: First, let me just say that it is a pleasure and an honor to conduct this “virtual” interview with you, Debra.
: Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be virtually honored.
: 1. Let’s begin where it all began; that is, with your childhood. (Don’t worry – I’m not going to charge you for this session!) I have read that you grew up on a cattle farm in Missouri, located in what you’ve described as one of the poorest counties in the State of Missouri. Your novella Drought, and many of the stories in your collection Prayers of an Accidental Nature – “An Obscure Geography” comes immediately to mind – are set in impoverished rural towns where verbal and physical abuse between people (especially between couples), and even death, seem to be everyday occurrences. How have your experiences growing up in such an environment shaped your writing? Do you see a connection between domestic violence and the atrocities that are now happening around the world in Iraq, Darfur, Israel/Lebanon, etc.?
: Uh-oh. You began with sociology and politics, so the meat of this entire interview’s gonna be me bitching about one thing or another. You have been warned.
I was born a poor white child...
Seriously: I was born a poor white child in a poor white county. But there is poverty and then there is POVERTY. The former is manageable, if you have caring, intelligent, hard-working parents. The latter can be disastrous. Thankfully, our poverty was the former sort. When I was four my father bought a large cattle farm, an act that made him land rich and dirt poor, as they say in my neck o’ the woods. The cattle market vacillated to the extent that we would go from feast to famine in the space of a year. We had no plumbing, and the old house was painfully cold in winter, scorching hot in summer. My clothes were hand-me-downs from my older sister who often received her hand-me-downs from the daughter of a family friend. I received my first new school dress in fourth grade. We finally built a new, plumbed house when I was 16, and I thought I had finally arrived.
In hindsight (and by brutally editing memory) I had an idyllic childhood because my mother was loving, intelligent and groovy, my father an amazingly hard worker, and the farm was nearly a thousand acres of fecund pastures with a creek winding through hundreds of acres of untouched woods. Our clothes were always clean and the house was usually tidy, even with five kids tearing about. We ate incredibly well: fresh vegetables from a huge summer garden and the choicest Angus beef. (Imagine being bored with prime rib by the age of 12!) Such a vast variety of animals, tame and wild, roamed those rolling acres. At one time we had 18 dogs, countless cats, a bird, four horses, hundreds of cattle and pigs, and fish. I even had a pet pig that was housebroken, and crickets imported from Japan in the days when Japanese imports were cheap. I wanted a monkey (incredibly, you could buy squirrel monkeys out of the back of comic books) but my mother drew a finite line on that one.
My parents were liberal with love, responsibility, education and politics, and thought it vital that we understand current events and our place in the scheme of things. My mother’s mantra: “No one else is better than you, and you’re no better than anyone else.” Thus, by the time I witnessed the abject poverty of other children I was already programmed for an intense empathy that, frankly, most of my friends were not. My empathy also arose from my own paucity and feeling at times ashamed or worried that my own lack would be discovered and I’d be abased like the other children.
It’s still difficult to believe the cruelties the really disadvantaged kids suffered in addition to their hunger, abuse and existential indignities. These were children who were not sufficiently fed, bathed or clothed, who were emotionally, physically and sometimes sexually abused by their relatives, who found it difficult to concentrate in class and learn because their bellies ached for food and their eyes ached for sleep, who were further belittled by their classmates (and some asinine teachers) because of their plight. To this day I cannot fully comprehend the “salt in the wound” behavior of children and adults. No, wait. I take that back. I’ve seen animals reject or attack one of their own that has a physical disability, is diseased or in an otherwise weakened state. Such behavior is productive in maintaining the general health of a tribe and species, and is quite likely a human instinct, too — though self-awareness should always trump instinct. Ah, self-awareness! The root cause of hominan’s humanity to hominan.
Yes, living with and studying four-legged animals has greatly influenced my view of two-legged animals. Such a small percentage separates us from our hominoid relatives that taxonomies have been revised. When I taught my War Short Stories course at Kansas City Art Institute, I developed a section titled, “Animals and Aggression.” I felt it was important for students to understand the essential function of war, and that “war” can be any battle: sibling against sibling, father against son, tribe against tribe, country against country. I dedicated much of that section on our close relatives, chimpanzees — primarily pan troglodytes who are omnivores and kill their own kind to resolve some conflicts. In the 1970s, chimps of Africa’s Gombe National Forest split into two factions that subsequently engaged in a four-year war against each other. One faction completely wiped out the other in a gruesomely violent genocide. It was during this time that accounts of chimp cannibalism were first witnessed.
“In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” –Tony Montana in Scarface
Because the primary directive of any species is propagation, the one with the most power gets to spread the most seed. Who has the most power? The one with the best resources. What are the best resources? Food, water, and shelter on a basic level. When the basics are met, then an individual’s or country’s “resources” become the accoutrements of plenitude: good health that leads to physical strength and/or beauty, that leads to fame and money that lead to power (not necessarily in that order or combination), that leads to “attractiveness” and thus gene dissemination. (Lest anyone use this as an argument against homosexuality or masturbation: To date, homosexuality has been witnessed in over 450 animal species, and many animals masturbate, like the red deer that masturbates by rubbing its antlers through bushes, often five times a day during rutting season. (Talk about horny! Ha ha ha ha ha!) So, although propagation is the driving force of a species, power in all its manifestations is the means to the end. I’m aware that, even as I write this, I’m trying to make myself more powerful by what I reveal or don’t reveal to you, and through a pretense of expertise.
