The OF Blog: Interview with Brian Evenson

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Interview with Brian Evenson


Brian Evenson is the author of 9 works of fiction, beginning with his first collection of short fiction, Altmann's Tongue
(1994), with Last Days ( Feb. 1, 2009; my review here) and the upcoming (Sept. 2009) collection Fugue State being his most recent publications.

It is hard to classify Evenson's works into a single category, as his stories range from "literary" to "horror," with permutations of each mixing and mingling within each story. For someone such as myself, who loves fiction that isn't fitted easily into neat categories, Evenson's stories were like a godsend. Recently I was asked by Matt Staggs if I would be interested in interviewing Evenson and I jumped at the chance, as there were several questions I had related to some of the thematic issues contained within Last Days, as well as those explored in two of his short story collections (Altmann's Tongue, The Wavering Knife). This interview, conducted by email over the past week, I hope will be of interest to readers. In it, Evenson and I talk about the writing process, religious faith and its influences, types of apocalypses, among other matters.

The beginning paragraph to Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón's latest novel may be translated thusly:
A writer never forgets the first time that he accepts some money or praise in exchange for a story. He never forgets the first time that he feels the sweet venom of vanity in his blood, and he believes that if he manages that no one discovers his lack of talent the literary dream will be capable of placing a roof over his head, a hot plate for the end of the day and his deepest yearning: his name impressed on a miserable piece of paper which surely will survive longer than he. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is lost and his soul has a price.
As an author, what are your reactions to such a quote? Is there something that drove you to become an author, or did writing grow out of other interests?

When I was a tween my mother published a few science fiction stories and--probably to keep us busy so that she could find time to write herself--she encouraged all the children (I was the oldest of five) to write as well. For some reason it stuck with me and very quickly became an almost obsessional activity. But I think it’s been less because of praise that I’ve gotten or haven’t gotten (I kept writing even when a lot of people close to me were disturbed by what I was doing and thought I should stop) and more because it’s somehow satisfying at a very basic level. Writing and reading are a huge part of what I am and if I go for even a short while without either of them I feel like there’s less of me there. So, yes, that probably does suggest that I’m lost...

Speaking of your family, I just received a copy of your first book, Altmann's Tongue, and I see that you dedicated the novella "The Sanza Affair" to her. Besides encouraging you to write, was there ever a direct influence from her own story writing on the way you tell stories?


I don’t think there was a direct influence on the way I tell my stories, but maybe there’s one that I just don’t see. The story of hers I remember best was quite different from any of mine. It was called "Exodus" and appeared in a collection of Mormon-themed science fiction stories, and involved a Mormon Church leader saving Utah from an alien invasion through the Church’s emergency preparedness program. The first ‘real’ story I remember writing, when I was fourteen or fifteen, was a piece inspired by Kafka’s short parable "The Coming of the Messiah," and was an odd combination of fantastical mysticism and religious doubt. One of the stories I worked on earlier, when my Mom was encouraging us to write, was a story about a rock living in the crust of the earth who is trying to stir the other rocks into revolt. So, I think my mother and I really were beginning in very different places with our idea of what stories should do and where they should stand in relation to the community. Her story seemed to imply a wisdom to the religious structure, while my stories always tend to have a much larger component of fear or doubt.

It’s a funny thing: growing up faithful in a religious culture, I was almost barraged with stories. Things from the Bible or from the book of Mormon (which I was told I should read as if they had been written for my instruction), stories in church meant to illustrate a moral lesson, stories meant to make one afraid of committing a sin, and so on. All of that was important to forming my sense of myself as a writer, partly in terms of opposition—I have a real resistance now, for instance, to stories which have the hint of a moral message—but also in terms of the way they were formulated. That mixture of King James language, half hidden biblical allusions, and vernacular speech—which I think you can find in many Christian cultures, not just Mormonism—is something that still stays with me, and something that’s very much present in my stories. The closer you are to that sort culture, probably, the more challenging my stories tend to be.

It is interesting that you bring up your Mormon upbringing and the impact that elements of that faith has had on your writing. I recently bought a first edition hardcover of Altmann’s Tongue and the cover flap seemed to focus as much on the dichotomy between your faith at the end and the nature of the stories themselves. What is your general reaction to those who want to examine your stories through the prism of your religious upbringing?

