About the Author:
Praised by Peter Straub for going “furthest out on the sheerest, least sheltered narrative precipice,” Brian Evenson is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes and has been a finalist for the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the World Fantasy Award. He is also the winner of the International Horror Guild Award and the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel, and his work has been named in Time Out New York’s top books.
Read Evenson’s interview with Zing Magazine here.
Laird Hunt and Brian Evenson in discussion
Laird Hunt: Congratulations on The Open Curtain. This conversation should be interesting since we’ve been keeping our eyes on each other’s work, but haven’t yet read the new novels we both have coming out this fall. There is something I’ve been curious about since I read your interview in Lance Olsen’s book Rebel Yell. You mentioned something to the effect that you weren’t so sure about the whole interior monologue thing and that perhaps we didn’t have these language-rich interior lives going on all the time, bubbling away while we go about daily business. I’ve thought about that a lot since I read it and have wanted to ask you if you could expand a bit and maybe relate it to how you tackle the representation of your characters’s interior lives.
Brian Evenson: Lance had sent me a question asking me what the most difficult narrative technique to master had been for me. I answered that the portrayal of interior feelings or thoughts was the hardest because I felt like all the techniques that people habitually use seemed artificial and unconvincing and didn’t seem to have much to do with the way things work in my own head. Of course there’s a certain artificiality already in place that comes from putting things into words in the first place, but that, somehow, doesn’t bother me as much. I feel like thought goes through constant movements up and down that taken in one direction bring it closer to language and to the tongue and taken in the other direction bring it back down into the subconscious, reducing it first to Artaudian shrieks and sounds and then down deep- er to something much more chaotic and disconnected than that, not only pre-lingual but pre-sound. I think certain writers are able to figure out and catch some of the ebb and flow of thought but I always felt that something was missing.
My way of responding to this in my first book, Altmann’s Tongue, was to leave the interior lives of the characters pretty blank, to let them respond physically to things but do very little to represent what, if anything, was actually going on in their minds. This latest book, The Open Curtain, goes into characters’s heads quite a bit more, but restricts itself to the first few levels and presents characters who have a hard time articulating, even internally, what they’re feeling. Instead of admitting those feelings, they tend to be asking themselves questions or trying to make a tentative sense of things happening to them. Occasionally this leads to assertions, but these assertions are as much wishful think- ing as true definitions of self or feelings. One character, Rudd Theurer, is trying to sort out what it means to be different in rigid religious Mormon society, but all his questions, all his thoughts, are there as much to cover up what’s actually happening within him, to allow for denial, as they are to resolve anything. A second character, Lyndi, is forced to grow into a woman when she’s faced with tragedy; in her thoughts, she’s able to read the world in a certain way and ignore certain signs because she can’t admit that she’s afraid of being alone. That fear is bubbling beneath the verbal surface of her thoughts all the time. Both Rudd and Lyndi’s thoughts are mediated by the third person narrative, so there’s an odd combination of closeness and distance and a movement from actual thoughts to thoughts processed by the narrator and back. A third character, Rudd’s half-brother, is presented only from the outside; you’re never allowed to see what, if anything, is going on inside of him, but you are allowed to see how Rudd tries to fill his half-brother’s interior space.
So, I guess I’ve moved from just focusing on verbalized thought to looking at several of the upper levels and thinking about how those can be represented. I hope I’ve done that in a way that not only keeps the characters complex, but makes them feel more complex as they develop.
I’m curious how you feel, Laird, about representation of your own characters’s interior lives. The Impossibly is such a discourse driven book that it almost feels like the main character is performing his interior life (which makes it, in a way, not interior at all). In Indiana, Indiana you end up allowing the main character’s interior difficulties to inflect the narrative in what I feel are very interesting ways. What strategies are you using with the new book?
