"By Years and Circumstance": An Interview with Kate Petersen

Kate Petersen lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Zyzzyva, Epoch, Paris Review Daily, LitHub, and elsewhere. A former recipient of a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford and a Pushcart Prize, she currently serves as coordinator for the Center of Ecosystem Science and Society at Northern Arizona University.

Her story, "Homework 3 (Spring 2016)," appeared in Issue Eighty-Four of The Collagist. 

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about finding narrative in surprising places, how our writing changes over time, and landscape.

I love how the form frames the narrative in “Homework 3 (Spring 2016).” How did writing this as a homework assignment change the way you approached the story?

Samuel Beckett said of Joyce, “form is content, content is form.” And Walter Benjamin put it this way: “the veil and what is veiled [the wrap and what is wrapped], are the same.” There are a million great formulations of this argument, and though wary of drumming up undue grandeur or pretense via fancy quotation, perhaps I can lean lightly on the syllogism they propose: this wasn’t even a story until I understood it as a problem set.

I need to give credit to my terrific intro to fiction students at Stanford. The spring that I was writing this, they were doing p-sets every minute they weren’t writing and revising their stories—in electrical engineering, chemical engineering, computer engineering. I realized they were eating, breathing, sleeping this form I had never really lived myself (non-engineer that I was). So I asked them to bring some in, just so I could see what a p-set was. And what I discovered—what we discovered—were these totally rich, torqued narratives made of very specific, poetic lexicons that we could repurpose and bend to our own extracurricular aims.

As I familiarized myself with these strange language systems—in which naïve estimator or coupling parameter doesn’t mean naïve or coupling as I’d ever understood those words, systems in which one must follow a very logical but byzantine path toward a correct answer—I realized I’d found a sound receptacle for this overspill of feeling I wanted to write about. The inherent doubleness and constraints were welcome, and necessary.

The Collagist published “Homework 3 (Spring 2016)” in July 2016. Has your writing changed since then? If so, how?

Oh god. Well, I have a puppy, and I know she’s getting taller, but I can’t really see it because I’m with her every day. I think it might be the same with my writing: I hope it’s changed, by which I mean I hope it bears the mark of more time spent with the world, but I’m too close to know. One’s compulsions change over time and with them, perhaps, goes style. But I’ve also aged and been aged since 2016, by years and circumstance, and so I suspect my writing is a little closer to death. Though, if the poets are any indication, maybe that’s a net gain.

This story has a strong sense of place. Is the desert a familiar setting for you? Why was it important this story take place where it does?

Yes, I grew up in the Sonoran Desert and have deep affection for it. But here I was interested in the way that a stranger or beloved defamiliarizes a landscape. This desert is not a place the narrator knows, with this man beside her. Even so, the mutual recognition comes quick, so that by morning the mountains know her well enough to chide her, and she knows them well enough to reply.

What is something you are loving right now? It could be a book, a game, a TV show, a food, etc.

Loving poetry and journalism: Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem. Joanna Klink’s Circadian. Amy Gerstler’s Crown of Weeds. And High Country News. Please read and subscribe to their great work on climate change and the American West. Important, place-based journalism.

What are three words that describe one of your WIPs?

Twentieth-century science. I’m finishing a project on science during the cold war, though not the science of weaponry that’s been popularized in film and elsewhere. Even quieter science had a real claim to progress then, and though still political and politicized, it tracked with a public hope—hope that was sometimes misguided or mislaid, but was abundant. Founded.

We’re doing science in such a different paradigm now; I think there’s a good chance American science from these years will be marked only by its ability to pull us back from the brink of a warming climate, or not, and the unequal distribution of its benefits through a profit-based health care system.

"To Raise Dead Things": An Interview with Jared Daniel Fagen

Jared Daniel Fagen is a writer living in Brooklyn and Arkville, NY. His prose and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, PLINTH, Numéro Cinq, Entropy, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, 3:AM Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation, Hyperion, and elsewhere. He is the editor of Black Sun Lit and a PhD student in Comparative Literature at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

His story, "Delight/Equal Dread," appeared in Issue Eighty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about winter, giving up, and letting infringements into our writing.

What sparked your story, “Delight/Equal Dread”? Where did this story begin for you?

I suppose D/ED had begun from something dim instead. I actually remember this period of my writing fondly and distinctly. No, not distinctly, I remember it vividly, that is, then was about uncertain images. Perhaps it began from a kind of exhaustion, on a bench, at the burning end of a cigarette. Or rather from rest. I had just been walking or not yet able to set about. In any case I was not any more than a quarter mile away from my home in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn (hi DN-S), knowing I would have to start again somehow. All my favorite writers were walkers. I was bearing new discomforts in my body and in many ways recently done with “stories.” The writing of D/ED came from a freedom or easiness that follows forfeit. It was a December-January. A bench loses its charm in low temperatures. A bench can be strangely comforting in the cold. I walk out of some insensate habit frenzied, methodical, with my eyes pointed downward, nowhere to go and to go next. My prose had been up to that time traffic. Traffic is only bothersome when there is somewhere you’re expected to be or a destination ahead you desire to reach, passing the familiar landmarks. What I wanted was an end, yes, but one which would come at the eradication of mapped routes. Not too long ago I saw a friend post a photo that made me think of Valéry, who said prose was like walking and poetry like dancing. But I was becoming more interested in the meander in winter at weekday noontide when the sky is overcast and everything is hued gray by the residue of salts used to melt snow. You know, when everything looks scorched. So rest in the sense of unencumbered movement, as well as in what remains. They say life flashes before your eyes when you meet the end. I wanted to write the disorientation, the distortion, the memories that would flood and weren’t premeditated, forced, or fixed but isolated until instinctively (or neglectfully)—in their conjuring by means of the narrative performance of the writing—moved on from when I needed them most. Now I’m remembering a line I believe I have written. I’m looking back now. “Endings were satisfied quicker by surrender, by silence.” Oddly enough, this is from a story I had written not long before this one. To end is the possibility to recommence. So I suppose D/ED rose out of me from a wake.

