interviews

Amina Cain and Claire Donato

Earlier this year, books by Claire Donato and Amina Cain appeared: Someone Else’s Body (Donato) and I Go To Some Hollow (Cain). More persuasive than my praise are their own words: prose by Amina Cain can be read here, here, and here. Poems by Claire Donato are here, here, and here. And, if you haven’t already, check out their books!

Wanting more words, I e-mailed questions to Amina and Claire. My questions and their responses follow.

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1. Claire suggested that I look through both of your Goodreads lists because you two share some reading interests. I noticed that you’ve both read and like Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Novel. What’s your connection to Pittsburgh and to this novel?

Claire: My hometown is Pittsburgh, PA, and I attended the University of Pittsburgh, where Chabon’s novel takes place. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was one of the first books I read and loved in college, and it provided me with a kind of backdrop for my future college experience. Of course, college was nothing like the book. But I also hear the movie is nothing like the book…

I love Pittsburgh and miss it in the springtime. I just went back to visit for the first time since moving away, and it was good to revisit old haunts-my former workplace, Caliban Bookshop (calibanbooks.com), Brillobox, and Tazza D’Oro to name a few-and to explore new things and places: Pittsburgh style four-egg omelets and Park House on the North Side, a bar some friends introduced me to.

Amina: I first read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh when I was nineteen years old and it had a huge impact on me in many ways, but especially in terms of atmosphere– not how, as a writer, to create it, but in the possibilities of how atmosphere had and might materialize in my life, and in how I sometimes felt close to it.

For a while I read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh once a year, as soon as the weather started to get warm; the book takes place during the summer.  It’s been a while since I last read it, and my copy (along with most of the books I own) is currently packed away in a storage unit, but if I remember correctly, the novel begins in a somewhat emptied library at the very end of a spring semester.  I think the main character, Art, is attempting to finish a paper so he can graduate.  The atmosphere is spacious, the way an emptied campus is spacious when most of its students have gone away for a while.  When I was in college I always stayed through the break, not taking classes, but working at a museum on campus.  I loved the feeling of riding around on my bike with hardly anyone else around.  Summer allowed me to develop a quieter relationship to my school.  So the book begins in a somewhat emptied environment, which I love.  Then all of these interesting characters step into Art’s life, and he falls in love with all of them, together and separately, and he seems to love himself more when he is with them too.

Because I was so enamored with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I decided to take a trip to that city, which was a few hours away from where I lived in Ohio, to try to find some of the places that appear in the novel, like the Cloud Factory and the Lost Neighborhood.  I really like Pittsburgh.  One of my favorite art centers, The Mattress Factory, is located there.  And, one year, when I was living in Chicago, it seemed all of the people I was becoming close to were from Pittsburgh or from Chile.

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2.  I also noticed that you’ve both read books by Marguerite Duras (in particular, The Malady of Death) and Anne Carson. Are these two writers important to you? How? Who are some other writers you consider favorites?

Claire: I just discovered Marguerite Duras via a fiction writer here at Brown, Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi. I was drawn to The Malady of Death because of its unusually large font size. I am currently reading Duras’ book The Lover.

Anne Carson was one of the first genre-bending writers I encountered as a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh-I read The Beauty of the Husband for a poetry workshop. Carson’s translations of Sappho (If Not, Winter) have had a significant effect on the way I think about the topography of the page.

Current favorite writers of mine include Brenda Hillman, Jack Spicer, C.D. Wright, Juliana Spahr, Joan Retallack, and Caroline Bergvall. The first poem I memorized was by Frank O’Hara. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely opened my eyes to cross-genre writing.

Which poem by O’Hara?

Claire: “POEM”

Instant coffee with slightly sour cream

in it, and a phone call to the beyond

which doesn’t seem to be coming any nearer.

“Ah daddy, I wanna stay drunk many days”

on the poetry of a new friend

my life held precariously in the seeing

hands of others, their and my impossibilities.

Is this love, now that the first love

has finally died, where there were no impossibilities?

Amina: Marguerite Duras is my favorite writer, and the books I like best by her are The Ravishing of Lol Stein, The Vice Consul, Blue Eyes, Black Hair (which essentially tells the same “story” as The Malady of Death), and Destroy, She Said.  Maybe I love Duras as well because of the way her books empty out places, and at times characters, without emptying out what happens in or between them.

