Brian Evenson is the author of over a dozen books, most recently the story collection THE GLASSY, BURNING FLOOR OF HELL (Coffee House Press, 2021). His work has been translated into Czech, French, Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Persian, Russia, Spanish, Slovenian, and Turkish. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the Critical Studies Program at CalArts.
I interviewed Brian Evenson in a Zencastr call on 16 July 2021 and by email in August and September 2021.
While I was reading around for this interview I found a quotation from your former teacher Leslie Norris; a marvellous quotation about your collection THE DIN OF CELESTIAL BIRDS (Wordcraft of Oregon, 1997):
These stories represent the early work of Brian Evenson, a writer of astonishing power. He has been compared to Poe, to Kafka, to other great writers whose vision was bleak and dark, and whose characters act out of appalling despair. Evenson is worth such comparison but his work is different from these. His worlds are without any emotion at all. Neither cruelty nor pity, happiness nor misery, compassion nor suffering, hope nor despair exist in his tales of inexorable and inhuman logic. They are written too in a faultlessly efficient prose, so that we see these strange worlds in the clearest and coldest of lights. And, paradoxically, we become aware of life without a purpose, of laws without sense, of victims who do not know they are victimised and agressors who act without aim or malice. Evenson is a moralist, telling us that our very humanity is at risk, and that we must defend it.Leslie Norris
I think that is an intensely interesting characterisation of your work. And it does the great thing of making me want to read more of you, and also more by Norris. Could you talk a little about Leslie Norris’s influence on your writing? And also, how much does your approach to teaching resemble the way Norris taught you?
Leslie was a huge influence on my writing. When I was a freshman at Brigham Young University I ended up enrolling in his summer graduate level creative writing course and by the time he realized I was a freshman he was interested enough in what I was doing that he let me stay in the class. I’d go on as an undergraduate to take a number of creative writing classes from him and to do one or two independent studies with him in which I worked on my writing. He was very good at saying one or two quite precise things about my work in a way that allowed me to see the work from a new perspective and transform it, and I’ve tried to emulate that in my teaching: not a barrage of comments but saying the sorts of things that will both open the writer’s eyes to aspects of the work they didn’t see before; and also speaking about the work in a way that helps to solidify the writer’s aesthetic.
In addition, Leslie read a lot and read broadly, and he was extremely good at introducing me to the writers I needed to know about at the moment they were most useful for me. He introduced me to Salman Rushdie’s SHAME, for instance, shortly after it was published and well before Rushdie became better known because of THE SATANIC VERSES. He also introduced me to J. G. Ballard’s short stories and to his novel CONCRETE ISLAND, because he felt there was a similar impulse in Ballard’s work and mine. He was also the first one to introduce me to Donald Barthelme’s short stories, Caradoc Evans’s work (MORGAN BIBLE was an important book for me, which is probably a surprise to most people), Jonathan Swift’s A TALE OF A TUB, and a great many more. He’d often loan me difficult to find books from his own library. I’ve tried to emulate that practice as well—giving students the work that they need at the time they need it.
How much of that quotation above from Leslie Norris works as a description of the stories in THE GLASSY, BURNING FLOOR OF HELL? I feel it is very prescient in many ways?
I think Leslie had a very clear idea of who I was, and who I still am, that there is an intense ethical impulse in my work, even if it’s quite differently expressed than one might expect: an ethics of depicting what is there without definite authorial judgement and allowing the reader’s own ethics to spill into the vacuum. Leslie could feel that there even at an early stage (not all critics have recognized it), and worked to nourish it. And yes, I think it’s quite a good description of THE GLASSY, BURNING FLOOR OF HELL—and of certain stories in that book in particular (like ‘Curator’). Honestly, it applies to most of my work (at least to the work I like the best).
Norris taught you when you were in Provo, Utah; and now you’re in Los Angeles, right? You’re in California.
And you were in Providence, Rhode Island before. And you’ve spoken about the effect Providence had on your writing. And in this great article by Nick Mamatas, you refer to Lovecraft’s lurking presence in Providence. What lurking literary presences do you feel in Los Angeles and how do they affect your writing?
There’s a lot of noir that I think of when I’m in Los Angeles, just because there’s enough early noir books that are set here. So I do think about that a little bit. But then I think the other thing is that it’s hard if you’re in LA not to be hyper-conscious of all the film stuff going on just because so many people are working in some capacity or other with television or film. So much of the way in which narrative is received now is through television or film. That’s something I think that’s very present and hard to resist.
Which writers do you find yourself going back to or thinking of when you’re writing either prose or writing for television?
Ross McDonald is the one I associate most with in relationship to LA. And Raymond Chandler as well. In terms of the noir that I like the best, Hammett is probably my favorite. RED HARVEST is a book that I just really love. Partly because I feel like he doesn’t exactly know what genre he’s writing in when he wrote it. So he’s figuring out the shape of it as he goes. And that’s interesting.
And then in terms of TV, I’ve been working in a TV room for HBO, which I started in March of 2021 and which is likely to go to the end of August. We’ve been working on a Joe Nesbø novel called THE SON, adapting that as an eight episode limited series that at this point Denis Villeneuve is slated to direct and Jake Gyllenhaal is supposed to star in.
Nesbø is someone, in terms of noir and crime stuff, that I liked very much. I think his Harry Hole character is great. But Hole is not in this piece — THE SON is not part of the series.
But working on that is definitely something that makes me think a lot about what works visually and what doesn’t. It makes me think a lot about what it is about my work that makes it function as well as it possibly can on the page. So those are things I find myself constantly thinking about: the degree to which the work I do is or isn’t primarily meant to be on the page.
