The Soul Transformative Experience of Writing Itself: An Interview with Ryan Boudinot
Massive Novel Alert: Today marks the official release of Ryan Boudinot’s massive (in all senses of the word[seriously—it’s going to create a gravity well]) new novel Blueprints of the Afterlife(Grove 2012). I got a chance to read this early on. I like Ryan’s work. I like Ryan. Ryan’s a solid citizen of literature in Seattle. And everywhere. I figured I would like the book.
I didn’t figure it would be as expansive, as imaginative, as powerful, and as quaking as it it.
Seriously. It’s awesome. Take a look. Here’s a sample chapter.
Over the next few days, I’ll be posting some Boudinot appreciations and a round-up. (And if anyone reading has something they’d like to add, feel free to get in touch with me @ giantblinditems @ gmail dot com.) Today, though, we begin with a long interview with the author.
You’ve written flash stories, short stories, a short novel, and a really long novel. Do you have a length at which you feel most comfortable?
You’re really wanting me to start this interview with a penis joke, aren’t you?
Heh. For the record, I think that no matter what is said in this email chain, we should use it in the interview. So, that line. And this caveat. We should just use everything said in here.
You’ve got a reputation as a hard-hitting literary journalist, so I would expect no less. But to non-flippantly answer your question, I like the commitment involved in writing a long thing. I fantasize about writing a 1000-pager.
The long novel is where you started, right? With a novel called Frozen Novelties? (Though, I guess “started” is a difficult thing to pin down. As I recall, you possibly “started” when, as a child, you wrote a story about lions.)
I guess so. I don’t know. Not really.
Well, let’s see if we can sort of chart out the growth of your creative impulses. Would you say your imagination is inclined to the “epic”? (And not the poetic form. Just “epic” as in, “of great size.” And possibly, also in the heavy metal sense of, “awesome and on a grand scale.”)
Yeah, I think I aim for that at least. I remember writing a series of stories when I was in sixth and seventh grade, all of which featured the same characters, and at the time I didn’t realize I was writing a novel, but that’s essentially what it was. I loved having these people I visited every day, month after month, and how I got to know them more the more I wrote about them. I like big novels, double albums, works that are ambitious in scope. But I do admire short stories a lot, and there are a lot of writers I admire (Borges, Saunders, Carver, Hempel) who are masters of the short form. I think the main thing for me is the amount of commitment over time with the same character—that’s what attracts me to writing novels.
When one studies the craft of writing, one tends to focus on short fiction because it sort of simplifies the process—you can have a complete piece of work to bring to a workshop, and all the other students will have time to read it, react to it, have insights about it. Had you spent any time on short fiction before you started at Bennington? Did you find the form alien at all at first? Have to train yourself to focus down a little?
No, I had been writing stories since high school by then. Took a couple writing workshops in undergrad. Writing short stories let me experiment with so many different modes, and when one of them was a complete failure, at least is was confined to ten, fifteen pages. Even if you’re not working in a novel you’re always working on your body of work and I don’t know whether it matters if that body of work is composed of chapters or stories.
If I might step aside here a minute. I’ve been thinking about interviews in general lately, about what and who they’re for. I have a few lined up to promote Blueprints of the Afterlife, and I understand that on one level getting interviewed is about getting people interested in the book. And then there’s another level, as I’m going back and forth with you, in that we’re friends outside the context of this interview, and I enjoy talking shop with you. But there’s a weird third layer that I’m starting to detect. Lately when certain people ask about what’s going on with the book and I tell them I have a tour lined up as well as reviews and interviews, I get the sense that they view these extraneous activities as some sort of “treat” that I get to enjoy. And don’t get me wrong—I enjoy talking to people about writing, doing readings, meeting people in other cities who’ve read my work. It’s rewarding to me. But it’s rewarding in a very, very fleeting way. What’s more rewarding is doing the actual work on the page. I’ve gotten the sense lately that sometimes people who don’t write think that I endure this kind of grueling process in solitude and that my reward for putting up with that is that I get my picture in a magazine. This is seeming more and more bizarre to me. It feels exactly backwards. And the trap I’m edging toward right now is that one where I could be seen as ungrateful for the attention. I’m confused about how I should be thinking about the promotional side of things. I’m looking at it as a way to ensure I get to go back to my notebook and bang out some more pages for another book.
Sounds good. When you get some more time, drop me a line and we’ll do a little more talking.