I’ve only been reading Anne Carson’s books for the last year or two, but they are quickly becoming influential to me, to my writing.  In any book by Carson, it seems there are sections I don’t connect to, but reading the rest of it is usually like taking a drug.  Her writing can be so charged, and so honest; so cutting.  And I like that so many different written forms– poems, operas, essays, screenplays, documentaries– can exist all at once in a book.

Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, and contemporary writers like Bhanu Kapil, Tisa Bryant, and Renee Gladman are also important to me.  I didn’t mean for all of my favorite writers to be female, but it has definitely happened.

With the exception of a couple, the writers you mentioned tend to work in short forms. And, from what I know of your writing, so do you. I’m curious to hear about your experiences with different forms. Do you think any one form has been particularly influential on your own writing?

I do always write short pieces, with the exception of a failed novel, though I love to read writing of all different forms and lengths.  The book Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner is so different than anything I would (or could) ever write, but I love that novel very much.  I guess even in its packed, epic form there is some of that spaciousness I was speaking of earlier.  And though things like plot are not so important to me as a writer, as a reader I sometimes enjoy them.

Like many, I am increasingly suspicious of and bored by writing that insists so emphatically on itself as any one thing.  Right now I kind of dislike the word poetry because it feels like many of the poets I know have crowned it king of writing, see it as the only space for true possibility.  Not that I don’t like work that calls itself poetry, I often do, and very much, but part of why I like the above writers best is because first and foremost they are writers, and seem to be concerned with what can happen in a larger field than the field of any one genre.  The work of Nathalie Stephens (Nathanaël) is very important to me in this way.  In general, I’ve learned a lot from Nathanaël.

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3.  I’ve been reading the essay “Decreation” by Anne Carson. In it she quotes Simone Weil: “If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there.”

This got me thinking of a few things to ask.

Amina, in a blog entry you posted to the Les Figues blog, you say, “I have thought a lot about no self, but not about what I might be blocking in my insistence on my self. What would it be to unblock? What would it feel like? And, then, what would I see?”

You also write, in “Two-Dimensional War,” “Sometimes I wondered why I had wanted to live on land that looked like a destroyed place would look, but there was something calming about it too, as if it wasn’t required to be anything, as if no one would bother it for a while” (I Go To Some Hollow 37).

Claire, in your chapbook Someone Else’s Body, the speaker in Dermatographism says, “I understand my feelings regarding the other sex: what is engulfing is, in its purest fundamental, warmly beckoning.”

Could you both talk about these ideas: losing one’s self, being engulfed?

(You can read “Decreation” online here.)

Amina: “Decreation” is so good.  It’s funny– I just wrote a sort of creative response to the ideas of class and gender and I begin by quoting the same line you did by Simone Weil.  The quote continues, “But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart.”  The piece I wrote is entitled “The Beating of my Heart.”

I have always been drawn to “feeling lost” (though not being literally lost in the street).  A complete disorientation is sometimes necessary for me, if only to break my habitual patterns and make me not know anymore what’s all around.  Moments in which I think I have lost my “self” have always been shocking, and sometimes frightening.  And a little bit of freedom is there too.  In other moments I have been frustrated because I seem to not be able to lose my self.  I am too close to it.  Being engulfed seems like the ultimate way of being present, because the only thing you can see then is what is taking you over.  I do think of these things when I am writing, if sometimes subconsciously.  These are all forms of emptying out — a self, a landscape, a relationship.

Claire: I’ve spent the past semester reading all of Brenda Hillman’s work, which has led me to consider loss and sorrow in relation to ecology, both inside and outside of my own work. I am currently thinking and writing about grief ecology, or the interplay between mourning and ecological landscape.[1] I am interested in grief as a deep sorrow that we carry inside of us all of the time, both related to and unrelated to death. I am also preoccupied with the ways in which a person might lose herself to grief, and the tension between the diverse ways grief manifests in individuals, and how (and what) grief engulfs.

Hillman’s speaker often attempts to understand her own grief via exterior landscapes, as in the poem “Yellow Tractate,” where she writes: “So I studied the lines around the daffodils, / wanting to see how they could be / and not be at the same time […]” (Death Tractates 17). By focusing on the impermanence of her environment, Hillman’s speaker is able to contemplate, chart, and wade through grief. And this contemplation often leads to a realization that life is happening! “In the shine off the back of a very large beetle / on the driest hill where so much is in bloom. / Even the serpentine pebbles in the cracks bloom, / even the cracks bloom” (Death Tractates 49). It’s as if Hillman’s speaker loses herself to grief, which causes her to see things in an elegiac light. Once that light is glowing, grief engulfs itself to produce life. A lovely cycle, I think.

