WRITING BY EAR: Dashiel Carrera interviewed by Kira K. Homsher

WRITING BY EAR: Dashiel Carrera interviewed by Kira K. Homsher

It’s common practice for reviewers to compare a piece of literature to other mediums: A chapter plays out like a scene in a movie, a paragraph paints a picture, a sentence sings. Though I can’t seem to shake this convention, I can at least promise absolute sincerity when I indulge in these comparisons to describe Dashiel Carrera’s debut novel, The Deer (Dalkey Archive Press, 2022), which pays unparalleled attention to the senses. The book opens in the wake of a car accident, as narrator Henry Haverford tries to recall whether or not he actually hit a deer. The animal triggers a break in Henry’s sense of chronological time, and the narrative plunges into a series of indistinguishable visions, memories, and hallucinations. The Deer is as immersive as a private IMAX theater, offering new ways of looking and listening, and of experiencing language. (I’d argue that it should come with its own pair of complementary 3D glasses.) Carrera leaves you with more questions than answers—in the best way—and I was lucky to get to ask some of mine in this interview.

Kira K. Homsher: The novel is organized into several sections which mimic the structure of a musical record, featuring sides A & B, as well as a sequence of numbered tracks. The language, too, is constructed with rhythm and sound in mind. Can you talk about your position as a multidisciplinary creative and its influence on the crafting of The Deer? What was your process?

Dashiel Carrera: The Deer came to me as a voice, strange and fragile, after long hours of writing and rewriting its first paragraph. Transfixed by the odd turns and cadence of its speech, each day I set a timer and kept writing until the alarm went off. This approach no doubt held its roots in my background recording music: I thought of these writing sessions like performances, called “takes.” 

My editing process was influenced by music as well. When recording vocals, editing little imperfections in a performance often fails; the ear picks up on some change in attack or patterning of breath different to each performance, which vanquishes the illusion of liveness. So in editing The Deer, I took great pains to keep the cadence of the voice intact. If something sounded unnatural to my ear, or of a different breath, I cut it immediately. I wanted the voice to be given free rein to say exactly what it pleased, and for each sentence to follow the next according to its own internal logic. Commas became rests; conjunctions provided tempo. The Deer ended up feeling more like an album to me than a traditional novel. No passage was complete until I could read it in its entirety with the sense that it was “in tune.”  

KH: The prose in The Deer is, of course, musical, but I also found it cinematic. Are there any specific filmmakers or films that influenced you?

DC: Yes, many. The novel no doubt owes a great debt to David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, a favorite of mine. Ingmar Berman as well: Persona, Hour of the Woolf. And Apichatpong Weerasethakul. When I saw his film Tropical Malady I was so struck by the shadow the first narrative cast over the second, I knew I wanted the same bifurcated structure for The Deer.   

KH: I was especially taken with your incorporation of short, poignant folktales in Side B of the novel. The two sisters, the stag, the boy with the black rock, for instance. I could read a whole book of them. Where did the inspiration for these tales come from? Did you make them up entirely?

DC: Yes, they’re made up. Or rather they are constructed from images that haunt me, and of which I will forever be trying to make sense. I’ve been drawn to folktales ever since I was a child, in part because the simplicity of language and almost bizarrely discretized, strictly causal narrative moves of folktales are so similar to the puzzle books I loved so much. Though, while puzzles or riddles always have some answer waiting to be solved, the morals of folktales are often opaque, just beyond reach. I think the tales in Side B are, much like the rest of the novel, a futile attempt to make sense out of a spiritual and psychological rupture that permeates the narrative. 

KH: Not to get too technical here, but I’m interested in your usage of pronouns. There’s a refreshing, dizzying looseness in the way characters are referenced: I becomes you becomes he, Arthur becomes Brother becomes caretaker, sister becomes Sister, and Mother becomes—possibly—deer. The characters seem to mean different things to Henry at different times, and this comes through in the language and grammar itself. How did you navigate this switching of roles?

DC: Language and grammatical rules in The Deer seem to fluctuate depending on the emotional state of the narrator. The voice longs to articulate the nightmare suffered. When a new character appears, they’re referenced according to how the narrator thinks of them in that moment. To my mind, this is an extreme form of expressionism—in which pronouns aren’t just used as signifiers that indicate some character in a fictitious world, but rather point only to some glimmer of who they are to the narrator in that particular moment—much as they would in a dream.  

KH: I like what you’ve just said about dream narratives, because you’re right—peoples’ identities do seem to morph freely in dreams depending on the immediate role they happen to be playing within the narrative of the subconscious. Were there other dreamlike qualities you were interested in conveying through language?

DC: Yes, absolutely. The sudden narrative turns and the repetition of phrases are something I associate with dreams as well. Often in dreams I get the sense that some particular phrase or image is being worked into the narrative repeatedly so that it may be exorcized from the mind. I’ve read that this is some artifact of the process by which our thoughts and experience are converted into long-term memory while we sleep. Our mind attempts to construct a narrative out of the deluge of images and fragments of thoughts, rather than the other way around.

One of the main turning points for me in writing The Deer came while writing the first paragraph, when the voice repeated the phrase “there were no deer.” It became apparent that the work wasn’t talking directly to some implied reader but rather incantatory, overheard, discovered, unearthed. Phrases and images pass back and forth in The Deer in a dreamlike manner; conjunctions and punctuation denote breaths and pauses rather than the logical conclusions of clauses. It is slipstream, moving out and within. 