I think it’s a complicated. It’s hard for your ideas not to be formed by, and in reaction to, your upbringing. For me it was also complicated by the fact that my parents were politically both democrats who were also faithful Mormons, something that a lot of the kids I grew up with saw as an impossible combination. “Which are you,” some of them would ask. “Mormon? Or Democrat?” So I grew up with a very schizophrenic sense of my relationship to that culture, feeling simultaneously outside of it and inside of it. I was, for many years, a very faithful Mormon, even served in the local church leadership in my 20s and feel I gained a great deal from that background. I do think there’s often an interest in the complexities of community in my fiction which is probably due to that, and it’s certainly the basis for my continued exploration of belief and odd religion, but I don’t think either my religious background or my movement away from it in later life really captures the essence of what I’m doing. There’s a lot of other things that are part of that mental conversation that leads to my work: philosophy, absurd literature, ideas from other writers, phenomenology, things that have haunted me, things I’ve learned from music and visual art, etc.

From what I understand, you lived outside the United States for some considerable length of time. In what ways, if any, did that experience influence your views of the world and your fiction writing?

I lived briefly in Mexico and I also lived in France for a while, and I’ve translated from both French and (in collaboration) from Spanish. I think living outside of the United States changed the way that I thought for the better. It made me reconsider a lot of ideas and beliefs that I had taken for granted and I think it also really expanded my ability to empathize with others. Speaking French even changed the patterns of my thoughts, helped me to see things about the world that I hadn’t notice before. I think reading had already done some of that for me, but I think speaking a foreign language and living in a foreign country was incredibly important for me as a writer.

Who were some of the real-life and literary influences on your writing career?


The most important real-life influence was a Welsh writer named Leslie Norris who was a tremendous supporter of my work when I was in college. He’d read incredibly widely and got me reading obsessively and eccentrically, which has been the most important thing to me as a writer. One week he’d introduce me to J.G. Ballard’s The Concrete Island and the next he had me reading Salman Rushdie’s Shame or . He introduced me to a great many writers I probably would have eventually found on my own, but also to a few that I never would have found but who I love: writers like Mervyn Peake, Dambudzo Marechera, and Caradoc Evans. He also had no interest in making my work fit a certain model: he liked that it was in its own strange place and encouraged me to build a space for myself in a way that I’ve always tried to emulate in my own teaching. Professionally he helped me know where to send work out and also introduced me to my first agent. I really couldn’t have done without him. My most important early literary influences were Franz Kafka, who my father introduced me to when I was 14, and Samuel Beckett who I stumbled on on my own when I was in high school. Kafka really changed my sense of what writing could do, and then Beckett changed it again: his novel Molloy is still one of the most important books for me. Later there have been other people and other writers who have been very, very important, and many who still are, but those are the some of the earliest.

Interesting that you mention Kafka here, as I thought when I was reading The Wavering Knife and now Altmann's Tongue that there were hints in your stories of his use of a direct voice to accentuate the surrealness of the surroundings. Hadn't considered Beckett, however. If pressed, what one element, if not more than one, of Molloy would you say might be found in your work?

Yes, Kafka’s there and I feel like I learned a tremendous amount for him. With Beckett, there are things he does in Molloy that I think were very influential for me: the way that Molloy and Moran become doubles of one another and yet remain intact, for instance. I also very laboriously compared the French and English versions of the novel word for word, and published an article about that, so I think I’ve thought more closely about the words and sentences of Molloy than any other book I’ve read, and it’s a book I re-read regularly. I love the tone of Molloy as well, and the shift in tone from the first to the second part. I love the moment in the second part when a stranger thrusts his hand at Moran and the latter says "I can still see the hand coming towards me, pallid, opening and closing. As if self-propelled. I do not know what happened then. But a little later, perhaps a long time later, I found him stretched on the ground his head in a pulp. I am sorry I cannot indicate more clearly how this result was obtained..." That passage does a whole series of things I find astounding. When I first read that, it really crystallized something for me, and I think a lot of my fiction has been an attempt to create for others the feeling I felt when reading that. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

You mention that you did a laborious comparison of the French and English versions of Beckett’s story. I understand that you have done several translation of works from French to English. Has that experience of trying to find le mot juste for each language involved had any impact on how you approach the craft of writing stories at the syntactical level?

Yes, that’s had a tremendous impact. I’ve done a fair amount of translation, ranging from contemporary literary writers like Christian Gailly or Marcel Cohen to earlier genre writers like Gustave Le Rouge. You really do end thinking very closely about how another writer puts together his or her style and you really have to stretch your mind to render the work in English in a way that captures what’s central to the original text. I find it a very satisfying and challenging activity, and it’s taught me a lot about my own writing. And yes, I do sometimes tend to appropriate strategies from French syntax in my own writing, sometimes as a way of defamiliarizing the prose, sometimes for other reasons.

