Monday, August 10, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Geoffrey Morrison

Geoffrey Morrison is the co-author, with Matthew Tomkinson [see his recent "12 or 20 questions" interview here], of Archaic Torso of Gumby, a collaborative book of experimental short fiction (2020, Gordon Hill Press). He is also the author of the poetry chapbook Blood-Brain Barrier (Frog Hollow Press, 2019) and was a finalist for The Malahat Review’s Open Season poetry and fiction contests. He lives on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh territory.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

It’s an apropos question because “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the Rilke poem we riff on in the title of our book, ends with the phrase, “you must change your life.” We play with this phrase, in a way I won’t spoil, in the last story in the book. Change and metamorphosis are strong underlying themes in the book at large.

Archaic Torso of Gumby (ATOG for short) is a collection of experimental short fiction; it was written collaboratively by my friend Matthew Tomkinson and I over a period of about three years. Matt and I were friends before we started the book, but by working together – including, for some of that time, by long-distance – we became much closer friends. That’s the most obvious change!

Matt taught me so much as a writer. He already wrote such beautiful prose when we met, and he is an endless repository of ideas. He has a way – I think of George Saunders, or even Stephen Tobolowsky in his podcast – of telling craftily high-concept stories with such warmth, such genial and hilarious turns of phrase, and with metaphors that make you want to say “Yes!” out loud. He turned me on to many great authors, too. To borrow a metaphor he once used to describe our collaboration, I loved working in the same factory as him.

Because we wrote under the conditions we did, and for that length of time, I also learned a great deal about myself as a writer and a human being. I came to this project from poetry, and perhaps more immediately from an academic background in medieval and early modern literature. When we started the project in January, 2015 I was newly 24 and in my first year of a PhD program. By the end of that year I knew I did not want to remain in the academy, for reasons that were at once practical, political, and mental-health-related. The years after were often painful for me.

If you’re young and in debt and afraid, if you’re from the class of people who have known financial precarity of one form or another since childhood, and you realize that the thing you thought was going to lift you out of that is absolutely not going to, that it wasn’t even designed to, and that moreover it’s not going to confer on you that feeling of self-worth you always found so elusive – well, the transition out of academia will probably be hard. And on a very practical level I had to rewire my brain. I had to learn how to write and think again from a fresh perspective during the years that Matt and I wrote Gumby.

So when I follow the trajectory of the Gumby stories with my insider’s knowledge I see a friendship where one of the members is not just learning how to write fiction with a poet’s tools, but also learning how to transmute academic knowledge into the materials of fiction, and even in some sense becoming a new person. Perhaps that’s one of the deeper reasons for all the metamorphoses in the book.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

When I think about this question, I think about how as a child my favourite things to read were by far nonfiction books – books about history, geography, archaeology, marine biology, space. You might think this reading would have led me to nonfiction writing, but it always had a strong imaginative element for me. Without realizing it, I was developing an archive of images and objects and ideas that would serve me well later in poetry and fiction.

Then a switch flipped in my teen years. I started to feel everything so much. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Think the narrator of Joyce’s “Araby,” Augustine in love with love. At this time I was finally driven to write things on my own. But the experience of making something with language was so overwhelming, so heavy with portents. Words felt dense and volatile, like they were made of the same material as neutron stars. A spoonful of matter weighed as much as a nuclear submarine.

Long fictions seemed impossible under these conditions. I tried to write a few stories, but I always got tripped up by questions of ambience, atmosphere, form, voice – poetry things – to the extent that I could not go further. That plot-making impulse that for some writers seems to be the first tool they develop came to me very late. I think I’m only just starting to figure it out now.

Reading in the high school library on my spare blocks, I encountered poets who were using language in a way that seemed to signify with the compact intensity I hoped it could: Emily Brontë, John Keats, and especially Emily Dickinson. They were my first models.

Over the last four years another switch has slowly flipped, if a switch can be said to flip slowly (the image suggests a very heavy lever, as in a power plant). I now feel most compelled to write fiction, but I do so with many debts to poetry and prose-poetry.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I think I’ve done every version of this at some point or another.

