A whole-hearted ballyhoo to Luke B. Goebel for shouting his thunder this direction and asking me to participate in this tête-à-tête! And too my hat’s off to Rae Bryant for starting this train on its tracks – I hope I don’t run it off into third gear!
Also, with great spirit and huge affirmations from afar to Lauren Spohrer and Anya Yurchyshyn, incredible word-smiths and women in the world, both. These two power-houses of the literary clap will be up for next Monday to answer these same questions and to each tap two new writers. I’m including bios below, but I know their work needs no introduction…
PLEASE do yourself an act of great joy and check out these two women writers and their blogs if you have not already. Their works will knock you dead with innovation and courage.
Upcoming Bios from next week’s writers:
Lauren Spohrer is a writer and public radio producer living in Durham, NC. Her fiction has been published in NOON, Unsaid, the Mississippi Review, and GIGANTIC. She’s the founder and editor of Two Serious Ladies, an irregular online magazine to promote writing and art by women. She also makes a true-crime podcast called Criminal.
Anya Yurchyshyn, has written for Esquire, Granta, N+1, Ploughshares, Buzzfeed, West Branch, Mod Art, Guernica, and Elimae. She is a frequent contributor to NOON. She received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia, where she also taught writing. Her memoir, My Dead Parents – based on her amazing blog! – is forthcoming from Crown.
1) ON what am I currently working?
I recently finished my first novel, White Nights In Split Town City, which is headed out to editors this fall. The setting for the novel initially emerged from a story I’d written about the rural, backcountry road where I grew up. Fay Mountain was wired with full-circuit eccentrics, people who could talk a blue streak to a cow. Even the drive-till-I-die-hermits could swap convincing war-stories about learning to play “Greensleeves” as a child, women’s lib, or the trials of midwifery. Shot through with a crossed-eyed hunger that ran straight from the power lines and into people’s wells, the inhabitants of that road took exception seriously. In a lot of ways, the voice of the novel I recently completed comes from that simple place, a folkloric retelling.
At the time the initial story behind the novel emerged, I was reading Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life and Christine Schutt’s Florida, both of which I admire tremendously. I began to wonder what a novel written without judgment would look like, what the rules would be, what sort of prose would handle that. In terms of influences, I was interested in how the spareness of prose like Millet’s and Schutt’s transcends incident. Things—even dark things—just happen.
The architecture of the novel came into focus when Sam Lipsyte recommended Barry Hannah’s Yonder Stands Your Orphan. I’ve always loved Hannah’s stories – in fact one of the only two novels I allowed myself to read while writing the first draft of my book was Hannah’s novella, Hey Jack, which is incredibly voice driven and just moves along at such a crazy alliterative pitch that you start to get off on it. So, when I read Yonder – which I actually never finished, admittedly because I got too inspired and needed to write – I began to think of the novel as a voice-driven picaresque, a tale about a town full of people where each character/household/local event rolls into the next fluidly and with an internal velocity. The novel too is really voice driven. It builds itself through a lyrical accrual of incidents, the themes of which act as recurring refrains through the book.
On a basic level, the novel I just finished writing is a picaresque about a young girl who functions as a symbol of a rural town’s isolation and naiveté. The novel is set on an unpaved road on the outskirts of the town. It takes place over the course of a single summer. In the background is the experience of the town that summer. Due to the number of horse farms on the road, there is fear of equine encephalitis. As the threat of airborne illness spreads, united in their isolation, the town itself becomes a character in the novel. Animals are dying and people keep an unspoken curfew. The men in town, including Jean’s father, begin holding bonfires each night at the butte overlooking the highway. Neighbors become suspicious of one another. Having grown up surrounded by the isolation of a rural road inhabited primarily by the elderly and eccentric, the young narrator’s interior world becomes populated with fantasies of escape and adventure which eventually leads her to cavort with a troupe of abandoned boys on the street, the Steelhead brothers. In her mother’s absence, the young narrator, Jean, also falls prey the exoticism of Otto Houser, an elderly horse trainer across the street. There’s a bit a Lolita story in action here… Just as the narrator’s mother is confronting her desire to fulfill her individual goals beyond those ascribed to her through motherhood – and joins a feminist group called The Separatists – her daughter Jean is confronting her own sexuality.