[1] In terms of my own writing, I am working on a series of poems titled “Grief Ecology.” Each poem in the series is called “Elegiac Backdrop.” Thinking critically about Brenda Hillman’s work inspired the series. Joseph Massey’s work, which strikes me as very elegiac, influence the forms.

Recently I’ve been reading about riddles, and I’ve come across a (to me) interesting connection between riddles and the elegy. There’s a kind/genre of elegy called frauenlied, or woman’s song, in the Old English lineage. (Translated literally via Google Translate, frauenlied means “woman lied.”) Your answer to my previous question gave me a new way to think about what can be puzzling or riddling about grief, i.e., “wanting to see how [daffodils] could be / and not be at the same time […]”

This is a lot of build-up for a question about a man you mention in your footnote. I’m curious-what about Massey’s work strikes you as elegiac?

Both the form(s) and content(s) of Massey’s poems strike me as elegiac. Like Hillman, Massey makes sense of his own carried grief by looking toward ecological landscape, and the unusual, vivid juxtapositions that exist (are alive, literally draw breath) alongside decay, e.g. “buds on a diseased / tree, at the / edge of blossoming” and “a pigeon feather / [flapping] from a / mound of pigeon shit” (Areas of Fog, 32, 23).

Formally, Joe compresses images of life in bloom against rot by slipping through line breaks and chiseling his poems down to precise, core morsels of language, causing the juxtapositions to be all the more startling. Massey’s words pressed into the sparseness of the page create a sort of ghostly impression: the words and images are there, thriving against what Joan Retallack might call space-time’s “continuous drone” (The Poethical Wager 5).

Joe [Massey] and I have recently been talking back and forth about elegy and grief. Our conversations have illuminated my understanding of ecology’s link to mourning. Recently, Joe said:

“I think it’s impossible to write about the world, the world we’re in today, without it being an elegy — unless you’re blind, living in a Hallmark card, imagining animals as Disney creations, personifying everything into just one more human blob of shit, as so many do when writing about ‘nature’ (whatever that means).”

Nature, is seems to me, is an empty means by which to explain how the physical world “should” or “should not” be. I am much more interested in the way all organisms relate.

Amina, what have you been working on lately?

My writing process is different these days than it usually is.  Normally I work on one piece of writing until it is finished and then move on to the next, and it works like that.  Right now I am working on a book-length project made up of pieces that in small ways look towards possibilities of performance.  Last fall I recorded a couple of these pieces with the help and voice and music of writer/artist/musician Amarnath Ravva, and in January, in Chicago, performed one of my stories as a play with the artist Rachel Tredon.  Right now I am working on a short screenplay tentatively entitled “The Day Like a Mouth and Me in It” (the very first part of which is posted on the Les Figues press blog) featuring the character Marya Timofeevna from Dostoevsky’s Demons. It contains very little dialogue, which is funny to me, because the story I performed with Rachel is almost all dialogue.  At first, I thought I would never want the screenplay to be filmed, that I wanted to just enjoy the writing of it for the sake of writing, but now I’m not so sure.  I keep “seeing” it.

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4.  When you read something that you wrote a while ago, is there anything that makes you think, That was me then, but I don’t do that now. What is it?

Amina: Yes.  Some of my book I Go To Some Hollow feels that way to me.  If the self gets lost, or at least changes, I guess the writing does too; but, also, there might be a consciousness or a notion that gets threaded through all of the work one does.  I still want to feel close to atmosphere in the ways I did when I was nineteen; and my writing did, and does, want that too.  Maybe texts document the self and its journey straight into “decreation.”

Claire: This is a tough question! Someone Else’s Body, which was written a few years ago, feels simultaneously distant but close as ever to my current writing. I’m there, but is that me? Yes, but what’s changed, I think, is my writing practice. I’ve focused and energized my writing practice since then. Which is to say, I don’t write the same way I did then now.

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Amina Cain is the author of I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009).  Her work has appeared in journals such as 3rd Bed, Action Yes, Denver Quarterly, and La Petite Zine, is forthcoming in The Encyclopedia Project, and was recently translated into Polish on MINIMALBOOKS.  She lives in Los Angeles.

