1 - How did your first book
change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How
does it feel different?
This is a strange question because I have had the nasty habit of writing and abandoning novels – I think two finished ones at this point. The first one wasn’t very good (I started it when I was a teenager), and the second one was good but, I suspect, a bit too self-indulgent. Mainly the lesson I took from these was to try and make my self-indulgence more interesting to the general reader. I’m still working on that.
In terms of changing my life, for one thing it gave me a sense of my own natural writing rhythm, how many good words I can reasonably put down in a day without burning out, how much I need to plan ahead and how much I can just develop as I go. Generally speaking I tend to find great creative insight in the act of abandoning a plot outline, and the more detailed it is the better. As I went through grad school and my other writing projects, these skills and this self-knowledge helped me manage my other projects better, and generally gave me more confidence in tackling complex projects. Being able to sit down and reliably knock out 1,500 or so good words in a day is a big advantage when you’re writing a thesis, or a novel, not so much for poetry. Don’t ask me about plays.
For my current project – still in its early stages – the self-insight of the first project is still paying dividends. I have avoided a great number of mistakes simply by being attentive to my work patterns and the way I tend to generate new ideas
2 - How did you come to poetry
first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was a kid and just starting to write, I more or less came to both at the same time. I remember writing a poem about King Arthur that got published in my school newspaper – after being censored without my knowledge by the teacher who was running it. Around the same time I was also working on little stories and trying to figure out how to get them published for real. I had a very intense need to make words happen. When I was 13 I tried writing – well at the time I called it a fantasy novel, but really it was just a long series of strange events that never really amounted into a plot, sort of a picaresque.
Non-fiction has actually been tricky. I have written quite a bit of it, but almost all of that is academic. Personal essays and narrative non-fiction are very complex in terms of their tone and the way they construct narratives out of factual events, and it’s proven hard to write like that without it sounding like a peer-reviewed article. Mainly, in writing as in life, I just need to learn how to chill the heck out, drink some tea, stop adding footnotes to things, and so on.
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?
My current novel project has been in my head for about four years or so while I worked on other things, and all in all I’ve written maybe 2,500 words of notes and drafts, most of which I plan to abandon. Once I start “for real” I usually keep at a consistent clip, with breaks between sections as I re-work my plans based on what I came up with as I was writing. Fiction comes very quickly when I’ve been planning it, not so much because I know what I’m doing, but because the planning gives me a baseline against which I can improvise.
4 - Where does a poem or work of
fiction 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?
Stories – big and small – tend to start as images, scenes, tableaus, that sort of thing. I’ll get a picture in my head and then try to figure out the world in which that scene would happen. I think this tendency is why a lot of my stories tend towards the fantastical; even “realistic” works have a tenuous grasp of the world to which they ostensibly refer. In some cases, though, it starts as a relationship, or some kind of puzzle – a character who is A and has to do B, but then C happens. Though these stories usually work best if they develop scenically, not just as a collection of relationships and motivations, but shots, moments, instances.
The tricky part of course is that fiction needs to play out over time. Even if you are describing a single stationary second, the text itself is moving forward, as is the reader’s eye. The text on the page is timeless – it exists all at once – but you can’t have reading without time. So the process of thinking through and planning a story is really about allowing that single instance to filter out into the surrounding moments, like water soaking outwards through paper. But of course, that’s how we experience anything: the past and the future are already out there, though we only experience the universe once slice at a time. Yet each moment blends like dye in water with the next. And when you manage to capture that blending, the surprise and excitement of a person seeing it, into words you can put on a page – then you have a story.
5 - Are public readings part of
or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys
Not as much as I’d like. Performing writing to the public is a skill I could probably be good at if I practiced, and I enjoy doing readings. But I never write something with reading aloud in mind, or I should say I can’t remember having ever done so. That often kicks me in the butt when I do get asked to read something only to realize that none of my recent work is all that suitable to be read aloud. Logically, I should learn from my mistakes. But that’s quitter talk.
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?
I have theoretical concerns about everything. I’ll probably spend the last hours on my deathbed writing an essay about necropolitics.
That being said, I don’t really go into my work planning to follow any theory or argue any point. Often I’ll pretend like I did on cover letters when I try to get something published, but then again I’ve heard it said (by me) that the cover letter is the only truly fictional genre of writing.
Writing a story feels to me like entering a new and interesting space and slowly stretching my legs, until I reach a full repose, like some kind of metaphorical relaxed person. Often it’s a little ways into the project that I start to feel comfortable with the conceptual space and really begin to understand it. That is all to say that the story is not an argument, but rather a process of understanding. I guess the closest experience in everyday life would be when you suddenly come to understand something in the middle of a dream and wake up suddenly enlightened.
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?
Oh god I have no idea.
