Monday, October 30, 2006

Interview with Brian Evenson.

Brian Evenson is author, most recently, of The Open Curtain, as well as The Wavering Knife, Dark Property, Altmann's Tongue, and others.  Go here for a synopsis from the publisher, Coffee House Press.  From my perspective, the seed of the story - a real life murder, circa 1902, carried out through the Mormon ritual of blood sacrifice - was fascinating.  The best part is the way Evenson lays it out, mixing the past and the present as high school student Rudd slowly becomes too involved in a research project about the murder.  The book is presented in three parts, and through the second part and into the third, you can feel Rudd's hold on reality slipping away from him - not just understand it through the writing, but actually feel it, and it's gripping.  I want to tell you more, and can't; that's a good sign. 

Brian Evenson graciously agreed to take part in an e-mail correspondence.



MT:  I'm going to guess that you maybe might be sick of answering questions about religion and your writing.  Are you OK with going there again?BE:  Yes, I don't mind going there again.MT:  I've yet to explore your back catalog, though I am looking forward to it, but I know you've written (among other things) both fiction and nonfiction in which Mormonism plays a variety of roles - direct, ancillary, hidden, and so on.  I hope I'm not beating a dead horse - I can only guess how many times you've been asked - but can you talk a bit about how the different forms have shaped your thoughts on Mormonism, and vice versa?BE:  I've only done a very little bit of non-fiction related to Mormonism, just little short essays here and there.  I think that they end up generally being quite direct. In terms of my fiction, there are a lot of different ways to answer.  On the one hand, I could talk about the controversy my first book faced when I was a professor at Brigham Young University and an anonymous student objected to my book Evensonon moral grounds, and then I was told I could stay at BYU as long as I agreed not to write anything like my first book again.  That book, Altmann's Tongue, literally didn't have anything Mormon about it, but it led to a huge controversy within Mormonism.  That led by bits and starts to me finally leaving the university and ultimately, several years later, leaving the Mormon Church.  Or we could talk about it in regard to some of my later work like Father or Lies or The Open Curtain which are about religion and what religion does to people in some way or another.  They're much more overt.  In Father of Lies the relation to Mormonism is slightly veiled but fairly recognizable.  In The Open Curtain it's really direct and very essayistic.  Part of that book for me was trying to capture a sense of a particular place I'd grown up in, and in that sense, even though the characters are very different from me, there's an attention the physical reality of that Mormon world that's very sincere.  Or we could talk about how actual religion gets transformed into something very strange in other pieces of mine, like The Brotherhood of Mutilation or Dark Property, both of which are very weird: the first involves a cult that believes in amputation and the second involves a resurrection cult.  They don't have real life equivalents, but they're trying to get at something real not only about Mormonism but about religion in general.I guess in all those cases what's important is a real connection to religion, a real interest in it, coupled with a pretty intense skepticism, a fear of the moments where religion or culture in general starts to dry up people's thought processes.  Any strict social or religious structure, can end up, at its worse, forcing people into extremes, which is interesting for a writer in that it begins to reveal things about people that they might normally keep hidden.  I'm very interested in thinking about how people respond in difficult situations and what that tells us about how people work in general.MT:  In a sense, you yourself were forced into an extreme by that strict structure - forced to make some hard choices in favor of your writing.  In that sense, I guess, the writing mirrors the writer; is that accurate?BE:  That’s probably accurate.  I was making a different set of hard choices than my characters tend to make, but they definitely had some pretty long-term effects:  leaving my religion, my marriage breaking up at least partly due to my choosing my writing over my religion, etc.  I do feel that that whole process though made me realize that what I wrote mattered and that I really had to stand very strongly behind it, which is something that many writers never are quite able to realize.MT:  It says in the afterward to the book that this is your last book to explore the Mormon faith, at least in this manner.  Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of this book - was this an idea that you had been sitting on for a while and decided to use for your swan song (re: Mormonism), or had you already decided to move on and just found this idea irresistible?  I know that you started this a while back, while you were still working on The Wavering Knife...BE:  Much like Rudd in the book I stumbled onto the facts of the William Hooper Young murders and couldn't resist it.  It was shortly after finishing Father of Lies, I think, and I wasn't consciously planning to do a book like The Open Curtain but it just seemed like the right story for me.  I was intrigued by the ritual qualities of the murder and by what seemed to be madness on Young's part.  