Claire Donato is an MFA Literary Arts candidate at Brown University in Providence, RI, and the author of Someone Else’s Body (Cannibal Books, 2009). Recent poems have been published in Coconut, Harp & Altar, Caketrain, and Lamination Colony.  Her website is somanytumbleweeds.com. Her hometown is Pittsburgh, PA.

Stacey Levine and Lily Hoang

*Lily Hoang and Stacey Levine*

I interviewed Lily Hoang and Stacey Levine by email during September and October of 2008. I wanted to interview two writers whose work corresponds in ways that make sense to me and which I admire.

Lily Hoang’s Parabola won the Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest. She is also the author of the forthcoming novels Changing (Fairy Tale Review Press, Dec. 2008), Invisible Women (StepSister Press, late 2009), and The Evolutionary Revolution (Les Figues Press, 2009-10). Her eBook Woman Down the Hall is available through Lamination Colony. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana and Associate Editor of Starcherone Press.

Stacey Levine wrote *My Horse and Other Stories* and the novels *Dra–* and *Frances Johnson*. Her fiction has appeared in *The Fairy Tale Review,* *Tin House,* *Yeti,* and other venues. She has also contributed to the *American Book Review,* *Bookforum,* *The Chicago Reader,* and *The Stranger.* A collection of her fiction, *The Girl with Brown Fur,* will be published in 2009. Her website is Staceylevine.com.

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Here’s my interview with Lily. My interview with Stacey follows.

1. I recently read The Woman Down the Hall, your e-book published by Lamination Colony. I’m curious about its form—did you intend to write it as stories within a story, a series of interconnected stories? Or did you intend for a more “linear” narrative, or something else? What was the process of writing The Woman Down the Hall?

First off, thanks for reading it! I actually wrote The Woman Down the Hall to submit for a contest that Lydia Davis judged last year. I had just finished writing this surrealistic/speculative fiction novel called The Evolutionary Revolution (I’ll tell you more about this book later on) & I wasn’t really interested in working on anything else for a while. Then, one of my friends sent me the call for submissions for that contest. I’m a huge Lydia Davis fan, & I thought that my writing had some similarities to hers that would make it interesting, or at least provocative, for her to read. So I started writing The Woman Down the Hall. (Luckily, I didn’t win because if I had, I would have never had a chance to work with Lamination Colony!)

Process-wise, the most I can say is that I think the way I write, by which I mean that I think in little pieces. I’ve always loved puzzles & seeing how these seemingly different, un-unified pieces could add up to make something quite beautiful. Whereas I can’t claim that all of my stories or novels always add up to make something beautiful, I’m always excited to see exactly how the pieces of my stories accumulate to make something new and different. In short, I wrote The Woman Down the Hall almost exactly as it appears on Lamination Colony. I wrote the first bit, then for some reason or another, that bit sparked another bit. Even though the stories themselves seem entirely unrelated, there is something in there for me, some semblance of dialogue and potential.

I really love your question about intention. This is horrible for me to admit, but I didn’t have any intention of what the story would be, other than a word requirement. I simply sat down to write, and quite frankly, I was a little surprised, once I was done, by exactly what had transgressed on the page. I should, however, mention that I actually always think of my stories as linear. I think that most of my stories are quite traditional as well. Perhaps it’s just that my conception of linearity and traditional begin with Tristram Shandy & Joyce.

I’m also happy to say that The Woman Down the Hall sparked a whole new writing project of mine. This story became a chapter in my feminist conversation with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, only rather than cities, I discuss women who “live down the hall.” This novel, called Invisible Women, is forthcoming sometime in 2009-10 from StepSister Press.

2. Here are some of my observations about fables and your writing:

In some ways, The Woman Down the Hall makes me think of the more macabre fables in The Brothers Grimm.

You’ve got a book, Changing, forthcoming from Fairy Tale Press.

You write in The Woman Down the Hall, “We’re not going to call it karma or fate or any of these words, but it is impossible to deny that there is some kind of cycle involved…”

In The Butterfly Effect (published by BlazeVOX in 2005) you play with the idea that disparate events are connected by cause and effect, which I think “updates” the logic of the fable, wherein some sort of divine justice guides the outcome of events.

Could you talk about the influence of fairy tales/fables on your writing? Are there things about fables that you don’t like and want to comment on/subvert/alter by using their tone in your writing?

