March 2011

Weston Cutter


An Interview with Patrick Somerville

I'll cop to a massive bias right off the bat, but I'd like to offer two claims regarding Patrick Somerville:

  1. Patrick Somerville is one of maybe four or five writers in English whose sentences are gorgeously, wicked, mentality-shifting objects. To come upon a Somerville sentence feels a bit like what David Foster Wallace described as witnessing a Federer moment in that piece he wrote in the New York Times Magazine, about Federer and God: you come upon one of these sentences and may find yourself suddenly breathing differently, maybe assuming a new position as you hit the sentence. Here's a series of examples from "The Wildlife Biologist" from The Universe in Miniature in Miniature: "I knew about love because of my showers in the morning, when I would still be half-asleep, the water coming down over my face, and I would already be thinking about him as I crawled to life. I had had four boyfriends, three if you didn't count a summer hookup with my cousin's friend Phillip from Phoenix, who had come to stay for three weeks and who talked, a lot, about web sites. He had once gotten me alone in my bedroom and had sat on the bed and had said, 'I'm interested in romantic' -- he touched my hand -- 'relationships.' That was the end." I'm gonna try hard not to point out the massive awesomeness in each of those four sentences, but just do me a favor and note the breezily confident start, of knowing about love because of showers, and please at least acknowledge the awesomely distasteful Phillip and how radically fast he's summed awfully and completely up.
  2. His latest book, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, is all of the following:

    ††† a. evidence that Featherproof Books is 100% not joking around, and are absolutely one of the best small presses in the country (Universe supports this claim in the exact same way Blake Butler's Scorch Atlas and Lindsay Hunter's Daddy's do);

    ††† b. one of the best three books of stories released last year;

    ††† c. unbelievably fun validation for all of us who read and loved The Cradle and/or Trouble and thought: Is this guy for real? Is he really this good?

Patrick Somerville -- from Wisconsin, living now in Chicago -- really is that good. His Universe in Miniature in Miniature should either presently be in your hands or on your list of books to immediately get to -- there's no other place for it in your life, other than read and savored and sitting now on your shelf among other favorites. He's also, go figure, a decent guy (and funny as hell), and answered, at length, a bunch of questions in the middle of January, the results of which are as follows:

First, in the most huge, general sense, what are some of your inspirations/touchstones/etc.? This question's always weird to ask -- I'm not just asking about writers, but about whatever -- food, baseball, music, whatever. Be as expansive as you want to/can be.

Iím going to put this one at the end and answer it then.

Along that line: how'd you get into writing in the first place? I recently did this series of interviews with a bunch of poets and ended up asking about the lines in specific poems that they could remember and point back to and say, ah, yes: that's what decleated me and made me ford this river. What was it for you that pushed you into writing?

If I look back I can see a few moments and experiences that, if put together, sort of add up to wanting to be a writer. A while back I saw a video of me when I was maybe 4-years-old, doing some kind of Bugs Bunny tapdance routine in a small circle of other children and enjoying myself immensely. This surprised me because I donít think of myself as a ham in my adult life, and I wasnít really a ham as a teenager. Still, thereís something about that -- not about being the center of attention, exactly, but making yourself useful by providing entertainment for people. Creating fun, creating a good time, creating an experience that didnít necessarily have to be there. I was always drawn to that. And whatís more, the cost is nothing. The only resource required is a weird skill: your ability to convert nothing into something. I love that.

But alongside that somewhat abstract idea, I remember very clearly writing a short story for school -- I think this was first grade -- called ďIf I Were a Molecule.Ē Every single student had to write a story with that same title. You can imagine the plot(s). But I went completely crazy with it and remember sitting with my paper at home, thinking about the story, imagining myself the size of a molecule, not that I really knew what a molecule was, and in the process, realizing that stories werenít just a one-way street, that you could actually make them yourself and put them on paper and determine the events and actually make something ephemeral real. (I did not know the word ďephemeralĒ when I was seven.) And I learned that stories werenít just told to you, but that anyone could tell them. It sounds simple now, but it changed my world then. For a little tiny kid, that kind of autonomy seemed as though it had to be a violation of some rule, and transgressive, and that it just couldnít be so. But it was so. Thereís a freedom to writing that made me excited about life. It still does. And thatís not because I think life is boring or a prison without writing. Itís just this other layer, this other quadrant that has undefined boundaries and different rules. Itís the perfect complement to everyday life.