In creating your stories, which do you place more emphasis on - creating the characters or the "worldbuilding" aspects of creating a plausible setting for the action?


I feel like all of those things are very connected, and that emphasis can change from moment to moment, depending what a particular scene or paragraph or story is trying to do. My writing tends to be fairly stripped down, and I like to try to do as much as I can as efficiently as possible. I try to give just enough detail to allow readers to bring the situation, characters and events to life in their minds quickly, and almost without knowing how much they’re participating in that act of creation. I think a lot of that is done by instinct, but when I think about it concretely I tend to think in terms of things like the velocity, intensity, and rhythm. What I like as a reader is a story that carries me away, and I want to give that to my readers.

My first exposure to your work was through your short story collection The Wavering Knife. Later I read two novels by you, the Aliens: No Exit tie-in novel and your most recent release, Last Days. Were there many difficulties in adapting your storytelling approach towards longer fiction?

I’ve published many more stories than novels over the years, though I think lately I’ve been drawn more to novellas and novels simply because the situations I’ve been interested in exploring have proved too complex for stories. I think a novel does end up being something of a different animal; it can’t have the same kind of tautness as you can inflict upon a story, but it also allows you to draw connections and create resonances that are harder to make work in story. A novel like Last Days ends up being an almost dreamlike series of echoes and resonances; it has, as Peter Straub kindly suggests in his introduction, an almost musical structure of repetition and variation, and part of the pleasure for me in writing it comes back to that. I don’t think that’s something I could pull off in a longer novel, and a novel of mine like The Open Curtain ends up taking a different tactic. Aliens: No Exit was really fun to write, partly because the first Aliens movie terrified me when I was a kid. I had to write a summary of it first and that summary had to be approved by Fox, so I had a sense of exactly where I was going with it, which is unusual for me. It’s a little pulpy, but I think you still see my interests and obsessions in it, and I hope it’s the kind of Aliens novel only I could write.

You mention that in Aliens: No Exit that one can see your interests and obsessions. For those who have not yet read that novel, what scene would you single out as being a good example of your interests merging with the Aliens setting? Also, are there any plans for writing future novels set in that universe or other shared-world settings?

I think the basic idea of the novel, in which there’s a confusion between what’s real and what’s not, a kind of false reality being offered up, is something that’s very central to my work—you can see it in some of the stories in The Wavering Knife and it’s in Last Days as well. The way the tunnel scenes are handled seem pretty specific to me as well. I think that opening scene, where you’re given an encounter with an Alien and then immediately move to a much worse trauma, one that leads Kline to do something unimaginable, is very much my own, as is the particular mixture of humor and violence in the later part of the novel. There’s also (among other things) a slightly modified quotation from Hegel used to describe the Alien hive (and various other allusions); that’s something that only I would be foolhardy enough to do.

I’d love to do another Aliens novel if they’ll let me. I suppose it depends on how well this one does; readers so far seem to like it.

In your latest novel, Last Days, you expand upon your 2003 novella, The Brotherhood of Mutilation. What led you to decide that you had more to tell within that setting?

When I first finished the novella, I thought that would be it, but something about that world really stuck with me. And I found I’d become attached enough to Kline as a character that I kept thinking about him, about what the kind of sustained trauma he’d been through was likely to do to him. I also realized that even if he escaped the brotherhood were definitely the sort of people to hold a grudge. The second part, then, ends up being a kind of exploration of how one loses one’s humanity, with Kline reaching a point that all he can think to do is bring about a sort of apocalypse, one that’s both internal and external.

I also think that the really odd investigation I was doing of a certain kind of extreme religious belief didn’t feel like it was done; I wanted to explore the notion of schism and the added complications this can cause (as religious history has shown). I also think the kinds of noirs and detective novels I was reading shifted a little bit and I suddenly started to see new possibilities because of writers like James M. Cain, Richard Stark, Fredric Brown, and David Goodis (Dashiell Hammett is at the heart of the first part, particularly The Dain Curse and Red Harvest). Then suddenly I entered a period in my life where everyone seemed like they were named Paul, and during that time I discovered that Paul Wittgenstein had done one-handed piano pieces. From there, everything fell into place.

