January 2010

Blake Butler


An Interview with Andrew Zornoza

If I had a coffee table, I would put Andrew Zornoza's Where I Stay out on it. Beyond being a beautiful, odd object, it contains much more than the small breadth of its pages. In massively tight and tiny paragraphs that fill one page, basked with odd photographs from locations across the States, Zornoza is able to capture something about movement, about the strange vertices and intersections caused in certain sections of our nation's roadmaps, and the curtains of strange, frightened, roaming people that fill it up.

Because Zornoza's book is one of those that leaves you feeling much wider than you were before you touched it, I wanted, when I was done, to ask Andrew all about the process of his making, and ended up getting deeply engrossed in the way he speaks about his art, his process, his life. The following is a discussion we had over email across a couple weeks:

Where I Stay feels to me like it must have been a long time in the making, if not tactically, from head to paper, then at least in the consummation of it brewing in you. It spans a hell of a lot of life in a very tight economy of text and image. I wonder if you could start then maybe by telling about where the book began inside your mind, and how it was that you found the ways to bring it out of your onto the paper.

Yes, it took about 14 years. I think the first words I wrote were "The earth is black and buckled..." Though, when people hear it took that much time they think I am obsessive, fixated. But -- people are just now publishing stories that I wrote 10 years ago. It takes me about four years to get anything right and the publishers seem to be ten years behind in picking them up. It can be frustrating at times because you are so far removed from your own work. I wrote a story about a chef who is consumed with creating the best food. He rips the small oyster meat out of a roast chicken and throws the rest onto the curb behind the restaurant. He builds special carburetors to blow a vapor of milk to be infused with cookies. Well, that's more or less Ferran Adrià. I wrote it long before El Bulli became the institution it is today. Wouldn't reading my book have saved him a lot of trouble? Given him some comfort? Couldn't "Where I Stay" have come out before Sean Penn discovered Into the Wild? Of course, there's a tremendous amount of arrogance and presumption and stupidity packed in those type of thoughts, but it can be frustrating when you see the shape of something looming on the horizon... and by the time your work gets out there the shape is sitting on top of us. On the other hand, I think the literary world has entered a zone of almost paralytic self-consciousness -- similar to the art world when photography came on the scene. Books are trying to compete with the immediacy of TV, movies, and specifically, the flooding text of the Internet. I think, in my own self-defense, that the novel has an advantage in its lack of immediacy. A book that takes years to write... it takes a set of feelings and thoughts and silences that have profoundly evolved over time. Some people would have you believe that the novel is in trouble as an art form. The novel isn't in trouble -- making money off the novel is in trouble.

I definitely think that period of long boiling and building is very evident in every page of Where I Stay, and certainly therefore has more resonance, more staying power, than those works you are talking about that come out while you are busy gestating. It seems like books like yours win these kinds of battles in that years from now your book will still hold the same power it does now, if not more, whereas books like Into the Wild are more a flash, and will likely be forgotten. This says something, I think, about the staying power of the true art object, and for me the reason the book will never die. You just can't crush the aura of a book that could have been nothing else. What books act like objects in this way for you? Did any other texts have a supreme influence over the shape Where I Stay would take during those 14 years?

Have you seen Swimming to Cambodia? There's a part when Spalding Gray watches a helicopter land in this trash-dump that's been transformed into a movie set. And Spalding is petrified to get on the chopper, though he has to. He feels the cold sweat trickling down his back, his boots nailed to the ground. He’s not going anywhere. But then the production assistant notices this and blares out into a megaphone "Would the artists please get on the choppers..."  And Spalding immediately gets on the helicopter.