Even so, it took me a long time to figure out how to write about it.MT:  Do you see an arc to the path your writing has taken over the years, looking back?BE:  It's hard for me to think of it as narrative, partly because books aren't always published in the same order that they're written.  Dark Property for instance was written in 1994 but wasn't published until 2002.  And The Din of Celestial Birds was actually mostly written before any of the other books.  And the stories in the books are sometimes arranged in a very different order than they were written, with all my short story collections having at least a few earlier stories thrown in with later work just because they feel right together.  Having said that, I think my arc has generally been from very, very short stories, sometimes only a page or two long toward longer and longer work.  I still like the short forms, but feel right now that what I'm most interested in is best expressed through longer short stories, novellas, and novels.  That may change over time. I've also become more interested in writing books that satisfy (or annoy) readers on several different levels.MT:  I'll put to you a question I've put to others:  why is the short story such an underdog in today's publishing world?  You get the larger magazines cutting down or eliminating their fiction sections, and short story collections rarely seem to sell as well as novels.  Have you found that true with your work?  I think the short story is a great form - One Story magazine has done great stuff - and I would think, given the ever-shortening attention span promoted by our culture, that there would be more parity between sales figures of the forms.  Maybe it's just wishful thinking.The_open_curtain BE:  I don’t know.  I like the form a great deal, and I very much like a real strong book of stories. I only know a few issues of One Story but what I’ve seen I really like a lot—Paul Maliszewski had a great One Story piece not long ago.  I also know that certain story collections do seem to have a lot of visibility and garner both critical and popular success—Carver’s work, for instance, or Mary Gaitskill’s first collection, or more recently George Saunders’ work.  I’ve heard, too, that Anthony Doerr’s story collection did dramatically better than his novel.  If good books of stories aren’t measuring up to sales for novels it’s probably because publishing is playing along with the self-defeating mythology about novels selling better than stories.  Publishers and their publicists have fallen into predictable ruts and then seem to be playing out a self-fulfilling prophecy:  that’ll be the case until they’re willing to just try to sell books on their own terms, whether they be story collections or novels.MT:  I'm hesitant to get too much into the details of the book, because it was published so recently and I tend to get irritated with reviews and interviews that give away bits of the story I'd rather experience on my own.  That said, I'm dying to hear more about the shed, particularly at the end of part two.  (Note:  I'm posting the following answer in white text;  if you want to read the answer, highlight the text to make it appear.  It does contain a "spoiler" of sorts.)BE:  Ah, the shed.  I'd like to say that I knew what was in the old refrigerator half-buried in the earth and then I hid it or took it out, but I know little more than what I said.  Whatever it is, it's fairly directly tied to Rudd and is something that can't be taken completely in.  I guess I saw the uncanniness and weirdness of that moment as something that "resets" the book in some ways and helps to make the larger weirdness of the final section possible.  But, other than the refrigerator, I think what Rudd (if it is Rudd) is trying to do with the shed is to create an anti-temple; it's the equivalent of what Satanic rituals do with subverting Christian ritual.  So the curtain is backward and in the place of a kind of admittance to God we have flies and the half-buried refrigerator.  It's a kind of mechanism he's using to accelerate himself out of the world.MT:  I like that answer.  Part of me was hoping for you to reveal what was in the refrigerator, but I know I'm really happier when there's pieces to a book or film that just leave the reader/viewer with questions.  I don't want David Lynch to tell me what happens after the final episode of Twin Peaks, or to explain the shabby man living near the dumpster in Mulholland Drive; it's much more fun to talk it out with someone, explore the different possible explanations.  Sometimes the best parts are the ones that don't quite let you see what is going on.BE:  Yes, I agree.  I like works that hold things back, as long as they’re not doing so in a coy way.  As long as you get enough of what’s going on to move you into an uncanny place.MT:  I wrote a bit on my site about my own preconceptions about a "literary thriller" genre.  Basically, I didn't think the form held any appeal for me; I didn't think I could get the feeling of unease, a chill, "creeped out" - for lack of a better term - from a book.  I'm glad your book was recommended, because I've got my foot in my mouth, gladly.  Who are your contemporaries in the genre?  And are you OK with seeing yourself labeled in that way?  Because, if not, I'm going to need to make room for the other foot.  (Incidentally, if you were to respond with a fiery "I have no contemporaries!" it would make for great press on the next book.)BE:  No, you can take your foot (or feet) out of your mouth.  I used to be offended by those labels and then I found myself identifying less and less with what gets pushed as literature, at least by the big presses.  I'm very interested in the way that literature can play with genre and give all, or at least a lot, of the satisfactions of it and still do something more.  