You note that the second part of Last Days explores how one might lose one's humanity. Has that been a thread that has run through much of your fiction, or are there key differences in how Kline's story evolves?


This is a good question. I think that that’s been a concern in different ways in my other fiction, but usually it’s been put a little differently. Some of the stories in Altmann’s Tongue, for instance, are interested in exploring that by its absence, by having the reader be faced by acts of violence or difficult choices presented flatly, without a sense of authorial judgment, so that there’s no safety net. I think, when this strategy works, it can make the reader think about his or her own ethics, his or her own choices, by being confronted by something that seems to be potentially monstrous. With Last Days it’s a little different. In the first part, after making a major choice before the story starts, Kline is carried along by events or circumstances to a point where he has to make a similar sort of choice. The second part starts in the aftermath of that choice, in what he’s done after that, and follows with him consciously making a choice to try to extricate himself from a difficult situation by repeated acts of violence. He does in fact extricate himself but by so doing he may very well have ‘lost’ himself. He has very complicated feelings about what he’s gone through and going through, and is afraid both that he’s becoming an animal and that (and this terrifies him much more) the cult members might be right and that he might be more than human: chosen or divine. So, whether he’s losing his humanity to become less than human or more than human is a question that he keeps toying with, hinting at.

You refer to Kline having "choices" throughout the narrative, yet events/circumstances exert a major influence on those choices. One of the issues of contention between adherents of various religious faiths is that of just exactly how much "choice" an individual has, especially in regards to moral actions. Would it be fair to question just how much of Kline (or the Brotherhood)’s actions are the result of faith and how much was "predestined?" Would Kline or the Brotherhood have different interpretations of this?

Yes, this is fair, and yes, Kline and the Brotherhood or its break-offs would interpret it differently. Kline does, in theory, have free will, but Borchert makes it very clear to him that there are severe limitations on what choices he can make—usually it’s a choice between something bad and something worse. In the second part, every time he tries to act freely circumstances arrange themselves such that the Pauls can see it as a sign that what happened was predestined, and I wouldn’t be surprised if any survivors would continue to think that way, that this was destiny, a “test”. Kline wants to believe his actions are free, but seems increasingly worried that they’re not. That’s one of the basic tensions between religion and the individual: where does free will stop and predestination or foreordination begin?

If Kline is indeed trying to bring about an "apocalypse," which type of apocalypse would be a more apt description: The original, "unveiling" sense of the word, or the latter-day view of it being an eschatological crisis of a Götterdämmerung end to things?


Well, I don’t think he knows for certain. I thought about them both at various times in the book. Sometimes it seems to be the one, sometimes the other. Ultimately I think he opts for a kind of end of all things, but there are a lot of moments along the way when he’s interested in apocalypse as an unveiling. The first part seems more informed by that, but I think the second part ultimately goes toward the later definition. But when he’s conversing with Ramse late in the second part, essentially planning (in an admittedly odd way) the future of the brotherhood, that earlier definition can be seen as informing the scene and his decision to stop his destruction. It’s flitting about in other places as well.

When I was reading your stories, particularly Last Days, I kept wondering if what these characters were seeking might be called the Sublime. Is that a fair approach toward viewing these characters' motivations, or is there much more to it than that?


I did a lot of work with literary and philosophical ideas of the sublime in graduate school, and I think that that’s certainly there, an interesting way to approach it. I do think the actions of the brotherhood are more than a little extreme but the thing about most of the people in the cult is that they’re genuinely sincere: they’re really trying to get at something beyond life as we know it around us. Borchert is incredibly manipulative, but even he actually does have a core of basic belief in what he’s doing: it’s not about money and it’s only partly about power. In a way, I suppose, that makes them all the scarier. If you think of a grouping of religious people as doing things for very human motivations then their behavior is predictable. Many of them may never reach ecstatic heights, or may reach them only temporarily, but they also are likely to say "wait a minute, let’s think this through" instead of simply drinking the poisoned kool-ade. But if you have a group that really does believe fervently in what they’re doing, the behavior becomes unpredictable and very difficult to control. They’ve left the logic of the world behind to follow a higher logic. That’s why people often have to be deprogrammed when they leave a cult, because the very structure of their thought has changed. In any case, I think one of the terrifying things for Kline is that he can sense the appeal of it, that he can see how it might be possible for him to start to believe. That in itself is so terrifying that it leads him to a kind of madness and into something that either is a kind of rampage or a kind of holy wrath, depending on how you want to read it.