You mentioned Hammett figuring out the shape of his stories as he goes, and you’ve talked before about the hydraulics of your stories, and how things reach some sort of equilibrium. How much are you figuring out as you go, when you write?
I’m figuring out a lot as I go, especially with short stories, and that’s a huge part of the fun for me. Some writers are very good at understanding the rules of a genre and writing something that encapsulates the structure and impulses of that genre extremely well. I think of myself as being more the kind of writer who is constantly thinking about a genre, ‘Yes, this is a screwdriver, it’s made to screw in screws, but what else can it do? And what happens if I break off the handle and attach what’s left to this other tool over here?’ I read enough and read widely enough that I have a pretty good sense of how genre strategies work, but I see myself as a curious writer, as someone who is always either trying to get somewhere new or to take a different path to a place I already know. Often if I have too good of a sense of where a story is going I get bored with it and find myself less interested in writing it. A good story, I find, will surprise me as I write it.
Looking back at when you were starting out writing and comparing then with now when you are so busy, does it feel like two different lives?
Yeah, I think it’s very different. Initially it was hard for me. I was trying to get attention; I was trying to find places to send my work, that sort of thing. Whereas at this point I have more people asking for work than I could send. And so it’s a very different sort of problem. Early on you figure you’re only going to be published if you’re sending something that’s really good, and later you have enough reputation that the problem is you really have to be the gatekeeper in terms of deciding what’s good.
And are you always the gatekeeper or does your agent help you to filter?
For short stories it’s me. Anytime I’m sending stories out to magazines, I’m usually doing that myself rather than having my agent do it. For book-length works, that’s something my agent looks at and gives me advice on. And Coffee House Press has been very good in terms of just being responsive to my work. Also, when we get to the books of stories, they’ve been very good at suggesting what should be in there and what shouldn’t.
And in THE GLASSY, BURNING FLOOR OF HELL, your latest collection with Coffee House Press, the first story in the collection has this brilliant opening paragraph — a brilliant story, an amazing paragraph. And I was thinking about how beautifully abstracted it is, and how there is no sense, initially, that the story is on a vessel at sea or in space, or perhaps nowhere. And this is a fingerprint of yours, this abstraction of place. And that abstraction would be very hard to capture on film.
Yeah. The abstraction. There’s certain things with language I can leave very vague or abstract or mysterious that would immediately be pinned down in film. And the reverse is true too. There’s things that you can be very abstract with in film that just wouldn’t really work in fiction. I think I’d have to think about what those things are, but my impulse is to think that there really are these things that film is very good at doing abstractly that fiction on the page just really can’t.
I feel like when I’m writing prose especially, I’m trying to take as much advantage of not only what I can do with the precision of my language, but what I can leave unsaid or unexamined, these gaps where things can happen without the canvas being completely filled in. So that ambiguity, ideally that productive ambiguity, is something that is going to make the work more interesting and make it resonate more for people and make it last longer in your head after you put the story now.
Jake Gyllenhaal has been in some great noir, like NIGHTCRAWLER. And you have written stories which engage with that genre. What do you feel you can do with noir on screen that you can’t do on the page? And maybe this relates to what you said about how film can be more abstract in ways fiction can’t.
I think that film can be abstract about certain things such as interior space in a way that fiction can’t, and that can be a tremendous tool: a good actor, like Gyllenhaal is, can give you double-voiced clues that make you think he’s thinking or feeling one thing when in fact you realize later he was thinking something quite different. If the script is good and the acting is good and it’s done right, it really works. There’s a horror movie I love that came out in 2019 called COME TO DADDY. It’s not for everyone, but what really works about it for me (among other things) is that there’s a moment a little way in where you realise that what both you and one of the characters believed simply wasn’t the case, and you had the clues to know it, but weren’t reading the clues correctly. I love that simple, elegant, deft gesture. Fiction, on the other hand, can be vague about physical appearance in a way that film can’t. I have a few stories, such as ‘Mother’, in which the story turns on you not knowing right away exactly what the characters look like. I play with that a lot in my fiction and it’s something that simply doesn’t work in film.
How did you come to be working on THE SON?
The show runner for that project is a writer named Lenore Zion who is a fiction writer as well as someone who has done a lot of work in TV. She’s worked on a bunch of different shows. She has a new show Netflix show called BRAND NEW CHERRY FLAVOR. And she knew my work. We’d tried at one point to put together a proposal for a series based on a story of mine, which is called ‘Black Bark’. We’d also worked together on another project that never went anywhere. But I think she liked me and she’d worked enough with me to know that I could make the TV thing work in terms of how I would approach it and was just generous enough to make it happen. Then I talked to the producers after she expressed interest and everyone was on board. So I’ve been very happily working on that.
How long have you been working on that so far?
The TV room started in March. At the very beginning it was set to be a 20-week room, and so it would have ended in just like a week basically. It was extended for another six, so we’re going to go at least till the end of the August and potentially could go longer than that. I’ve co-written two of the scripts, or rather I’m in the process of co-writing two of the eight scripts so far. Working with a number of really talented writers has been a really interesting process as well. There’s five of us, in the room, total, in terms of writers. It’s a good mix of people.
Were you working in a writer’s room for DEAD SPACE as well?
It was a little different because I’d written a couple of DEAD SPACE novels, but the ideas for those novels had been very collaboratively worked out, and so I had some experience working in someone else’s world or space. I had done some other things along those lines. I’d done some video game work as well, Some of which I could talk about, some of which I can’t talk about in detail.
