MINOR: Extraordinary Renditions does a thing that some say fiction ought not do — it assumes the points of view of characters from different cultures than the writer’s. Writers used to do this all the time, but it seemed to get controversial around the time of the civil rights movement — the furor in some quarters over Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, to give one example, and the subsequent defense by James Baldwin on the grounds that Styron was doing a thing fiction writers have an obligation to do, by putting himself “in the skin of Nat Turner.”
ERVIN: It was never a question to me if I had the right to write from different cultural perspectives. As a writer of immense privilege, I felt it was my responsibility to do so. Not that I was trying to make some sort of grand, dogmatic political statement; there were simply some stories that for various reasons I felt needed telling. Yes, the second of these three novellas, “Brooking the Devil,” uses many of the tropes of the captivity narrative. The relatively new genre of the neo-slave narrative—begun in large part by Styron—is the single most important tradition in contemporary American letters. Where would we be without Beloved and The Wind Done Gone and Flight to Canada? For a white writer like myself to ignore race, and our nation’s racist history (and present) would be unconscionable. Whatever people may think of the results, I learned a great deal about myself in inhabiting these people so seemingly unlike myself (an elderly Holocaust survivor, a black U.S. soldier, and a bi-sexual woman) and came to appreciate that they’re all autobiographical in different ways. I learned what I have in common with them. We do contain multitudes, as Whitman wrote. The best thing about fiction, I think, it that it can grant us access to personalities and places and cultures other than our own.
MINOR: Most first books by young writers are story collections or novels. You chose to make a collection of linked novellas. What is it that drew you to that form? Are there things that form can do that are different from, say, a collection of linked stories, or a novel?
ERVIN: It’s only now, with the advantage of hindsight, that I can see what an anti-establishment book Extraordinary Renditions is. It’s hard for me to explain now what my motivations were then; it’s a constant challenge for me to avoid over thinking my work and letting it flourish on its own. But I do read a good deal of literary theory and one book that inspired my formal decisions here is A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Deleuze and Guattari, which argues for a nonhierarchical approach to art. Ideally, my three novellas could be read in any order; my dream is to one distant day have the three novellas published separately and held together in a slipcover, maybe if they ever get translated into another language. I attempted to write something alinear and without a central authority—and in that gesture one might find evidence of my personal political leanings, if such things matter. I also love that the cover doesn’t say “three novellas” or “a novel.” It’s neither; it’s both.
It was very cool that Coffee House Press agreed to leave off those annoying commercial labels. Of course, however, there’s no way of completely avoiding the inherent hierarchy of linearity—reading is an inherently linear act given that left to right (in English, anyway) motion of one letter following another. There’s no getting around it.
MINOR: Music is prominent in Extraordinary Renditions, and there seems to be something musical, too, about the ways the novellas are organized. Was this a conscious part of your working method?
ERVIN: The order of the novellas isn’t random, exactly, though I wish it were. I used music as the organizing principle behind what is now the first novella, “14 Bagatelles,” which features a composer, Lajos Harkályi, who survived the Holocaust and returns to his native Hungary late in life to oversee the premiere of his final opera. I lifted the title from a Bartók composition and the fourteen sections of my novella replicate, in quiet ways, the different marked tempi (such as “Andante” and “Rubato” and “Lento funebre”) of those solo piano pieces.
MINOR: Before the publication of Extraordinary Renditions, you were best known as a book reviewer. Did the experience of public criticism change the way you approached your own work?
ERVIN: Best known? I’d be shocked to learn that I’m known at all. Although I’ve written a lot of book reviews I tried not to let public/critical perception—or, more correctly, my perception of anticipated public/critical perception—affect what I wrote in Extraordinary Renditions. Some people are going to hate my work and there’s nothing I could do to change that even if I wanted to. On a practical level, my freelance work helped me score my blurbs. I had reviewed books by J. Robert Lennon in the past and one by Bayo Ojikutu, and I’d interviewed Stewart O’Nan for the Philadelphia City Paper years ago and we’ve stayed in touch. I’m not suggesting that there was some kind of quid pro quo, at least I hope there wasn’t. The blurbs were about the extent of what book reviewing has done for me. Oh … and this forty-foot yacht. I’ve become wealthy beyond the dreams of men by writing up these terse, 650-word opinion pieces on contemporary literature. My review of Rising Up and Rising Down paid for the gold inlay I had added to my new ivory bathtub.
MINOR: What are you writing now? Is the work you’re doing now very much like what we see in Extraordinary Renditions? What new directions are you pursuing with your fiction?
ERVIN: I’m writing a novel that contradicts everything I’ve said in this interview. It’s a linear, straightforward story about a man who attempts (and fails) to get off the grid by moving into the remote house in the Inner Hebrides where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. I suppose it’s taking on similar themes, but I don’t want to get into that just yet. I’d prefer to write first and think about what it says later. Instead of answering your question, let me see if I can distract you with this great quote by Brian Massumi, who by the way was the one who so brilliantly translated A Thousand Plateaus into English. This comes from his book Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation:
“Take joy in your digressions. Because that is where the unexpected arises. That is the experimental aspect. If you know where you will end up when you begin, nothing has happened in the meantime. You have to be willing to surprise yourself writing things you didn’t think you thought. Letting examples burgeon requires using inattention as a writing tool. You have to let yourself get so caught up in the flow of your writing that it ceases at moments to be recognizable to you as your own. This means you have to be prepared for failure. For with inattention comes risk: of silliness or even outbreaks of stupidity. But perhaps in order to write experimentally, you have to be willing to ‘affirm’ even your own stupidity. Embracing one’s own stupidity is not the prevailing academic posture (at least not in the way I mean it here).”