To generalize: Children who belittle less fortunate children are trying to draw attention to and maintain their own power. Men who feel powerless in society because of poverty or low social/employment status kick their dogs and beat their wives. Women who feel homely or insignificant spread malicious gossip about women who are powerfully attractive or attractively powerful. First world countries try to hang on to their wealthy economies by invading oil-rich countries. Insurgencies rise to gain power against those already in power. There are power struggles at the heart of all relationships, at the heart of all wars.
The Israeli-Hezbollah conflict is too complex and deeply nuanced in its historical origins for me to deconstruct here or elsewhere, and I’m certainly no expert in Middle East politics. But this war, too, is essentially about power: who has it, who wants it, who’s afraid of losing it, ad naseam. Hezbollah, and most Arab nations, want Israel destroyed. The State of Israel is a result of Jews destroyed in World War II — a nearly complete genocide, I might add, that some survivors believe would not have happened if the European Jews would have fought the Nazis instead of passively walking — or chuffing off, to paraphrase Sylvia Plath— to their deaths. Thus, I suspect, Israel’s currently strong military and aggressive “pre-emptive defensiveness” if I may warp a new phrase. No one wins, of course, because the only win is a win-win, and that takes not only symbiosis but an awareness of symbiosis, of one’s own, society’s, and planet’s place in the convoluted web of existence.
Footnote: Unlike pan troglodytes, bonobo chimps use sex to resolve all conflicts, between young and old, male and male, male and female, female and female. As primatologist Frans de Waal suggests in his book The Ape and the Sushi Master, there’s hope for humans yet. Ooga! Ooga!
: We at Mad Hatters’ Review are delighted to be featuring an outstanding (and, to the best of my knowledge, exclusive) audio excerpt from “Personal Effects” in this issue. The thing that struck me about the tonality/atmosphere of this unusual aural piece when I first listened to it was that it was more reminiscent of work by underground electronic music artists such as Coil and Bill Laswell than it was of a typical “spoken word” recording; it had – or rather has – a very ethereal, yet at the same time frightening, ambience to it. Could you perhaps tell me a bit more about this recording, and about how you expect listeners will react to it?
: The text version of “Personal Effects” was created in Storyspace, a hypertext software program that allows the writer to create links, thus writing a story that is nonlinear or, as Epsen Aarseth writes, ergodic. I like using this method of composition because there’s a strong 4-D architecture that emerges. The writing becomes, in fact, like designing a building with rooms full of wondrous images, sounds, and scents, wherein one element inspires another that inspires another and often circles back to earlier “rooms,” in this case computer windows. And because I’m a bit synesthetic—sensing each story, film or sound composition as a mutable shape of a specific liquid density and color—the space of hypertext allows me to build outward in many directions.
Like my earlier hypertexts-in-print, “Personal Effects” was subsequently reshaped for the page, a process that entails recreating “links” via font disparity, white space, indentations and sometimes color. When Carol Novak asked me if I would like to adapt “Personal Effects” print version to audio, I was thrilled because the process allowed me to return to creating a 4-D space via sound. The excerpt is designed for headphones so that the sound moves through and around the listener: the listener thus becoming the tree at the center of the tale.
As for ambience: The day I began the story was overcast and windy – gorgeously rife with impending calamity. That density, that peculiar clear dark liquid, set the tone which might be aptly construed as “frightening.” After all, what’s more dreadful than unmitigated regret, or witnessing the death of a loved one? The piece is intensely layered, with sound upon – or under – sound.
Growing up inside nature, you acquire a keen ear for aural nuance: A summer night is not quiet but deafening with insect, bird, amphibian and mammal voices. Plus, the wind through trees and grasses. Plus the indefinable noises and whispers. Indeed, rural sounds are spectral in that they’re so difficult to precisely pinpoint because of the way an insect’s or bird’s call is designed to not only carry but spread out. I learned from animals to tap into my own animal nature, to turn an ear this way or that, cock my head. My own pulse becomes enmeshed in that throbbing wheeze of nature and so the perception of life is one of relationship not disconnection. Digression: The worst thing Judeo-Christian-Islamic culture did to the world – besides a voracious hunger to kill The Other – was to claim and reinforce that humans have dominion over and thus are separate from all other life. It’s bullshit and results in indisputable destruction of the very environment that sustains us.
My sound influences are so broad and varied, it’s really hard to pinpoint whether this excerpt is the result of voice recordings of Laurie Anderson or Sylvia Plath, classical works of Gorecki or Shostakovich, music of Bone Thugs or Brian Eno, et al. And then there’s the often overlooked brilliance of sound designers who work in film. (Sound design is much more than music. It’s the clinking glass, the thumping wood, the wheezing breath. It’s the tick of metal, pop of guns and squeal of rubber.) Recall the sound design of Apocalypse Now, Wings of Desire or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Most viewers are unaware of how much a film’s sound evokes a deep, lasting response in them. If it’s a good film – even if it’s a bad film – I pay close attention to the sound design: what works, what doesn’t. In creating an aural fiction piece, the reader-listeners are creating their own visual “movie” and I’m providing the sound design and soundtrack. The reason the film Drought was so disturbing was not just because of director Lisa Moncure’s brilliant vision but Jim McKee’s stunning sound design. I dated Jim years ago when I lived in San Francisco, and learned quite a lot from him about the nuances of sound. (Among other things.)
: In your short story “Blind,” included in Prayers of an Accidental Nature, you describe the way that a myopic girl perceives all things as color and light, much as the Impressionists depicted life in their paintings, while in the novella Drought – which includes a description of the way light refracts off of various objects that is worthy of the nouveau roman writings of a Robbe-Grillet or a Marguerite Duras – the female protagonist is herself a painter. Your own drawings, paintings, and installations have been shown in various museums, and your screenplay for Drought (recipient of the 1999 Cinovation Screenwriting Award) was adapted by director Lisa Moncure, whose short film version itself later went on to win a number of impressive awards. What is the relationship, for you, between visual art, music, and creative/conceptual writing?
