5x5: Brian Evenson
Illustrations by Josephine Demme
In this series five different writers talk to one writer about five (or more) of his different books. In this second interview, Brian Conn talks to Brian Evenson about Immobility. Read the first interview with Colin Winnette, the second with Matt Bell.
Brian Conn in Conversation with Brian Evenson
I was kicked out of a reading room at the Providence Public Library while rereading Brian Evenson’s Immobility. I had been there for several hours when an oily man in a crooked tie approached me. “This room is for students and people with laptops,” he said, looking away. “Not for casual reading.”
Well, the rules are the rules. But as I walked out of the library I wondered whether the oily man’s accusation of “casual reading” was justified. Is Immobility casual reading? I still do not have an answer to this question. Immobility is a science fiction novel featuring scenes of graphic violence, a description that suggests the kind of novel that might be read casually. But it is also a novel about not knowing who or what you are; and that theme is not developed casually, but is instead integrated so thoroughly that by the time you reach the end you are likely to have forgotten forever what you once meant by the word “human.”
That is not among the usual effects of casual reading.
There’s a deadpan humor in some of Evenson’s writing. The scene in Immobility in which one of Horkai’s keepers holds him down while the other prepares the bone saw is a strangely funny scene. It’s a scene that elevates your heart rate and your breathing rate and maybe it just seems funny because you don’t know what else to do with that excitement.
Maybe that’s nervous laughter. After all it is a bone saw. It cannot be serious. It is apparently serious. Evenson offers us no help in understanding whether he is serious or not, whether or not this is a casual book. His language (the substrate of narrative) tells us that we do not know what language is, that language does not know what language is, that we are all blind.
Since so many of the usual categories break down when applied to Evenson’s work, for this interview we had recourse to magic. I spoke to him in his office at Brown University.
I. THE THREE OF CUPS
BRIAN CONN: I brought tarot cards. I had this idea that we should use them to talk about Immobility. I don’t know if you spend much time with tarot cards.
BRIAN EVENSON: A little.
BC: I’ve spent a lot of time with the major arcana. Let’s take those out and only use the minor arcana, so you and I will have equal knowledge. I’ve also brought Arthur Edward Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot. We could take three cards, one after the other. The first we could use to talk about Immobility. With the second we could focus more on you and your habits as a writer. And the third—I think you said once that this book might be part of a longer series, that there’s a larger world here?
BC: So maybe the third card we could use to talk about that stuff. I don’t have a particular ceremony. Should we just look at the top card?
BE: Sure. It’s the three of cups.
BC: The three of cups. Maybe we should look at it before we consult Arthur Waite. What do you think is there?
BE: Well, there are three cups. Everyone is raising a cup, so there’s a kind of festive or joyous mood. The number three is obviously important in the three of cups, but also in my work, I think.
BC: In Immobility particularly?
BE: Well, in Immobility there are three people who are traveling, but there’s a duo within the trio. It’s a triple that isn’t ever completely triple.
More Evenson = More Awesome. Honored to kick off this series and thrilled to see how Matt Bell and Brian Conn are keeping things interesting!
What’s Your Writing Like?: Some self-indulgent me-splaining.
Last night, someone asked me to tell them about my writing. How would I describe it? I had been invited to the house-sit of an author I admire and I was talking with his wife about her work, and she politely asked me about mine. The author I admire was generous enough to respond to her question by saying, “Your work moves in a lot of directions. It’s a difficult question to answer.”
A smarter person would have left it there. I was given a good out and some part of me knew it because I segued to something only tangentially related and got us all talking about that. But I’m not a smarter person, and after a few minutes, the part of me that just won’t quit while it’s ahead interrupted with, “But to answer your question…”
If you’ve spoken to young writers before, you’ll know the kind of answer I gave: overly-intellectual-sounding, though not really saying that much at all, broken up with a lot of “you knows?” and transparently concerned with legitimizing myself, rather than truly describing the work. I’d like to think I don’t always talk like this. I’d like to think I shed this impulse in my early twenties. But…when cornered…(by myself)…I regressed.
And it was a botch.
There was a pause. We all nodded. Then we talked about some of the better Italian restaurants in the neighborhood.
At this point, over twelve hours later, no one is still thinking about this but me. Many Tumblr-readers have likely given up on this post but I’m still looping through the situation, trying to draft a better response to the question, or to come up with some way of thinking about it that eradicates the need to provide a clear, understandable, genuine answer to the question. What’s your writing like?
