TROY JAMES WEAVER DOES A LITTLE CHATTING WITH GRAHAM IRVIN

Troy James Weaver is the author of Wichita StoriesVisionsMarigoldTemporal, and Selected Stories. His work often centers around young and vulnerable characters from rural areas struggling to fit into the world. He writes with an unparalleled rawness in quick, powerful bursts. A Troy James Weaver novel is quick and slim, but will change the way you think about writing and people both.In a blurb for Temporal, Scott McClanahan wrote, "[Troy] is our Witold Gombrowicz." For Marigold, Michael Bible wrote, "[he] is the poet-laureate of Midwestern absurdity with a heart a mile wide." Dennis Cooper wrote, as a blurb for Selected Stories, Troy's collection out with Apocalypse Party, "There is something weirdly perfect about Troy James Weaver's stories. Perfect because they are, down to their syllables. Weird because what they do feels so broken it hurts."These statements drew me to Troy's work years ago when I first began wading into the indie lit waters. Last fall, through a groupchat of writers named the $illyBoy$, I became close friends with the man himself. Troy is an amazing writer and an honest, loving person. I am lucky to know him through his words and kindness.
Visions, Troy's first novel, was reprinted by Apocalypse Party in March of this year. We recently got drunk over Zoom and talked about the book. Below is the transcript:

G: In that scene in Visions when the narrator is at the graveyard with Jessup, trying to contact the dead, Jessup says, “He died by suicide,” but it’s a one-year-old baby. That seems to nullify the idea of ghosts or spirituality or whatever, but it’s working on these different levels. It’s an incredibly spooky situation, it’s insanely haunted that they’re doing this, that this person is trying to push energies onto the other person, that they’re in the graveyard, that they’re drinking, the age difference in general. That Jessup is trying to convince the narrator of something and the narrator is aware, and critical, of Jessup’s attempts, but also wants Jessup to like him. The narrator is aware of what Jessup wants to convey with his attempt at tricking him about the Ouija board, and lets him believe he is successful. It is a scene with a lot of spiritual energy and spiritual vibes, but it ends with a slapstick image of a baby hanging itself. T: I’m glad you found that. No one has ever asked me about that part. They gloss over it. I think it’s the funniest part and also it kind of has the entire thesis of the book all in that moment. Power trying to grab power, or understand power, or manipulate power. It’s a book almost entirely about manipulation, or grooming. From all angles of life. That’s why the bible and masturbating are almost inextricably combined. They’re symbols of two different things, but also the same thing, but also completely the opposite. You can get pleasure from both, and great dissatisfaction. You can be controlled by it. G: Like asceticism. Punishing yourself because of inherent sin. The gold chain wrapped around the narrator’s penis is a really interesting thing because when that comes up in the book I think of Wise Blood, the dude with the shoes filled with glass, but it’s only in the first instance when you describe the gold chain digging into the skin that you use negative language. Afterward it becomes pleasure. It made me question the purpose of the image, because it seemed like asceticism at first, but it’s about finding pleasure in pain, how close they’re tied. T: Yea, there is a lot with that symbol of that chain, unintentionally. Mostly, I was going for what we were talking about: pain and then pleasure out of the pain. But then when I started thinking about it more after Visions was published, reviews pointed things out, or had ideas about the meaning behind the images, which is awesome. A lot of times I’m like, “I didn’t intend that, but I think it’s great that it’s there.” The chain was Marilyn’s mom’s gift to her and then her mom died in a car wreck. He finds spirituality in it, but it’s also a desecration of a sacred object from someone he loves. There’s a duality throughout the whole thing with, I think, all the characters. Like Jessup is this horrible dude, really horrible, and you sympathize with the narrator when he experiences the horribleness. But by the end Jessup is almost sorry about what he’s done. Each character arc kind of inverts and crosses others. The arcs are making an X throughout the whole story. The whole story almost negates itself because it’s about a horrible person who realizes how horrible he’s been, kind of, toward the end, and the main character going down and becoming drawn to evil behavior. I don’t think any of it’s evil. I think it’s these conditions that are set for people. They do evil things. Or they choose not to anymore. That was my goal. I’m kind of bummed it’s tagged as a book about a David Koresh-like childhood because he was part of my research but I think he was murdered unjustly and those people were too. Honestly. I think he had bad intent, but I think there’s a better way of going about handling that than burning down a compound with seventy people in it. I had a lot of thoughts on that. I wanted to build around that. But it’s all fiction. It’s not based on his life at all. That shit didn’t happen. I was leery of the tag. But whatever.  G: It’s a coming-of-age story. In those intersecting arcs, the narrator becomes less innocent and knows his power. And it ends with him wanting a break. He understands he has a power, but he isn’t ready to use it yet. So, it still ends in this moment of hope. It doesn’t seem like things are going to be going well for anybody. Marilyn is going to be killed or have her baby killed or be a single mother. She’s fucked. She’s got this relationship with her uncle. That’s fucked. It ends on this moment of conflicting hope, but it is hopeful because the narrator realizes his ability to control energies and he doesn’t jump into it yet. When I think about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, I don’t think about it ever in a hopeful way. That might be my problem with the tag. David Koresh as a name is such an end stop and this book is not an end stop. Leaving it where you ended it allows the reader to have hope or maybe rewrites the guy’s history. Things didn’t have to go that way. They could have gone differently. Just because someone has this ability doesn’t mean they’re going to use it for bad behavior. T: When I wrote it, I thought the visions were products of mental illness from being neglected and abused. That’s how I saw it. But when the narrator realizes his power is when he sees other people being neglected and abused and that’s where the power lies. Like, “this happens to all of us.” And he says, “I can do this too.” But he doesn’t understand. It’s not really a cycle of abuse story. That’s not what I mean. I was trying to comment on religion. I feel like there is good in religion, but at the time I wrote it I felt like when you’re taught this shit from birth you don’t have an option in what you believe. A lot of these people are trapped in religion. They can’t think outside of it because it’s what they’ve known since birth. So, if you did the same thing with abuse, the abused person would think it’s normal too. And accept it. Not to make it too simplistic or too general. I think certain people can love their nonfreedom. They can love being told what to do. And certain people have to break away from it, in whatever way that is. But some people accept religion and abuse as a part of their life because they don’t want to hurt the people they love. G: Related to cycles of abuse, maybe outside of the story, I had a thought. If you experience something when growing up, that becomes an option for experience. Even if it’s the most horrible thing in the world, it becomes an option for experience. So, to continue living you have to make an excuse for it. You had to have it happen, no matter how young you were, then continue onto the next moment until you got to a point where you were in a position to do it to someone else. You don’t think, “that person doesn’t have that experience, I shouldn’t give them that experience,” you just think, “that’s an option for an experience.” So, it’s easier to act that way because you might not have the empathy to know everyone is a blank slate and it’s best to not have that experience. The person, possibly, thinks the experience exists as an option. I experienced it, who’s to say it’s bad, I dealt with it, why can’t someone else?T: What I’m saying in the book is everything is a choice. And, at the end, I think you’re right. The reason why the last part is written in italics is because it doesn’t really happen. It’s hopeful because he walks out into the desert to contemplate everything that came before and sees this vision of the house on fire. I think he’s trying to fight it off. And I think he does do that at the end. I think you’re right. I think there is kind of a hope at the end. It’s also pretty fucked up. A lot of people were like, “This is a very uncomfortable, dark book.” I’ve never seen it as uncomfortable and dark, but that’s because I wrote it. It came from my mind. G: I don’t think it’s dark. I think there is hope and I think the narrator is a good person. T: Yea, I do too. That was the point, really. I think as it goes on, he gets ideas of control, but he also rejects it. Peggy tries to get him to preach and do his sermon and he says, “I’m not ready; I don’t want to do this.” G: He says, “I know this is my destiny, but at this moment I would like to not do it yet.” T: That was really important to be in there. I rewrote that last section the most. Everything else came pretty quick. At one point it was bad in the middle section. I rewrote that a couple times. Like where the narrator killed Ray. Then I took that out and rewrote it where Ray fell and hit something because he was drunk, and he was just dead. I thought that was really important because I didn’t want the character to seem like he was lashing out but, he was definitely fucked up. G: Covering up Ray’s death is an ethically grey area, but you build a world where he could be tied indefinitely to that moment, legally speaking, or he could be free from that moment. He alone could make that choice. He had the vision to see the two options. Even if Jessup wouldn’t have seen that, or no one else would have seen it, he—I think—understood that. I wanna get to a thought I had. I think it is difficult to talk about meaning and symbols in books. You go into it; you have your certain things, but they just give you the energy to continue the story. You don’t chart symbols and their meaning. Most people don’t write that way. Overall, what I take from the book, is this person is in a really fucked up place, but they’re able to find good in the world. I think the narrator and Marilyn are good. Their relationship is good. I think it’s beautiful that in such a small book the narrator calls her, “Mare.” Also, I think there is something about the narrator’s loyalty that is important. Even though Marilyn kind of loses interest in him and is drawn to Jessup. Almost by destiny. Jessup is going to be her destiny. Jessup is a fucked up dude and the narrator knows it and tells it to his face and still has the power to say, “I’m not going to give you what you need to feel better” but he doesn’t tell him to fuck off. T: It’s also how the narrator manipulated Jessup into moving the body. G: Oh yea, he knew he had done fucked up stuff. Maybe I’m a dumb ass for trying to find the good in this character. Hmm, why bring Jessup? I guess he has the car. You need the car. You see Jessup rape Marilyn and you still bring them together on this journey that is just for you. T: That is the complexity of my feelings about people. How you can love and understand them and know that they’ve done horrible things. And use that to understand yourself better. It’s complicated. I agree that there is good here. Not in the actions of the characters, but there’s hope, there’s delight in the darkness. It’s like the absence of light in some of those moments. And a voice comes through and gives them hope. I found it completely absurd, but understand it more now, when I asked Juliet Escoria and Brandon Hobson and Brian Allan Ellis to blurb it, they said it was beautiful. It kind of blew my mind. I was like, “Really?” Because it’s a fucked up and kind of strange and weird book. But really beyond religion and the abuse stuff, I was talking about a kid feeling how someone might feel in response to less dramatic things. Like when you’re bullied in school, or whatever. That feels way bigger in the moment than a couple years later. Those experiences stop mattering later. I was talking about bigger things, but those things are involved in the themes. It’s the only book I’ve ever written where I was really heavy on symbolism. I don’t know if it’s heavy, but it’s there. Like the fish, the Jesus symbol, and relating it to a cock molesting you. Trying to reconcile those two things. I don’t want to sound like I’m anti-religions. I’m not. My wife’s a Catholic school teacher. I don’t believe it myself, but I don’t discourage people from believing it. I have my own brain and it works a certain way and I grew up in a very oppressive religion. That’s probably where my aversion to being attached to a religion comes from, but mostly I want people to be happy. That’s really it. I don’t see my books as downers. I think they’re hopeful. There’s a lot of complexity in being human and I think a lot of people find that depressing. G: I think it would take a very cynical mind to say this book is a 100% negative view of religion. That would be a bitter, resentful, reading of this. I think as hard as this character’s life is, as dark as this book can be, a lot of hope does come from seeking something bigger. The bible is more of a representation of something larger than the self in the book. To go back to the graveyard scene, the Ouija board scene. That scene made me feel the way I feel when I have a shitty interaction. Even now, like when I text you about having to hang out with someone and it being bad. Later on, when I’m able to break down how they said something or did something shitty, I feel better. I can say, “it was weird they ate the pizza we ordered and didn’t offer to pay,” or “it was weird they made gin cocktails for themselves but didn’t offer Kaitlin or I any.” That moment in the graveyard in Visions feels like that. Because the narrator is thinking, “He’s trying to fucking trick me. He’s trying to do this to push a certain emotion on me, to make me endeared to his ideas. I’m immediately sensing it, and it doesn’t mean he’s evil, it just means that is how he is trying to endear me. I’m endeared to him for wanting to endear me, but I’m not tricked by the Ouija board.” I still want people to like me, I still want to be friends with these people even though bullshit happens. I’m not trying to compare my life to your book, I’m just saying that scene felt so real. T: I think those feelings in day-to-day life are what I write about. I just made it more fucked up in that book. But I don’t think it’s that fucked up to compare puberty and sexual awakening to coming up in religion. The character was interested in becoming religious because his dad was dead. He was just looking for something and what he found was a friend who basically molests him, convinces him to jerk him off because he says it’s in the bible, but the dude’s never read the bible. So, I compared the dick to the fish later on. I’m glad you picked up on the Mare pet name. A mare is a horse. It carries people. I thought that was a good choice of a nickname because the narrator is following her. At first, it seems like she’s following him, but it’s always been her dragging him. When they walk by Joe and his girlfriend perched in the tree like stooling owls, Marilyn says, “Do you think we’re like them?” Later they’re up in the tree doing the same thing. G: I think when Marilyn asks that, the narrator says, “No,” then later says, “Yea, probably.” We haven’t talked about Peggy at all. Peggy’s very interesting. T: Yea, I named her after the King of the Hill character. All the names are funny. Jessup’s named after the grip tape company. Ray is named after the book Ray by Barry Hannah. I kind of imagined him pre-narrator of Ray. But, he was kind of doing that same shit in Ray too. And Marilyn is named after Marilyn Monroe. That was an easy one. G: The mom is just Mom. She didn’t have a name. T: Yea, I didn’t give Mom a name. G: I think Peggy is great. She’s such an interesting character. She comes in late, but that works with the intersecting arcs of the story. T: At the start of the book, these horrible things happen to the main character, and you think it’s going to be this slope toward redemption, but what he starts doing, as a defense, is using the things he learned to help himself. In the opposite direction, Jessup, who had probably learned the same things, before you meet him in the book, is doing these horrible things. By the end of the book, he’s like, “I can’t bury a body.” He tells Marilyn to be proper in front of Peggy. He’s starting to gain a conscience. I don’t think the main character’s conscience is degrading over time, but where he was used and vulnerable at first, he’s not anymore. He’s learned from that shit. Sometimes it gets ugly, but he questions those things too. What’s interesting about Peggy is she’s the only person the kid had known who showed him love, but she’s abusing him too. He’s about it, though because she’s showing genuine care. He’s willing to accept it because there’s this element of actual belonging.G: She has more power than Marilyn. She might be offering something that looks like what Marilyn could offer, but she has more power. She understands that what she is offering means more, therefore it means more. Marilyn is just trying to fill a space for the narrator; Peggy knows what she’s giving him. T: What I realized happened is Peggy is giving him love. She’s still abusing him but she’s showing him love. So, there’s a divergence when they get to Peggy’s house because Marilyn’s drifting toward Jessup, who’s manipulating her, and the main character is drifting toward Peggy, who’s manipulating him. They’re both showing love in the ways the others couldn’t. At the very end, when Jessup leaves, that allows the main character to bring Marilyn into the fold. He invites her into Peggy’s bedroom. He shows them their family. G: That moment is so wild. It makes sense as a symbolic gesture, and it also makes sense for the narrator’s journey in learning how to bring people together. Also, it makes sense because he is an intensely loyal character and never gives up on anybody. Him recognizing that Marilyn and Jessup have a relationship and he’s not judging them. He’s not jealous. The moments they have together when he knows she’s pregnant and he knows it’s not his baby, it’s her uncle’s baby, are intense moments that make a lot of sense. I feel like you could pitch that scene in a way that is very slapstick. “There’s a threesome between a geriatric woman, a pregnant 13-year-old girl, and a 14-year-old boy. This book’s crazy. You have to check this shit out. It’s so cool!”T: The holy trinity, dude. G: Exactly. But it makes sense, and is a loving moment, while also being a moment of manipulation that shows he has an agency he hasn’t used before. T: I really wanted this fucked up ending where religion was intertwined with all of it. Marilyn trusts the narrator and he trusts Peggy because they’re the only people who have shown each other warmth and love. They’re the only ones who have cared for each other, but they also are fucked up and manipulate and abuse each other. That’s what I was going for with the ending. I wanted it to be three people and I wanted it to symbolize religion. Because it fucks people up. The amount of guilt people carry due to what they were taught when they were young is unbearable. I’ve witnessed too much of it. Nobody should be taught shame and guilt for doing next to nothing when they’re kids. You don’t teach morality; morality exists inherently in the world. All the friends I had who grew up with atheist parents, they were the most moral, forward-thinking, awesome people I’ve ever met. I can’t say that about atheists who became atheist when they were 30. They become moralistic and weird. When it becomes a doctrine that’s when I turn off. G: I think that’s why it’s such a hard thing to write about religion in a way that doesn’t paint it good or bad. There are obviously problems with religion, and it’s painted into this book, but it also seems like the bible for this character means a lot. It brings him pleasure in ways that is valuable. T: I didn’t want to condemn either side. That was the whole point. If you’re a human, you’re looking for something that gives you comfort whether it’s good for you or bad for you. Then you latch onto those things. I don’t think that’s bad. But, yea, It’s complicated for me. I know what I was thinking at the time, but I also don’t know exactly what it all means. G: When I first got your books, Visions and Marigold, but I read Visions and I thought you were doing something with fiction that I didn’t expect from a writer in the indie world. Then I read Marigold and even though I didn’t know you, I felt that Marigold came from a lived experience. And Wichita Stories is very lived, real experience. Visions seems, to me, a tone poem for the stuff that you’re interested in. It is autobiographical in another way. The way you lean toward symbols, the way you lean toward ideas in philosophy. There’s obviously philosophy in Wichita Stories but it feels like a collection of things you would talk about when you talk about where you’re from, whereas Visions is about your ideas on moods, tones, religion, good vs. bad. T: I think they’re complimentary. Wichita Stories is the surface stories, the emotion, and Visions is the brain component. I was filtering the traumas in my own life through other people. Visions is 100% fiction, at least I hope so for anyone in this world, but that’s how my brain was processing how I was writing about my own life in another book, because I was writing them at the same time. I think I even used the same line about my little friend with the rattail getting fucked up in a trailer park. G: The dirty shredded ribbon. T: I used that line in both books. It wasn’t because I was cannibalizing the writing, I was just writing both books at the same time. I do that in all my books. I look back on Visions and Marigold and everything and think I could have fixed certain parts, but I stand behind the work. They’re not all perfect sentences, but I think I’m getting better at that. Some of the best shit I think I’ve written is in Selected Stories that Ben DeVos put out. I think I come at the same things from different angles. Or try to. Sometimes I’m super annoyed with myself because I’m rewriting the same thing I wrote and published six years ago, but it’s different. G: I think that you write about similar things is good. Especially because I know you as a friend. The writing is information about your mind, a complex and interesting mind, capable of telling these different stories, and I am extremely privileged and happy to have read these things and know you and everything. T: Thank you, dude. G: I love you, man. T: Love you too, brother. 

