Like Prions: An Interview with Terese Svoboda by Shya Scanlon
Terese Svoboda is one of the best writers of her generation. HTMLGIANT readers especially will notice at once the tell-tale signs of the pee-free classroom commanded by one Gordon Lish, but her work operates on a global level as impressively as it does syntactically. It has the concision and dark, domestic play of Christine Schutt and the scope and moral outrage of Don DeLillo. But of course she is an author all her own—as much a product of her work in The Sudan as she is of her time in the classroom—and her wry, canny, and cosmopolitan sensibility is tempered only by a rooty ease and kindness—surely a farmer’s inheritance. At home in a multitude of different forms, she’s received prizes both for her fiction and poetry, taught all over the place, produced video work for PBS and MoMA—the list goes on. She’s just released a book of poetry heralded by Thomas Lux as “goddamn terrific,” has a reissue of her third book of prose coming out this month, and two (TWO!) novels being published in 2010 and 2011, one comprised solely of pirate dialogue. If you haven’t read her yet, you’re lucky: it’s superb stuff, and there’s a lot of it out there to discover. If you’re already familiar with her work, it’s always worth revisiting. I asked her a bunch of questions about her craft, her practice, and her politics. Fan Club line forms here. — Shya Scanlon
Shya Scanlon: There’s a line in Cannibal where the narrator writes, “I write to hear something since he is not here.” Much of the language throughout your fiction seems to have a strong aural dimension. Do you hear language as you write?
Terese Svoboda: I believe that line refers to the situation of the narrator who is surrounded by Sudanese who tend to speak their own languages or Arabic and when her partner goes off, she writes to reassure herself of her identity. I do go from aural cue to aural cue, and rewrite toward making that coherent narrative.
SS: How important is sound in determining word choice?
TS: Very important. Sometimes my true meaning is hidden inside the word choice and only in rewriting will I discover or unpack its correctness.
SS: How important is music in determining syntax?
TS: Syntax is all about cracking the language for energy. The music between consonant and vowel is fricative, lush, and suggestive. The music between words–each a little instrument banging away–is that much more nuanced. Maybe because of this, I am musically deaf. That is not to say I can’t carry a tune or play an instrument (oboe and harp) but that I can’t bear it while I’m writing and since I all I ever want to do is write, music as it is ordinarily understood is rarely part of my world. Sound, on the other hand—I’ve collaborated a few times with Stephen Vitiello, a wonderful sound artist.
SS: The voice in Cannibal is awkward (in a good way), almost ESL-sounding. It was difficult for me, as a reader, to determine whether this was a person who would feel equally as estranged, regardless of context, or whether she was sort of empathic to a fault, picking up on the difficulties of communication she was experiencing, and internalizing them. Can you respond to this observation?
TS: The voice in Cannibal is under extreme pressure, almost totally isolated from any emotional grounding, but desperate to find it. The narrative has a violent distrust of language as well as the man she is with. Communication is almost beyond her, she doesn’t really communicate with the Africans and her partner twists her every gesture and word to his own ends.
SS: You spoke of this a bit above, but I’ll ask more directly: is voice something that you work to achieve, or does it develop organically from your subject matter?
TS: Pirate Talk or Mermalade, the novel I’m publishing next year with Dzanc, is all voice, no description, and set in the 18th century. What would two pirates say if they ended up in the Arctic? It sounds like an exercise but once I began, it all tumbled out. I am a great admirer of Defoe so I did have an appreciation for how talk was reported then, and I also liked the decorum and circularity when that language is under pressure–it’s funny. As for the voice of God in Tin God–that came naturally (I am the eldest of nine children) but it was idiomatic because She is framed as a contemporary. New Testament lingo wasn’t flexible enough. I’m having a great deal of trouble with a new novel that wasn’t primarily begun with the voice but an incident: a girl wrecking a boat by lifting her skirt. I’m sticking with it though because I’ve been hearing the voices finally.
SS: There are parallels between Cannibal and Trailer Girl: both are narrated by women who have difficulty communicating with the people around them, and are basically displaced, strangers in strange lands. They also both loosely pivot on a mystery–whether the narrator’s companion is CIA in Cannibal, and who the girl in the field is (or whether she is) in Trailer Girl. In Cannibal, you leave this essentially unanswered, while Trailer Girl ends in revelation. I don’t want to force significance where there is none, but would you say that this difference conforms to any change in your needs or interests as a writer in the time between writing these narratives?
