July 2009

Drew Toal


An Interview with Brian Evenson

I was exposed to Brian Evenson several years ago when someone, I forget who, pushed a copy of his novel The Open Curtain on me. I thought, "Cool. Crazy Mormon murder mystery. This looks tolerable." That brilliant book ended up being so much more than that, and remains for me one of the sharpest, most gripping examples of how the possibilities of literature are far from spent (I swear I'm not overstating a thing. If anything, the opposite). Evenson, in his latest story collection Fugue State, uses the salvaged detritus of genre fiction and welds them together to form a baroque masterpiece that puts the reader square in the middle of what feels like an ontological bar fight. Apocalypse, horror, office satire, car chases -- is there anything this guy can't do? I emailed with Evenson about the book, out in bookstores now.

I saw that Ever author Blake Butler is going through Fugue State and analyzing it piece by piece on his blog. Do you think that's a productive way of appreciating the book, story to story? I guess I'm asking if the stories are better appreciated on their own or as merely part of a larger work?

I think it's a very productive way of appreciating the book and that Blake's done a very good job at getting at the heart of each story without giving everything away to people who haven't read them. He's a very good reader of my work and very generous. I feel very flattered by the care of his commentary. I wrote all the stories individually, so I think that's the place to start, thinking of them as each being their own entity. At the same time, I very deliberately arranged the collection as I did, leaving out a lot of stories I'd published during the same time period, so it should be seen as a series of deliberately chosen stories with a certain progression and shape to the whole structure. There are thematic and image echoes that reoccur and end up serving as ligatures to connect different parts of the collection to one another. That's something Blake is still trying to address even as he writes about individual stories. And Zak Sally's illustrations end up augmenting the stories in great ways, I think.

In "Younger," two sisters have vastly different memories of a childhood incident. For the one sister, it was traumatizing to the point where time and space seemed distorted. Whereas the other sister just kind of laughs it off as childhood silliness. Is childhood just one long fugue state?

I think that for the traumatized sister it might be thought of that way. Or maybe as a slightly different dissociation. She talks about that moment from childhood as being the moment when she has somehow managed to lose herself, the moment where a kind of gash or separation takes place within her. It's as if a hole opened and part of her fell into it even as the rest of her went on into the future (those sorts of holes come up throughout the collection). That's something that trauma, even so-called minor trauma, can tend to do to people. One of my daughters, for instance, had nightmares for a few months when she was very young because of something someone had said to her without thinking about it. She used to wake up terrified that "the white people" were coming for her. It took a long time for her to be able to articulate what she meant. At first I thought it was a kind of Arthur Machen thing (I think his story "The White People" is a great, frightening piece), but finally we realized that what she was afraid of was a garbled version of conflict between Native Americans and Pioneers. It was all based on a misunderstanding, but the trauma was no less real and didn't do any less damage because it was real for her. And in fact, the nightmare only folds on itself and becomes even more troubling when you tell her "It's all right, sweetheart, we're the white people." I'm really interested in those moments of trauma because I think they're the pebbles or grains of sand a life secretes itself around.

While I wouldn't call you a genre writer, you definitely seem to take elements of horror, sci-fi, etc in your fiction. What, do you think, are the keys to writing legitimately good genre books, and also, do you think the best of those deserve to be considered "serious literature"?

I read a lot and tend to think more and more as time goes on that anything is fair game. I also think that the genre distinctions we have are only useful as long as they're not considered proscriptive: too many people use genre divisions as a way of dismissing not only a book but a whole category of books. I think once you start reading extensively you'll find some of the work that gets "elevated" as literature is not all that good, is formulaic. At the same time, you'll find that some of the work that gets "dismissed" as genre is incredibly sophisticated, very well written, and very satisfying to read. For me people like Peter Straub, Joe Hill, M. T. Anderson, M. John Harrison, John Crowley, Kelly Link, Jeff Vandermeer and China Mieville, among others, are all doing amazing things that make those genre distinctions seem meaningless. At the same time there are still a lot of people who write straightforward, predictable genre books (just as there are people writing predictable so-called literary fiction) and I'm not all that interested in them. What I'm most interested in are writers who blur and confuse the distinctions I think I know between genres, people willing to draw from different sources and from anywhere, and I'm interested in good writing whatever category it's placed in.

Someone told me you wrote a book set in the world of Ridley Scott's Aliens. First of all, is that true? Second of all, awesome!

Yes, it's true. It's called Aliens: No Exit and was published under the name B.K. Evenson. It was really a blast to write, partly because that first Alien movie had a real impact when I saw it back in the early 1980s, partly because the world itself is moody and atmospheric and creepy in a way that really felt very friendly to my work. Responses for the most part have been positive, both from people who like the Aliens books and people who like my work.

In "Mudder Tongue," a man grows desperate at his inability to communicate. Do you ever get stuck writing, where the words just won't come?

Sure, all the time. I tend to work on several things at the same time and switch back and forth between them when I get stuck. Sometimes that works, other times that means I end up having three things I'm stuck on rather than just one.

I do have a tendency to muddle things orally sometimes, to trip over things. And I suppose the fear of any teacher is feeling like you're standing in the front of the classroom unable to speak. If you're life, like mine, exists largely in words -- writing, speaking, teaching -- there's a real fear that the central thing might suddenly collapse. Add to that the basic arbitrariness of language, the split between signified and signified, and the fact that very little of our communication is actually oral and I think you have the grounds for a story.