Find Visions by Troy James Weaver here.

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INTERVIEW WITH SIMON HAN with Taylor Hickney

Simon Han, an Asian-American writer whose critically acclaimed debut novel, Nights When Nothing Happened, comes out on November 17th, took the time to speak to me about growing up as an immigrant in Plano—a suburb of Dallas, Texas—the racism of the American Dream, his craft decisions, and more. 

***

Taylor Hickney: To me this novel is about loneliness, families, the immigrant experience in America and the racism that goes along with it, the facades of the suburbs, and more. Where did the kernel of this story come from? How long did it take you to nurture it until it became what it is today?

Simon Han: Loneliness definitely sparked the novel. I had an image in my head of this child in a crowded room, somehow still alone. From that idea came the characters, the setting, etc. I started it in 2014, so, from beginning to end, it took about six years. I grew a lot during that time and am a different person than I was. I used to think about the characters in a more simplistic or nostalgic way; feeling constrained by the limited fiction that was out there, I didn't think about all the possibilities available to fiction about a Chinese immigrant family. 

 

Taylor Hickney: Do you think you learned through writing it, as well? 

Simon Han: Absolutely. When I write, I poke at the situation and ask, "Why are they doing this?" Why are Liang and Jack not talking to each other as much as, say, Jack and Annabel? Where are the cracks and fissures in the family? Through this process, I was able to deepen the characters, find more of their history as well as create more contradictions among them. It's actually through the drafting that I found the story getting messier, which, I think, was a good sign.

Taylor Hickney: What balance were you trying to strike between mystery and literary fiction?

Simon Han:  I’m interested in building tension and in creating this unsettling atmosphere, but not so much in, say, delivering answers to a mystery. If anything, I want to create more mystery, more questions; and I think that may be a little uncomfortable for some readers, which I understand. If I finish reading a book and feel like it's just solved everything for me, then I stop thinking about it; but I wanted this book to linger. At first, I withheld too much information for the sake of building suspense to drop bombs on the reader, but there was something very artificial about that. In later drafts, I learned to trust the story could stand on its own.

 

Taylor Hickney: What did you do to make sure all of your POVs felt inhabited, especially with the children?

Simon Han: To me, it’s important to be specific about them, to not make the child a stand in for any child, but to give them their unique fears and longings. 

 

Taylor Hickney: How much of Nights was based in your real feelings about Plano, and why do you think it has a particular reputation of insincerity and materialism?

Simon Han: For me, it was about leaning into those contradictions. For example, the suburbs in general exist in the popular imagination as these white picket fence places, but like any one who has spent time in Plano, I know that’s not what it looks like. There's a huge immigrant population, and I didn’t realize as a kid how unique that is, how many stories are there. It's got its unique darknesses, too. There's a collective amnesia that happens. My theory: this is a city that's exploding in population every year, so all these newcomers are changing the narrative and history of the city in good ways, but also in ways can overlook what came before. I'm really interested in what makes Plano a specific place. That's why it was important to me to ultimately set it there, rather than make up any suburb that could be a stand-in for all suburbs. The reality is that like no suburb is truly alike. 

 

Taylor Hickney: In my experience, the West Plano community was the most materialistic, most racist, and the wealthiest; but that is not what Plano represents. Through a job, I met a very diverse group of kids, who went to different district high schools, and learned how limited that one view of Plano is. 

Simon Han: That diversity is complicated to me, too, because of the limitations. Yes, there are, for example, a lot of Asian-Americans in Plano, but many Asian-Americans of a certain socio-economic status. I'm always interested in who's being left behind in these kinds of narratives that hold the most weight in the popular imagination.