: It’s great that you caught Robbe-Grillet’s influence in Drought. I spent the summer of 1980 reading and falling in love with works of avant-garde or experimental writers like Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, Walter Abish’s How German Is It?, William H. Gass’s Heart of the Heart of the Country, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene, and others. I was just one year past my creative writing education that was predominantly poetry, not fiction, thus writing that blurred boundaries attracted and intellectually excited me. And the more of the avant-garde I discovered the less interested I became in traditional fiction writing, i.e., fiction in which the plot takes precedence and does not challenge one’s concept of language and its myriad possibilities. Read closely, and I suspect you can find influences, large or small, of all above-mentioned writers in Drought, which was actually begun in 1980, then put away until 1990 when it was completed in three months. I should add that those early readings gave me permission, so to speak, to begin breaking the unwritten (pardon the pun) rules of fiction writing. If you don’t know what those rules are, check a page of my ironic hypertext Gass Pain or any Top 100 Books list. Though the latter will contain many books I deeply appreciate and revere, like Nabokov’s Lolita and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, it will also illuminate a numbing homogeneity of form – and of course race-gender (i.e., white male).
Shortly after I studied poetry (and journalism, briefly), I took a degree in painting from Kansas City Art Institute. While there I had the good fortune to study with performance-artist/writer/painter/renaissance-man Michael K. Meyers who further validated the dissolution of boundaries between not only genres but artistic disciplines. I created videos and audios, multimedia installations, art books, mixed media sculptures and drawings, and wrote/directed/performed performance art, poetry and short fiction. Of course I painted too, and thus learned the lovely process of abstracting from the abstract, e.g., What is the color and shape of detente? The haptic process of drawing and painting helps you see, not just look. Every writer should study visual art, not only art history but drawing, as Flannery O’Conner once recommended. You don’t really see something until you’ve drawn it a hundred times. You don’t know what a tree really looks like until you’ve studied the veins of a leaf, inside and outside. My sophomore year of painting, we had to choose one object and paint only it for an entire semester. Afterward you understand not only what the object looks like but what it means.
The same can be said of sound, as I hinted at earlier. Did you really listen to that cricket scuttling across a dry leaf? That scrap of cellophane quivering in the wake of a passing truck? That bird mistaking a window for the unobstructed world? I have to credit my musical ear to good genes: My grandmother played piano extremely well, by ear, and I played clarinet for years though never learned to sight read because I also played by ear. (Nice rhyme here.)
The significance of process over product that I learned in art school I’ve now applied to everything I undertake. Every art form is mutable and interconnective and overlapping. We’re a primitive species that still needs to separate things into categories – and then judge: “This is not writing.” “This is bad music.” No. This is. And, so, what does it mean that it is? You can say that chick lit sucks — I do — but that doesn’t answer the bigger question of why chick lit books are currently so popular, why so many women and men choose intellectual vapidity over intellectual challenge. As a reader/listener/viewer/experiencer I’m more interested in questions not verdicts. (Though, of course, you’ll find me indicting just about everyone – myself included – in my own fiction because of the socio-political nature of my writing. Which, in turn, still leaves me to ask questions: “Why did I write that? What influenced it? Who and what am I in which and what culture that I think what I think?”) I suspect there’s a close link between people who hold too tight onto categorization and those who fear death. In their mind, stasis means you’re still living. In my mind — having smelled enough stagnant ponds in my time — stasis means death. Why do so many people become more conservative as they grow older? They are conserving themselves and all they hold dear (money, property, youth) against the inevitable: that fat black corvus corax swooping down, beak gaping, claws sprung. And the more they have to hold dear, the more conservative they become. Digression: Watching my heretofore liberal-minded father go from a socio-politically generous debtor-rancher to a land-rich/pocket-rich Limbaugh-listening, O’Reilly-watching conservative has been one of the more anxiety-filled experiences of my adult life.
: I’d now like to talk a bit about your latest (i.e. forthcoming) work from the Fiction Collective 2 [www.fc2.org] – or FC2 for short – The Jirí Chronicles & Other Fictions, which I found to be a truly indescribable blend between novel, short story collection, extended magazine and/or newspaper article and/or advertisement for products and services which don’t actually exist – but should, or might in some parallel universe much resembling our own –, and socio-political treatise. (Okay, ye marketeers of stolid writing, try to force an all-encompassing genre/label upon that; I dare you!) What was the impetus behind the creation and compilation, if you will, of these disparate-yet-cohesive “chronicles”? When/where/how did the idea strike you for such a multilayered/multimedia work? Who or what (have I hit all of the “W” questions yet?) inspired/influenced this fascinating and complex piece, apart from this enigmatic Jirí Cech fellow (whose CV I happened upon while “Googling” him the other day, by the way, though I’m convinced it wasn’t the real Jirí Cech’s…)?
: The Jirí Chronicles & Other Fictions contains experiments I wrote between 1998 and 2005. I do not use the term “experiments” glibly. Each story began with specific and sometimes very tight parameters. The first section, “Snapshots: A Genealogy in Flight,” contains flash fictions derived from real family photographs, written in 15 minutes or less. “Hyperfictions” contains a wide variety of experiments. As for the Chronicles themselves... Ah, Jirí, Jirí, Jirí!