TS: If this is a question about the personal psychological development of the writer, I dunno. My instinct as a writer not to resolve is strong and I resisted the revelation in Trailer Girl for a long time. Perhaps I like showing a streak of realism–like life, no resolution, just resonance. Perhaps even postmodernism?
SS: Why did you finally decide to end in revelation?
TS: Because I didn’t want the narrator crazy. She was just misinterpreted, thrown in a mental institution for her poetic revelations, torn from her children because of what she said not did. That the wild child was real didn’t diminish her power as an archetype.
SS: Can you characterize your interest in mystery as a driving force in narrative?
TS: Mystery is the basic form of all narrative. If each word of a narrative should surprise then each word holds mystery. The writer must always be withholding something, be it the location of a dead body or the end of a syntactically interesting sentence. Socio-economic class, hair color–unless the details contribute to the mystery, they’re useless. So my fiction is often labeled “fabulist.” Okay–I also read a lot of Agatha Christie as a teenager.
SS: I want to ask you a question about length, but it’s going to take the form of a few different observations. The first two are anecdotal. Soon after we met, when I met with you a few times for private workshops, you mentioned something about “men and their big books.” It was an offhand comment, but it stuck with me, in the way it seemed to sly poke fun at the impulse to write large, long, sprawling fiction. Another time–very recently–we were sitting with Hannah Tinti, of One Story, and she was essentially soliciting work from you, asking you to send it directly to her, rather than submitting it. The issue of length came up, and you said it was unusual for you to write a story longer than 5 or 6 pages. Your first novel, Cannibal, is 150 pages–roughly the same length as the title “story” of your book Trailer Girl, published by Counterpoint. Meaning, I guess, that it seems like this could be considered a novel. So… where’s my question. I guess length is a problematic consideration more for the marketing of fiction than it is for the writing of fiction. Have you felt that the lengths you tend toward have had any kind of impact on your “marketability?” Further, can you talk a little about how you come to form? The 16 stories that make up the remainder of Trailer Girl are all 4 to 6 pages long. Why? (And as an aside, had you planned on Trailer Girl being a stand-alone book?)
TS: Trailer Girl was sent to the publisher along with a collection of stories. Instead of choosing between them, he put them together. Thus, Trailer Girl was suddenly a novella. Which did not exactly make it more marketable.
Every writer has his/her breath, and mine happens to be five pages. My chapters as well as my stories begin at five pages and expand and contract from there. I am re-reading Isaac Babel, which confirms my belief that short stories should be short. Little miracles.
In the world of publishing, size matters. I’m hoping my steady drip, drip, drip will wear away that issue.
SS: Can you expand upon this “breath” idea?
TS: William Trevor, Alice Munro, Richard Ford publish mostly very long stories; Isaac Babel, Barthelme, Grace Paley wrote mostly very short stories. The editors or the writers tossed out the work in between as not as good. Maybe breath is a matter of patience and personality. I like to get to the point. In poetry, one talks about breath, how you breathe at the line break–the longer the line, the longer the breath, the thicker the stanza. In that case, it’s breathing and the eye measuring. Something similar happens with short and long stories or chapters–or even when you pick up a 1000 page novel. You’re going to be breathing with that author for a long time.
SS: When did you discover your breath?
TS: I didn’t set out to write five page stories but that’s how long they were when they worked. Maybe it was the length of time I could afford a babysitter–four hours–that determined the number of pages–but most writers don’t work in a concentrated way for over four hours at a time anyway. My mind can better hold five pages together than ten. Actually, over five and a more prose sensibility comes into play, the work turns more toward cause and effect, and then and then. However, you will note that longer works are often broken up into five pages units.
SS: And how often do you challenge it? Do you, in other words, ever hold your breath?