I’ve been studying writing for thirteen years, writing for much longer. I am a “Master” of writing, according to some people I paid in Chicago. By summer 2015, I’ll have published five books and written a few more. I have a sign on my office door at work that reads: Colin Winnette – Writer.
But what’s the writing like?
When I was in graduate school, teachers would ask what kind of feedback I was interested in. Answering as honestly as I could, I would say, “I just want to know what it’s like for you to read it. What your experience was as a reader: emotionally, intellectually, personally.” Then I would pause and say, “And I’d like to know if you think it’s publishable…then why or why not.”
The motivations for the second half of that request are obvious enough. I wanted to know if I had a shot. I hadn’t been published yet, but I’d been rejected plenty. I needed to know if I was wasting my time. Or what a publishable piece of writing by me would even look like. My ear for this has gotten better. And my once-felt belief that publishing was the primary legitimizing force for a writer has almost entirely dissolved.
The first question though, the first requested response, might be the heart of how I really want to answer that question: What’s your writing like?
One of the best nights of my life was over a year ago, at the book release of Fondly, when I invited a handful of writers and musicians to respond to the book at The Booksmith. Among the many acute joys of that evening was a sudden understanding of how a handful of people felt while reading or after reading the book. Or at least how they chose to present how they felt. I felt like I understood the book better. I felt like I finally knew what it was. At its best, a book can be a kind of emotional trading ground. A space that offers a variety of different people, with very different backgrounds and interests, a combination of things that might speak to them, in exchange for a personal investment of some kind (time, attention, emotional vulnerability, etc.). Everyone should leave with something they believe is right and their own—and if the book’s doing all the work it can, what they leave with will be something other than what they brought with them.
Someone once told me that the best thing you can hope for as a writer is that, after you’re dead, people will argue about you. They’ll set up camps and each will believe they understand your work better than anyone else.
I’m not 100% into how divisive that sounds, but I’m attracted to the idea that what makes a piece of writing last is how well it can be absorbed and reabsorbed by new lines of thought, new kinds of readers, new interpretative models, etc.
So, if I’m being perfectly honest, I think I’ve created this problem for myself. The fiction I’m writing sits at the awkward intersection of what I’m interested in typing/reading and what I think might evoke a hard to place cluster of emotional responses in its readers. The more confused the cluster, the better. If you can read something and say, “it’s sad”—it’s not quite there yet. The real response I’m after would sound something more like, “I don’t know. I feel sad now, but it was funny, I guess. Or like…super dark…”
And how that effect is achieved is…variable.
So, hard to describe. Slippery. And that’s either a good thing, or something I’ve constructed to help me ease out from under the pressure of having to account for myself.
God. Now imagine we’re eating tacos together and you ask the perfectly innocent, seemingly inevitable question, “What’s your writing like?”
And I say all of that…
Perhaps the best response is, “Oh, my new book? It’s a western. But how do we feel about cannolis?”
5x5: Brian Evenson
Illustrations by Josephine Demme
In this series five different writers talk to one writer about five (or more) of his different books. In this second interview, Matt Bell talks to Brian Evenson about The Open Curtain. Read the first interview with Colin Winnette.
Matt Bell in Conversation with Brian Evenson
The Open Curtain was the first of Brian Evenson’s books I read, after hearing Dan Wickett of Dzanc Books and Aaron Burch of Hobart gush over it at a post-reading get together in Ann Arbor, shortly after the book’s release in 2006. I can remember much of their conversation focusing around the book’s third part, “Hooper, Amuck,” and for good reason: It’s a third act that rearranges and reimagines much of what came before, reopening the book’s mysteries in one of the finest refusals of easy resolution I’ve ever seen. Reading The Open Curtain rearranged what I thought novels were capable of, what I thought I wanted from endings, and reading the rest of Evenson’s body of work offered similarly disorienting and entrancing experiences. At AWP in 2009, Evenson gave a talk as part of a panel on “Truth and Consequences in Non-Realist Fiction” where he shared an anecdote about one of the best compliments he’d ever received about his fiction: “Someone wrote to tell me that after reading one of my books he woke up in the middle of the night and went into the bathroom and turned on the light and found he could not recognize himself in the mirror. You could argue that this is simply an indication that you shouldn’t read certain kinds of fiction before bed, but it resonated for me in that that same questioning of, and loss of, self is something that I experience every time I write.” There are many such lovely and wounding and transformative losses of self in Evenson’s work, and I was grateful to get to talk to him about how the ones in The Open Curtain came to be and about how that novel paved the way for the books that followed.
