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Field Geology: An Interview with Rivka Galchen

June 11, 2014 | by

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Photo: Sandy Tait

In 2008, Rivka Galchen published Atmospheric Disturbances, a novel about a psychiatrist who wakes up one day to discover that his wife has been substituted by a replica. He subscribes to the delusions of a patient (who believes he can control the weather) to explain her disappearance. What James Wood referred to as the narrator’s first-person “double unreliability” made for a richly inconclusive novel about the confusion and mystery of love.

In her new story collection, American Innovations, Galchen, who has a background in medicine, returns us to worlds in which weird things happen. A woman watches the objects in her Brooklyn apartment leave of their own volition; a student of Library Sciences develops a third breast; refrigerated string cheese won’t stay put. Galchen’s stories suggest oppositions that dissolve in their own reversals: real things take on the patina of the artificial, while the fantastic and strange can feel more real than what we call real life. To read her stories is something like using a map without contours or coordinates; it’s impossible to plan your trip.

Over e-mail, Galchen and I discussed fiction’s relationship to field geology, the peculiarities of the short story as a form, and the allure of McDonald’s. Galchen is exhilaratingly imaginative, precise, and generous.

Why is the story a form you return to?

Short stories feel found to me—I like that about them. Of course, they’re actually not found, they’re written, just as novels are written, but they seem to have a more dense and unchangeable core than novels do, or at least it seems like one reaches the immutable core faster.

I like how stories can feel like some shiny thing on the ground, something that might be malachite, or might be a fragment of a comet, or might be a rusted old ignition. The writing process for a short story feels more like field geology, where you keep turning the thing over and over, noting its qualities in detail, hammering at it, putting it near flame, pouring different acids on it, and then finally you figure out what it is, or you just give up and mount it on a ring and have an awkward chunky piece of jewelry that seems weirdly dominating but that you for some reason like. I could be wrong about field geology here.

Where do you find your stories?

Sometimes I wonder if it’s immaterial things rooting around to find their material. For example, I have a story set in large part in a McDonald’s, there’s a young girl at the center of it, it’s in many ways a kind of love story, but why McDonald’s? McDonald’s was just sitting there in the old costume trunk of the back brain, and there was some inchoate emotion trying to play its little tune, and for whatever congregation of reasons McDonald’s was ideally useful to that emotion. It gave it the right language—probably in part because of that weird residue of how enchanting McDonald’s used to be when we were kids, how it was all an outsize luxury. And then, of course, it looks so different to us today. I think it has something to do with the question, What is it fiction is actually good at? What can it do that’s not better done with, say, a long piece of journalism, or a photograph, or a TV show? And that, in turn, has something to do with the intangible murk from which stories start to organize themselves. That intangible murk is the part that feels found to me. Read More »

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Always on Display: An Interview with Joshua Ferris

May 19, 2014 | by

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Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/Hachette Brown Group

“The mouth is a weird place,” says the dentist-narrator of Joshua Ferris’s new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. “Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate—where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul may just fail to turn up.”

It’s not just dentists who peer into dark spaces. Fear that the soul may fail to turn up is everywhere in Ferris’s work. To date, he has explored the human search for soulfulness in the anonymizing ecosystem of an office (Then We Came to the End); in the repercussions of an isolating, untreatable disease (The Unnamed); and repeatedly in words themselves. A short story like “The Fragments,” published in The New Yorker last spring, is constructed from snippets of half-caught conversations. It takes as its subject the not-quite-bridgeable gap between overhearing and understanding, between the sound of a sentence and the meaning inside. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour turns this artistic interest in misunderstandings into an impressive investigation of faith and doubt. It’s a novel full of existential humor, and the laughs start before the book has even begun. Not many American writers, searching the Bible for an appropriate epigraph, would have found their eyes alighting on this one:

Ha, ha

—Job 39:25.

I met Ferris on a Friday afternoon in Brooklyn. We talked about his desire to shift his writing away from what he calls “the over-manufacture of the imagined” to a more “face value” approach. We also discussed the ways in which he envies the sense of belonging religion can offer, and why literary critics could afford to lighten up when it comes to funny fiction. “We don’t exist in the world solely to grow goatees and stroke them,” he told me. “We’re here also to make one another laugh.”

I heard that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour started its life as a detective novel called The Third Bishop. How did you find your way from that original idea into a novel about baseball and religion, narrated by a dentist?

Ten years ago, I was despairing of writing any book at all. I had about 250 pages of the novel that eventually became Then We Came to the End, and those pages were wanting. So I put them away and eventually gave myself over to a very different manuscript. It was about a kid who had been thoroughly indoctrinated into a cult and was convinced that his strange view was the worldview. I was interested in the borderland that exists between a cult and a religion, and especially fascinated by Joseph Smith and the evolution of Mormonism.

