have known it. After all his storming against the notion of beauty, he could not help himself, being a born artist, and "in secret from himself" (as he put it) wrote his most perfectly beautiful work – "beautiful" in the way that The Iliad is beautiful. "Master and Man" is also a perfect work of a very different sort, vividly told and deeply moving. But even the opening story of the collection, "The Prisoner of the Caucasus," which he wrote for a children's reading book in the simplest style possible, is gripping and unforgettable. How could we not want to translate them? TM: Having also translated War and Peace and Anna Karenina, what have you found to be unique about how Leo Tolstoy worked in short fiction, compared to his novels? RP and LV: Tolstoy's two big novels, like almost all of his work before 1880, portrayed people of his own class, the landed aristocracy, and their social milieu. Most often his heroes were self-conscious men, seekers of the meaning of life – in other words, self-portraits to one degree or another. In his later stories, there is much more variety: one hero is a narrow-minded bureaucrat, another is a well-to-do peasant, still another is a sort of holy fool, and finally there is the Chechen chief Hadji Murat. "The Forged Coupon" portrays people from all levels of Russian society, from the tsar to the lowest criminal. And there is a corresponding variety of "worlds." That's one thing. Another is the effort Tolstoy made to rid his art of what he considered the "superfluous detail" of the novels. His compositions became tighter, more formal, without losing any of the sensual immediacy that was the essence of his art. TM: What are the greatest misconceptions about Tolstoy? RP and LV: The greatest misconception might come from believing what Tolstoy said about his artistic work after his "conversion to true Christianity," as he called it; that is, from believing what he preached in the series of tracts and polemical works he wrote after 1880. He was never able to practice what he preached. He remained a deeply divided and contradictory man all his life. And that nourished his artistic work. We took a phrase from W. B. Yeats as the epigraph for our introduction to Anna Karenina: "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." That is even more true of Tolstoy in his later works, because his inner quarrel was more intense. "The Kreutzer Sonata" was meant to teach a lesson about the evils of modern marriage, but it does something quite different and humanly much more complex. Another misconception is that Tolstoy only wrote those two huge, unreadable novels. TM: Together, you've worked your way through some of the greatest fiction ever written. What are the unique pressures you have as translators of fiction that is both beloved and so highly regarded? RP and LV: The pressure comes more from the quality of the writing itself. There are two questions that it might seem quite proper for a translator to keep in mind, but that in fact will spoil the translation. The first is, "What will the reader think?" And the second is, "How do we say that in English?" A good writer does what he or she has to do in the writing so that it "goes right," as Robert Frost put it. There is at least as much intuition as intention in the process. A good translator has to follow that process far more consciously than the writer and yet come as close as possible in the new language to the instinctive "rightness" of the original. The greater the writer, the closer you want to come. That is both the challenge and the joy of it. But exactly what that "rightness" is remains undefinable, which is why there is no such thing as a definitive translation. TM: Only about three percent of books published in the U. S. are in translation; the rate is even lower for translated fiction. What do you make of these numbers? RP and LV: There are a number of things that might be made of them. The percentages are much higher in Europe, of course – 12% in Germany, 15% in France, 24% in Spain. We might say that that's because Europe is small, a sort of family of countries, despite all past wars and present rivalries. And so translation comes naturally, like overhearing a conversation in the next room. But the analogy doesn't quite work, because Europeans also translate a great deal of American writing and writing from all over the world. And Russia, which is a rather large country, has always given great importance to literary translation and has produced many superb translators. Is it American insularity, then? A lack of curiosity about what happens elsewhere? But what about the statistics for Great Britain? Surprisingly, they are about the same as for the U. S. Which suggests a linguistic insularity specific to English itself: if you speak the language of the hegemony, why notice the babble going on around you? It might also be a question of the market and marketing. Americans read an enormous amount of junk, which is dutifully supplied to them by publishers – unless it is actually the publishers who create the taste for junk. In either case, publishers are not likely to pay for the rights to translate junk and turn over a good percentage of the book's earnings to the original publisher. They tend to pick up the small number of books that win the major European prizes, hoping that the momentary notoriety will create a market among more discerning readers with a minimum of advertising. But, on the positive side, we do have publishers who have consistently gone against the market statistics and made a point of publishing translations: Dalkey Archive Press, for instance, and first of all New Directions. Among major publishers, Knopf, Vintage, and Everyman's Library, who publish most of our translations, are the exception that proves the rule. TM: Your translations have achieved immense acclaim and success. Particularly in context of the low numbers of translations in the U. S., as well as the many other versions available of some of the books you work on, what is it about your translations that resonates with readers? RP and LV: We're the last people who can answer that question. TM: Russian or otherwise, who are the writers you'd most love to see translated into English? What books are U. S. publishers and readers lacking? RP and LV: There are three fine Italian writers of the twentieth century who should be translated into English: Alberto Savinio, Cristina Campo, and Guido Ceronetti. A very few of Savinio's many books have been translated and gone out of print. One book by Ceronetti (who is still living) was published by Farrar, Straus in 1993. No English translations of Campo have been published as far as we know. Then there is the French poet Jacques Darras, who is incidentally a major translator from English. Some of his more scholarly books have been translated, but not his remarkable poetry and artistic prose. And there is the fine essayist and “culturologist” Sergei Averintsev, one of the most important Russian thinkers of recent times, a brilliant and witty writer. A few of his essays have been translated into English, but nothing like the substantial collections available in Italian, German, and French (the French publisher Cerf has recently commissioned a translation of Averintsev’s complete works). TM: What books have you decided not to translate, and why? RP and LV: We have decided not to translate Turgenev, because not everyone can be Mrs. [Constance] Garnett. TM: Does contemporary literature lack the deep engagement the Russians had with the mysteries of life, like the existence of God and the meaning of death? If so, why do you think this is and what is lost? RP and LV: These questions are very difficult to talk about or even to formulate correctly. They lead to glittering generalities that are almost certain to be wrong. But we might say tentatively that the qualities we find in nineteenth century Russian literature came in part from the late maturing of Russian culture, which reached its "golden age" not in the time of Shakespeare or Molière or Cervantes, but in the age of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. These writers belonged fully to the nineteenth century, with all its social and spiritual conflicts, but at the same time they were creating the language and the forms of their literature, and posing these "accursed questions," as Dostoevsky called them, for the first time. There is a primary energy in their work. As for what may have been lost, writers themselves have little choice about these things; they are determined by forces much larger than the individual will. Besides, what is lost here is found there. TM: What is the social resonance of Tolstoy's ideas today? Why do we keep turning back to him? RP and LV: There are people all over the world who are still taken with Tolstoy's social ideas – that is, with "Tolstoyism," as he and his followers defined it: the radical simplification of life, egalitarianism, non-violent opposition to the state, pacifism, vegetarianism, post-marital chastity. But that's probably not what you mean by "Tolstoy's ideas." We turn back to him, we keep reading him, because in his artistic work he deals with universal conditions and almost never with topical issues, and because he has such an extraordinary gift for concrete realization. TM: Judging by your output, you both seem to work so much and so efficiently. Do you have time to read for pure enjoyment? If so, what have you read recently that you have loved? RP and LV: Dorothy Sayers' mystery novels, Don Quixote in Liubimov's Russian translation, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, the essays of Eliot Weinberger (Oranges and Peanuts for Sale and An Elemental Thing), the journals of Kornei Chukovsky, Guido Ceronetti's La Pazienza dell'arrostito (The Patience of the Roasted), Martin Chuzzlewit...