I. THE ONES THAT CAME BEFORE
MATT BELL: The Open Curtain was published in 2006, and was (I believe) your seventh book and second novel. Since then, if I’ve got my count right, you’ve published two other novels and two short story collections under your own name, plus four books as B.K. Evenson, plus eight works of translation, by Christophe Claro, Manuela Draeger, and others. That’s an incredible five years of literary productivity, and I wonder if it makes The Open Curtain seem longer ago for you than it was. The time between The Open Curtain and now isn’t necessarily enormous, but the art distance between them is sort of staggering: I’m having a hard time thinking of a literary writer who’s produced more strong work in such a short time. There’s a similar effect for me as a reader: The Open Curtain was the first novel of yours I read, and even though I’ve read it twice since there’s still a sense in which it’s my “first” Brian Evenson experience, with all the rest of your writing following.
How do you see The Open Curtain, when you look back at it? Do you have a sense of how it was different than the work that came before it, or how it might have anticipated what came after?
BRIAN EVENSON: Well, it’s a little tricky in that even though The Open Curtain came out in 2006 it was finished in 2004 and it was something I’d been working on for almost five years before that. It’s the book I’ve worked on the longest, and really does span a time when my work was changing and developing, when I was becoming more open to genre, when my narratives were becoming fuller and more developed, where I was starting, I think, to complicate the minimalist gestures of my earlier fiction with something else. And so, I was working on it when I was also working on The Wavering Knife, for instance, and I think the fact that that book ended up winning an International Horror Guild prize opened up some doors for me with The Open Curtain. The positive reception in the genre world that The Brotherhood of Mutilation (the first half of Last Days) got in 2003 also was important. Both those and several other things were instrumental in terms of changing my sense of what I was able to do as a writer, and I think that The Open Curtain began as one sort of book and only could come to its own after I’d really changed both as a human and as a writer.
The Open Curtain was also something I thought of as a book that would teach people how to read my earlier books and it did something that I hadn’t done to that point: It has two at least relatively straightforward sections followed by a third that cracks open the reality so far created. It took me a long time (literally years) to come up with the recursive gesture that I use in the first several chapters of that final section, but that, I think, ended up opening something in terms of the fragmenting of reality that would end up being important both in the short fiction I’ve done since and in Immobility. I think The Open Curtain is the book I’ve learned the most doing, and definitely an important transitional moment for me.
MB: I’m interested to hear you say you wanted The Open Curtain to teach people how to read the earlier books, both because I’m curious what they’d been missing, and also because I think it’s interesting to consider the role of the writer in molding the reaction of readers over a body of work. What had readers gotten wrong about the earlier books? Was there any part of this desire that stemmed from your own changing understanding of the previous works?
BE: It wasn’t that readers had gotten anything wrong, only that some readers had a difficult time figuring a way into the work, or were repulsed by the violence, or came to the work, because of what they’d read about me in reviews, with preconceived notions of what they were going to read. I think the idea I had—and I didn’t have this when I began the book, only once I was in it—was that the book would mimic being relatively straightforward and then would get weirder as it went, and would finally crack open with the third section. I hoped that I’d bring certain sorts of readers in with the early pages and then gradually complicate things so that they were entering into a very different literary space almost without knowing. That seems to have worked, since that book was a finalist for the Edgar Award. The way I used to talk about the book that would become The Open Curtain when I was in the very early stages was that I wanted to write a book that was a series of three novellas, each of which would make you reconsider the ones that came before, each of which would in some senses erase or destroy what came before it so that you’d be left at the end with nothing, not knowing exactly what had happened to you. It doesn’t do that exactly, but it makes some gestures toward it, and the beginning of part three does it in lesser form. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy does in fact do this, being a series of three novels, each of which makes you question what you thought you knew from the first one.
The 5x5 project continues! Read the first installment here.
Normally I have five hundred ideas crowding my mind at once, jamming the doorway, all trying to get out. When I’m under the needle, only one thought at a time can get through.
Fiction’s wonderful in that you’re building something, but really you’re building nothing—you build the impression of something. And yet, we often physically respond to narration, feel real emotions when we read: we can’t sleep because something in a book scares us, for instance, or our pulse increases. Yet there’s nothing tangible about fiction beyond the words themselves on the page. Even the sounds of the words themselves are intangible normally, since we generally don’t read out loud when we read a book. Fiction is particularly good at building up a series of illusions but also revealing them to be illusions. But I think that’s the way the mind works in general: we don’t really interact with the world. We reproduce a simplified version of the world in our head and then interact with that, with how we imagine our world. And there are moments when the world suddenly reveals itself to be different than we think it to be, but never in a way that we can think, “There, I’ve reached the bottom of things, and it’s solid.” We never get to the point where we’re sure things are solid. Or at least I never do.