After Then We Came to the End and The Unnamed were published, I ended up coming back to that story of an indoctrinated kid. Slowly it evolved into the story of a private detective investigating a possibly ancient religion. In a way, the books you almost wrote on the way to finding the final novel will always be more interesting than the published version. They’re a more colorful record of the writer’s life. But with the help of my two editors I came to see that the private detective, who’s inherently a kind of mediating narrator, or a cipher, wasn’t working for me either. I needed a narrator right at the center of the novel, encountering the religion for himself. He eventually became a dentist because I need my characters to have jobs in order to feel real to me. People have to work. I thought, Why not make him a dentist? It doesn’t get any more real world than that. You’re getting in there every day and making shit bleed.Read More »

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A Marvelous Crutch: An Interview with Brad Zellar

April 25, 2014 | by

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McKenna. Corsicana Tumbling Academy. Corsicana. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Douglas. Beverly Hills. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Fellowship Church. Grapevine. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Reveille VIII, Texas A&M mascot. College Station. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Texas City, “The town that would not die.” Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Cory and Justin, Bull riders, in San Antonio. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

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Execution of Jerry Martin. Huntsville Prison, Walls Unit. Photo: Alec Soth, via LBM Dispatch

Brad Zellar’s writing has appeared in daily newspapers from Minnesota and in an expansive blog called Your Man for Fun in Rapidan; he has chapters and essays in collections like The 1968 Project and Twin Cities Noir, and occasionally he writes fiction, which he tells me he publishes “under an assortment of fake names.” But he’s most comfortable writing about photographs, as he did in the book Suburban World: The Norling Photos, and in his most recent project with the photographer Alec Soth, the LBM Dispatch.

Named for and printed by Soth’s limited-run publishing house, Little Brown Mushroom, the Dispatch reimagines the iconic American road-trip photography book as a series of small newspapers, each of which chronicles a quick trip Zellar and Soth have taken through a different state or territory. Previous Dispatches have covered Michigan, Ohio, and California’s “Three Valleys—Silicon, San Joaquin, and Death.” The most recent includes images and stories from the Texas Triangle.

I wanted to know about the writing process for the Dispatch, and how Zellar chooses the issues’ many quotations from historical and literary sources. But I was most curious to hear his thoughts on writing to accompany images. Not quite a photo-interpreter in the Berger/Sontag tradition (though he is a great writer in the “how to look” sense), Zellar embraces photography as a fan, and he’s not afraid to let images do the talking when necessary. In Zellar’s work, photos are windows, excuses for curiosity—above all, the Dispatch embodies the devotion to stay curious.

A lot of your work, here and elsewhere, has accompanied photos. How does it affect your own writing to know that pictures will share its space? How does it make you think about your purpose as a writer?

The public library in my hometown had a terrific collection of photo books when I was a kid. I was an obsessive reader, but it was from those photo books that I formed my first real impressions about what the world looked like. And they played a huge role in cementing a resolve that I very much wanted to travel and see that world. I used to spend hours hunched over William Eggleston’s Guide, the first Diane Arbus monograph, and a book of vernacular American photographs called The Champion Pig.

From an early age I used to write stories based on photographs, and I’ve never really stopped. I have a large collection of found photos, I like to take photos myself, and I just get a kick out of looking at pictures and trying to animate them with words. I love that photos represent so many possible realities, and they’re sort of a laboratory for exploring points of view. You have the people in the pictures, obviously, each of them a different voice with a different version of whatever story is being told, you have the people outside the frame or lurking in the peripheries, and then, of course, you have the photographer. Read More »

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The Smithereens of Collapse: An Interview with Bill Cotter

April 18, 2014 | by

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Photo: Leon Alesi

Issue 208 of The Paris Review includes Bill Cotter’s story “The Window Lion,” which pairs remarkably well with his new novel, The Parallel Apartments. In fact, they’re related—but I’ll let Cotter talk about that. The novel is the sort of book that invites opposing adjectives: it’s sexy and repellant, “brainy” and full of “heartfelt joy” (Heidi Julavits); it’s comic but also relentlessly, tragically sad. I spent much of my time while reading the novel trying to articulate its tone. I got this far: “the image of Walt Disney’s dick was a revelation.”

Cotter agreed to a talk on the phone—he lives in Austin, Texas. We spoke for well over two hours, about writing, reading, the idea of “a Texas novel,” and his day job as an antiquarian book dealer and restorer. He has an excellent vocabulary and an imagination thats far-out and fantastic.

While reading, I was reminded of a favorite quote, from William James—“To better understand a thing’s significance, consider its exaggerations and perversions … learn what particular dangers of corruption it may be exposed to.” The novel, especially with regard to sex and relationships, seems a distorted version of reality, a kaleidoscope of exaggerations.