My statement of intent, A History of the Jirí Chronicles, pretty much says it all, but I’ll summarize. The year was 1998, and it was a fucking good year, or I should say a good fucking year. The Democrats were in The White House and I was driving back and forth to New Mexico to screw this hot Czech guy, and the Big Vagina Brain gave birth to a very fat baby Jirí, halo slightly disassembled.
click to enlarge
The Information Deluge was getting wetter, so I assigned my experimental writing students with the task of making meaning out of a deluge of randomly selected information I’d clipped from magazines, newspaper articles and ads. Students blindly selected short paragraphs, images, charts and graphs, then had to weave the clippings into a 10-section fiction. The second rule was to not edit or censor whatever random shit popped into your head while writing: song lyrics, movie dialog, what your mother told you yesterday... Since I always do writing assignments alongside my students, the first story, “Czechoslovakian Rhapsody Sung to the Accompaniment of Piano,” grew from a pile of unrelated print information.
The important thing to note is the fractal, organic quality of The Jirí Chronicles. The more tentacles it sprouts, the more cultural significance it takes on, thus the more tentacles it sprouts, and so on. Once limited to only B/W print fiction, the Chronicles has expanded to 4-color print, video, music and spoken word, visual art, and consumer goods, chronicling not only socio-political issues since 1998 but also technology – particularly the growing democratization of technology and the implications of such. Very early on I directed The Jirí Chronicles toward an aesthestic rather than mathematical experiment in Systems Theory.
My interest in Systems Theory developed long before Jirí was born, after Fritjof Capra’s Turning Point, and the film based on it, Mindwalk. Systems Theory makes perfect sense if you understand bio systems like a pond or forest. The universe consists of systems within systems, all interconnected, which means you cannot alter one system without affecting the others. You cannot fuck up one part and expect the whole to remain unchanged. (Are you listening, George?) It’s true even of corporations and academic institutions. Pay your teacher’s shitty salaries and you will soon discover a decline in your institution’s reputation and enrollment, and an increase in student and teacher attrition rates, which eventually affects the intellectual and therefore economic worth of an entire country, which in turn affects other societies that rely on that country’s economic and intellectual wealth.
Jirí Cêch is an enigma, an intentional and perpetual contradiction, because he represents what we don’t know about every person we meet, every issue we confront. He’s the stereotype that suddenly gets broken by a single comment: “I like poetry but I don’t like intellectual things.” He’s the reminder that we never really know the whole story, and pretending that we do makes us one big dumb fucking asshole. Consequently, it is also about The Lie in contemporary society, where politicians, media monsters, and corporate and religious leaders are able to spin webs of deceit by means of the very technology that allows Jirí Cêch to exist as “flesh-and-blood.”
P.S. There is another famous Jirí Cêch, who’s a physicist, interestingly enough. But maybe he is the real Jirí Cêch. Or maybe I’m lying. Or maybe I’m lying about lying....
: I’ve noticed that there are multiple references to various types of insects in certain of your stories. In the novella Drought, for example, you quote from different volumes of Bill Buford’s Bug Book for Beginners (dig the alliteration!), while in the final installment/episode of The Jirí Chronicles you describe bluebottle flies from sources ranging from Jean Henri Fabre’s The Life of a Fly to sites on the World Wide Web (not to mention those apt quotes from William Blake’s “The Fly,” from which I myself borrowed a few lines for my first novel – please consider this the only completely irrelevant and intrusive aside to be uttered during this interview). Does this fascination with creepy-crawlies come from growing up on a farm, where I’m assuming you had plenty of pests to deal with (many of them human, no doubt); or, rather, is it more an extension of your interest in science/nature in general? Please do elaborate on the “science” aspect of your writing as well, if you wish.
: The social habits of insects are fascinating and serve as apt metaphors for humanity. Their diversity of appearance and behavior is endlessly entertaining and often weirdly macabre. For example, there’s a type of hairworm whose larvae inhabits grasshoppers. When a hairworm has grown the size of a grasshopper’s body (uncurled, at least three times longer than its host), it produces a protein that causes the grasshopper to effectively drown itself. Cool, eh? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — or antennae, as the case may be, haw haw haw.
I’ve never been afraid of snakes or bugs or rodents — quite the opposite — but have a healthy respect for those that can actually harm me, like brown recluse spiders. (I once caught a huge recluse in a jar and added Vitamin E just to see what would happen. NOTE: If your readers are not wondering what did happen then I doubt they will make a very good literary or visual artist.) I find most insects exquisitely beautiful, their intricate design and coloring. Yes, my long-term, first-hand knowledge of so many living species, and hands-on and subsequent textbook research helps me appreciate their importance in the web of life. Maggots, for example — nature’s garbage collectors. I’d seen plenty of animal corpses wriggling with maggots in my youth, but when researching flies for the story “Machine Ghosts” I learned precisely just how marvelously maggots function. Their metamorphosis from egg to adult is truly a wonder! Once recognizing maggots’ beauty, one must then try to ascertain the source and function of human repulsion toward maggots. They signify death, sure, but more likely they signal the possibility of disease or maybe predators attracted to the smell of rot. Is our repulsion primarily innate or cultural, visual or olefactory? After all, Western doctors now (again) recognize the incomparable efficacy of maggots in removing diseased tissue.
I wanted to be a scientific researcher when I was a kid. I had a microscope and was always performing, in hindsight, impossible experiments, like trying to crossbreed different species or figuring out how to measure the speed of the wind by using a thumb joint and cloud lengths (Huh?!?!). But I hated numbers and loved words, so chose the latter. Now, the good thing about writing fiction is that you must do your research in order to have a sufficient palette from which to paint your narrative. Nearly all of my later stories are the result of wanting to research a particular topic, then developing a narrative based on that research.