-Brian Evenson says a lot of great things:
I wasn’t interested in making an obscure text, but interested in seeing if I could write a text that was comprehensible and that readers could genuinely follow even if they didn’t know a certain number of the words. I was trying to replicate the pleasure that I remembered getting when, as a young kid, I would read books that were too hard for me and still really enjoy them but not always be completely sure of what exactly I’d read.
–Brian Evenson and I discuss his books Baby Leg and Dark Property for The Believer Logger.
“Perhaps the word “love” as a symbol for the thing it is has lost its meaning, but all we need is Colin Winnette to put a fist full of cement men in a cabin and let them think about love, and to be love, and to beat the living love out of each other.”
I very much appreciate Tatiana Ryckman taking the time to review the story “Cement Men" (from the Summer/Fall 2014 issue of Gulf Coast Magazine) for Piece Meal Review.
5X5: BRIAN EVENSON
In this series five different writers talk to one writer about five (or more) of his different books. In this first interview, Colin Winnette talks to Brian Evenson about his books Baby Leg and Dark Property.
Colin Winnette talks to Brian Evenson
Brian Evenson is an incredibly kind man with eyes that could lead a cult, if he had the inclination. Instead, he writes terrifying fiction that grapples with the duplicitous nature of reality, or our interpretations of reality. Some call it literary horror. He’s written twelve books, and each is uniquely affecting, but many bleed together or interact with one another in unexpected and rewarding ways. His writing is forceful—not just the subject matter and the emotional content of the stories, but the way the letters and words sit together, the way his sentences push into you like a thumb. He is bold in the forms he’ll use, willing to end a story at the length it demands (40 pages, 120 pages, 250 pages, 2 pages) rather than stretch it too far or trim it back—so the lengths of his books vary widely from project to project. We should all be brave enough to let our stories end when they want to.
Evenson teaches at Brown University. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Awards. He has also written an expansion of the Aliens universe, under the name B.K. Evenson, and a book version of the Rob Zombie film, Lord of Salem. His newest novel, Immobility, is available from TOR Books. For this interview, we set out to talk about his books Baby Leg and Dark Property.
I. FIFTEEN MINUTES
COLIN WINNETTE: As a prolific writer, and a generous guy, you’ve done a considerable body of interviews and conversations, most of which are available. It’s wonderful. But my first question would be: is there something you’ve always wanted to say but haven’t had the opportunity?
BRIAN EVENSON: Well, I don’t know. At this point, I seem to have been asked almost everything, and usually I answer at least relatively truthfully, though it’s also become easy to say the same things over and over. I’ll try not to say the same things this time.
I do know that it’s become commonplace to refer to me as prolific—once someone says that, everybody does, and it’s not like I’m Thackeray or Dickens or Balzac, but I do really like to write and have been blessed with having the problem of having more ideas than I could ever possibly write about rather than a dearth of ideas.
I don’t think I spend a lot more time writing than other writers. But I do think that when I was a young writer with two young kids, I learned that whatever time I could get, even if it was just a few minutes, was valuable. I don’t spend time ramping up and ramping down like a lot of writers I know. I don’t check to see if anything is new on the Internet. I don’t have to spend time sharpening my special magical pencil made from wood taken from the deck of the Titanic. I don’t have to brew my cup of coffee and balance it just right to write. I don’t have to be writing in my precious little handmade notebook that I bought in Bolivia from the Aymara people. I don’t have to be sitting at my desk looking out at the birds in the backyard and wait for the song of the lark for inspiration to strike. Instead, if I have fifteen minutes, I write for a full fifteen minutes. I try to live my life in such a way that when those minutes come I can take advantage of them wherever I am and whatever I have to write with—computer, phone, pen, pencil, etc.—and take advantage of them fully, and I think the idea of being committed to doing that has actually, somehow, made it work.
I talked to Brian Evenson again, but this time about Brian Evenson.
The illustrations by Josephine Demme are worth your attention alone, but I think it’s a pretty great interview.
The Poetry Diet
Purchase a book of poems by a poet you have never read.
For the rest of your life, while you’re eating lunch, read a poem between bites.
You’ll need to find somewhere comfortable to sit.
And you’ll need to drink water.