But, your question... you said that beautifully, about "the aura of a book that could have been nothing else." That's it. You can set out to write something original, “make it new, make it new,” as Frederic Tuten now says channeling Ezra Pound... that mantra spanned those generations influencing each other in New York and Paris -- Queneau, Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, Ashbery, Harry Matthews. The problem is, you can set out to make something new every moment of your life and still end up with a handful of sand. That originality has to come from deep inside. One of my favorite sentences is in Felisberto Hernandez's "The New House."  It goes like this, more or less:

A few years earlier, I’d awoken in a room in a country inn to discover that our thoughts are produced in a region of our innermost being marked by the quality of silence. Even amid a great city’s most strident clamor we think in silence about where we’re going or what we have to do, or whatever it is that corresponds to our desires. And the silence in which our feelings take shape is still deeper. We feel love in silence, before the thoughts come, and then the words, and then the acts, always moving farther towards the outside, towards the noise. Some thoughts can hide within silence and never become words, though they may carry out hidden acts. But there are also feelings that hide in silence behind deceptive thoughts. The silence where feelings and thoughts are formed is the place where the style of a human being’s life and life work is formed.

Well, I think you ask anybody... getting to that place, that deep silence, is very difficult. You begin to lose your identity down there and yet become more yourself. It's a paradox and that's what is great about fiction, it can hold irreconcilable ideas in one place without solving them like a math problem. I've read a lot, so I've got a lot of influences. I didn't realize that until recently. There's always some jerk who's read more and lets you know it -- and I have massive gaps in my reading, so I just assumed I was fairly uneducated. Saul Bellow, JM Coetzee, Barbara Kingsolver, these are big important names that you say to me and I nod my head like I know who they are, but really I have no idea. Pasolini, Acker, Markson, Hemingway, Faulkner, Woolf, Eliot, Gallant, Bowles, Mishima, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Vallejo, Ishiguro, Ashbery, PK Dick, Ballard, Beckett... I like how the Magnetic Fields sing “The book of love is long and boring. No one can lift the damn thing...”  The list of authors whom I love is also quite long and boring. Too much knowledge kills a relationship, there has to be something inchoate we're chasing.

That is a really exciting quote. It nails it pretty hard, and makes me think even more about the way this 14 year object of yours is interesting in that over that period of refinement and refining, it came out quite small. Not small in content, of course, but in the sheer word count and heft of the book. A kind of pamphlet in a way, but a very heavy one, inside itself. It makes me think of picking up a postcard and finding out as you read it that it weighs more than you can life. I wonder then about the actual nuts and bolts way this book came together: how much you wrote when, where you wrote it, if there was a lot more you wrote and stripped out, etc. Could you talk about the actual in-the-moment making of the words, in a process way if you like, or simply in how, as you began to know it was a book, the way you forged it together into the shape it is in its finality?

Well, I take a long time to settle on something. I sit and cogitate and feel for years. I am basically sifting through what I do not want the book to be. I work from a very negative place. In this case, I had these diary-like entries from when I was seventeen. Only one or two. But I could never get them right. The problem was that I was too much in the way. I was constantly trying to bend the story into making some sense. And from word to word, it wasn't the right sound, it was too full of small metaphors and color. It's difficult to explain; I see things when I read, I see colors and furniture. And the early versions were never badly built, just uninterestingly built. It was track shelving painted bright, cheap colors to make it look interesting. The palette of tones was jangly, silly. Then I started playing with separating out the scenes, faking a diary, putting them in columns, making them individual prose poems -- then it was much worse but better in a way. The form called too much attention to itself. And form -- well, I am paraphrasing Susan Sontag here -- that's what it does, it delays empathy. "Awareness of form does two things simultaneously: it gives a sensuous pleasure independent of the 'content,' and it invites the use of intelligence." The thing is, I am not a big believer in intelligence. It's not one of my goals, matching brains with my reader. I'm more interested in feelings, though that's not quite the right word for it. I'm interested in new feelings that haven’t been mythologized yet, I'm trying to get as high and bent as possible. I can over-intellectualize after the fact, but in the moment, when I'm sitting in front of that computer, all that is far away, everything is far away...

I spend a long time on sentences. The brown window became the window was brown became the plain old window. I fiddle that way for hours. If you watched me work, that's what you'd see.

