Interviews & Reviews

DERICK DUPRÉ on film with Rebecca Gransden

What film, or films, made the first deep impression on you?

The first movie I bought that didn’t suck was Godard’s Breathless. I was eighteen and deeply into Joan of Arc and other stuff from the Kinsellaverse. I’d read somewhere that they were inspired by his work, so I thought I’d check him out. I went to a nearby Borders and browsed the racks. It was a crappy old edition where the special features were like, “Scene Access” and “Interactive Menus.” I loved it. Then I had the age 18-20 insufferably-into-Godard phase. I remember sort of bragging to my parents’ friends that I had a copy of Masculin-Féminin, and they were like, “What - why? Him? Really?” I get it now. But that was the jump off.

Can you talk about the influence film has had on your writing?

I’ve never written a treatment, nor a screenplay, but usually a first draft of something new will have a sort of treatmentary vibe. Just image after image w/ very little in the way of character or plot. The final draft tends to look like that, too. 

Do you use film as a prompt or direct motivation for your writing?

Sometimes I’ll just write down notes on the thing I’m watching and maybe later transcribe them and alter them enough so they don’t completely resemble the source material.  One thing I published a while back was just prompts for opening scenes of imaginary movies. I’ve thought about going back and expanding it, but that seems like a bit too much of Levé pastiche.

Have you ever made a film? If so, has the process of doing that had an influence on your writing?

I helped make a short film once. I just did the camera work but apparently I wasn’t bad. The film ended up in a gallery. If it had any influence on my writing, it would be that I quit altogether and start working on lo-fi art projects. 

Are there films you associate with a particular time in your life, or a specific writing project

The first story I published was written during an intense period of Marx Brothers and spliffs. I’d been laid off from a state job, had a decent severance, and spent a month getting high and watching torrented movies. I’d never seen the earlier Marx Brothers stuff, so it seemed fresh, and it still is. I think some of that unpredictable humor comes through in the story. It also reminds me of a more productive era of writing, which I can look back on with a small fondness.

Thinking about the places you’ve lived, are there any environments that are cinematic? Have you lived anywhere that has been regularly depicted onscreen? If so, has this had an influence on your perception of the place, or how you’ve depicted it in any of your writings?

Any place can be cinematic if you know where to look, but the most superficially cinematic would probably be my current environment of southern Arizona. The rock formations, the wildlife, the historic buildings, the denizens, the many-layered hues of enchantment, etc. I lived in New Orleans for a while and there were always film crews everywhere due to Louisiana’s film tax credit, and to some filmmakers’ unfortunate penchant for ruin porn. I just watched Angel Heart the other day and felt briefly nostalgic for walking down Royal Street. 

Are there individual scenes that stay with you?

I’ll return to certain scenes more often than I do whole movies, maybe because of dwindling attention span or general cognitive decline. The first processing session in The Master. The duel in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The suicidal penguin in Encounters at the End of the World. The opening scene of Werckmeister Harmonies. Pretty much any scene from Beau Travail. The final scene of Wanda. The doctor’s house call in A Woman Under the Influence, and so on. 

What films have roused a visceral reaction in you? 

I remember becoming fully, inexplicably overwhelmed with emotion when I first watched Cries and Whispers, at perhaps too young an age, when the Chopin mazurka in A minor comes on. It was kind of like the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry finds himself crying and says, “What is this salty discharge?” But now I go hunting for that feeling.

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MICHAEL SEYMOUR BLAKE on film with Rebecca Gransden

What film, or films, made the first deep impression on you?

Hi. I’m overwhelmed with the amount of responses I have to almost all of these questions. I’m terrible with stuff like dates and technical details etc. and I forget important chunks of information all the time, only to blurt things out weeks later during a conversation with an unrelated person who is probably in the middle of talking about their day. In other words, I will forget to mention movies that live in my heart. I will forget super critical moments. I’m gonna answer this stuff with whatever randomly popped in my head at the time, mostly sticking to my younger years. In no particular order. Random. Incomplete. 

Here we go...

An early favorite was 1967’s The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitherman). Thing is, I was super young so all I have is the vague impression of how important it was to me. I loved Baloo and wanted to be his best friend.

Next is something I respected and deeply feared, and that is 1987’s The Gate (Tibor Takács). I almost didn’t include it here because it was only years later when I realized how much of an impact it had on me. I remember seeing it at my braver-than-I-was friend's house for the first time and thinking it was “sickkk!” but also having to close my eyes a lot. I lost a lot of sleep because of this thing. As a kid I often felt isolated and terrified, and The Gate played on my fears of being left alone without knowing who to trust. It was my first major exposure to horror movies, which still fascinate me to this day. Much love for The Gate. “YOU’VE BEEN BAAAAAAAAAAD!”

The NeverEnding Story (1984, Wolfgang Petersen) — This movie disturbed and fascinated me in a different way than The Gate. Where The Gate felt more domestic in its horror, The NeverEnding Story haunted me in a more cosmic, existential way. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I could watch and appreciate it without my heart racing and my stomach going sour. Gmork is still one of the most frightening creatures ever. I associate this movie with being at my grandma’s house because I think I was there the first time I saw it.

The Last Dragon (1985, Michael Schultz). This may have been the first martial arts movie I ever saw. They used to play it all the time on tv and I was enthralled. I probably watched this whole thing conservatively forty times as a kid. This is also one of the movies I just assume everyone has seen and I’m usually surprised to meet someone who hasn’t even at least heard of it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie (1990, Steve Barron). At the time it felt super edgy and dangerous. Gritty. But somehow it didn’t feel like an “adult” movie. I viewed it as a “cool older kid” movie. I was 7 or 8. 

Turtles leveled up my appreciation for cinema. To this day it fills me with joy when I watch it. My favorite turtle was Mikey, but my favorite scene — the scene that blew my mind — was when April O'Neil was writing and sketching in her diary. It lent a gravitas to the whole experience. I remember listening to her voice, her tone solemn and serious, and just being enraptured. I thought  “This is the real stuff!” I wished so much I was one of those turtles. I wanted someone like April to care about me enough to put it in her diary. 

But as much as I loved it, I didn’t quite think about it in an adult way. I took its existence for granted. 

Then a few years later I saw Mel Gibson’s 1995 epic, Braveheart

Braveheart is the first movie I had what I’d call an “adult love” for. I wore those VHS tapes (yes, it was long enough for two tapes) out. Couldn’t get enough of it — the gruff aesthetic, the epic battles, the just-over-my-head political intrigue. Stephen (David O'Hara) was my favorite character. I was so stressed that he was gonna die during my first watch. I remember thinking “He’s like me!” (meaning a real weirdo). I loved his introductory line delivery of “Stephen is my name!” I believe this is also the first time I saw the main character in a movie die. Not positive on that. The ending always made me intensely depressed. Sometimes I’d just stop it while he was in the cell so I could pretend he got away.

Unlike the movies I loved before it, I thought of Braveheart as an impressive film rather than just some awesome thing that existed. I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it (hell, I still kinda don’t), but I was very aware of the cinematography, the acting, the dialogue, the music, the choreography of the fights. It was a revelation. Still, I never lost that magic of living within the world on the screen. Corny as it sounds, I still watch movies with that wide-eyed sense of wonder. 

I could keep going… but let’s pull back for now. A ton of other movies are popping in my head. Dances With Wolves was another huge one. Also a bunch of other Disney films.

Very often film is one of the ways we first come into contact with a world outside that of our direct experience. Which films introduced you to areas of life away from the familiar circumstances you grew up in?

How apropos! Dances With Wolves (1990, Kevin Costner). I did not plan this.

Dances With Wolves was the first movie that directly exposed me to a different way of life. I have no idea if it’s seen as problematic now or whatever, but back then it helped reinforce my interest in different cultures and peoples. It also filled me with deep sadness and anger. I wanted to be a part of that Sioux tribe. I wanted that strong community. 

Few years ago in Arizona I met a young Navajo man, had to be in his late teens. I struck up a convo with him and he starts telling me about his favorite movie and then he goes, “The movie’s called Dances WIth Wolves, have you ever heard of it?”

What films first felt transgressive to you? Do you remember being secretive about any films you watched growing up?

Transgressive shit: Akira (1988, Katsuhiro Ôtomo). Saw this on a bootleg VHS (I think. Could have been legit) at a friend’s place when I was too young. I’m terrible with age shit, but I was between 11 and 13. I had no idea cartoons could do what Akira did. I didn’t understand much of what was going on, but the movie felt important. And it was.

Secretive shit: I thought hard about this one. I mean, Akira maybe had elements of  “I shouldn’t be watching this,” but describing it as something I was “secretive” about feels inaccurate. I can’t think of any movie I felt secretive about. It ain’t really in my personality. I like to show people who I am and what I like and just really hope they don’t think I suck. I never got into overly sexual movies or anything like that to be embarrassed of. I dunno… can’t come up with much for you here. 

Sort of related, I remember showing my mom and her then boyfriend a scene from Romero’s Day of the Dead because they were watching this show with mild violence and commenting how fucked up it was. I said, “You wanna see fucked up?” 

After the scene was over (it involved zombies pulling someone apart in gory detail) they just stood there grimacing. Then my mom whispered, “You’re fucked up.”

I did feel slightly embarrassed once when I told someone how I wept during The Notebook.

Are there any films that define your formative years?

I googled “formative years” and it defined them as ages “0-8.” I will keep it strictly within those parameters. I also already mentioned a few formative years shit in the “deep impressions” section. There’s a ton of crossover in this entire interview. I could write in exhausting (and frankly, boring) detail about another bazillion movies here. 

Moonwalker (1988, Jerry Kramer & Colin Chilvers) — Michael Jackson was a hero to me. In Moonwalker he turns into a rabbit, a car, a laser-blastin’ robot and a spaceship. I watched this so much. I’d bring it with me to people's houses and stuff. I remember wishing I could put a mask on and transform into an animal. I felt I was in danger all the time, and fantasizing about transforming into cool shit to either evade or fight would-be attackers made me feel temporarily powerful. I wanted to know the Michael Jackson in this film. I also wanted to be him. He was so caring, brave, strong… and THOSE MOVES!

The Land Before Time (1988, Don Bluth) — I’m drawn to ensemble casts. I’m drawn to epic journeys that build or reinforce relationships. Dinosaurs are cool. This movie had me exploring the woods in search of the Great Valley with a few real or imaginary pals. I felt like part of the tribe whenever I watched it. 

Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) — I had a stuffed Gizmo that I took everywhere with me until I lost it (devastating). My friend and I would pretend we were gremlins, or we were taking care of gremlins. There’s a gremlin named Stripe in the first one and there’s one named Mohawk in the second, but we referred to both of them as one character we called  “Spike.” I don’t know why. I’d always pretend “Spike” was actually a good guy through some strange plot twists when we played. I soooooo wished Gizmo was real. I wanted to be Billy because he had a cool secret pet, and that made him special. 

My Girl (1991, Howard Zieff) — Being exceptionally afraid of death and having a hyper-aware sense of the fragility of human health at a young age made this movie hit me like a Louisville Slugger to the guts. It ain’t like I never saw death on screen before, it just never felt so close to home. It gave me a sickly feeling about being human/mortal. Most of my friends viewed Thomas’ demise as something sucky but ultimately distant from them. Not me. I’d look at people and think, “Any of us could die at any time.” It didn’t make me appreciate life more, I just felt unsafe and a little desperate. Also I had a mini-crush on Vada. Also I identified with Vada… so I kind of had a crush on myself. 

The 1990 It miniseries felt like a movie so I’m including it here. Another ensemble cast with a focus on relationships. Saw both episodes at a friend’s house. And when I say “saw” I mean I watched maybe 45% of each episode. I tried to force myself to watch because I was really invested in the story. I just wasn’t brave enough. I kept hiding in other rooms or collecting myself outside. (Yeah, it was so terrifying to me that I chose to be alone outside rather than even hear a sound from that series.) It was around this time I became more consciously aware of how much horror impacted me in comparison to others. Like, no one else was running out of the house every ten minutes. The way It made each character see things others didn’t cut right to my damn soul.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is worth repeating. It was possibly the biggest movie of my “formative years.” 

Some quick ones:

Disney movies (anything I could get my hands on). The Little Mermaid (1989), Bambi (1941), Dumbo (1941), etc. etc. Those films were there for me when my mother was deeply depressed and I was afraid and confused. Forever grateful for that.

Star Wars original trilogy (1977-1983, George Lucas). I was born into a Star Wars family (well, a few people on my mom’s side). Always took these films for granted, like they were a relative or something. Just part of my life from the start. It’s difficult to coherently explain what they meant to me because of this, but these were a major part of my formative years.

The Muppet Movie (1979, James Frawley) — although my appreciation definitely grew as I got older, it was still a big one.

The Secret of NIMH (1982, Don Bluth).

Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis). 

Batman (1989, Tim Burton).

Home Alone (1990, Chris Columbus).

An American Tail (1986, Don Bluth).

Can you talk about the influence film has had on your writing or art?

I can't because nothing specifically comes to mind. I’m terrible at talking about art shit.

What directors, film movements, or particular actors have been an influence?

John Carpenter.

Akira Kurosawa. 

Anthony Hopkins. 

Toshiro Mifune.

Hayao Miyazaki.

Steven Spielberg.

Johnny Depp.

Jackie Chan.

Winona Ryder.

Ruth Gordon.

John Woo.

I could go on and on. Some of those don’t have as much influence now, but others still do. These are all fairly older picks.

Have you ever made a film? If so, has the process of doing that had an influence on your writing?

I made two very short, very ridiculous movies. It’s hard work, even if the project is just for fun. You need everyone on board and committed… and it’s hard getting people to stay committed when things get uncomfortable. 

It’s had no discernible influence on my writing, but it reinforced something I already knew: judge people by their actions, not their words. You can tell me “I’m in!” but when things get uncomfortable, I’ll see where you’re truly at. 

(I’m only using the actions/words thing in the context of creating art together. I’m sure there are exceptions). 

Are there films you associate with a particular time in your life, or a specific writing or art project?

A ton of the movies I already mentioned fall into this category. I'll toss a few more in. Let’s get in and get out quickly and incompletely like a bad police investigation.

Jurassic Park (1993, Steven Spielberg). 10 years old. Coolest visuals I’d ever seen. I gave the dinosaurs dialogue (after the tenth time of watching with pure reverence). Pretending to be velociraptors with my friend Jer. 

The Matrix (1999, Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski — at the time known as “The Wachowski brothers”). 16 years old? In a toxic, destructive relationship. Me at my most misfit. Knew zero about the movie and saw it on opening night. Partner had a panic attack during it. I adored it. Reminds me of a period where I was called a freak and regularly had shit thrown at me in school etc. 

Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa). 12th grade. More purposely (as opposed to just random suggestions) exploring movies outside of my comfort zone. Being nervous about the future. Realizing just how many incredible films there were out in the world. Secretly feeling cool that I “discovered” Kurosawa’s movies even though 99.9% of my friends didn’t give a shit. 

Dollars/Man With No Name trilogy (1964-1966, Sergio Leone). Just out of high school. Starting to delve into westerns (in part thanks to Mr. Kurosawa). Bought the box set based on a hunch that I'd enjoy it. Went to a houseparty right after purchasing and took the set inside with me. Frequently visited the set (left on a table in the living room) throughout the night with a sense of excitement. Watched with a like-minded weirdo pal, then pretended to be gunslingers at a few parties — hats, fake guns, cigars and all. People weren’t that amused. Went grocery shopping as gunslingers and staged western standoffs in the aisles. Really indulged in acting like a (harmless) moron during this time. To this day when I’m around other weirdos I get carried away.

Thinking about the places you’ve lived, are there any environments that are cinematic? Have you lived anywhere that has been regularly depicted onscreen? If so, has this had an influence on your perception of the place, or how you’ve depicted it in any of your writings or artworks?

Grew up on Long Island and frequently visited NYC before moving to it. So for sure. But oddly enough I don’t often think about film history when walking around and stuff. I might be too close to it or something. As far as cinematic environments go, I lived in a shitty tiny trailer for a while after my family was scammed and the house we were about to inherit from my grandma got ruined. So it was just some piece of shit trailer next to a destroyed house. Kind of cinematic. 

