An Interview with Dylan Nice
The stories in Dylan Nice's debut short story collection, Other Kinds, usher the reader into a coming-of-age miasma in which distant mothers bloom and fade in the mists of memory, phantasmagoric girls float in and out of the narrator's life, and fathers manifest as backwoods acolytes trying to make sense of all our earthly woes.
You could say Nice's work is not so much written as it is channeled. His stories aim at what we might call an ecstatic truth, something essential yet evasive, even unspeakable. As he writes in the second story of the collection, speaking of the narrator's love interest, "She was all the things I couldn't paint."
And it seems this is the main quest of the protagonists in this book, to paint -- or to write -- what cannot adequately be captured: beauty, longing, violence, comfort. Whether exploring the sparse, sprawling flatlands of Iowa or the gullies and wooded hills of Appalachia, Nice's delicate yet sturdy sentences show us that emptiness is apparent while everything else remains beautifully and horribly muddled.
In Nice's collection, praised by author Gary Lutz as "a book to be memorized," the polished sentences whisper, luminesce, incant, and worship for a cumulative effect that is, by turns, an achingly honest chronicle of "awayness," a melancholic ghost story of sorts, and a humble holy text. Other Kinds is astonishing for its elegance, its subtlety, and its insights, full of sentences that ring as you read them and then hang there in the air after you've put the book down.
Rachel Yoder sat down with Dylan Nice in Iowa City, where he teaches in the University of Iowa's Writing Certificate Program, to discuss his work.
Reading this collection makes me want to fuck up my life a little just to feel it. What do you think it is, this desire to have one's life a little off kilter, to not have it look too nice? Is it just self-destructive bullshit or is there something more to it? There can be something beautiful about the broken parts, right? Or is that just the sentimentalizing of suffering? Isn't this whole book a sort of yearning toward a more complicated and essential beauty?
For me, I'm not sure if it was a desire so much as a realization. As Americans, we generally use a system of slogans to put the problems of living out of mind, but the problems are still there. We all think a thousand thoughts every day that aren't our own, live out narratives not of our own invention, inhabit bodies preloaded with behaviors not of our choosing. Those bodies depend upon social and economic structures possessed of a psychology to which we either submit or suffer the life of an invalid. That's all pretty banal, boilerplate I'm-a-modern-human stuff, but its banality doesn't alleviate its problemness.
That said, I find the prospect of being alive, of having a life, cripplingly beautiful. The girl who bagged my groceries tonight at the Hy-Vee had a face that arrested me for a full second, long enough to provide the sufficient beauty for a great deal more suffering at my own hands or by the grip of history. I'm not indignant. I'm a little in love with how fucked up and strange everything is e.g., America, the Hy-Vee, its plastic bags swirling in the great Pacific garbage vortex. The ugliness completes reality, makes it worthy of love.
I think it's my nature to reject any prescriptions to tidy it up. I'm repulsed, on some level, by preciousness, by ploys to anesthetize the experience of life via beauties that aren't also very cruel. I guess the book was a love letter to experience, a thank you for not taking it easy on me.
In one of your stories a character named Nina says "I think I could live anywhere in the world." But the narrator can't really live anywhere. He has a problem existing wherever he is. Might one of the themes you're grappling with in this be the psycho-spiritual experience of landscape?
Definitely, I think there's a big part of me that's a mess because I'm from a mess. It's my assumption we largely organize ourselves based on what's around us. I often blame the Alleghenies for my inability to consistently think straight, or at least to think in a way that's encouraged. Admittedly, at my core, I have a self-mythologizing impulse. I tend to heat things up, which is probably why the book is fiction, in line with that whole lie-that-tells-the-truth construct. It's hard for me to tell with any certainty, due to the singularity of my experience, if we aren't all equally at risk of being psychically and intellectually short-circuited by what's around us.
But I can say that growing up amongst the ruins of an industrial storm, raised by the residual population there who had nowhere else to go and no means to get there, made me suspicious of a lot and loyal to a lot. I'm suspicious of particularity and loyal to narrowness. I'm put off to a degree that's inappropriate when people complain of eyesores, shitty jobs, and bad weather, because eyesores, shitty jobs, and bad weather are where I'm calling from.
I'm put in mind of an Ed Ochester poem called "Miracle Mile," in which the speaker plans a trip down the commercial strip in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. He lists everywhere he's going to go, every ugly detail of it, the mall and the Red Lobster and the oil-stained parking lots, but at the end he quotes Camus, "how he said he knew / with a certainty that our work is nothing / but the long journey to recover / though the detours of art the two or three simple / great images which first / gained access to our hearts."
I don't equate having a pretty life with having a beautiful life. The shape of where I'm from best fits against the shape of what I am. I don't imagine a time when that will ever stop being true.
Would you consider the style of the writing in this book at least in part an outgrowth of the plain-speak of the Alleghenies?
