Interview: The Synchronia Project

The Synchronia Project, slated for release next February, is difficult to define. Not exactly a journal, it is a composite, open-ended literary endeavor that will feature work by multiple authors. But it is not a collaboration between the authors; the only collaboration happening is between editors Emily Kiernan and Joe Trinkle , who will be reading the submissions and arranging them into a larger whole. The end goal remains vague, only because the project is still accepting submissions. It is these submissions that will in large part determine Synchronia’s direction, and Kiernan and Trinkle hope to discover a larger narrative—a feeling of synchronicity—across the selected pieces. I had the opportunity to interview these two and learn more about the project.

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Dan Hoffman: What was the impetus behind The Synchronia Project? Was there a specific literary influence, or did it evolve from a bigger reading of the collective writing you see as editors and writers?

Joe Trinkle: I think it started by us wanting to create something from other people’s work. We’re both writers who read a fair amount of anthologies and literary journals, and we wanted to do something ambitious, something more than just a collection of stories that we like. I think, somewhere in the back of my head, when I’m reading several simultaneously produced journals, online or in print, I notice how much we are writing about the same things or writing in similar voices, and we wanted to play around with that. To see if a pool of submissions would reflect some kind of pattern.

In a larger sense, some of my favorite novels feel like several broken novellas woven together, stories that would not have had nearly as much effect on a reader by themselves, but somehow add to each other, compliment, enhance each other, even if their plots don’t cross paths. I’m thinking Last Exit to Brooklyn, Infinite Jest, and some of the great short story collections of the twentieth century—those kind of books. I actually just read Cloud Atlas, which is a perfect example of what I was thinking about when Emily and I first discussed this project. I wanted to see what it would be like to try to create a fractured novel like that, but with stories from several writers.

Emily Kiernan: It absolutely had a lot to do with the kind of work we like to read. Fracture has been one of the watchwords of literature since the advent of modernism, and. we grew up as readers and writers in a world where that kind of fallen-apart messiness was a dominant form. Most of our models for what it meant to write about the present world, or for what it meant to approximate our experience, inhabited that kind of cut-up space. So of course we are drawn to these broken narratives. One of the first books I remember Joe and I bonding over was Winesburg, Ohio, which had that distinctly modern novel-in-stories form. It is a flat-out rejection of cohesion. Given this history, I think it is natural that we wanted to extend that form outwards, from the book itself to the magazine or the collection.

One thing that I think is remarkable about The Synchronia Project, though–which actually works against this tradition–is that we’re not fracturing something whole, but rather trying to fit these broken pieces together. Binding up the wounds (a little fragment of language that knocks about in my head).

DH: It seems to me that the closest antecedent to The Synchronia Project actually belongs to the realm of cinema, and not of literature, because even if a single literary text unifies multiple narratives it is still, finally, only written by one author; whereas arguably in cinema there is often no single “author” of the film. How much, if at all, was cinema an inspiration for this project?

JT: I watch an embarrassingly low number of films, so my immediate response would be not much. But I’d argue that even though a book usually has only one author, it often times has many editors; it often goes through the finely cut die of a workshop or an MFA program, and the ideas that are infused into the text partly come from reading the work of others. The idea of “one author” is true, but there are a lot of hands on the text, both directly and indirectly.

EK: I also can’t claim any substantial film knowledge, beyond having watched a few more of them than Joe, so any cinema influence on the project would be indirect. As for the one-author element, there actually is a lot of collaborative writing out there, though I suppose it’s more common in poetry than in fiction. (Can I advertise? I’d like to advertise. A few good friends of mine recently started Bon Aire Projects, which publishes exclusively collaborative work.) Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs wrote a novel together called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. Supposedly the name came from a news report about a fire at a circus—a fact that haunts me. The poor hippos.

DH: On that note, is there any connection between your ideas on authorship (post-Barthes, post-deconstructionism, etc. etc.) and the spirit of The Synchronia Project? Because it seems to me that such an endeavor must in part emerge from a distinctly contemporary conception of what it means to read and interpret texts. Would you say that, in a sense, this is as much about your interpretation of the submissions as their intrinsic qualities?

EK:  I don’t think we are out to make any particular comment on authorship–there still exists more than one valid way to own or not own your work–though I suppose we are exploring one of the little rooms that Barthes et al opened up. We’re mostly a bit over-enthusiastic and a bit over-confident and want really badly to be in on the good stuff we see happening all around us in the writing world, so we manufactured this bribe of publication to get our favorite writers to let us futz with their work. We are, in a sense, asking our favorite authors to put aside their authorship for the duration of this project, to engage in this particular book/journal/what-have-you on different terms. It’s a playful thing at heart, and I want authors to engage in it in that way.

It is also strange and intimate what happens when you ask people to work with you, to be in your circle, in this odd way, and we are interested in that act of unearned generosity or faith. There are always problems with gate-keeping, with editing, with privileging one voice over another, and this project puts pressures on those seams in a way that  I hope will be revealing, and that I hope will work.

JT: I listen to/watch many author interviews, and something I’ve noticed is how surprised writers can be by the things that others find in their work. Writing fiction is largely intuitive, I think, as well as the revision process, and while major motifs are often intentional, other aspects of the work just kind of sneak in from the subconscious, or the part of the brain that thinks abstractly, that doesn’t quite focus on words. So when a great book is written, and everybody reads it and then someone sits the author down for an interview, they ask her all of these questions, to which she ends up replying, “Yeah, that just kind of happened,” or “Sure, I can see that.”

