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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Difficulty Comes In Knowing What is Real and What is Not: An Interview with Brian Evenson
I had a strange experience while reading Brian Evenson’s new story collection, Windeye. Maybe that’s to be expected. No one—and I mean no one—is better at excavating the strangeness of our everyday lives, not that mimesis is a primary concern here. I heard Evenson read the title story at Temple University back in October, so of course that one felt familiar when I picked up the book. I read the first five stories, but some other responsibilities caused me to put the book down. When I returned to Windeye two months later, those first five were obviously familiar, but—and here’s the strange part—so were the other twenty stories I hadn’t read before.
The stories in Windeye are so elegantly crafted that they feel inevitable. Somebody had to come along and write these, but no one else could have. It’s like they’ve always existed somewhere and just needed Evenson to come along and expose them. Evenson understands the makings of our world and can explain it to us as if speaking through one of our own multitudinous voices. The collection contains the most disturbing story I’ve read so far this year (“The Sladen Suit”) and the most hilarious (“Bon Scott: The Choir Years”). Of course the worlds of Windeye are not our world, but they’re not not our world either. That sentence will make sense once you’ve read the book.
Evenson is the author of over twenty novels and story collections, including Fugue State and Immobility. He runs the Literary Arts Program at Brown University and he’s also one of the most genuinely kind people I’ve ever met. Our conversation took place via email in April.
Can you walk me through your writing process? Once you recognize that you have an idea—say for ”The Second Boy” or “Dapplegrim”—what happens next?
It varies a fair amount from story to story. “Dapplegrim” started because I was asked by an editor to write a contemporary fairy tale and given my choice of what tale I could base it on. I’d always liked “Dapplegrim,” liked its structures of repetition and bluntness. And I just happened at the time to be reading Icelandic stuff, “Hrafnkels Saga,” which I really love and which had great things in it about obsession and murder over a horse. So I sat down with those two things in mind, just to see where the dual tug of them would lead me. It was fairly speculative, but controlled at least in part by the structure of the first part of the original tale, with the rest of the story deliberately accelerated. I didn’t know that I was going to truncate the original story until I did, but it felt natural to do that considering the way my telling of the story had changed things, and I remember thinking about the bluntness of the ending of Peter Brook’s adaptation of King Lear, wanting to do something like that. I feel like when I was first writing, years ago, I was much more anxious and kept things more tightly controlled, but as time has gone on I’m a little more willing to sit down and just see what happens, and I don’t mind scrapping something if it doesn’t work out.
“The Second Boy” is from a line in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a brief and minor moment that moves in a particular way but that might have moved in another way. I found that my mind had started to pursue it in that other way, and it led me to writing the story as a way of writing that possibility out. There are a number of other literary connections in that story, including to Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales; it’s probably my most persistently allusive story. Which seems to me appropriate considering the kind of recursive ghost story it is.
Other stories haven’t been as specific. Sometimes I start with a first sentence or an image, sometimes with an idea, sometimes with just a vague sensation or feeling. I find that how I start tends to have a strong influence on the way the story structures and articulates itself.
How do you know when a story is finished?
I don’t know if I can describe this exactly since I think it’s largely intuitive. It just feels done. Sometimes that happens very quickly, as it did for my story “Windeye.” Other times I’ll spend a lot of time looking at a story and thinking it’s basically done but feeling it’s still missing a small something but not quite sure what that something is. Then it just takes a lot of experiment and trying different things until I come up with something. Some stories might only feel provisionally finished, and if I publish those in magazines, I sometimes spend time revising them before they come out in book form. Other stories never feel quite finished, and most of those are still in a drawer, waiting for something to click with them. But I think a lot of the artistry and aesthetic of a story lies in intuitive choices made both along the way and in the process of rounding out the story. My best stories, I still can’t precisely put my finger on how they manage to do what they do, and I can’t quite replicate it either.
So what are your “best” stories in Windeye?
That’s hard to say, and probably not up to me to say. My favorite is probably “Windeye” because I think it does what it does with a great deal of economy and captures what I’ve been trying to get across for a long time about “reality” and the problems with believing too strongly that things are real. I also like “The Second Boy” for what it does with storytelling and the take it has on the ghost story. The scariest story for me is probably “Grottor,” but I’m fond of the strangeness of “The Sladen Suit” and the way certain epistemological problems are dealt with in “Hurlock’s Law” and “Legion.” I hope the stories taken together do something as a whole that they don’t manage to accomplish individually.
