An Interview with Reif Larsen
Reif Larsen has kicked off his literary career with a stunning and beautiful book (both the writing and the visuals) featuring a 12-year-old cartographer who stretches the definition of maps in unusual ways. The precocious T.S. Spivet finds a way of interpreting everything, and I mean everything, in the world through the maps of his imagining. Larsen managed to write one of the most highly original novels of the year.
I recently chatted with Reif about where his inspiration comes from, the world of maps, Sebald, and the book as object.
You can pre-order a signed copy of Reif’s book from the bookstore I run events at, RiverRun Bookstore. We’ll be hosting him on June 26th at 7pm.
Much of the story in The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is told in the margins. Can you talk about your inspiration for this?
Every decision I made in the book really came out of the character or the story. It wasn’t like I set out to write a book with intense marginalia. It was more that I had stumbled across the voice of the character. Originally it was in footnote form, but that felt a little bit intrusive in this particular story. Given that T.S. is a mapmaker, I think he would think of the cartography of the page. I had written the book all the way through and had very little illustration. I had this vague idea in my mind that it would be a field guide but I didn’t know how it would manifest itself. It wasn’t until I got through a complete draft of the book that I discovered the margins as a playground of T.S.’s mind. That was a breakthrough.
I, for one, am seduced by arrows and diagrams. There’s something about the traveling along that path, the movement from one space to another using an arrow. I kind of think that’s how my brain works at least. I think a key part of this book and T.S.’s character is the arrows. The disparate leap of logic from main text to stomping grounds margins is where he gives himself permission to let his mind loose, which is also where in the beginning he makes his reveals. As he gains a little more solid footing and moves into more of a player in the field some of that language, that more adult emotional language, migrates into the text.
I have a weak spot for precocious characters. Your main character is a genius twelve-year old cartographer. Are smart kids your favorite characters to write? Do you see yourself creating more of them?
I often am fascinated by kids who possess a couple of extraordinary skills that trick the adults around them into thinking they are little adults themselves. We kind of graph our hopes and desires onto these kids in this real way. I’m a teacher, and I’m interested in kids. Particularly in how kids see the world. I think they’re fascinating fodder for writing. It many ways it allows the writer ultimate access. If you’re looking through the world through a kids eyes, it almost gives you a leg up on the narrative. You can describe things in surprising ways. The word genius or prodigy is actually really problematic because it sort of whitewashes his character in a way. In a way that I think a lot of the adults do. There’s this assumption that “Oh, if he can do one thing he can do everything.” I think I was careful giving him a subset of skills but in many ways emotionally he’s still very much twelve, if not younger.
Have you always been fascinated with maps yourself? I know both of your parents are artists, and that in addition to being a writer, you also are a filmmaker. Has growing up around artists inspired you to look at the world visually as well?
I think so. When I was younger, I kind of avoided it, not avoided, but that wasn’t my realm, it was more writing. Both my parents had studios in the house. I was around the visual process a lot. They had lots and lots of art books that were around me. I was always exposed to imagery and image making. A lot of people have asked me “Are you T.S.?” I don’t think so. He is different than me in many ways. One thing we do share is a fascination with maps and mapmaking. Maps are like stories, and yet they are like really highly selective cultural documents that present their meaning through an act of selection. Given the vast array of objects one can map in the world. The best maps use a particular subtext. In the mapping of them over time a whole new narrative comes out.
We had this outdated atlas that I would stare at for hours and make up stories. When we were in seventh grade we had to draw the world from memory. There was something about that, memorizing distant coast lands, that was almost like coming home. I really loved that exercise; graphing the entirety of the world in your head. We spend most of our lives trying to access that map. It kind of rings true to me. Also I think of a Buddhist idea. We are kind of complete and whole creatures and we spend a lot of our time trying to realize that completeness.
T.S. Spivet doesn’t just map out geographies -- he makes a chart of dreams, hobo signs, and even smells. The maps, to me, seem like a way for him to make sense of the world. Is that why you chose it for your character?
I think a lot of people are married to a map is a geographical object. For me a map is a way of making meaning of the world around us on some kind of paper or screen or whatever it is. It’s that meaning making, or the translation, that’s the important part. I love maps often because they show so much about the mapmaker. I realize the book is kind of gently pressing up against the definition of what a map is. I hope in some ways it expands the conversation. I think a very good map or a personal map is very personal or emotional.
