Weird Lens of the Unconscious: An Interview with Brian Conn
Brian Conn’s novel The Fixed Stars is a braid or a maze of fragments that together create an apocalypse, or an illusion thereof. It operates in turns as horror novel, as dystopia, as utopia, as Star Trek/Shakespeare pastiche, and also other modes, with language at once rock hard and dream-logicked. It was one of the most beautiful, challenging books published in 2010, and it didn’t get the attention it deserved. You should really and actually buy it. He is also the co-editor, with Joanna Ruocco, of Birkensnake, one of the more adventurous and interesting-to-touch journals available online and in print.
Brian was kind enough to talk with me at length about the ways we sort fiction, how he perceives character and voice, and other things.
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MM: You wrote, in a blog comment I can no longer find, that you feel many of the major stories now seen as “literary” or “mainstream” and often offered as examples in creative writing classes, were actually very experimental works that created their own genre, and that these have only been elevated to/claimed as official literary works after the fact. I think you were responding to a post about The Things They Carried at the time, which I see as a good example. Another one that I might suggest would be Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which hasn’t been as tamed and integrated as The Things They Carried, but is often offered as a model or set of rules of how certain stories ought to be written. His story “In the Penal Colony” also spawned a sort of mini-genre, I think, but it’s a weirder story and so it hasn’t really gotten the same treatment. Have I butchered your argument or would you like to further refine it? Do other examples come to mind?
BC: I do remember saying that at some point, and also forget where. The examples you mention are good ones, but it actually seems to me that literally every great (whatever that means) story is radically experimental in its own way. Last week I reread “The Dead,” which I usually think of as pretty straight, but even that gets bizarre once you start looking at it — for example the way various characters’ voices are continuously fading subtly in and out, so that even though there appears to be an omniscient narrator it’s hard to find a single line that’s purely in that narrator’s voice, and instead the whole narrative is sort of floating on this shifting sea of character voices.
I mean, what is a canonical “normal” story today? Hemingway? “A Good Man is Hard to Find”? But those are totally weird, right? “The Lottery”?
This thinking started when I was listening to Brian Eno and Kraftwerk and got interested in the way these foundations of pop music came out of the avant-garde, and in fact would themselves be avant-garde except that they’re also extremely fun to listen to, and that quality trumps the avant-garde quality.
Lord of the Rings? Way far out, impossible. Yet somehow today followed by a flood of non-experimental and thus mediocre imitators.
This is something that it’s important for writers to keep in mind. We spend a lot of time imitating, thinking “I want to write like Joyce” or Tolkien or whoever. But the essential quality shared by all the writers we’d like to imitate is that each one wrote in a very strange and idiosyncratic way. Not that they never stole anything, and not that we shouldn’t steal anything from them, but we should remember that writing anything worthwhile is primarily a creative and not an imitative act. We’re not going to be Joyce or Tolkien, and we should instead consider the possibility of being something that doesn’t yet exist.
This leaves the question of why certain work still reads as “experimental” and other work reads as “mainstream,” I mean in a genre sense, even though those labels often don’t correspond to the actual level of experimentation in the work. Anything that sounds like Burroughs is “experimental.” But wasn’t Naked Lunch published fifty years ago? So in what sense is a new work that sounds like Naked Lunch experimental?
MM: I really like the examples you’ve offered. Of course with “The Dead” Joyce was pioneering a particular use of free indirect discourse, or close third person, or heteroglot language (the term a writer prefers is revealing), that would gradually become standardized as a part of the mainstream-traditionalist writer’s toolkit by writing programs and critics alike. So we’ve got this radically experimental technique that becomes appropriated and mainstreamed as an example of the height of “craft,” which is supposed to be the opposite of experimentation, but which of course could only have been revealed through a series of experiments.
BC: Right. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “craft” instance of the free indirect style (which is the term in my mind, not sure why) that’s as smooth and nuanced as Joyce’s more experimental incarnation. It seems common with this kind of innovation that the early examples — or at least the examples that focus critical attention on the technique — are also the technical peaks.