I like the idea that verity can be glimpsed by bending mirrors and chipping lenses. In fact, I don’t know how to get at the truth of characters in any other way. I don’t know how to send characters on movie dates, have them play tennis on a sunny day, or sit them down for turkey and mashed potatoes. In order to get at them for real, it’s necessary, for me, to dress them in silly clothes, hack off their fingers, smear them with ptomaine, then stick them between the sheets or pitch them starved into a cage or just let them rush around erecting bearing walls too weak to hold up the trembling rafters. It’s in the busted minds of troubled offspring, or among bones not quite picked clean, or poking out of the smithereens of collapse that I think the true truths are found. Read More »

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A World Beyond the Glass: An Interview with Mary Szybist

April 8, 2014 | by

Image: Meilani Kirkwood, courtesy of Graywolf Press

Photo: Meilani Kirkwood, courtesy of Graywolf Press

Mary Szybist may not have been the best-known writer on the poetry shortlist for the 2013 National Book Award, but her book Incarnadine was ambitious and thoughtful enough to overcome this. Her second collection, after Granted (2003), Incarnadine comprises poems focused on the Annunciation. Szybist, who was raised Catholic, uses this intimate moment as an opportunity to explore the relationships between poetry and prayer and to explicate an encounter between the human and “the other”—something outside of human experience, be it nature or, in this case, God.

The National Book Award judges called Incarnadine “a religious book for nonbelievers.” It opens with an epigraph from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, which sums up Szybist’s approach to the project: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Receiving the award, she said, “There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do.” I spoke with Szybist recently about religion, poetry, prayer, and the meaning of her name.

Incarnadine deals with the Annunciation—the visitation of Mary by the angel Gabriel, who tells her that she will have God’s son—and the implications and meaning of such an event. It’s an encounter between the human and something beyond human understanding. Your book is an attempt to describe the indescribable through poetry—which is something that prayer can do, also.

Prayer is one way to do this—and yes, I have thought about the connections between poetry and prayer for a long time, and sometimes I am even tempted to believe that they are similar engagements. When I was young, I reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.

I have always been attracted to apostrophe, perhaps because of its resemblance to prayer. A voice reaches out to something beyond itself that cannot answer it. I find that moving in part because it enacts what is true of all address and communication on some level—it cannot fully be heard, understood, or answered. Still, some kinds of articulations can get us closer to such connections—connections between very different consciousnesses—and I think the linguistic ranges in poetry can enable that. Read More »

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Nothing Is Alien: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

April 7, 2014 | by

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When Leslie Jamison and I met outside the Glass Shop, an airy café in Crown Heights, I noticed her left arm was sporting a wide, wordy tattoo. It was in Latin, and she spared the embarrassment of translating it—“I am human; nothing is alien to me.”

Too often, Leslie says, people treat tattoos as an invitation to intimacy. Strangers on the subway ask her to relay the story of her tattoo without a second thought, much as they would, in offering a seat to a pregnant woman, ask for the details of what’s growing inside of her. But in Leslie’s case the tattoo does point to an intimate story—or rather, to a whole constellation of intimate stories that Leslie offers in her essay collection The Empathy Exams.

“I am human; nothing is alien to me” is the epigraph to the collection. It is a quote that has been casually misattributed to Montaigne, John Donne, Karl Marx, and Maya Angelou, but it actually comes from The Self-Tormentor, a play written by Terence, the ancient Roman slave turned playwright. It is the thread that connects such different yet equally luminous works as “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” “Pain Tours,” and “The Devil’s Bait”—meditations on how to feel pain, both physical and psychic in nature, and how to regard the pain of others in a way that respects their humanity. Having read The Empathy Exams, I can begin to appreciate why Leslie has made the small, if painful, jump from writing about the body to writing on the body.

Leslie and I circled this conversation so many times at the Glass Shop that we decided to revisit it one morning in late October at my apartment in Brooklyn, and later that day, on the Metro-North to Yale University, where we are both finishing Ph.D.s in English literature. Most of the time, the tape recorder was on, but sometimes I switched it off so we could gossip idly, and forgot to switch it back on until Leslie was already halfway into a thought on feminism I wanted to preserve. But if this interview reads like the midpoint of a conversation that’s been taking place for some time now, that shouldn’t prevent you—the reader—from making sense of it. After all, you are human. This will not be alien to you.

The most ungenerous criticism of the collection that I could imagine is, Oh, she keeps putting herself in these positions to experience pain or woundedness so she can have something to write about. How narcissistic. I can see people thinking as they’re reading, She’s a real glutton for pain.

I guess that’s why it felt right to put “Grand Unified Theory” at the end of the collection. That idea of being drawn to pain is starting to emerge as a pattern in the essays themselves, and the final essay speaks to that directly. What position of pride do I have in relationship to these experiences?

There’s a basic and important distinction to draw between positions I inhabit as somebody who has experienced some kind of trauma and somebody who’s seeking out pain. Going to the Morgellons conference is a choice in a way that getting hit in the street isn’t. But the collection chooses to bring all of those experiences together in a certain way—what kind of appetite is being spoken to there? In certain ways, as a writer, you do profit off your own experiences of pain, and there’s a way of seeing that profit that’s wholly inspirational—in terms of turning pain into beauty—and a way of seeing it that’s wholly cynical—in terms of being a “wound dweller” in a corrosive or self-pitying way. The honest answer—to me—dwells somewhere between those views. Read More »

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