Are there films you regularly return to, and do you know why?

I don’t often rewatch movies because there’s always something else I want to see. That said, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is one I’ll revisit often. It’s my all-time favorite movie. I love the ensemble cast and siege narrative. I love how it feels loose and lived in. It’s an old friend of mine. 

There’s a handful of others. Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure rewards repeat viewings. It makes me think about watching it at my friend’s house and feeling warm and cozy and laughing our asses off (except for the Large Marge scene). 

Do you have any lines of film dialogue you regularly use in your daily life?

Tons, but I don’t necessarily use them in witty ways. Like… I’ll just randomly say them. Here’s a handful:

“Good morning Mr. Breakfast!” — Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985, Tim Burton).

“I need your clothes, your boots and your [insert thing I am asking for].” — Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron).

“My cat can eat a whole watermelon!” — Rubin & Ed (1991, Trent Harris).

“HEY! Fuck youuuuu.” — Session 9 (2001, Brad Anderson). I don’t particularly love this movie, but that line delivery is too great

“EVERYONNEEEE!” — Léon: The Professional (1994,  Luc Besson). 

“Who’s the baddest?” — The Last Dragon (1985, Michael Schultz).

“I just felt like running!” — Forrest Gump (1994, Robert Zemeckis). 

“Heellooooooo!” —  Mrs. Doubtfire (1993, Chris Columbus).

“FOR.EV.ER.” — The Sandlot (1993, David M. Evans). 

Here’s a recent one (often yelled to someone from another room):  “Mind the doors!” — Death Line (1972, Gary Sherman).

Are there individual scenes that stay with you?

There are a great number of scenes forever living in my mind. I’ll stick to older stuff:

The Brave Little Toaster (1987, Jerry Rees) — The junkyard scene. Cars are being killed while reminiscing about their lives. Fuckin’ brutal even now.

The Bodyguard (1992, Mick Jackson) — Seeing Costner jump out the window into the snow has always stuck with me. I remember it looking really gorgeous and badass. No clue if that scene plays out the way I have it in my mind. Also… hearing Whitney Houston curse! OMG! 

Ghostbusters (1984, Ivan Reitman) — Library ghost. When I first saw that I think I inadvertently yelped. (This was also a formative years movie.)

Clash of the Titans (1981, Desmond Davis) — the battle with Medusa, Bubo the owl, the witches, the monsters, the stop-motion animation… everything. This whole movie is one giant scene in my head. (Another formative years movie.)

Bride of Boogedy (1987, Oz Scott) — Dad from the series (Richard Masur) floating around while possessed by Mr. Boogedy. This really frightened me. Any guardian figure who becomes possessed gets right to the core of me. Possibly some psychological shit going on here.

The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick) — bathroom scene. You know the one. Don’t make me describe it. 

Pet Sematary (1989,  Mary Lambert) — Zelda scene… you know the one. Don’t make me describe it. 

A Better Tomorrow (1986, John Woo) — Mark pouring a drink over his ruined leg. 

Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986, Brian Gibson) — Walked in my friend’s living room and I see this terrifying reverend asking to be let inside a house. I run away. Come back just in time to see the tequila worm scene which, combined with the out of context scene before it, was one of the most disturbing things I’d ever seen. 

Troll 2 (1990, Claudio Fragasso) — I wake up in the middle of the night and turn on the tv. I see a kid transforming into a gooey plant thing and then being eaten. For a long time it was just some random clip that frightened me so badly I wouldn't eat for part of the following day. Back then it wasn’t easy to just look up movies. I think I even had to post on some forum a few years later to figure out what it was. One of my favorite movies. I introduced no less than 20 people to this.  

Ugh… there’s so many. I have to make myself stop…

The Omen “It’s all for you, Damien!” Suspiria mirror flash. The whole hospital segment of Hard Boiled.

Here’s one fairly recent watch for you: To Sleep with Anger (1990, Charles Burnett) — Hattie’s (Ethel Ayler) first appearance. That big explosion of bright white hair. 

What films have roused a visceral reaction in you?

Shitloads. I’m a visceralass person.

The Blob (1988, Chuck Russell) — There’s something super vicious about the kills in this movie that make my palms sweat. The movie theater sequence still gets my fight/flight response going.

Home Alone (1990, Chris Columbus) — Still makes me grit my teeth. Specifically the nail in foot scene. NOOOOOOPPPEEEE.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper) — Especially the famous hammer bash and the meat hook hanging.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994, John Carpenter) — “Today’s mommy’s day!” First saw that scene in my friend’s dimly-lit bedroom and felt my soul trying to escape my body. 

Saving Private Ryan (1998, Steven Spielberg) — The slow knifing scene turned my mouth and throat into an alien desert landscape. 

Don’t Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg) — The ending sequence has to be one of the most memorable endings of all time. It’s shocking, weird, brutal, creepy, and beautiful. 

Threads (1984, Mick Jackson) — Absolutely devastating. 

Which of your writings or artworks would adapt most successfully to film?

No idea. How bout you tell me and we work on something together.

Can you give some film recommendations for those who have liked your writing and art?

I didn’t even mention Die Hard, Labyrinth, Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones, Beetlejuice, RoboCop, The Nightmare Before Christmas, etc. etc. … so many huge gaps. 

Here’s my recommendation for people who like my art:

Ratatoing (2007, Michelle Gabriel). Not to be confused with Ratatouille (2007, Brad Bird & Jan Pinkava).

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Laura Theobald opens her new collection Salad Days with an epigraph from Antony and Cleopatra. Fitting. This book is an acerbic wedding, rejoicing in the union of our worst impulses and their natural consequences. Everyone is dressed to celebrate, except we’re alone. So, so alone. 

To be forthright, I had no idea what to make of Salad Days initially. I read the epigraph and thought, “Ah, destructive love, imperial curiosity.” I read the index, where I found the book split into seven spectacularly-titled sections: Waves of Confusion, Art for the Afterlife, Moon Unit, Future Moods, Double Fantasy, Sour Times, and Infinite Sadness. I read the book a section a day.

In the first line of the first poem I encountered a “you” and felt safe in the embrace of what I first guessed to be love poems. Then there’s this line, from Fish Poem, that goes like “I was so ready to be endured.” It’s here that I became pretty sure these were not love poems, but anti-love poems, which are as loving as love poems because they are not breakup poems. And, because they are not breakup poems, they imply a hanging on; this realization made me afraid. 

I was afraid because I was settled into and inseparable from a book, to quote from Art Poem, so totally “invested in a life of destruction.” I bailed on my plan to read the book section by section, started over at the beginning, then read the whole thing in a sitting. It’s a whirlwind, I suggest you do the same if you’re able. 

The narrator’s desire to impose themselves, to be endured, is never really directed at an agent to do the enduring beyond an implicit “you,” and so the narrator has allowed themselves a space to be endured by everything, starting with the “you” of these poems. What’s clear though, is that imposition is synonymous in the text with expenditure; imposing the self is to offer oneself up for annihilation, and it’s sort of thrilling. It comes through in the structure of every line, none of which close with end punctuation, and so always leave off waiting for another line to carry them. Most, if not all, of the poems read like couplets where any line can be the first half and any line can be the second. Even those poems with an odd number of lines give this impression, articulating subtly the possibility of devastation by asking formally: what if the second line to my couplet never shows up to build on my suggestion? 

As the book builds on itself, the scale of the destruction in which it’s invested grows exponentially. We’re taken from the kitchen with its tomatoes and potatoes and fish, its ass and diamonds and islands and onions, to the sun and the empire, the clouds and the earth. In the transition there’s the rapidity of the narrator’s dissolution, and there is the exponentially growing scale of destruction won from each successive annihilation. Every time we are made to feel small, we make ourselves that much bigger so our destruction might be noticed.

And we are made to feel small. We are made to feel subject to—subject to another, subject to an empire, subject to the sun, subject to the cancer of both. 

The crescendoing scope given over to the agent of our annihilation begins in Flowering Poem, where Theobald writes, “When you wake up you will think of me/But when you die you will think of something else.” It’s a brilliant couplet. The offer of the self (to be endured, that is being endured) to close the first line, then the turn toward a vague something else to close the second enacts precisely the sort of treachery of which every line in this book is wary. Then along comes Empire Poem to say: “You were my favorite empire/You had a voice like when the sun is setting.” Here’s the imperial curiosity. To be thought of when another wakes, to be dismissed when they go to sleep—it calls to mind the idea that the sun never set on the British Empire; if we seek to feel part of the empire’s light, we know already it will run away from us to shine somewhere else. Yet, the narrator speaks to the overarching sentiment of the book, saying, “I would like more time to look at the sun/The sun is totally without pretense/Shining its cancer onto everyone.” There’s almost an appreciation. Recalling the thesis of Potato Poem, “It happens fast/Like anything that is terrible,” it’s difficult not to believe that because we are here dying so slowly, being weaned drip by drip by drip of the selves we impose, maybe it’s not terrible, maybe it’s even lovely. 

What’s being done, it’s all destruction. “It’s like lighting a match in a world with no wind/And you have to put the fire someplace/And where are you going to put the fire/And there is no place to put the fire.”

The collection concedes, those of us invested in this form of self-destruction concede, finally, with flair. “Yes yes yes everything is beautiful/with an expiration date.” Though, whether we’re meant to take our repose in the idea that living for destruction must come to an end, or that being endured without being destroyed can only go on for so long, I don’t know. And again, I am afraid.

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Quiet like a bomb waiting for its lit fuse, Autumn Christian has steadily accrued a series of intrepid releases. Nominally designed to satisfy certain genre cravings, Christian’s writing transcends any label simply by being uncommonly good. Her work is strange and provocative, endlessly imaginative, full-blown addicted to ideas, and fearless. For any insight into a mind this committed to creative freedom, the natural starting point is to visit the environment Christian grew up in.

‘I was born in Oklahoma City, but my parents moved to Fort Worth when I was a toddler so my dad could pursue a career in video games. One of my first memories is walking behind the undeveloped land behind my house, full of rocks and dirt, and hearing the hiss of a rattlesnake.

‘I thought most of America looked like the suburbs of DFW. It seemed normal to grow up on a cul-de-sac full of kids and mothers that stayed home, attend Methodist church every Sunday, and go to Chili's or Olive Garden afterward in a black velvet dress.

‘But my grandparents were also dairy farmers who lived on a farm in Kingfisher, just outside of Oklahoma City. I spent a lot of weekends milking cows, climbing into granaries, bottle feeding calves, and digging holes so I could fill them with mud and climb into them wearing my bathing suit. The characters in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath talk exactly like a lot of the rural Oklahomans I know. 

‘Spending so much time in rural Oklahoma, and then at my Dad's work, surrounded by game developers, engineers, and (at the time) cutting edge tech, has brought a strange dichotomy to my writing. Southern gothic mixed with sci-fi. Video games and the brutal reality of farm life. I'm always trying to merge the high and low. The primitive and the future. To show how they're interrelated.’

The open blue skies above the grasslands of Oklahoma suggest space, while psychological claustrophobia permeates Christian’s fiction. With a surrealistic touch, duality is addressed in innovative ways. Conjoined twins, the mechanistic view of human existence, and the indifference of the natural world, are explored in all their depths and ambiguities. It’s this interfacing of elements that brings an electric quality to Christian’s writing. Raw despondency contrasts with cool systematisation, biological processes become confused, and wildness confronts an accelerating technologized world. These concerns are reflected in pivotal films from childhood years.

‘The first film that really embedded itself into my consciousness was the Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke. I saw it when I was 9 years old with my Dad at the Angelika Theater in Dallas. It was one of the few times I had alone time with my Dad, as by then my parents were divorced. I had never seen a movie with such intensity. I can vividly remember San spitting out the blood of the wolf, her mouth ringed with red as her earrings flashed. It was probably a little too adult for a nine year old, but I was transfixed by it.

‘Then there was The Matrix. I found it in a bin in Best Buy when I was around ten years old, and the description entranced me. At the time I'd never seen a film that dealt with themes of reality and consciousness. It set my brain spinning off into thinking about who we are as human beings, and how our warped perception influences who we are. Rewatching The Matrix now, it definitely has moments of cheese, and Big Blockbuster silliness with its action scenes and tacked on romance. But at the time it seemed perfect.

‘I mostly watched movies with my Dad and my brother, so we ended up watching a lot of Asian martial arts and horror. Tale of Two Sisters, a Korean horror film, was probably my favorite of these. It's a fragmented film, full of confusing madness and vivid imagery, and to this day I still don't completely understand it. Although I don't have a sister, the claustrophobia of the home, feeling trapped as ordinary spaces become horrible, and the split personality of the step-mother all were reminiscent of experiences I had.

Another major film was Blade Runner. I was living with my aunt at the time, after dropping out of college. I had this huge collection of books I had to leave behind, and I'd only managed to bring some of my Philip K. Dick novels with me. She got me Blade Runner to watch back when Netflix still mailed in DVDs. It was comforting in its human warmth juxtaposed with the coldness of the cyberpunk city. Its slow burn still never managed to feel boring. Although it's a beautiful movie I know the particulars of the moment also made me attached to it. I've probably watched Blade Runner more than any other movie. I don't often rewatch movies, it's difficult enough to get me to sit still long enough to watch one these days, but Blade Runner is a dark comfort I can return to time and time again.’

Blade Runner’s poignant exploration of Artificial Intelligence and the ramifications it has for human consciousness points the way towards the central themes of Christian’s fiction. Common to the stories is a sense of human capacity being insufficient to get to grips with interloping forces, whether those forces are from a man-made, natural, or internal source. These sources are often oblique and difficult to pin down, as is the compulsion to write itself.

‘I've been writing fiction pretty much as long as I can remember being able to read. I always considered myself a “writer.” It wasn't a choice I could remember making, and in many ways it never seemed like I had any other choice. Books were a huge part of my life as they allowed me to access worlds that weren't mine, in quiet privacy. To retreat from the world without anyone knowing where I went. 

But cinema, with the exception of video games, is the closest we can get to a full body story experience. It was common for my dad, brother, and I to go to the movies on a weekend and I remember walking out the exit in a daze, nearly in tears, overwhelmed by the intensity of what I'd seen. I wanted to create stories that made people feel like that.’

When queried on films that have had a direct influence on her writing, Christian offers up examples that glory in hyper-stylised representations of violence. ‘The double feature of Planet Terror and Death Proof. The spattered, colored violence of Planet Terror, Rose McGowan with a machine gun leg, combined with the stretched out, cool romanticism of Death Proof only interrupted by spattered bursts of action.’ The choices reflect a time when  cinema twisted sensationalist spectacle and turbocharged exploitation into art. ‘The movie Oldboy with its strange intensity, evocative oddness, and unrepentant violence. The violent melancholy of the protagonist eating a live squid lives rent-free in my head.’ Films synonymous with an iconic visual sensibility also dominate. ‘Sin City, with its beautiful darkness and entangled narrative from multiple perspectives, and Akira, with its nightmare cityscapes and intense, overwhelming horror of being stuck with a power you don't understand in a rapidly changing body.’

Key to Christian’s relationship with film is living through a time of transition for the medium.

‘Cinema has had a huge impact on a writer's writing in general. Compare anything that people write now compared to before television. It's leaner. Sharper. We all now share a sort of visual shorthand, and no longer feel the need to spend pages in loving, lush descriptions of things that we've all seen on a screen. We can instead focus on short, punchy, provocative moments. We can choose to pick words that directly hack into the reader's brains.

‘I grew up in the 90s, right before television started to get really good. I watched a lot of episodic, forgettable shows before I was introduced to shows like Firefly, Dexter, and 6 Feet Under in my late teens. It was then that I realized narration could evolve into something that felt so real, it was like it curled around my brain. It wasn't just something to have on in the background while I was doing something. It forced my attention. Narration is a constantly evolving process, and as our culture develops, we get better at understanding and creating it.’