I’ve written poems in one sitting and not felt the need to change them much afterwards. I’ve written other poems over a period of weeks, distilling from notes I took whenever an image or a phrase came to me. I’ve thought I was finished with a poem and realized years later that I was not. I’ve begun stories, abandoned them for months and months, and come back to them when I was ready.  

My early pieces in ATOG were often the kind of thing you edit in your head before anything lands on the page. This meant that I wrote very slowly, but also that the first draft, once I’d finally completed it, was pretty close to the final one. This was probably a function of my poetry background. But there were exceptions of course, especially as our contributions got longer.

I should say as well that as a part of our collaborative process Matt and I made our final revisions and line edits to the book together. We printed out the whole damn thing and sat with pens in coffee shops over the course of many evenings, looking for things to fix. Sometimes this would mean one of us saying, of something we’d written, “I hate this phrasing, I want to cut it!” and the other one saying, “No, keep it! I love it!” Folie a deux.

I can’t say I want to do that whole “editing in my head” thing again – for anything over about 2500 words that approach has tended to induce a certain analysis paralysis in me. It’s better for me to at least roughly sketch out a bunch of stuff so I know where I’m going, so I would say that now I am a “copious notes” and longhand rough drafts kind of writer.

My little notebooks are a godsend. Once I got over the sight of my very poor handwriting on the page and could accept that these scrawls were an acceptable medium for my thoughts, I felt extremely free. I find that writing longhand removes inhibition and distraction, and encourages a kind of rhythmic prose, like breath. I can write these passages fairly quickly, knowing that later I will revise them a lot.

Note that I work full time in an office administration job so anything I’m working on evenings and weekends has to fight for space alongside all the other life we try to live when we are not at work. Notebooks are helpful here too. I can make some record of an idea that comes to me during the day without losing it.

A final thought about speed. Marguerite Yourcenar (whose thoughts on statue fragments we quote in ATOG) writes about how she wrote her historical novel Memoirs of Hadrian over the course of something like eleven years, and that for much of that time her attention had been on other things. At one point she rediscovered old drafts in a pile of correspondence she was planning to burn, and because the book is an epistolary novel she thought they were simply letters to a guy called “Mark.” “Mark? Mark? Who is this Mark?” She wondered. It took her a moment to realize that “Mark” was Marcus Aurelius. I love that story.

I abjure the weird Protestant fixation on productivity and quickness. I think the best things in life take time.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I believe that the majority of my pieces in any form have begun with an image, a phrase, a sound, or an emotion, rather than an “idea” or “concept.” A few times I might have started with an idea, but I can’t remember.

When I was about 21 I learned the word “affektkomplex” from a piece of criticism about Chaucer and it really helped me realize what I was doing, especially when my primary focus was poetry. The author of the Chaucer essay, Denis Walker, uses it to mean “significantly clustered ideas and emotions, the logical relationships between them being left inexplicit.” I guess this is just a funny way of saying what many theories of poetic composition do (parataxis, spontaneous overflow, metro station, the way a haiku works, etc etc) but you work with whatever you have at hand.

Anyway, I think I’ve always begun with these messy little clusters that made me feel something powerfully. I trust my intuitions at first, and then my more logical side comes in to help me follow the implications through to completion, to see what ideas might come from them. Naturally I was probably working through those ideas at some level already, and just needed to be reminded.

Logic gets more important the longer the thing you are doing, I think. In a shorter poem many things will have to be “left inexplicit.” In a longer poem or a short story you can begin to build some kind of causal architecture, get explicit about the logical connections. In a novel you can let the logical-causal side do its work most explicitly.  

As to the second part of your question, I’ve written poems in a series several times, but never a single series the length of a book. The majority were one-offs. My poetry chapbook, Blood-Brain Barrier, includes a complete series of poems all written together, a smaller series, several poems from a series that I decided not to use all of, and a number of individual pieces. I don’t know that I could get up one morning and say, “I am going to write a book of poetry.”

The short stories I’ve written since ATOG are all one-offs, but when Matt and I began ATOG we knew we were writing short pieces that we wanted to form a coherent whole as a book. We wrote it kind of exquisite-corpse-style, so that each piece would fade into the next in some way. Like DJ-ing. There are many call-backs, repeated motifs, and recurring characters, and as the book comes to an end we try to make the interconnectedness of the parts as manifest as we can.