My favorite story, "An Accounting" follows the emergence of a Midwestern Jesus, who accidentally starts all of these bizarre rites with the ragamuffins of humanity out of necessity. It quickly spirals out of control. Do you think this is an accurate reflection of how many religions begin?

I think a lot of religions, especially at the beginning, either tend to spiral outward or tighten inward. They either quickly spiral out of control or they tighten in to become conventionalized and reified. In the first case they move quickly to chaos, in the second, they move toward bureaucracy. Neither is very good, but the first is definitely more interesting, at least for the writer. The trick is trying to strike a balance between those two, which is something very few religions ever manage.

What's the best part for you in writing post-apocalyptic stories? What end-of-days scenario most appeals to you?

I've been drawn to post-apocalyptic scenarios since I was a kid, probably because I saw post-apocalyptic movies like Damnation Alley and Wizards and The Day of the Animals at a young, impressionable age and played a little too much Gamma World. I think in the late seventies, when I was a tween, there was a lot of talk of apocalypse and environmental collapse and that stuck with me. The end-of-days scenario that most appeals to me is probably the sort of thing spelled out in the last story of the book, "The Adjudicator"-- a kind of full-scale devastation that has only left a few people alive, some of them changed, but human nature just as problematic and corrupt, rife for traumatic experience. I also like the thing you find in some of Philip K. Dick's work where time seems to have slipped or is running backward.

Gamma World? Is that like Everquest?

More like Fallout or Wasteland, but not a computer game, just an old style non-computer rpg game taking place in a post-apocalyptic, irradiated mutating world. (Or at least that's the way I remember it -- I haven't played it for probably almost three decades.)

"Girls in Tents" deals with issues of abandonment, hopelessness-and the need for refuge seems to loom large. I guess I'm also thinking about the mime story, where the woman feels trapped instead of safe inside her mime box. Where is the dividing line between safe haven and suffocating prison?

I think it's often difficult to say where the dividing line is. I think in "Girls in Tents" the older girl tries to assert a kind of dividing line by deciding on a space she can control and watch over. It may not be altogether successful but it does, at the very least, get her through the night. I think "Girls in Tents" is a very sad story, probably the saddest I've written, partly because almost nothing happens in it to distract the reader from the basic experience the girls are going through. It's also a story about what it means to have to grow up and how some of us have to grow up sooner than others. I do think the last line of the story is both very sad but also, for me, weirdly hopeful, that she actually does have the strength to live with what's happened, and what might happen in future, to her. "Invisible Box," on the other hand, seems less hopeful but also funnier. In that story the situation of "Younger" (one girl having a traumatic experience and her sister dismissing it as a minor moment) is internalized: the woman in that story both can't sleep and feels her situation is ridiculous; she's playing both roles but is still just as trapped.

How'd you come to work with Zak Sally?

We met several years ago in Minneapolis and both liked one another's work. I'm a very big fan of his comics. I think his "Sammy the Mouse" work is great and really like, in particular another piece of his called "Animal Vomit." We'd been talking about collaborating on something for a while when I sent him the text for "Dread" and he liked it enough to make it into a comic. I'm really happy with the results, so included that version of it in Fugue State. From there, it was an easy progression to having him do images for each of the stories of the book. We're still hoping to collaborate on something else, a longer project.

Ever give any thoughts to writing graphic novels? Do you read them? Any favorites?

I'd love to collaborate a graphic novel; I think it's a dynamic and interesting form, full of amazing possibilities. And yes, I read a lot of them. I'm a huge fan of David B.'s work (which Zak introduced me to) which I've read in both French and English; Epilepsy is a great book. He's a great artist and thinker and I'd love to write about or even translate some of his work sometime. There's a series he did called "Les Incidents de la Nuit" that I like a lot. I like Lewis Trondheim's work and pretty much everything that L'Association puts out. There's a Spanish/French series called "BlackSad," a noir that stars a cat in a trenchcoat, that's great and that I wish would be translated. I'm very fond, too, of the Lone Wolf and Cub series. There are two local Providence writers I like a lot, James McShane and Jo Dery (Jo is also a filmmaker -- her films are great too). But I also like people like Paul Hornschemeier, Neal Gaiman, Gabrielle Bell, Shaun Tan, Alan Moore, The Hernandez Brothers, Jim Woodring, etc. There are lots more. I'm in the middle of Grant Morrison's The Invisibles right now and very much enjoying it.

"Ninety over Ninety" is hilariously sad, as a commentary on the publishing industry. Ever give any thought to just selling out and writing trashy romance?

I've had odd experiences with publishing, but not exactly like those depicted in "Ninety Over Ninety." It does, certainly, give a sense of an industry in trouble, unsure of itself. I really hope it's not as bad as it's depicted there. I have to say there's a lot of very passionate and great readers in publishing, though I think that the way marketing and publicity have been conceived has often ended up tying their hands. Marketing at its worst has ended up going for the greatest number of sales often at the expense of establishing an ongoing audience for writers; it strikes me as embodying the worst aspects of capitalism. I don't think I could ever manage to write a trashy romance that would be any good, though I've had work I've published called literature, science fiction, horror, fantasy and mystery, sometimes in a way that helps it find interested readers, sometimes not, and I'm not at all adverse to blurring those genre distinctions and lines.