Can you talk about a breakthrough publication in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The first novel of mine that came out was A Room in Dodge City, in 2017, which I’m very proud of, but I think the bigger breakthrough, at least on a personal level, was Angel House, which was actually written earlier but came out in 2019. This novel was my albatross, the white whale I’d been chasing for nearly a decade and the manuscript that I often pictured myself being buried with.
I wrote the first draft in Berlin, when I lived there on a DAAD fellowship in 2010-11. This was back in my really charged up, obsessive phase. I was scared about graduating college, which I had just done, and felt like I needed to prove myself, to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was serious about being a writer. I may have gone a bit overboard—I often wrote upwards of 20 pages a day, and existed in a kind of frenzied state a lot of the time—but I was cognizant of how lucky I was to have the fellowship that let me do this, and that if I came back to the US with nothing tangible to show, I would feel like I’d dropped the ball and that maybe—I was extremely hard on myself back then—I didn’t deserve to be a writer.
So I worked incessantly on Angel House, and eventually generated over 1000 pages, which then took several years to even inventory, let alone edit. In a bizarre sense, that first draft was harder to read than it was to write. I despaired many times, and was probably right in thinking that I’d bitten off more than I could chew, but I also told myself that I wouldn’t give up until I’d produced a version that I could honestly claim should be published. I wasn’t sure if it ever would be, but I knew I had to reach that point, and so eventually I did.
The fact that it finally was published, and found a small but committed readership, meant the world to me—I felt like I’d taken a risk on truly putting all of myself out there, and had been rewarded for it. In a way, it justified my whole life up to that point, and confirmed that I should continue along the path I’d embarked upon.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The ideal state of mind, for me, comes from two factors, both of which can fluctuate: enough peace and quiet to be able to enter the timeless realm of creative thought without being pulled back into the time-based stress of daily life, and a religious conviction that visiting this realm matters, above and beyond wealth and fame.
If I can keep both of these aspects at a sufficient level—another way to put it is that I need to feel both that I can and that I should keep writing—then I’m in the ideal state. I can enter my psychogeography and feel welcome there. This is the place where work and play are unified, in the sense that I’m both free enough to truly indulge my desire to play, and disciplined enough to know that I’ll surface with a tangible piece of work.
This is one way of understanding the notion of a “studio” as not only a room but also a state of mind, a place inside yourself where you can go to meet the work that’s waiting for you, and in so doing become the exact right person to take on that work.
Words can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for literature and poetry as a tool for healing?
I think a lot about how humiliation, not hatred, is the most wounding force. The only time that I have, however briefly, wanted to kill someone is when I felt they’d humiliated me, and this clearly ramifies on the political level as well—the deepest resentment comes from groups that feel humiliated, not those that feel materially mistreated. So in this sense, words can hurt, both in terms of the initial humiliation they can cause, and, even more so perhaps, in terms of the overreaction this can trigger.
On a related level, I wonder about the role of shame and humiliation in my creative practice. On the one hand, I often think that my motivating energy comes from a desire to permanently escape shame and humiliation—telling myself that if I can only build up an impressive-enough body of work, no one will ever be able to humiliate me again—even though, at the same time, I find that many of the artists I deeply admire—Francis Bacon, Guy Maddin, and William S. Burroughs among them—found a way to reify and even fetishize their own humiliation, so part of me wonders whether masochism, not pride, is actually the best motivating force. And of course, on a macro-level, this negotiation goes into the decision to become an artist in the first place: you have a deep-seated desire to escape the shame of the rat race, while, at the same time, eagerly courting the shame of being seen as someone who gambled away their future in pursuit of an illusion.
Maybe this is part of healing too, insofar as art and literature can take these raw emotions and turn them into a beautiful object, something that both the creator and the audience can stand back from and regard as its own entity, rather than an embodied emotion with no outlet other than rage. I tend to believe that art can’t directly solve our problems, but it can clarify them in such a way that we can at least see what we’re dealing with, which may be a necessary step toward finding a solution.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
This is a key question, and one that relates back to research and observation. The best answer I’ve heard, although it remains dicey no matter how you look at it, is, “use anything you want, just be sure to get it right.”