In this way, themes seem to emerge that the author is not entirely in control over, and when you look at several works from within a given time period, it’s even easier to draw lines between those unconscious themes. To answer your question: we want to see work that is good, to identify those unintentional unifying themes, and to thread it together with other work with similar sub- or unconscious trajectories.

DH: You obviously have an idea, or at least are developing one, of where you believe literature today is headed, and that is connected with the direction of this project. How would you describe that idea?

JT: I think it’s hardest to recognize when important shifts in literature (or anything, really) are happening while they’re happening. Especially now, it seems, with literature (much like every other artistic discipline) being stretched in every conceivable direction. And I’m just as under-qualified as anyone else to try and describe those shifts. But if we look back at the past two decades, some things stick out to me. I think people are tired of casual irony. I think people are tired of cleverness for its own sake. I think people want need honesty. I think people want to see kindness, that, in many ways, we’re returning to a more moral fiction.

We’re also developing a keener eye for the possibilities of language, aesthetic, the possibilities of plot on the micro level, etc.—much more than we used to. Hence all the flash fiction.

What is emerging right now? I have no idea. I’m reading a lot of good stuff from small presses. I’m happy about whatever is happening. As technology and communication accelerate, it seems more and more people are returning to fiction as a form of quiet, unplugged entertainment. So, my predictions, in case anyone wants to put some money down on this, is that we are going to see an increasing diversity of voices getting their work published and read, and we are going to have some struggles over what gate-keeping can or should look like, and there will continue to be a lot of people struggling to get by, financially and otherwise.

DH: As I’ve alluded to, The Synchronia Project strikes me an extremely contemporary literary endeavor, because it is trying to capture the ethos of literature today, but also in the sense that, to my mind, it is responding to a world in which a plurality of voices can readily be heard (often at the same time) because of things like the internet and social media. How much of the project would you say was influenced by your sense of contemporary life?

EK: This is an aspect of the work that I do find intimidating. We’ve talked a lot of big talk about coalescing some sort of literary zeitgeist in this project, and as soon as you do that your biases and blindspots and limitations are going to start showing. So that’s the challenge we’ve set for ourselves—to be hyper-aware of the conversations that are happening around us, to be as broadly inclusive as possible, while still creating something that hangs miraculously together. We are trying hard to be thoughtful and critical, and praying nightly to the ghost of Henry James.

DH: The title of this project is highly evocative. Of course one thinks of Jung’s term synchronicity; reading your mission statement on the project’s website, I wonder if synchronicity might be what you are looking for in your submissions?

EK: We spent an afternoon on the phone googling words we liked. Synchronicity was nice, but we wanted to make it sound like a place, hence Synchronia. Then we decided we didn’t like one-word titles, hence “the” and “project.”

DH: On the same subject, if you pick apart the the word “synchronia,” it actually sounds more like a disease than a positive feeling—one might say the disease that results from an over-saturation of voices and information. This is not how you define it, but would you say that in a sense this project is an attempt to define a modern disease?

JT: Eh. I imagine that it’s no more a modern disease than just a general human disease. We’re definitely over-saturated with voices and information, but I also think that the current generations are adapting to that, creating new standards by which to determine value in an age where so much is free, instant, interconnected, collective, etc.

EK: I also think it sounds like a secret government installation where we dissect things and build robots, which is close to the truth.

DH: By this point, you have already received a lot of submissions. What has the process of reading them and sorting through them been like? What kind of story, if any, are you finding in what you’ve got so far?

EK: I’m not sure what the process has been like for me; I’m still too much in the midst of it. I do think it is a unique experience for submitters—and odd an interesting thing to take on because they cannot really predict with any certainty what we want as we don’t really know either. That conversation that happens between pieces, the speaking into one another, isn’t something manageable. Even if I were to tell you we’ve gotten a ton of pieces about tigers (we haven’t, but we’re open) there wouldn’t be a way for you to sit down and compose a tiger story that felt uniquely a sibling of that other tiger story, because maybe that other tiger story is full of these really loop-de-loop, show-offy sentences which we only found a match for in a story about Yonkers. So, that’s the bad news, that we are perhaps the most arbitrary and unpredictable rejectors in the modern literary market. The good news though is that we are unusually open to mess, and unfinished stories or imperfectly-realized ideas. Scraps work as well, if not better, for us than perfectly-rendered, crackless creations. Just because you could never finish that story doesn’t mean that someone already hasn’t.

DH: How much do you plan to intervene in the texts in order to create a narrative that is coherent? Will you be, for example, writing passages to create continuity (or purposeful discontinuity) or altering stylistic elements to unify the voice of the piece?

JT: I think our initial mindset was to not write any “buffer passages.” We still have no idea what’s going to happen, though. We’re incredibly fickle, and at the will of the submissions.

DH: Lastly, how does this fit in to your own personal creative ambitions?

JT: Read, write, edit, repeat.

EK: Synchronia is an integral component of my continuing efforts to throw myself against the universe and see if I stick.

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A native of a decaying Pennsylvania steel town (the one from the Billy Joel song), Emily Kiernan writes about islands, vaudeville, implacable but unjustified feelings of abandonment, The West, and places that aren’t the way she remembered them. Her work has appeared in Pank, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, decomP, Redivider, JMWW, and other journals. More information can be found at emilykiernan.com.

Joe Trinkle lives in Philadelphia. His work has appeared at Birkensnake, Pear Noir!, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. Contact him at joetrinkle.com

Dan Hoffman is a transient writer who originates from Eastern PA and went to college in Western Massachusetts. His writing has been featured in Thought Catalog (where he published the e-book Going Down South), the New Fraktur Arts Journal, The Bygone Bureau, and Literary Laundry. His most current project is www.intimate-thoughts.com