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Writers Respond: An Interview with Evan Lavender-Smith

Evan Lavender-Smith is a smart guy. Evan Lavender-Smith is, like, way too smart for me. I haven’t read Heidegger. Haven’t read Markson. Missed most of the allusions, probably. And still had fun reading From Old Notebooks. Probably everyone should read it. Everyone is reading it. All the cool people have already read it. And soon they’ll be reading Avatar, which is due out in 2011. People will be like:  Q:  Who’s this Evan Lavender-Smith dude wrote these asskickers? Everyone else will be all:  A:  Editor-in-chief of Noemi Press. Prose and drama editor of Puerto del Sol. And visiting assistant professor of English at New Mexico State University. Has awesome words in Fence, Glimmer Train, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, etc. And a website. www.el-s.net. You should visit it and read this interview, which was conducted using Google Docs from September 28, 2010 – October 19, 2010.

1.

From Old Notebooks: How do we read it?

MOLLY GAUDRY: I’m interested in how the opening notes in From Old Notebooks (F.O.N.) help instruct the reader as to how to read this book and also sort of explain, without explanation, what this book is. For example, the opening sequence follows this pattern:

Short story about a church on the ocean floor. . . .

Memoir in which narrator struggles to describe her childhood . . .

Academic essay entitled ‘Cute Title: Serious Subtitle: On the Preponderance of Precious Subtitling in Academic Essays’

Novel in chapters, each chapter spanning one year . . .

Story about a garbage man who . . .

Something entitled . . .

Novel that suffers from . . .

Short story about someone living inside of a . . . (pp. 7-8).

This goes on until about page 13. We’ll get to how F.O.N. changes and becomes more than just a list of possible ideas for future writing but, for now, what can you tell us about how you structured F.O.N.?

EVAN LAVENDER-SMITH: It’s hard for me to talk about the structure of the book because the trouble I went to in the book’s complex structuring contra the nearly total seeming structurelessness of the published book is so incredibly out of whack that I’m embarrassed by it. I did things like categorize every entry a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 and then spent a number of hours or, gulp, days “composing a sonata” with those numbers and then went back and plugged the entries into their numerical placeholders according to some or another harebrained scheme. In any case the basic sonata form is the book’s major, most obvious structural conceit: the book starts off doing one thing, A, then heads off to do another thing, B, then performs a reconciliation of A and B.

MG: That sounds pretty intense, and also very Oulipian. Can I ask why you chose this system? And why “sonata”? Out of some process-based necessity? Or more randomly and just because?

EL-S: The sonata form seemed appropriate because it is the form of reconciliation. For me, From Old Notebooks is fundamentally an attempt at reconciling certain disparate elements of my life: reading v. writing, writing v. parenting, parenting v. drinking/drugs, etc. And yes, some process-based necessity impelled this decision, as well: I struggled for a way to create a sense of both randomness and order about the arrangement of the book; I wanted to create strange and surprising movements within larger, more deliberate movements. The procedure described above probably helped me to arrive at an arrangement that achieved both. That procedure was one of many, though, most of which did not involve such constraint.

2.

From “From Old Notebooks” to From Old Notebooks

MG: The first mention of F.O.N. as a book that is aware of itself as a book, or aware of itself as a potential book, is on page 16, with

Something entitled ‘From Old Notebooks,’ simply a transcription of entries from these notebooks

then, on 22, we get

From Old Notebooks. If only to make a record of a very important period in my life before I forget the details, the sounds and the smells.

and on 28,

The entries in From Old Notebooks are the shadows cast by my life, which is the story just beyond the reach of the book. The entries are the evidence of story?

What can you say about these particular entries?

EL-S: I like how in the first one the title of the book is in quotation marks and in the second and third ones it’s italicized, suggesting that I didn’t realize I was writing a book on p. 16, that maybe I was just writing an essay or something. I like the title as its own sentence in the second one, that period. . . .  An important decision has been made! And I like the question mark at the end of the last one: does it signify a searching quality about the remark? an ironic quality? I don’t know . . . I think I was so possessed by the book early on, I was so very much under the spell of the book that my defenses were lowered in such a way to occasion sincerity where normally there’d be irony.

MG: What do you mean by “normally there’d be irony”?

EL-S: Typically my defenses as a writer, especially when I’m doing stuff like writing answers to interview questions, are fairly well established toward the end of working to ensure that people perceive me as smart and/or funny. For some reason it is vitally important that everyone who ever reads anything I write thinks that I am insanely cool. Historically, my best bet has been to rely upon various forms of irony to elicit what I perceive to be that response. I got into some kind of zone writing From Old Notebooks, though, in which that stuff seemed not to matter, or mattered much less. One of my major process goals as a writer is to find ways to enter a space of innocence and naivete in my thinking, spaces of scary vulnerability, irony-free zones.