I have to be honest: before Kate Bernheimer approached me about the possibility of her publishing Changing with Fairy Tale Review Press, I had little more than a cursory knowledge of fairy tales. Of course, like most children, I’d read fairy tales and watched plenty of them, but as a genre, I didn’t know all that much about it. So Changing (in its original form) and “Butterfly Effect” (which is the opening chapter of my novel Parabola) were conceived without fully understanding the rules of fairy tales and myths, other than of course my childhood memory.

After my text was accepted, however, I started this kind of love affair with fairy tales. I started to read them, as many as I could, & I even taught a course on fairy tales. The Woman Down the Hall is very much so the effect of all these fairy tales. Whereas my writing has tended, in the past, to have a macabre edge to it, reading fairy tales definitely pushed me over the edge, such that now I have women pulling out their teeth and dead men’s heads hanging on the wall. Sometimes, even reading what I’ve written gives me chills!

I think something that my writing has in common with fairy tales—to get back to your question!—is that I’m obsessed with causality. This may have to do with the little pieces I talked about in your previous question, but I am really fascinated with how the juxtaposition of one thing next to another creates something else. Isn’t this ultimately what myth deals with, how one thing can make another?

3. About her story “The World of Barry” (published in the anthology The Clear Cut Future) Stacey says, “The story is typical for me in that it cites a person with a conflict about their identity, and a very interiorized struggle that I communicate to the reader via chains of external imagery.” In your writing I also see an interest in identity and identity conflicts (or if not conflicts, then identity shifts, as in The Woman Down the Hall, whose narrator seems to change during the story). In your mind, is “identity” something you’re writing about? Also, in your previous answer you mention being obsessed with causality–I’m wondering how you reconcile this with the shiftiness of identity–is this one sort of the juxtaposition you mention?

I absolutely love Stacey’s response. I wish I could offer you something so sophisticated as that. But yes, I do write a great deal about identity. My first two books, which are quite autobiographical, all pertain to my experiences growing up as an Asian American female and family politics. Woman Down the Hall, which is part of my novel Invisible Women, is also about identity but in a very different way. Invisible Women is an examination of portrayals of femininity and woman-ness, the way women are idealized/idolized and demonized. Woman Down the Hall epitomizes this in so many ways. I shift point of view and voice as a method of creation. Although the characters are all different, they eventually merge to become the collective “we” voice. They blend, lose their singular identities, and become a new identity. The juxtaposition of these disparate seeming stories highlights the moment when the reader realizes exactly who the “we” voice is. One of the most pleasurable things about writing with these very short pieces juxtaposed next to each other is the suspension or delay of epiphany or knowledge.

4. The excerpts I’ve read so far of Changing (in Jumps Journal, Mad Hatter’s Review, and Alice Blue Review) leave me with a lot of questions, in a good way; I especially want to know how you came to the form you did for these prose poems/hexagrams—was there a moment when you realized what the form should be? Did you figure it out slowly? Did you draft Changing using a computer or did you write by hand?

I started writing Changing in grad school after I finished my thesis. There’s a whole funny story involving a workshop that required a lot of writing, a “no recycle” rule, & a lot of ego. (Sadly, I think that ego part has to do with me, although I wouldn’t really want to admit it!) I basically wrote Changing out of spite for being forced to write new work when I’d already produced a huge thesis. Somehow, I didn’t think this was fair at the time. (I’m not at all sure how I thought it, but I did!)

My thesis, which is now Parabola, was a loose collection of short stories about “modern day mythologies.” I became really interested in the occult & notions of fate while researching, but I didn’t get to incorporate any of the I Ching, or Book of Changes into my thesis. The “no recycle” writing workshop gave me an opportunity to use all the research I’d done on the I Ching. (There was also a “no nonsense,” by which I mean “experimental,” tone to the class. Of course, this only further fueled my experimentation and innovation.)

But back to your questions: I started writing my hexagrams by hand. I spent a lot of time in graduate school reading & studying the OuLiPo (who believed that writing reaches its truest potential when superficial constraints are forced on the writer during the process of writing). As such, the I Ching hexagrams became my constraint. I started the project with the form in mind. I’ve often been told (in workshops) that you should just start writing & the form will come to you. Generally, I spend a lot of time thinking about the form, and then the story comes to me.

It’s actually been quite a challenge, moving my hexagrams from hand-written pages to 8.5×11 pages to book manuscript pages. In truth, when I originally started writing Changing, I had no real expectation of ever publishing it. It was more of an exercise in form for me. That being said, I am ecstatic with the way Fairy Tale Review Press has transformed my text into a beautiful, lovely book!