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Lynne Tillman

I first met Lynne Tillman at Housing Works, on a night she read with Paula Fox. I brought a first edition of her novel No Lease on Life for her to sign. I’d found the book tucked away in the towering stacks at the Strand, still in pristine condition and with a glossy publicity photo inserted between pages. I recall her saying that she hoped I would enjoy the book. I was almost certain I would. Anything I’ve read by Tillman I’ve devoured, from her first novel, Haunted Houses, which in three separate narratives depicts three young girls coming of age in suburban New York, to American Genius, A Comedy, which recently ranked #19 in The Millions' end-of-the-decade fiction survey, The Best of The Millennium (So Far). More than a year after our Housing Works encounter and over four thousand miles away, I met Tillman again last summer in Lithuania—this time as a student in her fiction workshop at the Summer Literary Seminars. Tillman recalled meeting me before, which says a great deal about her memory as well as her interest in others. Her generosity extended to her workshops where, on the first day of class, she commenced by saying she wanted to be a non-authoritarian instructor. From there, the conversation flowed around her keen insights, benevolent guidance, and grammatical precision. Tillman often dined with students after our morning class, and she met me one Sunday afternoon to talk more about writing. In person, Tillman’s incandescence defies her petite stature in much the same way that her striking black curls offset her sharp, elegant features. That Sunday, we walked through the cobblestone streets of Vilnius and dined on a patio beside the Vilnia River, where she shared her chilled magenta borscht with me. The interview that follows was conducted over email once we returned to New York, but it grew out of our conversation that day, which touched on writing workshops (she has never taken one), what constitutes “experimental” writing, as well as her own writing. Tillman has been a prominent figure in New York’s Downtown literary scene for decades. Brandon Stosuy’s anthology Up is Up But So Is Down, that chronicles the scene from the mid seventies to the early nineties, includes a conversation between Tillman, author and former bondage model Lisa B. Falour, and poet, filmmaker, and Warhol right-hand-man Gerard Malanga, as well as an excerpt from Haunted Houses and images of many, many hand-drawn fliers for readings bearing Tillman’s name. She co-directed and wrote a film, Committed, in the mid eighties, before she published her first novel later that decade. Her writing has always been intertwined with the art scene; her most recent book of short stories, This Is Not It, consists of stories written in response to works of art. Of her most recent novel, American Genius, A Comedy, George Saunders has said, “Out of this voice, as in an elaborate time-lapse photograph, a world is made, a world like ours: flawed, beautiful, sacred insane.” And our own Garth Risk Hallberg, in his Millions review, championed, “Readers eager for plot, dialogue, characters delivered in a single stroke… the sturdy appurtenances of conventional fiction, will have to open themselves to American Genius, to surrender to its magic, to trust. But they will be richly rewarded. And perhaps even changed.” Despite exuberant recommendations from writers as respected and as varied as Saunders, Harry Mathews, and Jonathan Safran Foer, Tillman’s writing remains largely unknown. It has been said that Tillman is a writer who everyone has heard of but who no one has read. I too was guilty of this years ago, when I attended a panel on Proust at the New York Public Library. Tillman sat behind me, and I overheard her name as she was introduced to someone else. The Millions: You said that you would like to write like Peter Dreher paints. In Dreher’s ongoing project Tag Um Tag Ist Guter Tag (Day by Day Days Are Good), which he began in 1972, Dreher has painted the same empty water glass more than three thousand times. I am wondering what draws you to his approach, considering that in many ways you take an opposite approach to writing, where your style, subject, and narrative structure change with each book. But even so, there’s an essence to your work that remains the same. In what ways, if any, do you embrace Dreher’s approach in your writing, and also, what inspires your drive to invent and reinvent rather than repeat? Lynne Tillman: I try to shake myself up, and I believe I want to keep moving and changing. But I’m pretty sure I want to avoid self-exposure also. It’s the antithesis of what Dreher does with the glass, which is why I’m so drawn to it. Thinking about the same subject again and again, approaching it slightly differently each time, I see that as peaceful and directed. Still, I’m running mentally, and want to do something I haven’t done. But you’re right, there’s something in my work that stays the same – me. TM: In your essay “Doing Laps Without a Pool,” included in A Best of Fence: The First Nine Years, Volume 2, you argue that the terms to categorize “experimental” writing have “lost their explanatory power.” You go on to declare that “Unquestioned adherence to any dictates … to any MFA workshop credos, or their antitheses, for a novel, story, poem, essay, will generate competent, often unexciting work, whether called mainstream, conventional, progressive, or experimental; the products will have been influenced by or derived from, almost invariably and without exception, “established” or earlier work, their predecessors.” What literature have you encountered recently, if any, that is attempting to do something interesting, iconoclastic, or new? What is your take on the state of contemporary fiction? LT: There’s always new material around – brain-directed prosthetic hands; artificially prolonged life; YouTube, etc. Are there new narratives shaped by technology, by changed wants and needs? Entirely new emotions and motives for behavior? How does our consciousness change? That’s what I’m watching for. Transgendering: I’m not sure what will come of this, except what seems obvious already. Tools affect behavior, but basic needs for power, sex, food, and the fear of others? Of extinction and death? Editing the fiction for Fence, I see loads of new writing, and trends – the use of  “you” and a very conversational style, as if everyone knows the same joke. I’ll call it “You-cute.” Some critics think American fiction is insular; but that depends in part on what’s considered “American.” What is American writing? American English is changing in part because of non-native-born English or bilingual writers.  Assimilation’s not the goal anymore, and language is dramatically affected. Sadly, I’m monolingual. Anyway, I’m drawn to writers with imaginative powers, with the ability to renew language and narrative. TM: Do you think that the proliferation of creative writing programs has encouraged or increased the generation of “competent, unexciting work”? If so, how should one attempt to create something new? LT: I don’t blame MFA programs, though I’d like to. But that ignores the world outside MFA programs, and what it’s doing to our minds and ability to conceptualize. If you carry the argument forward, all education destroys young minds, which is what some think anyway. Nothing was better for me than having a few great teachers. There’s probably more writing, and more of the same, but what’s being written is not caused by writing programs. That means students have no agency whatsoever. A writer makes choices; that’s what writing is. If you carry your teacher’s water, that’s a choice.  From my POV, a writer’s work is in part resisting moribund ideas, language, complacencies of all kinds. I don’t believe in, First thought, best thought. That was Ginsberg, yes? To be hyperbolic, I might suggest that some of today’s “best literary writers” damage writing more than any MFA program. I won’t go Page Six with this. TM: I am intrigued by your statement, from which you take the essay’s title: “Writing now is like doing laps without a pool.” I was wondering if you could explain that image. It made me think of Miranda July’s story, “The Swim Team,” where the narrator gives swimming lessons in her apartment because there is no pool in the town where she lives. Her students lie on her floor and place their faces in bowls of water while they practice their strokes. It’s almost as if they’ve adapted swimming to their circumstances, and the purpose becomes the experience, their personal achievements, as well as the community they form. Do you think that writers currently lack a body of readers and/or a general literary culture that keeps writers afloat, or writing with purpose? LT: Her story reminds me of surrealist Rene Daumal’s Mount Analogue. People plan an imaginary expedition to an imaginary mountain. He never finished the novel; he died in the middle of a sentence. There’s no body of readers ready and waiting, ever. Hollywood spends millions for those people and produces stupendous failures. Readership is a fluid state. Right now, many of us are thinking anyone who reads is an ideal reader. A general literary culture? Fence, Bomb, Tin House, The Believer, n+1, literary websites like this one, blogs like Dennis Cooper’s, there are many, many thousands of subcultures and scenes where writing is staged. There’s no dominant aesthetic, dogma, theory, or critic determining good, bad, mediocre, right, wrong. I like that. Who trusts anyone enough anyway? But what does determine how one writes? That’s a question writers answer by and with their writing. I’m very curious about why we do what we do, and the forms we use. Writing’s boundaries are mostly artificial, like those of nation states – modernity started with nationalism and nation states. We all have our limits; they could be the limits that need to be pushed in writing. Whatever Kafka wrote about writing, he kept going. Publishing is different from writing; for Kafka, they were distinct. But along with the collapse of the private and public spheres, there’s been a collapse of that distinction, which maybe has more to do with how we write than anything else. TM: Your most recent novel, American Genius, A Comedy, takes place at an unnamed institution, where some of the residents are searching for “a genuine experience.” It’s a place where “residents hope to make themselves into something or to escape something or themselves, or to realize themselves in a novel guise, and where some seek renown, goodness, or worthiness, while others seek calm, peace, and quiet.” And yet, the institution paradoxically insulates the residents from experience. Helen’s most genuine experience occurs outside of the institution, when she is lost in the woods and she runs into the Count and Contesa. This all seemed to be a commentary on the institutionalization of American life--how there are certain approved routes or routines one follows to achieve certification, learning, or enhancement while at the same time this removes validity from what occurs outside an institution. Were you attempting to critique a growing cultural dependency on institutions? LT: I suppose my question would be, Is Helen safe from experience? Can anyone be? I was also thinking about safety, post 9/11, when I wrote AGAC. Her world is physically circumscribed; she’s out of the main population. But prisoners build societies inside prison that mimic what’s outside prison. I think of experience broadly, and action, too. I was writing about the institution of democracy, about routines, habits, recurrent memories. The novel’s structured around having the three squares all institutions – including family – are supposed to provide. I was thinking about being certified in relationship to mental illness. But let’s say she’s insulated from surprise. Institutions can function to block surprise, and habit can feel protective. So in that sense, she’s meant to be protected from the outside world, where anything can happen and does. But the unexpected happens even on the “inside” – she surprises herself, for one. Running into the Count and Contesa surprises her. I wanted to surprise. TM: Oliver Sacks has a fascinating essay about asylums in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books called, “The Lost Virtues of the Asylum.” In the essay, he laments the loss of the benefits of the mental hospital, such as the simplified, narrowed life, and the structure that provided “the freedom to be as mad as one liked” which allowed some patients to “emerge from the depths as saner and stabler people.” He also mentions that little was done to prepare residents for the world beyond the asylum, so that some patients lost the desire or the ability to return to the outside world. Do you think, in the same way, that institutions like the one where Helen resides, have beneficial effects that dually act to make the members dependent, domesticated, and weak? LT: That’s a great question. I read the essay, too. It’s amazing how ideas shift every 20, 30 years or so – in art, in social engineering -- and return and are revised. Asylums can look good now especially compared with mentally ill people living on the streets and shitting in park bushes, and no one able to take care of them. Sacks is a great advocate for difference, for oddness, which is extremely important. But curiously I think what’s appealing now, and why what he’s proposing seems “right,” is that many so-called “normal people” identify with the wish to be as mad as they want and be taken care of.  Of course, that’s madness without pain. It’s excruciating to be trapped in a brain that’s out of control, it’s a paralysis and a deadly chaos. Most people have no idea of how painful mental illness is, how it can be like death. But who can take care of people and do it well? Whether they’re mentally or physically ill or very old? That’s the issue. I don’t think most institutions are inherently vicious, except the death penalty. Institutions are people, though, and tricky.  I wish we really knew, all things being equal, why some survive and prosper and others don’t, in the same family, say, or a nursing home. TM: Helen thinks about her seemingly limitless “freedom” as a girl, where “it was assumed I could do what I wanted and be what I hoped for, so then I could and should pursue pleasure, part of my birthright, though as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of American women in the 19th century, it was that lone, unique freedom which damned them to unhappy marriages.” Do you think that Helen suffers from having too many choices, and that her residency at the institution in some way ameliorates the need for her to make decisions? LT: What does Helen suffer from? I set out many possibilities, she’s a complex character, the way people are. As we read, we impose ourselves on characters, which makes better characters than most writers write. Interpretation is a weird thing, and within limits it’s impossible to discount most. So much is said about choice in a democracy, but so much about life is determined before birth: Skin color, class, nationality, religion. Which is why there’s that repeated riff – “into which she was born and about which she had no choice.” A person can change big aspects of their lives, leave home, lose or make money, become godless, and I am very concerned with the choices I make, within the range of choice I have – ethics – and also with my various passivities. It’s curious to me why some people are active in some ways and others don’t bother – it’s rare that people refuse to accept things as they are. Most Americans don’t vote. In Holland, you are forced by law to vote. Now that might not be “democratic” to some, or very to others. But that law asserts an idea of what citizenship and society demand. I’m also fascinated by people who actively want to limit theirs and others’ choices. Big and little. Marriage, reproduction, all kinds of prohibitions people want, and exclusions, inclusions. We minutely police ourselves and each other, with glances and headshakings. It seems to me that Helen is in the throes of decision-making every minute of the day at the institution. TM: So much of American Genius is concerned with repetition; there’s the repetition of the daily activities at the institution, as well as the repetition of Helen’s thoughts. Her thoughts obsessively return to the same topics, such as skin, her Polish cosmetician, her pet cat, Leslie Van Houten and the Manson family, chair design, and the Zulu language, among other things. The following passage establishes a central idea, that everything is cyclical, that nothing goes away, and that everything comes back only with a different face: “History repeats itself, but differently, people repeat themselves, there is a compulsion to repeat, which is not chosen, and few actually appreciate conscious repetition, except psychoanalysts, scientists, salespeople, and shopkeepers, who depend on regular customers and artists, who might find elegance or beauty in it.” Are we destined to repeat ourselves regardless of attempts not to? Should one embrace repetition? I just realized that this touches on Dreher’s series of paintings, (and so now I am repeating myself). Does conscious repetition give one power over it in some way? LT: Conscious repetition. There’s not too much of it on Helen’s part. The institution repeats itself consciously, serving the same food in a steady rotation.  Many people like to eat the same thing for breakfast. Most of what’s repeated is unconscious. People don’t choose their most vivid memories, and I don’t think we can choose to forget, either, though people find ways –- often neuroses do just that. They make us stupid and also able to forget. I think about illusion a lot, people have an illusion of control, and I think repetition does give you some sense that you are in more control. If you do yoga every day, you have more control of your body’s flexibility. But it won’t stop you from getting hit by a car. Or being burned to death in a fire. What I like about what Dreher does is that by painting the same glass, he looks at the same object differently each time, and he does it differently, because he’s noticing it differently, and his hand changes with his eye, or brain. He sees more. I’d like to see more than I do.