I guess in that sense what I'm doing often crosses lines between "literary" fiction and genre fiction ("horror", "mystery," "thriller," "sci-fi").  I guess I'm hoping that something about what you call the thriller aspect of the book keeps people reading but that they'll go away at the end with the book still eating away at them and other things happening philosophically to them.  I think that comes from the fact that when I was young I used to read books that were too hard for me, and that I felt that things were happening that I couldn't quite grasp. But that made them somehow all the more powerful.  That was something I loved, and something I keep trying to replicate, I think, in the way my books work for my readers.  I guess the other thing I like is to try to bring readers deeper and deeper into the book until they suddenly feel that they're in over their head, and that seems to have a real affinity with the thriller genre.  If you saw Michael Haneke's movie "Cache" in the theater, there's a particular moment in that where something amazing and horrible happens and people's response is to make an audible but inarticulate noise and lean forward in their seats toward it, to push themselves deeper into the film.  I think that's one thing I'm trying to do, to push readers deep enough into the book that they have a hard time getting completely out of it.I'd like to think of H.P. Lovecraft as a contemporary, partly because I'm living in Providence, partly because he can chill me, but he's a year or two older than me.  Kelly Link sometimes makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and so does Peter Straub.  I love Muriel Spark's work, and Patrick Ourednik's Europeana.  There are a lot of writers I really admire writing today, but I partly admire them because they're different from me.MT:  Yeah - the way Paul Auster put noir and literature together with his New York Trilogy just blew me away.  I'm always hungry for more "literary/existential/metaphysical noir" and I suspect there's some out there, but for some reason I haven't come across it yet.  Laird Hunt's The Exquisite hit the mark, though. BE:  I like that kind of metaphysical literary noir a lot as well, like very much the New York Trilogy and Hunt’s The Impossible.  I also like the European takes on Literary Noir, like Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers and Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal Danger.  My chapbook “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” is a kind of weird noir, a sort of response to Dashiel Hammett’s work.MT:  I haven't seen "Cache" yet, but it's on my list. BE:  It’s good, and worth seeing.  I like Haneke’s work in general, though it’s more overtly sexualized and confrontational than my own work.MT:  Where is the line for you, given your weaving of religion into your works, between fact and fiction?  Does it move from piece to piece?BE:  It's always changing.  Sometimes some moments are closer to reality, sometimes other moments.  Sometimes I'm trying to capture the essence of something, sometimes the literality of it.  It just depends on the way the piece develops, on its organic shape.MT:  I'd like to hear your thoughts about the challenge of writing a novel, or story, that deals in some way with 9/11 or its aftereffects.  Your writing, at least with The Open Curtain, seems unafraid to tackle the psychological rifts that are opened by uncertainty, loss, and exposure to violence.  Some authors have gone there (the 9/11 theme), with varying degrees of success, depending on who you ask.BE:  I think 9/11 is a tricky thing to take on, particularly with our troops everywhere in the world and there still being a tremendous political charge connected to it.  I'm interested in all the things you talk about--uncertainty, loss, exposure to violence, and the effects these three things have on individuals--but am more likely to pursue those things in a different context.  Something like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for instance, gets at all those things in a different way that resonates differently.  The problem with trying to deal with those things in regard to 9/11, at least for me, is that people are always trying to work the psychological issues and rifts back into a politics or at least into an understanding of the situation.  I think if you start with the notion that there's something really basically incomprehensible about what actually happened and tried to build on that unstable surface you'd really get somewhere.  The only 9/11 book I can think of that does that is Laird Hunt's The Exquisite, which I like very much, precisely because it's really about the internal devastation that takes place and because the main character has such a hard time addressing what he calls "the events downtown."  There may be other good ones out there, but I haven't run across them yet.MT:  I'm looking forward to reading Hunt's The Impossibly.  The description sounds like, for a fan of Auster's New York Trilogy, just about top notch. BE:  The Exquisite is great at what it does, particularly at the way it approaches trauma, but The Impossibly is really solid as well, and very funny.  I think if you like Auster’s New York Trilogy you’ll enjoy it a lot.MT:  What's the best advice about writing that you've gotten?BE:  To read a lot.  I had a teacher as an undergraduate who was convinced that the best thing to do as a writer was to read voraciously and really think very carefully about how writers are achieving particular effects.  I think that's served me in the best stead.

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