Yeah. Some, one of them, yeah. So I worked on an unspecified project that has gone through a lot of phases, which I found really interesting, and which I can talk about. It was for a demo to get to a point where they could make a larger game. So I was doing that work and basically you do your work and then you wait a while to see if it actually happens.
And then I did a lot of the world-building, or some of the world-building anyway, for a game called THE UNDER PRESENTS, which is an Oculus game, a VR game. I designed this kind of time boat phase that’s part of it, which is a game about figuring out a mysterious set of events by being able to go forward and back in time. That was really fun. It was really interesting and challenging. And I love these projects that push me out of my comfort zone a little bit and, put me in a space that’s different than what I’m used to.
What have you had to learn or unlearn writing for screen?
I think every genre has its own set of expectations that come with it, and that’s true with every media, I think, too. There’s certain things that people can just innately understand or grasp in a genres; and there are other things that seem a little more mysterious, if that makes any sense. So we have certain expectations thinking about literary fiction, or certain expectations we have for horror fiction, or science fiction. And as soon as you start taking those different codes and combining them, then you have to figure out ways to give readers cues for how to negotiate it.
In visual media like television or film, I think there’s a whole new set of different expectations. So much is done in TV with performance. The performance can carry so much and so much the way in which a script really works is very much just trying to give the actors and the director enough information to generate a piece that works.
And with prose, with fiction, you’re always working with the reader to some degree in terms of generating a story, or the reader has to be involved in that, but there’s a different level of control. You’re still doing that with viewers of film, but there’s another kind of collaboration that goes on before that. I think there are things that would work very easily, things I can do super simply in prose that I cannot do, or I haven’t figured out ways to do, in TV. So one of the really interesting things writing the script is, you realize that there are certain things that characters say that have to carry a lot of weight, that feel very iconic, that you have to key them in the script in such a way that the actors will deliver them the way that they need and not overdo it or underdo it. So I find it almost more like poetry than I do fiction just because it is so much about suggestion and so much about trying to set up something that can come to life as it’s conceived by other minds.
When you teach literature, do you teach a lot of theatre?
I haven’t taught much theatre. I do teach film. Sometimes I teach a class that’s called ‘The Monstrous and the Terrible’, and I just have film and prose.
What is that course all about and how do you teach it?
One of the reasons I left Brown University and came to CalArts was because they made it very clear that I could teach whatever I wanted to. ‘The Monstrous and the Terrible’ is an incredibly fun class for me to teach because it lets me think about horror fiction and film, and horror as a genre generally. There are some stories and movies I always teach in that class (the movie THE THING (1982) for instance) but one of the fun things for me is to inflect the class differently each semester, to think about how, depending on what we’re favouring, we might view horror differently. Really all the classes I really like to teach are, more or less, about genre and understanding genre and how it works as a way of organizing narrative. I also teach a class on Fairy Tales which I love, that starts with some unpolished archival fairy tales (that make very odd gestures) and moves through Perrault and the Grimms to get at contemporary and postmodern fairy tales. I’ve learned as a teacher over time that if you approach things you’re interested in with a great deal of enthusiasm and openness then students will usually come along with you. Also, I feel like the way students respond to what I have them study has made me over time see it in a new light.
You’ve said elsewhere that Beckett has a real signature. And in the Beckett I’ve read, the way he’s laying words is very distinctive. Do you feel that Beckett’s signature carries between the theater and the prose? And do you feel that your own signature as a writer is there in both the prose and the screenwriting?
I feel like the signature is slightly different for Beckett, from his poetry, from his plays, and his prose, but it’s still there. There’s a deeper similarity, if you look through the surface differences. And yeah, I think there are. I’m just thinking about the last script that I’ve finished, that’s been turned in, that I co-wrote, and I think you could read it and feel my DNA in it. But also it’s co-written so each of us two writers are writing different parts of the script and then the showrunner goes over it and may make some changes or may adjust things as well. So in that sense, the DNA may be a little more hidden than it’s going to be in in my fiction where I ultimately have a lot more control on every step of the process.
If you watch the series when it comes out— and it’s not scheduled at this point, who knows what will come up, so probably 2023 or 2024; but I think if you watch it you might think, —That feels very much like something that Brian does in his own work. That will often be the case. But also it’s an interesting enough group of writers, and we have enough commonality as well as differences, that there might be moments where it’ll feel like me, but probably I had not all that much to do with it. So I think you can probably sense stuff there, but I think it’s because of the way television works, the levels of collaboration and distance, it’s not clear cut.
Each individual element working with others. Have you seen those YouTube videos where they play scenes from something like STAR WARS without the John Williams score?
Yeah, I’ve seen things like that. It is very strange to see that, or I’ve seen rushes of stuff and it’s so strange to see something before the music and sound effects are set up is set up and you start thinking, —This is not very good. It’s just we’re so acculturated to have that musical track that’s helping to support what’s going on there. So it’s much more collaborative as a process, and even more collaborative than something like a drama, I think, in terms of the way it functions.
Do you hear music, or musical cues, behind, or in front of, the words you’re writing in the screenplays? Does the writing itself become more auditory or visual?
Both for fiction and screenplays, I hear the words voiced in my head as I’m writing them, sometimes in particular voices—or rather not so distinct as to be a voice but still with a certain cadence and character. I don’t hear that all the time, just at particular moments when the writing is going well. When that happens the words in my head are usually a half sentence ahead of what I’m scribbling on the page—though I don’t think they would be if I’m typing rather than writing by hand: that’s one of the reasons I write by hand; I feel like I’m being led forward by something semi-conscious inside of me. When I get very sick or very tired I begin to experience paracusia or auditory hallucinations. That’s different from what I hear as I’m writing, but it also feels related to me.