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Tao Lin

Tao Lin's new novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel, is about a young writer named Sam who, for mysterious reasons, steals from American Apparel repeatedly and unsuccessfully, and lands himself in jail. The story is told a spare, unemotional voice that is, at turns, funny and strange and yet somehow casts a melancholy light over the characters. Here, I ask Lin about his choices in crafting the book. Lin is also the author of four other books including a novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, and a story-collection, Bed. He has a blog and a Twitter account. Deb Olin Unferth: In Shoplifting from American Apparel I notice you give as much narrative weight to the episodes where Sam is in jail as you do to the places where Sam is doing more mundane activities, such as going to Gainesville or chatting online with a friend. Why is that? Tao Lin: I wanted to try to write from a more distant and inclusive perspective, and to the most inclusive perspective (the universe itself) everything has the same value. I think I wanted to do that, in part, because it's a way of viewing things that is consoling to me, because it makes it so how one feels, in whatever situation, is determined by how one wants to feel or decides to feel, or how one decides to view the situation, not by what the situation is. So when conventionally bad things happen one can view it neutrally and not feel bad. DOU: Was your interest in the title you chose due to the sound and meaning of the phrase, the catchiness and humor of it, or did you choose it to direct our reading of the story, as in, to call our attention to certain parts of the book—the shoplifting and jail parts—and point to them as significant in a plot that is otherwise unhierarchical? TL: I sort of modeled Shoplifting from American Apparel's title on Richard Yates' The Easter Parade's title. The Easter Parade's title references an event about 20% into itself, in which the two main characters (who from that moment forward have, from certain perspectives, very depressing lives), I think, are at an Easter parade and happy, or at least content and calm, and, it seems, looking forward to the rest of their lives with some degree of optimism. The Easter Parade's title therefore directs the reader, after they have finished the book, or whenever they think about the book, to the idea that the climax of the main characters' lives occurs 20% into the book, when they are around 18 I think, in a book that ends with the main character at age 50, which to me is affecting, both in terms of me thinking about the characters' lives and that Richard Yates' wanted to direct the reader to that. Shoplifting from American Apparel's title also references an event that is about 20% into itself. But due to the nature of the novella, that it treats events the same, with the same amount of attention, and without any sentences about the characters' thoughts or feelings, so you don't know if they're happy or sad, it is less referencing a time of happiness in the past than just neutrally referencing a time in the past. Shoplifting from American Apparel's title is me saying "time is passing, which is affecting, to me," whereas, in my view, The Easter Parade's title is Richard Yates saying "the climax of these characters lives occurred early in their lives, and time is passing, which is affecting, to me." DOU: In Shoplifting from American Apparel time shifts unexpectedly. A paragraph may open with “Four months later…” and it feels strange because we had thought we were in the middle of a scene or a situation. The choice seems almost random, not as if it is random, but as if you may have meant it to seem random, to give the suggestion of randomness. Do you mean to do that? Or what effect do you hope to achieve? TL: When I work on a book such as this one, where the sentences are simple and literal and concrete, and not a lot of time is spent on the words within the sentences, the work I do is mostly on trying to achieve a level of non sequitur (or "randomness") from sentence to sentence and scene to scene that is consistently "not normal." I try to make the entire book exhibit a consistent level of non sequitur, ideally the same level of non sequitur from sentence to sentence as scene to scene. I hope to achieve, by doing this, a quality of rereadability due to the book seeming weird or aberrant, to some degree, like it has its own rules that seem to make sense to itself. In a fantasy book, one would create weirdness or uniqueness by changing the physical rules of the universe or changing the concrete details of the universe. In Shoplifting from American Apparel I wanted to create uniqueness by changing the "experience" of the universe, by making it consistently jarring or illogical from sentence to sentence and scene to scene and therefore, if I'm successful, and if one acquiesces while reading to the "rules" of the book, not jarring or illogical (due to it being consistently jarring and illogical), just different. DOU: What can you say about the ending? Why did you choose to end where you did? TL: To me, the book, in its lack of rhetoric, and lack of focus on anything else but what I'm about to type, has a kind of theme maybe: that I'm aware of the passage of time and it is affecting to me. The ending is affecting to me because it references childhood in a non-rhetorical and almost "accidental" way. After reading the last line I think about the past but also about the present as the future's past. The question at the end of the book sort of implies to me another question that would be something like "what did you want to be when you were 25?" which Sam's age at the end of the book. DOU: How, to you, is Shoplifting from American Apparel different from your other books? TL: It has a more consistent and extreme and sustained prose style. It has a more consistent tone. It doesn't have any sentences about characters' thoughts or feelings. It has little or no sentences that I feel embarrassed to read aloud. It has no em-dashes and I think no semi-colons. But overall I think I still view it as the same kind of book as my other books because to me it is conveying the same philosophies and thoughts and feelings about life as my other books, just using different strategies to do so.
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Phillip Lopate

Phillip Lopate is a master of many literary forms. Best known as an essayist and a champion of the personal essay, Lopate has also written three books of fiction and two volumes of poetry, with his next, At the End of the Day, forthcoming in January. This spring Princeton University Press published his latest book, Notes on Sontag, as the first in a series of Writers on Writers. In Notes on Sontag, Lopate weds his memories of Susan Sontag as a teacher (though never his), cinephile, cult figure, and intellectual idol, with an analysis of her essays and fiction, and in doing so takes on her aversion to the personal essay. Lopate states accurately in his introduction, “Those who are looking for a hatchet-job here will be as disappointed as those seeking hagiography.” The end result is a thoughtful, intellectual, and at times comic account of Sontag’s writing and life. As Monica McFawn’s Quarterly Conversation review claims, “Lopate’s strongest case for the personal in literature is his own riveting sketch of Sontag.” I was lucky enough to take a nonfiction workshop with Lopate this summer as part of the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius, Lithuania. The intellectual rigor and witty sense of humor that informs his prose made the class both stimulating and enjoyable. We met one morning in Vilnius, not far from Cathedral Square, to speak about Susan Sontag, the personal essay, and his book. The Millions: In your introduction to Notes on Sontag, you call your ambivalence for Susan Sontag “a promising basis for a work of literary reflection.” Could you talk more about your ambivalence and why you thought that was a good starting point for this book?” Phillip Lopate: I think the essay gravitates toward doubt and self-doubt. And then you untie the knots along the way, only to create more knots. So in many ways this book on Sontag is a defense of the essay. It’s a book-length essay, and what I value most in Sontag is her work as an essayist, especially her first three collections of essays: Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, and Under the Sign of Saturn. I have a complicated relationship with Sontag, both as a reader and as an acquaintance, and I thought that this project would give me the chance to work out what I really thought about her and her work. Ambivalence is a good starting point because you don’t run out of things to say. You’re always at war with yourself, in a sense, and that guarantees a certain tension. TM: You mention your personal relationship with Susan Sontag. One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the way that you interspersed analysis with personal reflections. I was wondering how much that played a role in your conception of the book, and if you think you would’ve written the book without having known her. It obviously would’ve been a different book. PL: Well, I’m a personal essayist first and foremost, and one of the curious things about Sontag was that she went on record expressing a disdain for the personal and thought there was something tacky about writing about yourself, though the times that she did it she did it brilliantly. So, in some ways, I’m a different kind of essayist from Sontag and this book is mainly an analysis of her work. I would say it’s 80 percent analysis, 20 percent personal vignettes and memories. You can’t be 100 percent objective. I wanted to show that a human being was writing the book, and one comes with certain predispositions, prejudices, and so on. I also thought it would be funny because a lot of the memories are funny. One of the amusing sides for me in the book is that Sontag was a brilliant writer who was not particularly known for having a sense of humor. A lot of my material is comic, more or less, and so I thought that even though Sontag isn’t funny I could find a way to write in an amusing way about her and about myself. Because, in a way, there’s nothing funnier than someone who takes herself very seriously and has a solemn reverence for greatness. So I was able to play with that. I think that one of the main things that gets me going as a writer is the opportunity to do mischief. And in this particular respect I was analyzing one of the sacred cows of contemporary literature, an icon really. I knew that I was on thin ice a lot and that itself piqued my interest because I could get in a lot of trouble. One of the ways I could get in trouble immediately was by confessing that in some ways I had always wanted Sontag’s respect for me as a writer, and I had never quite gotten it. I would be handing those hostile to the book a weapon against myself, saying, Oh, well, he’s just got an ax to grind, or has a vendetta, but in fact I really wanted to give her my respect every time I could for the work that I love by her. So I don’t think it’s at all a hatchet job. It’s really an attempt to be much more measured. But I gave critics the opportunity to say, He doesn’t understand that he’s just working off his pique. I did understand I was playing with that. The personal is part of what makes the book dangerous—dangerous for me, anyway. TM: In the book, you mention that Sontag ended up writing quite a bit about herself in spite of her desire to avoid the personal. I’m wondering in what ways you think she revealed herself through her essays and what is the source of her disdain for writing about herself. PL: Well, it’s funny, when she was quite young she said in a diary entry something to the effect that all writing is an exposure and that you basically want to say something to express yourself, but then she joined a kind of high-minded backlash against the memoir, saying that self-expression was not important and what was important was imagination. She herself moved away from the essay and thought more and more of herself as a fiction writer. So in a way, she devalued her own thinking and put a greater value on making up plots, making up characters, in other words, getting away from the