Pointing Toward Truth: The Millions Interviews David Hollander

August 24, 2020 | 3 books mentioned 17 min read

His website never once mentions his name. A Twitter account named The Fexo—of which he dubiously denies ownership—claims to be the author of his work. The self-effacing David Hollander nevertheless showed little trepidation about sitting down with me for an interview, appearing promptly on my computer screen via Zoom one day in July, with the Covid-19 pandemic still peaking in the United States and the September 1 release of his second novel, Anthropicadelayed from May 1st—once again in sight.

Anthropica is the long overdue follow-up to Hollander’s debut novel, L.I.E., which was published in 2000 when the author was 30 years old. A pillar of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, Hollander has toiled in near-obscurity for 20 years, publishing fiction in a variety of literary magazines but coming up short in his efforts to publish a second book. Those loyal fans and former students who have kept up with his literary output know that Hollander’s imagination, syntactical verve, and distinctively bleak sense of humor remain undiminished. With its talking robots and scientific mumbo-jumbo,,its awe at the profound mysteries of the universe and alternating love and disdain for human endeavors, Anthropica proves to be a stylistic and thematic culmination after a long period of refinement and reflection.

Two of the three co-founders of Animal Riot Press, Katie Rainey and Brian Birnbaum, studied with Hollander at Sarah Lawrence in the mid-2010s. As his close confidants in the years since graduating, Rainey and Birnbaum conspired from the outset to work with Hollander on bringing out his unpublished manuscript, the initial draft of which was completed around 2014. And indeed, Anthropica is only the second title published by this fledgling press, making it a crucial book in shaping Animal Riot’s literary sensibility.

I was especially curious to hear from Hollander about the process of being published by former students, and the experience of having the editorial tables turned. But first, I wanted to learn more about his writing practice since the publication of his first novel.

The Millions: You published L.I.E. three years after finishing your MFA at Sarah Lawrence. How did it get picked up by Random House?

David Hollander: I got a call out of the blue from this high-power agent at ICM who had picked L.I.E. out of a slush pile accidentally; he mistook my name for someone else’s. He called me, and he was like, “Who are you? I really love your book.” At that point I’d spent a year or more querying blindly, having agents either refuse to look at the book or reject it quickly, sometimes even viciously. But within two weeks of my signing on with ICM, there was a bidding war for L.I.E. I like to hold that experience up to some of my later failures to publish books—I try to remember that rejection doesn’t necessarily dismiss a work’s worth or viability. In many ways publishing is a crapshoot. A book has to get to the right person at the right time, unless you’re connected in ways that I certainly am not.

coverTM: How did you react to that sudden success? Was there a sense that you were one of the rising stars from your MFA class?

DH: It’s funny. I’m trying to write an essay right now that talks about this, and what my own expectations were then. Yes, I certainly would have been seen as one of the rising stars of my MFA class, and I certainly saw myself that way, although I had adopted a humility so deeply false it almost convinced even me. But in fact, I thought I was the Next Big Thing. Random House had planned to print 25,000 copies and they had booked a national tour for me. But then, when advance sales figures were lower than Random House expected, they started scaling things back. The 15-city book tour became a five-city book tour, then it became a New York book tour, then it became essentially a bunch of readings out on Long Island to about four or five senior citizens. So everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, but I was not paying attention to any of it because I was too young, too inexperienced, and too lost in this vision I had of myself now as a successful writer.

TM: What did you make of the critical response to L.I.E.? Reviews, while mostly positive, tended to focus on the novel’s portrait of suburban malaise, which you’ve said is not its primary subject.

DH: It was a sad thing for me, because the parts of the book that were most roundly criticized were the parts that I thought were the most interesting, or at least the most personal. I was not that far removed from studying philosophy as an undergrad, where I got pretty deep into philosophy of mind and the study of consciousness. I was thinking a lot about selfhood, which I suspected was a mirage. In his essay “The Nothingness of Personality,” Borges keeps repeating a line: “There is no whole self.” That idea was pivotal for me in the construction of L.I.E. Harlan, the book’s protagonist, is discovering that he’s not real, that he’s a character in someone else’s story. The implication was that that’s true for all of us…the self we clutch white-knuckled is just a social construction. Anyway, no one even acknowledged that aspect of the book; there was not a single word about it in any of the reviews. It was shocking to me that I could have written a book that I thought for sure was about X but was perceived as being about Y. I learned a lesson from that, too—not that I should make my intentions clearer to the reader, but that I couldn’t control their responses the way I thought I could. That’s when I learned to expect to be misunderstood.