The people who by and large control what literature “does” in the broad cultural sense and the ones who own and operate the publishing houses, not the writers themselves. Sure, they’ll publish your detailed account of structural racism, neocolonialism, or the decline of the labor movement, and that work is important and will have some positive effect, but then they will also have a separate imprint for publishing reactionary claptrap by the latest Tory reject and/or their ghostwriter, and that will probably sell more copies. This is less of a problem in the small press scene, though that scene is likewise more marginal.
I am very resistant to romanticising The Writer or The Public Intellectual, since most of the people who fit those roles usually just end up repeating Pinkeresque declarations of the world’s essential correctness and how great it is that most of the world is owned by like five people. And that isn’t an accident, or a matter of “the market” magically deciding which ideas are the best – there are real material reasons why the popular discourse looks the way it does, and none of those reasons are represented in the fashionable image of an ideal writer.
Publishing a book is expensive, so publishing is largely run by people who have a lot of money, and so caters to their needs. That fact has way more sway than any individual writer.
8 - Do you find the process of
working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s probably a good idea. Honestly, I wish I had more options to talk about my work while it’s in progress so to feel out ideas and work through problems. The edits I got for my story collection were very good.
9 - What is the best piece of
advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Try to minimize your student debt.
This might not sound like a writing tip but, trust me, it is.
10 - How easy has it been for you
to move between genres (poetry to short stories)? What do you see as the
Different ideas feel different to me. It’s very hard to explain, but some concepts feel better suited for a poem than for a story. Occasionally I will start writing in one genre and move to another, but by and large I have nothing useful to say on this matter.
In terms of moving between genres, I usually have at least two projects going on at a time, and I try to keep them different in tone or subject matter so as to avoid burnout. So for instance, right now I’m doing early work on a novel, editing a cluster of academic essays, and waiting on peer reviews so I can finish editing a monograph. It all just kind of flows together, and instead of exhausting me it allows me to take breaks from one project by working on another one that feels different and works different parts of my brain.
11 - What kind of writing routine
do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you)
In the absence of external pressures on my schedule – work, school, etc. – I am basically nocturnal. I find I write best starting at roughly 2 am. A typical day begins with a promise to myself not to start writing so darn late, and ends with me starting to write at the exact time I always do. One of these days I’m going to train myself to wake up just before 2 and then write a series of wellness blogs about how great it is to get your writing done right when you wake up. And then I shall walk into the sea and never return.
12 - When your writing gets
stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
This is the benefit of having so many projects ongoing at once: when one stalls, I can do another. When I turn from one thing to another, I always have the other project running in the background, and if I just relax, distract myself, and be patient, some idea will come to me. Inspiration is a myth; you need to be thinking and working consistently, not always at the same thing, to ensure a steady flow of new ideas. That could be another story, or it could be a crossword puzzle, or it could be assembling a new desk – anything to keep your brain going. Then you’ll have ten new ideas while you’re in the shower, or at least that’s how it works for me.
13 - What fragrance reminds you
Cut grass and pasta, not necessarily at the same time.
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?
I read a lot of philosophy, some of it for academic and research reasons, but a lot of it because I find the ideas interesting to turn over in my head. It’s fun to take a concept and re-contextualize it, examine it from some alien direction, that sort of thing. Lately I’ve read quite a lot of work on disability and disability theory, in part, again, for research, but also because its proven a very insightful perspective through which to look at the world. Basically what I’m saying is that I am a giant nerd who is completely beyond redemption. Abandon hope, all ye who etc.
15 - What other writers or
writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Joyce is the author who I have read the closest and most deeply. Most of my research is on modernist literature, so you could name off the usual gang: Woolf, Proust, Beckett, Stein, and so on. Otherwise, I am quite fond of Helen DeWitt’s work, which remains seriously under-appreciated, and I considered Toni Morrison the greatest living writer before she died. Otherwise, Ursula Le Guin has had a very strong positive effect on me, both in and out of my writing.
16 - What would you like to do
that you haven't yet done?
Acquire health insurance.
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?
Most of my income comes from academia in one form or another; the amount of money I have made so far, over my whole life, from writing or writing-adjacent work is less than $10,000. If I had to change careers – maybe I’d go be an editor, possibly at a university press.
18 - What made you write, as
opposed to doing something else?
I’m happy when I write and unhappy when I don’t write. I will continue writing until I am physically incapable of doing so.
19 - What was the last great book
you read? What was the last great film?
Not really “great” and not really “read” but I recently came across this great Korean translation of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. I can’t read Korean and don’t care about The Phantom of the Opera, but the edition has these quite lovely illustrations that sort of look like Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Poe, but softer and in colour, resembling at times a paper cut-out, like something Lotte Reiniger would draw.
As for films, I watched Porco Rosso recently. It’s a Studio Ghibli film about a pig who flies an airplane and beats up fascists. It’s great!
20 - What are you currently
At this exact moment I’m trying to figure out what has my cat all bothered. I think he might have seen a bug that startled him, but I’m not sure. The mighty hunter frets mysteriously.