self. That’s one thing you can do. I’ve done that myself—I’ve written fiction where I’ve made up characters, but a lot of what I do is also detaching myself from myself and making myself into a character so that I know I’m not exactly the person I call Phillip Lopate in my writing. Now, her work is very expressive, for better or worse, of her character. And you can track that development, how she was enthusiastic first about some things and how that changed. It’s very revealing. One of the things that I say in the book is that she didn’t think against herself. She liked to take a strong position and back it up. And then ten years later she would take the opposite position. But in a way, one way of defining the difference between us is that she was an enthusiast and I’m a skeptic. As soon as I begin to march in one direction for a cause, I begin to see the arguments against it and wonder. You could say that I’m just more doubtful from the start. So it is a kind of conversation between two writers. Even though one of the writers is no longer with us, she has written all these books and I am talking to her. She is my captive audience. TM: It’s an interesting choice to write about Susan Sontag, given that you’re a personal essayist and that she avoided the medium. How does one write a personal essay without becoming too self-absorbed, or having it become therapeutic? What’s the line? PL: I think the line is you attend to the form of the work. That is, it’s not a question of what you need therapeutically but what the essay needs. You keep shaving off one part, adding another part, and building a form the way a potter works with clay. I don’t think that writing is intrinsically therapeutic, though I do think that it helps us to come to terms with our demons and it helps us to attain some consolation or equanimity. There is a kind of psychological benefit from writing, at least I’ve experienced it as such. But I think that if you can make a work of literature—it doesn’t matter whether you’re starting from your own experience or inventing something—you are imaginatively shaping it in some way. There’s the imagination of the real as well as the imagination of the made-up. For me, starting from more experience and shaping it into a pleasing meditation or a pleasing autobiographical piece or memory piece—that’s the justification. Really, giving pleasure is the justification. And the reader can tell right away whether you’re fooling yourself or whether you’ve gained enough detached perspective on yourself. The reader really is the final judge and you just have to internalize the reader and say: Oh no, that’s way to self-absorbed, the reader doesn’t care about that, why are you going on about that? That’s how you acquire some sense of perspective. TM: Returning to what you were saying about the imagination and Sontag’s writing, in spite of her triumphs with the essay, she preferred to think of herself as a novelist. In the book you mentioned that you, as well as many others, don’t think that her fiction measures up to the level of her essays. Do you think her disdain was a reflection of a greater literary sentiment? PL: Certainly I think that fiction has more status than nonfiction, just as poetry does. In the beginning of MFA programs, God created fiction and poetry and saw that it was good. Some upstarts came from nonfiction and said, "Hey we want to get in on this boat, too." I think that if you look at the prizes that are given out every year, there are many more given out in fiction and poetry than are given out in essay writing or other kinds of nonfiction. I don’t think that Sontag was alone at all in this. She was part of a whole generation of writers who actually can be said to have been better at nonfiction than fiction but preferred to think of themselves as fiction writers. I include in that James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Gore Vidal, possibly even Norman Mailer, Joan Didion. Sontag felt the big game was fiction. And that’s where you win the Noble Prize. You don’t win it for writing essays. That’s understandable and that would’ve been great had she been a great fiction writer. Some people can do both, but she lacked a deep sympathy for other people—which is okay if you’re a critic because you don’t have to be that empathetic if you’re a critic, you just have to know what you think about something. And she lacked, for the most part, a sense of humor. It’s hard to be a great novelist without those two things. Somehow she also disdained realism and naturalism for a long time, so that meant she didn’t put that much emphasis into building characters and situations but was much more interested in experimental fiction; when she practiced it, it seemed a little dry. I’m not saying anything that devastating because she was so good an essayist, it’s not a crime not to be a terrific fiction writer also. It’s just that because I love the essay, I regret that she came to put her eggs in another basket. TM: You are a champion of the personal essay, we’ve talked a lot about this in class. I was thinking about Sontag’s dismissal of nonfiction in relation to our nonfiction workshop, where many people are turning in pieces of fiction. What do you think about the status of nonfiction in general? PL: I think nonfiction is going to be around forever, and in many ways may sell more books than fiction. That is, in the marketplace, nonfiction probably does better on the whole than fiction. But it’s still hard to get collections of essays published. You can get them published individually in magazines, but you have to create an aura of specialness to get a book of essays published. I do think that recently nonfiction has been invaded by the allure of fiction and poetry, and there’s a great deal of hybridization that’s fascinating in some ways. It’s a period of experimentation and mutation. It just so happens that I cherish the assets and values of good nonfiction, so I am championing them and saying before we mutate too much in the direction of fiction and poetry, we should just take a step back and realize there are some things quite wonderful that nonfiction can do, including reflection and analysis. You don’t have to make everything into a scene with dialogue. You can actually have the narrative voice reflect as hard and as stimulatingly as possible and give us the full benefit of the thought. TM: Speaking of reflection, you write that when reflecting on Sontag, she is always provoking you to think harder. At one point you speak of her heroes of the intellect, including Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin, and how they shaped her intellectual approach. I was wondering if you would include Sontag as one of your heroes of the intellect, and what aesthetic standards you hold yourself to. PL: I certainly would include Sontag as someone who had a great influence on me as an essayist. She taught me how to write, let's say, the twenty-five-page essay where you go in and you circle something from all sides, the way she did in “Notes on Camp.” Clearly the title of my book, Notes on Sontag, plays off of “Notes on Camp,” and the idea of taking notes and arriving at some greater understanding is something that appeals to me a lot. And also, she wrote in a rather epigrammatic, aphoristic, condensed way and I do find that attractive just as I find it attractive in the people who she was inspired by, such as Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin. In a way, Sontag and I were both drinking from the same fount. She certainly was one of my intellectual heroes and the people who were her intellectual heroes were some of my intellectual heroes as well. I guess I also consider myself more proudly American than she did, and so I don’t only take inspiration from abroad but I take it from American writers as well, including a lot of American essayists, like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy. TM: In Notes on Sontag, you follow a section called Don’t Get Personal, about the ways that Sontag avoided the personal essay, with a section of your own reflections, Later Memories of Sontag. I thought that added to the levity and the humor that you spoke about earlier. In that section you also mentioned a desire to become closer to Sontag, and this reminded me of your essay about Donald Barthelme,“The Dead Father,” where you speak of a desire to be closer to him, too. Do you think the personal distance they imposed on you and on others enabled them to write as well as they did? I was also thinking of the section in Notes on Sontag where you cite, “Sontag commented often how difficult it was for a woman writer to appropriate the oceans of alone-time that every writer needs.” PL: Well, they were both, for want of a better word, provincials. They both came from other parts of the country and moved to New York, Sontag from the west—Arizona and California—and Barthelme from Texas. In a way, they were both self-invented and they came to New York. They remade themselves in New York. The whole avant-garde is always from out-of-towners. I’m a native New Yorker, and so in some ways I’m more traditional, you know, because native New Yorkers have seen avant-gardes come and go. We say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m not going to get too excited about this.” I think that in both cases, my piece about Barthelme and my book about Sontag, I was working on the double portrait. And the double portrait means that it’s going to be about the other person and it’s going to be about me. And that creates an extra interest and tension. In both cases, I was exposing myself to the charge that I was basically chagrined that these literary lions did not take me to their bosom. It’s funny because there have been a number of terrific writers who have given me the benediction and said that they really liked my writing. But it’s less interesting to write about that than it is to write about relationships that only grew so tall. I call them bonsai tree relationships. I wanted to investigate why some acquaintanceships don’t turn into friendships, for instance. What is it that prevents them from growing more? And of course that says something about the literary life and about people protecting their status and choosing quite carefully who will be a peer, who will be an acolyte, and so on. That’s part of what makes the literary life so brutal and so fascinating. In both cases, with Barthelme and Sontag, I was younger than they were but not so young that they could embrace me as one of their mentees so to speak, and therefore more threatening. I was breathing down their necks. But that’s a curious thing—the whole notion of how people choose to withhold themselves or to give themselves is very interesting and I have to say that I’m the same way. I’m fairly self-protective. I’ll be cordial and helpful with my students but I won’t necessarily let many of them become my friends. Writers have to be very protective. They can’t just give pieces of their heart to everyone. TM: Is that because you have to maintain space in order to write? PL: Yes. And in Barthelme’s case he was an alcoholic, which meant after a certain hour of the day you weren’t getting the full sober Barthelme, you were getting somebody who was, you know... in a funny way alcoholics lose some of their individuality. But he was certainly brilliant during the working hours. TM: I’m wondering if there’s something that I didn’t touch on that you’d like to talk about. PL: I’d just like to say that for me the book was a literary and stylistic challenge. What I was really trying to do was to write well. To do a kind of peculiar thing, which is a book-length essay that functions on a lot of different levels so that it has this kind of novelistic component, as though it’s about a relationship. You might say that Sontag is an older sister. It has this familial quality but it also has a lot of literary criticism, but I didn’t want to be an academic literary critic who was applying ready-made theory. I liked the idea of reading her work and then saying, “What do I really think about this passage?” Not, “What should I think about it?” but, “What do I actually think about it?” and, “Does this ring true, does this ring false?” without the benefit of a ready-made theory. So you might say it’s amateur literary criticism, but honest, trying to be as honest as I could.