I’m not saying I’m not wanting to keep going with this (that’s not what I meant by “step aside”), just that I’m doing some meta observation about this process in general. Looking at the subtext.
Oh, gosh. Yeah, misread that “step aside,” but it’s clear now.
Writers are being handed more and more of the responsibility for the promotional side of what they do, yes? We’re both in our late 30s. Are we just on the cusp of the generation where the work on the page and the promotion of the work on the page are equally satisfying because the expectations are that they both go hand in hand?
Whose expectations? I’ll never look at those two sides of the equation as equal, ever. Even the best reading I’ve ever done is nowhere near those moments alone with my work, when it’s going well, when I discover something about a character that’s been eluding me for months. At the same time, I want to reiterate that a lot of the promotion stuff is fun. It definitely is. But nowhere near the soul transformative experience of writing itself.
I guess I think those expectations have sort of been internalized. Like, there’s a generation of younger writers for whom the creation of a text, the sharing of said text with an audience of readers, and the ongoing conversation they engage in surrounding that text seems like the natural life of the text. In a way that the word “promotion” maybe no longer sufficiently describes what they are doing.
But you teach young writers in MFA programs now. Do you see this sort of attitude in your students? Or has writing for an online lit blog narrowed my focus?
You’re right. I think what you’re describing is the culture of oversharing smashing into the solitary writing life. I’m old-fashioned in this regard. I don’t show anyone what I’m writing and rarely talk about it until it’s done. That means literally three, four years of total silence about certain things I’m writing. I’m the only one who knows the names of the characters, where and when the novel is set, etc. I find this lends a certain–and I know this word is going to sound pretentious, but I mean it–holiness to the process. I think a certain kind of writing requires one to be deeply alone.
As far as my students, and younger writers in general, the tendency that makes me cringe is when they post on Facebook how many words they wrote that day, or that they had a breakthrough with such-and-such character. To me, that’s like calling up a buddy while you’re having sex to report on what position you’re in.
I don’t know if you saw it, but a few years back there was this great interview with Cormac McCarthy and Oprah. At one point she seemed to be trying to bait him into expressing how wonderful it was to have an audience and be admired. And he would have none of it. He basically said that he didn’t care one way or another whether anyone ever read his work. That, to me, is utterly badass. Kafka reportedly had the same attitude. I think this attitude is about being so engaged and fulfilled at the process level, that everything else looks incredibly ancillary. I aspire to that sort of detachment from the material concerns of the work as it makes its way in the world. And of course I’m nowhere near reaching that ideal. The first step toward achieving that ideal is not reading reviews of your own books.
Is the work itself holy, do you think? The process, or the result at the end of the writing session? Both?
Technology does sort of seem to be demystifying the creative act. At least right now, right here, in this historical moment. And only for a (feels to me like large) percentage of the creative folks working today. At the same time, there seem to those who are working to re-mystify it. (An example, maybe: http://iwdrm.tumblr.com/.) And it seems to me like this is an issue in Blueprints. Does that feel accurate?
Maybe holiness is too grandiose a word. Maybe what I’m getting at is more about solitude, and the shared solitude of a single writer communicating with a single reader. And maybe what you mean by technology demystifying the process is that it’s easy to think about a work of art reaching an aggregate of readers instead of one at a time. When you look at metrics for a blog, for example, you’re looking for numbers of hits. So one day you post something and 10 people view the post. The next day you post again and 100 people view it. It’s easy to equate the value of your blog post with the number of hits it gets. But what metrics cant show you is how something you wrote actually influenced the person who read it. That’s something we can’t quantify, yet anyway, and I think it gets lost in conversations about literature’s evolving relationship with the Web. We’ve reduced our nuanced opinion of another person’s status update to a thumbs-up icon and the word “like.” I guess I’m saying technology makes quantitative evaluation easier and easier, but qualitative evaluation not so much.
I feel like I’m veering away from your question. Tell me a bit more about how you think this mystification process relates to my book, I’m not sure I understand.
No, I think I like “holiness.” Possibly, it’s my agnosticism. I can’t really find sources of holiness in the places a lot of others do. I find it in the weird act of creation.
So, the act of posting a word count, of writing a blog post detailing a problem the writer faced in crafting a manuscript and the solution the writer came up with—it’s all demystifying.