TM: Can you say more about the philosophical underpinnings of your writing? A lot of fiction that draws on philosophy incorporates some kind of discursive mode, which often uses characters as mouthpieces for ideas that the author wants the reader to consider. But that isn’t the case in L.I.E.; I think you found a way of embodying your theme in the book’s form, rather than making your characters sit around and dissertate.

coverDH: That’s a really generous observation, thank you. A book I really loved around that time was Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, in which characters are definitely having frequent, heavy conversations about art and philosophy. But that wasn’t what I loved about the book. To me, its philosophy was more fully felt through its structural conceit—there is more than one way to read or arrange the story, which to me spoke to ideas from French literary theory, that hierarchies are in opposition and that you could assemble this same narrative into many different shapes, each one informing a different conclusion. A story like Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” is, for me, similarly philosophical because its self-devouring structural arrangement suggests something about the nature of reality. It’s not just postmodern gimmickry: the fractured way in which that story proceeds feels much closer, to me, to what it really feels like to be a conscious creature moving through a shifting environment, than, say, the “realist” fictions of Alice Munro, which, while beautiful, don’t match my thought patterns in any way that I recognize.

TM: Are you proud of L.I.E. 20 years later? 

DH: In a word: yes. But it seems to have been written by a teenager. I really wish that there were not so many sexually explicit passages so that I could show it to my kids. In fact I wish I could take a lot of parts out, or rewrite them in a way that was more generous. I did not know anything about what it was like to be a middle-aged adult, for instance, and when characters in that demographic pass through stories in L.I.E. the writing is basically idiotic. But there’s also something about the quick pace and youthful energy of L.I.E. that I don’t think I could reproduce now. And I like that energy and feel nostalgic for a time when I could write that way.

TM: Have your kids read any of your other fiction? 

DH: So far they haven’t been that interested, although my older kid, who’s 13 now, really wants to read Anthropica, and I think I’m going to let them. They’re good at self-censoring, and I don’t think Anthropica has a lot of, like, explicit erotic stuff. There’s a nihilism to it, but my kids know my sense of humor by now and shouldn’t be too startled.

TM: While Anthropica is more conceptually and structurally sophisticated, more refined on the sentence level, and more generous in spirit (contrasted with the frequent nastiness of L.I.E.), to me it is recognizably the work of the same author.

 DH: No one else has said that, but then only half a dozen people have read Anthropica, and of those, only maybe one or two have read L.I.E. But that is good to hear.

TM: Obviously you didn’t know at the time that you would go 20 years without publishing a second book. When did your youthful bravado start to wear off?

DH: It took a really long time. After L.I.E. I worked on this book for a couple of years I was calling No Man Is. I brought a finished draft to my agent at ICM, and he read it and even showed it to a couple of editors. He thought it was interesting and “Kafkaesque,” as he kept saying. That book was me doubling-down on some of the philosophical preoccupations of L.I.E. in a way that was a lot more deliberate. The prose was super dense; I was reading a lot of John Hawkes at the time and was influenced by his stuff. The agent convinced me not to keep trying with that book, even though he thought if we went to a small press, which I did not want to “lower myself” to, there were possibilities. He ultimately said, “Let’s see what you do next, because whether or not your next book sells is going to have a huge effect on your career going forward.” So then I began working on another book that was set in the same fictional town as that second, now unpublished book. I called it Follow Down the Light, which I thought was vaguely Faulknerian. But now I was really out to prove, with every sentence, that I was the greatest writer who’d ever lived. I remember showing it to a good friend and he told me, “This is really hard to read,” which I took as a compliment. I was like, “Yes! I’m doing it! It’s really hard to read!” When I showed it to my agent—now we’re probably six or seven years removed from L.I.E.—he said, “Uh, David, I think it’s time for you to find some new readers.” But I still thought that I was The Next Big Thing, you know, and that it was going to happen. We parted ways amiably, but in my head I was like, “Clearly, mighty ICM agent, you’re a philistine and you don’t know how to represent extraordinary work.” It’s really embarrassing to think about this because he was anything but a philistine, he was a brilliant and good person. But so I found a new agent who was young and hungry, and eager to get a writer who had published with Random House on his list. He tried to publish Follow Down the Light for two years. It got rejected by probably every publisher on earth. During that time I was working on stories, so now I had a short story collection that the new agent also tried to sell, attracting rejections that were becoming painfully familiar in their tone and wording. “It’s extraordinary, it’s amazing, it’s non-derivative… we can’t publish it.” For a long time I took these declarations of my excellence to be sincere, but in retrospect I realize that’s just what editors say when they don’t like something. So by now over a decade had gone by since L.I.E. And I was probably just about ready to give up. It was 2012 or so, which is around when I was meeting you, Seth.