This is fiction that knows where fear lies — it’s not with riding the ghost train but with the guy who pulls the lever to start the ride. It’s him who we repeat rumours about, who walks in his own mythology, who steals kids. Christian’s characters often deal with mental anguish, many of the stories addressing emotional distress and neglect. 

‘I think trauma is at the center of many stories, because trauma is centered so much within the human experience. Although it's a much more recent movie, the grief that permeates Hereditary is one of the most vivid and unflinching perspectives I've ever seen.’

Her characters are flawed, struggling at times, but also defiant. The seductive power in the transgression of boundaries is acknowledged, as is the fascination with figures that embrace extremes of human behavior. The sunshine man, who makes an appearance in “Sunshine, Sunshine” a story featured in Christian’s collection Ecstatic Inferno (Fungasm Press, 2015) stands out as particularly memorable, and yet he makes a hauntingly brief appearance. Christian’s poeticism infects the grit of her narratives with an emotional intensity that is at times heartbreakingly lyrical, and at others menacingly bleak. 

‘I have always been intrigued by dark, powerful villains and antiheroes. Men who may or may not be alien, almost Lovecraftian, larger than life, and sometimes stunning in their cruelty. I think of Hannibal in Silence of The Lambs (and Hannibal in the series), Randall Flagg in The Stand (although he's scarier in the books), Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Bobby Axelor in the show Billions, and Dexter Morgan in Dexter.’

With categorisation increasingly moot, if it ever was a concrete construct, and cross-pollination across all mediums common, Christian is reflective about the place of her own writing.

‘I'm usually considered a horror or sci-fi author, but when a story comes to me I don't pay attention to genre. I have always been interested in the merging of highbrow and lowbrow art. Genre and literary. I want to feed someone broccoli that goes down like chocolate. Have them get a taste of Faulkner or Dostoevsky, but it reads like Stephanie Meyer. Or, for a film equivalent, you sit down to a fun movie like Legally Blonde and find that it's actually a fairly intelligent piece of art about our ideas of perception, attractiveness, social clout, and how we form friendships. 

‘I don't care so much about being seen as intellectual as I am about transferring ideas like metaphysical viruses. Some people think style or characters or deep meanings are the most important things, but above all, I think a story needs to be engaging. If it isn't engaging that means something isn't working correctly. It's a difficult trick to pull off, to merge fun with deepness, but one that I'm fascinated by. I want to generate ideas that people can't tear their eyeballs away from.’

Imbued with loaded and vivid imagery, Christian’s fiction is inherently cinematic and almost demands to be adapted for film or television. Forefront in her mind as best placed is a 2019 CLASH Books release. 

‘Of all my books that I'd like to be adapted, it'd have to be Girl Like A Bomb. I can see it either being a terrible or a brilliant movie, depending on how the director handled the sex scenes. I feel like the book itself rides the line between B thriller and cult classic, cheesiness and beauty, so that makes sense to me.’

Undermine the algorithm:

‘If any fans of my writing are reading this, I'd recommend these 3 movies:

‘The Handmaiden, an adaptation of the novel Fingersmith, by Korean director Park Chan-Wook. It's an erotic psychological thriller without a wasted moment. I found it incredibly moving, provocative, and romantic.

‘Antichrist from Lars Von Trier. Intense, melancholy, peaceful, and excruciating all at once. One woman's descent into madness, back into the crucible of nature.

‘The Cronenberg film, Existenz, which combines tech, hallucinatory realities, and mind-warping provocative horror.’

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Tao Lin’s new novel, Leave Society, is a book that embodies what it means to mindfully evolve one’s consciousness while also acknowledging that one’s individuality is tied to a sea of consciousness, myriad beings all evolving toward some unknown destination, what the main character in the novel, Li, might term “the mystery” or possibly “the imagination.” Leave Society is challenging in that it doesn’t have the typical propulsion of a novel: drama isn’t the point, but internal and external, by way of other people, i.e., other consciousnesses, revolution of the mind and experience is. It is, in my opinion, less a novel about leaving society, and more a novel about changing society—one’s own personal society and the society around oneself—through seeing one’s mind states, one’s emotions, and cultivating the positive ones, and caring for, and then carefully (and sometimes clumsily) weeding out the negative ones. Society in this novel is a mental place as well as a physical one, and its main character, Li, attempts a return to the primordial mind that exists in each of us, but that is obscured by a mainstream society mired in ugly politics, mindless entertainment, sexism, oppression, and dangerous drugs. 

Leave Society might be a novel of ideas if it weren’t so autobiographically driven, which is another way of saying so character-driven, because it does contain fascinating ideas, playful ideas, whimsical ideas, and very serious ideas. One such idea with a hold on Li is that we live, according to Riane Eisler, in a dominator society based in sexism and racism, and that in the past, ancient societies lived by a generally egalitarian and peaceful “partnership” model; another relates to Li’s exploration of natural health remedies for everything from dentistry to gut biome; and yet another is that Li’s drug use is a compassionate, other-oriented use (so different from typical drug narratives). More than these ideas though, Leave Society embodies a lifelong process of opening and compassioning, which is—and this is a word I haven’t used to describe a novel in as long as I’ve read and thought about novels—completely radical. The hidden implication of the novel is that all beings exist already in a state outside society (and, implicitly, outside political ideologies). Li is simply waking up to this fact and trying to embody it.

Leave Society’s focus—ranging from the individual to the familial to the cosmic—is exciting because it doesn’t play by any rules of our current culture. It eschews easy formulations of attitudes towards everything from medicine to politics. It’s interesting to note that political things do occur in the novel—there’s war on the television, Li’s father has political party affiliations, as does his mother—but these things are observed neutrally, without commentary. Li cares about his parents equally, without regard to political affiliation—it seems weird to note this, but in a culture where families are easily and moronically split along political lines, it’s apt. The events that occur in Leave Society remain unpoliticized, which, in our current literary moment, is akin to not caring. But Leave Society is one of the most care-filled books I’ve read, and that care is, to use a phrase many writers will bristle at, apolitical. This is true not only for the novel as a whole, but for the main character, Li, as well. He doesn’t care where his ideas align on the political spectrum. His notion that we live in a dominator society, and the fact that he thinks we should return to other models provided for us from partnership societies, aligns well with the political left in the United States—sexism is bad after all. On the other hand, his questioning of modern Western medicine and science (everything from dentistry to physics) might seem to align with the political right. For the left, there is no grey area with something like the physical universe—you buy into relativity and quantum mechanics, even though they can’t be unified, or you don’t believe in science at all. But the novel refuses to politicize any of these topics. For writers who believe that “all writing is political,” Li’s character, by seeking novelty, complexity, as well as understanding, will seem incoherent at best and just wrong at worst. But Li is researching and investigating in order to aid his recovery from all society, in order to change himself. Li is not tied to any clear ideology, and for a reader who wishes to read beyond the easy delineation of contemporary culture, in which all things are politicized and then virtue-signaled, the novel is a welcome space of free-thinking that is sometimes playful, as when Li sees what he terms “microfireflies,” a strange property in the sky in New York, and sometimes serious, as when he’s attempting to help his mother’s thyroid problem with a more natural cure.  

It’s not the apolitical terrain of the book that is most interesting to me though. It’s Li’s rigorous and complex evolution into a more compassionate person, a person of sincerity, thoughtfulness, and humor, as well as confusion, malaise, and frustration. Li is constantly making progress, regressing, reestablishing how and what and who he wants to be in the world, and trying again. In this way, he’s unlike almost any protagonist I’ve encountered in literature. Rather than caving to ironic self-awareness and self-distance and staying there, rather than succumbing to negative emotions and becoming plagued by depression, anxiety, and a general sense of despair, Li works with his and others’ negativity with a mix of frustration and thoughtfulness. He constantly changes throughout the book. 

At the beginning of a section of the novel called “Year of Pain,” Li visits his parents in Taiwan. They watch a movie then the next day go to look for a piano. There’s a discussion of whether to buy or rent a piano, and when Li’s mother suggests buying, he says that both of his parents are “so greedy”. They argue a bit—“bicker” is the word the family uses—and then Li realizes “he was being like Alan [his three-year-old nephew]” in that, rather than tears, “he was crying dejected sentences.” Suddenly, outward bickering leads to internal examination, which Li expresses to his parents: “when the plan changed I felt not good.” On the train back home, he apologizes for calling his parents greedy and emails himself: “Parents seem taken aback by my outburst, and I also feel taken aback.” His demeanor softens, his ideas soften in that he’s able to let his ideas go—especially the thought that his parents are greedy—and then, on the train, he cultivates a YG (a breathing exercise which seems to allow him to expand his consciousness and leave concrete reality for a few moments), and when he returns, after being seemingly disembodied from his self, he finds himself wanting to hold his mother’s hand—a childlike, strange, and yet intimate gesture. 

What happens here is this: external conflict leads to internal examination, which leads to internal softening, a softening of ego, which then leads to external softening and feelings of, in this case, wishing to connect—this is typical of the novel. A shorter way of saying it: Negativity examined leads to positivity, which leads to intimacy. Li is not only rewiring his brain through nonfiction books and non-mainstream study (away from our current culture’s emphasis on individuality and separateness and difference as virtues), but also through an examination and then realignment of his own mind states toward intimacy and connection. This intimacy and connection is reminiscent of Zen Buddhism and Daoism, a softening of the ego into a more direct expression of spacious connection. But change is not linear, as the novel—and Li—suggests, and patterns emerge.

In the same section, from days four to seventeen of his trip, Li reports that he is “relatively calm.” He focuses on his parents’ health in helpful ways and deals with his own health issues privately and calmly, but then on day eighteen he gets a worrying nosebleed, a generalized pain returns on day nineteen, and while at a Bed and Breakfast, Li feels worried for his own health and discovers “noxious cosmetic” products and “statins” in his parents’ bathroom, both things Li has warned his parents about. Worry compounds. He gets angry: “researching statins for the fifth or sixth time in a year, Li slammed the computer on the wood floor.” Worry transforms into anger, and Li conducts his parents toward information about the drug and corporations, stressing that he was “showing them helpful, potentially brain-damage-reducing information.” Anger then transforms into controlling behavior, which softens over the course of the night. With his parents’ full attention, “the night began to feel productive and intimate.” It’s this intimacy that is one of the most surprising, exciting, and profound things about Leave Society

There’s a basic humor to everything Lin writes, but it’s never been so clear that Li (and Lin) care, and it is the close tracking of emotional states, of mind states, that reveals this care. In the space of a few pages and a day and a half, Li moves from relative calmness to feeling emotional as his mother investigates her face in photos (she’s had plastic surgery, which Li has struggled to not feel judgmental about), to worry over his own and his parents’ physical health, to anger, and then to a striking intimacy. Tracking these emotions section by section reveals both Li’s patterned, habituated ways of being, and his increasing awareness that there is a way to steer his mind away from negativity and aggression, toward connection and intimacy. 

There’s a way of explaining away Lin’s tracking of Li’s emotions. Don’t all novels do this on some level? And they do, but most novels don’t dedicate their prose to such pointed cataloging of the universals of human experience: calmness, frustration, anger, upset, connection, intimacy. These are basic universal emotions that Lin brings to the surface of his novel. While Li’s days in the particular might look radically unlike the reader’s own days, in the universal Li’s life is like anyone’s: abstract emotions defined, tracked, and patterned. Li lives from deep within himself, and that depth is communicated to the surface of the novel, operating in and as external reality. In other words, Lin lets us see this depth so clearly it becomes impossible not to be moved by a character so devotedly reckoning with their own emotions and thought patterns.

As Li recovers from mainstream society, his progression toward more positive states of mind continues, though not without complications and regressions. Recovery, it should be noted, is synonymous with change. Recovery is transformation. The term, cribbed from the language of addiction, is used to show that we live in a society mired in addiction: to television, the internet, fast food, drugs of all kinds, to everything. Robert Aitken has famously said: “The things of the world are not drugs in themselves. They become drugs by our use of them.” Li (and Lin) understand this, and while Li is recovering from actual drugs, he’s also recovering from an attitude of addiction. Not only was he addicted to drugs, he was addicted to negative ways of being, negative thought patterns. But recovery, change, is difficult. For instance, “bickering” reaches a climax in a section titled “Conflict,” in which Li’s dad proclaims that the three of them—Li, his mom, his dad—will be “bickering for a lifetime,” which is how a negative moment can feel: that it will never end. The family, triggered by Li’s dad not being ready for a walk, enters into a recursive and nearly nonsensical argument about who is to blame for all the bickering, as well as past indiscretions. Li shuts his father’s computer forcefully. Li’s father exclaims “don’t hit me.” Li’s mother asks if Li hit his father. Li looks at her in bewilderment. Li’s father blames Li’s mother for Li’s behavior, the “bickering” culminating with each family member blaming the other as the source of the bickering, leading to a discussion of when Li’s father hit Li’s brother when Li’s brother was an adolescent, which leads Li’s father to pronounce that sometimes it is right for children to be hit, causing Li to shout, “Isn’t hitting things good?” seemingly threatening his father. When Li’s father says, “You dare hit me,” Li responds “You’re so fat…Of course I do.” All while Li’s mom is shouting for them to stop. Li’s father eventually leaves with the dog, Dudu. All of this occurs across two and half pages, ending with Li alone in his room, Li’s mother crying, and Li’s father returning. Eventually, each family member apologizes about some action they took or thing they said during the prolonged bicker. Things calm down—anger and frustration pass. 

It’s difficult to convey in an essay how amusing and moving this is at the same time, but it’s that combination of amusing and moving that strikes the reader as incredibly real. This reality comes from the fact that each character is treated as being capable of change, as struggling to make certain changes (at Li’s behest or their own), and attempting to be better communicators. And because Lin is clearly tracking his own family and their interactions—anger flares up, then, in what seems like no time, flames out—there’s an authority regarding each character’s journey that is unlike most novels. Simple, struggling, yet dignified with sincere and often funny attempts at change. The scene ends with Li saying, “I’m trying to stop being like this.” 

Later, at dinner, a grander reconciliation occurs: 

“So I care for you two,” said Li. “I’m here. I’m here so much.”


“Li really loves you, right?” said Li’s mom. 

“Right,” said Li’s dad. 

“Dad counts as a good dad, right?” said Li’s mom. 

“Ng,” said Li. “Right.” 

One way to think of Leave Society is that it is comprised of these contractions and expansions, defensive aggressions and passive regressions into negative states and then opening up again. The characters collectively form this pattern. The novel is not only tracking Li’s change, but his change in relation to his parents, his parents’ change in relation to him and each other, and eventually Li to his partner, Kay. It suggests that all these minds contribute, collectively, to a larger change. Li is “trying to stop being this way,” and his parents, likewise, are working to bicker less—as separate entities this change is impossible, but as a unit, together, Leave Society suggests, change becomes more possible. Why is that? Because patterns become apparent: Li can see his actions in his father’s—when he slams his father’s computer (an outward, physical aggression), we then learn that Li may have learned this violent petulance from his father, who hit his brother. Li’s worry, likewise, is mirrored in his mother, who worries about her son. In a defensive mood, Li offers this as blame for his neurotic tendencies, but in a more open state, he is open to criticism and correction. For instance, at one point Li says, “When Dad says I need control [referencing the shutting/slamming of the computer and his occasional throwing things], I don’t feel not good … I agree. It’s good to keep reminding me. It’s like me reminding you two all the time about health things.” The characters’ negativities mirror each other in the same way their positivity does, and change is presented as a collective process. The novel then isn’t just like the patterned breath of an individual, but a collective breath of beings tied together, breathing together, changing together, evolving together. 