My current big project is a novel, which I knew from the beginning I wanted to be that.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I am the sort of writer who is very anxious! If I know I’m going to be reading something in public I’ll be on edge the whole day. I’ll eat badly, my heart will race, I’ll feel sick. This continues until I actually start to read, at which point I feel fine, better than fine, great! I become a ham, I try to make people laugh, I ad-lib introductions to the pieces I read. Afterwards I feel completely drained. It’s not something I can do very often.

It’s kind of a paradox because I always write with attention to how things sound when read out loud, and I have been so thankful to people close to me who’ve let me read my work to them in private. Sound genuinely matters to my work, especially in my poems. To further the paradox, I loved to perform in high school drama class – I think I must have been transmuting my anxiety into hamminess in a very similar way.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

My basic view of the world is Marxist. I believe that the concept of dialectical materialism can show us many things. It is a tool of clarity and calm, and it cuts through bullshit. It gives us a way to answer questions like: how do societies move in the direction of human liberation and equality? How do they spin apart? How do ideas move through history on the basis of material forces?

But I think Marxism, as a body of thought committed to the emancipation of all people, completely defeats its purpose if it’s not clear or if it loses sight of real human concerns. I don’t have much patience for Althusser or whoever. That’s just tenured professors goofing around.

Some Marxist writers and thinkers whose lucidity and open-heartedness I respect include C.L.R. James in The Black Jacobins and Beyond a Boundary, Raymond Williams in The Country and the City, and Ellen Meiksins Wood in The Origins of Capitalism. I don’t think he considers himself a Marxist, but Byung-Chul Han is another writer whose critiques have a clarity I admire.

I’m not a “theory head” but I do find philosophy as a discipline useful for the honing of my thoughts – the seeking of truth and the avoidance of error, as William James put it (we quote a funny thing he wrote to his brother Henry in the opening epigraphs of ATOG).

What dialectical materialism also shows us is that any fixed binary we look it is probably not telling us the whole picture, and I would say that Matt and I both thought in those terms as we went in ATOG. There’s even a sense in which the form of our book is dialectical: a story in the book will suggest something, and the following story will tease or burlesque the first, only to be burlesqued in turn. Thesis, synthesis, antithesis. But we didn’t set out to do that on purpose so much as it just felt right.

Often I think the influence of my worldview on my writing is something like the physicist’s
“action at a distance.” I know it’s doing something, but I can’t always say exactly what. It might inform my work more on the basis of what I don’t write, the ideas that wouldn’t occur to me. We can’t be sure of what those are until we encounter other people’s ideas that we really don’t like.

It’s also complicated because, as I mentioned earlier, I tend to approach writing through small things – objects, sensations, images, memories, fleeting emotions – rather than “big ideas” or “concepts.” It used to be a source of anxiety, this tension between big and small, as though I were supposed to “solve” it somehow. But you can’t. The truth is that they’re always coming together and pulling apart, resolving and sundering, and this motion itself can be a subject for you.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

This is a complex question. For starters, you may think you are doing one thing when as a matter of fact you are doing something else. That’s ideology for you.

If we want to be strictly empiricist and quantitative, it seems to me that writers (in the simplest sense, as people who write) are reaching the most people in the larger culture through the mediums of television, film, podcasts, social media posts, legacy print journalism, and articles shared on the internet (although the bottom seems to have fallen out of digital media like three times already). Writers in these contexts are fairly obviously playing a role in shaping ideologies, in critiquing or obfuscating or building or apologizing for them, whether they consciously want to or not. But there are obvious differences between and among these groups. A Donald Duck podcast is not on the same level of ideological formation as the local TV nightly news.

Naturally the further out from these popular forms you go, the more attenuated the impact. You may influence someone who influences someone who has sway in the culture at large. You may not even do that. You may be writing primarily to keep yourself alive, or a small group of like-minded people. By “alive” I mean open to the world, thinking, seeing, feeling as much as you can in an age that would rather you didn’t, much.  