TS: Zoetrope–as well as One Story–also asked me to write a longer story. I wasn’t smart enough then to have had a free-standing section of a novel to put forward (in five page sections–at least that’s how it started). I did try to expand several stories but it’s as if there exists a membrane I poke with too many words and all the air goes out of the work. I’m sure a first rate workshop leader could suggest ways to expand. When I teach, I’m always suggesting ways to compress. There’s a lot of tension and energy in compression, you get closer to the syntax, you get cleaner dialogue, all the words really work. Writers who think only in novelistic terms and swear they can’t write short stories, let alone short-short stories, like to reach through sentences and watch the characters move through an unfolding plot. By the way, I don’t usually like what is termed “flash fiction.” A lot of it seems to be re-warmed prose poetry with no real stake in moving the reader.
SS: Would you place the goal of “moving the reader” high on your list of writerly objectives? Is it at the top? Are there ways for writing to be important without moving the reader?
TS: There are many ways of moving the reader–the writer can flabbergast the reader by virtuoso syntax and play as you do, Shya, or the writer can force the reader to weep over sentimental dross. To transport the reader is high on the list of how you keep him reading.
SS: Bertolt Brecht divided theater into two categories, epic and dramatic. Dramatic theater was that which sought to illicit emotional response–to transport, in other words–while epic theater sought to engage the audience intellectually and critically. Do you think there’s room in contemporary letters for an epic literature?
TS: I don’t think there’s a difference in effect between transportations. Stimulating the intellect turns the page, so does emotional response. (Illicit emotional response is another thing–Nicholson Baker does all three at a high level!). Contemporary letters has many rooms, most contemporary readers are bunched up in the emotional one.
SS: There’s a scene in Black Glasses Like Clark Kent–a memoir about your investigations into a secret your uncle possessed about post-war occupation in Japan–where your father accuses you of being unable to tell a “simple story.” You counter by saying, “I could, I could, I just have never found one.” Although this occurs in the context of a work of nonfiction, this invokes a number of interesting questions for storytelling in general. Among them: Do you think simple stories simply don’t exist, or do you think they’re just not worth telling?
TS: People are palimpsests, genetically and within their own personal histories. Every action echoes another. Let’s try for about as mundane as it gets: “He threw out the trash.” Out of context one can only speculate but such a gesture could have evil intent. Or the mundane could reveal the mundane: the way he had for seventeen years. The way his mother had, or even–not like his mother. Emphasis on “threw”–and he’s doing it athletically. The trash wasn’t his–emphasis on “the”–or the trash throwing, at the end of the book, closed the story with resonance, all that went before it. But sometimes he just throws out the trash to get to the next bit, where he doesn’t know what to do with all the rest of the body parts. What good writing does is let the reader understand that throwing out the trash had to happen to explain the kind of person who has all those body parts lying around. The simplest sentence is complex to reflect the truth of people’s experience.
The expected is all that’s not worth telling. The surprises that make up a good story are seldom simple. The best jokes (the paradigm for a good short story) resonate on entendre and reversals. Think pun, the lowest form, even the pun requires the reader to hold two things in his head at once.
SS: Does the author have a responsibility to represent the truth, in other words, find or tell the ‘real story’ in all its complexity?
TS: The author has a responsibility to write toward understanding. We have enough confusion in life, why increase it? Confusion is not the same as complexity. Exposing the truth hidden under all the layers of complexity is a very good goal.
SS: Isn’t it part of the author’s job to determine what not to include?
TS: Way. Complexity is not the piling on of fact after fact. When the writer selects, he foregrounds, he lifts incident from all other incidents to examine its facets and suggest congruence with other selected incidents. Even Robbe-Grillet, who seemed to have left out nothing, selects. With him, pure surface was meant to replace the psychology and interiority of his characters. More often it reveals by what is left out.
When do we get to the easy questions?
SS: What’s your favorite color?
TS: I just asked for my money back on a new parka because I couldn’t figure that out!
SS: No simple stories indeed. Let’s shift gears. In Black Glasses, you remark often on the strange and strained relationship your family has to your career as a writer and to your writing. On one hand, they don’t quite understand your work, it seems. On the other, they revere and respect you as somehow both authoritative (so to speak), and “connected” in some way to a different world, a world of possibility and promise. Do you now or have you ever viewed your work as a kind of rebellion, or as an escape from the familiar (a family of farmers)?