Taylor Hickney: Part of what makes this novel special is that it is about the immigrant story. Did you long for Tianjin when you were Jack’s age? 

Simon Han: I think that’s something a lot of immigrants go through, especially children, because it’s when they’re figuring out who they are. I forget my parents had lives before me, you know? They were probably very different people when they were in their 20s, and I think that the family in the novel are sort of coming to terms with the fact that at the end of the day they can't completely know one another, that that's a condition of life.

Taylor Hickney: In what ways do you think the American Dream is harmful and/or racist? Was this in your mind while writing?

Simon Han: It's like a trap. Many people have to have, whether they believe in it or not, some kind of relationship to the American Dream, because that’s the national consciousness. Someone like Liang, the father in the novel, can't locate himself in that idealist story. What happens then? He’s caught in a trap of feeling inferior, comparing himself to others who seem to have figured it out. It’s all tied to racist and toxic capitalist thinking.

 

Taylor Hickney: How do you view writing as a form of protest?

Simon Han: There's a lot of power in a lot of different kinds of writing. With fiction, I'm trying to protest and be political in a way that's not direct but comes through immersion, through sitting with complicated feelings. 

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“FIND THE PATTERNS”: A Review of Chloe N. Clark’s Collective Gravities by James McAdams

To lift one particularly apposite description of a character in “Like the Desert Dark,” Chloe N. Clark “likes thinking about 'ifs.’” Collective Gravities, her third collection (The Science of Unvanishing Objects, Finishing Line Press; Your Strange Fortune, Vegetarian Alcoholic Press), posits a world replete with paranormality. Like a symphony, these stories repeatedly touch upon the same subjects, explored, revealed, and experienced from a diverse variety of narrative perspectives. We can represent the frequency and range of this symphonic collection numerically.                    

Subjects (admittedly subjective):

# Stories these subjects occur in:

astronauts/paranormal investigation

6

undiagnosed illness/epidemics

6

near-death/no-death phenomena

4

mental illness

4

floods

5

magic/card tricks

4

jumping off bridges

5

dreams

7

ecological disaster

4

The horrors of online dating

1 (!)

 

There’s something oddly soothing about this thematic accretion. As you read further into the collection, you continually confront these motifs, creating a limpid “repetition with a difference” feeling. It’s subtle, but it works. It’s like wading into a pool, stepping slowly, freezing at first, and then once you're immersed in it, the swimming is captivating and you forget for a second what it was like to be back on the shore, dry.

For example, the collection is bookended by two pieces about astronauts convening at a memorial for a deceased member of their operation team (“Balancing Beams,” and “Between the Axis and the Stars,” respectively). Both memorials stress the significance of remembering and storytelling as a way to deal with death. The second story foregoes an actual traditional memorial, instead placing the characters in a room with the grieving Mom of their friend, where they simply tell stories about the deceased. “Between the Axis and the Stars” (and the collection as a whole) ends here, in a country field in Iowa:

“After, I walked outside to find Peter. He was sitting in the grass, staring up at the night sky.

'We don’t have stars like this in Boston.'

I sat down beside him, laughing. 'You’ve literally been to the stars, why do you need to see them from so far away?'

'I can see them all at once like this. Find the patterns.'”

My two favorite stories, both concerning the power of referentless words, are quiet pieces of flash, published initially in Noble/Glass Quarterly and Bartleby Snopes (R.I.P.!!). In “This is the Color of Your Eyes in the Dark,” the narrator, informed of the sudden death of a girl she was briefly friends with in middle school, remembers:

“When we went to Mindy’s house, we always took long walks in the trees behind her house instead of going inside. She’d tell me the names of each tree. Not like the scientific names, but the names she’d given them. I asked her why she named them and she answered me, as if it was the silliest question in the world, ‘don’t you like to say the names of your friends’? Her favorite was a pine that had been struck by lightning. An arc of scarring went down one side of it. She would put her hand against the mark and just hold it there, eyes closed, as if she was trying to heal it.” 

Meanwhile, in “Topographical Cartography,” a woman’s boyfriend begins to suffer from a vague, ill-defined disease (see above) whose symptoms are the appearance of an X-axis along his back, and then the appearance along the axis of “words and symbols. Under each dash: ‘sugar,’ ‘Oak,’ ‘fine,’ a picture of an eclipse, more and more words without context.” Then, after he dies, the narrator awakens to find a similar pattern of words and symbols on her back, only this time as a Y-axis. This is a numinous description of love. I mean if I know anything about love from watching TV: one person’s X fitting into another person’s Y.

Paranormality probably isn’t a good description of Collective Gravities, since it sounds like X-Files fanfiction. Magical realism doesn’t work, because the stories here are too realistic, too detailed (in a good way); neither does surrealism work, since the plots and narratives are tightly controlled and cogent. If we wanted to coin a term for the “slanted truth” nature of this collection, that term could be pulled from the collection’s first story. The narrator describes a painting hanging on the wall. “The colors were slightly off,” she writes, “leaves a blue-green and bark a red-brown that wouldn’t exist in nature.” The characters discuss what’s wrong with the painter, suggesting she’s color blind among other things. Ultimately, they determine the word for it, and for Collective Gravities, is “Almreal...almost real, not quite, not surreal.”

Furthermore, it works organically, meaning it doesn’t feel like marketing agenda or strategic little phrased inserted in pre-publication to make the collection seem “whole” or “novel-like,” like those collections marketed as “inter-linked short stories” with the same character(s) or place. Those are mostly bullshit excuses to make something look like a novel.

Possibly Irrelevant Addendum I Couldn’t Fit Into the Review: Two cool facts I learned while researching Chloe Clark and word west press. 1) Chloe, part of the editorial triumvirate of Cotton Xenomorph with Tea and Hanna, has designed a class on the literature of space. Enrollment is open, check it out here. 2) word west press, in recognition of Chloe’s affection for space, actually bought her a star. That’s awesome. Great work Chloe and word west press!

Pick up a copy of Chloe Clark's Collective Gravities here!

 

 

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INTERVIEW WITH JAMES McADAMS by Jo Varnish

James McAdamss Ambushing the Void is released this month by Frayed Edge Press. I caught up with him for a chat about his book, his writing process, and his inspirations.

JV: Ambushing the Void is a collection of stories drawn together by themes such as relationships, loss, and nostalgia, and told through truly memorable characters. Professor Pankova and Teo are two of many that will stay with me. Did you draw from real life counterparts for these and other characters?

JM: Its pretty easy for me to look at a person, or read/hear about a person on a podcast or Tweet, and then imagine them into some weird scenario combined with my experience of the world. I guess thats true for all writers. Teo, however, I have no idea where he came from. I think I had the idea to write about this immigrant character from the 1980s, but I do think some of his determining characteristics (being a young baseball player) was probably taken from a documentary of Yankees players from the Hispanic world, maybe? Professor Pankova is modeled after a Russian literature professor from the Czech Republic I had at the University of Pittsburgh. I was fascinated by how enthusiastic she was to share her heritage with the students (cooking for us, showing us pictures of her hometown, dressing in weird post-Soviet almost-gypsy garb) combined with the utter indifference of most of the class, who were busy sleeping or texting or laughing behind her back. It was sad I guess, everythings sad, but it seemed like something more. I think adding to her character a sense or recognition that her students didnt care makes the character work. I hope this is the case. Other characters: Joe the Plumber (My Friend Joe) is based on the Joe the Plumbercharacter from some of the idiotic Sarah Palin rallies in 2008 and beyond. The most literal kidnapping of a public person for my purposes comes in Somewhere in FL, an Angel Appeared,which Ill get to.

JV: The use of technology is a recurring theme in these stories. How do you feel about modern relationships’ reliance on technology, and is there a wistfulness for a time when social media and the Internet weren’t integral to our lives?

JM: Im 40, I think around the same age as you. I feel like I straddle the world of my students, who are like, Why wouldnt our entire lives be mediated?, and the world of, say, my older siblings in their later 40s/50s, who really dont care about this. So Im in between and have both thoughts in my head all the time: I hate this but Im on it 3 hrs a day. Ultimately, Ill just be old and say 1) there are dopamine functions that the software and hardware and application developers are manipulating and exploiting and there will probably a class-action lawsuit in a decade or so, just like what happened to Pharma and Big Banking;  2) the old Pascal quote, viz. something like the most important skill for a human being is to be alone in a room: I cant do this anymore. Can you? I need to be Mr. Promotion Machine on social media for the next few months but Im pretty sure Ill be off everything by the end of 2020. I would like to go off the grid and hike to Alaska or something but I have literally zero abilities to take care of myself without things like microwaves and YouTube recipes and WikiHow instructions so.no off-the-grid for me unfortunately.

JV: Drug use and addiction are peppered throughout the collection; what inspires you to explore them through your writing?

JM: Quick answer, which is true: Im writing a novel set in a rehab so a lot of the later stories in here (Delray,” “Red Tide,” “Somewhere in FL…”) are from that. Longer answer, which Im not sure is true: I think drug addiction is another side of love. So I think you can have love (for a person, or a higher ideal maybe) or love for a drug, or even a phone or app (as I said above), or whatever pings your dopamine. And as youve noticed theres like zero romantic love in this collection, because love is boring to write about IMO, so to fill that vacuum I went with drug addiction, which is just another, less culturally-sanctioned, form of love. Im not sure this is true as a sociological insight. Do you buy any of it?

JV: It makes sense, having read your book! Talking of, tell us a little about the inspiration behind the story, "Somewhere in Florida, An Angel Appeared." It’s a beautiful piece, quietly moving, and one that leaves an impression, possibly asking more questions than it answers…

JM: Im happy to! The piece was initially dedicated to Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, but we removed it because I have a big heart and was dedicating every piece to thousands of people until it annoyed my poor editor, despite her patience...Anyway, Amanda has one of the more famous TED Talks called The Art of Asking,which she later expanded into a book. It pretty much explains the rationale for the move around 2005-2010 to artists just giving away their work for free online as a reaction to piracy. Anyway, she tells a story about touring with the Dresden Dolls in her 20s and crashing on fanscouches. In one story, she talks about her band (so we imagine a bunch of loud young brash punks) staying over at a small little hut in a Hispanic enclave in Florida. In the morning, she recounts being woken up by the Colombian grandmother and some other elders, who, while teaching her how to make authentic breakfast burritos (or whatever), thank her repeatedly for saving the life of their little girl who loves her music so much. Its around the 3/4th part of the video, I highly recommend it.

JV: What attracts you to the form of short and flash fiction?

JM: The earlier works in this collection average 4,000 words, the more recent fewer than 1,000, which is the consensus cap for flash fiction. While this wasnt a formal decision I made, it makes sense for a number of reasons, some practical, some neurotic: My attention span, because of THE OBVIOUS, doesnt work anymore. I base my TV shows on those I can watch with 33% of my brain, so I can read with 33% of my brain and listen to music with 33% of my brain. Online, I dont read anything longer than 2,000 words. I am not proud of this, but I cant be alone. Even most podcasts nowadays are moving towards 15-minutes

I think Rick Moody wrote this once, but the cool think about flash is that you can do any weird experiment and if it doesnt work, then who cares. For example, I just published a piece about a M2F Trans worker who creates fake profiles on online dating profiles in the form of a Reddit AMA. I wouldnt build a 300-page on this foundation, but for a 500-word micro its okay if it sucks. Small achievements, weekly. Its sort of a psychological trick, but Im writing a novel now cut into discrete, 500-1,000 word chapters. This way, at the end of each week, I have chapters done, chapters I can publish, that make it easier to concentrate on writing a novel for 3 years.