I like the idea of seeing furniture. I also like the way the words in your books are connected on each spread with an image, one that furthers rather than confines the text. It seems like there's a fine line between images in books adding and distracting, and yet your book not only adds in an environment kind of way (adding further shades, and perhaps furniture, to the word rooms), it also added, for me, a furthering of emotional resonance. This is a very emotional book, though not necessarily in the verbiage. It does not feel histrionic or confessional, it feels very calm and clearly grounded in that long period of gestation we've talked about. How did the images first find their way into the text and how did they add to or further its creation for you? How did the sources or influences of the images vary?

The photography was very difficult. There's just something so awful about it all. I don't like to bother people. Or manipulate them -- lock them into one pose for eternity. I just read that the physicist Hugh Everett was the father to the lead singer of The Eels. Crazy. Do you know Everett's many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics? The thing about all these theories... we keep finding ourselves reflected in them -- so we should be naturally suspicious. But of course, if we didn't, we wouldn't be here. The science is doomed to justify our existence, we're just peeling back layers of an onion we have already digested. Have I taken a lot of drugs? Yes. But there's no reason why anybody can't splinter their observational powers to be able to see multiple states of the same evolving moment. As long as you can get to some nexus, some original state (like the silence in Felisberto's quote) you can leave the constraints of being a static observer. I have students now, somehow, and they always want to find their voice. It's very important to them. And they want to write honestly. That seems completely bonkers to me. You mean, you only have one voice? Aren't we all more complicated than that? And you still believe in some sort of truth? The truth to what? We're a hundred years past modernism here and sixty-five past the Holocaust. What's honest? That people are awful? That evil exists? That men abuse their wives and mothers die of cancer? Of course. If we could get past our vicarious thrill of seeing the same dramas enacted over and over maybe we'd progress a little bit.

Did you see Paul McCarthy's motorized moving houses at the Whitney? If you put a Gregory Crewdson set in one of those houses, it reminds me of your own work, Blake... I'm trying to switch the subject here.

The photography was difficult. Where I Stay is a complete work of fiction. Except, I took the photos. So, it's all completely true. I was there, some of these people are dead. The geography is there, but it's temporarily covered with Walmarts and Starbucks. We can't talk about something else? I would really prefer to get out of talking about the photographs.

I do want to get out. How do you get out? What moves? Where? What are we doing? What are you doing?

Well, ok. Touché. I deserved that. Have you seen the pictures taken of Chris Farley in his last moments, passed out inside his apartment? I've been researching suicide for quite some time. And I know he doesn't technically fall in that group, but... these photographs are devastating. They are heartbreaking. I use a video of him in all my grammar classes. The one where he curls his fingers to make quotation marks around every other phrase he uses. Like, I'm not "camera friendly," I don't "wear clothes that fit me," I'm not a "heartbreaker," I haven't had "sex with a woman," I don't know "how that works," I don't "fall in line," I'm not "hygienic," I don't "wipe properly," I lack "style," I don't have "self-esteem," I have no "charisma," I don't "own a toothbrush," I don't "let my scabs heal," I can't "reach all the parts of my body," I "frighten children," I "eat my own dandruff," I "pop my whiteheads with a compass they used in high school." There is no greater distance in the universe than between the stills of that skit and those photographs. My classes overuse quotation marks and the video really breaks them of the habit, but I'm really having some difficulty showing it to them these days.

I did not really want to get out but I am glad that I said I did so that you could talk about Chris Farley. He's an important person to me. I look at those pictures sometimes, actually I looked at them today. It kind of kills me multiply to see that person in that way. I look at his death as the death of the large man's humor in America, and a switch into the totally other kind of humor of David Spade, who lives on. Between that time something in America changed. Then 9/11 happened. That doesn't seem accidental to me. It seems fucked. This reminds me also of the caption of the photo in your book where you mention carrying around the issue of Superman where Superman dies and the wrapping is black and how you always planned to sell it if you had to and then you ended up sitting on it. That also crushed me. Something is wrong. I think you captured a very specific element of what is wrong in that line, and in the book as a whole. There seems a lot wrong. How does every day feel to you? How do you use language in that every day? How do you approach your desk? What replaced or grew in Superman and Chris Farley's absences?