Live long enough and work hard enough and you learn that there’s always a way to do what you enjoy, no matter how limited your resources or, in my case, aptitude.
: Dimitri Anastasopoulos, in an essay which recently appeared at the innovative fiction blog Now What (August 10), made an impassioned and cogent defense of fiction writing – as opposed to what in this country, at least, is termed “non-fiction” writing – as a genre that engages the reader’s critical thinking skills, rather than simply providing him or her with “factual” information about so-called “real life.” There appears to be a growing perception in the United States that fiction on the whole is no longer as relevant as it was in a more “innocent” time, a time before Bush and 9/11 (though perhaps this perception stretches back even further); it is certainly impossible for us writers to ignore the fact that fiction does not sell as well as memoirs/biographies do these days. As a visual artist, a shrewd satirist, and an astute intellectual (if I may), what do see the role of the [innovative] fiction writer today as being, and why should any of us want to plunk down our hard-earned cash to read such fiction? What, in other words, does innovative fiction writing have to say about the world that isn’t already being said “better” by journalists, politicians, historians, or…by Daniel Brown??
:First of all, let’s clarify some things:
Journalism: The most important thing I learned in journalism school: “There’s no such thing as objective reporting.” Fox TV proves this most/too obviously. A reporter’s writing is always going to be a result of the writer’s, editor’s, publisher’s, society’s prejudices: What is included or omitted casts a slant on the “facts.” When a journalist writes an “objective” article on a court case and describes the judge’s eyes as “cold blue” and the defendant’s smile as “warm and engaging” it’s obvious whose side we’re supposed to take.
Historical Nonfiction: Lest we ever, ever forget: “History is written by the victor.” And the loser’s version is just as distorted.
Creative Nonfiction: Memoirs are the equivalent of Reality TV: Neither is real. They’re one writer’s or producer’s take on events, manipulated through editing to convey a particular message. That message may be, “My mother was mean to me!” or “Hollywood has-beens will do anything on camera to recapture celebrity status.” Show me a writer who can recount verbatim every conversation s/he’s had and I’ll show you a liar (or a one-in-a-billion savant). Likewise, biographers can’t convey the reality of a person’s life, especially when that person is dead, but also when they’re alive and subject to the same recall hazards of the memoirist.
So how does a reader combat the fiction inside nonfiction, inside life — the slanted news reports, lying politicians, duplicitous CEOs, fraudulent despots and pundits and pedagogues, the delusional, rationalizing, oblivious Self? Know language — what Descartes should have said, because there is no way of knowing oneself or one’s world without knowing language. We are language. Everyday we create and recreate our world with words, spoken or thought, and everyday our world is [re]created for us by someone else’s words, spoken or printed. Talk about power! Language is power. And powerful language is made by understanding the nuances of words and how those nuances affect one’s thinking.
Innovative writers are as interested in telling the story of language as in mere storytelling, and reading language’s story is as close to reading humanity’s story as you’ll ever get because a “factual” account will rarely raise the shade umbrella over the burning bear. That’s why I created my War Short Stories course right after 9/11, predicting that we’d go to war within the year and knowing that the news my students would watch or read, and the history classes they’d take, would not, could not convey the physical/emotional/spiritual microcosm of a person inside the macrocosm of war. Skilled fiction writers sculpt words into holistic sounds, images, meanings that shift readers toward a personally profound understanding of the world – particularly the context in which the person exists yesterday, today, tomorrow.
Innovative fiction contains a self-reflexivity, sometimes self-referentiality of the writing and its many associations that shape innovative fiction – which, by the way, may not resemble “fiction” at all. Therefore, reading a work by an innovative fiction writer is as different from reading a mainstream fiction writer as viewing a Thomas Kinkade painting is from viewing a Matthew Barney artwork. The reader must become aware of fiction’s interior and exterior space; that is, the “story” that takes shape inside the reader’s head, and the “story” of the reader becoming conscious of the shape inside her/his head, and the story of what that shape implies about the reader’s language, and language in general, and its myriad functions in contemporary society.
Here’s another example, again using architecture as metaphor: You, the reader, are walking through a building, trying to figure out how the architectural elements relate to each other: the hallways, windows, columns, walls, floors, stairways, doorways... what emotional and intellectual message the architect is trying to send you. But as long as you’re trapped inside the building, you’ll never figure out that YOU ARE THE ARCHITECT. You, the reader, built that building yourself; the writer provided the blueprints. And now you must ask yourself: Who am I, what is my cultural context, that I translated these blueprints into this structure, this narrative, this meaning? The reader gains spectacular insight into her/his own thought processes and thus life. The more complex the blueprint, the more insight. Think Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye versus a lean-to.
And Dmitri is absolutely correct about critical thinking skills – the most important skills a person can possess because of their elasticity in any situation. A good arts education will emphasize critical thinking over technical craft. Though some writers like Kass Fleisher and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha have enlisted innovative approaches toward nonfiction, today most memoirs, biographies and histories are written with the middle-brow in mind (transl. $ell! $ell! $ell!). Whenever you’re taking about contemporary tastes in literature you can never omit the [preferably black-ink] bottom-line in publishing. The industry forms public tastes as much as and perhaps more than they conform to it. And one should remember that most mainstream agents and editors are not great writers or scholars; they may have gone into the business because they loved literature but they stay because they love money more. They’re dedicated to what they do, and what they do is business not art. By contrast, those who run or work for small presses certainly aren’t in it for the money.