This story has a very distinct voice. Is the voice in this piece similar to or different from the stories you typically write? How so?

D/ED was one (fragmented) text of several that I had composed during this time (c. 2015–16?) of relinquishment, stasis, and debility, in the faint winter of my writing. I don’t recall where it fits amongst the others in the series (I think five in total), but my guess is it was one of those texts written earlier on. There is a kind of exhilaration in D/ED, demonstrated by its paratactic restlessness, which is not as urgent in some of the other fragments. Most of my prose up to this point, in retrospect, had been too conscious of itself, that is, too tied to and labored by arrivals, keeping things, no matter how derelict or desperate I liked them to be, too aggressively intact, in the proper places I had in advance governed for them with agonizing effort. The voice in this work, I think, had been too controlled, commanding, deliberate, maybe more manipulative than suggestive. Yet nothing was really grounded, in the Heideggerian sense. The writing was already of ruinous things. While the nature of my writing as a whole—the impetus, the stirrings, the weariness where it comes from—has always been (and is) the same, D/ED and the aforementioned rest represent a narrative voice more interested in its process, in building and deprivation, in dwelling poetically, rather than combing or dredging an expressive textual site of recovery organized by literary tropes. The voice at the end of “stories” had to be equally as collapsing. It had to make visible not just the wreckage of a memory or image strewn about the page, but also the operation of their atrophy. It had to raise dead things at the meager end of their life. Life at the threshold of annihilation is both trepidatious and tranquil, the event of extreme limits. Things are more precious then, at their detriment. The voice became a thread and threadbare.

The Collagist published “Delight/Equal Dread” in June 2016. How has your writing or the focus of your writing changed since then?

D/ED marked a significant turning point in my writing. There is less interference from passersby, from pomeranians (hi M), from reality. Everything since then is just as feverish, which is to say as natural. The writing grows, it spirals, it sieves, and I’ve become meagerly its vessel, a colander. I am practicing temper turbulently. Many learn to inhabit writing, maybe for healing. But writing still inhabits me, maybe it’s my mania, the obsessions just as intense. I still begin the work when I find myself fraught with words, when a certain phrase pummels me. The unpublished work following D/ED and its counterparts is more tidal, does more violence to language. Perhaps now there is more stuttering, corruption, cosmic sorrow, a harder time letting go. I find myself concentrating more on committing offences, creating disagreements between parts of speech, and letting these infringements propel the narrative motion, rather than plot. The writing’s become mostly about rhythm, departure, spontaneity, association, correspondence, using language to erase myself, to complicate the determination of the voice. I’m writing further inflictions, last sips of air.

What is the latest story you read and loved? 

“Finished Being” by Diane Williams, in New York Tyrant. Read it, it’s short. The story tells of a woman who “looked with respect” at a square of cement and “asked herself why she had to do that.” It’s only a sentence. Fiction can be so small, inconsequential, incipient. “Inconsequential” is an abundant modifier: it can mean unimportant, with little or no consequence (or aftermath), or, my favorite, neither here nor there. But back to the “story,” which, despite being only 30 words, is in all attributes still a story: it is an account of a character (she who looked) and event (the square of cement being looked at), real or imaginary, that is interrelated and sequential (the character looked, her eyes fell on the square of “cement-hued cement,” she noticed “a narrow frame of black tar” surrounding the square of cement, she reflected). It’s in the past. The adjectives “tar” and “cement-hued” are superfluous, almost comical, but they are there, serving no other function than appearance. What is the “story” about? Who is she? What kind of cement? Is it concrete? The kind used to make roads? Or prisons? What is “finished?” The story is simple, maybe: it’s about a way of seeing (hi André) “with respect.” Back again to words. The preposition “with” is used here in relation to something, defined as: “affected by (a particular fact or condition),” “indicating the cause of an action or condition,” and “because of (something) and as it happens.” Now “respect,” as in “a particular aspect, point, or detail,” due regard, or admiration. I think Williams is showing us that the best art, or the most meaningful—in the sense of what is indirectly expressed—is that which is stumbled upon, encountered by accident. Art is an imprint, hardening under the sun. It instills. It colors itself, exists only for itself. Art is an impurity. Art demands to be finished by its witness. But what is Williams actually describing? She isn’t. Words are insufficient instruments for essences, when they are merely glossed over for the benefit of fiction. Art has no reason or utility. Art invites. Like tar and cement, it preserves and perseveres. It is both monumental and elemental, a labor and an impartial luxury, a testament. To what? I don’t know. There’s a strange warmth in not knowing, in unknowing. Is the character who was looking at the block of cement the one who framed it with tar? Was she responsible for her own… remorse? Yes and no, I think. The indefinite article in “a solid square” and “a narrow frame” instead of the determiner certainly complicates things. Art is the experience of to be separated from and to submit to. For me, really, the question is, Can things just be? More importantly, What is being?

What is something you are working on now (writing or otherwise) that you are excited about? 