Absolutely, at least in part. Folks at home speak in aphorism a lot, commonly preface their thoughts with phrases like "There's one thing to remember" or "If I know anything at all" usually followed by some folk wisdom or religious-based reassurance. Since it's not a book culture, sophisticated thoughts aren't described as much as they're evoked. Once, in acknowledgment that I was a writer and that he accepted it, my stepfather told me "a freight train can't stop being a freight train." Yes, exactly.
I think this strategy has a pretty obvious effect on the sentences of the book. I try to get something big banging around in simple constructions. I tend not to use words whose meanings feel dense to me -- there's too much of a risk of something being lost. It's a constraint, a way of working the experience of time and weather into the sentences.
What has your experience been like writing and then publishing stories that are so autobiographical?
I needed the book to be intimate. I didn't know how to write it, or really want to write it, if it wasn't intimate. There were things I wanted to say that I hadn't been able to say in everyday life. Too much gets misaddressed or arrives at the wrong time; too much time is passed in dead air. Fiction creates a space in which every gesture is communicative; every word is doing work toward making meaning. Writing the book let me compose the material of my life into something more elegant than the babble my inner monologue can manage as life is happening to me. I invented some of the circumstances, but the real fiction-making comes with filtering the raw material, be it invented or autobiographical, through a vision of how the story will sound. Still, there's a certain psychological nakedness involved. About a week before the book came out, I had a moment of despair. There was a very sharp sense of loss. It passed, since I couldn't take it back, and to do so would have made zero sense.
Has your family read this book? What have their responses been? When you go back home, will people have read this, friends and such?
My father said the cover looked like a Bob Dylan album cover. My mother said she found a typo.
When I'm home, people tell me that they liked it, but never much beyond that. I think friends back home lost interest when I told them none of them was in it. A cousin of mine asked if I've actually been snorting coke. When I said no, he asked if I actually lost my sense of smell in a car accident. You would have heard about that, I said.
In three stories in the book, the point of view shifts to third person. Do you find that some stories are more distant or outside of yourself and just naturally call for a third person perspective? Or might it be a way to write about something that's harder to write about, to depersonalize it in a way that first person doesn't?
I use third person when I can't imagine what the narrator would have to say about what's happening, or when what the narrator would have to say would only cloud what the story is working toward. It has to do with distance, too; third person is good for instances in which despair or confusion or anxiety has to be suggested instead of stated outright, because to state outright would be too whiney or precious. I invented a character I use a lot named Tom, who's mostly me, but I afford him more dignity than I do myself. I love Tom for that. He's often navigating cataclysmic interior events but stays very steady. He wakes up, he makes telephone calls. He's who I imagine when I imagine someone who's not me making a telephone call.
I've heard you cite Gary Lutz's class in your undergrad years as a huge inspiration, in particular his lessons on the sentence.
Gary was the first writing teacher I had who showed me that the sentence was capable of art. He would underline good sentences and interrogate bad ones. Verbs would be circled and Gary would ask "inevitable?" And no, the verb was not inevitable, and I'd never considered that concept before, inevitability. It smacks of the eternal, a text beyond the writer to which the writer submits. That was a concept I needed to be able to write well. The class introduced me to a tradition for me to practice.
Can you talk about your philosophy of the sentence and your approach to writing sentences?
I don't have a definite philosophy, aside from I write sentences slowly, sometimes painfully so. I try to take as little for granted as to what it is I'm trying to say as possible. This seems to leave the sentence open to the universal strangeness of all experience. That is to say, shit is strange. All of it. I should restrain myself here, but I'm thinking about how right now it's snowing outside because the rock I live on is pitched slightly deeper into space, and how my apartment is essentially a larger body that's been built with its own metabolism to warm my smaller body. That kind of stuff. I won't go on. While I don't usually write directly at the strangeness, I try to keep it in mind so it is felt somewhere in the sentence.
Would you consider writing a religious practice?
I think in the capacity that religion provides a window to the infinite, yes writing can do that, too. When I was a teenager going to evangelical praise and worship services, I would feel the joy being expressed, be totally on board with the feeling that this is day the Lord has made and reason enough for elation. I would be moved to praise, but I didn't know how to move or sing, what to do with my hands. There's more than a little of that praise feeling when I'm writing well and feeling connected to the thing being said. There's a lot of religion in me that's never going to get out, but I'm keeping what I like. The Lord telling a wounded and desperate Paul "My grace is sufficient for thee," is one that still hits me like a bolt of lightning when I'm flooded with panic. That God named himself "I Am" on Mt. Sinai is maybe the best thing I can imagine. Taking into account what we know to be out there, "I Am" is a beautiful sentiment.
It seems to me the book is also about what to trust or have faith in when living in a secular world. The narrator doesn't so much lose his faith as he loses a view of what to believe in. The landscape doesn't contain what he's looking for. It's too simple. There's this sense at the end that the narrator is still lost and looking. Were you thinking about this as you wrote, about the tension between the sacred and the secular?