The more important question in all of this is, Why “reality” books and TV? I’ve been dedicating a great deal of time lately to watching reality shows to get a grip on the phenomenon (Ahem: guilty pleasure.) As a result, I’ve become addicted to Project Runway, the fashion design reality show. Why? Because it’s primarily about problem-solving. Project Runway contestants must solve problems regarding aesthetic form and function – basic but critical art school curriculum. Throughout the show I catch myself asking: What would I make? How would I behave? What would I say? (Though I’m less interested in the interpersonal interactions, sometimes the language is hilarious because of broader connotations: “What happened to André?”—Tim Gunn. “You’re either in or you’re out.” — Heidi Klumm.)
Whether the problem is how to reach Dubai without killing your partner (The Amazing Race) or how to share your octogenarian playboy with two other boobalicious blondes (The Girls Next Door; I’d wager that the majority of viewers are female not male), people watch to learn, even if they believe they’re only being entertained. Humans are tool-makers, reasoners, and it seems to me that memoirs and reality shows are essentially about reaching a solution to a problem, regardless of whether the problem is real or invented. They say humans and other animals dream to problem-solve. Maybe watching reality TV or reading nonfiction is just dreaming while eating a big bowl of ice cream, but reading innovative fiction is churning the ice cream, making the bowl and then watching yourself eat and dream about eating and dreaming.
Writing and reading innovative fiction is a blast, unless you’re intellectually lazy like, say, 80% of Americans. It’s the literary equivalent of a difficult Sudoku or The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, except fiction has the ability to profoundly enlighten us, make us infinitely smarter, wiser, richer, powerful, with flatter stomachs, bigger tits and longer dicks. (Jirí forced me to add the last part.)
: Please comment, if you would, on how you perceive the role – specifically – of female writers of innovative fiction; a few examples, off the top of my head, would include the likes of Aimee Bender, Kathryn Davis, Lydia Davis (no relation, of course), Gina Frangello, Carole Maso, Susan Steinberg, Jeanette Winterson, and Lidia Yuknavitch…Which women writers have influenced your own writing the most? Can you recommend any innovative books by women writers that may have eluded some/many/most of our “must-read” radars/lists for one reason or another?
: I suspect that if you interviewed all of the innovative female writers you’d find at least one similarity: A kind of rebelliousness in the way they live now, or in their youth in my case, since my life’s now comparatively tame. A rebelliousness against one arbitrary assumption or another. The title of Carol Maso’s collection of essays, “Break Every Rule,” sums it up, as does her writing. Perhaps we have an ability to shamelessly explore who and what we are, why we are, making no excuses but rather simply investigating the context in which we exist. It’s not that we’re fearless, but that we know plowing through the fear will make us freer once we come out the other side. I’d love to survey female innovative writers to find out how frank they are about sex, how many have had multiple partners, how many are bisexual or lesbian. Since sex is the biggest taboo in our hypocritical society, it seems that sexual tyranny would be the first fence that these women would try to scale.
The most disturbing thing I see in young female writers is the sugar-and-spice syndrome. They’ll write these gawd-awful stories about angels and butterflies – I kid you not – while in reality they’re recovering from meth-amphetamine addiction, or got kicked out of the house because their parents found out they were lesbian, or got pregnant at fifteen, or were sexually abused by their father/uncle/brother/grandfather/otherman. They write what they believe is expected of them, as female writers, as females. The father is mortified that his son is a virgin at 18; the mother is mortified her daughter is not a virgin at 18.
Butterfly fiction is a microcosm for the malignant condition of societies everywhere: It’s Miss Manners, Paul the Epistolary, First Lady Syndrome, and Rush Limbaugh’s three-divorces/”feminazi”/oxycontin/erectile-dysfunction amalgamation. It’s the clitoridectomy, the sexual abstinence contract, the dowry, the current U.S slave trade . It’s the veil, the chador, the burqa. It’s Manolo Blahniks and pantyhose. It’s snuff films, “Hunting for Bambi,” real or fake. It’s me every time I bite my tongue when I know I should be flapping it, or me obsequiously repeating, “I’m sorry” or “Thank you.” It’s me, now, curtailing my use of the words fuck, shit, cock, cunt, bitch, dick... and censoring sentiments that would be construed as offensive if spoken by a woman.
Gertude Stein is one of the most important fiction writers, ever. Each piece of her writing swells into a living body – three-dimensional and in motion. If you understand cubism, you realize she was at least as successful at literary cubism as Picasso was at painting cubism. Stein influenced many male writers later lauded for their originality — and cocks (I’m making up for lost column inches). Other dead female writers I deeply respect are Kathy Acker, Marguerite Duras, Virginia Wolfe, Nathalie Sarraute, Emily Dickinson, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Off the top of my head, I like experiments in form by Cris Mazza, Margaret Atwood, Susan Daitch, Lidia Yuknavitch, Laurie Anderson, Andra Neiburga, Taeko Kono, Shelly Jackson, Tony Morrison, and all of the contemporary women writers you named, plus many poets, plus many other fiction writers that escape me now and to whom I will have to apologize. But, truth be told, I’ve found far fewer women writers willing to take literary risks than men, and I’m certain it all goes back to the sugar-and-spice syndrome – and editors less willing to publish provocative writing by women.
: …And what of minority writers (in America), and/or those not tied to a university program (i.e. writers without MFA degrees, or without degrees in anything at all other than Life)? Where do they fit into all of this? Or do they? Your co-conspirator in literary crime, the inimitable, indefatigable Jirí Cech, is – interestingly enough – both a man (a real man, I might add, in every sense of the word) and a minority who claims that he is “part German, Jew, and North American Indian” on his mother’s side and “English, Scotch, and Welsh” on his father’s side, though his native home is Czechoslovakia, and his adopted home New York, U.S.A. Have you ever asked Mr. Cech how he feels about inhabiting his own skin – that is, about how he perceives his role as minority poet, musician, and capitalist multimedia artist? How do you view his role? Please don’t offer me a cashew; I’ve just eaten, thank you.