JV: Who influences your work as a writer?

JM: This will seem crazy after what I just wrote about flash, but I love the big old Russian-Soviet books: Gogol, Tolstoy, Goncharov, Dostoevsky, Bely, Nabokov, Pasternak...as well as the poets like Akhmatova, Mayavosky, Tsvetaeva. James Agees Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has been my muse for the past two years; His A Death in the Family is pretty good too. Also, Karl Ove Knausgårds My Struggle trilogy is an amazing experiment about opening your brain 100% to readers.

Its sort of like what Howard Stern does on the radio since 1980 in terms of pure confessional mindfulness that makes even the most banal quotidian events (10% of My Struggle is Karl feeding his little kids) seem numinous and holy. As for more contemporary authors, DFW (I realize I just lost 40% of sales because people will think Im a DFW-fanboyno footnotes in this collection, I promise), Lydia Millet, Colson Whitehead (he of the repeat Pulitzers), George Saunders, J.M. Coetzee, Denis Johnson, Samuel Delany, Kathy Acker, William Vollmann, now Im just looking at bookcasesand thinking, I need more non-white males,so lets stop here.

Except to say: Im lucky to be Flash Fiction editor at Barren Magazine, so I get to read real-time Indie authors like Marisa Crane, Chelsea Laine Wells, and Cathy Ulrich, who you probably know about it. Wish more people did!

JV: Cathy Ulrich is a hero of mine! Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you allocate time to your writing every day? How much of your writing time is rewriting and editing?

JM: Im horribly lazy and have no self-discipline about the writing grind. Most of this collection was written between 2-5 a.m. when I couldnt sleep and wasnt watching The Sopranos reruns for the 25th time. I tend to write super fast and dont revise all that well. I will say, 99% of my editing goes into dialogue. I slash and slash and slash at dialogue until I find something that sounds true but unique. I have a rule where if I can tell what the next line is (Hello, how are you, Sally?/“Im fine, Reginald, how about you?), then it gets deleted automatically. I stole a lot of dialogue techniques from William Gaddis and Don DeLillo. As an editor, if I dont buy the dialogue thats something I really have trouble getting over.

JV: Finally, what are you working on now? Has the lockdown has afforded you time to write much more than usual?

JM: I’m writing a novel-in-flash about The Florida Shuffle Rehab facilities have sprouted everywhere, many of them nefarious, profiting from insurance scams and general duplicity, referred to as “The Florida Shuffle.” "Delray” and “Red Tide” from the collection are in this.

"Ambushing the Void explores the margins of 21st century America, with characters confronting new worlds, new technologies, and new social structures while attempting to retain their identities & worldviews. These quirky, off-beat stories (with a tinge of the weird and disturbing) are thought-provoking takes on the post-modern search for meaning."

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INTERVIEW WITH JEFF JACKSON: “HOW DO YOU MAKE ART THAT HAS STAKES WHEN PEOPLE AREN’T PAYING ATTENTION?” with Chris Gugino

jeff jackson is a writer/playwright/artist/musician. he lives in charlotte, NC, and sings, writes, and performs with the group julian calendar. in october of last year, he released his second novel, destroy all monsters, which is a beautifully twisted novel with two sides, like a record (literally, you finish reading the first side and then flip the book over and read it from the back cover, returning to the middle of the book).

destroy all monsters concerns an epidemic of musicians being murdered during their performances. there's no tangible link between the victims, their killers, or the method in which said bands are dispatched, save that the bands themselves are all a bit mediocre.

jeff was kind enough to take a few hours out of his schedule to speak with me after the book was released to discuss destroy all monsters, his earlier work, and the challenges of making lasting, impactful art in an atomized culture filled with distractions competing for one's attention. the delays in publication of this interview are all mine, but i hope that this reminds any readers out there who've been considering giving this book a read to do so. just don't go out and kill that one shitty local band. you know the one i'm talking about.

[the following interview has been edited by both myself and jeff for length, context, clarity, and probably some other shit that's got fuck-all to do with you.]


c - i was particularly excited to read this novel, having read mira corpora and novi sad and seeing the jump to—i hate to say—a 'real' publisher.

j - a larger publisher.

c - yeah, moving into working with a major publishing house, as opposed to the sort of punk rock background. so with this, you did shop this book around fairly heavily beforehand?

j - i also shopped mira corpora around heavily before ending up at two dollar radio, and—weirdly for that book—some of the really nice rejections came from big publishers and some of the really dismissive rejections came from indie houses. so with this book i wanted to give it another shot at a major house. it had a long history because i had an agent for mira corpora and she read part of the manuscript for destroy all monsters and REALLY did not like it, and we couldn't find any common ground on it. so we parted ways and i had to find a new agent first. That took a while to find the right person. and then it was a question of sending it out to publishers before FSG finally read it. i was incredibly lucky because it had a number of rejections, but i ended up with my dream house. and I ended up with jeremy davies as editor—he used to work at dalkey archive and is the perfect person for the book. he’s steeped in european literature and rock music and art films. all important threads in destroy all monsters.

c - and you started drafts on this almost ten years ago?

j - well, my notes for it go back over ten years. i didn't start writing it until six years ago, something like that. there's a lot of projects where i'm constantly taking notes and they’re slowly growing and taking side A shape. when i finished the book and was shopping it around for an agent, i started to get haunted by the idea of it being like the A side of a vinyl single or cassette. So i began to wonder what the B side might be, and i started writing it. and FSG actually bought the book not having read the B side.

c - so ‘kill city’ [the B side] was—i hate to say an afterthought, because it feels like such a vital part of the book—but really came up very late in the process?

j - it came very late in the game. the A side, to me, felt complete for a long time, and then i just couldn't shake this idea of the B side. i had a lot of friends who told me that i was crazy writing the B side, and that i was making a difficult book twice as hard to sell. i finished putting a final polish on 'kill city' about two weeks before FSG bought it.

c - wow.

j - so the timing turned out to be really good. when i was initially working on the B side, initially i thought that it could be a stand-alone novella. i thought that maybe it would be like novi sad, a small book that someone else could publish, if necessary.

c - yeah, send it to michael [salerno, australian polymath and head of kiddiepunk] and do a small run of it...

j - yeah, I thought it would be a sister book. but as i was finishing the B side, and the more i was sitting with it and polishing it, i realized it needed to be under the same covers with the A side. the two pieces—the A side ['my dark ages'] and the B side—really formed the complete destroy all monsters and they were far more intertwined than novi sad and mira corpora were.

c - definitely. i really liked how the book read like music: there were a lot of little riffs and lines and themes that got repeated and reshuffled, and sort of brought to the forefront or mixed down, that would come up throughout the book; where you would have little lines that allude to the different shootings, and then once you get into a later section you follow one of the killers into a show and expand on that thought, and the way the little repetitions carry over into the B side. it gives it almost this ghostly quality, i guess?

j - absolutely.

c - it really...it just made for incredibly engrossing reading. i read it through the first time in about six hours; i couldn't put it down.

j - that's great. my goal was to make it as propulsive as possible. even though it is a strange book with a lot of repetitions that keep folding back on themselves, it's also moving ahead.

c - to change tack a little, something i noticed between this one, novi sad and mira corpora, the setting—though it never really explicitly states in either of the first two that they take place in arcadia—the way the scenery is put together with these crumbling post-industrial towns...it pops up a lot throughout your work, and that's not what i imagine charlotte to be like, i guess?

j - well, charlotte's a lot rawer than people think. i moved here from new york city, and a lot of friends were like, 'what's it like living in the country?' meanwhile, i was looking out my window and there's a sixteen-year-old prostitute on the corner who's eight months pregnant and being picked up by johns. she's being pimped by her boyfriend and lives with her family. so there are definitely parts of charlotte that aren't exactly bucolic. but it probably comes from a bunch of different places: i grew up in aruba. behind our house were the ruins of an old hospital and old WWII fortifications where they had gun turrets and a series of rusty pipes that you could walk on through these cactus fields. my parents would let my friends and me run loose for hours at a time and explore all of that. so that sort of decayed environment is familiar to me in a primal way. and then when i lived in NYC, i lived for a number of years in the dumbo neighborhood  before it was gentrified, where there were all these ancient warehouses and power stations and cobblestone streets. i would take long walks through this area because that scenery is beautiful to me. but there’s also something that felt right, at least for destroy all monsters, to set it in a town like arcadia, because i think those sorts of cities—those rust belt/post-industrial cities—they tend to create these really tight-knit scenes: music scenes, art scenes, whatever. from places i've visited and friends i've known in places like that.

c - that's exactly what it made me think of: i have a lot of family around buffalo/niagara falls and there used to be a lot of industry there, but now there's just nothing. but there's this amazing, incestuous and tight-knit hardcore scene in buffalo, that, like, 'how the fuck do they have hardcore punk in buffalo?' is the first thought, but they have nothing else to do.

j - yeah, and cleveland in the 1970s was a post-industrial nightmare where their rivers were on fire, and that's where you get pere ubu and devo and the dead boys coming out of an incredible scene because there was nothing else to do, and they took that post-industrial environment and drew upon it to make really creative music. that environment can be really fertile creatively, and it can also feel really constraining, which also felt right as a place to explore after the epidemic in the novel starts.

c - and there's definitely that sort of aspect that i see a lot in smaller punk rock scenes that, 'at the end of the day nobody's paying attention to what we're doing anyway, so just go for it,' right?

j - totally. 

c - my awareness of your work came about, really like a lot of my favorite recent artists that i've found over the last eight years or so, from the community around dennis cooper's blog, with people like yourself and michael [salerno] and benedetta [de alessi; illustrator/artist], in paris, and thomas moore and things like that. have aspects of that community been helpful to you in your writing? i know you have a fairly expansive network of people in charlotte and elsewhere to help out.

j - i've been on that blog, on-and-off, since its very early days. it was hugely important to me, especially when i initially moved down to charlotte and was more isolated. the blog turned me on to so many interesting writers, books, and movies, and visual art. Also the people I’ve met, including those who are no longer on the blog, like justin taylor and gregory howard. that community has been really important.

c - oh yeah, i find myself sharing things from there all the time, and i have to tell my friends, like, 'look, i know you don't like his writing and you think it's weird and it scares the crap out of you, but read his blog, because he's turned me on to so much cool stuff.'

j - i found the blog because i read my loose thread, which was the first book of dennis cooper’s that i read, and i loved it so much. i was curious about 'how do you create this?' and it was great to be able to ask him these questions in the comments and he would answer. it was inspiring to be able to talk to a writer at that level and find out what were they thinking about certain literary choices they made. 