Lin captures the progressions, regressions, and paradoxes of change. To change means to become aware, and to become aware means to inject oneself directly and pointedly into one’s own habitual thoughts and emotions—what I mean here is that one begins to watch and understand one’s patterned existence rather than simply being swept up by the wave of that existence, a “this is just how things are” attitude. But this is not how things are, Leave Society suggests. Late in the novel, Li slips, habituating “himself back into tormented glumness, unable to stop bitterly arguing with imaginary people in his mind.” But shortly after this, as he leaves Taipei the final time, he tells his parents that he’ll miss them, and he looks “deliberately at each parent’s face, and they group-hugged. He’d last told his mom he’d miss her when he was maybe ten. He couldn’t remember ever telling his dad.” The tenderness that has occasionally burst through bickering and confusion levels out in even-tempered care. Likewise, when Li doubts his relationship with Kay, and finds himself feeling “quiet and somewhat closed off” from Kay, he sees that his weeks of uncertainty regarding the relationship “were rippling through him, bothersome and mocking, his own creations,” Li has come to a new place. He recognizes that these mind states are his own creations, that his negative thinking is, as Li also states, a “habit.” The relationship with Kay stabilizes as Li’s doubts drift away. He’s begun to see beyond his negative mind states. He’s begun to see them for what they are: self-created, and though still difficult to manage, he now knows better what to do with them. Rather than being swept by the wave (the negative thought or emotion), the awareness emerges that one is the wave– and when this awareness emerges, it becomes less and less possible to be constantly swept up. In this space, there’s room for consciousness to come together. Toward the end of the novel, with Kay in Hawaii, Li’s world becomes more pointedly not only his, as the singular third-person pronoun dramatically shifts to third person plural: “they smelled each fruit, suckled their juice,” “they made a smoothie,” “they fed some chickens,” “they spoke a narrative about their day,” and “they discussed leaving [society/New York] in parts, leaving mentally and chemically, carefully and gradually. Going beyond.” They’re now changing together. With a message rooted in conscious change, Leave Society is the apolitical novel that we need right now: a book about going beyond politics and society and moving toward an aesthetic of collective being. The process should be careful, gradual—there will be progressions and regressions, suggests Leave Society. It’s a process that is occurring already. Leave Society makes me want to be a part of it, and then the book made me remember that I already am, that we all are.

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Rebecca Gransden: Your work explores extremity. Extremity of violence yes, and also conceptual extremity, extremity in language use, of idea. I instinctually back away from inquiry into direct influence, seeing it as reductive, although I have noticed trends among artists. To some, influence is a question of attraction to work reflective of, or in kinship with, their work, and to others influence exists as an energising feedback loop. With that in mind, how do you view extremity in cinema and, by extension, its relationship with and influence on your writing?

Gary J. Shipley: Yes, “conceptual extremity” and “extremity in language” are very much the focus for me. The violence is often a means to reinforce, or probe, or otherwise explain, what for me is a conceptual or linguistic problem. In The Unyielding, for instance, the body horror is always permeated by the abstract in order to establish and sustain the immovable wife’s paradoxical being. With extremity in cinema, I suppose I’m invariably trying to see into/through/around it in the same way. But often when films are described as extreme, that’s not my experience: I mean, who are these people still so ripe for shock and umbrage? Nekromantik segues into The Wizard of Oz into The Golden Glove into Sir Henry at Rawlinson End into Angst into My Dinner With Andre into The Poughkeepsie Tapes into Swoon into She’s Allergic to Cats into I Stand Alone and who’s to say who’s going too far, and who fucking cares to listen? Losing your virginity to a warm turd might be considered a trifle immoderate, but then there’s always Sade-the-philosopher at work in the background. I think the notion of extremity in the arts is mostly overblown and outmoded anyway. It’s nothing we’re not daydreaming about in the shower, or somebody somewhere isn’t doing in their bedroom or basement, nothing some poor sod isn’t enduring, or someone else getting off on. What about that video of a puppy being fed to a snake, the footage of industrial farming, the Dog Meat Festival in Yulin…? Violence and extreme cruelty are everywhere, nothing new; it’s the way we gloss over them that’s often extreme to me, and repellent, and potentially dangerous (and therefore interesting).

RG: Repetition and simulation feature prominently in Terminal Park, where you utilise the reenactment of an iconic scene from cinema history, a scene that has been the subject of reinterpretation multiple times and ways. Could you expand upon this choice and your intentions with regard to artistic discourse when it comes to the mutation of meaning inherent in exploration of this kind?

GJS: The Psycho shower scene’s ubiquity and theoretical baggage were essential, with so many useful resources to draw on. Aside from all the Hitchcock plums, you’ll no doubt spot a fair few others as well: Funeral Parade of Roses, Dogville, Body Double… Anyway, I’m clearly playing with some well-trodden ideas in Baudrillard and Deleuze. As Norwegian artist Nikolas Berg puts it in the book, albeit borderline delirious at this point: “Copying feeds on itself and once started can never be finished; and as all moments already exist so too do all copies, and there are perfect copies and less than perfect copies, each again copied regardless of fidelity to their originals, and so the space for original creation shrinks and grows at the same time: to zero on one level and to everything that could ever possibly exist on the other. […] But difference on this model is decay, and it has a long history, and is heading in only one direction: outward and outward to the moment of (self-referential) rupture.” I’d already written my book on Baudrillard, Stratagem of the Corpse: Dying With Baudrillard, when I wrote Terminal Park, so I had his body of work acting as a kind of lens. But then I’ve also long enjoyed exploring films with the same narrative core: Wages of Fear/Sorcerer, Le Feu Follet/Oslo, August 31st, all the many takes on Crime and Punishment, from Fear to the brilliant Norte: The End of History, etc. I remember when reading HHhH how when Binet lists all the different film versions there have been about Operation Anthropoid (the events surrounding the assassination of Heydrich), I’d already seen them all. Not that I’d done anything with it. Just for the joy of comparing the different approaches, you know. And then I got the film adaptation of that, so there was another one. There’s Synecdoche, New York as well, which is a film I admire and probably played a part on some level. And The Exterminating Angel, which is always lurking somewhere. I’m also fascinated by the kind of paranoid pattern building that, while respectful of the facts, imposes some speculative and warped order – the kind you see in, to take a recent example, Under the Silver Lake

RG: There is forensic clarity to your writing, an observational quality that can be as repellent as it is fascinating. When it comes to form, how much of your style is a consequence of natural aptitude and how much calculated to serve your intention for the text?

GJS: Form is crucial to my work, has been from the start. My first book, Theoretical Animals, depicts a world of abstracted cannibalism and cannibalises itself as it does so. This autocannibalisation involves the second half of the book having the exact same letters as the first half, with each section from the second half rearranging the same letters as its corresponding section in the first half. Or Necrology (written with Kenji Siratori) where the structure mirrors a torture method used by Etruscan pirates. With Terminal Park, one of the most obvious formal influences is the extreme shift in focus (from the fission apocalypse to the “PsychoBarn”) that occurs approximately one third in, as it does in Psycho. And like the film, we move from the exterior to the interior. The other books I’ve written that have been most formally influenced by cinema would be 30 Fake Beheadings and You With Your Memory are Dead. With the former, it all started when Rauan Klassnik put the germ in my head (with his idea that I review some unseen films for a magazine he was co-editing) and I couldn’t get it out. But I needed the films to be rooted in the existing reality of the unreal, and so the concocted films, I felt, had to be sequels. And what better way to reinforce the violence of the encounter than by inventing sequels for films that actively militated against that possibility. The book draws on decapitation theory and the post-cephalic nature of the cinematic experience, so it came as no real surprise that documenting the viewer (and his escalating absence to himself) quickly became as important as documenting the invented film itself. And the two fed on each other. “Antichrist 2” was the first in this decollative sequence, but the viewer demanded more and more cuts, and being obliging I obliged. YWYMAD is the result of watching Begotten on a loop for two weeks: ekphrastic writing as ritual, if you like. Warewolff! would be another example of my attempting to marry language-play and formal concept. If we think in terms of invisible forms (à la Kevin Jackson), even the title of W sucked more energy than maybe it should have. To briefly explain: in Finnegans Wake, “warewolff!” (beware wolf) is what the Floras or the Maggies shout to Glug (or Shem), who is the wolf of which we should beware. Glugg fails to see what is hidden (cannot guess the colour of Issy/Izod’s knickers) so becomes hidden, is sent into exile. He is akin to the devil, is self-absorbed and self-absorbing (“he make peace in his preaches and play with esteem”), can only answer the riddle if he can see himself in his entirety (Shem/Glugg and Shaun/Chuff) but cannot bear to do it, is ugly and foul-mouthed, the banished “bold bad bleak boy of the storybooks,” and a language tutor to boot, making it only fitting that when he sneaks back for revenge it is through language that he is revealed: a mocking bard (“mocking birde to micking barde”). Then there’s then all the D&G stuff about becoming-wolf: located at the edge but not outside society, a multiplicity, a hole, a formless form… Anyway, given how perfectly all this aligns with the “creature” in/as the book, it soon became the only title I could imagine.    

RG: Your work investigates destruction, whether this is bodily, symbolic, or cultural. With the focus on collapse, and a disintegrating force, your writing often has a desensitising effect. Do you actively use desensitisation for its own sake or do you view your work as in dialogue with it? With this in mind are there examples of desensitisation in cinema that resonate with you or your work?

GJS: That desensitising effect is less a conscious technique and more an honest reflection of where I’m writing from: a felt distance, an unwillingness to participate in so many of the prevalent fabrications of identity. Destruction is not the issue for me, only suffering. And from here to the meaninglessness of suffering (and of meaning itself), and therein a possibility for meaning as esoteric and fervid as it is ruinous. The first film that comes to mind is Peeping Tom, where the desensitisation is itself deeply felt. It’s also there in the work of Lars von Trier and Yorgos Lanthamos, for example. And in Spoorloos, Funny Games, The White Ribbon, and on and on. If you want a film that might just destroy you a little bit (even with everything they had to leave out), try the short Detainment

RG: As a secular form of Apocalypticism has taken hold in culture, end of the world tropes are more than cliché, but normalised. Do you consider your work to be in dialogue with this trend? Are there examples of apocalyptic cinema you see as particularly successful in reflecting this?

GJS: As I make clear in Terminal Park, the apocalypse is a disclosure, a revealing of something formerly hidden. And while this harps back to its religious origins, it is still present in the secularised versions you mention, and in the best examples of apocalyptic art, literature and film. It is this end as revelation that I find interesting. Not the tired notion of environmental and societal collapse exposing the best and worst of human nature (which is only a faux reveal, I mean who didn’t know this already?) that is the focus of so much mainstream work, but a true reveal of something truly hidden: a seismic shock, a jolt, a complete and utter mindfuck. I also don’t think you can get away from the salvationist implications of this gap.   

RG: One area of your work that is especially striking is your representation of the body. Whether objectified, idolised, annihilated, or deconstructed, the body glistens in all its glory. Your work acknowledges the seduction of transgressing fleshly boundaries. Do you take inspiration from body horror in cinema?

GJS: It’s there, of course, along with those from literature and art. And sometimes it’s direct, but more frequently the influence is oblique. There are the usual, I guess, scenes/images that set up home in your head and never leave: the nefarious matter, the stuffs and blobs, the mergings, augmentations and depletions, and the usual cinematic touchstones (Lynch, Cronenberg, Carpenter…), and those scenes implanted in me (and many others) for good, from films as various as Possession, Bug, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, The Human Centipede, Un Chen Andalou, Fiend Without a Face, Blood of the Beasts, and on and on. And I wonder if I ever really escaped those Nightmare on Elm Street films that I lapped up as a kid? Or the Hellraiser, Exorcist, Omen, Evil Dead, Alien franchises? And here comes Udo Kier choking on whore blood and scissoring off a human head. Outside of cinema, Francis Bacon’s the master, and Lispector’s cockroach is my kind of madeleine. And yes, my daydreams are the kind where Charters and Caldicott turn up in Trash Humpers bleating about sandwich fillings, checking cricket scores, vigorously shagging refuse.  

RG: Part of what makes your work compelling to read is the sense of being pulled in a certain direction, only to encounter a series of wild juxtapositions. As soon as there is philosophical underpinning, there is a turn to the visceral and experiential, and the alienating and cerebral is punctuated by stark and searing images, often captured in one sentence. Your use of imagery is vivid and electric. Do you see an equivalent in cinema? Does the structure of film have any bearing on your style?

GJS: Cinematic techniques definitely seep in. They’ve doubtless permeated my experience of the world so thoroughly they’d be hard to escape. But then it’s also worth remembering that a lot of these techniques were already there in literature, so it’s in no way exclusively cinematic. I suppose you’re referencing jump cuts or rack focusing, or montage, double/multiple exposures, whatever, which are all over the place. The challenge is to do it without them looking like clunky/inferior versions of their cinematic cousins.

RG: Returning to Terminal Park, I see the glacial intellectualism that characterises some conceptual art, directly invoked by the strange and initially abstruse reenactment that takes centre stage for some sections. Do you make a clear distinction between the use of conceptual art inside the narrative and the narrative itself as a form of conceptual art, or are these lines blurred, non-existent, or for the reader to decide?

GJS: The hope is that they become blurred. Lynch, like Tarkovsky and others before him, wanted to make paintings that moved (which of course he did quite literally in his early shorts), and we see the narrational and visual freedom this affords him; but it’s also there in the detached and sombre weirdness of Roy Andersson’s films, in which everything feels so staged and abiotic that the movement itself becomes a kind of aberration. And then there are the less integrated uses, seen recently in films such as Velvet Buzzsaw, Paint, or The Burnt Orange Heresy. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that there are many ways that writing and art can intersect. For instance, Serial Kitsch (an epic poem I made from the appropriated words of serial killers) was one way of attempting this, and “The Mutant” (which merged the cerebral and abstract practice of creating a work of conceptual art with the artist’s brain cancer) was another. Actually, the novel I’ve just finished revolves around three uncharacteristically dark paintings by René Magritte, so on it goes.  

RG: From its origins cinema has illuminated by illusion. What place does art and artifice have in your work? In a time of immense media and information saturation and film as a medium grapples with its context, do you see the density of your work as a response to or reflection of this shift?

GJS: It is central, inescapable. It puts me in mind of Baudrillard’s quip about AI, how because it lacks artifice it therefore lacks intelligence. Or as Lisa Robertson puts it: “artifice is the soul.” Works of realism that are supposedly free of artifice, as if that amounts to some badge of honour, that’s where the contrivance is. Which in itself needn’t be a bad thing, although it all too frequently is. The prodigiously trite as authentic lived experience is quite the gilded shit right now.    

RG: Returning to destruction and decay, is it necessary for the screen itself to break down?  Should celluloid self-destruct?

GJS: The screen breaks down all the time, it’s the default. The hard thing is to see the screen. And once you’ve seen it, to stop seeing it. 

RG: If you could give some recommendations for films that would be enjoyed by those who are fans of your writing that would be great. 

GJS: I watch 1-2 films a day, most days, have done for a lot of years now, so if I may I’ll pick in no order from the films rewatched in the last month or so that these fans, if you can ever reach such recherché phenomena, might well enjoy:

A Dark Song, Simon Killer, Tony, Saint Maud, Escape From Tomorrow, The Shout, La femme infidèle, Le Boucher, The Transfiguration, The Night Eats the World, L’humanité, Twentynine Palms, Downloading Nancy, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, These are the Damned, Uzak, Personal Shopper, Most Beautiful Island, Upstream Color, I Blame Society, Apartment Zero, Possessor, Burning, In the Earth, Alphaville, Bad Timing, Providence

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What is an ordinary day? With our days increasingly under analysis, it’s a reasonable question. Everything is Totally Fine arrives at an opportune time. Zac Smith’s stories are permeated with seemingly mundane events, actions familiar to the everyday, the stuff that makes up life. And life is strange. What do we feel when we think of ordinary days? Nostalgia? Longing? Resentment? Relief? As Zac Smith sat down to write these stories, maybe he had some of these in mind, or perhaps he wanted to forget about them. His ordinary days gave rise to a collection of stories, something he didn’t know he was doing at first. It’s this sense of serendipity, arbitrariness, and absurdity that trails his words. With that in mind, here is Zac Smith’s ordinary day.

start the day right

Rebecca Gransden: What happens when you get up in the morning?

