An Interview with Evan Lavender-Smith
Evan Lavender-Smith is carving out his own unique place in American literature. His first two books are marvels of language and form. From Old Notebooks has been called “an anti-masterpiece of an anti-novel” by Rain Taxi. And in his new one, Avatar, Lavender-Smith creates an unforgettable environment in which a speaker finds him-or herself floating in the depths of space with nothing more than thoughts, tears, and strands of hair for company. He brilliantly captures what it feels like to be utterly alone, isolated, set adrift, and the results are devastating.
Evan Lavender-Smith is the editor of Noemi Press, and is a visiting assistant professor at New Mexico State University.
Avatar is entirely devoid of punctuation and this formal conceit works on many levels. Both the form and the prose are very striking and it's the first thing the reader encounters. How did you arrive at this form? What did you start with? Did form follow the voice or was it the other way around?
The original form was even stranger: there were no spaces between many of the words (scriptio continua, which is how Latin was written for hundreds of years, also how character-encoding schemes like ASCII often appear) and I imagined the text as printed on a scroll (although something more like dot-matrix paper than papyrus). This form presented technical complications that finally became unbearable to me, so I went through and inserted spaces between all the words; the scroll never materialized due to publishing costs. I do believe that the form of the book as published produces more or less the effect I desired, something like the haunted cadences of an analog transmission. I can't say whether form followed voice or vice versa because they seemed one thing to me from the beginning; "I am floating between two stars one in front one behind both a quarter of a fingernail" was the work's originating moment in language. It is a voice very much founded in form.
Interesting how the original form and the technical complications became unbearable to you. When putting this book together did you give any thought to how a reader would experience it? All fiction, particularly formally daring texts, teaches the reader how to read it. Avatar certainly does this. That said, Avatar asks a lot of a reader, both visually and with the prose itself, the manner in which thought is expressed. Were you at all concerned about any of this? I have heard that some writers write with a particular reader in mind. Do you work this way?
I don't much worry about a reader until very late in the composition of a work, not until after I've thoroughly revised a draft. It's important for me to allow my writing some time to live and breathe on the page before scrutinizing it for "readability" or allowing a real or imaginary reader do the same. One of the best things I can do as a writer, something I'm always trying to get better at, is learn to occupy different levels of critical distance from the work at different moments in its composition. At a very early moment it is important that I remain quite critical, honing a voice, say, a mode of language, until I've really nailed it and feel quite at home with it; in a subsequent moment I must relieve myself of that critical impulse and enter a condition of relative willlessness in which I have more or less turned over my will to the momentum of that mode, to the will of that mode; in a later moment I must reinstate a critical attitude, and even later oscillate between states of relative willlessness and willfulness. I would say that everything I have completed -- I have completed only about 5% of what I've begun – has fully committed to that process: 1) intense criticism; 2) intense absence of criticism; 3) intense criticism alternated with intense absence of criticism. Most all of that uncompleted 95% represents projects that did not, for whatever reason, fully commit to this process: I was unable to enter a condition of willlessness because I stopped too early with that first step and the mode of language never became truly comfortable for me, never became truly spellbinding; or I made it to the third step and became unable, once I began reapplying a critical attitude, to reenter a state of willlessness, to once again abandon myself to the will of the work after having forcefully exerted my will upon it. It is always a delicate war between what I want for my writing and what my writing wants for me. I clearly remember a late, great success with Avatar, after I reached a certain point and had begun going back through the work critically and discovering that it would be important to add another big chunk; I remember greatly fearing this, feeling that I would likely not succeed. But then I did become able to reenter that mode of language -- perhaps because I had taken the time, initially, to shape the mode so obsessively -- and I produced the necessary additional section. This was a coup, and it was when I finally knew with certainty that I would eventually complete the book.
I appreciate the idea of surrendering to the will of the voice, mode of language. How did you like working in this particular mode, this particular voice? The prose has this inchworm movement, then it circles back in on itself, but then it keeps going forward, one small, logical step at a time. How was the process of this project similar and dissimilar to From Old Notebooks?
The figure of the spiral often comes to mind when I think of this particular mode, one I enjoy very much, so much so that I've found myself attempting to return to it when beginning new projects, as if I didn't fully exhaust its possibility with Avatar. John Barth says something about this tendency in one of those Friday books, I believe, something about how all of his books come in pairs; I don't recall exactly what he says but I've always remembered it in relation to my own feelings of restlessness about a mode of language that lingers after I've completed the project in which I discovered it. My kneejerk reaction is to deny this impulse, not let myself do the same thing twice. Surely the wiser reaction would be to follow the impulse toward its inevitable conclusion, toward the mode's inevitable metamorphosis.
