An Interview with Brian Evenson
Samuel R. Delany said, “Like Poe’s, Evenson’s stories range from horror to humor; a similarly high critical intelligence is always in control. We read them with care, with our guard up, only to find they have already slipped inside and gotten to work, refining the feelings, the vision, the life.” The New York Press took a different tack and called Evenson, “Like Garcia Marquez on really, really bad acid.” However it’s described, his voice, and the nature of his work, is distinct and recognizable.
Among other accolades, Evenson has received an O. Henry award for his story “Two Brothers” and an NEA Fellowship in 1995. His short story collections include Altmann’s Tongue, The Din of Celestial Birds, Contagion, and, most recently, The Wavering Knife. Father of Lies was his first novel and Dark Property and The Brotherhood of Mutilation are novellas.
Since the stories in The Wavering Knife what have you been working on?
I've been working on a novel called The Open Curtain, which is something I began before all but one of the stories found in The Wavering Knife. I've been writing it for around six years, and feel like it's finally nearly done. It's about a disturbed boy who ends up becoming obsessed with a past murder and the way in which this obsession transforms and destroys both him and certain people around him. It has some very odd moments. I'm also continuing to write stories, and have a piece coming out in the next issue of McSweeney's and a piece in Omnidawn's New Fabulist anthology among other things. I'm very committed to the short story as a form.
What else is out there? If one digs deep enough, at least several unpublished novels seem to exist -- such as Pergolesi's Death and A Circular Desert. Might these see the light of day?
Pergolesi's Death and A Circular Desert and something called The Mario Lanza Experience are all novels that I have complete drafts of but which I've never been completely satisfied with. They're all in boxes. Each of them taught me something about writing, about putting a novel together, but each also taught me a great deal about what doesn't work when one is writing a novel.
I published a portion of A Circular Desert as a story called "Sortie" that appeared in a very small magazine six or seven years ago. There's something about that novel, which takes place in an imaginary Saharan country inspired perhaps a little too much by Roussel's Africa, that I still like. I've redrafted it, changing it each time very substantially, four times in the last eleven or twelve years. The Mario Lanza Experience is based on the father of a friend of mine whose obsession with the singer Mario Lanza ruined his life: he ended up spending thousands of dollars to make an informational video cassette that would show Hollywood producers how he was the right person to write, direct and star in a movie about Mario Lanza's life. He was incredibly self-deluded: he looked nothing like Lanza, was not handsome, had no skills as a writer or a singer. I tried to redraft it about three years ago, but wasn't any happier with where it was going; I do think it will eventually condense into a long story, but first I have to be willing to let it go as a novel. I do that sometimes; the "siege" stories in my first collection Altmann's Tongue are pieces of a short novel that didn't work as a novel but that worked as a series of semi-discontinuous stories. Pergolesi's Death was a sort of metaphysical mystery (like Leonardo Sciascia's work) which had a central flaw that I don't see any way to ever get around. I don't think it'll ever see the light of day, in any form.
I tend to throw away around half of what I write, and start a lot of stuff that doesn't work out. One has to know what not to publish, and be very strict with oneself.
You've said your work contains a "violent edge." How hard has it been to face the consequences of your work? Did you ever think that writing fiction would affect your life as significantly as it has?
There was a lot of local controversy surrounding my first collection, Altmann's Tongue, which cost me my job at Brigham Young University, a Mormon university I was working at the time. I talk about that in an afterword the paperback version of Altmann's Tongue -- it was very difficult, and ultimately precipitated the collapse of my marriage. But also, knowing that people might dramatically object to what I do made me think very carefully about what I was doing and made me very committed to it: knowing that my life could fall apart because of my fiction made me want to be certain of every word I put on the page. If it was going to destroy me, I wanted it to be worth it.
The objections to the book were framed in terms of the book's violence and immorality, but I think what people were really objected to was the ethical blankness of the book, the narrative's refusal to make any kind of judgment whatsoever on the actions therein, and the way this refusal is replicated in the non-reactions of the characters themselves both to the violence around them and to the acts they themselves are committing. And a number of the stories couple difficult content with a very lyrical style which, I think, makes a reader feel pulled between being repulsed by the text and attracted to it. I think with that book, I was trying to throw the reader into a world in which morality seemed absent so that any moral ground would have to come from the reader himself or herself. Some of my later work has continued to explore violence, but often in different ways, introducing affect and emotional content or exploring different sorts of combinations and the intensities to which they lead.
With five short story collections, how much pressure is there toward writing novels? Is that the nature of the industry?
There's always some pressure toward writing novels, though I think that I've been lucky in finding and continuing to find a number of presses and magazines interested in publishing my short stories. I'm happy with the novel I've published and the novel I've just finished, feel that the subject matter of both demanded the more expansive treatment of a novel, but I think the form I find the most satisfying is the novella, even more so than a story. It's almost impossible to write a long novel in which everything is tightly wound and which has the crispness and tightness to it that a novella can have -- even if you do, it's at least partly lost on a reader, reading a long novel over several sittings. The novella, at its best, has many of the strengths of short stories and novels. The Open Curtain, which is the longest thing I've ever written, I think of as a series of three novellas, so each section has that tightness and crispness, but then it has the larger scope and the sections have the larger interconnections of a novel. I don't think I could have written it without thinking of it that way, but it also meant that it took me four years to write the third section, which brings the other two sections together, in a way that worked. I wrote it four or five very different ways before finally understanding what needed to be done. And I couldn't have done it without having read Steve Erickson's work, which opened up new possibilities to me.