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon's most recent novel, Await Your Reply, is a masterful tale of identity and how it's made, stolen, and remade.  The book, with its three interlocking stories, and locales as disparate as Las Vegas, Nebraska, and the Arctic, is intensely readable, but as Janet Maslin of The New York Times points out, "...the real pleasure in reading Mr. Chaon is less in finding out where he’s headed than in savoring what he accomplishes along the way." Chaon is also the author of the novel, You Remind Me of Me, and two short story collections, Fitting Ends, and Among the Missing, which was nominated for the National Book Award.  He was my creative writing teacher at Oberlin College, where he is the Irvin E. Houck Associate Professor of the Humanities. The Millions: What really struck me about this book was how realistic and specific your characters felt, even as some of them dissolved and became nothing more than a name, a wardrobe, a series of gestures and ways of speaking. At the same time, though, other characters remained real—and, this isn’t exactly the right word—pure.  How did you go about creating the different characters for this novel?  How important was it that they all be believable, and what does that mean for this kind of book? Dan Chaon: The book was written in little pieces, almost like a series of short-short stories in the beginning.  When I started, I didn’t know anything but little glimmers—scenes—that eventually began to fit together.  In general I don’t plan out my characters in advance.  Mostly, I begin with images, moments—a severed hand in an ice bucket, a lighthouse on the prairie, a guy driving down the Dempster Highway toward the Arctic Ocean. Once I had the moment in my head, I began to circle out and try to understand the people who were involved.  So I suspect that my experience of writing the book, and the discoveries that I made as I went along, are not so different from the readers’ experience. The characters all started out as “real” to me—I was getting to know them as I went along,  the same way you get to know friends over time--and I was as shocked as anyone when some of them turned out to be fakes.  You say that some of the characters “remained real—and this isn’t exactly the right word—pure,” --but I actually think this is exactly the right coinage. Pure.  I really like that word. That’s one of the issues that I was thinking of when I was writing. What is a “real” self?   What is a “pure” representation of character? Is it just a consistent set of behaviors?  Is there something truly essential that makes you,  you?  I don't think I came up with an answer, but it was fun to think about. TM: In your acknowledgments, you write that Await Your Reply pays homage to various writers you’ve loved, from Ray Bradbury to Shirley Jackson to Peter Straub, among others.  What was the extent of your “gestures and winks” toward their work?  Is this your own playful, literary version of identity theft? DC: One of my early jobs when I was first out of undergrad was as a DJ. This was back in the late eighties, when the concepts of the “mash-up” and sampling were still in their infancy.  But there was something about that concept that I really, really liked—the way the songs seemed to be having a conversation with one another, and by being combined actually transformed into something new.  I’d like to think that there’s some of that going on here, too.  Many of the “samples” are tucked into the imagery, like Easter eggs:  for example, readers of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym will recognize those birds that are circling Miles in the Arctic, with their cry of “tekeli-li!”; people who have seen Takashi Miike’s movie, The Audition,  will recognize that horrific piano wire in Chapter 2; people who have read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House will notice echoes of poor Eleanor Vance’s final thoughts... and—well,  let’s just say that there are a few dozen of these throughout the book,   which some people might enjoy finding themselves.  But my intent wasn’t merely to create a bunch of cute in-jokes, either.  To a larger extent, I was using these little touchstones to draw forth a particular texture and mood. For me,  it was almost an invocation, a séance.  That Ouija Board is in Jay’s house for a reason! As a writer, I feel like I’m always in conversation with the books that I’ve read.   Occasionally, an interviewer will ask:  “Who are you writing for?  Who is your audience?”  And in many ways the answer is that I’m writing for those authors I’ve loved, and the books I’ve loved.   If you’re an avid reader, and a book gets under your skin, it can affect you as intensely as a real human relationship, it lingers with you for your whole life, and there is always this desire to re-experience that amazing sense of connection you get from “your books.”  I understand completely why people want to write fan fiction.  To me, I guess, all fiction is fan fiction at a certain level, just as it always has an element of identity theft. TM: Do you see your novel as a kind of Nabokovian puzzle, to be unwrapped and unlocked by discerning readers of the future?  How far does the rabbit hole go? DC: As much as I’m flattered by the term “Nabokovian,” I’m not sure that I’m capable of that level of gamesmanship.   I’m sure that a literary critic could footnote the hell out of the book, but I suspect that a great number of the references she’d find here would be unintentional, or accidental, or drawn unconsciously from the cultural ether.  A couple of years ago,  I wrote the Afterward for the Signet Classic edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,  and one of the things that struck me,  re-reading that novel for the first time in many years, was how much of my recollection of the book was simply wrong.  Major scenes that I remembered vividly simply weren’t there in the text.  In fact,  as it turned out,  my memory of Dr. Jekyll  had been so radically infected by the enormous number of other representations that were floating around in the culture—movies and comics and parodies and so forth—that it was difficult to read the “real” version without filling in aspects from the version I’d imagined, the version that I’d pieced together out of a vast array of cultural detritus.  None of which had existed when the actual book was written.  I hope that something similar may happen to readers of Await Your Reply, and that in this way the “rabbit hole” goes on into Fibonacci-like infinity.  I set out to draw on some of the archetypal plots that I had always found most compelling—the Bluebeard story, the evil twin story, the mythology of shapeshifters, legends of ghosts and haunted places and  fruitless quests into the wastelands—all of which, of course, were viral memes for centuries before the internet existed. I suspect that the reader will be reminded of a whole set of references and touchstones as they read—but that their footnotes would be idiosyncratic, a kind of private,  Kinbote-like appendix for each individual reader. TM: This novel is ingeniously structured, with three narratives that eventually overlap and lock together.  Part of the fun of reading it is figuring that puzzle out.  How did you put together this little narrative machine?  None of it feels accidental—but can that be? DC: When I started out, I didn’t have any idea how the three threads were connected.   I just knew that they were—somehow. The first hundred pages of the book took me about two years to write.  I revised and revised, and fiddled around with the personalities of the characters,  and added and deleted subplots and minor characters—basically trying to frame out the farmland that I was going to be working with, cutting brush and taking rocks out of the soil and so forth. The second hundred pages took about nine months. This was when I began to use cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter, leaving each thread with an unanswered question that I had to figure out, and that pushed things forward for me more quickly.  At this point, I was showing the book chapter by chapter to my editor, Anika Streitfeld,  and to my wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz.  They would each give me a little feedback and I’d float various plot concepts—which Anika or Sheila or both of them would frequently,  kindly,  shoot down,  or talk me through. The last hundred pages was written in a little less than two months,  but it really wasn’t until the final few chapters that I truly had everything figured out.  The last bit of plot clicked into place the way a difficult math problem sometimes does.  Bing!  Suddenly it seems so obvious!  And I remember e-mailing Anika at about four in the morning.   “Does this sound crazy???" I had to go back and do some adjustment and revision—but it was actually quite surprising to me to discover how much of the plot was already there,   embedded in the narrative without my noticing. It didn’t actually require a lot of rewriting.  My wife Sheila died of cancer not long after I’d finished the final revisions,  and it’s both difficult and comforting now to look at this book, since there is so much of her in it, chapter by chapter: her advice and thoughts and spirit.  She wrote in pencil on the last page of the last chapter:  “You did it, honey!”  But really we did it together. TM: As Await Your Reply progresses, it hearkens more and more to an old-fashioned thriller or horror tale, with its level of suspense, its secrets and plot revelations, and its pervading sense of unease.  This, for me, felt simultaneously like a departure and continuation from your earlier work, if that makes any sense.  What say you? DC: I’ve been deeply influenced by two strains of North American fiction: first, by the realistic regionalism of writers like Alice Munro,  Raymond Carver,   Sherwood Anderson, and so forth; and secondly, by writers of dark fantasy like Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, and Ray Bradbury,  etc. I’ve tended to be categorized more with the former group, the regional realists, but I think that you could make a good case to classify my work with the latter as well.  My short story collection,  Among the Missing,  was strongly influenced by the tradition of ghostly and supernatural tales, and my first novel, You Remind Me of Me, was drawing very heavily from tales of psychological suspense and Kafkaesque otherworldliness—not intended to be straightforward melodrama, though I think it was often taken as such.  I learned a lot about novel-writing from You Remind Me of Me—the effects that I wanted, and those that I didn’t—and I deliberately wanted to go back to the multiple narrative,  round-robin style of storytelling, and see if I could build on what I had figured out. Around the time I was finishing You Remind Me of Me, I also happened to write a story for McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales,  edited by Michael Chabon.  Chabon’s project was to combine so-called literary writing with pulp and genre storytelling elements,   and I was very much inspired by what he had to say. I felt like the story I wrote,  “The Bees,”  was a breakthrough for me, and I learned a lot from writers like Karen Joy Fowler,  Kelly Link, George Saunders, Arthur Phillips,  Kevin Brockmeier—and many others—who were doing interesting work with genre-bending.  I have to say, though, that perhaps the biggest cultural influences on the novel were my teenaged sons, Philip and Paul, and the books and movies and TV shows that they loved and which permeated our household—Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy of books,  and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the TV show “Lost,” the films Fight Club and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,  all the various good,  smart stuff which one or both of my kids were obsessed with... TM: In a 2004 interview with Poets and Writers Magazine, you remarked: “I've written stories since I was a little kid. To me there's something compelling about being a different person for a little while and trying out a different kind of life.” I couldn’t help but read Await Your Reply as partly a meditation on fiction writing and reading.  In the book, when Ryan muses that identities are like shells that “you stepped into and that began to solidify over time… They began to take on a life of their own, developed substance,” I thought of my own creative process of inhabiting characters.  And Ryan’s sadness after retiring an identity articulated so well that peculiar grief of finishing a manuscript, or a beloved book.  Were these nods to the writing and reading life intentional?  Furthermore, do you think fiction writing is somewhat criminal—is it a weird invasion of privacy, this theft and composite of various real lives?  Do readers understand best the lure of identity theft, the chance to live another’s life for a while?  And, when you spend a large part of your time making up stories and reading made up stories, where does real life begin and end?  What makes some human beings real, and some fictional? DC: Gee, Edan.  You articulate things so well here that I barely have to answer!     Yes to all of these.  I think that as a teacher of creative writing, it’s inevitable that you think a lot about the creative process,  and that you spend a lot of time trying to articulate how it works and why it is important, especially in a world that students face in which this kind of thinking isn’t taken seriously, when it’s seen as frivolous—or worse. One of the things that I talk about frequently with my students is the act of empathy—the act of trying to imagine yourself in the position of someone else—and the way this can be scary,  and transgressive, and even dangerous.  One of my assignments in my fiction class is to ask students to write from the point of view of someone radically different from themselves—to speak in the voice of a different gender or ethnicity or class, to try to think as far outside themselves as they can go, to try to inhabit that person—and for many of my students this feels perilous,  even morally problematic. I remember one time we had a discussion in class about a sensational news story.  An insane woman had kidnapped a pregnant mother, and had killed the mother and performed a c-section and claimed the baby as her own.  A truly horrifying tale.  And we had been talking about it in class, and I asked:  which character would you choose if you were writing a story?   The pregnant mother or the insane woman who took the baby?   At that point, a young woman spoke up, a sophomore. “My God!”  she said.  “The ghost of that dead woman is probably spitting on us as we sit here talking about this!”  I think that was you, Edan, who was so appalled.  I remember that it gave me pause:  At what point does imagining, does the attempt to inhabit, become wrong?  