Zac Smith: Currently I wake up around 5:45 to do chicken chores and let out one or both of my dogs. The chicken chores involve cleaning and refilling their water thing, unlocking the door to the henhouse, and cleaning the poop out from where they sleep. Usually I try to go back to bed for a little bit after this, but sometimes my toddler wakes up and I can’t go back to bed.

RG: What happens after that?

ZS: I cook breakfast and brew coffee. Breakfasts I cook include: scrambled eggs and toast, omelets and toast, egg sandwiches with tempeh bacon and avocado, biscuits and veggie sausage gravy, scrambled tofu with peppers and onions, savory oatmeal bowls, and oatmeal with banana and pecans. I think my mornings are pretty normal.

RG: What happens at lunchtime?

ZS: I cook lunch and we eat lunch. Lunches I cook include: hummus sandwiches, mac and cheese with lima beans and bbq tofu, black beans and rice with fried plantains, some kind of grain or pasta salad(s), shitty fajitas with tofu, quesadillas, and avocado toast with feta. Sometimes my kid helps me cook - today we made a vegetable soup with dumplings. Then, when work allows, I hang out with my kid while my wife gets some alone time to work or rest. We usually read books together or play with magnetic building tiles or toy animals. 

RG: What happens in your afternoons?

ZS: Things I like to do in the afternoons that aren’t “going to work” include taking my toddler to a playground, going for walks or hikes, playing at home with my toddler (e.g. building an obstacle course), and cooking with my toddler (e.g. baking cookies). Sometimes in the evening I take time to play my guitar alone. More recently we’ve been checking for chicken eggs in the afternoons, as well.

RG: Do you travel to and from anywhere? What is that journey like?

ZS: I have been working from home since February 2020. For a long time the only places we would go were nature areas. Last fall, I started taking my toddler to places like coffee shops or small/outdoor stores/markets. Usually, on Sundays, we spend the morning driving ~20 minutes out to a nature area, then a coffee shop, then a small market. I’m laughing at myself saying I do the same things in different ways and places. We’ve only recently done some longer trips, because of the pandemic - we spent the day in Portland, ME to see some family and a few days in Upstate New York to see old friends. My kid seems to enjoy road trips and our friends were supportive of spending a lot of time in parks and playgrounds just hanging out. But most of what we do around our home is like a 2-10 minute drive.

intermission: where Zac Smith explains why Everything is Totally Fine

RG: How long did it take to write the book?

ZS: The oldest piece in the book was originally written in mid-2018, and the most recent story was written in May 2021. The earliest ones weren’t written with the idea of including them in a book, and then when it all started taking shape, I rewrote them in various ways to make them better fit the tone or to include self-referential (self=book) content.  When working on it as a book, I wanted not to have too many of the pieces previously published online, since I think that in general the only people who will read it have also read one or more stories by me online, and I want them to feel like it wasn’t a waste of money to buy the book. In terms of getting the book published, there were/are only a few presses I really liked and felt like sending it to: Soft Skull, Tyrant, Future Tense, House of Vlad, and Muumuu House. I received kind and personalized rejections from Yuka at Soft Skull (who’s now at Graywolf) and Kevin at Future Tense, was ignored by Giancarlo (which was fine/expected, based on what I know about how he responded to book pitches; he was nice and supportive when I originally reached out to him), and accepted by House of Vlad. I didn’t have any expectation about publishing it via Muumuu House since I assume Tao gets a lot of unsolicited book pitches and he hadn’t published a book via Muumuu House in ten years, but we had been emailing about stuff/writing and then he offered to publish it, which surprised and excited me. I felt bad about pulling it from House of Vlad but Brian seemed ok with it and hadn’t started working on editing it really by then, so it felt like I hadn’t wasted too much of his time. Muumuu House is/was consistently one of my favorite places and I admire Tao’s editorial vision, and he has been very excited about and supportive of the book.

RG: I’d love to know how you chose to compile the collection—the order of the pieces, the selection of segments, etc. It’s a cohesive collection. Were the individual pieces conceived as part of a larger work, or did that take shape over time?

ZS: I’m glad it reads as cohesive. The book was originally going to be much shorter and published online as part of a collaborative project with Giacomo Pope, but then we didn’t feel confident we’d get more people to contribute like we wanted, so we took our respective collections and reworked them for books—his poems mostly ended up in his Chainsaw Poems & Other Poems and mine became Everything is Totally Fine. The original working title was Everything is Totally Fucked and Giacomo claims to have proposed that title as a joke based on what I wanted to write, when describing it to him, and then I just used it unironically. That seed was something like seven stories, and when I decided to make a book out of it, I started writing more specifically to fill it out and let the themes/ideas naturally develop from there. It went through a few drafts where I would try to flesh it out with previously-written-but-unedited stories, print to line edit everything, then categorize the stories based on certain things about them, and then figure out which categories made sense and thus which stories should be cut. I think this was an effective process and helped me feel like I wasn’t including any stories that wouldn’t make sense in the full book context. Also, around this time, Mike Andrelczyk would send writing prompts consisting of 3-4 unrelated photographs in a group chat we’re in together, and I would try to write something really quickly based on those, and then later I scrolled through the group chat to edit and add them in. There are probably close to 20 stories that I wrote for the book which aren’t in the final version, which seems like a good number relative to the size of the final collection.

In terms of sequencing, I realized I had about 2x as many first-person stories as third-person stories, so I divided the book into thirds, with the middle section being the third-person stories. Once I decided to do that, it helped guide me in terms of writing additional stories and experimenting with ways in which the narration is framed or “revealed,” which was fun for me, and it helped the sequencing. For sequencing in general, I tried to make sure I didn’t have many stories that were overly similar right next to each other, and to break up lengths a little bit. The last third I think has the longest pieces and is less cohesive, while the first section has some of the shortest pieces and is more thematically cohesive, which I think is funny in terms of naming the sections and maybe gives a little bit of an arc to the collection.

I want to note, too, that around when I started sending the book out to places, I traded manuscripts with Crow Jonah Norlander and he gave me some good suggestions in terms of copyedits but also a desire to see a certain type of story in a certain place, so I reworked an older piece for that because it seemed like a good idea, and he gave me some insight on some of the categories of story and that helped me when later writing more stories. I also got very nice and similar feedback from Graham Irvin, who gave some good suggestions specifically about doing call-backs or making certain stories more referential to being in a collection, which I thought was good, and I tried to do sometimes in a way that made me laugh. Alan Good provided copyedits and suggestions for ten stories in exchange for sending him some vinyl records, which was fun, and I recommend hiring him for copyediting. When finalizing the book, Tao recommended replacing four stories and asked me to write new ones for him to look at, so I sent him a mix of things I wrote over some two-week period and things that I had originally cut from earlier drafts, and then we finalized everything. We’ve finished the copyedits and are waiting on potential blurbs before finishing the cover and printing them, as of August 5, 2021.

the end of the day approaches

RG: When do you eat in your day? Your book features foodstuffs—pizza, yogurt, cookies—in sometimes antagonistic scenarios. Is this coincidental, or are you in a secret war with food?

ZS: I think about food a lot and eat a lot of food, partly because I do all the cooking in my family, and partly because of how eating/going out to eat was a big part of my family dynamic as a child. I like that you thought of the food being in antagonistic scenarios in my book - I think my relationship with food is unhealthy, in general. But I also think food is funny. Most food seems really dumb, but I also like food and have a lot of both good and bad memories associated with food. And I usually feel really interested when I read stories where people eat food - what they eat, how much they eat, when they eat it, etc.

RG: If you stay in one place in your day, what is that place like and what is your opinion of it?

ZS: I spend most of my time at home. I like where I live. It feels open and airy and we have a nice yard now to do things in, like raise chickens and garden and run around. Our neighborhood is pretty quiet and we are close to nature, although I feel like I don’t take advantage of nature as much as I’d like to. I spend a lot of time in our small office doing work for my job. I think I would enjoy never looking at a computer again.

RG: Is there anywhere in your day you make a special effort to travel to just to write? Do you have a routine when it comes to your writing? Does having a routine, or lack of one, influence your writing?

Where do you usually write?

ZS: I haven’t really prioritized writing lately, so no, I don’t think so. Usually I do my best writing on a laptop in a place that’s not my office, like sitting on my bed. I don’t have a routine. I’m unsure how this affects my writing. I think maybe having a lack of routine means I take long breaks between projects and so my writing is demarcated into periods or larger ideas, instead of a continuous flow of writing.

RG: Do you relax? If so, what does that look like?

ZS: I feel like I am often trying to relax because of some baseline level of anxiety. I usually try to relax by lying down on a couch, bed, or hammock. I enjoy taking naps in my bed whenever possible. I think I might simply be a lazy person who doesn’t want to do anything. I think I also relax by quietly doing chores.

RG: How is your evening and/or night?

ZS: My evenings usually involve putting my toddler to bed, locking up the chickens, and going to bed. The bedtime thing can be very stressful, but it’s also very nice and, I think, grounding/connecting. When I do bedtime, I usually end up singing 4-5 indie rock songs while holding my kid’s hand and lying in bed. After, sometimes, I watch a movie with my wife, or drive out to do chores, like going to a hardware store that’s ~20 minutes away. At night I usually read in bed.

RG: Does boredom influence your writing?

ZS: I think so. I think I started writing to alleviate boredom. I’m unsure how frequently I experience boredom, now, because of technology and my daily responsibilities. I want to be bored more. I think some of the stories in my book are about boredom and anxiety, though. I try to make an effort to pay attention to what’s happening around me when I am in public so I can see things that I could write about, which I think means I try to not preventatively stave off boredom when I’m in public, but I’m not very good at it.

RG: Have you noticed if you are more likely to have ideas for your writing at a particular time or place? Is there a type of circumstance that is conducive to bringing on ideas?

Do any ideas arrive in dreams?

ZS: I’m not sure. I think maybe I think of stories most often while walking my dogs. I think I’ve dreamt about story ideas before but they usually don’t make any sense when I think about them later. One time, recently, I was falling asleep and thought of a good story idea, so I got out of bed to write it and email it to myself, but it didn’t end up in the book.


Everything Is Totally Fine is due out from Muumuu House on January 18, 2022, and is available for preorder.

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The way we talk about film, how we digest it, is worth a thought. We “capture” images, we “take” pictures. For those oldest reels, where life skitters in shades of black and white, it’s tempting to view the images as a record, as a window or portal to another time. There is a truth in that. Pointing a camera at people unaware their image is being taken, in that between-time when the medium was new and its nature not widely known, has an unnerving quality. When animals are presented in these infant days of moving image the issue is somehow amplified — it’s the obliviousness that makes them more alive, and hence their long-deadness more pronounced. If — according to some physics I don’t understand — we are a way for the universe to observe itself, and the act of observation influences existence in its most fundamental state, then does turning that act of observation back onto ourselves have an equal or opposite consequence? If our eyes were designed for that purpose, do we risk contradicting our reason for being here? At the heart of the capture of any image is the tension between permanence and impermanence. Actors become icons, and we refer to the immortality of the screen, knowing that film degrades, is lost, human error deletes storage, and all those films we’ve streamed and purchased are available only as long as our provider of choice decides so. The travel in time is one taken in memory when we watch a film, if it’s good anyway: the first cinema we frequented, the old carpet in the house we grew up in, the friend who introduced us to a film much beloved, the night we couldn’t sleep because of a scene that haunted us. The bristly material of the fold-down chair as it grazes the rear of your adolescent knees, that person who sat too close, and the one that cried a little too hard. As a smaller person, legs crossed staring up at the tv with the smell of dinner threatening to take the end of the film away. Here we arrive at Garielle Lutz. 

‘As a kid, I didn’t see a lot of movies, but I loved to study the movie advertisements in the Friday edition of the local paper: the ads were always awfully small, and all of them would fit onto half of a page and offered only the logos of the local movie houses, miniaturized samplings of lobby-poster graphics, the names of cast members and big-shot picture personnel squeezed into sideways-squashed lettering that was hard to read, and, most gratifying for me, the list of show times, because something seemed practically occult about those sequences: 1:10, 2:55, 4:40, 7:20, 9:15. (Movie schedules were a big influence on my interpretation of the running times of song titles listed on the backsides of record albums: I began to think that 2:38 parenthesized after a title meant that that was the time of day when I should listen to the song, but most of the times were in the range of 2:00 to 3:30, and I was almost always still at school then, or on my way home, so that would have meant not playing most of my records, and I liked my records.)  The movie ads were the only thing I ever bothered with in the paper (I had no use for current events), and my favorite toy was a cheap projector (fabricated mostly of plastic) that would beam onto a wall anything I positioned in a little skirted expanse beneath the part of the device housing the bulb, and I thuswise whiled away many an evening staring at movie ads magnified into magnificence onto the barest wall of my tiny bedroom. The downtown movie houses in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the thriving, thwarting little city in which I grew up — the Rialto, the Colonial, and the Capri (all on Hamilton Street, the main drag) and the Boyd (a couple of side-street storefronts down from the city’s only skyscraper, a gothamish Art Deco uplooming at the corner of Ninth) — had been curtailedly palatial even from the start and by the time of my childhood had stopped short of offering a portal to anything englamoring. The seats were plush, sure, but the places always smelled like the shoes and socks of people who’d had to walk punishingly far to be charmed.  One Sunday I was taken by the hand to see a matinee of Mary Poppins at the Colonial, but the lady at the box-office window told my parents that the showing was sold out, so we went back home, and I was relieved, because I knew I would’ve otherwise had to sit through the whole miserable thing and keep telling myself, “I should like this, what is wrong with me that I don’t like this, please let this be over and done with soon,” the same thing I always told myself while faced with the longueurs of dreamless Disney dreariments like The Sword in the Stone and Pinocchio. But there was a drive-in theater (called the Boulevard) in our working-class district, and on summer weekend nights my parents often packed me pillowedly into the car for the double features, but aside from my delight in the intermissional operettas about the hot dogs and chocolate bars on offer at the snack bar, the only movies I can remember staying awake for long enough to form much of an impression were Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Walk on the Wild Side.  From the first seconds of the opening-credits sequence of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (early-morning Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, Holly Golightly in black gloves all the way up past the elbows and nibbling a pastry (though I still hope it’s a croissant, not something sticky), I had my first dim inklings of how I wanted to grow up (as Holly) and where I wanted to live (in Manhattan [though the closest I would ever get was a one-month sublet in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, when I was fifty-one, and from 1983 onward I would have to make do with the concrete-canyon effects achievable by walking slowly and desirously eastward on the narrow, Manhattanesque five-block stretch of William Penn Place in downtown Pittsburgh]). That swoon-inducing opening sequence was just about the only thing I took away from the movie as a seven-year-old (I’m sure I dozed off during much of what followed, and there are only snatches of the movie I care enough about to watch now, but those two minutes and twenty-seven seconds at the start were the first of the half dozen or so turning points in my life), and for days afterward I begged my parents to buy me the soundtrack album, and they gave in, and I’ve still got the thing (the running times of the songs range from 2:24 [“Hub Caps and Tail Lights”] to 3:18 [“Holly”]; dismissal time at the elementary school was 3:05).  As for Walk on the Wild Side, I remembered almost nothing from it other than a dawning suspicion that adult life was to be lived in louche black-and-white and with only fitful approximations of affection ever possible from other people. I’ve never since looked at that movie again, but as a teenager I glommed on to a used copy of a 1962 paperback anthology of short fiction called Nelson Algren’s Own Book of Lonesome Monsters, and I must have found the title welcomingly, life-blightingly apt and must have recognized that the man whose name was featured in the title was the author of the novel on which Walk on the Wild Side was based, but I don’t think I read very far into the thing before giving it a toss.  A year or two later (by then I was a mostly mute and ignored beanpole of a  junior at Louis E. Dieruff High School), Lou Reed came out with his Velvetsy recitative “Walk on the Wild Side” and stirred up in me some inchoate, chiaroscurist memories of the movie (by now I knew it had had something to do with prostitutes); the song was perfect, though “New York Telephone Conversation” and “Make Up,” both on side two of Reed’s Transformer album, suited me better in those confusingly boy-crazy days. Oh, and I can remember, but just barely, three other movies of my youth, all seen between ages eleven and thirteen: Funny Girl (why had my mother insisted I take the Union Boulevard bus with her to go see it at the Boyd?  The low-cut blouses seemed both dirty and scary to me) and Grand Prix (almost three hours long, and all about racing; my only childhood friend, who loved cars and glued-together hobby-shop models of them, wanted to see the thing, and I would have gone anywhere with him, though I daydreamed through most of the picture) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (again with my friend; giggles in the car on the way to the Rialto but long faces on the way back).