5. How do you decide where to publish your work? Or a little more generally, what kind of press do you want to see your work published by, and why? What has your experience been with publishing online?

I have to say that I’ve been really very very lucky with the presses who have taken my work! But more generally, I submit to presses because of the writers they’ve published & the editors. I originally submitted Parabola (one of the many manifestations of my MFA thesis) to the Chiasmus Press Un-Doing the Novel Contest. I love Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing and have immense respect for her as a writer and publisher. I’d also read several Chiasmus books and really enjoyed them. When I heard about the contest, I knew that my manuscript would fit perfectly there.

I’d also read Kate Bernheimer’s books so when she approached me about FTR Press, I was overjoyed to have her publish my book. I was familiar with Fairy Tale Review, which is a stellar journal. I feel a little like I’m repeating myself, but a friend of mine had suggested that I read Vanessa Place’s novel Dies. Vanessa & I very quickly began an e-mail correspondence. Eventually, I submitted my novel The Evolutionary Revolution to her press, Les Figues Press, and when they offered to publish it, I didn’t hesitate at all. My newest manuscript was accepted just last week with StepSister Press. This was the first press I submitted to where I was unfamiliar with the publisher’s work; however, I loved the description of the press. I have been wanting to collaborate with an artist for a while, and StepSister’s emphasis on art (the press is run by an artist!) made it extremely appealing to me.

In general, I look for presses that share similar aesthetics and politics with me. I heard it said somewhere (maybe AWP?) that small presses today are like brand names, & I think there’s a lot of truth to it. There are only a handful of small presses really dedicated to innovative writing, and I love them all!

As far as journal publications, I try my best to find journals that would be interested in my kind of writing. I get rejections all the time. It’s all hit or miss. The same goes for publishing online. I really love online journals. They’re easy to read & quite often, they house the most exciting writing!

6. Does what you’re reading impact what you’re writing? How? Who are some writers who’ve been important to your writing?

Of course it does! For instance, before I started writing The Evolutionary Revolution, I had just finished teaching a course on Speculative Fiction (which I must admit I didn’t know very much about), but after teaching that workshop, I couldn’t stop thinking about Speculative Fiction. I think it’s carried on to today. I still can’t let go of it! I’ve also been teaching a lot of Women’s Studies courses over the past couple years. As such, feminism finds its way into my writing almost through osmosis.

As far as writers who’ve influenced me… I think I’d first have to thank my teachers: Catherine Kasper & Steve Tomasula. They both gave me incredible reading lists that show-cased innovation & play. (Catherine Kasper is a poet & there’s definitely something wildly fantastic about being taught “fiction” by a “poet.”) Of course, I’m influenced by the Modernists—Joyce, Stein, Woolf, etc.—but there are always two texts that I return to time & time again as these integral texts that made me rethink what a novel can do. Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red and Dubravka Ugresic’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender totally shocked me out of passive, traditional writing. More recently, I’ve been loving Selah Saterstrom and Peter Markus.

But I think what’s been most exciting for me has been reading manuscripts that have not yet been accepted for publication, reading works by writers my own age who are doing mind-blowing things. I’m thinking in particular about Blake Butler & Michael Stewart, both young writers to keep an eye on before they explode onto the small press scene like a bad habit. Reading, seeing, and conversing with other writers—emerging or not—has brought about the most inspiration to me as a young, emerging writer.

7. When you were researching mythologies, religions, astronomy, and mathematics for Parabola, did you begin to see science, or aspects of what might be called scientific thinking (like the belief that we can understand a system or process by isolating its parts and studying those) as being similar to myth and religion? Another way of asking this: what did reading about mythologies, religions, astronomy, and mathematics during the time you were working on Parabola reveal to you about how these ways of thinking are related?

I began conceiving of Parabola during the summer after my first year of grad school. I had a series of stories, some of which I liked (& some of which I didn’t!) that had nothing in common. I’d spent the previous semester doing an independent study with Steve Tomasula on the OuLiPo so I knew that I wanted my thesis to have some sort of constraint to it. I had actually–at this point–written a story that used the quadratic equation as a formal constraint (as in each part of the formula had a short short dedicated to it). Then, as I was drinking coffee one day, it suddenly dawned on me that the quadratic should be the constraint for my whole thesis. Then, I looked at the pieces of stories I had and tried to find a common thru line, which happened to be what I considered modern day mythologies.