TM: I started at Sarah Lawrence in the fall of 2013, and I took your class in my second year. I didn’t have any sense at the time that you had “given up” on writing. 

DH: I just thought, okay, well, it’s not happening and I don’t want to write fiction anymore. Somehow I started writing Anthropica in this sneaky way where I didn’t even know I was writing it. I was so downtrodden and broken-hearted with how things had gone for me that I could not admit that I was trying to write another book. So I started writing it as a Gchat novel—like you know how you used to be able to put a certain amount of text in the status box of Gchat? I would just write these little set pieces and post them, 300 characters at a time, in my status box where people I conversed with frequently could see them. This is what I did for like a year or year and a half. Before I knew it, there were a couple hundred pages of this so-called Gchat novel. I still was telling myself I wasn’t going to publish it; the whole point was that I was doing it for me. It was fun, and I liked the idea that there was a novel hidden behind a brick wall, and all you could see of it was through cracks in the wall. Something about that gave me pleasure. But it turns out all along I was writing yet another novel, probably the most ambitious novel yet. I just couldn’t admit it to myself. But eventually when I had something that looked like a complete book, I showed it to the agent. He was receptive and had some thoughts on it, so I worked on it for maybe another year or so based on his recommendations and then it went out to publishers. I thought, okay, this is going to be it, because this is the one where I wrote it for myself, the way it was with L.I.E. I had rediscovered the joy of fiction writing after it had become like oral surgery for a really long time. And…nothing happened. The rejections rolled in with all the customary false praise. The agent really tried, too, I have to give him credit. That was crushing. I felt like I was at the end of the line. This time I didn’t just pretend to give up. Between when Anthropica stopped making the submission rounds and the day Katie said she wanted it for Animal Riot Press, I wrote nothing. Not a word of fiction over those two, three years. I don’t really know what the lesson here is. It’s not exactly this uplifting story of perseverance, but it does seem like I had to surrender all hope before something good could happen.

TM: Did you get any satisfaction, over those 20 years, out of publishing short stories in literary magazines? McSweeney’s, Fence, Post Road, and Conjunctions may not be household names, but they’re respected publications among serious readers of contemporary fiction. 

DH: The thing it probably did more than anything else was give me a platform to be able to teach. But I never fooled myself into thinking that it meant anything beyond that.

TM: Your unpublished books were the stuff of legend among your students. Why did you decide to let Katie read your novel?

 DH: Because she kept asking. And I think I had it in my head that if I was unable to publish it, I would send it to 10 people, just so 10 people on Earth would have read it. I think I figured she would be one of them, but then I didn’t really send it to none other people after that. Maybe just two or three. Brian Birnbaum was one of them, but that was later.

TM: How did it feel having the roles reversed, to have two former students not only publishing you, but working with you on the manuscript, editing you? 

DH: What’s weird is that it didn’t feel odd at all. I mean, these were former students, but also great writers who I trusted. I got some good initial notes from Brian, which made me aware of things about the book that were impenetrable. Brian’s a really smart guy, and if he wasn’t getting certain things I knew I should revisit them. But Katie’s notes were honestly the best I’ve ever gotten from anyone. Right away, she found ways to connect the two or three things that were sitting unconnected and that had caused me mental spasms for years. Her notes were just incredible, and then over the course of three or four months, after having these conversations with her, I probably wrote… well, it was the first time I’d written fiction in two or three years, remember, and I would have thought it would take some time to get back into things, to find my voice again, but it wasn’t like that at all—I just immediately hit the ground running and wrote another 120 pages or something. And that’s what filled out the book and brought it all together. So it was not strange to be working with former students, but I was surprised by how great the editorial feedback was, given that that had not been my experience with Random House, where you would think you’d probably get superior editorial feedback.

TM: When you started Anthropica, when you were composing snippets in Gchat, which parts of the book came first?