c - just the fact that he's so open about the process, he demystifies it like, 'yeah, here, this is what you do if you want to write and try to get published.' he almost gives people tutorials on how to get involved with their art and engage with it in a more direct way.

j - yeah, he's super generous. dennis is a complete mensch.

c - yeah, that would be the word i'd use. anyway, i brought that up because something i did notice in destroy all monsters was that stylistically, it moves around a lot. there's a kineticism to it, not necessarily just in the language, but in the fact that there are sections where every couple pages, you're switching narrators, POV, you're doing these little structural/stylistic things that could almost feel like just playing around and having fun, but are executed so well that it keeps you wanting to stay there, and you get to a new section and it's, 'oh, who's he writing about now?' and you're trying to piece that together from the little structural clues. like, i thought the whole section about the boy who woke up late, it took me until almost the end of that to realize that you were writing about one of the main characters. i thought it was about one of the killers.

j - good. yeah, that misdirection is built into it.

c - it reminded me, in the little sleights of hand that occur throughout, and the bipartite narrative—where it switches and you take the characters and reshuffle them—it reminded me of two of my favorite dennis cooper books, being period and the marbled swarm, where similar games are being played throughout the narrative, though his books are so NOT narrative-focused.

j - but there is a propulsiveness to his stuff, too. gregory howard read just the A side, and he said it reminded him of period, which had never occurred to me. but i was deeply flattered, of course.

c - isn't that the fun thing of putting a piece of art into the world and getting others' interpretations on it and going, 'no, you know, i never noticed that, but it's kind of cool'?

j - yeah, definitely. the structural inventions in destroy all monsters were not there to show off, they’re there to make it more propulsive and more immersive and more exciting for the reader. i've had people say it's so experimental, and i guess it is, but all the experimentation is problem solving aimed at making a more pleasurable and immersive experience for the reader.

c - i read it through and thought it was straightforward, almost?

j - until the B side...

c - it was still fairly narrative-driven. but within the workings of that, there's a lot of fun being had and it's that sort of—if it's just experimentation for the purpose of having fun and just fucking with the reader, ultimately, i (as a reader) feel like 'who gives a shit?' but if you do something experimental and bold and you have a great story and great themes behind it (which is the case here), it elevates the work from being just another book to being a truly exciting and original book.

j - thanks. when i was young, i had a theater teacher who drilled into my head that ideally there's no difference between form and content. at the highest level, they are the same thing. and that's definitely something i aim for as much as i can.

c - to kind of go back and say that you've had people tell you it's this really experimental novel, to me, it didn't feel like that and i'm sure to yourself it didn't feel like that, but then again, we come from the background of reading cooper and mallarme and more out-there writers, where most people are used to these single-protagonist, standard narrative things where all the threads are tied up neatly into a little package at the end of the book. this doesn't necessarily leave that, which i really enjoyed.

j - there’s a huge disconnect between experimental fiction and mainstream american fiction. a lot of publishers who just read the A side, which i thought was very straightforward, were freaked out by it, by how odd it was, how different it was. a lot of the experimentation in the book are also deeply embedded. i did try to kind of 'trojan horse' this to a certain extent, to give the book a smooth surface sheen and if you want to notice some of the deeper experimentation that's happening and sink into that, you can. but you can also look past that if you want to.

c - it's not in your face, like, 'look at all this weird shit that I’m doing in this book.' it's there if you want to get in there and actually dissect the mechanics of how the narrative is assembled, but if you don't care about any of that you can just read it straight through and it lends itself well to that.

j - that approach felt right for this story.

c - where mira corpora and novi sad had almost like a ghost-like quality to them—and i'm not really sure even entirely what that says, but at the end of both of those, i felt like i left with more questions than i had answers and definitely more questions than i had going in—with destroy all monsters, it felt when you got to the end of it that it was a good ending point and—something i really liked about it—the book was almost hermetically sealed where it...obviously with the theme of mass killings at concerts, it could be this very timely political screed about gun culture in america, or whatever. but instead it creates this really tight little world where it refers to itself and only itself but without being winking or cloying or annoying and cute about it—it creates this world where it echoes itself throughout the text in a really immersive way. it really felt like for 300-ish pages that 'this is the only world you need to care about right now.'

j - well good, thanks. two of the early reactions: don delillo read it and he said that it reminded him of an ancient folk tale, which was really cool. and then when ben marcus read it, he said that it felt like a clear vision of the future and it felt like a really timely story. they each isolated something that's hopefully happening simultaneously in the book. i was trying to draw on something that's contemporary but also be steeped in rituals and dream logic and an underlying hermetic mythology.

c - yes. something that i really got into, too, was that—especially once you get into the back half of side A—it quits engaging with the epidemic and it starts engaging with the survivors and their aftermaths. and i noticed that a lot of the sort of key events in the story are: they're putting on a show to pay tribute to their friend who was killed at his last show and then they're going out to the woods to sing a song for their two friends who are now dead. [there's a] line in there when xenie and eddie are walking out in the woods and she says 'do you ever feel like the dead feel like they're haunted by the living?' and that line tied the book together for me because so much of it was concerned with these little rituals that we do to mark the absence of someone who's no longer there.

j - and one thing that has not come up in any of the reviews yet is that it's deeply a book about grief. that’s not something i wanted to put on the flap copy. but a friend of mine read it whose mother had passed away not so long ago and he was talking about how xenie's grief felt so real to him. i was really happy to hear that and that he could read it through that lens. hopefully there are a lot of different entry points into the book, depending on how you're coming at it, but i was glad that it was useful for my friend to read it from the grief angle. the A side and the B side offer two different paths to overcoming grief. the characters choose radically different ways: the way xenie chooses to overcome shaun and the way shaun chooses to overcome xenie are very, very different.

c - hers felt more confrontational and his felt more conciliatory.

j - totally. hers is, 'this all needs to be erased.'

c - yes! obliterate all traces and...destroy all monsters! holy shit, i just got the title! [laughs] and i really did love the setting of it. i spent my teenage and early twenties playing in bands, and going to see my friends' bands play, and everyone i knew was in a band. so when [xenie] said the real rebellious thing you can do now is not be in a band—i saw you mention this in another interview—that difference is now that music's all digital: when i had my first jobs in high school, every friday i would hop on the bus and ride over to the university campus because that's where the two cool record stores in town were. i would spend my day just acquiring music, where now i just go on my phone and just 'oh, i've heard good things about those guys, i'll check it out.' and you lose that deep connection in some ways—like, my memory on my phone is maxed out with music, but nine times out of ten i'll start listening to some new album and decide it doesn't grab me and i end up listening to funhouse or exile on main street again.

j - [laughs] right, right. so many of my favorite records were things that i didn't like at first and the only reason i kept listening to them is because i had paid for them and i was determined to get my money's worth.

c - 'this was an import and i am NOT wasting $25.'

j - yeah! like pere ubu's dub housing: at first I was like 'what is this shit?' but i kept playing it because it cost me some serious money and eventually loved it. some of those records took a number of spins before they clicked, but when they did, they also shifted my perception about the possibilities of music. but it wouldn't have happened if i hadn't put all those extra listens into it because i felt invested in it. but now, i'm sure there's records that i streamed and said 'that's pretty good' but never went back to, where if i gave it another five or six listens, something revelatory might happen.

c - the first album that i had that sort of moment with was loveless when i was a freshman or sophomore in high school. and just on first listen i thought—and around the same time, it was them and also jane doe by converge—both had the similar effect on me of 'i don't understand this, i feel like i'm standing in the middle of a tornado,' but the more i listened to it—like, after i got each of those records—i was listening to them constantly on my headphones for like two weeks because i had decided that i didn't get it but i needed to figure it out.

j - i had a similar thing with loveless where i dismissed it at first but i kept coming back to it and finally, when it clicked, i listened to it all the time.

c - i was at school one day and i got up early that day to get high at my friend's house before school, and i was sitting in class with my headphones on pretending to sleep. and i sat up and said 'there are actually songs on this fucking album!' like, once the wash of backwards reverb and feedback started to fade away, you could see the really pop construction of their songs, which then carries to something like destroy all monsters where once you strip away the shifting narratives and the reshuffled characters and repetitions, at its heart it is really a book looking at how people deal with grief and loss.

j - yeah, and that grief and loss is partly, i think, a loss for people, but it's also a sense of loss for the cultural possibility of music meaning something more than it does now. that cultural spark that helped electrify music so that communities could form around certain bands, identities could form around certain bands, that’s mostly missing now. there’s barely a culture of people listening to the same bands anymore.

c - i've definitely noticed that with my friends that have similar taste, i thought. like, we're all into bowie and sonic youth and mbv or whatever, but we'll meet up and recommend new bands to each other and none of our bands are even remotely the same. like, if we each name ten new bands, there might be one match.

j - yeah, it's true. the band i'm has a fairly large age range, and it's amazing how little there is in common—we sometimes don't know a lot of each other’s musical touchstones.

c - it feels like something that's happening more toward the future, where like with my group of friends, there are a lot of us that came of age in the 90s so we all have these similar touchstones and signifiers. but as the culture got more atomized, we're all coming from the same background, we all know fugazi, and the beastie boys, and sleater-kinney, but now it's completely new stuff and we all recommend bands to each other that we're sure no one's gonna get around to listening to.

j - it's an issue across the arts. the book is using music to talk about something larger. one of the questions is: how do you make art that has stakes when people aren't paying attention? it just gets lost in the cultural noise, gets swallowed in the sense of information overload. and how do you make something that isn't just adding to the noise and making the problem worse?

c - i was talking to my mother like a week ago and she was reading—justine bateman just put out memoirs and she was talking about family ties—that's the show she was on, right? anyway, that was this huge cultural phenomenon and fifty million people watched it every week and that was a top-rated show with like a quarter of the population of the country watching it.

j - yeah, the first season of twin peaks the viewership was like thirty million watching david lynch's weird shit. that stuff could move the cultural needle in a way that is just not possible now. i heard kendrick lamar complaining recently about how fast damn. disappeared. and he's not wrong, but if kendrick lamar thinks he’s not getting enough attention, what hope does anyone else have? we're at this crazy phase where stuff is just being consumed and made disposable so quickly, and i think that's happened with music more than anything else. because music can be so quickly devoured, it's been the first casualty. movies are becoming a casualty too, but because they're a little bit longer, because it takes at least ninety minutes to devour a movie versus three minutes, it has a little bit more protection. weirdly, i think books have been somewhat safer from being devoured by the internet just because it takes so long to read a book. with the caveat that the internet has destroyed everyone's attention span and no one reads.

c - i think that might be part of it. i like to hope that we're not turning into a nation of illiterates, but...

j - i hope not too. but i do think, in some ways, that books have benefited from the internet because there's been this information exchange that wasn't around when i was young. because of things like dennis's blog, it's so much easier now to find out about really cool, unusual books and writers. there's a lot of great small presses that are reissuing lost treasures. it's easier to hook into weird stuff that used to be like secret handshakes. you had to know someone who knew this alain robbe-grillet novel or whatever. and that's just not the case anymore. it's easier to disseminate that information in a positive way. the fact that a book is a physical object still means something, too. it's nice that e-book sales keep going down.

c - yeah. like, i can't read stuff on a tablet and i think a lot of people do feel that way. i had a kindle, and it can fit however many thousands of books on there, but...i like having a book.