This thing that you said, about the age of the fat man being over, and the age of David Spade being upon us. That is sad. I do think we've been stuck in a state of irony for far too long -- it’s the dominant mode, it's like having the triangle take over the symphony... Yeah, there are some major rifts, absences, whatever you want to call them, with how I feel the timeline of history should be. But, I hope those gaps are felt differently by each generation and not a product of my own neurosis -- which always obsesses over controlling the narrative. Phillip K. Dick had this problem, with fractures in time, which he worked out rationally in The Man in the High Castle, but less so in the tragedy of his own schizophrenia. I end up reading "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later," a couple of times every year; it documents this strange territory between time, fiction and reality. But, looking at it another way...when I watch the trailer to Where The Wild Things Are, when I picture Harry Potter standing in front of the mirror of Erised with the ghosts of his parents, when I put down Wittgenstein's Mistress, or get to that drawing in the last half of Bolano's Savage Detectives, or see the Hoover family get up on the stage with their daughter in Little Miss Sunshine... I have emotional reactions to all these things, to the point where I almost can't stomach them, but still, despite the anxiety, they are moments structured like little bridges. They lie perpendicular and above the tragedies of life, the absences, that you describe. I'm just trying to make those moments myself. I've stopped questioning why I have the need to do so, or the utility of doing so, because it is what gets me to my desk.

This might be a good time for a question leading into what you are working on next. Also: people seem to be interested in knowing how the experience of having a first book come out changes your approach or your mindstate to the creation or dissemination process. Could you talk about how things have gone since the book was finished, and then accepted, and then came out?

The book is great. People like to talk to me about it. I wish I could engage my fans more, but sometimes it's just embarrassing, so I get a little fidgety. I do a little better at readings now that I've saved up to buy a projector. I have an old movie screen, a set of extension cords, a host of props to empower me. Sometimes I feel like a pathetic, over-caffeinated traveling salesman carrying all that around and sometimes I wish I could just be like everyone else and read straight from the book, but it works out okay. If there's any bookstore people out there, I love reading in bookstores -- they are like a second-home to me anyway, so I enjoy those. The only sad thing, and I was told this by many friends/authors who helped me through the leaner years, so I'm just passing it along... is that having a book doesn't change anything. People are so desperate to get published -- and I'm going to come out and say it: that desperation is ugly. There is no comeuppance, no lesson these particular people will learn, but it's just tragic wrongheadedness. The idea is to make something good, not something published. And there's just so little money in it. Stephen Wright, David Markson, Shelley Jackson -- you can quibble with that quick list -- but they are serious, important writers. Ask them how many copies of their book has sold. 10,000 is a huge number in the literary world. 10,000 x 10 = $100,000. If you want to do the traditional 80/20 split, you are talking $20,000. Fine, except it took Stephen Wright twelve years to finish The Amalgamation Polka (er, $1,666 a year). And most writers are only doing 3-10 books in their lifetime. And that's just the financial side. A book doesn't change how your family sees you, the frequency with which the dishes get done, or how you feel about yourself. All the same, and this is going to seem like an awful, self-indulgent non-sequitur, but now that the Phillies managed to lose the World Series... when those players thank god, when they get to first base and point emphatically at the sky. Well, all my friends roll their eyes. But become that baseball player. How did he get to first base? Why him? He is the happiest man alive in that moment, all while wearing stirrups and playing a child's game. I feel the same as that baseball player sometimes.

I'm working on a few things at the moment. I'm not sure where they are coming from. A story about some boys. It starts in a trash-dump and ends up in outer space. And then a love story -- that’s the hard one, but it's going to last. I think. You never know.