Laird Hunt: I think you’re right that the narrator in The Impossibly is conducting a kind of performance—a sort of exuberant embrace of his inner circumlocutions—and in that sense we don’t ever really get inside him at all (after all, the stuff pulled/dredged up from the lake bottom is no longer on the lake bottom). Indiana, Indiana, with its third person narrator (albeit one who was riding up in the eyeballs of the main character, Noah, much of the time) and its inclusion of different voices and documents, etc., handles things quite differently, and I do think we see inside Noah to a greater extent, as well as, yes, how his troubles are shap ing the larger texture of the book. Not too long ago, as I was revising The Exquisite and working on something new, I came to the conclusion that in one strain of my writing at least, I was engaged in a series of rewrites—The Impossibly being a weird (weird in part because I first read The Third Policeman after having written The Impossibly) reworking of some of the concerns and strategies found in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, and The Exquisite a reworking of The Impossibly. One of the things picked up on in The Exquisite, which was actually started not too long after I began writing The Impossibly, is the rather self-obsessed first person narrator who always has one more thing to say about himself, always, even in his monologues, wants to get in the last word. Still, there are a couple of key differences—one is that the narrator has a name (Henry) and lives in a place with a name (New York) and so is in some way accountable to ontological specifics that circumscribe his prevaricating and hemming and hawing; the other is that I’ve set up two layers of narrative, in each of which Henry must attend to different aspects of telling “what the hell happened.” There is a fair amount of this “what happened” to be told and that also tends to keep Henry’s discursive, performative proclivities in check and perhaps helps some relatively unvarnished interior shine through. Sometimes that interior is just silence. Perhaps related to one of those frightening inner layers you do such a great job of helping us infer in a work like Dark Property.
Speaking of which, will you be resuscitating any words in the new book like you did in that one? I guess I’m curious about the third-person narrator you speak of—what kind of narrator is it? A kind of powerful, vocabulary-rich, field marshal of the fictional events or a distant, relatively uninflected chronicler of the various events? Are there any narrators you’ve come across in your readings that you thought it might be interesting to model yours on?
Brian Evenson: The narrator of The Open Curtain is relatively uninflected and over the shoulder, but each section brings him close to a different character, sinking him into their way of thinking and organizing the world. That’s first seen in how he tries to note a character’s thoughts but comes, I think, to tint the narrative even when it’s describing things exterior to the characters. I think the narrative model I was working with was one of infection, with the language and knowledge patterns and thought processes of the central character in each section being something that the narrator “catches.” This is most complicated and most evident in the final section where the central character’s confusion of self colors not only the narrative content but the narrative style. Even though there’s a separate narrator, it’s as if this narrator is speaking from within the confines of the central character’s head, his own separate view of the situation coming out censored and colored. There are moments in all three sections where the narrator asserts himself and his own language a little bit, as if coming
up for air, but they’re just little hints. I’m intrigued by what you say about your novels as rewrites. I
can see the connection to The Third Policeman in The Impossibly, which I think is tonal more than content-related. I guess the other thing I see in that book is a response to the French New Novel, particularly what Alain Robbe-Grillet was doing with detective fiction. Personally, I often start a story as a kind of response to another story I’ve read. “The Sanza Affair” from Altmann’s Tongue, for instance, is a kind of simultaneous response to a narrative strategy in Thomas Bernhard’s The Lime Works and an attempt to think through Leonardo Sciascia’s amazing metaphysical crime novellas. I think of my writing as being part of an ongoing conversation with other writers.
When I began writing The Open Curtain, I thought about it as a series of three novellas, each of which would, in some sense, erase or call into question the reality of what came before. It went through a certain kind of evolution in being written but I think there’s still a strong notion of conflicting realities. That’s of course something you find in Flann O’Brien’s work and in The Impossibly, as well as in writing by people like Steve Erickson and Philip K. Dick.
What do you think was behind a movement toward a more identifiable realistic space for you in The Exquisite? The Open Curtain is, despite the way it plays with reality, much more grounded in a particular reality as well: a small town in Utah in the late 20th century. What’s drawing you in that direction?
