Monday, November 16, 2009

6 + ! with Laird Hunt

Laird Hunt is a marvelous talent who defies easy categorization, except to say that he is very good. You can find out more about him at his site here. Coffee House Press published his fourth novel, Ray of the Star, in September. (Disclosure: Coffee House Press sent me a free advanced reader copy of the novel; I don't believe my critical faculties were compromised or obscured by the book being free, but I will let readers decide that for themselves.)

1. If you could be a living statue on the boulevard that is virtually a character itself in your novel Ray of the Star, what/who would you be?


I don’t adequately describe them in the book, but for my money the loveliest statues on the boulevard (and its actual analog, Las Ramblas in Barcelona) are the tree statues: a small grouping of oaks and maples who sway and shiver in the breeze, who drop their leaves in“autumn”, who sometimes get chopped down by errant woodcutters, who crash to the ground out of boredom or fatigue. I wouldn’t want to try to be one of these marvelous trees. I’d like to be the living statue who loses his/her way in their little forest and lies down to rest in their shade.

2. Ray of the Star is a tour-de-force, managing to be simultaneously difficult and accessible. (I thought of it as an oblique jigsaw puzzle that I nevertheless felt drawn to complete, which then rewarded with a series of revelations both painful and true.) Martin Amis's Time's Arrow is the last book I read that was similarly successful in wrapping a clever conceit around an exploration of profound questions. Let's talk first about its structure--you have said that the novel's central preoccupation with grief and loss prompted you to borrow "the formal mechanism of propulsive, single-sentence chapters from Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Assignment." Tell us more.

I have long had an interest in unusual and effective textual structures and mechanisms: Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch with its alternate itineraries and expendable chapters; George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual with its clock stopped at a single instant in the life of a large French apartment building (stopped until the last page of the book); the chorus that animates Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. That all of these books (and the list could go on and on) put their structures and constraints at the service of the toughest questions — questions to do with madness, with being bodies that die, with being bodies that die and that nevertheless love, etc. — can not be separated for me from their highly apparent constructedness. I’ve been asked if the interest in using the mechanism of the long sentences (borrowed, yes, from Durrenmatt) preceded, say, the living statues or the great coastal city or the sense of loss that saturates the entire surround, and the answer I’m forced to give is that I can’t remember what was in place, really in place, before I began actually drafting the book. I am certain though that the long sentences, with their rather stubborn, even exasperating tendency not to go quickly and/or easily, made it easier for me to tackle the aftermath of terrible loss I had set my main man lose in. They also, perhaps oddly, required me to be highly economical and relatively moderate in my digressions the sentences are long but are meant to rush forward (not to writhe and uncoil slowly in the manner of Proust or James). I started out in writing, seriously writing, by trying to do haiku in English (I once got second prize in a contest for the following Basho mutation: “the silence/in the bamboo/of butterflies”) and my natural inclination is to be brief. Not the best disposition for a novelist, but awfully nice to get to tend to it with this book.

3. I use the jigsaw puzzle imagery advisedly...everything in Ray of the Star fits together precisely, from individual word-choice at the sentence level to the darting of the plot. And you accomplish this in less than 200 pages. Tell us something about your drafting process. Do you build back to the granular from the broad strokes, or do you start with individual words and images? Or maybe you start somewhere in the middle...?

When I was still smoking cigarettes, wearing cut-off jeans and working on an MFA at the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics, I got to hear Michael Ondaatje, at the Naropa Summer Writing Program, talk about how he worked. He described the process for writing The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (laid out all the sections on the floor and walked the alleys between them seeing the whole was key) and mentioned in passing that he never built plots, etc. ahead of time, that having a sense of what was to come next/ had to come next would kill it for him. Ondaatje was and is a major writer for me. I’ve never done the laying out the whole manuscript on a barn floor thing, but until very recently I have taken that second bit of process on as my own. I’ve adhered to this on both the macro and the micro level. Meaning that, in the case of Harry Tichborne, I not only did not know that he would end up figuring in a kind of quasi-endless (well, they all wear out before long even if he at least would like to keep running) feedback loop at novel’s conclusion, I also had no idea, when I started each sentence, where it was going to lead me. I did have a sense of when it was going to lead me, as I tended to fit the sentences into the time envelope I had available. If I had an hour, then the sentence would be an hour long, so to speak, then stop. Pretty soon though it became clear to me that if I didn’t give myself a little to go on for the next session it would be difficult (read damn near impossible) to get started on the next sentence, so I took to running a little ways past the full stops and into the next set of commas. I suspect that helped my mind to chew away a little at what it wanted to tackle next as I went about my workaday life.

