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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Interview w/ Brian Evenson

Below is my interview with Brian Evenson, author of Last Days from Underland Press and many other novels. Please check out his latest novel, Last Days. It's good stuff!

Now, here goes:

Thanks for doing this interview. First things first, tell us a bit about yourself? Where do you hail from and other biographical goodies?

I was born in Iowa and grew up in Utah (I was raised Mormon, but have left the church), but have lived in a number of other places since--Seattle, Syracuse, NY, Stillwater, OK, Milwaukee, France, Denver, etc. Currently I live in Providence, Rhode Island, where I teach creative writing at Brown University.

Who/what are some of your favorite authors/books?

Some of the people I always go back to are Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, especially the trilogy, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Muriel Spark, Isak Dinesen, Henry Green, and Cormac McCarthy. Recently I’ve been reading and enjoying Roberto Bolano and a French writer named Antoine Volodine. There are a few Poe and Lovecraft stories that I love. I’ve just rediscovered J. G. Ballard and am glad to have done so--his story “The Drowned Giant” is really terrific. As soon as I finish this interview, I’m sure I’ll remember a dozen things I should have mentioned...

As a professor at Brown University (and a previous professor at numerous other universities), what has your experience been like with young creative writers? Do you notice any unique trends in the quality or styles of fiction coming into existence over the last decade? Is there an overabundance of overconfidence beyond what is considered normal?

I like teaching a great deal and it’s always interesting to see what up and coming writers are reading and thinking about. In terms of influences and trends, things seems to come in waves--books and stories that undergrads love one year are completely forgotten or even hated by the students who come two or three years later. I think the biggest trend I’ve noticed, maybe partly because it’s something I’ve encouraged, is that I see more students reading across genre boundaries now than I did ten years ago. The boundaries between literary and genre fiction are a lot more flexible than they once were and that’s reflected in student work--there’s less interest in strictly realistic fiction and more acceptance of fiction that ten or fifteen years ago people would have dismissed as being non-realistic. I think that’s largely due to exceptionally talented writers like Kelly Link and George Saunders writing in a way that made those distinctions seem less important than they do when, say, you’re reading 70s dirty realism.

I don’t think there’s an overabundance of confidence among the students--when there is, it’s usually in students that have the least to be confident about. I think, at least at Brown the opposite is true, that many students are almost too self-conscious and self-critical and as a result are in danger of crippling themselves. They have to be taught to see what’s worthwhile in their work and how to make the most of it. I think a lot of students are ambitious, but also very aware that the stories they write don’t measure up to their ambitions: a smart self-critical student who’s actually a pretty good writer can also be very good at talking himself or herself out of ever publishing because the work isn’t as good as, say, Chekhov. The thing they forget is that a good portion of the time Chekhov himself isn’t as good as Chekhov: only a fraction of his stories are really great.

You’ve written nine books—eight books of fiction and one critical book. What drew you into writing fiction in the first place? Additionally, what drew you to the dark side of fiction?

I’ve always loved to read, and loved to read fiction--I think it offers readers things that non-fiction or poetry just don’t offer. I started writing fiction when I was fairly young, partly in response to my mother writing and publishing a science fiction story. I think I kept writing because it gave me a kind of satisfaction that I didn’t seem to be able to find in any other activity.

As for what drew me to the dark side of fiction, I’m not sure. I think I gravitated naturally toward it, maybe partly because I grew up in a culture that was relentlessly cheerful and insisted on looking at the bright side of things. That attitude, perhaps not surprisingly, made me intensely aware of what wasn’t being said, of what was being passed over, of the darker, stranger side of things. When I was fourteen or so my father gave me a volume of Kafka’s stories. It immediately clicked for me, seemed to express exactly the kind of things that the Mormon culture around me was very deliberately trying not to think about. I think, too, that that dark side gives us inroads into the nature of consciousness in a way that the bright sunny side never does, that it reveals things about human nature that are the foundation for the way the mind works.

What made you write Last Days (and the story that preceded it)? Did you read something somewhere? Was it a random thought? Did your town actually have a roving cult of amputees?

I think it came very simply from thinking for years and years about the Biblical verse that opens the volume, encouraging you to remove parts of yourself if they offend you--at first thinking it was rhetorical flourish and symbolic but then thinking “Well, okay, what if we take it literally? Could it serve as the basis for a gospel?” From there everything imagined itself into existence.

I wish that my town had had a cult of roving amputees, but no such luck. I did live across the street when I was very, very young from someone who had lost his hand and I was somewhat fascinated by and frightened of him.