But I’m potentially falling into some faulty logic here. Joyce didn’t invent the free indirect style, he just used it exceptionally well. So maybe he wasn’t really doing anything essentially new, he was just doing an old thing better than most people — maybe I’m confusing innovation with virtuosity.
MM: Of course you still can’t do the really wild stuff he did in “The Dead” and be considered a traditional writer, which is very odd. It seems as if genuine polyphony is too much. Which might serve as one of the parameters of experimental vs. traditionalist fiction: traditional fiction, or fiction that will later be recognized as traditional, almost always seems to have the one unifying, authoritative narrative consciousness at some level. Or can you think of counter-examples?
BC: The example that comes to mind is Dostoevsky, because of what Bakhtin wrote about polyphony in Dostoevsky. But is Dostoevsky traditional or experimental? Both, neither? This is the problem I keep running into: anyone I can think of who was clearly influential was also at least arguably an experimenter. Maybe the traditional-experimental dichotomy doesn’t really make sense before a certain historical point. Was Daniel Defoe an experimental writer? Well …
And maybe the dichotomy will resume not making sense after another historical point.
MM: So I guess another thing to ask about is the relationship between genre and experimental writing. Birkensnake and The Fixed Stars both, I think it’s fair to say, operate in modes associated with pulp and highbrow literary art. Birkensnake is especially ranging in this way, with historical fiction next to fantasy next to science fiction next to the sort of “word goop” stuff, while The Fixed Stars plays with bits of Star Trek, Shakespeare, apocalypse fiction, horror, dark fantasy, and so on, but the language and structure seem very much a product of the avant-garde. How do you experience these categories personally? Does their division elsewhere seem unnatural to you or inevitable? And are there other writers/publishers that you see exploring these places in a similar way?
BC: My impression is that ideas of genre come out of historical accidents and not out of essential qualities in literature itself. I think if you gave an alien a selection of our fiction, translated of course, and asked hekh (“hekh” being the alien pronoun in the objective case) to divide it into categories, you’d get categories that correspond very little with our own. Joanna (Ruocco, the other editor of Birkensnake) and I don’t have any explicit position on genre politics; I think the chief trait we share as readers is that we do want to read but are also very easily bored, so we’re desperate for something to read that doesn’t bore us. Of course what bores
us is heavily conditioned by our own histories, as readers and otherwise, so we do end up having some position, but it’s not something we spend much time thinking about. And it’s not something we have to concentrate on not thinking about; it just doesn’t come up. Sometimes people who do have explicit positions on genre politics read Birkensnake, or The Fixed Stars, and interpret them from a genre-political standpoint, and I tend to feel weird about those people, like they are trying to enlist me in a conspiracy. I once had a guy try to enlist me in the KKK (or similar organization – the conversation didn’t go on long enough for him to get specific) and it was the exact same feeling.
MM: What do you think they’re trying to get out of you in those discussions? The irony of the situation is that genre consistently makes more money than mainstream literary fiction, which casts the insecurity of many genre readers and writers in a pretty weird light.
BC: I guess they’re looking for confirmation of their reality? Fiction is one of those worlds where there’s no rational basis for value; the value of a work (or genre) of fiction is governed by how valuable people think it is. And even then it’s not simple, not like the stock market; there are all these factors of prestige and traditions and money and so on. And then writers often conflate their writings with themselves, so the question of literary value begins to reflect on personal identity and self-worth. I don’t have a deep analysis of the situation, but it seems clear that it’s complex enough and subjective enough that people are looking for all kinds of allies in all kinds of places. For the record, I get this kind of feeling from mainstream writers — from all the various breeds of mainstream writers — just as often as I do from genre writers, but it’s not on the whole a common feeling. Just something I notice occasionally.
I also think the genre community is more open to experimental work than it’s given credit for. Brian Evenson’s Fugue State was nominated for a World Fantasy Award this year, so I was sort of following the awards. Fugue State itself is clearly strange. The tie winners in its category were The Best of Gene Wolfe and something called There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Gene Wolfe is generally strange, although in more subtle ways than Brian Evenson, and I’ve just started reading the Petrushevskaya, and it’s also quite strange (and good). True, there are some vocal reactionary elements among genre readers — when I read screeds about “drat all this highbrow claptrap, I just want a good story,” they’re usually emanating from the genre community — but my answer to which other writers are exploring trans-genre spaces is “the World Fantasy Award nominees.”