You don't have to answer this if you don't want to (you don't have to answer any of these, actually, of course), but I've heard there's an incredible story about you (ghost) writing a sci-fi thing for some guy. Want to spill good beans?

One day you and I can have a PanGalactic GargleBlaster and Iíll tell you the story.

This might be too weird a question, but I'm interested: imaginary Midwestern cities. Why are they magic? What do they provide? Am I 100% full of it to think consistent, imagined Midwestern cities mean anything cool?

I donít think about it in terms of the Midwest -- for me it just turned out that way because thatís where Iím from and thatís the landscape Iíve thus far written about. But there are some serious advantages to imagining a city or a town and placing it in a real area as opposed to just using a real city. First, youíre just free to do whatever youíd like and whatever you need to do in terms of storytelling. Say you need your character to go to a museum for a while, but you need there to be a river with a beach near to the museum because you want two characters to meet outside and have a conversation while looking at water. Say you have some odd intuition that this is correct for some kind of tonal reason you donít understand, or you have some more specific need, like you need to characterize one of your people as a bad swimmer and donít want him to have to just randomly say, ďIím a bad swimmer.Ē So you need a context. But if youíre writing about a real town -- this is true for me, anyhow -- theyíll be this pressure to get it right, to talk about the actual intersections and actual geography, to move your characters through a pre-existing structure that you need to know about. So being free to make it up as you go is helpful -- to me, as the author, that helps activate the landscape and make whatís around -- buildings, trees, parks, traffic, busses, fields, woods, wooly mammoths, whatever -- a part of the drama. And while all of that is true when youíre writing about a real place, I just donít want to have to stop when Iím partway through a scene and think, ďNo, they need to turn right at this intersection because they need to go west to get to the grocery store.Ē To me thatís just a meaningless interruption.

In The Cradle, the main character goes to an Arbyís in Sheboygan. I donít know why I did that, or why I picked Arbyís instead of any other fast food restaurant, but I did it. And after I read that scene during a visit to a bookstore in Green Bay, after three or four of the more usual questions, a guy raised his hand and said, ďYou do know thereís no Arbyís in Sheboygan, donít you?Ē He said it in jest and we chuckled about it, but at the same time, thatís exactly what I donít want readers to be thinking about while theyíre reading. Alfred Hitchcock called these people ďthe plausibles,Ē I think -- people who canít drop down into a story because the factual accuracy of the world, in comparison to our world, seems off. And plenty of people do read that way. There are some writers who are amazing because of their ability to render the world perfectly, to make the experience of reading similar to the experience of looking through photographs, and furthermore the facts are right, the information built into the book is dead on, but I care almost nothing for factual accuracy. All I care about is internal cohesion -- that a story makes sense within itself, that the sub-world created is real on its own terms. So maybe using invented towns is a way to emphasize that, a way to say to the reader, ďLook, in this book, all that matters is this town exists and is real. Within the book. The location of the Arbyís is not relevant. So ahead of time: donít think like that, turn off that part of your brain. Turn on this other part instead.Ē

In Universe, it seems like you've got this sort of mathy bent, though maybe not necessarily mathematical, but model-based: your stuff seems written by someone who seems to have spent large bulks on trying to apprehend something's structure (strangely, the drawn story was the one that, to me, made that most evident). True? Somewhat approachable? Also: at the book's back you mention that this is a book you've been wanting to write for awhile, which leads me to this question, in ways.

Or I don't even know. Maybe the question's too weird/big. There's also this: Universe seems fundamentally symmetric somehow -- the son and the mother's stories coming where they do being Big Giveaway #1. But there's just something...there's a well-made aspect to your stuff -- it's all up and down through Cradle, too †-- and I want to know if you'll talk about that, how much you can say, etc.