At what point does it become morally repugnant?   I still think: never.  But I understand that it’s fraught,  that it’s compromised, that it’s suspect. That it’s an invasion that borders on—or crosses over into—the criminal. During the writing of this book,  I followed the exploits of a number of trolls who used invented personas to invade and then (often hilariously) disrupt various solemn internet message boards.   I read about a depressed teen who was goaded into suicide by a cruel classmate’s mother who was pretending to be the poor girl’s “boyfriend” on MySpace.  I myself set up a dummy email address and briefly tried out various fake personas to see what would happen. Where does real life begin and end?  What makes some human beings real, and some fictional?  I don’t know the answer.  For better or worse,  the answers to these questions seem to be changing all the time,  and maybe there is no true answer. TM: There’s an incredibly eerie and memorable second-person chapter at the end of Part One, where the narrator describes “your” identity being stolen, which, “Isn’t necessarily you, of course…you are aware of your life as a continuous thread, a dependable unfolding story of yourself that you are telling yourself.”  This chapter has the great power of planting paranoia in the reader’s mind, and forces her to question her own identity and notions of self.   As I kept reading, though, I found myself feeling paranoid about everything in the book—pretty soon I couldn’t trust anyone!  Um, Dan?  How in the hell did you do this? DC: This chapter emerged from a late night free-write,   which wasn’t originally intended to be anything but a journal entry.  I was at a point when I needed to try to explain to myself what the book was about, and this was one of the few chapters  (the final chapter, Chapter 26, is the other) which came out in one draft, with very little revision. It felt like an inner voice that was speaking to me—a very eerie feeling for me as well. TM: About the aforementioned chapter: why the second person?  It’s interesting, because while it’s about identity theft, it’s not taking away my identity, but, rather, giving me a different one.  In the text, I’m pulling off a snowy interstate—“And you wipe off the snow in your hair”—when in fact this reader lives in Los Angeles!  What went into this particular narrative choice? DC: The narrative movement of this chapter was weird for me. Originally,  the narrator felt like me, Dan Chaon, the author—but then it moved into a more chilly and abstract omniscience, as if a little spark of myself had disconnected and was free-floating through the world, out-of-the-body travel, and then I found myself hovering over a stranger and entering into his consciousness.  Becoming part of the scene, and taking on his life story and personality. I realize now that I was trying to model the process of transference—to describe in shorthand the way imaginative empathy works.  “You”  are not in Los Angeles any longer.  You have become that melancholy middle-aged guy pumping gas in upstate New York. There is a  poem by my friend Liz Rosenberg called “The Accident,”  which I think about a lot.  In the poem, a woman who is driving down the interstate observes the death of a motorcyclist from a distance, and there is an incredibly beautiful use of second person that I have always admired.  “You are still you,  but changing fast,” says the narrator of Liz Rosenberg's poem, and she is both talking to the dying motorcycle guy and to herself. TM: Has teaching at Oberlin influenced you as a writer? How do you manage to give students a sense of artistic freedom, while also offering them straightforward advice on technique and form? DC: I love teaching, and I particularly like that moment when a student begins to discover the subject matter and voice that makes them unique. That’s a real high for me and it’s what keeps me coming back, semester after semester.  It’s such a pleasure to be around people who care passionately about books and writing and who have singular perspectives about the world, which is what I find almost across the board with Oberlin students.  I do find that I learn a lot from students, too.  The thing about teaching fiction is that there isn’t one answer to a problem—there’s no rulebook or easy fix. I learn a lot about my own process from helping students find solutions to the various issues that emerge when you’re working through a draft.  Not to get all new-agey, but there’s a lot of good energy that comes out of it. TM: Have you noticed any popular themes or concepts in this current era of undergraduate writers? DC: I notice a lot more post-apocalyptic scenarios these days, and I’m aware that as a generation this new group is pretty scared and pessimistic about the future they’re being left with.  In general, there’s less interest in straightforward realism than there used to be. It remains very difficult to get anyone under 21 interested in Alice Munro or William Trevor, but I guess that’s as it should be.  It’s hard, at my students' age, to be sympathetic with the very middle-aged concerns of those two greats.  All in good time,  right? TM: Because this is a book site, and because I know for a fact that you are a voracious, insane reader, I must ask you: What was the last great book you read? DC: Lies Will Take You Somewhere, by my wife,  Sheila Schwartz—and not just because we were married, either. I learned nearly everything I know about writing from her, and it’s a flat-out brilliant book: dark, funny, and strange in all the right ways.
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Matthew Vollmer and Nic Brown (Part II)

Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer and Floodmarkers by Nic Brown are short story collections from debut writers with enormous gifts. Their work is beautiful, funny, and delightfully weird. Matthew and Nic were my classmates at Iowa, where they proved to be not only talented writers, but also sharp and passionate readers. Since they're pals, I thought it would be fun if Matthew and Nic interviewed each other about their books. It's a real thrill for me to see their stories in print, and to have them on The Millions.In this second installment, Nic interviews Matthew about Future Missionaries of America. Of the book, the New York Times Book Review said, "Vollmer writes with equal dexterity about teenagers and adults, men and women, atheists and believers, Goths and jocks, dropouts and doctors - less interested in getting down any particular demographic, it would seem, than in revealing the humans beneath. Expertly structured and utterly convincing, these stories represent the arrival of a strong new voice." In part one, Matthew interviewed Nic.Nic Brown: In your book, you write several amazing, matter-of-fact, contemporary, and complicated stories involving aspects of Christianity - namely Seventh Day Adventists. I know you have some family background with this religion. Did you feel uncomfortable at any point writing about people of this faith (and those only encountering it, like the protagonist of the book's title story), or worried about how any Seventh Day Adventists you know would react? How have they reacted?Matthew Vollmer: Yes, it's true I grew up Seventh-day Adventist. People may find it hard to believe that stopping each week for 24 hours (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday) to rest, reflect, and abstain from "secular" activities (TV watching, sports, shopping, school, work, reading Mad magazine, etc.) could be great, but by and large being an SDA kid was pretty great, at least in my family. Sure, my church and grade school (and boarding academy) had some kooks, but as you pointed out in your interview, we're all freaks and there are kooks everywhere. When you grow up SDA, you grow up in a very tight knit group of people, the majority of whom like to have fun, even if they don't, by and large, dance or participate in competitive sports or listen to rock n roll or endorse the consumption of alcohol, drugs, tobacco, or "flesh foods." I suppose my problem began to emerge in college, once I started to ask questions about the "27 Fundamental Beliefs." Also, I started to meet people who weren't SDA. I started to appreciate different cultures, different cultural experiences, and eventually, I just found the SDA culture much too inhibitive, too insular. From my perspective, the SDA church was one that wanted to provide answers for why everything is the way it is. And those answers were often unsatisfying. Not to mention I surrendered the idea of having to have an answer for everything. I realized that sometimes, it's okay for things to remain mysterious.For years I'd tried to write about the SDA experience. But usually, when I did, I aimed at the easiest possible targets, like hypocritical characters, or characters who cherish some secret sin or something; I wrote one really terrible story about a church Treasurer, who had a crush on a teenage boy operating a soft serve yogurt machine. But those stories didn't work as well; they seemed forced - as artificial and agenda-ridden as the bedtime stories I listened to as a kid, where "little Sammy never disobeyed his mommy and daddy again!" It wasn't until I stumbled upon the idea of writing about outsiders who experience SDA culture that I found I could really capture both the strangeness and earnestness of SDAs, and use representations of that culture as fuel for the story. Also, I could harness the energies of my own desire (and failure) to fully understand this peculiar group of people, while portraying them as real people with real struggles. Hopefully, despite the fact that SDAs might seem strange, I hope people will see them in a favorable light.As for SDA reactions: I only know what people in my family have said (though I predict that plenty would be scandalized by the book). My father, who is one of my biggest supporters, has, as of this writing, still not read the book - but that's not saying a lot: he's more of a Suduku player and internet news reader. My mom read most of the stories beforehand, I think, and will usually offer some sort of vague praise, like, "I just don't know how you do it," or, "How do you think this stuff up?!" Which is sort of how my grandmother reacted. Imagine the nicest and sweetest person on the planet, a woman who has never said anything bad about anybody (and who always, always counteracts criticism of someone else with something positive), and who, when she sees a sex scene in a movie, says, "Aw... I was hoping they weren't going to be naughty!" And then imagine her reading a story collection by her grandson that's filled with foul language, sex scenes, violence, and all sorts of pathological behaviors. You know what she said? "It's not exactly my cup of tea, but what an amazing imagination you have!"Finally (I know this is a long response, but you ask me about this SDA stuff and it really gets me going), my Uncle Don, whom I adore, and who played in a folk band in the 60s (and recently revived that band) that was the equivalent of the Grateful Dead for SDAs, asked me if he'd be able to use my book for devotionals with his church members. It was a joke, of course, and we both laughed, but I couldn't stop thinking about that. Like, why couldn't he use the book for devotionals? It was and is a book about people trying to figure out life and how to live it. So I wrote him and told him what I thought and lo and behold, he not only agreed, but said he'd felt bad about making that joke.NB: You have some amazing settings: a national park, a laboratory researching hemophiliac dogs, an exhibition of preserved and dissected human bodies, and a religious boarding school, to name just a few. Can you talk about your inspiration for these?MV: Evoking setting and using it to generate various effects in stories is one of my favorite things to do. I don't travel that much, but (thanks in part to friends & relatives who've been spread over the globe, some as missionaries) I've had the opportunity to see a lot of the world. Every setting in the book, I think, is a setting that I've visited in "real life." I worked at Yellowstone. I worked at a laboratory researching hemophiliac dogs & pigs. I worked as a field technician in Purdue's entomology department. I lived in Chapel Hill. I visited Idaho, Atlanta, Carolina Beach. And I attended a religious boarding school in north Georgia. All these settings offered up (at some point) ideas for characters and stories about those characters. Some characters are based on people I encountered in these places (like Mark Scheider, for instance). Others, like the widow in "Second Home," I came up with on my own. That particular story suggested itself during a visit with my parents and aunt and uncle to a cabin on Lake Sunnapee in New Hampshire. To avoid the older folks, I took a walk through the woods to another lake house, looked around, saw nobody was home, opened the door, and walked inside. I guess that was probably illegal, but I'm glad I did it. I stole a story from that house.NB: And - is there such a thing as a robotic human baby that records your interactions with it, as depicted in Future Missionaries of America? Or did you come up with this?MV: I get this question a lot. I WISH I'd come up with it. Maybe I should start saying that I did. At any rate, it's all real. I asked for information and the company said, "Are you an educator?" and I said yes so they sent me this brochure (which featured a cutaway diagram of one of the babies, which turned out to be really helpful) and a DVD (which I've since lost) that talked about how educators could use the babies in the classroom. It was awesome.NB: Stylistically, your stories are all over the place. You have a footnoted will (in "Will & Testament"), a transcript of an answering machine message ("Man-O'-War"), a few first person narrators, a few third person. Some are more prose-driven ("Oh Land of National Paradise, How Glorious are thy Bounties"), and some defy reality (like my favorite, "Stewards of the Earth"). Did these stories arise from formal experimentation, or did the narrative ideas warrant the differing storytelling techniques?MV: I'd ascribe the stylistic variations to several different factors. The first is that the stories in the collection came into being over the course of ten years. During that time, I played around with a lot of different styles and voices and narrative forms, and every year, the story manuscript evolved significantly. For a while, maybe during 02-03, I was really interested in the various forms a story could take and thought that it might be cool to publish a collection of stories in different sub-genres, since, in addition to the will and testament story, I had a story that took the form of the last entry in a hipster's blog, a letter from a