3.

From Old Notebooks: A Title?

MG: What about all the possible titles for F.O.N.?

From Old Notebooks: A Showing-Off (p. 50).

From Old Notebooks: One Thanataphobe’s Journey (p. 51).

From Old Notebooks: A Preface (p. 58).

From Old Notebooks: A Record of Youth’s Folly (p. 60).

From Old Notebooks: A Novel: An Essay.

From Old Notebooks: An Essay: A Novel (p. 63).

From Old Notebooks: A Memoivel in Verse with Philosophical Flourishes (p. 75).

From Old Notebooks: Solipsism’s End (p. 77).

From Old Notebooks: A Cry for Help (p. 85). Etc.

EL-S: I suppose the idea is to at once create an intensity of renewal and an intensity of frustration or of banging one’s head up against a brick wall. The book wants to know what it is but finally cannot know. Why not? Because the book would be the subject of an investigation the object of which is the book. And of course this is our condition, as well, as humans. We study ourselves. There even seems some illogic about that sentence construction, doesn’t there? “We study ourselves.” The book is caught in a hermeneutical Möbius strip. Or at the very least it perceives itself to be.

MG: I think you’re right about that: we do “study ourselves.” But not everyone studies (or writes) about himself the way you do. I’m interested in how you began your answer with the idea that the “book wants to know what it is” and ends with the idea that we, too, want to know what we are. Why do we study ourselves? Or why did you study yourself in F.O.N.?

EL-S: Well, many of us are very curious about why we are this way instead of that way. The degree of objectivity required to make a worthwhile stab at answering that question often seems to require the presence of some other entity—like maybe a psychoanalyst or, for those of us who can no longer stomach analysis, maybe a book—that we can use to get outside of ourselves a little bit.

I suppose I correlate the book’s desire for self-analysis with our desire for the same because the book is insistent about its ability to devour or subsume our world, or at least my conception of our world. That may not make sense. When I read the book, I feel that this entity that the book calls “the book” is a displacement of my own subjectivity; “the book” refers to the book you are holding in your hands, certainly, but also to the concept of the book as such, and also to my subjectivity as refracted by the book.

MG: Did you ever feel overexposed? Or, how truthful is the following excerpt?

My response to Carmen’s apprehension when I told her I planned to use her real name in “From Old Notebooks”: “What, are you scared to be immortalized or something?” (p. 19)

EL-S: Yes, I believe I spoke those words verbatim. I would say that I spoke them “in jest,” but I have learned that that qualification, especially as it concerns things spoken among a married couple, has very little significance. And yes, I feel quite overexposed. Like when I’m teaching my class I often wonder if my students are thinking, “I bet as soon as he’s done with this lecture on the intentional fallacy he’s going to race home and masturbate,” on account of the book’s myriad references to pornography.

4.

From Old Notebooks: Ethos, Pathos, Logos

MG: One thing that strikes me now is how F.O.N. utilizes, to great effect, Aristotle’s three appeals: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. I thought maybe we could discuss these categories in terms of specific “notes” (ideas? musings? meditations?) that I’ll reproduce in full, here. To start with Ethos, I think it’s interesting that the first-person (it is you, right?) is often self-conscious. By downplaying his (your?) credibility, he (you?) actually creates it. For example:

To write that sort of first book of which people say, ‘He sure has fucked himself for the second book’

and

How often I’ve had a thought I felt I must write down right away and how often I’ve forgotten my thought between having it and finding a pen. It’s as if I go through life in a permanent state of having awoken only seconds earlier, always trying and failing to remember my dreams (p. 43).

EL-S: That’s right, ethos is probably most often achieved negatively: “If I just keep talking enough shit about myself, then you won’t have to.” I think probably I was also determined—and this is embarrassing to admit—that it was important to me, once I began noticing my self-reflexive reflection in the book, to somehow come off as savvy to the problems of self-reflexivity in postmodernist narrative: “Yes, I am being self-reflexive and yes, I know that that sucks.”

MG: That self-reflexivity serves a further purpose, though, in regard to Logos, in that there are so many references to literature, to philosophy, and these help lend you credibility as well, because we respect writers and thinkers, so we therefore should respect you as a writer/thinker:

If David Markson hadn’t written his literary-anecdote novels, would I have ever thought to consider F.O.N. a novel? Would I have ever thought to write such a book (p. 87)?

What if there were a chef with genius comparable to Joyce’s? What would his food taste like? Eating it, I might feel that until that moment I had never eaten real food” (p. 34).

