Monday, June 28, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Marc Herman Lynch

Marc Herman Lynch is currently in his PhD at the University of Calgary and the president of filling Station magazine. He resides in Moh'kins'tsis, otherwise known as Calgary, in Treaty 7 Territory, Alberta. His debut novel, Arborescent, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2020.

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

Rather than directly change my life, the book seems to have inflamed deep-seated anxieties. But then again, this type of reaction is not unique to publication. Alexander Chee in a 2020 Instagram interview said that publication alienates the writer from their private self. For someone to read Arborescent — I feel both excitement and fear. Excitement: a book can’t exist in a vacuum; the characters are there to be emboldened and enlivened beyond myself (I owe them this) and the reader is an integral (if not essential) part of the conjuring. Fear: I’ve presented a part of myself (the most vulnerable parts) for people to openly interpret and judge. These twin emotions don’t exist in tandem but require self-abnegation (i.e., that I will beat critical voices to the punch by preemptively tearing myself apart). All this to say, I desperately want to be good at writing but recognize all my shortcomings.

What keeps me sane is thinking about the characters: Hachi and Zadie and Nohlan. I consider them with such tenderness that this remonstrance rebounds — to do them poorly is the same as letting a loved one down. I never thought I would feel sympathy for characters, whom I had always thought amounted to nothing more than accumulation of random language play. What Arborescent does better than any text I have written before is give the characters life. I used to imagine fiction as an elaborate magic trick, but all my earlier efforts felt more like an aimless groping. Somehow these people, in this book, were given the breath — how or when, I have no clue, but I felt randomly one day they just got up and walked out on me. 

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

I’ve always found that most of my writing originates within the poetics. More often than not a character emerges from the aleatory process of free writing. I find the longer I sit on a poem the more it wants to be a novel. Once I know the poetic cadence of a character then I understand how to write them. Probably the rhyming ditties of Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, were the first poems I actually read. I remember, as a teenager, loving Shakespeare, particularly Much Ado About Nothing; in my first year of undergrad, I tried to write Spenserian stanzas. Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Frost — all of these were a part of my education, but had little to do with my growth as a poet. All these forms felt disengaged and substanceless, and my attempts within these areas had less to do with feeling gratified poetically and more to do with ignorance (I thought that those forms constituted poetry). When I became connected with the Calgary writing community, my sense of poetics began to flourish, and suddenly I was reading contemporary greats like Lisa Robertson and Claudia Rankine. Additionally, I began to read writers like Weyman Chan and Fred Wah whose poetics resonated with me on a deep emotional and aesthetic level. 

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 restart a project maybe six or seven times. This is not to say rewrite because a rewrite implies growing from a foundation. To restart is idiocy. It means to scrap everything because in the completion of a previous draft the kernel of something caught your eye, and so you pursue the kernel and burn the field. Sometimes I can save a few sentences here and there. Sometimes I can rescue a character. But more often than not the whole project falls by the wayside at the behest of what’s next… this is not a good process. I would never recommend this method of writing. It works for me because I’m scatterbrained. I always see a project in terms of the number of years it will take. My draw towards the long form means I often jump straight over the short story. The final project continues to mutate until the very day it can’t anymore — which is why workshops have been so helpful; they provide a hyper focussed and contained duration during which I am asked to produce and share.

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?

Strangely enough, a piece of fiction begins in the spark between disparate words. Can this be called syllogism? A person begins to coalesce in the language and then that person becomes a plot. I’m sure there are more methodical ways of approaching a project: a criteria of character traits, wants, desires, etc. For me, writing is a geological process: tectonic plates are shifting—give or take a million years and a mountain might form. I feel invariably inclined towards the long endeavour: the marathon, the ten-year project, the eight-foot-tall painting. A project wants to take years, and I need to believe it will because the initial draft feels terrible, feels hopeless. I have to believe that the slow accrual of work over years will save it. A poem is a figurative call: maybe of a sweetness congealed or a politics upended. A novel drips saline, emerging from the resistance between opposing poles.

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

I love sharing my work, but I rarely perform because of a deep-seated fear that somehow I’m taking up more space than I should, which is why I participate mostly through organization. As I write, I consider sound, as though I were at a public reading. The way I choose a word is based upon whether it would sound good being read out loud. As I write, I’ll perform a line out loud giving pause to people in coffee shops or bars. Listening to others read, I find has been just another part of the process of learning how to write. Maybe this tool could be called “listening.” I’m sure some people are born with the talent. 

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?