deranged and estranged father to his son, and a story called "The Ghost of Bob Ross Paints Shit Town," which took the form of a transcript of one of Bob Ross' "The Joy of Painting" shows, only in this one, Bob Ross was dead and painting the neighborhood where I lived at the time, which included such characters a shirtless midget who liked to sit on the roof of his duplex, a boy with a rat tail, and a bearded man riding a moped with a parrot on his shoulder. Also, "The Gospel of Mark Schneider" was originally formatted like a series of chapters from the Bible, with a giant number at the beginning of each section and a number before each sentence (or verse). (At the time, however, VQR couldn't figure out how to translate that into whatever software they were using at the time, so I agreed to lose the formatting altogether, which was probably a good thing.)Basically, I get an idea for a story and hope the voice can generate enough energy to sustain the narrative.NB: In the story "Straightedge," a secondary character says that her father, "one of Marlon Brando's personal chefs, had acquired psychic powers after surviving an auto accident, and on the eve on the first moon walk, he'd dreamed of her mother... who he met the next day." I guess my question is: what? Did this actually come out of your brain?MV: Ha! Yes!NB: What are you working on now?MV: I'm about four-fifths of the way through a first draft of a novel about young woman who has to postpone her dreams of being a collegiate basketball star because she gets knocked up by a soldier during a furlough. The young woman goes to work at a dental office as a receptionist, has the baby. The baby's father comes back, but he's changed - he eats all the time, chews tobacco, drinks constantly (though he claims he can't get drunk), doesn't sleep, and is obsessed with playing a disturbingly realistic online computer game called Operation Brutal Humiliation. By chance, the young woman meets another man named Donnie Trueblood, a whitewater rafting guide who claims to be a shaman and who informs her that she's lost her power animal. The rest of the novel documents the young woman's quest to retrieve this power animal and restore the man she fell in love with. Along the way there's an overweight 12-year-old magician, a loudmouthed woman who extols the virtues of Christian sex toys, a six foot six barber with a goiter the size of a grapefruit in his neck, and a grandfather dressed up as a vampire.NB: Who do you like most: Desi Arnez, the Fonz, Magnum PI, McGiver, or John Locke from the TV show "Lost"?MV: McGiver? Do you mean MacGyver? McGiver! Sounds like some crazy new promotion at McDonald's. Anyway, no question. Magnum rules.Read part one in which Matthew interviews Nic.
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Matthew Vollmer and Nic Brown (Part I)

Future Missionaries of America by Matthew Vollmer and Floodmarkers by Nic Brown are short story collections from debut writers with enormous gifts. Their work is beautiful, funny, and delightfully weird. Matthew and Nic were my classmates at Iowa, where they proved to be not only talented writers, but also sharp and passionate readers. Since they're pals, I thought it would be fun if Matthew and Nic interviewed each other about their books. It's a real thrill for me to see their stories in print, and to have them on The Millions.In this first installment, Matthew talks to Nic about his book. Floodmarkers is a collection of linked stories that take place in the fictional town of Lystra, North Carolina, on the day Hurricane Hugo hits in 1989. Daniel Wallace calls it "smart and funny and sexy," and Publisher's Weekly compared it to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio but, "simultaneously pared down and amped up, read to the sound of a jangly Strat."Matthew Vollmer: My favorite thing about your book is that it's a total freak show. We've got a character who's in love with his cousin, another who makes out with his friend's wife, a veterinarian who's into child porn, a guy who makes his mohawk stiff using microwaved gelatin, a guy who keeps a dead dog in his deep freezer, a former bodybuilder who's feeling guilty about causing the death of a Vietnamese kid, and (my favorite) an aspiring actor who works in a hot dog factory and helps a fellow employee pop a zit on his back he can't reach.Nic Brown: Well, we're all freaks! These people, if I wrote about the least interesting aspects of their life, might seem totally normal. Might. But we all have secrets or oddities, and that's what I like to write about. I mean, we live in a weird world, but it seems like most people ignore the weird and claim that everything is normal. I am trying to do the opposite.MV: Where did the idea for this book originate? Did you have a collection of characters first, then realize, hey, it would be cool if I followed these guys during a freakish weather event, or was it the other way around? In other words, when exactly did your vision for this project begin (what, exactly, did you envision the first time you thought of the idea) and how did that vision change over time?NB: For a while I found myself writing stories set in the late '80s, many of which had extreme weather. This tic made me recall Hurricane Hugo, and I began to hang all of these disparate scenes onto that one event. I think I was drawn to the '80s not because of the decade specifically, but rather because I was 12 or so at the end of the '80s, and at that age everything is magical and very important. So it's a sweet spot in my memory. As for the weather, I don't know. Storms are exciting. Hugo was very memorable for me, more for the build-up than the actual event. In Greensboro, where I was living at the time, we thought we were all going to die. We ended up just having some moderate flooding. But for the most part, the stories arose from the characters, or from a particular scene that I wanted to have happen. The weather was always secondary, and more a structural device that gave all of these events a shared catalyst.MV: Once you knew that you wanted to write a series of stories set during Hugo, how did you proceed (apart from sitting down at your typewriter and pecking the keys with two fingers)?NB: I decided to break the day into four sections (before sunrise, morning, afternoon, and evening), and try to make each proportional to the others. With this structure, I'd find that I had a character or event I wanted to use, then I would look at what I had written thus far and pick what part of the day needed to be filled. Writing short stories is so hard, because with each one you often have to create a whole world - a new setting, a new voice, a new tempo. This shared setting and structural formality made the writing a lot easier for me, and ended up producing a book that is somewhere in between a novel and a short story collection. It's a novel about a town; it's a story collection about a group of individuals.MV: Were there other characters and/or stories and/or ideas you ended up not including? If so, talk about them and why you didn't use them.NB: I did cut stories. One involved a group of friends who drive to Randolph County to a dance hall called the Rand Ole Opry where, during a barn dance, a man gets on stage and plays "Auld Lang Syne" on the accordion. It was really beautiful, but... I don't know. I guess it didn't go anywhere. I wrote another one about a blind man who lives in a duplex and falls in love with the woman on the other side of the house, then goes over there during the storm because he thinks he can hear her pets in distress (due to sensory compensation, he has super-sensitive hearing). He gets locked in and ends up breaking a bunch of stuff, then the woman comes home and finds him in her side of the house. I don't remember what happens after that. It made readers very nervous.MV: Are any of your characters based on real people? Are you nervous about people recognizing themselves in the book?NB: Many of my characters are based on real people. The most obvious is Manny (the trampoline thief in the story "Trampoline"). I have a friend who is Manny. Different name, and he never stole a trampoline or actually did any of the things the fictional Manny does, but he is basically the most uninhibited person I know (and one of the most unique looking - he looks like Sandra Bernhard). I have spent so much time with him that I can envision the type of thing he would say or do in a situation, and I enjoy embodying that uninhibited voice for a while. It's a great character to write about. My new book features a version of the same character much more extensively.As for all the others based on real people, yes, I am nervous. And so I am going to say nothing more.MV: Did you ever get sick of Lystra? Did you ever feel, when writing the book, that you were boxed in? Like, man, I would love to write a story that's NOT taking place during a hurricane? Or was it like hey, in this next story I'm gonna write, I'm excited to explore this part of this little universe I'm creating.NB: I never got sick of Lystra – the structured format really helped my creative process – but I did long to write a story that involved different weather and took place over the course of more than one day. I think it is no coincidence that my new novel opens with a scene of extreme sunlight, told in first person.MV: How much research did you have to do for the book - and what kinds of primary sources did you consult?NB: I YouTubed weather reports from Hurricane Hugo. That was about it.MV: You are known for liking small things. You drive a small car - when you're not driving a moped, which is like a small motorcycle. I also know that you enjoy small burgers. And shots of something called "cacao." Now, your first book is a book of short stories. And, unlike some collections, many of these are truly "short." I haven't counted the pages of most of your stories here, but I remember in workshop you used to turn in 15 or 16 pages like clockwork. I think most of the stories here are about that length. What can you say about the (relatively) short length of your stories?NB: Hm. That is all true, and had gone basically undiagnosed until you pointed it out. It's an aesthetic preference I have across medium. When I play music, I prefer very stripped down arrangements. I work at an art museum, and when I have to discuss certain artworks, I usually lean towards the figurative and simple. And the same goes for my food, my modes of transport, and of course - my stories. I am not against extreme complexity or complicated structures or narratives, it's just that I respond more to something that I can grasp on all sides and feel like I have enough room to find every angle on it. For example, if I had a Ferrari, how would I ever explore all of the things it could do? And where would I park it? Whereas, with my moped, I know exactly how to maximize all of its engine capacity at every speed, I can work on its engine myself, and I can park it anywhere. To me, it's just as fascinating and fun. It's the same with my stories. If I can break them down enough where I feel like I've cut out everything unimportant and boring, then I can focus on a few simple aspects that I can get the most out of. If it works right, these smaller stories should be as complex as anything larger. And also less boring. I hope.MV: One thing I saw you do especially well in your collection was to give readers a sense of what's at stake immediately and save background information for later on down the road. In almost every story, you pull back at some point to deliver a tight, punchy paragraph of expository writing that provides context about the character. These paragraphs are usually only about half a page long, if that, but they become nice little windows for peeking into characters' histories. Was it important for you to limit background information and flashbacks? And if so, why?NB: I often write stories hoping to do without any backstory whatsoever. Backstory, flashback, exposition - I always feel like these are the areas that are most likely to lose a reader. That said, when I write a story without exposition or backstory, I usually find that I do need it, so I create these small condensed bits that give us what we need to know but don't ruin the tempo I'm trying to set.MV: You wrote a novel (which I read a draft of last year and found hugely entertaining) while your collection was shopped around. Can you discuss the writing process and how it differed from Floodmarkers? What might you say about the novel that would make someone want to read it?NB: The novel is called Doubles and is about a professional doubles tennis player who is trying to get back into the game after being in a temporary retirement. While writing it, I spent a lot of time with an actual professional doubles player (who let me accompany him to a bunch of tournaments, including the US Open - where he made it to the semifinals and I got to be on CBS sitting in the coach's box. Hilarious). In the process, I saw into the weird world of this ubiquitous yet obscure sport. The structure of a doubles team is like a marriage, of sorts, and I was fascinated with the personal relationships as well as the tennis side of things. I don't know. Mostly the book has nothing to do with tennis. It's about a complex love triangle, basically. But I am obsessed with tennis, so it was nice to work that in.MV: I'm gonna throw you some names: Cliff. Cotton. Gary Malbaff. Pat Doublehead. Scoville. Evelyn Graham. Leanne Vanstory. Welborne Ray. Bojangles. Casper. Payton Craven. Confetti. Kylie Crook. Hyun Dang. Matthew! Explain how you come up with your AMAZING names!NB: Well. Let's see. Matthew is named after you. Bojangles was the name of my old bloodhound. Scoville is the first name of one of my favorite tennis players. Other than that, I just I just made them up, or slightly adapted names of friends that I liked the sound of. I actually never thought of any of those listed as being that weird. Now I'm getting a complex. You always do this. You notice things that are obvious but that other people don't notice. That's why you do those impersonations that are so creepy. Like when I last saw you and you did my walk. Or my point. Neither of which I really knew I did until you did them. I thought the weirdest names were Janet and Dan Organtip. Those are pretty ridiculous.MV: Is/was Meats and Treats (a place mentioned in your book) an actual place? Explain!NB: Meats and Treats was indeed a real place. All I remember them having stocked was cigarettes, giblets, and turkey necks. It was located on Airport Road in Chapel Hill, and is now Fosters Market, a place run by one of Martha Stewart's homegirls.MV: What's your next book (after Doubles) gonna be about?NB: Come on now. One or two at a time. I'm not talking about number three just yet.Read part two in which Nic interviews Matthew.