The writing can also, sometimes, become visible in the sense that I have a very clear idea of what the spaces (houses, exterior, etc.) are that my characters are moving through, even if only little bits of that come out on the page. I’ve always seen that as partly due to my mother being an architect and her interest in spaces being something that I have as well.
I’m also really fascinated by the way you visualise something like the position of the camera, and how there are beats in the dialogue which might work very closely with the cuts or the movements of the camera, or the physical movements of the actor. When you’re putting the words down, how much does that come in, and how do you know when to back off and let the actor or director do their thing?
To be honest, at least with my experience working on THE SON series, it comes in only in small ways, little hints to the director, ways of opening or closing the scene. But we also leave a fair amount open for the director to fill in, and I think a lot of that ends up being done when a shooting script is being composed. That’s the stage when you’re lining the script and creating a shot list. But the initial episode script is much more focussed on the dialogue, action, and description.
You have that layering in computer games as well. The graphics and the music; the design of the gameplay alongside the narrative.
Some people play computer games and pay real attention to the story. But a lot of people don’t; there’s a lot of people who skip over the story when they’re playing it. Or, they’re not as concerned about that as they are about other things or about the quality of the game play, or the way in which the graphics are working, or just the space and picture of the world. So I do think it’s a similar thing, and I think with both television—and I really like working in both those spaces, television and and film and on the one hand and video games on the other—I think there’s a lot to be done there.
And I think I find it really interesting, partly because it feels fresh and new to me and different from other things I’ve done. One of the appeals of them is that you’re part of a larger process. So if you’re with the right people and have the right team that you’re working with, you can get to some really amazing places that you might not have been able to get to just on your own.
Did you watch LOVECRAFT COUNTRY by any chance?
I have not watched that yet. I’ve read the book. Actually before the series came out, two or three years before. I like the book quite a bit. I think, if I remember correctly, Matt Ruff had written the book after he’d proposed the series and it hadn’t come to anything. So it feels very much reading over the book that you can feel how it could be broken up into a series, but according to the chapters. I may be wrong about that.
That’s interesting. I was talking to P. Djèlí Clark, who has written this great novella, RING SHOUT, about LOVECRAFT COUNTRY, and he was really impressed with how they built on that episodic structure.
Oh, I love RING SHOUT. I think P. Djèlí Clark is really interesting.
It’s super, super interesting. And RING SHOUT has been picked up by someone for an adaptation, which I’m very excited about. But that could also be in 2024 or 2025.
That’s great news that RING SHOUT has been optioned and it’s moving forward. That was one of my favorite books I read in 2020. I really think it’s a very strong novella. That’d be a fun show to work on, for sure. I hope that they get really good people for it.
And strangely, HBO hasn’t renewed LOVECRAFT COUNTRY for a second season.
Yeah, I don’t know quite what’s going on there. One of the things with HBO is that it is such a massive organisation and I know very few people who are connected to that. But yeah, I thought it was a little strange. The thing I’m curious about is: will it end up somewhere else if they want to do another season.
I’m really hoping. It was just such a great season and it seems like a real waste of talent.
Yeah. I need to see it. I do like the novel quite a bit and it’s something on my list. But yeah it’s weird, what gets renewed and what doesn’t get renewed, and I think there is often a weird calculus, not just at HBO, that has to do with the cost of the show, the enthusiasm of one or two executives, and then other hard to predict things.
One of the things I just really love in P. Djèlí Clark’s RING SHOUT is how this work of cinema, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, this culturally corrosive film, becomes magical, its cultural force becomes something more immanent. It wrenches on some topics in a very powerful way and Clark wrote it in about a month.
I think that there are some books that you’re so ready to write when you write them, then they go very quickly. That’s my experience. I wrote a book called THE WARREN, which is a very short book, and I wrote the draft of that in six days, which is not my usual way. I’m happy with it, but it was a book I thought about for a long time, but when it came out, it really came as a burst.
Moving back to THE SON and Denis Villeneuve, briefly: PRISONERS was the first film of Denis Villeneuve that I saw, and it was one of those films that stopped me in my tracks. The ending of that film seems like a very Brian Evenson way to end the film, too.
Yeah. I love that film. I mean that. I just think that’s a terrific film and I’m very into the way that film ends, the openness of it, but it’s also just very intense and beautifully done. Great performances by both the leads in that as well. And just generally the whole feel of the film is amazing. It’s funny, that’s a film that wasn’t exactly overlooked when it came out, I think a lot of people know it, but they don’t know it as much as they know things like ARRIVAL. I really think that’s a masterpiece. I love it.
Back to the stories. Your new book. So, THE GLASSY, BURNING FLOOR OF HELL has a great title.
Oh, thank you.
And a lot of these stories could work as episodes in an anthology series like THE TWILIGHT ZONE. They often have this very strong and disturbing final image, whether it’s an abstract one or a more visual one. And with the title story, ‘The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell’, which is an amazing story in itself, and bookending with ‘Leg’. Could you imagine them being made into television stories?
Some of them. Sure. The book before it, SONG FOR THE UNRAVELING OF THE WORLD, has been optioned for TV. But who knows if that’ll ever lead to anything. It’s just, it’s very hard to say. Their idea was they could do it as an anthology series in which you start to see connections between these pieces.