Laird Hunt: It’s interesting that The Open Curtain (a title I like a lot by the way) came into being as a series of three linked novellas, as that is how The Impossibly began, before, as you put it, evolving. I would love to hear a little bit about how you tackle composing collections of stories vs. how you tackle writing a novel, especially one that started as an entity composed of somewhat discrete units. Your collections of stories are, obviously, composed of discrete units, but I think of Altmann’s Tongue or Contagion, and I think of a larger entity, something that starts to feel strangely indivisible (strange because we are, after all, talking about collections). But to speak to your question, The Exquisite started as a response to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and specifically to his ruminations on Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, in which a group of doctors and dignitaries surround a partially dissected corpse. One of the things that Sebald brought up was the name of the corpse and a bit of its/his history. There was something in that shift from the corpse being an “it” (as it is in the painting) to a “him” (when some sense of his/its background was given) that intrigued me. I guess I got thinking about how names and specifics light the world and fictional compositions in a way that namelessness and circumlocution don’t and vice-versa. The Impossibly is a kind of ghost story in which the ghost can’t, or chooses not to, rely on specifics to tell his story. I was interested in seeing what would happen if a narrator in a similar (though not identical) fix had the richness of a New York-determined vocab- ulary to tell his tale. It seems entirely possible that if I wasn’t concurrently working on The Impossibly, in other words scratching that itch related to namelessness and placelessness, I might well have tried to steer The Exquisite in a similar direction regarding the constraints placed on the narration. As it was, the exigencies of attending to a story grounded in New York particulars, including September 11th, which occurred about half-way through the drafting, not more than a bullet shot from my apartment, took the project off in various directions that were far from easy, but nevertheless very useful for me to think about.
Brian Evenson: I think, in answer to your question about novel vs. stories, that writing a novel is largely still an alien process for me, which makes it very exciting. I’ve written enough stories and enough different sorts of stories that the genre feels a little like an old favorite shirt. The novel, however, is still outside my immediate comfort zone. I wrote over the course of a few years what I thought would be the three sections of the novel and then realized that though they functioned well as individual novellas they didn’t come together as a novel. The next four years I spent first rewriting the ending and gradually abandoning it to go in a different direction. The real work of the novel was done during that slow rethinking of the whole project, in figuring out what would make it a novel rather than three separate sections, in giving up my preconceived notions for the book. Stories I find very different—usually the structure of the story itself is very quickly established and most of the work is done in perfecting the dynamics of the sentences and the phrasings. When I assemble a story collection I make a lot of choices about what belongs together and what to leave out or save for another book; The Wavering Knife, for instance, has stories in it that were written both before and after the majority of the stories in Contagion. I tend to add to my story collections too (if my editors will let me) after they’ve been accepted, trying to make them stronger. What I see as two of the strongest stories in The Wavering Knife were added just before the book went to press. Who are you reading now?
Laird Hunt: I just finished (for a Rain Taxi review) Lawrence Weschler’s fascinating Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences, about the connections he has made over the years between different works of art, political movements and cultural phenomena. I’m also reading (for another review), Serge Fauchereau’s Complete Fictions, which I’m enjoying a lot, and Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztek, which is terrific. There are, as usual, a grotesque number of partially read books sitting by the bed, too many to begin to mention. The majority of them I have set aside not because they aren’t interesting, but because I’m in one of those reading periods where my attention just sort of flits around mothlike and I’m lucky if I finish anything at all.
Do you have any interesting unfinished books by your bed? Anything that you have finished that you’ve been particularly struck by?
Brian Evenson: I’ve got a lot of partly read books not only by my bed but spread out all over the house. I’ve been slowly reading Michael Martone’s Michael Martone, which is not the kind of book you can read in one fell swoop. I’m also in the middle of Henri Michaux L’Espace du Dedans, which, since it’s an anthology, I feel like I can read in bits and starts. I’m doing the same thing with Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar, which is great. I just started George Saunders’s In Persuasion Nation, also very good so far. I just reread H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, which is an old favorite of mine and makes a couple of moves that I like very much. And read for the first time Georges Bataille’s Ma Mere, which is odd and good. And have been reading for the first time Muriel Spark, who I’m amazed nobody turned me on to sooner: The Bachelors and Reality and Dreams and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie I liked particularly, but it’s all good. A number of other things as well, but those are the ones that stick most in my mind. I’m curious about what’s in the works for you, what book of yours will be found on my bedside table next.
Laird Hunt: As usual, I’m engaged in a bit of a juggling act, working on two novels—strange sequels to The Impossibly and Indiana, Indiana—and a new series of very short stories, around a page each, which I’m writing in a response to some gnarled, haunting drawings by the painter Rich O’Russa. How about you, Brian—what do you have going?
Brian Evenson: I’m working on a series of stories about young girls who face difficult situations—situations usually created for them by some parental shortcoming—and have to figure out a way to make it through. I’ve published a few of them here and there. They’re, I think, more intimate than my other stories, more painful, and more hopeful. After that, who knows?