MM: I was at the genre panel at AWP in Denver and Brian Evenson said, among many other interesting things, that genre writers tend to be willing to read just about anything, and that this wasn’t always true of literary writers. I can think of exceptions but that’s generally been my experience as well.
He also talked your book up. If memory serves you wrote most of The Fixed Stars during your time at Brown, during which time Evenson presumably saw its merit and put a word in at FC2, or something along those lines. Brown is interesting because of its focus on types and styles of writing other programs don’t seem to promote — or at least, its reputation along those lines (of course I’ve never been). I’m curious if you could characterize what instruction there tends to focus on in the absence of more traditional edicts: if writing doesn’t have to be one particular thing, how do they guide you toward writing your thing? What has your working relationship with Evenson been like, for that matter?
BC: They pretty much let you do what you want at Brown. When I was there there were definitely students who had come to write more traditional stuff, and they weren’t scorned or anything; in fact I have to think pretty deliberately about it even to classify the habitual genres of the people I had workshop with. Mostly it was about trying to develop each text on its own terms. I’m putting all this in the past tense because I think a lot depends on the particular members of each class, and I can only speak to my own experience. But this idea of reading and thinking about a text on its own terms is maybe an important one, even though it’s something that I don’t often think explicitly about anymore. In other workshops is there some abstract notion of what constitutes good writing, and an effort to move students towards that ideal? Because I didn’t really experience that kind of thing at Brown. It was always more like “What is this particular story? What are the buried tensions and ambiguities that the writer might not be aware of? What are the parts that seem not to belong?” — making the story more like itself, instead of more like a pre-existing abstraction. Carole Maso is actually genius at this kind of discussion. Brian is more passive, you bring stuff to him, chat about it, he tells you a bunch of great books to read and you carry on with your work. That was exactly what I needed, so it worked out great. He did present The Fixed Stars to FC2, and he’s done a lot to promote it; I feel very lucky to have had someone to work with who got the idea. He’s also just extraordinarily productive and sensible, and watching him inspires me to be more productive and sensible myself.
I’ve never thought of genre in this connection before, but it does seem like the way an idealized genre reader approaches texts is broadly similar to the way my workshops at Brown tended to approach texts — asking “What is this and how can it interest me?” rather than “How does this conform to my fixed idea of what’s interesting?” I don’t know if that’s a meaningful similarity.
MM: Both in The Fixed Stars and in what I’ve read of your short fiction, your characters are fascinating for the way their alien-ness, or distance, intersects with a persistent character-ness, if you see what I mean. That is, they are unfamiliar and operate by psychologies either entirely unlike mine or only very dissimilar, and yet they don’t feel like un-characters. They aren’t just language games or avatars for the reader/writer or automatons. How do you feel about your characters, and how do you relate to them, both in the writing and then after?
BC: I’m glad you asked that, since it represents a new way of thinking about it for me. When I’m sitting in front of a blank page, my immediate concern is what a character can do that will interest me as a writer and compel me to write more. I’ve gotten better at answering that question over the past few years, but I haven’t spent much time thinking about what it means for the characters themselves. The first thing that comes to mind is the way people act in dreams, and this psychoanalytic idea that dream people represent parts of yourself filtered through the weird lens of the unconscious — so they’re ultimately human, since they’re parts of a human mind, but they’re also isolated from the other parts of that mind, and bound up in symbolic webs, and thus alienated from what we ordinarily think of as human. The second thing that comes to mind is the way certain people I know tell stories, where there’s a way that a person’s name encapsulates a kind of complexity and narrative potential that other nouns don’t. I wish I could be clearer about this, but I think it would require actually capturing and analyzing specific utterances as they occur — there are sonic qualities, qualities of mannerism, all these suggestive cues that come up when someone pronounces a name, that render the name a rich and sort of inscrutable symbol.