Itís a possible thereís a more pronounced structure to my writing precisely because I find it so difficult to work with structure and struggled for so long with the transition from writing short stories to writing longer works. This freedom that Iíve talked about a couple times already -- that feeling of liberty just slips away once I zoom out to the macro level, once I try to think about the big picture of a novel or a particularly long story. I donít know why, because I value the importance of plot and causality, especially in longer works. I think this comes down to different people and different predispositions, but I just canít hold all of that in my head at one time, and so I end up -- as a way of preventing it all from crumbling in front of me -- creating particularly rigid formal outlines -- almost like storyboards -- and try to tell a story at that level, first tell a story with a formally dynamic, very broad movement, as though each chapter is one sentence and the book is a good paragraph, then take a step closer and try to fill in the actual text and the actual scenes. I know there are people who intuit their way through novels, but whenever Iíve tried to do that, Iíve just gotten lost and run into brick walls. The middles of novels are labyrinths and I learned early in my writing career that itís too painful and too time-consuming to get stuck in them. Do you find interesting things that way? Wandering? Yes. But you also starve or get eaten by roving monsters. I have to plan, plan, plan, plan, plan, then write really fucking fast, and uninterrupted, once the planning is done. During the writing period, I feel like Iím one of those army cadets in the little hut with the tear gas piping in, holding my breath and closing my eyes and waiting, knowing thereís only a limited time before either a) the door opens or b) I pass out. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesnít. I have dead novels.

This may be a leap, and it also very much may be my own obsession/lens coloring things, but I couldn't read "Machine for Understanding Other People" without feeling ghostvibes of David Foster Wallace all through -- the strive toward empathy, the "petty, unsexy" ways someone chooses to honestly care about someone else. Is Wallace's stuff work that for you resonates? Or can you at least maybe also talk about where that story got its jetfuel from?

I like him, but he wasnít one of the authors I went crazy for when I was going crazy for a long string of authors in the first years I was writing. He should have been; I donít really know why that happened other than to say it was almost too intimidating and too disturbing to read someone who was so young, obviously brilliant, and capable of anything. Who I did go crazy for, though, for a long time, was Thomas Pynchon -- not that heís not equally intimidating a writer to read, but in the early 2000s it somehow felt safer to me to read the work of someone whoíd been around for 40 years, already canonized, already dressed in the robes and wearing the laurels of a 20th century titan -- so maybe some of the ghostvibes you mention are flowing from there. I know that he was a major influence for Wallace, right? But when I think about Pynchon, empathy doesnít exactly come to mind. Not that he doesnít discuss empathy all the time, but Iíve never thought about Pynchon in terms of that same emotional vulnerability Wallace seems so comfortable with. I think of Pynchon as some kind of omnipotent overlord of hyperbolic thought and hyperbolic action, but not hyperbolic heart. So I donít think, for me, my interest in empathy come from there. It might not even come from books. I think I might get that more from my wife, who is somewhat like Counsellor Deanna Troi when it comes to empathy. My sister can also talk to animals. Iíve always been an emotional person and slightly out of control with my feelings, despite my repressive Anglo-Saxon roots, and so a lot of that stuff is just me trying to come to terms with some things and understand better how to exist with a heart in our world without succumbing to either blind idiocy or awful, awful cynicism.

That last story was fun to write, because it was in fact the last story I wrote for the book, chronologically, and a lot of the framework around it already necessarily existed, just based on what happened earlier in the book and what I wanted to accomplish, plot-wise. Before I wrote it I basically told myself, ďOkay, this is a mysterious benefactor story with the helmet at its center. I want a cave hideout, a young idealistic English woman, a realist drunk whoís thrown his life away, and a big, big sacrifice.Ē Having so many of the conditions in place already made it fun, and maybe what youíre describing, that certain energy. But I also felt freed up because Iíd switched to a 3rd person point of view, finally, and by that point of the book the subjectivity of the rest of the stories was feeling pretty overwhelming. Sometimes I think point of view is superficial, but in this case it felt like it mattered, because I could get out of the heads of the characters and speak with a little more narrative authority when it was required. Thereís that, too.

This is an impossible question, but I can't help it: how the fuck do you write sentences like you do? Here's what I mean: your stuff seems, to me, some of the most colossally confident stuff I read, not least for the fact that you dart these sentences out and then just trust readers to follow you into what's clearly non-linear, unexpected territory. I'm serious: how do you do it?

