“My Cat Had To Have His Penis Cut Off:” An Interview with Dustin Long
Shane: Can you talk about what’s happened since we last spoke?
Dustin: Well, you were pretty much spot on with your predictions: Bad Teeth got picked up pretty soon after we spoke; Pavilion hasn’t been so lucky, though I’m not actively trying to sell it. I realized a little while ago that I want to make some revisions and additions to it, which I plan to get to as soon as I put the finishing touches on a third novel I’ve been working on.
Shane: Do you see a reason why Pavilion is having a hard time finding a publisher? Bad Teeth has a lot that a publisher can push on an audience. For example, the Brooklyn setting, its modern tone, the funny and snappy dialog. It’s still a puzzle of a book, but one that relies on having your feet in reality, unlike something like Icelander which relied on the whimsical and a good amount of oddness.
Dustin: Icelander was a very natural book for me to write, but Pavilion and Bad Teeth were both attempts to stretch away from that comfort zone, though in opposite directions. So yeah, Pavilion has none of the easy selling points of Bad Teeth. Bad Teeth is, as you say, written in this very modern idiom, while Pavilion is set mostly in 17th Century China and narrated by a Spanish Jesuit priest in a very formal, almost prepsychological tone. I think it’s funny, but it’s a cerebral sort of humor. There was originally this Easter egg at the very end of the book that was supposed to make you rethink everything you’d just read, and in revising it, I’m basically taking that and weaving it more explicitly throughout the entire book.
Shane: The Easter egg thing sounds incredible. So in your revision process are you thinking of readers? Do you make changes if something is too strange? It seems like a tough balancing act because on one hand you don’t want to compromise your world, but you also want to get the thing published. Something like your Easter egg could easily repel readers, but it could also bring a lot of readers in to experience something new.
Dustin: I guess I’m not thinking of readers so much as I’m thinking of how the book reads, if that’s a distinction I can make. And I think it reads better this way. In the first draft, it reads pretty much like a straight historical text until you get to the end. The revisions are just making it clear from near the beginning that something else is going on–that this is a stranger and more complex sort of book–though it will still be a slow reveal of what that something is. I don’t think of it as a compromise so much as the realization of a better way of doing things.
Shane: A lot of this, your writing, (and I’m thinking both Icelander and Bad Teeth), seems to come down to ambition. And although Bad Teeth is modern and, I don’t know, a “page turner” in some sense, it still relies on a lattice structure of multiple story lines and tons of ideas like the group SOFA, “the Tibetan David Foster Wallace,” riffs on academia, plagiarism, and a kind of fucked personal identity crisis all the characters are dealing with. Is ambition important to you? I see “Pynchonesque” pop up in a lot of reviews and wonder if he, along with DFW, are not only stylistic influences, but an influence to push yourself into the beyond.
Dustin: Pynchon is definitely the writer I admire most, and I’ve ripped off Wallace as well, and I’m glad to hear Bad Teeth described as ambitious in the sense that their work is ambitious. I’m at least always trying to challenge myself, and setting rules that take me out of my comfort zone. Bad Teeth started off as a much more whimsical book called “Hodge,” which had conceits like every neighborhood in Brooklyn being represented by a different playing card, along with flashbacks to episodes in the lives of a variety of Judas’s paternal-line ancestors. But at some point I realized that these were frills, unnecessary to the structure of the story I was telling, and I think I was maybe just throwing them in to try to try to capture some of the same sense of absurdity that I’d worked with in Icelander, just because I felt it safe and easy. But it wasn’t appropriate here. So part of the “risk” for me was to strip that stuff away and hope that the “ambition” of the book’s core would stand on its own.
Shane: We’ve talked privately a little about being fathers. I believe we both have sons the same age. Julian is one and a half. You mentioned earlier finishing a third book. How does your ambitious nature mesh with fatherhood, being a husband, working as a teacher, etc? Do you work on a very tight schedule?
Dustin: Yeah, Quentin is fifteen months and (happily) takes up a lot of my time, but he’s also helped to focus me on my writing in a way. Before he was born, if I had a day off, I might think, “I did a lot of writing yesterday, so today I can take a break and maybe record a stupid song on my four-track.” And that was fun, but it was never anything I took seriously. So now I wouldn’t say I write on a tighter schedule, exactly, but I’ve just had to cut out some of the stuff that was less important in my life. And, you know, you find ways to squeeze stuff in; I did a lot of the proof-edits of Bad Teeth while I was riding the subway to work, for instance.
Shane: Do you come from an artistic family? My dad was a cop and my mom works in insurance.
Dustin: My dad was a roofer and later a superintendent of construction, my mom and sister work in business development for engineering firms, and my brother is a civil engineer. My brother used to draw a lot, and he introduced me to comic books and Twist-a-Plots, which is how I started reading, but other than that I kind of had to find my own way.
Shane: Have they read Bad Teeth or your previous work?
Dustin: My mom managed to make it through Icelander once she started skipping the footnotes. My brother paid me the highest compliment by telling me that he kept forgetting that I was the writer as he was reading it. My mom came to visit recently, and I let her read an ARC of Bad Teeth while she was here. She really liked it, more than Icelander, though she also kept asking me in a worrying way if bits of it were autobiographical. In general, though, I think they’re proud of me. I have a question for you, though: any more predictions? Last time you were right about Bad Teeth and Pavilion, but you also predicted my cat would die, and recently we had a pretty close call: blocked urethra, and they had to cut his penis off, so now he’s kind of a she. What else is in my future?
Shane: Wait, they had to cut your cat’s penis off? Is your cat like Lump the cat from Bad Teeth at all? As far as your future: you’re going to get a new job by the end of the year, you’ll meet a younger woman who will test your marriage, and Pavilion will get picked up by an indie press.
Dustin: Yeah, my cat Momo had to have his penis cut off, and he pees like a girl cat now. He’s not much like Lump, but I used to have a cat that was similar to Lump; she and I were separated when I got divorced a few years back. The younger woman who will test my marriage is probably my impending daughter (due in July). Good to hear about Pavilion!
Shane: Would you have any reservations if your son or daughter became a novelist?
Dustin: No reservations really. It may not be the most practical way of life, but if they really want it, there’s probably no stopping them. And it’s a way of life that makes me happy. But on the practical side, re: second-generation novelists, I’d maybe say be a Martin Amis and reject your dad rather than being a William S. Burroughs Jr. and trying to ape him.
Dustin Long is the author of Icelander. He is currently finishing a Ph.D. in American Literature, and he teaches literature at a private institution in Manhattan. He lives in Brooklyn with his fiancée and son. Bad Teeth is available from New Harvest.