The Millions Interview

The Millions Interview: Joe Meno

Joe Meno's most recent novel, The Great Perhaps, is a beautiful and entertaining tragicomedy about the Casper family: scientists Jonathan and Madeline, their complicated teenage daughters, Amelia and Thisbe, and Jonathan's father, Henry, who is willing himself to disappear, speaking fewer and fewer words each day. Meno is the author of four other novels, including Hairstyles of the Damned, and his most recent story collection, Demons in the Spring, was a finalist for the fifth annual Story Prize.The Millions: I had this sensation when reading The Great Perhaps that its form was continually unfolding and revealing itself to me. For instance, we've got an elevated third person narrator that also manages to swoop deeply into various characters' perspectives; we've got short narratives about various Casper ancestors; we've got Jonathan's father Henry writing letters to himself about his past - and so on. This sensation of formal evolution was exhilarating, perhaps because it never felt inaccessible. Did you plan to write a book that shifts in these formal ways? And why these particular narrative choices?Joe Meno: When I first started writing the book I had no idea what it was about or how to tell it, other than I wanted to try and tell the story of a family in the weeks leading up to the 2004 election. After I finished the first draft, I realized the book was about complexity, and the need for it, and how terrified we, as Americans, seemed to have become of anything complicated or uncertain. As I started rewriting and organizing the book I realized that in order to get to the complexity of the character's lives, I would need a structure that was also complex, so I started using different forms for each character as a way to develop who they were - Jonathan, a paleontologist, has various abstracts from his published scientific journals, his wife, Madeline, an animal behaviorist, has her chapters structured like field notes, their daughter Amelia, a budding Marxist, has excerpts from her angry anti-capitalist rants in the school newspaper, their other daughter, Thisbe, has these very violent prayers she has made up, and their grandfather, Henry, has these letters he writes to himself as a way to rid himself of his connections to the past.TM: There's a notion in your novel that cowardice and failure can be inherited. Do you think the book supports or disproves this theory - or does it do both?JM: Actually, I did a lot of research looking at the theories concerning the heredity of personality traits, and there's a lot of evidence that our behaviors are not only influenced by role models like our parents, but also by the genes they pass on through these structures called epigenes, which is fascinating and also really, really horrifying. I think, in the end, that all humans, who on some basic level are all genetically related, have the very real potential for stunning acts of cowardice, and at the same time, the possibility for kindness and bravery. When you think about the last eight years of our country's history, you can see obvious examples of both, oftentimes committed by the very same people. The characters in the book all prove they are affected by a real sense of fear, and by the end of the novel, they all have a chance to face their cowardice, which in their own way, all of them do.TM: There's also a theme of familial roles in the book, and for the Casper family, a pattern of going outside of their prescribed boundaries. For instance, Madeline decides to tell her eldest daughter, Amelia, about a sexual moment with a work colleague, and, at one point, Amelia goes to watch Jonathan teach because she longs to see him as a professor rather than as a father. I wonder, starting out, what your notions of this particular family's traumas and dysfunction were. Did these characters change as you wrote them?JM: I think one of the reasons the family in the book is so unhappy is that each of them, in their own way, has decided that there is one thing in life that will help them understand everything - for Jonathan, it's this squid, which he thinks if it can be found, will help prove the theory of evolution. There's Madeline and her ideas about social dominance, and Amelia and Marxist politics, and Thisbe and her troubling sense of religion, and Henry, who is trying as hard as he can to escape the complications of history. It took me a long time and a lot of writing to figure out how they worked on their own, and then together. What becomes apparent is how lonely they are in each other's company, because they're all failing to see how none of those perspectives are mutually exclusive, and how we need all of those ways of understanding to make sense of the complexities of the world.TM: The book's terrific first line, "Anything resembling a cloud will cause Jonathan Casper to faint," echoes throughout the novel, and I found myself noting each varied cloud reference. For example, Madeline follows a man-shaped cloud, and the younger sister, Thisbe, in an exalted, erotically charged moment with a friend, notes the "cloudless field hanging above them." Are all these diverse cloud references examples of "a great unknowable entity" as mentioned near the end of the novel? Am I meant to desire a simplicity of metaphor, or symbolism, and not get it? How conscious of the cloud imagery were you as you wrote this book?JM: I think because the book is so expansive and follows five main characters and several centuries in the family's overall history, I needed something to connect the different family members, and the image of the cloud became the thing that made the most sense. The first line, like the book itself, was definitely influenced by Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. In the intro to his book, he discusses how writing an anti-war novel is like writing an anti-glacier novel. For some reason, that idea haunted me: what was it about a glacier? The more I thought about it and the more I wrote the book, the more I realized that what I think he might have meant is that war, like all human conflicts, is unavoidable, it's part of the way the natural world works, and so it's inescapable. I used a similar image - a cloud - which is also part of the natural world, and is also pretty impossible to avoid. The other thing about the cloud is that it's amorphous, ever-changing, unclear, which speaks directly to the way all of the characters see the world in which they're living. To me, that's what's necessary or beautiful about the image: they're the physical manifestation of the idea of uncertainty or complexity.TM: One of the two epigraphs is by Kurt Vonnegut: 'One of the great American tragedies is to have participated in a great war.' The novel takes place in 2004, during the presidential elections, and Madeline in particular is troubled by the war in Iraq. How and why did you work these real current events into the scope of the story?JM: I actually began writing the book thinking directly about the war and then the book grew from there. For me, as I look back over the eight years of the Bush Administration, what most strikes me is how cleverly they used fear over and over again to push forward their agenda, and how, over and over again, we as Americans allowed ourselves to be manipulated by this fear, especially during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and then again during the weeks before the election. Like Madeline, I was completely uncertain about the war in Iraq: I was unsure of whether it was right or wrong, like most of the country at the time, and part of me, I think, was hoping not to have to think about it at all. My recollection is that there was very little debate and with some distance, I feel particularly ashamed of how fearful as a nation we had allowed ourselves to become. Writing the book was a way for me to try and make sense of the choices we made or didn't make.TM: One of my favorite aspects of your book is the humor and tragedy with which you depict the teenage lives of Thisbe and Amelia. At one point, Thisbe prays, "Dear Lord... let the wire in my bra poke through my heart," which is just, well, awesome. Are you, in fact, a teenage girl in disguise? How did you get inside these complicated - and very different - young minds?JM: I am not, in fact, a teenage girl. But I am writer which is pretty darn close. Amelia was based somewhat on someone I knew and worked with, at least as a starting point. As I was working on her character, I realized how angry and unappealing she seemed and so I felt like I no choice but to add some humor to temper her rancor. Thisbe, in secret, is kind of my favorite character in the book. Although she is really confused and definitely a kind of zealot, what she really wants is to make sense of her family and herself and her feelings towards Roxie, a classmate. I think she's a pretty fair example of why evangelical Christianity is so appealing to some, because in the end, it's based on a search for understanding through love. This is also why it is so insidious and threatening as well. Like Thisbe, trying to oversimplify the world only undercuts what seems so miraculous about life in the first place.TM: And, because this is a book site, I must ask you: What's the last great book you read?JM: Mickey Hess' non-fiction masterpiece, Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory. It's about an assistant professor who's forced to take all these weird day jobs - ice cream man, house-sitter, actor at a haunted house - while he tries to negotiate the transition from one part of his life to the other.