The title of my book Arborescent actually comes from Deleuze and Guttari, who have a bone to pick with trees as symbols. Essentially, they discuss how conventional symbolism can become oppressive and keep people from blossoming. I suppose I see these types of oppressive forces in almost everything (Deleuze and Guattari just provide a framework for speaking about it)—it’s all about subconscious programming that ends up becoming self-defeating. All that to say, I don’t ever start a project from theory, which seems to have a presumption of knowing. I don’t think you can write fiction or poetry from a space of knowing: it would be too facile. I just stumble into the theory later and begin to find the threads in the writing process, pulling on them and doing the necessary research until they’re nice and frayed.

Additionally, as someone who is mixed-race, I find myself drawn to the complexities of race, sexuality, culture, and heritage. I suppose this would be called Critical Race Theory, but really, I’m just interested in representation, probably because I don’t feel any real sense of everyday belonging.

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?

I don’t think the writer chooses their role in larger culture. Then again, I’m as far removed from larger culture as one can get (just ask people about the size of the rock I live under!). So I’m not sure that I have enough experience with this topic to comment. It seems the writer is a sort of peripheral figure whose work gophers about, appearing here and there, generating this or that. But the writer as celebrity… do we have them anymore? I’m sure we do, but even when I think of someone like Margaret Atwood, I’m not sure I understand the weight of their role. But then again, I guess we all live and breathe within all-encompassing microcosms. So maybe the cultural role of the writer is as a god of the dinner table at award ceremonies.

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

Not only do I love working with an editor, but I seek it out. My hope is that an editor will save me from myself — I’m not the only writer for whom a grammatical error could curdle the entirety of a project. I can care less when I see those mistakes in others’, but mistakes in my own writing trigger a whole head of neurosis: imposter syndrome, anxiety, fear. At Arsenal, I worked with Shirarose Wilensky—usually, I don’t want to bother people with talking about my writing. It seems to presumptuous to assume that they care. But when you’re working with an editor, you’re given permission to think that your work is valuable! So I would abuse the opportunity and just talk Shirarose’s ear off! She was enormously generous and kind about it. It is a privilege and a joy to have someone who is invested in your work talk with you about the material. Actually, I don’t think I had a real end of Arborescent until the editorial process. I think people like to imagine that a pure source text emerges from a personal vacuum. Rather, I see the creative impulse as passing through bias, so the more people who can help me adjust my lens, the better.

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

“If someone tells you that something in your writing is not working, they’re right 90% of the time. If they tell you how to fix it, they’re wrong 90% of the time.” — I’m not sure who said this, and I would ask where they got these numbers, but this advice helped me approach feedback in a productive way. Having someone point out a problem focalizes it within your mind. Robert Majzels called this the problem of the O-ring — the Space Shuttle Challenger blew apart 73 seconds after liftoff because of faulty o-ring seals… a seemingly small and innocuous part can compromise the whole. But no one has the same vision for the piece that you do, so only you can tell if it’ll blow the ship apart.

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

I find it difficult to differentiate between the two (or three, as I also try to write as much non-fiction as I can). I find that I set out to write something and more often than not it’ll turn into fiction. Very rarely have I found that my writing has gone the other way, but it sometimes does. The appeal is that the texts that I love the most — The Baudelaire Fractal, Jonny Appleseed, The Undying — blend content with poetic profluence (what I find propels me through prose — some might privilege “plot” more, but to each their own). So for me the best texts are balancing almost all three genres, so much so that the seams are perfectly interlocked. 

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?

I think about writing all the time: every conversation, every outing, every experience. For how much I think about it, I feel I should be a much better writer than I am! My writing routine consists of thinking about why I’m not writing. I try to do a little every day; again, the process of slow accretion is very important. In bed, at a coffee shop, or even on vacation — wherever I find myself that day, I feel an overwhelming joy that I made it, that I sat down, and writing is about to happen. I tell people to just write whatever comes to mind, and I’ve gotten better and better over the years at trusting the process of drafts, but I can’t help but tediously, endlessly revise each and every sentence, many of which will never make it. I need to feel there’s some beauty before I can feel any purpose or sense to moving on.

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

Reading — the better the book, the slower I read it because I will get such a creative jolt that I just have to get up and write. I find that sometimes even just the infusion of language, from a random sentence generator (I used to use pyprose) will create a spark. Or I’ll do research, and the very specific prose of the topic will generate some motivation. There are some books that you experience like Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture or Lyn Hejinian’s My Life that are just so full of poetic propulsion that you can’t not write. Worse comes to worse, I’ll open a new document and just write as fast as I can without grammar, syntax, meaning or sense. That material sometimes becomes revised into some of the more obtuse sentences… almost all of which get cut in the editing process… but I’ve managed to salvage a few of them. 