j - i see the benefit of it if you're someone who's constantly travelling; if you're an artist who's on tour all the time, that's when a kindle starts to make sense. but I don’t like them either. for me, it's important that my novels are nice objects and do something within the physical form. the layout of destroy all monsters was crucial and i worked on it from the early stages of drafting. same thing with mira corpora and novi sad

c - i really enjoyed novi sad because it was very stripped down. i've hit a point, over the last few years especially, where nothing makes me happier than to see someone put out a great piece of art that has no frills, no fat, they trimmed it down to the bare fucking essentials and just put it out there. it implies ultimate faith in what you've created because instead of putting all these bells and whistles and ballast on it, you put it out there unadorned like, 'yeah, it's only seventy pages. but guess what? there's a lotta shit in that seventy pages.'

j - i like stuff like that too. destroy all monsters looks a lot longer than it is. side A's word count is shorter than mira corpora.

c - that's something i noticed and it reminded me of bret ellis's early work in that respect because it was a lot of short sections that had a really nice cumulative effect where they built on each other but they also kept you reading because they're so short that you go, 'oh yeah, i'll read another section. i can get a couple more pages in.'

j - good, i'm glad it worked that way because i like stuff like that where it's like, 'oh, i'm kinda tired but...I’ll read just a couple more pages.'

c - 'the next chapter's only a page and a half. i can do that.'

j - [laughs]

c - going back to music, i remember like twelve years ago or however long it was, when i would start a band or my friends would start a band and we would all agree that it was great if we all managed to start and stop a song at the same time, like that was a huge thing to be proud of. but then recently some of my friends are making music that i'm not really a fan of and think is mediocre, and i want to support my friends...but i also don't want to aid and abet the spread of sub-commercial mediocrity in this world. and it pushed me away from that in some ways, so when xenie says the true act of rebellion now is not to be in a band because everyone is doing it...

j - there's definitely this idea of silencing yourself as an act of rebellion. that the generous artistic gesture is not to share something. of course, with xenie it's complicated because it comes at a cost. she's maybe a person who shouldn't silence herself, and yet she is. and that's where her dilemma lies. rather than taking the risk of adding to the noise and the mediocrity, she's just gonna cut off that part of herself as an act of rebellion. in a culture of information overload, saying almost nothing is a possible rebellion; in the same way that in a culture of hedonism and overconsumption, straight edge was a protest against that.

c - it's an idea of negation.

j - totally. it’s an open question for the reader how positive of a gesture that actually is.

c - it could be read defensively, but it could also be read as a really succinct 'fuck you.' like, 'yeah, the song in my heart is beautiful, but i'm not gonna let you hear it and nothing you say or do is gonna make me allow you to hear it.'

j - i  went to a talk last fall by will oldham. he's been writing new songs and he had no plans to record them. because of streaming and the internet, he feels the contract between the listener and the musician has been broken.  people don't listen to his music with the attention he wants, so he's not going to share his music. it was kinda creepy to hear him talk about that, but it was fascinating.

c - that was brought up in the book too, how she has this hard drive full of songs but that the acquiring of the songs themselves became more important than actually listening to the stuff. i mean, i've got apple music on my phone, and there will be days where i'll go through like, 'oh, i haven't heard that. let me add that, and that, and that, that, that...' and if it doesn't [end up] on my playlist that i listen to when i'm sleeping, i might not even get around to playing it.

j - my friend says he's on the 'browse only' netflix plan, because he spends like an hour before bed just adding shows to his queue but not watching anything.

c - i've done that one a lot.

j - me too. i think it's a common thing.

c - or 'oh, so-and-so's recommended this show to me, i should start watching it.' and half an hour later i'm rewatching some marc maron special that i've seen fifty times.

j - right, yeah.

c - in side B, you start engaging with the killings themselves. there's a lot of geographic movement. there's a kineticism to it that just pulled me right in.

j - it took a long time to figure out how to get those killings right. i'm glad that came across.

c - there's that issue where you don't want to glorify it, but you also can't gloss over it since it's the central thrust of the narrative.

j - also, i wanted it to be dramatic but also leave enough room that people could navigate it without feeling numbed out by it. the repetition was important because that's what an epidemic is, this onslaught that keeps happening; but I wanted to do it in a way that the reader doesn't feel traumatized by it but still feels activated and engaged.

c - an epidemic is repetition, so if you look at it on a large scale, it's the same thing happening each time, but zoom in and each person who's affected by that is obviously going to be affected much more deeply.

j - it's a unique experience, yeah.

c - because for them, it's probably the first time they saw someone get killed.

j - hopefully.

c- ideally, yes. [both laugh] i really loved especially, in 'kill city,' the little interludes between the killings in the first section. are those supposed to be different narrators? because it felt like it really shifted around a lot, that there were similar thematic elements, but that it was going between xenie and shaun and even at some points it felt like you were writing from the perspective of one of the killers.

j - you mean like the sections with 'you do this. you do that'? they're all following the same killer. it's pretty subtle but you’re following the first killer and he loops back around to the very first killing. in the north carolina killing, he enters the club and sees this banner and stops to read it, and that makes him feel okay to go inside the VFW hall and start shooting people. and in the 'you' section, you realize that the banner says 'welcome home.' it's another looping back on itself. shaun talks about how xenie kept replaying these scenarios in her mind of what the first killer was like. in my mind—and you can read it a number of different ways –these sections are xenie's imagining of what led up to the first killing. in that opening section, she asks shaun: 'what led up to the killing? what happened before the first shot? there's always something before the beginning.' so this is her imagining that 'beginning before the beginning': what did the killer go through that led him to walk into that VFW hall in north carolina? it's meant to be initially disorienting. It also mirrors of the section of the boy with long hair on Side A, except this kid has no hair. at first you're not exactly sure, and 'how does this relate? where is this in time?' and it's moving in time in a different way than the section it's cross-cutting between, which also echoes the opening of side A.

c - it really struck me right away on the first read, the recursiveness of it. even when it moves forward, it still draws you back like, 'wait, he mentioned that a few pages back.'

j - even the last chapter of side A is in some ways a redrawing of the epidemic—with deer instead of humans. but then in side B, i used 'you' because i also wanted there to be a shift, so there's a lot of second person. and in the middle section of 'kill city,' shaun is addressing xenie as 'you' in his mind. and then the last section is this collective dream that's a plural 'YOU.' the point of view switch is a way to wrench the reader into a different reality: the reality of side B.

c - it's very effective.

j - i had a professor who taught a class on music and rhetoric and he said there are all these forms that musicians put into classical composition, and it doesn't matter whether you can pick them out, that's not the point. the point is that they subconsciously shape how you experience them. so there's a lot of structural devices in destroy all monsters and it doesn't matter if you notice it. but it's hopefully guiding your reading of it regardless.

c - and we kind of talked about that earlier, but it goes back to that thing where it's experimental but without being annoying or in your face about it, and it's a narrative that carries the reader. as a reader, i love nothing more than to put my trust in a storyteller and say 'take me somewhere new.' and this does that. i hate to say you 'play' the reader because it sounds accusatory, but there are those little things that a less close reader or a less well-versed reader in literary theory might not pick up on these things, but they're still there and they're still having that effect and that impact, still pushing forward and coloring how you read the book, even if you don't notice that it's there.

j - right, it's not about noticing. those things are still functioning.

c - and sometimes noticing the mechanics of those things can dull the impact.

j - if it’s too flashy, for sure. that’s why i tried to embed it rather than call attention to it. it's something that you might notice on a second or third read, but ideally not on the first read because you're so immersed in the story and the characters that you're not concerned with the mechanics. it's also important that the book is still an open text: that there's a lot of room for the reader to roam and make their own associations and attach their own feelings and opinions to what happens. it’s not telling you how to feel about events. that's important to me literally. and politically, too.

c - something, for example, that drew me to dennis cooper's work is that he doesn't editorialize. he doesn't tell the reader how to feel or think, he just presents the action.

j - he makes you work for your empathy. the empathy isn't presented in a pat way where you can forget about it. you actually have to earn it and that’s much more powerful. there's so much contemporary american fiction that holds the reader's hand and tells them how to feel at every point. and that alone is politically regressive. regardless of whether the other content is progressive.

c - that you may agree with entirely.

j - exactly. but if you're in that same spot where you don't have to actively think and navigate something for yourself, it's inviting you to go back to sleep. and i think that's a real problem. I’ve tried hard to write books where you have to be an active reader for it to work. 

[our interview resumes several days later]

c - anyway. destroy all monsters has, thematically, with the gun violence angle and a large part of the book being about how people process grief, those two realms could very easily slide into sappy, sentimental schmaltz or, on the gun violence end of it, it could turn into this neoliberal screed...did you find yourself trying to push it in directions that would stray from that? did you ever find when you were writing that it risked falling into that trap and had to move the writing?

j - yeah. especially with writing scenes around grief and scenes that are more emotional, it was tough to find the right balance when sometimes these characters weren’t very expressive about their feelings, but the reader needed to understand them. and sometimes the characters were overly-dramatic in their angst and I tried to find ways to undercut that. and there are other times where there are really emotional scenes, and trying to find ways to write them so the emotion came across but it wasn't sentimental.

c - wasn't like a 'hallmark movie of the week.'

j - it was a challenge to find that line and make sure that it was on the right side of it, where it was still being expressive and communicative, but not being lazy and overwrought. with the gun violence—well, it's not just gun violence because there are knives and explosives intentionally in the mix so it won't seem like a sociological examination. as i said, my notes for this go back over ten years. america's a very violent country , and it has been for a very long time. but these mass shootings weren't happening on nearly the scale and with the insane frequency that they're happening now. and we certainly didn't have the government reacting by passing laws that would make it more likely to keep happening. we weren't caught in this vicious cycle that we are now. all that has come to the fore in the past couple of years. after sandy hook, attitudes about shootings changed pretty radically. and then after parkland, they shifted again. and i'd already drafted a fair amount of the book pre-sandy hook. so it was the same challenge i had with mira corpora, which was how to depict violence in a way that it wasn't some gimmick or hook. that the violence and its aftermath had a reality for the characters. and to dramatize its impact but do it in a way that the reader didn't feel like, ‘i can't take this anymore,' and tune out.

c - you don't get that 120 days of sodom desensitization at the end of it.

j - that may be part of what sade's going for, but that's not what i was going for here. i didn't want to desensitize people. just the opposite, in fact. so I used a lot of different strategies for narrating it where that would happen. that took a number of drafts to get working.

c - those sections particularly, especially when you get into 'kill city' and you start going through the epidemic from the killers' perspective[s], there was almost that dry minimalist thing where the violence is described very matter-of-factly, but it was still engaging. the emotional content was foregrounded.

j - part of what's happening in those scenes is that it's narrated from this weird POV where the narrator is almost running alongside the action and trying to tell you what's happening but they don’t have any psychological insight into the killers, and so they’re guessing what the killers might be thinking or about to do. i thought of it in some ways as someone doing a DVD commentary for a movie they're seeing for the first time and having to describe to people what they’re seeing, what’s happening. i tried to get an urgency baked into the prose that way. also, as the killings go along in 'kill city', the moment of violence starts moving further and further off the page until the very last one we don't even meet the killer. they're somewhere in the crowd at the street fair.