I don’t think I answered your question. Here is the thing for me whatever image I think I may have in my head, it’s worth nothing if I can’t build it effectively into words. When I’m working well the so-called image is actually a phrase. I see phrases. That’s what I aspire to start from.

4. Many critics have noted the cinematic qualities of your earlier novels, qualities much in evidence in Ray of the Star as well. Lynch, Bunuel, Fassbinder, Kieslowski spring to mind. Do you find the comparisons apt?

The short answer is yes. The shorter answer is no. I love film but write books. I love books more than I love film. But what wouldn’t I give to have made something like Love Is Colder Than Death or Inland Empire or the 400 Blows or The Gleaners. But the truth is I would as lief love to be able to lay claim to have written Apollinaire’s Zone, or even just one of Dickinson’s poems or Pound’s Cathay. By that I suppose I mean that to my mind there are just as apt analogs in the world of poetry to what I would like to think I am doing with my work. But we’ve become a profoundly, if not irrevocably, visual culture, and although I frequently get the old next to meaningless (and usually pejorative) “poetic prose” comment about my writing, the comparisons, say, to Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, or to Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette (both of which were huge for me as I started to get a sense of myself as a writer) just don’t happen. This is almost a propos of nothing, but I just thought of Godard’s comment — which I read somewhere some years ago — that if he could have had any other job at any other time, it would have been as something along the lines of a 2nd or 3rd assistant to Diderot as he worked at building his extraordinary Encyclopedia: the 18th century’s much more manageable and elegant answer to the internet.One wants to have one’s hand in. And to keep one’s eyes and ears open. No other way to get it done.

5. The oddities you conjure up in the novel's nameless city have the feel of Magritte's paintings, of Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonte, Frisch, Calvino, Edward Gorey. Digging further back, Ray of the Star is a fairytale of sorts. Likewise, some of the other most successful literary experimenters currently writing (e.g., Kelly Link, Steven Millhauser, Maureen McHugh, Karen Russell) are also updating and refining both the fairytale and the tropes of surrealism and modernism. Speaking for yourself, why the "new fabulistic turn"?

I’m an admirer of the French novelist, Jean Echenoz, who often makes use of the engines of genre (to borrow a phrase from the writer Greg Howard) in his books. He has used aspects of both noir and ghost story to great effect, as have many other contemporary French writers (Mary Ndiaye in La Sorcière comes to mind). There is nothing terribly strange about this. I mean that contemporary French writers are interested in what genre can lend to their writing. In France, and in Europe more generally, there hasn’t been the divide between genre writing and so-called literary fiction that we’ve had, much to our detriment, in the U.S. Meaning that when Echenoz, Ndiaye and others brought the powerful tools of genre to bear on their fiction there wasn’t any collective wow about it the way there has been here about Lethem and Link and all the others who have gotten up to promising things with detectives and haunted houses and ray guns and so forth. I’m of course interested in the “discovery” of genre by writers carrying the standard of literary fiction in this country (I mean, thank god it doesn’t all have to be about quiet domestic disintegration and/or car wrecks and bar fights and/or depressions meds or whatever), and am not unhappy to imagine that I’ve written something that might stand alongside some of the work being done, but I’m far too schizophrenic a writer to imagine that I could keep regular company with the new fabulists or the Interfictions gang. In Ray, a man who has lost everything that has meant anything to him embarks on the long climb out of hell, or at least thinks he has done so: it just made deep sense to have the boundaries between life and not-life waver a bit as he climbs up through the rubble.