For a little over a year now I’ve been at work on a novel, for lack of better words, which I endearingly refer to as “the thing” and have tentatively titled Nevertheless. It’s an exercise in hunger, love, and language, about treadmills and grammar and being orphaned. Writing itself. I see no end in sight, that is, it seems to still have a little life left in it. As a rule I write painfully slow. I didn’t know I would be writing a book. Usually I write without knowing I’m writing, and once realized until I become famished. With “the thing” words have a habit of returning out of nothing long since I’ve believed them perished. There is what’s written and yet what to write. I know where I want to go with it—or, there are images and memories still left to forsake, words still left to mutilate—but not where it’ll end up, and that’s all well and good. If anything the longevity’s been a new writing experience, though I think “the thing” is maybe more faithful to the torrent of D/ED than some of the others that have come after. I’ve collected some of the work from around and since the D/ED sequences into a chapbook, which to my mind sounds nice, but at the moment I’m not so concerned with sending work out. What a relief! Demoralizing myself in the writing is more productive. I’d like to get back to capturing the cursory impulses again, though, to hastier suffocations, after the long thing has ceased in me.

"One of Me Wonders": An Interview with Mike Puican

Mike Puican has had poems in Poetry, Michigan Quarterly Review, Bloomsbury Review, Cortland Review, and New England Review, among others. His poetry reviews have appeared in TriQuarterly, Kenyon Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and MAKE Magazine. He won the 2004 Tia Chucha Press Chapbook Contest for his chapbook, 30 Seconds. Mike was a member of the 1996 Chicago Slam Team and for the past ten years has been president of the board of the Guild Literary Complex in Chicago.

His poem, "The Current," appeared in Issue of Eighty-One of The Collagist. 

Here he speaks with interviewer Victoria DiMartino about the reinvention of oneself, being a disrupter in writing, and looking at oneself from the outside.

Where did you find the inspiration to begin this poem? As a reader, I felt that this poem’s grounding is in reality rather than a poetic fantasy. Did the inspiration for this poem spark out of a memory that you may or may not have included in here?

All the images are from my past. I am someone who has reinvented himself a few times in my life—athlete, anti-establishment radical, capitalist businessman, poet, activist for incarcerated writers, and others. With each reinvention, my inclination has been to pretend that anything that doesn’t fit my current persona didn’t exist. I’m now trying to understand this bundle of disparate directions and how it all originated from the same source.

The poem lists experiences from these different times with no interest in providing a narrative explanation. It’s a collage of disparate scenes joined only by the voice of the poet who is trying to understand how this can be explained. The closest the speaker can come is to attribute it to some unknown fire in his heart.

During the first two stanzas of the poem, the narrator starts all the lines with either “One of me” or just “One.” It seems though that as the narrator progresses through the poem they start to refer to themselves as a singular “He.” Would you like to speak to the reason behind this decision? Is it that the narrator is starting to become a singular form of themselves again, or that they may be starting to take claim for their actions?

I start out repeating “One of me” in each sentence to make sure the reader understands the perspective of the poem—the speaker is observing his life and acknowledges he’s had different identities along the way. Once that is established, I short-hand it by simply using “One.” With the shift to “He,” the speaker distances himself a little more and takes more of the perspective of an outside observer. This is the stance I wanted for the entire poem. I wanted the reader to think that these observations are being reported dispassionately despite the fact that I am clearly talking about myself.

At the end of every stanza, we are left to visualize an image. In the first three stanzas, we are left with images reflective of nature, but in the last stanza we visualize a woman in an unnamed color. In a frame of structure, do you prefer a more rigid format for your poetry, whether it be following a visual structure such as stanzas with the same number of lines, or in a thematic structure where a recurring theme is laced throughout the poem, but in the same place in every stanza?

As a writer (and in some ways as a person) I am a disrupter. I love to interrupt expectations in unexpected ways. For that to work in a poem, you need to create a frame or a pattern that you then disrupt. It works best when the disruption occurs at a turning point of the poem, as I have tried to do here.

The observations in this poem are mostly from an exterior viewpoint, as though someone on the outside could have reported it. Then, in the end, the poem shifts from exterior observation to internal emotions. My intention was to reveal a deeper emotional investment, one that, despite this looking back on my life, is still occurring.  One that I’m still trying to understand.

Have you read anything lately that you think everyone should take the time out to read?

The best book I’ve read in the past two years is Olio by Tyehimba Jess. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. It presents the voices of extraordinary first-generation freed slaves who performed in minstrel shows. The depth of creativity and description of human experience is astonishing. It uncomfortably draws a straight line from those days to now.

I was knocked out by the recent memoir Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot—a Native American’s story of growing up in frightfully dysfunctional situations, some of which continue outside and inside her. It’s a fascinating account of her struggles for sanity and dignity as a woman, a mother, and a writer in a country where indigenous people are perceived of as “other.”

Do you have any upcoming writing projects that you’d like to share?

I’ve been working on a memoir for the past year or so. In the spirit of “The Current,” it tries to come to terms with the many directions my life has taken. It explores this through two opposing lenses: the desire to uncover some unifying guiding force in my life; and the acknowledgment that my goal has never been unity. To impose some idea of unity is likely to diminish the experiences I’m trying to write about. It’s still very much a work in progress.

"You Have to Pause": An Interview with Heather Nagami

Heather Nagami is a Kundiman fellow and the author of Hostile (Chax Press). Her poems have recently appeared in Zocalo Magazine and The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide. She was a finalist for the 2015 Rita Dove Poetry Prize.

Her poems, "For What It's Worth" and "Courtesy of Strangers," appeared in Issue Eighty-One of The Collagist. 