So would it be fair to say that at one level, Last Days revolves as much around how one interacts with his/her religious faith as it does around what motivates an apocalyptic cult?

Yes, it’s at least as much about that. Each of the different characters seem to have a little different position in regard to their religious faith. What you find about the cult is that, when you cut through that first layer of conditioned response everybody’s relationship to it is slightly different, that there are different levels of faith, different ways in which faith mixes with other things like pride or love of power, and different subsects with perhaps different levels of commitment. Kline is an outsider trying to negotiate a very complex structure of codes that’s there and trying to keep some sort of distance from it.

Instead of asking where you got the inspiration for your ideas, I want to reverse the order a bit: In what ways has the act of creating stories affected your views on the world and your interactions with others?

This is a very good question, and I don’t know that I have a very good or complete answer. I think writing stories has made me very curious about the world around me, and has attuned me to things and interactions that I otherwise would pay no attention to. It’s also taught me to hide the fact that I’m attuned and listening, since I find that behavior changes when it’s observed. I don’t think I’m always writing instead of living or always half-living the event and half-thinking about how that event might be transformed into fiction, but there are definitely moments when that does happen. I think writing’s made me more skeptical, but also more patient. I do think to be brutally honest that in some ways it’s made me more of a misanthrope, but in other ways much more empathetic with the world in general, but having said that I think I’d be hard-pressed to prove it. I also think, partly because of the controversy surrounding my first book, that writing has made me feel like I have to take responsibility for my own actions and be willing to stand behind them. I opened by saying that I feel like there’s less of me there when I’m not writing. I think the reverse is true; writing (admittedly in a complicated way) makes me feel more present in the world.

Thanks again, Brian, for agreeing to do this interview. It has been a real pleasure working with you on this.

Thanks again for the questions, which were good and very provocative.

6 comments:

Daniel Ausema said...

Very engaging interview--I haven't read any of Brian's writing yet, but he's one of those authors that's been dancing along the periphery of my attention for a while. This certainly pushes him in closer to being a likely read soon.

E. L. Fay said...

I've been wanting to read Altmann's Tongue. I read somewhere that Brigham Young University told Evenson that if he wanted to continue to teach there, he would have to promise never to write a book like that again. Which only piques my curiosity. I know Mormons can be very sensitive about "objectionable content," so I'm kind of wondering how "bad" that book could have been.

Larry said...

Daniel,

Thanks! Brian certainly is an author well worth reading, as he packs a lot into so few words. Even in his "lesser" stories (or lesser in my opinion), there is a lot occurring in just a few paragraphs or pages. It's hard to describe until you've read a few of his short stories back-to-back, to be honest.

E.L.,

That pretty much is it, except it was quite a bit worse than that. He was pretty much pressured so much by the entire LDS church until he asked to be excommunicated (he had been a bishop and family counselor before then) and his wife divorced him afterward. Not a pleasant experience. As for Altmann's Tongue, it is very violent in places (you are placed in the PoV of those who've committed some heinous crimes), but the violence is never glorified, but rather examined as a horrifying but yet attractive part of the human psyche.

Aaron said...

This interview is a very good example of why I prefer this blog to Pat's Fantasy Hotlist. Not sure if anyone has seen the recent Glen Cook interview there, but Pat uses the same questions ad nauseum for each author no matter who they are. This interview shows how intelligent questions can be crafted 'just for' the writer answering them. I mean, you wouldn't ask these same questions to, say, Steven Erikson would you? Of course not. Just my $0.02

Karen said...

Brian is a freak. His stories are so awful, it makes me nervous to know that someone who thinks like that is walking around our planet.

I used to know him when he was in high school and I sensed something odd about him... ((shudder))

He was NOT a good memeber of the church, he tried to pretend he was, but didn't even have the discipline to fulfill a 2 year mission properly.

He had so many chances from the church, it's leadership, and BYU. Those things weren't important enough to him, and he and the church are much better off as strangers.

Nick M said...

Brian is emphatically NOT a freak. I had a few opportunities to meet and study with him after falling very much in love with his writing, and found him to be one of the kindest and most generous people I've ever met. His imagination leads the reader into dark places, to be sure, but after studying the history of the Mormon faith, I would dare say that even his darkest stories are more lighthearted than the actual actions of the founders of the faith he was brought up in.

Excellent interview. For those interested in more of Brian's work, I highly recommend The Open Curtain (a novel) and Contagion (a collection of stories), in addition to the books mentioned previously.

 
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