‘By the time I reached my later teens and set off for Kutztown State College, formerly Keystone State Normal School (a drowsy, modest little campus of low-slung buildings clustered on both sides of a two-lane in Pennsylvania Dutch country, a half hour’s drive from Allentown), I was not so much indifferent to movies as finding myself increasingly shying away from them; I don’t think I saw more than six or seven movies during all four of those years, and by “saw” I mean having sat in the presence of something projected on a screen in front of me but not necessarily paying it any mind.  I would much sooner have gone someplace where I could have watched just those opening couple of minutes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s over and over and over, but this was the mid-1970s, and opportunities like that did not yet exist.  Maybe my limited receptivity to movies makes more sense to me now than it did then, because I’ve since learned that I am neurologically nonstandard and am not rigged for linearity or narrative drive, not attuned to what is called “story sense.”  From childhood through my early twenties, I usually had one tape recorder or another within reach (portable reel-to-reel devices until the advent of cassette recorders), and I was often promiscuous in what I recorded: once, when I was in third or fourth grade, I’d taped a span of dialogue, ten minutes or so, from a movie (The Rainmaker, from 1956, with Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster) that my parents were watching on TV.  I remember listening to that tape over and over for weeks, though I had no idea what the characters were talking about (it was over my head and out of context anyway); I was just enthralled by their saying the same things again and again; and if you’re anything like me, when you listen to something repeatedly like that, something sooner or later happens to the words: their limitive communicational properties, the gunk and slop and whatnot of meaning, somehow get rinsed away, and what you’re left with is no longer speech but instead a bare human bleat or coo (maybe even just barely human), an onrushing current of underdifferentiated sound that nonetheless becomes more and more orderly and consolingly predictable the more you listen to it, and I was listening to it a lot. I was more and more drawn toward experiences like that, humanesque voices on endless repeat; and college, by the time I showed up, didn't seem to be offering anything along those lines.  (Or maybe it did — it’s just that I never wandered over to the halls of music.  A professor over there wrote haiku and had locally published a book's worth of it entitled [with maximal helpfulness to readers, like me, who needed everything spelled out], Haiku Poetry.)  Midway through one term or another, at an appointment during which I was supposed to choose courses for the next semestral go-round, my faculty advisor talked me out of enrolling in an Olympian-sounding seminar called Mental Hygiene (I’d had my heart set on that course, because life seemed to keep pushing my thoughts in unsanitary directions), and he insisted I’d be much better off in a course called Literature and Film.  I have always been one to give in, so I let myself be signed up. By that point I was an English major but seemed to have barely any interest in books (I idolized the kids in the studio-art program but couldn’t draw or manage anything even plausibly minimalist or conceptual, though I was fond of the jargon, and I had just switched my major again after things hadn’t worked out with a semester’s worth of grisly intros to accounting, marketing, and economics).  I guess the draw of the film course was that we’d get credit for just sitting in the dark, and during the second of the screenings (The Informer), it occurred to me that I could close my eyes and keep them shut and nobody would even notice, and that was how I made it through the rest of that picture and, in coming weeks, through all of The Grapes of Wrath and The Maltese Falcon. I’d just show up in the auditorium and sit there in excited lassitude and feel as if I was pulling something off.  I’d tell myself that Andy Warhol would surely approve.  I also blew off reading the books that the movies were based on.  I’d just zip through the pages of the paperbacks and color every word with a thickset yellow highlighter.  The papers I turned in had nothing to do with the books or the movies, and it didn’t even matter.  The prof wanted us to feel free.  I felt trapped anyway. I believe I briefly had a boyfriend.  He wanted us to go to see Liza Minelli in a seafaring romp called Lucky Lady.  He was always drawing life-size, head-to-toe likenesses of Liza Minelli on scrolled-out paper on the floor of his dorm room and then tearing them splendidly to pieces.  We went to see the movie.  I did the “I’m not watching” thing again. We broke up. The next semester, I went to see a couple of movies in a film series held in a fadedly elegant dining room in Old Main. The Boy Friend and Women in Love — I really tried to watch those two, I tried to do what moviegoers apparently muscle-memorily do, but I felt overwhelmed, couldn’t keep up, wanted to walk out, go back to my dorm room, flop onto the bed, and listen over and over again to “Candy Says.”  The only movie house in that town was a bystreet shoebox of a  place that always showed first- or second-run features,  but one week it was improbably screening The Boys in the Band a good four or five years after its release.  I dropped by investigatively on a weeknight, and the audience was sparse: sad sacks steeped in unrelentable middle age, hunched but sleekened teens who looked as if life had already thrown them one too many scares, popcorn-guttling townies who no doubt showed up for everything — all of them alone and unfragrantly male and seated as far away from each other as possible  Within a decade or so, that movie would be maligned as a shaming circus of stereotypes, and for a while it was even pulled out of circulation, but to me it was the first glimpse I’d ever had of the vivid, witty, heartsore society of present-day metropolitan homosexuals.  The movie’s structure (it had been based on a two-act play, 182  pages in hardcover), the propulsions of its plot, the arrowing lacerations of the dialogue — none of those sank in.  The only thing I took away from the movie was the tone, the mood, and it seemed like a tone and a mood I felt I could maybe at least school myself to approximate if I had no choice but to keep growing bodily as a male and if I could somehow bring myself to start opening my mouth around people.  (I never did find an entrance into that society, even if there might have been a smaller-scaled, local equivalent.)  But I had somehow managed to sit through an entire movie from start to finish, without once drifting off or shutting my eyes, and that was progress of a sort.  Another turning point in my development as a movie-watcher was on a chilly Saturday night of my senior year (I was by now a slow-poke, petulant commuter) in Bethlehem, the smaller city next door to Allentown.  An old friend from high school, a student at a selective university across the local river, had proposed that we kill some time at a movie, as long as it was within a six-square-block radius of Luke’s Mid City Lunch, where we’d just finished a dinner during which we barely said a word. Our choices were Taxi Driver and W. C. Fields and Me.  Neither of us had heard of either, but I was familiar at least with W. C. Fields, though my friend wasn’t, and when I clued him in, he said he was in no mood to see a  movie about “some old-time guy.”  So we went to Taxi Driver, and from the start, everything about that movie — its hallucinational neonscape, the nicotine saxophonery of the soundtrack, Travis Bickle’s shatterbrained Honest Johnism, his paranoiac charms — seemed piped directly into all the tubes and ducts and back channels of my neurodivergency and all of my disaffection as a morbidly alienated hick-college isolato with shit for brains. I never once took my eyes off the screen, even though the running time was a longsome one hour and fifty-four minutes.  Audrey Hepburn as Holly in her two minutes and twenty-seven seconds of Mancini-scored daybreak window-shopping at Tiffany’s had been my impractically aspirational second self, my undoubleable gamine lodestar, from the primary grades up until now, but if I couldn’t be Holly, and it was beginning to look an awful lot as if I never could, maybe I could at least be as fucked up as Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle, but a Travis Bickle with a touch of the androgyne, with plucked chin and upper lip, lacquered nails, a bracelet or five. Come fall, I was packed off to graduate school in Appalachia.’

An early image-capturing machine was the magic lantern. Magic is slight of hand, it is trickery in the service of beauty, it is technique employed to astound and dumfound. Movie magic and the magic kingdom. When I think of a lantern it’s not as an example from my life. I don’t think I’ve ever used a lantern to light my way. I imagine a raincoated man holding his lantern aloft, scouring dark streets. Or a policeman hurried by a reported crime, seeking a clue in the lantern’s glow. Perhaps an insect-harried porch lantern. These are images brought to me from the recorded image, from photography, and from literature. There are those who regularly use lanterns of course, but this doesn’t detract from the object’s association with the cinematic. Like a waggling cigar, like a twirling walking cane, some objects can now never be disassembled from their use as film props. The lantern’s light emits from the screen, and if the screen observes us back I wonder if it changes us as our faces moon out of the gloom, caught in the lantern light glow. Garielle Lutz’s stories are populated by people smothered in their complexities. Routine work spaces and dour apartments are shown anew through the filter of Lutz’s way of seeing, of reporting, of describing the minutiae of commonplace interactions. If you are reading this then it’s perhaps safe to assume a familiarity with the writer’s singular style, which doesn’t need further comment from me. What does require attention is the off-kilter psychological depth to Lutz’s stories, a depth in part brought about by the familiar being made unfamiliar, by viewing the everyday through the eyes of a strong and unique voice. I think of the best auteur directors, the ones who cast a twisted eye on normalcy, and then I consider the ones who do all they can to escape. Over to Garielle.

‘I wasn’t a very good fit for the program, the college.  It was a party school in a carnivalian town of eyesore Ohioana. The first couple of years, I’d kill entire afternoons pacing up and down the main street, making the flaneur’s circuit of Woolworth’s and the record stores, with hair newly chopped and deformed and punkishly asymmetrical (a little Medusan on one side) from yet another destructo shearing I’d given myself without recourse to a mirror. Nights, I was often at the library, paging groggily through the assigned books, draining the vending machines, browsing the stacks until last call. The eyeglass frames of the middle-aged guy who manned the main-floor exit’s security checkpoint were all out of proportion to anything else on the planet; the lenses looked as big as windshields.  It was in my third year that I rented a one-room apartment whose door sometimes swung reliably wide open of its own accord while I was out, and I often as not was out, because, having outlived my interest in the courses I was taking and the ones I was teaching, I’d finally started resorting to the two movie houses downtown: the Varsity on one side of the street, the Athena on the other.  Both of them were pleasant enough dumps, and the tickets and the popcorn were cheap. I reported to those two theaters the same way that other people no doubt reported to a second, depleting job or to a fittingly sacrificial adultery to spare one’s spouse from another night of one’s wearisome company at home.  I always took my seat with expectations of neither entertainment nor revelation. I went to matinees, evening shows, nutso midnight fare. I sat through stupid comedies eliciting stupid laughter, mainstream dramas about people with plenty enough money to have plenty enough trouble in love.  I became a moviegoer of compulsive depressoid indiscrimination, content with whatever would help me squander whatever was left of my waning, central twenties, because what good was life while you were alive? But I wasn’t so much watching the screen as registering the watchiness of the enviable people enjoying themselves in pairs and threesomes peripherally all around me, and I’d want what the movies were doing for them that they weren’t ever going to be doing for me.  My shoes usually got stuck to soda spilled on the floor, and afterward, on my walk to a convenience store on the way back to my apartment, every stray straw wrapper and leaf clung to my soles.  One night it was a couple of light bulbs I needed. I asked the girl behind the counter if I had to buy the whole box of four or whether I could buy just two.  On the way back I had to carry one light bulb in each hand because she hadn’t bothered to put them in a bag.  I remember that night and that girl more than any of the hundred or so movies I’d watched in that town. She was a dolefully homely chaotical thing looking doped by sweets, and there was a general, far-spreading smell of wet lettuce about her, and flourishes of dark hair on her arms, and you can always tell when you’re seeing somebody else whose first waking thought, day after day, is  “There’s too much of an age difference between me and the world.”  Sometimes it helps to come face-to-face with your double like that.  It helps even more if the other party will never even know it. The least you can do is flee. I left that school without finishing a second degree. The first one had been ruinous for me anyway.  I typed six or seven dozen application letters and got hired for a job in my home state, one of the wide-stretching ones in the East.  The job was at the end opposite the overpacked, overpatinated end where I’d grown up.  It was a job for which I had no aptitude or preparation other than a ready meniality, a willingness to hit the skids, and it took up all my time and seeped even into my dreams.  It was at least a couple of decades before I had anything to do with movies again.

‘I was in my late thirties by this point.  I had a TV — a big lug of a thing that a friend at the time had insisted I take off his hands — and cable-TV service was included free with the rent at the place where I was living, but because I didn’t have any furniture and stuff kept piling up everywhere on the floor, it took only a month or so until the lower half of the screen was completely blocked.  There didn’t seem much point in watching anything if I could see only half of it, and I didn’t feel up to clearing the clutter away, even though another friend kept calling me from another part of the state and berating me for not watching shows like Seinfeld, because he said we were living through a golden age of television.  I don’t know what came over me, but one evening after work I drove to a local mall with a little cineplex and bought a ticket for The Crying Game, because I’d read some words to the effect that it was an absorbingly sad movie, and I felt that it might be time for some sadness of my own to be absorbed, if possible, and watching the movie the first time I did in fact feel that something within me was getting itself blotted up. I went back the next night and watched the movie again, and again I felt my sadness being sponged away at least a little. The next night I drove straight home after work.  The night after that, I returned to the theater, but this time I brought a pocket cassette recorder and recorded the audio of the movie in full.  For two or three months after that, I played the tapes in the cassette player in my car whenever I was driving somewhere, and before I knew it, I started driving a lot more than usual, which was a little odd, because I can’t stand driving.  When I came to the short-streeted business districts of the dun-brown small towns that are all over the place out here, I’d roll down my driver’s-side window and turn up the volume until the speakers were fully ablast.  Eventually my life resumed its usual patternings, and I’d come home after work and listen to my talk-radio shows all night long, but then in 1995 the movie Leaving Las Vegas came out, and I’d read about it in the local paper and it sounded like a movie with plenty of utility, so early one evening after work I drove straight to the cineplex and watched it.  It sopped up a lot of me.  I felt absolutely imbibed. I went back the next night and then the night after that.  I let a few nights pass and then went back again.  My handheld tape recorder had broken a few months before, and the replacement I’d bought was too bulky to sneak into a movie theater, so after the limited run of the movie came to an end, I was all on my own again, except for the music of the Smiths, which I had chanced upon, belatedly, a year or so before.  The only trouble with the Smiths was that their albums were short. Then a few years went by and the century was practically shot, and as the dawn of the new one was approaching, everyone was warning that everything was going to shut down, people were building underground shelters and loading up bunkers with packets full of dehydrated Salisbury-steak dinners, but I never got around to stockpiling anything.  I figured I’d take any apocalypse one day at a time.  New Year’s Day came and went, nothing changed, in the conversations I overheard at work nobody seemed disappointed other than about having to get rid of all that chalky food in all those envelopes, I fell in love with an impatient, deep-brooding beanstalk of a woman with a tempest of darkmost hair and a kennel-sized apartment in a city a couple of states over, and I rode overnight buses there for protracted weekends, I got dumped, for two seasons afterward I broadcast my heartache from dusk to dawn in one America Online chat room after another, and then one day I was idling through the pages of Time Out New York and alighted upon a full-page ad for a movie called Ghost World.  I’ve always been bored with anything having to do with ghosts (I have a soft spot for flying saucers, though), but the movie looked at least halfway valid. It was playing at a narrow theater on a long streetful of bookstalls and roasteries and sweet shops at the easternmost end of Pittsburgh, and I drove in for a Saturday matinee.  I sat all the way at the back, in a row only a few seats wide.  I believe I was the only person in there under the age of seventy.  The movie started out as a dumb teen comedy, then veered readily into the blindingly dangerous dreamways of two misfits a couple of generations apart  I felt that ample helpings of the two halves of myself — the smart-mouthed, bridges-burning teen girl and the geekish male loner sinking through middle age in pleated pants a little loose in the seat — had been scooped out and heaved bloodily onto the screen.  I could hear other people in the audience sobbing too. I drove back to the theater the Saturday after that and then the one after that, and then the Thursday night right before the reels would get packed up and sent off.  Months later, on August 6, 2002, the movie was released on VHS.  That was a Tuesday.  I drove to my apartment after work and led my hulking TV by the cord and out into the hallway, booted it down the stairs and out onto the parking lot, and then hefted it into the closer of the two Dumpsters.  I drove to Best Buy and bought a budget-priced TV-VCR combo of modest screen inchage and the Ghost World video. I watched the movie every night for weeks. That must have been when my relationship with movies started coming of age.  Now I could watch a movie on repeat, pause it, obsess over emotionally crucial moments. But not until a few years later (in the meantime I’d suddenly, improbably gotten married, and then the marriage just as suddenly, just as improbably fell through) would it one day finally dawn on me that the marathon walks I’d now been taking in Pittsburgh for a couple of decades were always the exact same walk, along the exact same route, with the exact same stops along the way, and that even though the city itself was underappreciatedly glorious (it always looked at once thrillingly fresh and lullingly predictable), it must have been the repetition itself that I found most essential and sustaining.  And it was the same way with the few movies I’d find myself inclining toward, like a plant struggling toward available light.  This was never more true than with Michelle Williams’s mutedly virtuosic performance of faltering grace in Wendy and Lucy, an eighty-minute lyrical tone poem of a movie I chanced upon toward the end of summer in 2009 and then watched almost every night, in states of increasingly trancelike devotion, for well over a year.  (I soon accumulated almost a dozen DVDs of the movie against the day that the discs will one after another inevitably degrade.)  The movie is moment by moment a complete grief-shot religion unto itself (example: from 40:58 to 43:54, Wendy’s gawkish, sad-eyed recital, to a distracted auto mechanic, of what she believes has gone wrong with the serpentine belt of her car condenses itself into a low-affect lamentation about everything that goes wrong with a life). A trinity of movies to which I also remain devout and return to with deepening constancy, as if to a shrine, are The Forest for the Trees (a low-budget German film, from 2003, about the unraveling of a self-bewildered twenty-seven-year-old woman who has uprooted herself to teach at a school in a different city); The Dreamlife of Angels (a French film, from 1998, about the brief, tumultuary friendship between two young women who meet at a sweatshop in Lille); and Blue Is the Warmest Color (another French film taking place in Lille, from 2013, remarkable for the most soul-harrowing breakup I’ve seen depicted in any medium). I guess I just eventually find my way toward the movies I most need, and then I stick by their side for life.’ 