Who are some of your biggest literary influences? While reading this, at times I thought of Jonathan Safran Foer and Mark Danielewski. Even Sebald. All of them incorporated images or text into some of their narratives.
Certainly Mark Danielewski, he was in some ways the forebearer and broke a lot of rules. He blows my mind. At the same time I think I’m a very different writer than he is. Sebald: yes, in many ways. I was looking to writers who combine image and text. What he did works well for him but it was very limited in terms of the format on the page. He would kind of drop an image in and let it float on the page. Not that his writing is limited at all.
I struggled to find a kind of model for what I was doing, but in terms of writers the list is endless: Conrad and Bruno Schultz, the Polish writer, Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar. I’m always interested in writers who use formal innovations but are always kind of justified by the story and really make the story work. I’m allergic to bells and whistles just for bells and whistles sake.
T.S. is a very lonely boy with few friends and a whole world in front of him at the beginning of the novel. My heart kept breaking for him. He comes across as incredibly strong but also vulnerable. Did you find yourself particularly attached to T.S. more than the other characters in the book?
I think writers always have complicated relationships with their protagonists. With T.S., I was living with him for four years. When I started doing the images, there were times when little tiny ones would take me six or seven hours to do. There were a lot of times when I wanted to quit in the middle of it. And then I would hear this little voice and he would say, “I wouldn’t quit!” I did feel like I had him on my shoulder in some ways. I think with a lot of the story I felt like I was almost experiencing it in real time. I felt in many ways like I was along for the ride.
Can you talk about what sort of research went into planning the novel? Did you set out on an adventure across the country like T.S.?
Some people say you should write only what you should know, and I kind of disagree with that. I did a ton of research for the book, a lot about westerns, and science in nineteenth century America, entomology, maps and mapmaking, ranching. I actually went to a ranch and originally I was going to be a ranch hand but then I was like, “Jesus, I’ll be more of a liability than a help around there.” So then I thought maybe I can teach a writing workshop! I wrote a lot of dude ranches out there. I had to find six people that would want to come out there for a week. It’s expensive! I can’t believe they came. I found six people, all women actually, they bonded. The lengths we go for our writing!
I spent a lot of time in Butte in the archives there. When you’re researching you never know what you want to find. You have to keep dipping your bucket down and see what comes up. It’s interesting, it’s a little bit like I write the character first, and then I’m like “Oh, I have to learn about it!”, which might be making it difficult for myself. I almost can’t write anything too autobiographical or too close to home.
Did you map out the entire narrative before writing it?
I used to do comedy improv in college, which is kind of how my brain works. I love the creation of worlds out of nothing. I realized early on in my writing career that I wrote best when I left in that element of surprise. For me I need to leave that openness and surprise.I knew vaguely what was going to happen and where the trajectory of the book was going but I didn’t know where the particulars were going. Writing a book is a real multi-step process. Initially there is that freedom of what’s going to happen. I know this is of course not true for many other writers.
Do you see the book as an object in addition to the story inside it? For instance, I can’t imagine readers trying to read your gorgeously laid out novel on a Kindle. It just doesn’t seem like it would be the same as having the book itself.
I think so, and hopefully there will be more books that are like books as artifacts. I really think the book is such a physical and beautiful technology that really fits into how we as humans are set up. We have laps, our elbows bend in a certain way. The way we interact with a book is so elemental that we don’t even think about it. At least for me, when I think of books and when I think of where something is in a book, I think of the real physical geography of the book. With a Kindle the whole three-dimensions of the book and the whole touch of the book is lost. I don’t think the technology is there yet to replace a book and I don’t think they will ever be replaced. This book will not be available on the Kindle. Even an audio book, I don’t know how we’re going to do that. I really like books that are meant to be books. I like how this book can function both as that and also a novel that is enjoyable to read.
Are you a writer who is interested in more than just straightforward narrative? Will you play around with texts and graphics in your following books as well?
People have asked me “Oh, is your next book going to have illustrations?” and I think the answer is probably not. I have to figure out the story and see what it demands. It’s an international book about a strange underground group of puppeteers. There might be strings that are coming out! Again, it’s not like I want to do it just for experimental sake. What’s nice about being a writer in 2009 is that it’s not crazy to include marginalia or something coming out of the page. That’s nice. The next book might be plain old text and paper. I don’t know, we’ll see.