Weston Cutter interviews Gabriel Blackwell
I’m a huge admirer of Gabriel Blackwell — as prose editor at Noemi Press, I’m publishing his book of short fiction Critique of Pure Reason very soon, and I’ve published a piece of his body of work in almost every venue I’ve gotten my hands on. What I mean to say is that I can vouch for him as a writer and as a human being, and that you should also check out his novel Shadow Man, about which Weston Cutter has interviewed him. Here is Weston’s introduction, and their interview:
Gabriel Blackwell’s Shadow Man: a Biography of Lewis Miles Archer arrived in black and white. I mean that both the galley copy was not full color, and that the book offers itself as a thing in or amidst a noirish fog, like some old cinematic masterpiece. Here’s how it starts: “Lewis Miles Archer, or anyhow the man known to creditors and clients as Lewis Miles Archer for just long enough to build up a respectable sheet of both, was born sometime between 1879 and 1888, somewhere in the shadow of Lake Michigan.” What Blackwell’s doing with this sort of dancing-away imprecision (four different states, for instance, could claim regions in the shadow of Lake Michigan) is crafting a slippery-but-detailed-as-possible biography of a fictional character. What actually happens to you as you read is you feel the line between ‘real’ and ‘fiction’ slipping, twisting and going porous in ways that, at least to this reader, become unsettling in fantastic ways: one less reads Shadow Man than goes into it and, later, comes out from it. It’s a hell of a thing. Gabe and I recently batted a single round of questions back and forth, hoping we’d get into more questions but then, after the first round, realizing 1) we’d gotten done what we’d hoped and 2) life intrudes.
Weston Cutter: Were there any rules in how you composed this book? In other words, did you keep 100% fidelity to the fictiveness of fiction and the ‘reality’ of reality? And how did this book end up taking the form it did? I guess mostly this question’s one rooted in fascination, one writer to another saying: how the fuck did you even find the trail that let you even begin to walk toward the result that is this book? How does one do that?
Gabriel Blackwell: I don’t think I thought of them as rules, but I guess they could be viewed that way—I created none of my characters and tried as much as possible to put the events from my texts (Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target) into new contexts rather than invent other events to suit the narrative. But those didn’t seem like rules—I was just trying to write a book that worked in the way that I wanted this book to work. Shadow Man, which has to do with inheritance and imitation, needed to be a node rather than a terminal, a book that pointed outside of itself in constructive ways. I like lots of terminal fictions, books that assert that what they are describing is to be believed for the duration of their story and no further, books that begin and end inside the author’s head. But it’s rare that I’m actually caught up in those books; I’m always conscious of the writer playing house with me. That tends to take me out of it. I don’t want to read a transcript of someone playing with paper dolls, not if it isn’t really compelling.
I don’t believe that fiction needs to be that hermetic, and I think that it sometimes does itself a disservice by assuming that’s all it can do. We’re living in a moment in which a huge amount of information is readily accessible all of the time. To block that out every now and then can be wonderfully therapeutic—there is something peaceful about reading a perfectly mimetic/”realist” novel now—but it seems like a serious mistake to ignore it completely. Readers are readers, after all, have read and will read other books. One doesn’t always need to tiptoe around that. Rather than assume that my readers are lazy, incurious, and passive, I’m asking them to do a little work. In my own experience as a reader, I’ve found that the books that have made me work have also been the most rewarding. The ones that ask nothing of me, I forget.
As for fidelity, Shadow Man’s as real as any book. It has to be, to be able to do what I hope it will do. The words that I wrote are real; they now exist. What readers make of those words, well, that’s their business.
WC: Is there anything that you used as a model for the book, consciously or structurally or otherwise?
GB: I wrote the kind of book I wanted to read because (to me) it didn’t yet exist. I hadn’t come across it as a reader, which I think is probably more indicative of my own inadequacies than any actual lacuna in literature—I feel sure that there are such books. There were lots of books that played a part in creating the desire for this book in me, though, among them José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, Don Quixote, Count Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald—the list is long. And things that aren’t books as well: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Welcome to the Terrordome, Dennis Potter’s incredible The Singing Detective (not the Robert Downey, Jr. movie version, but the BBC original), Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, Roy Lichtenstein’s Bendayed blowups, my life—again, the list is long.