Worsted by Garielle Lutz is available from SF/LD.

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JANICE LEE in conversation with VI KHI NAO

VI KHI NAO: I read the first half of your Imagine A Death during a flight into San Francisco. I am currently in Boulder—where I think the landscape ofthe high elevation may have altered my relationship with your work in the second half. Many of your sentences are long - like Bela Tarr long - and they require strong lung capacity to fully experience, inhale the depth and intensity of your gaze. 

Being near this mountain, I feel I could acclimate to your long, gorgeous, beautiful sentences that open one world into another world into another world. 

Has this long form (the long sentence) been a constant companion in your writing life—the one that you take long walks, long meandering with, the one whom you desire to stay faithful to or is it a decade obsession with an endpoint? 

JANICE LEE: First, I’m grateful for your use of the word “acclimate” here. In thinking about landscapes, which are really important to me, I’m really thinking about climate. And climate not just in terms of the weather, but in terms of everything that is and has been and will be, everything that constitutes the space and the world, everything that unites us. So for me, the sentences are an extension of that kind of immersion in the world, in the entanglement of space. There isn’t just a body in a space, this rigid category between background and foreground, or external and internal, but where does the climate end and the body begin? I’ve always loved slowness and long takes. Bela Tarr, yes. I read Pasolini’s essay “Observations on the Long Take” in college and it changed the way I watched films and saw the world. But the long sentence as a form for me. I haven’t always written this way, no. I’ve definitely had long sentences here and there, but for a while, I was drawn to fragments. Long sentences, like fragments, are still an extension of expressing what can’t be articulated or encompassed in traditional sentence structures. What I love about long sentences is the ability to get lost, and I think this is important. The opportunity to get lost once in a while.


VKN: Do you think pain—in the tradition of length—is a type of slowness? When I study your sentences—your long sentences—& I go through this metaexperience (this slow, extended moment) where at the beginning I am an innocent, possibly naive person, and by the end of your sentence, I feel I have lived five cat lives. I am old and senescent—maybe in the way you have depicted the senescence of the tomato—Do you think long sentences like a camera with the widest lens possible—in either film or photography—are more technically capable of capturing pain—psychological or physical—better? Or do you think the fragments are equally or even more capable of capturing?

JL: That’s such an interesting question! Maybe pain, rather than a type of slowness, is a type of presence. I think about how trauma reconstitutes and reasserts itself in the present constantly, and how the present moment might be tethered to a moment in the past, or, become capable of expanding outwards. I think too about the difference between pain and suffering, at least from a Buddhist point of view. How do we let the pain in, how do we let it manifest? How can we acknowledge pain but not allow ourselves to become attached to it? I think that long sentences do capture a wider lens, the roving camera, so to speak, but it’s about the meandering, the letting go of a defined and linear trajectory, the reminder that no matter the length and windiness of the path, one can still arrive home. The long sentence also can encompass changing vantage points, the multiplicity within a single gaze, or multiple gazes that can exist simultaneously. Any departure from the standard sentence, whether it’s moving into the territory of unending sentences, or fragmentation, I think is about reaching towards a kind of articulation that doesn’t yet exist.


VKN: Do you think trauma can operate in the antipodes—delay the presence? A little. Or a lot. When I read the way you captured “trauma” in your work—I felt like a car going through a car wash.  You are drawn to slowness and to length—n order to create and write Imagine A Death—did the interiority of your consciousness have to mimic your form? Or can you lead a fast and furious life and still produce work the opposite of your project’s vision?

JL: Ok, so I laughed out loud because The Fast and the Furious is one of my favorite film franchises. I’m interested in all the different kinds of inhabitation. I love being immersed, living in, sleeping in, dozing off in worlds like the films of Bela Tarr or Tsai Ming-Liang. I love to be reminded to slow down, to not treat time like a commodity. But I’m also a product of the ’90s and capitalism and action films and chaos cinema and I love the adrenaline rush that occurs inside the safety net of an action film like The Fast and the Furious where somehow, after all of the explosions, it’s still about family and returning home. But yes, trauma messes with time. It can delay, expand, protract, contract, blur, instigate. It’s a reminder that time isn’t linear or constant. I was thinking about what the long take does for me as a viewer, and how I experience the long sentences of Laszlo Krasznahorkai, but while writing, I also didn’t feel like I had a choice. It was as if the writing was almost channeled through me and poured out. The sentences didn’t want to end, couldn’t end, yet.


VKN: Yes, I read that in an interview of yours. Where Satantango and Fast and Furious co-exist in you—you quoted from Ufologist Jacques Vallee: “Mathematical theory often has to confront the fact that two contradictory theories can explain the same data. A solution is inevitably found not by choosing one of the contradictory theories, but by going to the next, third level.” Do you think Imagine A Death is your ontological or mathematical attempt at going to the third level? You were a pre-med major before pursuing biology and writing—had you continued in the medical life—do you think that Imagine A Death is a slow, frame by frame capture of you being a neurosurgeon placing trauma on the operating table, dissecting it second by second? Or is Imagine A Death a type of slow film or photograph in which you develop in the dark room of your imagination?

JL: In some ways Imagine a Death is a gesture of anti-colonialist sentimentality, in its narrative form and through the grammatical resistance of the long sentences, but it’s also about resisting colonial notions of the apocalypse and finality and redemption. This book felt like such a spiritual undertaking. In terms of the analogy with the medical life, Kerotakis and Daughter feel more like the neurosurgeon with a knife performing surgery. And Imagine a Death is more like the accidental but also utterly intentional slow film that was created because I left my camera on in my back pocket, or like those accidental iPhone pictures that capture more than you intend.


VKN: I mentioned pain in your work in relationship to the long sentences because of your compassionate, thorough, expansive consideration and contemplation in regards to apocalyptic suicide (your depiction of the suicidal pigeons) and apocalyptic rape (the pregnant goat that was gang-raped and eventually died). In your long sentences, you slowed down these moments—not just the moment where the writer was abused & revisiting that abuse (re-seeing a moment through a different, more acute lens, or replacing the camera/lens of that gaze with a broader, meta-lens,) and you process that grief (the loss of comprehension for inhumanity and brutality) for the readers. Do you think you can lend compassion to another who is lacking in compassion? Can writing/art/literature alter the empathic vernacular of a psychopath/an abusive person?

JL: Pain is a part of life, right, but how do we decide to exist in the world and in relation to other people despite or because of our pain? How do we desire to be free and imagine a kind of freedom beyond the causes and conditions of what currently bind us? The entanglement of grief and trauma and abuse and how our wounds shape our pasts and our futures—it’s all so complicated and difficult to look at, because it involves us having to look at the ways in which we have been complicit or complacent to or have perpetuated pain in the world, in response to the ways in which we have been harmed, or in the name of survival. Both of those incidents with the animals, and others in the book, I hated having to write them, but they are part of this world, and most importantly, they are part of us. When you ask about lending compassion to another, even if they’re lacking in compassion, I think the difficult answer is yes. We have to. We have to lend compassion to others (which, to clarify, isn’t the same as justification), and, we have to lend compassion for ourselves, which often is harder.

VKN: What are some of the challenges you face in writing a book of such a sophisticated caliber, Janice? And, were you able to resolve some of those challenges? Or are they life-long sorrows that you must revisit frequently by inducting a new birth/book into the world?

JL: Thanks for saying that, Vi. There are the constant challenges around articulation and the limitations of the structures in narrative and language. This book is especially important for me because it really does feel like it took a lifetime to write, the entirety of my being. I had to be open enough to be able to face all of my own demons in this way, and I had to write all of my other previous books to be able to understand myself in relation to language the way I do now. But it’s all ongoing. I feel very drained, but also relieved, after this book. It may be a while before I write another novel. There is some more breathing to do first.


VKN: What are some of your demons? 

JL: My own fears and expectations around success, my doubts and grievances around what it means to be a writer, my feelings of inadequacy and self-worth, my processing of childhood wounds and relationship to my parents, the abusive relationships I’ve been in and my own unconscious complicity in perpetuating toxicity or harm, my own struggles with depression and suicidal impulses.


VKN: What is your definition of success? Also, there are 46 chapters in your Imagine A Death—do you have a favorite chapter? One you return to frequently because it captured something you were unable to capture for so long? One of my favorite moments (Chapter 20) is about a framed photograph dropped in a dumpster “miraculously” finding itself re-hung again in the same spot on the wall. There was something very tender and meta about this moment. How often we discard things because we believe others don’t value them or care as much as we do—but we are often wrong. People do care. I often think about sentences you have written—ones which you may cut down or deleted completely—and how another person may find tremendous value in their existence. Are there sentences you have erased that you feel deep sorrow for? Which sentences of yours should we re-hang? Also, how long does it take for you to write one of those long sentences? Ten minutes? An hour? How does the passage of time operate in the production part of your writing? 

JL: I want to think of success, not as being about achievement or merit or legitimacy, but about desire and attempt and expression and existence. Rather than being tied to notions of good or bad, and rather than being seen in opposition to failure, why can’t success just be, not as a point of comparison or power over someone/something? Can’t failure be a kind of success? Can’t learning from a mistake be a kind of success? Can’t success be a gesture of reaching without turning into grasping, without becoming an attachment or way to measure us against each other?

I love that with the photograph moment as well, and it’s actually an example of a way that the novel started to influence the real world. That photograph is based on a real image (in real life, it’s a painting that my sister created when we were very young). She hates the painting but we had kept it because our mom loved it so much. The night after I wrote that scene in my manuscript, the actual painting fell off the wall and crashed onto the floor. It happened in the middle of the night; no one was around. We were all asleep and were awoken by the sound of breaking glass.

I don’t know if I have a favorite chapter in the book. Right now, I’m quite fond of “The Dream,” where everyone is burning alive, because it says something about death and intimacy for me.

I’ve deleted countless sentences, but I can’t remember them now. They will manifest again, I’m sure, in some other reincarnated form. 

In writing this book, some of the sentences came out very quickly, over maybe 20-30 minutes, and some took more time, hours, or several writing sessions. I only listened to Russian Circles while writing this book, so something about the tension and momentum of that music helped me with rhythm, and helped me keep going.


VKN: A lot of your work that has arrived in this world exists in the capacity of fiction, though you also have a book of essays, a poetry book, etc. You operate on so many different levels—aesthetical strata—from being a graphic designer, professor, editor—how do you desire others to view or is it even possible to categorize your Imagine A Death? Is it experimental documentarism? Autofiction dressed like a bouquet of suicidal pigeons? If such a thing were to exist, what is an ideal way to pigeonhole you?

JL: As I’ve learned to articulate better, especially after hearing/reading writers like Renee Gladman and Matthew Salesses, the category or genre as a construct is important in terms of the expectations it creates, or dismisses, subverts, haunts, resists. And I am operating within certain expectations, but I also want to draw attention to the inadequacy or limitations of those expectations. In that vein, I do very much think of this as a “novel,” but one that hopefully expands on what a novel is “supposed” to be or look like. I love “autofiction dressed like a bouquet of suicidal pigeons,” though I don’t think Amazon accepts that as a genre category


VKN: Also, what Korean film (to watch) and Korean dish—an appetizer perhaps or a gallimaufry of dishes—should be paired with your Imagine A Death? I love when wine is properly paired with food. And, I think of film as a type of wine.

JL: Oh my, such a difficult question because it’s so hard to choose. Okay. The Korean film would be Poetry directed by Lee Chang Dong.

And the Korean dish is one that I haven’t had yet before, but it’s appeared to me in my dreams and my ancestors are insisting that I need to eat it: Gwamaegi, which is a certain kind of dried fish.


VKN: Thank you for this beautiful pairing! I love dried fish and will have to try Gwamaegi when I re-read your book again with Poetry playing in the background. Many writers of Asian persuasion feel compelled to include Asian words or popular phrases or sentences or fragments or Asian language scripts in their work. Your Imagine A Death is mostly devoid of these ethnic gestures. I often feel that experimental writing allows one to be a devoted citizen of the weird, where experimentalism is a type of universal ethnicity. Do you feel at home in experimental writing? Where the textuality and materiality of the experience dominate the narrative mainframe of the literary?   

JL: Such a good question. So at least in this book, I didn’t want the identities of characters to be specified. So I avoid those kinds of identity markers. But in terms of thinking of experimental writing more broadly, my relationship to it has changed throughout my life. In my earlier work, especially after my MFA, I was very drawn to “experimental writing” as a space to resist conventional forms and the canon, as a site for resistance and transgression. This also coincided with my politics at the time, which was much more about disruption and dismantling. At this particular point though, I’m thinking about things a little bit differently. It’s not just about resisting the dominant paradigm, because this then just re-centers the dominant narrative over and over again. Instead, I want to think about this as another worldview that is equally valid, another way to see and be in the world. So how might stories and sentences not only resist formal conventions, but also work against the myth of resolution and redemption, open up our biases around narrative and plot and character? How are our beliefs and assumptions around narrative structures and language related to our fears and beliefs about the state or ongoing future of the world?


VKN: Intimacy & vulnerability seem to be compelling materials for your work. What is the most intimate thing you have experienced lately, and how has it changed you as a writer? 

JL: Okay, I was trying to think of something more sophisticated, but what’s popping into my head and is probably my most honest answer is doing psilocybin mushrooms with my boyfriend for the first time, when we literally melted into each other and became an amorphous blob. Doing mushrooms has also been a major portal for me, especially after the recent deaths of my dad and my dog Maggie, and has allowed me to speak with my ancestors and the dead, and the entire living world around me.

VKN: I am sorry to hear of your losses. Were you close to your dad? How han is your Imagine A Death? And, can you talk about your own visibility in the writing world? Outside of cinema and the camera lens, do you feel visible? If you have experienced a range of invisibility and now you are in the realm of visibility, what is an antidote to invisibility (in relation to politics and patriarchism?)