DH: I’d been having these conversations with a couple of people, including my dear friend Jonathan Callahan, about the central premise of Anthropica, this crackpot idea that everything is only here because we want it to be. I’ve always been skeptical that there could be enough stuff to maintain our levels of consumption. I mean, the planet’s not that big—you can circle it in a swift flying jet in a matter of hours—so how can it have this much oil stored up in its bowels, for instance, or this much coal? It just seems really unlikely. So I was writing into that conundrum. I think the opening Stuart Dregs chapter where he’s coming home, and his wife is intentionally allowing him to overhear her affair, and he has his computer program running—he’s invented this algorithm that can track natural resource consumption—I think that was one of the earliest things I wrote. Almost as a set piece, more like a short story than a novel chapter. When I looked back at my notebooks recently, I saw that really early on, I was already making these little maps for other chapters or sketching out other characters. I was clearly in some way already planning something big. But so originally there was that Stuart piece, and I was writing some bits in the voice of a robot—not like they are in the book, because now a lot of the robot stuff is just these conversations going on in a hangar while the robots play chess—but I was writing these soliloquies in Fexo’s voice, none of which made it into the book. For a while I guess I was just messing around, testing out how many parts the book could hold. I was often asking myself: What would be fun to write next?

TM: Apparently, what was fun to write, for you, was science fiction. Although in no way does Anthropica feel constrained by, or beholden to, any particular genre. Were you conscious of this influence as you wrote?

coverDH: I grew up on science fiction. But by the time I got to college, which was pretty late for me, I was discovering so-called literary fiction. I remember reading Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and being like, “Holy shit! This is a thing you can do?” I never wanted to go back to what I thought of as straight genre fiction. But my understanding of how science fiction works has shaped my writing, and I frequently borrow conceits from science fiction. My work features a lot of sentient androids, for instance, but it’s almost like the science fiction is a facade I’m erecting so as to have something my ideas can stick to. I like to steal forms for purposes they were never meant to serve.

TM: I also think that much of Anthropica operates in more of a psychological-realist mode, which doesn’t put it at odds with sci-fi as much as it approaches those ideas from a different angle.

DH: It’s almost like realism within a non-realistic matrix. In the course of every hour, I probably toggle back and forth 500 times between feeling like everything is imbued with enormous meaning and beauty and that I have to be responsible to it, and thinking that everything is completely meaningless. I think my inability to remain in either of those two positions—this flipping back and forth like a binary switch—I wanted the book to feel like that, to toggle between things that feel very psychologically real and heartfelt, where there is genuine pathos, and a kind of nihilistic disregard for anything we humans might create or dream up. I think what you’re talking about, the psychological realism within this science-fictional set of parameters, I think it’s supposed to feel a little like that toggle.

TM: That’s exactly how it feels. The scope of the narrative is cosmic; at a certain point, it dawns on the reader that some chapters take place after the destruction of Earth. Yet the reader is never invited to trivialize the everyday foibles of the characters.

DH: I hope that that registers to some readers. I remember writing some of those chapters that are from the future, where characters are being interviewed by the robots after everything has been obliterated. Even though you’re aware of the fact that this is all going to end in fire, it shouldn’t in any way lessen the intensity of feeling the characters are experiencing as they pursue tenure, or an Ultimate Frisbee National Championship, or love. I want those pursuits to feel meaningful despite the fact that you know they are coming to an end.

TM: When did you begin teaching at Sarah Lawrence?

DH: 1792. No, I started when L.I.E. was coming out, September of 2000.

TM: Was that a strange feeling—to teach there so soon after graduating? To put yourself in the position of teaching others only a few years out?

DH: No, at that point it all felt like destiny. At that time my thesis advisor, Mary LaChapelle, was the chair of the fiction writing department, and when she heard that I had a book coming out, she got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to come be a guest and teach a class, and I thought yeah, that’ll be great. I thought for sure I’d be good at it, I’ve been good in classrooms my whole life. And I think I was good at it. I came back for another year, and then a year turned into three years, and then they moved me over to the MFA program. I was still so high on myself as The Next Big Thing that teaching was a lot easier than it’s since become. Plus I was still really close to the age of the students so I felt like I was their big brother or something. Then some time passed and I became like the young, cool uncle. Then some more time passed and I became the young dad. Now I’m older than a lot of my students’ parents. Of course the students are always the same age and you are drifting away from them… that’s a weird and sometimes sad thing about teaching.