: Know why inbreeding is bad? Because the progeny is likely to have genetic defects.
Thank god there are writers outside of the academy! I think about the many interesting lives I’ve lived, and then I meet a writer who went from high school, to BA, to MFA, sometimes to PhD, and to Professor, with no breaks in-between. It’s the equivalent of the MBA attaining a corporate management job right out of college. AND THEN YOU DIE. Makes me what to put them out of their misery now, to spare them the horror of their midlife crisis when it’s too late to experiment without looking somewhat pathetic. Besides, by then you’re too certain of your mortality and thus far too circumspect to throw caution to the wind. And one misconception about teaching is that you have more time to create your own work. If you’re a dedicated teacher, this is bullshit. My most productive writing years (before 2002, when I quit teaching) were when I worked low-level clerical jobs. They’re routine and consistent: You go home at five and leave your work behind, your head clear.
Academic regurgitation in creative writing is when information/cultural and aesthetic values are determined by people whose information/values came from people whose information/values came from people whose... I never wanted to be a “pedagogue” (though I love teaching and am good at it) and, therefore, have not, even when I taught full-time. I am first a writer. As such, I wanted to experience as much of the world and people as possible: copious amounts of sex, drugs booze (I’ve been a recovering alcoholic for 17 years and recovering coke addict for 20) and rock&roll (& classical, rap, jazz, techno, pop...)... hanging out with a Mafia hit man and his wife, a Moroccan socialist in Paris, beautiful crazy young men from South America, a drug dealer, a con man, music producers, actors... living in a magnificent penthouse in Florence and a concrete shanty in Switzerland... working in high-level corporate jobs and waiting tables... Listening, really listening to cab drivers and store clerks and mechanics and motorcycle gang members and thieves and homeless women and men, and the dying... burying friends. If you locked me in a room for the rest of my life I’d have more than enough wild, wonderful and tragic experiences to inspire me. But don’t. I’ll just break the lock.
There still aren’t enough non-academics writing fiction, particularly non-white. Rap and hiphop are important because they’re narratives from a culture that rarely gets heard otherwise. I want to read more serious literature from the unwritten masses: the poor black urban and poor white rural, vice versa; the sons and daughters of illegal immigrants whose fathers come home smelling of corporate pig shit; the women and men of suburbia who know they’ve died and gone to hell. And I want to hear their voices, not voices contrived from the mid-Atlantic. Contrary to the publishing, TV, and film industries, the United States isn’t just New York and Los Angeles. I get sick and tired of the same old shit that’s such a fantasy when you really look at U.S. demographics. We must ask ourselves: Who are we that we don’t really want to know what’s really going on in places and lives we cannot even imagine and so don’t. Ignorance is bad enough; willful ignorance is the only evil I’m willing to legitimize.
: It says in your (frankly, formidable) bio that you taught for the PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in Schools program last year (2005). What was that experience like for you and for your students? Would you do it again if asked? Have you ever had any truly bad teaching experiences, like those of the geography teacher in that story I mentioned way back at the beginning of the interview?
: PEN/Faulker’s Writers in Schools (WIS) program started out great. I was involved from its inception, from 2003 onward. I traveled to Kansas City area schools and held writing workshops for students that tended to be underexposed to quality literary and art experiences as a result of poorly funded school systems and cultural and economic isolation. Most students were minority and/or from the lower economic classes. It was important that they wrote fiction while discussing reading and the writing life, because the focus was on them not the visiting writer, and they could relate the creative process of writing with the creative process of reading.
I had some real breakthroughs: students who had rarely spoken in class able to read their story aloud; students who had been ignored for some reason, or considered “a problem,” suddenly shining with a heretofore veiled knowledge and intelligence; students who’d never thought they could write excelling because I allowed them to break free of those stifling English Lit strictures. (The average student is more likely to learn grammar when s/he sees its relevance to their own creations.)
But some committee in Washington DC decided that the writing workshops should be only one-hour talks about reading. I wrote the organization, arguing against the new program, but to no avail. So I’ve begun giving workshops on my own, to some of the schools that recognized the benefits of writing. Besides, they won’t allow students to have my books now because my fiction contains too much sex. Imagine that! Can you tell I live in a red bible-belt state. Oh, I should also add that my workshop spiel regarding censorship and writing uses the term “motherfucker,” and I suspect some students went home to complain to their parents. And that’s a whole other issue regarding writing: The unspoken censorship of the publishing industry and of the writer’s immediate culture and of her/himself. It’s one of my first lectures in the college level courses because I consider it one of the biggest problems in American literature. The sexually repressed (thus perverted) Victorians used to cover their table legs because evidently the curvilinear wood gave them boners. That’s a good metaphor for American fiction, but I’m not talking only about sex but politics, social and economic issues, the way “we” really live today.
Having taught for years at Kansas City Art Institute — especially my first-year courses for students with serious writing problems — I grew to understand the learning needs of students who fell outside the “norm” (rules again!) and developed teaching methods that allowed their strengths to rise not suffocate. What I recognized is that most K-12 teaching systems are very strict in defining what is “good” and what is “bad.” Also, it appears that teachers are not terribly creative in their methods, or perhaps are so overwhelmed by crowded classrooms and crowded schedules that they don’t have room to think outside the box. Every child might be left behind, but they will be good test-takers, damn it, which means they will follow all the rules, which means they will be good worker bees and never ask questions like, “What if “They” are wrong?”