I could certainly see that. I think more and more with my last few collections, I’ve started to think of them as collections, as the stories really belong together and are talking to one another. Of course, as you say, there’s this bookend between ‘Leg’ and ‘The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell’ where those stories are talking very directly to one another, but in ways that are very strange. And then, thematically and in other ways, I think some of the other stories are in discussion.
The stories in THE GLASSY, BURNING FLOOR OF HELL have connections, and they do have your fingerprint. Stephen Graham Jones puts it very well. He says he says that the worlds in your stories are ‘rendered in a pointillism that feels not just abstract, but cosmic.’ I can’t think of a better way of putting it. And they do build on each other, one on another. How did you decide on the sequencing?
I think as I start working on a collection, I started to get a sense that I’m on my way to a collection. Probably at that point I have, two thirds or three quarters of the stories. Then I just, I just start to sort them out and, pretty early on I had ‘Leg’ and knew that was something I wanted to have as the first story. After that I print the stories out and put them in piles on the floor, then just line them up and think about how they are sitting next to each other.
They’re not pinned to the wall linked with pieces of string.
No, I don’t do that, even though that seems like it exactly. No that’s a pretty early part of the process. Then I’ll put them in a tentative order. I’ll read through the whole thing and then I will usually feel that there’s something missing or something’s out of place. And then it’s a question of figuring out what’s missing, what’s out of place. How can I sort this out in a different way? And then usually it involves me writing a few stories that aren’t originally in there. Sometimes I’ll include a story I wrote as much as a decade earlier, that just didn’t seem right for collections had come before that.
I’ve been a keen follower of Des Lewis’s Gestalt Real-Time Reviews since Aliya Whiteley recommended him, and Lewis is currently working his way through THE GLASSY, BURNING FLOOR OF HELL. In ‘Come Up’, he picked out the line: ‘Was some water thicker than other water?’ And he mused on the role of this story in the larger collection. Do you feel the collection progresses in a linear way, the reader descending through the collection inexorably? Or are the relationships between stories more vestigal, or perhaps inchoate, and so there might be merit in reading them in reverse, or out of sequence?
I’m very fond of Des’s reviews as well… I’d like to think that the relationships between stories are subtle and vestigial but still very much there, that you feel the connections looming over the stories like a net woven of different-colored strands. I did arrange the collection in a way that I think you gain a lot by reading it in the order it’s written, but my guess is that you’d notice slightly different connections if you read the collection backward.
When did you know that ‘The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell’ and ‘Leg’ would be bookends?
As soon as I wrote ‘The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell’ I knew it would be the final story and would bookend with ‘Leg’, one of the experiences of writing a story like that is I start writing it and there’s a moment when suddenly I realize there’s this thing happening, which could connect the story to ‘Leg’. Usually when I see that start to happen, I think, —Can I really do this? —Can I get away with this and what am I gaining from it? In a case like this, it was just subconsciously I think it had been worked out in advance pretty well. So it just happened naturally and I felt pretty good about it. It’s almost as if one world is existing in a subsidiary parallel relation to the world of another. So the arrangement and the connection I think is complex.
In ‘The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell’ there’s a dream in a dream, and there’s a waking from a dream, in a dream. You have these layers, but ultimately there’s also something— there isn’t clarity about what is above and below; and from those layers, things seems to materialise, become immanent, in amazing ways so you end up with these sort of Russian dolls, and the doll in the middle of the nest might be the bigger one, or not. It is a strangely and wonderfully dizzying story in terms of narrative dimensions.
Oh, good. Yeah. I like that effect very much. That’s the effect I often strive for, where the kind of levels of the story are fractured in some way, or where we are and you are and they are don’t stay in polite relation to one another.
I was thinking about ‘Come Up’ and also ‘Justle’ and about how there feels like there is a connection between those two. What do you think the connection is?
Yeah, I don’t know. I should ask, —What do you think the connection is? I do think that there are some connections.
In ‘Come Up’ there is for me a sense that Martin’s exists in a fabulation, the world feels extremely abstracted, and there is also a fiction in Martin’s mind, a doll within a doll again, and we don’t know what’s happened at all. The lake is as deep as however you want the lake to be. It could be as deep as Loch Ness, or it could be for all we don’t know, as deep as the glassy, burning floor of hell. Then out of this void, this lack of clarity, something seemingly very real emerges, and it is very physical. And in ‘Justle’, there is again a sense of what might be a fiction being told within the story, a story told by a drunk, and then out of that uncertainty comes something very solid and frightening.
I think that’s true. I think with both stories, you spend a lot of time as a reader not sure exactly what you should believe or not believe. In ‘Justle’ you have the narrator who is giving you perspective on what’s being told, but also doesn’t seem to have completely come to a definitive conclusion about what actually happened or what he should believe. Then in ‘Come Up’, it’s a little different in the sense that you have a third person rather than a first person narrator in that story, but Martin is someone who feels like he doesn’t know what to think about what’s happened. As his grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous, he ends up spreading that along to us, I think.
I think we got somewhere.
We got somewhere. Good.
Were the stories in the collection written over a wide span of time? I don’t think there are publication dates in the book.
Good question. I don’t think there are any dates, and so that’s the way I kind of protect myself. ‘Hospice’, which is very close to the end and is a very short story, that was almost 10 years old. There was something about that story that felt to me, like it was a good thing to follow ‘A Bad Patch’ with. Just in a way it’s there as a way of making a transition from the almost Cronenbergian intensity of ‘A Bad Patch’ to something that’s more realistic, but that may be similarly themed. That is then a way of getting to the last story. So that’s probably the oldest one in there. The most recent one is probably ‘The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell’, or maybe ‘To Breathe the Air’. ‘Curator’ and ‘Elo Havel’ are also pretty recent.