TM: Can you describe your practice of teaching writing?

DH: I think the crux of my teaching is that I really have no kind of product that I’m trying to select for—I don’t want my students to write postmodern fracture fiction any more than I want them to write organic psychological realism. I’m trying to help everyone find their way and to give them tools that they can bring to whatever kind of writing they feel like they want and need to do. I think I have an openness, and I also will latch onto something that a student does well and try to get them to develop that thing. The goal is to help each writer maximize their gifts and write the sort of text that they—and not you—would like to read.

TM: When browsing the MFA course catalogue, your workshop description immediately stands out in the way it openly questions traditional workshop practices. You also teach a class called “The Enemies of Fiction,” inspired by a John Hawkes quote—can you explain what that means?

DH: Right. Well Hawkes said that he began writing with the belief that plot, character, setting, and theme were the enemies of the novel. Of course Hawkes’s books had all of those things; it’s more the spirit of the quote that excites me. He believed in structure and language as the drivers of fiction. He didn’t want to write carefully constructed, well-plotted, efficient stories. He wanted to burn down the world. And that’s the thing for me: you can learn to write what I think of as an MFA story—or what I would’ve called an MFA story 10 years ago; the MFA world has become a lot more aesthetically diverse—you can learn how to do that, but if you don’t have anything to say, if you don’t have any vision, if there’s no urgency to the work, then it’s like making a table or something. The Hawkes quote for me is more about the spirit in which fiction is written than about anything inherent to the craft of fiction.

TM: A lot of the books you hold dear are often branded as “difficult.” Do you think of them as difficult?

DH: Difficulty is a moving target. I will tell you my favorite effect as a reader of fiction: you come across something on page 28, and you’re like, “I don’t know what that is, but I’m going to put it in the bank.” And if you read deeply enough, and if the writer has done their job correctly, something on page 147 will illuminate that page 28 mystery. I wanted Anthropica to be like that all the time, where almost every chapter would be something you had to hold onto and later connect to something else. Every time I answered a question that the reader might have, I wanted to raise another one.

But to return to the question of difficulty, if I have to work hard to figure something out, whether it’s in the work of Hegel or the work of David Foster Wallace, then a book seems to have more weight and meaning. If I have to go to the book, instead of allowing the book to come to me, reading becomes a journey, an experience. And I guess I just value the experience of a book, without which reading feels like, I don’t know, watching a movie or something. In fact, sometimes, what gets held up as great—the books that win all the prizes—often seem like crass Hollywood nonsense to me. Everything good or meaningful in life seems to require effort and reading is no different.

TM: There are also different kinds of difficulty. Sometimes we’re just talking about highly complicated sentences; other times, it might have to do with a novel’s structure. But it also sounds like you’re talking about something more fundamental, about works that deviate not just from the methods, but from the very aims of traditional storytelling.

DH: Well, I also think most people are uncomfortable with relativism. People want to know what the rules of life are. They want—and who can blame them?—to settle into the life project knowing what to pursue in order to find contentment. So the idea that all of the strictures and mores that we are creating in an attempt to structure a meaningful life are themselves constructions and arbitrary and could easily be otherwise—that’s a really uncomfortable thing for most people. Wallace insists that you think about those things. And if you don’t want to think about them, you’re not going to enjoy his work. If you don’t want to think about the fact that our lives are extremely short—nasty, brutish, and short—and you want your literature to be an escape from the awful fact of your ephemerality, then of course there’s a whole lot of fiction you’re not going to want to read. It’s the people who want to think about these things and want to find their anxieties and fears—the things they’re hauling around on their backs every day—reflected to them in the art that they interact with…those people are going to be attracted to some of the fiction that’s considered cold or cerebral or gimmicky or yes, difficult. For me, literature, fiction, has never been about telling stories, as it is for most people. For me, it’s been the only avenue that points toward truth. It’s the only way to try to say a true word, and even fiction can’t say a true word, but it’s the only way I’ve found to try to commune with some of these difficult, contradictory, mutually exclusive, paradoxical truths that seem to be with me every second.

Bonus Link:
Fiction Is Better Than It’s Ever Been: The Millions Interviews Brian Birnbaum

is a freelance book reviewer for Slant Magazine. His short story, "The Present Progressive," was featured in the 2019 edition of Stories on Stage in Sacramento, and was published in the machine, a discontinued literary magazine produced by students at Folsom Lake College.