This seems wise, in the sense that I don’t think people should shut down and only write about their own immediate experience, although, on the other hand, it’s clearly offensive and lazy to write about others in a stereotypical or reductive way. I think the more that literature can promote connection and conversation, the better, so if this approach causes people to take an active interest in lives unlike their own, then it’s moving us in the right direction, toward repairing a larger sense of community and opposing a growing sense of atomization.
For myself, I approach this question a bit sideways, because most of my characters are projections of mental states and sensibilities, rather than fully embodied human beings with definite cultural backgrounds. I am interested in culture and history, but, in fiction, I tend to filter it through several distorting lenses of dreams and visions, so that what emerges on the other side isn’t fully recognizable in terms of the categories that people are often sorted into.
Literature works with sense impressions in a different way than the other arts. How do you use them in your writing? From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
There’s a wonderful paradox inherent in literature, in that, on the one hand, you could say it’s the most sensually inert art form, because it’s just black marks on a white page, with no sound or texture, unlike film or music or dance, and yet, because the actual object is so abstract, it can stimulate our senses even more than overtly sensual art forms can. Readers have to imagine the scenarios for themselves, so they put in more of their own sense memory—if you ask someone, for example, how the air in One Hundred Years of Solitude smells, or feels on the skin, I bet they could answer it more vividly than they could about, say, the air in a Kubrick or a Tarkovsky film.
In terms of how our senses work, this would seem to tell us that much of what we sense is bound up with memory, so that if a book describes a smell, a taste, or, more mysteriously, a mood or an aura, we can call upon memory to understand and almost experience it first-hand, even if the place where we’re physically reading the book has none of those sensory inputs.
This is also because literature, regardless of whether it’s written in the first, second, or third person, is a first-person medium, since the reader has to be both the world and the characters in order to engage with the story at all, whereas in film, no matter how much we might relate to the characters’ experiences, we’re still looking at them, rather than through them. Therefore, a literary character’s sense impressions are our own, which is unique among all art forms—only dreams have this same quality.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
In recent years, I’ve done a number of dream-sharing workshops with a good friend, where we go to universities and other public spaces to help groups of people re-enter their dreams, almost like a guided group hallucination, free of all judgment and interpretation. Something I’ve learned from observing the hunger with which these groups want to immerse themselves in dreams, and which I think feeds back into the larger well of myth and spirit that we all live with, is that the apparent waking world isn’t enough for us, or else it’s actually much more than it seems to be.
Either way, having an open and honest relationship with the realm of the notional and the numinous is crucial to living a sane and full life, and I think art can admit this in the most direct possible way. The kind of art that I love and strive to make engages with the dreaming parts of our mind while we’re awake, giving people the chance to tap into this and accept it as a real, definitive part of who they are.
On a political level, people have lately gotten swept up in wild, mythic narratives that they believe are “real,” in part because they’ve tried to claim that they don’t have a mythological view of the world. If we don’t attend to the mythological parts of us, and pretend to be “totally secular,” then we fall victim to all manner of grifters offering us a version of reality that makes no sense on the level of real outcomes, but satisfies this mythic desire in a secret and perverse way.
On the other hand, if we satisfy our mythic desires by elevating the role of art in society, and not just seeing it as a commodity or a diversion or a source of information, maybe we’ll become harder to dupe on the political level, and thus more able to nominate and support politicians based on what they can actually do for us, rather than based on the wild mythic stories they can tell.
What can literature or poetry express about life and death which other forms of art may not?
Literature can express the inner contours of thought, and how this relates to place—how we think through places, while places also think through us. By being both character and world, as I mentioned above, the reader is put in a unique and potentially revelatory psychological position. They realize that their minds can host thoughts which are somehow both “their own and not their own” at the same time, an eerie and beautiful form of possession.
A book is not as effective as a film or a concert at representing how things look and sound, but it can be more effective at representing how the synthesis of all the senses amounts to how things feel, or seem. It’s this aspect of seeming—of “literalizing the subtext” by giving concrete form to a nebulous impression or hunch about reality—that is the strongest aspect of literature, in my opinion.
Finally, literature is also synthetic in a way that accounts for its longevity as a form, even as newer media have eaten away at our attention. A book can incorporate, say, videogames, and Internet discourse, and quantum physics, and any other form or mode of contemporary life, and bring them all together into one place, both physically and intellectually, better than any other artistic technology can. Books have thus been swallowed by new media, but they can also swallow it in return.