You had a post at Uncanny Valley a while back that I almost commented on before I got distracted, and the post asked (forgive me for paraphrasing badly) what we should think about the fact that virtually none of the writing we workshop will ever be published. My own experience with The Fixed Stars, and occasionally but not as strongly with my short fiction, is that there’s a personal value in writing, in that it gives me someone to talk to. Once I’ve gotten a text going it talks back to me, not just when I’m writing it, but all day, and long after I’ve finished. I don’t think I have a strong conception anymore of any character I’ve ever written, but I do have all these texts still floating around my head as narrative voices, ways of framing events, ways of seeing. Maybe that suggests the psychoanalytic angle again — the various characters of a text taken all together seem to make up a single presence for me.
MM: Are your relationships to characters in the fiction of others similar to your relationships with your own fictional characters?
BC: I think so. Here too I don’t really think about individual characters, but about writers’ voices that might span many characters and even many books. For a long time when I was younger my interior monologue — or polylogue? – was very heavily influenced by Douglas Adams. There were years and years when I went around thinking in / talking to / talking to myself in a Douglas Adams voice, not a Ford Prefect voice or a Dirk Gently voice but the intersection of all of them. These days there are more book-voices in my head and it’s harder to distinguish one from another. Or maybe I’ve just lost the knack. Actually, now that I think about it, this hardly ever happens anymore, that I get enough into a voice that it takes root with me. Maybe that’s what I mean by boredom, I start reading and there’s nothing there, it’s just a reiteration of something I already have. What can we do about this?
MM: To what extent are you thinking about the author in reading a typical piece of writing? My experience is generally, for instance, that I can read for a very long time without thinking about the author very much at all, beyond a general awareness of style and word choice and etc., but that the second I perceive something as even slightly didactic or manipulative I become sharply, uncomfortably aware of this consciousness that has constructed the text and now lives, on some level, inside my head.
BC: That makes sense. Books are parasites, or actually more than parasites, they don’t even exist without a reader to instantiate them. I mean they exist as objects of course, but not as ideas; a book that no one has read is a brick, and when you open it up you permit it to exist as a book, in your head. And then if it’s Ayn Rand you feel like you’ve accidentally navigated to one of those Viagra websites.
So I have the same experience, but I guess I conceptualize it differently. For me every book is entirely about the author — who I realize is a non-real person that I’m constructing from the book, but who I conceive as a real person nonetheless — and the question is just whether or not I like this person. I don’t like real people who seem to be trying to manipulate me, and in exactly the same way I don’t like constructed author-people who seem to be trying to manipulate me. What exactly makes a given book or person seem to be trying to manipulate me is a bigger question.
For me, one result of being focused on writers’ voices is that I don’t generally have much interest in reading more than one or two books by the same writer. Once I’ve read a bit, the writer’s basic voice is in my head, and the other books are just variations on the same thing. I think that might be an unusual way to feel, but I’m not sure. Of course there are a few writers who I become personal friends with in my head (this metaphor is getting out of control), and I like to keep visiting them for comfort, and maybe repeat visits take the form of different books. But I’m talking about a small handful here.
MM: Birkensnake is nearly as interesting as an object as are its contents as stories. It’s not obvious from the pictures you see online that the second book is heavily textured on the outside, or that the third and most recent issue isn’t actually shaped like a book. I guess the obvious question is why you take this approach, the other obvious question is how much time it tends to take, and the less obvious question is whether there are any models you’re working from in creating the magazine as an object.
BC: These are all good questions. The answer to the second question is easiest: it takes forever. But what else are we supposed to be doing? The answer to the third question is that we’ve looked at a lot of chapbooks and zines, but we’ve never fixated on any particular models. We get materials from this arts recycling place in Providence — like when a local bank accidentally orders two thousand binders in excess of what they need, or a local factory somehow ends up with a metric ton of polyethylene in the wrong shade of green, they send it all to this place and then we pick it up cheaply. Then the object evolves from the material, and the people and facilities we have available to help us, and whatever else happens to be going on at the time. Should I use the word “organically” here? It’s an organic process.