In this interview, she speaks with interviewer Victoria DiMartino about the challenge of revision, the importance of wildlife and nature’s current state as inspiration, and stopping to pauce and reflect on the moment.

This poem is centered in a very specific place. From the details we can gather, the narrator is out west in a desert state. How did you write this poem? Did you find inspiration from the setting first or did the poem stem out of an experience similar to the one mentioned in the poem?

I began by writing about a situation I experienced, but as I developed the poem, I came to understand that its greater meaning stemmed from living in the Arizona desert, which offered the privilege of continual interactions with wildlife yet also made me increasingly worried for the situation of the local animals and plants.

The line “You have to pause, lift / your foot off the gas, stare / as she stares back, waiting” really caught my attention. This is one example of how the language is not only crisp and clear, but well thought out. Would you like to speak to the way you created this particular scene in the poem and how you developed the language that went into it?

The words themselves came pretty quickly; however, I went through many revisions of the line breaks and stanza breaks. With that second stanza in particular, I wanted to slow down the pace to mimic the poem’s plot—when the driver’s eyes meet the coyote’s eyes, that moment of negotiation between human and wildlife—and also to create a moment of reflection for the reader. Placing line breaks after each verb seemed most appropriate to reflect this pause, this feeling of holding one’s breath. I’d hoped the slower pace would signify the importance of the next lines, a look into a future that sends the driver on her merry way as the coyote focuses on her family’s survival.

Your poem conveys simplicity; not much occurs except an exchange between strangers. The piece is short and dense even with the crisp language I spoke of before. How did you go about developing a piece that was very centered in the present moment while still be conscious of all the other elements that are surrounding that moment?

Revising this poem was quite a challenge because I didn’t have a clear vision of the big picture at first. With most of my poems, I begin with an idea, and then the writing is all about finding the appropriate framework in which to house it. This poem, however, originated from that present moment you mention, and my initial revisions (e.g. splitting the poem into five stanzas for visual symmetry, adding superfluous details) seem haphazard when I look back on them now because they did not reflect the epicenter of the poem’s tension: my own anxiety about the state of Arizona’s wildlife and my feelings of guilt for living in an area that encroached upon the space of countless creatures who had resided there long before I had ever moved in. Once I understood the impetus for this poem, I was able to cut unnecessary lines and split stanzas in a way that enhanced the underlying meaning.

Is there a book that you’ve read more than once that you read when you need inspiration or comfort?

Yes. I read Li-Young Lee’s Book of My Nights.

Have you written anything lately that you’d like to share?

I recently finished writing a poem whose ideas had plagued my mind for over twenty years. After finally discovering the appropriate framework for them, I spent about five years writing the poem and revising it. It’s a serial poem that employs the language of standardized tests, grammar rules, and literary concepts to analyze the psychological impact of sexual assault and rape culture. It was a healing experience to write it, and I hope fellow survivors will find it healing to read. It’s called “Easy Grammar,” and it was published in Berkeley Poetry Review, Issue 48. It can be found online here: https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~bpr/48th-issue/.

"Future Artists of the Fantastic": An Interview with A. Joachim Glage

A. Joachim Glage lives and writes in Colorado, where he enjoys no longer being an attorney. "The Eighteen Possible Plots" is part of a series of fictions Glage is writing about imaginary books. Other pieces from this series have appeared recently, or are soon forthcoming, in such periodicals as The Georgia ReviewLitmag (online), Philosophy and Literature, and others.

His story, "The Eighteen Possible Plots," appeared in Issue 100 of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Andrew Farkas about imaginary and fabulous books, the role of irony in narrative technique, and Borges clones.

Please tell us about the origins of "The Eighteen Possible Plots." What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

My original plan was to write a nonfiction, literary-theoretical essay about my idea of “the dialectic in reverse” and its applicability to certain science-fiction narratives. Somehow I ended up with “The Eighteen Possible Plots” instead. I won’t rehearse the notion of “the dialectic in reverse” here—it’s presented plainly and straightforwardly in the story—but suffice it to say that I do take it somewhat seriously. I am especially fond of the way it seems to describe our relationship with death: that death is but a faraway abstraction when we are young, but then, as we grow older, it begins to inspire religious thoughts (of judgment or souls or the afterlife), and then, as we get very close to it, it begins to seem like a living, breathing thing, like a creature. I think the “dialectic in reverse” could be an effective tool for science-fiction and narrative studies, should someone ever be inclined to use it.

What I am struck by in "The Eighteen Possible Plots" is the obsessive attention to detail in fabricated scholarship (you even created what appears to be a mimeograph of the fictional book this piece focuses on). Certainly, you could have just told us about Dmitry's Shkolnikov's work and the various ideas about it and left it at that. What purpose, then, does all of this "scholarship" (especially the footnotes and the mimeograph) serve in the story?

I am currently at work on a series of fictions about imaginary and fabulous (and sometimes murderous) books, and “The Eighteen Possible Plots” is an installment in that series (other pieces from the series, by the way, can be found in recent or upcoming issues of The Georgia Review, Litmag, Philosophy and Literature, and others). In each of the stories from that collection, I experiment with two distinct but related literary-theoretical topics, which should provide an idea of why I am so interested in phony, made-up scholarship.