c - it goes back to how the book folds back in on itself. i like to stick with the musical theme and say that it feeds back on itself.

j - totally. that's a better way to say it.

c - and the further i got into the book, the little repetitions kept the momentum up for me BECAUSE they were mixed around and shuffled around a bit so that every time you saw them it was different phrases grouped together so they had different impacts.

j - i'm glad that worked. it's always tricky with repetition, how much is enough that you get the feel of the repetition, which i think is really important in dramatizing an epidemic, and then when is something too much. it's such a fine line to walk. i spent a lot of going back and forth figuring out the ideal number. how to present and frame the material in the most effective way.

c - the 'birds' interludes in 'my dark ages'...i don't know if you can hear them in the background, but i keep finches. i have eight of them.

j - ah, i was wondering what that was! 

c - but those little vignettes, in a book that has already so many different narrators and shifting points-of-view, were brief but there wasn't a wasted word in them. they still had emotional heft to them. is it florian imagining what his mother would say to him in those situations?

j - that's an interesting question. they could be taken a number of different ways, one of which would be florian imagining his mother. another could be quite literally his mother narrating these sections from beyond the grave. 

c - it almost felt to me like—and i don't even know why it got into my head—but you know sometimes when parents will have a terminal illness, and they'll die before their kid gets to grow up with them, so they'll write them letters or leave them a video or something like that...it almost felt like it could've been like a little folder of cards that, even though her death was unexpected: open these when you're older and they'll make sense to you.

j - yeah, I could see that. it's like she's trying to use the birds, talking about the birds to talk to her son about other things, or florian imagines her talking to him, giving him advice about these situations through the birds. there's also this different sense of music—a non-human form. We often attach a certain meaning or emotion to birdsong that may not be there for the birds.

c - it does tie into when xenie is talking about driving and she puts on a song that used to have huge impact for her but now doesn't hold any import. it parallels it from another side of it, that something someone put together and spent a lot of time making—'this is music'—just kind of becomes meaningless.

j - it's such an awful feeling when you revisit something that meant a lot to you and you can't figure out what you liked about it. it just doesn't contain that anymore. 

c - where you go back to an album that you were really connected to at a certain age, and it just doesn't speak to you [anymore].

j - i've had that happen with movies and books too. there are certain things i'm almost afraid to revisit...

c - there are a few on my shelf that i don't want to ruin.

j - it also echoes the conversation that xenie and eddie have in the woods where he talks about the album that his father destroyed because it was too negative and it actually wasn't negative enough for him. it couldn't contain the extremity of emotion that he needed it to. i think that's what xenie feels. there's an extremity of experience and emotion she needs that the music isn’t  providing her anymore.

c - where she used to be able to hang her feelings on a song and say 'this is me,' now that something in her life has happened that's catastrophic..

j - she feels this before the epidemic happens though. that's what she points out to eddie in the woods, too. this is all before. it's now come horribly true for her, but it starts before.

c - that's right. i hadn't noticed that. we kinda got into, previously, the design of the book and i know you mentioned you were pretty involved with that. now, was that all the way down to picking the fonts even?

j - they picked the font, but i really wanted the design to mimic how i laid it out in the manuscript. and it mostly does mirror how the sections are spaced and broken up. when i'm working on early drafts, i am thinking about the layout and how things look on the page and that is important to me. sometimes the solution to a narrative problem comes through layout. every now and then, a problem that seemed like a story problem is actually a layout problem.

c - you get it set on the page, and then everything comes into focus better.

j - yeah, like thought breakouts of the characters in part two of 'my dark ages' and part two of 'kill city': when i finally figured out how that should be laid out, it finally felt like you're dipping into and out of the thoughts of the characters. like you're getting quick x-rays of florian's mind, or xenie's or shaun's mind. 

c - the layouts almost mirror what's going on within each side in that side A is a bit more sprawling and open of a story, kind of expansive and externally-focused, where 'kill city,' other than the 'you' sections, is a lot more inner-focused and more tightly framed, i guess.

j - yeah, it's definitely more tightly framed, it's also more thematically organized. the A side is more organized around a narrative that goes from point A to point C in time, where parts of 'kill city' are more thematically and conceptually linked to each other. 

c - but narratively, it's more amorphous.

j - yeah, you have the killings; and then this one night of the funeral; and then the collective dream. they're all related to each other and they overlap, but it's looser. you know, a B side should be a bit more challenging than an A side. The B side also consciously uses 'you' a lot—the second person— so that it feels like you are in a different space.

c - especially when it shifts in that last section, in the dream, from...it's like 'you' as 'we/they' as opposed to 'you' as 'i/you.'

j - exactly.

c - it does that same thing where it almost pushes you to step outside of it for a second.

j - yes, step outside, but hopefully it's also putting the reader more directly inside this dream, which maybe they don't want to inhabit. it's also echoing the dream in 'my dark ages' that florian and xenie share, those dreams of the killings that they have trouble shaking off.

c - when part two of 'kill city' starts to...

j - yeah, when it starts to infect the text. you get little variations on some of what you'll see later. there are a couple of reviews that say like, 'oh, it gets a little baggy with all the variation on these repetitions'—which i get—but the repetitions and the variations in the repetitions are important for those musical reasons like you first mentioned.

c - exactly. what happens in most good pieces of music? they'll find riffs and themes and they will be repeated and a lot of times, they'll be repeated with subtle variations. and that's what’s supposed to be what causes music to stick in your head. it was almost like watching a rock tumble down a hill and create an avalanche; the repetition kept it moving. it felt like reading—i come back to the same thing—it really read like music to me, which was great.

j - that's great. i'm glad that came across. in one of their best songs, mark e smith from the fall advises that we follow the three Rs: repetition, repetition, repetition. i'm a big believer in that.

Destroy All Monsters by Jeff Jackson available here.

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INTERVIEW WITH NOAH CICERO by Benjamin Scott

Noah Cicero has a new book out called Give It to the Grand Canyon, published by Philosophical Idiot in July (available here).  It is his first fictional book in several years. I interviewed him about the book, his writing process, and his views on the current state of America. 

BS: How would you categorize Give It to the Grand Canyon?  Is it fiction, a short story collection, a memoir?  At first I thought it was a memoir because the narrator doesn't state his name until a couple chapters in. Are the characters based on people you met?

NC: It definitely is not a memoir. There are scenes that happened, but there are scenes that were made up. In general, the real moments of my life were specifically selected to suit the story’s purpose. Billy Cox isn’t me. Billy is better educated, and more “every person” than me. If it was a memoir, I would have written about how my psoriasis was killing me and I basically only ate apples and salad the entire summer. At one point, my tooth chipped and that was really bad. I sat in bed listening to "Sara" by Fleetwood Mac a lot. Also, someone very close to me died right before I went out there, and that’s not mentioned. I was stalked by a Romanian woman for a lot of the summer. At least I don’t think I mentioned that. 

BS: Much of the book seems to revolve around themes of the passage of time, humanity, the state of American society, letting go of the past, questioning the future, and the power of nature.  Will you please explain what inspired you to write this book?

NC: I’ve been to a lot of National Parks. They are my favorite places. At every National Park there is a visitor center with a bookshelf, containing books specifically about the park. They are all written by the park rangers, scientists and historians. Nobody that has worked concessions ever wrote one. What I mean by concessions is for the private company that the government contracts to run the hotels, gift shops and restaurants. No book like that exists. So I made one.

If those themes you mentioned made it into the book, they came naturally. I didn’t purposely add those themes. I had no intention to do that. 

BS: Many of your books are clearly political/philosophical.  This book is very subtle in any political/philosophical message.  Do you think that readers are tired of politics/philosophy? Are YOU tired of politics and philosophy? 

NC: The book is about a summer at the Grand Canyon. It was about the shadow of a woman. The Grand Canyon was here before politics, and it will outlast all of us and probably even politics. I want to respect your question, though, and answer. Am I tired of politics? I think when I wrote about politics when I was younger, it was the voice of an Ohio white guy. Ohio people in general love to make political opinions. It is a sport for them, but it means nothing. I realized what I was saying meant nothing. It was unserious and facile. I really struggled with this,  like something died in me, and the rotting corpse of my stupidity stunk horribly inside me. I decided to not give random opinions anymore. If I feel strongly about something, then I need to do something, even if it is very small. Last week, I ended up in a meeting with Corey Booker. None of my facile opinions led me to that. It was doing something. 

BS: This is your first published fiction book in several years. How long did it take you to write Give It to the Grand Canyon

NC: It took nine months. I wrote the book in 2016. I never submitted it to anyone, and then I saw Philosophical Idiot was going to publish books. I love them and their aesthetic, so I submitted to them. 

BS: Do you write every day? Do you use a laptop/pen, paper/type writer?  What is your writing environment like?

NC: I wrote randomly, a few times a week. I would go to Starbucks on Lake Mead and Buffalo and write a chapter. I would listen to Willie Nelson and other Outlaw Country Bands. I tried to find the voice of an old country singer. When I write a book, I try to imagine how the story is told. For this book, I imagined an old man holding a Martin guitar, strumming away in his living room. Then his grandson comes in, holding a picture of him at the Grand Canyon alone and in South Korea standing next to a mysterious woman that isn’t grandma. He asks grandpa, “What’s this?” 

BS: Are you working on any other writing projects?  

NC: No, I think something is taking its course. When it is over, there will probably be words then. 

BS: Although the book is not specifically about climate change, it does show the power and danger of living in an extreme climate. You posted that everything was shaking in Las Vegas during the California earthquakes. What is your view on climate change and the state of the environment? Do you think the environment can survive with capitalism/consumerism?       

NC: I don’t think I can answer some of these questions. I’m not a climate scientist. Do I think the environment can survive capitalism/consumerism? This is an opinion question, like I am supposed to give an opinion. This opinion would define me, and if you enjoy my definition, you might want to buy my book. I do not think I can give that opinion. I will say, I don’t think it is capitalism. I think it is our culture. The act of fair exchanges, binding contracts, growing food and then turning it into chips is not evil. What is evil is that they have convinced us to be slaves to the Ideal of Wealth. We are slaves to the idea that wealthy is best, that we should be able to make wealth by destruction and thievery, that if someone is wealthy they are automatically better than everyone who isn’t.

People often talk about how Catholicism makes you feel guilty for being a sinner, but American capitalism makes you feel embarrassed just for existing. The attacks on your sense of self are relentless. Most of our society is crippled by the anxiety of not being good enough. Oh man, I’ve already lost. See the language I just used? “...crippled by the anxiety of not being good enough”? Immediately people will be thinking, "Good enough for a great job.” No! Not that. Good enough to love your friends, be friendly, enjoy the life you have, have the body and intelligence genetics/God gave you, and help each other with confidence. In this society, if you are bad at math, they start shaming you in kindergarten. Your body is shaped a few deviations off of a TV Actor, shame. You don’t live in a good neighborhood, shame. Your parents aren’t married, shame. You don’t have kids, shame. You are a man, but you cry sometimes, shame. We have so many cultural shaming methods, and they are about the dumbest things. 