The book largely deals with a collapse of narrative, and while I wasn't specifically thinking of the tension between the sacred and the profane, I think it's safe to regard narrative as having something to do with sanctity. It invests purpose and meaning on the phantasmagoria of experience. The problem with narrative, though, is it suggests an end, a point in which a definitive change comes. I think for the characters in the book too much was expected from the inevitable, forthcoming change. They fantasized that the sequences of their lives would deliver them to a moment in which the self would be resolved. This does happen and it doesn't happen; the circumstances of life change, the images of life change, but each is encoded with equal capacities for failure and longing. And what do you do then? The characters don't know yet. They get notions that quickly crystallize into their own flawed dogma, and the cycle repeats. They occasionally feel inside a sacred place and then try to stay right there, completely still, until it becomes clear that by being stationary they've actually moved to a place that is again very much Not It.
Do you still believe in God?
Not in a way that would be satisfying to most theists. When I think about the universe moving in red shift, I don't believe. When I think about justice or love, I feel something that very well might be God. It's my brain that gums up the works. I acknowledge that while I'm receptive to mystery, that doesn't make mystery useful or true in a cosmic sense.
Irony still seems to be very much the prevalent aesthetic of the contemporary literary scene. What I mean is that we often see characters who are using irony to mask their weaknesses or as a mode of operating in the modern world. There are definitely moments of irony in this book, but they reveal the foolishness or misconceptions of the narrator rather than wrapping him in a cloak of inscrutability. And what I remember of this book is more its sincerity and earnestness, its vulnerability. Did you ever worry about it being too sentimental or too earnest and how did you work to allay that, if at all?
Because of what I was reading at the time, I was unaware that irony was the prevailing literary wind when I started the book, so it never occurred to me to worry. But I did end up writing plenty of material that was way too sentimental or earnest and it was long process recognizing and restraining the impulse to lay it on thick. Sincerity is a move I know how to make work in writing, but I'm miserable at sincerity in real life. If an occasion calls for spontaneous sincerity, I clam up pretty badly, and then I'm relentlessly ironic. I've made shameful jokes upon news of death and moral illness. My earnestness in fiction, I think, is connected to my schooling as an essayist. I had teachers who coached radical honesty from me. As a matter of convention, it's a little harder to be ironic in an essay or personal narrative since the reader typically brings a higher expectation of trust. People like their memoirist obliging. This is a convention that has been pretty brilliantly undermined by other, bolder writers.
In "Wet Leaves," you write "He said work and meant work -- money had nothing to do with what work was." I keep thinking about this sentence in relationship to this book, to the work of this book. That it feels like the writing of this book has little to do with the hope of "literary success," but that it was necessary work for you. Is that what it felt like writing it?
There was, admittedly, some hope for literary success. The hope being that the existence of the book will afford me some previously unforeseeable way to keep going down this road. I more or less lived the book while I was writing it. I didn't eat proper meals. I neglected pressing emotional concerns. So yes, there was a sense of dire necessity. But ultimately, you do the work you can and what happens to that work is mostly beyond you. Even with the all the profound uncertainty, the hope persists. I feel like I've made it somewhere better and I'm keen on staying.
On occasion, it occurs to me I write the way I do because there's a significant part of me that is bad at writing, not inclined to write, flailing against the notion, and which forces me to write in a constant sense of desperation. It's this internal instability, this flux that my work implicitly fixates on. None of this, after all, is something we get to keep. None of it was ever even ours. It might be I'm inclined to focus too narrowly on the possibility for failure and artificially keep myself in a state of critical condition.
What comes next? What are your aesthetic aspirations?
I've just started work on a craft book, Critical Condition as Process: A Writer's Guide to Certain and Catastrophic Failure. Chapter 1: "The Heat Death of the Universe and Why All Your Labor is in Vain." I'm working on some essays, too. Maybe I'll try something funny soon. I have an aunt who always tells me I should be funny more often in my stories. "You've always had such a wonderful sense of humor," she says. "I don't know what happened." Aunt Patsy's top notch. She looks out for me. The cousin from earlier is Patsy's boy.
I was wondering if you would share a favorite passage from the book and explain why you like it.
I like the end of "Wet Leaves":
Already far out of town, I stopped at a gas station to buy a pack of cigarettes and fill the tank. I stood by my truck, smelling the gasoline in the heat and remembering all the heat I'd ever felt. Big trucks were coming by bright and fast and disappearing back into the flatness. The light at the edge of the sky was orange and thick with twilight. The gusts from the semis pulled at my clothes and I could see the men inside, their faces dark while they sat still and drove fast. They found work, driving to some place they didn't know and then back toward the last thing they remembered being good.
A lot of my stories end in a state of transit. There's something perfect about it. Sometimes I just drive for hours.