The first topic is very simple, and can be encapsulated in the phrase, The Aesthetic of Intellectual Authority. Whenever I take up a book by an especially erudite scholar like Harold Bloom or Fredric Jameson or Borges or Adorno, I am always struck by what I might call the casual genius of the writing, the ease with which it moves from one topic to another, invoking texts both classic and modern, grabbing up whole schools of thought along the way as if they were the wieldiest of objects—and always in a manner that makes it seem like what they’re saying should be plainly obvious to everyone: you believe it, you follow them, eagerly, even when you are painfully out of your own depth. I am interested in seeing if one can successfully deploy that aesthetic, that mode of intellectual authority, even when, as in my case, one has none.

The second topic is more devilish. I have a keen interest in the following question: To what extent is it possible for a work of fiction to lie to the reader? On the one hand, one might opine that it is impossible for a fictional story to lie, since it is, overtly, a work of fiction. On the other hand, one might think that everything in a work of fiction is a lie, and for the very same reason: because the work is, overtly, fictional. I am interested in a third possibility, that in fact there might be a particular sentence or passage in a fictional work that, in some distinct way, succeeds in lying to the reader. In “The Eighteen Possible Plots” there are several places where I attempt just such a deception. Some are very easy to spot. Obviously Darko Suvin, the great science fiction theorist (yes, he is a real person), never wrote anything about a book called The Eighteen Possible Plots (for yes, that is an imaginary book). Do the quotes that I attribute to Suvin about that book amount to lies? If not, why not? If so, why? Other (attempted) lies I tell: the phony scholars alongside the real ones; the non-existent issues of real journals; the imaginary letter sent to Henri Bergson, which is to be found at the (non-existent) “Bergson Center” at the (real) College de France; other made-up quotations attributed to real philosophers. Are any of these lies? Why or why not? There are several other attempted lies in the story that are not so easy to spot; I won’t spoil the fun by listing them all. If you happen to find one of them, do let me know what you think of it.

Although many people say they do not like irony, I continue to love it. And at the beginning of this story, I really felt like I was in for exactly that: irony. After reading "The Eighteen Possible Plots" several times, though, I'm no longer convinced there's any irony whatsoever in this piece. So, what are you doing with the notions of irony and sincerity here?

I am greatly pleased by this question. The role of irony in narrative technique is a private obsession of mine. And I appreciate the idea you’ve expressed here, that at some level there is nothing ironic about this story at all. I concur with that assessment; and yet, there may still be what we might call an ironic “level” at work in the piece, as evidenced by all the deceptions and lies listed in my answer to the previous question.

Let me admit that it is a fantasy of mine to write a story that supports both a “literal” and an “ironic” reading at once, with the two interpretive levels in productive confrontation with one another. I should also admit, of course, that such a feat is likely beyond my abilities. Nevertheless, I might cheekily invoke the four levels of medieval allegory here. Perhaps, in the manner of that old patristic typology, the “literal” level of the story would be that at which the story is read seriously, gravely, and on its own terms—in the present case, this is the level at which “The Eighteen Possible Plots” is just a story about a strange book from 1903 and its predictions about twentieth-century science fiction. The “allegorical” level, then, might refer everything back to the mysterious figure of Dmitry Shkolnikov himself (just as, according to medieval typological interpretive habits, various figures and episodes from the Old Testament could be understood as references to the life of Christ), and to the subtle possibility that he may actually have been an inhuman creature from the sea. Then, somewhere “above” those two levels, there would be the “moral” level (or what I might here call the “ironic” level), which refers the reader back to him- or herself, who, we now come to realize, has been repeatedly lied to, toyed with, by a deceptive narrator. Finally there would be the grander “anagogical” level, according to which everything in the story is really about death, that beast whose gleaming eyes and cold grim claws represent the universal or collective destiny of us all.

Is this too grandiose? Certainly. But then my own lack of irony crystallizes here; I’m in it, in part, for the grandiosity.

The danger in writing a story like this is that people might say, "Oh, but I've already read Jorge Luis Borges, Stanislaw Lem, and Vladimir Nabokov." You, in my opinion, managed quite skillfully to avoid that danger. How, then, did you work with, against, or around those writers when putting "The Eighteen Possible Plots" together?

Permit me to answer this question in a few different ways.

  1. A thousand second-rate Borges clones might be a fine thing today, maybe even a finer thing than the gaggles of writers currently being reviewed in the big papers. I see no danger in it.
  2. How dare you sully the name of the noble Borges by so much as pronouncing it in a question about my own paltry writing! To compare my writing, even unfavorably, to that of the master, Borges, is to commit an unforgivable blasphemy against him, who now resides in the literary pantheon alongside Shakespeare and Milton and Joyce. How dare you, sir or madam, how dare you.
  3. I can only try to write what I myself would want to read. If it reminds the reader of someone else, so be it. I, for one, haven’t read an author published in the last thirty years whose writing didn’t remind me of some previous writer’s work in some way or other. I’m okay with that.
  4. Don’t forget Flann O’Brien: the figure of de Selby from The Third Policeman looms large over my story. Don’t forget Calvino either, or Eco, or Machado de Assis, or even Cervantes (whose conceit that Don Quixote comes to him second-hand, mostly from scrolls written in Arabic, and that he is therefore not the father but only the step-father of the story, is arguably the very first impulse of what we might call modern literature). There are many others we could add to the list.