There’s a nineteenth-century German literary concept called “happiness in a corner.” W.G. Sebald talks about it in his interview with Michael Silverblatt. I’m not sure about happiness (I’m not sure Sebald was either). But perhaps from the very small corners of poetry and fiction we can perhaps know clarity, perhaps a moment of calm, perhaps a taste of the sublimity that reminds us of all that is true outside of us. In one of her late poems, Adrienne Rich says poetry “isn’t revolution but a way of knowing why it must come.” How else to put it?

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both, I think!

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I only ever took one formal poetry creative writing class. This was at SFU, with the poet Broc Rossell. He was very patient and kind. He told the class that an important mentor had given him some advice that he took to heart. Three or four years later he saw her again and mentioned the advice. She told him that she was saying something quite different to her students, now. He shared this with us as a kind of advice about advice.

As a provincial dumbass, a first-generation student who tended to think that my teachers were by their natures “better” than me and probably had all the answers, this was a revelation. I saw that the people telling me things were, like me, in a constant state of figuring things out – that their words were not set in stone. I saw that I only had to take their advice to the extent that it truly helped me at a given moment.  

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to criticism)? What do you see as the appeal?

I touched on this a little already. Sometimes it was very hard.

I don’t know if I think of these movements between forms in terms of “appeal” so much as I do “necessity.” In other words I had to move on to another form because it was the only way to express what I most wanted to at the time.

My interest in criticism is pretty straightforward. I like to read and to think about how the things I read work. I like to compare and contrast. I like putting things in context.

Going from poetry to criticism was the least difficult adjustment because of all the essays I’d written for my English classes. But there were challenges too. I believe that the language of some of my reviews was sometimes too overwrought, had too much “poetry” in the prose. I think it came from a good place, from loving what I was reading and being caught up in the enthusiasm, and I stand by the love and the enthusiasm. I just wish I could have been clearer in communicating this to readers.

Moving from poetry to fiction was hard as hell. I think the seeds of fiction were always inside me, but they were meant to grow into weird-looking trees. Once in Broc Rossell’s class I took the prompt “write a very long sentence” and wrote one that ran for three or four pages. It was formatted like a story instead of a poem. At the time I had just begun my long love affair with the fiction of Donald Barthelme, and I knew that he had written stories in this way. Broc liked it. He wrote in the margins, “there are many poems in here.” I think this began to open some kind of door for me.

Around the same time I had discovered the early modern essayists, people like Robert Burton, Thomas Browne, Thomas Nashe, and Rabelais. Their prose also had poems inside of it. I think it was through Browne that I learned about W.G. Sebald, whose work introduced me to a kind of plotless, digressive fiction that still means an immense amount to me.

Matt introduced me to Italo Calvino and Elliott Weinberger. The latter is a fascinating case, as he spent his twenties trying to be a poet and ultimately decided to instead be an essayist using the sensibilities of poetry.

Anyway, all this meant that when I began to work on the stories in ATOG with Matt, I had models and precedents for shorter prose-poetry – Calvino’s fables, Borges’ fragments, Anne Carson’s short talks. As the book progressed, our contributions got longer. By the end we had longer narrative fictions. We obscure this a little for the reader by shuffling the deck.   

At the same time as Matt and I were working on Gumby, I also began my first attempt at a novel – a historical fiction about Giordano Bruno that I now think was extremely bad. This was where things got really hard. It was bad partly because I didn’t have a clear sense of the story I wanted to tell, but mostly because I was afraid.

I had to take two screenwriting classes at a community college to get over this fear. You’d think that I would simply take a course on fiction writing, but I was so afraid that I couldn’t even study it directly. I had to study something that was more adjacent to fiction than poetry, but was nevertheless not fiction. My brain is funny that way. You may be discerning a theme. Much of what I do is a strange ongoing negotiation between myself and what I perceive to be an unreliable brain.