Many stories here share a fruitful sense of placelessness. Can you talk a little bit about how setting informs your characters?
I do like having a setting that has very firm outlines in terms of individual elements of it—the look of a room, the shape of a house, etc., without being grounded in an actual place in the real world. I think that attention to the details of a place at the expense of a larger pinpointing of place makes readers pay attention in a different way than saying “Chicago” or “New York” or “the Midwest” or “Great Jones Street” does. That’s a kind of shorthand that allows the reader to pour their sense of a place in, and to compare it to an actual place, but I think there are two dangers with that. The first is the danger that you pull the reader partly out of the fictional world, since they’ll constantly referring to their in-head encyclopedia about what that place is like. The second is that these larger identifications of place end up often standing it for attention to careful world-building, generating a space or place for the reader to inhabit while the story is going on. I guess even when I do have an actual place in mind, as I in fact did for a number of these stories, I found it more productive to focus on what would immediately be perceived by someone coming into it rather than identifying it more geographically or culturally or specifically.
Are there subjects you refuse to write about?
There are things that I shy away from, though those are probably not the things that most writers shy away from. For a long time I was very reluctant to write anything that felt to me too closely grounded in my actual experience, but as time’s gone on that has changed for me, partly because my own life, particularly recently, has gone through a series of absurdities that make it feel more akin to my fiction. But I don’t do much of that. There are stories, too, that I’ve published in magazines but that I’ve chosen not to collect because they felt to me like they were either going too far or not accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish. But subjects I refuse to write about? I don’t know that there’s anything I’d innately dismiss in advance. Certain treatments of subjects certainly aren’t good fits for me and I think I recognize that, but I think that with most subjects there are probably ways of approaching them that fits both my ethics and my aesthetics.
Is it fair to say that your aesthetics aren’t confined to one particular genre?
When I was young, I grew up reading SF and Fantasy—interesting people like Michael Moorcock and Gene Wolfe—and then my father introduced me to Kafka when I was fourteen and I stopped reading genre fiction cold, really dug into high literature—Beckett, Joyce, Woolf, Marquez, etc. As a young writer, I felt the line and division between literary and genre fiction to be very firm and very definite. But as time has gone on, I’ve found more and more to cause me to question my assumptions about that, and have started to feel that there’s much conversation possible across genre lines. There were a few key moments in changing my attitude. One came when Peter Straub edited the New Wave Fabulist issue for Conjunctions, an issue that changed the way I thought about genre writers by curating them within a literary magazine, which allowed people (or at least me) to see things about them they should have been seeing all along. Another was when I was awarded an International Horror Guild Award. I was a little shocked at first, and then began to pay more attention to what was going on in genre fiction, and realized that there were some genuinely amazing writers within that category. I’ve come to feel over time that there are as many good writers in genre fiction as in literary fiction, and as many bad on both side of the line as well. As my writing has gone on, I’ve had more and more of a tendency to step back and forth across those lines, hopefully in a way that draws the best elements of both literature and genre together.
“The Sladen Suit” and “The Absent Eye” and a number of other stories here certainly do traffic in horror. Every era of course gets the monsters it deserves. Frankenstein’s creation was as reflective of the Industrial Revolution as Godzilla was of the Atomic Age. Ridley Scott’s acid-blooded alien seems to presage the AIDS epidemic and The Human Centipede speaks to our current fears about our food-supply chain. What do you suppose is frightening us right now in 2012?
The two stories you mention both deal in some way or another with the idea of permeability or leakage between worlds, and I think that’s a fear that runs through the collection as a whole, and is probably tied to a more generalized fear about the nature of reality that is very much tied to our age as a whole (with us becoming more and more conscious of all the ways that reality approaches us in only mediated forms, and struggling as well with the degree to which our notion of reality is manipulated). “The Sladen Suit” is about a kind of impossible passage from one world to another, or maybe to the same world, very hard to say. “The Absent Eye” is a kind of alternate history of the soul that suggests that a spiritual world is just as confused and mortal as our own, with lives living parasitically connected but parallel. A lot of the stories in Windeye explore notions of reality and perception, and I think that’s an almost central obsession to life these days.
Do you find Mitt Romney as frightening as I do?
I think I probably find him even more frightening that you do, since I’m a former Mormon…