As for truly bad teaching experiences? If you have a big ego, that is, if you put yourself before your students, you’re likely to have bad experiences with some frequency. In the end teaching is always about the student, and the student is motivated by fear and, yes, sometimes loathing, and you must have compassion for their untenable position. At KCAI I once had a student call me a bitch, among other things, from the back of the room. It was kind of funny, so I just ignored it. Good thing too, because I later figured out that he had a mild case of Tourette Syndrome. He was such a psychological mess he nearly made me cry. But he was a talented artist and excelled in his discipline, and we got along fine after he realized he couldn’t shock me. Another student had this weird love-hate relationship toward me for four years, and so would vacillate between literally telling me to fuck off, to repeatedly asking me critique her visual art work and confiding her worst fears to me. She was a genius, completely off-the-wall brilliant, so some of her attacks on me were highly entertaining.
I have a lot of patience with students who don’t fit the Jello mold because I was, and still am, one of them.
: Do you consider every novel or short story collection you write as a kind of autonomous entity, or do you see them all as making up a part of a larger project? Can you see a discernible pattern or progression between the your first-ever novel or short story and your later work or works? What would you say has changed the most since you first started writing? the least?
: Well, The Jirí Chronicles is one vast interconnected project that now contains over 400 individual works. Otherwise, any connections are the result of the writing having the same, slowly evolving author with the same, slowly evolving vocabulary, interests, and knowledge base. Most of the stories published in Prayers of an Accidental Nature were written before Drought & Say What You Like and are rather conventional, though you can witness me pushing boundaries in a few of them. “Our Perversions” comes to mind, since I was trying to let what I’d been reading on quantum physics influence the story’s composition.
My work evolved because I finally figured out that I’d devoured, digested and shat more good world literature that most I knew in the “business” and so stopped listening to creative writing teachers whose writing had gotten stuck in whatever era they first recognized their mortality; lit journals whose transom editors tended to be grad students twenty years my junior; literary agents and publishing house editors who spent more than half their time reading shit, and reviewers who are irrelevant unless they’re able to creatively and intelligently dissect the writing. The lives of these folks are held together by rules, and I have never been very good at adhering to rules, especially when their purpose is to maintain a status quo based on bigotry, ignorance, fear and other chimp behavior.
My curiosity has changed not at all over the years; in fact, it’s blossomed. The more I read and learn in the sciences, history, linguistics, technologies, ad infinitum, the more questions I have. And for me, writing has always been about questions not answers. Hell, living is about questions, about exploring unnamed territories. Some very dangerous territories, indeed. I’m lucky to be alive after all the shit I’ve done. Really.
: Okay, final question: What are you currently working on (or planning on working on in the foreseeable future)? Do you expect that you’ll still be writing when you’re old and gray; i.e. after global warming/war have demolished all but your imagination and a writing implement of some sort?
: I have so many irons in the fire, so many pisses in the pot:
The Jirí Chronicles continue to haunt me, as there are real and virtual spaces he has yet to invade. By the way, this is an “email me” to readers who might have projects Jirí can infiltrate. Simultaneous with the FC2 book, I’m producing a limited edition of 50 4-color Chronicles art books that include a stuffed, cursing baby Jirí doll with detachable halo, and a CD of sample music and interviews.
I’m working on a CD of high-brow hiphop(ish) derived from my prose poetry collection, Twin. Michael Humphrey is doing the music and Nearfall Records will help produce it with my company, Jaded Ibis Productions. The CD case will include the print version of the poems and will be downloadable.
My mixed media novel, Ugly Town: a
nightmare movie, will be redesigned by the end of this year. There will be an American Idol-esque competition in Kansas City (next summer, I hope) for young undiscovered hiphop or rap artists who will compose songs specifically for the book. Nearfall Records will produce the book’s soundtrack of winning singer-writers, to be included in each Ugly Town book. I’m hoping to get a music magazine like Vibe or Murder Dog to sponsor the competition.
Another mixed media novel, The Fabulous Plastic Surgery of Dr. Harold W. George, is in the works. It’s a horror story about a misogynistic plastic surgeon serial killer. Besides text and illustrations, the book contains pictures of his “destructions” and my nonfiction notebook analyzing the idea of horror. Some of the images have already been exhibited.
In progress is Anything Now Gone, a text-only novel exploring the relationship between Eros and Thanatos as it relates to the history of the United States after World War II through the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the outbreak of the current Iraq War. Narrated by Lucy, an aging punk rock performer in the role of Eros, it examines the culture of consumerism, ideas (and ideals) of physical beauty and ugliness, women’s sexuality in a society fluctuating between religious conservatism and the radical left, and humanity’s current, dubious place on the evolutionary ladder.
[ NO PICTURE AVAILABLE ]
I’m hoping to get funding for a series of vlogs (video logs) interviewing conceptual writers and discussing their writing. It’s a continuation and expansion of a special feature I wrote/edited for Review in 2005.
IN CONCLUSION: I cannot see myself quitting writing, but I can see myself quitting publishing my writing, at least by conventional means. The latter is such a bore, such an energy and creative drain. Especially when you have to educate so many editors, agents, publishers and readers — including purportedly innovative ones — on what it is you’re doing and why it is important.
If the world collapses, I’ll go to my father’s farm and live in the dying woods until I, too, die and am fodder for lovely maggots and whatever other life remains.
: Thank you for your time.
: Thank you, Marc. (Absolutely not stated with an obsequious whine, but nevertheless sincere.)