‘Curator’ feels very Anthropocene. That does feel very like a contemporary story in some way.
It is. There are more stories in this collection that feel related to the Anthropocene than I think in my previous collections. There’s that, and ‘Elo Havel’, and the ‘Extrication’ is that way as well. And it’s something that kind of haunts some of the other stories too.
What is your literary angle on the Anthropocene, as both a writer and a teacher? Or put another way, what do feel there is to learn from fiction about it?
I think the Anthropocene is a dead end and that the sooner we can move beyond the ideas and principles that created it, the better. I feel essentially the same way about Capitalism. I think the Anthropocene (before it was called by that name) initially seemed/felt very good to humans and was configured as ‘progress’ and a ‘bright future’. One could (and many did, and some still do) make the argument that it was good for humans even if it was generally bad for most species, but at this point it’s nearly impossible to argue in any kind of rational way that it’s good for humans. The Anthropocene is basically a nascent self-extinction event. I have very little patience with near future ecological or climate-related fiction that tries to soften the blow unless it’s doing something else significant. I do, however, like works that present an alternate way of thinking or living that might provide an alternative to the Anthropocene.
Something I see a lot in your sentences is the very powerful parenthesis. You have one right at the beginning of the story ‘Hospice’: ‘In late July, suddenly and without warning, Buhl found himself incapable of drawing a breath.’
That’s very much characteristic of my style. It’s partly just the way my mind works. So they’re partly there because of that. But I love those moments when sometimes even very important information is just presented almost, fleetingly, as this kind of aside, or where the narrator has a hard time organizing their thoughts properly. That relationship to disposable information, which is what you usually think of the parenthetical as being, is nice; those moments where you read over something and then you think, wait a minute, are moments I love as a reader as well.
In terms of voice, I felt something very saga-esque in the opening of ‘Leg’, this retelling of a tale. How did that come about in that story?
Yes, I think the kind of fable quality to it was very conscious and I certainly love the Icelandic tales. I think some of them are really remarkable things, like THE SAGA OF GRETTIR THE STRONG is just really terrific. I love the weird bluntness of some of those tales, too; that you wander around for a while and then suddenly everyone gets killed.
When I was working on this, there were two things I think that were important. One was, I’d been teaching periodically that class on fairytales at Cal Arts, and just really thinking about fairytales and how they work, and also thinking about contemporary fairytales. So that probably was something that was in the background for me. The other is this was originally something that I wrote partly with a friend of mine in mind, this writer named Sloane Leong who does comics. She does really interesting work and we’ve talked about collaborating. We have a proposal for something we want to collaborate on.
And there was something about just this kind of feel of this story where it is like a saga or a fairytale in space, and you don’t ever quite know. Not only that strangeness of the vessel, which I think part of the deliberate vagueness of is probably so that you would think of those sagas, to be honest. I hadn’t thought of that. But that’s probably what’s partly going on there. You don’t know quite where this story is being told. You have a sense of the narrator who’s there. And you have a kind of sense of a strange fable or a saga about a past moment which is in our far future.
I remember hearing about NJÁLS SAGA in a lecture, and hearing about the way the story unfolded and led up to this violence, and I knew I wanted to study that type of narrative. I can remember right there finding something innately compelling about the form.
Yeah, it’s remarkable. My friend Jesse Ball lived in Iceland for a while and he got me thinking about the sagas and reading them. I just think they’re really interesting in terms of how they work as narrative and they’re very distinctive in some ways. I really love them.
In a lot of the stories in this collection there is an ending which is some form of annihilation. Is this annihilation your conception of hell or is hell something else?
That’s a good question. I feel like the hell for me is this kind of state of being trapped and not knowing and suffering. But I do think there are so many moments, like the end of ‘The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell’— I feel that it’s that kind of moment, of knowing she’s going to open her eyes and knowing it’s going to be terrible. That I feel is even worse in a way than actually seeing what’s there. So trying to put you as a reader where you’re in a position where you’re trapped in that is something that I enjoy doing.
Hell is being out of options.
I think so. It’s being backed into a corner. Annihilation is not awesome either, but it’s more thinking about the coming annihilation which is the hard thing. There are stories in this collection that are a little more ecologically minded or that are thinking about the state of the earth. There is a certain amount of pessimism in those stories. It’s eco-pessimism. And for me it’s less annihilation itself, because once you’re annihilated, you’re annihilated. It’s more having to think it through and having to live with the immanence of it. That seems like a kind of hell.
Which you do really well in ‘Curator’. And there’s that clear moment of being annihilated. That moment of becoming nothing is vividly described. But it’s not annihilation. It is the process of not either knowing it’s coming or yeah. It’s just that, that, that tension of being, oh right now, I’m now I’m really stuck.
That comes up a lot for me. I don’t know why. But yeah, that’s something that I circle back to a lot and in a lot of these stories, in a lot of my stories in general, are characters that are in a position that’s just untenable; and them having to decide what do you do when there are no good choices; and, how do you take charge of things if your options are so limited.
The title of THE GLASSY, BURNING FLOOR OF HELL comes from Marguerite Young’s MISS MACINTOSH, MY DARLING, a novel I hadn’t heard of before I read your note about it. I found the line, the quote, in its original—intensely intriguing—context and read some extracts, and I thought I was going to read some little bits and pieces, but I ended sitting in front of Archive.org reading lots of it because she has this style that kind of uncoils and then coils back around you. It’s very hard to stop reading
It is very serpentine.
Why is MISS MACINTOSH, MY DARLING so important to you? And why did you choose that one line from such a massive book as the title?