WC: This’ll likely sound dumb: do you draw any sort of value distinctions between genres? Shadow Man is not just a detective novel, but is one which so relishes and luxuriates in the modes and motifs of that genre—meaning simply that this seems less a book about dissolving genre lines than about celebrating them, showing what they can offer—and so ultimately the question for me ends up being something like do we or have we as a culture unfairly evaluated certain genres as being more high-brow and others more low-brow, and is that a false thing—is there crazy and great value in pulpy noir stuff specifically in a or at a literary level, and have we just till now not been playing close enough attention? Forgive the choppiness and clunk of all the following: I read more literary fiction than genre, and more poetry than either, and though I like detective stuff quite a bit, and read plenty of it, I wouldn’t have, till now, been tempted to stand behind it and say how rich it is, literary-offering-wise.
GB: Genre is a shelf at a bookstore, a couple of words on the back of a book jacket or on the book’s copyright page—it’s advertising, a way of getting a tangible thing from one place to another. Whether you’re putting it into a distributor’s database, shelving it at a Barnes & Noble, or cataloging it in a library, you’re assigning it a place for others such that it can be easily found. Once a reader’s bought the book, that reader is free to put it anywhere he or she likes; it’s already been found. Genre dissolves. People read Dracula as an epistolary novel, a “literary” novel, a horror novel, a Gothic novel, a Victorian novel. When they’re done, they put it next to 101 Baby Names for the Next Century, 50 Shades of Grey, Madame Bovary.
So-called “detective” fiction, the tradition that Shadow Man exploits, is no different than any other genre in that regard. The advertising people say “From the producers of American Pie,” and we’re supposed to read that as, “This is American Pie, just with a different name.” With most genre books, it’s the same deal. You liked Race Williams? Then you’ll love Sam Spade! Different name, same great detective. Which is as much to say that genre is another way of talking about appropriation, constraint, and imitation, all things that were important to Shadow Man. Genre’s reductive only if we ignore that it’s really just advertising. It tells us nothing important about what makes the book worth reading. Saying that one doesn’t read genre books seems a little like saying that one doesn’t read books with book trailers, but hey, it’s a free country.
The shorter way to say all of the above is that most of the terminal books that I find enjoyable are usually shelved as genre books or have genre elements in them. What else, really, is there?
WC: Are you a systems person? That might be far too large and abstract, but here’s this: I was/am better at math than I’ll ever be at writing or reading, innate-skill-level wise, and one of the deep satisfactions fiction’s offered is the figuring-out-the-rules-and-world aspect. It seems like you’re lit up by similar things–testing rules and laws of the fictive land as much as reveling in messy characteristics or whatever. True? And if so: are there others you know of and read for succor along these lines?
GB: I like synthesis, which has to do with figuring out rules. It’s the most basic form of analysis, and thus the one most likely to be exploited for base ends. The pleasure in seeing like for like is primal, preceding language and making it possible. And revealing: grouping is, as it happens, very expressive. Collage is often looked at as juxtaposition (Pride and Prejudice . . . and Zombies!?! how crazy), but it’s more complex than that, or can be. Or should be.
When writing Shadow Man, I was thinking about what biography’s supposed to do, why we read detective fiction, what place all of this information really has in our lives. I was trying to assimilate The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and The Moving Target, looking for their common characteristics and accommodating their plots to each other, but also trying to find their “point,” both for their authors and for me. If it had been just a puzzle to be solved, I don’t think I would have finished the book. That’s something that’s easily accomplished—read those three books in order and you’ve done it. But nor do I think it would be worthwhile for me to invent a new story wholesale, at least not for this book. Again, I lose interest in fiction that revels in “messy characteristics” in direct proportion to how closely it models human behavior (already artificial) while refusing to acknowledge that it is doing so using inherently artificial devices. Writers I really admire—not least Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald—can do that without laughing. I can’t. And maybe your idea, Weston, is the right one—that I’m a systems man after all.
I love Lawrence Weschler’s essays and W. G. Sebald’s fictions, both of which rely heavily on syntheses both explicit and implicit. But synthesis is, again, a very old technique—it’s present to some degree in most fiction, so it’s maybe not so useful in drawing a distinct line. I think probably explicitly collage works, like David Shields’s books, Renata Adler’s novels, David Markson’s last four novels, Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana, Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation—I like that stuff because it gives me something to do. I like to work when I’m reading.
Weston Cutter is the author of You’d Be a Stranger, Too (BlazeVOX), Plus or Minus (Greying Ghost), (0,0) (Floating Wolf Quarterly), and All Black Everything (New Michigan Press).
Gabriel Blackwell is the author of Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer and Critique of Pure Reason, a collection of fictions and essays, both out next month. He lives in Portland, OR with his wife, Jessica.
Tags: civil coping mechanisms, Critique of Pure Reason, Dashiell Hammett, detective fiction, Gabriel Blackwell, Lewis Miles Archer, noemi press, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Sam Spade, Shadow Man, Weston Cutter