Once I felt more at ease with the basic tools of plot and character, I also had to give myself the license to grow that weird tree with many poems inside of it. I saw that there are special rhetorical tools that come with prose, and they allow you to water those seeds if you want to. You have the opportunity to digress, to clarify, to make and unmake connections, to weigh and measure, to leave no associative stone unturned. It was liberating to see this. The hot, dense language of the neutron star could be spun out into something clearer and lighter.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

This also relates to working full-time, and to having a brain with a mind of its own. Time and myself are in a constant simmering tit-for-tat. I would say that I proceed via a kind of systematic chaos – tricking myself, with an established set of tools and rituals, into the most amenable circumstances for writing, which may differ greatly depending on the kind of day I’m having and what else I have to do.   

I am the furthest thing from a “morning person.” My initial reaction upon waking up is usually something like “oh no.” Compare and contrast with Matthew, whose biological clock forces him to wake up early whether he wants it or not. I have tried to get up early and write before work, but this has rarely been a productive exercise for me. I got some images for a poem out of it, once. Sleepy images about the colour of the morning sky.

This means that I try to write weekday evenings after work and dinner, and mid-mornings-to-early-afternoons on weekends. Sometimes an evening on a weekend. Evenings in general are a good time for my brain. But don’t let me give the impression that I’m doing this every day. Sometimes I can’t do anything at all. Sometimes on a weekday it’s all I can do to write down one idea, or even just to briefly read something that keeps my head in the game.
I’m sure if I was in a position to make writing my full-time work I’d have something a little closer to the systematic daily routine that bestselling authors talk about in interviews. But isn’t it sort of fake when they say that? Aren’t they describing optimal circumstances, in the middle of writing a book for which they received an advance or a grant, rather than every single day of their lives? I wish there was more transparency to those infographics and listicles and Guardian articles and so on, because I think they produce a kind of cultural cringe in people who want to be writers.  

Ultimately I think that they make people who are on the outside of that world feel inadequate. Or at least I can say that it they have made me – a product of working-class and lower-middle-class people, and someone with a long history of anxiety and associated mental illness – feel inadequate. But the truth is that there’s no single “right way” to do it, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a bully.  

I am heartened when people are open about these things. So I appreciated Sachiko Murakami’s Writing So Hard project, and when I read the very beautiful interviews with the most recent Malahat Review contest winners Patrick Grace, Ajith Thangavelautham, and Joshua Whitehead I was likewise encouraged by the ways they spoke to this.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

There are times when the key can be found in other books. Sometimes I stall in my writing at the same time that I stall in the thing I’m reading. This means that I need to pick up a different book, one that will reawaken my imagination and allow me to see possibilities I hadn’t considered before. Sometimes I stall in my writing because I’ve neglected reading altogether.

But at other times I need to go for a good walk, do chores, sit on the balcony, move around, not think about my work at all. I believe it’s when you’ve given yourself the freedom not to think about something that it will be most likely come to you on its own. I’ll often receive the idea I was looking for just as I’m settling into bed – I then have to bolt up and run to my notebook before I forget it again. It’s very annoying but I am grateful when it happens.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

My mother used the same metal teapot for more than twenty years. It had a kind of engraving on the side – a flower or maybe even an ear of wheat. I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t around growing up. As a working-class woman from Scotland, she believed that you shouldn’t wash such a teapot unless you really have to. As a result, its interior was a dark orange-brown. I have never tasted better tea than the tea that came from this teapot.

Imagine that you take the tea-cozy off the pot and open the lid to see if there’s tea inside. There is – so much. Strong black tea. It’s hot, and fresh, and the steam is rising to your face, and you breathe it in deeply. That’s the smell.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Nature has always been important to me. I grew up on the west coast and my favourite places as a gothy teenager were the landscapes of the beach and the estuary in winter. Bare branches, parcels of dark seaweed, little white berries, little red berries, the honey-coloured grasses that grow near the sea and always made me think of the steppes (I have never seen a steppe). I often return in my mind to landscapes like this. I return to birds, to the sea, to dark trees, to rain at night, to snow on distant mountains I will never visit up close.

Music is also crucial. In my current work I have taken a great deal of inspiration from Japanese ambient music – artists like Hiroshi Yoshimura and Midori Takada who work in experimental forms, play with minimalism and repetition. As with your earlier question about theory, it’s hard to say exactly how these artists influence my writing. I think they give me new metaphors for my own process of composition, in much the same way that Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, meant to solve creative blockages in music-making, has always seemed perfectly applicable to writing.