TS: Escape is very desirable when you grow up in a very small town in the middle of the country. It’s the only option. Getting out of there, however, was problematic. My mother had to convince my father I was worth a college education–although both of them held advanced degrees. I did discover sex in a big way, probably what they were afraid of, but it was the sixties/seventies and my whole generation was in rebellion. I mean, I conformed by being rebellious. Everyone was an artist. It was only in the mid-eighties that I discovered that everyone else studied law or medicine on the side and forgot about art.
SS: If so, was isolation ever a goal, or is it an unintended side effect of success?
TS: As the eldest of nine siblings, isolation is always a goal. Joke. I’m not actually isolated from them. I mean, I don’t really understand the details of my attorney sister’s environmental law practice nor my flavorist sister’s food espionage or my rigger brother’s puppetry for the feature film Coraline, etc. etc. We respect each other. I miss all the chaos of having them around. One’s own children are not the same.
Hmmm, you’ll have to define success, e.g. I am not shielded from them by vast material wealth.
SS: Well, this goes back to your father’s “simple story” comment. I guess I got the impression–from this and other comments throughout Black Glasses–that he, and perhaps others in your family, find your work to be somewhat inscrutable. I understand your environmental law analogy, but on the other hand, all environmental law is going to be complex to the layman, but fiction at least has the ostensible goal of communicating. Are you ever accused of being willfully obscure?
TS: Your honor, I try to tell the truth but I don’t want anybody hurt. If anybody gets hurt, then I get hurt. Maybe what I write tends toward the inscrutable, especially to the layman–but willfully obscure? I don’t think so. First of all I don’t look for ways to cloud emotion, sometimes what I reveal is too bright and people don’t want to see it. I mean, it’s not like I use big words with difficult meanings. I may twist syntax a bit to get closer to the muscle of the emotion. Sometimes sentences or lines require reading a few times or even reading out loud. That’s not a crime, that’s sophistication. Just as all environmental law is going to be complex to the layman why can’t literary work be complex to the layman? I expect I have readers who might have read a lot of sentences and find new ones refreshing. I admit I like to write sentences nobody else has written. You’re making me sound like Diane Williams without the sex.
SS: I’m just trying to address a common issue some writers have within the context of their families, not within their chosen literary community. And normally that’s an okay divide–“I write my strange stories,” says the author of difficult fiction, “and my family agrees not to keep asking me why I can’t write more like Steven King.” But then something like Black Glasses happens, where your uncle wants you to tell his story, and the issue must be treated head-on: how are you going to tell this story? Are you going to do it justice? And will I understand it when you’re done? It seems like an interesting situation for you to have been in.
TS: Oh, I see. It was a challenge. I had to come clean, write as plainly as possible. My motivation derived mostly from the issues I unearthed–I felt a wider audience than the literary (or my family) deserved to know what I had found. I had always written nonfiction magazine articles, which gave me some experience with a more journalistic style. I also had to match the text that I quoted in order to keep this style smooth. But in the middle of the book, I broke down and wrote a little playlet with archetype and metaphor. It is supposed to coalesce the emotional narrative up to that point and thrust it forward. Probably most people skipped it.
SS: You can probably guess my next question: How did your family react to the book?
TS: My father loved the book. My aunt wrote me a scathing letter that said I had defiled her husband’s memory, that he was never depressed (despite the hospitalization) and that his eye pains were diagnosed as a physical ailment, nothing mental. When it came to disclosing my findings on how black Americans were treated in the military, she felt I had a political agenda that she did not share. She and my cousins knew I was writing about him and the tapes and could have talked to me at any time, or returned my calls. None of my cousins have responded-but then again, they haven’t put a car bomb in my rent-a-car when I’ve visited my father.
SS: You seem quite comfortable working in a variety of different poetical modes. Your most recent book of poetry, Weapons Grade, for instance, works in everything from a confessional style, to a denser, more lyrical style, and uses a host of different tonalities, including quite a bit of humor. One of the things that stands out to me is the very direct approach to politics. The first part of the book, in fact, feels like a companion piece to Black Glasses. There doesn’t seem to be much political poetry in the United States, or at least, it’s not very visible (though Sharon Olds and Jorie Graham seem to have moved toward larger social issues recently). Why do you think that is? Can you talk about how and why you choose poetry to address political issues?