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

I’ll confine my recommendations to a few living authors who deserve more fame than they currently enjoy (even if some of them are quite well known already). Most of them are writers of what I would loosely call philosophical fiction:

  • Brian Evenson (a master of the short form, a writer of weird and dark tales; Windeye is my favorite of his collections);
  • James Warner (another master of the philosophical story, his recent fictions in Ninth Letter and The Georgia Review are glittering achievements);
  • Amy Sackville (Painter to the King and Orkney are two of my favorite novels of the past ten years; there is a subtlety of thought in her writing that is exceedingly rare today; her sentences are also just so damn good);
  • Lydia Davis (the greatest of all the masters of the abstract and spare short story; there has never been a writer who has built so great an edifice with as few and such sparse raw materials);
  • John Wray (The Lost Time Accidents is one of the best books I’ve read in a long while; it straddles several genres, too: part literary novel, part scifi, part family epic);
  • Eleanor Catton (like many, I was blown away by The Luminaries; she is one of the few authors today whose novels I would buy sight-unseen);
  • Two great poets: Leila Chatti and Kim Addonizio (I read from them almost every day, almost like a habit; perhaps there’s no higher praise for a writer than that).

What are you writing these days?

I was inspired by Colin Winnette’s excellent Haints Stay to try my hand at a western; my story is about a man expecting, waiting, to be murdered by a gang of assassins. I also recently finished another installment in my series of fictions about imaginary books—this one about a six-thousand-page horror novel called The Requirements, which may or may not have been written by an evil spirit.

"Circling a Place to Rest": An Interview Joseph Fazio

Joseph Fazio has published stories in The Iowa Review, Post Road Magazine, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. New work appears regularly on his website, josephfazio.com. He was awarded an artist fellowship by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for his fiction and lives in Boston.

His stories, "The New Boy," "The Lid of Hell," appeared in Issue Eighty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about a Kinks song, what kids get up to when grownups aren't around, and the advice we'd give to our characters.

What inspires your writing? How does a story begin for you?

Often, it’s just an image or some small moment that serves as an entryway. A good first line. The usual sort of thing. “The Lid of Hell” started as a cool title inspired by a lyric in the Kinks song “Lincoln County.” Thanks, Dave Davies. “The New Boy” was based on fuzzy memories of an actual crime that made local headlines 30 years ago.

As I write this, I also recall that “The Lid of Hell” is a kind of twisted homage to the Andre Dubus story “The Doctor” (both stories prominently feature a child in mortal danger and a garden hose).

Both “The New Boy” and “The Lid of Hell” are about children who meet tragic ends. Both have characters, also children, who could have prevented the deaths but didn’t. What drew you to these storylines?

I’ve always been drawn to stories about kids in peril, or about what kids get up to when there are no grownups around, which sometimes means emulating the worst in adults. And I certainly remember with guilt cruelties I committed when I was a child. I suppose in some way these stories are about confronting that.

If you could give advice to one of the characters in these stories, what would it be?

Stay inside, take up the guitar, and practice obsessively until it’s time to leave home.

If your writing was an animal, which animal would it be?

A cat circling a place to rest. Or a cat yakking up a hairball in the dark.

What is something you are working on now (writing or otherwise) that you are excited about?

I recently created a very simple website to publish the imaginative “things” that make up the bulk of my writing lately. It seemed like a good idea: publish new works on the website regularly, and maybe at the end of each year compile them into a print edition. Those who want to read more can visit josephfazio.com.

"The Essay Becomes a Keyhole": An Interview with Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, as well as the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as AGNIBrevityColorado ReviewDIAGRAMLongreadsThe Normal SchoolThe Paris Review DailyRiver Teeth, and Slice Magazine and has been recognized by The Best American Essays. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of North Texas.

Her essay, "Bottom Shelf," appeared in Issue Ninety-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Jill Talbot talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about personas, subtext, and sharing struggle.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “Bottom Shelf.” What caused you to start writing the first draft?

I wrote “Bottom Shelf” immediately after finishing Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath.

In this essay, you look back at another essay you once wrote, quoting lines from it, analyzing and recontextualizing them. Can you tell us about what that process was like for you? Do you revisit your finished works often? Did you discover things in your own writing that you didn’t expect to find?

As I began writing about the pawn shop, I remembered I had included it in another essay, in another context. That other essay presents a persona who is a curious observer (both of the objects and the people in the shop), but avoids divulging that I was one of those people, desperate at the counter. That other essay is not about addiction, it’s about searching, about place, and as writers, we establish the persona for the questions the essay is asking. We don’t have to be all of who we are or were, rather the persona the essay requires. Yet. In rehab, the counselors often called me out on “hiding behind my writing.” I realized I had done that in those paragraphs—how those repeated mentions of glass revealed a subtext of the broken bottle and how I kept the reason why I was in the pawn shop hidden. Also, looking back at that other essay in “Bottom Shelf” contributes to the confessional mode of the piece.

In this essay you write, “I am listing these things, trying to remember all of them, trying to avoid what I pawned, more than once, to get through the month without giving up wine.” In this moment and others throughout the essay, it’s clear that you feel ashamed of actions you’ve taken, and it seems it would be easier to keep silent about them. Why is it important to you to not only write such stories but also publish them? What do you hope to achieve?

I suspect we’re all learning that there are consequences when we stay silent.

As Didion warns, “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

When I write, I’m always thinking of two readers. One will learn about people who live such lives, and in that way, the essay becomes a keyhole through which a reader can look to glimpse a hidden life. The other reader is the one who needs to know she’s not alone in her struggle. I like the way Phillip Lopate puts it: “The trick is to realize that one is not important, except insofar as one’s example can serve to elucidate a more widespread human trait and make readers feel a little less lonely and freakish.” 