So, as you know, I take the line somewhat out of context in some ways. I just love the phrasing of that. I love the phrasing of ‘the glassy, burning floor of hell’. It doesn’t even come at a critical moment in the text. It’s hard to say what a critical moment is in a text that’s 1700 pages long, but it comes as almost an offhand thing in someone’s story, side story, that’s kind of part of the larger picture, and it just really struck me. So that was the reason. I took it and realized, —Oh, I’m stealing this. But I still felt like I should acknowledge the source.
The thing that I admire so much about that book is, it’s incredibly sensuous, the sentences. I think it’s very complex. It does something with reality and illusion and ghostliness and the kind of complexity of the way in which we apprehend existence in general. The characters go through these remarkable changes as you read through and in ways that just makes the distinction between realism and the fantastic not necessarily meaningful. So that was really interesting and important to me.
And the other thing that was interesting and important to me is I think it’s such a good book that I don’t understand why it doesn’t get the attention that something like Joyce’s ULYSSES does, for instance. It may be partly that Marguerite Young was female. Her concerns are shifted in that book and different than you might expect. But still, I just think it’s such an impressive and interesting book and in the same way—well, in a somewhat different way—than something like DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT, the Lucy Ellmann book that came out a couple of years ago. It’s somewhat different from MISS MACINTOSH, MY DARLING, which I think is a better book. They have very different approaches and purposes, but DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT, despite its massive length, is a very intimate book, and a very personal book in a way that really works. These massive monumental books by women that are just interesting and precise in terms of what they do with their language.
MISS MACINTOSH, MY DARLING doesn’t get the attention of something like ULYSSES, and it isn’t very easy to get hold of.
No, it’s not easy to find. It is a book that Dalkey Archive brought back into print a few years ago, and they kept it in print for a while, but now it’s slipped out again, which is too bad; I really recommend it. I’m not the kind of person who immediately thinks big books are what we should do. My preference is for slim books that really accomplish a lot. I love those novellas where the language is just incredibly crafted and very careful. But at the same time, I think that there are big books that are too big, where they’re too prolix or something; or they don’t justify their own length. Then there are books like MISS MACINTOSH, MY DARLING that I read and really don’t feel like you could cut much. It feels like everything there is necessary, and the canvas is just so gigantic, that it just really needs what it has.
I read that Anne Tyler, when she was working on THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, would cure her writer’s block by reading pages from MISS MACINTOSH, MY DARLING at random
Oh, I hadn’t heard that, that’s really interesting. They’re such different writers, it’s intriguing.
You’ve spoken a bit about seeking out writers who writing work that is different to your own, or which people wouldn’t necessarily connect with you, like Muriel Spark.
I love Spark’s work and she’s just really terrific as a writer and no one would really think to associate her with me in most cases. But she’s a huge inspiration for me. For years I didn’t read Spark because the only thing I knew was THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE. I knew about that book and the kinds of people who were recommending it to me were not necessarily people whose recommendations I wanted to follow. Then I ended up reading— I’m trying to think— It was probably THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE, which is an earlier, very interesting book.
That kind of just started me reading everything and I circled back to THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE, which is terrific. I really regretted that I’d gone so many years knowing about that book and not reading it.
What I like about her is that her style is so stripped down, and she’s very careful; she’s very precise. There is a kind of fatalism to her work that I really like. And then every book is somewhat different from the books before. She really moves in a lot of different directions.
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE is doing something very particular and quite effective, and there’s another book called MEMENTO MORI, the plot of which is basically that these people, who are elderly, keep getting these phone calls telling them that they should remember they will die and no one can quite figure out who’s doing it. There’s even the implication that it might be supernatural in some ways. The whole book is an exploration of this; it is lurking in the background of the whole book; and there’s an incredible strength to that. Also her unwillingness to resolve what exactly it is. I think that sometimes you have these books that are quite brilliant, but they go too far; they end up resolving all the problems for you or telling you what really quote unquote happened. Spark resists that a little bit, which I like. She has a lot of trust in the readers.
So you have MEMENTO MORI and THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE on the one hand, both of which a lot of people know. But then you also have these strange little books like one called NOT TO DISTURB, which is a book in which a series of murders have taken place. It’s just this kind of almost absurd comedy. Then another book called THE DRIVER’S SEAT, which was made into a movie with Elizabeth Taylor, which is about a woman who is going out to find her own death. It’s this very fatalistic, strange little book, which is not realistic exactly, but still really intriguing in terms of just what it does.
Muriel Spark wrote longhand in composition books and she only used pens nobody else had touched. And apparently she rarely rewrote or revised. You write longhand, but I’m wondering if you revise on paper, mainly, or on screen.
I write longhand and I revise a lot. I used to write with cheap pens that I get free from hotels, and I sometimes still do, but in the middle of the pandemic a student of mine gave me a refillable pen that I really like—not too fancy, but still nice and kind of a perfect fit for my hand, and with a very fluid line and great ink—and for the moment I’m using that. She used it first and it didn’t work as well for her, so gave it to me, so right now, unlike Spark, I’m definitely using a pen that someone else has touched and used. In terms of paper, I write on scratch paper discarded in the recycling when I can find it (harder to do in the pandemic) or plain unlined cheap white paper.
In terms of my process, I write by hand to the point where I’m either stuck or feel I need to be reminded of what I’ve already written, then I type what I’ve written into the computer. Then I print that out, revise it by hand, and keep on writing from there. I’ll do that sometimes as much as a half a dozen times or more as I’m writing a story, then once the story is done I’ll print the whole thing out, revise it by hand again, make the changes on the computer, then do that process at least once more. I only revise on the screen if, as I’m entering my handwritten changes, something better occurs to me. That happens, but fairly seldom.