TS: Poetical modes! Oh my god–that would clear an auditorium faster than Fire! Or even Experimental Film! I’ll admit to having written five books of poetry however, and with regard to Weapons Grade, coming seven years after Treason, the book from Zoo, the press that immediately tanked, it’s one book I’m very happy to have poetized.
When language poetry met lyric, subject took the bullet. The brilliant exception on the subject of war in the last ten years would be Brenda Hillman. There’s also the witnesses, Brian Turner and Ann Caston, soldier and nurse. To leave the novelists to the work of explaining and questioning our culture’s most virulent preoccupation is certainly an abdication of responsibility if not opportunity. But political poetry–like funny poetry–is hard to do artfully, without the mallet. Kids bear arms and die as slaves in workhouses all over the world but assuming them as subject can be voyeuristic and cheap and denigrate their dilemma into mere sentiment. The poet’s problem is to find a way into the material that makes it more than information–hey, this is unjust or bad–and more than just moving–pity is cheap too–into art.
SS: Can you talk about how and why you choose poetry to address political issues?
TS: Why wouldn’t I use poetry for political issues? Auden did. Auden found poetry everywhere. The generation immediately before me addressed the Vietnam war over and over, until nobody could use the war in anything. Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck is especially good with personal politics. Racial politics are continually being negotiated by almost all the contemporary poets of color–why shouldn’t I address it too? The conversation is too one-sided. In every book of mine, I write about the Sudanese disaster, having lived there. What’s the use of having the Internet if we aren’t all connected (and continually harassed by Moveon.com)? Even the Somalis I taught in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya this June had access to the internet and used it to post their poems, by the way, about politics because politics can kill them there. Maybe we need a little more threat.
SS: I’m glad you brought up your connection to The Sudan, because there’s a recurring poetical device in your work that you often weave together with your political work–and it’s another thing I don’t see very often (at least within my peer group). Many of your poems seem to inhabit other lives. In Treason, for instance, the reader encounters the narration of talking dogs, women working in sweatshops, women in The Sudan, and others Poetry has obviously been a story-telling medium historically, but fictionalized narrators seem to have fallen largely out of fashion. Is creating a fictional narrative for a poem different than doing so for a short story?
TS: Confessional first person persona was the dominant mode for creating fictional narrative in poetry in the seventies, eighties and well into the nineties. Although I have written my share, I became more interested in broadening my understanding of the world as a way to understand myself and explored talking dogs, etc. I love writing fiction in the (now unfashionable) first person–even in the voice of god, as in the novel Tin God. I can support this fictional, lapel-grabbing identity with pages of context and other characters who react to this persona, making it more complex. There is much less room to do this in a poem, frequently there’s just that “I” voice with its authority.
With my very long poems–“The Ranchhand’s Daughter” in Laughing Africa and “Faust” in Mere Mortals that depend on fictional devices, the process of creating a narrative was the same for me as with fiction but the resultant narrative is much more buried.
SS: As in Treason, Weapons Grade seems to investigate violent or dangerous patterns as they’re expressed on both intimate and social scales. In the case of the later, it seems to be occupation, and whether you’re writing about post WWII Japan, De Tocqueville’s observations about America, or a mother’s attempt to meet the escalating needs of her son leaves her feeling trapped in her own kitchen, we’re again and again shown the dark side of good intentions. Did the poems in Weapons Grade accumulate organically, or did you set out to address certain themes? Do you think war has domestic origins?
TS: The book began as an expression in apprehension, anxiety about politics and the uncertainty of the time. Then I spent two years researching our occupation of Japan for Black Glasses and the opening section skewed toward more specific situations. War’s origins are inside everyone, like prions.
SS: Can poetry end war?
TS: Poetry prevented war in Somalia in the 1920’s. Women’s songs created a truce. <http://allafrica.com/stories/200101080500.html> But even there it hasn’t been effective lately.
— Shya Scanlon’s prose poetry collection In This Alone Impulse will be published by Noemi Press in December, 2009. His novel Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in Spring, 2010. Read his Forecast online here.