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

My mother cooked with a lot of ginger and star anise — I started cooking with a wok and oil on high heat because I find it wondrous to be able to produce such calming scents. Although I don’t smoke often, I have good friends who do so the smell of tobacco and cannabis has become quite comforting as well.

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?

Sometimes I worry that the only reason I’m curious about the world, that I learn anything about anything, is to write about it. So in that sense, almost everything from mathematics to painting to embalming influences my work. For that reason I really enjoy texts like Robert Sapolsky’s Behave that discusses behavioural psychology through a biological framework or Janna Levin’s How the Universe Got its Spots which documents the scientific shifts that brought about our understanding of the Big Bang. Additionally, every beer that I’ve had with my teammates after soccer and every hike that I’ve gone on seem to have manifested themselves within the book. I feel the writer’s ultimate skill is to see inspiration or character or scene in something that might otherwise look innocuous.       

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

I think other people’s writing is so important which is why I’ve been listing authors throughout my responses. A list of some of my favourites: László Krasznahorkai, Lisa Robertson, Nicole Brossard, Dionne Brand, Larissa Lai, Joshua Whitehead, Han Kang, Haruki Murakami, David Markson, Suzette Mayr, Weyman Chan, Edouard Levé.       

I find myself drawn to literary upheavals or ruptures; I’m thinking of the term rupture as Larissa Lai uses it in her book Slanting I, Imagining We to catalogue the way East Asian writing in North America has undergone momentous shifts. I find that the authors above have created these upheavals (at least personally), shattered my previous conceptions and remade me in the world anew.  

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

I would love to live in France or China. I find that, while I have travelled, I haven’t lived in another space long enough to really soak up the climate or its nuance. Additionally, I would love to professionalize in other creative avenues; at the moment, I’m playing with animation and painting and coding. But they all seem to be more like pastimes. Still, I carry around a dream of versatility — the actor, songwriter, director trope, so to speak.

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?

I never realized how much I love to perform; I’m histrionic by birth, eccentric by practice. I would love to have acted more, maybe even danced, maybe box — there’s something about writing’s lack of physicality that makes me starved for movement. If I had not become a writer, I probably would have focussed on some other creative expression like painting, drawing, film, as creation is very important in my life (as it should be!).

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

Writing seems to complement some fundamental aspects of my personality (the quiet, creative, and bombastic sides). However, I don’t like being alone so I am always writing alongside others. Growing up, I wasn’t a voracious reader or talented with language. The joy of reading precipitated from a desire to write, and my desire to write leapfrogged from language that ruptured. I am enamored with the idea of one day writing something incredible. Sometimes I wonder “why write?”. There are so many other art forms that seem, not necessarily more lucrative but more accessible. Writing is ubiquitous but starts off as hidden. It’s easier to share a song, painting, or performance than it is to “share” a book — a book requires someone to open it, to invest. If I were to directly answer the question, “what made you write?”, I would have to say proximity — I don’t need to travel very far to get to a page.

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

I have read so many good books in 2020: Anne Boyer’s The Undying, Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body, Lisa Robertson’s The Baudelaire Fractal, Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu. I am swimming in amazing books and feel very blessed to live at this juncture in literary history. The last great film I saw was The Lighthouse with Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson — I’ve been drawn to horror more and more since I realized, after publishing Arborescent, that I indeed write modern horror.

20 - What are you currently working on?

After quitting my job at Mount Royal University, I started my PhD at the University of Calgary. I’ve been wanting to pursue my PhD for a long time, and thankfully my previous work situation had become so intolerable that I forced myself to leap. During the degree, I will be generating a novel called A Wasp’s Waist which I hope will be a picaresque romp — a mixture of Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en and Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. At the moment, the novel only exists theoretically, by which I mean I still have to find some kind of beating heart for it.

Additionally, I’ve been co-writing a young adult novel with Andrew Barbero called The Huddle of East Hope, a somewhat absurdist speculative fiction piece about a bobbing commune called East Hope and a city on the precipice of a disaster. When the central pumping station the Crossness of Tottle-Paw breaks down, a toxic miasma is released from subterranean channels affecting minds, mutating bodies, and unleashing a flying shark-fish into the city of Ramsey.

Also, also! I have been playing around with non-fiction quite a bit and have just finished a manuscript entitled On Blackholes, Fathers, and Marbles, in a workshop led by Aritha van Herk. Probably, this project will stay underground until I know how it functions as a whole, but this foray into creative non-fiction has been eye opening, particularly about the crossovers between genre. 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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