I would say that the major similarity between the process of composing this book and of composing From Old Notebooks is my own unhealthy, maniacal immersion in the work. There came a point in both projects when my real life began to exist in the background of my writing life, and a later point when that background began to fade. This may seem external to the actual composition of the writing, but in fact it is very much part of my process, drowning myself in the writing and its aura, torturing my consciousness with it in order to get it inside my body, to get the writing and me to become the same thing. I have recently hit upon the idea that no matter what mode or form of writing I am working in, I am finally working to appropriate and transfigure the rhythms of consciousness, of being -- the rhythms of my organs and the rhythms of the cosmos. Such an agenda requires a radical commitment to form perhaps disproportionate to its rewards, which are really nothing more than whispers, even silences. I don't expect many of my readers would say, "Ah yes, I overheard, alternately, the throbbing of a star and the throbbing of a heart in that passage about baseball cards," and yet that is precisely the sort of zany, impossible effect I am spending a good amount of my free time -- viz. time away from my family and students -- trying to produce.
Avatar's narrator has a very particular way of thinking and communicating. The back cover describes it perfectly as the "broken clock of thought." Was this easy to access for you? While it certainly speaks to the rhythms you've mentioned here, I'm wondering what else is behind this broken thought or what else goes into it. The narrator seems mad and rightfully so, given the circumstances he or she finds him/herself in. This, to me, is realism, the realest realism. A consciousness alone with his/her thoughts. As a writer and reader, what draws you to these interiors, as opposed to the exteriors, what we might call traditional, realist, narrative fiction?
I recently read two novels back to back, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and The Waves by Virginia Woolf. According to a conventional definition, Franzen's novel would qualify as a work of "realism" while Woolf's would not, but to my reading Woolf's book seems so profoundly connected with and observant of certain "realities" or truths of human existence -- i.e. the really big and important ones like life and death and fear and beauty -- while Franzen's seems all but blind to them. Yes, a consciousness alone with its process of thought, as Joyce has shown us, can achieve an effect of realism, perhaps of a "realer realism." But what Woolf reveals to me, especially when placed in contrast to a writer like Franzen, is that form, specifically a conceptual form -- a shaping and structuring of language according to the exigencies of a concept -- is a pathway to achieving the very greatest effects of realism -- that regime of readerly intensities associated with concrete recognitions -- in addition to its own immanent set of effects involving more abstract recognitions or discoveries. If I can structure language like a wave, and if you, my reader, can feel this wave of language wash over you, I have conceivably performed an operation of language that will produce a more intense experience of the wave than the realist's mere description of it. I suppose I am drawn to these interiors, as you call them, because it is only via the journey within that I can journey without while retaining some semblance of honesty about the movement. This is essentially the lesson of Kant. When I read Franzen and other "domestic realists," more often than not I simply feel there is a lack of honesty or rigor about their reckoning with the world because the aesthetic and philosophical terms or groundings of that reckoning seem to have not been interrogated, were blindly accepted on account of convention. I have no ground to stand on when I write. Building the ground -- inventing a mimesis immanent to the world of that piece of writing -- is simply part of the process.
I'm interested in your "unhealthy, maniacal immersion in the work." Can you tell us what this entails? I'm talking about the basics, i.e. what was your routine while writing Avatar?
With this project there came a time when I began to read what I'd written in a fairly obsessive way, not really doing any substantial revising but only reading and re-reading the words for many hours and days and even weeks on end. There was a time when I could recite large portions of the book verbatim. I have thought of "method acting" in relation to this process, something like "method writing." I seem intent on creating a sort of feedback loop between the book and my consciousness, and in order to do this I have to become the book and remain the book even when I'm not "writing" the book. In both Avatar and From Old Notebooks, I believe this process itself became a quality of the narrative voice, of the writing's linguistic mode: a consciousness within the book performs a looping of consciousness which shares formal characteristics with the looping of the book and my own consciousness. I refer to it as "unhealthy" because I have great difficulty remaining engaged in my "real life" during these spells. When I wake up in the morning I am already positioned in that mode; my pajamaed kids come running into the bedroom demanding cuddles and Cinnamon Life and I look down at them from a great height, quizzically, to speak like a robot, "I am floating between two stars just floating quarter of a fingernail one in front one behind floating just floating.”
I'm curious about your relationship to the books now that they are out there in the world. The way you describe being inside the work during the composition is telling and makes sense, how does it change when you're done? Are you able to put the voice(s)/character(s)/story behind you? When you read From Old Notebooks and Avatar now what do you see, how do you feel about it?
I sometimes catch myself feeling a bit nostalgic for them, but of course I have to work to distance myself from them to some degree (I keep my copies of them in a drawer so that I don't accidentally see one and pick it up and start reading it). I recently returned to From Old Notebooks and read it all the way through in a moment of hesitation about a project I'm working on now – something I've been planning and tinkering with for many years, a book about friendship -- and I felt the reading instructed me about a shape for this new book; with some distance from it, I was able to perceive the form of From Old Notebooks as existing along a continuum of forms with this new project adjacent to it. That was a good feeling. I haven't yet had an experience quite like this with Avatar, although I do imagine it occupying an important place along another, related continuum on which the novel I've been writing for a while now is also positioned, a novel possessing a spiraling and obsessive narrative voice not entirely unlike Avatar's. So both books remain with me, yes, especially in relation to my thinking about the trajectories of my present and future writing.