KH: Returning to the subject of grammar, I want to talk about gerunds. The characters and objects in this book are often represented in a state of suspense: things are spinning, curling, trading, flickering, and falling. How does this relate to the novel’s approach to memory and time?

DC: Gerunds have the unique power that they can describe an action without placing them anywhere in time (past/present/future/hypothetical), which for a traumatized narrator, for whom the past is ongoing, continuous, and bleeding into the present, is uniquely powerful. While writing The Deer I became excited by the ways in which gerunds can be strung together to untether a sentence or paragraph from the time, and then be re-anchored with another clause later on. The problem with the past tense is that it doesn’t just indicate that what’s being said happened in the past but implies that the action has been terminated. (For instance, if you say “I rode my bike today” it implies that you are not, at that moment, still riding your bike—you are done riding your bike). When the past is ongoing, this is misleading. 

I think my interest in gerunds also has something to do with my background as a musician. The thing I miss most moving from music to prose is the ease with which I can make two voices act simultaneously and resonate and coordinate with one another. But when everything is described with gerunds (“Sally is spinning in the corner and Jack is lifting his knee to do calisthenics and Holly is baking cookies”) I can achieve a similar kind of polyphony. 

KH: What time(s) of day did you find yourself writing this book? Did different times produce different linguistic results?

DC: Night, deep in the night, or the wee hours of the morning. Pitch black with the curtains drawn. Occasionally a cigarette under the open moon. As quiet a location as I could find. Generally in bed, just about to drift off to sleep, or very early in the morning, before the light leaked through the windows and my mind was alert. Half slumped over, the opacity of the dreamworld still hung on my shoulders. Had to be careful not to scare off the voice. 

KH: What kind of interruptions tend to scare off the voice?

DC: Other voices, other sounds, other coiled engines of thought unfurling. I like to lose myself as much as possible while writing. Try not to let myself get distracted by the trappings of interpretation, the endless lust for certainty and classification, the desire to know the voice and classify the voice and smother its tangle of worry.

KH: Your doctoral work is concerned with digital literature—the ways in which reading and writing could change in the future—and yet there is a distinctly earthy and analog feel to this novel, which reads as if it exists in a pre-internet world. The fragmentation of sentence and structure, however, complements the 21st-century consciousness. Did you have this contrast in mind while writing the book?

DC: Oftentimes when I’m asked about digital literature people assume I have some desire to combine books with luminescent wires or talking robots. I enjoy these things, but my interest in digital literature lies in the ways it allows us to uncover and understand the cognition in the reading process, expand beyond the limits of the page, and reframe literature as another form of media art. 

All of which is to say I’m not sure the two things are in any kind of contradiction. Computers can and are constructed from all matter of organic materials as well as analog devices. It’s the intersection of digital and computational thinking and literature that interest me— the longing for discretization, propositional logic, and yes, the fragmentation of consciousness you’re discussing. 

KH: Who are some of your literary influences? Did you find yourself reading or rereading any particular works while you worked on The Deer?

DC: I didn’t. Works like The Deer are very fragile. The novel is a dream, more or less, and much like a dream it can slip from memory easily. Its voice is quiet. If I’d put in conversation with the cacophony of the canon while I was working, I think I would have drowned it out.  

KH: So, then, was there a practice of avoidance while writing? In other words, were you trying to avoid outside literary influences?

DC: Yes and no—on the one hand, I think that if I had introduced the voices of other writers into the process too early, I would have squanched the one I was trying to write. It’s always tempting to open myself up to similar voices that have already been written because it lends the process security. If someone asks me what I’m working on, I can cite those canonical voices and feel respected as a writer. But then there’s the risk of treating the idiosyncrasies of the voice–those strange turns of phrase which may become the heart of the piece—as kinks in need of ironing.   

But also, for whatever reason, the music that I was listening to at the time—particularly Leo Ornstein, Grouper’s Ruins, Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory—happened to prove more useful. Had I known of Beckett’s Malloy, it’s possible my approach may have been different. 

KH: So, what’s next for you? Any upcoming projects in the works? Are there any plans to turn The Deer into an audiobook? I could imagine a lot of exciting possibilities in that realm.

DC: I’m putting together an audiobook for The Deer, which may incorporate interactive elements and forms of sound foley. I’ve already done this to some extent with the first chapter, and hope to do more chapters soon. I also hope to develop a performative version for readings that more fully takes advantage of possibilities with sound. And then I’m wrapping up another novel: a fragmented, Markson-esque psychological novel called Man in a Room, written in the form of an itemized legal plea and based on the story of the longest-held man in solitary confinement.

Dashiel Carrera is a writer, musician, and media artist from Massachusetts. He has released 5 albums on the label 75OrLessRecords and his writing appears or is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review of Books, LitHub, FENCE, BOMB, and others. He received his BA from Brown University in Literary Arts and is currently a PhD student in Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Toronto. The Deer is his first novel.

Kira K. Homsher is a writer from Philadelphia, currently living in Los Angeles. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online, Indiana Review, Passages North, Hobart, and others. You can find her at kirahomsher.com and tweeting @bogcritter.

Art by Crow Jonah Norlander.