But I tend to think you write a lot about technology in a way that works to re-mystify it. Your robot sex story, for example, at some point pulls out to this extremely long historical view which packs all this new meaning into it: the robot becomes a fossil, becomes viewer of time and life on an epic scale, suggests the brevity of our own lives. That feels like you using technology to re-mystify a reader. And, of course, in one case we’re talking about demystification of the writing process, and the other, having the product of process work it’s holy magic, and those things may seem different, but I don’t think they are.
With Blueprints, I think about DJing, of people giving over their free will to someone else, being controlled remotely, observing their themselves living someone else’s life.
I think what you’re talking about is the degree to which we approach art algebraically. There’s a certain “this equals that” kind of critical thinking that drives me insane. It’s what Sontag was getting at in her “Against Interpretation.” A repugnance at the idea that it’s our job to digest a work of art by compartmentizing it. What’s more interesting to me is when a work of art latches itself onto my brain like a parasite, requiring me to revisit it in my thoughts for years. I’m still revisiting The Cremaster Cycle, The Elementary Particles, In An Aeroplane Over the Sea, “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt,” and other works years after I encountered them. And recent works I know will occupy me for years to come are the poems of Swedish poet Aase Berg and Grace Krilonovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps (which I know you love , too). When you are entranced by a novel and aren’t able to simply stash it away as an example of some tradition, say, then you’re able to have a relationship with it. It keeps asking you questions, keeps providing the parameters of your inner life. That’s what I seek out in my reading experiences, and what I hope my books will provide to readers.
So, how did you approach Blueprints in order to make it something that allows for an a kind of plasticity, allowing a reader’s interaction with it to change or evolve over time? To resist interpretation?
Well the not so fancy way to answer that is to say I left certain elements unclear on purpose. I have an aversion to tying things up with a bow at the end. Here’s another way to think about it–every novel that’s ever been written has the same setting: the reader’s mind. I think I’m beginning to understand what that means, how to better engage a reader in the spirit of imaginative collaboration. In a sense, the content of a novel is really beside the point. It doesn’t really matter if it’s about wizards, adultery in the suburbs, or alien invasions. What’s happening under the skin of the content is a whole musculature of anticipation, curiosity, frustration, and payoff. You’re manipulating those things in a reader, not just words on a page. That’s why people tolerate artless sentences in commercial fiction. The best commercial fiction writers have a talent–and it’s no small talent at all–for getting into a reader’s brain and riding that curiosity/payoff system from one chapter to the next.
The trick, I think, is to work with that system while at the same time rendering beautiful sentences that honor the language.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about Kurt Cobain, and one cool thing he said was that he wanted Nirvana to sound like a cross between the Beatles and Black Sabbath. I love that. And I suppose, in my own haphazard way, I was going for something in the same spirit with this novel. Something with the catchy fun of science fiction with the moral and linguistic weight of literary fiction. I can’t tell if I succeeded.
Where do you think, in the end, the book belongs in the lineage of your work? And where in the world of contemporary fiction? Does it have companions? Fellow travelers? Cousins?
I ask because though I see you in the book—I recognize your language, your interests, and your humor—I also feel like it represents this shift for you. And I’m not sure how to explain it. It’s like something in the approach and process shifted—something in you shifted—and the product shifted, too. (Like, maybe you were trying to combine Black Sabbath and The Beatles.)
It did feel like a more authentic book to me than Misconception, more of how I’ve always wanted to write. Maybe part of the shift was just saying fuck it, I’m going to totally go for it with this one. It’s impolite to speak too directly about our ambitions in this society, but I sincerely want to become one of the greatest writers of my era. Whatever that means. It’s very, very possible that I’ll blow it, and there are sure to be many readers who think I’m an ass for even announcing such an ambition. I just want to push myself, and I’m getting a better sense of what I’m capable of. I want to reach readers around the world and a hundred years from now. Most days I feel totally stupid and not well educated enough, not well read enough, not whatever enough. But then I start thinking that if I felt otherwise, then I’d be really screwed. It’s about writing at a level where you make yourself feel stupid and scared, and feeling stupid and scared just means you’re pushing your own limit.
As far as a tradition goes, I look up to the postmodernist guys a lot. I look to George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon as upper classmen who can teach me something. Further back I look to Borges and Schulz and Babel. And then there’s Aimee Bender, who I’m lucky to have known for a long time, who models to me how to conduct my writing life and inspires me with her work. If I’m able to tag along behind these writers and be given a place at their table… Look, I grew up in rural Washington state and didn’t know a single writer personally until I got to graduate school. So to even be having this conversation strikes me as simultaneously preposterous and victorious, in a way.