The book started with a strong sense of place – having grown up on this unpaved road myself as a child and witnessed the strange ways adults act when in isolation. But, what’s been really interesting to work on in these final drafts has been the relationship between place and time. The book takes place in the early Nineties during the first Gulf War. In addition to its own isolation and suspicions, the town is experiencing harbingers of the impending advent of the 21st century as we now know it, the beginning of America’s conflicts in the Middle East, the use of the personal computer / and eventually the internet. These changes are relayed through the narrator Jean who herself is torn between the adult world as it presents itself to her that summer and the surreal memories of her childhood on that road. As I was working on this sense of time and how it presents itself, I was reading novels like Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jeffrey Eugenides Virgin Suicides, and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, which all deal very much with the role of a small town and also, particularly in Moody’s novel, a sense of the decade in which it is set – it’s aesthetics, sexual politics, etc. I think each decade experiences it’s own series of regrets – I found myself reflecting back on what I thought those were for our generation growing up in the 90’s, in that pre-internet moment when Madonna was still wearing cone bras and Ryan White died of AIDS and we were trying to save the whales form Exxon Valdez…
I’m also working on an essay collection, called Various Paradigms, inspired by the column I run over at The Believer, which was the impetus for this non-fiction collection. Various Paradigms is a tribute to conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner’s typographic texts, which I recently saw in a great show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam called “Written On The Wind.” Weiner once wrote, “Bits and Pieces Put Together To Present A Semblance of A Whole.” The essays this non-fiction collection comprises, hope to follow in that tradition of engagement, intimacy and experiment. The collection engages with words, art, film, politics and poetics – merging the intimate with the academic, rhetoric with confession, criticism with contemporary reflection – and covers both archival and imaginative texts.
Now that I’m done with the novel – Is that even possible, who knows? Fingers crossed! – I’m also thinking about starting a fling with short stories… really short ones ;)
2) How does your work differ from others’ works in the same genre?
Words, to me, beg similar questions to those that artists ask of the brushstroke or the lens – Where does print betray the stroke of the artist, how does it seek to stand alone, when does language become autonomous? How do questions of scale, composition and perspective translate into issues of plot, dialogue and voice? The films of avant-garde film maker Stan Brakhage and his superimposition of images onto single reels of film originally led to my own experimentation in my stories with the ability of text to simulate emotional collage – the idea being to reveal something raw about yourself and to continue to reveal it, almost like a series of retellings. If you’ve ever seen his film Dog Star Man – a five part epic inspired by Ezra Pounds Cantos – you begin to wonder how we retell simple stories – stories of life, death, sex, birth, etc. anew. Brakhage shoots live footage of his wife giving birth in a little cabin in the woods of Oregon, or him making love to his wife, and then superimposes images which he records on the same film, which he records through the projector backward, images of the sun and the moon and a series of narrative portraits of him just trying to climb the same mountain in the snow with his dog – and you begin to realize that the beauty of life is in these small moments and how they reveal themselves.
When I first started the novel I was really interested writers such as Marguerite Duras and the French nouveau roman, who really believed that the artistic development of the narrative in writing was and is ripe for a renewal, that the traditional confines of the novel and the short story, which have often outlined the mimetic representation of realism and the traditional elements of plot, character and psychological development, need be reevaluated. To me, the most exciting contemporary writings are those which increasingly join the larger artistic dialogue, making use of the larger questions posed by the use of space, perspective, repetition and alliteration, creating stories which question the very authenticity of experience itself.