One way to read Heidegger is to replace the word Being with the word TV (p. 101).

EL-S: I bet there are two or three people out there who feel a “special connection” to this book whose reading interests are closely aligned with my own. But I think also, in fact I have been told on a couple occasions, that the references are alienating to people who are unfamiliar with the objects of reference. The book contained many, many more references to philosophers in an earlier draft, for example, which my agent had me cut for fear that I would alienate or frustrate or bore dimwitted editors all across New York City. And most of those references never made their way back into the book. I don’t know about all this namedropping the book performs eliciting readers’ respect. At one point late in the book there is a reference to Alain Badiou’s obscure and idiosyncratic conception of the word disaster as it pertains to crossing the streams of different kinds of writing—I believe the wording of the entry is “Badiou would probably call this book a disaster”—and it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else catching the reference because it’s so bound up with my own idiosyncratic and probably deeply flawed reading of both my own book and Badiou, not to mention the fact that it’s presented to the reader so elliptically. If I came across something like that in a book, respect is likely the last thing I would feel toward the writer.

MG: Then I think about Pathos and how you appeal to the reader’s emotions. The following are actually some of the first notes I marked, so that we could talk about them here:

How after we buried Sara in the backyard all the other dogs of the neighborhood came and sat together on a hill overlooking her grave (p. 26).

Chances are the last thing I ever think about will be death (p. 39).

Prose poem about a young boy burying things–toys, books, computer parts–in the backyard while his mother, at death’s door, watches from the window (p. 44).

EL-S: I often think about my writing in relation to the conventions of pathos in literature; the problem of pathos has thus far probably represented my main preoccupation in my thinking about writing. Arriving at a moment of pathos via self-reflexivity, having authorial self-reflexivity condition pathos and vice versa, is the procedure we associate with Wallace and Eggers. And that procedure has now become procedural when we think about “what is lacking” in the writing of the old-dog postmodernists. The suggestion being that if only Pynchon had written with a little more heart and a little less head, he might have been perfect. That is horseshit, as I see it. To my thinking the problem is this too-neat distinction between “pathos” and “logos” when talking about postmodernism. In my favorite writing, pathos and logos will telescope into one thing, an intensity of language that I am feeling with my brain.

MG: And yet, all of this philosophy and thought and darkness is lifted by humor. For instance:

The image of beauty that would instantly dispel all doubt–Jackson taking a bath, Carmen raising two fingers to her lips, empty autumn baseball field–for which I am constantly on the lookout and never able to quite resolve.

is followed immediately with

If I were a painter, what would my paintings look like?

which is immediately followed by

Wellbutrin babies.

EL-S: I enjoy that particular sequence quite a bit. The first one seems to risk sentimentality, a risk I’m always eager to take. The next seems almost a deliberate movement away from that possibility, like the book was thinking “Uh-oh, time for something totally random to undercut any possible pathos about the preceding entry.” And then that weird “Wellbutrin babies,” which is hard not to read as an oddly appropriate answer to the preceding question. I love it.

MG: And even toilet humor earns its place:

One of the great rewards of having children: asking for a magazine while on the toilet (p. 37).

EL-S: It’s a good thing I didn’t name the genre of the magazine. . . .

MG: Haha! But seriously, I mean, when you’re funny: you’re funny. I think this is the hardest thing to write—to write funny. Here’s another great one:

If I die before I publish, I pray to a literary executor my book to take (p. 40).

EL-S: That was one of the last things I put in the book, I believe, when I was beginning to feel that the book in published form would never see the light of day having been rejected by pretty much every big and every medium-size publishing house in the country. I’ve always had weird feelings about publication, like maybe it isn’t something I should be trying for. But right now, my anxieties about publication and my delusions of grandeur seem intimately related in this entry and throughout the book and also in my life in general.

MG: Why did you submit the manuscript to “every big and every medium-size publishing house in the country”? I’m interested in your reasoning. And how it came, eventually, to be published by BlazeVOX.

EL-S: The book was submitted to all those places on my behalf by two literary agencies over the course of a couple of years, and I don’t believe reason much entered into the equation. At a certain point I tired of transferring my fears and frustrations about the publishing world onto my agent and I sent the book out myself. BlazeVOX was one of the first places I sent it because I’d recently withdrawn a different book from there and the editor told me to send something else when available. He had nice things to say about the book and he seemed like a really nice guy and I knew and admired several of the books they’d published so it seemed like a perfect match—which, thankfully, it has been.

***

Molly Gaudry is the author of We Take Me Apart (Mud Luscious, 2009) and the editor of Tell: An Anthology of Expository Narrative (Flatmancrooked, 2011). Her website is mollygaudry.com.

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