But more than anything, I wanted to show the addict whose struggle includes how to fund that struggle. In rehab, we were often reminded, “Work as hard at your sobriety as you did to get your next drink. And I had worked. Hard. Lying awake nights doing budget gymnastics. Searching the bottoms of purses and jacket pockets and kitchen drawers for coins. Those trips to the pawn shop. Lying to friends to borrow a few bucks until payday. Finding a twenty in my mother’s car and pocketing it. Selling shit online. Selling books and CDs and DVDs to used book stores. All that hustle and those excruciating moments waiting for someone to offer a dollar amount that would allow me to step into a store and buy wine. It was exhausting.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I’m working on a series of essays about returning to the places where my sixteen-year-old daughter and I have lived, and we’ve lived in nine states. One of those essays was recently published in The Paris Review Daily.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Mark Slouka, All That Is Left Is All That Matters: Stories

Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

Tyrese Coleman, How To Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays

"Facing the Daily News Cycle": An Interview with Maya Sonenberg

Maya Sonenberg is the author of the story collections Cartographies and Voices from the Blue Hotel. Her newest chapbook of prose and photographs, After the Death of Shostakovich Père, appeared in 2018. Other fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Hotel Amerika, and her writing has received grants from the Washington State Arts Commission and King County 4Culture. She is Professor of English & Creative Writing at the University of Washington—Seattle. You can find her on her website, https://mayasonenberg.com/, or on Twitter @MzzS36019.

Her essay, "The Tree. The Ash. The Ocean.," appeared in Issue Ninety-Eight of The Collagist. 

Here, Maya Sonenberg talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about climate disruption, research via Google, and Shirley Jackson.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “The Tree. The Ash. The Ocean.” What inspired you to begin writing the first draft?

I wrote this in response to a prompt called the 20 Little Essays Project and published on the Draft Journal website. It was developed by Amy Butcher and written about by Felicia Schneirderhan. As I remember I was feeling stuck in the middle of a longer and complex essay project and really needed a prompt that would get words on the page. It just took off from there.

It looks writing this essay required some significant research. Can you describe your process for selecting the cited materials and synthesizing them into a remarkably concise final product? To what extent did you know what you were seeking in your research, and to what extent did you discover your subject matter through reading (and looking at) those materials?

OK—I’ll just admit it: Google is my friend. I was drafting this in the middle of the 2017 forest fire and hurricane seasons, so “natural”[*] disasters were in the news every day. Once I knew which ones I’d be referring to in the essay, I started searching, which led me to new, more specific information and also to things I didn’t expect to find but which ended up being important to the essay, such as the aerial photos of the Caribbean after Hurricane Irma, for example, or the bit about the emerald ash borer beetle. Whenever I do research, I end up with masses of information and include all of it in a draft. Later I go back and try to figure which one or two examples are the most vivid or specific or odd and keep those. I don’t think doing the research here ended up changing any of my ideas about the subject matter (that’s certainly happened with other projects), except perhaps to expand the range of atrocities and disasters I referenced and so increase the sense of these things feeling overwhelming.

In this essay, you write, “This essay is a moving target. Every time my eyes return, a new disaster to splay across these pages.” It does seem like a Sisyphean task, in 2018, to write a brief essay on how a spectator engages with large-scale disasters and atrocities around the globe. Why was it important to you to write and publish such an essay? Is writing about it a method for coping, or facing the tragedy, or both, or something else entirely?

Trying to come to terms with these things is a Sisyphean task, and I’m sorry to say that writing about them only made them seem even more overwhelming. Facing the daily news cycle is overwhelming. I think it’s important to acknowledge that and to keep reminding each other that we’re all finding this overwhelming. Reading Philip Gourevtich’s book about Rwanda, disturbing though it was, was helpful in this regard; it was helpful to follow someone else trying to process atrocities in such an honest and thoughtful way. Then it helps to find one concrete way to address just one aspect of the overwhelmingness. For example, my daughter and I phone-banked for a congressional candidate this year. I hope, in some small way, we helped her to victory.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I have just completed eight mini-essays about the brilliant 20th century modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham and read them as part of a celebration of the centennial of his birth at Velocity Dance Center here in Seattle, a project supported by the Merce Cunningham Trust. The essays explore his relationship to the other arts, his use of chance operations as a generative practice, and my memories of taking classes at his studio when I was a teenager. I hope to visit the Cunningham archives to do some research and write more of these. I’m also in the midst of a book-length essay project about Jewish Utopian settlements in the Dakotas and the Bronx at the turn of the 20th century, my grandmother, and my love for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s children’s novels, problematic though they may be. Occasionally I take a break to write fairy tale inflected short stories.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

I’m in the middle of Shelley Jackson’s Riddance, which is amazing. The structure is complex, every sentence is like an arrowhead (sharp and hard and beautiful), and every image is startlingly vivid. And speaking of another Jackson—I’ve been reading all of Shirley Jackson’s novels. We all (or most of us) learned about her as the author of the short story “The Lottery” when we were in middle school or high school and now know of her as the author of The Haunting of Hill House since it’s been turned into a Netflix series, but all of her novels are deeply, surprisingly, and inventively creepy. My favorites are The Road through the Wall (1948) which is an amazing send-up of suburbia, written right when suburbia was first coming into being, and Hangsaman (1951) about a girl’s freshman year at college. WARNING: no parent should read this novel during their own child’s first semester away at college. I made that mistake!


[*] “Natural” is in quotation marks here since consensus is building that the increasing severity and frequency of these disasters is a result of human-generated climate disruption.

