Today it is my distinct pleasure to bring you this recent interview I did with the talented author, Brian Evenson. I recently read his early collection Fugue State and thought it a fantastic book. Here’s my review, which doesn’t really do it justice – I encourage you to read this and any of Brian’s other superb books (click on the book cover images below to be taken direct to the Amazon book page):
“Brian Evenson's Fugue State is a very surrealistic, slip-stream kind of collection soaked with dark themes and nightmarish allegories that make the reader think! A bit of a rarity these days. I especially liked the way the stories encouraged a second reading. Stand-outs for me were 'In the Greenhouse', 'Life Without Father', 'Fugue State' and 'The Adjudicator.' Will definitely be reading more from this fine author.”
Without further ado, here is my interview with Brian.
BRIAN EVENSON is the author of a dozen books of fiction, most recently the story collection A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press, 2016) and the novella The Warren (Tor.com, 2016). His collection Windeye (Coffee House Press 2012) and novel Immobility (Tor 2012) were both finalists for a Shirley Jackson Award. His novel Last Days won the American Library Association's award for Best Horror Novel of 2009. The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press, 2006) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an International Horror Guild Award. Other books include The Wavering Knife (which won the IHG Award for best story collection), Dark Property, and Altmann's Tongue. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship. His work has been translated into French, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Slovenian. He lives and works in California, and teaches at CalArts.
Q: You have recently been in Transylvania teaching at the Horror Writer’s Workshop, did you get an opportunity to explore the countryside and were you inspired by your experience?
A: We did. The Horror Writer’s Workshop was held just outside of the town that houses Bran Castle, the basis for Dracula’s castle in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so I spent some time there, also explored some of the nearby towns and medieval villages and fortresses, places like Sighisoara and Brasov, took my son to a decaying Communist playground complete with scary cartoon figures, passed through a gypsy village in which on a Sunday morning everyone was carrying a broom, spent time in the forest, etc. It’s an amazing place, and it reminded me a lot of what parts of Europe used to be like 30 or 35 years ago, back when I visited as a kid. I do think I got a lot out of it and that it’ll figure in my writing in various ways.
Q: What of your childhood experiences determined your future works of fiction in thematic terms? I.e. How/what aspects of your childhood influenced your love of genre, reading and, ultimately, writing?
A: My parents were both big readers, and I think that rubbed off on me. They read a lot of mysteries in particular, but literature as well, and some science fiction (Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, C. S. Lewis). I think that, the pleasure they seemed to get out of fiction, was more important to me as a developing reader than anything else.
When I was young, I read mostly genre, most SF (Wolfe, Moorcock, McCaffery, etc.) but when I was in my mid-teens my father introduced me to Kafka and my mother introduced me to Poe. That ended up opening a whole new world to me, made me realize that literature was maybe something different than what I’d been led to believe it was, that it didn’t have to be boring and could be very odd. For a long time after that, a decade or more, but then I suddenly started finding it again and began remembering what I liked about it. And I also realized at that time that a lot of what I was trying to do with my own writing was to figure out a way to combine literature and genre.
Q: Many of your stories invoke a sense of unease and disquiet in terms of both the effect of characterization and imagery, is this a stylistic device that you employ to psychologically and imaginatively impact upon the reader, or do you think that it is more of an organic signatory aspect of your work?
A: I see it as organic, as something that I admire about the fiction I read that I liked the most and that became part of my literary DNA. I like work that makes me uneasy as a reader, that throws me off balance, and I think from the beginning of starting to write I was trying to understand how those stories worked and how to do it myself. But I also see it as operating more instinctively than being something I set out to do with a specific set of tools and, honestly, my stories that work the best manage to accomplish the unsettlement in a way that I can’t quite replicate or can’t quite understand why it does work. I love those moments in my fiction: the moments that really work but that I can’t explain to myself. At this point, it’s organic: I don’t think about it any more. I only have to think about it when I want a part of a story to not move in that direction...
Q: Your work seems slippery in terms of genre definition, what genre/s do you most feel at home with (writing) and do you have trouble placing your work in your intended market/s?
A: Initially, back in the 90s, I did have some trouble—people had a hard time deciding what to do with me. When I was first publishing, one of the first reviews my first book got at a large newspaper suggested that I was talented and I’d be worth reading once I got over the dark stuff and started writing “normal” stories. But as time has gone on most have decided they’re okay with me being a little slippery, and that the darkness in my work is crucial and non-gratuitous. That’s partly because they’ve gotten used to me and partly because I think the nature of the relation of genre and literature has shifted over time: what editors and reviewers used to think of as a Trump-style gigantic wall most now see as something that can be easily and productively crossed.
Q: What is it that you are trying to communicate to your readers? I.e. When someone finishes one of your stories what do you want them to come away with from the experience?
A: I don’t want to communicate information at all. I do want readers to go through an experience with my stories, to have an intensive experience. I want my fiction to be something that sticks with readers, that they continue to think about after they’ve finished the story. I want them to feel slightly changed by it.
Q: In a recent interview with BookForum (Jan, 2016) you mentioned that you “go for intense ambiguity, where you just don’t know what the stable ground is.” In the context of your stories that this is applicable to, why is it that you deliberately write this way and what do you hope to achieve by using this type of literary device?