Your first question, why we do it, is trickier. I don’t think anyone really knows. Joanna Ruocco and I like working together, and we’re both kind of masochists, and we like singular/startling/unexpected objects, but none of that really explains Birkensnake. Another futile strategy against oblivion?
MM: You’ve mentioned several times the centrality of avoiding boredom to your processes as a writer and an editor. There was a brief period where I was really interested in boredom, although I correlate this with my time as a bad/lazy writer, and so I’ve largely moved on from it to a place like the one you describe. My writing process, for instance, is that I write something for exactly as long as I’m not bored of it. That’s also how I read slush. Should we be concerned that our refusal to be bored could distort our work in bad ways?
BC: I’m not convinced that there are any aesthetic possibilities in boredom. I think there are aesthetic possibilities in states of mind that are adjacent to and easily confused with boredom; for example there’s this great book The Plains, by Gerald Murnane, where the narrator gradually sort of slows down until nothing is happening. But it’s not about boredom, it’s about bringing ever smaller changes into consciousness. That’s different. I wonder a lot about what’s actually valuable in life, and consciousness is my best answer right now — attention, care, something like that — the opposite of boredom. So I’m attracted to work that grapples with boredom in order to transform it, but not to work that just glorifies it. But maybe any (good) writing about boredom does transform it. Beckett comes to mind.
MM: Which technology do you find more useful to your work or your life than you once thought it would be, and which one messes you up, as a writer or a human being? I find that I love Twitter, which has been a real surprise to me, but now makes sense: It’s constant communication, which I find irritating, but it’s asynchronous, which means that no one has to reply to me if they don’t want to and I don’t have to reply to anyone else. Cell phones, though, are something I’m still trying to do without.
BC: I find the concentration of facts on the internet incredibly useful. Your character wakes up in eleventh century Mali; what does she see? Wikipedia will tell you in less than a minute. It will just feed you nouns.
In a practical sense e-mail is also obviously useful. Remember when we couldn’t just e-mail drafts and proofs back and forth? I guess we used the postal service or something.
The social networking side of the web hasn’t really been of much interest to me. I spent about fifteen minutes on Twitter once because of Peter Serafinowicz. I don’t have a Facebook account, or Goodreads, or anything really. Not for any reason of policy; I’ve just never felt like it. It’s actually hard to think of a technology that I really dislike, except I guess for the entire category of weapons. I could skip those. We could resolve disputes by wrestling matches.
Doing without a cell phone is pretty impressive. Mine is from 2006. It’s the cheapest one that was available then and it looks like Fisher-Price.
MM: Well, in all fairness I “do without a cell phone” in the sense that my wife has one and I’m free to use it whenever I want but also to use the fact that it’s not mine as an excuse to avoid calls. It’s a pretty selfish strategy.
Do you think about the economics of writing, publishing, or reading very often? When you do (if you do) what do you think about?
BC: Occasionally I think I should try to write a bestseller and then I wouldn’t have to worry about money anymore. It would have to be a big bestseller, because I wouldn’t want to have to write another bestseller again in a year or two to keep myself going. This isn’t a thought I spend much time with, mostly just when I’m mad about something. My thoughts about the economics of writing are pretty straight capitalist thoughts: I don’t see any reason I should be paid for my writing unless people want it enough to pay for it, and the things I’m interested in writing are things a relatively small number of people are going to want to pay for, so I either have to make my living in some non-writing way or else write things I’m not interested in. So I mostly
make my living teaching writing classes.
I am interested in how electronic distribution is going to change things. Once it becomes the norm it should become cheaper to buy books, and at the same time easier to make a living as a writer, since some of the money that was going into printing and shipping could go to writers instead. This is assuming we don’t just import the old paper publishing model into the electronic world. That is something I think about, how electronic publishing can work better. Right now, reading things on my laptop isn’t really doing it for me. And no one’s bought me an iPad yet.
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[The Fixed Stars is available now from FC2.]
[Mike Meginnis has stories published or forthcoming in Hobart, The Lifted Brow, The Collagist, elimae, Booth, Abjective, and others. He serves as a managing editor for Puerto del Sol and co-edits Uncanny Valley with his wife, Tracy Bowling.]