"Less Ending Than Opening": An Interview with Karen Brennan

Karen Brennan is the author of seven books, the most recent of which is a hybrid short fiction collection, Monsters. Her poetry, nonfiction and fiction have been included in anthologies from Norton, Penguin, Graywolf, Michigan, Georgia and others. A visual artist as well as a writer, she is currently at work on a compendium of image-word memoirs, Television. Professor Emerita at the University of Utah, she is on the faculty of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

Her essays, "C'est moi," "Shame," and "Gurus," appeared in Issue Ninety-Seven of The Collagist. 

Here, Karen Brennan talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about short forms, memory in fragments, and indelible marks.

Please tell us about the origins of these three micro-memoirs. What inspired you to start writing them?

These pieces are part of a longer project, titled Television. I’d been looking for a vehicle for memoir, other than a chronological narrative. Memory is so often fragmentary and so the stories of our lives come to us in pieces, in glimpses. The final product, book-length, is an assemblage of memories, arranged to mimic the way the mind flits haphazardly from topic to topic, era to era in the act of recollecting a life while in the midst of living this one.

Each piece consists of only about 200 words or fewer. What has drawn you to such a short form? How much of a challenge is it to write a complete work so concisely?

As a poet as well as a prose writer, I am drawn to the short form. It is a matter of compression and release or, as E.M. Forster said of plot, “a system of tension and resolution.” On the micro-level, the process is speeded up, the rhythms are especially crucial and resolution is less ending than opening.

In the third piece, “Gurus,” you describe the sort of scene that used to take place in a particular room you were once in more than you show the reader what was actually taking place while you were there. Why do you believe the history of that place pulled your attention? What’s the significance for you of that space’s legacy (or any given place’s storied past, perhaps)?

Well, it’s ironic, for one thing. The idea that the place where we worshipped a spiritual leader on a throne used to be the venue for Borscht Belt comedians is pretty hilarious. But, really, this piece is about imagination—how the narrator imagines what must have been there before and wonders about the layers of history that inhabit—and possibly affect—a particular space. I used to live in an old Victorian, circa 1996. There was writing on the inside of one of the closets left by the wife of a well-known poet in the 50s, a stove from the 1920s and an apricot tree over 100 years old. It all struck me as magical, as if I were destined to be there and to leave some kind of indelible mark.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

Mainly the book I’m calling Television.

But also a play and some poems.

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

Murakami’s marvelous new book of short stories; Robert Musil’s Posthumous Papers of a Living Author; HHhH by Laurent Binet; Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful: a book about jazz.

"The Nomad You Always Wanted to Be": An Interview with Nicholas Bredie

Nicholas Bredie is the author of Not Constantinople (Dzanc), recognized by The Morning News as one of the best books of 2017. With Joanna Howard he is the translator of Frédéric Boyer’s Cows (Noemi Press 2014). His writing has appeared in Guernica, The Fairy Tale Review, The Believer, Electric Literature, Puerto del Sol and elsewhere. He lives with the writer Nora Lange.

His story, "The Boy in the Animal Enclosure," appeared in Issue Ninety-Eight of The Collagist. 

Here, Nicholas Bredie talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about tiny houses, Harambe the gorilla, and visiting Ojai in 2016.

Please tell us about the origins of your story “The Boy in the Animal Enclosure.” What inspired you to begin writing the first draft?

It was the Netflix documentary about tiny houses. As I watched it, I felt “I could do this” even “I should do this.” Live small, live free, be the nomad you always wanted to be, etc. But as the camera pans out on the tiny house out on the rolling chaparral hillsides it’s apparent that this is just the reheated leftovers of the American dream. Roxanne Gay wrote about this feeling at length last year.

Tiny house or no, feelings of diminished possibilities were always scurrying around the baseboards of my and my friend’s lives the past few years. Especially in Southern California. So that formed the setting and the tone for the story. For more on that subject let me plug Nora Lange’s story “The Craftsman” in the latest Denver Quarterly.

Many people are familiar with the killing of Harambe in 2016, and most will likely remember it when they read your story. Why did you decide to fictionalize such a widely reported true event? And why name the fictional gorilla after Patrice Lumumba?

Reading that news, I was pretty depressed. I felt that it was unjust that this animal who’d been forced to live as an exhibit far from home was then murdered because some potato-headed child fell into his enclosure. I realize how anti-social that sounds. But to me the whole situation seemed rooted in the high value we put on American life. It’s near limitless potential. That we all might grow up to be astronauts and presidents one day. Successful on our own terms at the least, with all the material trappings there of. And all that we seem willing to destroy to maintain it even as it’s daily shown to be hollow at the core. From there it was a short conceptual distance to the CIA’s assassination of Patrice Lumumba, at least for me.

How much did this story change from the first draft to the final one? How would you describe your revision process in this case? Was it typical or atypical for you? How so?

Revision for me is mostly chopping. I like to live in my work. In fact, it’s my favorite place to live. So I tend to overwrite and then bring things down. The first draft was probably twice the words, many on the uncertain charms of imagined life in Ojai. We had some friends who lived there who we’d had occasion to visit. They sort of lived on the fringes of this secret valley where the air was thin, it was compelling. This was all in 2016, before the Thomas Fire all but consumed the town.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I’m cycling through working on some stories, a novel and a dissertation. In a case of life imitating art, Nora and I were evicted from the basement apartment of the aforementioned Los Angeles craftsman home in April and have been on the road since. Right now we’re close to a research library, so I’m working on the dissertation.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Phil A. Neel’s Hinterland felt like putting on a new pair of glasses. Things came into focus. I’m excited to read Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Enard. I loved Zone and I love Istanbul, so I will not be disappointed. Otherwise I’ve spent a lot of my recent reading time going back over Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism for my dissertation, and my general disposition.