In translating Mountain R, how much was Jacques Jouet's voice and how much was yours?
I tried to stay very close to the feel of Jouet's original. It's a very strong book and as a writer I felt an affinity with it, which is why I wanted to translate it. There are, of course, some choices in terms of arrangement and sentence patterning that are particular to me -- another translator might have handled them differently -- but I tried always to let my voice give way to his.
Dark Property uses words that aren't in most dictionaries. Where'd the vocabulary come from?
More than a decade ago, I did a degree in 18th century literature and read a lot of obscure 18th and 17th century texts. I started making lists of words that had fallen out of the language, and then began wondering about why the words had died. And then I started thinking, too, about how those words might mutate or adapt to other usages. A lot of those words probably appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, but some only exist in some rare text in some obscure library, and some are words that existed but were only used once or twice, but I've transformed them from verbs to modifiers or nouns to verbs. Dark Property has a lot of odd words but tries to put them into a very clean context, a context where one can quickly guess their meaning. For me, it was a way of trying to resurrect these dead, really intriguing words, and the story of the novella, which involves a resurrection cult and a very permeable line between life and death, sprang from that. It's an extreme book, but I'm very happy with it.
You've studied madness as a literary technique that's tied to art. What have you learned?
I've been interested in both writers who depict madness and writers and thinkers, like Antonin Artaud or Daniel Paul Schreber or Christopher Smart, who have spent substantial time in asylums, as well as in outsider artists of all kinds. I think the depictions of madness in writing are sometimes a little formulaic, but also think that very few of the insane are in any sort of position of lucidity. This for me all partly stems from an interest in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus and their favoring of the schizophrenic over the neurotic.
A strong argument can be made that your work is aware of philosophy, literary criticism and other "speculative intelligences," yet your stories have appeared in horror anthologies. Is this what's called "imposter fiction?" Is the blurring of the lines intentional?
I'm fairly aware of philosophy and especially interested in questions of epistemology, particularly theories that suggest the impossibility of knowing. There's a philosophical thread in most of my work, and even some of the violence and cruelty is very much tied to, for instance, notions of transgression found in Bataille and others. But I have very little patience with fiction that seems to push a critical perspective, fiction that serves as a mouthpiece for a cultural critic or a post-structuralist's views. I'd rather just read the critical text than read the same thing watered down and simplified in fiction. I'd like to think my own stories are most interested in creating a narrative, creating too a certain mood or feeling, that whatever philosophy is there is integrated and sublimated.
I'd also like to think that my fiction can be read in a number of different ways. Most of it has been published in literary venues, but there does seem to be a lot of interest in it from other places as well -- a few stories have been gathered in genre anthologies of various kinds, and one of my favorite novellas, The Brotherhood of Mutilation, was published by a small press that mainly does horror. I am interested, as a reader, in people like Dashell Hammett who, at his best, is quite literary -- he's bashing around in noir before the genre was formalized and as a result does some very surprising things. Same, I think, is true of Jim Thompson, who does some things stylistically that I think are incredibly revolutionary. I feel an affinity with those writers but at the same time with Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Leonardo Sciascia, etc.
Your humor, perhaps most fully in The Wavering Knife, is dark and hard. In your work, has the role of humor changed over time?
I think that all my work has an element of humor to it, which is admittedly usually very much black humor. I do think there's often a tension and an exchange between humor and darkness, but in my past work the violence has generally been dominant. In some of the stories in The Wavering Knife the humor comes out much more fully. I don't think it's changed so much over time as it's something that shifts a little bit with each story. For instance, a story I finished recently called "90 over 90," about an editor struggling in the publishing industry, has a humor that's largely satirical and parodic and contains only the darkness naturally found in the publishing industry. But I suspect that's a one story sideline for me.
Your collections appear, especially in tone and theme, to have unique cohesive elements. What gives you that stylistic range? Do you make conscious decisions or does it happen more organically?
I have certain rhythms and certain phrasings that I'm very drawn to, and I return to them, with variations, quite often. I have certain strategies involved with trying to slightly defamiliarize English. Some of these occur very consciously, others happen organically and then are perfected. I think I've managed to reprogram my thinking enough that now certain tonal things seem to happen organically. Thematically, I do seem to be drawn to certain kinds of stories, certain kinds of suffering. I do think, as I suggested above, that there's a subterranean philosophical investigation going on if you consider all my stories together, and this accounts for both the stylistic similarities and what you call the unique cohesive elements.
Years ago, you said, "I'd like to think that the writing I'm doing has a signature of its own." Is that still a motivator?
As a reader, I'm interested in style as much as in content, in the way a story is narrated as much as what's actually said. I think the best writers have a very distinctive signature that expresses itself in their style, in their way of putting sentences together. As a writer, I'd like to think that what I'm created has a certain authority and expresses a distinctive voice, that I'm offering something up to the reader that he or she isn't likely to encounter elsewhere, and that this something is not simply the content but a way of handle that content. Beckett has an extraordinary signature -- you can feel his presence in everything he writes despite the spareness of his prose. Nabokov, whose prose is much more deliberately fussy, has a similar extraordinary signature. The reason we use modifiers like Beckettian and Nabokovian to describe the writing of others is that they use a particular style in such a way that it seems like it has come to belong only to them. Achieving such a style is, I think, is a worthy goal for any writer.