And when revising are you generally expanding on things, or trimming and bringing things in?
I think most of my revision ends up being tightening the piece. I’ll often trim back stuff. It’s about trying to find that position where I’m doing as much as possible with as little as possible. There are moments sometimes when I turn back too far and then I have to go back the other way. But most of the revision is tightening and making it as tight as possible.
So cutting and stripping away. And in terms of like editorial feedback, what types of feedback do you frequently get from editors, and what type of feedback has been most useful over time?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. I feel like every editor has different things. The thing I’ve learned with editors is that people will often suggest something. This is something my wife, Kristen Tracy—who’s also a writer, of young adult and middle grade books, picture books, and poetry—says, that when an editor makes a suggestion, the thing to think about is not, —Should I do this suggestion or not; but what is this trying to address? —Is there a larger problem that is behind it? And I think there are very few editors, and very few people in general, who are able to think about what that larger problem is. So when I get a suggestion, I usually think, —Is this something I agree with or not. But also, —What is it that they’re really concerned about, or what are they really trying to address, and is it the best way to address it? And often you can figure out a different solution that works better for you and for them. Which, might be just radically different.
Is there a very wide spectrum of different types of editorial feedback?
It’s funny. I think there’s something slightly generational about it, at least in the US where I feel like for whatever reason, millennials are very hands-on in terms of feeling like they can adjust or rearrange your stuff and people from the generation before, less so. They’re more global, big picture people. But I don’t know, sometimes I’m pretty careful, and I get very few editorial responses, so they’re pretty happy with what they have, and corrections are very minor; but every once in a while someone will suggest something and I’ve had suggestions that are just crazy and have said so. The problem with that is it’s like if you have choice, I never think you should take those suggestions. No matter what you’re getting paid for the story or any of those things. Or how prestigious the journal is or things like that.
I just think that every once in a while you run into an editor who wants to hijack the story and make it their own story; and you should see that as a compliment, which is that you have this thing that’s so great that they want it. But also I don’t think you should give in to them.
Two or three years ago there was someone who solicited me for an anthology and I didn’t really have time, but I agreed to do it and sent them the story. And they sent back a revision that was very slight and I was fine with it. Very little had changed. It seemed in the spirit of what I was doing.
Then as we got close to publication, they sent back a much more extensive revision in which they had rewritten parts and added things. At that point I just had to say that this is an decent story, where you’re going, but it’s not a story I’m interested in; it’s not a question of whether the story is better or not, it’s a question of aesthetically, do I stand by the story or not. Is this the story that I want it to be?
And, I’ve done some work on Gordon Lish’s revisions of Raymond Carver, which are really extensive. Also just looking at the letters that Carver’s archive has, you know just the kind of emotional damage it did to him to work through that. It’s another thing to get slight revisions. I had an editor not too long ago who suggested rearranging a couple of sections of my story, a pretty long story in a way that really worked. I’m fine with those sorts of changes; but, changes that ended up changing the spirit of the story—I just don’t think they’re interesting.
It’s quite subjective.
Yeah, it’s an aesthetic choice and it’s subjective. I think one thing it tells you sometimes is if an editor isn’t reading the story in the same way that you are.
Switching to a different tack, in a great interview with nekoplz, Jeff VanderMeer imagined what a Brian Evenson ALIEN VERSUS PREDATOR novel might look like.
How close are we to seeing another B. K. Evenson franchise novel? And is there any particular franchise you’d like to write in?
I love Jeff’s take on how I’d do an Alien vs. Predator novel… I don’t have any franchise novels lined up or planned and with the TV writing and other work I’ve been doing I’m not sure when I’d get around to it… Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did do a story for Magic the Gathering, which will be published on their website in October, and am slated to do a second story for them, for another card set.
If I was to write another franchise novel, the two franchises that I’d most love to work in would be video game franchises: THE LAST OF US and RED DEAD REDEMPTION, both of which I loved as a player. Both would be a joy to write in.
I liked RED DEAD REDEMPTION a lot and I think I read somewhere that you were working on a ghost story Western. Is that a thing?
I’ve written a few stories with a kind of weird Western vibe to them, most recently a piece called ‘The Cabin’ that Nightfire published in their audio anthology COME JOIN US BY THE FIRE, VOL. 2. I do have an idea for a supernatural Western that would be longer, probably novel-length, but it’s still very early in development for me. I’m hoping that I’ll find time over the course of the next year or so to get a full draft of it.
One of my favourite books from last year, and an excellent take on utopia, is THE SEEP by Chana Porter. And on Twitter recently, Chana wrote that if she was a Jeff VanderMeer book, she’d be DEAD ASTRONAUTS. And after reading THE SEEP and interviewing Chana Porter, that was pretty much the fastest I can remember ever buying a book. If you were a Jeff VanderMeer book, which one would you be?
I like THE SEEP very much—it’s such a different take on utopia and alien invasion. The writer Matt Bell turned me on to it. If I was a Jeff VanderMeer book, it’d be a tie between THE SITUATION and FINCH. I love the weird noir take of FINCH and like too what Jeff does with language in it. THE SITUATION (which is short enough that it’s part of Jeff’s story collection THE THIRD BEAR as well as a book in its own right) is such a great combination of office politics and utter weirdness. To be honest, I’m a big fan of Jeff’s writing and have read almost everything: it’d be an honor to be any of his books.
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