On a side note, unrelated to the novel or my stories, the exploration of hybrid text became a part of my work several years ago after a trip to Santa Fe. I’m completely untrained in photography and am a bit of a techno-phoebe, but I became really interested in how word and image could create dramatic interplay – a conversation that wasn’t about the text explaining the image but rather re-evaluating it. I ended up staying up all night in the desert in a small dorm room at St. John’s college where I was taking some grad classes that summer through Middlebury’s Bread Loaf program and I ended up with a multimedia project entitled, “13 Images on the Horizon,” a digital narrative I created in response to Simon Ortiz’s book of poetry From Sand Creek about the underrepresented narrative of the Native American experience in this country. The project combines the superimposition of text on digital images to create a story through graphic interface. The title and the genesis behind the thirteen frames was inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I’d like to do more of these just for fun, now that the novel is finished. I recently moved upstate to a small hamlet in the Catskills, where there are so many interesting people to capture on film.
3) Why do you write what you do?
I recently read “Woman to Woman,” a series of interviews between Marguerite Duras and the French journalist Xaviere Gauthier. I am interested in these writers because of the way silence and repetition seems to be as much a part of their writing as the actual words themselves. There is a longing and absence to so much of their work. The unsaid becomes a voice. In the Xaviere interview Duras calls these silences “blanks,” “anesthesia – suppressions.” I am interested in her explanation: “In the outside there’s an extraordinary surveillance so that nothing escapes. But what it’s about is simply noticing … the accidents: this is, a displacement, a voice.” I think ultimately it is this same sense of displacement from which my novel begins, as much of the setting is drawn from memories of having spent my early childhood on one of the last unpaved roads in a rural town. The silence of that place was its most exhilarating factor.
To me, really good writing occurs in the unsaid. Maybe I’m a romantic. But somehow I believe that it is in the autism of words, those moments of silence, where you encounter what is really at stake for characters. Sort of the way you do when you start falling for someone. There’s that kind of synergy between words. That kind of bodily calling out. Some words just belong in sequence. It’s fun to try and find them out…
4) How does your writing process work?
I suffer a series of heartaches – familial, romantic, existential and visual. Then I suffer them again.
Annie DeWitt’s writing has appeared in NOON, Guernica, BOMBlog, Esquire’s Napkin Fiction Project, The Believer Logger, art+culture, Everyday Genius, The Faster Times, elimae, and Dossier Magazine, amongst others, and is forthcoming in Tin House and the American Reader edited by Ben Marcus. Her work was recently anthologized in Short: An International Anthology of 500 Years of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms, edited by Alan Ziegler. Ann holds a B.A. from Brown University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia School of the Arts. She was a Founding Editor of Gigantic: A Magazine of Short Prose and Art in 2008. She currently teaches in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia University. For more of her work, please follow her column at The Believer: http://logger.believermag.com/tagged/various-paradigms
Rae Bryant: Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection The Infinite State of Imaginary Morals (Patasola Press 2011). Her stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, McSweeney’s, Huffington Post, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and elsewhere. Her intermedia has exhibited in NYC, D.C., Baltimore, and Florence Italy. She has won prizes and fellowships from Johns Hopkins, Aspen Writers Foundation, VCCA, and Whidbey Writers and has been nominated for the PEN/HEMINGWAY, Pen Emerging Writers, the &Now Award, and multiple times for the Pushcart Award.
Rosebud Ben-Oni is the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists’ Collective, 2013) and a CantoMundo Fellow. Her work appears in The American Poetry Review, Bayou, Arts & Letters, Puerto del Sol, The Feminist Wire, Dialogist, B O D Y, Lana Turner Journal, Slice Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and elsewhere. In 2010, her story “ A Way out of the Colonia” won the Editor’s Prize in Camera Obscura. Please read more about Rosebud at rosebudbenoni.com She does good things at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
Tessa Fontaine graduated from the University of Alabama’s MFA program and joined a traveling circus sideshow. As an instructor for Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project, she taught creative writing and performance in prisons across Alabama. More of her work can be found in Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, Pank, and more. Stay tuned for more updates from the road
Luke B. Goebel is the author of Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours (FC2 2014). He won the Ronald Sukenick Prize for innovative fiction for the above-mentioned novel. He is a fiction writer and an Assistant Professor. His fictions are forthcoming or have appeared in The American Reader, PANK, The New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Elimae, The Collagist, Greenmountains Review, Gigantic, and elsewhere. He wont the Joan Scott Memorial Fiction Award in 2012.