BS: How do you feel about the upcoming campaign season for the 2020 election?  Are there any candidates you support?

NC: I feel a little scared, because I am unsure if Ohio and Florida can be won by the Democrats. Those states seem to have been lost by the Democrats, and they will have to make up those points in other states. How and what states? In a very innocent way, something seems really wrong, like why can’t we lower the military budget? Like why? Why can’t we help the immigrants on the border? Why can’t we give at least residency status to immigrants that have been waiting for years? Why don’t we have single-payer healthcare or some variant?  It says in the constitution we are all equal. If we are not equal when it comes to healthcare, then the document is a lie. The big Republican states of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama are becoming theocracies, but at least poor people can live there. In California, the liberal apex, if you can get a job making $80,000, you live in a cute utopia. But if you don’t, your quality of life is horrible. These are not good advertisements. 

I don’t want to comment on the candidates. 

BS: What are you currently reading?

NC: I just read the autobiography of Saint Theresa Lisieux and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin. They both helped me. I need to learn how to love. I have to learn how to pray for those who mistreat me. 

BS: Are there any writers you would like to recommend readers check out?  

NC: Juliet the Maniac by Juliet Escoria. 

(If you want to check out some of Juliet the Maniac, here's a taste. If you want to get yourself a copy of one of Noah's books—and we suggest you do—go here. --Chris & Jennifer)

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INTERVIEW WITH SAM PINK by Benjamin Scott

Sam Pink is the author of a dozen books, including Person, The No Hellos Diet, Hurt Others,  and Witch Piss.  I interviewed him about his latest book The Garbage Times/White Ibis, his paintings, and his time living in Florida.

BS: You lived in Chicago for a while but several years ago you moved to Florida. What sparked the move and why have you moved back to Chicago?

SP: I moved to Florida for the person I was dating. I moved back when we broke up.

BS: Sorry to hear about that. Does Chicago seem different? Where is the best place to eat in Chicago?

SP: Yes, it seems different, in that I view it differently but also that it is has slightly changed. The best place to eat is Arturo's on Western.

BS: You have a book coming out next month that contains two novellas: The Garbage Times/White Ibis. What are they about?

SP: The Garbage Times is about working at a bar in Chicago. White Ibis is about moving to Florida. They are also about a whole range of other things, both intended and unintended.

BS: Are you planning on doing any public readings? Or attending writer events/conferences?

SP: Yeah I have some readings set up, and hopefully more this year. I enjoy doing readings. I went to AWP this year as well.

BS: Your last book came out in 2014 you spent most of the past couple years painting while in Florida. How were the hurricanes?

SP: The hurricanes, where I was at, were very mild. I had an experience during one of them though. I went to my girlfriend's parents' house to hunker down because the news made it seem like the entire state was going to die. And as the time for the storm drew nearer, I had a panic attack (like heart racing and unable to stop thinking/calm down) consisting of envisioning the storm hitting, like visualizing the destruction of the wind, the walls of the house coming down and being pulled away by water, trying to save people, dying, etc., which continued to escalate in a way that was hard to endure, but then when I identified that there was a bad storm coming, and nowhere I could go, and that I'd have to try and survive and help the people around me survive as best I could, and that was just how it would be, I immediately became calm, and almost at the same time, the storm changed course and weakened and became nothing.

BS: How many paintings do you think you made?

SP: Including drawings, probably 200/250 or so.

BS: Do you plan on doing more?

SP: Yes, I just don't have a place to paint right now.

BS: Did you ever take any art classes in school?

SP: I took an art class in high school, which was basically like a crafts class/babysitting class.

BS: Why are art teachers quirky?

SP: Some spirits do different dances to get out.

BS: Where did you work while living in Florida?

SP: I was a dishwasher, a home remodeller, a medical warehouse employee, a machine operator, and an ice cream man. I interviewed to be a mortuary driver, but felt like the protocol of only sending me and not two people to pick up dead bodies was unreasonable.

BS: What is the worst/weirdest job you've ever had?

SP: (lights cigarette and looks off to side) Being me, dude.

BS: Are you working since you've moved back to Chicago?

SP: Not really, I'm looking for a job.

BS: How would you describe your books?  

SP: I wouldn't describe them. That's what the words inside are for. Plus I honestly think other people understand what the books are about better than me, based off what they've told me throughout the years.  

BS: Would you consider your books socially political as many of the characters/narrators are not out in front of society?

SP: Yes, in that you can interpret almost anything politically/socially. But no, in terms of any explicit ideas.

BS: Do you have a writing process? Do you make notes or have any habits? Does it take you a long time to write a book?

SP: Kind of. Usually I have a bunch of notes I've written down, or scenes I want to write, and then begin developing them. Usually takes a year to write a book.

BS: What inspired you to first start writing and painting?

SP: My spirit.

BS: While following your painting output I've  noticed they tended to get bigger and the patterns/colors would change. When painting do you just use whatever materials are around or do you seek out certain colors brush's medium etc? Do you still have paintings for sale?

SP: I used to, and sometimes still do, use whatever is around.  It helps to break patterns, and different tools do different things. But I have also gotten into purchasing art supplies, like specific colors, canvases, etc. I have two paintings for sale still.

BS: Do you work on one project (book/painting) at a time or do you jump between them?  Are many of your paintings related to the content of any of your books?

SP: Usually one at a time. My mind usually tells me when to switch. Like if I feel less enthused about writing, then I switch, and vice versa.  None of the paintings are directly related, but I have used them for book covers, etc., and also, I reference painting in White Ibis.

BS: Are there any authors that influenced your writing style?

SP: Yeah, but more in the way that they encourage me to 'tag in' and contribute, rather than giving me style points. I feel more influenced to 'do something' when encountering stuff that inspires me, rather than, 'I should do stuff like that.' Style is personality. Your personality is  your style. Even if you're writing about aliens, those are aliens from your personality.

BS: How do you feel about the current political climate in the USA and globally?

SP: Haha, man...

BS: Do you listen to podcasts? Which ones?

SP: No.

BS: How many cats do you have? What are there names?

SP: I have two, Benny and Dotty.

BS: Which authors/books do people need to read now?

SP: Oh man, too many to list and remember right now. I try to support as many of them as I can, with what ability I have. But there's a crop coming up that is kablooey. There are writers and painters and other people coming up right now that are doing a lot to make me excited. Don't worry about them just yet, they will announce when they're ready. One book people need to for sure read is Welfare by Steve Anwyll, coming out this fall from Tyrant Press. They have paid me nothing to say this.

BS: Why should people buy your book and where can they buy it?

PS: Because it will entertain them and maybe do other weird things with their mind and because I'm a sweetheart. They can order now through Soft Skull Press, or through various online and physical locations on may 1st when it comes out.

BS: Are you working on any future projects now?

SP: Yes, I'm working on a book of short stories that is pretty much done.  It's called The Ice Cream Man and Other Stories.

NEXT: EXCERPT FROM LIVEBLOG by Megan Boyle

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A FEMININE DARKNESS REBORN: REVIEW OF MOTHER! by Christina Antonovskaya

(Warning: spoilers)

We were looking for the room at Champagne Centre for the appointment, and I found a pin on the ground that has “I feel it all” written on it and an image of a woman smoking printed on it. I took it and put it in the left pocket of my pea coat and will probably keep it there. This quote resonates with me and also with the themes of the script and film.

Impurity, more exact, the myth of pureness is depicted through Mother’s character with physiology, vicarious causation of surroundings, and the creator of Mother himself, as when Woman subtly hints that she is young enough to be his daughter. Mother has no choice but to be directly affected, as she is the house and the house is her, and whatever happens to one also happens to the other. She becomes “tainted” as the disciples enter. Meanwhile, Man and Woman both contribute as Man/mankind is literally dying and Woman is menacing with her unruly behaviour and minimal appreciation of consequences.

Labour of care and emotions as compassion

Even though Mother is selfless, this emotional labour is not necessarily reciprocated, and instead is diminished by the human desires associated with selfishness and money. Mother is unable to really relate to the motifs of the Sons at the level of resentment they feel towards each other due to problems caused by these same weaknesses of human nature. Yet, it still pains her to watch what happens. Mother is humane, but not really a human like them or us.

Nobody else is as connected to the house as she is, and while there are moments that lead up to immense pain and suffering, she is not at fault for it. Mother, much like real mothers and women do, committed to sacrifices and experienced significant loss.

The current climate

Current events within the year proved hubris of our need to invade the natural environment for our own purposes; government allowance of creating more infrastructure and development of oil and gas rigs and excavation, digging into the earth, minimizing nature’s resources more and more, and scientific “progress” that has questionable or uncertain consequences. Biblical allegories as warnings, or else history will repeat itself, and now it is us having to face it if we don’t pay attention.

Reference is made to Mother also as the subservient role of housewives, girlfriends, or any woman that finds herself in this situation today at the expense of men and others that are dependent on them. The “m” is lowercase. The earth and humans are in a directly codependent relationship in reality, and it is just as portrayed by Aronofsky that at some points, it actually is that destructive and unnerving, although within the context of the script it seems as though it was taken a step too far.

When the house, or earth, suffers, we all suffer vicariously through what nature has to endure, and this is a negative feedback loop that is difficult to break. Not until complete chaos and death, does that cycle break, and after even the child of Mother dies also. In the midst of the destruction and war in their house, the symbolic notion of the tower being built and things taking shape, reflective of society’s structuralism, and that it has taken its place there even under such dire circumstances.

What remains, and always will, is the spirit of womanhood, or particularly motherhood, as a seemingly pure crystalloid energy that is able to withstand all of the damages. While this is empowering, it still feels fiction-based, and sidelined from feminism that is relatable or current. Mother had indeed been killed, mercilessly, not just suffered “an assault” as Lawrence stated, and for no cause but reprise or rebirth into a new beginning. Again, this is at the expense of Him, undeniably the main man and mastermind behind all that has happened in the first place.

The story begins with Him being almost indifferent and struggling to find purpose of himself, as a writer, husband, and himself, almost as if to suggest that of course, being Him, this isn’t necessary for Him. However, tables turn by the end, and the one in full command of Mother and her fate is Him, as power dynamics are consistently evident to not be on Mother’s side, everything from who they welcome into their home to if they have sex or not. It is even difficult for Him to deny his disciples what they wanted, and then to make them leave Him and Mother alone as their force violated Mother, their home, and even turned on each other, as allegorical to the backlash of human destruction as creation.

Ogling the piece as an entity apart from the film almost feels like looking at a secret process. This could be of my cherished experiences with original scripts; this one and the Alice in Wonderland (1983 playwright’s edition, one of my best possessions and was attained mysteriously). It brings something to the reader much different from a viewing experience. This was a glimpse into Aronofsky’s honest stream of consciousness, or as close as we will get to it. Photos from the scenes are embedded in the screenplay, including some of the most grueling moments. Surrounded by destruction, these characters all exude their own livelihood and creation. Even though the film is focused on Mother’s perspective, the story is just as much about her as it is about Him. The rebirth is equally theirs, as they both are forced to start anew.

Hollywood, CA, Paramount Guilds, 2017 Paramount Pictures Corporation.  Screenplay by Darren Aronofsky.

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