Ok, I really am getting to your question…The parabola as a method of organization allowed me a certain degree of freedom, as long as the chapters/stories connected in some way and had a “reflection” piece for the other quadrant. In undergrad, like so many others, I was fairly obsessed with Chaos Theory (or at least my rudimentary understanding of what it could mean). Even though it is–obviously–science, because it’s so intangible, I viewed Chaos Theory as something almost mythological. The same is true for astronomy. I took a course during grad school about extraterrestrials (I think the class was called Modern Astronomy but it was really about aliens!!). As such, I started to conceive of many forms of science as myth.

As I worked through the various stories in Parabola, I came to think of everything as a type of mythology, even love and family. I began to see odd creation stories and a movement away from realism in everything. I guess what I’m saying is that even though the elements in Parabola may seem disparate–because really, what does math have in common with religion have in common with Atlas and Adam & Eve?–we create mythologies to account for most things in life. We simply need to see and acknowledge these things as myths.

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And my interview with Stacey.

1. About Robert Walser’s novel Jakob von Gunten, Walter Benjamin wrote that the characters are like characters from a fairy tale after the fairy tale has ended, so that they have to live in the real world. When I read this, I thought immediately of your characters Frances Johnson and Dra–. They, too, seem like characters who have become separated from their stories and, along with their stories, the purpose their lives might conventionally have in a larger context. So they find themselves living in odd landscapes where inexplicable things happen. In both Frances Johnson and Dra–, both main characters and narrator seem at a loss to explain why things happen the way they do. For example in Frances Johnson you’ve written lines (like “She saw her father sitting at a rough wooden table, eating a freakishly large apple, his head in half-shadow”) which are often not made to relate to anything that has come before or will come after. Why such a large apple? I’m interested in your reaction to any of this, and in what you have to say about how fairy tales are important to your writing, if at all.

On the other hand, Frances and Dra— (if they can even be considered full-on “characters”) could be considered mechanisms in a fictional world that chiefly aims to give readers a very particular flavor of experience. From my point of view, those characters and their worlds are all of a piece, not separated, and the whole represents the illogic of the real world. I also use imagery and events that are familiar yet defamiliarized.

At points while writing those works, I knew a sentence or scene was right if it looked and/or sounded “off.” This is how I’ve worked with short fiction, too.

That’s how it was for the apple. The father-with-apple image may not directly pertain to the rest of the story, but it does tonally and compositionally. That is, in the context of everything that happens to Frances, it’s not surprising that she’d see her father sitting in this way. That’s the great thing about writing novels-you have the space to toss in details for fun and enjoyment and just to try them out. Really different from short fiction, in which every line must build rigorously toward the whole.

As for fairy tales, I could yak on and on about them. They are important to me because, in dreamlike symbols, they express people’s unconscious impulses, wishes, desires, etc. They are barometric. They were not usually written by an author, but instead passed on via oral tradition. Jung’s so-called Collective Unconscious-how amazing that it is real, as expressed in these tales.

2. In many of the stories in your first short story collection, My Horse, characters suffer from physical afflictions. It often isn’t clear if an affliction manifests itself on the character’s body or if it exists entirely in the character’s imagination. But this distinction doesn’t seem important-either way, the character’s life is made uncomfortable by the affliction, such as the character in “Cakes” who wants badly to eat many cakes but cannot so long as the dog and cat are looking on, and who begins to feel ill as a result of being unable to consume in privacy. In many of these stories, psychological and physical dispositions become ambiguously intertwined; I’m interested in hearing about how you achieved this in terms of language and writing process.

I later clarified what I meant with this question and emailed the following to Stacey: It’s like the circumstances in which characters in “Cakes” and “The Hump” and “The Son” live are making the characters sick, or their reactions to the circumstances are making them sick. For instance hypochondriacs might react to stressful circumstances by believing themselves to have some sort of illness which will allow them to escape from the stressful circumstances, to be at home recovering or in a hospital. One thing I’m trying to ask in question two is whether you were thinking when you were writing these stories that their characters were being made sick not only by their particular circumstances, but also by the culture that perhaps legitimizes (or doesn’t) those circumstances. For example, in The Son, an adult son is still living at home with his parents. This might be seen by his culture as indicative of sickness or rottenness or some kind of personal failing. I’m also interested in the experience of shame in these stories, whether shame causes sickness.