In ATOG we took inspiration from different kinds of music (more emphasis on lyrics and songwriting), and often in more direct ways. I structured a multi-part story around a day in the life of a young woman who plans to go to a 1978 Grateful Dead concert at Red Rocks in Colorado, a concert that actually happened. Matt has an incredible story, set in the same year, about a gender-fluid child named Clay who is reviving the forgotten art of quick-change. Clay’s routine is set to a song called “Change (Makes You Want to Hustle),” by the jazz-funk trumpeter Donald Byrd.

In fact, there’s so much music in the book that we even made a Spotify playlist. It includes songs we mention directly, but also songs that felt spiritually connected to the book somehow. We both thought John Cale’s “Paris, 1919” and Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” just had to be in there.

ATOG is kind of just an ekphrastic book, generally. Again, the title makes this no surprise! We write about a modern dance show I saw, a mixed-media artist Matt saw, the early modern assemblage-maker Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Mr. Bean, Recess, and many other things.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I’ve mentioned a few already in the course of answering the other questions. I’ll mention some more:

I want to say something about Gerald Murnane in particular, because I think more than anyone he helped me feel free to write fiction in the ways that made sense to me. Murnane lives in Australia and is surely the strangest Australian who ever lived. He has never been in the sea, has never been in a plane, has only rarely left his home state of Victoria, for most of his life never wore sunglasses (he finally gave in quite recently due to eye problems), he taught himself Hungarian late in life, and has designed a complex imaginary society centered around horseracing. I’ve read that he grew up in “modest means” and that his father was a “wastrel.” He and Teju Cole exchanged two very beautiful letters that can be found in Music and Literature. Hari Kunzru says he talked to him for a long time about yabbies, a kind of crayfish. He claims that he is writing “reports” from the inside of his mind, and his sentences have a kind of lapidary purity. I learned about him during a crisis in confidence and I will always be grateful.   

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d love to write in genres with fairly formulaic structures (mysteries, horror, science fiction) and tweak those formulas to achieve different results. Mystery stories without crimes or police (the form of the “mystery,” as a kind of itch for the truth, is very satisfying to scratch, but since when have the police ever had anything to do with the truth?). Horror fiction that conveys, at most, a feeling of mild unease, like Robert Aickman’s stories. Science fiction without techno-triumphalism.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Maybe a historian? But that’s a kind of writer.

As a teen I was influenced by an older communist friend who regretted his Math BA and wished he’d learned a trade. So I had the idea that I would learn a trade myself, ideally one with a good union. Many people in my father’s family did things like that (logging, firefighting), but my father tried to dissuade me. I can imagine alternate universes where I do it anyway. In one such alternate universe I have my Bridge Watch Rating and work for BC Ferries. In another alternate universe I am a horticulturist keeping flowers alive in a greenhouse. But even these examples – the sea, flowers – seem “writerly.” Maybe there is no escape.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Whenever I stopped writing for longer than about two weeks, I missed it like I was a soul exiled from my body.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

For my own sake I’m going to take this question to mean books that I’ve finished, rather than the ones I’ve got stacked up all around me in various stages of completion.

I finally read Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman last month. This is a book that has a great kinship with many of the Gumby stories, and that Matthew read a long time ago, but that I never had. It had always been on my horizon as one of those books I could enjoy imagining the contents of without actually reading (there are lots of those). I finally read it and was delighted, stimulated, and afraid.

Last year I saw Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us. There’s no easy way to describe it so I will simply say that it moves like folklore, like poetry, like my favourite kind of plotless novel. It is a purgative of all woes. It is like being cradled by heaven.   

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m about two-thirds of the way through a first draft of a novel called The Frame in the Park. It’s an inside-of-the-mind book in the spirit of Thomas Bernhard, Annie Dillard, Gerald Murnane, Samuel Beckett, W.G. Sebald, and Virginia Woolf. It’s about a person in a park, ostensibly there to sell a picture frame. He believes his brain is broken. His name is Hugh D*******. Over the course of the book he thinks about many things. Writing it has made me very happy.

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