Youíre right -- thatís an impossible question to answer, and itís also very kind of you. Here is my impossible answer:

When I write, I trust that the reader is there with me and proceed as though itís so, like weíre on an unmarked path together but youíre right behind me, or at the very least close. I do not chat with you as weíre going. We go. Once in awhile, though, without much of an announcement, maybe in the night while Iím wearing my evening moccasins, while you are not paying attention or distracted by the fire, I will circle back around and double-check to make sure the path made sense, and that weíre both still in it together.

And music! Can you talk about music at all? Here's what's fun, and I imagine everybody does it: when I read folks, I end up imagining that person'd like the same sorts of music I like -- and so, at present, I'm listening to the song "Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)" by Phosphorescent, and I remember hearing it while I was reading Universe and thinking: I bet Patrick Somerville and I could get a drink at the L+L in Chicago and dig this song together. What music do you like? (if this all ends up undercutting the first question, well, apologies.)

I like all kinds of music. My two favorite kinds of music are American folk and roots music (which I also play, but I am a dilettante player of stringed instruments) and hip-hop. I have never rapped because I donít want to destroy the world with awful rapping.

But music and storytelling are intimately, mysteriously related and I actually feel as though The Cradle is some kind of song at its core. What I appreciate most about music, in terms of writing, and what I think is most instructive for writers: music automatically, from the first moment, is a visceral and emotional experience and is also immediately figurative. If the song is right, your heart is responding to something, and youíre immersed in that way, but itís unclear how or why. I think writers have to work much harder to get the audience to let go like that. Writers, for better or worse, have to navigate the intellect before they can get to those better places. Have to navigate language, which is perpetually exhausted in our time. And I think many writers completely ignore that part of the contract between reader and writer, that agreement of the writer saying, ďDespite it being tricky I am going to do my best, in good faith, to create an emotional landscape with you and make you feel things in a way thatís fair, complicated, and not embarrassing. If I fail you -- if I play the wrong note or make the wrong turn or write the wrong sentence at the wrong time -- I will lose you. So Iím going to be very careful, because it matters that you stay.Ē

What's the view out your window?

Right now I can see the Metra tracks, an ugly building, and a reflection of the Chicago skyline in the windows of the ugly building. That is not a metaphor.

Don't get mad: do you believe in something like fiction offering a lesson or message or whatever to readers? I ask because of Gardner, certainly, and the fact that I'm moved by the moral push of Wallace, but also because in Universe it ends, seemingly, with this story which says: humility and empathy save; these things light the most fires. Yes? Is this something you think fiction even does or should traffic in? Is it something you want your own fiction to traffic in?

I donít know about the bigger ďshouldĒ -- Iím hesitant to say fiction or literature should be anything, because I think the reason itís alive and vibrant and still here, still relevant, is that it can be almost anything; it can be history, it can be pedantry, it can be beauty, it can be allegory, it can be mystery, it can be mysticism, it can be a log of dreams, it can be purely informational. You know? Storytelling is a flexible thing, itís a part of us, our brains have evolved with the facility because itís useful, and weíve used it however weíve needed it. ďShouldĒ doesnít quite fit, in my mind, with that conversation.

For me, personally Ö yes, I want my writing to be a moral endeavor and I think it should traffic in what it means to be a good person, why things matter, and how it is that we so often fail ourselves and our loved ones. I think the core of my fascination with writing has to do with a certain faith that good stories generate new knowledge for new eras, and there is no other way, outside of narrative -- not science, not religion, not trial-and-error, nothing -- to generate this particular kind of knowledge. Itís narrative knowledge. Or imagined knowledge. And I think that the things we can learn from literature make life better, and richer, and safer, and less painful. Iím like everyone in that Iím lost and confused most of the time. Stories donít solve any problems or take you where you need to go. For that, people have to make choices in the real world. But stories provide you with a semblance of a map. And for a short time they might make you feel different enough, and strange enough, to get you moving.

First, in the most huge, general sense, what are some of your inspirations/touchstones/etc? This question's always weird to ask -- I'm not just asking about writers, but about whatever -- food, baseball, music, whatever. Be as expansive as you want/can be.