6. I've cited mostly European parallels and possible influences, and commentators on your first novels have largely done the same. But what first struck me reading you was: "Mark Twain! This is fantastic...Twain on speed!" For instance, in "Three Tales," your entry in the Omnidawn ParaSpheres anthology (2006): "I fell. Eyes first. Ears and mouth and whole remaining portion plummeting afterwards. I fell so far that when I woke I didn't. Not perfectly. The hole was still there." And so on. The talking, self-possessed running shoes and the paper-mache Yellow Submarine in Ray of the Star are two other quick examples. Talk to us about humor, Twainesque or otherwise, in your writing...and humor's place in the fantastical genres.

For a time I worried that the turn toward humor in much of my work was fueled by a desire to please the crowd at the readings everyone was always doing in New York when I lived there in the 90s (so many readings that it was a little like the constant spamming of each other that happens on Facebook and Twitter). You know how this works: as an audience member you basically get two ways to demonstrate appreciation during a reading: you can let out little moans/and or nod your head or you can laugh. When you read, the moan thing coming at you is okay, but the laugh stuff is better and seems to equate to more patting on the back afterward (which young writers not only dig but probably need). So there was (I’m not being entirely fair here) an awful lot of playing it for laughs around St. Mark’s Church. Or so it seemed to me around the time my stuff started to make people laugh at fairly frequent intervals. On the one hand this bothered me and on the other my readings went better and so I was confused. Now I would like to give myself more credit and imagine that my time living as a prose writer among narrative-hating (or so many of them put it to me in those days) poets, coincided with a broadening of my interests and abilities, and that it wasn’t just about doing what I thought I had to to get a kind word. Be that as it may, it’s very hard to be really funny in writing. Twain, to me, is funniest when he is working against a determined counterpoint of fear, desperation, loss, estrangement (I’m thinking about Huck Finn). Kafka’s humor explodes against the darkest backdrops. Walser, who is often very funny, was always walking toward that bank of snow that eventually, literally, swallowed him up. One of my quibbles about some of the new fabulist writing is that the jokes and jokeiness seem never to stop, like little fake fireworks firing away from the first line to the end. I often find the work of Brian Evenson to be very funny, and this is in large part because his humor so often blooms up out of the greatest horror.

+ 1. Your turn to ask the lobster and canary a question!

You mentioned my piece, “Three Tales,” in Omnidawn’s Paraspheres… With the exception of the regular, anonymous roughing up that my books get from certain trade publications, that story received some of the nastiest critique I’ve ever had the pleasure of receiving and it tended to come from the direction of folks who love genre writing and write regularly and passionately about it. I had an interesting exchange with the excellent Matt Cheney about this that helped shed some light on the, um, enthusiasm of the smack downs. And about some of the probably well-deserved (oh so now ghosts are okay!) suspicion on the part of seasoned genre veterans about all this encroachment from new fabulist and neo-noir, etc., dabblers. Definitely leaving aside the particularities of my experience with “Three Tales”, I wonder what you might have to say about said encroachment. Do you see it as such? Does it bother you? Any thoughts?

Lobster & Canary:

The lobster waved his claws and the canary trilled out a tiny thread of notes:

Not at all, not at all, and oh contrariwise... All streams pour forth from the same headlands and flow together in the end, no matter how widely (and wildly) they may diverge in between... we don't see the river encroaching, only merging and watering and validating... a stream that is enclosed is no longer a stream but a ditch filled with turbid water... we see it as a wonderful marriage when the engines of genre (a marvelous phrase indeed!) are wedded to new hulls... You mention Matthew Cheney: as on so many other topics, he is an astute analyst of genre and its malcontents... We also like the thoughts on genre from Umberto Eco, A.S. Byatt, Jeff VanderMeer, Michael Chabon...and many others all the way back through Pope and Dryden to Apuleius and Herodotus.

And Pliny, barks the lobster, Pliny the Elder...what genre is the Natural History ? The bedrock text of zoology for 1,500 years, sober-minded, realistic, purporting to pry the truth from obdurate myth...and it includes reports of eight-foot lobsters sunning themselves on the banks of the Ganges... oysters sipping the dew of moonlight from ocean waves and spinning it into pearl... and so on...and on...

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