In “The Son,” a story about pure anxiety, the rotten tooth in the son’s mouth becomes the family’s focal point. I think this is humorous, but I was also aiming to show how the family members are too interdependent, too intertwined for the son to experience himself at all, or freedom. His parents define his life for him and never have shown him how to be independent, so naturally, he doesn’t have the know-how to behave as an adult.

About illness…I’ve worked at a hospitals a lot, and it seems abundantly clear to me that our states of mind and emotions routinely become somatized, that is, expressed through the body. It seems normal or at least common. I’m surprised this is not more widely addressed by doctors. Maybe it’s impossible for them to do that: “Oh, you’re having blackouts and there’s no medical reason for it; why don’t you go to a psychotherapist to find out what your body is trying to say?” It sounds reductive and patronizing. Anyway, working with this idea in fiction has been really rewarding for me. It’s super-rich territory.

3. What role(s) do doctors and nurses play in the stories in My Horse and in your novels, Dra-and Frances Johnson? Why do characters expect so much from doctors and nurses?

For some reason, I’ve always thought the word “nurse” can be really comical in the right context in a sentence. I think it’s also funny when fiction describes a character’s professional role as a kind of stand-in for further description or even personality. You see this in genre fiction, old and new. (“Brad, a handsome surgeon, strode into the room.” Etc.)

Beyond that, I’ve always tended to use doctors and nurses, especially in the past and maybe now just by force of habit, as holders and dealers of power. Tension is created in the fiction if some characters have high expectations of other characters.

4. In your interview with Michael Silverblatt for the show Bookworm on KCRW, you talk a bit about inequities of power in the stories in My Horse. I found this question really interesting, particularly in terms of how language reflects these inequities. In your writing, how do you use language to suggest inequities of power?

I’m not sure about language, but I think I did that through characterization and other elements in the stories.

5. Lily mentions (in response to one of the interview questions I asked her) that she has spent time “reading & studying the OuLiPo” and that she often writes within self-imposed constraints. I wonder if you have similar practices, using formal constraints or other “rules” to guide your writing. If not, why not?

Some amazing writing comes out of those constraints. I love hearing/reading it. Have you read Doug Nufer’s work? It’s good. I don’t do constraints because I’m too absorbed by content, sequence, and psychology. If someone made me do it, though, i.e., in a class or something, I would try it. One thing I do a lot, however, is to misread signs, ads, food labels, and other text by accident. Then I try to make myself write down these misreadings for later use.

6. Why have you’ve chosen to publish with the (smallish, independent) houses you have? What effect do you think publishing with independent presses has on the content of your writing?

It wasn’t a choice. My work was rejected by the big guns New York publishers. I’m with a semi-larger house for my next book, but it’s still an independent (MacAdam/Cage). Still, I’ve been happy with smaller presses. They suit me and my slow way of writing. Of course, they have their well-known downsides…. Yet with smaller houses, there’s less nonsense like the imperative to sell, sell no matter what, the crazy competitiveness and drive to promote that is discombobulating and not very real, in a way. I mean, we’re all going to die anyway, whether we have loudly and lavishly-published books or not. The most important is to have people around the book who love it. The do-it-yourself aesthetic of my last publisher, Clear Cut, was a great match for me.

7. I recently read and really like your story “The World of Barry” in the anthology The Clear Cut Future. It reminds me of some songs by David Byrne in the way it gently, poetically mocks aspects of (it seems to me) middle-class life. The narrator is so expressive of her thoughts and emotions even while she is clearly repressed by her daily habits and others’ expectations and her own expectations of herself. She seems aware of this repression as repression, yet she finds some beauty in it, too. I’m interested in hearing how you describe “The World of Barry,” how this story fits among the rest of your work, the ideas you explore there.

Thanks. I think the narrator is maybe not distant enough on her situation to fully mock, but using indirect correlatives, she effectively complains or at least is wry, ambivalent, and, okay, maybe sarcastic (“pepper-crusted chicken,” etc.) To be fully honest, I had a strange part-time job a few years ago as a census taker, going door to door in a subdivision of upscale, yet cheaply made new homes in South King County, Washington. The surrounding scenery was classically Northwest-beautiful, but the homes were depressing and really stuck with me. So that dreary setting of poorly-considered property development, a non-neighborhood, and the blaring background of crass real estate promotional billboards, all facing the mountains, became the backbone of the story. I think the area really is called Sky Island Drive.

The story is typical for me in that it cites a person with a conflict about their identity, and a very interiorized struggle that I communicate to the reader via chains of external imagery.