The pace of Last Days is fairly quick, not simply because it’s a short novel. Is fast pace endemic to the horror genre? Or did you think that something as dark as Last Days needed a fast pace to keep the reader on his or her toes?

I don’t think it’s endemic to the horror novel and in fact can think of a number of horror novels that are beautifully sprawling and wonderfully conceived, that build very slowly but nonetheless remain terrifying. Peter Straub and Dan Simmons both can do that, for instance, and do it beautifully. But yes, I thought that speed was essential for Last Days. I wanted a sense of breathlessness and wanted too to keep the reader off balance in the same way that Kline himself is off balance.

With the relative success of twisted horror films like Saw, Hostel, and the seeming resurgence of cult horror disturbia, your novel seems to fit in fairly well with a macabre-enthused viewing/reading public. What do you think it is that draws us to the macabre? Are we just screwed up, or is this a response to the loss of the good ole days when we got to see public executions and the like?

Well, we may very well be screwed up but I don’t think it’s because of horror we read or watch. I think often our interest in darknesses of various kinds has a lot to do with a profound dissatisfaction with the smoothed out surface of life as it’s presented in advertising, by our parents, by our institutions, and in people’s response to life. There’s something satisfying about seeing that surface shattered. And I do think there’s actually a fairly wide range of things going on in fantastic fiction and that my work is probably not as close to Saw or Hostel as it is to work by filmmakers like Michael Haneke or Gaspar Noe who I think are doing something that ultimately is a lot more unsettling and a lot more rewarding. Or Takashi Miike’s “Audition”.

Noir fiction has recently had significant growth in genre fiction, with Richard Morgan merging it with science fiction and various others attempting to mix it with fantasy. Last Days takes a fairly unique approach to the noir sleuth/uncommon hero tropes most of us are familiar with by merging it with horror. What is it about the sleuth character that seems to fit so well within horror (and the world you’ve set up for Last Days)? Am I wrong to think that noir fiction and, specifically, cross genre fiction in horror are seeing a resurgence?

I think there’s definitely a resurgence going on, that a lot of people have become interested in thinking about noir less as a genre than as a mode that can be applied to other genres, that can infect other genres. The example of that I grew up with, and which I think started a lot, was Bladerunner. But it does seem to have ratcheted up lately. So, near the time when Last Days came out, we also saw China Mieville’s wonderful The City & The City, Jeff Vandermeer’s Finch, Paul Tremblay’s The Little Sleep, Charlie Houston’s hardboiled vampire novels, etc. I have an idea for a post-apocalyptic detective novel that I hope I’ll start into soon.

Hinging off of the previous question: there was some discussion several months back about whether cross genre is a good thing. What do you think?

I don’t think it’s innately a good or a bad thing; there’s going to be good cross-genre work and bad cross-genre work, but it’s not the genre’s fault. I think when it’s done sloppily it’s bad, but when you feel that the crossing brings something genuinely new to the genre, that it revitalizes the genre, it’s great.

Do you plan to write more stories with Kline? If so, how would you manage to write a story about a character as beat up as him?

I actually have about forty pages of a sequel to Last Days and an idea for how it could continue. I wrote that about six months ago and haven’t looked at it again yet--I think I need to let it sit a bit to try to get an objective sense of whether it’s too over the top or absurd. Yes, Kline’s pretty beat up, but I think there’s still potentially more to get out of him.

Having taught fiction, what unusual bit of advice would you give to budding writers (emphasis on unusual)?

I think it’s important to read really eccentrically, to read in lots of odd directions. The problem with many creative writing programs is that, at their worst, they produce people who are writing the same kinds of stories over and over. I also think it’s important to be aware that your teachers are humans and that they have their own biases. Learn what you can from them but don’t mimic their blindspots.

What projects do you have coming up and can you tell us a little about them?

I just had a limited edition novella (400 copies) called “Baby Leg” published in a nice hardbound bloodspattered edition by New York Tyrant Press. It’s a beautiful object and a strange book, kind of a cross between a David Goodis novel and a mad scientist movie with bits of collapsing reality thrown in. Other than that, I’ve had a hard time finding sustained time to work. I’m hoping I’ll have time to really focus in and write over the holidays.

Now for a silly question: If you were forced to choose one part of your body to amputate, which part would you choose and why?

I think I’d go for the nose, and then, like Tycho Brahe, I’d replace it with a metal nose. If it had to be a limb, I think the first thing I’d give up would be my left foot, though I’d miss it. I’ve always liked my left foot. I’d be willing to let a few fingers go if need be as well...

Thanks again to Mr. Evenson for doing this interview. Now go check out Last Days!

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