JL: Thank you so much, Vi. We were close in some ways, and so distant in others. He was living with me though, and he died at home in hospice. But the han, yes so much han, for sure. Probably in everything I write. There’s a point in the book where han is basically defined but not labeled as such. Also, your question about visibility is so important right, and so complex. As an Asian woman, how I’m perceived isn’t always up to me, but it affects how I’m seen, treated, valued, read. There is a kind of hyper-visibility or pre-judgment that erases much of who I really am, which isn’t as easy as just being invisible, and my own awareness or fears about how I’m perceived changes the way I operate in certain spaces. This is something I’m constantly struggling with, not being so attached to my identity or having to be seen in a certain way, letting go of aspects that I can’t control, and to try and just participate in more genuine encounters.


VKN: What is an example of a genuine encounter for you, Janice?

JL: Well, today I had a long and prolonged moment of eye contact with a squirrel who was eating the cucumbers in my garden.


VKN: That is so beautiful!  In two days, your book enters the world! How will you celebrate its birth? I don’t want to hurt your other books’ feelings, but is Imagine A Death—is it a favorite of yours?

JL: It’s definitely the book that feels like it required all of my other books to write. So maybe not “favorite,” but for me personally, it does feel like the most significant. On Wednesday, I hope to eat something delicious (I don’t know what yet), have some kind of small ceremony around gratitude, abundance, and letting go, and will probably walk to the 7-11 to buy some scratchers!


VKN: One of my favorite Korean idioms is this idiom:  눈코 없다 (nun-ko tteul seh eupt-da)—“I don’t have time to open my eyes and nose.” What don’t you have time for? And, do you have a favorite Korean mantra/phrase/axiom? If you were to invent a Korean idiom, what would you invent? Also, this is non-sequitur, but one of my favorite long sentences of yours is: “and also she had come to see the sentence itself as a colonialist structure, and thought that perhaps these long sentences might be something she could give the reader, something they didn’t need but would receive anyways, like a gift, like listening, or something like it, and even in all of that gesturing towards a productive contemplation that might finally lead away from the past, she wondered if it was too late for her, if in fact because of everything she had already done, everyone she had already hurt, was it perhaps too late for us all?”

JL: Ha! That is a good one! I love the curtness of that idiom, how relevant it is, but it also reminds me of how we don’t have time for each other, for ourselves. I want to have more time for everything, especially for opening my eyes and nose. A phrase that’s always fascinated me because of how ridiculous it sounds is 파이팅! (pronounced “Pa-i-ting!”) which is derived from the English word “Fighting!” It’s like a cheer or term to encourage people, and the strange grammatical incongruence is so funny to me. A new one I just learned about yesterday thanks to @fluentkorean’s Instagram is this: 방귀가 잦으면 똥이 나온다  / “If farting becomes frequent, then the need to poop is imminent.” 

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THE LAST INTERVIEW: Blake Middleton vs. The New Guy at XRAY

Blake Middleton is an actual person. A Floridian. An American. The co-worker of your bartender friend who you immediately like better than your bartender friend after just a few conversations. And a poet. The kind of poet who just wants everybody to feel less fucked. Writing concise, concrete lines that once piled together form a sort-of meditation, a smirking mantra of “Fuck You” in the face of an absurd world.

What follows is a conversation/battle of wits between he and I, revolving around his new book “An Actual Person in a Concrete Historical Situation”—out now from CLASH Books.


Part 1: The Weigh-In


Hey dude. Have you done any 

interviews for your book?

 Whaddup broJust did one w Zac but tryna do more 

Nice. Well, I’m now “The Executioner” at X-Ray 

(self-appointed title) and was thinking about interviewing you

 Oh yeah damn I saw that earlier, congrats manI’m down for whatever, would love to do one w youI’ll send u pdf 

Hell yeah

 Just sentIt’s a small boy 

Nice, I like the small boys. 

Just sent a message to Jenn

 Jenn rocks thank u man 

Yeah she does

You rock too. 

But also fuck you I was playing you this entire time

 Fuck u idiot 

This was a test. Interview is back on

 Good, looking forward to our interview 

Me too buddy.

Fuck you and your extended family

 Gonna respond to all your interview questionswith ‘fuck you’ 

I’ve already planned ahead for this. 

May the best man win

 Damn it appears I have poked the bear 

Interview devolves into goal-less competition, morphing finally

into a ten-part doc investigating the death of one or both of us

 One of us. You, to be specific 

I started this, and I’ll be finishing it as well

 (Thumbs down emoji) 

Part Two: The Interview


Alright, first question. When I read that excerpt of your book on Neutral Spaces, I told you it felt meditative. Not just the space between lines but the space between images/ideas. A lot of writing feels immediately congested to me, or like a scam, something “not real” hiding in those paragraphs. But your book moved quick. Each sentence had its own purpose. And that created a soothing effect on my brain. What’s up with that bruh?

BM: I’m glad it created a soothing effect. Everything feels kind of overwhelming right now, our attention spans are getting worse, and we’re constantly distracted. So the problem is, I want normal people to read my book, but normal people don’t really read books. They purchase books sometimes, but I don’t think they finish them that often. I wanted to write a book people would read. So I wanted to make something spacious and minimal. A book where each line can breathe and stand on its own. A little book that is sparse, direct, no bullshit.


I think the white space does a lot of work in helping the poem feel meditative. It kind of reflects real life, in that there are a lot of gaps and juxtapositions between thoughts and experiences. But ultimately it’s all tied together because the lines are coming from one person, experiencing the world from a singular point of view/moment in time. So the lines aren’t as disparate as they might seem. And hopefully they’re also tied together by tone.

I’ve read the book a few times now. And the first go around, I felt like I was reading the thoughts and observations and memories of a person living in the middle of the pandemic. Then for the second read through, it felt more ubiquitous, just a person coping with and thinking about being a person, and bouncing between many time periods. Was the “life during covid” vibe something you set out to do, at least at first anyway? 

BM: Went through a rough draft and i lie in the sun and laugh at my bank account was the only line written during the pandemic that I used in the final version, which seems fitting. I think I felt like the disconnect between lines written before and during the pandemic would have been too jarring; I didn’t want to write about two totally different worlds from two totally different headspaces in a poem that was already so far outside of how I was used to writing. Also I didn’t feel equipped to write about that time period while it was happening—I had no idea what the fuck was going on. Was also probably just more focused on securing groceries and booze and trying not to die. So it felt like a good endpoint. Before the pandemic I viewed ‘an actual person…’ as a poem that could essentially go on forever, but when the pandemic started that didn’t feel like the case. The poem is radically nonlinear but that’s mostly because the days felt interchangeable to me back then, and the pandemic definitely changed that. Jenna and I were drinking margaritas/wine nightly at the very start of Covid and I wasn’t writing at all. Pretty quickly I realized that I couldn’t be drunk for the entire pandemic and shifted what little focus I had toward editing the book. So I edited the book right when Covid hit through around July. It’s weird to think back to early 2020. Seems almost unreal to me now.

I had something similar where I was writing a longish thing during the pandemic. My girlfriend and I had just moved in to our first apartment together at the end of February. So while I was still asking the leasing office for a working fridge shelf, COVID hit. I thought that was a good/funny start. But I abandoned it once things got worse, seemed impossible to write about it. Anyway your book made me think of this, so I am asking if you think we’ll ever get a good Covid novel? 

BM: Yeah, probably. I don’t think I would want to read a Covid novel for a long time though. Would read a book that takes place during Covid for sure, but not one that is totally centered around it. Would have to be really good for me to want to think about that time period again. Does that make sense?

Perfect sense. I’m most interested in stories of people being people. And it depresses me when I see movies/books that are just about a marketable thing, and the main character is just a device, like morally superior, something the audience can project themselves onto. Which brings me to the thing you said about writing for normal people, even though normal people don’t really read books. Do you think that’s dying, with most readers (of indie books) also being writers? Or is it the same as it was ten years ago. Just putting something out all for the slim chance a depressed kid somewhere stumbles into it? 

BM: I feel you on that one. I think sometimes portrayals of life get so far away from what life is actually like, what it actually feels like to be a person just trying to navigate existence. I like books where I feel like the author just paid attention to their life and then wrote about it, instead of following some narrative template or whatever to try to appeal to some imaginary group of people so that they can make one million dollars. But instead of getting depressed thinking about things I don’t like, I just ignore them, and focus on the stuff I do like instead. 

I think, for me, it helps to take more of a long-view, to stay focused and keep writing regardless of what happens with it. Because even if nothing happens immediately, the books will still exist, maybe they will get noticed eventually and I will make a million dollars and quit my job. But I’m also okay with nothing happening (more likely). I write because I enjoy it. Writing enhances my life and my experience in the world. And if other people enjoy what I write, then that’s good. I haven’t had any real success, as far as book sales go. But writing has improved my life/made it more interesting in ways I couldn’t have even imagined when I was just starting out. I think it’s better just to focus on becoming a better writer as opposed to thinking too much about the unpredictable, uncontrollable things that could happen with the writing once it’s out in the world. 

Another thing that I love is getting offline and venturing out into the real world to travel and to do readings. I don’t really promote my stuff online much. I don’t think anyone is really paying attention. It feels much more normal, fulfilling, life-affirming to get out there and read in front of and talk with people. It feels more real, and it’s a lot more fun. I would rather some depressed kid come to a reading and get drunk and have fun as opposed to finding one of my books on the internet. Oh and also, fuck you.

Point—Middleton. Alright. What do you think about a lightning round now? Phase three. Higher stakes. Even more intimate.

BM: Hell yeah, let’s do it.


Phase Three: Lightning Round


What book do you pick up most, when you feel anxious or shitty?

BM: The Collected Works of Alberto Caeiro by Fernando Pessoa.

Jackie Chan or Arnie Schwarzenegger? And why?

BM: Jackie Chan. Out of all the movies they've been in I think I've only seen Rush Hour and Twins. So I don't have strong feelings about either. Feel like I would rather hang out with Jackie Chan. Seems more chill/isn't a politician. But I don’t know though. This was a bad question.

From what you’ve said about both your books, I get the impression you write and write and write and write, then cut away at huge chunks afterward. Am I correct in this assumption?

BM: For sure. I ended up cutting about 80% of the words from College Novel, and about the same for this one. I like having a lot to work with.

Do you have a favorite memory from your readings?

BM: The first couple times I did readings I didn’t enjoy them. Was nervous and my voice was shaky. The third time I felt comfortable and was even having fun, felt in the moment and good, was a little drunk and surrounded by friends. Afterwards we had a little dance party at my friend’s neighbor's house. Or maybe that was after another reading. Either way, I cherish that memory/both of those memories a lot. Was the start of something nice. People always say this, but it's good to do things that make you nervous.

If it doesn’t put you in any danger, could you talk a little about your alter-ego Dough Mahoney?

BM: Went over to a friend's apartment and was drinking out of a glass that had ‘Dough Mahoney’ written on it in sharpie. I asked him why his beer mug had ‘Dough Mahoney’ written on it and he said it was his pen name. I thought that was stupid and funny and used that bit in College Novel. One day I wanted to publish something on the internet under a different name and Dough Mahoney was the first one that came to mind. Felt kind of good. A little freeing. I started feeling like a Dough Mahoney. I ate some potato salad after the Dough Mahoney story came out, and eating potato felt like something a Dough Mahoney would do. I thought maybe I really am Dough Mahoney. I changed my twitter handle to Dough Mahoney. It felt right. So I legally changed my name to Dough Mahoney. I bought a little name plate for my desk that said Dough Mahoney because that was my name. I submitted An Actual Person... to Clash and they said they’d publish it. But Leza did not like the name Dough Mahoney. I changed my twitter name and legal name back to Blake Middleton, but kept the desk plate.

‘An actual person…’ has a calm rhythm to it even when describing the most absurd images. Is there an album you feel ‘pairs well’ with it—or did you listen to a certain type of music while writing it?


BM: I listen to a lot of Destroyer when trying to write. I don’t sit down at a computer anymore. I ride my bike or sit by the river or go for a walk. I need to be out moving through the world. I need to feel different than I normally do. I don't know how to describe the state I get in but when you're there you just know. I think on average I probably wrote one or two lines a day. But Dan Bejar can get me in that state sometimes. I like his song writing because it’s calm, detached, world-weary, deadpan, dream-like, not hysterical or overwrought. Eerily good. Like it shouldn’t exist on this earth.  Even when he’s singing about the apocalypse it’s beautiful. You can tell he has so much love for life and that he’s also completely horrified/disgusted by the world. There’s nothing better. “Sing the least poetic thing you can think of, and try to make it sound beautiful.” It feels pointless to write poetry while listening to Destroyer and I like that for some reason.

Love Destroyer. Nice. Very nice. So, what kind of vaping rig you working with?

BM: (demands we strike question from the record, citing: “you’re an idiot”) 

Fuck you.


Round Four: The Last Question


There are some philosophical lines in your book. life should reveal itself as an increasingly moving series of recognitions. But are followed with one-liners or blunt statements of confusion. i know that i know things, but it feels like i don’t know anything. Which for me, gives it this endless looping feeling of introspection. Were you inspired/influenced by any philosophers/big-brain thinkers? Or was there any specific reading experience that sparked the idea for this book?

BM: Reading $50,000 by Andrew Weatherhead definitely sparked it. I loved the tone of that poem. The space between lines. It’s really funny and direct in a way that most poetry isn’t. Then I read The Rejection of Closure, an essay by Lyn Hejinian, which I won’t go into here because I did that in the interview I did with Zac and ended up rambling way too much. The combination of those two back to back really jolted me away from linear narratives and I felt much more excited by nonlinear, fragmented, aphoristic, non sequitur type stuff. Right after reading those I started writing An Actual Person...without really even thinking about it. It just felt natural and good, which is rare for me, so I kept adding lines. 

As far as big-brain stuff goes, when I was like 22-25 I read a lot of Sartre, Heidegger, Schopenhauer, Nietzche. Sartre was the big one for me. I remember coming across his essay Existentialism is a Humanism in college, feeling failed by public education for never having been forced to read it, then getting into all his other books. Lol. I almost don’t even want to think about it because I almost went insane reading all of that shit. I read so much of it that I’m sure there’s some influence there, but I don’t think I can pin-point anything. I don’t know why I stuck with it for so long. I thought I would find something that would make sense of things I guess. But nothing ever really did that for me. Lately I’ve just been really into E.M. Cioran. He’s an extremely emotional and unintentionally funny philosopher. He writes in aphorisms which I always enjoy. Like, I think this kind of shit is hilarious: “In the days when I set off on month-long bicycle trips across France, my greatest pleasure was to stop in country cemeteries, to stretch out between two graves, and to smoke for hours on end. I think of those days as the most active period of my life.” I keep talking about this excerpt from The Trouble With Being Born by Cioran in all the interviews I’ve done for this book so far because I think it kind of changed how I viewed things, almost put me at ease or something: “We cannot elude existence by explanations, we can only endure it, love or hate it, adore or dread it…” It seems so obvious and I’m sure I’ve read similar iterations of that same sentiment, but it really hit me. I think after reading that I felt kind of freed from trying to get at anything, and my writing got more playful. There’s really nothing to say. Or I’m just comfortable not really saying anything. I’m happy to just paint a little picture of the world/reveal things about the world and being a person on it that I think are funny or confusing or exciting. I don’t care to sound smart or like I know what I’m talking about. But I can look at things and describe them, articulate how I’m feeling, write about stuff I think sucks and stuff I think is good and hopefully do it in a way that feels new and hopefully say some things that other people also think but haven’t articulated. I’m still figuring things out. Or maybe I’m realizing that there isn’t all too much to figure out. 

And that’s match, Middleton. Well done. Anything else you want to add?

I’ll be reading in NYC at KGB bar with GG Roland, Shy Watson, Graham Irvin, Peter BD, Theo Thimo, and Alex Otte on July 22 if anyone wants to come hang. Also doing a reading with GG and other Clash Books people at the NYC Poetry Fest on Governors Island July 25th if that sounds like fun to anyone. *gif of that Miami beach dude in joker face-paint waving an American flag around while standing on a cop car*

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