A: I think so much of fiction that is written takes most things for granted. But I think so much of our experience of the actual world (or at least so much of my experience of the actual world) involves misperceiving and misinterpreting things, muddling forward by getting things mostly right. For me, being put in a position where you remember that, where what you think you know becomes a little less insistent, a little more tentative, opens you to a different experience of reality, one that is much more interesting.
An ex-girlfriend of mine used to get very frustrated with me because her perception of color was slightly different from mine. She used to see things as grey that I saw as green, or maybe the reverse—I’ve been out of that relationship long enough that I’ve mostly blocked it out. She would show me pieces of clothing in varying shades of grey or green and then tell me I was wrong about what color they were. But, honestly, whatever I said, I was still going to see the color that I saw. We could agree on liking a shirt but not on what color it was. So, either you have to insist on your color being the “right” color (as my ex-girlfriend did) or you have to be willing to realize that there’s no right answer to perception, that perception is different from person to person, but that experience of misperceiving or having your perception challenged is a very common one, one that swirls underneath the surface of seemingly solid things—and that what’s actually there, might be even different still from what either of us perceives.
Q: As an academic how do you distance yourself from writing academically (in the style of) when it comes to writing fiction?
A: I think it’s fairly natural to shift from one to the other, in the same way that you might talk differently to a minister than you would to your friend in a death metal band. It’s enough of a different speech genre that it doesn’t tend to get mixed up. Having said that, I do have some stories that play with the language of academia, like “The Wavering Knife.” There are writers who can mimic that voice for fictional purposes and use it to excellent effect. John Langan, for instance, is exceptionally good at it, as is Thomas Ligotti. When you do it, it makes for a different sort of reading experience than you usually get from either academic writing or fiction—the tension between the two modes ends up doing something productive.
Q: Your work has previously been compared to the likes of Poe and Kafka, do you see yourself as following in the trajectory of gothic fiction and, if so, do you have any allegiances to a particular strand of the gothic genre, or are your thematic and stylistic concerns influenced by other literary traditions?
A: I do see myself as tied to the gothic, and early on thought of myself as being part of a kind of New Gothic school—there was an issue of Conjunctions magazine called “The New Gothic” that made me think there might be a place for me in the literary world after all. I tend to read pretty widely and eccentrically, and I think that a lot of different strands end up coming together in my stories, so probably the experience of reading them differs depending on what traditions you’re most steeped in. So, for instance, in a story like “The Second Boy” I’m playing with campfire stories and ghost stories, sometimes particular ghost stories, and stories about doubles, sometimes particular double stories, but also carrying on a conversation with Isak Dinesen and Roberto Bolaño. And since what I allude to in Bolaño is actually a conversation he’s having with another writer there’s a further level of complication if you know Bolaño and his influences well. And if you know the Dinesen story I’m dealing with, you’ll see how I’m turning it against itself. You don’t have to know any of that to enjoy the story, but what you do know and sense and feel will inflect your experience significantly.
Q: Whatever genre banner your stories fall under there seems to be a prevailing preoccupation with interior psychological landscapes and the relationship between perceived realities and ‘other’ possible states of existence. Does this concern stem from a personal sort of existential questioning and/or is it more of a literary technique that you employ to add to the depth of the story?
A: It stems very directly from concerns of my own. That questioning of reality is tied to my own fears and doubts and suspicions, and I think that’s what makes it work in the stories: if it’s unsettling for readers it’s at least in part because it’s unsettling for me.
Q: When you write a story, what is your process? For example, do you outline or jump right in? How many edits do you usually make when writing short fiction and do you use a similar process when writing longer works?
A: I’ve done different things depending on the story and on where I’ve been in my career. I used to jump in and just write the story straight through, but as soon as I began writing stories that were longer than a thousand words or so that became difficult. I almost never outline a story, but I do jot notes as I go, and if I stop for an hour or for the night I often will write a few lines about where I intend to go. If I’m working on a longer work, I do sometimes outline, but the outline can change quite a bit by the end. With novels I’ve done both, but find it much more productive to outline—it allows me to write much quicker and keeps me from wasting a lot of time in dead ends.
In terms of edits, I tend to try in my first draft to establish a structure, but then will edit a piece anywhere from 3-4 times to a dozen times after that. Usually the structure stays relatively the same, but parts will shrink or expand and individual wording really gets honed and perfected in the later drafts in particular.
Q: When you write a story from a particular philosophical slant do you try to align it with universal human principles (common to the majority of your readers) in order to solicit a certain type of response? I.e. Do you measure your own intent with an understanding of your reader/s and how they might perceive your work?
A: I do think about the reader and how they might perceive the work, but I write in a way that has enough openness in it that I think different people can have slightly different experiences with my work. I like that about it. But I do hope that the majority of people have the kind of experience that makes them continue to think about the story after they put the book down.
Q: Finally, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Are you working on any new projects that you can share details of?
A: You’re welcome. I have a new novella, The Warren, coming out in a few weeks. Other than that, I’ve been working on stories and am on the way to a new collection (probably still a year away at least from having something finished). I also have some ideas for a novel, and am just getting going with that.
Please make sure you check out Brian’s website and Amazon author page (links below) for more information about his available titles.
Brian Evenson's Website: http://www.brianevenson.com
Amazon Author Page: http://tinyurl.com/BrianEvensonAmazon
Amazon Author Page: http://tinyurl.com/BrianEvensonAmazon
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